The perks of having three weeks off work last month is definitely the fact that I polished off quite a lot of books, and a couple in particular were just fab (and then there was one rather large disappointment).
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (2012, Portobello)
India is a country whose current state I know very little about. When people I know have visited the country they talk about how beautiful it is, but also how awful the poverty is. The latter is what Boo focuses on; in particular the Annawadi settlement close to Mumbai airport.
The book is written in a style that is almost novelistic. Boo explores the divisions that religion causes in these communities (with a particular focus on the way in which politics chooses to turn different people against each other) and the ways in which people find themselves trapped there, be it through a lack of education or work or due to their gender. Most startlingly is how the corruption at all levels of society is writ large, from national politicians to police officers.
This is an incredibly engaging and insightful book; whilst the issues that Boo highlights are dark and at times have tragic consequences; the ‘characters’ that she focuses on are all incredibly interesting and imbue the book with at least some laughter.
Men Explain Things to Me & Other Essays by Rebecca Solnit (2014, Granta)
The titular essay of this collection is largely considered to have coined the concept of ‘mansplaining’, although Solnit shies away from taking credit for this. However, it is an exploration of why exactly it is that some men can’t quite believe that women can be just as, or more, intelligent than them. This is a diving off point to explore the silencing of women, and those oppressed in society in general, through the lense of rape culture or the Strass-Kahn sex scandal.
Solnit is a very engaging writer and she weaves her arguments and voice through occasionally tragic anecdotes and ‘The Longest War’ in particular stands out as an essay that I would recommend reading in itself.
The only flaws I really found with the collection was that occasionally Solnit shied away from being as bold as I felt that she really could be (she goes to great lengths to say that not *all* men mainsplain, which I felt was unnecessary). Plus, whilst I love Virginia Woolf, I felt that that essays inclusion was a little random; it reads as a very literary analysis which would mean little to someone unfamiliar with Woolf’s work
Ghana Most Go by Taye Selasi (2013, Penguin)
Ghana Must Go is the story of the Sai family, a Ghanian-Nigerian family who moved to the US. However, when the novel opens the family are estranged. When the patriarch Kweku dies after a sudden heart attack, the family are forced back together and years of pain are brought to the surface.
Every character in this novel is so brilliantly well drawn. From the long-term heartbroken matriarch Fola to the Sadie, the youngest child desperate to find a family; every single character is well drawn and none feel like a cardboard cut-out. All the relationships between the different members of the family feel very raw and real too. It’s almost reminiscent of Americanah in it’s exploration of the experience of African-Americans, especially when exploring the experiences of the younger generations.
The novel is a bit of a slow burn, until Kweku’s death and the reveal as to why the family became estranged; this isn’t helped by the fact that Selasi’s writing style (whilst frequently lovely) is quite disjointed which can make it difficult to tell which character you’re reading about and where you really are.
The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (2007, Black Swan)
I tend to shy away from words like’important’ when it comes to talking about books, but The Book of Negroes is important and should really be mandatory reading for anyone studying the history of slavery.
The novel is the story of Aminata Diallo, who is abducted from her village at the age of 11 and sold into slavery in the US. She survives the horrific journey across the sea where she is enslaved on an indigo plantation, is sold to a man who ‘prefers to think of her as a servant’, settles in Nova Scotia and returns to Africa with a group of freed slaved in the wake of the Revolutionary War.
Aminata is a character that it is impossible not to love. From the age of 11, she clings to the strength of her parents and the bits of education that she has gained to get through years of unbelievable horrors, the types of which you can’t quite believe humans inflicted on other humans. I was desperately rooting for her throughout, and there were moments when I could have just cried with frustration and happiness through the years.
Hill sheds light on this era of our history without it feeling like a just a lesson. I thought I was reasonably aware of how slavery had operated, but Aminata’s experience on the slave ships in particular was just horrifying, and I also had no idea about the abolitionist-led free slave colonies in Africa.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (trans. Ann Goldstein, 2012, Europa)
The hype around the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante was massive last year, which I think is in part due to the fact that Ferrante is a pretty reclusive character. This quartet follows two girls, Elena and Lila, and their unlikely friendship that spans their lives. My Brilliant Friend focuses on their girlhood and adolescence in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples. Ferrante is great at creating a sense of place; the neighbourhood and its heat just feels so real, and so do the people who populate it. The sense of violence that seems to lurk just below the surface of every interaction is also brilliantly done; right down to the competitive tension between the two girls. However, I did just struggle to…really care about either girl, and I didn’t feel particularly compelled to read on. Towards the very end of the novel, when the girls were teenagers, I did feel a bit more drawn into the action but for the most part was a tad unbothered by it all.
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (2016, Borough Press)
I was completely surprised by how much I loved this book. Eligible is a modernised re-telling of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, where Lizzie and Jane are forced from New York to their family home in Cincinnati when their father has a health scare. On their return they find their mother has a shopping addiction, the house is falling apart, Mary is doing her nth online degree and Kitty & Lydia have discovered SoulCycle. Plus, doctor Chip Bingley has just moved to town having appeared on dating programme Eligible much to the delight of Mrs Bennet who believes he is perfect for one of her daughters. Sittenfeld does an amazing job at slightly updating the aspects of the original novel to the modern day and still making you care about the characters. Lizzie and Darcy’s relationship in particular is just really great. This is so worth a read if you’re after something fun for the last days of summer.
Harry Potter & The Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne & John Tiffany (2016, Little Brown)
Ehhhh. I really wanted to like this, so much. I read the original books avidly when they came out and actually also really like the films and the announcement of a play was super exciting to me. As I’ve missed out on getting tickets so won’t be seeing the play any time soon, I snapped up the book version of the play and I am very disappointed. On the positive side, Scorpius Malfoy is a brilliant new character who I just instantly adored. There are also some genuinely laugh out loud moments (though usually at the expense of one of the character’s development). However, the plot was just a missed opportunity in my opinion, and also massively messed with previous events and fundamental character traits from the original series. I was also sad to see female characters kind of sidelined from the new generation. I’m of the opinion that good plays (like..hello Shakespeare) are great on the page and on the stage, so it’s a shame that this seems like more of a special effects show than a really great piece of drama.
So that was July! I’ve currently not even gotten through one book this month which is a shame. How’s your reading going?