Nonfiction November Week 3: Be the Expert / Ask the Expert

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It’s Week Three of Nonfiction November and it’s The Thousand Book Project’s week – see the main post here.

Week 3: (November 15-19) – Be The Expert/ Ask the Expert/ Become the Expert with Veronica at The Thousand Book Project: Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert). 

I wasn’t sure what to use for Be The Expert, then I realised people have been asking me about this, even recently, and I have an important point to make about timing …

Be the Expert (Guide?) – Books on Social Justice and Equality I’ve read this year

So this topic, especially Black Lives Matter, was certainly not just for 2020, even if the proliferation of lists and recommendations seems to have gone a bit quiet. I have continued reading books on social justice, marginalised people and equality/equity through this year (and always will do), using the groundswell in publishers’ interest to pick up books as they’re published. The book in the image is a case in point, “Black British Lives Matter” edited by Lenny Henry and Marcus Ryder pulls together pieces by Black British artists and activists and is just out and on its way to my bookshelf as I write this.

So here are the nonfiction books on social justice, marginalised people and equality I’ve read this year, all recommended (there’s a leaning towards the British experience here: our racism and class issues are quite different from the US, although just as insidious, and I’ve been trying to start from where I am). They’re in order of when I read them, not otherwise arranged. Note, these are books from the last year. I am adding categories for social justice – race, gender sex and sexuality, disability, class and neurodiversity this week so you can find all the books in a category on the blog not just these newer reads.

June Sarpong – “The Power of Privilege” – unpicking privilege and what we can do about it

Nikesh Shukla (ed.) – “The Good Immigrant” / “The Good Immigrant USA” – immigrant experiences in both countries

Reni Eddi-Lodge – “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race” – history and a call to action

Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené (eds.) – “Loud Black Girls” – essays by British Black women

Catrina Davies – “Homesick” – working class and housing inequality

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff (ed.) – “Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children” – stories from people who came from the Caribbean to Britain in the 1950s and their descendants

Kenya Hunt – “Girl” – essays by a Black woman

Sathnam Sanghera – “Empireland” – the effect of Empire on Britain today

Christine Burns (ed.) – “Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows” – vital essays on the history and experience of trans people in the UK

Mike Parker – “On the Red Hill” – older and younger gay male couples and their different life experiences

Guvna B – “Unspoken” – race and class in South London

Jeffrey Weekes – “Between Worlds” – an exhaustive history of the gay liberation movement in Britain

Maya Angelou – “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” etc., – race relations in the US and Africa; so many statements we are still hearing today.

Danny Assaf – “Say Please and Thank you and Stand in Line” – the Lebanese community in Canada

Jonathan van Ness – “Over the Top” – a happy but still traumatic LGBTQIA+ life in America

Kit de Waal – “Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers” – class alive and well in Britain in this set of memoir pieces

Akala – “Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire” – race and class in Black communities in London and the UK

Juno Dawson – “Gender Games” – growing up trans in Britain

Anita Sethi – “I Belong Here” – woman of mixed heritage explores the British countryside

Nadiya Hussain – “Finding my Voice” – a British Bangladeshi life

Trystan Reese – “How We Do Family” – a trans man, his husband and their fight to have a child

Johny Pitts – “Afropean” – exploring African communities across Europe

Stormzy – “Rise Up” – class and race in music in the UK

David Olusoga – “Black and British” – history of Black people in and in association with Britain. Seminal. TV series also recommended, though different.

Damien Le Bas – “The Stopping Places” – the life of Travellers in the UK and Europe

Sophie Williams – “Anti Racist Ally” – provocative ideas and concrete things to do

Emma Dabiri – “What White People Can Do Next” – you thought the above was provocative!? Really made me think.

Pete Paphides – “Broken Greek” – growing up in the Greek Cypriot community in the Midlands

Armistead Maupin – “Logical Family” – creating a family when yours rejects you for being gay

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff and Timi Sotire (eds.) – “Black Joy” – there’s joy, but often in overcoming challenges

Johnny Agar and Becky Agar – “The Impossible Mile” – a life lived well with cerebral palsy in the mix

Michaela Coel – “Misfits” – a call to be a misfit and to extend the ladder down to help other marginalised people in the entertainment industry

Shon Faye – “The Transgender Issue” – debunking the myths and showing the struggles of the trans community; a call for lifting all marginalised people through mutual aid

Hassan Akkad – “Hope, not Fear” – inspiring story of a man who escaped from Syria and joined the NHS, campaigning for refugees and low-paid workers

Raynor Winn – “The Salt Path” – class and homelessness and health

Anita Rani – “The Right Sort of Girl” – race and class and growing up unconventional in a traditional Indian expatriate community in Yorkshire

Something for everyone there, right?! and of course there are more to come!

