Book review – Bernardine Evaristo – “Manifesto”

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This was the first book I bought from The Heath Bookshop back in September (you can read about the shop, my purchases and their launch weekend here; I bought this with a book token when they were soft-launching to help them to practise the process before it was critical). I picked this up to read as part of my 2023 policy to get my hardbacks read before they’re out in paperback, and of the other two books I bought that week, one will get read in ReadIndies month next month and the other might get read this month as part of the same policy.

Bernardine Evaristo – “Manifesto: On Never Giving Up”

(09 September 2022, The Heath Bookshop)

The person I am today no longer throws stones at the fortress. I sit inside its chambers having polite, persuasive and persistent conversations about how best to transform outmoded infrastructures to accommodate those who have been unfairly excluded. The rebel without has become the negotiator within, who understands that we need to sit at the table where the decisions are made, and that enrolling people in conversations is ultimately more effective than shouting at them (satisfying as that can sometimes be). (p. 183)

In this thematically structured memoir, such a lot of life, information and positivity packed into one short volume, Evaristo explains where she came from and how she came to be a writer and activist, all heading to her “overnight” success when she won the Booker Prize aged 60 for the sublime “Girl, Woman, Other“. Divided into chapters on heritage and family, houses and homes, relationships, drama. poetry and fiction, education and the self and activism, she circles around her life, concentrating on the theme of the chapter, which actually works really well, with a bit of referring forward and back.

And the ordering of the chapters makes sense; although we travel with her through her family relationships and issues around growing up with dual heritage in a very White area to her father’s death and her visits to his home country of Nigeria in the first chapter, we are into self-actualisation and the effects she has had going forward (founding and running literary prizes in particular) by the end. It also allows to her explain and celebrate change, so her view of her father as a teenager of his being strict and harsh gets tempered by his example in her activism and attempt to help others. I have to say, as I fail to sort out getting a quotation for something for the house, I did like the tales of renovations half-done or not done in this chapter.

What a strong and admirable character Evaristo is, something she characteristically only puts down partly to herself:

Essentially, I am grateful that I was not raised in a family where I had to fulfil my parents’ ambitions for themselves through me, and that I was encouraged to become the architect of my own adult life. (p. 46)

Of course, she talks passionately and in great detail of the most important thing in her life: writing. I hadn’t quite realised this took precedence over her early work in community-based theatre and I enjoyed reading about the detail of the writing of her books and poetry. Everything: family, jobs, relationships, is seen in terms of what it contributed to her writing, and I hugely admire this single-mindedness and determination. And of course (or not of course, as I wasn’t quite expecting it), at the end we get Evaristo’s own personal manifesto, something unique to her but also points we can all carry with us about being responsible for ourselves and for helping and supporting others where we can: generous and uncompromising, they read as a fitting summary of her life, work and opinions.

What an excellent book!

Book review – Jyoti Patel – “The Things that we Lost”

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I requested this debut novel by Jyoti Patel, who won the #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize in 2021, attracted by its themes of family and identity. Although it centres on a young person, it’s not one of those struggling millennials novels but a story about generations and the stories they tell or don’t tell. It did not disappoint, and reminded me of Sairish Hussain’s “The Family Tree” or Kasim Ali’s “Good Intentions” with their multicultural and university settings.

Jyoti Patel – “The Things that we Lost”

(25 October 2022, NetGalley)

There is no one left to buy her time. He will always want to know more about his father, and she must find a way to let him. But she does not know how she can do this without holding some of the truth back; she could not bear to burden hm with all she knows. It would be too much. It would shatter something in him, like it did her. It would only destroy him.

We start this engaging novel encountering one of a series of microaggressions which will be scattered through the book, reminding us of the daily onslaught people racialised as black and brown often have to weather. Avani, after a university lecture, is surprised by a fellow student shoving an ankle tattoo of India in her face and wittering on about her trip to Goa. This is in 1990, and yet in 2017, Avani’s son Nik, who is of dual heritage and part of a warm, mixed friendship group at home, is enduring open racism from his university flatmate as well as incidents of microaggression (and moments of huge warmth from other people even not quite of his culture who he encounters). But that’s not the only thing he has to endure – his grandfather has just died after trying to tell him something about his dad, who died before it was even know Avani was pregnant.

Nik has a key and an empty house to check, but things only come together when Avani’s with him and she’s horrified at the secret his grandfather has kept all these years. And as the story progresses and Nik tries to hold it together to get to university while Avani tries to maintain the silence she’s held over her perceived blame for her husband’s death and mulls over her escape from her abusive mother, who had been furious about her inter-racial relationship and marriage, and her beloved Elliot’s escape from his own dreadful parents, more objects are found that were saved, and more relationships fracture, while others grow.

