State of the TBR – December 2021

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It’s time to share the state of my TBR and report on all those November reading challenges. And at the very end of the post, an announcement of my 2022 reading challenge!

I read 26 books in November, which was probably an all-time record, at least since I lived alone in London in the 1990s (one was for Shiny New Books and one for my other blog, so haven’t appeared on here yet). It was down to a) doing Novellas in November, so 15 of the books were under 200 pages, b) not having a huge work schedule so time to read in the daytime, and c) having the Terrible Cold which gave me 2 weeks of milling around feeling a bit rubbish and not spending time running. I’m thrilled to report I’ve taken a total of 23 books off the TBR for my TBR project 2021-22 (one DNF, the others read) so I only have 62/85 left to read (this may be a bit wonky: I will reassess when they’ve gone down a bit more) and am ahead of target (in fact a month ahead of target). I read 16 titles (two in one volume) for Novellas in November and really enjoyed doing that project, and 15 for Nonfiction November, as well as doing all five NonFicNov prompts (one to come out on Friday), and two for AusReading Month. Phew! I read four of my planned NetGalley reads for the month, I didn’t get round to “Unleash the Girls” and didn’t finish “Carefree Black Girls” (it was a valuable read for the author’s experiences but so rooted in a cultural milieu of American contemporary and older TV programmes and musicians etc. that I was having to look up more than I read).

Incomings

Some incomings first. So many incomings. From the woman who doesn’t buy books in Oct/Nov/Dec in case other people buy them for her (to be fair, only one of these was on my wishlist …

In print incomings, first of all I saw mention of Sam Selvon’s “The Housing Lark”, a sequel to his marvellous “Lonely Londoners” on Ten Million Hardbacks’ blog and had to order it, and at the same time, there was mention in “Saga Land” of Kari Gislason’s own book about his search for his Icelandic father, “The Promise of Iceland”, so an order went off to Hive. Then, I went to Oxfam Books to buy presents for a Not So Secret Santa recipient and found they had some brand new social justice type books I couldn’t leave behind – “Rife” ed Nikesh Shukla, which is a 2019 collection of memoir pieces by young people, Kehinde Andrews’ “The New Age of Empire” about the effect of empire around the world, “This is Why I Resist: Don’t Define my Black Identity” by Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu which is a rallying call for anti-racism, and Remi Adekoya’s look at multi-heritage people and their place and experience in the UK, “Biracial Britain”. Then I saw mention of Amrit Wilson’s “Finding a Voice” on The Market Gardener Reader’s My Year in Nonfiction post and realised this classic of oral history / sociology with Asian women in Britain had been updated, and Lenny Henry has edited “Black British Lives Matter” with essays by leading Black British writers, so that was a must-buy, too (more ordering from Hive).

In ebooks, first of all I was so lucky to be sent two lovely D.E. Stevenson novels by Dean Street Press, “Five Windows” and “The Fair Miss Fortune”. They’re out very early next year so I’ll be reading them soon. Then I got a bit tempted by Kindle offers and picked all these up for 99p each – Elizabeth Acevado’s “The Poet X”, a coming of age story told in free verse about a young woman of Dominican descent in New York, Farhad J. Dadyburjor’s “The Other Man” about a closeted gay man in Mumbai dealing with a doomed arranged marriage, British Malaysian comedian Phil Wang’s memoir, “Sidesplitter” and Elise Downing’s run around the British coast in “Coasting”.

I got a bit excited on NetGalley this month: as well as winning several books I’d requested a while ago, I went a-clicking on the main website (I do try not to do this!). Kodo Nishimura’s “Ths Monk Wears Heels” is an inspiring book by a Japanese monk who featured on Queer Eye (out Feb); Christine Barlow’s “Heartcross Castle” is a Christmas reawd about a woman inheriting a crumbling castle (Dec); Janet Pywell’s “Someone Else’s Dream” has the heroine having to take over the cafe her (soon ex-) girlfriend dreamed of running, and finding support in the community (end Nov; reading now); Emily Kerr’s “Meet Me Under the Northern Lights” is a Christmas novel (Dec); Shellee Marie’s “Influenced Love” has an online influencer finding that world is not all it’s made out to be (Feb); Monica Ali has a new one out, “Love Marriage” is apparently a gripping tale of what happens when people from two cultures try to blend their families (Feb); Kasim Ali’s “Good Intentions” has a similar theme (Mar); Daphne Palasi Andreades’ “Brown Girls” is another New York coming of age novel and a love letter to women of colour everywhere (Jan); and Celia Laskey’s “Under the Rainbow” has a group of LGBTQIA activists descend on a US town that has been declared the homophobia capital of the US (Dec).

