I Feel Bad About My Neck - Nora Ephron
From the much-loved writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron (responsible for classics like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless In Seattle), 'I Feel Bad About My Neck' reflects playfully on the inevitability of ageing as well as offering the easily-digestible bites of wisdom that Ephron carves out along the way. There’s no disputing that Ephron was an incredible writer, but months after reading this short collection of essays, the feeling which lingers most is a smidge of disappointment.
Ephron could write about anything and make it interesting, and does so, routinely, in IFBAMN, bouncing from handbags to family to the stalwarts of friendship. It would be easy to criticise the subject matter as vacuous but that would be entirely missing the point; Ephron gleans the extraordinary from the ordinary, with easy humour and bucket loads of affability. She is wonderful…
…but truly, my own reality could not be further from Ephron’s realm of existence. It is ridiculous and limiting to measure a piece of writing by its relatability alone, but this collection is celebrated for its insight and guidance, and for me, that didn’t always translate.
Stories about soaring rents in historic Upper West Side Manhattan apartments; a childhood spent in Beverly Hills; working in the White House as an intern, albeit one without a desk. My stories are flavoured by cornershop wine, not mimosas on a Los Angeles boulevard. I struggled to achieve that ‘best friend’ feeling with Ephron because I always felt like a spectator, watching in at the window at a movie in motion.
With that being said, there is a warmth and humour within these pages that so many will enjoy. I like her musings on death and the pitfalls of growing older. And the following has stuck with me, like a quiet voice in my ear, whenever I fuss needlessly about my body: “Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was twenty-six. If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re thirty four.”
Girl - Edna O'Brien
Delivering the harrowing story of the school children abducted by Boko Haram in 2014, Edna O'Brien's 'Girl' follows Maryam, one of the girls brutally stolen away from a young life of promise. This visceral, heartbreaking tale navigates abuse in many senses: abuse of power, politics, family, religion, physical and sexual. But through the terror, we see glimpses of the divine: what a mother will do to protect her child, and what a young woman can do when pushed to the limits. Ultimately this is a story of oppression and violence, wielded against the most vulnerable in a society.
Although I enjoyed the writing (O'Brien's prose is effortless and illustrative - apprently she never types, only dictates to a typist - very cool) and respected the story, something didn't sit right with me about a white Irish author being the voice for the abducted Nigerian girls. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but it felt uncomfortably like the very real trauma was picked up for story and then... Then what? I don't know. One the one hand it's important that what happened (and continues to happen) is given a platform beyond news stories. That we're given a human insight, not an abstract one. But at the same time, this author cannot ever represent the truth because she is a spectator, and a visiting one at that. I'm split on this one, really. Let me know what you think.
Lanny - Max Porter
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. One of my favourite reads of last year. Max Porter’s ‘Lanny’ mixes the modern with the mythic, shouldering open the garden gate to ordinary, rural Britain while simultaneously flooding us with magic, mysticism, and the kind of incommunicable understandings that can be felt but not explained.
The novel’s eponymous character, Lanny, is a curious child. Along with his mother, Jolie, and father, Robert, Lanny relocates from London and finds himself inhabiting the living history of a small British village, suitably woven with scepticism of others and fear of change. But along with heritage comes folklore, like Dead Papa Toothwort pulling himself out of puddles, terrifying and unknowable.
'Lanny' is a story told by its myriad characters, a rising and falling chorus of backstreet Britain, gossiping over garden fences. More than once, Porter offers us the same conversation told simultaneously by both participants, a platform which lays bare the room for interpretation and the many ways in which we freely shape reality to to fit our own narrative. All the while, something beyond the realms of understanding is moving, waking up; something which can’t be reshaped or controlled. Something powerful and devastating.
Even if this kind of mysterious wonder isn’t your bag, 'Lanny' is a divinely beautiful read. Max Porter’s writing is evocative and chimerical. He experiments with form, with voice, with pace and precision, opening up a brief window into the huge but tiny lives that humans lead. It’s a deliciously rich and honest exploration of instinct, myth, and the ‘more’ that exists beyond the parameters of our understanding.
