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24. NW by Zadie Smith

-So the thing about NW is that it is probably Smith's most personal novel since White Teeth. You really feel it in your gut, that this is Smith's life that she is bleeding onto the page. This is her agonies of childhood, her collegiate doubts, her romantic questionings, her maternal worries, distilled and represented as tightly as she can manage.

It is an uncomfortable experience. I will tell you that up front. It is a story about a London that is as multifariously multicultural as that shown in White Teeth or The Autograph Man, but it is not as joyously multicultural. For 22 year old Zadie Smith, intersections of cultures were sites of tension, but also opportunities for growth, causes for celebration. For 36 year old Zadie Smith, they are traps one is not sure they ought to try to wriggle out of. And that's not even the half of it. The true discomfort of NW is the intensity of the emotional connections that Smith forges between the reader and her four protagonists. There is no remove, no irony, no separation between these characters' deepest thoughts and the text that appears on the page.

Smith pulls out every trick she knows to achieve this effect. Modernist techniques like Woolfian or Joycian Stream of Consciousness share pages with scene descriptions that reminded me of Hardy's lush Post-Romanticism, while Post-Modern perspective shifts and documentary storytelling a la Pynchon or DeLillo sits next to conventionalized novel of manners narrations. I think in addition to being her most personal novel and her most uncomfortable novel, it is also her most baffling novel. I wrote of On Beauty that Smith was demanding your engagement, your participation. Smith demands something more of her readers here: She demands that you stay on your toes, keep your wits about you. This is her most suspenseful novel, the one with the most surprising plot twists. In a weird way, though it probably has the smallest amount of visible PLOT of any of her books, it might be the novel most dependent on plot.

-It's a story about Northwest London, the poor and working class and middle class districts full of immigrants and yearners, as seen through the eyes of four (well, three and a half. Smith goes as close as she can to the internal thoughts of three of the protags, then keeps a cautious distance from the fourth.) people who grew up in the Caldwell council estate (which I gather is British for 'housing project'). Leah is a white girl whose best friend from childhood is the black Keisha, who changes her name to Natalie at university to help pursue a career as a barrister. In addition to telling the stories of their sometimes intertwined lives in exacting detail, Smith tells the stories of their former classmate Nathan who has become homeless, a desperate wannabe 'player', and Felix, a working mechanic on a trajectory out of Caldwell when tragedy alters the course of his life.

Each story is told differently. Leah's narrative unfolds over weeks, Felix's over a couple of days, Natalie's over decades, Nathan's in an evening. I think Natalie's is probably the most successful, and others I've spoken to have agreed, but its success lies in an alignment between the empathy of the reader and the emotional state of the character- for a person whose empathy is aligned differently, I would expect a very different sensation. I know people who would like Leah's story best, and I know people who would like Felix's best. [If I compared the four protags to the four children from the Passover seder, Nathan would be the child who doesn't know how to ask. I know people whose empathy would be aligned with him, but they wouldn't read the book. This is one of the things Smith wrestles with in NW, as the overall metanarrative confronts the inequality of outcomes for these four strivers who came from the same beginning, more or less. Some people approach the world in different ways, and communicating those gaps is one of the tasks of the great novelist. But some people aren't even in the conversation, and the question becomes what responsibility, what moral obligation, the author has toward the child who doesn't even know how to ask.]

In sum, if you have admired or enjoyed Smith's other novels, you ought to give this one a try, but be aware that it is a more complicated and dangerous treat.
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16. I read I Speak for the Devil by Imtiaz Dharker. Her poetry tends to confessional style, which I usually dislike, but Dharker uses that style to speak for herself and her characters so skillfully that I enjoyed this collection throughout. The language and structures are deceptively simple but manage to convey complexities and deeper meanings. The whole collection is complemented by Dharker's own illustrations, which highlight her interest in bodies and embodiments. I offer you two samples: the more intellectually representative poem and the more sensually typical poem.

Tags: british, scottish, islam, muslim, calvinist, british-asian, poetry
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13. The Young Inferno by John Agard and Satoshi Kitamura is a verse retelling of Dante's Inferno embedded in a picture book. I liked Kitamura's stark, black and white, art style but in the art-as-storytelling stakes it seemed to me to lack variety. It also clashed with one of the text's spelled out messages: "My teacher said, 'You've got a point. Quite right. / It just shows that neither beast nor man / can be divided into black and white.' " Except this is a black and white book in several senses. Agard's verse text didn't work for me as either narrative or poetry. (Note to self: don't read retellings of Christian morality stories unless they're specifically subversive in some way.) However, I'm probably about as far from the target audience of hoodie-clad schoolboys as it's possible to be so who cares about my opinion anyway? I just hope this isn't picked up from the teen, graphic novel, section of the library by a reluctant reader who is consequently discouraged further. Agard writes good poetry but this isn't it. Kitamura's first and second illustrations are both interesting as art, especially the way Our Hero is represented as a negative (in the photographic sense) of himself, but the only illustration which wholly won me over is the fossil landscape in illo 4.

