Book review – Jonathan Gornall – “How to Build a Boat” #amreading

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I’m terribly behind in my reviewing: I finished this one near the start of the month but seem to be doing everything out of order. This is a book I bought in one of my favourite bookshops – the Edge of the World bookshop in Penzance, last time we were down there in October last year. This photo is the one I took of all my purchases from that trip – I note I read the Jo Brand really quickly (I think I started it on the train home) and “Mr Loverman” was read in February this year, but “On the Marsh” very recently. I have “Wilding” all set up to read with Emma, and “Homesick” I’ve just started, and the other one is this one. Not TOO bad?

So, the last book I reviewed, “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” confounded my expectations in one way. This one was different from what I expected in a different way …

Jonathan Gornall – “How to Build a Boat”

(03 October 2019, Edge of the World Bookshop)

This is subtitled “A Father, His Daughter and the Unsailed Sea” and the back cover implied it would be all about an unskilled man learning how to work with wood and make a small sailing boat. Which it was, but a lot of it was about his misadventures trying to row across the Atlantic in a former life (which was fine) and his autobiography, life as a journalist and excitement at becoming a father for the second time aged 58. This was sweet, and the autobiographical bits about his relationship with his mother were resolved during the progress of the book, but I’d have liked more about the actual building of the boat – which is typical of me and my dislike for too much personal stuff in such books, and the author was probably exhorted to add more of that.

The technical bits were fun, although they soon got so complex that at least some sort of line drawing or diagram somewhere in the book apart from the nice woodcut on the front cover would have been useful. The personalities around boat-building in his local area are interesting, and I liked the writing technique of starting and finishing the book with him poised with a hose, choosing between two methods of checking whether the boat is seaworthy. But I can’t say I massively engaged with this one as much as I’d hoped.

Book review – Reni Eddo-Lodge – “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” #DiverseDecember

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This is such an important book, on all those diversity lists that have been coming out of course; I had had it on my wishlist for a while and bought it with a voucher early on in lockdown when my photo group were doing a lot of lovely pay it forward gifts and I received one for a bookshop. I then didn’t read it for a while, but I’m glad I had the delay, because what I ended up doing was reading it alongside my best friend Emma from early October to early December. We have been having Reading Night on a Thursday through lockdown, reading a chapter of a book in our separate cities but at the same time, with a Facebook Messenger conversation going on. We started with “Rewild Yourself” and we took our time, sometimes having a video chat if we really wanted to talk, sometimes not managing to slot it in. But reading the book slowly like this really allowed me time to think about what I’d been reading and its relevance to my life and circles and what I could maybe do about things.

Reni Eddo-Lodge – “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race”

(28 April 2020 – bought with voucher for Topping & Company from Helen)

Lots of people have read this, of course, and a few people have talked about feeling defensive about what they read, so I tried to read it with an open mind and an attitude of learning and acceptance, rather than, “Yes, but, yes, but”. This came across most about the chapter on feminism, and while I was never part of the “movement”, having fallen between two stools (or perhaps waves!) due to my age, I could see there that work I’ve done with a feminist lens had some major sins of omission. I’m not going to lambast myself for my actions, but merely try to learn, and I was relieved to work out that my sins have indeed been of omission rather than commission. I was also very pleased to find some positive suggestions for action, something I’ve been searching for and hadn’t really expected to find here, listed so clearly.

Of course the book comes from that famous blog post where Eddo-Lodge laid out the idea that she was so sick of people talking over her, denying their and others’ racism, denying institutional racism, that she was just giving up speaking to White people about race at all. She does qualify this in the Preface:

I’m not talking to white people about race unless I absolutely have to. If there’s something like a media or conference appearance that means that someone might hear what I’m saying and feel less alone, then I’ll participate. But I’m no longer dealing with people who don’t want to hear it, wish to ridicule it, and, frankly, don’t deserve it. (p. xii)

The reaction she got to the original blog post inspired her to write a book picking up various themes and strands – and this new paperback edition also has an Aftermarth section which talks optimistically of the “renaissance of black critical thought and culture” and also in a British context, rather than having to “[rely] heavily on the American narrative as a tool to find ourselves” (both p. 235). This book was published and the new edition came out way before George Floyd’s murder and the huge increase in Black Lives Matter narratives and purchases by well-meaning allies: it is useful to be reminded that many of those books on those many lists were out there, waiting for us, when we went searching them out, and so many more have been written and published and promoted since. Now it’s our job to read those books and share about them.

