The Only Story by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, Penguin Random House) - Ever since I was introduced to Barnes's award winning The Sense of an Ending, I was captured by his ability to make a gripping plot out of a simple story which will not let you sleep. So when I heard that he published a new book about Paul, a first year university student who comes back home for summer and falls in love with a married woman, I could not wait to read it. Barnes's observation skills are once again on point, both realistically and yet poetically describing Paul's attempts to navigate himself in the world where he needs to start taking responsibilities for his very own actions. Barnes transforms what could be a simple love affair between a young man and a woman in her forties into a love story that will leave you wanting to read more. There is a reason why he is called one of fiction's greatest mappers of the human heart.
'Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.' (The Only Story)
Everything I Know about Love by Dolly Alderton (Fig Tree, Penguin Random House) - I must admit that it was the book's cover that made me read Alderton's very first collection of stories and personal observations. I had some difficulties to actually get into the book. Alderton begins with describing her teen years alongside her beloved friend Farly, but these entries seemed to be rather vain and uninteresting (but to be fair, I just finished Barnes's The Only Story, and after reading that, everything seems slightly vain). So it took me some time to start enjoying the read. But once I got used to the author's writing style, her brutal honesty and unusual but funny outlooks on the world (mainly London, but you also get to travel to New York and exotic holiday...), I was not able to put the book down. The best part of it? The realization that the love mentioned in the title is not only for boyfriends and random flings. On the contrary, it is more about love between good friends, which sometimes lasts longer than any other relationships. This witty collection is my new favourite read when I am heading to the beach or when I want to stay in bed on lazy Sunday, randomly re-reading certain passages.
'I was grateful for understanding in that moment that life can really be as simple as just breathing in and out.' (Everything I Know about Love)
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (4thEstate) - I read Adichie's Americanah, so when I bought her earlier novel, which had won The 2007 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, I knew I would be emotionally shattered for days after finishing it. The book follows lives of three completely different people, whose paths cross in 1960's Nigera. Ugwu becomes a houseboy of a university lecture. Olanna leaves her life of luxury behind and moves in with the lecture. Richard comes from England to find himself falling in love with Olanna's charismatic twin sister. What could be a banal story quickly turns into so much more as the Nigeria's civil war breaks out and what seemed to be stable falls apart. Adichie once again moves her reader in time, so when you think the plot has nothing else to offer, you find yourself four years in the future, only getting hints of the betray and jealousy that happened in between. Moreover, the love story is interwoven with the question of politics and the horror of the civil war, which is described in raw details. I think this is one of the reasons why in general I enjoy reading so much - I get to learn facts which were mentioned during my studies at high school yet to which I barely paid any attention as back then my priorities were elsewhere. Adichie does not use banal language or cliché situations in her books. On the contrary, her writing pulsates with the realities of everyday life, making you fall in love with her characters. Some of my friends warned me about the novel's devastating ending so I thought I was prepared for it. But still, it took my breath away and has caused that now I am struggling to find a book I could read after and which would not sound banal compare to the density of Half of a Yellow Sun's plot.
'Kainene's approval, something she had never felt before, was like a sweetness on her tongue, a surge of ability, a good omen.' (Half of a Yellow Sun)
Lullaby by Leïla Slimani (Faber&Faber) - When the opening sentence announces that the baby is dead, you know that you are about to read either a brilliant thriller or another cheap story. In Slimani's case, it is the first option. Daily Telegraph compared the book to Gone Girl, but I do not think that is entirely correct. The plot follows lives of a married couple living in Paris, raising two young children and trying to balance their careers alongside their toddlers. Thus when they hire a nanny with a neat hair bun and magic ability to calm their children with her singing, they think that their lives are finally changing to better... Since it is obvious from the book's opening page that the perfect nanny will eventually hurt the children, the only question that remains to be answered is what pushes her to do so. And here Slimani's talent to observe and describe people's personalities fully shows up. She tackles the questions of women leaving their children in care of another women in order to go back to work, the issues of race, class and immigration in France and notably in Paris, and so much more, all packed in this relatively short novel. The narrative does not rush towards the conclusion but rather slowly reveals new details, portraying Paris not only as the city of lights but also as a harsh place to live in if you cannot afford it. The relative simplicity of the book makes you adore both the story and its writer, who not only won the prestigious French literary award Prix Goncourt but was also appointed by the French president as an ambassador of French language and its promotion in the world. (Also, I just realised that I already mentioned this book in my previous article, but since I was following Slimani's career for my French studies at the university, I wanted to mention her once again, so yeah, sorry not sorry).