14. Too Black, Too Strong by Benjamin Zephaniah is an extremely powerful collection of individually skillful and soulful poems. Ben is one of the most humane people I've met and it shows through in every word of his work. Most people know him as a Rastafarian lyricist who wrote that "funny" poem about turkeys and Christmas, and maybe as that political poet who refused to accept the Order of the British Empire he was awarded, or that black British man who was bereaved of a family member by police violence (although that describes too many people), but his work is so much more: witty, political, memorial, deeply spiritual, widely literary, and linguistically sophisticated. There are several example poems at my dw journal.

15. Fiere* by Jackie Kay is her latest, 2011, poetry collection. I've loved Kay's writing since the first time I encountered it, years ago. Amongst other forms, she's an extremely accomplished poet in both Scots** and English. Kay's poems aren't generally confessional (in the strictest literary sense of that word) but they do contain enough autobiography that I feel some minimum background aids understanding, and that's provided in the brief blurb on the back. Kay is multiracial, her mother was a Scottish Highlander and her father was a Nigerian Igbo. She was born in Edinburgh and raised by white Scottish adoptive parents. There are two example poems, the ecstasy and the agony of human relationships, at my dw journal.

* "fiere", Scots, meaning "companion/friend/equal"
** Scots, which is primarily related to English, not Scottish Gaelic which is a different language.

Tags: women writers, african-caribbean, black british, britain, british, british-african-caribbean, caribbean, black scottish, scottish, guyanese, poetry, japanese, biracial, multiracial, children's books, sf/fantasy, fiction, guyanese-british, igbo, young adult
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11. Selected Poems by Mimi Khalvati is a selection from three previous books, which I enjoyed cos, although her poetry tends to be allusive (and so I missed some of the meaning), Khalvati's use of language is like listening to music. Two example poems, which I found particularly pleasing for various reasons, at my dw journal.

Disclaimer (also for the tag wranglers): I have no idea whether Mimi Khalvati herself, whose online autobiography is sparse, would identify as non-white and/or Iranian (or how the word "Persian" might or might not be a label of choice for some ex-pat Iranians). She certainly writes about non-Eurocentric concerns.

12. Startling the Flying Fish by Grace Nichols is a sequence of poems about Caribbean life and history. For me every word was powerful. It's outstandingly the best contemporary poetry I've read for years. The blurb perfectly describes this work as "symphonic". I wasn't sure whether to post an example poem or not because, even though all these poems are excellent as stand-alones, they belong in the context of the whole, which is more than the sum of its parts (but I caved anyway and posted two examples on my dw journal). If you're interested in contemporary poetry or the Caribbean then you should read this book. I strongly recommend it. Nichols is an author with plenty of published work too so if you like this then there's plenty more (and she writes for children too).

Tags: women writers, poetry, iran, britain, british-iranian, iranian, guyanese, british, guyanese-british, african-caribbean, british-african-caribbean, black british, caribbean
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3. The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith

I'm at a loss about how to review a book like this, truly. I think I might try some variant on what I've seen some folk on the internet call The Snowflake Method, beginning with a simple observation and just pulling back and out again and again until I'm exhausted. (Back, after having finished my review... This got long. I don't ordinarily like to put things I've written under lj-cuts, because that seems to go against my urge to be heard and listened to, but if people ask I may agree to put this under a cut)

The simple observation: This is an extraordinarily beautiful, complicated, and difficult to understand book that is disguised as something middlebrow.

And the more I came to believe this observation, the more the reviews of this book began to make sense to me. Because the reviews are stunningly scathing, and the quick google search I did turned up, in addition to the reviews, a conversation about Smith's apparent growing frustration that critics did not seem to appreciate the book. And because my first reaction, over the first hundred pages or so, was "This is interesting, and I'm enjoying some of it, but why is Zadie Smith trying to write Philip Roth? There's something false here."

The first turning point was tiny. Alex-Li Tandem, the half-Jewish and half-Chinese protagonist, is talking to his best friend Adam, a pot-smoking kabbalist running a video store. And Adam mentions 'omphalos', the Greek word for navel whose symbolic meanings (origin, self-contemplation, motherhood, among others) are at the core of James Joyce's Ulysses. It's the first of several keywords that pointed me toward Ulysses as a partial key to unlocking the novel. Others that turn up later are Alex's book draft Jewishness and Goyishness- a funhouse mirror version of Stephen's meditative quip "Jewgreek is Greekjew", and ultimately an alphabetic tour of the liquor cabinet that begins with a visit to Stephen's beloved absinthe.

What is Ulysses about and what does it have to do with this novel? That's why this review is going to be so damned long. The easiest way to explain Joyce's novel is to say that Ulysses is a novel about an everyman named Leopold Bloom experiencing everything. This is not a particularly effective way to describe the novel, but it's a useful beginning because it points to the problem of using it as the key to another novel. Using Ulysses as your guide to reading The Autograph Man is like using a kaleidoscope to perform an astronomy experiment.

