Pairings of fiction and non-fiction books

So, I initially wanted to participate in this as part of non-fiction November, but life happened – five months later, here I am! I really enjoyed reading other readers’ pairings last year, and I love the concept.

Meng Jing, ‘Little Gods’ and Mei Fong, ‘One Child’

Mei Fong’s One Child – subtitled ‘The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment’ blew me away. Mei Fong offers a nuanced and striking examination of the (in)famous one-child policy in China, the world’s largest experiment in social engineering. She dissects the long-reaching, and sometimes surprising, human impact of this policy and how it has shaped families and relationships for generations to come. And the fact that Meng Jin’s protagonist of Little Gods, Liya, is an only child – though not as a direct result of the one-child policy – shapes her life and the way she connects with her heritage. Having been raised in the U.S., Liya returns to China after the death of her mother, anxious to trace the fragile threads of her family history and with no known living relatives. In doing so, she weaves through and dissects contemporary Chinese history in a poetic, insightful and moving way. Both are must-reads for anyone with an interest in modern China.

Lauren Oyler, ‘Fake Accounts’ and Jia Tolentino, ‘Trick Mirror’

Now, I wouldn’t usually give a 3-star read more airtime than what it took to read and review. But Fake Accounts is hot off the press and has drawn plenty of praise, and just because it did dazzle me doesn’t mean it doesn’t have something to say. It’s a fictional mediation, via our unnamed protagonist, on the lives we construct for ourselves online, the nature of selfhood and of performance and power, from a woman who’s just found out her boyfriend is secretly running a popular conspiracy theorist Instagram account. Jia Tolentino’s incredibly articulate essay collection Trick Mirror addresses many of these same themes – in one memorable chapter ‘Always Be Optimizing’, she explores the modern condition through the vehicle of a chopped salad – a chopped salad the embodiment of the way that our attention can be directed away from having to focus on the consumption of nutrients and instead to the consumption of data, of content, as we answer emails or scroll Facebook or buy things on Amazon. Compelling stuff, and both searing accounts of the modern condition.

Yaa Gyasi, ‘Homegoing’ and Ta Nehisi-Coates, ‘Between the World and Me’

I feel like I have waxed lyrical about both of these before, but for good reason. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is a sweeping and devastating novel, transporting us from 18th century Ghana to just before the turn of the millennium in the United States. It charts the descendants of two sisters, one who is enslaved and brought to the U.S., the other who remains in Ghana. It’s an ambitious and moving examination of the ripple effects of history and racism. Between the World and Me (which should be required reading for the planet, as per the iconic Toni Morrison), is written as a letter Coates addresses to his son. He eloquently examines how the pernicious nature of systemic racism is woven into the fabric of American society. And while his experience as a Black man in America is different from his father’s, and different from his son’s, who has grown up under a Black president, there is a long, long way to go before Black lives in America are valued equally. If you loved Yaa Gyasi’s debut, make sure Ta Nehisi-Coates is next on your TBR.

Thanks for visiting! Are there any fiction/non-fiction pairings you would recommend?

Book Review | Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell puts forward that we aren’t half as good at knowing people as we think we are. Most of the judgements we have learnt to make about strangers – in Gladwell’s case, anyone we don’t know well – are misguided.

Most people, argues Gladwell, fail spectacularly because of the ‘default to truth’. This is the idea that we start from a position of assuming whoever we are interacting with is truthful and honest. That’s what led Neville Chamberlain to massively underestimate the threat of Hitler. It’s what enabled Cuban spies to get away with their undercover operation for years.

“We start by believing. And we stop believing only when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away.”

Not only do we err on the side of believing people we shouldn’t, but we also think we know how people are feeling based on their outside appearances. In high profile cases, it can result in a terrible miscarriage of justice. Amanda Knox didn’t appear to be grieving after her flatmate was found murdered, so she wound up prime suspect and was convicted. Not only have our assumptions based on appearances proven to be deeply flawed, but this also has been shown to vary over cultures – what looks like an expression of anger to an American looks like confusion to a Pacific Islander, etc.

And then the real issue is that we’re not aware of our default to truth bias, and we’re unwilling to accept that we’re such terrible judges of character, and so we continue to have failures of communication with anyone we don’t know well, and fail to understand the level of our ignorance. Which leads, in so many cases, to catastrophe.

Gladwell’s amalgamation of different anecdotes and phenomena that he shapes around his central thesis – from the crimes of paedophile gymnast Larry Nassar to the suicide of Sylvia Plath – is interesting, if not wholly convincing. Whilst failures of communication most certainly play a part in terrible circumstances coming to pass, there is so much more at play. I think his central thesis oversimplifies things – particularly in the case of the Stanford rape victim, which I know is a particularly contentious part of this book for many readers.

