I've encountered a bumper crop of great reads in September! Here are brief reviews and passages from of some of my favourite audiobooks, novels, comics, memoirs and other nonfiction.
My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland
A thoughtful memoir by lesbian archivist Jenn Shapland, who documents her search for facts about writer Carson McCuller‘s lesbian identity. Chapters are brief. The depiction of McCullers is nuanced. And yes, she was a lesbian; the evidence makes this obvious.
To her husband, whom she married twice, Carson called her woman lovers "imaginary friends." Her biographers called them travelling companions, good friends, roommates, close friends, dear friends, obsessions, crushes, special friends. I'm over it. I, for one, am weary of the refusal to acknowledge what is plainly obvious, plainly wonderful. Call it love.
Queer embodiment, like Carson‘s, like mine, requires a presence, a negotiation with publicness. Invisible identities insist on being seen, or masked, or transformed. Women are straight unless they give themselves away. It is impossible to wrestle with/determine/express queer identity without some negotiation with public scrutiny; presenting yourself to the world requires costumes and costume changes, which Carson was well known for.
Carson‘s focus on clothes in her therapy sessions and in Illumination reveals their importance to her, which I intuited while I catalogued them. Clothes give her a way to express an identity that was fluid, a way to change who she was to the world each day.
Clothes make visible what we feel about ourselves, even if that identity is invisible to others. What we put on externalizes interior feeling, like a facial expression, but more intentional. This self-representation takes as many forms as there are selves, and Carson‘s expression was by no means static.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
Audiobook [14 hr] read by Robin Miles
“Caste is the operating system for economic, political & social hierarchies in the United States from the time of its gestation.” Isabel Wilkerson illuminates the daily realities of the social construct that is race. The atrocities, the injustice—it‘s all about power. Hitler‘s Nazis looked to the US for its treatment of blacks & to American eugenics advocates for ideas on how to elevate the “Aryan race.” Caste is a must-read.
It was in the making of the New World that Europeans became white, Africans became black, and everyone else yellow, red or brown. It was in the making of the New World that humans were set apart based on what they looked like, identified solely in contrast to one another and ranked to form a caste system based on a new concept called race.
As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not.
Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald
Audiobook [10 hr] read by the author
A collection of thoughtful, lyrical essays about the natural world and a woman‘s interactions with nature. It's a calming, grounding experience. I recommend the audiobook narrated by the author. Helen Macdonald also wrote H Is for Hawk, which is just as wonderful.
A hawk turned out to be a terrible model for living a human life.
At times of difficulty, watching birds ushers you into a different world, where no words need be spoken.
In the winter of 1934, Norfolk farmers learned that skylarks in their fields were migrants from the continent. They shot them for raiding their spring wheat. NO PROTECTION FOR THE SKYLARK ran the headlines in the local press. ‘Skylarks that sing to Nazis will get no mercy here.‘
So often we think of mindfulness, of existing purely in the present, as a spiritual goal. But winter woods teach me something else: the importance of thinking about history. They are able to show you the last five hours, the last five days, the last five centuries, all at once.
She told me of a childhood memory: her father carefully opening prickly sweet chestnut cases for her to uncover the glossy marble nuts inside. She was entranced. Early moments like this planted the desire for discovery inside her, an urge to find the wonder of seeing hidden things brought to light.
Spring has, of late, become thin to me. It‘s starting to mean supermarket daffodil bunches & Easter promotions, rather than its richly textured changes: the scent of new herbage; algae greening on the trunks of oaks; the echoing drum of woodpeckers; rising skies & the return of that undefinable light to hollow out winter. All things I‘ve missed after years of mostly working inside.
Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency by Olivia Laing
Audiobook [10 hr] read by Sophie Aldred
Short, brilliant essays about art and artists. David Wojnarowicz‘s disturbing photo on the cover will alert readers that Olivia Laing is not a shrinking flower. She writes with gusto about art that matters and she makes clear WHY it matters. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Sophie Aldred. She switches from British English to different accents (American/French/Russian/etc) for quoted passages when the people being quoted aren't British, which gets annoying.
We‘re so often told that art can‘t really change anything, but I think it can. It shapes our ethical landscapes. It opens us to the interior lives of others. It is a training ground for possibility. It makes plain inequalities and it offers other ways of living.
“Art is one of the prime ways we have of opening ourselves and going beyond ourselves.” –Ali Smith
Is gardening an art form? If it is, it‘s the kind of art I like: embedded in the material, nearly domestic, subject to happenstance and weather.
For our time is the passing of a shadow and our lives will run like sparks through stubble. –Derek Jarman
Having and Being Had by Eula Biss
Audiobook [7 hr] read by Alex McKenna
Brief, episodic chapters are a cross between essays and poetry, grappling with the ethics of money, profit and consumerism within the intersecting contexts of class, caste, gender, ownership, work, play, parenting and art. Brilliant and philosophical while remaining clear-eyed and down-to-earth.
