Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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My Christmas Book Wishlist

Dear Santa,

I’ve been pretty good this year, wouldn’t you say? I’ve kept my distance, I’ve washed my hands, I’ve worn a mask, I’ve supported local businesses. In my humble opinion, I belong on the Nice list.

To further substantiate my claim to Niceness, I’m going to make it easier for you: this year, my wishlist is ALL books (just like it was last year, I know, that’s not the point). If you could get your elves to work on putting together some of these beauties to leave in my stocking, I’d be eternally grateful.

The beer’s in the usual place. Cheers!

Sheree (of Keeping Up With The Penguins fame)

My Christmas Book Wishlist - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Don’t forget, if you buy yourself anything through a Keeping Up With The Penguins link, I get a little stocking stuffer – good tidings to all!

The Beatles And Philosophy by Michael Baur & Steven A Baur

I saw this book in the window of a secondhand bookstore years ago, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since! Sadly, by the time I went back to buy it, some other lucky reader had taken it home already. I’ve looked everywhere I go ever since, and never found it again. If it weren’t for the internet confirming its existence, I’d be wondering if I imagined it!

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I always thought this book was too chunky and too woo-y for me… but after reading Piranesi earlier this year, I am a complete Susanna Clarke convert. I’m chomping at the bit to read her debut novel, all 800+ pages of it. Just goes to show (once again) that you really shouldn’t judge a book by its cover!

Misery by Stephen King

You wouldn’t think that a book by the King of horror would be that hard to track down… but I’m having a surprisingly hard time turning up a copy of Misery through my usual channels! I didn’t mind my first venture into King’s oeuvre (when I read and reviewed Under The Dome a few months back), but I’d love to try some of his chilling realism.

Pilgrimage to Dollywood by Helen Morales

One of my most amazing discoveries in 2020 was the Dolly Parton’s America podcast. I’d always felt a bit indifferent to Dolly – a couple country pop bangers, otherwise meh – until I hit play on this incredible overview of her career and life. I am now quite convinced that I would die for Dolly, and all the amazing work she has done to bring joy and connection to the world. Given that it’ll be quite a while before I can undertake my own pilgrimage to Dollywood, I’d love to live vicariously through this book in the meantime.

Death With Interruptions by José Saramago

This is one of the many, many books that I might not otherwise have encountered that ended up on my to-read list because of, well, the To-Read List podcast. The premise is fascinating – what if death stopped altogether? what would happen to our world if our lives were permanent? – AND, apparently, it’s hilarious. Funny books by Nobel prize winners are few and far between, so I’m sold!

Sadie by Courtney Summers

In case you missed it, I am a podcast junkie (see above). I am also a booklover. I am also far too fascinated by true crime. So, the fact that there is an actual book out there that is framed as a transcript of a true crime podcast, and I haven’t read it yet, is an absolute travesty. Sadie ticks ALL the boxes, and I would love to get my hands on a copy!

The Odyssey by Homer (trans. Emily Wilson)

I’ve tackled a lot of great really old poems, but I’ve held off on The Odyssey for one simple reason – I really, really want my first experience of it to be the first translation completed and published by a woman. So, as soon as a copy of this edition translated into English by Emily Wilson falls into my lap (or my Christmas stocking), I’ll give it a go.

I was going to try and come up with a few fun non-book extras to round out my wishlist, but honestly? There’s nothing I need as badly as I need books, and for that I feel very lucky. What about you: what are you asking Santa for this year?

Daisy Jones And The Six – Taylor Jenkins Reid

I said I wouldn’t do it… but I did. I swore up and down I wouldn’t review Daisy Jones And The Six because it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype, could it? But, eventually, the constant exposure and the endless stream of recommendations wore me down. I ran an Instagram poll (because I wanted to be sure that Keeper Upperers weren’t sick of hearing about Taylor Jenkins Reid’s bestseller elsewhere), and a full 100% of respondents said I should review it. So, here we are.

Daisy Jones And The Six - Taylor Jenkins Reid - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Daisy Jones And The Six here.
(And, if you use this link, I’ll get a tiny commission at no extra cost to you – how awesome is that?)

Daisy Jones And The Six tells the story of a (fictional) 1970s pop-rock band, from their formation to international fame and chart-topping hits. It’s styled as an oral history, a Behind The Music-esque series of interviews with the band members, aimed at uncovering – for the first time – why the band split at the height of their success. As the tagline on the cover promises, everyone was there, but everyone remembers it differently.