Currently reading

I’m currently reading Tristan Gooley’s “How to Read Water”, which is about different forms of water, their clues and patterns, apparently not prioritising the organic over the inorganic in talking about things around the water that help shape it. I’m not very far in yet but it’s very interesting. I’ve also started the NetGalley read “Someone Else’s Dream”, which is pretty enticing so far.

Coming up next

I’ve got quite the variety in paper books to get read this month. Two Christmas novels (Sophie Pembroke’s “The Wedding on Mistletoe Island” and Jenny Colgan’s “An Island Christmas”, both parts of series and hopefully that won’t matter) that have lingered since last year and a Christmas bird book originally given to Matthew which is languishing on the TBR, Stephen Moss’ “The Twelve Birds of Christmas”. Then there’s my last Anne Tyler, “Redhead by the Side of the Road”, which is a really short one, another volume of Maya Angelou, “A Song Flung up to Heaven”, one last British Library Women Writers book, Winifred Boggs’ “Sally on the Rocks” (women fight over a man in a village), and then as we’ve been watching Strictly Come Dancing this year, Craig Revel Horwood’s “In Strictest Confidence” felt appropriate to pick up!

I will also have a few NetGalley and other books on the go. I think I’ll just keep the Kindle on the go for downstairs reading this month and get these read and hopefully a few more.

So I have a good few of my November acquisitions on here, plus “The Arctic Curry Club” by Dani Redd (more light Christmas novel reading), Matthew finally has a space for Richard Osman’s “The Man Who Died Twice” in his audiobook schedule coming up so I’ll read the equivalent of an hour’s worth of audio a day on that at some point, and then I have those lovely D.E. Stevensons.

One last, very important thing … my 2022 Reading Challenge!

I’ve chosen my reading challenge for 2022 (this year it was Anne Tyler, last year Paul Magrs, before that, Iris Murdoch (again)) … and it is … Larry McMurtry. Click on the link for details and how to take part. Fancy joining me?


How was your November reading? What are you reading this month? Have you read or picked up any of my selection? And thank you for bearing with me while I posted and posted and posted – it should be a bit quieter in December!

Book review – V. S. Naipaul – “Miguel Street”

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I’ve done it! I’ve read all except two of the books I laid out to read at the start of Novellas in November (the Querying With Nuance one and the Maya Angelou) and I added one extra from my NetGalley books. The Mrs Oliphant came in at two books and so somehow (I’ve just re-counted) I’ve got to 16 novellas read in the month!

I bought this book in Oxfam Books in September this year. It’s one of the old Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series with the angular fish on it and I have to admit that I’ve got a hankering to collect them now …

V. S. Naipaul – “Miguel Street”

(08 September 2021)

One of the miracles of life in Miguel Street was that no one starved. If you sit down at a table with pencil and paper and try to work it out, you will find it impossible. But I lived in Miguel Street, and can assure you that no one starved. Perhaps they did go hungry, but you never heard about it. (p. 86)

This 1959 novel (in the Introduction, Laban Erapu makes it clear that it should be considered a novel, or a novelised memoir, rather than a book of short stories or connected sketches, and there are repeated notes that pull each character’s chapter together, such as their fate being noticed in the papers) is set in Trinidad around World War Two, in a poor street that might even look like a slum to a passer-by, where the houses and their inhabitants are bound together by their physical place and their place in life. Any attempt to make a better living or make something of yourself will fail and bring you back down to the level, whether that’s trying to pass exams to study medicine or running a brothel or taxi service while the Americans are on the island. Tinkering with cars that aren’t wrong in the first place is the way the narrator’s uncle tries to improve his life, equally hopelessly. But within their station, the inhabitants are happy (as long as they don’t get mixed up with dodgy women or violent men), sitting chatting about cricket and gossiping about the neighbours.