That’s not to say that the book isn’t engaging, and I do believe that Gladwell has something to say, and he is articulate in doing so. The audiobook version, which I listened to, is particularly well done with the inclusion of real-life audio clips from the subjects in question, making it much more of an interactive and three-dimensional listening experience. I’m not totally on board with what he’s putting forward, but I respect what he’s trying to do.

Book Review | Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

Piper Kerman is out of college, restless, and haplessly in love with an older woman. The object of her affections is also involved in an international drug smuggling operation, and Piper – longing for a sense of adventure – willingly flies halfway around the world to partake – in however small a measure – in these affairs. Soon tiring of the lifestyle – nowhere near as glamorous as she’d hoped – she ends the relationship and returns home to the U.S.

Five years later, Piper could almost put these escapades down to a bad dream. She has a conventional job, a close circle of friends and a solid relationship with a dependable guy. That is, until the knock on the door comes. It’s two policeman, and someone has spilled the beans on the whole sordid affair. There’s no way she’ll escape without jail time.

It’s fair to say that middle-class, well-educated, able-bodied white girls are few and far between in prison. It’s a fact that Piper is cognisant of (albeit never really interrogates beyond the surface.) There’s an interaction with her attorney that typifies her inescapable privilege: ‘”That’s the one,” said Pat, pointing at the skirt suit. “We want him to be reminded of his own daughter or niece or neighbour when he looks at you.”’ Piper is able to distance herself – in the eyes of the jury and in her own personal sense of who she is – from her crime and from other prisoners by virtue of her class, race and level of education.

But privilege can only get you so far. After years of having her life on hold, awaiting the day when she would be put behind bars, Piper finds herself sentenced to 15 months in a minimum-security jail. What follows is an account of life incarcerated – from the mundane to the downright dehumanising. But peppered amongst the doom and gloom are the moments of levity: the small acts of kindness displayed between inmates, the creative meals constructed from contraband flavour sachets, the DIY parties for birthdays and Christmases, and that joyous day when someone’s time is up, when they are finally free to re-join the outside world.

There is some degree of self-reflection from Piper. However, she never really interrogates the power structures of the prison system and the punitive, futile nature of retributive justice. Any occasion where she does find herself in an illuminating situation, where mixing in a socially diverse milieu has shed light on things she hadn’t considered, her insights read like a footnote, something suggested by a socially-conscious editor.

‘I found myself participating in the meaningless rituals … because prison is all about waiting in line. For many women, I realized, this was nothing new. If you had the misfortune of having the government intimately involved with your life, whether via public housing or Medicaid or food stamps, then you’d probably already spent an insane amount of your life in line.’

I think if we take the memoir for what it is, commercial, mass-market non-fiction, then we have an engaging, readable account from a woman who endured the misery of life behind bars with impressive stoicism. I do, however, feel that the author could have exploited this platform and her privilege to better ends: no, it’s not a wide-ranging polemic – nor should it be, necessarily – but I feel that the book would have benefited from a greater deal of self-awareness, reflection and critical analysis of the state of the prison system in the U.S. – a nation that incarcerates more individuals than any other.

Nevertheless, there was one arena in which the novel excelled – illustrating to the reader the absolute futility of the current criminal justice system. The absurdity of federally-mandated minimum sentences for drug crimes has resulted in hundreds of thousands of non-violent offenders being locked up in a system that fails to offer anything in the way of restorative justice. Opportunities for personal development and skillset building are few and far between. How can we be surprised that the recidivism rate is so high? What viable option is there to make money and support a family in many of these parts of the country?

‘Most of the women were poor, poorly educated, and came from neighborhoods where the mainstream economy was barely present and the narcotics trade provided the most opportunities for employment.’

‘Prison is a place where the U.S. government puts the inconvenient – people who are mentally ill… people who are poor and uneducated and unskilled.’

This book could have been, and done, more. But at the same time, it is a memoir. And we are always the hero of our own story – and have the right, undeniably, to tell our story in the way that best reflects our lived experience.

(P.S. I have never seen the TV show, which I know people rave about, so I went into this with no preconceptions).



Book Review | Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I can’t remember the last time I finished a book in one sitting, one that had me bookmarking every other page and frantically scribbling down quotes. That is a true testament to this book – an in equal parts compelling and horrifying and searingly honest account that Ta-Nehisi Coates provides of growing up as a black man in America.

