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Solomon Northup – Twelve Years A Slave

Book Cover

Whilst I’ve formatted this post as I do my reviews, this isn’t quite a review, more an information post.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A (Collins is 978-0-007-58042-2)
First Published: 1853
Date Reviewed: 27th February 2018
Rating: 5/5

Twelve Years A Slave is Solomon Northup’s account of his time as a slave in Southern states America, the Bayou Boeuf to be exact. It was used by the abolition movement though not necessarily written for it; like so many others, Northup was forced into slavery and his story has a specific background – he was one of a number of Northern states freemen who were kidnapped and sold into bondage.

Every sentence in this book has been thought through. Debate has surrounded who exactly wrote this book – whilst unarguably Northup’s account, there are a few possibilities due to the presence (most definitely in the preface) of an ‘editor’, one David Wilson [see the US History Scene article linked to above]. There’s the possibility Wilson took Northup’s story and wrote it up, which seems most likely, reading around the subject [see end note]; the possibility it is completely Northup’s work; the possibility that it’s a bit of both. These possibilities are apparent upon reading the preface and then subsequent work and situating the book in its political and social context; in the same way the work of other former slaves – such as Olaudah Equiano, who wrote 60 years prior to Northup – seeks to reassure the reader that there are good white people out there, including some masters, so too does Northup.

The book is as harrowing as you’d expect though a lot may well have been left out; you get a report of horrors but there were surely more details. Included also are the good days, the few days of leisure in which Northup expresses the normality of his fellow slaves, demonstrating further how inhumane slavery is, how everyone is the same.

Northup drops out of history ten years after this publication – we know that he was often a speaker at abolition events but the records then start to become ambiguous. Someone saw him at someone’s house once – that sort of thing. History believes he was kidnapped back into slavery or simply died of natural causes. You can’t but hope it was the latter possibility and that it happened in due course rather than soon after Northup was freed. The first doesn’t bare thinking about.

As Northup himself did, so too did the book fall into obscurity. It’s quite possible that, with slavery abolished, Northup’s book was deemed to have served its purpose and was dually forgotten. It was rediscovered in the 1960s.

Certainly you have to be prepared to read between the lines on occasion and this is one of those few books that would be difficult to read out of context. It’s an incredibly important book.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the authorship, this is an interesting read. It says that Wilson was not an abolitionist – which would suggest a less political motive on that man’s part, and goes further into general reasoning and the way the book was written.

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Chitra Ramaswamy – Expecting

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Bun in the oven and all those typical phrases.

Publisher: Saraband
Pages: 181
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-19221-4
First Published: 1st April 2017
Date Reviewed: 29th September 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

When Ramaswamy and her partner felt the time had come to have a baby, they got married (a necessity for same-sex couple looking to conceive) and started the process. The author chronicles those following nine months, detailing the day-to-day, the ways things about pregnancy and childbirth are often not known until a woman is already on the road, and the social factors, all with an eye to the story as a literary experience.

If you’ll pardon the pun, this book is not what you may be expecting from a book about pregnancy. This is a book that has true appeal for a great many people. Ramaswamy has written a book that manages to explore a specific subject in the kind of detail an interested party would expect but with enough – more than enough – of things on the periphery to intrigue others.

Very much a literary memoir, the appeal of Expecting is evident from the first moment. Ramaswamy fills the pages with quotes and other references to pregnancy, from Victorian views to Sylvia Plath’s poetry, to Virginia Woolf, Frida Kahlo’s work, and even Leo Tolstoy’s reverence of childbearing. It’s one of those memoirs that’s an absolute delight to read for its academic elements, a real book about books.

This is where Ramaswamy’s journalistic background comes in – the book is just beautiful. Full of imagery and lovely writing, it’s like reading a mid-20th century classic, and due to Ramaswamy’s various holidays in Scotland (where she lives – this isn’t a book full of exotic locations, and indeed there’s only a couple of trips abroad for work) it’s also somewhat of a nature book. At times it could give Amy Liptrot’s recent The Outrun a run for its money. And because of Ramaswamy’s literally burgeoning pregnancy, there’s often a wonderful juxtaposition of busy-ness and calm.

