Thursday, 27 May 2021

Keeping It Under Wraps, edited by Louise Bryant, Alnaaze Nathoo and Tracy Hope

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought of it: 

I'll read a couple, I told myself, and come back later. 

No. That's not possible. 

These stories are not something you can browse. 

This is pared-down, stripped-back, naked and honest. Don’t look away. 

What happens after ‘fade to black’ is left to the viewer/reader’s imagination and imaginations tend to airbrush experience. Ecstasy, agony, shame, confusion, boredom and laughter are part of intimacy. Sex is all those things and exquisitely personal. 

Keeping It Under Wraps is every conversation we should have had as kids, as teenagers, as middle-aged searchers for the G-spot. Broken hearts and pain, sex toys and laughter, pornography and puzzlement, sex and self-respect, it’s all here. 

I loved the whispered, shouted and clearly stated personal sex lives in this collection. Sex can be joyous or brutal. One of the ways we reframe our experiences is by listening to others. This book opens a door. 

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: True stories about intimacy, in-depth discussions with the likes of Mariella Frostrup or Pamela Stephenson 

Avoid if you don’t like:
 Frank discussions about preferences and unpleasant truths 

Ideal accompaniments: A warm bath, some time alone and a little notebook to record your own feelings. 

Genre: Non-fiction, anthology, short stories

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle

Catriona Troth

What We thought of It:

From the Ashes is a painful and poignant memoir from Canadian author, Jesse Thistle. Thistle is Michif, or Métis – descended from the offspring of Cree women and French and Scottish fur traders.

Owing to family breakup, Thistle grew up divorced from his heritage, knowing nothing about the history or language of his people. His father, a drug addict, took him and his two brothers away from his mother and her people and then abandoned them. The boys were brought up by their paternal grandparents who, though they loved them, gave them little understanding or affection.

Thistle ended up homeless and drug addicted, living on the streets and moving in and out of prison. That he survived at all is something of a miracle. But survive he did, and as he hit rock bottom and began to claw his way back up again, he began to ask himself why it is that so many young Indigenous men, like him, can be found in Canada’s prisons and homeless shelters.

The answer, for Thistle at least, lay in reclaiming his Métis heritage – understanding how they came to live as they did, forced to squat on narrow strips Crown lands alongside roads and railway lines, the so-called ‘road-allowances’. As he writes in the dedication:

“The pages of this book speak to the damage colonialism can do to Indigenous families, and how, when one’s Indigeneity is stripped away, people can make poor choices informed by pain, loneliness and heartbreak, choices that see them eventually case upon the streets, in jail or wandering the no place to be.”

From the Ashes is not an easy read. Thistle’s path down into his own personal hell was long and tortuous. He doesn’t spare the reader any of the horror of what the dark extremes of drug addiction do to either the body or the mind.

Some of the most arresting moments in the book come in the poems that are dotted between its chapters. Thistle distils his experiences into instants of time captured in free verse.

I had this tiny bag
It had my old life inside
When I finally got the courage to get rid of it, I left it on the bed
Then I jumped out of the window
Down two stories
But the grass broke my fall.

A troubling, necessary and ultimately inspiring book.

Jesse Thistle is now assistant professor in Métis Studies at York University, Toronto. From the Ashes was the top-selling book in Canada in 2020.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Stuart, A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters, Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, Birdie by Tracie Lindberg, The Break by Katherena Vermette

Avoid If You Dislike: Grim details of the physical and mental impacts of extreme drug addiction

Perfect Accompaniment: Bannock and Saskatoon berries

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Indigenous Writing

Buy This Book Here

Monday, 10 May 2021

Who’s Loving You? (editor: Sareeta Domingo)

: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

In her introduction to this collection of short stories she has curated, Sareeta Domingo remembers how: “Between the pages of my beloved books, it soon became apparent that neither tales of romantic woe, nor the sexy bonkbusters I’d eye curiously on the shelves {…}, nor even those sophisticated, classically revered literary tales of love and honour, featured any people who looked like me.” Did that mean, she asked herself, that love and desire were not for young people of colour like her?

In response to that, and because she loves the romance genre, Domingo curated this anthology “to create space for British women of colour to write about romantic love in all its many guises.”

If Bolu Babalola’s short story collection, Love in Colour, reached back into folklore for its inspiration, these stories are contemporary – or in some cases futuristic. In Varaizo’s ‘Long Distance’, a love affair with a heart-breaking twist blossoms over a near-future vision of social media. ‘No one is Lonely’ by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan takes place in a London that has been engulfed with floods, “where wilting bunches of flours are tied to posts where the drowned were lost.”

