Books I've Enjoyed Recently

It's been a while, and I'm sorry.

Whilst I get back into the swing of things (although right now is probably a very ill-advised time to 'get back into the swing of things'...), here are some books I've enjoyed recently. 

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
Listen to this one - Trevor Noah reads it himself, but proceed with caution if you don't want humourless folk shooting you glares across public transport. Not that I'm talking from experience...

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Holy hell, this one felt magical - but also in a gut-punchy, heartfelt kind of way. I read it a couple of months ago and I haven't really stopped thinking about it since!

The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla
Ridiculously relatable. The kind of relatable where, despite having experienced similar situations before, you end up getting frustrated by your inability to pen something that's even a fraction as wonderful as the essays in this book are.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Argh this one took my heart within its final pages, and I still haven't gotten it back yet! Arrrrrrghhhhh the inner turmoil (and yes, this is one to read with a box of tissues. I was very underprepared and had to resort to using the corner of my t-shirt, but trust me when I say that it was even less of a dignified look than my crying usually is).

So the near future holds a trip to the country of my birth nineteen, almost twenty years after I last visited. It also holds a new job when I get back, so woo! Onto pastures new. 

Until next time, 

Kat

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender

 
 

It is my policy to approach books that are known to make people cry with extreme caution. Extreme - I'm going to delay this inevitable sob-fest for as long as I can - caution. This is primarily because I am what some people call an 'ugly crier'; puffy eyes, gravity-defying snot, and a wail like a rubber chicken.

Well, I didn't know that this book was going to quite do that to me so, during a particularly quiet weekend (ha, who am I kidding, now that I'm older my idea of an exciting weekend is discovering a new kind of non-dairy milk to have in my tea), I sat down with the intention of reading a few chapters. Fast forward a few hours later, I've blitzed through and I'm curled up in a foetal position with tears and snot streaming down my face - but I'm not crying because of what happens. I'm crying because I've finished the book and I've just realised that it's not part of a series and therefore - and this still puts a lump in my throat - there is no more left to be read.

Ava Lavender is a girl who was born with wings in an otherwise supposedly ordinary Seattle town. As much as the book is about her trying to find her place in the world, it also traces her family's history as it catches up to her in the present day. The family history weaved into the narrative is a beautiful, sorrowful tale of a slightly odd family who move from France to America and find themselves in many strange situations, with love always being there to trip them up time and time again. It is slightly reminicent of Jeffery Eugenidies' Middlesex, with its multi-generational immigrant story. The brilliance of the story-telling is able to whisk you away so that the healthy smattering of magical realism, remarkably, ends up seeming quite ordinary. Why wouldn't a woman turn into a canary after falling in love with a bird-watcher?

This book is now one of my all-time favourites. Just thinking about it makes my chest constrict and my stomach knot, like I'm fourteen again and my hormones are making my stomach do flip-flops whenever I see my crush. Please do go read it, and I would love to hear what you thought of it.

Rating: 5/5

Between the World and Me - Ta-Nehisi Coates

 
 

Some books are an absolute joy to read. 

Well, this book is not that kind of book, but it is the kind of book that makes you want to recommended it to everyone in your life, pressing it in the hands of anyone you've ever known like a woman obsessed (I am) because they need to read it. There are few things in life that I think should be mandatory, but reading this book might be one of them.

(Disclaimer: I am not responsible if you decide to pick up this book (you should. You really should) and then lose all your friends because you start  shoving this book into as many people's hands as you possibly can and eventually knock someone out doing it, who sues you for assault.)

Between the World and Me is a heartbreaking, haunting letter from a father to his son that makes you stare at your own ugly racial prejudices right in the face. It makes you stand in front of a mirror and strips you bare so you have to see those ugly thoughts, consider them, and defiantly rebuke them properly. It illuminates the rigid boxes that govern American lives, the lives of those considered black and white and both and neither, and tears the walls of it down with beautifully, thoughtfully written prose. In the light of recent events in America, this book is incredibly, preciously, important. 

Rating: 5/5

Gut - The Inside Story of Our Body's Most Under-rated Organ

 
 

I like to talk about poop a lot - I mean a lot. The kind of 'a lot' that means that there is always a 65% chance of me bringing up the fluctuating health of my bowel cycle at dinner, even though I might have promised to refrain because a friend's invited their new partner to dinner and apparently it isn't 'normal' to talk about poop so openly, or frequently (read: this is the first decent person I've dated in such a long time and god so help me if my slightly unhinghed friend ruins it all with her with weird poop talk). So it makes sense that when I stumbled across this book on an old episode of the Books On A Nightstand Podcast, the title alone was enough to pique my interest.

Don't get me wrong, Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body's Most Underrated Organ is not a toilet book. Gut is an engaging introduction to a fascinating topic written with all the enthusiasm needed to not make a scientific book drag. Popular science puts the brain on a pedalstool (haha, sorry. Couldn't resist), but how many of us have stopped to consider the wonder of our gut?

How is it that an apple is transformed into the essential blocks of life, and then some more? How are some of us still able to digest milk as adults (I am, to my regret, not one of these freakish, amazing mutants and must always weigh up the glory of dairy against the inevitable bloat. The bloat usually wins), even though every other animal becomes lactose intolerant once they stop weaning? Why is it that our body seems bent on embarrassing us by making us throw up at the most inopportune moments? The gut is responsible for all this, and much more.

