Books That Changed My Life Do The Reading I Need To Talk About This Reading Challenges The Isolation Reads

What do you get if you read 100 books in nine months?

Perhaps the most interesting side effect of lockdown for me has been returning to reading in a big way. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been an avid reader forever, but I encounter extreme slumps as well as periods where reading just isn’t my preferred way to pass time. Unlike some people who didn’t feel like reading over the last few months, I have (perhaps counterintuitively) found getting back into books has helped me navigate living alone in a (relatively) new city where most of my friends live away. More than that, it helped me to understand the value of moving from computer screens to paper for me as a dyslexic person. I experience screen fatigue (including the TV) a long time before I experience word fatigue. The nights I have gone to bed at 21:00 with a book, I have almost universally slept better. Why? Because I ditch my phone and am really present in a low energy state, generally feeling chilled. I do audit what read before bed, but I also have very familiar audiobooks I listen to at night to counteract any triggering content.

            I would love to tell you that this reading spurt has made me more decisive about what I read but that would be untrue. As we speak, I am “stuck” with a book I want to like, but find dull, and can’t quite commit to abandoning. This is really silly given that, when this happened during the alphabet challenge, I immediately picked up pace when I accepted that I was never going to “get” Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. The writing is beautiful but after 15 minutes I would be fidgety and disengaged. In fact, it put me to sleep for one of my two naps in the last 18 months. I wanted to love it and be immersed. Almost all of my reading pals speak very highly of it, but truth be told, it just wasn’t for me. Maybe after writing this post, I will commit to hiding the volume by my bed, removing it from my Goodreads “currently reading” list, and see if I experience any inclination to return to it.

            What else have I learned? I really, really enjoy a reading challenge that has very open parameters. I set myself a monumental task when I took on my own “Reading The Alphabet” challenge. I wanted to tackle my 100+ book To Be Read (TBR) pile and so I committed to read a book by authors with surnames beginning with every letter of the alphabet. I had to supplement here and there. (Thank God I did, because The Autobiography of Malcolm X was a standout read.) But I also got caught up in reading (1)in alphabetical order, (2) at least one fiction and non-fiction entry, and (3) [DON’T DO THIS] as many entrants per letter as possible. What should have been 26 books could have become fifty-two books plus any bonus “extra” reads. The problem here came when I hit A Brief History of Seven Killings. I had read lots of “heavy” books at this point and was really looking forward to a graphic novel a lot of letters away. Finally, I decided to “break” the order and read what excited me, which is perhaps the best lesson of this year. I also committed to skim the James in a 90-minute speed read and move on.

            Not so long ago, I wrote a blog about my trepidations in approaching The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel because it was such a big book! All of my neurodivergence warning bells go off if I could hurt myself dropping a book, the word fatigue means it could take weeks, and it’s a dense story. HOWEVER, I am so glad I started my lockdown reads with it because (1) I loved it, (2) I managed it in a weekend, and (3) it prepared me to try out “bigger” books. I pre-ordered some hardbacks and for the first time in my life, am almost entirely on top of them where I would ordinarily reach for a paperback first. I have no idea how many more books I will read this year. I am loving doing The Black Book Challenge with Leighan so that is pushing me along. I have so many exciting unread titles in the house that I am on a real book buying ban for a while.

            I thought I would end with a list of my highlights of 2020 so far. Note: these are books I have read in 2020, not necessarily books published in 2020. I hope you enjoy some of them, and I look forward to writing up many pending reviews.

P.S. I went to look at my Goodreads to compile this list and got very overwhelmed by how many of these books I really loved.

Hannah’s Reading Highlights so far:

  1. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
  2. The Emperor’s Babe by Bernadine Evaristo
  3. Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan
  4. Trans Power by Juno Roche
  5. Asha & the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan
  6. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
  7. Heartstopper (Vols. 1-3) by Alice Oseman [ALL of the volumes are great]
  8. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  9. Flèche by Mary Jean Chan
  10. Body Positive Power by Megan Jayne Crabbe
  11. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  12. The Avant-Guards Vol. 1 by Carly Usdin
  13. The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood
  14. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X
  15. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  16. Dawn by Octavia E. Butler
  17. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
  18. Jazz by Toni Morrison
  19. The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi
  20. Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid
  21. Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown
Books That Changed My Life Do The Reading The Isolation Reads

The Isolation Reads: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

It’s a really strange time and we are all processing #SocialDistancing differently. Friends and colleagues will have noticed my increased presence on Twitter. I am mindlessly checking my email many, many times an hour and perpetuating my underlying anxieties. As a result, I have set myself some digital check out time every day. Sometimes I’m going to spend that time attacking my To Be Read pile. This is a (possibly short) chronicle of what I finish or abandon. Wherever I can, these reviews will be written immediately after finishing the book. These are not measured reflections. They are gut reactions.

Maya Angelou. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings [audiobook]. Hachette Audio UK. 2014.

