Book review – Sophie Williams – “Anti-Racist Ally”

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Book 11 of my 20 Books of Summer project, and I’m celebrating Past Liz for her idea of slotting two short books in amongst the pile for this month (I’m putting my slow progress down to it all being made up of non-fiction, and reckon I’ll catch up with the novels I have for next month. I have almost finished “What White People Can Do Next” and then I’m on to “Brit(ish) so should end the month with one hanging over from this month, again. That’s fine!

I do not know when I bought this book! From its position on my TBR shelf, I’m guessing August 2020. Oops. I was going to review it alongside Emma Dabiri’s “What White People Can Do Next” but having read most of that book, Dabiri takes exception to the use of the term ally and the concept of allyship, in her theoretically more deep and wide-ranging book (which has a different purpose, to be fair) so I’m splitting them up!

Sophie Williams – “Anti-Racist Ally: An Introduction to Action & Activism”

(August? 2020)

Read books about Black and brown people living, not just dying. Engage in content where they thrive, rather than just survive. Remembering the full and complex range of lives and emotions in marginalised people is humanising, and a lot of fun. (p. 119)

Williams is an Instagrammer and she takes that platform’s strong design and succinct messages through to her small-format book. Each left-hand page gives a question, heading or objection, with the answer or message kept to one side of the facing page. This means it’s easy to read, and easy to flick through to find the section you need.

Williams is pretty forthright and provocative – as she has every right to be. She decries speech rather than action and bandwagon-jumping. She says things which might make the reader uncomfortable – such as her assertion that we need to do uncomfortable things and put ourselves in uncomfortable situations in order to enact, rather than perform, allyship.

The book takes the traditional form of such pieces, providing terms and distinctions, then working through the idea that not being racist is the absolute baseline and not enough. Interestingly, she acknowledges her own change, both through the book when talking about how people can change, and in her discussion of the use of “womxn” which she used to use but not now it’s been adopted by people who want to deny the full womanhood of trans and non-binary women. I’ve seen this elsewhere, and it’s one example of the shifts in language we’re seeing at the moment. OK, Dabiri would say this doesn’t matter so much if it distracts from the need to dismantle capitalism, but we’ll go there another day (how one’s reading of one book affects one’s view of the last one!).

Williams moves on to talk about what racism is, addressing objections such as “I don’t see colour” and “I can’t be racist because my best friend / postman is Black”. She then looks at what true allyship is, and covers intersectionality well. She describes how racism evidences nowadays – less white sheets and more race pay gaps and institutional racism. This includes the use of Black people to provide emotional labour in rehashing their experiences of racism for a White audience. She has a UK and US perspective here which is useful, although acknowledges different issues are found in the two areas.

Then we get into the nuts and bolts of it – how to be an ally. Anxieties are covered first – including I don’t want to make it all about me and I can’t really do anything. I’ve certainly suffered from the latter one, as a lot of the books and resources I’ve found cover how to address inequalities in a workplace or community group, neither of which I’m really in. While then moving through from addressing issues within yourself, your close circles, your community, your workplace, institutions, brands and government, she has a theme that a) you have to make yourself uncomfortable sometimes and b) you use what platforms you’ve got. This inspired me personally to keep on reading and then writing about books centred on Black people’s experience on here, my platform, even though they often don’t get the engagement my other posts have (and even though I’ve always read and reviewed books by Global Majority Peoples; maybe just not so much non-fiction). She leaves room for celebrating and amplifying Black joy, asking White folk not to keep sharing images of pain and suffering that will re-traumatise our Black friends and contacts, something I don’t do a lot, and certainly not explicit images, but I have done to an extent. We always need to keep learning!

At the end of the book, we have a book list and I was pleased to see I have read six, have a further three to read, and don’t have six, some of which I’ve chosen not to read yet as they’re US centric and I’m working on learning about UK stuff first.

A worthwhile little book with some good ideas that don’t just revolve around the workplace.

This is Book 11 in my 20 Books of Summer project.

Book review – Damian Le Bas – “The Stopping Places”

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Time for another of my 20 Books of Summer and I’m feeling like I’m making some progress now I’m on Book 10!