But that's not enough. I've spent literally hundreds of hours of my life wrestling with Ulysses, more than I've spent with any other book except the Bible, but I know enough to detect other Modernist ur-texts buried beneath The Autograph Man. Eliot's The Wasteland has a role, (In one of the sly chapter headings, never explicated, Smith writes "Eliot was goyish".) Virginia Woolf comes up again and again. Kafka's fiendish mind blurs some of the later chapters. All of this is in some sense straightforward, with an acknowledgment of debt followed by subtle inclusions of borrowed material. But the more lenses Smith provides you to try to read her novel, the clearer it becomes that this is not purely a linear narrative.

And that's important because nobody expected a linear narrative from Smith. Her debut novel, White Teeth is impressively multi. Multifaceted, multigenerational, multicultural, multithreaded. And a lot of the critics' frustration with The Autograph Man, I think, is that on its face it's a lot less ambitious of a novel. But you burrow in a little bit and what you find is a novel that's a lot more important. White Teeth is about politics and identity, the face that you display for the world. The Autograph Man is about death and love and hope, the things we search for inside ourselves. Like Ulysses, it's not immune to exploration of the meaning of ethnicity and identity and culture, but that's just at the surface of a novel that, as it dives into dreams and faith, becomes much more.

Alex-Li Tandem is a mess in this novel, arrested in development in much the same way Stephen Dedalus is. His father's death looms impossibly large over the story, like Stephen's mother's death does. He feels responsible, as Stephen does. He feels like he missed his chance to get close to his father. But Alex has a weapon Stephen didn't. Alex-Li Tandem is Jewish, and he can say Kaddish for his father.

This doesn't make sense. Li-Jin Tandem was not Jewish and did not approve of Alex being Bar Mitzvahed, and anyway, Alex is barely religious at all and has been drifting away from Judaism the more intense his study of the difference between Jewishness and goyishness becomes. (Again, like Stephen, though also like Bloom, but I should acknowledge here that Smith inverts part of this dynamic because in Ulysses Stephen's drift away from 'Jewishness' toward 'Greekness' is at least partially about his homosexual feelings for Buck Mulligan, while in The Autograph Man homosexuality is identified via Joseph's extreme closetedness with 'Jewishness') But... where was I before that parenthetical? I have so much to say about this novel it's downright distracting. Oh, right. Despite the fact that Kaddish seems like it ought to be the wrong response, it is the force of nature that impels the story forward. It is the ability to share a community. As the Rabbi explains toward the end, Kaddish is about you speaking and everyone responding to your needs. Ulysses is at its core the story of three outsiders navigating their aloneness. The Autograph Man is about building connections so you aren't so alone.

If I may, Ulysses is about the experience of living the events of June 16, 1904. The Autograph Man is about the joyously freeing experience of reading about those events, sharing in the community of us readers who have found a home in Joyceiana. (Joyceiana should not be understood too literally. One need not read Ulysses to be part of my 'us', the post-modern reader, the person whose intellectual life comes not from the text but from the conversation about the text. If you write fanfic, you're part of my us. If you remix videos or music. If quoting movies is an important part of how you express yourself. If you can't read a book without talking your friends' ears off about it.)

And ha, Alex and his cronies in the field of autograph collection spend the whole book telling each other that it's a profession, not a vocation, but the book gives lie to their mantra. We read and we write and we tell stories in a million different ways about other peoples' stories because we are compelled to, because it's the only way we can make sense of the world around us and we need desperately to make sense of it.

Okay, I think I've said enough in prologue to start actually talking about the book. Alex-Li Tandem is the son of a Chinese-British doctor named Li-Jin Tan who changed his name to Tandem when he immigrated to Britain, and a British Jew from Poland named Sarah. Hybridization, like in White Teeth is the essential method that forms Smith's characters. These also include: Esther and Adam Jacobs, Black Jews from Harlem who came to London because of the English health care system when they couldn't afford a pacemaker for Esther, Honey, an African-American call girl infamously caught with a famous actor, Kitty Alexander, an Italian-Russian who became a famous actress in America by changing her name and pretending to be Chinese, Mark Rubinfine, who becomes a Rabbi despite his obvious ineptitude for the job, and numerous others.

Alex lost his father to a concealed brain tumor when he was a young teenager, in a traumatic event told very funnily and poignantly in the prologue. This event binds together a group of boys who witnessed it. Alex, Adam, Mark, and Joseph become a clan bound together by the death of Alex's father and the ensuing quest for spiritual meaning they all embark on separately and together.

A lot of the reviews I've seen have expressed doubt that a person as reckless and thoughtless as Alex could get a community of people to keep helping him after all he's done to them. This ignores not only the bond I mentioned in the last paragraph, but also the reality that we often tolerate a lot in our friends and family we wouldn't from others. And it's obvious what Alex offers his friends, anyway: Love, intelligence, and potential. And potential is not something meaningless, it's a very real thing which many people gravitate toward even when it means immediate pain, even when they know that before we reap the reward they're going to have to deal with a broken person.