Nik has been looking for father figures through his life, and now his grandfather’s gone he thinks of his stepdad Paul – however, he gets to see Paul through new, more adult eyes. Thank goodness for his good friends, old school and college mates and a couple of new university friends, as well as his friend Will’s dad, a found family he will be glad of. His growing anxiety and depression are not helped by being at university in a small, very monocultural city after growing up in multicultural Harrow, and we’re left hoping he’ll be able to transfer, as his cousin also did.

So there’s a lot going on in this book but it’s not cluttered and not at all writing-course-y, but flows naturally with themes of friendship and family and friendship within family pushing to the fore. There’s a beautiful redemptive moment with an uncle who had seemed to have become almost a cliche, and there’s a very nice dog which doesn’t have anything awful happen to it (phew). We’re not left with all the ends neatly tied, which I liked, but with enough resolution and hope to make it a positive as well as an interesting read.

Thank you to Random House UK / Merky Books for selecting me to read this novel through NetGalley in return for an honest review. “The Things that we Lost” was published on 12 January 2023.

Book review – Jini Reddy – “Wanderland”

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Another of the Emma and Liz Reads books (if you want to find them all, click here or on the category in the category cloud), much shorter than “Square Haunting” so it only took us a couple of months to get through, a chapter or two at a time. I acquired this as part of my June 2021 Christmas and Birthday Book Token Splurge (on Bookshop.org as the Heath Bookshop didn’t exist to splurge in then); I did save it as it was our Read Together List, and I’m pleased to say that I have now read and reviewed all the books pictured here (part-way down the post) bought at the same time.

Jini Reddy – “Wanderland: A Search for Magic in the Landscape”

(24 June 2021, book token splurge)

I wanted to invoke something – for some life force to make its presence known to me – and the wanting of it felt like a kind of lovesickness.

Had I been a die-hard conservationist or scientist or maybe grown up on a farm, I’d have likely laughed myself silly at such notions. But those things hadn’t been a part of my life. Instead, what I’d had was Hinduism and atheism by osmosis and then ordinary-growing-up secularism but with a yen for magical things. Call me sentimental but I wanted something more than to walk through an alluring landscape and admire its beauty. I wanted somehow to be more porous. I didn’t want to be burdened by needing to know the name of every bird, creature, tree and petal. No, I wanted something else, something a bit Other and a bit mystical even – the seeking of it was what truly excited me. (pp. 11-12)

In this early quote, travel writer and seeker Reddy lays out what she thinks she wants and really encapsulates the book that lies ahead: she’s seeking something but she’s not sure what, it’s not in her traditions and she doesn’t want naming conventions and conventional knowledge, and she’s going to get the most out of the act of seeking. To be fair, this is quite an honest portrayal of the book.

Reddy, a person of Indian heritage via South Africa, who was born in Britain but lived in Canada for a big chunk of her life, looks at Britain through Othered eyes, and searches for something, she’s not sure what, all the time aware of her Otherness. Quite a few reviewers on Amazon were bothered by her finding racism all over the place: I didn’t feel that was something to disbelieve or criticise – who am I to undermine someone’s lived experience, for a start? – and there was some powerful stuff about needing to have all the right kit when exploring the deep countryside while inhabiting a Brown skin so as not to be patronised or insulted, which reminded me forcefully of the issues the Muslim hikers’ groups have had in the Lake District.

The problem Emma and I had with the narrative was more that she was so very impatient, expecting to have a mystical, special experience, to bond with her guide, to find the hidden location of a well or tree, immediately, and getting what can only be described as grumpy when that didn’t happen. There’s a really uncomfortable chapter late on in the book where she takes a friend to Lindisfarne and they fall out – said friend being someone going through cancer treatment at the time and perhaps deserving of a bit more understanding.

Also, and I do take the point that I might be being defensive about my own culture, she was really dismissive of British traditional culture like religious iconography, even the most basic, in churches or old country habits and beliefs. To be fair, she seemed not very rooted in any cultural or religious traditions, not just those, describing herself as a “citizen of nowhere” with no deep-rooted traditions to follow, but it felt quite dismissive, while expecting the reader to be interested in her yearnings towards some kind of unformed mysticism. But then she wasn’t keen on the Glastonbury Zodiac or ley lines, either (I got quite excited about the Zodiac and lines, taking me back to old mystical readings of my own and my ancestral lands of the West Country, which I think surprised Emma a little!).

There were some lovely descriptions, humility and clarity and interesting places and land art, and Reddy frequently describes well her feelings of being isolated from all the groups who usually experience – and write about – nature:

I often felt too conventional for the pagans, too esoteric for the hardcore wildlife tribe, not deep enough for the deep ecologists, not logical enough for the scientists, not ‘listy’ enough for the birder types, not enough of a ‘green thumb’ for the gardeners. (p. 13)

although both we and she eventually thought she might be better off relaxing and doing her thing (I call myself a birdwatcher though I am by no means ‘listy’, for example).

As we travel through the book with her, she does “learn to listen” and by explaining her quest to different people, refines and defines it. She finds places where she feels serenity, and I have to stress as a final point that it is just great to have travel and nature books coming out that are by non-traditional travel and nature writers, i.e. a (self-described) Brown woman with multiple heritages behind her, exploring Britain in her way and asking questions. More power to her for that, even if the book wasn’t perfect.

We did agree on these main points, so enjoyed agreeing, discussing and wishing her a happier time. Our next book is Adam Nicolson’s “The Sea is Not Made of Water: Life Between the Tides”. Do let me know if you’ve read and reviewed this one, though!

Book review – Meron Hadero – “A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times”

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[Edit: reposting as I had a typo in the author’s name, sorry for any confusion but it messed up the URL forever]

I’ve realised that my taste in short stories matches my taste in poems – and, it has to be said, is somewhat less sophisticated than my English degree should predict. I like a story that is about something or someone recognisable, in a place, doing something or thinking something or experiencing something that is realistic. Actually, that probably extends to my taste in films and novels, too – fantasy can be present but it has to make sense and be rooted in the world in some way. I suspect this is why I like non-fiction so much, too, as I shy away from the episodic, fractured and too-self-consciously literary in favour of the knowable and imaginable.

Anyway, all this is moving towards saying that I liked a lot of this debut collection, but some of it I wasn’t so keen on! It was always interesting to read about the Ethiopian American experience, however.

Meron Hadero – “A Down Home Meal for these Difficult Times”

(31 October 2022)

“Oh, what we all have been through to get here, what pains to leave our homes and start again, and we think that if we can just make it here, all will be well. Little do we realize that once we show up, that’s when the hardest work begins, life’s work. Leaving, crossing, arriving, pitching your home, that’s prelude. The struggle, the legging go, that long voyage, that’s all just prelude” (“Preludes”)

The first few stories in this collection by an Ethiopian American author were absolutely brilliant and had me recommending the book all over the place. “The Suitcase” takes a young women who has returned to Ethiopia on a visit with the requisite suitcase full of gifts for relatives and old friends, and then must take it back full of items for these people’s diasporic families – but what happens when the case is too full and too heavy? A chorus of marvellous voices tries to persuade Saba what to take and what to discard: what will she do? And “The Wall” was absolutely fascinating, looking at the lives of Ethiopian settlers in Germany, faced with the Berlin wall, and later in a third country, the protagonist meets an elderly German man and considers their two very different emigrations.

“The Street Sweep” looks at the fragile relationship between an American NGO worker who makes foolish promises and the Ethiopian street sweeper who believes them, but in a twist common to these stories, the street sweeper begins to grasp his own fate in his own hands, too. This one in particular taught me about the way life in at least Addis Ababa is arranged and regulated; other stories taught me more about the country’s history. “The Thief’s Tale” was a satisfying story of an old, visiting Ethiopian father, lost in New York, getting one up on a potential assailant; it had a ring of a folk story to it but was steeped in enough local detail to be a good read for me.

And in the title story, “A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times” we meet two women who did not have to cook or do housework back home but now get a standard American cookbook and work through the recipes as events occur in their lives, eventually running a very successful food truck and getting others through downturns and troubles. “Preludes” was a bit more experimental, but this set of linked short pieces about a neighbourhood was moving and gave a real sense of community, and it contains the quotation I give above (said by a woman of Caribbean origin in this story but echoing other stories in the book).

I didn’t love all the stories: those which I haven’t mentioned did feel a bit self-consciously literary or even writing-course-y, something I am immediately suspicious of, but all showed a solid talent and work done at the craft, I learned a lot about Ethiopian and diaspora Ethiopian life and I will undoubtedly look out for this author’s next production.

Thank you to Canongate for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times” was published on 1 December 2023.

Book review – Eris Young – “Ace Voices”

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I requested this book on NetGalley a while ago as I work to understand different communities and keep my reading and interests diverse. I also have at least one asexual friend and thought this would help me reach more understanding without pressuring them for information. It was partly helpful although a bit confusing, but of course there are more books out there and I will look into them (one thing this book did have was a great resources section). This was one of my unread December NetGalley reads; I am trying to keep up!

Eris Young – “Ace Voices: What it Means to be Asexual, Aromantic, Demi or Grey-Ace”

(4 July 2022, NetGalley)

This book sets out to give people on the asexual spectrum (or a-spec) (which includes a wide range of identities including aromantic ones) somewhere to find themselves and know they are not alone and, I think maybe slightly less successfully, help allosexual spectrum (people who are orientated towards sexuality and romance, giving a term to be in contrast to a-spec rather than assuming it’s the default, much as we use cis- and transgender) to understand a-spec people.

