Books

How white is your bookshelf?

The recent events in the US have had me thinking a great deal about a lot of things, but specifically, white privilege, police brutality, and the systemic oppression of Black people not just stateside, but all over the world. Not just in 2020, but historically, century upon century. And then I started thinking about what I could do as an individual and as an ally.

So I thought about this blog. Books. Reading. The thing I, like so many of you, turn to when I’m not sure what else there is to turn to. The place we go to learn, to reflect, to think, to live, and quite significantly, to listen to the stories those pages have to tell. And I’ll be damned if this isn’t a time to do all of those things with more intention and vigour than ever before.

How white is your bookshelf?

Let’s do a little experiment together, booklings. Take a look at your bookshelf, and either lay your trusty tomes out in piles or make a list according to these two groups:

  • Books written by white authors
  • Books written by Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) authors

If you want to talk about reading diversely in a wider sense, why not break things down by gender too? How many women are on your shelves? How many LGBTQ+ authors? It’s a learning experience no matter how detailed you decide to get.

If like me, you were raised in a predominantly white country and went to a predominantly white school with an overwhelmingly white reading list, then the final category will more than likely dwarf the others. And look – when you’re a kid, you basically read whatever you’re given. In my case, that was a lot of Enid Blyton, Beatrix Potter, and Harry Potter. The important thing here is that as we get older, it becomes our responsibility to read across different cultures, genders, and classes.

During my undergraduate degree, two amazing lecturers taught me about postcolonial and world literature. They helped me realise that there was, quite literally, a whole world of authors for me to discover. Authors beyond the literary canon which is essentially a series of choices made by generations of white males. And in retrospect, I feel a bit silly. Precisely because it took me so long to realise. Because I didn’t see how narrow my reading had been until then. How obvious it became to me, how clear, that you can’t broaden your mind and really grow as a person without reading, hungrily, from a diverse range of voices. Since then, I’ve made a conscious effort to make sure my reading is more inclusive. It’s only enriched my life.

I will never understand, but I stand

As a white woman, I will never be able to understand the suffering, the struggle, of being Black in a world broken by systemic racism. By people who see differences as a means to control others, to divide, to hurt, rather than something beautiful that has the power to make communities richer, happier, healthier, kinder.

But it is within my power to be a better ally, and there are many ways to do that, but today we’re talking books and the book industry because, well, that’s what we do here. So I’d like to share a few different resources and recommendations to help us support Black writers, bookshops, and publishers not just right now but indefinitely as we move forward, because it’s not enough to post a hashtag and be sad or angry. We need to do the work, as Layla F. Saad so rightly put it in her recent article in the Guardian.

Books to help you be a better ally

Before moving on to the non-fiction section, I thought we could start with the historical, political, and social facts to help provide some much-needed context to the issues of racism that persist today. Enter, these titles:

  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
  • Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
  • Chokehold: Policing Black Men by Paul Butler
  • The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
  • Black Skin White Masks by Frantz Fanon
  • How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
  • Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
  • White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
  • Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain by Trevor Phillips and Mike Phillips

Books by Black authors you need to read

Next, we’ll talk about fiction. If you’re looking for a few recommendations to get you started, here are some fantastic reads. Quick disclaimer here: this list is FAR from exhaustive, of course, but this wouldn’t be a book blog without me sharing some favourites, would it?

  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Recitatif by Toni Morrison (short story)
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • We Should all be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
  • Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  • Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
  • Kindred by Octavia Butler
  • The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes
  • Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

For a more extensive list of literature by Black authors, check out Penguin’s list of contemporary writers and this compilation by The Oprah Magazine.

Black-owned bookshops to support

I live in England, so I thought I’d cover the UK here primarily because there are people beyond these shores who know infinitely more than me about Black-owned businesses in their country. I’ll link to some other resources below if you’re looking for places to support in the US, and if you have any great resources to share, drop me a comment and we’ll add that in! Again, this list needs to be alive, it needs to grow; if you know of any Black-owned bookshops in the UK, drop me a link in the comments and I’ll add it to the list!

Additional resources

There’s so much to read around this topic, I couldn’t possibly hope to include it all in one little blog post. Besides, there are a lot of folks out there doing this with more authority and experience than me, so be sure to check these out!

Bookworms, if you have any additional books to recommend or resources to add to this list, let me know!

-Kelly

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We by Yevgeny Zamyatin review summary
book review, Books

Review: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

I pinky swear that the next book I review won’t be from the dystopian genre. I can promise that because I’m reading Normal People right now (absolutely hooked on that, by the way). Anyway, my fellow bookworms, here we are: a snappy review of We by Russian author, Yevgeny Zamyatin. Let’s do this.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Genre: Dystopian fiction

Length: 226 pages

Publisher: Penguin Books

Other bits: this edition translated by Clarence Brown; first published in 1924 by E.P. Dutton Inc, translated by Gregory Zilboorg; Zamyatin lived in Newcastle upon Tyne for a time while working at the shipyards, overseeing the construction of icebreakers.