Fattily Ever After - Stephanie Yeboah
I’m a huge admirer of Stephanie Yeboah’s work so it’s difficult for me to write an entirely impartial review. Therefore I’m not going to.
Although primarily written for fat Black wxmen as a powerful vindication of worth, beauty, belonging and lived experience, 'Fattily Ever After' lays bare the realities of intersectional identity in a society that not only demands whiteness and thinness, but shapes it as the archetype of beauty.
Much like an optician layering lenses in order for us to see clearly, Yeboah invites us to view our would through the lenses of fatphobia, racism and colourism, a sight test which denies you any ignorance. Exploring the traumatic history of how Black wxmen’s bodies have been appropriated, abused and erased, and how this continues to manifest in the history we’re living today, especially in proximity to fatness.
As heavy as the subject matter is (and densely researched, at that), Yeboah’s writing is laced with warmth and familiarity. There’s a closeness in Yeboah's words that makes you feel as if you’re being spoken with, not to. Yes, this is an education, but it's a celebration too: "This book for me is, first and foremost, a love letter to fat black wxmen. For womxn who look like me, who have had to grow up navigating spaces where we have been made to feel unwelcome, judged and sidelined."
The term “important reading” is used far too loosely but if ever a book deserved it, this is it.
Before The Coffee Gets Cold - Toshikazu Kawaguchi
I'm not going to write too much about 'Before the Coffee Gets Cold' because it was quite boring. I didn’t even finish it, which rarely happens for me. I love a story guided by the implicit - by what’s missing and what isn’t said - but this fell flat for me. In case you wanted to know, it’s a story about a small Japanese cafe whose single corner seat can transport you to another time. The window for transportation lasts as long as your coffee stays warm, and there are strict rules as to what you can and can’t do when you’ve travelled.
You can tell this has been adapted from a play into a book. It needs movement, tone of voice and body language to lift it into something more vibrant. I enjoyed the premise and the story was poignant at times, but overall, not one for me.
Rainbow Milk - Paul Mendez
Beginning its journey in Wolverhampton, Paul Mendez’s 'Rainbow Milk' is a coming-of-age story steered by sexuality, race, religion and region. As a young Black gay man from a family of practising Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jesse must reckon with the many intersections of his identity as he struggles to find his true home - not a physical place, but an environment, relationship and support circle within which he is truly loved. Fleeing his immediate family to escape religious oppression, Jesse decides to move to London with little to his name, eventually transitioning into sex work to support himself in the country's capital.
This is the pursuit of community and belonging, a pursuit which introduces us to a plethora of individuals as they pass through Jesse's life, emboldening him, empowering him, hurting him. In this mixing pot of desire and shame, Mendez catapults a boy into messy, wonderful, terrifying adulthood, giving voice to a layered identity in a world that covers its ears.
I found the story lagged a little bit in places and my personal preference is always for lyrical, suggestive language, but I still enjoyed this very much and I’m grateful for the unique perspective it shared.
The Pisces - Melissa Broder
'The Pisces' is very strange. I knew that before reading it. In fact I'd purchased it by merit of it being so reportedly strange - "right up my street", I thought. But having read it all, chewed it over, gestated and metabolised it, I'm wondering if there was any reason for it to be so strange. Either the true meaning of the book flew completely over my head or the story is bizarre for the thrill of it. Which isn't wrong in itself - I love weird - but it does beg the question why? What is the point?
Following a dramatic break-up, Lucy escapes to her sister's house in Venice Beach for a long summer as a live-in house sitter/dog sitter. She attends love addiction meetings, falls into more unrewarding friendships, and starts a relationship with a merman. Yep. On the surface it appears the kind of bizarre, abstract story I’d love, but I found Lucy so irritating (although I could see myself reflected in parts, which I do think is masterful turn of the wrist in holding up the mirror to our own neurosis) and for all that it does, reaching elbow-deep into the pool of toxic, cloying, human behaviour, it feels as if it can’t get a grasp on what it wants to say. And maybe that’s the point - the point is that there isn’t really a point and by trying to tease out the meaning, I'm squeezing out the goodness. Or maybe I just didn’t love the book and I’m trying to rationalise something out of it. Either way, it was fun while it lasted but I won’t be going back.