I bought this book in July 2020 from Oxfam Books – I blogged about a lot of incomings including this here. Funny story: This was when things opened up a bit more in England, and after my friend Trudie had said she had been in a few charity shops on the high street and they were all pretty safe, with hand sanitiser and screens, and feeling bereft of my usual pastime of cruising all the many shops nearby, I decided to venture to Oxfam Books, as I know I can always find something there. I chose two other books and I wasn’t sure about this one. But wait – what should I do with it, having taken it off the shelf – having touched it?? I had heard that Waterstones had a trolley for such eventualities – no such thing here. So, readers, I bought it.

Damian Le Bas – “The Stopping Place: A Journey Through Gypsy Britain”

( 2020)

These are the stopping places, these fringes and in-between places. they are the places that nobody lives except Travellers – or nobody but those who share ancient connections with them: gamekeepers and poachers, scrap-metal men, horse-women, rangers and shepherds. They are the old nomad’s haunts of the island. Many are smashed and build over; some – magically – are more or less just as they were in centuries long past. (p. 25)

Le Bas has always felt slightly on the edge of things – a (the term is his) fully Gypsy upbringing, living on a yard with his artist parents, but with mixed heritage somewhere in living memory and being blond and blue-eyed, not looking like a classic member of his community, and often challenged for that, before and during the writing of this book. He’d taken himself off to university, too, and was in the academic sociology and Gypsy Studies community as well as his own one, a travelling man with a footwell full of books. Increasingly pulled in one direction and the other, he decided to do a tour of the “Stopping Places” – traditional points where travelling Gypsies would pull in for a night or two to a long season, some to do with fairs and celebrations, some commemorations, many just a good place to stop by the road.

Having been through long journeys in East Sussex to sell flowers at one particular pitch, he starts off with his family’s stopping places, and it’s here that he finds the most emotional connection. But as he picks up information on others, movingly from a woman at a big conference who shyly produces a list she’s written out for him, and travels from Kent to Cornwall, North Wales to Skye; he gets used to living in his Transit van, sometimes with his wife, Candis, sometimes alone, and, somewhere in the middle of his journey, moves it over from utilitarian to aesthetic, borrowing some richly decorated textiles from his mum’s collection to make it into a colourful and exciting interior.

There’s a lot of fascinating detail in the book, from an exploration of the tight and strong codes of hygiene and cleanliness (for example never using the same equipment to wash yourself and your washing up, not one known to most campers, I understand) to the similar codes of deference and hierarchy used when meeting strangers. There is also lots on the international community of Travellers / Gypsies and the differences between groups originating from different countries. Somehow, I had never grasped there were actual Travellers in the US, while I knew there were pleny of nomads as such. One thing that wasn’t really explained was what “New Travellers” are – they were mentioned a few times but not explained, and I understand who the hippies are who have eschewed permanent homes for life on the road, but not this other group.

I loved how the book was both a sociological analysis and a good piece of travel and nature writing but also the narrative of a man growing into his identity, embracing life on the move and getting used to it, getting more chilled when he’s seen as “other”. The balance was really well done. Descriptions of encounters with other people were immediate and direct and the codes needed to keep on the right side of the menace and violence that sometimes threatened were put across clearly.

In a good Book Serendipity Moment, Django Reinhardt popped up in this book and Pete Paphides’ “Broken Greek”, on the same day!

This is Book 10 in my 20 Books of Summer project.

Book review – David Olusoga – “Black and British”

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I’m feeling like I’m struggling with my 20 Books of Summer project at the moment – this is Book 9 and I’m currently half-way through Book 10 but I should be further along than that. I was also disappointed not to get more reads of the Stormzy book I read and reviewed last, which I thought was smashing. But there we go – maybe people are catching up and haven’t got to it yet, as I’m a little lagging with my blog reading.

Anyway, I bought this book back in June 2020 and blogged about it here – this is the third book I’ve finished from that batch of buys, and I am looking forward to picking off other books soon (I have also had epic BookPost recently but I’ll tell you about that next weekend).

David Olusoga – “Black and British: A Forgotten Story”

(18 June 2020)

Black British history can be read in the crumbling stones of the forty slave fortresses that are peppered along the coast of West Africa and in the old plantations and former slave markets of the lost British empire of North America. Its imprint can be read in stately homes, street names, statues and memorials across Britain and is intertwined with the cultural and economic histories of the nation. (p. xxi)

I bought this book because we’d watched and loved Olusoga’s TV programme of the same name: this is not exactly the book of the TV programme, missing some things but able to add a lot more detail. The thing I did love about the programme was when he was able to pull together descendants of the Black Britons he found and gather them for the unveiling of a plaque commemorating that person’s role and life. That aspect of the series is just mentioned in the Acknowledgements, and while there are a lot of images in the book, the plaques are not included, which is a shame. The gathering of descendants, where they could be found, also gave an immediate human interest whereas this is very much more a work of academic history.

