~~might contain spoilers, depending on how you define spoilers~~
Femi Kayode’s debut crime novel is set in Nigeria, to which his protagonist Philip Taiwo has just returned after an academic stint in America. Taiwo is hired by eminent businessman Emeka Nwamadi to find out what happened to his son, Kevin—although not in the usual way, since what happened to Kevin and two other boys, an hours-long beating followed by necklacing with a burning rubber tyre, was caught on video and is all over the Internet. Everyone knows who was in the mob that killed the Okriki Three. What no one knows, and what Taiwo has been hired to find out, is why.
I wanted to like this much more than I did, which is disheartening. The story is promising, but the writing is very average. Take, for instance, this pulse-pounding cliffhanger:
Has he been shot?
Or maybe, I’m the one who has been.
I can’t seem to figure this out as I start falling into blank, endless space.
Three single-sentence paragraphs in a row, one of which ends in the lumpen “has been” and starts with the O RLY?-inducing phrase “Or maybe”, colloquialism in “can’t seem to figure this out” that adds to a sense of inconsequence instead of to a meaningful statement about the character’s informal nature, and “blank, endless space” to finish, which is double redundancy. It’s fine; it’s readable; it’s not exciting. At another point, the narrator muses, “For the second time today, I am left alone to wonder who the real villains are in the Okriki Three tragedy.” Hmm! Perhaps we should complicate our opinions of several main characters!
This would be less galling, I think, if Taiwo weren’t a psychologist. A psychologist protagonist never convinces unless they are at least two steps ahead, which Taiwo is not. (After his wife is irritated when she sees him talking to an attractive woman who’s helping him with the investigation: “To say I’m perplexed is an understatement. Women are strange!” Pal…)
What Lightseekers does have going for it, however, is that it is entirely set in a black African community that is not represented as a monolith. There are divides—class, wealth, education, urban vs rural, expatriate status—that matter in Nigeria as Kayode describes it in a way that race absolutely does not. Those complicating factors are inherently interesting. Kayode also deals persuasively with the effects of social media on communities; I might have been less convinced by his conclusions a few years or even a few months ago, but it’s more obvious now than ever that bad actors can exploit, channel, and even create, aggression and hatred.
Lightseekers is published by Raven Books on 4 February, 2021.
My first book of what is supposed to be the best year of all our lives (though so far, I’m not sure) is Don Quixote. In my edition (the Penguin Clothbound Classics one, above), it’s 982 pages long plus endnotes, and I remember trying to read it (in a different edition) at least twice before, becoming bored, and dropping it. Now, at last, I’ve conquered it, and as with a previous nearly-thousand-page-long book (The Last Chronicle of Barset), I’m not sure that a review or even an analytical essay is as useful as a few scattered comments and/or tips, if you’re thinking of scaling this mountain yourself.
The translation matters. Not in the way that you might think, or the way which tends to trip me up with comparisons (“which one is The Best/the most faithful to the original language/the most faithful to the original sense/what should I even be looking for in a translation aaauugghhh helpppp”). Like War and Peace, Don Q has many translators, and the one that’s right for you will depend on what kind of reader you are, the context and background knowledge you bring to the book, etc. However, the translation I read is by John Sutherland, and I would recommend it highly, in large part because it’s one of the few translations that really contributes to a sense that…
The book is funny. I really wasn’t sure about this at first, and I’m not sure Cervantes was either–it takes a while for the characters to become people, and for the humour to kick in. After Quixote’s “first sally” (initial adventure), however, it’s clear that Cervantes decides he’s interested in this delusional hidalgo and his coarse and obnoxious yet truth-telling squire, and from then on they start to develop a relationship and characteristics that form the basis of the book’s best humour. Sancho Panza, the squire, not only develops the habit of speaking in endless and often irrelevant proverbs, but also of a kind of reverse malapropism: Quixote mentions “the estimates of Ptolemy, the great cosmographer”, which Sancho dismisses as “the sexy butts and tomfoolery of a great pornographer”. The translation matters! In another, stuffier or older edition, that level of linguistic playfulness wouldn’t, I think, sound nearly so natural, modern, fresh or irreverent, and therefore wouldn’t be nearly as funny. Obviously there’s also the physical humour (Quixote is frequently tricked into uncomfortable, painful or embarrassing situations, often by women, and Sancho gets beaten up as a proxy for his master more times than you can count), which may be less hilarious to you; I didn’t find myself laughing out loud reading those scenes, although it’s possible they’re funnier read aloud. Which brings me to…
The book may have been intended partly for oral transmission. There’s some evidence for this in the cliffhanger chapter endings and the way that the narrator discusses his storytelling strategy (which is what leads so many people to refer to it as a post-modern book avant la lettre; Cervantes’s narrative persona is extremely self-aware, and throughout the text, there are explicit signposts that it is a text). There’s a lot of repetition and rhetorical embroidery, which looks chunkily intimidating on a page but makes a good deal more sense if you think of someone reading it loud or half-performing the scene; it represents the natural rhetorical padding that humans give to spoken sentences. It also means you shouldn’t feel particularly bad skimming those bits. You can get the gist in the first and final few sentences of a page-long paragraph, and pick up the essentials in the middle, without committing your full attention to every single word–the text is clearly not designed for that level of scrutiny.
