Summer Reads 2013
Seldom Seen, by Sarah Ridgard
Hutchinson, London, 2012, hbk, 256pp, £14.99, 9780091944124, www.randomhouse.co.uk
Set in Suffolk in the 1980s, this wonderful novel is about how our secrets shape us. Shy teenager Desiree White becomes a village celebrity when she finds a dead baby in a ditch. Knowing far too many of her neighbours’ secrets (no one ever notices her), Desiree struggles to contain them in the face of feverish speculation surrounding this event. A few years later, Desiree is a grown woman still living at home, haunted by the memory of her tragic discovery. The story of how she finally lays the little soul to rest is poignant, earthy and very, very funny.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Fourth Estate, London, 2013, hbk, 400pp, £20, 9780007306220, www.4thestate.co.uk
This is a novel, which, among many other masterful feats, causes the word ‘ceiling’ to enter the lexicon of sexual terms. ‘I’m longing for ceiling,’ Ifemelu writes on Obinze’s geography notebook. Having fallen in love at school the couple are separated by continents and a marriage, returning to Nigeria where their education and scholarly heritage are forced to adapt in a world where those who have, thrive on vanity and ostentation and those who have not, barely survive. Adichie’s work is always compellingly readable, her characters as memorable as friends, the completed form a thing of beauty. But it is Adichie’s unblinking vision of her own people, viewed with love but without illusion, her supreme ability to capture the tenderness and greed of the human heart while maintaining the broadest of intellectual understandings of the world across three continents that make her one of the most important living writers today.
Bury My Clothes, by Roger Bonair-Agard
Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2013, pbk, 120pp, £11.99, 9781608462698, www.haymarketbooks.org
Roger Bonair-Agard's Bury My Clothes moves with gorgeous, alchemical fury, unmooring everything it touches. The collection ponders the question of what it means for us to thrive together in a community across ontological borders — to not only live in, but live toward the world, as if it does not exist solely for human exploits. In one of the book’s most vibrant scenes, calypso artist Roaring Lion tells young Roger that ‘three is the luckiest of all numbers.’ In this, Bonair-Agard’s third time out, the Lion’s theory is airtight. Bury My Clothes is winsome testimony, an incantation you can’t let go.
Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the West, by Ahmed Rashid
Penguin Books, London, 2013, pbk, 256pp, £9.99, 9780241960073, www.penguin.co.uk
In a book which provides a lucid overview of the region’s travails but sometimes gets a little breathless in pace and hectoring in tone, Rashid repeatedly identifies the Pakistani military and Islamic extremism as the main culprits which continue to foment trouble in the adjoining countries. He goes beyond viewing Pakistan as part of the US-Afghanistan-Pakistan nexus by effectively demonstrating how Pakistan’s politico-strategic situation impacts the wider world: India and China to the east; Russia and the Central Asian Republics in the north and Iran, Turkey and the Arab world in the west.
Siege 13: Stories, by Tamas Dobozy
Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis, 2013, pbk, 300pp, $16, 9781571310972, milkweed.org
Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy is the best collection I’ve read in a while. It’s not just that things happen in his stories; it’s not just that Dobozy constructs actual plots in which characters face nightmarish dilemmas; it’s that Dobozy weaves his characters, their irrevocable choices, their elaborate defense mechanisms and the forces of history or circumstance into believable tales that aren’t likely to be forgotten a week later. Alternating between past and present, the stories are set primarily in Toronto and in a Budapest either brutalized by the Red Army or chilled by the Cold War. Highly recommended.
The Hired Man, by Aminatta Forna
Bloomsbury, London, 2013, hbk, 304pp, £16.99, 9781408817667, www.bloomsbury.com
The story unravels in contemporary Croatia, over a single summer. It is told through the eyes of Duro Kolak, a handyman with a scarred personal history that leaks out over the course of this unsettling and supremely masterful novel. Duro is ‘the hired man’ for a British family that has bought a summer home in Gost, a sleepy village whose identity is torn between its recent history as a territory spilling with terrors during the conflict after the break-up of former Yugoslavia and its post-war re-invention as a tourist oasis. What stands out is Forna’s near-perfect authorial control. Her prose quietly grips us by the throat and then tightens its hold. It is storytelling at its most taut.