I did learn a lot – there are a lot of different descriptors to define different ways of being, which can seem confusing at times: this does a good job at defining them (at this point in time, as it’s an area where language is constantly changing) and also really viscerally explains how the terms have helped people to realise they are not alone/weird/wrong. It was useful to have good definitions of the difference between being asexual and aromantic and how one person will not necessarily both (so you can be open to romance but not sex, or only able to have sex with someone you know really, really well, or you can be uninterested in romance and able to have a one-night stand with a stranger, or any combination thereof, for example). Of course, in a heteronormative, marriage-industrial-complex environment that puts romantic and married pairings higher in a hierarchy of relationships than friendship, this can lead to people with such orientations being criticised to persecuted (the book is light on discussing trauma and at pains to clarify that asexuality does not arise from trauma, but it’s clear that various levels of traumatic things can happen around allosexual people’s reactions to a-spec people’s orientations).

There are statistics from a survey the author did and then quotes from in-depth interviews which were really useful for getting feelings and orientations through to the reader. I would have maybe liked more detail on how the research sample was put together, and who was chosen for interviews. There is also discussion, with notes, on previous research and comparison with the present study to validate it. It makes a good effort to include intersectionality, looking at people with disabilities (including quite a lot about neurodivergent folk) and global majority people, as well as looking at studies from non-Western countries and the different issues faced there and conclusions that can be drawn from them. It makes sure it covers a-spec joy as well as pain and struggle.

One thing I did find a bit confusing, and I am aware I need to check my privilege here as a cis-het person, is that cis-gender heterosexual people were not really included here, and I had thought one could be a-spec and of a heterosexual orientation. The author had found out about a-spec through involvement with the queer community and it seemed that most of their participants had, too (I don’t know really how I found out about it but presumably through reading and shared information on social media; I definitely knew what it was in general before my friend mentioned it). So only two people mentioned in the whole book had a heterosexual orientation, and I would think there would be more than that, just given statistics. However, I’m also aware having talked this through with a couple of friends in the LGBTQIA+ community that the last thing that community needs is to be flooded by heterosexual people (and of course I don’t need my general sector of cis-het people to be represented everywhere, as we get plenty of stuff written about us), although I thought the A stood for Asexual in general (open to correction there; it’s hard to find out though) and apparently only 1% of the whole UK population self-identifies as asexual. and a proportion of those would be LGBTQI. There was also a long chapter at the end about kinds of non-monogamous relationships people who are a-spec talked about being ideal which didn’t really interest me in such detail, but is probably helpful to those in the community looking to find a way to be outside “conventional” relationships.

So maybe there is a rich seam of research on heterosexual monogamous people who are asexual, but it’s not here, and maybe the book should have been defined as being about queer a-spec folk. It was also interesting that the author talks quite a lot about not working out things about themselves until they were writing this book, but maybe it should be then described as partly their personal journey: again absolutely fine, of course, but not what I thought the book was.

As mentioned above, the book is full of information and has a great resources section at the end, including a list of fiction that involves a-spec people which is always useful to see. There’s a very good list of ways allo people can support their a-spec friends by validating their friendships as important as well as the basics of not trying to pressurise the whole world into being in relationships. It’s good to have positive and detailed books like this out there, based on real people’s voices, and I would recommend it to anyone exploring their a-spec identity and finding their community and, in a slightly more limited way, for those who wish to understand the community.

Thank you to Jessica Kingsley Publishers for making this available on NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Ace Voices” was published on 21 December 2022.

Book review – Nicola Rollock – “The Racial Code: Tales of Resistance and Survival”

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I was selected to read this book via NetGalley after it came out, and didn’t manage to get it read until this month, but I have now covered all my October NetGalley books. I was attracted by the title but wasn’t quite sure what this book was going to be like – it was different to what I’d expected but extremely well done and innovative.

Nicola Rollock – “The Racial Code: Tales of Resistance and Survival

(16 October 2022).

I argue that mainstream perceptions of racism are wrong and overly preoccupied with explicit or extreme forms of racism seen to exist only on the fringes of society. Instead, I draw attention to the existence of more subtle forms of racism which saturate everyday life and shape interactions between (and sometimes within) different racialized groups. These interactions help determine who is seen to belong, who is included and excluded from different social spaces and roles, and, crucially, help maintain a racial status quo where white people remain at the top of the hierarchy and people of colour are at the bottom.

After working out a lot about her identity and what race was when she got to university, Rollock became a well-known and highly trusted academic, eventually tasked by think tank The Runnymede Trust with carrying out an independent review of progress arising from the Macpherson report of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. Finding that in particular the recommendations on approaches to race in the police force had not been addressed, she further discovered in other studies and reports later that the same was true: nothing had changed. Suspecting there was something more than institutional, a sort of code in place, to retain racist structures and maintain the White-led status quo, she researched and produced this book to share her theory, as laid out in the quotation at the top of this review. And she then goes on, after setting out terms, etc. (she uses “racialized as White” and “racialized as Black” which I think are very useful), to evidence this.