Women, poor people and working people are interesting and well-represented here. Many of Don Q‘s past translators have assumed that his devotion to chivalry, although deriving from insanity, represents an aspirational ideal, like the holy fool, and have therefore interpreted him as an uncomplicated paragon of goodness and mercy who is genuinely beset by devils and malice. Sutherland approaches the text in a way that reveals Quixote’s madness as ridiculous, if also somewhat pitiable, and grounded in an old-fashioned paternalism that is repeatedly shown to be silly and impractical. Sancho Panza’s wife (initially referred to as Juana but always subsequently known as Teresa) is a sturdy, pragmatic farmer’s daughter who runs her family’s smallholding intelligently and is very reluctant to be drawn into her husband’s airy hopes of promotion and enhancement. The daughter and maidservant of the innkeeper during Quixote’s first adventure play numerous tricks on him, which are all enabled by his outmoded and deluded view of female innocence and susceptibility. A ruffian named Ginés appears twice in the book, once as a convict and once as the proprietor of a travelling ape and puppet show; both times his ingenuity and quick wit is presented with approbation, while Quixote’s credulousness in both situations leads to chaos and destruction. Women, working people and poor people are generally described with sympathy, and given complexity and agency. It’s a nice surprise.
Don’t worry about the plot. There is one, sort of, eventually (it kicks in during the second half of Part II), but you could just as easily call that an extended episode, one of many. It’s an episodic book by nature, which would make it perfect for dipping in and out of over the course of a longer period of reading, maybe one or two chapters an evening. Mostly, Quixote ventures forth, meets someone or sees something which he grievously misinterprets as requiring his help or input, attempts to fulfill the conditions of knight-errantry, fails, and either chalks it up to the work of malicious enchanters or interprets his failure as a success anyway. Sancho has some kind of misadventure, complains about it, tries to fix his master up as best he can, asks for payment, is rebuffed, and they continue. It’s formulaic, of course, but that’s the point when you’re writing a satire of chivalric romance. And it means the reader need not worry too much about losing track of names or events. Characters do recur, but this is not a tightly-plotted novel by any means, so if you’re not following, don’t worry too much–just keep reading and see what happens.
Worth reading? For my money, definitely. It’s a serious investment of time, but it’s fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously (or, really, seriously at all), and it contains some bittersweet moments of sanity in the midst of complete madness. A joyful ride.
It’s Christmas Eve. I’m still on the clock for another few hours, but apart from monitoring three inboxes, there’s not much that needs doing. It has been three months since I last posted anything about books, and now is the first time in those three months that I’ve started to feel as though maybe I have the time, energy, or inclination to try.
It wasn’t the year I expected, in a number of ways. I fell in love. There was a pandemic. Both of these things, plus renewed social justice movements in both my home countries, impelled me to read in particular ways, and to forego habitual patterns of book consumption. I read many, many fewer hardbacks and new releases this year, and found myself drawn much more to backlist titles (both fiction and non), filling gaps in my reading knowledge, and increasing the diversity of what I consume and recommend. It’s been a very rewarding year in that sense, and has helped to unshackle me somewhat from an old feeling of constant vigilance: must read the latest release, must know about all the big authors’ newest titles! No, I mustn’t. There’s no real need. If they’re very good, they’ll stick around.
Not that I didn’t read a number of excellent new releases. Some of the best, most memorable books I read this year were from debut authors whose next outing I await with excitement. Others were new releases but were perhaps a second or third foray from authors I already knew. I read a handful of the year’s It Books and, on the whole, was glad that I did.
I can never narrow a list down to ten. I read too much for ten to be reasonable (158 books thus far in 2020; down considerably from last year, but still a decent showing, and many of them excellent). My preliminary list was nineteen titles strong; after being very stern with myself, I managed to highlight six that were absolutely exceptional, that I’ll probably carry with me forever. Those six are below, with the honourable remaining thirteen to come in a later post. All of these are amazing and recommended without reservations.
Kingdomtide, by Rye Curtis. Imagine that Olive Kitteredge is a septuagenarian Texan Methodist, then add a survivalist bent worthy of Cormac McCarthy, and you have the outline of Cloris Waldrip, Curtis’s protagonist in this brilliant, heart-bending debut. Cloris is the only survivor of a light plane crash in the mountains of Montana that kills her husband of many decades and the pilot. She must walk out of the hills if she wants to live: no one from the outside world believes there were any survivors, except for tenacious, alcoholic park ranger Debra Lewis. Oh: and Cloris isn’t alone in the mountains. Encompassing theology, sex, grief, and culpability, Kingdomtide asks what we owe to each other, individually and as a community, and challenges the contexts in which we judge one another. It’s also, dryly, quite funny.
2. Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann. Yes, it is a thousand pages long, and yes, it is all stream of consciousness, and no, there’s more than one sentence (several interludes from the perspective of a mother mountain lion are written in regular, multi-sentence prose), and yes, it really does need to be this long. Ellmann’s protagonist is a home baker who has turned her hobby into a business. The process of circling her head, voyeuristically privy to the themes, symbols and memories to which she frequently returns, is analogous to the lamination of dough for croissants: you genuinely need those many layers in order to build up a broad, rich picture of her state of mind. And when the plot (there is one!) takes a turn for the melodramatic near the end, we realize the significance of everything that’s gone before.
3. Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E. Butler. Someone this year tweeted, “Every time I hear a white woman say ‘We’re living through The Handmaid’s Tale‘, all I hear is ‘I haven’t read Parable of the Sower.'” Parable of the Talents is that novel’s sequel, and although I haven’t yet read Sower either, Talents shares its alarming characteristic of feeling like both a prophecy and a history lesson. 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. Written by a Black American author twenty-five years ago, it also engages closely with racism and cultural imperialism in a deeply relevant and necessary way. Profoundly disturbing, and incredibly moving.
4. Women, Race and Class, by Angela Y. Davis. Without a shadow of a doubt, the most intellectually sophisticated yet accessibly written book of its kind I read this year, or indeed any year. Davis weaves together the histories of feminism, abolitionism, and the labour movement to show the natural interconnectedness of these fights: it’s a primer on intersectionality in action, and on how, when intersectionality fails, its failure is due to a form of short-sightedness that sets everyone back. I found her analysis of the late 19th- and early 20th-century struggle for worker’s rights especially interesting, as those were stories I was less familiar with, but every page of this slim volume contains the names of heroes and heroines both well-known and obscure. Penguin Modern Classics reprinted a beautiful edition of this earlier in 2020, and for people wanting to get their heads around the sociocultural problems that sparked Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, this is an ideal starting block.