Ask the Expert – Books on Returning (especially to Africa)

I’ve read quite a few books this year that have featured returns to African roots, whether that’s Afua Hirsch in “Brit(ish)” packing up her English life and going to live in Ghana for a few years, Alex Haley finding his tribe through language then finding his people in “Roots” or Maya Angelou living in Egypt and then Ghana, too, in her autobiographies, and discussing at length the experiences of mostly Americans who have ‘returned’ to Ghana. Toufah, of course, bravely returns to The Gambia to help justice be done, although she’s not away in Canada for very long. On the TV, Afua Hirsch’s African Renaissance series showed Jamaican people who have moved to Ethiopia to connect with the foundation of Rastafarianism, and I caught a bit of Enslaved with Samuel L Jackson on the TV, which had him reconnecting with his ancestral Benga tribe in Gabon and being welcomed into it in an emotional ceremony. So these returnees have been following me and interesting me.

I am aware of the book “Return” by Kamal Al-Solaylee, which looks at various returnees and includes a chapter on Africa, and I’ve read Jackie Kay’s “Red Dust Road“, in which she traces her Nigerian roots. Ore Agbaje-Williams and Nancy Adimora’s edited collection, “Of This Our Country” about Nigeria and Britain has some examples of writers who have gone from Britain to Nigeria. But there must be more narratives, preferably but not only modern ones, about people who have found their roots in Africa or tried going and living there and re-establishing a link with their ancestry and/or families.

Suggestions, please!

Book review – Pragya Agarwal – “Sway”

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I won Jessica Nordell’s “The End of Bias” on NetGalley back in June (it was published at the end of September) and had decided I really needed to read this one first, which explains unconsious bias (and I hoped help end it, too). Then I somehow didn’t get round to it until this month, but it’s done now and I’ll get the Nordell book read as soon as I can. Phew! This one was also a loan from my friend Sian that I’ve had for far too long, so all neat and tidy now all round.

Pragya Agarwal – “Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias”

(Feb? 2021, borrowed from Sian)

As we talk about gender bias, let us not forget about intersectionality and how certain multiple identities can further stigmatise women and render them even more invisible. Yes, there is change, but it is glacial. And to all the sceptics, I would just say, ‘Am I not believed because I am a woman?’ (p. 251)

This is a long and dense book which covers a lot of research, well-known and more niche, about unconscious bias, i.e. the decisions we make and opinions we form in a split second, more automatically the more tired or under pressure we are, which affect how we perceive and treat other people. Agarwal contends that this is a product of both individual learning and wider cultural environment, which I tend to agree with. There was a fair bit in here I’d encountered before, but who knew that hurricanes given ‘feminine’ names end up with more fatalities than those with ‘masculine’ names, because people don’t treat them as seriously and don’t evacuate to safety in such numbers?

In the early chapters she goes through the neuroscience of how the brain operates and what ‘activates’ in the brain when looking at people, recognising in-groups (broadly, people who share one’s race, accent, social class, other characteristic) and out-groups (those we might see as a threat or ‘other’). There’s a lot of detail here and the images of the brain would have been better within the chapter than stuck at the end. Anyway, then we get into characteristics such as race, gender, and smaller categories such as height, weight or age, demonstrating through discussing many academic studies how bias and stereotypes are formed and exemplified.

Agarwal takes in a world perspective in the book, showing how bias works in Indian and American politics and how various examples show up around the globe. She addresses issues of intersectionality (the double bias a Black woman might face, etc.) and makes it clear she’s considered non-binary and transgender people in her gender chapter, while pointing out that there’s not enough research on these groups at the moment to be able to draw conclusions.

There’s an interesting section at the end about how AI systems, which we must remember are taught using data from real-world phenomena, can become biased from the beginning (for example, if the criminal justice system treats Black offenders as more likely to re-offend and lets White offenders, off, any AI system created to make those judgements is going to take these data and amplify them, ending up even more racist than the originating humans; if driverless cars aren’t shown enough images of Black and Brown pedestrians, they are less likely to recognise them as pedestrians and more likely to run them over than White pedestrians – it’s all pretty horrific). She does demonstrate how human intervention can work against this.

