2012 was more of a thinking and talking year than a reading year. I read less than I usually do and didn’t get around to writing about many of the books that I did read, though I’m still intending to write about some of them this year. My general preference leaned towards large works of fiction, which I think indicates a desire to lose myself in stories.
Book of the Year: Alison Bechdel, Are You my Mother? (2012)
Every now and then you come across a book that changes you. For me, there is a “before Are you My Mother?” and an “after Are you My Mother?” and that’s why it’s my book of the year. This book fundamentally changed the way I think about myself and my relationship with my own mother. There was also something empowering about reading a book that takes seriously the subject of relationships between lesbians and their mothers, a subject that mainstream heteronormative society really could not give less of a shit about.
Favourite work of literary fiction: Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2009)
Wolf Hall is a huge achievement in making a well-known story fresh again. I knew exactly what was going to happen and yet found myself utterly gripped from beginning to end. I really liked Mantel’s direct style and this would be on my list of books that aspiring writers should read to see what can be done with prose. I’m really looking forward to reading the sequel.
Shirley Jackson’s chilling collection The Lottery and Other Stories (1949) is another book on my “must read list” for aspiring writers, especially for aspiring writers of short fiction. Jackson has an amazing ability to encapsulate a situation or a character in the opening paragraph and is a writer absolutely in control of her material.
Toni Morrison’s Love (2003) was another tremendous read. I’m still thinking about it months after finishing it. Love packs a huge amount into its 202 pages: civil rights, racism, patriarchy, relationships between black men and women, the nature of good and evil and more. I’m not someone who hangs onto books as a rule, but my copies of Toni’s Morrison’s works are going nowhere.
Alice Munro’s A View from Castle Rock (2006) is a sort of fictionalised memoir which I didn’t like as much as her other short stories. I thought the historical parts imagining her family’s move from Scotland to Canada were the best, but the ending dragged a bit and wasn’t as satisfying.
The only nineteenth-century novel I read this year was George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874). Reading it for the second time I was struck by just how funny it is, something I didn’t really notice the first time around. I still think this is one of the best novels ever written, just a beautiful book with a quietly devastating ending.
As for the rest, I enjoyed Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (1939) and even managed to write a post about it. Michele Robert’s Daughters of the House (1993) is the sort of literary prize winning book that tends to end up filling the shelves of charity shops, but I found it pretty compelling, gorgeously written, and it just about managed to avoid pretentiousness. Emma Donoghue’s Life Mask (2004) was a very entertaining historical novel about the eighteenth-century sculptor, Anne Damer, not Donoghue’s best work, but I’d recommend it as an excellent lesbian holiday read.
Science Fiction and Fantasy
Favourite Book: Gardener Dozois (ed.), The Mammoth book of Best new SF 21 (2008)
This was my favourite simply because it turned me on to a whole range of science fiction writers that I haven’t read before. I’m now looking forward to pursuing the likes of Elizabeth Bear, Nancy Kress, James Van Pelt, Alastair Reynolds, Vandana Singh and Pat Cadigan, among others. It also contained Stephen Baxter’s ‘Last Contact’ which makes my best ever short stories list and actually took up quite a large portion of one my therapy sessions. Like most SF anthologies this suffers from a white, male bias but the quality is very high and there was at least an attempt at showing diversity.
Samuel R. Delaney’s Tales of Neveryon (1979) was an absolute joy to read. I loved the way Delaney wove critical theory and philosophy into his story in a way that was delightful rather than pretentious and didn’t get in the way of the narrative. Check it out for an example of how to write women as people as well.
The strangest fantasy novel I read last year was Clive Barker’s Imajica (1991). It was also probably the longest at over 1,000 pages. I found it too long in the end and didn’t think the male hero quite strong enough to sustain the epic narrative, but I really liked it too, especially the take on the suppression of female divinity by patriarchal religion.
I read and enjoyed two of Iain M. Banks science fiction novels: Inversions (1998) which had a sort of Ursula Le Guinesque feel and the more straight-up space opera of Consider Phlebas (1987) the first in Banks’s ‘Culture’ series.
Ursula Le Guin’s The Telling (2000) was a strong science fiction story with a lesbian woman of colour for a protagonist – it’s not her best, but it’s very good. Her young adult novel, Voices (2009) didn’t grab me and I won’t bother reading the third book in the trilogy, but it’s well written and would make a good present for any young teenager. It was refreshing to see a female character for whom “growing up” doesn’t equal romance, but rather coming into your own and exploring the world.
As for the rest, Caitlin R Keirnan’s excellent The Red Tree (2001) was quite terrifying and had a lesbian protagonist, one to check out if you like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. C.J Cheryh’s The Pride of Chanur (1981) was a bit of classic SF fun. I liked the way it imagined the arrival of humans in space from the point of view of the aliens. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (1992) wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I’m glad I made the effort to read it.
I was disappointed by George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings (1998). It kept me reading, but it was more misogynist, racist and padded out than the first book. I mean, really, it felt like there was a rape in almost every single chapter. Also, Cersei Lannister is one of the worst written female characters I’ve come across in some time. I may give the next book a go because I sort of want to find out what happens, but it did turn me off this series a bit.
However, the worst book I read in this category was Celia Friedman’s Black Sun Rising (1991). I don’t know why I persevered with this since I’m way past the age of forcing myself through books I hate, but for some reason I wanted to give it a chance.
I only read two poetry books this year, both by lesbian poets, and I can’t choose between them in terms of my favourite. Adrienne Rich’s Atlas of a Difficult World (1988 – 1991) is challenging and difficult and I think one of her best collections, whereas the poems in Mary Oliver’s Dreamwork (1986) are deceptively simple, but lead into disturbing territories. Both are haunting collections.
Favourite book: Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2010)
I read quite a lot of popular science books in an attempt to compensate for the appalling science, technology and maths education that I received at school. My education may have denied me the opportunity to ever have a career in any of those areas, but I can still enjoy reading about them. Bryson’s book puts the history of science into a narrative that is both hilarious and moving. It’s another big book, but I tore through it in a few days.
The next best non-fiction was Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace (2012) by Kate Summerscale. This is a fascinating and often disturbing look at the position of women in the second half of the nineteenth century, when changes to divorce laws and developments in ideas about sex began to impact on British society
I read two books about Shakespeare, James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2011) and Bill Bryson’s biography of Shakespeare (2012). Shapiro’s book considers where the idea that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays attributed to him comes from. I really enjoy books that take this rather Foucauldian approach of taking a step back and instead of answering a question, unpack the politics that lead to the question being asked in the first place. Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare was a delight and puts Shakepeare’s life and works firmly back in the historical contact that produced them. Both these books renewed my interest in Shakespeare and sense of why the plays are so important.
My least favourite non-fiction was Lyndall Gordon’s Lives like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family’s Feud’s(2010). This is not a criticism of the book itself, which is very good, but reading about the appalling behaviour of Emily Dickinson’s selfish, money-grabbing, narcissistic relatives really quite upset me.
I only read one book that could be called religious this year, Stephen Levine’s A Gradual Awakening (1979) which is a book about Buddhist insight meditation. I found some of it quite useful, especially the parts on mind, but it’s very ‘70s’ and got it bit weird towards the end.