5. In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado. This earned an instant place on my Books To Save From Fire shelf. Telling of Machado’s experience of domestic abuse within a lesbian relationship, it is simultaneously an excavation of how narrative works in folklore and myth, a revelation of how humans use those same narrative tropes to make sense of our experience, and a gut-wrenchingly immediate yet bruisingly poetic portrait of the betrayal of trust that occurs when abuse does. Machado also weaves in brilliant, shockingly funny pen sketches of friends and family, serious discussions of how lesbian experience is erased in broader conversations about abuse, and digressions on topics such as the queerness of seemingly all Disney villains. Utterly unlike any book I’ve ever read before, and serves as a perfect blend of craft, skill, humour and intellect. It’s particularly hard-hitting for people who have suvived an abusive relationship, although has a lot to offer even readers who have not. (It was also my boyfriend’s favourite book of the year, because he accepts my recommendations and has great taste.)
6. Reynard the Fox, by Anne Louise Avery. This brand-new retelling of William Caxton’s classic medieval trickster tales, featuring sly Reynard the Fox, pompous King Noble the lion, brutal Isengrim the wolf, stalwart Grimbart the badger, and silly Bruin the bear, amongst many others, is one of the most delightfully playful, erudite, and generous-hearted books I’ve read in a very long time. Glorying in multilingualism, it incorporates slang from Middle English and Middle Dutch, German, French and Latin, and contains wonderful asides, anecdotes, and even recipes in the footnotes. The tales themselves are small miracles: surprisingly dark and violent in places, they reinforce the values of individualism, rebelliousness, resourcefulness and quick wit that we so love in our anti-heroes. Reynard is an unforgettable character, and Anne Louise Avery’s work in bringing his stories to a modern audience would be rewarded with a prize, if the world was just.
There: my top six books from 2020. Magnificent, all of them. I’ve started a new shelf on Goodreads called “breaks your heart and puts your chin up”, and each of these titles deserves its place there. They offer us what we most need right now. Go get them and read them at once!
And, of course, have a very merry Christmas. I’ll be back later with the thirteen(!) runners-up…
The Short Knife, by Elen Caldecott: This children’s novel is set in a time often ignored by historical fiction writers: early post-Roman Britain, when the Empire has retreated and the physical infrastructure it built is crumbling, but elderly people can remember a time when everything was different. Saxon invaders/settlers/colonialists (pick your favourite noun) are starting to battle it out for land and supremacy with the native British warlords. Caught in this historical maelstrom is thirteen-year-old Mai, who loses her family farm one night to the drunken fury of three Saxons, and who vows vengeance. Her father badly burnt and her older sister Haf hurt in a way Mai doesn’t understand (although the reader thinks they do, given that the novel is intercut with flash-forward scenes nine months later to Mai’s sister giving birth), they make their way to the camp of the local British strongman, Gwyrthaeyr, hoping that ethnic ties (all the native Britons consider themselves kin) will prompt him to help them. All does not go as planned, and Mai finds herself a slave in a Saxon camp, instead.
Caldecott engages gracefully and forcefully with the limited options available to the two sisters. Haf makes herself useful with “honey smiles” and “sweet words”, becoming a storyteller and adviser under the assumption that getting closer to power is the safest place to be. Mai, who is repeatedly told by various characters to “grow up”, doesn’t understand Haf’s strategy, seeing it as betrayal, and takes a more overtly resistant approach, which frequently endangers her. My primary frustration is a stylistic one: to achieve an archaic tone, Caldecott often relies on kenning-like constructions, some of which work well (“infant-small”, “dust-crumbled”) and some of which only get in the way (“bitter-coiled ferns”–why?; “trip-tangled” brambles–that being a defining feature of brambles). But it’s a strong entry for children’s fiction, with engrossing characters, and rarely have I had such a sense of how far back cultural diffusion goes in the history of these islands.
Kindred, by Octavia Butler: You shouldn’t really need me to tell you how excellent this book is, but in case you don’t know: it’s excellent. The premise is that Dana, a Black woman in contemporary California (the novel was written in 1979), finds herself being repeatedly pulled back in time to save the life of her ancestor Rufus Weylin, the scion of a white slave-owning family in Maryland. The first time she meets him, it’s 1815, and they encounter each other again and again over the next few decades, every time his life is endangered and Dana is summoned out of the future to rescue him. Dana’s white husband, Kevin, is also pulled into the past at one point, and his experiences there are–by virtue of the colour of his skin and his gender–very different, although Butler is perhaps fairer than she needs to be in pointing out that Kevin, too, faces dangers in the antebellum South. Perhaps the hardest-hitting element of the novel, though, is Butler’s repeated demonstration of the ease with which enslaved people can be forced into complicity: through a fear achieved by threats of extreme bodily violence and extreme emotional torment (largely because families can be torn apart on a master’s whim at any time). Dana explicitly discusses the idea of complicity more than once, although she also recognizes coercion and rape: her ancestress, Alice Greenwood, is bought by Rufus because he is in love with her, but his love does not extend to permitting her choices about where she sleeps at night, or to freeing her children. (He does dangle the promise of freedom, though, which is partly what keeps Alice in place.) After Kindred, every other time-travel novel feels a little anaemic, a little under-examined. It’s a magnificent piece of work.
recent reading thoughts: I’ve been very slow this month, so far. I’m blaming it on the anxiety of moving and a lot of weekend activities. At the moment I’m nearly finished with Where the Crawdads Sing, which I don’t love, although I’m warming up to it now that the trial has commenced. More on that next week.
