Here I Stand edited by Amnesty International UK

here i standThe Premise: a collection of short stories and poems with a focus on the freedoms and rights that can often be taken for granted. Technically YA, I suppose, but very hard-hitting.

Thoughts: I am writing this just after finishing Here I Stand and I’m still feeling quite emotionally affected by it. None of the stories is an easy read: a fact highlighted early on as the first story, ‘Harvester Road’ by John Boyne, focuses on hidden child abuse and its consequences. It’s one of many harrowing stories in the collection, alongside ‘The Colour of Humanity’ by Bali Rai and ‘Love is a Word, Not a Sentence’ by Liz Kessler, both of which centre on the tragic consequences of a dramatic change in a friendship. The stories are superbly written, but upsetting; “but” is an odd word to use, because they’re supposed to be upsetting.

There is hope to be found in other parts of the collection, but it’s often fleeting. ‘Stay Home’ by Sita Brahmachari offers the reader a distressing premise, but a note of optimism later on. It must be said, however, that Here I Stand is more of a rallying call than a message of hope; we should feel enraged by what we read here and motivated to change things, which means the stories can’t make the reader feel comfortable.

Two stories I found particularly compelling were Chibundu Onuzo’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ and ‘Redemption’ by Ryan Gattis, both of which focus on legal matters. Onuzo focuses her story on a Nigerian barrister working in London, representing a young boy in court for gang-related crime, while Gattis’ story, while set in San Francisco, could almost be a sequel to Onuzo’s, showing us a lawyer’s perspective on his client, a man sentenced to death, recently moved from years in solitary confinement to the general population of San Quentin prison. Both stories address justice systems and their inherent injustices in ways which are hugely effective and thought-provoking.

I also want to mention Matt Haig’s surreal but poignant ‘The Invention of Peanut Butter,’ which seems to take Dr Seuss’ The Lorax as its inspiration for a story in which power can be seen to corrupt. The fairy tale-esque approach is rather lovely, which only makes the darker end to the story all the more unsettling. What many of the stories here do brilliantly is expose the ways in which we as a society allow injustices to happen and continue happening, simply by turning a blind eye or convincing ourselves it isn’t our business. ‘When the Corridors Echo’ by Sabrina Mahfouz is a hugely topical story in light of the way in which Muslims are often discussed in the media, while ‘Bystander’ by Frances Hardinge is a devastating piece of short fiction, perfectly exemplifying the attitude of “it’s not my problem.” These two stories are counterpoints, one exposing hyper-vigilance and intrinsic racism, while the other shows a lack of involvement that is heartbreaking.

In Conclusion: I read this book either side of the terrorist attack in Manchester, and so I did so with a backdrop of media debate about refugees, and religion, and deliberate infringement of our freedoms. Here I Stand seems like a perfect book for these times; it’s not going to make anyone feel better about the state of the world, but it will certainly wake us all up. I’m already planning to use it in teaching next year; I think my students need to hear these stories.

Review: The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

millThe Premise: Maggie and Tom Tulliver are brother and sister; Maggie is smart and spirited and wild-haired, while Tom could just as easily be named Patriarchal Society and the story would be exactly the same. Maggie gets told off all the time because she wants to learn but she’s not allowed because of 19th century sexism, while Tom gets to go to school even though he’s clearly quite stupid. Then their dad loses the mill and all the family’s cash, so everyone gets really stressed out.

Thoughts: here’s some background to my poorly thought-out decision to read (or possibly reread – I thought I’d read it before but now I’m not so sure) this book. I always thought I hated Thomas Hardy, then I read all his books and realised I was wrong and stupid and that, actually, he’s a genius. I wondered if my not-unrelated belief that George Eliot was boring too was also incorrect. I think maybe I was right about this one.

The thing is, I love Victorian novels. Give me Hardy, the Brontës, Thackeray or Gaskell any day of the week. I don’t mind when they’re a bit wordy or when it takes ages for something to happen. I don’t even get that annoyed when they spend chapters and chapters over-sentimentalising orphans. But The Mill on the Floss is 588 pages long and for at least the first 250 pages, it’s very boring and nothing really happens. Mrs Tulliver goes on about how great her sisters are; her sisters appear and are annoying, but in an entertaining way. Maggie gets told off every 3 pages for having a personality, which gets a bit dull. There’s loads of really dull legal stuff about Mr Tulliver and his loans and the mill. It takes literally 300 pages for anything interesting to happen and then, in fairness, the last almost-half of the book is much better, with romance and melodrama and less Mr Tulliver because he’s dead. By that point, however, I was already so irritated at having spent so many hours on this book that I didn’t even enjoy it.

Just to further decrease my motivation for reading The Mill on the Floss, the ending was a question on University Challenge a few months ago, so the ending was spoiled for me before I’d even got going. Yes, this probably does mean I hadn’t read it before. It turns out Eliot hints at this ending about 80 times during the book, which is probably meant to be clever but actually just annoyed me even more. Obviously, she’s an excellent writer, but so’s Anne Brontë and it never seems to take her a whole chapter for someone to decide what to do with a table cloth.

In Conclusion: my plan was to read The Mill on the Floss as helpful build-up to tackling Middlemarch, but, in reality, I think it’s put me off altogether, in no small part because Middlemarch is about 800 pages long and I just don’t think I can be bothered. I think I’ll head back to my good pal Jane Austen for the next few classics rereads, with Mansfield Park looking at me seductively from my bookshelf.

