An unlikely pair

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I happened to exchange emails with a dear friend of mine about our shared struggles in life a few days ago, and then found out through this poignant Guardian article that it is currently Depression Awareness Week. In the spirit of spreading awareness I thought I’d share my thoughts on two books that have given me surprising comfort in tough times. By the way I really do read authors that are not Patrick Rothfuss or Richard Dawkins. And one day I shall prove this – just not today.

I’m not into the self-help and spiritual literary genres at all. The brief encounters I’ve had with these kinds of books have always left a sickly taste of phoney sweetness and disingenuity in my mouth. In addition, being bombarded with popular self-help jargons like “you can be whatever you want”, “you can’t live a positive life with a negative mind” and “just be your authentic self” only enforces the deep shame of having a mental illness and not being able to cure oneself of it. Undoubtedly there are those who do find the delirious hype of self-help and New-Age literature motivating and eye-opening but for a sceptic, which I definitely class myself as, it rings hopelessly hollow.

Richard Dawkins: The Magic of Reality, 2011
This is a very different book compared to its most well-known predecessors, The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, both of which are enveloped in their fair share of controversy. With The Magic of Reality Dawkins set out to write for younger readers, combining his exceptional skills in storytelling and engaging science communication. In spite of its target audience this is a book for anyone to enjoy. The language is by no means over-simplified or condescending, and you can always skim over the paragraphs that focus on explaining some really basic scientific concepts that you might already be familiar with. It’s a light read, and a very delightful one because Dawkins brilliantly succeeds in conveying his childlike admiration of the natural world in a way that stirs the same curiousness in the attentive reader.

Patrick Rothfuss: The Slow Regard of Silent Things, 2014
I have expressed my adoration of Patrick Rothfuss’ work in a previous post where I discussed the feminist themes in his to-be-trilogy, Kingkiller Chronicles. The Slow Regard of Silent Things is sort of a spin-off  as it focuses on one of the secondary characters in the main series. It stands on its own though: the references to the trilogy don’t disrupt the flow even if you don’t catch them, mainly because the protagonist, Auri makes references to a lot of things that remain elusive to the reader anyway. It’s actually quite difficult to pin down this book. The best way that I can think to describe it is a literary portrait – through sharing Auri’s daily routines, thoughts and emotions Rothfuss paints a picture of a sensitive, deeply affected and troubled girl who has escaped daylight to the shadow world underground and become something other to a regular world dweller.

At a first glance there doesn’t seem to be much that a science book for youngsters and a dreamlike novel could have in common but rest assured, for me it’s all in the details.
In The Slow Regard… we come to notice that Auri’s life is dictated by a set of rules and rituals, completely unintuitive to the reader. She seems to be functioning under a constant of anxiety that flares up and escalates into a rush of panic as soon as something disturbs her safety-net of routines. Any mishap or disappointment will drive her into a deep depression. Mental illness isn’t pretty, and being able to write a piece about it that is both beautiful and heart-wrenchingly relatable makes Patrick Rothfuss practically a genius in my eyes; romanticising this topic is such a tired and disrespectful trope.
Auri finds joy and purpose in the smallest of things – collecting objects that don’t hold any value to anyone but her, and embracing such mundane experiences as brushing her hair. She is mesmerised by sights, sounds and smells, and being hidden away from the busy and loud world above the ground she spends her time noticing a lot more than any of us in our daily lives.

The Magic of Reality is compiled of a series of chapters each tackling a natural phenomenon through myths and stories, leading up to the scientific account. What are rainbows and earthquakes, and who was the first human are some of the questions that Dawkins takes on and explains. One might expect the mythologies related to each problem to be most entertaining part of this book, triumphing over the dry logic of science; but on the contrary. Scientists who have the rare gift of communication are so incredibly inspirational and compelling when explaining the mysteries of nature that they easily make fairy stories sound unimaginative, and Richard Dawkins is no exception. I always loved biology in school because I was blessed with multiple amazing teachers, but I have never been as impressed by evolution as I am when I witness Dawkins addressing it. He is so invested in science and reason without any hidden agenda that it’s hard not to absorb some of the excitation. The Magic of Reality is all about stopping to study things that we take for granted and finding out how they actually come about. It simultaneously encourages the reader to be an independent and critical thinker while also appreciating the small, seemingly inconsequential things.

