40. Breath

Breath is one of my favourite reads. It is a novel that I feel I return to when I need space from the world. In fact a lot of Michael Symmons Roberts work I return to when I am overwhelmed, because there is an attention to detail which is calming, a grand sense of what is beautiful, and a playful dexterity with language that never fails to illuminate the dark. There is little doubt in his work, there is a self assurance with every line, and a direction. His direction is a little like a landslide you must trust, because you are never quite sure where you are heading. It is never writing that makes me frantic or bored. It is writing that reminds me gently that it is okay to simply be within a moment whatever that moment may contain.

I was recommended his collection Corpus a few years ago now and it is one of those collections that I never tire of. But Breath is still my only venture into his prose.

Breath – Michael Symmons Roberts

This isn’t a great big novel that does enormous things, it is quite beautifully spare, and I am certain wouldn’t be to everyone’s tastes as it feels airy while you read it. There are pauses that are filled with great voids of what is and it leaves me wondering after answers that never really come. This novel’s job isn’t to tie up all the loose ends, but instead give you a glimpse into ‘what is’ in these character’s lives. It feels a short 200pages and if you’re anything like me you’ll read it in a few hours easily, however there is a lot going on between the covers.

It is a story about a lung.

“He wonders if the lungs have stored the last breaths of the dead boy, like a print on the retina. Could they hold his last words somewhere, like voicemail in the last breath, lost among alveoli, the countless tributaries of lung?” p.37

It is a story about a boy who falls off of his bike and in that instant experiences brain death. It is a story about organ donation and the grieving father who perhaps, never knew his son well enough. But also it is about the pilot who is flying the lung to the north of the country to it’s new home and of course about the man who is due to receive it. But it is also a story framed on the backdrop of a country just fully realising peace after a vicious civil war, a country where the dogs run wild, and tensions between North and South still run high.

“The hearts are what got us into this trouble in the first place. Now put the hearts into storage, put the passions and the pain and the crimson into cold storage. Bring out the lungs to give apologies, words of hope and reconciliation, words of direction.” p.41

This novel is at a calm after a storm, rather than before it. It has flavours of dystopia and political turbulence, a history of violence and terrible acts, but also absolution. There are beautiful passages about the body and poetic prose intermingled with regular prose, there are remarkable moments muddled with the ordinary. Breath is an unusual novel, and I will happily return to it.

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39. The Little Prince 

This one is a little difficult to write about. It is one of those children books that keeps on giving the more you think about it. One of the warnings that is reinforced time and time again is how awful it is to grow up and forget what is wonderful and good, how terrible it is to loose your imagination and only see a drawing as a hat, instead of a boa constrictor from the outside with a full belly. But it is also much more complex than that, it runs through the Little Prince himself as he find’s some adults so very odd, counting stars that they claim to own and another lighting a lamp every minute in accordance to the terms of a job and the sunset, and of course the perplexing man who seeks to be admired, and raises his hat to applause.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint- Exupery

Of course, I was besotted from the first page but I’m also besotted with Osbourne’s film adaptation and it never fails to make me cry. In case you don’t know what this story is about, it follows the Little Prince who meets an aviator who is lost in the dessert. The Little Prince usually lives on his own asteroid with three volcanoes to clean out (one is extinct but you never know), Baobabs to keep at bay (plants that will take over a planet and crush it), and also a haughty Rose who he is very much in love with. This story meanders through the Little Prince’s life on his asteroid and his adventures elsewhere, including taming a fox and finally leaving Earth.

And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” p. 68

It is a wonderfully written story, I can’t say anything for the translation but it is light and easy and unexpected. I really enjoy the illustrations peppered throughout the text and this is a narrative that makes good use of how few pages it takes up. I wanted something like this text when I read Peter Pan a few years ago, the Little Prince is a curious character, quick with questions, receptive to knowledge, happily grateful, and optimistic.

“It is such a secret place, the land of tears.” p. 26

I was incredibly surprised just how wonderfully profound I found this novel. I’ll happily revisit this, in fact, I’ll race you.

38. Men Explain Things to Me and Other Essays 

Isn’t it funny that whenever I come near to posting about any feminist text, I feel that I must take up the arduous task of defending myself and my position. Or rather, isn’t is appalling that I assume someday I shall be on the other end of cheap shots taken by internet strangers, who may be misinformed, but who will certainly be angry. I want to deflect death and rape threats before they arrive. I want to emphatically carve my position into the introduction of a post, yet that takes up far more of a blog post than it should because it transforms it into a passionate plea for reason and for what I believe is morally right.

