A Little Personal Update (Winter is Here!)

Winter is here! Which also means Christmas! And Christmas lights! And Christmas sweets! And time off to watch stupid and corny Christmas films!

As you can see, my love for Christmas knows no boundaries. And that is what always helps me get through the fall semester. Now that I am the very proud owner of a feminist laptop, I have gone back to reading and writing 24/7. I have a few deadlines to meet, and I am also participating on the organisation of a conference on India studies. So, all is well as along as I am busy! This new routine has taken a toll on my reading, but I will be finishing Ferrante’s Neapolitan series this week, and I hope to get some crime fiction reading soon. I have only heard wonderful thing about The Bird Tribunal, The Ice Beneath Her, and Eileen, so I hope to devote some evenings to reading those novels.

Review: The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn at CrimeFiction Lover

Review: The Ice Beneath Her by Camilla Grebe at Crime at the Book

Review: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh at The Writes of Woman

These past two weeks I have been reading books and watching documentaries and interviews on consent and rape culture. I will review the books here soon because two of them are novels, and they should be compulsory reading for teenagers and adults everywhere. We need to be educated about the underlying structure of rape culture. We need to understand why people blame the victim and stop doing it. We need to see that golden boys will not always be golden boys, and they should be punished. Hard to say and fight for when a rapist and golden boy has been elected president of the US.

Meanwhile, I have found my other true calling: Binge-watching Netflix! Netflix only arrived to Spain this year, and for the safety of my PhD I decided to avoid getting any kind of account or access. But by the end of October I couldn’t resist myself and I requested the one-month free trial period. I’m hooked. I am serious. I am rewatching Gilmore Girls in order to prepare myself for the 25th November revival. I am SO Rory, even though I aim at Lorelai so hard. Don’t we all want to be Lorelai? Isn’t she an amazing feminist role model? And isn’t Rory’s love for books contagious? I love my Gilmore Girls.

So, this is what has been going on behind the screen for the last month. I will keep working hard until my Christmas break so that I can take time off then to watch a lot of TV, get some reading done, and spend my time with my beloved ones. I know the Puppy will be thrilled to know that I will available to play go-and-fetch for hours!

How is November treating you all? And if you are a student, any tricks to survive mid-semester crisis?

The Ice Lands by Steinar Bragi

I was contacted by MacMillan last month to get to know their latest translated author, Steinar Bragi whose novel The Icelands came out on the 25th October. Even though I do not read much Scandi crime fiction, I enjoy it a lot when I finally step out of my British/American comfort zone. So, after taking a look at the book I decided it was dark enough to make it to my Halloween reading list. But I did not know what I had in my hands…

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The IcelandsHálendið in the original Icelandic, published in 2011 and translated into English by Lorenz Garcia – tells the story of two couples, Hfran and Vigdís, and Egill and Anna, who embark on a trip to Iceland’s volcanic desert. When a storm takes them out of the road and they hit a farm, they are forced to spend the night with the two old farmers who live there. From the moment they arrive they realise that the farm is completely isolated, and the old couple have no visible way of making a living. So, how do they survive? And are they really alone?

When I first started reading Bragi’s novel I expected the characteristic raw narrative of the high quality Scandi crime fiction I have read in the past years. And I found exactly that. The coldness that oozes from the page, the dirt, the darkness. It was all there. What I did not know was that The Ice Lands is a horror story, a brutal tale of survival with bizarre glimpses into Iceland’s folklore that would terrify me. I read the novel in three seatings during Halloween’s weekend, and although I was scared, I could not put it down. From the very first page it is easy to realise there is something off. But is it all in Egill’s mind after too many joints? Is it part of Hfran’s ego? Or is it the Icelandic setting, a character on its own, clouding their vision with black sandstorms?