This book is just so useful. First we are given a background to the racism of today with the Histories chapter, reminding us of the American slave trade and Britain’s role in it, leading into Eddo-Lodge’s own search for more information on Black people in Britain after slavery, which leads into her looking into Black History Month, how it was set up and how it differs from the US version. There’s lots of this positive information and it’s interesting to consider that I knew quite a lot about the bad stuff (the 1919 race riots, the systematic setting up of an atmosphere of discrimination for those who sought to move here quite legitimately, etc.) but not about the establishment of Black History Month or Dr Moody of Peckham who founded the first campaigning organisation for Black people, the League of Coloured Peoples, in 1931. She looks into perspectives on riots (or uprisings) and how the racism inherent in our society

does not erupt from nothing, rather it is embedded in British society. It’s at the very core of how the state is set up. It’s not external. It’s in the system. (p. 56}

A quick pause to say this is not the book I thought it was. I thought it was one long, well-argued polemic from a personal perspective. But it’s a lot more than that: a survey of history and sociology, heavily referenced and based on lots of different sources. I have purchased and read all sorts of different books and just thought this was what it was not (not surprised a Black writer writes in this way of course, in case anyone has read that into that).

The chapter on the system looks deeply at Stephen Lawrence’s murder and the institutional racism and corruption that led to the huge delays in getting him justice. I knew quite a lot about this, but there was still a lot I didn’t know about, and it’s so important to have this example after looking at the historical context. Here, the personal does jump in and shock us – Eddo-Lodge notes that she was 3 when Stephen Lawrence died and 22 when two of his killers were jailed. The wider context is looked at and shamed and shares information about Black children’s chances (or lack of) in education and then work, a condensed version of what I also read recently in “Slay in Your Lane” but is worth repeating for different audiences. Eddo-Lodge also shares her own journey from being suspicious of positive discrimination to accepting the need for it – a brave thing to include, and good evidence of people’s ability to change their mind. This chapter ends with a powerful call to action:

In order to dismantle unjust, racist structures, we must see race. We must see who benefits from their race, who is disproportionately impacted by negative stereotypes about their race, and two who power and privilege is bestowed upon – earned or not – because of their race, their class, and their gender. (p. 85)

I can’t really go on to describe the whole rest of the book in detail as this will be the longest post ever. Eddo-Lodge explains white privilege, while honestly sharing where she is an insider, for example only realising about barriers to people living with mobility issues or parents/guardians with buggies when she tried to take a bicycle on public transport. I did love this honesty and humility that shone through the book (as I’d expect from any writer). This bravery extends when she seeks to offer a balanced view by contacting the vile right-winger, Nick Griffin to ask him questions about his “Fear of a Black planet” as she puts it, in an effort to understand where these views come from.

The famous chapter on feminism and its rejection of intersectionality was shocking to read, and I wish I had been involved in the actual movement – although would I have done anything? I am uncomfortably aware that I am pretty sure my research for my postgrad on sources of information for women experiencing domestic violence, which had a feminist lens, did not take account of race as it should have. Hopefully as I say below, sharing and discussing texts that do have an intersectional element (i.e. look at the intersecting issues when someone is living with two or more characteristics that make them more vulnerable to prejudice and institutional harm, such as being Black and working class, working class and disabled, Asian and female, etc.) will hopefully help to start to redress that. Again, I salute Eddo-Lodge for her personal and political honesty and for the call to action for feminism to embrace intersectionality. Talking of class, I (and Emma) got a bit lost in the new research on the classes of Britain, not being able to locate ourselves, there, but the chapter on race and class wasn’t there for us, but to show that intersection, too.

As I mentioned above, I was surprised and cheered to find a section on what White people can do to be anti-racist and allies – a list of positive, clear, visible things, such as taking on administrative or financial assistance to groups doing vital work while leaving their running to the people actually affected, intervening in bystander situations and talking to other White people about racism issues (which Em and I did a lot while reading this book together, very revealingly and interestingly, and which I’m trying to do by continuing to showcase books like this with detailed reviews on this blog – I don’t of course know the demographics of my readership, but I know a lot of my commenters are of a similar demographic to me and I hope they find something of interest, while readers of colour might see some practices of allyship, something where we who seek to be allies should always be seeking to develop and learn.

The Aftermath chapter as I said above gives a lot of home: Eddo-Lodge has seen readers of colour feel supported by it and White people reflecting on how race has shaped their own lives – as we did as we read it. And no, it’s not controversial, as people have suggested: it’s all there in the sources, it’s sensible and thorough, honest and detailed, and something people can definitely use to educate themselves.