Written in 2015, Coates dissects the African American experience, and in doing so, pulls no punches. He doesn’t let the reader hide behind language, actively denies the academic distance such expressions provide.  ‘All our phrasing,’ he writes, ‘– race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy – serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.’

‘The point of this language of “intention” and “personal responsibility” is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.’

Coates, too, battles with the weight of history. Yes, his experience as a black man in America is different from his father’s, and different from his son’s, who has grown up under a black president – but America’s legacy when it comes to the treatment of black people is woven into the fabric of America itself. Systemic racism is a fundamental part of the structures that hold contemporary society in place.

‘To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before all the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.’

Even as Coates had the opportunity to attend Howard University, the place he deems a ‘Mecca’ for other black youth – this did not ultimately shield him and his classmates from the vicious reality of institutional racism. His friend Prince, the son of a respected Radiologist, is shot at the hands of police in a case of dubious mistaken identity. The policeman walks free. Decades later, Coates describes his teenage son crying when the policeman who murdered Michael Brown is acquitted. What changes?

Not only is what Coates writes so poignant and painful and real, but he also writes with such eloquence and humanity, that I can quite understand why Toni Morrison called this ‘required reading for the planet.’ For the planet, yes, but more specifically for anyone in America who has never had to confront their privilege in quite such a visceral and powerful way.  This book wasn’t written to cater for a white American audience – but should absolutely be read by one.

‘The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine.’

Book Review | Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road by Rob Schmitz

Book Review

‘The Street of Eternal Happiness is two miles long. In the winter when its tangled trees are naked of foliage, you can see past their branches and catch a view of the city’s signature skyline in the distance…’

Author Rob Schmitz is an American journalist who lives on 长乐路, translated as the Street of Eternal Happiness. This may be just one, insignificant road in the vast sprawling metropolis that is Shanghai, but the residents here and the stories they have to tell encapsulate the wide spectrum of what it is to live, hope, suffer and dream in modern-day China. These are real people, these are their real stories, and Schmitz tells them with such dexterity, sensitivity and power, that I defy you not to be moved reading this book.

In a city that is forever looking forward – in a country that forever moving forward – the stories along the Street of Eternal Happiness allow us to look back, through the foggy lens of history. It’s no secret that China silences parts of the recent past, as good as obliterating them from the history book – but you can’t silence memories.

In one of the many tales we are told, Schmitz is handed a stack of letters, discovered in an antiques shop on the street. Written between Wang Ming and his wife Liu Shuyun. The letters were addressed to a residence on the street, where Liu was living at the time. The letters begin in the 1950s: Wang has been sentenced to serve time in a labour camp, somewhere in the wilds of the Tibetan plateau. Thousands of miles away, on the Street of Eternal Happiness, Liu raises their 6 children alone. Through the letters, spanning four decades, Schmitz uncovers their stories; the brutality of life out in Qinghai, in the midst of the Great Leap Forward and the deadliest famine in known history, how Wang Ming is subjected to ‘re-education’ in order to crush his capitalist thoughts, how inmates are forced to eat worms, grass, and when things get truly dreadful, the organs of other inmates, in order to survive. Liu is suffering in Shanghai – the association with her husband, a ‘counterrevolutionary’, mars the family in shame and subjects them to constant harassment, with the threat of eviction, imprisonment or worse constantly looming over them.

This is in living memory for a lot of people. And when you compare the China of then to the China of today, it seems incredible how much has changed. Another resident Schmitz meets is CK, who tried to kill himself at the age of eleven after his parents separated. Now a twenty-something, CK runs a successful Harmonica business and a unsuccessful sandwich shop, constantly reinventing himself anew, with fervent optimism. It would be naive to suggest that anyone is truly free, but Shanghai – in many ways a microcosm of modern China – offers up to the youth freedoms that are beyond what previous generations could have ever imagined.

Schmitz isn’t writing an epic tale of China’s history. That’s not what this is about. It is simply the lives of ordinary people trying to live. I spent a year and a half living in China, in a city not too far from Shanghai. Schmitz doesn’t sugarcoat anything – yes, China is in many ways a brutal and repressive state – but there is also hope, and joy, and possibility. I don’t think I could put it better than the author does, when he says:

It would be a while before all 1.3 billion chinese would feel equal in their pursuit of happiness. But when I considered what China had gone through in the twentieth century, I found it hard to be pessimistic … Who would have thought that, fifty years after such violent revolution and catastrophic famine, the Chinese would have enough spirit left in them to be able to dream, much less have the means and freedom to try to pursue them?

Ultimately, it’s a beautifully told account of lives in a restless city – and the way in which each person navigates their own path, in pursuit of their own Chinese dream.