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Sandstorm in Iceland – via Reykjavik Cars (who also have tips on how not get caught in one)

The four main characters take turns as narrators and each of them make the story move forward from a different angle. Even though the reader knows nothing about the characters in the very beginning, they share their backgrounds as they try to link what has happened to them in the past with current events. Among those currents events, the 2010’s economic crisis becomes a pivotal moment for the four of them. While Hfran and Egill enjoed a luxurious lifestyle, they are struggling to keep their image among Iceland’s important businessmen. On the other hand, Anna and Vigdís are self-made women who have been working hard for years as a journalist and as a therapist respectively. Despite the different economic backgrounds of the couples, the women’s tales seem completely separated from the men’s, giving them more substance than just the role of girlfriends.

As for the horror, it is clear since the moment the jeep is crashed that there is something off. The Icelandic weather makes it impossible to survive outdoors, so there is no option for them but to take shelter at the couple’s home, and the couple has no alternative to this. Or do they? As these four city Millennials enter the old couple’s homes we can see their social prejudices by their appropriation of their hosts’ space, which very much feels like a colonisation. The old couple seems to agree to this arrangement until we realise that the narrators intrusion into their lives is taken a step beyond. How? That is yours to discover.

I sincerely enjoyed The Ice Lands, probably the first horror book that I have read in my whole life. The characteristic blending of literary genre and social criticism of Scandi literature made it easier to keep reading even when I was scared, although I will admit I rushed through the last 30 pages because it was too much. The writing is raw, like the desert itself, and it would be easier to be fooled into feling the dirt of the characters in one’s face, with the sand giving everything a grayish tint. As a last recommendation, this book contains vivid descriptions of physical violence (animals included), which could  upset some people and animal lovers like myself. In any case, I highly recommend The Ice Lands as we are not usually offered an opportunity into Iceland’s’ horror literature, and this seems like the best place to start.

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

The Portable Veblen came highly recommended on Twitter by Anna James and Elizabeth (then Preston) Morris and compared to the quirky Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple, which I did not really enjoy when I first read it, but have come to appreciate as time goes by. So, when I learnt I would be spending a week in the UK, I made a list of books that I needed to purchase and The Portable Veblen was at the top. Luckily for me I found it for £2 with some minor damage to the cover.

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The first chapters were so sweet I had to picture the book with gummy bears!

Veblen is a young woman about to marry Paul, the first man that she has ever established a connection with. This is the story of how they got engaged, how they planned the wedding, how to make their very different families connect, and the medical industry. You have read it correctly. Paul works for a medical company researching a tool that the US army could use in cases of brain hemorrhage, Veblen herself has some mental health issues, and her mother is a hypocondriac. As you can imagine this mix makes up for a quirky novel. And I forgot to tell you that Veblen has a relationship with a squirrel that enters her house, Paul wants to catch, and she finally sets free – although the squirrel follows her across California.

With a plot like that, The Portable Veblen is a promising, quirky book. But I am afraid it does not deliver the same way Bernadette did. I tried to establish a connection with Veblen but found it almost impossible, not because she is unlikable, on the contrary, because she is too bland. Years spent with her hypochondriac and attention-seeker mother have erased Veblen, so that she does not make up for an interesting main character. She is not sure she is in love with Paul, and his behaviour set off some alarms whilst reading, but at the end of the day this novel is a love story between two people with special families. And although we all have special families and issues that we wish would never see the light of day, it is not so for Paul and Veblen. Their families are unnerving, but eventually they do almost nothing about it.

I really wanted to enjoy the book, and I have to admit the first chapters were very sweet, but as a whole I was a bit disappointed. However, as I was thrilled by the beginning of Veblen’s story I gave it 3 stars at Goodreads and I truly believe this book has a target audience and I was the problem, rather than the novel itself. I am writing this review a month after finishing reading just because I found the novel on my desk and I had the feeling I had some reviews left to write. But the book had completely escaped my mind.

Now, I am curious to hear what you thought of the book if you read it, or if by reading what the blurb says you would be interested:

The Portable Veblen is a dazzlingly original novel that’s as big-hearted as it is laugh-out-loud funny. Set in and around Palo Alto, amid the culture clash of new money and old (antiestablishment) values, and with the specter of our current wars looming across its pages, The Portable Veblen is an unforgettable look at the way we live now. A young couple on the brink of marriage—the charming Veblen and her fiancé Paul, a brilliant neurologist—find their engagement in danger of collapse. Along the way they weather everything from each other’s dysfunctional families, to the attentions of a seductive pharmaceutical heiress, to an intimate tête-à-tête with a very charismatic squirrel.

