Review: Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat (2019)

Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat

Blurb

WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD
WINNER OF THE STORY PRIZE
WINNER OF THE 2020 VILCEK PRIZE IN LITERATURE

From the internationally acclaimed, best-selling author of Brother, I’m Dying, a collection of vividly imagined stories about community, family, and love.

Rich with hard-won wisdom and humanity, set in locales from Miami and Port-au-Prince to a small unnamed country in the Caribbean and beyond, Everything Inside is at once wide in scope and intimate, as it explores the forces that pull us together, or drive us apart, sometimes in the same searing instant.

In these eight powerful, emotionally absorbing stories, a romance unexpectedly sparks between two wounded friends; a marriage ends for what seem like noble reasons, but with irreparable consequences; a young woman holds on to an impossible dream even as she fights for her survival; two lovers reunite after unimaginable tragedy, both for their country and in their lives; a baby’s christening brings three generations of a family to a precarious dance between old and new; a man falls to his death in slow motion, reliving the defining moments of the life he is about to lose.

This is the indelible work of a keen observer of the human heart–a master at her best.

Review

A few months ago, I reviewed Dancers on the Shore by William Melvin Kelley, a collection of short stories republished this year by riverrun. The stories blew me away, to the point where I couldn’t believe I hadn’t come across the writer before. With this book by Edwidge Danticat, out with the same publisher, that feeling came upon me again. A massive thank you to Katya Ellis for my copy, which I received in exchange for an honest review. I am so thrilled to discover a new-to-me author of such incredible talent and poise.

It takes an absolute master of the short story form to do what Danticat does in this stunning collection, which is to cut to the core of human experience. Like Kelley, or like Alice Munro, the stories in this book perform a kind of ‘deep mining’ of psychological and emotional experience, so much so that it reads not like fiction but, as I have previously said of Munro’s work, like documents of human truth. The eight stories in this collection, which together form a beautifully varied record of the Haitian immigrant experience, also reminded me some of the very best of films and literature, the ones which give me the sense that we’re coming in part-way through the story, that the lives of the characters existed before we started reading, and will continue after the final scene. (In case you’re at all interested, Pedro Almodovar’s films also give me this sensation, as well as the short story writers mentioned above.)

Having established that I am firmly of the opinion that this collection is utterly astounding, it is quite hard for me to pick out my favourite stories. Each offers something different; each stands apart from and in relation to the others. If I had to add one to my imaginary anthology of all time greatest short stories (which I really ought to do a write up of one day…) it would be In The Old Days, a delicately balanced, hugely poignant story of a daughter’s return that had me in tears. Other stories which will stay with me for a long time are The Gift, in which the spectre of tragedy hangs over a meeting of former lovers; Hot-Air Balloon, a story whose last line gave me the ‘short story pang’ of emotion; and the final story, Without Inspection, which brings the collection to a surging, impactful (sorry, I shouldn’t pun about such a beautiful book) conclusion.

I find it very hard to write coherent reviews of books which move me as much as Everything Inside did, so I will wrap up here. Suffice it to say that if you read to better understand what it is to be human, what it is to feel, then you will want to read this book. I am desperate to read more by Danticat, and feel lucky to have had the chance to read such a powerful and profound writer.

Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat is published by riverrun and is available now.

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Review: I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite (2020)

I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite

Blurb

It’s about time we made motherhood more diverse…

When Candice fell pregnant and stepped into the motherhood playing field, she found her experience bore little resemblance to the glossy magazine photos of women in horizontal stripe tops and the pinned discussions on mumsnet about what pushchair to buy. Leafing through the piles of prenatal paraphernalia, she found herself wondering: “Where are all the black mothers?”.

Candice started blogging about motherhood in 2016 after making the simple but powerful observation that the way motherhood is portrayed in the British media is wholly unrepresentative of our society at large.

The result is this thought-provoking, urgent and inspirational guide to life as a black mother. It explores the various stages in between pregnancy and waving your child off at the gates of primary school, while facing hurdles such as white privilege, racial micro-aggression and unconscious bias at every point. Candice does so with her trademark sense of humour and refreshing straight-talking, and the result is a call-to-arms that will allow mums like her to take control, scrapping the parenting rulebook to mother their own way.