The unlikely pairing of these two books is a perfect remainder for a conflicted mind to look for moments of peace and wonder in the details of life. Small revelations of everyday don’t have to be tied to some New-Age guru’s 30-day soul healing detox programme but are best experienced with a clear and rationally tuned mind. Negative thoughts and emotions are not poison, nor can we have any control over their emergence. What we can control are the things that we choose to linger on – and should those things be tangible and firmly rooted in reality, all the better I say. “You can’t think your way out of a thinking problem”, is one of the best lessons that I have learned, which is why I try to embrace as many things that exist outside of my thoughts, as I can. The fact that we see stars in our night sky, and that the very existence of those stars is what allows us to exists too, is one of those things.

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A good old feminist book rant

books copyLet’s ignore the fact that I have been completely awol for the past couple of months, and jump right into my review/analysis/feminist rant inspired by my current favourite author Patrick Rohtfuss’ book series.

Reading the first two parts of Patrick Rothfuss’ to-be trilogy, The Kingkiller Chronicles turned out to be a completely unanticipated rollercoaster ride in the best possible way. Without conducting a more in-depth analysis of the plot and characters let’s just state that the bare bones of the story are pretty much identical to 90% of the fantasy books that I have read: a young, talented boy loses his family in a tragedy, lives in poverty, discovers magic and eventually proceeds to doing extraordinary things. Not a particularly exciting premise to be sure but rest assured that everything on top that – the flesh and blood of the story if you will – are well worth exploring. Not only does the author give shape to the story with beautifully intricate and at parts even poetic language, he also has the skill of balancing out profound ideas with witty and relatable humour.

The quality that I found most surprising and inspiring was the treatment of the female characters throughout. Many books in the fantasy genre tend to harbour worn-out feminine stereotypes with only a minimal female presence in central roles. Kingkiller Chronicles departs from this tradition by bringing in a number of well-developed, singular female characters none of whose reason for existence is to be a pretty accessory. The epitome of this is the careful construction of the Adem: a people that has its own cultural history, language, country and customs. Like any fantasy author, Rothfuss has created his own world with different geological and cultural areas, languages and so on. Adem is one such, and it differs from the predominating culture in a number of ways.


At first we only know as much as the protagonist; that the Adem only venture outside their own country as mercenaries. They are said to be excellent fighters whose appearance is stoic to the point of where it’s considered an oddity among the “general population”. They are seen as other. The fact that no one seems to have any first-hand experience with the Adem has spruced up a mass of rumours, each one more fantastical than the last. Of course, as the protagonist learns more, the strange customs start to make sense, which in itself is a poignant remark of the human nature. We naturally fear the unknown especially when it is a part of another culture. Racism at its core is fear turned into anger and hate. Anyone who takes time to reflect on another culture will notice that people are people no matter how they communicate and what they believe in.

What really impressed me about the way the Adem are portrayed is that their society is matriarchal. As feminism is at the centre of my academic intrigue I got sucked in in a heartbeat. I haven’t come across many matriarchal communities in my previous experiences of fantasy lit, and really the only other remarkable example that springs to mind is the genius satire, Egalia’s Daughters. Being a satirical matriarchy, Egalia is the exaggerated polar opposite to our world, and provokes the reader through humour until they see how absolutely constructed the prevailing patriarchal system that we live in actually is.