Veblen (named after the iconoclastic economist Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption”) is one of the most refreshing heroines in recent fiction. Not quite liberated from the burdens of her hypochondriac, narcissistic mother and her institutionalized father, Veblen is an amateur translator and “freelance self”; in other words, she’s adrift. Meanwhile, Paul—the product of good hippies who were bad parents—finds his ambition soaring. His medical research has led to the development of a device to help minimize battlefield brain trauma—an invention that gets him swept up in a high-stakes deal with the Department of Defense, a Bizarro World that McKenzie satirizes with granular specificity.

As Paul is swept up by the promise of fame and fortune, Veblen heroically keeps the peace between all the damaged parties involved in their upcoming wedding, until she finds herself falling for someone—or something—else. Throughout, Elizabeth McKenzie asks: Where do our families end and we begin? How do we stay true to our ideals? And what is that squirrel really thinking? Replete with deadpan photos and sly appendices, The Portable Veblen is at once an honest inquiry into what we look for in love and an electrifying reading experience. (less)

Halloween Reading

Hi, everyone!

As you know Halloween is just around the corner and although I had planned on joining the R.I.P Reading Challenge, life had other things in mind for me. I finally got a new computer, it’s purple and I’m in love with it. I am also quite pleased Windows 10 has nothing to do with my last experience with Windows 8, and it’s Apple-proof, meaning that if you’ ve been an Apple hardcore fan for the last 7 years like I was, you’re safe! Windows 10 is easy peasy.

But, but! Going back to reading. This does not mean I will not be doing any scary readings this year. I am a sacredy cat and I would rather stay away from horror movies thankyouverymuch. However, I can do some dark reading, or rather, some dark crime fiction reading. So, here are my two choices for 2016. I do not think I will finish them as I will be working this weekend, but I want to have something adequate to read in Halloween.

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  • The Ice Lands by Steinar Bragi is the story of 4 friends who get lost in the Northern part of Iceland. I have already started this one and Bragi masterfully suggests there is something off either between the friends or the envioronment, but I can’t guess what it is.
  • Rawblood by Catriona Ward reminded me so much of Crimson Peak and Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ but from a feminine point of view, that I had to give it a try.

Both are review copies, so thank you to Penguin and Orion for them.

And you? Have you joined R.I.P? What are you reading? And, if not, do you have any scary reading/writing plans for Halloween? Let me know in the comments below.

 

Spinster. Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick

This semester I joined a feminist book club that takes place in my favourite city and is led by a fellow feminist PhD candidate at my same programme. The club is organised nation-wide, with different physical meetings all over Spain by the feminist organisation La Tribu (‘The Tribe’). Our first reading was Spinster. Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick, a non-fiction book, partly memoir, about what it means to be single nowadays.

The book has been translated into Spanish but I decided to go with the original for two reasons. One is that I read faster in English and I also enjoy the text more, the second one is that books in Spain are quite expensive because as cultural products they have a 21% tax on them with Spinster‘s price rocketing to 24€. So, after a quick search at Abebooks I found an in-good-condition edition for less than 2€. Here’s my now battered copy:

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I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Spinster, as I found myself thinking about the book all day long and wishing it was bedtime to return to it. I usually read novels, but this year I have felt drawn to non-fiction. The boyfriend got me Gloria Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road for Christmas and it had been a long time since I had been so inspired by a book. Non-fiction is teaching me that life is gray, messy and wonderful. Kate Bolick’s book has taught me that our emotional and personal lives do not have to be coherent.