Agarwal puts enough of her own experiences into the book to make it interesting and personal, but not too much, retaining the scientific rigour. At one point, she bravely makes job applications in both her original name (used here) and her married name, double-barrelled with her White British husband’s name, thus not getting five out of six invitations to interview in one of the two sets (you can guess which). The academic rigour is certainly there, but angled to the popular science reader, too – there are lots of footnotes explaining scientific and sociological terms, and a good set of notes easily found which point to the academic studies referenced.

There’s only a small section in the back about how to work against bias: the usual stuff of be aware and don’t go with the first instinct till you’ve thought about it, consider using anonymous job applications to remove name bias, and also notes on how we can’t be exonerated by it being unconscious and reiterating the double dose of personal and societal bias. Lots of information is packed into this book and it’s valuable for pulling all of that together. It’s written accessibly, there’s just a lot of it!

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 3/85 – 82 to go.

Book review – Maya Angelou – “All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes”

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Please forgive me for getting a bit ahead of Ali in her, Meg’s and my readalong of Maya Angelou’s autobiographies: I wanted to get this one read this month so I could add the next one into a couple of challenges, and also I wanted to find out what happened next! Here is Ali’s review.

Maya Angelou – “All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes”

(April 2021)

The drive was too short to clear my mind. I had never been face to face with royalty and didn’t know the protocol. I suspected that I had been sent for to discuss some incident pertaining to the presence of black American residents, and I was nervous. I knew I was given to dramatic overstatement, or was known to waffle about repetitiously. To further complicate matters, I was sincere. Sincerity badly stated elicits mistrust. (p. 118-9)

In this volume of the autobiography, published in 1986, we spend the whole time with Angelou in Ghana – a country I didn’t know that much about, so very interesting from that perspective, as we do learn something of its history and what it was like in the 1960s. With her son injured in a car accident, she decides not to move on to Liberia as she’d planned, but to stay in Ghana. Here, while Guy integrates into the student population, she becomes part of a group of Black Americans who have moved to Africa, and she has quite a lot to say on the interesting subject of different types of people who have often saved up to ‘return’ to their roots, only to find that they’re not effusively welcomed by the Ghanaian population.

Angelou meets another fascinating big man and my heart sank but this time she seems to have learned a bit and when he proposes a lifestyle and country change to her, to move to Mali and settle in as his second wife, she realises she won’t be able to summon up the requisite meekness and turns him down (and his gift of a fridge!). It is good to see her staying independent and resisting this offer. She also comes into contact with other highly powerful people (well, men) and even kings, which manages to dent even her self-confidence!

Malcolm X comes to visit Ghana and one stage and it’s fascinating to read about his time there, even more fascinating when he encounters a young Muhammad Ali but is snubbed by him as he’s recently split from the Nation of Islam. He’s someone Angelou of course knows from her New York activism times, though she was at that stage on the side of Martin Luther King Jr and his non-violence. But, as they discuss, what has that produced and is it time for more action? By the end of the book, she’s realising she needs more than African can offer her, and needs to be somewhere she fits in better, and is planning to return to the US to work for Malcolm X’s organisation.

While Angelou finds it wonderful to be in countries where everyone, presidents, airline pilots, senior managers, newspaper owners, are of course Black, she also encounters some horrifically racist commentary on Ghana and the Black Americans who live there too from European members of the university she works at for a time. But the common room steward gently gives his own take on the situation after she has embarrassed herself yelling at them intemperately:

He said, ‘This is not their place. In time they will pass. Ghana was here when they came. When they go, Ghana will be here. They are like mice on an elephant’s back. They will pass.’ (p. 58)

Venturing into the countryside alone, Angelou encounters old buildings that were used to hold slaves before they were shipped to America, and she imagines vividly a tableau of enslaved people suffering. She dwells on the possibility of her origins, fearing her ancestors might have been sold by their own people, and finds a weird experience in another village, originally decimated by slavery, where she once again (she’s already been mistaken for two other types of African person) resembles their families and the people remaining very strongly. But, like Alex Haley really found in “Roots”, she can’t know for certain if this is where she came from, although in her case she wasn’t seeking an exact place. It’s a very moving scene, though.

After a brief trip to Europe (and a very upsetting scene for her in Germany) to revisit a play she’d been in, we leave Angelou getting ready to set off back to America. As usual, I can’t wait to know what happens next, and I’m sad there are only two books of her autobiography left to read!

