Foreign from centre to circumference

Can-cans, Cats and Cities of Ash
by Mark Twain

This is in the Penguin Great Journeys series, so it’s an abridged version of a longer travelogue, in this case The Innocents Abroad, Twain’s 1869 account of a cruise across the Atlantic and around the Mediterranean.

I love Twain’s writing style – it’s simple language but excitable. He’s super enthusiastic to learn about the places he visits and to see in person places he has elevated to legendary status. His reactions seem to be genuine and honest. Which unfortunately includes some negative thoughts that are kinda racist.

“Elsewhere we have found foreign-looking things and foreign-looking people, but always with things and people intermixed that we were familiar with before, and so the novelty of the situation lost a deal of its force. We wanted something thoroughly and uncompromisingly foreign – foreign from top to bottom – foreign from centre to circumference – foreign inside and outside and all around – nothing any where about it to dilute its foreignness – nothing to remind us of any other people or any other land under the sun. And lo! in Tangier we have found it.”

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In the endless silence of the night you watch your evil garden grow

My Beautiful Shadow
by Radhika Jha

This was an odd read – a well-written book about a character I found it extremely hard to empathise with. Which is not something I generally shy away from in my reading, but it turns out there’s only so much detailed description of shopping and fashion that I can cope with!

Kayo might live in Tokyo, one of the world’s largest cities, but her world is small. She marries her high school boyfriend straight from school, and is immediately plunged into the life of the housewife, only leaving home to shop or get her hair done. When she has her first child a year later, her life gets even more lonely. On her rare outings she feels keenly that she is the harassed unkempt young mother, sharing the streets with glamorous office ladies whom she can never befriend.

Two things step in to change this for her. Kayo’s mother, offended at not having been invited to her daughter’s wedding or told about the birth of her first grandchild, turns up on the doorstep one day and hands Kayo a large cheque in lieu of the wedding kimono a mother would usually buy her daughter. It is understood between the two women that this will be their last meeting. Kayo decides not to tell her husband and uses the money to open her own bank account. She finally has the means to create a little freedom for herself.

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Do not allow your mind to be imprisoned by majority thinking

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers who Changed the World
by Rachel Ignotofsky

We tend to think that until the latter half of the 20th century, science was done by men. The history books and allocation of awards such as Nobel prizes strongly support that view. But in recent years a slew of books have begun to challenge that version of history. This is the first I’ve read but I’m keen to follow it up with Hidden Figures, The Glass Universe and others.

Ignotofsky both wrote and illustrated this beautiful book, profiling women scientists in a design-heavy layout that simply and effectively tells their stories.

From Hypatia (approx 350–415 AD) to Maryam Mirzakhani (1979–present), this book devotes a double-page spread each to women who have made significant advances in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In each, the left-hand page is an illustration of the woman herself, with a few key facts floating around, while the right-hand page contains a bio of the woman and a few small, light-hearted illustrations. In every case there is a quote either by or about the woman, and these often reference being a woman in a man’s world.

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Free speech is unthinkable

Burmese Days
by George Orwell

I’m always nervous of contemporary books about colonialism but I figured I’d be in safe hands with Orwell. Like A Passage to India, the major theme is the racism inherent to colonialism, but Orwell does a better job than Forster of clearly separating his characters’ racism from his own opinions on the subject.

The first character we meet is U Po Kyin, a middle-ranking Burmese official who has plotted and bribed his way to where he is and continues to plot his way further up. The next step in his plan is to destroy the reputation of Dr Veraswami, the local doctor. The biggest hurdle he faces is that the doctor is friends with Mr Flory – a white British man, in a country where the ruling British are unassailable.

For the most part the rest of the novel follows Flory as he tries to keep a grip on his awkward position in society. They’re in a small town in northern Burma and the Europeans-only Clubhouse has just eight members, most of whom are, like Flory, timber merchants who spend most of their time in the jungle. Aside from Flory they keep themselves apart from the native population and refer to them with racial epithets that are shocking to modern ears, and I suspect even at the time would have been frowned on “back home”. Flory makes clear by his friendship with the doctor that he doesn’t agree with the prevailing opinion, but he rarely opens his mouth to object when racist things are said.

“[Flory said,] ‘I don’t want the Burmans to drive us out of the country. God forbid! I’m here to make money, like everyone else. All I object to is the slimy white man’s burden humbug. The pukka sahib pose. It’s so boring. Even those bloody fools at the Club might be better company if we weren’t all of us living a lie the whole time.’
‘But, my dear friend, what lie are you living?’
‘Why, of course, the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of to rob them. I suppose it’s a natural enough lie. But it corrupts us, it corrupts us in ways you can’t imagine. There’s an everlasting sense of being a sneak and a liar that torments us and drives us to justify ourselves night and day. It’s at the bottom of half our beastliness to the natives.’ ”

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The hands of loss keep touching the memory

All the Rivers
by Dorit Rabinyan
translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

I remember spotting this book in the Serpent’s Tail catalogue last year and immediately liking the sound of it. It had potential to be brilliant or awful, to deal with complex matters sensitively or insensitively. Thankfully, to my mind, Rabinyan got it just right.

Liat is a translation student spending the academic year in New York City. She is practical and idealistic. Hilmi is a painter struggling for his artistic break. He is passionate and pessimistic. When they meet one day in a coffee shop there is instant attraction, but it also immediately clear that theirs won’t be a straightforward courtship. Besides the fact that Liat has only six months left on her visa, there’s the question of where she will be moving back to. Because she is from Israel and he is from Palestine.