The writing style, narrative tone and lovely illustrations scattered throughout the book provided the perfect envirnoment for a kind of escapism I usually only find in fiction books. If you're stuck in a non-fiction rut and looking for some inspiration, this is definitely one to give a go.

Rating - 4/5

PS: The original German title can be translated as 'Charming Bowels', which I think is rather sweet.

The Magic Toyshop

 
 

My copy of The Magic Toyshop began life as one of those ill-fated books you pick up on your holiday, never actually get to, and then relegate to some forgotten corner of your house when you finally get to unpacking your suitcase (which you only do because you're going on another trip and you don't have any other suitably sized suitcases) months later. It would have probably remained forgotten to me forever if I hadn't read The Bloody Chamber and gone 'hang on...I know this author' and dug it out of the darkest corners of my bookshelf. Both are by Angela Carter and both are, incidentally, great.

The Magic Toyshop follows fifteen-year-old Melanie and her two siblings as they are pushed out from their comfortable home in the countryside and sent to London to live with relatives she has never met. These 'relatives' are a strange cast of characters - Aunt Margaret, who went mute the day she got married; her two brothers Francie and Finn who are as similar as night and day and creepy, terrifying Uncle Phillip who only loves his life-sized wooden puppets.

Set mostly a toyshop that seems to have had all the joy ripped out of it, Angela Carter's world is wondrously gothic and realistically gritty all at once. It's also an incredibly sensual book - every page is just dripping with Melanie's teenage hormones, as if she cannot contain them inside her and so they end up flooding every moment of her life and seeping through the pages of the book.

I loved it so much I finished it in one day and then, like some desperate A-Level student who hasn't started the assignment due tomorrow, scoured the internet to try and find as many critical essays on the book as I could. I can't believe I waited so long to read Angela Carter, and will be picking up her other works as soon as I can (though not whilst on holiday, because I do actually want to read these books).

Rating: 5/5

Oryx and Crake

 
 

I finally picked up Oryx and Crake after having it on my To-Read-List for almost four whole years, despite continuously walking past it on the shelf at my local library. It's like when you've moved in to a new home and didn't say hello to your neighbours during that acceptable period of over-friendliness, so now it's too late and you just avoid them.

Then, one day, that inescapable moment comes. A hand stabs through the gap between the doors of the lift. No, you think, please don't let it be - but it is. It's The Neighbour.

"Hello!" The Neighbour says, shuffling into the metal prison, seemingly oblivious to your discomfort.

"Hi..."

"We're neighbours!"

"Yup..." 

An awkward silence ensues. Your palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy, vomit on your sweater already - ok, maybe not, but from the look on your face there might as well be. A lifetime later, the doors finally crank open.

"Well, it was lovely to meet you!" 

"Yes, you too."

Euuuuuuurgh. Anyway, that's a bit of an unfair comparison - books are far less intimidating than human beings and I actually ended up finishing Oryx and Crake in two days. 

Oryx and Crake is the first book in the MaadAddam trilogy, set in an unsettling  post-apocalyptic world that is rapidly being claimed back by Mother Nature. The landscape is overrun with genetically engineered spliced animals that are the result of human dabbling - pigoons, for example, are modified pigs that were created specifically to harvest spare human organs. Our unreliable narrator (read: someone completely off his tits in a post-apocalyptic stupor) is Snowman, a man who believes he may be the the last of his kind and has been tasked with caring for a group of primitive humanoids he calls the 'Crakers'. As he struggles for survival in the freakish present, Snowman's flashbacks pre-shit-hit-the-fan show us a world run by multinational corporations and fed by genetic testing and manipulation. The most unsettling thing for me is that it is a situation recognisable within our own timeline.  

The plot is the real star of the show - it comes at you fast and thick with twists that catch you off guard. The characters, whilst not necessarily always likeable or relatable, are intriguing and mysterious and there is a lot that Margret Atwood leaves deliciously unsaid, to be uncovered in the subsequent two books. 

Rating - 4/5

 

And The Mountains Echoed

 
 

After the all-night sob-fest that was A Thousand Splendid Suns for yours truly, I should have learnt that anything by Khaled Hosseini is best avoided on a work night unless I want to stumble into the office with puffy eye-bags and a hankering for more caffine than my digestive system can cope with (if you know what I mean).

Well I didn't. I started And The Mountains Echoed just before bed (again) and ended up having to basically poison myself with caffeine the next day and bat away 'are you OK' questions from concerned co-workers. Suffice it to say, I was on the porcelin throne a lot that day. Once I get to it, I think I'll just accept my fate with The Kite Runner and take the day off.

And The Mountains Echoed traces the life of two siblings whose lives follow two very different trajectories across different classes and continents, with heartbreak at almost every step of the way. If you've read any of Hosseini's books, you know what kind of ride you're in for (tragedy porn) - a book full of vibrant descriptions and lurching emotions, setting scenes that you can imagine so vividly you find yourself wondering why anyone bothers with movies at all. Set across Afghanistan, France, America and Greece, it both explores the Afghani diaspora and also the lives of the foreign aid workers who came to Afghanistan in the 2000s.

I will say that, overall, I preferred A Thousand Splendid Suns but And The Mountains Echoed was a solid, gratifying read with twists and turns. Characters are not necessarily likeable, and their actions and behaviour sometimes grating, but I do not think likeable characters are hallmarks of good books and Hosseini's talent is in making his characters believable, relatable and very, very human.

Rating: 4/5