Spinster is divided into chapters according to the different ‘awakeners’ that Bolick has chosen as her role models. The term ‘awakeners’ is a feminist one related to Kate Chopin’s feminist novel The Awakening in which a young wife and mother wakes up one day to a life that does not make her happy and decides to change that. One thing to highlight is that Bolick’s experience is highly situated as a white, middle-class American woman, meaning that she, like we all are, is a product of her surroundings. Hence, the women that she choses as role models are culturally and geographically similar to her: They were either born in New England, or they moved to New York city. All of them were women of letters and arts, and most of them will be familiar to the Western feminist reader. And if not, Bolick’s admiration for them is so contagious that you will find yourself researching these awakeners. I did not know a thing about Irish author and journalist Maeve Brennan, but I am now fascinated by her life and I hope to explore some her works later this year. The rest of the awakeners, you will have to discover for yourself as their identities and their historical relevance are key to the development of Bolick’s train of thought.

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Irish author Maeve Brennan (1917 – 1993)

When a non-fiction book deals with such a sensitive topic as women’s personal lives, it is almost impossible not to be passionate about what you think. As a feminist I have never found myself against anything as long as it is a woman’s choice and it does not cause her any harm. I am not against marriage, probably because my parents have been together for almost 40 years and they are a happy and strong couple. I am not against choosing to remain single because some of the women I admire the most are not married, nor do they have children. In short, I truly believe it is important to remain true to yourself and choose what makes you happier. Said choice is a difficult one when it comes to our private lives, as society still seems obsessed with women marrying and having children so that they are defined by their relationships to other people rather than in their own terms.

Bolick explores what singlehood means for her, and reflects on whether it is conscious choice or the product of failed relationships in which she did not feel comfortable. Having said this, the author is very clear in that she has experienced most kind of relationships: Open relationships, one-night stands, long-term relationships that everyone expected to end in marriage, she has shared a flat with her partner, and she has lived alone. As she approaches her 40th birthday she realises that she does not need to accommodate to anyone’s idea of how her life should be, but it takes a process of reflection and self-criticism to reach this point. That is what Spinster is, a woman’s journey to define herself and find what makes her happy in a society where dating, marrying and having children are considered the default life paths of the vast majority.

We like to pretend that only single people are lonely, and coupledom is the cure.

I only found a problem with the book and that was the definition of singlehood by Bolick. As a white, middle-class, educated woman living in New England she works with a very fixed definition of what being in a relationship means, and what getting married means. Throughout the book I was surprised to find that this definition remained stable through her 20’s and 30’s, and I wondered if the age gap between her and me was the problem here. She even admits to seeing women in two groups: Married and not-married, and wonders if singlehood will mean she will end up a bag-lady, or a cat-lady. For Bolick being in a committed, long-term relationship and eventually marrying equals will compromise the woman’s freedom and right to act on her own terms. On the contrary, being single may be hard, but grants the woman an escape from patriarchal subjection. Contemporary feminist writers, such as Louise O’Neill, have already written about the complex relationship between being a feminist and the consequences of entering a heterosexual relationship in a society where women are still not considered equals to men.

While this could be true to our mothers’ generation, I am hopeful things have changed for some of us as more men define themselves as feminists and make a conscious effort of escaping traditional gender roles in relationships. But also, as women escape stereotypes and try to find a balance between being completely alone in life or the centre of a big family. Being in a couple will not guarantee anyone’s happiness, nor will being alone make you a cat-lady. Bolick plays with extreme situations while making her choice, and although no one knows what the future holds, I want to believe that things are changing. More and more people are questioning the dating-marrying-children lifestyle, and more and more people are defining their lives on their own terms. There is no need to torture ourselves with the idea of becoming a desperate housewife or a bag lady, is it? But maybe that is my Millennial’s naiveté speaking (*).

Bolick herself sees some light at the end of the tunnel when she speaks about Markus and Nurius’s study about the imagined future and our possible self from 1986. These two researches from the University of Michigan conducted a study on how our own perceptions of the future affect our present and the future itself. You can check the abstract of their academic article here. This mechanism is also known as self-fulfilling prophecy and it concludes that human agency depends on our capacity to imagine ourselves in the future. Hence, if you imagine yourself a happy single woman with significant relationships with your family, friends and colleagues, it is very more likely you will achieve that situation. On the other hand, if you think that remaining single will turn you into a cat-lady then that situation is more likely to happen. This is why Bolick’s awakeners and role models in feminism are so important: If you can see it, you can be it.

