Listomania part 1

January 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

This blog, being rebellious and subversive…  all right. Stop laughing. Let’s try again.

This blog, being one step behind others and late where it’s unfashionable to be late, has come up with a list of noteworthy books read and films watched in 2010. Inspired by this brilliance at Chapati Mystery but in no way coming close to emulating said brilliance, these lists can’t take into consideration books published in 2010 or films released in 2010. No. For end-of-year best-of lists (or, um, early-in-the-year best-of lists for the previous year), I find myself recommending books written in another century, films made in another decade. So this is just what I’ve read and seen in 2010 that knocked my socks off, except I don’t wear socks. (Tropical weather, I live in flats and sandals, etc.)

Let us, then, begin with ze bookz!

Noteworthy books read in 2010:

Alan Garner, The Owl Service. In the words of a deeply-intelligent friend who is reticent about sharing thoughts online and who shall remain nameless, The Owl Service brings together the themes of class and landscape and mythology, and deftly explores how these influences shape and influence the psyche. Sure, it’s a children’s book, and the protagonists are young – but the effects of legend and myth in any culture continues to shadow modern, urban lives – as it is the case in this unsettling, strange, and deeply evocative book set in the 1960s. The gift of imagination is sullied, often, by the wear and tear and neglect and abuse that comes with growing older, but in using young characters as the vehicle to explore Welsh legends by way of the Mabinogi, Garner has written a remarkable book on the effects of alienation, and its reverse, immersion, into one’s cultural past and mythic traditions.

Scarlett Thomas, Our Tragic Universe. I wrote a review of this book, so I’ll just link to it here. But Thomas has intrigued and frustrated (in a good way) since I first read Bright Young Things. As an author, her primary obsessions at any given time – be it code-breaking, consumerism, corporate branding, philosophy, time-travel, piracy – are filtered through idiosyncratic and often fucked-up female characters that are both intelligent and compelling. These girls are geeks, or in the case of Meg in Our Tragic Universe, a gifted writer struggling with underwhelming writing projects to make a living. But they are also complex and therefore the only people you want to spend time with over the course of several hundred pages as you allow Thomas’ sharp yet meandering prose to take its time as it explores the meaning of life and productive work, art, and the human desire to frame individual lives within epic narratives.

Lloyd Fernando, Green is the Colour. A longish review of this book is here. One of the most moving books about post-colonial Malaysia was written by a Singaporean. Framing its narrative within the tumultuous period of the post-May 13 racial riots of 1969, Fernando’s rootless characters are all pining for a time of the past where love and community were not so elusive. In that sense, they’re not much different from many Malaysians today, who still look back to the past as though it was a time of unfiltered purity and goodwill amongst the various races living here. It’s one of the most truthful novels in depicting how racial ugliness and multiracial beauty co-exist side-by-side in “Malaysia, truly Asia”.

Jason, Werewolves of Montpellier. In a super-slim graphic novel, Jason visits longing, loneliness, urban isolation, and unrequited love with anthropomorphic human characters wearing taciturn expressions. While you’re busy following the little caper he’s set up, there are myriad subtle, quiet heartbreaks taking place amidst the tender, enclosed inner landscapes of these engaging characters.

Hubert and Kerascoet, Miss Don’t Touch Me. A slightly longer review of it is available here. Turn-of-the-century Paris is the backdrop for a young virgin’s sexual awakening through crime-solving and a sudden and unexpected turn as a dominatrix in a high-end brothel. Blanche does not liked to be touched by strange men, but this comic brilliantly explores how one will be touched – metaphorically – by ugliness, pain, and discomfort no matter how well-protected, and how one will find ways of coping that may be uncharacteristic or undreamed-of at the start. The art is sumptuous, and the facial expressions and physical bodies and body language of the characters are exquisitely-rendered.

