Book review – Osman Yousefzada – “The Go-Between”

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I attended Yousefzada’s book talk and signing at the opening weekend of The Heath Bookshop – he was a very engaging speaker and had a lot to say about the reception of his book in his local community – one that lives just up the road, past Moseley, so about two miles away from us. Having now read the book, I can see why it might have caused consternation, sharing the secrets of a very closed community, ultra-orthodox and hardly interacting with the outside world. But it’s important to learn about such communities, the people still living within them and the people who have felt the need to escape and done so. And this is a charming and compelling read which gives much understanding. I picked this up to read because the paperback is just about out now – in fact there is another event to celebrate that on 31 January 2023 at Camp Hill School in Kings Heath – tickets are just about still available here. Osman Yousefzada – “The Go-Between: A Portrait of Growing up Between Different Worlds” (10 September 2022, The Heath Bookshop)

This was my new place now, outside, standing with the men. I was older now, at secondary school, so this wasn’t like before, when I could have moved around the women’s quarters, inside, watching them unfurl their garments, revealing themselves, their clothes filled with embroidery and colour. I could no longer observe them hugging, weeping, praying, and then morphing themselves back into the shapes of their burqas and walking out of the front door, concealed as ninjas, into the streets. Now I could only see them leaving in the same shape as they had arrived; my ingress had been blocked. (pp. 227-228)

I knew I was going to find this book moving and interesting when it opened on Willows Road, a few miles from my house and a road I’ve run down and past during training runs, social runs and the small matter of the Birmingham Marathon. But although there’s a hijabi woman on the cover of Women’s Running Magazine this month, the women of this book certainly stay inside, forcibly in many cases, happily in others. Yousefzada lifts the lid on the ultra-orthodox Pathan Afghan community in Birmingham in his youth – the 1980s to mid 1990s – the women kept in strict seclusion, domestic violence rife and accepted by many, girls taken out of school at the end of primary school, lies told to cover up their absence, sent back “home” or kept in the house, hidden when the inspectors come round. It was quite shocking to me that this was still happening into the mid-1990s, when I was around Birmingham, with no idea.

The book sounds grim but it’s anything but, really. It’s a celebration of Osman’s mum, a talented seamstress who created clothes with no patterns, running her own business from their house, all sorts of women visiting to use her skills, and the other women who weave a network of mutual support. There’s palpable grief when he becomes too old to sit with the women, enjoying their colourful clothes and stories, popping out to buy them shoes, but he then starts to understand the processes happening to his sisters and he’s very vocal in the latter part of the book about their plight and his support of them. As in “Manifesto” we find a strict dad who will lecture and rarely soften, and we also have a system of community elders, often friends since childhood, who rule social conventions with fear and shaming to keep everyone in order, while the more educated – particularly the local scribe – are kinder and more supportive where they can be.

As well as family and community business, Yousefzada also describes social change that sweeps over the religious community when Islam becomes more heavily codified and visiting preachers require change just at the time that many men are made redundant in the recession so have more time for religious pursuits: so the dads change from having film star hair and best suits to growing beards and adopting close fitting hats over shaved heads – as an embryonic fashion designer, he obviously notices all the little details of appearance as he’s growing up and this gives a rich and fascinating background for the personal and social events.

Being set in Birmingham brought it all closer to me, and it was fascinating to see parallels with Pete Paphides’ “Broken Greek” in Yousefzada’s brush with gangs and lawlessness and in living a separate life to the wider community around him. Not all is separate, though, and both the sex workers who line the night-time streets and his White teachers help Yousefzada to learn about different types of people and different ways to be:

Miss Albert had held out her hand and pulled me into a world of dreams, very different dreams to those of the rest of my family. My escape route began with her. (p. 111-112)

A beautifully written, often funny, often moving book which I highly recommend, even if you don’t know Birmingham well.

Book review – Colin Grant – “I’m Black So You Don’t Have to Be”

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Another NetGalley book and this completes the set of books I had from there that were published in January, so one achievement unlocked for the month (see my upcoming State of the TBR post for what’s come in, however!). I must have seen this one on one of NetGalley’s emails and was drawn to the idea of a composite biography of several different people, all shedding light on Grant himself’s life.

Colin Grant – “I’m Black So You Don’t Have To Be: A Memoir in Eight Lives”

(31 October 2022)

I sailed through life easily, because my uncle, who arrived in Britain from Jamaica in the year I was born, had endured a gauntlet of prejudice on my behalf, being racialised by a country that only saw his blackness. “I’m black,” he’d say to me, “so you don’t have to be”.