The way she gives her examples of life in the structures of racism is innovative and radical and, while I’ve seen composite portraits in books on psychotherapy practice (most lately Susanna Abse’s), it’s not something I’ve seen used in a book like this exploring structural racism. In each area, to do with the world of work, seeking work and promotion, being drafted in to an organisation to accomplish change, networking, when to speak up about racist statements from people, etc., she uses examples from people she’s interviewed or her own experiences to weave a compelling story which shows in fictional form very powerfully what she’s talking about. So we’re inside the world of a middle-class, well-dressed Black man at an exclusive club who encounters an uncomfortable doorman (Black, so only showing body language), a posh White man who “doesn’t see race” and a posh White woman who claims to think he’s a waiter, or we meet a couple arguing in a car about whether someone should have called someone out and risked spoiling a party.

At the end of each story or group of stories is a section by Rollock detailing what she is showing here with back-up information, and there are also some short, hard-hitting vignettes with individual experiences. Particularly wince-inducing is the very clever list of “some of the ways in which white people seek to demonstrate their commitment to advancing racial justice while, in fact, holding steadfast to existing practices” which is called “A white person’s guide to preserving racism in the modern age”. And, as Rollock states, the footnotes are there to reference the sources but also to give tips on where and how to go deeper into various individual areas. Intersectionality is brought into play when looking at women and working class people and their experiences and the author is careful to show nuance rather than monolithic behaviour – in White people as well.

Although a lot of the statistics and situations Rollock is talking about can be encountered in other books on racial justice, this way of presenting them is visceral and really hits home. As well as more direct reportage style pieces there are a couple of savage satires near the end that are shocking – as they have every right to be, of course – and a straight-talking section on the phenomenon of people only being awoken to racism by George Floyd’s murder and rushing to quickly mine books on the topic then just as quickly move on (a real risk which can be mitigated by a drip feed of reading and sharing, in my opinion, but one that needs to be borne in mind). A genuinely innovative book that will hit hard and not allow the reader to skim past stats. There’s room for a range of books, of course, and I’m glad that this seems to have been commissioned before lockdown and George Floyd, giving hope that the recent resurgence in diverse publishing will continue and not suddenly lapse back down again.

Thank you to Allen Lane for choosing me to read this book in return for an honest review. “The Racial Code” was published on 6 October 2022.

Book review – Jimi Famurewa – “Settlers: Journeys through the Food, Faith and Culture of Black African London”

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Yet another great read courtesy of NetGalley – I’m not completely sure how I became aware of this one but I was very glad to be selected for it, and it complements other reading I’ve been doing very nicely, as it concentrates on the later 20th century and the increase in settlement in London from the Black African community, now overtaking people of Caribbean origin arriving here. Having lived in several areas Black African people live – notably Peckham and New Cross – I was looking for information on how those areas have thrived and changed, which I was happy to find.

Jimi Famurewa – “Settlers: Journeys through the Food, Faith and Culture of Black African London”

(30 August 2022, NetGalley)

I do not remember a time in my life when I had anything like pure, unquestioning faith. But I recognize now, more than ever, that I have benefitted immeasurably from the structure, support and values that religion through a specifically African lens has bestowed. For me and so many others, our Black African identity is inextricably linked to faith. They are one and the same. I understand that it has given me more than it has taken away. And I appreciate that, for all its issues and ideosyncrasies, it has long been the only path to sanctuary, success and sanity for those bearing the daily weight of life in diaspora. That it cannot be easily explained is sort of the point.

British-Nigerian author Famurewa takes us through life in Black African London through the lens of his own lived experience and that of the people he interviews and his craft of journalism. He divides the book into themes rather than chronologically, although we do take a look at the practice of “farming” first of all, where African parents, often coming to London to study, placed their children with mainly White foster families, often in poorer parts of Kent and London, with varying and not always negative effects (he states in the Prologue that he started out with the aim of providing a positive portrait but wasn’t always able to). Then we look at markets, immigration patterns, crime, police and prisons, religion, restaurants and the outward movement of Black African families, echoing the constant moves from the inner city to the outer city, the suburbs and beyond but with its own special issues and features.

Famurewa opens the book with a vivid journey through different aspect of Black African life in London, from tutoring businesses to community halls, street preachers and parties to markets and traders, and his descriptions of people and places remain atmospheric and vivid throughout. He draws out various themes across the chapters – an entrepreneurialism based on necessity (you can’t get the goods you want to consume, you can’t get ahead in a company, you can’t get traditional funding, so you do a side project or start a small business, maybe renting a kiosk in a bigger premises, a larger one, an individual shop, etc.); the need to employ extra resources to keep up and get ahead, leading to the mass migration of children across London to attend selective grammar schools; the division between Caribbean and African people that was encouraged but is now maybe dissipating; the fact that “we are here because you were there” – notably in the fact that British missionaries went to Africa to convert the local people then did not always give them a welcome in British churches when they emigrated, leading to the development of the large, active, community service orientated Black churches in London. The last chapter has an interesting look at the phenomenon of second-generation Black African people returning to Africa, either full or part time, and he talks to some of them and the advantages they see in that. And he says, referencing the way that African students were appalled by an exhibit of people from Africa at an exhibition in the 20th century, protested and had it stopped,