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 2/85 – 83 to go.

Some mini-reviews for Shiny New Books

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Anita Rani – “The Right Sort of Girl”

In this excellent memoir, Anita Rani, lately of Strictly and Countryfile, but I’ve been watching her since she presented Desi DNA back in the day, tells of her crisis of confidence in her 40s and her need to address the issues of her life and culture which may have held her back.

In case you’re worried it’s all protest and journeys, this book is also warm, funny (she makes much of the “Illuminaunty” network of bossy, nosy women who know everything) and endearing (she’s excited when she makes friends with John Craven, who she used to watch on Newsround). She’s very proud of her Yorkshire roots and extols the virtues of her home county – and when she learns to drive, the first place she goes is up on the moors, away from everyone, on her own and free in nature.

Read the full review here

Shon Faye – The Transgender Issue”

An important book I also reviewed on here in a more personal capacity (see link below)

It’s a very human book, certainly not all facts and figures. Faye interviews people from the trans community, from parents of a young trans child who knew nothing, but could access a lot of information and support online to a man running a shelter for homeless trans people who provides support and information to them. In addition, various news stories are carefully debunked and the people they are about honoured, and myths such as trans people and their doctors being in cahoots overturned with an explanation of the long and fraught process of having gender transition needs recognised and progressed. It’s very interesting to see that a lot of the media narrative about trans people echoes almost exactly the narrative about gay people from 30-odd years ago: in terms of a claim of cults who are trying to turn everyone’s children gay/trans, and all sorts of other hysteria.

Read the full review here and I have reviewed this more fully on this blog here.

Lev Parikian – “Light Rains Sometimes Fall”

Parikian, writer, birdwatcher and conductor, had already started this project to map British nature against the 72 seasons of Japan in February 2020. Yes, you get a chill when you see those dates, don’t you! So it didn’t start as, but did turn into, a sort of coronavirus lockdown project, and we’ve seen a few of these lately, but this is very nicely done and certainly not all about the lockdown, or made difficult to read because of that aspect.

Each Japanese mini-season has its name and a lot of the joy of the book comes from Parikian’s alternative British names for the sets of days. For example, the Japanese name for 9-13 February is “Bush warblers start singing in the mountains”, which Parikian replaces with “Dunnock song defies traffic noise”. In fact, I can contribute my own here, as I finished reading it during what the Japanese call “White dew” for the larger season and “Swallows leave” for the smaller, Parikian calls “House martins leave” and I term “Large electrical goods are replaced” as this has happened in this week two years running.

There’s a lovely recognisable moment when a blackbird sings the beginning of a tune and he always answers in his head, as we used to have “the Toreador bird” who would sing the first few notes of the song from Carmen repeatedly.

Of course I learned things; did you know Flying Ant Day isn’t when the ants hatch, but when they mate? There are pleasing moments when the seasons coincide and he does indeed see some wagtails during the “Wagtails sing” season, and he’s great on the privilege of seeing tiny details, crows mobbing a hawk, a flower growing in a crack, without being mawkish or sentimental (and there is some death and decay and some worry about fledglings, but nothing too challenging in that regard). He acknowledges that this year of observation has given him more insight into his patch and into the human-constructed context and its interplay with nature, a lovely positive to draw from a time of constraint, and he states it has made the year more bearable.

Read the full review here.

Book review – Ore Agbaje-Williams and Nancy Adimora (eds) – “Of this Our Country”

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This excellent book collects essays by the Nigerian writers Nels Abbey, Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀, Yomi Adegoke, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Oyinkan Akande, Ike Anya, Sefi Atta, Bolu Babalola, J K Chukwu, Abi Daré, Inua Ellams, Chịkọdịlị Emelụmadụ, Caleb Femi, Helon Habila, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Anietie Isong, Okey Ndibe, Chigozie Obioma, Irenosen Okojie, Cheluchi Onyemelukwe, Lola Shoneyin, Umar Turaki, Chika Unigwe and Hafsa Zayyan to provide a multi-faceted view of Nigeria.