A few facts are not in contention, however. The titular Daisy Jones was a late addition to the band. She was a ’70s It Girl, raised by hippie parents who paid her little attention, so she sought it on Sunset Strip. She was – naturally – a talented singer and songwriter, but she had little patience for the training it takes to hone such skills. Instead, she spent most of her time partying and popping pills, until The Six needed a female vocalist on a track from their forthcoming album. That’s when she met Billy Dunne.

Ah, Billy Dunne: the rock’n’roll bad-boy in top-to-toe denim, and his own substance problems to boot. He and Daisy had a chemistry that no one could deny… except, it would seem, his loving and faithful wife Camila. Billy got clean shortly before Daisy joined the band permanently, but the drugs and the girl remained a constant temptation, threatening the solid foundations of his marriage and his fatherhood. He sought control in the only place he could find it: the creative direction of the band. Needless to say, that didn’t go down so well with those who make up the rest of The Six.

If you’re getting a strong whiff of Fleetwood Mac, you’re not alone. To her credit, Reid doesn’t deny it. In almost every interview she did for publicity after the release of Daisy Jones And The Six, she formally acknowledged that the band was her inspiration for the novel. She insists, however, that it’s a “vibe”, rather than a re-telling. She “just wanted to listen to Rumors, and needed a good excuse”. Hats off to her for being so frank about it; lesser authors would have hidden behind the “all characters and events are entirely fictional” disclaimer.

Daisy Jones And The Six is an easy read, without insulting your intelligence. Reid’s writing is really effective, in the sense that she builds the tension in such a way that you keep telling yourself “just one more chapter, to see how this plays out”. Occasionally, in the beginning, the language felt a bit stilted, as though this supposed “transcript” of an oral history had been corrected to read more like the Queen’s English. It got smoother over time, or maybe I just got more forgiving.

I think reading and appreciating this book (and reviewing it, ahem!) is best suited to readers who have an interest in the nuts-and-bolts of music production and the wider industry. Cards on the table, here: I’m the daughter of a musician (my father was a bass player for decades, including the one in which Daisy Jones And The Six is set). My bed-time stories as a kid were about dickhead managers and cops raiding hotel rooms and other events I’m sure Dad doesn’t want me putting in writing (ahem-ahem, a hint to those who know as to how I feel about the ending). At times, my insight was an impediment to my enjoyment. When the drummer, Warren, said he “wanted to be Ringo”, I literally snorted. No real drummer has ever wanted to be Ringo. The Beatles were gods, we’ve seen none like them before or since, but Ringo was barely a drummer’s arsehole. Aside from that, Warren was the most realistic, believable, and likeable of all the characters.

“WARREN: Let me sum up that early tour for you: I was getting laid, Graham was getting high, Eddie was getting drunk, Karen was getting fed up, Pete was getting on the phone to his girl back home, and Billy was all five, all at once.”

Daisy Jones And The Six, Page 67

The differing accounts of “the facts” was a masterstroke by Reid. Get any group of friends to tell you a story, and you’ll get these kinds of discrepancies. That’s where the faux-documentary style was ideal; it allowed Reid to tell the story from multiple angles, and let us read between the lines. I changed my mind chapter-to-chapter as to whose version I believed. Eddie was too bitter to see things objectively, Daisy too high, Billy too invested in his ego, Graham too distracted by his fling with Karen on keyboards…

One concern I’ve seen parroted time and again in other reviews is that Daisy Jones And The Six “glamourises” drug taking. The thing is, drugs were kind of glamorous (and still are, to an extent). Is anyone really denying that? I thought Reid actually did a good job of portraying the downside, too. Her characters disappointed the people who loved them, experienced severe physical side effects and ramifications, made truly terrible decisions while high and had to deal with the fall-out… and, from a craft standpoint, it helped sell each and every one of the band members as an unreliable narrator. So, that’s how I feel about that.

Okay, confession time: I knew where Daisy Jones And The Six was headed all along. I knew because I never expected I’d read or review it, so I just blasted past the spoiler warnings on other blogs and podcasts. I won’t outright spoil it for the (surely very few) people out there who have yet to read it, but I feel compelled to give some veiled impressions of the ending for those who have…

I was kind of surprised that the “big shock twist” regarding the story’s narration and premise came only thirty pages from the end. It felt a bit haphazard. In fact, it kind of ruined Daisy Jones And The Six for me, completely disrupted the “flow” of what (until then) had been a really effective narrative framing device. In fact, it smacked of a cheap ploy to elicit tears from the reader, which – in turn – cheapened a book that (again, until then) had been well-crafted.