Review

Becoming a mother is utterly terrifying. It is like entering a new universe, one which you know nothing about, where everything is strange and difficult and the highs are so high and the lows are so low. Nothing can really prepare you for it. When I became a mum, I remember feeling completely lost and bewildered. But as I tentatively navigated this brave new world, I took comfort from the support systems: my lovely NCT group, endless hours scrolling on Mumsnet (I never asked anything, I just searched frantically for someone else with the same problem), various online parenting magazines and Facebook groups. Looking back, I took these things for granted. I saw myself and my struggles reflected back at me in the warm, friendly faces and the helpful advice from people who were in a similar position to me. After reading Candice’s book, I have to say, it really hit home just how lucky – and yes, I am going to say it – privileged I was.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to try and negotiate the tricky, sometimes downright traumatic, terrain of pregnancy, birth and motherhood when no one is holding a space for your experiences, when you don’t see yourself reflected back, when issues which are faced by so many mothers are swept under the carpet because they don’t affect white mothers in the same way. I’ve seen the statistic that black women in the UK are five times more likely to die in childbirth several times now, and it never gets any less shocking.

What Candice Brathwaite does so brilliantly in this book is to carve out the space for Black British mothers, to demand it, to show why it is not just necessary but vital. Her personality comes through wonderfully: she is funny, brave and honest, and the trust she places in the reader is an honour not to be underestimated. Her experience at the birth of her first child makes for upsetting reading, as do other incidents where she faces microaggressions and more direct racism in almost every sphere of her life as a working mother.

But this is a hopeful book. It is a powerful, fresh, insightful look at the ways in which spaces CAN be reclaimed, progress CAN be made. Candice states that her primary aim for this book is to help Black British mothers “feel validated and encouraged to take up space.” I can’t speak for that, but to her hope that for all others reading, she can “accurately describe the many hurdles black British mothers are up against,” I can definitely say that this book opened my eyes. I highly recommend this book, and I am very excited to read her next book, out next year.

I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite is out now published by Quercus Books.

Review: Sway by Pragya Agarwal (2020)

Sway by Pragya Agarwal

Blurb

For the first time, behavioural and data scientist, activist and writer Dr Pragya Agarwal unravels the way our implicit or ‘unintentional’ biases affect the way we communicate and perceive the world, how they affect our decision-making, and how they reinforce and perpetuate systemic and structural inequalities.

Sway is a thoroughly researched and comprehensive look at unconscious bias and how it impacts day-to-day life, from job interviews to romantic relationships to saving for retirement. It covers a huge number of sensitive topics – sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, colourism – with tact, and combines statistics with stories to paint a fuller picture and enhance understanding. Throughout, Pragya clearly delineates theories with a solid grounding in science, answering questions such as: do our roots for prejudice lie in our evolutionary past? What happens in our brains when we are biased? How has bias affected technology? If we don’t know about it, are we really responsible for it?

At a time when partisan political ideologies are taking centre stage, and we struggle to make sense of who we are and who we want to be, it is crucial that we understand why we act the way we do. This book will enables us to open our eyes to our own biases in a scientific and non-judgmental way.

Review

As part of my resolve to read more non-fiction last month, I finally read this book, which has been on my shelf for a while. I am so glad I read it, as it is a fascinating, deeply important study that gave me a lot to think about. I took my time with it and made plenty of notes, but I will still be going back to it again and again. I also have her new book, Wish We Knew What To Say, and am very much looking forward to reading it.

The style of the book is comfortingly factual. Dr Pragya Agarwal’s rigorous, meticulously researched exploration of unconscious bias is rooted in scientific evidence and backed up by descriptions of experiments and studies. She does include some personal anecdotes, and I found these touches of personal experience helpful in linking the theories to how they might be manifested in everyday life.

So much in this book is fascinating and eye-opening. I feel I learned a lot about how the brain works, the way it processes information, and how biases often stem from evolutionary responses: survival tactics based on a kind of short-hand of threat assessment. The author is quick to point out that such instincts are not an excuse to allow unconscious bias to go unchecked: one of the main drives of the book is the hope that by understanding these processes more fully, we can address and change them.

I could go on and on about specific chapters and themes in this book that struck me as deeply important, but I will just highlight a few of the key points that really caught my attention. The distinction between in-groups and out-groups is fascinating, and when the author moves on to discuss the echo chambers that we exist in when we ‘hang out’ on social media with like-minded people, it is increasingly clear just how massive the effect of this has become in our society. The myth of a ‘post-racial’ age is exploded, with Agarwal firmly in agreement that silence is complicity, and that it is not enough to be ‘not racist’ – we must be actively anti-racist if we are to make progress on this front.