Ore Agbaje-Williams and Nancy Adimora (eds) – “Of This Our Country: Acclaimed Nigerian Writers on the Home, Identity and Culture they Know”

(18 August 2021 – NetGalley)

by the age of 6, i was fluent in English, Hausa, Yoruba and my Igbo was conversational. But truly my first language had no words: it was Nigeria. It was my dialogue with the space it contained, the interaction with the ground, the touch of the breeze, the kitchen sink I’d climb into to cool down, the skin of mango I’d suck on, the sounds, colours, shapes, patterns, the people. All the things that I conversed with through my senses before I could assign words to them. (Caleb Femi – “Home History”)

Having noticed how many Nigerian writers were getting published and well-known, the editors decided to commission a book of essays by Nigerians on their homeland, and came up with this excellent collection. It truly is multifaceted, with perspectives by men and women, older and younger, and based in Nigeria, based in the UK, or moving between the two. I would imagine it will give a sense of recognition and visibility to readers connected with the country, and it provides an entertaining and thought-provoking read for those less knowledgeable about Nigeria and its diaspora. I certainly learned a lot and kept calling out interesting statistics to my poor husband. Well, did YOU know that a fifth of African people live in Nigeria?

There’s a huge variety of experiences but they crystallise around the political situation of the country since independence, and the disappointment many feel in the lack of progress that has been made, given the achievements of Nigerians outside Nigeria, and lots of commentary on why this must be; education, the power of education, and where it should take place; and parties and commemorations. I had encountered quite a few of the authors through my reading, and the bios in the back of the book (one disadvantage of the ebook is the difficulty in flicking to these as you’re going along) make me want to approach a good few more of them.

There’s a lot of good stuff on moving between Nigeria and the UK – from feeling free in a Black body, unpoliced, when in Nigeria to viewing protests against police brutality from a distance but not wanting your daughter to get involved. Writers reflect on going to the market and how that reflects all human life, on organising a parent’s funeral and feeling the communal love of the village, on moving to a different country and discovering life could be different from that in Nigeria. There are reflections on class and race and war, on the differences between the north and south of the country, on national service, on parents and children.

This is a book written with love, and that love is unsparing and shines a bright light on corruption and complicity, but it’s also an often-lyrical portrait of a country in its good and bad that is a valuable and enticing read.

Thank you to HarperCollins for providing me with a copy of this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Of This Our Country” was published on 30 September 2021.

Book review – Raynor Winn – “The Salt Path”

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Emma and I have done really well with our latest Reading Together read, as we only started it at the beginning of August and we finished it on 30 September! Raynor Winn’s “The Salt Path” is quite a short and easy read, though – definitely easier than our last book – although it was a bit more sad and a bit less uplifting than I’d imagined (Em trusted me on this one and was just attracted by the cover, however she did say she enjoyed it overall, phew!). I did wait to read this until I knew there was a sequel, and then Verity very kindly gave me this copy for Christmas.

Raynor Winn – “The Salt Path”

(25 December 2020, from Verity)

Excited, afraid, homeless, fat, dying, but at least if we made that first step we had somewhere to go, we had a purpose. And we really didn’t have anything better to do at half past three on a Thursday afternoon than to start a 630-mile walk. (p. 43)

This is one of those books (again!) that pretty well everyone has read and/or knows about. Raynor Winn and her husband, Moth, become homeless in their early 50s as a result of a a business arrangement gone wrong. In a long relationship they’ve gone from students to farmers, building up their lives and family, but now it’s all gone – and now Moth’s had a devastating diagnosis of a degenerative disease.

So things aren’t great and indeed Em and I wept our way through the first section. Then they get onto the South-West coast path, having decided to walk that and wild camp as something positive to do. At first, Moth is really creaky and in pain but things improve and, while they never achieve the speed of the man who wrote their guidebook, they work their way around from North Somerset to South Cornwall.

It was lovely reading about places I know, and we both enjoyed the nature and travel aspect. Amusingly, until half-way around they are unwittingly tracking Simon Armitage (who is writing his journey up for “Walking Away”) which causes all sorts of mix-ups. Less positive was people’s attitude to finding out they’re homeless, which is quite shocking, assuming they’re addicts and backing away or being cruel. They do experience kindness, as well – the kindness of strangers being a theme through this and my last review.

Emma, who has children, was very affected by the effect on theirs, having to turn into sensible adults when they’re barely into their 20s, worrying about their parents but having to stand on their own two feet. This was poignant of course, as was so much of the book, but we both drew from it a sense of the capacity humans have for endurance and strength. And the book does end with a degree of hope, Moth has been all the better for regular exercise but they need to work out how to sustain that. Look out for the tortoise, too!