But to make it simple for all of you that are poised above the keyboard muttering ‘feminazi’ under your breath: I am a feminist. I am a woman. I have never believed in a matriarchal society. I believe that misogyny is as a destructive force to men as it is to women, and that perpetuating toxic ideas of masculinity is in fact emasculating and destroying men. That when we enforce the idea that boys do not cry, we are raising men who are unequipped to deal with emotions in a healthy way. When we enforce that paternity leave is not as socially valuable as maternity leave we are undermining the value of fatherhood. I believe someone’s gender does not limit their potential job.

I believe that it is not okay to reduce people into animalistic lumps of flesh swinging their fists around, any more than it is okay to belittle people into walking meat sacks whose only purpose is incubating other human beings.

Men Explain things to Me and Other Essays – Rebecca Solnit

I also believe that women deserve the right to be heard and believed. That her body should be governed by only herself and nobody has the right to abuse it with violence when she says no. That it is not okay to joke about rape or pussy grabbing or how you want to enforce your sexual violence upon someone for ‘bants’. That it is not okay to victim blame. That it is not okay to send death and rape threats online to women no matter how much you don’t agree with what she says. That it is not okay to tell someone to ‘kill themselves’ because they don’t like your dick pic, or because they aren’t interested in dating you, or because you’ve decide that you have been ‘friend zoned’.

I believe that good feminist essays are supposed make you angry. Men Explain Things to Me and other Essays, made me angry, they disgusted me, they left me feeling upset and genuinely appalled. But they gave me a little bit of hope too and now I feel like I need to read them again.

Solnit has an easy to digest writing style that doesn’t patronise the reader, it doesn’t demonise men, but it seeks to resonate with an attempt at answering why feminism is still a relevant global topic today. These seven essays aren’t 130 pages of Solnit anecdotally belittling the men who have explained things to her or patronised her, as may be assumed. The title essay tells of an older gentlemen explaining Solnit’s recently released novel to her, pursuing on regardless of being repeatedly told ‘that’s her book.’ But there are essays dedicated to the pervasive sexual violence against women, vibrant writing on the topic of IMF and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and powerlessness. She discusses the egalitarian marriage, Woolf, and the last essay ends with some dignity and hope for the topic.

They forced me reflect on the young girl who was snatched and killed from my secondary school all those years ago, and on another local woman who was found unconscious with no underwear, and on the statistics of a rape being reported every 6 minutes in the USA, and on gang rape, and on how many sexual assault survivors I know, and on women being set on fire and then eaten for refusing sexual advances, and on brave women being left for dead by assailants but still walking to the nearest police station.

But these essays also made me reflect upon myself as a product of society, both as a unwilling subject for the Male Gaze and how deeply my own fear of sexual violence runs. I found myself reflecting on how perverse I find misogyny and violation. How difficult I find it that someone somewhere, believes wholeheartedly that they have the right to someone else’s body without consent. Good feminist essays make you angry. Really good feminist essays make you angry and then solidify and consolidate your ideas into concrete. But as always there is a peppering of sadness – why, why, why, why do human beings do this to one another?

Something that has resonated with me from this collection is the suggestion that a pandora’s box (or jar) of ideas has been opened. That all of the ideas that have flown out and established themselves will be forever difficult to budge. Women will never again relinquish their hold over their own bodies, voices, votes, and worth. That traditional gender norms are being unravelled. That, with complete certainty, there is more than one way to be a human and to have value. And surely, given the state of 2016 is about to leave us in, that is a happy thought to hold on to.

37. The Hunger Games 

This is really not the novel I currently want to talk about. But I have finished it and needs must. This is not my first time reading this. The last time I read the trilogy in a weekend but they made remarkably little impression on me. I believe I remember the hype being just hype and it’s… alright… I guess. Unfortunately this time, it has taken me a while to read through boredom. Yes, boredom, there is just no polite way to put it. This is another one of those rare instances where I believe I prefer the films because visually they work very well.

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

I am usually a big fan of young adult fiction purely because it is a good pallet cleanser, it’s like eating junk food. As much as I enjoyed digesting something easily, perhaps this is not the novel that I need right now. It contains things which are good to get young people interested in like politics, strong female characters, and the gratuitous lengths the media will go to for purposes of entertainment. But personally this isn’t a novel I wish had been part of my formative years and I think that reveals a lot about this novel. Reading this has just been like eating crisps I don’t really want to eat because they’re tasteless but they’re there.

When I read Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve, it defied all my expectations of how this YA fiction novel was going to play out. I could also forgive the writing style and how annoying Tris was in Divergent by Veronica Roth because it had enough to keep me interested with the fractions. The Hunger Games, kind of feels like one of those novels that was churned out to follow a trend in YA fiction. But for me it also significantly lacks character development, some of the writing is clumsy, and I know exactly what this novel is trying to get at but it was executed so much better in the films.

