June Superlatives

Hard copies read in June 2020

June has been the month of the most conscious reading I’ve done for a very long time. This probably doesn’t require a lot of explanation. It’s become very clear to me that, although I attempted to recommend diverse books in my professional life before now, I must make the decentralisation of whiteness a central tenet of my bookselling practice. To do that, I must also make it a central tenet of my reading practice—not to mention which, stories by Black authors (and authors of colour more generally) must be read for their own sake. And we—bloggers, booksellers and readers—need to encourage the industry to publish more of them, making sure they’re not all centered on racism (because… you know… everyone’s life and narrative is bigger than that). The more representation there is in the book world, the healthier and more creative it is.

best coming-of-age story: Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall. This reminded me so strongly of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, centering as it does on young Selina Boyce, the daughter of Barbadian immigrants in New York, and her attempts to break free of the familial and societal expectations that bind and devalue her. It’s a huge shame that it’s now out of print; my copy is an old Virago edition. Bring it back, Virago!

loudest wakeup call: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. Hardly the most fun read, but without a doubt, this has laid the foundation for much of my self-education this month. Alexander’s thesis is that mass incarceration has created a tacit racial caste system that functions much as Jim Crow laws used to, but without public acknowledgment. Drawing examples from recent political and legislative history, Alexander’s argument is convincing, thorough, and extremely alarming.

best random acquisition: The Torture Letters: Reckoning With Police Violence, by Laurence Ralph. The U Chicago Press offers a free ebook every month, which I’m signed up to; usually I don’t read them, but this one seemed extremely apt. Ralph conducted an oral history/anthropological survey of people—mostly African-American men—who have experienced torture at the hands of the Chicago PD over the course of forty years. It’s a tough read, and sometimes repetitive (he structures most of the book as a series of open letters), but it’s illuminating about the struggles that people in a particular region have been engaging in for years, without any national media coverage. (And it’s made quite clear that Chicago can’t be the only place in the Union where this occurs.)

most outside my reading habits: Managing Up, by Mary Abbajay. A weird one: this is essentially a business/self-help tome about how to work with different types of managers. I’m interested in career development, but I tend to be quite resistant to books of this nature, especially ones that demand behavioural adaptation from the person already in a position of less (or no) power. Still, it certainly provided food for thought. Abbajay does distinguish between a manager who just doesn’t communicate the same way you do, and a manager who’s actively abusive or dangerous (she has no time for the latter and encourages people whose bosses are abusive to leave asap, thank goodness).

greatest potential (not bad as it is, but…) : Mr Atkinson’s Rum Contract: the Story of a Tangled Inheritance, by Richard Atkinson. Atkinson’s attempt to trace his family back through several centuries of British history is fascinating, if overlong and occasionally bogged down in details of eighteenth-century scams. Still, the thing that’s most interesting about it is the fact that many of his ancestors were slaveowners, holding significant estates in Jamaica. The timing of this book intrigues; had it been published even a month later, I wonder if Atkinson’s publishers would have asked him to address this shameful legacy more directly. Instead, though he does engage with it, it’s on a fairly superficial level, the general attitude being that this was not a great thing, but without dwelling much on the details. Still, what it does do is drive home how many perfectly average middle-class families in Britain today have benefited from the slave trade. It’s not just peers and merchant princes who need to take a good hard look at their own houses.

most illuminating: Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, by Akala. There’s been a surge in purchases of nonfiction by Black authors about contemporary racism, and it can be a little tricky, I think, to navigate the options. If you pick just one of these books to read, make it Natives. Akala is a poet, singer and lecturer; his guide through British racist history, especially the legacy of empire, is both accessible and revelatory. I truly didn’t expect to learn much I didn’t already know, and found myself humbled instead. There’s a reason Natives is already a contemporary classic.