Maggie Nelson, Bluets. I also wrote a review of it for this blog, and I’m exceedingly glad to have yammered on as much as I have over the course of the last year; it’s proving to be useful in year-end recaps. Is Nelson’s book philosophy, essay, or poetry? Who really cares, as it’s all three at once, filtered through personal experiences of unrequited love, heartbreak, obsession, desire, and friendship. Nelson’s mind wanders freely through a variety of topics, but her language is always present in the moment, and makes this book such a stellar example of… poetry? Prose? Just a stellar example of writing, done with obsessive need and yes, love.

Nina Power, One Dimensional Woman. Guess what? I also wrote a review of this book! If it’s one excellent thing Power does, and thank god she does it well because that’s the point of the whole book, it is to show the ways in which sexism colludes with capitalism in ways both obvious and very, very subtle and insidious. It’s impossible not to think about sexism – and consequently, feminism – the same way again after reading this. It’s not so much about whether or not you “buy” Power’s argument. It’s more about realising that what she describes is true of our current reality, and then thinking about why this is the case. This book, short as it is, prompts you to keep asking the why’s.

Virginie Despentes, King Kong Theory. I have not written a review of this book, because I find myself unworthy of its magnificence. No, really, if there was one book that sort of bookishly punched me in the face and then slapped me resoundingly and shook me out of my stupor with regards to gender relations and sexuality, it was this one. This makes the book seem violent, which it is not, but it is relentlessly and brutally honest and brave in attempting to make sense of an overwhelmingly violent male culture that hurts both males and females. Despentes says things about prostitution and pornography that I still don’t agree with (to wit, that female pornography actors are essentially more “free” and liberated because of their job – in my quick paraphrasing) but that nevertheless bear thinking about. “Wanting to be a man? I am better than that. I don’t give a damn about penises,” she writes. You and I may not agree – perhaps we still give a damn – but the book allows you to imagine the woman you could be if you did not. The possibilities of thought and the creative imagination of freedom of a woman just not giving a damn is impossible to resist, especially when presented in Despentes’ forthright, rhythmic prose.

Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision. I have not written a review of this book because I simply cannot, I’m far too dumb. Also, I’m still thinking about it. But once upon a time there was this dude called Sigmund Freud. And then, along came this dude called Jacques Lacan. And they developed some truly fabulous theories about psychoanalysis and the psyche, but it was very dudely and hard to wrap your head around, at times, if you were not a dude. And along came Jacqueline Rose. And she tells you how thinking about feminism without thinking about sexual difference as it is defined and produced by psychoanalysis is just going round and round the misguided Mulberry bush of biology. The status of the phallus is built upon a fundamental imposture! Rose says. Think about the link between sexuality and the unconscious! she says. And she does this with some excellent essays on Hamlet, George Eliot, and cinema. Like the books by Power, Despentes, and Davis, Sexuality in the Field of Vision gives you the theoretical apparatus with which you’ll never think about feminism, femininity, sexual difference, sexual desire, and that goddamn phallus the same way ever again.

Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class. A superb piece of historical scholarship on the underpinnings of race and class on issues of feminism as it arose in the United States. It’s an eye-opening exploration on the roots of privileged white feminism that is the particular strain of feminism constantly being reused, reframed, and imported to other parts of the world today. It is a must-read that I finally read in 2010. I did a twopart “guide” of sorts about it some time back.

Special mention: Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation. Because some of these essays were read years ago in university, and when I finally bought the book in 2009 I started reading it towards the end of the year, only to stop and continue again last year. In any case, this is a book that needs to be read for anyone who wants to do criticism well, and who wants criticism to mean something beyond immediate ego gratification and subservience to current trends and the status quo. It is also the book that made me look at all of my previous blog entries with distaste and a strong urge to vomit. But similarly, it makes you want to write better about all the things that matter to you in the world of arts. Because Sontag is still of the impression that the arts should, you know, “mean something”. I think most of us do, even if we have no idea what meaning we want to make of it.

Coming soon: a list on all things film-y!

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