The lies we want to believe tell us something about ourselves.
“I don‘t believe that you think what you do is worthless,” my sister says. I don‘t. I just mean financially worthless. Writing poetry doesn‘t usually produce money, for most people. Free verse is doubly free, in that it is unfettered by metre and has no market value.
“You spend your life accumulating things,” she said. “And then you have to maintain them. Your house, your car, your body. You have to maintain your children too, and your parents.”
He‘s been talking for 35 minutes, the entirety of this meeting, with six women sitting around the table, listening. He speaks slowly, deliberately, softly, using the cadences of someone who is unfolding a story. He allows himself ample preamble and endless asides, but he says nothing.
Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell
Audiobook [25 hr] read by Andrew Wincott
Can a song change the world?
“If a song plants an idea or a feeling in a mind, it has already changed the world.”
If a novel plants feelings in me, feeling that I care so much about the characters that I‘m outraged when they are betrayed and weep when they suffer, I have been changed. I loved all 25 hours of this stupendous, mind-altering audiobook.
“I saw the Jackson Pollock retrospective at the New York Met,” said the Duchess of Somewhere. “Do you rate him?”
“I rate him most highly,” says Francis. “As a lacemaker.”
“So, would ‘why doesn‘t he play the damn tune the way it goes?‘ be a silly question?”
“Only if ‘why doesn‘t Van Gogh just paint the damn sunflowers the way they look?‘ is a silly question.”
All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison
An atmospheric novel set in the British countryside in 1933. Fourteen-year-old Edie Mather will have her life turned upside down when a young woman journalist from London shows up, wanting to document the old ways that are disappearing. Nuanced characterization, a vivid depiction of rural life, and a powerful story. It resonates with today's attitudes of intolerance and I loved it.
Our barley was well along now, flaxen from a distance and with the beards tipping over almost as we watched. The wheat, too, was ripening: the stalks were still blue-green, but the tops of the ears were fading to a greenish-yellow, a tint that would become richer and spread down the ears as they fattened to finally gild the stalks and leaves. Then the sound of the cornfields would alter: dry, they would susurrate, whispering to father and John that it was nearly time. The glory of the farm then, just before harvest: acres of gold like bullion, strewn with the sapphires of cornflowers and the garnets of corn poppies and watched over from on high by larks.
She laughed. “Or perhaps it just means you‘re the kind of person who thinks too hard about things.”
I straightened up for a moment & tried to fasten my hair better, away from the perspiration on the back of my neck.
“I don‘t know how to stop, though.”
“Thinking too hard. I don‘t know how else to be.” I was surprised to feel my eyes swim with sudden tears.
“Oh Edie, you don‘t need to be any different at all, don‘t you know that?”
I read The Midnight Folk and spent my days pretending to be Kay Harker and embarking on imaginary adventures involving knights, smugglers and highwaymen, Rollicum Bitem Lightfoot the fox and a coven of witches so terrifying I eventually wrapped the book in a feed-sack and buried it under the dung-heap in case they should burst from its pages and carry me away, so consuming had my enthusiasm become.
The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg
Audiobook [6 hr] read by Erin Mallon
I enjoyed this memoir about marriage, motherhood and sexual identity. Molly Wizenberg thought she was straight until she began obsessing over a woman she met during jury duty. Molly and her husband explore opening their marriage, and learn to talk about feelings they hadn‘t voiced previously. They end up divorced, yet remain friends. The whole journey is interesting.
As I envisioned it, my husband and I would be separate people. We would be as important individually as we were together, as a couple. We‘d be discrete entities with our own histories, energy and motion, but we‘d be bound to each other like stars in a constellation, a union born by the force of imagination and emotion, by the curious work of the human mind.
Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer
Captivating and fun, this techno-thriller is set in the near future, peopled with queer teens and sentient AI. If you're a fan of Martha Well's 'Murderbot' series, check this out.
My two favourite things to do with my time are helping people and looking at cat pictures. I particularly like helping people who take lots of cat pictures for me. I have a fair amount of time to allocate; I don't have a body, so I don't have to sleep or eat.
Dancing After TEN by Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber
Comics format, nonfiction
A reaction to medication left Vivian Chong with Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis, a severe skin condition that left her blind and nearly deaf. This moving and inspiring memoir, created in collaboration with artist Georgia Webber, documents Chong's challenges as she is determined to continue living a creative, independent life.
I've already reviewed the following favourites because they are part of my Shadow Giller project. Follow the links for my full reviews:
Clyde Fans: A Picture Novel by Seth
Comics format, fiction
Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies by Leanna Betamosake Simpson
Coming Up for Air by Sarah Leipciger
The Baudelaire Fractal by Lisa Robertson
All I Ask by Eva Crocker
Consent by Annabel Lyon