The narrator goes from boy to man during the book, and by the end he’s seen his main adult friend, Hat, go through something of a journey and is preparing to go on his own journey, as Naipaul of course also did. The book reminded me very much of C.L.R. James’ “Minty Alley“, also of course set in a bustling but poor street in Trinidad, but a decade or so earlier, with the same striving for betterment and the same downfall coming in when you get involved in romantic relationships. They’re both lively and fun but with moments of wrenching sadness, found here in the loss of a daughter or the deflation of a man who thinks he’s funny until he’s openly mocked by the whole street. In this first novel of Naipaul, we see the character tropes, even some of the characters (the Mystic Masseur makes a brief appearance) in a quick and engaging read that guarantees engagement and enjoyment.

I never knew a man who enjoyed life as much as Hat did. He did nothing new of spectacular – in fact, he did practically the same things every day – but he always enjoyed what he did. And every now and then he managed to give a fantastic twist to some very ordinary thing. (p. 156)


This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 21/85 – 64 to go! It was Book 16 in my Novellas in November reads.

Book review – Buchi Emecheta – “Second-Class Citizen”

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Still managing just to hold onto my schedule, I have two books in this picture left to finish (I’ve started “Miguel Street” and I’ve managed to get nicely ahead of my TBR challenge plan. I do need to say however about this book that I was very wrong when I used to say, airily, “Oh, I don’t read books about Africa”. Oh dear. This usually meant Africa south of the countries along the northern edge, and didn’t include the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. And over the years, I did read a few books set all or partly in Africa (“Americanah” for instance. This was mainly down, to be fair to me, to my perception of the habit of publishers to share in my market mainly books that featured bloody and violent conflict (similarly to the idea that there must be Icelandic books published that are not noir, but not that many reach us). However much I know we must not look away from bloody and violent conflict, especially that caused essentially by colonialism, I also have issues with reading and watching violent content. However, I was OK reading about Partition in India, just about. And I think I did have a sea-change and change of heart after reading “Roots” with its horrific scenes. And then, of course, it turns out that books about Africa are not all about bloody and violent conflict anyway (thanks, unconscious bias and stereotyping) and I really should have read this amazing 1970s classic earlier. Anyway, confession over, I bought this book in July this year in my Book Token Splurge, having seen Emecheta’s work featured on a TV programme about African writers a few months previously.

Buchi Emecheta – “Second-Class Citizen”

(01 July 2021)

They were kind, those women in the ward. For the first few days, when Adah was deciding whether it was worth struggling to hold on to this life, those women kept showing her many things. They seemed to be telling her to look around her, that there were still many beautiful things to be seen which she had not seen, that there were still several joys to be experienced which she had not yet experienced, that she was still young, that her whole life was still ahead of her. (p. 115)

This 1974 novel is of course as brutal and psychologically horrific as any narrative of war in its way. But it’s also powerful, enchanting and very readable. Adah, a Nigerian Igbo woman, having had a tricky start in life, getting herself as educated as she could do through various means and wanting to become a librarian, marries young and manages to use the family dynamics of her in-laws to ensure that when her husband, Francis, travels to London to “study”, she accompanies him. Francis is a terrible waster, refusing to work or even study properly, quick to strike out physically or verbally and messing around with other women (this is staged as a practice to relieve her when she’s had one of their many children). She has to use all her wits and guile to get a job, get housing – it’s set in the 1960s and racial prejudice is still rife, so she’s refused housing when people find out she’s Black, and with two, then three, then four children – and work out how to operate in this strange, unemotional land, where you certainly don’t make up a stompy revenge song and dance if someone annoys you. Things get worse when she tries to access contraception so she can stop popping out a baby a year, and finds she has to have Francis’ signature to get it.

She inhabits twin worlds of slightly shady boarding houses and the lovely atmosphere of public libraries, where her colleagues are kind and supportive, and bring a light into her difficult world – there’s a particularly lovely part near the end where a Canadian colleague orders books by Black writers through the library system then the workers share them around and discuss them. She encounters White women who have married or had children with Black men and sees her husband’s pull towards White women, too, but shows sympathy for everyone who is just trying to get by. It’s a heartbreaking book but with enough points of light from kind people, from the fellow-patients in the maternity ward to their GP, to relieve the reader as well as Adah, and moments of reflection and beauty in the scraps of nature Adah finds in London.