I’m also a bit shocked by all the other reviews that say something to the effect of “Oh, I wish these songs were real!”. I glanced over the lyric sheets included in the back of the book, and… well… I would’ve preferred they left them out. Daisy Jones And The Six isn’t about the music. It’s about The Drama(TM). It’s about the voyeuristic thrill of going backstage at a big rock concert. It’s about the soap opera we imagine playing out behind the scenes. Why can’t we just leave it at that?

But, hey: I’m not here to shit on something just because it’s popular. Daisy Jones And The Six is a good yarn. I enjoyed reading it. I might send a copy to my father, just for the laughs we’d have dissecting it together. But it didn’t rock my world the way it seems to have rocked everyone else’s. As I always say, every book will find its reader, and even if that reader isn’t me, Daisy Jones And The Six has found plenty of others. I certainly won’t shy away from picking up another of Reid’s books, if the standard of this one is anything to go by.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Daisy Jones And The Six:

  • “The interview concept didn’t work for me. I could not imagine the scenes in my head but a conference room with 20 confusing old hippies around it.” – Maria Ferrer
  • “I couldn’t put it down. I loved everything about this book. The way it was written, the way the characters interacted with each other, and Daisy Jones. Daisy is everything I wanted to be; Janice Joplin and Stevie Nicks all rolled into one.” – Kristonian
  • “This was one of the worst books I’ve ever read! If it wasn’t on audible I never would have finished it. Zero excitement. A loyal husband is great in real life but not a very interesting read when it’s supposed to be a 70s rockband. Cheesy ending.” – Jmag
  • “Took me a while to work our was fictional. After I found that out I didn’t keep going.” – nanny bump

12 Amazing Non-Fiction Books By Women

Looking back over the books I read and reviewed this month, I realised: it’s been wall-to-wall amazing non-fiction books by women. That wasn’t exactly by design, but looking over my shelves I can see how it could happen! It would seem that non-fiction books by women – particularly ones on niche subjects, or ones that take a unique approach – really pique my interest. Here are a few more of my favourites…

Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales

Any Ordinary Day - Leigh Sales - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Every person who talks about the most devastating day of their life invariably says the same thing: “it was any ordinary day”. Thus, the title of Australian journalist Leigh Sales’ book – Any Ordinary Day – about the worst days, the catastrophic days, when the world collapses in upon you. She asks the questions we all silently wonder when we’re watching for the news. When you have a life-changing near-brush with death, does it actually change your life? When you lose loved ones in the most unimaginably horrible ways, how do you learn to love and trust again? This is one of the most compelling and fascinating non-fiction books by women of recent years, and (sadly) given the increasing rate of life-changing events in our world, it is ever resonant and relevant.

You Daughters Of Freedom by Clare Wright

You Daughters Of Freedom - Clare Wright - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This might seem baffling to my American Keeper-Upperers (given that voting is voluntary in your homeland), but I really dig participating in democracy. Put it down to watching Mary Poppins too much as a kid (Well Done, Sister Suffragette!). Every time I line up to the ballot box, I feel immense gratitude for all of the women who fought and died for my right to do so. That’s what drew me to pick up You Daughters Of Freedom – a testament to the Australians who won the vote for women, comparatively early. The trailblazing (though, it must be said, white) women who won the vote served as inspiration for the rest of the world.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Bad Feminist - Roxane Gay - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You know that voice in your head that says: you’re a bad feminist if you fangirl over Mr Rochester when you read Jane Eyre? Or the one that says you’re a bootlicker if you like the colour pink? Roxane Gay shines the spotlight on that nasty, mean little voice in Bad Feminist. In this series of at-times hilarious and at-time searing essays, she looks at the ways in which the culture we consume reflects who we are, and what we want it to say about us. I have never felt so validated and affirmed as I have reading this incredible book (unless you count reading Roxane Gay’s Twitter feed).

See also: Hunger

Victoria by Julia Baird

Victoria - Julia Baird - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I was skeptical (to say the least) when I heard that there was a new biography of Queen Victoria forthcoming (and with such a creative title, too). Victoria is surely at least the hundredth book about a dead British monarch published this past decade. And yet, the more I heard about it, the more interviews Julia Baird gave about her process and her approach, the more my curiosity was stoked. There’s no shortage of biographies in the category of non-fiction books by women, but this one is surely one of the best.