Emma and I have decided on our next tranche of books and I’m going to note them here so we have them recorded to look up. AND we’ve actually met up in person, the other weekend, after not having seen each other since late February 2020, the longest we’ve gone without seeing each other in our 28-year friendship!

Afua Hirsch – “Brit(ish)” – this is the next one we’ll start and is part memoir of growing up with mixed heritage in Britain, part an exploration of racism and colonialism

Francesca Wade – “Square Haunting” – about Meckelburgh Square and five overlapping residents

Sabeena Akhtar (ed.) – “Cut from the Same Cloth” – stories from British women who wear the hijab

Jini Reddy – “Wanderland” – a London woman with multicultural roots goes looking for the magical in the British landscape

Adam Nicolson – “The Sea is Not Made of Water” – rock pool and beach life between the British tides

Raynor Winn – “The Wild Silence” – homelessness and travels after “The Salt Path” and yes we’re aware people don’t rate it as highly as the first book, but we were curious

Those should keep us going for a good while: I’m so glad we’re keeping our Thursday Evening Reading going even as the lockdowns (hopefully) diminish and we can actually see each other again a bit more regularly.

Book review – Maya Angelou – “The Heart of a Woman”

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Continuing my readalong with Meg and Ali of Maya Angelou’s autobiographies, this was our September read and a very good and interesting one it was, too. Ali’s excellent review is here.

Maya Angelou – “The Heart of a Woman”

(April 2021)

The black mother perceives destruction at every door, ruination at each window, and even she herself is not beyond her own suspicion. She questions whether she loves her children enough – or more terribly, does she love them too much … In the face of these contradictions, she must provide a blanket of stability, which warms but does not suffocate, and she must tell her children the truth about the power of white power without suggesting that it cannot be challenged. (p. 44)

We pick up this one a little after the end of the last one, which is a change from the previous books, which all ran on from one another. We left Angelou in Hawaii and here she is, living in a sort of commune, having dropped out of the system in some way. But, being Maya Angelou, she’s soon on the move again, with her son Guy, a teenager now and keen to take on manhood and responsibility.

Soon she’s in New York and getting involved with some serious activism, encountering Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and also meeting African freedom fighters exiled or visiting. It’s interesting to see that people in New York become keen on wearing African prints and natural hair becomes more fashionable/acceptable – her careful delineation of these changes helps this be a useful historical document.

She has good friends and has started writing seriously, joining a writers’ group and having that classic terrifying time the first time her work is critiqued. Soon she’s using her creative and administrative skills to work in an office supporting activism and organising, but she also meets yet another unsuitable man, this time Vus, a South African freedom fighter whose struggles she respects but also who attracts her. Engaged at the time, she has to sort things out amidst some genuine peril – peril which doesn’t stop when she becomes an official freedom fighter’s wife. Well, um …

I explained that i wanted to have my mother and son present at my wedding and asked if we could wait. he patted my cheek and said, ‘Of course. In London we will say we married in America. When we return to New York we will say we married in England. We will have our wedding according to your wishes and whenever you say. I am marrying you this minute. Will you say yes?’

I said yes.

‘Then we are married.’

We never mentioned the word marriage again. (p. 168)

Whose heart wouldn’t sink for her when reading that? Although was it a handy thing in the end …?

The encounters in this book with well-known figures, from a memorable week with Billie Holiday to the aforementioned activism leaders give a different fascination to the previous books. Life as an American expat in Africa, for yes, she eventually goes there, is also very interesting to read about – although, as usual, she risks ending up being thrown onto her own resources, and she always makes sure she can pay her way and support herself and Guy. That relationship with Guy also changes, however, naturally as he’s growing up and separating off from her, but also encouraged by Vus, who wants him to become an ‘African man’.

A great instalment and I can’t wait to find out what happens next. I’m so glad I’m getting to read all of these magnificent volumes of autobiography!

It’s not a Book Synchronicity as such but when Angelou is flying from Egypt to Ghana and weeps through the whole flight for the African people who were snatched from their land by slave traders, it’s hard not to think instantly of Alex Haley’s “Roots” which I’m also reading at the moment.

Book review – Michaela Coel – Misfits”

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Another NetGalley read (I have so many of them published this month, see my State of the TBR post for a mosaic of them all) and one I won really recently (I’ve been turned down for a few recently, too, even though my review rate is over 80% and I’ve been reading books in similar categories; of course I’ll still buy copies of those in the fullness of time). This one is based on a lecture Coel did, but builds around it to produce something I could probably have read for Novellas in November but there you go.

Michaela Coel – “Misfits: A Personal Manifesto”

(31 August 2021 – NetGalley)

Coming from the tiny Square Mile, and a tiny family, what carried me through those five years was the abundance of Black girls, White girls, mixed girls, misfits; my friends were all misfits: a huge gang of commercially unattractive, beautiful misfits who found the mainstream world unattractive.

The kernel of this book is the Edinburgh Festival MacTaggart lecture which Coel, acclaimed actor and writer of the series Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You, gave. The introduction features a sad story about the destruction of a moth leading her to realise she’s anosmic but the main part is more clear and impactful.

Coel takes us through her life as a working class, Black woman trying to make her way in writing and acting. I was interested to see she grew up on an “invisible” council housing estate right in the middle of the City of London as I lived for a couple of years in a similar block in Covent Garden (mainly owner-occupied after Thatcher’s Right to Buy scheme but still with a real mix of residents). That’s by the by, of course, but it was a nice little moment. She’s thrown into a world of misfits early on and thrives on it, a misfit being to her someone who will stand their ground and speak out, a positive thing.

As she goes through school and drama school then work, she experiences racism and calls it out creatively, never accusing anyone directly, just pointing things out that scream inequity. She calls out for other people to stand up to inequity and inequality, to share their own stories and to reach down to help others up:

Why are we platforming misfits, heralding them as newly rich successes, whilst they balance on creaking ladders with little chance of social mobility? I can’t help usher them into this house if there are doors within it they can’t open. It feels complicit. What I can do is be transparent about my own experiences, because transparency helps.

She encourages everyone to make some silence for themselves and have a think about what they are doing in life to help others, about how they operate. She shares a mistake she made with the writing of a person of a different ethnicity to her own, how she was called out for it and how she dealt with it – brave stuff to admit in print and lecture hall. In fact like Shon Faye, writer of “The Transgender Issue” which I’m reading at the moment, she talks strongly about how systems have to be changed not just reactions to one or more race.

I’m going to try to be my best; to be transparent; and to play whatever part i can to help fix this house. What part will you play?

Powerful stuff indeed.

Thank you to Ebury Press for making this available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Misfits” was published on 7 September.

Book review – Charlie Brinkhust-Cuff and Timi Sotire (eds.) – “Black Joy”

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I was much struck by the exhortations by Sophie Williams and especially Emma Dabiri in my reading in July to stop wallowing about in Black misery and have a look at and share examples of Black joy. So when I saw this one pop up on NetGalley, it was an easy choice to request it.

Charlie Brinkhust-Cuff (who also edited the excellent Windrush book I read last year, as well as being a former member of the gal-dem collective) and newcomer to editing Timi Sotire add their voices to twenty-eight other Black British writers, from pop stars to politicians, film-makers to queer activists, to share what brings them joy. I want to make sure I share everyone’s names, so there’s a list at the bottom of this piece.

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff and Timi Sotire (eds.) – “Black Joy”

These essays are uplifting, but they do not ignore the raw realities of our existence – and nor should they. Black joy in this climate is an undoubtedly political reaction to the world we are living in, but we must be careful to push the conversation beyond this moment, and beyond a hashtag.

After introductions by the editors which do make the point above that this is not an either/or, it’s a both/and (and this is reflected in many of the essays), we have a lovely set of life-affirming and often inspiring pieces on such a wide range of topics, body positivity, recipes, music, queer London life, dancing, reading, sport … It’s also very notable for its inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people and women of size – truly inclusive.

Very much written for Black British people by Black British people, readers outside the particular cultures mentioned will sometimes have to do some work looking things up, or just let the names of music, food, dances, clothing wash over them (but it’s fun to look up the things you don’t know and learn something). Some aspects are of course universal, some particular to Black British culture, some particular to parts of that non-monolithic culture, such as Ghanaian or Nigerian British culture, some particular to people of mixed heritage. So the book really shows up the variety of experiences (and joys) that come from these places, literal or more amorphous.

There’s a lot to enjoy but also a lot to learn: what Prince meant to someone of the same colour exploring their masculinity, how studies on dyslexia don’t take into account Black people’s experiences, how the film industry pressures creatives into boxes that their White cohort aren’t forced into, how tiring workplace microaggressions are (“We got things to do! Black people don’t sit around at work waiting to deliver TED talks to people actually called Ted” [Munya Chawawa]), and, in a very moving piece, the joys, connection and strength of communities on housing estates.