I loved the clear, almost naive but penetrating and intelligent writing style (it reminded me a bit of my great favourite author R. K. Narayan) and indeed she talks about this near the end of the book when Adah is considering becoming a writer.

Yes, it was the English language she was going to use. But she could not write those big, long, twisting words. Well, she might not be able to do those long, difficult words, but she was going to do her own phrases her own way. Adah’s phrases, that was what they were gong to be. (p. 177)

Unfortunate in her choice of husband, desperate to escape after he makes a big attempt on her identity and half-kills her, beaten down psychologically in London to be made to feel she’s a second-class citizen (at best), she retains her hope and spirit, determined she will be proud to be Black and inculcate that in her children. I loved this book and will be acquiring and reading the rest of her works, and soon.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 20/85 – 65 to go! It was Book 14 in my Novellas in November reads.

Book review – Sven Lindqvist – “Terra Nullius”

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Oh dear – at almost the last hurdle, I’ve fallen behind my plan! We both had our booster Covid vaccinations yesterday at our GP surgery, and although we’ve not been too bad and it was worth it, of course, we did have some side effects that led to me sleeping in and drifting around rather than keeping focused on reviewing this book this morning and finishing reading two more to review tomorrow! Anyway, this is my second book read for AusReading Month, hosted by Brona’s Books at This Reading Life. I bought it from Oxfam Books in September, spotting it was about Australia and immediately putting it in the pile to buy. So this one comes in for NonFiction November, AND my TBR reading challenge as well as AusReading Month!

Sven Lindqvist, translated by Sarah Death – “Terra Nullius: A Journey Through No One’s Land”

(8 September 2021)

If one of us can, everyone can. On that basis, it turns out that whole villages can produce superb works of art which win them acclaim from teh world and raise them out of misery and dependence. (p. 202)

So I need to mention first of all that this is an outsider’s reading of an outsider’s translated book about their experience travelling in Australia and learning of the country’s history, particularly around its interactions with the original Aboriginal peoples*. In the early 2000s, Lindqvist paid a long visit to Australia from his native Sweden, researching the history of the places he visited and seeking out sites relating to the many atrocities he discovered had been meted out to the Aboriginal peoples who already lived there. The title and subtitle are ironic: it was because the British settlers who went there and claimed the land stated that it was no one’s land that they were able to claim it, when, of course, it was land inhabited for centuries [edit: as Bill reminds me, millennia] by people to whom it was hospitable, fruitful, sustainable and religiously significant.

Lindqvist details horrendous event after horrendous event, from people being turned off their land to forced migrations (It “doesn’t matter” because they’re “nomads”; never mind the significance a certain land has to a group), being studied to back up spurious psychological theories, being moved out of the way for nuclear testing even after a test ban treaty had been signed, having mixed-heritage children forcibly removed from them to be taken away and “saved”, and being plied with alcohol then slammed for using it. He draws an interesting parallel with the treatment of more recent immigrants to Australia than the British; refugees being herded into camps and kept in inhumane conditions.

He does also celebrate the cleverness of some Aboriginal peoples in their manipulation of their coverage and discussion, and also some sympathetic Europeans who try to help and/or make amends. And later in the book he very much celebrates the way Aboriginal peoples artists, especially women, have flourished and taken their place in worldwide art markets, celebrating also their very different attitude towards artistic talent and individual exceptionalism, and the way that recent radio and television media have helped to preserve and spread cultural artifacts such as sand pictures and songs. He also celebrates the recent movements around Indigenous peoples across the whole world joining together for conferences, solidarity and campaigning.

There is travelogue in here, places stayed and people met, and some good geology. A chronology in the back of the book sets the events in order and lists which chapters they fall in, as the chapters are not in strict chronological order themselves as he travels around, delving into history. Of course a pretty hard book to read, Lindqvist shares his horror without going over the top, I felt and does bring out positives where he can. The emotional impact taught me a lot more about what I sort of half-knew intellectually, and I’m glad I read the book.