That’s the bad bit. But this is still an amazing book. Olusoga is able to stretch out and back and really go into history and contemporary sources. As such, he still talks about the Black Romans up at Hadrian’s Wall and John Blanke, the 16th century royal trumpeter, but he spends most of the book describing in great detail Britain’s role in the Transatlantic slave trade, and how being Black and British could very well involve being a freed slave placed in a village in Sierra Leone to get on with your life (he was very good here on how this project formed the start of the great African land-grab for Britain).

He does of course also cover the Black Georgians, often brought over as almost pets or slaves but then sometimes living independently, and Queen Victoria’s god-daughter, Sarah Forbes Bonetta. The Black soldiers who fought for the Empire and/or Britain in the two world wars and the Windrush generation are also covered. He also has room to acknowledge the work and books that came before this book and caught his own historical imagination as a younger man. But slavery is the main focus of the book, and a forensic examination of how slavery ended.

We find the use of new techniques which piece together historical and genetic records, and interesting assertions, for example about the huge similarities between eighteenth and twenty-first century Britain. He’s good on how abolitionism became a cause that many women espoused – and were permitted to espouse – and their strong role in the movement (although Black campaigners of the time have been whitewashed out of history). The ebb and flow of numbers of Black people living in the UK (reaching its low just before the First World War) is examined carefully and interestingly, with personal details and stories provided if they can be. There is a fascinating section of the reception of Black GIs during the Second World War. When he gets into the 1980s he has to move away from historical assertions, as they have just not been made yet, and rely on his own feelings of being under siege, but things gradually improving, with the introduction of Black History Month helping (hopefully) all parts of the population learn about people’s heritage here.

The book ends with a call for more history to be uncovered and the explanation, which I’ve seen elsewhere, that the Black population of Britain is now of a majority African origin rather than from the Caribbean, with note needing to be taken of these citizens’ stories. This book does take a bit of work and I am glad I had swathes of time to read it during my week off the week before last, but it rewards the effort.

Olusoga’s Preface ends with a positive assertion:

… it is written in the firm belief that Britain is a nation capable of confronting all aspects of its past and becoming a better nation for doing so. (p. xxii)

I hope this is true: this book, and those which have subsequently built on his work and taken it forward will get into the hands of the right people, help to explain the long and varied history of Black and other global majority peoples in Britain and help to build tolerance and respect.

This is Book 9 in my 20 Books of Summer project.

Book review – Stormzy with Jude Yawson – “Rise Up: The #Merky Story so Far”

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We’re carrying on with 20 Books of Summer after a brief pause to review NetGalley books, and this is Book 8 in the project. I have already finished reading Book 9 and am part-way through Book 10 so I MIGHT do it still (I have two full-length and two short books from my July plans still to read, then eight novels for August). I bought this book in August 2020 and blogged about it here – I am pleased to say I read its companion “Slay in Your Lane” in October 2020 as it was the predecessor to “Loud Black Girls” which I had just won from NetGalley.

Stormzy, edited and co-written by Jude Yawson – “Rise Up: The #Merky Story so Far”

What’s more, he was one of us. From the ends, Thornton Heath. Every success of his felt like a victory for all of us. (p. 4)

Stormzy is a grime music star, rapper and entrepreneur (he has his own record label, company and imprint within Penguin Books, on which this book has come out) who grew up on a council estate in Croydon, South London. He’s a committed Christian who loves his mum, has high standards and will only accept the best from those around him: but he certainly appears to be a firm support to those who give their best. He also gives people opportunities: his co-writer, Jude Yawson, had not written a book before, but in my opinion he has put together a very good book.

Yawson explains early on that he conducted interviews with the main players – musicians, his manager, producers, PR people, brand people – and then decided to include the transcribed interviews pretty much as they came out (he doesn’t: I’m a professional transcriber and I know what these would have sounded like. He does an excellent job of editing them so they’re readable, fresh and interesting, but also clear and understandable). He doesn’t sound in his introduction too certain of this as a method, so in the unlikely event that he reads this: yes, it’s a great method and it’s done really well. I’d say this is as good as the seminal book on Madness I worked on and read earlier this year.