Such A Fun Age - Kelly Reid
Set in modern day Philadelphia, twenty-five year old Emira Tucker works as a babysitter for a wealthy white couple. One night, when shopping in a grocery store with the 2 year old child in tow, Emira is accused of kidnapping and isn't released until her white, male 'boss' comes to save her. 'Such A Fun Age' steers us through the fallout of this event, the ramifications for Emira and her employers and the reality of white wokeness. If this book could speak, it would say 'I can't be racist, I have a Black friend'. With striking honesty, Reid shines a light on the performative allyship of those with 'good intentions', forcing us to consider the politics of priviedge spanning race, wealth and status for those in positions of social power.
But Reid navigates this minefield of microaggressions with wit, humour, and the warmth that radiates from 20-something friendships. We see the effects of white supremacy in action but we also see a young woman simply living: partying, dating, worrying about money, wondering what she's going to do with her life and deciphering who she is.
I really loved this. Reid says what she wants to say, clearly and effortlessly, but she does so in a way that the trauma doesn't overshadow the person. Such a seamless touch. Definitely add this one to your list.
I Am Not Your Baby Mother - Candice Brathwaite
Black women in the UK are five times more likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts; Candice Brathwaite's 'I Am Not Your Baby Mother' is the story beyond the statistic. Shedding light on what it means to be a Black British mother in a landscape which overamplifies and overrepresents whiteness in motherhood, IANYBM navigates the many challenges reserved for Black women before, during, and after pregnancy. From selecting names to treatment by medical professionals, choosing a place to live and the experiences of her children growing up, every aspect is shaped by what it means to be Black and British. Where white mothers have the priviledge to simply 'do', Black mothers must consider the potential implications of every decision.
With that being said, Brathwaite laces IANYBM with heartfelt anecdotes, hilarious reflections and an undeniable, thunderous love for her children. You can feel the passion and pain lifting from the pages. Her writing is open, honest and inviting - Candice is speaking, and you are here to listen.
Loved it and would recommend this as an essential read for any person, irrespective of motherhood status.
My Sister The Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite
Deliciously dark and murderous, 'My Sister The Serial Killer' fulfils the name and then some. This tale of two siblings, separated by their personal differences but inextricably intertwined by virtue of being sisters, follows Korede and Ayoola. The former is a dedicated nurse, enchanted by her doctor colleague and efficient in her duties. The latter is beautiful and impulsive, courted by many fawning men who are determined to possess her. When Ayoola begins to kill her boyfriends under the guise of 'self defense', Korede is forced further and further down a rabbit-hole of crime in order to protect her sister. Set against the backdrop of Nigeria's busy streets, MSTSK is an exploration of sibling loyalty and the tussle for power, personal or otherwise.
The story was fun and I enjoyed the characters (although at times I did find both sisters annoying in their own ways), but I felt the book either should have been longer in order to flesh out more of the story or should have tried to do less within the parameters that it has. Nevertheless, this is still a great read. You'll get through it quickly and be glad you read it, but it won't be one you pick up again.
Calypso - David Sedaris
You can tell I was looking for some light relief in 2020 because I've read more non-fiction than usual (my usual amount being around zero). Daivd Sedaris' 'Calypso' nestles comfortably into that realm, a series of essays detailing Sedaris' decision to purchase a beach house (which he calls 'Sea Section': brilliant) and the many experiences that surround it. He navigates family, love, friendship with foxes, the humour in fatty tumours; 'Calypso' is at once irreverent and poignant, casting a light on the beautiful madness of everyday life while always conscious of mortality's grip.
This won't change your life but some books are not supposed to. What 'Calypso' will do is make you laugh and possibly reflect a little more kindly on the absurdity of some of your own troubles. What better tonic for the past few years?