In a short time, I’ve gone from travelling full-time to being under strict lockdown in a Belgrade apartment. Perhaps that’s why I’ve spent the month travelling through the world of books, from the Russian wilderness to a still-divided Germany and from the Balkans to the UK’s “hostile environment”—with a couple of side trips to Jamaica thrown in.
Here are the books I can recommend (or not) from my April reading. Hope you discover something new to read among this assortment.
Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Become the Scapegoats by Maya Goodfellow
If you want to understand contemporary Britain, read this book. If we weren’t under lockdown, I’d take my copy and press it into your hands and urge you to read it. Although the title refers to Theresa May’s policy of making life deliberately hard for people who move to the UK, Maya Goodfellow traces the history of British immigration policy much further back to discover the roots of the inhumanity. Highly recommended
You Would Have Missed Me by Birgit Vanderbeke
I reviewed Vanderbeke’s excellent novella The Mussel Feast back in 2013, so I was excited to read her newly translated story of a lonely little girl being taken from East to West Germany by two of the most emotionally abusive parents I’ve met on my reading travels for quite a while. It’s sad, poignant, and gives a vivid picture of an earlier phase of refugee life.
The Balkans by Mark Mazower
I picked this book up at a bookshop here in Belgrade in those long-gone days when I used to stroll around the city, maskless, browsing in bookshops. It was a wonderful read, a really comprehensive history of a very complex region over the long, volatile centuries from the end of Byzantium to the present day. Mazower somehow keeps it all clear, giving enough detail but not too much, and wraps it all up in just 176 pages. History at its best.
Lilith: A Romance by George MacDonald
After six weeks of lockdown, I’m starting to look a bit like George MacDonald, but I could never write anything like Lilith, a truly strange and unsettling 19th-century fantasy novel about a man who follows a raven through a mirror into a different world where he meets Adam, Eve, Lilith and a range of other characters both human and non-human, all while grappling with the big questions of life, death and salvation. I didn’t love it, to be honest, but I certainly admired it.
Friday Nights by Jennifer Grahame
Friday Nights is an entertaining novel of betrayal and redemption in the hills of Jamaica, written by longtime blog reader and commenter Jennifer Grahame. Like her previous novel Jacks Hill Road, this one offers up a cast of complicated and often sex-obsessed characters who get mixed up in an escalating series of interconnected escapades. If you find yourself needing an escape right now, you’ll find this about as far from the COVID-19 dashboard as you can get.
Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden by Branko Marcetic
Since Joe Biden is now the Democrats’ chosen candidate to beat Trump, I thought I should learn more about him. As the title suggests, this is not an even-handed memoir: the point is to make a case against Biden (while slipping in positive mentions of Bernie for the sake of comparison). But don’t write this book off as a hatchet job: there’s some important stuff in here, showcasing the key role Biden has played in the rightward move of the Democratic Party since the 1980s and his troubling history of making liberal-sounding speeches while legislating on behalf of corporate donors.
When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy
This was a powerful portrait of a woman who very quickly becomes trapped in an abusive marriage. The violence itself takes a back seat in this novel, which is more concerned with the dynamics of psychological control at work in the relationship. It’s a beautifully written and utterly compelling book. For more details, see the review of this book over at peakreads, which inspired me to read it in the first place.
Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands by Stuart Hall
This is a memoir, of sorts, but it’s more a story of intellectual formation. Stuart Hall tells the story of his early years in Jamaica, moving to Britain in 1951, and finding his place in that cold, unwelcoming land. But while there are plenty of personal details in the book, Hall is also intensely engaged with the political and intellectual currents of the time. I found it fascinating how he came to find his new identity as a cultural theorist partly due to his habit of learning to “read” the unfamiliar and often hostile English society for clues about how to survive it.
Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi
And finally we come to that Russian wilderness I mentioned at the beginning. I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey. Please stow your tray tables in an upright position… Sorry, I got distracted. This is actually a Finnish novel about encounters with difference—in this case, 19th-century explorers discovering a group of strange human/animal hybrid creatures sheltering in a remote Russian cave. But it has a lot of resonance with more contemporary instances of how the majority behaves towards those who look or behave or are in some way different.
This was a wonderful month of reading for me, and I’d recommend all of the books I read for different reasons. Stuart Hall’s memoir really stood out, but I think my favourite this month was Hostile Environment.
How was your reading this month? Do you find yourself reading more or reading less in a COVID-19 world? Let me know if you have any recommendations. Visit this roundup of roundups if you want to find monthly recaps by more book bloggers. And, above all, please stay safe and well.