Grant takes eight different people – family members plus one medical school colleague and one man in the community and hospital who is living with severe mental health issues – and tells stories of his interactions with them, then giving us a composite portrait of his own life from many different angles.

We meet his difficult and demanding dad, about whom he’s already written a book, running through life from Grant’s youth to Bageye’s death and funeral, his mum, and in particular her return trip to Jamaica after many years away, his enterprising and uncompromising sister, who recreated herself and ended up a Ghanaian princess rather than the daughter of Caribbean immigrants living in Luton, and his uncle and mentor, quoted above, who provided him with the title of the book, pointing out that the first wave of his family and their friends did the hard work, to allow him and his generation to, for example (shockingly to them), move to Brighton, allow their children to address them by their first names and enjoy eating lentil dishes.

Many of the characters are prickly and difficult, and there are some challenging scenes, particularly in the chapter on Charlie, his White activist medical school friend, with whom he bonds over dissection class … The final chapter takes us through to his children and the way in which they embrace the Caribbean heritage he’s not been so keen on, and the lessons he’s learned from them:

There’s a Caribbean exuberance, sense of mischief and search for rapture in all of them that is heartening to see: I feel more Caribbean in their presence. And though they recognise the disadvantages that British society imposes on blackness, they do not expect to be stymied by it.

This completes what is a humble and self-effacing – and fascinating – journey through recent Black British history, complete with its still-existing institutional racism (his experiences at the BBC are horrible but not surprising, maybe, having read around this topic a fair bit; his realisation that getting into the BBC, which felt like the end point, was in fact the start of a new process reminded me eerily of the new immigrant characters in “A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times“).

Thank you to Jonathan Cape for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “I’m Black So You Don’t Have To Be” was published on 26 January 2023.

Book review – James Vincent – “Beyond Measure”

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I was kindly offered this book by the publisher’s PR person when we were discussing another Faber book I’d been selected to read. I’m very glad she let me know about it as it’s a cracking good read, accessible and fascinating. I got to this and have reviewed it a bit late, for which I apologise.

James Vincent – “Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement”

(13 August 2022, NetGalley)

Why is a kilogram a kilogram, I asked; why an inch an inch. I understand these questions more fully now, for if measurement is the mode by which we interact with the world, then it makes sense to ask where these systems come from and if there is any logic to them.

James Vincent is a journalist for The Verge magazine who became interested in the science of measurement – or metrology – when he was covering the changeover in Paris from a physical, metal metre to a measure involving the speed of light, an event he also describes in detail in his book.

By the end of the book, he has an answer, of sorts, to his question, and one that he feels puts the humanity and changeability back into something that has become ever more technical. Along the way, he’s taken us through a basically chronological survey of measurement, from the nilometers along Egypt’s river which were used to predict crops or famine by showing how far the floods rose to the quantification of all human life through the use of wearable trackers.

He has to digress into the history of science, of writing systems, even, to show us how and where measurements developed, paying particular attention to those huge shifts that often happen alongside other sociological phenomena: had you realised that the metric system was codified during the French Revolution?

Vincent describes several meetings with people who can explain various measurements to him, starting off in Egypt going into a nilometer, and also visiting Sweden and Paris and having a video call with a figure from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology which keeps a huge range of samples for use in calibration or validation (from peanut butter that has a specific mix of ingredients to standard cigarettes to use in testing flame retardency). I noted that he makes the effort to consult female experts as well as male. Less expert is a chap from Active Resistance to Metrication, who go around altering signposts back to imperial distances (even though the EU actually allowed joint or alternative measures for fruit and veg and signposts in the UK, contrary to popular opinion). These forays into the real world (or the depths of archives) break up the theory and make the book even more lively and interesting.

I learned a huge array of things from this book; I must first explain that it is very accessible, even when it’s going into atoms and quantum physics or the philosophy of measurement and what can even be measured. Vincent has a facility for making concepts clear, and while he generously thanks a whole range of writers and academics in his Acknowledgements, as well as people who helped him with his text, this is a feature vital in such a work of popular science, and successful (I’m of reasonable intelligence and interested in the topic but my science studies apart from in geography and a big of post-grad statistics ended with my O-levels). So I learned that mid-western (in particular) America looks like that when you’re flying over it because of the Public Land Survey System, which not only drew the borders of the states but quantified field size. ISO measurements on a camera are called that from the International Standards Organization. The Centigrade scale for measuring temperature is called that because it divides temperatures into hundredths between the freezing and boiling points of water (you probably all knew that, but all the other temperature scales are named after people, so …).