The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste: Some books have blurbs that barely touch the surface of their actual contents and concerns. Sometimes this is avoidable, but often it isn’t, and The Shadow King strikes me as one of the latter kind. It is mainly focused on Hirut, one of the Ethiopian women who became soldiers during the country’s war with fascist Italy in 1935, but her military training and experiences are in the background compared with the novel’s interest in her relationship with Aster and Kidane, a couple who previously employed (/owned) her thanks to an unclear but close relationship between her mother and Kidane’s father, and who eventually command her in battle. Consequently, The Shadow King can seem to take rather a long time to get going, and occasionally loses the primary thrust of its story—the Ethiopian resistance to a particular Italian officer, Colonel Carlo Fucelli—in digressions. There are sections told from Fucelli’s perspective, for instance, as well as through the eyes of Ettore Navarra, an Italian Jewish war photographer whose safety from Rome’s increasingly murderous anti-Semitic policies is assured as long as he obeys orders, but who feels increasingly disgusted and torn by the atrocities he is asked to document. (Fucelli, in a Bond-villain-esque but no doubt completely historically accurate fashion, likes to execute Ethiopian prisoners by pushing them off of a high cliff.) Ettore and Hirut, we know, meet again after the war, and a few flash-fowards to 1974 show us the moments leading up to their uneasy reunion.
Mengiste writes with great attention to simile and metaphor, and is especially interested in qualities of light and shadow, but while this sometimes results in moments of great poetic beauty, at other times it simply obscures the action. (There were at least half a dozen instances at chapter endings where I wasn’t sure what had actually taken place and what was simply a character musing). Finally, we hear from the Emperor Haile Selassie, haunted by guilt over his daughter’s death at the hands of her brutal husband, and over his abandonment of his country to live in exile in Bath for six years. In Selassie’s sections, Mengiste’s dreamy style works extremely well, breaking down barriers between sanity and illusion, past and present. The novel is told, I have no doubt, the way its author wanted to tell it, but the sense that it could have been tighter makes me wonder if some of the desired effect has been lost.
Valentine, by Elizabeth Wetmore: This is not for the faint of heart; the inciting incident of the plot is a brutal rape and beating of a fourteen-year-old Mexican girl, and because the book takes place in West Texas in 1974, you can be assured that justice, in the traditional sense of the word, is not exactly served. However, the book is not so much about the attack on Gloria Ramirez and its aftermath as it is about the lives of the women who live on the edge of the oilfields, their joys and vulnerabilities, the ways in which a boom can mean economic prosperity but also always means increasing numbers of women hurt, missing or dead, as restless and reckless men flood into the area for work. Gloria (or Glory, as she renames herself) opens the book, in a taut and terrifying first chapter where she wakes in the desert and walks away from the truck where her attacker lies drunkenly sleeping, thereby saving her own life. After that, the perspective switches between several other women, some of whom get fairly short shrift: Suzanne Ledbetter and Karla Sibley, for instance, only narrate one chapter each, although through them we understand much more about the putting-on-a-brave-face school of West Texas womanhood, the awful pride and the unspeakable pain. Corrine Shepard, formerly a high school English teacher, is one of the most successful narrators, a spiky and gloriously unlikeable woman in the vein of Olive Kitteridge whose beloved husband Potter, faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis, has just killed himself. The chapter describing the state of Corrine’s and Potter’s marriage after the birth of their daughter—her struggle to go back to work, his reluctance but ultimate capitulation—is perfectly judged, conveying the social and professional limitations of women in the 1950s and the ways in which the era we inhabit blinkers us, even as it also demonstrates that their relationship was unusual, beautiful, and eventually stronger for having been tested. That chapter might be the highlight of the book, though the chapters narrated by Mary Rose Whitehead, a young rancher’s wife who is the first to see Gloria Ramirez after the rape and who is determined to testify in court on her behalf, are also wonderful and frightening. Were I to have a complaint, it might be that the abundance of narrators seems a little unnecessary and can contribute to a sense of un-focus, but then Valentine is not nearly as plot-centric as its blurb suggests, and that is no bad thing. If you liked Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock, this should be on your TBR.
The Liar’s Dictionary, by Eley Williams: I hadn’t read Williams’s debut story collection, Attrib., but everyone I knew who did read it thought it was fantastic. The Liar’s Dictionary is a dual-timeline novel set in the offices of an eccentric fourth-rate enyclopaedic dictionary in the present day, and during its heyday a little over a hundred years ago. Our contemporary protagonist, closeted-at-work intern Mallory, never becomes aware of the identity of perpetually-belittled Peter Winceworth, but his lasting contribution to the dictionary–a series of entirely invented words scattered throughout its text–becomes her problem, as her boss instructs her to find and remove them before the whole thing is digitized. Winceworth, meanwhile, we learn, is inserting the words as a means of relieving his feelings, both about his place of work and about the enigmatic fiancee of his most unbearable colleague. Williams’s style really carries the book, with a kind of madcap yet melancholy glee, and a glorying in words–not in a wishy-washy oh-the-wonder-of-language sort of way, but in a way that takes a very Edwardian pleasure in precision and elegance. The plot in the contemporary sections becomes increasingly frenetic, but that felt somehow right; both narratives possess a kind of surreal sheen, which led a colleague to compare the book, in a way, to Wodehouse’s work (though much more conscientious and less privileged). I loved The Liar’s Dictionary and found it heartbreaking at the same time; it’s just the right level of weird for me.