The narrative isn’t quite linear, dealing with different aspects of the relationship in turn. First there’s getting to know each other. Then there’s Hilmi’s burgeoning art career. Then how they act around their friends. And so on. The day of Liat’s departure keeps getting close, only for the story to jump back a few months to fill in fresh detail. It feels very much like the way someone remembering events might structure their thoughts.

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In our house money was a god. But it was an angry, careful god

Rebuilding Coventry
by Sue Townsend

Sue Townsend was reliably both funny and socially relevant, and she doesn’t disappoint here. The title doesn’t refer to the Midlands town’s destruction in World War Two – it is, rather, about a woman called Coventry.

Coventry Dakin introduces herself with two facts: she’s beautiful and she killed a man. Specifically, her neighbour Gerald Fox. And now she’s on the run in London, without her handbag.

Killing Gerald was a spur of the moment decision, hence Coventry’s less-than-perfect running-away outfit. We learn the story behind the murder and the fallout for Coventry’s husband and children, interspersed between Coventry’s survival on the streets of the capital.

This being a comedy, there is an element of the ridiculous to much of the action. The murder weapon is an Action Man doll. She had been in the middle of cleaning her chimney, so she’s wearing old clothes and covered in soot. Her husband Derek is really only interested in his tortoises.

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There is a silent ripeness to the air

Harvest
by Jim Crace

This is an unusual book, primarily because of its historical setting and premise. While there are plenty of historical novels, there are few that remain so determinedly non-specific about the time and place in which they are set and even fewer where the action revolves around the forced enclosure of common land.

England (which is presumably the setting, though even that isn’t stated outright) had a series of Enclosure Acts from the 12th century to the 19th, but they became especially common in the 17th and 18th centuries. Effectively, this allowed landowners to seize common land – land that their tenants, which often meant whole villages, farmed for their own use – and enclose it, controlling what was farmed there. This might mean charging rent to local people or it might mean switching to a type of farming that employed far fewer people, such as sheep farming.

It doesn’t sound like the most auspicious basis for a book, but actually that part of it really worked for me. It felt very relevant to be reading about social injustice, the rich getting richer while the poor lose what little they have. There is some action too – arson, violence, death – which the landowner turns to his advantage, though the villagers don’t realise it.

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I am swing-swing between worlds, people, things

HERmione
by Hilda “HD” Doolittle

I’ve delayed writing this review because I really didn’t know how to describe this book. It’s a strange, repeating, myth-referencing auto-fiction about a young woman. The strangeness and repetition point to the main character’s emotional fragility, but they also reflect her wider character – an intelligent woman well-versed in arts and sciences who can quickly get lost in thoughts and dreams.

It’s the fictionalised memoir of a year in Hilda Doolittle’s youth, 1907–08, when she was 21. She wrote this in 1927 and at the time of her death in 1961 was preparing it for publication, but it then got packed away with all her literary estate and didn’t finally see publication until 1981. This may or may not be related to the bisexual nature of both the author and her fictionalised counterpart.

The story takes a bit of teasing out from the abstract prose, and it helps to learn about HD’s own life to fully follow it (in my copy there is an introduction by HD’s daughter that fills in some gaps), but the actual events aren’t really what’s important here. HD has done an incredible job of finding the words to depict fragile mental health.

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Relationships are about stories, not truth

Apple Tree Yard
by Louise Doughty

This got lots of great reviews when it came out, which is how it came to be on my shelves but it wasn’t until my Twitter stream was full of responses to the recent BBC adaptation that I decided to read it.

I remember the reviews gave me a sense that this was different from the standard crime novel in some way, and they were right, but even now I struggle a little to put my finger on the exact difference. It wasn’t quite what I expected.

For starters, the actual crime is held back until late in the story. The first half of the book builds up tension while filling in the back story. Biologist Dr Yvonne Carmichael has just given evidence to a Select Committee in the Houses of Parliament when she bumps into an attractive stranger who offers to show her the private chapel. Thus begins their affair. But while they are both married, it isn’t clear for a long time exactly what crime this leads to, or why the book’s prologue has Yvonne being questioned in a criminal court.

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I still find “Negro” a word of wonders, glorious and terrible

Negroland: a Memoir
by Margo Jefferson

This is an unusual memoir. It’s heavily stylised, experimental even, but it’s also rather scholarly in its approach to the historical context of Jefferson’s own life.

Margo Jefferson was born in 1947 and raised in a well-to-do black family in Chicago, part of a black elite society with its own specific rules, norms and challenges. And this is what she documents. It’s an unusual subject for a memoir, and in keeping with that, often doesn’t feel like a memoir at all. Jefferson doesn’t bare her soul, or reveal any shocking family secrets. She doesn’t even stick to first person, slipping in and out of referring to herself in the third person.

There is a lot of background information provided about the formation of America’s black elite, which at first felt a little excessive and/or dry until I realised how recent it all was, and in fact most of the people she refers to turn out to be family friends. There is also a lot about physical appearance – how people with different types of hair handled it, how nuances of skin colour and facial shape could affect your place in society. Usually I could not be less interested in hair and make-up, but of course its relevance to this story is rather different. Because even though Jefferson was and is rich, educated and well-connected, she and her friends and family cannot get away from the fact that they are black and therefore different.

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