The Adem are portrayed as hard-working and humble people; not fanatic or eccentric in any way. They are just as suspicious about outsiders as the outsiders are of them. Unfamiliar customs are just as off-putting and strange to them, and in their eyes, their way of doing things is obviously the correct one. Everyone else is uncivilised.

That aside, their philosophy is a fascinating one. Central to the Adem’s belief system is the tradition of martial arts, which is also the way in which their mercenaries bring wealth into the community. The backbone of the art is the Lethani, a sort of a spiritual and ethical path that guides all of the Adem to do the right thing. The Lethani is an innate morale peculiar to the culture, that in their eyes is missing from the rest of the world. The Lethani guides one to use their fighting skills sparingly and only for a cause that is for the good of the Adem. What the Lethani really is and includes is rather obscure but what seems to be clear is that although the Adem are known fighters it is not of the spirit of the Lethani to relish violence.

Another side of the fighting is the Ketan, which reminds me of yoga and thai-chi as it is described to be a series of movements to be performed in continuation as close to perfection as possible. These movements are then incorporated into combat where they usually take your average non-Adem opponent by surprise.

The Adem regard women superior fighters to men as they have less anger, and are therefore better at controlling themselves. Lethani is about control and knowing when to fight. Men are deemed more impulsive, more prone to violence and therefore more likely to depart from the code of conduct. The notion that men are less valuable for the society is a no-brainer for the Adem and although the male protagonist finds himself rather offended by this he and the reader are forced to admit that it is no worse than the opposite view of women being seen as the weaker sex.

But like any other society, the Adem also have their ridiculous beliefs that put them back on the same level with other systems. Due to the dominating role of women in the society the Adem hold a belief that men have no part in procreation at all, which serves the power of matriarchy as it diminishes the relevance of man entirely. Although for the reader as well as for the protagonist this belief is complete nonsense it does serve a purpose regarding the fictional world it is set in. By giving this flaw to the otherwise beautiful culture it descends back into being just another set traditions and customs constructed by humans who want to believe that their way is the right way.

An interesting component of the Adem values is that they have no sex taboo. This is of course in line with the belief that the physical act is in no way related to conception. When there is no danger of forming unwanted familial ties through offspring sex becomes purely a physical act where both participants are seeking pleasure and release. Because of this there is no shame or sense of ownership of another’s body. The protagonist comes from a world similar to ours where women are easily labelled promiscuous and viewed as men’s property. Their sex is owned by one man, and prostitutes are at the lowest level of social hierarchy. This is a massive problem in our current world as well, and women are still much more easily labelled sluts than men for having multiple sex partners. The violation of the female body – and what is considered a violation is constantly questioned and debated; and debated by men no less. The right to one’s own body is not a given to women like it is for men, and the sex taboo is one of the man-made constructions fuelling this way of thinking.

That said, the carefully thought-out philosophy of the Adem is refreshing and I applaud Patrick Rothfuss for coming up with all of its complexities. It shows another example of a culture built upon a set of circumstances, history and beliefs. In some ways it is no better than patriarchy but it demonstrates that many of the patriarchal customs are nothing but myths and tired traditions that have no foundation in facts, but merely illusions that are set to keep up the power relations.

In my opinion, one of the great triumphs of The Kingkiller Chronicles is its conventional setting, which in the hands of the author, turns into quite something else than your average fantasy novel. Patrick Rothfuss shows that with great sensitivity and originality the tired cliché of a teenage boy with tragic childhood and special skills can surpass its predecessors and become a thought-provoking, entertaining and a heartfelt story, that manages to tap into very important points about how racism and sexism are fuelled by preconceptions and the inability to see people as people – equal on all levels.

Favourite non-fiction books: Part 2

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Here we have another instalment of my top non-fiction books to talk about today. All of the following four volumes are fairly new additions to my bookshelf but have immediately secured their place at my literary inspiration station. Being recent purchases I haven’t actually properly read through all of them, hence the little introductions/ reviews that you are about read are not conclusive in any way.
As if any of my ideas were. But let’s cut to the chase.