The book was published in 2018 and obviously Stormzy has done a lot since then. But it’s a great record of his early times and the way he gathered his crew of associates around him. After a list of contributors, we go from Preparation to Work, then Execution and Ambition. There’s a lot about the way things were built carefully on knowledge and hard work which might surprise people, and a lot of hauling themselves out of poverty and risky situations to flourish and be creative. There’s much satisfying detail about how playlists work in radio stations, how songs are put together and production work, and all the work behind this well-oiled machine. The aforementioned method of using the transcriptions almost “raw” means the voices are well-distinguished and lively, and it works really well as a chorus of voices, with Yawson providing links and summaries and Stormzy voicing his own experiences and his appreciation of those around him.

Mental health issues come into the book. Although Stormzy explains he had his mum and his faith to bring him through, and a self-belief that stood out from an early age, he also explains he had trouble coping when writing his first album, although he also castigates the NME for making him the literal poster-boy for depression in musicians, using his image without his permission. I also loved his take on social media:

There are some things you’re not meant to know. You’re not meant to know what some random person thinks about what you’re wearing. This is why we have little white lies. This is why we have social niceties. We can’t really handle the truth. (p. 193)

But of course he’s forced to hear all sorts of random people’s “truth” all the time and that must get very tiring.

A fascinating documentary of the start of something huge; a loyal team and a leader who appreciates them. I don’t think you have to be into grime music or rapping to enjoy this book: it works as a portrait of people doing their best in often challenging circumstances, too.

This is Book 8 in my 20 Books of Summer project.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “A Patchwork Planet”

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Well, suddenly I’ve read 14 books in my Anne Tyler 2021 project and I only have 9 to go – how did that happen? And I’m pleased to say that even though I remembered absolutely nothing about this one, I heartily enjoyed it!

If you’re reading along with the project or just this one or whatever, please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads, etc.. I’m adding links to these reviews plus all the reviews I am alerted to to the project page, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

Anne Tyler – “A Patchwork Planet”

(01 September 1998)

Oh what makes some people more virtuous than others? Is it something they know from birth? Don’t they ever feel that zingy, thrilling urge to smash the world to bits? (p. 21)

Narrated in the first person by Barnaby Gaitlin, the black sheep of a famous philanthropic family who has eschewed the family “business” to strike out on his own, and working for a very Anne Tyler-ish company which helps the mainly elderly with small errands and handyperson jobs, we find a man who hasn’t really lost his way, but is living his truth, simply, but then finds himself getting involved with a much more conventional woman who he meets on a train. Well, he doesn’t really meet her – he effectively stalks her (but only the once, so I didn’t feel as uncomfortable with this one as with “Morgan’s Passing“) when he sees a mysterious stranger ask her to take a package to Philadelphia. He’s going there himself, as the only two major things he has in his life are his vintage car and his daughter, Opal, now living with her mum and stepdad in the city.

Opal is one of those classic rather stolid Anne Tyler children, and other classic points are the sibling rivalry between Barnaby and his successful brother, and all the dilapidated houses his clients inhabit (there’s even a sick room or two on a sunporch, which we have already encountered in “The Clock Winder”. There’s also the ‘loser’ in his leather jacket living in a rackety apartment, and as well as the slow-moving and conventional Sophia, a spiky and almost unattractive co-worker to whom Barnaby’s heart might really belong. There’s lots of wonderful observation of the relationships between parents and their adult children.

Like others of her novels, there are other stories she could have broken off to tell, like Barnaby’s Aunt Eunice who ran off with a stage magician but came home when she realised she didn’t know what to cook him for dinner. And there’s a theme of things just happening and people being who they are – at one point, Barnaby says, “Maybe that was the secret, I thought. Let things come to you when they will, of their own accord. I went back to bed and slept like a baby” (p. 161). Interestingly, he becomes “a whole other person” when he gets together with Sophia – but does he want to be?

This book is dedicated to Tyler’s late husband, and it has a melancholic air to it – lots of the clients of Barnaby’s employer are elderly and widowed, or they pass away themselves during the course of the book. She’s almost clinical, through Barnaby, in her dissection of the way they take on reorganising the house just before they pass away, and on the little details of elderly life, lines of pill bottles on windowsills and ageing pets. Although it’s a hopeful book, I think, and full of kindness, this does stand out in it. The characters are less the organised and the disorganised we’ve found in other books and more the products of their histories and houses.