Schooling Hip-Hop: Expanding Hip-Hop Based Education Across the Curriculum, edited by Marc Lamont Hill and Emery Petchauer, foreword by Jeff Chang
Teachers’ College Press, Columbia University, New York, 2013, pbk, 208pp, $29.95, 9780807754313, www.tcpress.org
As hip-hop approaches its 35th birthday, Marc Lamont Hill and Emery Petchauer are giving Hip-Hop Based Education a next-level gift with Schooling Hip-Hop, which moves beyond literary analyses of rap songs into pedagogical explorations of hip-hop aesthetics, sensibilities and worldviews in the classroom. With a multidisciplinary emphasis on using hip-hop cultural forms (like the cypher, freestyling, battling, sampling and remixing) in addition to hip-hop content, the book’s eight academic essays by various hip-hop scholars provide an intriguing theoretical context for the next generation of hip-hop educators to engage students and transform teaching and learning across the curriculum.
A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
Corsair, London, 2011, pbk, 368pp, £7.99, 9781780330969, www.constablerobinson.com
It is difficult to say if A Visit from the Goon Squad is a novel or a book of short stories. All the characters have some involvement in the music industry, used as a metaphor for the spiritual condition of a species threatened by narcissism, technology, lust and the brutality of market forces. Were it not for the humanity and feeling that pervade this book, it would certainly feel gimmicky (one section is written in the form of a PowerPoint presentation), but instead Egan proves that postmodern ingenuity and old-fashioned heart need not be mutually exclusive.
Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray
Penguin Books, London, 2011, pbk, 672pp, £8.99, 9780141009957, www.penguin.co.uk
I have wanted to read this big sprawling novel (661 pages) for a long time. This particular edition comes in three slim books in its own beautiful bookcase, so it’s easy to carry about. I rarely laugh out loud at anything, but I’ve found myself chortling and chuckling uncontrollably on the train. Paul Murray is not just funny; he gets to the very heart of what it feels like to be an adolescent — the weirdness, angst, the enormous pain of growing up, the inner longings and inevitable disappointments. A hilarious, tender, deeply moving book and the prose is seamless. A wonderful tragic ride.
How To Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran
Ebury Press, London, 2012, pbk, 320pp, £7.99, 9780091940744, www.eburypublishing.co.uk
Unexpectedly enjoyable, the book discusses ‘feminism’ for the ordinary woman. Moran has a sense of humour and an ability to be disarmingly open about her own life. She raises all the important issues of dealing with femaleness while seeking equality, in a very straightforward fashion. This is not an intimidating book and yet it is thought-provoking. Drawing upon her own experiences while growing up, as a working woman as well as a wife and a mother, Moran questions whether we are in a post-feminism world and suggests that we need to do more.
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, by Kristopher Jansma
Viking Books, New York, 2013, pbk, 254pp, $12.99, 9780670026005, www.us.penguingroup.com
I have never been a fan of writers who write about writing, not unless they’ve proven themselves worthy by flexing their literary chops on something not so self-indulgent. Doris Lessing, Philip Roth, writers with a repertoire about as large as some people’s libraries, have earned the right to write about the elusiveness of the story. While Kristopher Jansma’s debut novel does touch mostly on the idea of what it means to be a writer, it really does do more than that, cutting to the core of what it means to want something so badly you’ll lie, cheat, steal and reinvent reality for it. It’s a story about reality and what it means not only to mould your life, but to find a place in the world. A somewhat confusing, but definitely enjoyable read, Jansma’s new voice will hopefully be around to fill many more spaces in many more libraries.
Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar
Methuen Drama, London, 2013, pbk, 112pp, £9.99, 9781472532091, www.bloomsbury.com
Sufficient time has passed since the twin tower attacks of 9/11 and the events succeeding it. Enough dust has settled upon rubble and enough stillness can be found to begin collecting thoughts. Akhtar’s seering play delivers a sweeping polemical battle localised in its central character Amir, an ambitious Manhattan lawyer who, despite his desperation to be absolved of his religious identity, remains shackled by it to climactic effect. The rigorous and unremitting weight of ideas is felt to somewhat compromise the wholeness of characters; nevertheless this prize-winning, adeptly architected play will remain important in attempting to make sense of our new world.
Summer Reads 2011
The Collaborator, by Mirza Waheed
Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator focuses on the story of a young Gujjar boy recruited to collaborate with an official in the Indian army in the Kashmir Valley. As he collects the identity cards and weapons of young men killed in ‘encounters’ with the Indian army, Waheed’s narrator is gripped by memories of friends lost to the freedom movement. His account of ordinary lives in the valley lived under extraordinary circumstances reminded me, in parts, of Joseph Addison’s The Visions of Mirza – ‘Envy, Avarice, Suspicion, Despair [and] Love’ are all in abundant display in Waheed’s characters whether they are radicalised or have simply made their peace with the conflict. So while the narrator’s personal and political dilemmas are representative of the problems faced by many people in Kashmir, I preferred to read The Collaborator as a universal tale about how the absurdity of violence and the illusions of freedom affect quotidian lives.
Kachi A. Ozumba
Voice of America, by E. C. Osondu
Granta Books, London, 2011, hbk, 256pp, £14.99, 9781847081780, http://grantabooks.com
In one of the stories in E. C. Osondu’s Voice of America, a Nigerian policeman, on being contradicted by his hapless victim, barks: ‘Do you want to lawyer me?’ It is such brilliant rendition of voice and street language that defines the stories in this collection, making them poignant, refreshing and entertaining even when dealing with well-worn themes of Third World poverty and dreams of a better life in the West. And while the setting is mainly Nigeria and America, the existential choices faced by the characters often blur the lines between nations and peoples. A truly rewarding read.
Adonis: Selected Poems, translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa
Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2010, hbk, 432pp, £20, 9780300153064, http://yalepress.yale.edu
In my early twenties, I scribbled a translation of a poem by the Syrian poet Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Esber) into my notebook and recited it to myself over and over again. Over the years, I have eagerly read the few available translations of Adonis’s brilliant poetry and trenchant criticism, gleaning valuable insight into Arabic literary history and its paradoxical relationship to modernity. Khaled Mattawa’s new translation of Adonis’s poetic oeuvre finally introduces those of us who cannot read the original Arabic to a comprehensive selection of poems written from 1957 to 2008. The range of forms and tones is astonishing – from aphoristic fragments to polyphonic long poems, including excerpts from Adonis’s 1985 poems on Beirut from The Book of Siege. Mattawa, a wonderful poet in his own right, has provided fresh and lucid translations. This has already become a much-loved text at my bedside, marked with coloured scraps of paper and penciled notes.
Dreaming of Baghdad, by Haifa Zangana, translated from the Arabic by the author, with Paul Hammond
The Feminist Press, New York, 2010, pbk, 160pp, £11.99, 9781558616059, www.feministpress.org
Long before Abu Ghraib entered our common vocabulary, a group of young radicals in Iraq organised in opposition to the Baathist regime and its charismatic leader, Saddam Hussein. Haifa Zangana recounts her arrest and torture at Abu Ghraib in this searing memoir, written in small, painful installments over eight years, and thirty years after she was exiled. Speaking truth to power can be simultaneously exhilarating and dangerous. Zangana vividly describes her political evolution as part of a generation dreaming of a better future for their country. Despite crushing political defeat and the bitter loneliness of exile, her story remains an act of revolutionary faith, at once inspiring and poetic.
An Act of Love, by Alan Gibbons
Orion, London, 2011, pbk, 304pp, £8.99, 9781444002287, www.orionbooks.co.uk
An Act of Love opens in an unnamed northern town, as a ceremony to honour soldiers back from Afghanistan begins. The book is fast-paced, switching between Chris, wounded by battle, and Imran, his old mate whose life has taken a different path. It switchbacks in short sharp chapters, between the present, where a bomb has been planted, and the past before 9/11 and local riots when both boys’ lives seemed much simpler. It is a book about love and terror, about how and why people fight. The sharpness of the prose and skilful storytelling make this book a must-read. Alan Gibbons is one of few contemporary authors who will write non-white characters as credible, interesting and complex protagonists. His characters are not there because they are issues, but because they have stories to tell.
Wingshooters, by Nina Revoyr
Akashic Books, New York, 2011, pbk, 230pp, £9.99, 9781936070718, www.akashicbooks.com
Wingshooters, Nina Revoyr’s fourth book, remarkably unravels the complexities of race relations in the United States, a subject avoided in much recent North American fiction. The novel’s protagonist, Mikey, is a half-white, half-Japanese girl growing up with her all-American grandparents in 1970s rural Wisconsin. Mikey spends her days playing baseball and hunting with her kind but prejudiced grandfather, but she remains lonely due to her xenophobic classmates and neighbors. When the Garretts, a middle-class black couple, arrive, the townspeople find a new object for their hatred. Their racism gives rise to tragic acts of brutality, but Mikey’s poignant relationship with her grandfather offers bittersweet redemption. This novel is well-plotted and climactic and also sensitive and profound. It reminds me of another impressive coming-of-age story I read this year, Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men.