'Even to Paul, she didn't dare to admit her secret shame. How she felt as if she were dying because she had nothing to talk about but the antics of her children and the conversations of strangers overheard in the supermarket.' (Lullaby)
The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler (Virago) - In order to celebrate the 20th anniversary of V-Day and Ensler's introduction of the play, Virago published a new edition that features up until now six unread monologues. When my flatmate saw the title of the book, she was rather sceptical about its content. So was I, but the book is celebrated for a good reason. It does not matter if you read one chapter/monologue or you reach the end of the last page, what matters is that it makes you think twice about your body, your identity and your place in the world. The last sentence you have just read might sound like a cliché (and believe me, I hate clichés), but the book is not some kind of a pretentious story written by a bored woman. On the contrary, it resonates with life and all its beauty as well as cruelty (especially when you read chapters called 'Vagina Fact' reflecting on, for example, a witch trial in 1593 when a woman was convicted of witchcraft because her husband found her clitoris), talking about themes that are still taboos in our seemingly open-minded society that is 'ready' to discuss everything (and imagine the reactions this play had to cause back in 1996, when it was introduced for the first time!).
'It needed a context of other vaginas - a community, a culture of vaginas. There's so much darkness and secrecy surrounding them - like the Bermuda Triangle. Nobody ever reports back from there.' (The Vagina Monologues)
Fame by Andy Warhol (Penguin Modern) - This thin book makes a part of Penguin Modern series focusing on famous authors' essays, poems, reflections and short stories rarely published or even known. Together fifty of them, each for one pound, these classics range from work of Warhol, Kafka, Orwell to Martin Luther King Jr, Albert Camus and Steinbeck. Choose one or buy all of them (I was seriously tempted), you will get to explore your favourite writers from completely new angles. I decided for Warhol's Fame, and although I have never been a massive fan of his work, his contemplations on love, beauty and fame made me laugh out loud. I did not agree with everything he has to say, but he makes some very good points that forced me to reconsider my lack of interest in this famous artist.
'So today, if you see a person who looks like your teenage fantasy walking down the street, it's probably not your fantasy, but someone who had the same fantasy as you and decided instead of getting or being it, to look like it, and so he went to the store and bought the look that you both like. So forget it.' (Fame)
Half way through...
Why I'm no Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge (Bloomsbury) - Everyone has studied, read or at least heard about black history in America. Yet, there has been rarely any open discussion about race relations in Britain, despite the long history of British colonialism in Africa (and other continents, needless to say). Therefore, Eddo-Lodge's account of black people being harassed, killed or oppressed in the United Kingdom in last seventy years finally opens up silenced topics. The idea of the book originates in 2014, when she posted on her blog an article with the same title as the book, which caused that people started discussing the question of race in Britain. This let the author not only to talk about race even more, but also write a book that would cover black British history, white privilege, feminism as well as her personal stories. I have not been reading the chapters in the exact order (I read the first three, then jumped to the chapter 'Aftermath', then moved on to the fourth chapter etc.), but each part of the book has made me realize something new. Eddo-Lodge provides both factual narrative and very own reflections, yet she does not accuse but instead encourages the potential of change in society by talking and listening rather than silencing. And that is what makes her book a must read.
'Britain is a country that has a very poor record of investing in anti-racist journalists, and it is a country where black academics are numbered in the dozens rather than the thousands.' (Why I'm no Longer Talking to White People about Race)