I loved how the contributor list at the end included a music track that brings joy to each person – and, in my second book that includes a QR code, there’s even a playlist at the end. The illustrations will be more powerful in a print copy but are varied and attractive and add an extra dimension to the essays.

Highly recommended, especially if you’ve been wading through Black misery book lists and/or are a Black reader looking to see yourself and your positive interests represented.

Contributors to the book: essays by Diane Abbott – Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé – Fopé Ajanaku – Athian Akec – Travis Alabanza – Haaniyah Angus – Rukiat Ashawe – Bukky Bakray – Richie Brave – Munya Chawawa – Ruby Fatimilehin – Theophina Gabriel – Lauryn Green – Ife Grillo – Isaac James – Chanté Joseph – Vanessa Kisuule – Henrie Kwushue – Tobi Kyeremateng – Mikai McDermott – Jason Okundaye – Tope Olufemi – Melz Owusu – Leigh-Anne Pinnock – Mayowa Quadri – Lavinya Stennett – Timi Sotire – Sophia Tassew; and art works by Jovilee Burton – Tomekah George – Emma Hall – Chioma Ince – Olivia Twist.

Thank you to Penguin Random House for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Book review – Sara Nisha Adams – “The Reading List”

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Somewhat inevitably, with a lot of work on, my 20 Books of Summer list to finish and a lovely stack of review books in for Shiny, I’ve fallen a bit behind with my NetGalley reading. This was one that came out in July but I kept seeing people talking about it and wanted to get it read and reviewed.

I really enjoyed it, although it packed more of an emotional punch than I was perhaps expecting, and certainly had some strong (and important) themes around mental health that could be triggering to some.

Sara Nisha Adams – “The Reading List”

(14 May 2021)

‘Harishbhai’s son,’ Mukesh said, wondering if the boy had a name but appreciating Harishbhai’s clear and strong sense of branding. ‘Let’s go, over there, there are a few lonely souls who need a flyer.

It’s 2019 and Mukesh, who lost his wife two years ago, is just existing, really, a set of answerphone messages from his three bossy daughters and an interaction with the jolly grocer, Nikhil, who helps him with cooking tips, his only real human activity. He watches Blue Planet re-runs and fears he’s losing touch with his young granddaughter, who always had an understanding around books with her grandma. One day, he decides to make a trip to the local library to return his dear Naima’s last library book – he has read it (“The Time Traveller’s Wife”) and found it helped him through his grieving, but now he’s stuck.

At the library, he encounters disaffected library worker Aleisha, doing a summer job and bored silly. She’s rude to him, but comes to regret it. Can she use the library system to tempt him back, with a reservation for another book from this weird list she’s found on a scrap of paper? And Aleisha has got a lot on her plate, as she and her brother are caring for their single mum, who is going through a mental health crisis and has been for months. Nothing can reach her sometimes and they’re at their wits’ end.

Meanwhile, in alternate chapters, in 2017 we find all sorts of people finding the same book list popping up here and there, in a narrative which feels a bit confusing but does stitch together. The community of library workers is a lovely one, and their regulars, and Mukesh is pulled into this plus back into his original community in the Hindu temple (he moved to the UK from Kenya when his and Naima’s daughters were small). As a side point, I loved the positive portrayal of Mukesh and Naima’s arranged marriage and the space his parents gave her to take her time settling in when she moved in with them; so often we get the same narrative of pain and upset and overbearing in-laws and it’s nice to see a different side.

Friendships grow and flourish, helped by talking about the various books on the list. Mukesh even starts to bond with his granddaughter as he gets to grips with this reading lark after all these decades not bothering with books. But there’s trouble brewing: his friendship with one of Naima’s oldest friends gets noticed, and while Aleisha starts to feel able to talk about her mum with her new friends, her brother doesn’t seem to have that opportunity.

Appealing to fans of “The Lido” and other community-based books, with its nice multicultural cast, there’s an event at the library which pulls almost everyone together. It’s nicely structured and well-done, and there’s a fair bit of humour, but it’s also not all light and fluffy and certainly one event (which is quite cleverly foreshadowed but took me by surprise) is a big emotional punch and I wonder if it could have been rolled back just a little bit. Hard to talk about without disclosing the plot however. I will definitely look out for this author’s next books.

Thank you to HarperCollins for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “The Reading List” was published on 22 July.

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