In addition to this, the author looks the two sides of the same coin, life and death, straight in the eye:

On foot, I had to walk up a vertiginous hill to get there, which meant arriving with my heart kicking at my breast, making me feel as appallingly flushed with life as you could be when entering a place where people go to die. I feared walking in there, hearing the doors shoosh closed behind me, sealing normal life out. Yet once I was in it was not such a fearful place. Entering a hospice was like being let in on a secret. There was a certain amount of privilege involved in being permitted early entry to a club to which, eventually, we would all belong. It had the power to level and soothe, like the calm one enjoys walking through a graveyard, reading strangers’ headstones and feeling a secondary sadness that is not so different from an appreciation of life.

There is only one area in which Expecting isn’t quite as good. One is the way that the detailing and explanation, so great when the author’s dealing with place, falls a bit flat when it’s to do with pregnancy details that are very much common knowledge, enough that they don’t need to be addressed.

Apart from this, there is a lot Ramaswamy notes that may seem obvious, a ‘why didn’t you know that before?’ situation, that can be odd to read – indeed why didn’t she know? – but in fact just goes to show how much society keeps from women, a topic the author addresses on a number of occasions. (These details are different to the common knowledge facts I discussed in the previous paragraph.) The lengthy bleed that occurs after birth that she doesn’t find out about until well into her time; the discomfort, exhaustion, and pain. Things that everyone should be told as a matter of course long before they come to decide whether or not they want children. In many ways this book is as much a social questioning as it is a memoir.

It doesn’t take long to read Expecting, certainly compared to a pregnancy it’s over in a blink, and it’s incredibly well worth it. The cover may align with something light-hearted, and the book can be, but it’s also so much more.

I received this book for review. It has been shortlisted for the Polari Prize. The winner will be announced on 13th October.

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Tom Malmquist – In Every Moment We Are Still Alive

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Sudden changes.

Publisher: Sceptre (Hodder)
Pages: 277
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-64000-9
First Published: August 2015; 1st June 2017 in English
Date Reviewed: 25th May 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Swedish
Original title: I Varje Ögonblick Är Vi Fortfarande Vid Liv (In Every Moment We Are Still Alive)
Translated by: Henning Koch

When poet Tom Malmquist’s fiancée became very ill late in her pregnancy, the couple thought it was flu. But when her breathing starts to become affected, Karin is taken to the ward. In the horror of the idea of loosing his lover, Tom must get to grips with the idea that he will be bringing up his daughter on his own.

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive is a sobering memoir told in a rush of words that communicates the effect of the events on a person’s mental state. I have termed it non-fiction but it’s also considered fiction – the events are real but the style of writing, beyond the words themselves, means the book is somewhere between the two.

Looking at the words and the style together, Malmquist has opted for stream of consciousness and a sort of distancing. In view of the communication of his mental state, both the lack of full stops and the lack of quotation marks mean that you, the reader, are inundated with the information Malmquist received in the same way he received it, putting you in his shoes. Sometimes it’s fairly easy to see what is happening – fairly, not completely – and other times it’s almost impossible but in this book your incomprehension is paramount to your understanding of the way Malmquist is feeling. It is frustrating to read on a literary level, especially considering the text never stops rushing towards you, but it plays its part – it might seem to be a book with a lot of telling but actually, it’s all about showing.

The length of the book is part of this display of showing, too; it’s fairly short – just like the few weeks that pass – but feeling longer than that – again just like the few weeks that pass. In terms of the action of reading it’s a swift one, easily read in a few hours, but it will feel longer.

Karin is going to miss so much, Livia was a black-and-white ultrasound photo, Karin only knew her something that moved inside her.

One can’t really review the story itself; suffice to say it’s told very well and Malmquist often looks back on his life with Karin. There are no clear time changes so sometimes it’s difficult to work out when a scene slots into the timeline but that doesn’t take much away from the overall experience.

Something that must be touched on, however, is the bureaucracy Malmquist details. Because the author was not married and because Karin was too ill and everyone too busy to so much as think about any paperwork, despite the obviousness of the author’s paternity he has to go through Tax lines – yes, makes no sense – in regards to his baby daughter. He has to call Social Services and courts and various other places to try and change her surname to his, to get reports, all that sort of stuff; you don’t get to hear the result, how it ends up, but suffice to say Malmquist now has custody of his daughter, however, according to what is written in the book, he has to check in often until she reaches her majority. The author’s writing style, that deluge of information, further shows just how bizarre the whole thing is. And this all happens whilst he’s reeling from the death, making it even worse. As far as the book goes, Malmquist’s examination and peeling back the layers for all to see, is brilliant.