Finally, the section on technology opened my eyes to the way in which unconscious bias can have pervasive influence beyond anything I might have imagined. That facial recognition software should carry within it an implicit bias towards whiteness perhaps should not have come as a shock to me, but it did, and the whole notion of AI bias blew my mind wide open.

This book is a comprehensive, fascinating, hugely important study of a topic that we need to address, constantly and consistently, even if it makes us uncomfortable. The situation is not hopeless; as Dr Agarwal states, we must try to find strategies to “mitigate and counter our unconscious biases.” Understanding those biases is the first step. I urge you to read this book: it will change the way you think about the way you think.

Sway by Pragya Agarwal is out now, published by Bloomsbury Sigma, and is available to purchase here.

Review: Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie (2019)

Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie

Blurb:

In this collection of short stories, offbeat characters are caught up in extraordinary situations that test the boundaries of reality.

A love-hungry goddess of the sea arrives on an island inhabited by eunuchs.

A girl from Martinique moonlights as a Grace Jones impersonator.

Dimension-hopping monks sworn to silence must face a bloody reckoning.

And a homeless man goes right back, to the very beginning, through a gap in time.

Nudibranch is a dark and seductive foray into the surreal.

Review:

These powerful, strange stories are the first fiction works by Irenosen Okojie that I have read. Right from the start, the stories spoke to me: reading them was a hugely affective experience that I am probably going to struggle to put into words. Suffice to say I will be reading everything else she has written and will write.

The style is unique, heady, bold and confident. Okojie stretches sentences and images like elastic, twanging reality into strange shapes. She pivots on a knife-edge, always leading the reader somewhere totally unexpected. Words become jewels, weapons, made new in her fierce, fearless prose. It would be fruitless to try and compare such originality with other writers, but I experienced a surge of joy when Amos Tutola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard was explictly referenced – a book I haven’t read for many years, but which I remember giving me a similar feeling of dazzling new possibilities. In fact, if I had to find echoes of Okojie’s force-of-nature style in other works, I suspect it would be in previous Caine Prize anthologies (which, by the way, are a fantastic resource for anyone wanting to explore African literature) – it is no surprise that Irenosen Okojie’s story Grace Jones is this year’s winner. It is a perfect short story.

Some of the stories are incredibly dark, drenched in horror: the monks in Filamo and the awful unfolding of events in Point and Trill gave me seasonally appropriate nightmares. My favourite stories, apart from Grace Jones, are the title story, Nudibranch, Mangata, Komza Bright Morning and Dune Dunehelm (even the list of titles sounds like an incantation). I really don’t want to go into detail as the discovery of the surreal, surprising, extraordinarily varied worlds she creates in these stories was a large part of the joy for me. Instead, I’ll just give you a taster – from the opening of Grace Jones:

“Once the stray parts of a singed scene had found their way into the bedroom, onyx edges gleaming and the figures without memories had lost their molten heads to the coming morning, after she’d pressed her face against the space under the doorway crying, reaching for some untouched handful of earth as sustenance, the agency called, Hassan more specifically.”

As you can tell, these stories really had an effect on me. I recently listened to Irenosen’s keynote speech for the National Creative Writing Industry Conference, run by Comma Press and Manchester Met University, which was also amazing and incredibly inspiring. From a very personal point of view, Irenosen Okojie’s words have reignited my own passion for writing, something I have been struggling to find during this difficult year. Okojie’s mind-bending, reality-stretching style of writing won’t be for everyone (and actually it isn’t how I write at all, although that is beside the point!) but for me, reading these astounding stories has been a moving, powerful, wonderful experience, and I owe her a debt of gratitude.

Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie is published by Dialogue Books, and will be out in paperback on 12th November.

October 2020 Reading: The Same Ledge; PMSL; Bringing Up Race; Running the Orient; The Night of the Flood; Nudibranch; Sway; The Doll Factory; I Am Not Your Baby Mother; Tomorrow, Sex Will Be Good Again

October was a fantastic month for reading. I managed to read ten books, and although I deviated slightly from my planned ‘mostly non-fiction’ month (I didn’t realise Non-Fiction November was a thing, so I am either out of the loop or ahead of the game, whichever you prefer) I have no regrets. As well as six brilliant non-fiction works, I read an astounding short story collection and three fascinating, very different novels. A two-week half term for the kidlets means that I am desperately behind with writing up my reviews, but I’m hoping to catch up soon! In the meantime, here’s a summary of my October Reading. Let me know if you see anything that catches your interest!