Mentioning the quantification of America, while Vincent does have a gap in his coverage when it comes to Africa, the Near East and India, leaving African things at the Egyptians, covering Arab scholars briefly and mentioning only the use of mapping for the Scramble for Africa and the measurement and control of India, he is good on pointing out the negative uses of metrology, including for colonialism. He points out wherever it’s relevant that measurement was used to impose colonialism, as well as the use of measurement in eugenics, and he uses an Indigenous American source when writing about the stealing of land in that continent, and also talks at length about the use of measures in the Vietnam War and their use in the “dehumanisation of the Other”. He also raises the issue of algorithms being based on corpuses that include racist and sexist content and therefore perpetuating such horrors.

Thank you to Faber & Faber for giving me access to this book on NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Beyond Measure” was published on 2 June 2022.


			

A lovely birthday book haul

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It’s both a blessing and a curse to have my birthday fall so soon after Christmas – hooray, piles of books, but also oh, no, where to fit in all these books? This year, I’ve decided to embrace it fully: usually I save up my book tokens to spend in the summer but I’ve already spent some of my old and new Christmas book tokens and as well as receiving this lovely pile I have some more book and Heath Bookshop tokens to spend, and will do soon! But in the meantime, look at this lovely pile!

From the top, my best friend Emma went off-list (again) to pick out Robin Ince’s “Bibliophile” for me, which is about a tour around indie bookshops. She also kindly gave me two Susan Scarlett (Noel Streatfeild) novels, “Babbacombe’s” and “Ten Way Street”, the latter having the distinction of having been published in 1940, so it seamlessly allows me to take part in Kaggsy and Simon’s 1940 Week later in the spring. As do Margery Sharp’s “The Stone of Chastity” and D. E. Stevenson’s “The English Air”, which Ali forebearingly bought for me with no choice, given they’re the other Dean Street Press books published in 1940 that I wanted (don’t worry, DSP fans, I have plenty left for Dean Street December still!).

Then Sian kindly chose “Found in Translation: How Language Shapes our Lives and Transforms the World” by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche as well as giving me a book token, and Meg picked “The Story of Art Without Men” by Katy Hessel (with its v. clever spine and cover!) both from my extensive wish list.

I’m so lucky to have such bookish friends, and very grateful for the tokens from Gill, Laura, Jen and my parkrun core team friends (as well as the coffee!) which I will make good use of very soon!

Book review – Bernardine Evaristo – “Manifesto”

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

Bernardine Evaristo – “Manifesto: On Never Giving Up”

(09 September 2022, The Heath Bookshop)

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

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

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

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

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

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

What an excellent book!

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

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

Jyoti Patel – “The Things that we Lost”

(25 October 2022, NetGalley)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book review – Larry McMurtry – “The Evening Star”

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I missed a month of my Larry McMurtry 2022 Re-reading Project last month as I was so concerned with my Dean Street December challenge. But I’m not too worried, as it was always going to drift into this year, with one final novel, “Cadillac Man”, which I will now read in February. This one is the final novel in the Houston series and is pretty well set back in the city, with everyone from the previous books having their stories rounded off if they haven’t been already.

I acquired this copy in July 1999 and read it that August, and I don’t seem to have read and reviewed it again since. My copy was a second-hand one, though I didn’t recall where it came from – I suspect a charity shop rather than the book market in Greenwich as there’s a price crossed out but no alphabet code. I had been reading McMurtry from the library (Lewisham Library) since September 1997 and it looks like this one was the first of his I bought.

Larry McMurtry – “The Evening Star”

(17 July 1999, charity shop)

Her mother had always hoped she would write, or, failing that, sing, but she had done neither. She had, in the end, merely lived, partaking rather fully of the human experience, absorbing it, and yet doing nothing with it. That was the common way, of course, and yet the knowledge that she had not transcended the common way left her discontented, restless. It seemed to her that her problem may have been that she absorbed experience too avidly – so avidly that she had never taken time really to think about it. (p. 32)

As it’s the last book in the series, concentrating on Aurora Greenway, who it feels McMurtry had really wanted to write about again and again, and she’s entering her 70s along with her maid, Rosie, the General being in his 80s, you’re aware as you pick this up that it’s going to be a descent into losing the main characters you’ve read about in great detail over six books. And so it happens, although there are plenty of people left at the end and we extend into Aurora’s great-grandson’s adulthood in the final chapter.

