The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla

the-good-immigrantSomething I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is how we’re never taught about colonialism at school beyond “brave explorers discovered a new land” (and there’s so much wrong with that statement it’s hard to know where to start). It’s not just a misplaced white supremacist nostalgia (though it is too often), but also genuine ignorance amongst the majority of white British people that colonialism wasn’t a benign force ‘civilising’ ‘lesser’ countries. Combined with the fact we’re also not taught about black, Indian, African, etc history, even as relates directly to Britain, beyond a little of the black civil rights movement in America, as a culture we see racism as something removed from us, do not face our own history, and, as a result, never deal with it.

Most of the ‘big’ books on racism in culture in recent years have tended to be about the treatment of black people in America (like Rankine’s Citizen or Coates’ Between The World And Me). Whilst they are incredible books that I’d urge you to pick up, the gap in well-publicised, widely-reviewed books about the issue in Britain just adds to (and is a result of) our ignoring and denial of the issue over here.

The Good Immigrant is a collection of twenty-one essays from black, Asian, and minority ethnic writers about what it means to be an immigrant of colour in Britain today, what it means to be ‘other’. The essays range from Riz Ahmed on being typecast as a terrorist at auditions and the airport (which you can read for free here), to Darren Chetty on children of colour in his class telling him stories have to be about white people, to Wei Ming Kam on how being a ‘model minority’ is not the same thing as acceptance, to Chimene Suleyman on the power in a name. And everything in between.

I could very easily write a full review for pretty much every essay, on the questions they raise, the experiences they discuss, the way they are written. But I think, actually, you should experience them individually for yourself. As a whole they open up those experiences white Brits don’t see, so can easily ignore or claim do not exist. They do so with humour, beauty, and anger. If nothing else, this collection lays to rest that absurd idea that publishing/journalism is mostly white purely because they are the best writers we have.

As with all collections like this, there were one or two essays I didn’t think were as good as the others. But nearly all of them were thought-provoking, well-written, and interesting. Although I know it wasn’t the scope of the collection, the only thing I felt was missing was something from a white immigrant, perhaps about physically blending in but still being ‘other’. Given the increasing violence against, for example, Polish people, in Britain, I think it would fit well alongside the other essays in the collection.

This is one of those ‘must-read’ books. It’s powerful, readable, challenging, and important. Pick it up. Now.

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September reads 2016

September was a Month of Many Things. I felt like I didn’t read much because I also played a lot of DS (pokemon and Zelda), had the flu for week (do not recommend), and made a video for the #MillionsMissing campaign day, but actually quite a bit of reading happened too. No wonder I’ve been feeling a bit relapse-y and in need of more rest (I will definitely be resting more and doing less in October to nip that relapse-y tingle in the bud). But, for now, here’s what I read in the order I read them:

the-walking-deadThe Walking Dead volume 1 by Robert Kirkman & Tony Moore (comics – fiction)

As I don’t have Netflix or Sky I’m always about ten years behind everyone else (though to be fair, I still haven’t seen Die Hard so it’s mostly just me) and I haven’t seen the TV series, though lots of my friends rave about it, nor read the comics. I thought a lot of the artwork was really great, and writing-wise it definitely like a complete arc despite the fact it was fairly short. It has all the traditional zombie story cliches, but I was expecting that. I think it’s something I’d rather read in the massive compendiums, because the single volumes are a bit too short for me, but I would definitely give this a go first to see if you like it.

undyingUndying by Michel Faber (poetry)

As a whole, this isn’t the best collection I’ve read, and I didn’t connect to some of the poems at all. But it’s still an incredibly moving book about Michel Faber’s late wife, and many of the poems are a real punch to the gut. Check out my full review which includes a couple of videos of him reading my favourites.

monstress-5Monstress volume 1 by Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda (comics – fiction)

The artwork in this is absolutely stunning (have a look at my full review for some examples). Unfortunately the writing didn’t live up it, as I found the exposition in dialogue was both too much and not clear enough, the pacing was off, and it’s confusing in places where it’s not clear a flashback has ended and we’re back in the present timeline. But I will still definitely pick up the next volume as I think it’s got potential and I loved the artwork.