… what Ajala’s generation [of returners] is doing is not all that dissimilar to what the students who were appalled by the Empire Exhibition were doing. Which is to say, by actively pushing against the idea that the West is inherently better or more civilized, she is expanding and sharpening our perception of what African identity can mean or look like.

although he also emphasises that these returners are often living between the UK and their African country and city, not settled in either place.

An excellent, highly readable book with plenty to learn and think about, and a portrait of a city in a time of change and development which has apparently not been written about before. He does reference a lot of other writers, from Sam Selvon to Akala, and I assume that the finished copy will have a reference list and bibliography. Definitely one to recommend.

Thank you to Bloomsbury Publishing for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Settlers” was published on 13 October 2022.

Book review – Chelsea Watego – “Another Day in the Colony”

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Here we have the last book I read for AusReading Month: fortunately, Brona, who runs the challenge, has allowed people to post reviews after the end of the month! I continued my theme of reading books set around social justice and Australia’s Aboriginal/Indigenous peoples along a sort of curriculum: I read “Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence” to get a background idea of the Stolen Generations and a summary of the experience of Aboriginal peoples from when the White invaders first came; then “Growing up Aboriginal in Australia” gave the experiences of Aboriginal people growing up from the 1940s to 1990s and now we have the lived experiences of one woman who is an Aboriginal/Indigenous [she uses both terms in the book, Indigenous more often and I’m trying to reflect that] writer, academic and campaigner. This is the third book that Bill from The Australian Legend kindly sent to me in January. His review is here and I urge you to read it.

I admit right now that I’ve been a bit nervous about reviewing this book. It is not written “for” me, the author makes it clear (and fair enough, of course) and it’s doubly not about my culture, being Aboriginal/Indigenous centred and about Australia. All I can really do is set down my reactions and the connections I have drawn with other works I’ve read or cultural issues I’ve noted: and like all great works, it’s both specific to its time and culture but can have general global points drawn from it. I’d encourage people to read it for themselves if they’re at all interested in learning about colonialism, current issues of the “settlers” in a claimed territory that is actually someone else’s and Indigenous people’s lived experience.

Chelsea Watego – “Another Day in the Colony”

(13 January 2022, from Bill)

It took me a while to realise that in teaching Indigenous anything I was meant to be teaching students to feel good about being a coloniser; that in my presence I was meant to be the site of absolution both for the institution and its students. Despite transcending our role in the academy as engraved objects carved into sandstone, to enter classrooms as educators we are still being called to accessorise white knowing and affirm white belonging. (p. 109)

Dr Watego is clearly angry, and she has good reason. She is also exhausted, and as we read this book, we can see why. She doesn’t want to, and doesn’t, explain terms, history and experiences for White / settler [her term] readers, and why should she? (this fits with a long-held view of mine which I know is contentious that it’s my job to look stuff up, not the author’s job to explain her culture to me when things are easily looked up; terms, yes, experiences, no, and we get them from this book).

I’d like to say Dr Watego’s experiences are shocking, but if you’ve read a fair bit of work by Global Majority and Indigenous peoples, unfortunately they’re not. Or not surprising. She experiences racism and exclusion in academia and expected to remove guilt from White students (I’ve read Black and Brown academics talking of that here). She’s blamed for all sorts of things outside her control. If she’s in confrontation with a White person, the White person will be believed (and let go and she’ll be taken into custody). If she dares to say that someone who claims to be Indigenous but has no connection to the culture which is so communal and relational is not yet wholly Indigenous, she’s told she’s wrong. She encounters White anthropologists who try to tell her about her own lived experience. She sees her own people denigrated for having poor health outcomes when it’s clear those outcomes are a direct result of the pressure and colonisation, institutional and intersectional racism, sexism and classism imposed upon them by a coloniser ideology that believes they should have died out decades ago. (This last reminded me of the blame heaped upon Global Majority People in the UK when they died disproportionately of Covid: it was biological or due to “lifestyle choices”, not of course because they were forced into poverty and overcrowded living and compelled to go out and do risky face-to-face work while the White middle class sat in our homeworking isolation.)