Barbara G. Walker: The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects

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I didn’t know I specifically needed a woman’s symbol book until I saw it.
This book is very simply exactly what its title implies – a dictionary of symbols related to women and femininity. I am fascinated by universal symbols, local symbols, religious symbols, you name it, and have been on the lookout for a symbol encyclopedia for quite while. More often than not these kinds of manuals are very pricey, and so I was thrilled to stumble upon this bargain at my local second hand book shop.
The Woman’s Dictionary has been divided into sub chapters where interrelated symbols can be studied individually as well as a group. Of course there is also an index at the end for when you want to find a specific object – or use the “blind selection method” and start reading from the first page that you happen upon. That’s how I usually do it.

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Whitney Chadwick: Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement

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This is another brilliant find from the aforementioned second hand book store (that I’m going to miss when I move next week!). I love surrealism, I love women and I love books. I used to browse through collective art books like this at my university library all the time, and I even wrote an essay about women and surrealism at one point of my studies. I don’t think I ever saw this particular one before because when I first leafed through the pages I discovered so much gorgeous, poignant art from the surrealist movement made by women that I had never seen before that it took my breath away. It is such a shame how women have historically been treated in the creative arts, how their art in any media has been erased from the art history.

In addition to the visuals, the essays in the book are also right up my alley discussing women’s place in the arts as primarily muses and the passive objects as opposed to active practitioners, and how the societal change has enabled them to start occupying a more visible and acknowledged space as creators and storytellers.
Nothing like a little bit of female empowerment to get those ideas coming.

Michael Gill: Image of the Body – Aspects of the Nude

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Guess what. Another bargain!
When I saw the cover of this book I instantly knew I was going to need it. If you read the first part of my favourite non-fiction books, you’ll know that the human body is one of the most fascinating things to me creatively and academically, and I will not stop hoarding related books. I have only read the first few chapters but based on that and a quick browse through, the book seems to offer a very rich view into the cultural history of the nude from the very first depictions of humans in pre-historic caves to contemporary photography.

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Quite unlike my usual experience with introduction chapters that feel like a never-ending hike through mud to the real content, this one was captivating on its own right. The cover photo that drew me in was in fact the theme of the intro. It is a commission made by Robert Mapplethorpe, and the creation of the image is described in such a detailed way, intertwined with paragraphs concerning those cave paintings that I mentioned, that I couldn’t but see it all happening right before my eyes. As a visual person I relish language that paints vivid pictures in my mind. And to be able to observe Mapplethorpe working with the models through the author’s eyes is quite unlike anything that I’ve read before. A big thumbs-up for this one!

Angus Hyland & Angharad Lewis: The Purple Book – Symbolism & Sensuality in Contemporary Art and Illustration

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Last but not least is my most recent gem, The Purple Book, which I first saw at Saatchi Gallery and fell in love at first sight (well actually my good friend Kimberley, pointed it out to me saying: “I found your book”). The price was a bit steep though, so I googled around until I found the best deal – nearly half of the original – and placed the order. Can you tell I’m a chronic bargain hunter?
Unlike all of the previous books that I’ve talked about this one is total eye candy with it’s canvas spine, purple and black divider pages and romantic typography. The content  consists of artwork from 23 contemporary artists paired with interviews, short stories and excerpts.

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Again I have only read the introduction and stared longingly at the pictures, and all I can say that it is a beautiful thing inside and out. Not to mention that purple is my favourite colour.
If you’re into tour-de-siécle kind of aesthetic and eroticism, dark romanticism, Tim Burton, Edgar Allan Poe, burlesque and sensual nudity this might be your cup of tea as much it is mine.

Of course, there are shelves upon shelves of other books that I’ve come across in my research that have left their mark. These are just the ones that either caught my eye in the right place at the right time, or I connected so deeply with that I just had to posses them.

Leave any recommendations below if you wish. One can never own too many books. Right?