my-year-of-meatsMy Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki (novel)

A Tale for the Time Being was one of my favourite reads of 2014, so it’s taken me a fair while to pick up any of Ozeki’s other work. This was her debut novel, and it shows. Though it’s enjoyable enough, she uses a very broad brush in her characterisation and in demonstrating themes, and doesn’t have the same subtlety she has in A Tale. I think if I hadn’t read her latest novel first, I probably would have liked this one more, but, though I did like it, it wasn’t as good and hasn’t stayed with me in the same way.

bothBoth by Tom Gauld & Simone Lia (comics – fiction)

This is a short collection of short comics, some of which are continued later in the book, rather than having it all in one big chunk, which I liked. It’s fun and cute and worth a quick look, particularly if you like Gauld’s comics in the Guardian.

real-worldReal World by Natsuo Kirino (novel, Japanese in translation)

Translated by Philip Gabriel. I still can’t decide if this is genius or meh. It’s a kind of dark coming-of-age story, with all the teenage characters trying to work out who they are, what to do with their lives, and how to grow up (in one case, ‘growing up’ and away from their parents by murdering their mother). I really liked the multiple narrators so you see the different ways the group of friends see themselves and each other. It lost me a bit when it introduced the perspective of Worm, because I just wasn’t interested in what he was thinking and I don’t think it was necessary for the story. I think she gets different teenage perspectives really well, though that does mean they’re sometimes irritating to read, because they’re supposed to be.

trystingTrysting by Emmanuelle Pagano (novel, French in translation)

Translated by Jennifer Higgins & Sophie Lewis. This wasn’t for me. In part, my expectations were off because I thought it was the story of one couple told in a series of fragments, but actually every fragment refers to a different couple. I think it’s a book to read in lots of sittings, just dipping in and out, which isn’t something I did – I read the first half in one go, became tired of it, then didn’t pick it up much again and just skim read the rest. I like the variety in the fragments and I think you will find a feeling or situation that deeply resonates in more than one. I do get that in many ways the thread running through the book is the number of disparate and similar small moments between people, and how they can speak to something much larger than that one moment itself, but there just wasn’t enough of a thread for me, especially as I read a big chunk in one go. Unfortunately it became forgettable. It just reminded me how much I loved (and preferred) With A Zero At Its Heart by Charles Lambert, which is a short novel about one man’s life told in short fragments, which I’d recommend over this.

Currently reading: The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla. This is really excellent. I’ve barely started it but I already urge you to pick it up.

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Monstress vol. 1 by Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda

monstress-5Maika is an Arcanic (half-human, half-Ancient) survivor of a terrible human-Arcanic war, and she’s trying to find out who killed her mother, what exactly happened at Constantine (the atrocity that ended the war), and whether, somehow, she had any part in it as a child. Maika has something dark within her, something she doesn’t understand and doesn’t know how to control. All she knows is that sometimes she hungers.

As well as humans and arcanics, there are also immortal ancients (who look like ancient Egyptian gods), dead old gods, and sentient cats who work as spies and poets. Within humans, there is a separate faction called Cumea, who are basically (so far) witch-like women with some powers and a penchant for torture. Though beginning on her own, Maika soon travels with a young fox-like arcanic and a sass-mouth sentient cat.

This is a dark, violent, and confusing comic.

The artwork by Takeda is absolutely stunning. She uses a muted colour pattern throughout, with intricate detail in both panels and full page spreads. Just look at the god damn beautiful stuff:





Liu’s writing, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to the artwork. Like a lot of fantasy, there is loads of information about the world and the different peoples to get across in a short space of time. Liu doesn’t quite pull it off. The exposition in dialogue is both too much and not always clear enough, the pacing is a bit off, and it’s very confusing in places where it’s not clear a flashback has ended and the normal timeline is back. All of this also leaves little room for character development, which will hopefully come through more in future issues/volumes now the initial set-up is mostly done. But, saying all that, it does make more sense as you go on if you just go with it, and read it in one, or very few, sittings. The story feels familiar, like it’s been told before but better elsewhere.

monstressDespite that, there is a lot of good in the writing / storytelling as well. I love the idea of the dead old gods wandering as giant ethereal ghosts across the landscape. And there’s good stuff about the aftermath of war, and how post-war ‘peace’ doesn’t mean stable or peaceful if none of the underlying problems have been solved.