* I sought support from Brona on how to refer to the original inhabitants of Australia and she pointed me to some resources to help me decide. I have used Aboriginal people because Lindqvist travels around the whole country and discusses a wide range of different peoples, but no Torres Strait Islanders, as far as I was aware.


This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 19/85 – 66 to go! I read it for Nonfiction November and AusReading Month! Interestingly, for AusReading Month, I’ve managed to read one book by Australians set in Iceland and one book by a Swede set in Australia!

Book reviews – Robin DiAngelo – “White Fragility” and Layla F. Saad – “Me and White Supremacy”

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Still zipping through the Novellas in November, with “White Fragility” the oldest on my TBR (so part of that challenge, too). I’ve spent more than 28 days getting through “Me and White Supremacy” but have finally finished that, too, so it seemed apt for it to share this review. I had saved both to read after I’d read up on some direct experiences of Global Majority People in the UK, but actually should probably have read them earlier in the process, however I did of course learn something new from each of them.

Robin DiAngelo – “White Fragility”

(18 June 2020)

There’s been quite a lot of negative commentary on this one as being one of the big Black Lives Matter Booklists titles but having been written by a White woman. I do understand that this means BLM-related monies have gone away from Black folk, however I would hope that people didn’t only buy this book, but bought others by a range of people (as I did and continue to do). And as regards DiAngelo’s validity in writing this book, she makes the point that White people will take some of the hard talking she does from a White person whereas they might not from someone of a different colour (that’s obviously not a good thing, but she does have a point). She can also use “we” and share the issues she’s had and mistakes she’s made (which she does), therefore setting an example for good practice and allyship. She does share that she’s centring White people while doing this and agrees it’s a dilemma: she is obviously showing up, doing the work and thinking hard.

After introductory chapters explaining how White people are socialised to think in certain ways, to not see their own race (and to claim not to see others) and within an environment of White privilege, she takes on the issue of White fragility, the fact that White people feel it’s worse to be accused of racism than to be racist, the fact that White people think of “Being a racist” as being a bad person who does overt racist acts, rather than being someone who is part of the status quo and works to maintain it, and pushes away criticism, acknowledgement of Black pain and racism etc. with tactics including defeat, aggression and tears.

She then looks at how we can work against this, patterning concrete ways we can acknowledge and accept being called out and ways we can make amends for errors and poor behaviour. All through the book she uses real examples from her teaching work on race issues and from her own life, and this makes things very understandable and clear. She shares how people can reframe things, for example changing “I’m Italian American and Italians were disctriminated against previously” to thinking about how Italian Americans have since become considered as “White” (on this, I did not know that people of different ethnicities, including Japanese and Armenian people, had to petition the American courts to be considered as “White” and thus able to vote, before universal sufferage in the 1960s. There’s always something to learn, even when you’ve read widely), or changing “there’s no racism now” narratives about Black people breaking into White spaces, e.g. in baseball, to “X was the first Black person to be allowed to compete in the league”.

She is pretty hard-hitting: this is not an easy read and does not let people off the hook. Especially important was the effect that White tears, especially White women’s tears, can have on Black people around them who are used to these tears giving rise to extremely serious and horrific consequences for Black people (this is quite US-based but I’m sure it’s not a non-issue in other countries). Strategies for reframing narratives and reactions and working together were useful. There’s a list for further reading at the back and I was pleased to see I have or have read the UK-centric ones. I think this book still has strong value.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 18/85 – 67 to go! I read it for Nonfiction November and it was also Book 13 in my Novellas in November reads.

Layla F. Saad – “Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World”

(15 June 2020)

This was another one that I’d waited to read until I’d caught up on some memoir and analysis around the UK in particular. And again, that was a mistake, as quite a bit of what I read here, when I got started in late September, was stuff I’d read up on already. However, it’s always good to triangulate information and there was a lot of very good information, presented well, in this book.