This is a difficult book in many ways, and a bit more so when you know you’re dealing with a translation. The translation is okay but there are some grammatical choices and turns of phrase that are so English (language) it’s hard to forget you’re reading a translation. But the heart of the story, or, rather, hearts – that communication and fight for parental rights – is very good and well worth your time.

There have been books that have dealt with similar topics before, but In Every Moment We Are Still Alive puts you in the author’s head in a very different and meaningful way.

I received this book for review.

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Magda Szubanski – Reckoning

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Baa ram ewe.

Publisher: Text Publishing
Pages: 371
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-925-24043-6
First Published: 30th September 2013
Date Reviewed: 22nd November 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

British-born, Polish and Scottish rooted, Australian household name Magda Szubanski writes about growing up as the daughter of a man who rebelled against the Nazis – leading him to want the best for his children – finding herself as a comedian after years of academia, working through her sexuality, and the stories of her ancestors.

As the purposefully long heritage-detailed sentence hopefully shows, Reckoning is a book of both Szubanski’s own life, and the life of her Polish relatives living during World War Two. It’s a stunning book that is all the more poignant for the historical information Szubanski includes and it’s a bit of a literary experience to boot.

Szubanski, known best outside Australia for her role as Esme Hoggett in the film Babe as well as Sharon in Kath & Kim, details her life as her family made the move from gloomy Britain to brighter Australia right up until recent professional work. Weather differences, A-grade tennis, convent school. The author sports an open, easy writing style that shows off all her influences. It’s a text full of general cultural and more specific references – films old and new, classical literature – that help to bring clarity to what she says and makes it very readable. Brontë spars with black and white Polish cinema and the book is soaked in philosophical references, the latter in particular owing to Szubanski’s educational choices.

One of the themes is sexuality; in Szubanski’s telling of her life story you see the contention and confusion of a lesbian woman – or, as she puts it, ‘gay gay gay gay gay not gay gay’ – growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the way Szubanski came to understand her feelings and the changes in society’s views. It’s a constant element that looks right back to childhood and right up to her coming out during which she details what was going on in her head, the confusion, her discomfort and later embrace of terminology. Another theme is Szubanski’s weight, as she talks openly about the way her size has often corresponded to the goings on in her life and also the way she has and is happy with her weight, indeed feels more like herself. Szubanski’s career in comedy lends the book a certain slant; the way the humour is written, opinions conveyed.

The book is also harrowing. One of the most important aspects of it is the look at the German occupation of Poland. Szubanski’s Polish heritage and in particular her father’s life, means that her work is full of information of the sort that is often forgotten.

We arranged to meet up again and I rejoined my family. As we shuffled through the cemetery, something caught my eye. A long line of wonky headstones, uniform and yet misaligned.
‘What does it say? Who are they?’ I asked Uncle Andrzej.
‘Girl scouts,’ he replied. ‘Among the first to be killed by the Nazis. Enemies of the Reich. This is how they frighten people. Killing girl scouts.’

Szubanski’s telling of the occupation and her father’s role in the Polish resistance is hard-hitting and superbly told. She leaves out nothing; there is a lot of shocking violence in this book that puts the spotlight on things that get lost in amongst the publication of the larger scale happenings. The killing of children, the choice to kill or be killed, the constant acting required of young people delivering anti-German information. To see this solely as a memoir of a modern day icon would be a mistake.

‘…a very evil man put this number on me.’
‘Why?’
‘Because he wanted to kill me.’
‘Why?’
‘Because I am a Jew.’
I didn’t really understand what a Jew was. Or why anyone would want to kill such a nice lady. Was she related to the Little Jewish boy Dad was always going on about?
‘I am telling you this, Magda, because it must never happen again.’
I nodded. I felt bad that this had happened to the nice woman. And I agreed it should never happen again. And I remember now – as I looked up, the other women all held out their arms and showed me their numbers.

At least on the face of it, Reckoning is bound to appeal more to Australian readers and those outside Australia who are familiar and interested in its popular culture, but if there’s one memoir you should read this year regardless of whether or not you know the author, it’s this one.

I received this book for review from FMCM Associates.

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Amy Liptrot – The Outrun

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Running to rather than from.

Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 278
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-11547-2
First Published: 31st December 2015
Date Reviewed: 25th April 2016
Rating: 4/5

Understanding she has become dependent on alcohol and that despite earlier thoughts it’s not making her feel better, rather it’s making her feel worse, Amy Liptrot enrolls at a treatment centre and then decides to move back home to Orkney from London to see if bettering her location can help her recover from her addiction. In moving back she becomes in tune with nature, enjoying all the things she’d left, helping her father on the farm, taking long coastal walks, and helping the RSPB in their research.