best London novel: The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon. A brilliant, funny, poignant novel chronicling the experiences of the first wave of West Indian immigrants post-WWII, focalized mostly through the eyes of generous but world-weary Moses Aloetta. Other characters include the romantic Sir Galahad and the roguish Nigerian survivor, Cap. The writing is beautiful, a melange of dialect and so-called Standard English that captures the rhythms of thought and time passing. There’s a particular ten-page section describing summer in London that made me miss the freedom of hanging out in parks more than anything else in this shitty pandemic season yet.

most darkly comedic: A Rage in Harlem, by Chester Himes. Himes’s first detective novel is so funny and so dark that it reminds me of the Coen Brothers (he’s also often compared to Chandler). Featuring a mendicant cross-dressing nun, the theft of some gold ore that may or may not exist, and the detectives Coffin Ed and Grave Digger (who appear in smaller parts here than in subsequent entries in the series), A Rage in Harlem invites us both to mock and to celebrate the innocence of its protagonist, clumsy Jackson, who can’t believe his woman Imabelle could do him wrong even when presented with the most suggestive evidence otherwise. It was made into a movie with Forest Whitaker, Robin Givens and Danny Glover, which I’d love to see—particularly the hearse chase scene. (You heard me.)

best reimagining: Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys. Rhys’s famed “prequel” to Jane Eyre retells the story of Bertha Rochester in her own words (including the fact that “Bertha” is a name assigned to her by her husband; she is born Antoinette). Dealing persuasively and furiously with inequities of skin colour, gender, sexual expression and money, Wide Sargasso Sea is a short but very deep text; the fact that I never studied it in an educational institution is extraordinary to me, given the challenge it poses to concepts like elite storytelling, narrative closure, and teleology. It’s also incredibly beautifully written, its register slipping between a kind of Joycean tracing of the movements of consciousness and a more constructed, linear storytelling mode. (This slippage occurs not only when Antoinette narrates, but also in Rochester’s sections—the effect of the Caribbean on his soul is not itself corrosive, though his reactions of fear, rejection, and adherence to known hierarchies certainly are.) It’s a gem of a book, one to reread.

least-known (to me) history: The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan, by Yasmin Khan. The Great Partition served as my entry point into the history of British colonialism in South-east Asia, for which I’m glad, though I’d like to see (or be made aware of—if you know any, recommend me some!) more books about the experience of first-generation Indian and Pakistani immigrants to the UK. My primary takeaway from Khan’s book is that the Hindu/Muslim divide and subsequent violent religious nationalism was not a natural one; it was identified and stoked by British colonial officials, who could not conceive of the rivalries that did exist but were divided along different lines. Instead, by imposing their own expectations of faith-based conflict upon residents of the subcontinent, colonial officials created a self-fulfilling prophecy: fear and tensions between religious communities contributed to, essentially, an arms race, which exploded bloodily in the summer of 1947. I also learned that the Radcliffe line, which created both West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), was drawn by a Briton who had never been to the regions in question, was not a cartographer or politically aware, and had spent about ten days in India, in total. The staggering arrogance of the project needs no further elaboration.

most likely to be a modern classic: Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge. This book made history by becoming the first number 1 nonfiction book in the UK by a Black author. I listened to it on Audible and thought it was an excellent addition to the canon of nonfiction on contemporary racial issues, but although there’s huge value in Eddo-Lodge’s explicit focus on raising the consciousness of white people (racism, after all, is so often viewed as a “BAME problem” whereas it is in fact quite clearly a white-person problem), I found myself preferring Natives on the basis of its depth of historical research. Both, I think, clearly have broad commercial appeal, which is an important thing, and if Eddo-Lodge’s book gets more white people (especially in the publishing industry) to evaluate their own racism and complicity in racist structures, it’ll have done what it set out to do.

