David Olusoga is fast becoming one of my favourite BBC presenters (though David Attenborough will always have my heart). Olusoga presented the excellent two part series on Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners in 2015, showing how after slavery was abolished the legacy continued in the compensation paid out—not to the erstwhile slaves but to their “owners”—and in the underlying prejudices that became embedded in the culture. Brilliant documentary, watch it if you can.
His latest documentary is a review of African literature in the English language. It’s called Africa Turns the Page: the Novels that Shaped a Continent.
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The Bell in the Lake, by Lars Mytting
Norway, 1880. So cold a woman leaned against a wall in church and froze to death, her skin stuck to the wall. No wonder my ancestors left. I love stories like this that are so atmospheric you need to wrap yourself in a blanket to read them.
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Book recommendations for the guys
There are mostly blokes in my book club. We’ve been a good unit for years now, meet bi-monthly in our homes. We’re vaguely kept on track by Roy. It’s a different vibe to the women’s book clubs I’ve been to. There is no chatty gossip or confidences but we know we can count on absolute trust and life support from the group if required. We meet, sit outside or in depending on the season, wine is poured, and the host might say why he chose the book before we do a round robin and back to the host to lead a discussion. There is little talk about writing style, not much on character or theme, but lots of talk about the subject of the book in a wider context.
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American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
The book opens with a mass-shooting at a family gathering in Acapulco, Mexico. Luca, eight years old, is in the toilet. His mother, who has been waiting in the corridor, bundles him into the shower enclosure and “is clinched around him like a tortoise shell”.
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Pachinko does exactly what a good book should; it takes you somewhere else and shows you the world through different eyes. A story has to make normal to us what may seem strange, and to explain the world enough so the reader understands the observations without the narrator being too “telly”. This is hard to do across a cultural divide but in this epic story, Min Jin Lee gives us full immersion.
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Lenny’s Book of Everything, by Karen Foxlee
I was up at 3am crying this morning. I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep and I thought I’d read a quick chapter of Lenny’s Book of Everything, ended up finishing the book and bawling my eyes out. Some books do that to you. This is one of them.
Audience-wise it’s a cross-over book, equally for teens and adults, about a young girl’s world. The voice is so honest and appealing, I can’t imagine anyone starting to reading this and not want to sit down with Lenny and hear her story. She is totally engaging.
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The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett
The portrait of the girl in the red coat is of Maeve, and this is her story.
We come at this fact obliquely, as the narrator is Danny, her much younger brother.
I love this painting, presented on the cover of the book. I referred back to it many times as I read to bring Maeve into the room with me. She looks a damn good kid, but with a bit of spirit. Sharp. Initially, the painter is brought to the Dutch House to paint Maeve’s mother, who decides she is having none of it. So Maeve stares out at the painter throughout several long sittings, a little bit in love with him, but she keeps to her seat, steady and calm, the still focus of the house while things go on around her.
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Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari
This is one of those books like a pregnant women. When you’re lugging the great lump around, so, it suddenly seems, is everyone else. The thing is everywhere. In the course of one week my son recommended it, my husband was reading it, I met a bloke on a tramp who couldn’t look up at the trees because his head was in the book and his girlfriend said it changed her life. Yeah, yeah. I got a copy.
Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind is a big book. Lots of pages, yes, but I mean big in the sense that every chapter is packed with some thought provoking perception. I didn’t agree with all Harari’s ideas but they were all interesting enough to make me rest the book on my lap for a while and think…hmmm…maybe he’s right. This is designed to be a life changing book. Bill Gates and Barack Obama both recommend it on the cover. It claims to be the “thrilling account of our extraordinary history—from insignificant apes to rulers of the world,” Quite the thesis.
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Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan
This book delivers everything it promises on the cover: a surreal balloon ride through a tropical jungle, a black boy holding fast with no control over things and an pith-helmeted explorer with a telescope looking like he knows where he’s going.
Washington Black, as the name suggests, is a slave boy and the explorer is the eccentric brother of his owner on a slave plantation in Barbados. They are drawn together, Titch because of the boy’s uncanny drawing ability and Wash for the enticement of freedom. But what is freedom?
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Boy Swallows Universe, by Trent Dalton
Oh my God. It’s true. This extraordinary story of Eli Bell growing up in suburban Brisbane amid drug addicts and gangs and criminals and the poignancy of children making sense of the mess…this is based on his life. Trent Dalton’s. The mother he loves so much he breaks into prison to be with her at Christmas. The best friend, Slim, who shares his stories of Boggo Road prison and may (or may not) have murdered a cabbie. The Vietnamese Golden Triangle heroin dealers and their hit men. Might be easier to read not knowing these things were based on a real life.
I SO love this book. It has that rare bit of genius that I search for in fiction: a mixture of quirky but believable characters, a story that grows, an unusual setting (actually, I hated the setting), and writing so sharp it makes you bleed.
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