Have you read The Mill on the Floss? Have I just completely missed the point?

Review: Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

swimming-lessonsThe Premise: If you’re in the mood for some family drama, Swimming Lessons may well be the book for you. The plot centres on Flora, whose mother disappeared twelve years ago. At the outset, Flora’s ageing father, Gil, tumbles to a hospitalising accident after believing he’s seen his missing-presumed-dead wife. As the family tries to make sense of the past, long-buried secrets come to the surface and people do a peculiar amount of naked swimming.

Thoughts: I maintain a great degree of love for Claire Fuller’s last book, Our Endless Numbered Days (you can read my gushing review here) and a significant part of this was the beauty of the writing. Swimming Lessons is equally lyrical and lovely. The story is split between the present day, third person narrative and the letters that Ingrid, the long-lost wife and mother, wrote to Gil and left in a selection of books, expertly chosen for their titles; the contrast between the two time-frames creates a fascinating disjunct, as vulnerable, aged Gil is revealed to have been a somewhat less sympathetic figure in the past. It’s also a clever way for the reader to get to know Ingrid in her own words, rather than through the contrasting views of her family.

As with Our Endless Numbered Days, Fuller has crafted engaging and flawed characters; Flora is endearingly peculiar, while sensible Nan, the older sister, has never had the luxury of being “quirky,” instead having to act as a mother to Flora in the wake of their actual mother’s disappearance. The supporting characters, like the old family friend who knows more than he’s letting on, and Flora’s boyfriend, who is a fan of Gil’s infamously rude novel, also contribute plenty to the richness of the plot.

As a serial bookworm, I also loved the way in which Fuller weaves book collecting throughout the book. While the descriptions of Gil’s home overflowing with tomes may horrify a neatfreak, I wanted to move in. The writing process is presented painfully, also serving to show how the single-mindedness necessary for success can make a person selfish and distant. And, while I will continue to keep my books in the most immaculate condition you can imagine, I liked reading about Gil’s passion for marginalia and what you can learn about a person from what they underline in their books. It’s nice to read something that’s so concerned with reading.

In Conclusion: Claire Fuller has written another beautiful and appealing novel; while her work is undoubtedly literary, it’s also extremely accessible. Swimming Lessons is simultaneously warm and haunting; I’ll continue to eagerly grab everything Fuller writes.

Review: The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

the-thing-around-your-neckThe Premise: The Thing Around Your Neck is Adichie’s short story collection. If you’ve read her novels, the themes will be familiar: navigating familial and romantic relationships in Nigeria with a backdrop of post-colonial politics, as well as incisive ribbing of white condescension towards the whole concept of Africa. Marriage features heavily, with stories focusing on situations like a young woman leaving Nigeria for an arranged marriage and finding that her overly-Americanised husband is not what she thought, as well as wider cultural conflicts between Nigeria and America, not to mention the cultural divide between the different nations of Africa.

Thoughts: I am officially in love with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s writing. She’s so incisive, so uncompromising; you could pick up any of the stories here having read her other works and immediately know the writing was by Adichie, and her unique voice really appeals to me. Not that any of this is original; there are plenty of more qualified people out there who can rave about the tremendous worth and readability of this novelist’s work.

An art in which Adichie is highly skilled is the framing of individual experience within a broader cultural and political context. The tragedy of a mother losing her child in The American Embassy is juxtaposed with the oppression of the media in Nigeria, while On Monday of Last Week offers an intriguing contrast of child-rearing ideas in different cultures when it comes to discipline (something that also came up in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, which I read right before this). I don’t know how to explain my love for Adichie’s work without making some kind of annoying or misguided comment on learning about other cultures or something equally mundane, but I do find her representation of the flaws and triumphs of both Nigeria and the west really fascinating. I particularly enjoyed Jumping Monkey Hill, the only story in this collection which places representatives from different African nations together to highlight what divides as well as unites them. The patronising white dude in that particular story seems too awful to believe in, until you flashback to November 2016 and an old, white guy mansplaining racism to Adichie on live television. I could almost hear her eye-roll as I was reading.

Much as I love a really good short story, I tend to struggle with settling down to read a full collection by a particular author. I’m far more likely to enjoy an anthology, with stories by a range of writers (like the excellent YA collections Slasher Boys and Monster Girls and I’ll Be Home for Christmas); in a set by a single author, I feel that the quality is usually far more erratic. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie completely wrecks this philosophy; not only is every story here sublime, they all strike the delicate balance between giving the reader enough closure to provide a satisfying reading experience and leaving you wanting a little more.

In Conclusion: look, it’s just brilliant, okay? Which is a very obvious thing to say, but it’s true. The whole thing is sublime. I am now saving Half of a Yellow Sun, the last Adichie book for me to read, in the manner that you might save a really good bar of chocolate for a day when you really need it. Sadly, my experience of this is that I usually end up eating the chocolate three seconds after buying it, so I will probably have run out of Adichie’s wonderful work by tomorrow.

As a side note, if you share my love for Chimamanda, may I take the liberty of recommending Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me, which comes out in March, as well as Yaa Gyasi’s glorious Homegoing? Trust me: if you haven’t read them, you should.