But reading the reviews of this book were maddening. James Wood spends several paragraphs complaining about Jewishness and Goyishness, bemoaning this is an obscene homage to Lenny Bruce. "Alas, Smith’s characters are all much involved with the divisions between what is Jewish and what is goyish. They sit around saying things like: ‘There was a black Jew’ (of Sammy Davis Jr). It is an obsession which seems essentially inauthentic, and which marks the novel precisely as one not written by a Jew... And should a serious novel – if this is what The Autograph Man is – proceed from, and then only lazily confirm, the shallow binarisms of Lenny Bruce? Despite its Judaic theological literacy, the novel’s Jewishness is so dominated by Bruce’s taxonomic vulgarity that it often seems no more than crude externality."

He completely ignores the Joyce connection, which traces backward to St. Paul and forward to Jacques Derrida, this distinction that for Wood is just a stupid, ironic game but for a lot of people encapsulates a world where opposites are constantly coming into collision, where the beautiful and the vulgar are not at odds so much as they are two windows into the same vision. It seems to me that Wood is the one too focused on irony, while Smith knows that irony is Jewish and sincerity is goyish and that makes them the same thing. Crude externality? Alex's obsession with naming things as Jewish or Goyish is beautifully kabbalistic, in the true sense of Kabbalah instead of the mummery Rabbi Berg sells to Madonna. Alex and Adam know, like Bruce and like centuries of Jews before them, that one of God's first gifts to mankind was the ability to name things (cf. Genesis 2:20).

And that's why I reached a grudging reconciliation with Smith's choice, in the first half of the book, to put the Tetragrammaton, in both English and Hebrew forms, in her chapter headings. This initially put me ill at ease, because I take the Third Commandment pretty seriously. I take God's name very seriously and I handle it with care because names can hold tremendous power, and I don't like seeing the name of God thrown around secularly and catholically. But I did reach, as I said, grudging reconciliation, because every time I saw it the same butterflies hit my stomach, but I saw the more I read that Smith understands the butterflies and was using the Tetragrammaton precisely because it's the most powerful word she knows. Because it represents an interface between the divine and the human.

Naming things matters. Language matters, and Wood's distaste for Smith's pop-culture intensive 'hysterical realist' style (That label is from his review of White Teeth, but in this review he writes "The Autograph Man may indeed be the nearest that a contemporary British writer has come to sounding like a contemporary American; the result is disturbingly mutant.") reflects a disconnect between Wood's aestheticism and the kind of language that is genuinely required to tell stories about the world we live in. In The Autograph Man, Smith takes obvious inspiration from all the people Wood identifies, David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo and Dave Eggers, but her story is old-fashioned because it's also built on Kabbalah and Zen, ancient traditions for understanding language and the world around us whose relevance has not waned at all as the attention span of our information-driven culture has shortened.

I should say something about Zen, because a powerful transition happens near the midway point of the book when Smith moves from a London suburb to New York and begins theming her story with Zen motifs instead of kabbalistic ones. These are I assume meant to represent the two traditions Alex inherited from his parents, and almost certainly also to broaden the Jewgreek tradition that some have criticized in a post-colonialist sense as failing to accommodate the contrasts of the non-Western world.

It's beautiful, flowing language. I can't say as much about the significance of it as I can about the Kabbalah, and a growing part of me wonders if the reason so many people seem to have bounced off this book is because there is no handholding on the pop-cultural references. There are two approaches to the growing hypertextuality of the novel form. One approach is to fill a novel with irrelevant facts so that they're close at hand when they need to be consulted, in effect making the novel itself hypertextual. The other is to rely on the fact that readers are becoming hypertextual themselves and assume that when they don't get something, they'll go to Wikipedia.

Rather than infodump to guide readers through the nuances of some obscure fact required to understand the plot, Smith just demands her reader get her obscure references. This is more Joyce than Foster Wallace, though Smith's story at least can be read, unsatisfactorily, without getting the references. I know a good deal about Jewish mysticism and was able to deeply appreciate just how much effort she put into making that work realistically. I know just enough about Zen doctrine to recognize how much of that part of the story was slipping past me.

But I could keep talking about this book for a long time without reaching exhaustion, and I've already written a longer review than for any other book I've reviewed for this community, so I shall say no more than that I'm grateful that there's still On Beauty waiting for me to read.
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6, 7, & 8. Three poetry collections by Moniza Alvi: Carrying My Wife, A Bowl of Warm Air, and The Country At My Shoulder (all three collections are available together in an omnibus also called "Carrying My Wife"). I have to admit, out of about 150 poems, there were three that did anything for me. I mostly found the expression of content incomprehensible, possibly due to the author reaching for innovative imagery, and the aesthetics of form uninteresting, but she's a comparatively popular mainstream Establishment poet so my judgement is extremely questionable (and I haven't heard her read her own work live). There are two of the poems, which did speak to me, at my dw journal.

9. The Redbeck* Anthology of British South Asian Poetry, edited by Debjani Chatterjee, is a nearly 200 page collection with a wide variety of content and style, which I enjoyed. There are two example poems at my dw journal and a third example poem but, of course, three poems can't reflect the breadth (or depth) of this anthology.