Scabby Queen, by Kirstin Innes: It’s an old adage of criticism that it’s easier to write about something you hated than something you loved. I loved Scabby Queen, and I’m going to try to write about it anyway. It opens with the death of fifty-one-year-old Clio Campbell, who achieved moderate levels of fame as a protest singer in the ’90s and who has just overdosed on pills and vodka in the flat of her long-suffering (and, we realize, taken-advantage-of) friend Ruth. Over the next three hundred pages, various people who entered and exited Clio’s life—her godfather, a music journalist half in love with her, several women who lived in a Brixton squat with her, someone she only met once on a train—give their perspectives on a woman whose relentless political activism and manipulative social charm were both entrancing and infuriating. It’s very rare, especially now, to get a look at both sides of activism, particularly historic activism: the genuineness of early-days-of-a-better-world idealism mixed with what can be a disturbing willingness to sacrifice whatever gets in the way. Innes nails that balance, and nails her portrait of Clio, who becomes increasingly more difficult to sympathize with but also increasingly nuanced: by the end, when her suicide note is revealed, her motives seem simultaneously obtuse and entirely in keeping with what we know of her. I suspect people who remember the ’90s and early ’00s as adults will find even deeper resonances in Scabby Queen’s political aspects. I loved them, but what I loved most was Innes’s brilliance at characterization. Like Daisy Jones and the Six, an oblique approach to a central character through the people whose lives they affected results in something both tough and touching, and utterly without condescension.
The Odyssey, by Homer: I’d never actually read it! Isn’t that weird? It must be the case for quite a lot of people. The stories are so familiar from excerpted children’s versions and adaptations that we feel as though we have. Anyway, I think the primary thing to be aware of while you’re reading is the very different weight and pacing present in the poem. The first four books are about Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, who embarks on his own short journey to find out more about where his missing father could be; Odysseus himself doesn’t appear until book five, by which point he’s already lost all of his ships and companions to various disasters and is reduced to telling the tale of his adventures to the friendly Phaeacian court during books nine to twelve. (Interestingly, Doug Metzger suggests on his podcast Literature and History that these books are no more likely to be “true”, within the world of the poem, than any of the other lies Odysseus tells about his origins. I’d contest that, since much of that lying is done in order to protect himself upon his return to Ithaca, which is essentially an occupied territory, but I love the idea: we’ve only Odysseus’s word to say that the Lotus-eaters, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis, the journey to the underworld, the Cyclops episode, etc., actually happened at all, and he’s a notorious fibber.) They send him back home under escort in book thirteen, and the entire second half of the poem is about him regaining his property, murdering the men who’ve been harassing his wife, and Telemachus’s coming of age.
It’s known as an adventure/travel poem, but it’s very much more, I think, a poem about restitution, espousing a fundamentally socially conservative view of the world’s proper order. (It’s Tom Jones. Or rather, Tom Jones is the Odyssey. Hey!) For all that, it’s much more engaging to me personally than the Iliad was, perhaps because the emotional atmosphere is much more immediately identifiable for a reader who’s never been to war. Be warned: the final books are brutal. Margaret Atwood’s poem A Chorus Line neatly sums up the breathtaking hypocrisy of the murder of the maids (from one perspective; from another, of course—that socially conservative one the poem partakes of—Odysseus is merely ensuring that loyalty to his person and his dynasty, even when they’re not present, is the order of the day. Fascinating how that always seems to involve punishing women. I wonder if the housekeeper Eurycleia, who eagerly provides her returned master with the names of maids who’ve “behaved shamefully” in his absence, was a model for Aunt Lydia.) Anyway, the Oxford World’s Classics edition I read was translated by Anthony Verity and is, from a non-classicist’s perspective, excellent; you get a good sense of the original Greek’s use of repetition, but not so much so that it’s annoying, and thank God Verity does not attempt to match an antique meter or rhyme scheme. If you’re relatively new to antique poetry, I’d recommend this edition particularly: the end notes are also good and there’s a handy index of first names in the back.
Descendant of the Crane, by Joan He: This ancient Chinese-inspired fantasy novel isn’t my usual fare, but it’ll be somebody else’s cup of tea, without question. Princess Hesina’s father, the king, has just been killed, and she is determined to find out by whom. But with a wily Minister of Rites, a kingdom so terrified of magic that it slaughtered all (spoilers: not quite) of its “sooths” three centuries ago, and invasion threats from the neighbouring country of Kendi’a, finding the murderer is the least of Hesina’s problems. This, in turn, presents the reader with a problem: there are so many plot strands fighting for primacy that it’s difficult to know where to place one’s attention and investment, and He’s characters, while endearing, also perform a lot of cliched actions. Hesina is constantly blushing, gasping, fighting for breath, inwardly cursing, feeling her throat constrict, and so on. (A lot of this overcooked rhetoric is respiratory, now that I think of it. I wonder why authors go for it so often?) The characters’ reactions frequently slow the pace of the action; when the dead king’s tomb is opened, whole paragraphs go by in lavish descriptions of bafflement before we’re told what Hesina and her peremptory love interest Akira are actually seeing. It’s a lot of fun–it reminds me forcefully of the fantasy novel I spent much of my pre-teen years writing, which was sort of equal parts Tolkien, Pierceand Pascal–and it sets up a sequel, which I wouldn’t spurn if it was offered to me, but there’s definitely a sense of too much material, not quite tightly enough controlled.
The Searcher, by Tana French: A new French novel is always cause for celebration. The Searcher (out in November; my copy is from Netgalley) continues her move away from the traditional cop protagonists that characterized her first six books, although it’s kind of a lateral move: here, our investigator is an ex-policeman and an American ex-policeman at that, Cal Hooper, formerly of the Chicago PD. Chicago is fairly notorious for police violence, and Hooper’s experience reflects both the truth and the nuance of that: he has never killed an unarmed young black man, but an incident where his partner nearly does so is ultimately what pushes him into early retirement. A divorce and a move to rural Ireland later, he hopes to find peace and quiet in the country, but is instead recruited by a young kid, Trey, whose brother Brendan has gone missing, and who demands that Cal find out where Brendan is.