It’s a bit hard to review this without looking resistant to my own complicity in institutionalised racism, however I think there were some facets which just didn’t fit with my nationality in general and personality in particular. Basically, it works through facets of racism exhibited and inherent in White people, starting with (very useful) definitions of White supremacy, White privilege, etc., and moving on to anti-Blackness, stereotyping and cultural appropriation, allyship, and power, relationships and commitments. Each week has a theme, each day has questions, and you work through day by day, on your own or in a group (there are set guidelines for how groups operate; I did this on my own, but chatting through it with some very useful friends (esp Linda: thank you!)) and note down your answers in a notebook. I did this carefully but didn’t do it every day once a day for a month, as you’re supposed to.

The issue I had was that I really just do not do some of the things in the questions, ever, to anyone. I don’t think I’ve ever shouted anyone down, and I really don’t believe I’ve ever tone policed someone apart from asking another White person not to shout at me during an argument, certainly not if they are just expressing themselves or their feelings. So those sections were hard to fill in, especially when it went on to say that if you’d said no to those questions you were deceiving yourself. I do think this might be a cultural issue, the UK is enmired in racism but we practise it more subtly than in other places, more insidiously. And of course I accept that I’ve benefitted from White privilege and indulged in apathy and silence, which are more matched to my more reticent personality, if that makes sense. As in the first book, the real-life examples of how these aspects play out are very useful indeed, and there’s a full reading list at the end after a good list of tips for how to do the work and continue to do it. I have made my commitments to myself and will continue to review those.

I’d recommend this book to people who want to think about how racism works in themselves and in society, but if you’re in the UK, I’d also recommend reading other books that are more UK-centric to understand how things play out here.

This one isn’t from the TBR project as it was off the shelf and being read when I set that up, but it does fall under Nonfiction November!

Book reviews – two short guides to London

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I’m quite enjoying looking at my Novellas in November picture and seeing how many I’ve picked off already! I might not get to the Maya Angelou (but that’s not hard to reshelve if I don’t read it, a powerful reason to read all the others so I don’t have to fit them back in date of acquisition order!) but I’ve added yesterday’s Dyslexia book, I’ve just finished “White Fragility” at the time of writing this, and then only have three left to go! I’ve chosen to review these two books about London sights together as they fit together and I’m running out of days for reviews. I heartily recommend both of them, and can’t wait to get down to London again and do some touring around and photographing with Emma! I bought both of these books in this summer’s Christmas/Birthday book token splurge.

Joshua Abbot – “A Guide to Modernism in Metroland”

(24 June 2021)

This attractive small book (though the print, I will say, is very small) takes as its locations the outlying areas of London and the Home Counties known as Metroland from the expansion of the Metropolitan Underground line. The design of Tube stations themselves, municipal buildings, blocks of flats and private homes often (in decreasing amounts as you go down that list) adopted the Modernist / Moderne / International style – think round stairwells, blocks of windows with metal frames and white concrete. This was not always hugely popular, and certainly homes were built of brick and rendered rather than made of concrete, and quite a lot of the buildings faded away over the years, but there are certainly enough to make a book out of, from austere brick churches to Egyptian-style cinemas to cantilevered sports stadium terraces and the odd sparkling white block of a house.

Taking buildings in the style up to the modern day, the book is arranged by London borough, then county, with a map at the start of each section with the places marked, then a postcode for each building and a photograph for many of them. There’s a good book list in the back and an index. The book was published on the Unbound site, and I would definitely have contributed to the funding if I’d been on there when it was started! The author, Joshua Abbott, runs guided tours of modernist buildings, one of which Emma has been on, and recommends. His website is here.

Avril Nanton and Jody Burton – “Black London: History, Art & Culture in Over 120 Places”

(31 August 2021)

Before we get to the guide and sights, we find an introduction setting the book out as “a historical guide to black global history in London, as well as a compendium of information about things to see,” a history of the HMT Windrush (even though this is clearly not only a post-Windrush book), a note on the different London plaque schemes, an excellent and detailed timeline and a list of Black events in London. At the back is a good resource list, split into websites, fiction and non-fiction for adults and young people.

This excellent book covers the whole of London, split into Central & East, North, West, South and South-East, with a map and legend for each section, and has such a huge range of things to learn about and look at, from Cleopatra’s Needle to places commemorating the Black Lives Matter movement, recently installed plaques and statues and those that have been there longer, and street art by amazing artists (including one from Birmingham, Carleen de Sözer).

