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December-January Reads

This entry is part 20 of 1 in the series 2024-Reads
  • December-January Reads

A new year, a new reading list. This one’s for books I read in 2024. As always, the posts come at some delay after reading. I’m also going to go with shorter posts responding to multiple books from now on, which might give me a little more time to, uh, read. 

Oh, one more thing: I’ve recently (as of last November) joined a book club. Normally I’m ambivalent about book clubs and wouldn’t join one, but a friend invited me and the book list is interesting enough to make me give it a shot. Some of my readings will be for that. For one thing, I’m hoping to read more widely, but I also am still struggling to read as I have been since the start of the pandemic, so maybe this will help me get back in the habit a bit. 

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine was the last book I read in 2023, for the book club. My experience was quite the opposite of the one I had with Fingersmith, as I tore through the book the first time I read it, and then found myself returning to it to revisit some parts. I’m not generally a fan of prose poetry, which is the medium Rankine uses, because I find it usually ends up falling short of both the tightness of good prose, and the verbal elevation and intensity of good verse. However, I think it works for her purposes here, because there’ more of a spoken-word and didactic vibe to what’s going on in this book. Citizen is a meditation on the micro- and macro-aggressions experienced by Black people in America—herself, Serena Williams, and many others—and it’s very much a 21st century kind of writing, written from the point of view of an author who is very much experiencing a so-called (but absolutely not really) post-racial world. This book was published, it’s worth noting, back in 2014, during the Obama’s presidency, when I think there was a certain desire to imagine America might really be on its way to being post-racial, post-racism, and Rankine’s book is as much as anything a refutation of that, or rather, a critique of what we get when yearning to be post-racial without doing the work. Of course, a lot has happened since 2014, not least the BLM protests and, for many, the jolt back to consciousness that came after the murder of George Floyd, and Central Park Karen, and, well… so much of what Rankine was writing about that I think might have surprised some white readers, but might surprise fewer of them now. Personally, the book helped me connect some dots between macroaggression and microaggressions and how the cognitive and emotional burden of the latter is so much more when you have the former weighing on you and your experience. I’ll also note that I thought the presentation by the publisher—glossy pages, color photos—makes the book feel somehow more of the present than a lot of poetry collections I’ve seen. I was lucky to be able to get a copy through the library at work. 

Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith is a book that’s been on my radar for a while, so when it came up on the club’s reading list, I was excited. That excitement carried me through the first part of the book, but then it flagged and it took me ages (as in, a few months) to read the middle section and push through to the final section, which once again engaged me as the first part did. There was a lot of Victorian-styled prevarication and redundancy in the text—characters spending pages and pages talking about things that could have just been hinted, or circling back to points they’d already covered. Perhaps Waters was just maintaining the literary style of the 19th century, and I’m just no longer patient for that sort of thing, I’m not sure. As a lesbian romance, it’s pretty tame with the exception of one scene, but as an historical novel about desperate women dealing with finding themselves embroiled in an awful plot, it works well enough, as long as you’re a more patient reader than I am. This was something I borrowed (multiple times) from the local National Library branch. 

Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin’s Global is pretty obviously a YA comic in which the stories of two young people are interwoven: Sami is a young domestic climate refugee living somewhere on the coast of a global-warming ravaged Bengal; Yuki is a young environmentalist living somewhere in Northern Canada, within the Arctic Circle. Sami struggles to survive and engages in a desperate quest to find and reclaim a family heirloom lost due to the rising of the ocean; Yuki sets out to document and thus save a bear that she believes is a curious mix of grizzly and polar bear, which her community seeks to kill. Both kids must survive the elements, and the staggering effects of climate change on their environment. It’s very much an overt story, a kids’ adventure story, but it was fine for what it’s intended to be: diverting reading for an evening, and a thoughtful treatment of how the climate crisis is already reshaping the world as we know it, and will continue to do so… and how young people are generally among the most affected by it, and who will have to deal with it the most in the future. This book, too, is one I got from the National Library’s branch in my city. 

From a departed coworker, I inherited a selection of books this spring, and The Origins of Capitalism by Ellen Maiksins Wood is the first of them that I’ve had a chance to read through to the end. It’s a very short book, and intended as a sort of a corrective to the fantasies and myths that cling to the version of capitalism we’ve ended up with. Wood clearly traces the philosophical roots of this system, exposing its inherently exploitative, destructive nature by looking at the very terms on which it was founded, and arguing against grand narratives of its inevitability. Perhaps some kind of complex trade and commerce was inevitable, but capitalism isn’t inevitably the only way to do trade and commerce—and in particular the brutal peculiarities of the version we’ve ended up with are far from inevitable. Yes, yes, surely we all realize this, I mutter, wincing as I glimpse suit-clad salarymen and bankers on all sides; but Wood unpacks that in well-supported detail, examining the very specific hows and whys of those peculiarities and why they’re a uniquely English affliction that spread to conquer the world. The suit-wearers will say, “So it is inevitable!” Well, only in the manner of terminal cancer, given the right starting conditions and a failure to act in time. We haven’t acted in time, as Wood notes, and shall have to fight to make the system we ended up with liveable—”socialism” is, in brief, her obvious answer. But we’ll fight better if we know the machinery we’re reworking and dismantling was put in place by mere people with agendas and interests of their own, rather than by the gods or the laws of nature. 

I rather enjoyed Inio Asano’s Nijigahara Holograph (no translator’s name is given, but I read the English edition put out by Fantagraphics). This one’s another library book, and it’s a dark, meandering story where the plot mattered less than the imagery and the relationships between the characters. There’s some predictable twists (especially some rather sexually perverse ones) and it’s really dark, but it was still interesting to read even if I just don’t have a lot to say about it. 

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