I have really odd relationship with Dr Maya Angelou’s work. I can’t remember not knowing who she is. We had posters with her poem “Still I Rise” on all over my primary school walls. I read excerpts of a lot of her work at uni. I sat on a bench outside my current workplace listening to her read her poems as I hyperventilated before my job interview. But as with many academics, I have only accessed parts of Angelou’s prose when I have needed to rather than appreciating her works in their entirety.

I didn’t know about the controversy about the Caged Bird in American schools or about the content warnings of sexual abuse and accounts of racism that are associated with this book. As a survivor, I found the accounts of Angelou’s PTSD incredibly powerful. I found her way of describing sibling love really touching. I also related strongly to her account of re-finding her voice through reading and through reading aloud. There are so many beautiful passages, so many moments of tension and release, and many laughs in among lots of profound sorrow. I can’t wait to read the next one.

As a person with specific learning difficulties, I advocate for audiobooks a lot. I specifically recommend listening to anything read by Angelou. She has such an expressive but mellow voice. You hear her humour and vivacity but also her pain and fragility. I adore her  recording of her collected poems and I know I will debate about whether to listen to more of her books or to read them. I have copies of the other five autobiographies at my mum’s but in the current circumstances, I may end up using our Audible credits to plough ahead. We will see. I don’t really know what I thought this book would be like but it was even better than I imagined. I am grateful to Dr Maya Angelou for writing it so we can all explore and cherish it.

Books That Changed My Life The Isolation Reads

The Isolation Reads: Asha & The Spirit Bird

It’s a really strange time and we are all processing #SocialDistancing differently. Friends and colleagues will have noticed my increased presence on Twitter. I am mindlessly checking my email many, many times an hour and perpetuating my underlying anxieties. As a result, I have set myself some digital check out time every day. Sometimes I’m going to spend that time attacking my To Be Read pile. This is a (possibly short) chronicle of what I finish or abandon. Wherever I can, these reviews will be written immediately after finishing the book. These are not measured reflections. They are gut reactions.

Jasbinder Bilan. Asha & The Spirit Bird. Frome: Chicken House. 2019

On Wednesday, I broke my book buying ban after hearing Sunny Singh talk about the Jhalak Prize runs behind the scenes. I have been following the prize since it was founded and always try to read as many of the books nominated as I can. As libraries are out for the time being, I wrote to my local independent bookshop who are selling off their in-store stock and purchased three of this year’s nominees, which I hope will make it to the blog in due course. (For other people reading the noms, I devoured The Black Flamingo and Queenie in 2019.)

Asha & the Spirit Bird is a beautiful story about two children who stowaway to find Asha’s father who has gone missing in a distant city. I was really drawn to its beautiful cover designed by Helen Crawford-White and I kept seeing the tiger on the front as the animal was mentioned at different points in the story. If you, or any people you love, value the Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, then I would thoroughly recommend this story because it is an children’s adventure story with some magic and mysticism that will appeal to people of all ages. Although there is peril and intrigue, there are also so many intricate details and ways of marking love and devotion. I loved how Bilan developed Asha packing a mango for her first meal away into the children sharing it slightly later in the plot, and then nurturing the stone to grow a new plant. Gorgeous.

The progress of Asha and Jeevan’s journey continued to surprise me. Bilan doesn’t skirt around “tough” subjects but she also reminds us about the value of friendship, courage, and trusting in the things that matter to you. Bilan also represents spirituality and magic in an arresting and powerful way. Moments of mystery and acts of faith are repeatedly noted by observing characters. Somehow, they seem more transformative and fleeting through this perspective. It’s really touching and beautiful.

Although I read it quickly, and I will definitely by this for the children in my life, Asha was a hard book to read right now. It made my heart hurt. It made me notice how much I miss my family and friends. It made me want to get on a train to London and cook my parents a stir-fry and talk nonsense about the state of the world. I discovered during the two hours I was reading that the beloved soul singer Bill Withers had sadly died. Bilan uses song and aural history and memory to structure parts of the story and this took me back to discovering soul and Motown as I got into listening music when I was small.

As I continued reading, I put my favourite Withers album on: Just As I Am (1971). (I normally read with rain noise on because it’s my favourite sound.) I am a monster, and I only listen to albums on shuffle and somehow, Spotify serendipitously lined up my favourite track “In My Heart” as I was getting towards the end of the book. It felt like my own lamagaia (a bearded vulture) had come to sit with me, as it does with Asha at the beginning of the story. When I finished reading, I propped the book against the lamp by my bed. I bought the lamp with money from my first taxable pay not so very long ago. It’s made of cardboard covered in dusty purple canvas and the fabric is printed with startled tigers (my spirit animal too). Hopefully, they will keep me company this evening.

Books That Changed My Life How the Blog Works

Intro: Books that Changed My Life

What a dramatic series title. I’ll admit that I don’t think that every book that changes my life short term will continue to stay with me for ever. But I want to celebrate and discuss those moments when something has a noticeable impact on how I think or feel whether that sticks or not.