The Searcher is as beautifully written as all of French’s books, but what it lacks, for want of a better word, is a sense of intoxication. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The professional detectives in her early books love their job, they live and breathe it, and that sense of drive, passion, righteousness, infuses their appreciation of the world around them and of human relationships within it. As French’s career has matured, her characters’ perceptions have too. Cal isn’t quite the hard-bitten cynic he considers himself, but his understanding of social dynamics, of how we fit in with each other, has less flash and snap than, say, Cassie Maddox’s or even Scorcher Kennedy’s; more resignation and determination. It’s a mystery novel for grownups, this–which isn’t to say that it’s excessively violent or disturbing, but rather that both French and her characters are increasingly interested in how to behave when the right thing and the correct thing are not the same. (Cal and Trey have a fantastic conversation about the difference between etiquette, manners and morals that sums up what I think French is getting at throughout the entire book.) A really promising turn for her. I can’t wait to read more.
In Praise of Shadows, by Junichiro Tanizaki: A rather lovely little essay on aesthetics (sort of, I guess?), clocking in at well under 100 pages but published on its own by Vintage Classics. Tanizaki was a 20th-century Japanese novelist who produced, amongst other things, the magnificent The Makioka Sisters, which has always reminded me very strongly of Jane Austen’s work, with its similar cultural context of a high value placed on reputation, limited economic options for middle-class women, and a codified (and coded) set of behaviours, from which deviation cannot be tolerated by polite society. In Praise… is a different beast: here, Tanizaki explores the distinction between a Western prioritization of light (specifically electric light) in design, and a traditional Japanese preference for “the pensive lustre” over “the shallow brilliance”. His arguments are both wide-ranging (he touches on toilet design, the unique properties of jade, why Japanese cuisine really must be eaten by candelight to be properly appreciated, and the allure of half-hidden women in old-fashioned brothels, amongst many other things), and intriguing in their engagement with cultural imperialism: he posits, for instance, that technologies such as mass-produced paper and modern interior lighting would look completely different worldwide had they been invented by the Japanese instead of Westerners (and mainly Americans). It’s a thoughtful and surprisingly profound piece of work; I’m glad I picked it up on a whim.
The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde: This tale of corruption, scandal and decadence is one of those books I constantly thought I’d read (and everyone else seemed to have done in school) but hadn’t actually, until this week. The Penguin clothbound edition is good because it contains the introduction by Robert Mighall from the paperback, which dwells on Wilde’s revisions between the original publication (in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1890) and the slightly longer printed-book version (1891). These were largely made in order to tone down the overt homoeroticism of the original material, which, I have to say, is blatant if not absolutely screaming. Basil Hallward, the painter who becomes obsessed with Dorian’s physical beauty, speaks repeatedly of “adoring” him, of being “jealous” and “romantic”; the Mephistophelean Lord Henry Wotton, who turns both Dorian’s head and his soul, mocks Hallward’s devotion in terms that render it explicitly romantic, but clearly desires erotic domination over Dorian himself, and encourages the latter to practice that same domination on other impressionable young men. The interpolated revenge-plot material focusing on James Vane is not especially interesting or good (it feels like the third-rate subplot of a Dickens novel; all the big ones have got one of those), and the scenes in high society… well, I tend not to like those even in Wilde’s plays; here they strike me as simultaneously silly and mean-spirited. The supernatural element of the book (the whole portrait scapegoat thing) is actually the least dwelt-upon, since Wilde is really more interested in philosophizing upon Art, Morals, and the relationship between the two (in Wilde’s ideal world, none). Divertingly grotesque, though.
Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler: I had a rather rough afternoon on Friday and a friend suggested I pick up a YA fantasy novel, which usually soothes and resets me; when I told her I was halfway through this, she described it as “almost laughably the opposite” of soothing, which is true. It takes place during the Moscow show trials of 1936-8, during which Stalin purged most of the historic leadership of the Communist Party—”purge” being a light word for imprisonment, solitary confinement, torment, humiliation, forced confession, and execution. The protagonist here is Rubashov, an Old Bolshevik who has done some bad things in his time but who has become disillusioned with Soviet propaganda and ideology as a result of Stalin’s rule, and who is consequently imprisoned. Much of the novel is about Rubashov’s own struggle to determine whether he was right or wrong in his dedication to the Revolution as a younger man: if he was right, the only validation he’ll receive is from posterity, decades after he’s gone; if he was wrong, as he puts it, “I’ll pay.” And pay he does, in the end, as we know he will right from the beginning. The intimacy Koestler achieves in charting his psychological journey, however, is exceptional, disturbing, and moving. The evocation of prison—and particularly the solidarity shown between prisoners, even those who thoroughly disagree with each other ideologically—is perhaps the strongest part of a very strong book: the scenes where Rubashov and his neighbour in cell 402 tap out messages to each other, where Rubashov is initiated into the prison tradition of hammering on one’s cell door in percussive salute each time a fellow inmate is taken away for execution, and where finally Rubashov and 402 have their last conversation, will haunt me for a long time.
Afropean: Notes from Black Europe, by Johny Pitts: Pitts’s travelogue-cum-social/cultural history won the Jhalak Prize in 2020 for best book by an author of colour published in the UK, and it’s easy to see why. With immense grace, curiosity and goodwill, he spends about six months traveling continental Europe in search of the continent’s black communities, and specifically those who have forged a new identity as hybrid citizens, both African and European. His quest takes him from the alarmingly bleak suburb Clichy-sous-Bois outside of Paris, cynically patronized and abandoned by politicians, to the warmly welcoming bustle of Surinamese cafes and black cultural centres in Berlin, to an altogether more baffling experience in the museum of imperial history in Brussels which elides Belgium’s colonial atrocities altogether. Pitts is rather like a more understanding, less crotchety Bill Bryson; his eye for the spirit of a place, and his ability to convey the essence of an experience, is the same. If he sacrifices Bryson’s frequently snort-worthy comic observations for a rather deeper and more earnest approach to travel, frankly, I don’t mind (especially as the former’s observations often come at the expense of poor people, provincial people, fat people, and/or women; this is a sad thing you notice about Bryson as you get older). Pitts’s respect and, usually, affection, for his subjects’ lives opens doors: a wandering, shouting, apparently mad old African man in Moscow turns out to be a former anti-apartheid activist who last saw his parents forty years previously and knows they were too old then to still be living now. Pitts gains his story by not fleeing or ignoring him, as everyone else in the vicinity does. Afropean is gorgeous and bittersweet, and also provides perfect armchair travel; I can’t speak more highly for it.