A lovely book with an open ending which I really did enjoy.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

Book review – Georgia Pritchett – “My Mess is a Bit of a Life”

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I hadn’t actually heard of Georgia Pritchett but I was intrigued by the title and subtitle (I’ve had my own adventures in anxiety over the years and I think there’s been a rise in it during the pandemic: this is a life that’s been full of it since she could think), and realised as I read it that of course I’ve heard and laughed at many of her words before, as she’s had a decades-long career as a comedy writer.

Georgia Pritchett – “My Mess is a Bit of a Life: Adventures in Anxiety”

(06 April 2021)

One way of knowing you have crossed from girlhood to womanhood is that men stop furtively masturbating at you from bushes and start shouting things at you from cars. It’s a beautiful moment.

That’s a paragraph typical of this book: open, honest, funny, but with a punch of reality. We open the book with Pritchett sitting in a therapist’s office, unable to open her mouth to explain what’s wrong as a whole host of what she describes as moths, an alien, Godzilla (stamping all over her inner Tokyo) and a “Dark Overlord Beaver” are all fighting for space and supremacy inside her head. The therapist says “Why don’t you try writing it down” and then we have the book, returning to this scene at the end.

We’re then thrown into a headlong rush of memories and anxieties, arranged to work their way through her life from the time she can think to the time she’s writing in the book, mainly short one or few-paragraph pieces with a heading and the odd sketch of a Dark Overlord Beaver, etc. It’s quite disjointed, but you just sort of go with the flow, important comedy folk pop up as she finds her feet later on and she’s great on what it’s like being the only woman in the writing room. There’s lots of dark stuff, so dark humour, as she contends with her precarious mental state, her marriage and her children, who have issues to contend with of their own. She also weaves in contemporary events, usually adding to her anxiety.

Because of the structure, I immediately thought, “What’s this, I can’t deal with this,” but then got drawn in to “just one more bit, just one more bit” and then the book was over in a couple of hours. So it’s obviously an engaging, funny, self-deprecating read, and it shows what a jumble of anxieties can live in just about anybody’s head. There are tender moments and the odd gross one, it’s unusual, but it works.

Thank you Faber & Faber for choosing me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review.


One Book Serendipity with this one for Bookish Beck: you’d expect to find the 1981 New Cross Fire in David Olusoga’s “Black and British” but perhaps not also in a book about a white woman and her anxious life. But she’s in South London and there it it. Good to see it remembered and memorialised.

Book review – Johny Pitts – “Afropean”

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It’s time to review Book 7 in my 20 Books of Summer project. I am a bit behind but I have a week off this week and now I’ve got my annual blood test out of the way, and presumably while the hedge man is here later in the week, I should have lots of lovely time for reading. I bought this one off my wish list on a bit of a whim (the full story is here) and I’ve been looking forward to getting to read it. It’s one of those lovely Penguins with the orange and white striped spine, too, with a great cover picture taken by the author, who is a photographer as well as a writer. .

I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having fun with their books! How are you doing?

Johny Pitts – “Afropean: Notes from Black Europe”

(02 July 2020)

in contemporary Europe it seemed to me that black people were either presented as uber-stylized retro hipster dandies in thick-rimmed glasses and a bit of kente cloth, or dangerous hooded ghetto-yoot. (p. 6)

Pitts grew up in a working-class, multicultural area of Sheffield and, bruised by an encounter with London life, he gathers his savings, moves back into his mum’s for a bit and prepares to go on a trip to see whether he can find brotherhood and a sense of belonging in the “Afropean” communities across Europe. This descriptor was only relatively recently coined, and at first he thinks he’s going to be visiting an elite group of musicians and artists who exist in glorious idiosyncracy as part of society but also apart from it; crucially people who have an identity as a European of African heritage rather than an immigrant. However, he soon realises that the people he really needs to talk to are the invisible, the indigent, the undocumented, the people who, as with GMP people in the UK, are “here because you were there” (i.e. they are people from former colonies who have come to the “mother country” through having citizenship and a connection, or have been called to come to fill a labour gap) but are not permitted to feel part of the majority populus. He has an epiphany when visiting the “Jungle” in Calais, being called to write about the people there by an inhabitant.

