My August Reading List 2020

I was fortunate enough to have a week off from ye olde day job last week. So, in true optimist fashion, I envisioned going on holiday, seeing my friends and reading about a million books in the space of just 8 days. Needless to say my reading pile has not gone down at all. I actually think it’s grown on account of my reserving (in bulk) on BorrowBox and snooping on others’ bookstagram accounts. I think one of the biggest lessons I have had to learn this week is one of acceptance. Even the best laid plans can quickly transpire to be overly ambitious. As such, if like me, you have been chastising yourself for not reading as many books as you had hoped to during your time off, don’t worry, it’s okay. It is not a sin to have a lovely time with your nearest and dearest. Your book pile will still be waiting for you tomorrow. On that note, the books that have been on my “in process” list this week are:

House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family by Hadley Freeman (BorrowBox)

Incredibly well researched (18yrs worth in fact), this book has the magical ability of combining the abstract facts and figures of wartime history, with the deeply personal narratives of her relatives. As a family memoir, the wider history threaded through this book not only acts as a backdrop to her own exploration of familial identity, but underlines that these hardships were not felt by her family alone. They were felt by all those Jewish families surviving and enduring the holocaust. Given the discussion around anti-semitism in the media at the moment and the lingering presence of hate towards foreigners, this book is particularly pertinent and oh so enlightening. Read, read, read!

Freeman begins the book by discussing why she embarked on this emotional journey in the first place and what encouraged her to delve into her family history. She explains that, when she was a lot younger, her grandmother, Sala, always seemed like a very sad lady. She often avoided Sala, as her incessant sadness simply made her uncomfortable to be around. Following Sala’s death, however, Freeman uncovers a shoebox stuffed with various war mementos and secrets that were hidden at the back of her grandmothers closet. As we have all likely experienced, she quickly feels the persistence of regret, of having never dug deeper with her grandmother. Indeed, “what haunts us is not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.” It is with this regret and a motivation to know more about her own identity that spurred Freeman on to carry out a thorough investigation into the lives of her ancestors. Sala; Alex; Henri and Jacques Ghlass are all realised so completely, that it is impossible not to become invested in their individual journeys. In particular, her great uncle Alex was an incredibly successful man with friends in some very high places…

Black Sunday by Tola Rotimi Abraham (NetGalley)

Published by Canongate, this is a Nigerian YA book that was gifted to me by NetGalley. Set initially in 1996 Lagos, this title is told from four siblings’ perspectives; each one expressing their search for agency, love, and meaning in a hypocritical society. I’m only 50% of the way through this title so far (full review to come), but I have to admit that I’m finding it a bit of a mixed bag. I think, at its core, this is a tale of postcolonial feminism spanning two decades. Although their brothers feature, this is a novel about two oppressed women coming of age in a patriarchal society and devising their own distinct paths to independence.

One evening, four siblings; Bibike; Ariyike; Peter and Andrew, learn that their mother (the sole provider of the family) has been made redundant due to political changes where she works. With poverty drawing near, the family is seduced by the New Church, an institution led by a charismatic pastor who engages their father in a unique business opportunity. Their father, however, is a wife beater, who perpetually squanders their money on ridiculous investments. Soon their mother abandons them, followed quickly by their father. Now raised by their ailing grandmother, each child – particularly the girls Bibike and Ariyike – must do what they can to survive, even if that means going against everything they believe in. This book deals with some very difficult themes, including sexual assault, that are all deftly contextualised through the realisation of Nigerian culture. I utterly respect that her characters are all complex individuals and applaud her for not shying away from uncomfortable topics. Indeed, there are times when Abraham’s prose is very beautiful e.g. “if beauty was a gift, it was not a gift to me, I could not eat my own beauty, I could not improve my life by beauty alone.‘ However, I am disliking the multiple perspective narrative device; they just aren’t hanging together convincingly for me right now. If the sell of this book is “sisterhood, fate and female resistance”, why is this not clearer to me 50% the way through? I think only time will tell if my mind changes.

My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay (BorrowBox audio)

I’ve been listening to the audiobook version of this title on my daily runs. I find that listening to non-fiction titles helps me concentrate on something other than my ridiculously heavy breathing and this book in particular has made me shout to myself “what the hell?!” Taken, without consent, from his Ethiopian mother at birth, Sissay endured over a decade of mistreatment in the British foster care system. This is the powerful and inspiring account of the acclaimed poet’s journey from neglect and despair to artistic recognition.

At the age of seventeen, Sissay – then named Norman Greenwood – was given his birth certificate and the case files from his case workers. He learned that his real name was not Norman. It was, in fact, Lemn Sissay and he was British- Ethiopian. Though they never formally adopted him, the Greenwoods were his long-term foster parents for 12 years. At just age 8, however, he was perceived as being too difficult – for acts of rebellion normal for his age but also his understandable confusion over race and religion. He was the only black boy in his family and, likely, his whole school. In fact, his teacher told him that he achieved too much, that he needed to be knocked down a peg or two and alter his life expectations. Though, so far, he writes fondly of the individual case workers who helped him, it’s quite evident already that he believes the system as a whole failed him. Especially as he later learned that his mother had been pleading for his safe return to her since his birth. I was not familiar with his poetry prior to reading this book, his lyrical tone comes through loud and clear. It’s not really my thing if I’m honest, but I think he has a really important and unspoken story to tell. I might have to pack hankies on my run.

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