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  • Amara Amaryah

books | what i've been reading during lockdown

Amara Amaryah | travel + books + poetry. a platform for story-telling, visuals, positive self-talk and empowerment | what i've been reading

hello loves

i hope everyone is holding up well. i wanted to focus on what i've been reading through the last few months because i haven't catered to the bookworms in a minute. books have always been a beautiful way to escape and equally a beautiful way to relive experiences, emotions and life itself. now that we are cut off from the everyday normalities (i still spend most of my time at home), books have been a great comfort and reminder of how the world is/was. being inside has proven useful for me as the bookworm who buys books to fill the bookshelf without getting round to finishing them. and so, here is me in a rare season, working my way through some of those reads without buying anything new.

my reading list:

PET by Akwaeke Emezi

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin

Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou

A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

also, i won't be sharing extensive plot outlines. i just want to share a few non-spoiler related thoughts about why i enjoyed and chose each book in the hope to persuade you to read it too :)

PET by Akwaeke Emezi

i will literally read anything by Akwaeke Emezi. whilst in jamaica i read freshwater and loved it deeply. i mainly enjoyed freshwater because i am 10000% here for autobiographical writing (something i carried with me from my dissertation on black women's autobiography through mama Maya Angelou) and also writing that explores spirituality. but PET, as a young person's novel, was a completely different reading experience that i didn't expect to enjoy so much.

what i enjoyed most about this novel was how seamlessly it merged necessary discussions about growing up, generational trauma/tradition, the silenced past, friendship and all with social commentary that (to me, a 24 year old) seemed digestible to young people. it is a very aware and progressive novel which feels appropriate for a protesting, badass generation such a this.

as someone who is inspired by magic realism and spirituality, i really enjoyed PET. i enjoy Emezi's writing style so much because they take your concept of reality, and more directly, existence, and resculpt it page by page — and you don't dare flinch. in PET the concept of art coming off the page and becoming a life-filled thing dragging up legendary tales and chaos and truth is was kept me reading. the novel is set in the future and i do admit that you don't get to find out much about what happened between now and the future, but you can catch on with the clues that the novel loosely provides. while this usually bothers me (i generally want all the details of the journey from old to new), the magic that Emezi leaves me with more than suffices. the protagonist is also a fearless and delicate light that encouraged me to think about what has been passed down and what i want to pass down the generations.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

i'll admit it straight up, this one took me a good while to complete. i started this novel a while ago and it took for the early desperation of lockdown for me to sink myself into it. it requires persistence. a lot of it alongside commitment, maybe more than is expected of an air sign but it is very worth it. what did always keep me was the unique narrative voice of the eponymous Eleanor. even though it was a long read for me at 450+ pages, i did always intend to see it to the end because of the narrator's distinct way of guiding us through the book from her perspective that seemed out of touch with the contemporary worldview and most notably a perspective that was clearly trauma ridden and bound to reveal itself. in a sentence, Honeyman shares a story of a woman navigating her childhood scars (literally) and finally confronting her past, romantic ideals and in turn her inner self.

many reviewers question whether Eleanor is on the autistic scale because of her very particular way of living and documenting. Gail Honeyman ends the novel with some FAQs where she explains that she didn't write the novel intending for Eleanor to be perceived as necessarily autistic. this is a question that i expected to be answered towards the end of the novel but what was instead unveiled was a breakthrough in character and a twist of all twists in the retelling of the past. reading this will take some patience, just as Eleanor's character doesn't ask for but needs, but once you get past this, you'll be surprised chapter by chapter, until the final piece of the puzzle fits and reveals a story you somehow missed. a slow but exciting 10/10.

Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin

this is the saving book of lockdown for me. this is possibly the greatest read of my life. more specifically the finest collection of short stories that my, admittedly limited, reading has exposed me to. still, it confirms Baldwin as my favourite writer and mastermind handler of description and of character. going to meet the man houses a collection of stories that are mainly based in New York through a wide span of time. each story is so distinctly different, unique in voice and presents a new concern about what it means for mainly, black Americans living in Babylon itself or abroad in Europe or even within themselves. my favourite collections that followed me around this whole summer were 'Sonny's Blues' and 'This Morning, This Evening, So Soon'. i actually picked this book up in a charity shop some years ago and i'm glad that i found my way back to it in 2020. it was the perfect season and the stories of love, identity and safety speak clearer to me now i've spent a few more years on this earth.

one thing. i really disliked the way the collection ended, as much as I'm acquainted enough with Baldwin's style and intentions, i felt unprepared for the ending story. the final short story 'Going to Meet the Man' is a violent and triggering (tw) story about, basically state violence and parallels between how blacks navigated NY post-war and (only the period only slightly after) post-emancipation. there is a very vivid lynching description and a severed body (two bodies actually which being so similar in their cause, makes it easy to merge) as the final lasting image that we end this collection with. it is Baldwin so it is expected that explicit issues regarding race would be drawn upon explicitly but it was a very heavy end. i actually reread the first story in the collection (as i had first read it ages ago when i first bought it) just to let that be my final image as it was a bit too much. still, it is going to be difficult to ever compete with such a book as it might be my all-time favourite.

