Twelve Days in Persia by Vita Sackville-West

I hadn’t read any Vita Sackville-West before and though I knew of her as an intimate friend of Virginia Woolf and Gertude Bell, my expectations of her writing were hazy. Twelve Days in Persia, an account of her journey across the Bakhtiari Mountains in south-west Iran, was a surprise. 

Yes, there are passages that make a modern reader squirm – she spends a fair amount of time being patronising about the Persian peasant – but she also has some beautiful descriptions of the landscape, realistic accounts of the drudgery and pain of travel, and some provoking thoughts. 

She ends the account in the oil-fields belonging to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. She writes,

It seems not irrelevant to wonder whether in the course of centuries the Anglo-Persian oil-fields may not revert to the solitudes of the Bakhtiari hills, while London, Paris and New York lie with the wild flowers blowing over their stones, and fields of corn bend to the breeze for the bread of the population in some distant capital whose name we do not yet know.

p 137 (Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2009, original Hogarth Press, 1928)

It has made me want to read more of her work.

I’ll be reviewing The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim next.

Zeina by Nawal El Saadawi

I’d not read any Nawal El Saadawi before this novel and I was blown away.

Zeina is the illegitimate child of lauded literary critic, Bodour. Bodour became pregnant after falling in love with a revolutionary killed for his beliefs. She abandons their child to the streets and later marries a journalist who uses her social connections for his own gain.

Bodour has another daughter from her marriage, Mageeda, who loves ends up going to school with Zeina briefly. Zeina is laughed at for her background but their music teacher loves her and praises her slender fingers and her natural talent for music. Even after Zeina is expelled, the music teacher continues to teach her.

Eventually, Zeina becomes a famous singer and musician who praises mothers and accepts street children into her band. A woman who wears no make-up or dramatic outfits or jewellery to perform, but who uplifts all who hear her, even great religious men.

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Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

I loved this book. From the banks of the Nile to the courtrooms of London, the story migrates north and back as the narrator investigates the mysterious life of Mustafa Sa’eed.

We first glimpse Mustafa as the narrator does, as a remembered face among the villagers come to welcome the narrator home from England. His face sticks out because not only was he someone the narrator didn’t recognise, he remained silent whilst the others plied him with questions about the habits of westerners. Why was he so silent? When did he come to this small village? How did he come to be welcomed, accepted and even respected in this close-knit community?

Playing with forms of pre-Islamic poetry, teasing us with glimpses of the past of intelligent Mustafa, we circle around and back over Mustafa’s life, examining the opportunities and dangers of a brilliant mind in the face of discrimination and fetishisation. Women are drawn to Mustafa, but what really makes him feel alive? You’ll have to read the novel to find out.

Season of Migration to the North is one of those books that lingers in the mind. We all know what it feels like to come across someone truly remarkable and find ourselves endlessly wondering about their life and how they came to be the way they are. This should be a classic that sits beside The Heart of Darkness or The Great Gatsby. If you haven’t read it, you’re in for a treat.

I’ll be reviewing Zeina by Nawal El Saadawi next.

Seesaw by Timothy Ogene

There is so much to love about this book. Delightfully irreverent about academia and the well-meaning liberal, white west, and yet soulfully engaged in the power of literature and communication between individuals, Seesaw made me laugh out loud and want to cry.

Frank Jasper wrote a slim coming of age novel set in a fictionalised version of his hometown of Port Jumbo, Nigeria. Nothing much came of it. He started work in the post office.

Then an American woman finds a copy whilst visiting her daughter in Nigeria and, on the strength of it, invites Frank to apply to a residency programme in America, the Programme for Emerging Writers at William Blake College in Boston.

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Burntcoat by Sarah Hall

This is a fabulous book. I really enjoyed it. Enjoyment is an odd feeling for a novel that deals so interestingly with illness, remission and loss, but it is a thoroughly engaging read. I didn’t expect to enjoy reading about a pandemic—different to Covid but nevertheless it feels like a response to it—because it still feels too soon somehow to get a grasp on how such a global sickness might ripple on into the everyday, but Sarah Hall handles it cleverly. The pandemic of Burntcoat is part and parcel of the whole of the novel, all of Edith’s experience of life and her telling of it.

Just to warn you… there a few spoilers in this review. I tried to keep them out, but it’s tricky to write about this book without them. Look away now if that worries you. Short review is it’s a great read with wonderful intertwining and amassing themes.

Edith is a middle-aged successful artist who creates huge sculptures, not unlike the Angel of the North, but made of wood and burned in a Japanese heat treatment that marks and strengthens the wood, adding to its durability and beauty as an organic, but carefully damaged material. There too, you feel the echoes of the themes of damage and illness as things that can create something different but also stronger and sometimes more beautiful.