This is a comic which I liked rather than loved, but I will absolutely pick up the second volume. The artwork is stunning, and I think the story could have potential once it’s out of the set-up phase, so I want to give it a chance.

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Undying by Michel Faber

undyingThis is a beautiful and moving collection of poetry Michel Faber wrote in reaction to losing his wife, Eva, to cancer. The first half is about the final months of her illness and her death, and the second about the aftermath. The poems range from grim to bitter to angry to tender to dark humour, and are full of emotion.

I don’t think Faber is the best poet I’ve ever read (whatever that means), and I didn’t connect to some of the poems at all though I could see the emotion behind them. But even those that I didn’t click with still added to the overall feel of the collection – the small moments that mean something to only Michel and Eva speak to everyone’s small moments, because that’s where life is.

In many ways these poems aren’t completely for the reader. The collection is about telling the world Eva existed, that she was loved and that he loved her. These poems are for Eva. These poems are to show you Eva.

All I can do, in what remains of my brief time,
is mention, to whoever cares to listen,
that a woman once existed, who was kind
and beautiful and brave, and I will not forget
how the world was altered, beyond recognition,
when we met.

I think the best way to experience a poetry collection is to hear it. Check out the two short videos below to hear Michel Faber read two of my favourites (I particularly like Don’t Hesitate To Ask, though the video leaves out the final stanza).

Don’t Hesitate to Ask

The Time You Chose

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August reads 2016

I had a great reading month in August, even though I couldn’t read much during the final week because of flu. I read so much because I left my DS & dvds to get dusty, so I suspect I’ll read less in September while I sort out whatever mess the kingdom of Hyrule has gotten into in my absence. August was also Women in Translation month, and I’m pretty pleased I read 5 WITMonth books, though I didn’t manage to review them all. I think having a ‘project’ helps me to read more as a kind of motivation, so I might try more themed reading months. Anyway, in the order I read them:

the vegetarianThe Vegetarian by Han Kang (novel – Korean in translation)

Translated by Deborah Smith. This was my favourite read of the month. It’s a book broadly about trying to understand a seemingly incomprehensible other person from your own perspective, about the relationship between humans and nature, about misogyny, about violence, about mental health, and about wanting a different kind of life. It’s weird and beautifully written. Full review here.

The WallThe Wall by Marlen Haushofen (novel – German in translation)

Translated by Shaun Whiteside. This was a bit hit and miss for me. I enjoyed the second half but found the first half a struggle to get through. I think it’s a book you’ll either connect with profoundly or find a bit ‘meh’, and unfortunately I leaned closer to ‘meh’. Full review here.

bret easton ellis and other dogsBret Easton Ellis and Other Dogs by Lina Wolff (novel – Swedish in translation)

Translated by Frank Perry. Though it’s a novel by a Swedish author, originally written in Swedish, it is set in Spain and does feel very Spanish. Though I liked the writing style and enjoyed reading it, it was let down by the less interesting final third so I didn’t love it. A good, enjoyable read that almost-but-not-quite brings it all together. Full review here.

PantyPanty by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay (novel – Bengali in translation)

Translated by Aruna Sinha. This is a fragmented novel about a woman’s identity and sexuality. It’s disjointed and moves between realism and a kind of lucid dreaming. I just didn’t get it. I’m sure there’s lots in here to discover but I didn’t connect with it enough to want to try.

I capture the castleI Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (novel)

I read this for a book club and was my only non-WITMonth read. Lots of people have told me this is their favourite book from child/teen-hood, so although I was looking forward to reading it, my expectations weren’t high. Usually, reading a book like this for the first time as an adult means it doesn’t quite have the same magic. However, this was incredible. It’s a very comforting, cosy kind of a read that’s also beautifully written. Although I don’t re-read books as much as I intend, this is definitely going to be one of those I reach for to curl up in when I’m under the weather.

house of the spiritsThe House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (novel – Spanish in translation)

Translated by Magda Bogin. I don’t often like long, multi-generational novels, but I loved this. It’s by no means a perfect novel – some of the characters are a bit thin, most don’t really develop, and Allende definitely over-uses foreshadowing, but I don’t care. Though the country is never named, it is very clearly set in Chile, spanning the time from just after world war one to Pinochet’s rule (though he is not named). Like most multi-generational novels, it’s filled with family, romance, violence, and politics, but it’s also a novel about Chile, and it’s well worth your time.