The author makes a conscious choice to avoid the academic in his work (although it’s rigorously footnoted and referenced). Unlike more privileged travel writers, he goes out with his own budget and wanting to make a book, not a publisher’s budget with a book deal set up (and the way this gets published is a lovely two-fingered salute to old-school-tie networks: he meets Caryl Phillips, whose “European Tribes” (which I now yearn to re-read) he is inspired by, and through him makes a train of connections that leads to publication with Penguin.

I read a lot of valuable academic research and sociological theory, but all too often this was gathering dust in universities, or preaching to the converted, written or cited more often by wealthy, educated white scholars than the people being written about and couched in a stand-offish, academic vernacular. Formal education is often driven by someone else’s knowledge: who authorized it and shaped its rhetoric? Whose knowledge is it? Who has access to it? What about black Europe beyond the desk of a theorist, found in the equivocal and untidy lived experiences of its communities? Black Europe from the street up? (p. 5)

He’s careful to name what he doesn’t cover (the role of churches and Islam in supporting Black culture in Europe) and names his privilege in terms of being able to walk out of the “Jungle” (but still have to prove his identity to police) and bring able to wander freely late at night in sketchy places, unlike his female friends. He mentions how glad he is that there’s “a new zeitgeist of intersectional black thought that is often led by feminism and queerness” (p. 132(He’s frustrated that there are areas he isn’t able to get to and encourages readers to submit their experiences to his website, Afropeans.com (there’s some great stuff on there). He covers France (Paris and the South), Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Russia and Portugal and I have to say I’d have liked to see more than the small amount he writes about Spain, as I’ve always been concerned about the numbers of African people selling in markets in mainland and particularly Canary Islands Spain and would have liked to know more about them.

After an introduction and sociological exploration of working-class Sheffield, explaining Pitts’ roots and experience (like Akala and Guvna B, he credits his escape from a path he could have gone down to his circumstances, in this case a strong and stable home, his mum supported by her White working-class family, his dad an African American entertainer who gave him some different life experiences), we’re off round Europe, experiencing immigrants and second- and third-generation citizens, the undocumented and the documented, those living in precarity and secure middle-class folk. There are some very striking examples and he brings himself into the picture but not excessively, giving voice to his subjects (and subtly indicating their accents, which is incredibly well done). He makes it very clear how cultures that don’t even use words for racism (social issues anyone?) are systematically racist and he honours different kinds of activism while noting the flaws that some of it has.

I stuck millions of post-it note tabs into this book but if I used them all, this review would be as long as the actual book! Suffice it to say, he makes visible the invisible world of the network of people who make Europe work; he takes himself off to estates and banlieux and tries to talk deeply to people. I learned about histories and legacies of colonialism I didn’t know about (I had no idea about the Dutch in Suriname, for example, though I was more up on French colonialism) in this very human and warm, though at times provocative (he shares an interesting perspective that maybe Trump and Brexit are better for immigrant communities because “their position is clearer” and the blatant racism makes a space come available for people to politicise and organise).

And just to make it clear: this is no po-faced polemic. It’s incredibly engaging and readable, and I kept wanting to read just one more section. Published in 2019, I’m not sure I’ve seen it on too many of the “Black Lives Matter” lists: it deserves to be known and read.

This was book number 7 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!


Book review – Anne Tyler – “Ladder of Years”

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Starting the second half of my Anne Tyler 2021 project and this is more like it – first off, I remembered the main premise, second off, I loved this. Loved it. Interestingly, this was the fourth Anne Tyler I read – I must have bought it in 1996 (I didn’t write the date inside it!) as I read it in April 1998, having bought it, “The Accidental Tourist” and “Saint Maybe” in 1996 (according to my notes in my reading journals0 and read “The Accidental Tourist” in the January (I’d been loaned “Earthly Possessions” in August 1997 and then read “Morgan’s Passing” from the library in September 1997). And I can see why I then claimed Tyler as a firm favourite and kept on reading her (this is the last white-spined one in the pile in the photo – I then moved to buying her new novels as they came out from QPD (Quality Paperbacks Direct – remember them? getting the paperback when the hardback came out, but it was inconveniently hardback sized?).