* I keep misreading it as "Redneck". ::facepalm::

10. The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan didn't appeal to me visually as much as the previous Tan books I've perused but the gist, that it's more important to be happy than to fit in, is another good theme, especially for kids.

Note to tag wranglers: "british-asian" and/or "british-south-asian" is correct usage and, yes, some of the authors (and/or their subjects) are also caribbean / african / &c.

Tags: women writers, poetry, anthologies, asian, british-asian, pakistan, britain, british, caribbean, african, bangladesh, india, indian, indian-british, pakistani, bangladeshi, pakistani-british, bangladeshi-british, british-south-asian, asian-australian, australian, chinese-australian, picture books
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1. Bloodshot Monochrome by Patience Agbabi, is a pleasingly varied contemporary poetry collection with a strong emphasis on reinventing traditional printed-poem forms, especially in the sonnet sequence Problem Pages. I posted a sample poem and a video link at my dw journal.

Author bio:

2. The Red Tree by Shaun Tan, is a picture book full of complex and surreal images. The verbal story is minimal but effective, the art is stunning. I can't explain but I recommend you read this or one of Tan's other equally brilliant works such as Tales From Outer Suburbia, The Lost Thing, or The Arrival (no words at all)... or...

3. Eric by Shaun Tan, is a very short picture book with drawings in a deceptively simple style. Their meanings, and Eric's story, may be puzzled out by would-be readers here: Eric by Shaun Tan @ The Grauniad. It's only 12 pages and FREE TO READ (but Mr Tan got paid)! :-)

Author's website:

Tags: women writers, poetry, asian-australian, british, picture books, black british, australian, chinese-australian
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Sarwat Chadda, Devil's Kiss

The Knights Templar are still present in modern-day London (though there's not many of them left), and they have a secret mission to fight the forces of evil: vampires, ghouls, ghosts, and so forth. Billi's dad, Arthur (a white British Christian), is the head of the Knights Templar, and ever since her mom (a Pakistani Muslim) died as a result of the Templar's work, he's been cold and closed off to her, focused only on the mission. Billi feels pressured to follow in his footsteps and join the Templars, but she wants her own life, her own friends, and for her dad to pay attention to her.

I really liked this book; it's fast-paced, with an exciting plot (involving the Ten Plagues of Exodus), and interesting characters (including appearances by the Angel of Death and Lucifer), and some genuinely scary moments. I was a bit confused by the fact that everyone in the Templar has a name from the Arthurian legends, some of which are names you would expect to see in modern London (Arthur, Kay) and some which you wouldn't (Gawain, Percival). But this patten is never mentioned in the book, and Arthurian legends have nothing to do with the plot, so I didn't understand what was up with that. There's a sequel that's just come out that I haven't read yet, so maybe it plays a part in the next book.

My favorite parts were moments when the characters dealt with issues regarding Knights Templar in the modern world. For instance, there a long-running argument between Arthur and Gwaine on emphasizing the "demon fighting" aspect of their mission over the "killing people of other religions" part of it. It's mentioned that Billi was raised as a Muslim, but had to convert to Christianity to join the Templars. This isn't a major part of the book, but for me, it made the whole thing feel much more real. I would have liked more exploration of how the Templars have changed and adjusted to the present, actually. Again: maybe in the sequel!

A fun read, and one I recommend.
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Hi! It's been an unforgivable eleven months since I last posted, so you've probably all forgotten me or had a generational change and transcended to become godlike beings, in which case, good for you! Try to be benevolent. Anyway! I didn't come close to reading 50 books last year or this, but my involvement in this community definitely changed my reading habits for the better, permanently, so, you know, thanks for that.

34. Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

In my defense I read this long before I realized there was going to be a film (which I will probably end up seeing anyway, because Keira Knightley's cheekbones, guh.) Strange, haunting setup as what seems to be no more than a slightly weird British boarding school novel turns into something science-fictional and appalling. I think it works brilliantly as a critique of late-capitalist society, in which we are all fungible body parts intentionally distracted by trivialities while being fed into the rotating knives. But then I always say that.

35. Nora K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Finished it. Didn't fly for me, not sure why, since everyone I know and respect adored it. Will try it again.

36. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City

Pitch-perfect on the revolting excess and absurdity of the Iraq war. An excellent companion piece to Rory Stewart's The Prince of the Marshes.

37. Gene Yang, Prime Baby

Having loved American Born Chinese with a fond love, I picked this up for Kid #1, who is a prime number enthusiast with a baby sibling. The book - which features an older brother figuring out that his baby sibling is an alien through her strategic deployment of primes - was an instant hit with its target demographic, and has since been taken up by Kid #2 in turn.

38. Kamila Shamsie, Burnt Shadows

Contrived Coincidence.