Book reviews – Claire Huston – “Art and Soul”, Chloe James – “Love in Lockdown” plus two bits of Shiny-ness @ShinyNewBooks @ClaraVal

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I’ve got two contemporary romance reads today, both with a twist, and I just want to do a quick moment of praise for Claire Huston. She contacted me to ask me if I’d like to read her novel, “Art and Soul”. Now, I do get emails about books quite a lot, and they are often not the kind of thing I read, or there’s not really enough info for me to go on. They are also often form emails, pretty obviously sent out to loads of book bloggers. Claire was different. She had obviously read my blog (shocking, honestly), she referenced pics of my TBR she’d seen and how she didn’t expect me to get to the book immediately. She had picked up on the fact that I mostly read non-fiction and literary fiction but that I’d also read books by several authors that meant I might want to read her book. She followed my blog and has engaged with it. There was a standard bit about the book, which is of course fine and told me enough about it. So I said yes, and then I did wait a bit to read it (sorry) and – it was good! Hooray! But what a splendid introduction, which worked in that I read the book, am doing this review here and will also pop one on Amazon.

I have another book after that which I picked up from NetGalley and is the first lockdown novel I’ve read. I had slightly mixed feelings about it, but I did read it through and felt interested that I’d probably read an early if not the first example of this topic being novelised!

Lastly, a couple of Shiny New Books links to round off the year (I’m already reading my first one for 2021).

Claire Huston – “Art & Soul”

(30 August 2020 – ebook)

Becky is a life-fixer (not just a life-coach), knowing each client will loathe her for her interference at some point but love her at the end of the process. After having a baby and concentrating on being an invisible fixer at weddings, she’s getting back into the client work and pitches to irascible artist Charlie, in a creative and personal slump, who does not want to be fixed. Yes, of course there will be a spark there, but it’s an unconventional story and romance with just as much interest in the other characters – gallery owner Virgil and his scary assistant, Becky’s best friend, the rather uncompromising Ronnie, and Phoebe, Charlie’s daughter. Another unforgettable character is Becky’s son, Dylan, and I loved the way the other characters interacted with him.

While it’s a very modern romance, with Becky standing for no nonsense and Charlie cleaning and caring, and there are fun literary references scattered through as well as commentary on how we talk about art, what impressed me most was Claire’s control of her plot – while the central story is simple and understandable, there are machinations along the way and also strings of subplots that swirl around the main action, all handled absolutely impeccably and in an assured way that is surprising in a first novel. Bravo for that! A thoroughly enjoyable read that will keep you on your toes.

And no, I didn’t spot the E.M. Forster reference, which I had forgotten about until I revisited the email Claire sent me!

Thank you to the author for sending me a copy of the book in return for an honest review.

Chloe James – “Love in Lockdown”

(03 November 2020 – NetGalley)

The first lockdown novel and specifically written to make “you smile, as well as perhaps shedding a few tears and given you a small pocket of sunshine, even if it is only for a while”. Sophia and Jack live in two flats with balconies in a block, and once they get chatting after the Thursday clap, they draw closer, helping each other as well as their local community. All the First Lockdown stuff is here – the claps, the loo roll shortages, only going out once a day, shielding, and it’s odd to read this so soon in a novel – I’m not sure if it’s Too Soon for me. With Sophia’s mum a doctor and her flatmate a midwife, Jack shielding due to a health condition and other characters being elderly, sometimes it feels a little  bit like an infomercial reminding us about hand sanitiser, but it does capture the details of this strange time – including, pleasingly, people making scrubs for the local hospital. 

In the afterword, we learn that some of the details in the story have come from people closely connected to the author – so she’s obviously written it partly for them and writing from the heart and from lived experience does make it come alive and feel less planned and didactic. The story is well done and the plot handled deftly: we root for our two characters and the side-characters, too. I’m glad I read it, even though it felt a bit close to the bone at times.

Thank you to Avon Books UK for making this available to read through NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Shiny Loveliness

I’ve recently reviewed both of these books on this blog, but I also reviewed them in a different, longer and perhaps more serious mode for Shiny New Books.

Nancy Campbell’s “Fifty Words for Snow” with its worldwide cover and lovely snowflake images is an ideal winter read or Christmas gift – read more.

Rory Fraser’s “Follies” takes us through the history of buildings with no purpose, with a gorgeous watercolour of each one – another great gift idea for any time of year – read more.

Book review – Paul Magrs – “Christmassy Tales” #magrsathon @paulmagrs

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I’m rather shockingly reviewing out of order today, because I wanted to share with you this EXCELLENT book in time for you to buy it for yourself or someone else for Christmas (it’s available in paperback and ebook). Yes, it’s that good. And although I’m a loyal Paul Magrs fan, and should therefore have high expectations of his work, this exceeded my expectations by quite a way. I was expecting there to be more stuff I’d read before (I’d read just two of the fourteen stories before, one of which was published as a lovely standalone book last year) and didn’t realise it was going to be such a lovely substantial volume – 425 pages of excellent stories! This is the last read in my Magrsathon, in which I have enjoyed reading and re-reading books by Paul Magrs every month.