If you’re reading along with the project or just this one or whatever, please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads, etc.. I’m adding links to these reviews plus all the reviews I am alerted to to the project page, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

Anne Tyler – “Ladder of Years”

(1996)

Sometimes she felt like a tiny gnat, whirring around her family’s edges. (p. 23)

Starting off with a newspaper cutting about the disappearance of a woman, a wife and mother, whose eye colour no one is sure of and whose outfit is described randomly, we meet Delia, who has just Had Enough after two humiliations in a row and walks off down the beach, in her swimming costume, with only a beach bag (that handily contains the holiday money). She thinks she’s only going back to the holiday house where they are with her two sisters and the kids, but then hitches a ride and she’s off.

A new life beckons and I absolutely loved all the details of her settling into her small-town existence. I’ve always loved small-town novels, from Wally Lamb’s “She’s Come Undone” to most of Larry McMurtry, the Big Stone Gap novels, “The Library at the Edge of the World”, The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend“, etc., etc., and this fits into that mould – she finds a place to stay, a job, there’s the diner, the friend made in the town square … Gradually, as Delia (or as she styles herself, Miss Grinstead) makes a new personality for herself however much “she had noticed that Miss Grinstead was not a very friendly person” (p. 101), she becomes known and loved in the community – did she mean to do that? Various models of marriage and divorce make themselves known to her subtly, and her family starts to slither back into her life – with one unexpected ally.

Delia even gets a little holiday in, experiencing the seaside and even its music being exactly the same as on her fateful family holiday. But then the family starts to draw her in; there’s a wedding to attend, and when she gets home for that and finds a tearful bride and a groom with a trial to overcome (this is a very funny part of the book), is she going to be able to peel herself away again or was she more wanted and needed than she thought. And has she changed:

She had never realized before that worry could be dumped in someone else’s lap like a physical object. She sould have done it years ago. Why did Sam always get to be the one? (p. 288)

What’s interesting about this one is you have Team Organised and Team Flighty – according to Team Organised anyway – but Delia is organised and efficient at running her family and an office, whereas Team Organised, represented by her husband and her second employer, are, frankly, pissy and over-critical. So it’s easy to swap allegiance, but I did notice that.

Other typical Tyler touches – an old house that is dropping to pieces, although this one has a redo that threatens to update it thoroughly, an extended family living together, an older brother with an usuitable girlfriend who already has a child (this is taken directly from the last book, but with less disastrous consequences). Delia and Eliza live in the family home still. There’s a photographer although he’s retired and no one has taken on his business out of a sort of life-drift, as far as I can tell. And the family of Grinsteads, in the end, is much like the family in “Saint Maybe” and others where things are just not discussed:

you do things such a different way. Not mingling or taking part, living to yourselves like you do; and then you pretend like that’s normal. You pretend like everything’s normal; you’re so cagey and smooth; you gloss things over; you don’t explain. (p. 322)

At the end of the book, Delia has a choice to make. She doesn’t make the choice I would choose for her, but I can cope with that. What an excellent read this was!

Animal note: There are two cats in the book. One is elderly and there is a poignant moment, but both survive and flourish (phew).

Have you read this one? What did you think?

Book review – Nadiya Hussain – “Finding my Voice”

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It’s the sixth book in my 20BooksofSummer! I’m still reading “Black and British” but it’s a big one and also not always happy reading or easy to hold, so it doesn’t come to meal times with me. This one came to me in July 2020 as part of the rest of my book token splurge for last year (it got complicated) and I note that it arrived along with “Brit(ish)”, which I will be reading this month, and “Trans Britain” and “Mother Country” which I have actually read already!

So I’m only a little behind where I hoped to be now. I have a NetGalley June read to review on Thursday and am currently reading my first Anne Tyler for the month alongside “Black and British”. Not sure what’s next!

I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having fun with their books! How are you doing?

Nadiya Hussain – “Finding my Voice: A Memoir”

(20 July 2020)

So, what prompted me to write this book? Well, there are girls out there who are quiet, just like I used to be. Who are allowing their lives to be steered in the hope that one day they might find their happy and, with that, their voice. Who are growing up being told ‘it’s not appropriate’, ‘no you can’t’, ‘it’s not the done thing’. With this book I want to show that, actually, who cares if it’s not appropriate, you can and it is the done thing! (p. xii)

Somehow between reading that this book didn’t include anything about Bake Off (and it really doesn’t: the only mentions are when her husband encourages her to go for the show and a bit about Tamal, who she made friends with) and reading it, I’d got it into my head that it wasn’t even a memoir, but some kind of self-help book. But it is a very open and honest memoir, organised into chapters around the roles Nadiya has had in her life: daughter, sister, granddaughter, daughter-in-law, mother, wife, earner, username and finally woman. So it’s basically a chronological journey through her life, taking on each role and concentrating on the people who are close to her in that role.