I left London in 2005 and it’s striking to see how much work has been done since then by boroughs and organisations (including the BBC History Project featured in David Olusoga’s “Black and British” series and the Nubian Jak Community Trust). It also reminds us of writers, bookshop owners, activists and artists who came before the current generations, so important to remember (although dispiriting that so many fights have to go on and on. This book has certainly made me want to return to New Cross Gate to see the New Cross Fire memorial and the murals celebrating the Battle of Lewisham in New Cross and of Bob Marley in Brockley. A wonderful resource that has so much to offer, with enough history and information to be informative but not overwhelming.


These were TBR Challenge 2021-22 Books 16-17/85 – 68 to go! I read them for Nonfiction November and they were also Books 11 and 12 in my Novellas in November reads.

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 – Jessica Nordell – “The End of Bias”

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I was really glad to win this from NetGalley back in June because I had a hunch (and I was correct!) that this would be a good pairing with Pragya Agarwal’s “Sway”, and so it proved to be. However, this meant I had to read “Sway” first (see my review here) and that was quite a substantial book and so was this!

Jessica Nordell – “The End of Bias”

(24 June 2021 – NetGalley)

I found a hidden topography of interventions, a patchwork of scrappy, inventive organisations, researchers, and lay people rooting out discrimination through curiosity, creativity, and brute force.

As I was hoping, although this book started off with good, clear definitions of implicit or unconscious bias, this part was a lot less exhaustive than in “Sway” and we soon got into the other side of things – the way in which organisations, in the main (though these vary between kintergarten classrooms, university departments, police departments and others) have addressed and sought to reduce bias and its effects. The main biases looked at here are gender and race, with some class mixed in, too (there’s nothing on ageism or disability, for example, which “Sway” covered a little, and gender has to be assumed as being binary as there is so little research on nonbinary gender and bias at present). But the precepts and general ideas covered here are applicable in other areas, too, of course.

Nordell opens with the case of Ben Barres, a trans male professor, who discovered with his different gender a whole set of advantages and lack of discrimination – he’s even praised for his work being “better than his sister’s” when of course both sets of work were done by the same person. Of course, Nordell hastily moves to make the point that the advantages trans men can enjoy can also disappear in a moment if their trans status is discovered – she’s very careful in her assertions and also talks a in detail about how she’s identified and addressed her own biases. We move on to other experiments where having a control has allowed bias to be seen, and then look a little at how bias is formed and more about how it’s evidenced.

The main interest in the book is in the detailed case histories of organisations which have reduced bias. In all cases, and Nordell is careful to point this out, it comes down to a mixture of personal work and cultural/organisational work – so the power of diversity is only unleashed in a ‘learning’ environment where people see the differences between themselves but opt to learn from those differences, and for that to happen, the culture needs to make that possible. There’s also reference to systematic cultural change needed throughout society, and that’s perhaps the hardest to achieve.

Removing bias from everyday practices is essential but not sufficient for creating a truly inclusive environment. To foster a climate that includes all, everyday practices must be built on a foundation of learning from and valuing differences. And this environment need not be a workplace. These dynamics play a role in places where people live, worship, and learn.

Nordell ends with a call for personal, organisational and systemic change, which will benefit both those on the receiving end of bias and those who have acted with bias. She asks us to pause and examine where we’ve got the beliefs we subscribe to (like a newsletter, as she describes on branch of research as stating) and the associations we hold unconsciously (which spam us). A good, careful and powerful book that gives the examples and best practices you might be looking for.

Thank you to Granta Books for approving me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “The End of Bias” was published on 23 September 2021.

I’ve read this book for Nonfiction November!

Book review – Toufah Jallow with Kim Pittaway – “Toufah”

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I was interested to spot this book in a NetGalley email, with its subtitle “The Woman who Inspired an African #MeToo Movement”. And it was an inspiring and fascinating read indeed. It was also my second book set at least partly in The Gambia (like “Roots“) and has inspired one of my posts for the upcoming Nonfiction November challenge!