Favourite non-fiction books: Part 1

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It is sometimes (well, most of the time – let’s be real) hard to work out a topic to write about, so today I wanted to discuss some of my favourite books that I frequently use for research and inspiration. I won’t be doing in depth reviews of each of them as there are quite a few. Let’s just browse through the pile chronologically from when these publications made their way into my bookshelf.

William A. Ewing: The Body

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I bought this book on my first year of uni when I got really into the representation of body in photography. It’s a handy little (and when I say little – it’s actually pretty heavy) reference book of the body covering various types of photographic practices and artists. The content has been split into 12 chapters, each having their own angle into body-centred photography making it convenient for someone looking for a reference to a specific sub-topic within the practice. And because the titles can seem somewhat vague, to help the reader even further, there is an introduction of sorts preceding the actual content of the book briefly describing the central themes in each chapter. Accompanying essays offer invaluable insight to each theme expanding the reader’s perception.

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With a lot of artists and pictures, The Body is a really useful starting point for someone who’s interested in the human form in contemporary photography. It’s like a tasting menu with an abundance of dishes to try out. Quite a handful, this book, which is why sometimes the best approach is to just pick a page at random and start reading – or just look at the pictures.

Bram Dijkstra: Idols of Perversity – Fantasies of feminine evil in fin-de-siecle culture

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I only purchased this book recently but was already profoundly hooked on the second year of university when I first used it in one of my essays. Luckily no one else ever seemed to borrow this from the library so I got to keep it to myself most of the time. About a month ago I finally found a good deal online for a used item and now it is officially mine.

The title is pretty specific about the content which is a blessing for both you and I as I cannot promise that my explanation of what Idols of Perversity is all about would do it justice.

It is the book that got me into pre-Raphaelite art and the surrounding Victorian culture. To me this is the book. It is full of absolutely fascinating research about the school of painters in the turning point of 19th and 20th centuries. Not only am I completely obsessed about the double standards of the Victorian culture, the madwomen at the wake of psychiatry, the rich symbolism in pre-Raphaelite painting and the strange beliefs combined of myths, legends, religion and science, but the way in which the author brings his research into words is captivating, poetic – and hence for some readers probably unbearably annoying. So who should read this book? Someone enthralled by symbolism, Shakespearean mythology and Victorian society in the context of how women were perceived, treated and represented in art. Maybe someone who likes the word ‘enthralling’ ?

I am practically married to this book.

Judith Butler: Bodies That Matter – On the discursive limits of “sex”

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Oh Judith – my favourite person!
I found Judith Butler at some point in university but became a full on fangirl only after finding some of her talks online thanks to a recommendation from my dissertation tutor (shoutout to Eileen!). I literally spent most of my Christmas holiday that year with headphones on listening to her talk hour after hour whilst playing solitaire on my laptop. Riveting, I know. Half of my bibliography was Judith Butler even though most of her research didn’t really have anything to do with my topic. But when you’re obsessed enough you will find a way to include your favourite author.

Bodies That Matter is not an easy read. The vocabulary is very academic and the ideas very abstract. Someone with a better understanding of philosophy would probably fare much better with this book than little me but I love reading it anyway. I’m a big fan of Butler’s writing and lecturing style (and that shows in my dissertation). She seems very present in the book, which makes it anything but boring and dry theoretical text. Even so, I can’t really explain what exactly this theory is about.

If you’re into the semantics of sex, gender and body, give it a go. Or try Gender Trouble, which is a slightly friendlier read. It isn’t at Young Adult level either but definitely easier to grasp. Judith, oh Judith. I am seriously in love with this woman.

Since I still have four books to talk about I’ll finish up for now and get into those another time. Those four are actually very new additions to my collection so I haven’t had a chance to explore them that much yet anyway. Hopefully, you got something out of this post, which essentially was a love letter to my most cherished books and authors. I enjoyed it.

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