In this bold and usettling book, Dr Watego sets down her experiences on her terms. She is able to print a (perfectly reasonable, well-argued and massively referenced) article that ended up not going out in an academic journal because the publishers weren’t keen on the racist stereotyping and violence clearly portrayed in the book being exposed without having some spurious balance: she did claim room for a rebuttal and letter to the managing editors in the journal. She states powerfully in the final essay that there is no room for hope, only for sovreignty, and for standing your ground, not fighting back, for strategies and not solutions. You’re not going to read this to feel better about the world or your place in it, apart from the fact that there are people like Dr Watego who are managing to speak out and get published so others can see themselves reflected or learn about what’s happened and happening. There is a superb playlist in the back of the book of “songs that brought joy” while she was writing it, and I salute her (not that she needs my salute, obviously) for including that in what is a confrontational and at times very dense read.

One powerful lesson that was reiterated for me here (which I did learn when reading a book by a non-Indigenous Canadian about Indigenous Canadians last year and bought a new book instead) was to go to “own voices” for books about Indigenous and Global Majority peoples, which I do do on the whole, but I need to stay in this space and not go back to White people’s, even if not Australians’, narratives about Indigenous/Aboriginal peoples like the one I read last year. And I recommend this powerful and strong narrative by very much an “own voice”.


This was Book 3 for AusReading Month and Book 12 for Nonfiction November.

State of the TBR – December 2022

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Looking at last month’s picture, I have done quite well again! Incomings have come in but books have come off the TBR, too. Even though I’ve added five books to the little pile at the end, it’s not as big as last month.

I completed 23 books in November (thanks to my week’s holiday and doing Novellas in November), and am part-way through three more (one my Emma Read and one reading along with Matthew), plus the long-term ongoing Tolkien and Sagas books. I read all my ebook TBR books for November (my picture was wrong last month; I have yet to review two of them), and also got my September ones and all but one of my October ones read or (one) started. I read eight out of the fifteen novellas I put out to choose from and two others (one in from a publisher then read right away, one from the TBR), making a total of ten, and I read three books for AusReading Month (one left to review) and twelve for NonFiction November.

Incomings

Incoming print books. I had some lovely books in this month.

“Mary & Mr Eliot” by Mary Trevelyan and Erica Wagner is an author copy from the publisher – it’s based on Mary Trevelyan’s manuscript about her friendship with T.S. Eliot which I copy-typed a few years ago to start off the process for Erica to edit and provide commentary on it. Lovely publisher Michael Walmer kindly sent me a review copy of his reprint of Howard Sturgis’ “On the Pottlecomble Cornice” which I promptly reviewed for Novellas in November and the British Library Publishing folk kindly sent me “Stories for Christmas and the Festive Season” which of course I have saved to read this month. We had a tea party at Ali’s the other weekend and Meg gave me her copy of Claire Keegan’s “Small Things Like These” while Ali passed me her copy of Elisa Shua Dusapin’s “The Pachinko Parlour”. I went to a Brian Bilston poetry reading run by The Heath Bookshop last week and bought a copy of his latest book, “Days Like These” (a poem for every day of the year!), and finally I received a copy of Nigel Green and Robin Wilson’s “Brutalist Paris” which I had helped crowd-fund. What a lovely variety of ways to receive books!

I won five NetGalley books this month:

“The Silence of the Stands” by Daniel Gray (published November) is about football’s lost season in the lockdowns – whose blog did I see this on?? Alexis Keir writes about returning to St Vincent [edited out my error, apoplogies to the author] and tracing his family’s journeys to the UK and New Zealand in “Windward Family” (Feb 2023) and in “Black Girl from Pyongyang” by Monica Macias (Mar 2023) we’ll learn about how the author was transplanted from West Africa to North Korea to be raised, and how she searched for her identity once she’d grown up (that’s going to be a good one for the Stranger than Fiction segment of NonFicNov next year!). “Happy Place” (April 2023) looks like another good novel from Emily Henry, a break-up novel with a big lie to all the friend group and Shauna Robinson’s “Must Love Books” (Feb 2023) pits a young Black woman against the world of publishing.

And I bought three e-books from Amazon in their Black Friday sale:

I always think I have Trevor Noah‘s memoir, “Born a Crime” but I didn’t, until now. John Cooper Clarke is one of the few poets I like and I couldn’t resist his autobiography, “I Wanna Be Yours”, for 99p. And Patrick King’s “Stand Up For Yourself, Set Boundaries and Stop Pleasing Others” might stop me making myself labour over these massive posts (right?!).

So that was 23 read and 15 coming in in November – back in the right direction!

Currently reading

I’m currently reading “Settlers: Journeys through the Food, Faith and Culture of Black African London” by Jimi Famurewa, which is a NetGalley book published in October and is marvellous so far, Jini Reddy’s “Wanderland” is my readalong with Emma and most entertaining so far, and I’ve finally got to reading Dave Grohl’s “The Storyteller” with Matthew, so he does a bit of the audio book (with Dave narrating and a musical background) on his walk and I catch up with the book (no Dave’s voice or music) at home.

Coming up

This month, I’m taking part in two challenges: my own Dean Street Press December, of course (see my main post here) and I’ve laid out all the DSP books I have in paperback plus one more modern one on Kindle. I’m looking forward to seeing what I and everyone else can read in the month from this lovely publisher.