39. Mei Ling Hopgood, Lucky Girl

40. Jane Jeong Trenka, The Language of Blood

Nothing galvanizes your curiosity about transracial adoption like your best friend adopting transracially (unless, I guess, it is you that is adopting transracially. But I always get the two of us mixed up.) These two adult adoption memoirs are often recommended as point and counterpoint, which is a little unfair to Hopgood, an adult adoptee who was born in Taiwan. Her Lucky Girl is competent and her story extremely interesting, if sometimes too digressive (I am here for the reunion, I am not very interested in the geography of Taiwan right now) and too reliant on journalistic tricks (please do not telegraph your plot twists in advance, thanks, the management.) Hopgood ends up deciding she was better off adopted, which makes her book the darling of adoptive parents who don't really want to hear the bad news.

Trenka: not so much! Her circumstances are very different, for one thing. For another - and this is what makes the comparison unfair - while Hopgood is a perfectly serviceable reporter, Trenka is an extraordinarily gifted writer, and her story is harrowing on any number of levels. I finished The Language of Blood sitting in my favourite cafe with tears and snot running down my face, and it is still with me. Trenka engaged me far beyond my original need to know about international adoption and its injustices and outcome. I'll read everything she writes.

Bonus round! Whether you consider the following writers white or not probably depends on where you grew up. The Australia in which I grew up was so overwhelmingly white that people of Greek ancestry tended not to identify, or to be identified, as "Anglo." That hair-splitting racial tension is ever-present in The Slap and nowhere in Logicomix, not surprisingly, because the latter book is not Australian! But I couldn't figure out a consistent way to include or exclude these two until I decided to list them both as extras, and so here we are!

Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou, Logicomix

If you love mathematics and history and especially the history of mathematics, call me! Or at least walk over broken glass to get your hands on this beautiful, brilliantly-researched graphic novel, which follows the life of a personal hero of mine, Cambridge mathematician Bertrand Russell.

Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap

This book was big news when it was published in Australia last year, and then again in the UK when it was longlisted for the Man Booker. In the English reviews especially there was a lot of handwringing about how awful some of the characters are, especially the deliverer of the eponymous slap. This was very amusing to me, because those characters tended to be note-perfect depictions of the kinds of men I grew up with. Anyway, to conflate the author's opinion with that of a character he is clearly satirizing is to fail lit crit 101. Get on that, London reviewers! More substantial criticisms addressed the sometimes-flabby prose and the invariably-squicky sex scenes. But. But!

Tsiolkas means a lot to me. He has been publishing novels since I was a fresh-out-of-uni candy raver in Sydney. He started in the gay ghetto and this is his first real crossover novel, and I am probably overidentifying more than a little, but I found it quite exhilarating that a writer of more or less my exact generation could take on such an ambitious project and nearly, almost pull it off. It's flawed, sure, but it's picaresque and panopticonic and high realist and it's groping for a Dickensian or Trollopian critique of all of Australian society. I love the book for being at once unapologetically provincial and unashamedly serious. And yet it's also very funny. I'm rambling! But I liked it a lot! Maybe you would too!
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The Final Passage by Caryl Phillips

Tells the story of Leila, a young woman from an unspecified Caribbean island, her doomed marriage and later migration to England.

Phillips' style is very poetic. There are some flat-out beautiful descriptions of the sea and the colours of the island, which are later contrasted strongly with the monotone grey of London. The connection between the environment and the state of Leila and Michael's marriage is cleverly intertwined the whole way through - as they cast off to sea it seems their relationship has a breath of futurity, but then the weather and poverty of life in England begin to make it claustrophobic again. Here for instance: The sky hung so low it covered the street like a dark coffin lid. The cars that passed by were just blurry colours, and the people rushed homeward, images of isolation, fighting umbrellas and winds that buffeted their bodies. . The book is much more focussed on tone than plot, however, and it ends quite abruptly. It is intentionally timeless, and it is a good exploration of the trials of emigration, but I think if it was less vague it would possibly have more authenticity and meaning. I enjoyed it though.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

Zhaung flies to the UK to learn English, then falls in love with an English man and discovers that the language of love is even harder to comprehend.

I absolutely loved this book. I loved Z. It's been a while since I read a female protagonist who is as smart, funny and bold as she is. I think this book might annoy some people because of the way it starts with deliberately broken English, but I am a word geek and I adored all the discussions about English vs Chinese words (there's a particularly moving section where Z and her English lover exchange the words for different plants). I am a sucker for romance, and I liked that it felt sort of clumsily natural and that there were problems and miscommunications, because that is real love. This book also had really great descriptions of London (like The Final Passage): The morning wind is washing my brain, and my small body. This is a city with something really heavy and serious in its soul. This is a city which had big wars in the history. And, I feel, this is a city made for mans, and politics, and disciplines. Like Beijing. Highly recommend this novel, I'll be checking out more of her writing asap.