The Same Ledge by Daniel James (2020)

The Same Ledge by Daniel James

I kicked off the month with this powerful, brave novel, which I was lucky enough to read for a blog tour run by the wonderful Damp Pebbles. My review is stuffed full of trigger warnings, but if you are looking for an uncompromising insight into the shocking inequalities of our society, I highly recommend this book.

PMSL by Luce Brett (2020)

PMSL by Luce Brett

The first of my non-fiction reads in October was a book I won on Twitter and, in all honesty, might not have read otherwise. BUT I am SO glad I did – Luce Brett’s book, in which she smashes the stigma of incontinence and opens the door for further conversations on this and other taboo topics, had a profound effect on me. You can read my full review here. Even if you don’t think you need this book, trust me, you will get so much out of it. We need writers like Luce, who can inform, educate, entertain and push the boundaries. People like her make things better. (I am pretty passionate about this one, in case you can’t tell!)

Bringing Up Race by Uju Asika (2020)

Bringing Up Race by Uju Asika

Another brilliant non-fiction read, and one that every parent, regardless of race, should read. Uju Asika’s book is an informative, useful, incredibly relevant resource which has the added benefit of being written in a friendly, engaging style. It is both practical and necessary, and I highly recommend it. My full review is here, do check it out.

Running the Orient by Gavin Boyter (2020)

Running the Orient by Gavin Boyter

A bit of a change of pace (excuse the pun) for my third non-fiction read of the month – I thoroughly enjoyed Gavin’s account of his incredible ultra-run through Europe. My review details the reasons why I loved this inspiring story, even despite my lack of running experience/ability/enthusiasm!

The Night of the Flood by Zoe Somerville (2020)

The Night of the Flood by Zoe Somerville

I couldn’t resist deviating from my non-fiction plan to dive straight into this novel, and I felt utterly vindicated upon discovering how brilliant it is. A confident, surprising, stunningly written debut, this is one of my top reads of 2020. I do more waxing lyrical in my review – do have a look. It is going on my forever shelf, and I am definitely going to reread it.

Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie (2019)

Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie

Right, this is the point at which my reviews remain To Be Written, as the kids started their two week break! I am really excited to share my thoughts about this strange, surreal, gorgeous collection of stories, as it hit me hard and reignited my desire to write (just in time for NaNoWriMo!). These stories really push the boundaries of narrative, and I absolutely adored them. More to come!

Sway by Dr Pragya Agarwal (2020)

Sway by Pragya Agarwal

Again, I will be posting a full review soon, but this study of unconscious bias is absolutely fascinating. I learnt so much, and it really showed me why it is important for me to keep reading non-fiction alongside my beloved stories. This book delves into its subject in an intelligent, thought-provoking, evidence-based way, and I want to sit down with my notes and process what I have learnt from it. Gaining a greater understanding of my own unconscious biases feels like a deeply important experience, and I definitely recommend this book. I’ve got a copy of her latest book, Wish We Knew What To Say, which has just come out, and I am looking forward to it even more now.

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal (2019)

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

Another detour back into fiction: I read this novel as part of a readalong with some fab book blogger friends. This was only my second experience of a buddy read (after taking part in the Love Orange event organised by Quercus last month) and honestly, I am a total convert. It is so much fun to have a group of people to chat about the book with, and I love the artificial ‘stop points’ that give you a chance to speculate wildly before reading on! This book split opinions and gave us masses to talk about – it is an idea reading group novel! I’ll try and get some more detailed thoughts up soon! Spoiler alert: I was a fan!

I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite (2020)

I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite

Back to non-fiction, and another great read. This book dovetailed nicely with both Bringing Up Race and Sway, and I loved the way Candice’s personality shines through as she recounts her experiences. Again, I will try and get a proper review up soon! Lots of catching up to do!

Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again by Katherine Angel (2021)

Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again by Katherine Angel

My final read of the month was an ARC of a book which will be published by Verso in March next year. Absolutely worth getting a preorder in for this deceptively slim volume, which is packed with insight and incredibly nuanced discussions of female desire and consent culture. I need to sit with my thoughts on this one for a bit, but I WILL get a review up… oh you know the drill! Really fascinating, important stuff.

So in summary: a brilliant month for reading, and plenty of reviewing to catch up on! How did you get on in October? Let me know your top reads – my teetering TBR could always stand to get a little bigger!

Happy reading!

Ellie x