This is not exactly a cheerful novel, it follows a young girl volunteering as ‘tribute’ for the national games. These games involve two children, male and female, from each of the twelve districts and the entire nation watching as 24 children murder each other for entertainment. When I write it like that, you’d think it would be horrifying, because as a concept it is horrifying. But instead it is successfully boring.

Perhaps it is because Katniss Everdeen’s sole character development in this entire novel is that she accepts she must play the rules of the Hunger Games to ultimately win them. One of those being acting like she is in love with Peeta for the audience of the games and the excitement of entertainment. I am not sure how I feel about this because Peeta seems like he’s getting the raw end of the deal by the end of the novel. But at the same time it also kinda seems like because he’s genuinely in love with her, she HAS to be in love with him too and that’s not really how feelings work Peeta.

And also as a final cherry on the steaming cake, perhaps I have a problem with this novel because even when things are at their most dire, I just can’t empathise because I know on the next page the conflict will be resolved and it’ll be sunshine again in thirty seconds. I do not fear for their welfare when they are in an arena severely bleeding, cut to the bone, and starving. Now either there is something pathologically wrong with me, or this is just bad writing.

There are lot’s of things that niggle and irritate me about this novel. But I don’t think I’m going to waste any more time writing about it.

36. the long way to a small angry planet 

I must tell you about two of my favourite people on Earth. One of them is a two hour train ride away, he is dark and skinny and we tend to be assumed as siblings. The other is 5217 miles (ish, who’s counting?) away, he looks like an elf princeling, and we have spent 7 days in the last two years in the same timezone. But we are remarkable friends and distance changes very little between us. However, this long distance thing it is as much a test of our collective endurance and patience as it is our shared ability to communicate regularly.

I am a mostly a digital spectre to two people I consider part of my nervous system. I miss all the laugher and all of the tears and all of the times that are fixed with hugs and gin and take out. I miss afternoons listening to vinyl. Or baking. Or simply taking in the sky and talking the world right. I am continually reminded that sometimes physical space is a privilege. That when your lives are all very different and diverge suddenly, you have a choice, you can to learn to be a digital core group that exist primarily online or you can dissolve and loose one another to the ether. I am reminded that without tech this friendship would not be possible. That what is ‘us’ would have likely ceased a long time ago, or that we would be solely responsible for keeping royal mail in business (which is entirely possible).

There are rare times that I find novels that feel like who we are together, novels that somehow close the void of distance brings them both close into the intimate space of my mind. Novels that fill the homesick pit to the brim with everything we are to one another and the long way to a small angry planet is without a doubt one of those novels.

The long way to a small angry planet – Becky chambers

To tell you the truth after quite a heavy month of devouring very large and dense books I was really looking for a light read. Maybe some young adult fiction to just give myself a rest, and small angry planet is not that book. But it’s not overly dense either. It is laid out almost as a collection of short stories that all push the main narrative forward to the novels destination – following the Wayfarer on it’s steady flight through the universe to a job punching a black hole through space beside a very small, angry planet.

What kept me going with this novel is that it reminds me so much of the tv series Firefly, and that it is incredibly well thought out. The species in this novel are incredible, it is good natured, relatable and I fell in love with the crew on the Wayfarer. There is a lot to spark your imagination, from fringe planets to black holes, to how space ships work, to this history of the off-worlders to species!

So there is a species who’s emotions show on their faces as blots of colours. There is a species that have lizard like features, but heads of multicoloured feathers and they shed all their skin at once. There is a species with six hand-feet who are all born female until they reach old age and become male. There is a species that look a lot like lobsters. But this isn’t a novel without its share of strife, there are interspecies frictions, political agendas, a civil war happening to a species with very short tempers and strange social skills.

“Do not judge other species by your own social norms.” p.24

There are characters who have been swallowed by their love of tech and have swapped body parts (functioning or accidentally lost) for tech upgrades. There are characters who are bitterly cynical, there are characters who are strange in their religion and customs, and there are hyper active tech’s who are usually up to mischief. But some of the most profound moments of this novel are told through characters who aren’t human. I honestly adored this novel. It burst open everything I truly love about sci-fi, it was engaging, it was honest, it made me unbelievably curious about the world it was set in and I can really see why this initially self-published novel was picked up by a publishing house because it is simply wonderful.

And of course, it also reminded me very much of my two favourite boys because I know both of them would really enjoy this novel and it is so playful with a genre that we all have a soft spot for. But more than that, it was the relationship between the crew and how they view one another, and place what matters before what is socially deemed as valuable. Whether it be the validation of falling in love with an A.I, or choosing who you consider family.

“Brothers you can’t get rid of. They get who you are, and what you like, and they don’t care who you sleep with or what mistakes you make, because brothers aren’t mixed up in that part of your life. They see you at your worst, and they don’t care. […] Nothing’s too much to ask when it comes to brothers.” p. 395.