Legacy by Larissa Behrendt

Simone is a young Aboriginal lawyer researching the legal arguments for Indigenous sovereignty. Her father is a prominent Aboriginal activist. The two have a troubled relationship due to his chronic infidelity. The novel explores the dynamics between all the people in Simone's life, as well as the legacy of Aboriginal dispossession. I have a heart that has been quick to fall in love with ideals ... but I’ve never been as willing to love realities

I struggled a little bit to get into this book because I thought some of the literary/historical references were forced in toward the beginning but by the middle, and certainly throughout all of the second part, the story really took off and I couldn't put it down. Again, Simone is a strong and sympathetic leading character, and it was great to see a female lead with such integrity. Behrendt is very talented at writing in more than one voice, she allows every character to have their say on the truth and to redeem themselves. I haven't read a book that was so good at heart for a long while. It is lighter than you might expect given some of the subject matter (not that it shies away from it or anything, just that it is the familial/romantic relationships that are the core of the plot not the political issues) and it is a great book if you just want something uplifting to read.
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48. B. B. Lal, The Sarasvati Flows On: The Continuity of Indian Culture

A short, easy-to-read (except for one chapter which seems to come from another book entirely) pop non-fiction summary of the Indus or Harappan Civilization, a Bronze Age culture located in the modern countries of India and Pakistan, which had its own writing system, cities, and art, and traded with cultures as far away as Mesopotamia. This is a very nice introduction to the topic, which covers most of the main points and has lots of nice photographs. It's shorter and probably a better book for the non-academic audience than most other summaries of the Indus I know of; on the other hand, Lal is seriously influenced by his personal politics in choosing what and how to discuss. But for someone who is new to the topic, this would be a great book.

49. Lisa Trivedi, Clothing Gandhi's Nation: Homespun and Modern India

A really fascinating investigation of one aspect of the Indian Independence movement. Gandhi was highly in favor of khadi- homemade thread and cloth- and thought that everyone who wanted to see India out from under British rule should not only use and wear khadi exclusively, but should spend half an hour a day making it. He thought that this would restore dignity to the working class, as well as provide a way for India's economy to escape the influence of the British factory system. Needless to say, not everyone actually wanted to spend that much time spinning thread, and the debates around the topic resemble the modern arguments over buying local/fair-trade/organic/etc. Trivedi provides a great account of these debates, the way they changed over time, and how khadi continues to function in the Indian political sphere; she even includes political cartoons about it! This is a non-fiction academic book, but very accessible; highly recommended.

50. Kajri Jain, Gods in the Bazaar: The Economies of Indian Calendar Art

Calendar art (aka bazaar art aka chromolithographs aka poster art) is a particular style of vividly colored, mass-produced art popular in India, particularly in calendars and advertisements, usually depicting religious images. Jain's book takes this often-ignored art seriously, investigating multiple realms of the topic: who produces calendar art? who buys it? how has it changed over time? what do artists say about it? how does it circulate? Despite the subtitle, she really doesn't address the economy of it, but instead focuses on meanings and interpretations. This book is another non-fiction academic title, and one a bit harder to get into than Clothing Gandhi's Nation. But it does have lots of pretty pictures!
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39. Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, Black London: Life Before Emancipation

This was a great book, but not quite as great as I wanted it to be. An academic work as readable as any pop non-fiction book, Black London deals with the historical presence of black people in London throughout history, although the focus is on the 1700s. The author says that she decided to write this book when, while doing research, a bookseller told her, "Madam, there were no black people in England before 1945".

I loved how this book didn't just give generalities about black life in the 1700s, but used the historical record to find real individuals and tell their stories: slaves, escaped slaves, servants, husbands and wives (it appears to have been quite common for black men to marry white women during this time), shop-owners, writers, the children of African elites come to Europe to study, the mixed-race children of Caribbean planters, actors, beggars, and on and on. I found it really fascinating and wished the whole book had been about these stories of people. Alas, about half the book is actually taken up with recounting the stories of two legal changes (and the mostly white lawyers, judges, plaintiffs, defendants, reporters, etc, etc, involved): the James Somersett lawsuit of 1771, which outlawed slavery in England itself, and the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which abolished the slave trade. While these parts of the book were interesting, they weren't as incredibly awesome as the first part. Still, I enjoyed this book, and am excited to see she has another about black people during the Victorian period.
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33. Gautam Malkani, Londonstani

This book was wonderful. The narrator is Jas, who used to be a bit of a geek, but now is very determined to be a true hard South Asian man, and the story is told through his inner monologue, complete with his worries with trying to fit in and learn the right slang. The slang gives the story so much rhythm and distinctiveness; it was really enjoyable to read. The beginning of the book seemed slow- lots of scenes about Jas and his crew hanging out, checking out ladies, getting into fights, making small-time trouble with stolen cellphones- but when the plot started to develop, it took off very quickly, bringing together threads I hadn't even noticed where developing.

Despite the very fun, rollicking plot, there are a lot of big themes developed: how tradition becomes tradition, cultural appropriation, youth rebellion and mainstream culture, the choices people make in terms of understanding culture. And the end! I did not see the end coming at all, but it makes me want to reread the entire book to look at it with that knowledge. I thought it worked really well with the themes of the book.

Very recommended!
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1. Octavia Butler - Parable of the Sower
2. Octavia Butler - Parable of the Talents
3. Octavia Butler - Bloodchild and other stories

I'm really grateful to this community for introducing me to Octavia's work. My main delight in discovering her are the strong, complex and not always sympathetic female protagonists in her stories, but I also enjoy the realism she brings in her portrayal of dystopia. Parable of the Talents may come off strongly as anti-Christianity which might bother some readers.