Paul Magrs – “Christmassy Tales”

(14 November 2020)

I couldn’t resist a) buying myself this new book and b) dipping into it when it arrived, and devoured “Fester and the Christmas Mouse” – I was never able to read Paul’s story of his late and beloved stray cat, as I can never read any pet-centred books, but I was glad to read this delightful tale of a Christmas day, a careful cat and a tiny lost mouse.

I then forced myself to read just one or two stories a day this month, as they all revolved around Christmas. Yes, looking at the contents page, there is a Christmas Trilobite and a Christmas Hoover, and this sums up the delicious mix of working-class down-to-earth observation and delightful whimsy which is Paul’s trademark and very much in evidence here.

The collection opens with “Stardust and Snow”, a reprint of Paul’s beautiful story about a boy who wins a competition to meet David Bowie. I originally read this on Christmas Day last year (my review here) and it was just as magical and still brought a tear to my eye. Other stand-out stories (although there wasn’t a dud among them), which ran from sci fi to fairy tales to sci fi fairy tales set on disappointed planets to observation and memories of a north-eastern working-class childhood to a writer visited by a ghost of Christmas Past at his desk, included “Party Like it’s 1979” with its warm memories and tiny details (anyone else remember purple, smudged, banda’d sheets from school?). “The Fabulous Animal Jamboree”, like the children’s book where all the dogs come out of the pictures in the National Gallery, features museum animals from around the world gathering for fun, and a celebration of difference and being your authentic self, and “The Christmas Trilobite” is a wonderful spin through alternative stories and endings as the ancient creature visits Paul the adult writer to demand his own Christmas story.

We finish off with a brand-new Brenda and Effie story (with Robert, hooray!) where they meet Iris Wildthyme (had they met before? I think not. I’ve never quite understood Iris but she has turned up in a couple of my reads this year and I just absorb the fun and weirdness) and … well, you’ll have to read it to find out.

A super collection and one I know I’ll dig out for Christmasses in the future to enjoy again. What a lovely end to my twelve months of Paul Magrs reading!

You can find Paul online at Life on Magrs and he also has a Patreon for exclusive new content.

 

Book review – Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman (eds.) – “The Good Immigrant USA” #DiverseDecember

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I pre-ordered this book when I ordered “The Good Immigrant” back in September 2019; it arrived this October and I knew I wanted to read it alongside the first volume. Of course I intended to read them both in November but that didn’t happen – better late than never!

I’m adding the hashtag for DiverseDecember on this one because it represents writing by and stories of People of Colour, although not everyone in the book is a Person of Colour (24 out of the 26 writers are), and I’m very glad that Shukla took the original concept and together with one of the writers from the original book, opened it out to stories from the US.

Nikesh Shukla & Chimene Suleyman – “The Good Immigrant USA: 26 Writers on America, Immigration and Home”

(16 October 2019)

I have to admit that this volume was not as immediately engaging to me as “The Good Immigrant”, as I didn’t know the context as well, although obviously in that book I found plenty of learning points and surprises, too. It was very varied and interesting and I learned a lot again. The different context meant that the contributors mostly didn’t come directly via histories of colonisation (apart from those in Puerto Rico, etc.) and in fact a few of them had come via or gone to the UK at some point in their lives.

The main thing that really shocked me and I had somehow not come across before (I’m not sure how this happened, as I have read a good few fairly diverse books set in the US) was the different perceptions of Black people who are descendants of slaves and whose families have been in the US for generations and those who are not and have moved to the US from other countries. Rahawa Haile describes it memorably in describing her father arriving in the US by way of Italy, the UK and Ethiopia:

The Good Immigrant knows nothing of black living in America and yet too much of black life under white conquest all at once. White-sanctioned conquest, too. At least now he will see their faces, nescient eyes weighing the merit and threat of him by the lilt of an accent they cannot place. Their soft relief: black but other. There but only just. African. Guilt Black, not Hate Black (not usually). As in, “Man! There are people starving back in ___”. (p. 28)

At least two essayists point this out and it’s a strong, shocking point, as it’s not a delineation we make here in the UK – I’d be interested if any other non-Black readers of this book from the US found that same shock.

