What we’re reading: Autumn Edition
I love memoirist, Cathy Rentzenbrink’s writing, so was delighted to receive an early copy of her latest book, Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books. Dear Reader traces Cathy’s life through the books she has loved and also features a host of recommendations with themes ranging from ‘Fictional Diaries’ to ‘Pub Books.’ Cathy makes a passionate case for the transformative power of reading and explains how books changed her life from early childhood. While I can personally relate to Cathy’s days as a bookseller in central London, as well as her love of Anne of Green Gables, Daphne du Maurier and Elena Ferrante (please do watch Our Brilliant Friend Ferrante, in which Cathy talks about her love of Ferrante’s books in more detail), I think this book will appeal to bibliophiles far and wide. Look out for Cathy’s twitter-takeover during Durham Book Festival, where she’ll be recommending books to readers.
As an identical twin myself, I often struggle with the use of twins as plot devices, particularly the idea that as a twin you are only ‘half’ of something (I feel pretty complete on my own!). However, Brit Bennett uses the trope to great effect here as a fascinating lens to consider racial identity in America. The Vanishing Half is the story of light-skinned Black identical twins Stella and Desiree, and the different paths their lives take when one of them decides to ‘pass’ for white. Bennett weaves together an epic inter-generational story to demonstrate the impact of rejecting the identity you are born with, a notion played out in different ways by the twins’ daughters and other supporting characters. Although it takes race as its central premise, highlighting the realities of racism unflinchingly, the novel also considers other aspects of our identity and what makes us human (I especially loved the queer romantic subplot).
Bennett conjures a sense of place really well, with the fictional town of Mallard and its light skinned inhabitants standing out as especially vivid. The twins are also particularly well characterised; their personalities are convincing polar opposites, but throughout the novel you sense how they are drawn together despite being so far apart. Ultimately, as a twin, I found The Vanishing Half quite heart-breaking – and an excellent read.
How To Wash A Heart evocatively, tenderly and searchingly explores the experience of a migrant guest in a host’s home and the necessity of adapting, however exhausting and painful it is, in order to survive. Bhanu Kapil’s poems have an adept quality of being quickly absorbable yet needing time and latitude to truly appreciate how multi-layered they are. I read this stunning collection three times, falling deeper into the poems with each reading as my awareness of the difficulties and complications of the migrant-host relationship grew. These poems show us how the heart holds so much of who and what we are and yet can remain elusive and out of reach. We’ll be featuring Bhanu along with poets Rachel Long and Nina Mingya Powles at our Poetry Book Society Showcase.
I really enjoyed Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers, a gentle page turner, with the mysterious question of a possible virgin birth propelling the narrative. Set in the late 1950s, it follows the story of Jean, a single woman in her late 30s with caring responsibilities for her neurotic and demanding mother, and a job as a journalist writing workaday articles for the local newspaper. When the Tilburys come into her life an unexpected opportunity for romantic fulfilment presents itself. It is beautifully written. She evokes the frustration and mundanity of being a woman in the 1950s with the wit and knowingness of Barbara Pym, who I love. Recommended wholeheartedly – you can see Clare speak with author Louise Hare at our Fifties Fiction event.
Magnolia, is a collection of poems which sing with colour: shanghai-taxi blue; screaming pink azaleas; a sonnet with particles of gold. Nina Mingya Powles presents an exploration of her mixed-race heritage, settlement, love, and language, while weaving through an eclectic array of cultural references. The poems abound in rich sensory detail, but are at their best when they turn their attention to the layers of meaning behind the Chinese characters the poet is learning. I loved a passage in which she wants to know the names of trees in all languages to “find out what they taste like to other people”.
Alex Wheatle’s latest novel Cane Warriors is a piece of historical fiction that imagines the events of Tacky’s War, a 1760 uprising by enslaved people in Jamaica, from the point of view of teenager Moa.
This important story feels especially pertinent at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has brought conversations to the fore about discussions of slavery in British curriculum, which tend to focus on abolitionists.
Cane Warriors reminds us that there were many uprisings by enslaved people and we must recognise Britain’s true role in the slave trade. I would highly recommend this to both YA and adult readers alike!
Summerwater is a short novel by Sarah Moss, which takes place on a rainy Scottish campsite over the course of one day. Each chapter is from the perspective of a different holiday-maker; often they’re disillusioned, unhappy, almost always with an exaggerated interest in the lives of the other people on the campsite. Throughout the novel you are introduced to a mother and daughter who seem to have riled up the campsite – partly for playing loud music at night and partly for their undetermined Eastern European background. The tension builds as you watch these characters watch each other, and the novel is a scathing look at the divides we put up and the way we police our communities. I loved the introspective style, and seeing the minutia that each life is made up of. You get a sense of dread throughout the book, which builds to a satisfying climax, but it’s also writing that’s smart and satirical and frequently funny.
I absolutely loved Jenny Offill’s 2014 novel, The Dept. of Speculation and pressed it on many friends, so I was eagerly awaiting Weather and was really disappointed when Jenny’s planned UK tour was cancelled this March. As it turned out, we also ended up reading Weather in New Writing North’s Climate Reading Group, which I am part of, so with Jenny now appearing in an online event at Durham Book Festival I feel I have been compensated for my loss!
Weather is a book which takes on daily life in a time of global crisis; a domestic balancing on the edge of the apocalypse. It’s an extraordinary novel in which, with incredible brevity, Jenny seems to see right through me: my own inaction, failings, and basic laziness in the face of major climate disaster. Somebody has to pick the kids up.
I read it during lockdown and kept wondering what the protagonist, Lizzie (possibly a thinly-veiled Jenny) would make of Covid. Read it and you’ll know what I mean. And maybe at her event on 13 October we’ll find out.
Continuing her work from the Everyday Sexism project, Laura Bates tackles one of the uncomfortable facets of our society – the men who hate women. For most of us casual observers, the rise of these women-hating groups has come entirely out of the blue over the past few years. Bates herself points out that it’s been incredibly easy to simply define these men as just a handful of Dorito-eating losers in their parent’s basements. Unfortunately, this is simply not the case. Men Who Hate Women meticulously discusses the reality of how these men and boys slip through the cracks of society, following in the footsteps of male (and more often that not, white) supremacists. If you’ve never broached this topic before then this is an excellent book to help readers unpick the bizarre world of the manosphere and the serious nature of this growing hate movement. Once you’ve read the book you can catch Laura Bates at Durham Book Festival on 16 October – get your online ticket here.
I’ve been a fan of Adrian Tomine’s work since buying early editions of his Optic Nerve comics from a comic shop in San Francisco twelve years ago. His work has always bridged the (perhaps notional depending on how you feel about such things) gap between cartoons and work that feels like completely satisfying literary short stories. My favourite of his books is Summer Blond, a perfect collection of New York stories (I’m a sucker for NY stories full stop). So, I was very excited to see that his new book, The Loneliness of a Long-Distance Cartoonist (Faber) was a memoir and I was very happy to join Adrian in this early mid-life crisis of a book.
It was fascinating to hear about his travels in the world of comics (not all good or friendly), to enjoy the development of his romance with the woman who became his wife and to empathise with all of his health and children worries. The fear of an early and ignoble death unites us all. What I hadn’t expected to read about was his crippling insecurities as a graphic artist who didn’t always fit into the comic book world, how awful prize events can be and how nobody ever pronounces his name correctly. This is a very real, honest and authentic look at careers, home life and working your way through the world imperfectly (when in the eyes of many you are a wild success). Everyone can relate to this and I think everyone would find something to enjoy in this moving graphic novel.