I tried reading the first few hundred pages of The Broken Crown by Michelle Sagara but I found it really cliched and frustratingly difficult to follow. I think that the first ten pages will tell you if it's your kind of book or not.

4. Richard Kiyosaki and Lechter, Sharon - Rich Dad, Poor Dad

Personal finance book with an entrepreneurial slant - I had only heard of the blog before reading this. I don't really agree with most of the advice. Kiyossaki also comes off as anti-'wage slave' which isn't very endearing. This book also had some very negative reviews online. The main personal finance book that I would recommend to most of my friends is still Your Money or Your Life by Dominguez and Robin (the 2008 edition has a third author as well).

5. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown - Mixed feelings: the complex lives of mixed race Britons

The first third of this book is a brief history of mixed race relationships more globally; almost all of it was new to me and I found it really interesting. The personal anecdotes throughout the book really help to illustrate the diversity of interracial relationships and families, (although granted the majority of interviewees are white/poc and particularly white/black - not necessarily problematic given the methodology of collection; Alibhai-Brown does discuss the need for further research into the mixed race population and notes issues with self-reporting on government ethnic monitoring forms.) I found it a very worthwhile read and the personal stories prevent the content from seeming too dry. Alibhai-Brown does comment occasionally on her own personal situation (she has a white husband and a mixed-race daughter) but it doesn't detract from her research.

6. Tananarive Due - The Good House

Modern horror and a cautionary tale against dabbling in magic. The book centres around Angela and her relationships with her separated husband, her son and an old boyfriend. I found her relationships a bit boring and found it difficult to sympathise with Angela most of the time, but the book was interesting enough to finish.

Before joining this community I read Growing Up Asian in Australia (ed. Alice Pung), which is an anthology of 'growing up' stories written by Asian-Australians. The collection is pretty diverse and includes mixed race, queer and famous contributors (off the top of my head this includes celebrity chef Kylie Kwong and illustrator/writer Shaun Tan). I really recommend it, particularly for fellow Asians who have grown up in western countries.
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14. Bernardine Evaristo, The Emperor's Babe

This is a novel in verse (which put me off a bit when I first realized it, but it actually works very well), set in Roman-era London, starring a young Sudanese woman. Most of the novel deals with the main character's tomboy-ish childhood and her friendship with another woman and a drag queen named Venus, but the climax comes when she has a affair with the Emperor. There's a lot of deliberate anachronisms such as brand names, musicians, and slang, stirred in with historically accurate details like Latin phrases or trips to watch gladiators fight, and I really enjoyed the bright, vivid world this mix created. Most of the tone of the novel is funny, optimistic, and confident, and so when the ending comes I found it both surprising and very effective.

Really recommend. I'll be looking up the author's other books.
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12) All About H. Hatterr by G. V. Desani

I cannot rave about this book enough. It's absolutely wonderful. It's in the Everyman novel tradition, but there is something unique about Hatterr even within this tradition.

H. Hatterr is half-European, half-Malay and 100% patsy. He grows up in India amidst a mishmash of conflicting ideologies- British colonial influences, Indian traditional influences, garbled influxes of modern philosophies- owning none of them but attempting to grab onto all of them. He always fails miserably and hilariously and pathetically... and gloriously.

Hatterr does not deserve better than he gets. Hatterr is every bit as crass and commercial as those who screw him out of money. Hatterr is every bit as undisciplined as those who best him in the sexual arena. Hatterr is every bit as hypocritical as those who keep him out of the spiritual world. He is one of those fools who need to be protected from themselves. That is the part of ourselves that we see in him, for he is in fact an Everyman.

Modernity is not a comfortable place. All he truly wants is comfort, and that is the one thing he cannot buy no matter how much Tradition he grabs. Hatterr occupies an inherently uncomfortable role, outsider on the edges of European civilization, inheritor of a different cultural strain, trying to figure out how to be true to his heritage without giving up the benefits of Western life.

Hatterr's appeals to the great Occidental wise men Marx and Freud and Locke are hysterical and at the same time tragic. The India we see in Desani's story is an India that will destroy itself and emerge no different from the West it fears and worships.

And Desani's prose!!!!!!! Crazy isn't enough of a word for it. Malapropisms refashioned into something more than malapropisms, the entire English language taken on a tour of the darker corners of its own history. Desani's Hatterr chews up Shakespeare and regurgitates his language into new patterns that retain the Bard's grace and add new levels of meaning and depth.

You ever read a book with language so energetic, so creative, so wildly and powerfully different from anything you've seen before that you just about dance in your seat from excitement as you read? This is that kind of book.

It is filled with powerful formal structures that explode in your hands as you try to read, sabotaging themselves, parodying themselves, refusing to be pinned down or understood in a consistent way. It's a book that is itself alive, and perhaps even human.


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Writers of Color 50 Books Challenge

October 2017

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