Other essays chimed with me more or less but all gave a strong sense of self and place and interesting, often shocking details. I enjoyed the pieces set partly in the UK, and giving the contrast between the two countries. Walé Oyéjdidé’s piece on being a male homemaker from a Nigerian heritage that would be happier if he did a load of other things including admitting some Ghanaian things were superior was funny and striking. We see the code-switching that goes on when interacting with people outside one’s heritage group, and issues around being not x enough for America but too American for your original country.

I originally felt a bit confused by the inclusion of an Irish and a Scottish name in the list of authors, more so when they turned out to be White Irish and Scottish, as the original book was specifically about BIPOC people; however, the white contributors made it clear – and, in doing so, I feel modelled how to do this in many ways – that they can see their privilege now where they didn’t see it at the time, flitting into and out of the US so easily, flouting rules and knowing they’d get away with it. Maeve Higgins ends her piece, “Luck of the Irish” in which she does the work of providing a history of US immigration policy, thus:

I applied for an O-1 visa, which means i am an ‘alien of extraordinary ability.’ It was granted. I’m now on my second O-1 visa, so I regularly tell people I’m doubly extraordinary. That’s a joke, of course. I’m not extraordinary at all. It’s dumb luck that I was born white and Irish. And that luck, combined with a history of racialized immigration policies, meant that I was allowed to move her, to a country whose leaders look at me and see themselves, and welcome me with open arms as they push others away. (p. 114)

There is a mix of different autobiographical pieces from people originating from across the globe or second generation citizens, and some write at the intersection between race and LGBTQ+ status. There’s even a craft project to fold a paper plane while learning about different demographics and other stats of refugees. There is truly something for everyone here, and it’s an important work, which I feel should be read alongside its UK counterpart.


Have you read this book and are you from the US? I’d particularly like to read about your reaction although of course all comments are as ever welcome.

Book Review – Simon Barnes – “On the Marsh” #NonFicNov

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This was a book I actually finished at the weekend, so still during Nonfiction November, but didn’t get time to review, frustratingly. So now I’ve read or started everything I planned to read apart from “Homesick” – and at least “The Good Immigrant USA” will now ‘do’ for #DiverseDecember!

I’m also pleased that I’m almost caught up to being a year behind, after having slipped back horribly in getting through the books I bought the longest ago, and even when picking newer books off from time to time. It’s all good.

Simon Barnes – “On the Marsh: A Year Surrounded by Wilderness and Wet”

(02 October 2019, The Works, Penzance)

This book has contributions from Edmund Barnes and Cindy Lee Wright. Cindy is Barnes’ wife, she has done beautiful illustrations for the starts of each chapter, and Barnes also includes moving passages of appreciation for both her art and for her support of their family. Edmund – Eddie – is a young adult who has Down’s syndrome and has contributed both a his character to the book and his rather lovely poems scattered through it.

I did worry that I would find too many personal incursions into this book – not because I don’t like reading about people living with different conditions, but because I like my nature books to be about the nature. But here, the theme of Eddie’s life and the effect being on the marsh has on it, as he passes through a big year where he leaves school and starts college, learns more about nature and learns some potentially hard lessons about his beloved horse (don’t worry, though), is woven beautifully through the book, with promised excursions and repeated joys bringing a daily structure to the book which echoes the monthly and annual one. There is some polemic, and why the hell shouldn’t there be, about the odd unkind educator and the very existence of people with Down’s syndrome, but the main theme is carried through with aplomb.

There’s polemic, too, about nature conservation, about keeping wild lands joined up, and a lot of musing on what ‘wilding’ and ‘rewilding’ are and what we should do to our land – Barnes makes the excellent point a couple of times that “our land” can be anything from a massive estate to a window box, but it all matters and it all involves decisions (we’re thinking of climbers and fruit trees to plant to offset our next-door neighbour’s huge extension, for instance). He mentions Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” a couple of times, and visits the farm where it’s set, which is making me eager to pick that one up. But the joined-up nature of wild places is the most important thing for him:

It’s part of something that covers the nation: a vast and spreading web of places where the wild things are. And every strand depends, at least to an extent, on all the others; when you break a single strand you weaken the entire web. (p. 63)

We come off the marsh in fact to visit his neighbours and friends around and see how they manage their land and what they think of his. There’s quite a lot about the local nature reserve at Minsmere, which is lovely to read about. 

He’s got a nice turn of phrase – his horses turn into dragons on a frosty morning “I found I had exchanged them for a stable of dragons, three twin jets of smoke billowing over the three half-doors” (p. 73).

In one very exciting passage, he also reveals that his grandfather lived basically half a mile from where I live now! My next but one read has featured Peckham, too, so everything really is a web of knowing and places!