There are gay characters and straight, cis and trans. Sara Collins ‘Brief Encounters’ brings the classic tale to present day London with new energy, while in Daniellé Dash’s ‘The Row’, a woman fleeing a relationship gone wrong finds solace in the tender touch of a hairdresser’s fingers. Dorothy Koomson’s ‘My Heart Beats’, features a couple whose relationship seems to be a sequence of missed opportunities – can they finally connect?

Domingo’s own ‘The Waves Will Carry Us Back’ features a refugee rescued from the sea by a surfer, while Kuchenga’s ‘Rain … Doubtful’ gives us a transwoman finding unqualified love and acceptance.

The stories travel the world too. Returning to Iran for a mother’s funeral results in a meeting of hearts and minds in a wholly unexpected location in Sara Jafari’s ‘Motherland’. In Kelechi Okafor’s ‘The Watchers’, a kind of guardian angel drawn from Nigerian cosmology watches over a pair of souls who meet time after time as they are reincarnated into different lives. In Amna Saleem’s ‘Rani’, a grandmother’s tale of love during Partition interweaves with her granddaughter’s.

These are tales with an edge to them. The women in them are empowered – they choose love, or reject it, on their own terms. There are stories that are tender, erotic, funny and tragic. They are rich with sentences that distil and capture emotion, whether it is Sara Collins on being assailed by grief:

“There is nowhere in the train station where she can scream or pound her knees or keel over, nowhere to make cow-like noises, why don’t they build somewhere like that – like public toilets, but for grief?”

Or Amna Saleem on a child carrying the weight of family expectations:

“Conspicuously linking me to a rich ancestral tapestry where growing up, I half expected to discover I was a latent vampire slayer waiting to become the brown Buffy Summers of Scotland”

There is something, surely, to appeal to everyone. Certainly a heartfelt demonstration that, as Domingo says: “Love is inside us – all of us.”

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Love In Colour by Bolu Babalola, The Nearness of You by Sareeta Domingo

Avoid If you Dislike:  Love in all its shapes and sizes

Perfect Accompaniment: A chilled glass of your favourite bubbly

Genre: Romance, Short Stories

Buy This Book Here:

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Inferno by Catherine Cho

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Three days before the traditional Korean 100-day celebration for the birth of her son, Catherine Cho found herself in hospital, suffering from post-partum psychosis.

Cho writes with acute self-awareness, both about her breakdown and about her life leading up to it. The book travels along parallel lines – one that begins with Cho finding herself on a secure psychiatric ward and chronicles her experience through hospital to her release, and the other which reaches back, to her childhood and early adulthood, searching for the roots of her breakdown.

She remembers life in her near silent home, with a father who vented his volatile temper on her younger brother and disapproved of anything resembling pop culture – delivering a childhood like a 20th Century version of Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son.

“My father wanted his children to be clean thinkers, unpolluted by commercialism. He has a vision of raising us apart from the world, off the grid, away from any pre-dictated rules except his own.”

Then there was the violent domestic abuse of a previous relationship, that left her stranded and isolated, far from home in Hong Kong.

Having risked all to move across the world for one relationship, she does it again – this time to move to London with her husband. She and James are profoundly happy and the birth of their son Cato seems only to put a seal on that happiness. But then they plan a trip of a lifetime to visit family in the US. It’s tiring and stressful – and cultural pressures from their extended Korean families build up, as well-meaning anxieties about mother and child cause them to reach back deep into tradition.

Koreans, she explains, as suspicious of happiness and romantic love. “Koreans believe that happiness can only tempt the fates and that any happiness must be bought with sorrow. As for love, it is thought of as an unfortunate passion, irrational and destructive.”

As the pressures pile on, Cho’s mind begins to blur the boundaries between reality, dreams and mythology. Cho conjures up for us the tragic heroines from the folktales she grew up on – Sim Chung, who sold herself as a human sacrifice to save her blind father; Nong Gae, the courtesan who danced an invading general off a cliff. Perhaps she needs to sacrifice herself for James and Cato?

Cho’s clear and poetic language beguiles us along a path, until her breakdown seems as inevitable to us as it must have done to her.

I have to admit, I approached this book with some trepidation. I had memories of being required to read Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden as a set text in high school and finding fascinating but utterly terrifying. Yet shocking as the scenes are where Cho recalls in detail the hours and minutes of her psychotic break – this is a book that offers a lifeline of hope to those suffering from post-partum psychosis, and to those who love them.

Profound, honest, revealing – and ultimately hopeful.

Shortlisted for the 2021 Jhalak Prize

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg (orig. under the name Hannah Green), Are We Home Yet? by Katy Massey

Avoid If you Dislike: Confronting the vivid details of a psychotic break

Perfect Accompaniment: Seaweed soup

Genre: Non-fiction, Memoir

Buy This Book Here: