It’s been quite the month. I turned 31 at the weekend, quietly decrying the fact that I’m now officially ‘in my 30s’. Birthdays as a continuously nomadic expat are always something of a double-edged sword. My non-stop wandering over the past decade has left behind me a wake of confusion, with family and friends generally unsure about where in the world I’m currently living. And, inevitably, most of my closest relationships are conducted across both oceans and continents. So my birthdays are typically a quiet affair, filled with the books, tea, and packets of biscuits that I have never failed to lug with me from place to place. This year was no exception and I passed the weekend with the serenity that only impending autumn and the best literature can bring. As we wave a relieved goodbye to the summer and await that slow shedding of this year’s green skin, September’s edition of The Monthly Reader is here to carry you through the best articles, interviews, and new releases that the month had to offer. So grab your beverage of choice, a guilt free indulgence of the biscuity variety, and enjoy!
‘The 2019 National Book Awards Longlist: Fiction‘ by The New Yorker
We’re officially knee-deep in book award season and sufficiently far through the year to reflect upon the best of 2019’s fiction releases. It’s been a stellar year for the publishing industry. With Margaret Atwood’s follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale and Colson Whitehead’s post-Pulitzer work, The Nickel Boys, it was sure to be a competitive year as far as literary awards were concerned. 2019’s National Book Awards – curated by The New Yorker – certainly spotlight the cross-genre excellence of the year’s fictional offerings. Including two of my favourites – Marlon James’ epic work of African fantasy and fabulism, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, and Colson Whitehead’s provocative new release – the longlist is a testament to a year of incredible literature.
‘On Justin Trudeau, Virginia Woolf, and the Orientalist History of Brownface‘ by Gabrielle Bellot (LitHub)
In my review of one of this year’s best publications – The Parisian by Isabella Hammad – I spoke a little about the postcolonialist history of Orientalism and the identification of the ‘Other’. Historically, it has been the work of colonial powers to reduce the identities of those being colonised to stereotypes of barbarism and savagery, conforming most conveniently to the notion that colonisation is doing the necessary work of saving the subaltern ‘others’ from their own lack of civilisation. It is a troubling idea but one that remains insidiously present in contemporary politics and the social dynamics from which political trends typically emerge. In her excellent article, Gabrielle Bellot reflects on the stereotypes of Orientalism and their presence in the tradition of brownface. Looking to account for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent scandals, Bellot digs into the literary past of racial prejudice – including an uncomfortable anecdote involving Virginia Woolf’s own history with brownface – and unpicks the trends that continue to render such despicable stereotypes a contemporary reality.
‘Teenager’s Diary Offers Window Into Life Under Soviets and Nazis‘ by Joanna Berendt (The New York Times)
In one of the most interesting pieces of news from September, yesterday marked the publication of Renia’s Diary: A Holocaust Journal. Described as an implicit accompaniment to Anne Frank’s experiences of life under the Nazi regime, Renia Spiegel’s journal offers a unique opportunity to read the first-hand account of a teenager forced to encounter the deadly realities of occupied Poland. Chronicling her existence in the town of Przemysl, Renia’s diary documents typically teenage preoccupations with love and its uncertainties, against a backdrop of life under both Soviet and Nazi rule. It is an invaluable insight into the tragedies inevitable to those living in Poland at the height of the Second World War. The final entry to the diary is authored by Renia’s then-boyfriend, as he documents the end of her life following her discovery by Nazi soldiers. That the diary has survived the interceding decades and comes to us now as a window into humanity’s tragic past is a testament to the impact that this young girl had on those in her life. Their determination to protect and preserve her legacy affords us the chance to better acquaint ourselves with the atrocities that, in the hands of their victims, resound with unimaginable pain.
‘It’s a Fact: Mistakes are Embarrassing the Publishing Industry‘ by Alexandra Alter (The New York Times)
Who holds the responsibility for fact-checking works of non-fiction? That’s the question asked by this article from the New York Times. In the wake of a series of high-profile errors in new non-fiction releases, the debate around fact-checking and the relative inattention of publishers to their own responsibility has been thrown into the literary spotlight. In this volatile political age, works of non-fiction are bucking publishing trends with a substantial increase in sales – up 23% from 2014 to 2018, compared to a 10% decrease in sales of adult fiction. The stakes are high and errors on the part of authors and publishers are pointing to an unacceptable degree of negligence in information verification. Where responsibility has traditionally lain with the authors to corroborate their own material, publishers are now waking up to the centrality of their role in the process. This excellent article is a must-read for lovers of non-fiction.
‘Margaret Atwood: “For a long time we were moving away from Gilead. Then we started going back towards it”‘ by Lisa Allardice (The Guardian)
Certainly the most proclaimed literary event of 2019 – if not the past few years – the release of Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments, has been in the sights of readers globally. Given the political crises that have befallen the West, it is perhaps unsurprising that Atwood would feel 2019 to be the right time to augur a totalitarian catastrophe in which women are consigned to the role of reproductive slaves. The Guardian’s interview with Atwood is an excellent insight into the author’s thinking as she chose to return to Gilead with a view to picking apart ever-diverging views on gender and sexual identity. Atwood’s timely return to a work that has been hailed as one of the foremost pieces of feminist literature has been celebrated with all of the portent that one might have expected – The Testaments was already on the list of nominees for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Whether or not the novel lives up to the hype, it has surely cemented Atwood’s reputation as a central voice in the politics of gender.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (pub. Nan A. Talese)
What reader of The Handmaid’s Tale was not awaiting 10th September with bated breath? The release of Margaret Atwood’s return to Gilead in The Testaments has been anticipated with excitement unseen since the final book in the Harry Potter series. 2019’s literary news has abounded with talk of the book – from the cover unveiling, to fears of theft, and Amazon’s hiccup in the early release of copies of the novel. As an admirer of Atwood’s work, I’ve certainly been no stranger to the hype surrounding The Testaments and I’m currently awaiting the opportunity to get myself to the bookshop so that I can finally purchase my copy. Whether or not The Testaments will capture the sense of prescient foreboding with which The Handmaid’s Tale was steeped is unclear but I’m undeniably excited to see what this book holds in store.
Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh (pub. Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
One of my most anticipated publications of 2019, Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island starts from a premise that will interest any lover of fiction. An adventure that takes us around the world, Gun Island follows rare book dealer, Deen Datta, as he sets out on a journey spun with Bengali legends. It promises to be a beautiful read, that plays with both space and time as it considers the connections of family and heritage. My copy is currently on its way to me and I’m incredibly excited to get the chance to review this novel for all of you!
What I’ve Been Reading
As I wrote last week, August and September were challenging months for me. My mental health took a bit of an unexpected nose-dive and I found myself stuck in a cycle of panic attacks that it took almost a month to quell. I’m lucky to have a support system that provides me with the various kinds of help that it takes to manage panic disorder and clinical depression, as well as the host of symptoms that come from living with the two in combination. As readers of The Book Habit will know, however, literature is also one of the primary places that I look to for assistance – and my reads from this month certainly reflected my needs. The transportingly haunting beauty of Angela Carter’s work was an incredibly timely discovery, affording me both a place of escape and the rhythmic soothing that only such luminously poetic prose can provide. The gripping thrills of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian were also a welcome reprieve from the psychological whirrings that were plaguing me at the time. Fiction has certainly proved a salvation this month and I’m hoping that, whatever your situation, your September reads have been similarly comforting.
– A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
– The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
– Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
– Inland by Téa Obreht (currently reading)