We open with Aurora and Rosie visiting Aurora’s grandson Tommy in prison, a hated but necessary routine. Her daughter Emma died a few books ago, Tommy, Teddy and Melanie’s father lives in California with a new wife and kids and Aurora and Rosie have done their best to raise the children, but Tommy is in prison, Teddy has had major psychiatric problems and Melanie has lost her childhood charm and is dissatisfied and pregnant with a deadbeat boyfriend – classic McMurtry territory, then.

Over the book we cycle through chapters from the viewpoints of Aurora, Rosie, Teddy, Teddy’s son ‘Bump’, Tommy, Melanie and the General, Aurora’s last-remaining beau from “Terms of Endearment” (we get a quick update on how all the others were lost, as well as mention of Danny Deck’s daughter’s fate from the last novel), as well as a new character, the cod-psychoanalyst Jerry.

There are a few new boyfriends, Pascal the Frencher-than-French Frenchman and two delightful Greek brothers, and other recurring characters, notably Patsy Carpenter, in whose mind we spent so much time in “Moving On“, now older and damaged by all her poor choices of men but still looking out for the grandchildren and sparring with Aurora. Time wears on, the narrative becomes more fragmented, people move to LA, people die, and we’re often left with four old people bickering in a house, but it’s still classic McMurtry, as clear and precise as reportage, socking you with an emotional punch when you’re not expecting it. The fragmented scenes seen through young Henry’s eyes as he spends time with his failing great-grandmother as as masterful as anything McMurtry (or a lot of other writers) ever wrote.

In the end, it’s a meditation on the use of a life (see the quote at the top; this spurs Aurora into a fruitless project to remember every day of her life) and a bittersweet conclusion to a sprawling, uneven series I very much enjoyed.

Book review – Jini Reddy – “Wanderland”

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

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

(24 June 2021, book token splurge)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book review – Nell Zink – “Avalon”

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Well, here’s a bit of a weird one. Quite often in my reading life I’ve not really enjoyed a book lots of other people have raved about (“Girl with a Pearl Earring”, “Miss Garnett’s Angel”, etc.) but it’s rare that I read a novel that has quite a lot of negative reviews and really enjoy it a lot more than other people have seemed to. That’s what has happened here. The average NetGalley rating is 3/5 and the average Amazon rating 3.5/5. Yet I thoroughly and unreservedly enjoyed it! And I don’t think the description, blurb, etc. are unrepresentative, either. I was emailed about this one by the PR at Faber and am really glad I said yes to it!

Nell Zink – “Avalon”

(13 August 2022, NetGalley)

“What are you drinking?” Jay asked. “Coffee bubble tea,” I said. But you can’t show liberation without showing the oppressor. You have to show fascism.” I was trying to be clever, but also being entirely sincere. It seemed logical. How could people in emancipatory art be emancipated from nothing in particular? They had to be oppressed first.

Bran is pretty well raising herself on a Southern Californian farm that doubles as a plant nursery, biker gang hangout and purveyor of something indefinably dodgy. Her mum has disappeared to a Buddhist retreat and her dad to Australia but she’s kept on because she’s free labour. Socially awkward and penniless, she pulls together a life at high school, meeting an odd group of friends, predominantly her gay best friend, Jay (who has a hilarious side line in terrible flamenco dancing he thinks is art) and later, dangerously, his friend Peter, pretentious student whose diatribes are full of ellipses where Bran zones out (I found this amusing). As Bran finds her footing, creates alternative family and carves out a job and a home, she negotiates her long-distance non-relationship with Peter but retains a fierce sense of herself, and of herself as a writer, creating screenplays when Jay moves on to making slightly less than terrible films.

Satirising pretentiousness without (I thought) being pretentious, it’s essentially a small town coming-of-age novel rather than a Miserable Millennials novel, and the flat, deadpan delivery reminded me of A. M. Homes but also Victoria Clayton in England, going back to Dodie Smith and even Barbara Comyns, a style of narration I really like. Avalon is named after a tourist trap on an island that Bran has visited once, and there are echoes of legend in Peter’s thoughts on her, and she also seems to exist for him and Jay as a magical space to project themselves onto:

Presumably, with one another they talked about school projects and other cool stuff. Jay was increasingly proficient at looking cool, which entailed acting cool. He communicated with me mostly to unload his remaining nerdy, naive, anxious, or romantic thoughts.

An enjoyable read, I thought!

Thank you to Faber and Faber for selecting me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Avalon” was published on 12 Jan 2023.

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

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

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

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

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

(31 October 2022)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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