Currently reading: Undying by Michel Faber (poetry)

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Bret Easton Ellis and The Other Dogs by Lina Wolff

bret easton ellis and other dogsTranslated from the Swedish by Frank Perry.

This is a book set in Spain told (mostly) by teenager Araceli about (mostly) the life of Alba Cambó, a fictional short story writer and Araceli’s downstairs neighbour. It’s definitely not about Bret Easton Ellis. (The blurb on the back is somewhat misleading – the part with the dogs happens at the end and isn’t a main part of the book in any way).

It feels more like a collection of inter-linked stories with Alba Cambó as the thread, rather than a novel. Information is very gradually revealed, often in other characters’ stories about themselves, and as the reader you piece together Cambó’s life, particularly her impact on others and what they think about her, although she’s still mostly elusive by the end. Although there are male characters, and male narrators, this is very much a book centred on the women and women’s stories.

I really liked the writing style and I found it an enjoyable read, so I’m not sure why I didn’t love it. It may be because I’m not into reading short stories at the moment, and this had a short story feel to it, but also because I wasn’t particularly interested in the character’s perspective in the final, largest, section. It’s the one part of the book which centres the kind of male character the rest of the book purposefully de-centres. I think Wolff does this at the end in order to further centre the women and solidify her themes, but I don’t think she pulls it off. Ending with a chunk of something I didn’t care about left me without any strong feelings about the book either way, and I had to think back to remember how much I’d enjoyed earlier sections and characters.

An enjoyable, well-written book, that almost-but-not-quite brings it all together.

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The Wall by Marlen Haushofen

The WallTranslated from the German by Shaun Whiteside

An unnamed women goes to visit friends in their remote cabin. She decides to stay behind when they go to the local village for the evening, and when she wakes the next morning finds they never returned. Outside, she is surrounded by an invisible, impenetrable wall, with no sign of life on the other side.

This is one of those books in which nothing really happens (except the last page or so), but, at the same time, in that nothing everything happens: the monotonous, hard work of mental and physical survival. Though she occasionally reflects on her isolation and the nature of humanity and its relationship with the world, the narrator is mostly just getting on with the physical labour of feeding herself and her animals. It’s also the kind of book you could have a lot of fun pulling apart and analysing to figure out what the wall is a metaphor for. It could be the lonely distance between people, the distance between modern human lifestyles and nature, or simply between humans and animals/the environment.

The Wall is written in the form of a diary the narrator is writing at the end of the book, looking back on her first few years of survival. The voices of the narrator in the past and the narrator in the future are both written in present tense, within the same paragraph, which does get confusing at times, particularly in the first half. I found the first half a bit of a struggle to get through, and I wonder if this may in part be due to the translation. It often felt like it needed editing, particularly where identical bland phrases or descriptions were used within a few sentences of each other but not in a ‘literary device’ way. I didn’t notice this much in the second half, which makes me think something Haushofer was doing in the first half just didn’t come through in Whiteside’s translation.

There are no chapters and no breaks indicated anywhere. This works well in terms of creating a feeling of days flowing into each other endlessly and removing the normal ways we mark time. I always prefer books with chapters, preferably short chapters, because I sometimes struggle to read without them. However there were paragraphs which felt like beginning a new ‘section’, which absolutely helped, but you just don’t know until you get there.

I’m in two minds about The Wall. I enjoyed the second half, and liked how the book as a whole focused more on the struggle of survival rather than seeking explanations for the wall itself. But the first half was not as well-written as the second, and a bit of a struggle to get through. It came highly recommended, so I suspect this may be one to read in the original German, if you can. I think it’s a book that you will either connect with profoundly or find a bit ‘meh’, depending on what you’re looking for. Though there was something in it that I loved, The Wall didn’t quite reach the profound level for me.

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