Mom & Me & Mon by Maya Angelou

honestly one of the few writers to follow the loud and explosive experience that is reading Baldwin: mother Maya. i have reviewed Maya Angelou on the blog before; i always find so much peace in reading her essays or poems or prose. mom & me & mom is comprised of memoir and anecdotes that span Angelou's lifetime with her mother. mother-daughter relationships are complicated and here is a book to spill out the dirty laundry in the streets. the honesty that Angelou presents in her autobiographical series does not withdraw. it vamps up. the lessons are abundant and the stories are heart-warming mainly because you can hear Angelou's voice - that distinct voice - talking you through her most memorable moments of life.

this was a perfect read for balancing the bittersweet experience of love. a few examples of this, Angelou retells how she, being a determined teenaged mother, decided to work on the railway despite the racial pejoratives that came her way and was declared ' the first American Negro to work on the railway'. Later a man corrected the newspaper office, explaining that he was the first black person to work for the railway - he had been passing as white. Angelou writes ' He was fired. The company explained it was because he had lied on the initial application'. moments like these where we triumph, the cringe then laugh, then wonder is what makes Angelou's writing so unmatched. there are so many bittersweet moments about marriage, sexuality, examples of a supportive kind of motherhood learning how to mother (self and child and mother) and lessons about death, how to work with and not against it. of course this is a 10/10 reading experience but maybe read this once you've read the entire series of the her autobiographical works. many of the stories build on from there or provide backstories.

A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe

a good read, a short one but dense enough that it actually took me a while to finish? this was a book that has been on my shelf and i couldn't get into it first time round after enjoying 'things that fall apart' because it felt so different. i tried again this lockdown. Achebe has the satire in this story pinned down perfectly. unfortunately i don't know much about Nigerian politics of the 60s. but i got a strong sense of the political atmosphere from this story. the narrator odili, unreliable and almost as blinded by an unmistakably risky and unsustainable lifestyle as Fitzgerald's Nick (the great gatsby), is difficult to put up with but a perfect entry into this world. he is curious and new to this world of inside politics which really works in helping us navigate this world with him, in my opinion. in a sentence, it is a novella about idolising people and lifestyles without considering the corruption and consequences of living such a life. i think it is a quest for integrity - national and personal.

i appreciate the mixture of native/local languages, pidgin and variations of 'standard English', i love the range of characters we meet because of this. i think this coupled with the many sensory and clattering scenes of rallies, speeches and random arguments and outbursts is what kept me. sometimes i did get lost in the details of much of the politics but i knew that it served purpose and it was just me being me, showing up for the poetry and not sticking around for the facts. within the 137 pages of this story, for most of them, i think you are hoping that odili opens his eyes a little to the reality of this world and the final pages were possibly some of the most satisfying revelations in character and personal readjustment.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

here is the first Zadie Smith novel that I finished and quickly fell in love with. this story about the intricacies of family life, transitioning (in all senses), labels, power and self-defining is a beautiful read and is definitely one of the greatest books to keep me up. i recently finished this and i'm still so sad. i want to read it all over again for the first time and i can't wait for enough time to pass so that i can read it again. and i rarely double read.

essentially, two very different families collide first in london and then again in a university town in the US where several members of each family are affected by the many angles of this collision. this book says that life is messy and universities are messed up places and where you're from often defines you and such is life. it says more but that is the theme that helps everything make sense. the multi-narrative form is another reason to love this book. it takes us seamlessly from one character to another, shifting perspective and voice even as characters pass each other in the street. it is a magical read for this and also for how it handles race (mainly being biracial in a wealthy area), migration (mainly Haiti) and the multiple and wildly disparate ways black people exist in a university town. and Smith's writing style! i grew up reading a lot of Dickens and so was so thrilled when i read a review referencing Dickensian traits in her handling of characters: she invites us to laugh at them, caricatures them sometimes even and then without mention ushers in empathy in a way we couldn't predict. Smith remains as a writer that i will always look out for now because of these character-led narratives that she manipulates so well. looking forward to reading nw and swing time next.

i've also read that this is a good book to introduce you to Smith's work and i'll have to agree. i started off reading 'white teeth' (couldn't finish it, too long) but 'on beauty' was perfect and it took no time for me to get invested in the characters. without ruining the storyline, i really appreciated the ending and had to read it twice to understand how powerful it is for a black woman to delve deep into self-choosing and reclaiming her life even whilst being a mother. the reference to art and poetry and spoken word in the early noughties is just an additional bonus but it is the characters themselves you care deeply about until the end, particularly at the end.


i have been reading a whole lot of poetry too. i broke my rule and purchased a few collections (because if not for poetry?). some of those collections include War Dove by Troy Cabida, At the Speed of Light by Gabriel Àkámọ́ and While I Yet Live by Gboyega Odubanjo. These collections are all from the press of dreams (mine) Bad Betty Press who will also be publishing my debut collection in 2021. they currently have a sale on now so check out some of their collections and add them to yo shelf if you can. i've also been reading from online collections from the National Poetry Library which has allowed me to explore all kinds of collections — for free. again, highly recommend you sign up.

i'm currently reading the fishermen by Chigozie Obioma as part of the book club, brum. come be friends with us and join the monthly virtual bookclub club. i recommend checking out what we've read so far for more inspiration!

thank you for reading what i write. stay safe and read your books.

Yah bless.

Amara Amaryah.

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