Toufah Jallow with Kim Pittaway – “Toufah: The Woman Who Inspired an African #MeToo Movement”

(25 September 2021, NetGalley)

This insistence on using ‘allegedly’ when it comes to rape can’t be explained away as simply protecting the rights of those not convicted, because the word isn’t just attached to the person named as perpetrator, it is attached to the crime itself … I notice the same tendency in report about other crimes in Canada and abroad: when men say they are beaten or assaulted, the word ‘allegedly’ is rarely inserted. When someone says they’ve been robbed, ‘allegedly’ almost never appears. But when a woman says she was raped, her assertion is often framed as ‘she claimed she was raped’ or ‘she was allegedly raped’. Whether in The Gambia or Canada or the United States or the United Kingdom, when women say they were raped, the men they accuse are given the benefit of the doubt. The women? They are simply doubted.

Toufah grew up in a traditional home in The Gambia, first of all in a multi-family household made up of her father, his three wives and their children, then in a compound her mum has scrimped and saved and worked at two jobs to afford to build, brick by brick. Not only is her mum independent and a feminist in the way a woman can be in traditional, Muslim Africa, but her mum’s mum made sure she could get to university before being married off, and tried to find her a husband who didn’t already have a wife. Her aunt wears trousers and has moved to the UK.

The women in my family, and in other families too, subverted men’s power where they could; made choices in their own interests where they could; and where they could created a world in which their daughters had a little bit more power, more choice. Social and religious circumstances pushed them down. Their strength and will pushed them forward – and perhaps in these ways they were more similar to the mothers and graddmothers of Western feminists than is often acknowledged.

So she’s learned from example to stand up for herself and she knows her mum will stand up for her, too. That’s why, when something awful happens, she has no choice but to flee her home country and become an international refugee.

Toufah is encouraged to enter a competition, a pageant (more than a beauty queen competition, she must produce a performance, answer questions and put forward a proposal for change in the country), the first prize of which, she is led to believe, is a scholarship to a university abroad. Winners are typically lavished by the president, Yahya Jammeh, with gifts for themselves and their families – laptops, furniture, jobs … But when Toufah first turns down a job then more from Jammeh, he has his fixer bring her to him during an Eid festival, and rapes her.

Toufah knows she’s being followed by the authorities. Resourceful and clever, she manages to escape and, through a network of Gambian citizens who have left the country for various reasons, she is able to throw herself on the mercy of the police in neighbouring Senegal. And they don’t know what to do with her, because they get political prisoners, journalists, people who have tried to overthrow the administration, but no one has come to them who has been raped. In fact the word “rape” doesn’t even exist as a word in the languages of The Gambia, and so she has to either skirt around the issue or be horribly direct.

Once in Canada, Toufah lives in accommodation for refugees where all the people around her try to teach her to how to live as a Canadian – and she does the same as new people come along. Once more, people who think refugees seek asylum and refuge in other countries in order to access wealth and benefits should read her accounts of grinding poverty and basic, shared accommodation, of trying to heal while working at several jobs, of not being able to access her own Gambian community because of the misinformation being shared about her.

And now here she is, back giving evidence at the Gambian Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission after Jammeh has been deposed, in her own name, her face showing, detailing what he did. She’s lived in Canada in the meantime, making a life for herself, making friends, working hard in multiple jobs and studying for qualifications that will help her support other women going through the same situation. A hashtag, #IAmToufah, allows other women to tell their stories under the veil of anonymity, and she has set up a foundation to support women’s safety and mental health. She has an all-round, holistic view of what needs doing, and is starting to achieve that, getting funded to provide audiovisual materials on rape and sexual harassment for the country as the book is written.

I know from my own experience that simply focusing on one aspect – telling young women they can be what they want to be, say no if they want to say no – was actually dangerous if those shiny ideals weren’t backed up with practical supports, effective laws and societal structures to hold abusers accountable.

The end section of the book shares powerful African women who Toufah sees as role models and offers to her students as such. There are definitely some people to look into there as well as the ones I was more familiar with. What an example to us all Toufah is, and her story is deftly crafted by Kim Pittaway while leaving it feeling like her own speech and thoughts.

Thank you to Steerforth Press for giving me a free copy of this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Toufah” was published on 12 October 2021 and you can find the Toufah Foundation in many places online, including Facebook.

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.

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