Synopsis

Zamyatin’s We is set in the twenty-sixth century AD in the OneState: a totalitarian society completely based on rationality and mathematics. This see-through city of straight lines and glass is ruled by the Benefactor and shielded from the natural world by a massive Green Wall – which becomes so prominent it feels like a character in its own right.

The OneState is inhabited not by citizens, but by numbers. I mean they’re human beings, but they’re called numbers; our protagonist is D-503 – that’s what the ‘ancients’ would have called his ‘name’.

D-503, like the other numbers of OneState, is marching through life devoid of passion and creativity when we meet him – but that all changes when he finds he’s come down with a terrible affliction: he has a soul. Oh dear.

My thoughts

When I say life in the OneState is regimented, I mean it. Everyone lives in strict adherence to The Table – a state-approved (and enforced) schedule where even free time and sex is pencilled in at the exact same time as the rest of the state. That’s kind of where the name of the novel comes from – there’s no I, no individuality, here. There is only the we, the collective, and deviating from that isn’t exactly an option. Totalitarian states aren’t too keen on that whole ‘freedom’ thing.

In this glass city of uniformity, freedom is seen by the overwhelming majority as something negative. It’s synonymous with unhappiness, and the Benefactor is indeed benevolent for having saved them from such unhappiness by providing the strictest rules and stripping back privacy and choice to their barest of bones.

None of those complications about good and evil: Everything is very simple, childishly simple – Paradise! The Benefactor, the Machine, the Cube, the Gas Bell, the Guardians: All those things represent good, all that is sublime, splendid, noble, elevated, crystal pure. Because that is what protects our nonfreedom, which is to say, our happiness.

We, Yevgeny Zamyatin

And to be quite honest, I’m certain that this blind adherence to and comfort in rules is something all governments want. Don’t get me wrong – we need laws and rules to function as a society – that’s something that happens wherever humans form communities, government or no. But we must always question authority and seek to hold those in power accountable.*

*Yes, I was a very stubborn child/teenager. Spare a thought for my parents.

One thing that really struck me was how, despite living in a world where having a soul is considered a terminal illness, the language employed by our narrator is beautiful:

On the corner in the white fog. Blood. Cut with a sharp knife. It was her lips.

We, Yevgeny Zamyatin

The language seems to become more poetic as the novel progresses, reflecting the D-503’s gradual realisation that he has such things as a soul, imagination, dreams, lust, love, and so on. As his world fills with these almost-extinct artefacts of humanity, the pages he writes become more vibrant, more passionate, more powerful in their expression. Until he’s forced to bring his account to an end, of course, but I won’t reveal anything about that. I hate spoilers myself.

Anyway, that’s it from me, ladies and gents. If you love dystopian literature, this one’s a must-read, not just because it inspired other greats and makes you, the read, think about your own freedoms and status as a citizen – but because it feels so timeless and is written (and translated) so well.

Have you read this piece of Russian literature? Tell me what you think!

-Kelly

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Books to read in lockdown
Books, lists

6 books to read while you’re in lockdown

I’ve got to tell you guys that a more optimistic (to be read: in denial) side of me wanted to be a fountain of creativity and productivity and all the other -ivities that lots of lifestyle blogs and influencers are telling us we should be during this weird time. Weird is a bit of an understatement – I’ll go with surreal. Anyway, all of that turned out to be miles off from even the shores of reality.

Sometimes we just need to take things very, very slowly. You haven’t written 2,000 words of your debut novel? That’s okay. Haven’t felt inspired to paint a masterpiece? That’s fine. Not learning a new skill to make you hot shit at work? No worries. Sometimes it’s an achievement just to get up and fight through the day again. Sometimes having a shower and changing out of pyjamas and into your favourite booty-accentuating leggings is all you need to do to be “productive”, whatever that means anymore. Please can we give ourselves permission to NOT be renaissance men and women in the middle of a rather scary pandemic. Thanks.

Now that that’s covered, let’s look one of the ways we can deal with staying home more: reading. I’ve found comfort and, when I can’t bring myself to write, a kind of creative nourishment in books recently. Even more so than usual as a bookworm. So with that in mind, here’s a little lockdown reading list to help you escape for a few hours, no matter where in the world you are.

Mythos by Stephen Fry

This lovely retelling of the Greek myths brings together two of my favourite things on this Earth: Stephen Fry and mythology. Oh, and a stunning book cover. I can’t tell you guys how much of a comfort I found this book to be – it feels like he’s reading me bedtime stories. You can hear his razor-sharp wit and the gentle cadence of his voice come through the page – a testament to his skill as a writer, I think.

Right, enough about my clear crush on Stephen. More about the book. The narrative itself does a fantastic job of weaving together all the (kind of incesty) threads of Greek myth we’ve picked up from popular culture, creating one big, beautiful tapestry for us all to appreciate and learn about.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

This bestseller is actually on my to-read list, but the simple fact that it’s just come out as a TV series (in the UK, at least) makes this a perfect lockdown read.