Is is very unguarded, “unflinchingly honest” as it says in the blurbs in the front. It’s certainly that. There’s lots on the feelings she has about her family and the difficulties she experienced being a daughter-in-law, though she’s always respectful of all her family members and careful not to offend.

I was a bit surprised that, although she mentions her panic disorder a few times and especially around not having told her husband about it before they married, it’s not a strong theme in the book and there’s not much about how she’s overcome it (or, if she hasn’t, how it’s impacted her life). It’s obviously her book to write as she wishes, but I would have liked to see more of that.

She includes a recipe at the end of each chapter and these are nicely inclusive – of a sweet treat called Handesh that has been the undoing of many a daughter-in-law, she says, “So for anyone getting married, vying to impress, these are for you. They are for you if you want to show up your very Bengali mother. They are also for you if you like fried sweet stuff with a cup of tea” (p. 166). On this note, she doesn’t talk a lot about her experiences of racism but they are there, in the cultural disconnects when to her having five siblings is not much, but shocks when she is talking to White people, etc., and we read with dismay her experience being told to do an essay for English about a character in a book she identifies with when she can’t find one that matches her (presumably why she’s written several books for adults and children).

Other than that, it’s frank, frequently funny, open about where she regrets things in her life, fiercely loving of her family and a memorable read. I was surprised about how open and often angry she is (good for her) and there’s a really shockingly visceral scene of an attempted and nearly achieved sexual attack in the final chapter which did actually genuinely shock me.

I enjoyed this book and I think it would be a great way to sneak some powerful reading for the girls and women she aims it to help, as the attractive cover and book description don’t prepare you for the honesty and sharing within.

This was book number 6 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!


Book review – Maya Angelou – “Gather Together in My Name”

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I and my friend Ali plus our non-blogger friend Meg are working our way through Maya Angelou’s autobiographical books in a sort of mini-challenge that has no rules or time constraints – we just try to read the book at approximately the same time. She’d got ahead with “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” so I read that as quickly as I could (my review is here, with a link to hers) and then we read this one together last month – blog post scheduling issues meant it came over into this month for both me and Ali, and she posted her review the other day (here).

Maya Angelou – “Gather Together in My Name”

(April 2021)

I had written a juicy melodrama in which I was to be the start. Pathetic, poignant, isolated. I planned to drift out of the wings, a little girl martyr. It just so happened that life took my script away and upstaged me. (p. 38)

We pick up where Caged Bird finished, with Maya just having had her son. It’s wartime and there’s a busyness around, with parties, servicepeople and black marketeers all over the place, plenty of jobs for everyone. Then the war ends and mass unemployment starts. Maya decides to pay her own way rather than leave her baby with her mum and go back into education. She gets a job and a room, puts her baby into a series of rather informal childcare arrangements (one of which later on could have gone badly wrong) and starts to look around for a boyfriend. But she’s not going to escape the sexism and abuse that blighted her earlier years that easily, and falls in with a married man who pushes her into a sexual relationship.

As we passed through the hotel lobby, I felt the first stirring of reluctance. Now, wait a minute. What was I doing here? What did he think I was? He hadn’t even said he loved me. Where was the soft music that should be playing as he kissed my ear lobe? (p. 23)

Maya does some pretty sketchy things, including running a brothel and turning to sex work herself, but she sees it all so clear-sightedly from her more secure future, names what she does, names why, names what is wrong and right, takes responsibility and, ultimately, comes to see her son as something more than just a doll or an extension of herself and as a person. She learns a harsh lesson when she returns to her grandmother’s house, only to go into a white-owned shop and give herself airs and have to leave town in a hurry – shocking scenes, really.

Being Maya, she’s reading the whole way through the book, and discovers and sinks into the classic Russians. Her brother also continues to feature, although he is spiralling down in this book and there are some sad scenes. There’s also a wry laugh and an indication of the title of her next book when she’s talking to fellow sex-worker Clara about why she came off the streets to work in a house: “… my daddy brought me down to this crib. Let the heat get off. Then I’ll be back switching and bitching and getting merry like Christmas” (p. 169).

This volume ends weirdly positively, given that it ends pretty much in a crack house. She gives a promise not to touch drugs and packs up to go back to her mother’s

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