most terrifyingly prescient: Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E. Butler. Butler was a prophet; of this I am quite convinced. The first book in her Earthseed series, Parable of the Sower, was out of print earlier this month, so I ordered the second, which is comprehensible on its own. Butler describes an America ravaged by economic hardship and religious fundamentalism, electing a hard-line right-wing fundamentalist soi-disant “Christian” named Andrew Jarrett Steele, who promises to make America great again. Steele’s supporters attack the self-sufficient community that our protagonist, Lauren Olamina, has created in an effort to propagate her own religion, Earthseed, which teaches that God is change and that humanity’s destiny is to leave Earth and populate the stars. For anyone who loved The Handmaid’s Tale, this is the too-close-to-reality dystopia you should be reading; written by a Black American author twenty-five years ago, it also engages closely with racism and cultural imperialism in a way that Atwood’s novel tended to elide. Profoundly disturbing—I’ve been thinking about it for a fortnight—and incredibly moving.

best psychological profile: The Arsonist, by Chloe Hooper. I love literary true crime, and manage to find about one book a year that really answers to that description. The Arsonist is about the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, Australia in 2009, which killed 173 people and left many more homeless. A suspect was quickly arrested on suspicion of lighting the fires: Brendan Sokaluk, whose defense team struggled to represent him because he is both autistic and intellectually disabled, and frequently seemed not to understand what was happening to him. Hooper examines what happened the day the fires started, the major players in the arson investigation, and Sokaluk’s already difficult life (he’d had trouble at work, and lived in a house his parents had bought for him, where he could be regularly checked in on), as well as what happened after he was arrested. The result is an in-depth piece of investigative journalism, dealing with mental health stigma and the evisceration of industry in Victoria as well as the social and environmental consequences of the fires. It’s perfect for fans of Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief or Susan Orleans’s The Library Book.

most entirely unexpected: Go Tell It On the Mountain, by James Baldwin. It seems to me as though a lot of narratives around queer self-acceptance and religion establish those two things as being completely incompatible. And I can see why: religious fundamentalism is frequently characterized by its cruelty towards, and rejection of, queerness. Yet Baldwin’s typically gorgeous novel embraces both things: his young protagonist, John, fears his stepfather’s harsh and disapproving (and heteronormative) God, but the penultimate scene in the book is the beautiful, transcendent vision of the divine that John finally receives, and in his dialogue with an older boy at the very end, we are given to understand that although John may appear to turn his back on the church by embracing his queerness, the truth of that revelation—that he is a child of God and much loved—will never cease to be. In addition to John’s perspective, we hear from his mother, stepfather, and aunt in a central section that completely opens up the reader’s perspective on these characters. I’d read one Baldwin before (Giovanni’s Room) and, as previously, was utterly blown away by the quality of his thought and writing. Which one next?!

most political use of humour: Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, which reminds me strongly of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five in the way it mobilizes magical realism and dark comedy to criticize political actors. It tells the story of Aburiria, governed by a corrupt and self-aggrandizing dictator known only as the Ruler, who decides to build a new Tower of Babel to reach the heavens. A large cast of devout Christians, government ministers, police officers and businessmen is anchored by Kamiti, a beggar who initially adopts the role of a witch doctor as a joke but finds himself inextricably entwined with the fate of the nation, and Nyawira, the political radical with whom he falls in love. Hilarious, compelling, and a clear argument for Thiong’o as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

June 2020’s e- and audiobook intake

22 thoughts on “June Superlatives

  1. You’ve reminded me I have two omnibus collections of Himes on the shelves. I read a couple of his years and years ago and loved them then, and I must dig out my copy of The Lonely Londoners. Some great reading there, and some for me to explore too.

    • I’d never heard of him before this month, but he’s utterly hilarious and very cool. Penguin Modern Classics has reprinted a few more of them and they all seem to have that zany, restless energy. The Lonely Londoners is so wonderful, too – I’m so glad I read it.

  2. I must read Natives, which has been on my radar for a while. Why I’m No Longer Talking… was a bit journalistic for me, but it’s a very useful introduction. I’ve actually just bought it for my mum who is interested in reading more about racism in Britain given recent events. My favourite piece of British non-fiction on contemporary racial identity is still Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch.

    I was thinking about Wide Sargasso Sea when I watched the NT’s production of Jane Eyre online a few months ago. I think it must have been a strong influence for their portrayal of Bertha (played by Melanie Marshall, who has the most wonderful singing voice which is used to great effect).

    • Natives is really good. Journalistic is precisely the word for Why I’m No Longer Talking…, and I do think it’ll be extremely useful for people just starting to read more. Brit(ish) is incredible, though, I agree.

      Ah! Antoinette sings to herself (and other characters sing to her) a lot. I bet that was an influence.

    • Thank you! It’s taken from a part of the Talmud about women’s right to their own bodies, which I came across in a discussion about the historical roots of the incel movement. It amused me 🙂

  3. Ali also reviewed Brown Girl recently. I feel like it must have consciously influenced Jacqueline Woodson? Back in 2014 I led a few book reviewing sessions for secondary schools in London and one of their choices to write about was The Lonely Londoners. I remember thinking it sounded different and interesting (as well as short, one reason their teachers chose it), but to my shame I still haven’t read it! The only thing besides Giovanni’s Room I’ve read by Baldwin was The Fire Next Time, which is super short but very powerful; it in no way feels 60 years old. I can’t wait to get hold of Parable of the Talents when the library at my husband’s uni reopens.

    • The Lonely Londoners is really wonderful, and indeed short – I’d definitely recommend it, especially because it’s a celebration of the fun and joy new immigrants to London had, as well as the toughness and need to survive. Baldwin does feel very modern to me, which probably says more about the present day than about the 1960s… And Parable of the Talents is extraordinary – maybe at times the writing is slightly broad, but it also just hits home so hard. I can’t wait to read Parable of the Sower.

  4. Emily Sheil says:

    Two things — is there a way to just import all your recommendations into my goodreads want-to-read list with a single button click!? And — the feather thief lives and works in Leipzig, I haven’t run into him yet but know he’s here through some acquaintances. Bizarre story, right?

    Emily Cantrell Sheil, violist M.M. Eastman School of Music B.M. University of Maryland, College Park emilytheviolist@gmail.com emilytheviolist.com

    • Lol! I don’t think there’s an automatic widget, but there really should be… I had no idea about the feather thief guy! He seems very odd…

  5. You are so right about Parable of the Talents. I read it years ago and found the scenario she describes actually chilling its in plausibility. Much more so than The Handmaid’s Tale, in my opinion.

    One of these days I need to revisit Wide Sargasso Sea. Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books, and I read Wide Sargasso Sea a long time ago with that love at the forefront and with very little knowledge of or experience with Caribbean literature or history. It did not go well. I’d be a smarter reader now, I think.

    • It’s very freaky, isn’t it?! And it feels less like a thought experiment than Handmaid does, and more like the implications for power and control structures have been thought through (which is maybe because Butler was a science fiction writer, whereas I remain convinced Atwood is a litfic writer who dabbles in speculation).

      Wide Sargasso Sea would hold up to revisiting, for sure. Highly recommend – it’s short, too, though very rich.

  6. I plan on reading The New Jim Crow, and the one by Eddo-Lodge also sounds good. I’ve always wanted to read Wide Sargasso Sea, though I’m actually not a huge Jane Eyre fan. Parable of the Sower and of the Talents were both excellent. I was also shocked by how likeTrump her politician character is.

    • Wide Sargasso Sea is, in a way, especially good for people who aren’t Jane Eyre fans because so little of Rhys’s story overlaps with Bronte’s. There’s a short section where Antoinette/Bertha is clearly at Thornfield (Grace Poole makes an appearance), but Jane never really does, and the ending is deliciously ambiguous, leaving us trapped in limbo where we think we know what Antoinette/Bertha is about to do, but that scene is never shown. It’s an amazing piece of writing.

  7. The Arsonist sounds amazing. I have recently developed such a huge appetite for books set in either Australia or New Zealand, and true crime has always been my favourite!

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