I’m very here for something emotionally devastating, which apparently this is. Can we please make ’emotionally devastating’ into its own genre? I’ve got suggestions: On Chesil Beach, The Memory Police, et al.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

I’ve written a full review of Before the Coffee Gets Cold, and I loved it so much I had to mention it again here. It’s so delicately written and explores the ripple effect a single action in a single relationship can have masterfully. Genre-wise, I’d put it somewhere in the realm of magical realism. There may be time travel and a grouchy ghost, but it is primarily a story about relationships, and an exploration of that ‘what if?’ feeling we get when, in taking one course of action, we close off all other routes into the future.

Dr Jekyll and Mister Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

I was very late to the literary game reading this, but I loved it when I finally got into it this year. Escape into the smokey world of 19th century London, and get better acquainted with one of the best-known characters in popular culture: Dr Jekyll – or Mr Hyde. He answers to both these days.

Even if you’re already familiar with what happens in the book, more or less, the way this is written will have you in a fever to get to the next page, and the next, and the next. One of the reasons I loved this gothic novella so much is the sheer depth of the themes it explores. From the duality of mankind to the nature of good and evil, the struggles of addiction, society versus the primal within us all – and probably a whole lot more I’m yet to discover on my next reading.

Emma by Jane Austen

Reading books from a different time, culture, or genre than the one you’re accustomed to feels like a good way to escape for a bit, don’t you think? Emma is one of Austen’s most popular and best-loved novels, and was recently turned into another film adaptation starring Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhoose.

Emma is a bit of a nosey know-it-all who fancies herself a bit of a matchmaker. We all know someone like this, even today, I’m sure. Anyway, she’s got a good heart really, but through the course of the narrative we see her mature (to be read: eat a slice of humble pie) thanks to a series of match-making blunders and her own stubborn determination that she’ll never fall in love or marry. She’s far too clever for that. The drama of it all, you guys.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Ah, Agatha. Your tales of detective fiction are like a comfy, oversized bean-bag I can sink into after a long day, preferably with a glass of red wine. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd isn’t the first novel she wrote in her Poirot series, but it is the first work of hers I read during my BA. It’s an easy but very satisfying read, where Hercule Poirot entertains but also gets down to the bottom of a gruesome murder. Best bit about this novel? Very interesting use of the narrator. I’ll say no more.


So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Five books for you to crack open in lockdown. I hope, as you’re reading this, that you’re keeping safe and well, and that you’re staying an actual 2 metres away from everyone when you’re out and about. Seriously, lockdown has taught me that very few people actually know what 2 metres looks like. Ugh.

If you have any other recommendations, please pop them in the comments!

Kelly

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top 10 books to read
Books, Lists of Love

Top 10 Books on my To-Read List

As a self-confessed book-hoarder, bookworm, and bibliophile, having an out-of-control list of books I want to read is a part of the job. Another thing we book-fiends revel in is talking, writing, and gushing about books until we hear the gentle click of the kettle as it comes to a boil. Enough chit chat – on to the books!

1 | Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I’m utterly obsessed with vikings and Norse mythology, and I think Neil Gaiman is just fantastic. When I hit Waterstones in Newcastle and saw this beautiful hardback edition of a book that merged those two things together, I just had to have it.

2 | Hold Your Own by Kate Tempest

Now this is actually a collection of poems by English spoken-word poet, Kate Tempest. I only really started to appreciate poetry when I was reading for my degree in English, but since then I’ve more than made up for it by making time to read good poetry, especially by writers who are still alive and kicking today.

3 | Event by Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Zizek is a brilliant philosopher who, yes, I discovered at university but want to learn more about. Enter Event. 

4 | The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

After falling hopelessly in love with The Great Gatsby and dealing with the inevitable book-hangover that followed, I’m ready for my next dose of Fitzgerald. Let’s say it – the man has a knack for badass titles.

5 | A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes

A colleague of mine with excellent taste in books recommended this to me, and I’m going to trust her completely on this.

6 | The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

Shame on me for not having read this already, I know. I’m sorry, please forgive me. But I’m here now, and I’m ready to enter Discworld.

7 | Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is one of those writers who make you feel like you’re sitting down for a chat with your ridiculously good-humoured friend who’s also casually clever.

8 | East of Eden by John Steinbeck

This one is one of the heavier reads that I challenged myself to read a year ago. Ish. I’ve obviously failed. But I love John Steinbeck and will consider this blog post a promise that I will read it this year. Hold me to it, guys.

9 | Underworld London by Catharine Arnold

I love a bit of history – especially when it’s mixed in with some gritty crime. The full title is Underworld London: Crime and Punishment in the Capital City. Need I say more?

10 | The Elder Edda translated by Andy Orchard

Ah, we end where we began – with norse mythology! The Elder Edda is a collection of anonymous, Old Norse poems alive with the culture and history of the people who created them. It was actually one of the texts that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, so it gets my vote twice.

Have you read any of these? Let me know what you thought in a comment below.

Until next time!

Kelly

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