The Outrun is part memoir, part nature book, that Liptrot wrote whilst back in Orkney. It’s got a lovely atmosphere to it and it’s full of information both historical and natural, about addiction and the journey to sobriety with all its struggles.

The first thing you notice is that Liptrot can really write. Whilst writing was therapeutic for her in her time of upheaval, in its publication it could be said to have become therapeutic for the reader too. There’s nothing particular about it – one can’t say she uses big or small words or the work is peppered with such and such – it’s more the general feel of it. The book’s written atmosphere is shaped in part by its theme – flocks of birds, windy but beautiful days, talk of old stones and cliffs and everything of the sort the Brontës would have championed, which of course play a big role – as it is by Liptrot’s sheer raw talent. The text ebbs and flows, never gaining a momentum it could lose, and at many points you’d think you were reading an award-winning novel.

This said there’s a great deal of repetition in the book. Writing for herself, it makes sense that there would be rambling and repetition, but as a publication the book could’ve done with being a bit shorter, more linear (it’s very easy to become confused as to where you are in time). The self-absorbed feel to the book is more a case of this repetition than Liptrot’s feelings, or at least it certainly seems that way. (Some self-absorption is of course par for the course.) For this repetition the book can be easy to put down and difficult to resume.

To the subjects, then, and as said, the nature writing is lovely. In many ways this book seems more about the nature and history of Orkney than Liptrot’s addiction which, given what I’ve said about self-absorption, works in its favour, though by no means does the recovery take a back seat. Liptrot is adept at blending her personal life with the nature of Orkney; they become one and the same when she can find a way to speak in metaphors, but equally there are times when it all just seems so natural to blend them together. Liptrot’s focus is on the wildlife of the islands, specifically the birds – there is less on farming than you might expect though she does talk at length about methods and the journey from bog-standard farming to organic. (Any lamb you happen to buy from the north of Britain may well have come from Liptrot’s family farm.)

The hill is studded with craters from when it was used by the Royal Navy for target practice in the Second World War and test shells were fired from ships onto the island. The holes are filled with rainwater in the winter and range from the size of a paddling pool to that of a jacuzzi. It is said that one bomb came further south than intended and just missed a farmer’s wife but killed her cow. After the war, a sailor from one of the launch ships
could not believe their target island had been inhabited.

In focus, too, is astronomy. Perhaps inevitably given the location, Liptrot becomes a connoisseur of the night sky, speaking of stars, the planets, and also cloud formations and the Northern Lights. And then there’s the Neolithic history all over the isles: Skara Brae, a settlement of stone-built homes under the earth to protect from the harsh weather, ancient tombs, standing stones. Tragedies at sea, wherein ships crash against the cliffs, result in their own historic stories and findings. There is so much to this book, something for most people, and because of Liptrot’s determination to make her book as informative as it is personal, you learn a lot.

Lately I’ve noticed a gradual reprogramming. In the past when I was under stress, my first impulse was to drink, to get into the pub or the off-license. A house-moving day years ago once ended a month-long attempt at sobriety. Now, sometimes, I’m not just fighting against these urges but have developed new ones. Even back in the summer, set free after a frustrating day in the RSPB office, my first thought was sometimes not a pint but ‘Get in the sea’. Swimming shakes out my tension and provides refreshment and change. I am finding new priorities and pleasures for my free time. I’ve known this was possible but it takes a while for emotions to catch up with intellect. I am getting stronger.

I wanted to focus on the wider aspects before dealing with the alcohol side of the book. Liptrot details her time as an alcoholic with a fierce openness; she discusses parties and a break-up that haunts her for years, and also an attack, sexual encounters, and other incredibly personal details. There’s a picking apart of right and wrong, missteps, but never any self-pity beyond a few what ifs. This isn’t to say that any other way of speaking is wrong, it isn’t, but Liptrot’s manner means her book may interest people who might not be otherwise interested. The recovery is spoken of in detail, too, so this could be considered both a self-help aid without the negative associations often levied on self-help books, and a book with a wealth of information for those who want to know what it’s like. The book may well aid another’s recovery as well as help a person who knows someone with addiction develop more empathy and an understanding to help them assist and show support.

The Outrun is an impressive work in many ways for many reasons, its beauty slipping out from every crevice. It may lose its way textually at times but never errs in its wonder.

I received this book at the Wellcome Book Prize blogger’s brunch.

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