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Astronaut and astrophysicist Sally Ride (1951 – 2012), the first American woman in space aboard the space shuttle Challenger on the importance of female role models.

However, the thing that I loved the most about Spinster is Bolick’s love for these women writers and the act of writing on itself. Bolick is a journalist and a writer, and she has a passion for stories, especially women’s stories, especially from the past. While I read this book I found myself writing more than I usually do, and the author became a colleague, a friend, who was struggling with writing the same way that I was, and was pushing me harder, forward. Even though I did not agree with everything that Bolick says about partnership, being in a relationship and marriage, I respected her point of view and instead chose to fully connect with her through respect for our different points of view and our shared love for literature and writing.

To write a sentence, then a paragraph, then another, and to have someone else read those lines and immediately understand what I meant to express – I wanted to try that.

In short Spinster is a very interesting and necessary book for anyone looking to reflect on women’s lived experiences and women writers alike. This is not a self-help book, nor does it contain any answers. What works for someone could be a personal nightmare for me and vice-versa. Bolick works hard at defending her singlehood, but so would I about defending my relationship. What matters the most is that this book is visibilising singlehood and putting it out there as a happy choice in life. Spinster is then a celebration of women’s right to choose what makes them happy, rather than just conform to society’s expectations. A luxurious choice for women in the past not so long ago, and a necessary conversation still nowadays.

(*) If you are interested in reflecting about marriage, feminism, children, committment, education and the intersection of all these issues, check the Stuff Mom Never Told You Youtube channel where feminist Cristen Conger does research on similar issues. In this video she reflects on the statistics that show how Millennials have different values regarding committment, marriage and stability than the previous generation:

Giveaway! Dogs and Their People (US Only)

Hello there!

It’s fall y’all! The light has changed, the days are shorter, and the days feel crispy and warm at the same time. You know what else happened this month? The Puppy turned 3! I can’t believe he’s been part of our family for 3 years now, and none of us remembers a time when he was not there making us play go-and-fetch 24/7.

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To celebrate The Puppy’s birthday I am giving away ONE physical copy of Dogs and Their People by Barkpost and published by Penguin Random House in the US on 18th October. If, like me, all you need to light up your day is to look for pictures/videos of cute dogs on the Internet – Golden Retrievers and Christmas lights anyone? – then this book is perfect for you. And if you are a cat person, then this book may be perfect for one of those crazy dog people in your life!

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A collection of community-sourced and never-before-told anecdotes, stories, photos, and intimate insights, DOGS AND THEIR PEOPLE captures the depth, spirit, and power of the extraordinary bond between humans and their pups and spotlights more than two hundred unique and remarkable dogs. Some are celebri-dogs (oh hello, Tuna Melts My Heart and Crusoe the Celebrity Dachshund) while others are just making their debut (like Putnam publicist Katie’s Newfoundland, Hank, on page 228!); some will make your heart ache while others will make it soar; and others simply look dapper in color.

But this book isn’t just about the dogs; it’s about celebrating the crazy, consuming, unconditional love we feel for them. It’s about the songs you’ve made up for them, the hugs you’ve given them on bad days, and all the outfits that—let’s be honest—you forced them into. It’s about the lightness they’ve brought to our lives just by being there—and having smushy faces. We hear you, dog people; this one is for you.

To enter the giveaway:

  • You must be +18 or have your legal guardian’s consent.
  • You must reside in the US.
  • You must leave a comment in this post. If you don’t have a WordPress account, please fill in the form with a valid e-mail address so that I can contact you in case you’re the lucky winner.

The winner will be chosen next Monday (10/31) and will be notified via email. Were they not to respond in 72 hours, another winner will be chosen.

Best of luck and happy reading!

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EDITED – GIVEAWAY WINNER:

With each of the commenters entering assigned the following numbers:

Susanosborne55- 1

Mamamuseme – 2

Acapellin – 3

The winner using Randomnumber is…

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Acapellin! Congratulations! You will get an email from Books & Reviews today.

Thanks to the other participants for joining in🙂

The Muse by Jessie Burton

Author Jessie Burton became an international sensation when her first novel The Miniaturist became a best-seller across Europe. Back then my Twitter feed was full of praise for Burton and her debut novel. However, the story did not appeal to me at all, and after discussing this with other bloggers I decided I did not have to read a book just because everyone loved it. When Burton’s next novel The Muse came out last June I knew it was the right time to discover the author everyone loves. Thanks to Picador for the review copy.

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The Muse tells two different stories, both with women as main characters. In 1967 Odelle Bastien, young aspiring writer recently arrived from Trinidad, clims one of London’s most prestigious galleries to start a job that will change her life. Meanwhile, Olive Schloss moved to Spain in 1936 with her Jewish family trying to escape central Europe’s madness. What she does not know is that Spain is about to enter a madness of its own.How these two stories relate, and how both women are connected are up to readers to discover. More information can be found on the backcover of the book, but I think The Muse is one of those books that has to be discovered on its own. If you are feeling brave, I suggest you stop reading here and pick up a copy without doing more research.

The novel is a meditation on art, home, love, and the immigrant experience that will hit close to home to European readers who, like Odelle and Olive, are either experiencing or feeling powerless about the suffering that is happening. In any case, Burton makes the immigration experience a subjective one, where people are not part of waves of immigration or displaced groups, but rather individiuals with feelings, desires and aspirations:

There were tears, of course, mainly sobbed into my sagging pillow. The pressure of desire curled inside me. I was ashamed of it, and yet it defined me. I had bigger things I wanted to do, and I’d done five years of waiting. In the meantime, I wrote revenge poems about the English weather, and lied to my mother that London was heaven. (Odelle, 1967).

As a young, educated, black woman living in London in 1967 Odelle is faced with the lie of colonial education, that is, the terrible lies the Empire told about the motherland in the colonies. She also struggles with her identity, as she does not feel Caribbean nor does she feel English. Who is she? And what is she living in the inbetweenness when she was praised in Trinidad for her English manners and education? Odelle also has to face the reality behind the colonial enterprise and the racial hierarchies still alive so that when she starts dating a white, English boy, she is openly insulted by an old lady.

Meanwhile, Olive is the teenage daughter an affluent European couple. Her father is a Jewish art merchant escaping the horrors of Vienna, while her mother clings to her past as a flapper and her fading beauty. But Olive – who uncanningly embodies the current hipster aesthetics and lifestyle – just wants to be an artist. At the beginning of her story she is desperate to escape Spain and move to London, where she has been admitted into a presitigious art school. But things change when she meets Teresa and Isaac, working-class local sibblings desperate to make a living out the newly arrived Schloss family. Burton did a great job of portraying Andalusia’s poverty and socio-economic troubles, but also the ideological tension that preceeded the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939). Isaac is ‘a red’ with connections to Malaga’s annrchist groups, but also a social activist. However, his ideology does not prevent him from being gender-equality blind, and from performing a masculinity verging on the ‘Spanish macho’ stereotype: Dark, strong, a little bit rough, a fighter, you can imagine Olive’s response to him.

Luckily for female and feminist readers Olive is aware of gender roles and she struggles to perform her identity as an artist and as a young, desirable woman:

The artist as naturally male was such a widely held presupposition that Olive had come at times to believe it herself. As a nineteen-year-old girl, she as on the underside; the dogged, plucky mascot of amateurship. (Olive, 1936)

Do you know how many of them [artist sold by Olive’s father] are women, Isaac? None. Not one. Women can’t do it, you see. They haven’t got the vision, although last time I checked they had eyes, and hands, and hearts and souls. (Olive, 1936)

In 1967 Odelle seems to feel free to be a woman artist, although Burton wisely added racial diversity to the struggle posting questions about race, social class and ethnicity and what we, as a society, believe to be art.

The Muse is probably the best book I have read this year until now. Sitting down and opening the book – a work of art on its own, as the cover is one of the most beautiful I have seen – was a pleasure that took me out of a reading slump and reminded me why I love books, and art, and stories.