Barnes’ African sojourns also feel natural to relate here, talking about the lions he loves and the naturalists he’s spent time with and, notably, seeing migratory birds on the marsh that he has also seen on that other continent, thousands of miles away. As well as Cindy’s lovely animal illustrations, there is a pleasingly drawn map at the front. I learned a lot reading this book (are baby spoonbills really called ‘teaspoons’ by birders, though?), it’s the everyday small pleasures, recognising a birdsong, seeing a new creature, seeing the same creature again and again that really stuck with me when I finished this book.

 

State of the TBR December 2020 and Book Confessions #DiverseDecember #Magrsathon @PaulMagrs

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I have been trying to clear the decks and not buy new books in order to prepare for the Great Christmas and Birthday Influx and I don’t feel I’ve really succeeded at either! I did finish 12 books in November, six of which were off the physical TBR (the others were a mix of review books and Kindle ones). I set out to read one book for Australia Reading Month, which I read (“The Three Miss Kings“) and I took part enthusiastically in Non-Fiction November – I set out five books to read, finished three and started one, and read a bit more non-fiction through the month, and posted my four themed posts and enjoyed linking up with more non-fiction readers.

So this is how the TBR stands, at least it’s not two full shelves, I suppose, and has moved along. The pile to the side is Christmas books which will be read between Christmas and New Year (apart from one of them, see more below) and the ones on top are my remaining Thirkell war novels and three lovely British Library books I haven’t been able to get to yet.

I’m currently reading these three. Reni Eddo-Lodge’s “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race” has been a thought- and discussion-provoking readalong with my best friend Emma – we took to reading books together during lockdown and enjoy a bit of time on a Thursday evening. We’re quite slow with these as we sometimes have a chat rather than a read, but it’s a lovely thing to do. We have one chapter and the afterword left of this. I just started “The Good Immigrant USA” to go with my read of the UK version, and am learning new things with this one, too, and Jonathan Gornall’s “How to Build a Boat” is just getting started. The first two will be contributing to the DiverseDecember reading challenge hosted by The Writes of Womxn (thank you to Ali for alerting me to this one) – they will be blogging about Black Brown and Indigenous writers who identify as women but we’re free to read anything and use the hashtag. More on that below – including not pushing myself to read loads and feeling I’ve failed!

Up next, Emma and my next read together will be Isabella Tree’s “Wilding” which was discussed in “On the Marsh” which I’ve just finished and I’ve been looking forward to reading for ages. Of course those BL books will be devoured, too. For my LAST BOOK in my Paul Magrsathon I was going to re-read his lovely “Stardust and Snow” which I read on Christmas Day last year, but then he brought out this “Christmassy Tales” volume which includes that one and a host of other short stories. I have already dipped into it to read his Fester Cat story (from the book he wrote by his late lovely pet) and I am not going to be able to resist it now we’ve got into December – there’s a story about a Christmas Trilobite! I will be reading the four light Christmas novels I bought in October between Christmas and New Year, and I have assigned myself Ayisha Malik’s Sofia Khan novels to read for DiverseDecember. Yes, I have “Brit(ish)” and “Black and British” and various other books but I don’t want to force the issue or read all my BLM books in a rush, so I will enjoy these and see what else I can add in.

New books in

The aforementioned “Christmassy Tales” arrived last week and I also bought my friend Katharine D’Souza’s new novella “Friend Indeed” on the day of publication. I wish I’d got it read for Novellas in November but it will be a Novella in December instead. Bizarrely, Past Me decided to do some Amazon pre-orders in August and September and I was somewhat surprised to receive Jane Linfoot’s “Love at the Little Wedding Shop by the Sea” (book five in her series) and Sairish Hussain’s “The Family Tree” (shortlisted now for the Costa First Novel Award” following the fortunes of a family emigrating to the UK. Both obviously “me” but do I recall ordering them? I do not.


Did you have a good reading month in November? Tempted to join DiverseDecember? Bought anything new or holding off? Is there room on your shelves for Christmas incomings???

Book Review – Nikesh Shukla (ed.) – “The Good Immigrant” #NonFicNov

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I’m still a little bit disappointed with the amount of reading I’ve got done this month, especially for Nonfiction November. I have now read the Ada Cambridge for Australia Reading Month and “The Secret Teacher” and this one for Nonfiction November (plus a couple of short reads not pictured here). I have started Simon Barnes’ “On the Marsh” and might finish it by the end of the month. And this is the eleventh book I’ve completed this month, which is not actually too shabby. But still, I had wanted to read at least the other two in this picture by now.