And I’ve also decided to do #DiverseDecember to maintain the diversity of my reading, though I don’t have a main post to link to for that. So upcoming are Nova Reid’s “The Good Ally”, Riva Lehrer’s memoir of her life and art living with a disability, “Golem Girl” and Rabina Khan’s essays, “My Hair is Pink Under this Veil”. I have my lovely Christmas stories from the British Library, too, and my great big Larry McMurtry, “The Evening Star”. This isn’t the end of Larry McMurtry Rereading, though, as I only have “Cadillac Jack” left so am going to read that in January.

My NetGalley TBR for December has just two books, but of course I have September to November ones, too:

“Beyond Measure” and “Femina” are older ones I need to get read, “The Racial Code” and “The Christmas Castle in Scotland” are two from October I need to polish off (the latter saved on purpose of course) and Meron Hadero’s “A Down Home Meal for Difficult Times” and Eris Young’s “Ace Voices” are published in December.

With the ones I’m currently reading (not including my readalong which will take a while), that’s one book to finish and 21 to read (ten of them paperback novels and I have a week off over Christmas …), but I’m looking forward to it all!


How was your November reading? What are you reading this month? Have you read or picked up any of my selection? Are you doing Dean Street December with me?

Novellas in November – catching up with a last few reads

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I seem to have managed to run out of days in November, what with all the challenges I’ve been doing. So here are short reviews of the last few Novellas in November I fitted in this month. I’ve really enjoyed this challenge, as ever – from picking out a grid of possible reads to working my way through them. I got up to ten this month, eight from the grid of possibility, one that I was sent to review and read and reviewed within the month and one that I inexplicably didn’t include on the grid, so not bad going, and it’s been fun reading everyone else’s reviews, too.

Tessa Wardley – “Mindful Thoughts for Runners”

(25 December 2021, from Meg)

A nice little book looking in quite a lot of depth at mindfulness for runners, covering starting running, enjoying different weather, communities, injury time, etc. I particularly liked that the images through the book were really diverse, and there are lots of details of things you can do like not taking the headphones, noticing different kinds of trees and plants and taking note of the feel of the ground beneath your feet. There’s an environmental element, too – treading lightly, reusing water bottles and the like, which was nice, and a useful chapter on approaching running as you age.

Maya Angelou – “I Wouldn’t Take Nothing for my Journey Now”

(21 January 2022, from Ali)

A book of essays first published in 1993 without any real explanatory matter around them: there’s an Acknowledgements page which mentions two magazine editors who encouraged Angelou to put down her thoughts, but nothing with each piece. But anyway, they’re good, succinct essays with Angelou’s usual direct style and straight talking, encouraging us to do the right thing and be authentic, in summary. Slotting in gaps in her autobiographies, the collection is notable for having quite a lot about her faith, which I don’t remember as a huge part of those works, including the moment she was brought to humility by reading and re-reading a passage about God’s love. I can only presume this is why the book was marked by Virago “Autobiography/Spirituality” on the back of the book: it’s not the main part of it by any means, though. Funny and moving stories mix with exhortations on various subjects: the pieces are short and easy to read and it was an enjoyable collection: I’m looking forward to reading the other two I have TBR.

Hans Siwik – “Iceland: People, Sagas, Landscapes”

(20 May 2022)

I found out about this book in Paul HalfManHalfBook’s April 2022 roundup, where he listed books recently acquired. Intrigued by the title, I managed to hunt a copy down on Abe Books quite soon afterwards. I don’t know if he’s read it yet as I couldn’t find a review.

After a potted history of Iceland, Sigurdur A. Magnusson, who wrote this and presumably chose/edited the other texts, explains that “

No direct correspondence was sought between the texts and the photographs of this book. Word and image may be said to create fruitful tension that should expand rather than confine the central theme, which is the interplay of man and nature … (Foreword, n.p.)

and indeed if you look for a clear correspondence, you won’t find one. There are some longish selections from 1950s and 1960s translations of the sagas interspersed with blocks of very fine colour plates of photographs of landscape and the odd person. The saga selections include my (and probably everyone’s) favourites: Gudrun being asked which husband she loved best in Laxdaela Saga and Gunnar’s death from Njal’s Saga with other bits from Egil’s Saga and Grettir’s Saga.

One for the Iceland/sagas completist maybe, and it was a bit disappointing that there was no list stating where the photographs were of. But a nice book to while away a few hours with.


So that rounds up my go at Novellas in November. More non-fiction than fiction as usual – Matthew did suggest it should be called “Not-Many-Pages November” as even the official page includes non-fiction (though he concedes Novellas in November is the better name!)

These were Books 8 – 10 for Novellas in November, all three from the original selection of 15. They are also Books 9 – 11 for NonFiction November.

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