She is the daughter of a writer, Naomi, who suffered a brain hemorrhage and was saved by radical surgery that meant she had to relearn everything from walking to talking and writing. Her damaged self was too much for Edith’s father who left them both when Edith refused to leave with him. Edith chose to stay with the woman who needed so much of her help to cope.

Naomi is one of the yous to which the narrative is written. This second person is deliberately slippery. Edith is dying. She is tying the pieces of her life up and she is saying goodbye. 

One of the other yous—for undoubtedly the reader is implicated too—is the man she fell for right before the pandemic took hold. A restaurant owner and chef, he moved in with her during isolation. I will say no more about him, as he and their relationship comes so wonderfully to life that I don’t want to spoil it by saying more. Let’s just say that again, this novel explores how brevity and fragility are often important parts of a different kind of immortal beauty. Her lover comes from a family of emigrants and he describes himself as a mix, a wonderful whole that has grown with and from division and loss.

It is this richness of themes and ideas, this thematic coherence, that makes Burntcoat such a pleasure to read. The story is a fascinating one but how all of these concepts, of what it means to be human and to live with mutability, damage, loss and regeneration, work together across the whole is a delight. It’s a brilliant novel. I finished reading it and turned back to the beginning right away. I’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t make the prize lists. Oh, and it is published tomorrow so get your mitts on it now!

My next review will be of Seesaw by Timothy Ogene.

Misfits: A Personal Manifesto by Michaela Coel

From the writer of ​​hit TV shows Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You, Misfits: A Personal Manifesto reads like an extension of Michaela Coel’s dramatic work. Stories, thoughts and ideas expressed through her dark comedy onscreen unfurl on the written page.

We follow her progress from the streets of Tower Hamlets onto the world stage. We watch her fear of moths turn into a tool for self-development, a love of everyone who doesn’t fit, who can challenge the strictures society puts on those who, for whatever reason, don’t sit neatly in the hegemony. These are the people who will bring new ideas and creativity, who will shake up the staid and unthinking herd, who will give voice to the silenced. 

It’s a fun, provocative and quick read. If you love her television work, you’ll love her manifesto. I’m reading Burntcoat by Sarah Hall next.

Why I review books

I’ve been blogging about books for a number of years now and at the moment I feel as if the ability to crush complex stories, to evaluate other people’s years of effort in shaping their thoughts into sentences and paragraphs, novels, essays, memoirs, arguments, is failing me, is something I should perhaps not even be undertaking. It feels important to stand back and ask myself why I do this and what it means to me to review a book and share it, even if that sharing reaches a very small number of readers.

At the heart of all of this is my love of reading and my love of stories. I enjoy hearing other people’s thoughts. I like seeing characters’ lives and choices take shape into a story that seems to make some sense out of the repetition, uncertainty and confusion of our lives. I want to know what other people think about those big questions we love so much as teenagers: what does it mean to be alive? To be human? Are we and our planet some big godly intention or a chaotic creation whose meaning exists only in its miraculous, fleeting existence and nothing more? Is there such a thing as morality, good and bad actions, and for whose good or bad should we act? You know the questions. 

Why turn to stories for these questions? Why not science or philosophy or religion? Because all of those also use stories, because it is a way for us to hold disparate events, ideas and people in some kind of broad comparative lens. Philosophy tends to forget the multiple layers of consciousness and unconsciousness that sit in our awareness of our beings as bodies. It forgets that a person thinking about how words shape meaning is also tired from an old, worn out mattress and the pressures of living with someone they no longer love and not having had breakfast yet. Science tries to pretend nothing exists that isn’t logical. We all experience that to not be true. Religion often has its own agenda that refuses to welcome ideas that don’t fit within the remit of its tenets of faith.

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A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

This is George Saunders’ master class on the short story, writing and reading, through the analysis of seven classic Russian short stories. The book is based on a class he teaches at Syracuse University and it offers writers and interested readers alike an unpretentious exploration of that beautiful and fascinating connection between the mind of the writer and the mind of the reader.

There is nothing particularly surprising about what George Saunders writes about the process, but it is delightful to explore these stories alongside an intelligent and attentive mind, encouraging the reader to pay as much attention as he does and showing how essential that meticulous attention really is to the process of writing, reading and generally existing in the world as a human striving to understand others and the world around us. 

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Wahala by Nikki May

Ronke, Boo and Simi are best friends. All British-Nigerians, they met at university and bonded over their shared mixed heritage. Though they all live in London, they lead very different lives: Ronke is a dentist with her own practice and a habit of picking boyfriends who exploit her; Boo is married to a Frenchman and is struggling with the challenges of parenting her young daughter; Simi is happily married and a fashion marketing exec. whose husband wants to start a family. They have their challenges, but they also have each other.

Then Simi’s old friend from Lagos returns to London. Isobel is beautiful and rich. With her arrival everything changes.

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