Onwards to this excellent, moving, important and shocking read, however. And at least the date I acquired it shows I’ve always read books about people who have lives different to mine!

Nikesh Shukla (ed.) – “The Good Immigrant”

(25 September 2019)

From the Editor’s Note onwards, this book speaks powerfully of the lived experience of people who have moved to the UK or been born here who have heritage that is not directly and completely from here. The purpose was, among writers who do not write exclusively about race, to provide “a document of what it means to be a person of colour now. Because we’re done justifying our place at the table”. And where did the title come from? Shukla explains that it was suggested by a comment from contributor Musa Okwonga: … the biggest burden facing people of colour in this country is that society deems us bad immigrants – job-stealers, benefit-scroungers, girlfriend-thieves, refugees – until we cross over in their consciousness, through popular culture, winning races, baking good cakes, being conscientious doctors, to become good immigrants.

The contributors come from all sorts of backgrounds, African, Asian, what we confusingly call East Asian or Southeast Asian (and this nomenclature is discussed in the book). Some are funny, some are angry, some are both. All reflect direct lived experience and offer a simple way to access people’s lived experiences while educating oneself rather than demanding stories out of people. Like reviewing a book of short stories, I’m not going to cover every piece in here but pick out a few that really stuck out.

One thing my friend Sarah warned me about, and she was right, was how shocked I’d be reading the people of East/Southeast Asian heritage’s experiences of British life. Vera Chok (who is ethnically Chinese but physically from the UK via Malaysia) talks in a matter of fact way of the stereotypes applied to her, the things that have been shouted after her. Did you know that East Asians are the third largest minority ethnic grouping in the UK yet experience the most racist incidents (yes, she backs this up with figures)? However, she was not able to find many reports on this, just as I have struggled to find more nonfiction works by East Asian authors about their experience in the UK, something I’d like to add to my reading if I can (any suggestions out there?).

Reni Eddo-Lodge pops up to remind us that most of the Black history we learn at school seems to be about America, Kieran Yates gives a brilliant description of code-switching as she goes from confident British Asian to inadequacy but loving in in her Punjabi village to mixing with the cool kids in Delhi, and Coco Khan talks movingly of her mum’s covert sympathy as she covers for her and her friend as they spread their wings a little, an opposite narrative to one we’re often presented with. Riz Ahmed writes about the similarity between film auditions and interrogations at airports, noting the match between his ethnicity and those who stop and search him again and again at Heathrow, and Salena Godden’s piece is a cleverly constructed discussion of shade and othering as she negotiates the world as a person of mixed heritage.

Worthwhile but not worthy, entertaining but thought provoking I’d encourage everyone who’s at all interested in people’s lives outside their own demographic to read this. I can’t wait to read the US version now and compare it.

Book review and blog tour – Nancy Campbell – “Fifty Words for Snow” @eandtbooks

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I greatly enjoyed Nancy Campbell’s “The Library of Ice” last year, so when I was alerted that she’d written this gem of a book about snow and its cultural and mythological status I just had to say yes to a copy. I’ve said this before recently, but once again: great Christmas present.

It’s a lovely object and the contents, fifty words for snow and/or ice from around the world, both fascinating and strangely moving, and with a strong underlying message about climate change, as so many of the snowfields and glaciers mentioned are disappearing with global warming.

Each short chapter has the same format: a snowflake image on the facing page, the word in the original language, a translation into English and a note of which language it belongs to. Happily, this includes American Sign Language, when it comes to “Snowboarding”. The text below could be anything from an imaginary tale of a cave artist to a discussion of philosophy, climate science or mountaineering. We move from the most traditional craft activities to state-of-the-art mapping of snow leopard populations across borders and we even find places where people haven’t set foot out of respect for holy mountains and diminishing icefalls. I did love this theme of respect that resonated through the book.

You learn a lot even in the short texts: did you knowthat parts of the Antarctic are officially desert with no snow falling (actually I did know that but I do read a lot of polar exploration stuff). It was good to come across terms I recognised from other reading – sastrugi for instance, those pesky ridges that form on ice sheets but also help you navigate in poor light conditions.

Not every word about snow describes something that actually happens (I mean, Icelandic has a word for railway station and Iceland has no trains, so this is not uncommon, but it’s still fun). The chapter on the Thai word for snow revolves around whether it has actually ever snowed in Thailand or not. And there’s fake snow and a fascinating piece about the company that makes most of it for the world’s film industry.

Campbell is a careful writer, making sure she honours traditional and indigenous people, never drawing amusement where it’s not warranted, and noting colonial pasts and modern incursions into pristine places.