Sisters, by Daisy Johnson: I read this in one evening, prompted by the rapturous reviews of two of my colleagues, and found it lived up fully to their praise. It may even be better (for my money) than Johnson’s Everything Under, although, like the former book, it promises an explanation only to complicate things with an ending that again blurs the line between fantasy and reality, fiction and sanity and the supernatural. It focuses on the two titular sisters, July and September, who are as close to twins as it’s possible to be without actually being so: born ten months apart, they both aren’t each other and fiercely identify with each other. This is compounded by September’s need to dominate and control her younger sister: halfway through the novel, we discover that they share a single mobile phone, and they often play a disturbing game called September Says, where July has to hurt herself. Presented to us through July’s eyes, these controlling actions often seem plausible for a time; July has internalized her sister’s behaviour, as so many children do, and understands it as a bond of love. The book opens as the pair and their mother move to a remote house in Yorkshire—where both their abusive, now-dead father and September were born—to escape a catastrophe that has occurred at the girls’ school in Oxford, but there’s something wrong with the house: footsteps where no person can be, shattering lightbulbs, a patch of paint on a wall that both absorbs July’s exploratory finger and explodes outward, pouring ants onto the floor. Body horror and the grotesque are well represented here along with psychological horror and illness, in a manner reminiscent of Shirley Jackson. The denouement, in which we discover what really happened at school, is perfectly paced (I worked it out at just the right moment), and the final few chapters leave a disturbing taste of ambiguity that feels bravely appropriate. A perfect novel for the electric, humid dog days of a difficult summer.
Cane Warriors, by Alex Wheatle: Out in October, this new novel from garlanded children’s/YA author Wheatle takes as its focus Tacky’s Rebellion, a historic slave revolt that occurred in Jamaica in 1760 and shook British colonial confidence so badly that a raft of new, brutally repressive laws were passed subsequently, including a law that outlawed the practice of obeah in the island. Our protagonist is fourteen-year-old Moa, the youngest member of the rebellion (a historical invention, I believe, though probably representative of many other young men who fought with Tacky). Through Moa’s eyes, we understand the fears and motives of the fighters: he is particularly worried for his mother, younger sister, and beloved friend Hamaya, who will soon be of an age to start being sexually abused by slavemasters and white overseers. Tacky (or Takyi), who led the rebellion, was said to have been a king in his village, and he is portrayed as a strong, natural leader here, as is Keverton, Moa’s slightly older friend and fellow fighter. My only reservation was a sense of distance from the characters; I can’t put my finger on what made it so, but it might simply be that I’m not the primary audience for this book, either in age group or in racial heritage. Certainly I think that a YA novel largely narrated in patois and detailing a heroic assertion of independence not habitually taught in schools is exactly the sort of book that publishing needs to champion, and exactly the sort of narrative young readers need to hear, and Wheatle is an accomplished pair of hands.
This was a format that worked well for quite a long time a few years ago, and maybe it’ll be a little more manageable than a monthly roundup. It’ll also have the distinct advantage of forcing me to a) post more than once a month, so you won’t forget I exist, and b) corral my thoughts about books fairly recently after finishing them, instead of getting to the end of the month and trying to remember it all at once.
The Habsburgs: the Rise and Fall of a World Power, by Martyn Rady: I read this in proof so unfortunately did not get to glory in the finished edition’s excellent front cover. It’s also not necessarily my usual bag, but I picked it up because I knew a lot of my customers would be keen and I wanted to make up my own mind. And it’s excellent! Rady has about nine hundred years of history to distill into <350 pages, and does so masterfully; the occasional confusion about dynasties (so many Ferdinands!), genealogies, and religious affiliations were mostly easily resolved by consulting the multi-century family trees in the front of the book. (A lot of family-tree typos in the proof copy, though; more “Emporers” than you can shake a stick at. Presumably these have been dealt with in the finished version.) The chapters are a perfect length: long enough to provide an overview of a topic or period, short enough to feel manageable and give a pleasing sense of progress. And although Rady is a historian, not a comedian, he clearly has a keen sense of the ridiculous (such as the attempts to cure a particularly mad scion by forcing him to sleep with the mummified corpse of a saint, which–surprise–did not work). His style is light but not lightweight, witty but not intrusive, and intelligent but highly readable. The topic is also less Eurocentric than I’d imagined: the Habsburgs presided over the first genuinely global empire, with outposts in Latin America thanks to their Spanish connection as well as the occasional foray into Southeast Asia (who knew?!) and Africa (likewise). Highly, highly recommended.
Grace Will Lead Us Home, by Jennifer Berry Hawes: This was my next audiobook choice and it was a very good one – I was guided by the fact that it won an Audie Award for Best General Nonfiction. It is an account not only of the massacre of nine Black worshippers at Charleston’s Emanuel AME church in 2016, but of what followed: the national and local responses, the arrest and trial of Dylann Roof, and the incredibly painful journey of the survivors and the bereaved. This last is probably the most powerful element of the book. Although forgiveness was the watchword that got picked up by media when one of the survivors told Roof she forgave him just days later, this was not an easy or a universal response. Particularly tragic is the story of the husband of one of the murdered women, who returned from a merchant marine job halfway across the world and sank into depression, bitterness and apathy without his wife’s leavening presence. You find yourself unable to blame him, really. Roof is described about as objectively as possible—we learn about him through his actions and his reactions to his family and police—but it is highly evident that there is something wrong with him, perhaps undiagnosable, perhaps simply the manifestation of evil. A hard book but a very necessary one, and one that gives dignity and complexity to all of the actors in this horrible episode in American history.
Lot, by Bryan Washington: Washington’s debut connected-story collection focuses on the lives of Black and Latinx characters in Houston, Texas. About half of them focus on a particular young man who goes unnamed, but whose uneasy relationship with his family and his burgeoning sexuality is the focus of most of the stories in this main thread. Others, like “South Central” and “Waugh”, are snapshots of different individuals struggling to maintain integrity—or just survive—in a city beset by gentrification, poverty and racism. “Waugh” in particular is appallingly moving, its protagonist Poke a young prostitute forced to reckon with his pimp and protector’s HIV-positive status. It’s the story in which a cultural emphasis on the implicit, the unspoken or unarticulated emotion, is most evident. Elsewhere, our unnamed narrator’s uber-masculine brother Javi teaches him “what happens to faggots”, his father takes him on a visit to his “plainer than plain” mistress, his sister marries to get out of the neighborhood, and his mother suffers as gentrification forces her to give up the family restaurant. Washington’s prose style is clipped and succinct, which often creates a perhaps unintentional sense of emotional distance, but the final chapter—in which the narrator at last decides to commit to a romantic relationship with a man instead of the no-strings-attached sex he’s allowed himself up til now—holds out a delicate hope for fulfillment that only a rock could fail to find heartrending.
Set My Heart to Five, by Simon Stephenson: The premise here is perhaps cringey to a certain type of reader: in a near future containing “driverless ubers” but no New Zealand (casualty of a nuclear exchange with North Korea, apparently), Jared, a bot who looks exactly like a human but whose brain is a biological computer and who has no emotions, begins to develop feelings, along with a taste for classic movies. Pursued by an incompetent but dogged jobsworth from the Bureau of Robotics, he flees his comfortable, sterile dental practice in Ypsilanti for Los Angeles, intending to write and direct a movie that will change the way the world feels about bots. So far, perhaps, so cute (an impression backed up by Jared’s relentlessly slangy narration: “10/10” and “I cannot!” being but two of his many catchphrases). But what makes this stand out as more than just a big-hearted underdog novel with futuristic set dressing is its obsession, nay its love affair, with film tropes—which are, of course, storytelling tropes—and by way of which Jared comments, both explicitly and unconsciously, upon his own quest. I wrote “underdog” up there, for instance; Jared knows he’s in a quest story, and he knows how the logic of such stories works. He knows that Inspector Ryan Bridges of the Bureau of Robotics is his nemesis, and that (as per RP McWilliam’s Twenty Golden Rules of Screenwriting, a text he treats with reverence) coincidences should only occur in order to create obstacles, not to smooth the hero’s path. This incredible circular knowingness—a story about stories, and who gets to tell them, and how they can be hijacked (there’s a great subplot about an unscrupulous Hollywood producer), which also knows it’s a story, and comments on that, and the comments are both an integral part of the story and reinforce its thematic meaning—is quite brilliant, and further reinforced by form, as sections of the book are typeset to resemble a film script. If this all sounds a bit precious, please trust me when I say that it is not. There is something perfect and painful about Jared’s first viewing of Blade Runner, for instance—quite deliberately a movie about whether robots are people—or about his being reassured that the people sailing on Lake Michigan during inclement weather probably don’t want rescuing, because humans actually enjoy illogical risk. Not to mention his unexpected side trip to Las Vegas with a lonely, self-deluding fellow train traveler (who happens to hate bots), or the way he falls in love. Set My Heart to Five is poignant, funny, light on its feet, and very, very sharp. By the end, I felt—as Jared hears a famous screenwriter say—as though I’d been “f-worded in the heart”; I can’t recommend it more highly.
Remain Silent, by Susie Steiner: This is the third of Steiner’s Manon Bradshaw novels, and may be her last—she was recently diagnosed with what seems to be (going from her Twitter and the Acknowledgments page here) a pretty aggressive cancer. Bradshaw (or Manon, as most everyone in the books calls her) has always been an extraordinary creation: grumpy, dogged, keen on a custard cream, not so keen on buzzwords or bullshit. Here her smallest child is a toddler, her older boy Fly—adopted in an earlier novel—is about to sit GCSEs, her partner may or may not be terminally ill, and she is staring at the settlings, losses and alterations of middle age. The crime, on the other hand, could hardly be more contemporary: a dead immigrant hanging from a tree in Cambridgeshire, a note reading “The dead cannot speak” pinned to his clothing. Because this is a crime novel, of course nothing about it adds up, and of course Manon is determined to get to the bottom of it all. Steiner tells the story in a pretty effective multi-POV fashion, switching from the present (narrated alternately by Manon and by her deputy, Davy) to “Before” (narrated by Matis, best friend of the dead man, and Elise, a local girl whose father is a frothing xenophobe abetted by, and fawningly besotted with, a Nigel Farage analogue). Davy’s presence in the book is an interesting leaven to what could otherwise easily be a one-note political set-up: we know Manon has no time for Little England, National Front bollocks, for she tells us so frequently and forthrightly, but Davy is a white man of precarious status approaching middle age and his internal monologues often muse on the anger he sees in these men. He doesn’t quite agree with them, but he understands them, and in some moments even sympathizes, and through his eyes we can understand them too. Or at least understand how other people can understand. The solution to the murder is actually quite ingenious: it struck me as both believable and appalling, which is no mean feat for crime fiction. The believability rests on Steiner’s work with characterization, which she’s remarkably good at; if there is a slight wobble of “would someone really…?”, it’s covered by the fact that most of the other characters wonder that, too. If this is the last Manon Bradshaw book, it will be a very great loss: she is really one of the most exceptionally idiosyncratic characters—let alone detective characters—currently being written, and I would miss her. Let’s hope she rides again.
currently reading:Afropean, by Johny Pitts, which I am absolutely loving. No wonder it won the Jhalak Prize. More on that next week.
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.
mostentirely 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.