Since the beginning of the year I have been trying a different, more sensible, approach to my book buying. The aim is simply to read around half the books I buy each month, so I don’t end up with shelves and shelves of unread books. I even edited down my previously thousand strong Goodreads TBR shelf, so that it is now under a manageable 50. There were so many books on my Goodreads shelf, which I added years ago, and have no intention or desire to read anymore. If my TBR shelf exceeds 50, I will delete wish list books I am not likely to get round to any time soon, and only add anything I have recently purchased to tick off as soon as possible.
So far, this system seems to be working a treat, as I am reading what I purchase and replenishing with books I want to read sooner rather than five years later. As such, quite a few of the titles in this book haul are already read.
I have watched countless Zadie Smith YouTube talks and discussions (her conversations with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Karl Ove Knausgård are particularly interesting), and listened to a number of podcasts on which she was a guest (check out her appearance on the Adam Buxton podcast for a long rambly chat on teenhood, music, and recentish political events). I love her cool-headed intellectualism, her pragmatic approach to this jumbled mess we call life. And yet, I have never read a single novel of hers. So I thought it was high time to rectify this slight. Starting (unimaginatively/fittingly?) with her debut White Teeth, which I hope to finish this month.
Another novel I wanted to tick off my ever-growing African American lit TBR after recently finishing The Color Purple. I picked Ellison’s Invisible Man up with no real knowledge of what it was about other than its themes of black struggle in America.
There are novels that are great, solid bullet proof 5-star reads. Then there are those books which transcend the frivolous confines of ratings, books that are bona fide awe-inspiring works of art. Invisible Man definitely falls under this category for me. I was bowled over by its power and lyrical beauty. It combines the surrealism of Kafka and the black humour of Dostoevsky with the verbal ingenuity of Faulkner and Joyce, to create an African American epic, an odyssey of a strong-willed, naive unnamed narrator who is forced to leave his home in the South to build some form of life in Harlem. Without ever being didactic, Ellison manages to make the reader experience through his protagonist’s increasingly bizarre journey, the mind-boggling conundrum of forming a coherent positive identity as a black man in a structurally racist country such is America. This instantly became one my all-time favourite novels to stand alongside the likes of Absalom, Absalom!, The Great Gatsby and The Master & Margarita.
This short book is an eye-opening account into the struggles of thousands of Mexican children, as they journey, unaccompanied by adults, across the US-Mexican border to escape the drug wars and gang violence in their home towns. Author Valeria Luiselli works as a volunteer at the federal immigration court in New York City, translating for migrant children. Through her interviews with the children, we get to hear first-hand accounts of the unimaginable atrocities these young kids experience (death threats, starvation, being smuggled in and even on top of trains, the young girls often face sexual abuse) in order to get to America where they believe they will be safe, only to find that once there they are considered “illegal aliens” and may be deported. And even if they are granted permission to live in the US, they more often than not face further hardships and gang violence. Bleak and harrowing in the realest of senses, and yet Luiselli manages to elicit some hope through the stories of kindness and groups of younger generations of ordinary activists trying to make a difference in these children’s lives.
Another non-fiction account of refugees fleeing war torn countries. Kingsley’s book focuses on the Mediterranean migrant crisis and explores migrant trails of hundreds of thousands of refugees from many African and Middle Eastern countries all hoping to reach the relevant safety of Europe. It is a truly brilliant book, and covers almost every facet of the refugee journey, from reasons why they leave their homes, their journeys across dangerous terrains including deserts and mountains to get to the coast where they can board boats to Europe, and also the migrant experience once they reach the other end. What I found particularly enlightening is the investigation into the smugglers who have managed to build million-dollar businesses by organising and promoting covert boat trips to Europe. A true wake-up call of a read.
Brick Lane forms a strong part of my childhood and adulthood. My mum grew up around the famed London street, my dad and grandad worked on the markets there, and I even lived around Brick Lane while I was at uni. I have an affinity with Brick Lane, and recently felt a wish to learn more about this street’s rich cultural history for a potential project. I haven’t got round to reading this one yet, so quoting directly from the back cover here: “On Brick Lane is a one-of-a-kind chronicle of one of London’s most remarkable streets. Bringing to life the memories and realities of Brick Lane’s many communities, Rachel Lichtenstein harnesses the voices of the famous, the infamous and the obscure, merging memoir, reportage, poetry, photography and local history. The result is as vibrant and fascinating as the neighbourhood it so movingly celebrates.”
Last month, I came across this Jagger bio in a bargain bin sale, and even though I was never a Stones fan, having only really been familiar with a handful of their hits, I thought I’d pick it up to add to my rock bios collection. It was only €3 after all. I flicked through the opening pages while out for a coffee, and sort of speed read the whole 600-page tome in a few days. The Stones story, I was to find, was a rollicking high jinks page-turner. As a Beatles-head, I had never really got the Stones, and while I still don’t believe the Jagger/Richards songbook ever quite matched the sublime heights of Lennon/McCartney’s output, the Stones’ cultural legacy is every bit as fascinating and important, at least until circa 1975. I have since been digging into the Stones’ back catalogue, and have to admit they really came into their own around the demise of the Beatles. Their run of albums from 1968’s Beggars Banquet through to 1972’s Exile on Main St. are all stone-cold classics. Still high on this belated revelation, I also bought Keef’s autobiography, which promises to be one hell of a ride.
There was a time not too long ago where I was ravenous for anything rock music related. The Beatles, Zeppelin, Queen, Pink Floyd, Rush et. al were the superheroes of my youth, all mythic legends with as much superhuman wallop as any comic book caped crusader. Every month I would duly be at my local newsagent to pick up the latest copy of Classic Rock magazine, and would rush home to spend the subsequent hours lost in the legends of classic album recordings, epic tours, groupies, drug busts, and all the other cliched rock ‘n roll hang ups. Perhaps out of a sense of nostalgia, I recently had a craving for some well-written, rock music analysis. A few Google searches later, the name Ellen Willis kept popping up so I checked her work out. This collection of articles and reviews covers everyone from Elvis to Bowie, and each entry is a fascinating cultural artefact that sheds light on the musical landscape of the 60s and 70s, nearly always from a refreshing feminist perspective. Willis is every bit as revering to her musical idols as she is damning. Worth it for the opening essay alone, which chronicles Bob Dylan’s metamorphosis from folk hero to rock ‘n roll icon through an investigation into his albums, songs and lyrics. It is one of the finest pieces of music journalism I have ever read.
What are your January book haul highlights?
Have you read any of the books mentioned above?
Let us know in the comments section below.