The book is a beautiful hardback with decorated cloth covers rather than a dust jacket. It’s printed in dark blue ink, and every entry is accompanied by a unique, stunning image of a snowflake – these are taken from the first known photographs of snow, by Wilson Bentley, who died in the 1930s.

Thank you to the publisher, Elliot and Thompson, for sending me a copy in return for an honest review. I am last on the blog tour, but you can see all the previous bloggers here!

Short reviews of short books: Rory Fraser – “Follies” and June Sarpong’s “The Power of Privilege” #NovNov #NonFicNov

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I thought I couldn’t take part in Novellas in November as, well, I didn’t have any novellas to hand, but Bookish Beck and 746 Books include non-fiction in their challenge and I did have some short non-fiction! Of course this also acts as another post for Nonfiction November, too! So two very different books here, but I can tie them together by saying that both are crying out to be bought for other people – “Follies” as a Christmas gift and “The Power of Privilege” to help people be the change they want (or need) to be.

Rory Fraser – “Follies”

(5 October2020 – from the publisher)

Coming in at 111 pages, Rory Fraser’s debut book, “Follies”, newly published by the fairly new publisher Zuleika Publishing, fits the nonfiction novella bill perfectly.

If you’re interested in architecture, history or architectural history, you’ll enjoy this small, attractive book, with 25 watercolour illustrations, on follies.

What is a folly? Officially, it’s “an elaborate building set in a beautiful landscape that serves no purpose other than to improve the view” (p. x) but there prove to not be very many true follies like that, and indeed the first one he visits, at Walsingham, as well as a shell of a Wren church in London later, is actually part of a ruined building left to stand incongruously in its surroundings. There are also mounds, caves and that famous fibreglass shark embedded in a suburban roof, as well as the more expected classical temples or gothic frills in lovely parks.

Fraser hops enthusiastically through history, kings, landowners and peers, sharing what he learns with glee. We’re looking at folklore one moment and Empire the next, always with something new to read about. It’s also something of a garden history on the grand scale, looking at the development of the landscapes in which follies often exist, framing huge swathes of land, as at Stowe, or a view of a city, as in Bath.

A great gift idea coming out at just the right time. Thank you to Tom at Zuleika for providing me with a copy in return for an honest review. A full review will appear in Shiny New Books next week and I’ll share that here then.

June Sarpong – “The Power of Privilege: How White People can Challenge Racism”

(1 October 2020)

I’ve always read pretty diversely but I’ve been buying, reading and reviewing some more of the non-fiction that’s come out as part of the upswelling of interest and activism after the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum across populations. I’m reading “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” alongside my best friend at the moment, for example. But what I was looking for was some direct ways that I could be an ally and help combat racism, and this book (and also Sophie Williams’ “Anti-Racist Ally” which I have but haven’t read in time for this review) offers that.

Sarpong is a journalist who has a senior diversity position at the BBC and is able to draw from both this and her experiences as the child of Ghanaian immigrants growing up on a council estate in London to put this useful book together. She’s recently published a longer work called “Diversity” which demonstrates the power of diversity to benefit companies and society economically as well as socially. I would imagine that talks to those in high power, as this one does: there’s an emphasis on including elite (not just privileged) white people in the conversation and a lot of the action points are for those who have power in companies and society. She also includes white people with less privilege, e.g. people of the working class and/or on a low income, people living with disabilities, people with an LGBTQ+ identity and makes it clear she understands privilege is a continuum, with well-off white male captains of industry and politicians at the most privileged end.

We get a good explanation of basic terms – racism, othering – then we’re taken through some statistics and reports about the position of Black, Asian and other Minority Ethnic people in the UK. This does have a lot of US information which I found a bit distracting from the main text. It’s also bang up to date, talking about how the disparities highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic are impossible to ignore and how it’s time to change things.

As with my attempts to join in with general inclusivity and “better together” campaigns before, I’m a bit hamstrung in my pro-cohesiveness and anti-racism work by the fact that I’m not part of any formal groups – I’m self-employed and work alone and I’m not a member of a faith group or large volunteer organisation (apart from parkrun, and I will be taking steps to look at that). It’s not the place to list what I I I am going to do: suffice it to say that in the ten clear points Sarpong offers, from educating yourself about Black lives now and in history to standing up against racist incidents to helping your white friends think about race there is something that everyone can use to help improve society and challenge racism. Action 10: Act Now has some particularly useful summary lists of things we can all do.

Oh and one for Bookish Beck’s serendipity – like “Work” which I review in Shiny on Thursday, this book talks about moving from a “scarcity” mind-set where we’re all fighting for small pieces of a pie to broadening out to build something that’s more than the sum of its parts.

 

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