50 Writers: An Anthology of 20th Century Russian Short Stories, edited by Valentina Brougher, Mark Lipovetsky and Frank Miller
Academic Studies Press, Brighton MA, 2011, pbk, 800pp, £24.50, 9781936235223, www.academicstudiespress.com
The usual suspects are to be found in 50 Writers: An Anthology of 20th Century Russian Short Stories, masters such as Babel, Nabokov and Pelevin, but the editors have uncovered a huge hinterland of talent that will be unknown to most English readers. As you would expect, many of the texts are rather bleak, reflecting the unhappy history of Russia in the last century – Vladimir Tendryakov’s story about the Ukrainian famine for example, or Yury Dombrovsky’s account of a dissident arranging a punch-up with the KGB. Solzhenitsyn’s story of a professor in the Stalinist 1930s unable to fail a useless student will strike a chord with anyone who currently works in a British university.
A Beautiful Lie, by Irfan Master
Bloomsbury, London, 2011, pbk, 304pp, £6.99, 9781408805756, www.bloomsbury.com
A Beautiful Lie by Irfan Master was shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize, and is a beautiful read. A young boy, Bilal, observes with horror the unrest engulfing India following independence, and already beginning to fracture his once harmonious community. Bilal’s dying father has devoted his life to the struggle for independence from the British Empire, and is full of pride for Mother India with all her many different parts and aspects. Convinced his father’s heart would break if he knew that his beloved India was about to be partitioned, Bilal keeps the news from him by involving his friends in creating an elaborate lie.
The Last Gift, by Abdulrazak Gurnah
Bloomsbury, London, 2011, hbk, 279pp, £18.99, 9780747599944, www.bloomsbury.com
How are identities shaped in the absence of stories of our personal past? How is our sense of belonging influenced by memory and life’s experiences? Abdulrazak Gurnah’s latest novel engages with these questions. The story revolves around a Norwich-based family: Maryam, a foundling raised by a number of foster families, her husband Abbas, a Zanzibari lascar sailor, and their children, Hanna, a newly qualified teacher, and Jamal, busy completing his doctorate. After Abbas suffers a stroke, uncomfortable truths are unlocked about his suppressed past. This crisis leads the family to a growing understanding of what it means to live in England, confronting feelings of strangeness and difference as well as rootedness. Characterised by lyrical prose and subtle, perceptive descriptions, this tour-de-force reveals the complexities of the consequences of migration and dislocation.
In the Kitchen, by Monica Ali
Doubleday, London, 2009, hbk, 432pp, £17.99, 9780385614573, http://doubleday.knopfdoubleday.com
Monica Ali’s third novel, In the Kitchen, charts the breakdown of Gabriel Lightfoot, celebrity chef in-the-making. It is a rambling narrative that starts with an unexpected death below the kitchens of the London Hotel where Lightfoot is marking time. The death propels Lightfoot into a sexual dalliance that precipitates his mental collapse. As his life unravels, we enter parallel worlds exploring issues around refugees, prostitution, people trafficking and exploitation. All this in addition to expert views on restaurant management. At 500 plus pages some judicious editing of the novel would have been helpful. That said, it’s the perfect, meaty holiday read.
Jackee Budesta Batanda
When God was a Rabbit, by Sarah Winman
Headline Review, London, 2011, pbk, 335pp, £7.99, 9780755379309, www.headline.co.uk
Sarah Winman’s When God was a Rabbit, spanning four decades, has moments of both laughter and sadness. The protagonist Eleanor Maud’s narrative is mirrored by key events in history like Martin Luther King’s death, Princess Diana’s death and the 9/11 attacks. It is a story about a bond and secrets shared between brother and sister that keep them together and later help bring healing to the brother. Winman captures the wider eccentricity that lives in our society, and makes her tale a very believable one with the characters she creates. When God was a Rabbit is a book you would want on your bookshelf and recommend to friends.
Zeina, by Nawal El-Saadawi, translated by Amira Nowaira
Saqi Books, London, 2011, pbk, 267pp, £8.99, 9780863564178, www.saqibooks.com
Nawal El-Saadawi was at the height of her fame as a feminist novelist in the mid-1980s, but is now better known for her polemical struggles with Egyptian ideological intransigence. Zeina, her new novel, tells the intertwined stories of the mentally disturbed literary critic Bodour, her pro-establishment husband Zakariah, and her two daughters, Mageeda, an establishment journalist, and the illegitimate Zeina, whose subversive and rebellious songs become anthems of resistance. The novel is a bizarre and original concoction of discursive elements – nightmarish satire on social and sexual mores, anti-religious tract, fragments of Bodour’s unfinished novel which laments lost loves – connected by an abiding sense of the injustices Egyptians suffer and their own collusion in their oppression.