In Order To Live by Yeonmi Park

In Order To Live - Yeonmi Park - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Conceptually, North Korea still blows my mind. In this age of unprecedented globalisation and connection, how has one country so brutally and efficiently cut its people off from external influence and insight? If any of their citizens do get a sniff of the world beyond the borders, how could they possibly find within themselves the courage to run? In Order To Live by Yeonmi Park is one woman’s story of doing just that. Facing dangers the likes of which most of us couldn’t imagine (relying on Chinese smugglers for escape, then navigating across the Gobi desert with no more than the stars to guide her), she made it to South Korea and, as if her survival alone wasn’t testament enough, shared her story with the rest of the world.

The Killing Season: Uncut by Sarah Ferguson

The Killing Season - Sarah Ferguson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I might be showing my age when I say this, but what the hell: the first Australian election in which I felt properly and politically engaged was the one that elected Kevin Rudd’s government in 2007. Shortly thereafter, he was usurped by Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister. Then, in a move shocking to every non-Australian in the world (seriously, we change leaders more frequently than we change underpants down here), Rudd resumed the leadership before a spectacular election defeat in 2013. Obviously, everyone behind-the-scenes has a very different version of these events – each of which Sarah Ferguson investigated when making the documentary program The Killing Season. In the book version, she recounts details she couldn’t put to air at the time. Heck, maybe I’m the only one who cares, but this is the first of the non-fiction books by women about Australian politics that truly gripped me.

The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan

The Great Pretender - Susannah Cahalan - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ever heard of the Rosenhan experiment? A brilliant psychiatrist sent a bunch of people into psychiatric hospitals with feigned benign symptoms, and they were all diagnosed with stigmatising mental illnesses and fed huge quantities of psychoactive medication. This outcome changed the course of psychology and psychiatry forever, and it has had significant real-world impacts on the lives of people living with mental illness today. Susannah Cahalan took it upon herself, having narrowly escaped misdiagnosis and institutionalisation herself, to uncover the truth of this experiment and the man who instigated it, in The Great Pretender. It is a fascinating, and terrifying, read.

She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

She Said - Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You might think you “know” the Harvey Weinstein story, but until you’ve read She Said, I can promise you that you don’t. Not only are the details of Weinstein’s crimes horrific, but the lengths that he went to cover them up (and the number of people who enabled him along the way) are almost literally unbelievable. I’m so grateful to Kantor and Twohey for sharing with us the story behind the story, how they worked to break the sexual harassment story that changed the world – they’ll teach this in journalism classes for years to come.

See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill

The all-too-common refrain when it comes to domestic abuse is “why didn’t she leave?” or “why did she stay?”. See What You Made Me Do is the first book I’ve read to turn that on its head. The questions Jess Hill poses are more along the lines of “why did he hit her?” and “what ‘counts’ as domestic abuse?”. I’ll admit, this book will turn your stomach – Hill doesn’t shy away from the sheer horror of lives lived in the shadow of domestic abuse, and the very worst of where and why it happens. That said, I’ve made it my personal mission in life to make sure more men read this book. I want “nice guys”, “good blokes”, “wonderful fathers”, and all the rest of them to read this one. Can you imagine what would happen if they did?

Pain And Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson

Pain And Prejudice - Gabrielle Jackson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Imagine if I told you that 176 million people worldwide were affected by one insidious disease, one for which we cannot definitively determine a cause, and one for which the “cures” on offer are (at best) guesswork. Then, imagine that I told you that between 30-60% of the people who could develop this disease couldn’t correctly identify the parts of their anatomy where it might originate. You’d be floored, right? I know I was when I read Pain And Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson, a book about the ways the medical system has under-served people with uteruses for far too long. This is an amazing, personal account of the patriarchal assumptions that undermine the health of half the population.

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Three Women - Lisa Taddeo - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It takes a rare talent to write about sex in a way that is both enthralling and immersive, but never titillating. Three Women is not an erotic book, but a clear-eyed account of women’s sex lives and the experiences that shape them. Over the course of eight years, Taddeo investigated the sexual histories of three women: Lina, Maggie, and Sloane. Her meticulously detailed reporting evokes Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, drawing upon thousands of hours of interviews and documentation to verify the truth as she presents it to you. This book is controversial (inevitably, given its subject matter and Taddeo’s frank treatment of it), but in that lies the beauty of its premise: finally, finally, non-fiction books by women are triggering conversations about the lived experience (and sex lives) of women. Hurrah!

Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

Everywhere I Look - Helen Garner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A young inner-city women loving Helen Garner is somewhat of a cliche, but I’m steering into the skid – it’s a cliche for a reason. All of her books are worth reading, of course: fiction, diaries, true crime, and everything in between… But my personal favourite, and possibly her least lauded (ironically enough), is her essay collection Everywhere I Look. Most of the essays have been previously published elsewhere, but there’s something especially wonderful about having them all back-to-back on paper. She applies her keen insight and acerbic wit to topics as varied as making a house a home, true crime, heroes, grandchildren, and Russell Crowe movies.

The Trauma Cleaner – Sarah Krasnostein

Sandra Pankhurst is a woman of extremes. She has lived her life at both ends of the bell curve. Her highs have been very high, her lows have been very low. Initially, Sarah Krasnostein set about telling Pankhurst’s life story in a long-form essay (‘The Secret Life Of A Crime Scene Cleaner’), but she found that this woman’s multitudes could not be contained. Thus, she wrote this book, The Trauma Cleaner, about how an abused kid from the suburbs came to be a professional cleaner of others’ messes.

The Trauma Cleaner - Sarah Krasnostein - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Trauma Cleaner here.
(When you do, I’ll get a tiny referral fee at no cost to you, and you’ll get my eternal gratitude along with a great read!)

At present, Sandra runs the company she founded, Specialised Trauma Cleaning Services, as she has done for the past 20+ years. It’s a job that draws her into the homes of hoarders, the homes of victims, the homes of the dead. “Her work, in short, is a catalogue of the ways we die, physically and emotionally,” Krasnostein puts it, on page 2.

The hook of The Trauma Cleaner is, naturally, the voyeuristic thrill we get from peering into lives that have fallen apart. The thing is, though, it’s not really about trauma cleaning. Krasnostein did accompany Pankhurst on several jobs, and describes them from her own perspective (that of an outsider) while weaving in Pankhurst’s matter-of-fact seen-it-all commentary. There’s not enough detail to make your stomach churn, but just enough to make your eyes widen. Krasnostein gives a thorough beginner’s-guide to the nature of that work, but really this story is about Pankhurst, and her incredible life.

To step back to the beginning: Pankhurst was horribly and sadistically abused by her parents (as punishment, Krasnostein implies, for having been adopted – a surplus child supplanted by two subsequent biological children). She was unceremoniously booted from her family home in her teenage years, but unfortunately her rough trot didn’t end there. Her first job, to support herself and secure her own living arrangements, was working on the now-infamous Westgate Bridge. When the construction collapsed, she witnessed the deaths of 35 colleagues.

Krasnostein traces Pankhurst’s life from there, through marriage(s), children, coming out as trans, sex work, business-building, drugs, damage, and drama. She alternates between these aspects of Pankhurst’s past, and the reality of her present work (and illness).

Krasnostein is, thankfully, not exploitative of the clients and crime victims that require Pankhurst’s services; she offers them as “case studies” of sorts, but makes clear to the reader that their consent was gained, their own insights offered freely and in their own words. Krasnostein uses what she finds behind their doors to pave in-roads into Pankhurst’s history. She and her publisher make one noticeable concession to the voyeur: a few glossy photographic inserts, showing scenes from Pankhurst’s whole life.

The major stumbling block in The Trauma Cleaner – for Krasnostein, and by extension for the reader – is the patchy nature of Pankhurst’s memory.

“The challenges posed by Sandra’s memory loss mean that parts of her biographical story have required imaginative reconstruction. All dialogue and characters, however, are based on what she does remember and, where possible, interviews with third parties or historical records. Nothing has been exaggerated.”

Author’s note, The Trauma Cleaner

It’s a good thing that Krasnostein included that final affirmation in her Author’s Note. It would be easy to suspect – believe, even – that she took some creative license in telling Pankhurst’s outlandish life story. Throughout The Trauma Cleaner, Krasnostein reminds the reader that Pankhurst is “not a flawlessly reliable narrator”. She points to gaps and inconsistencies in Pankhurst’s memory, rather than hiding them, which (contradictory as this might seem) actually makes her story more believable, and illuminating.

Even though Pankhurst is the “hero” of The Trauma Cleaner, she is not faultless. Krasnostein doesn’t shy away from her past mistakes, oversights, and selfishness – in particular, the way she left Linda (her wife, prior to coming out) and their children.

Still, even when detailing Pankhurst’s flaws, Krasnostein is kind, generous, and insightful in her depiction. The only point on which the author seems to miss a step is her surprisingly puritanical attitude about Pankhurst’s career as a sex worker. Krasnostein calls the work “distasteful” and “dangerous”. She seems surprised that Pankhurst, as a trans sex worker, might be more concerned about violence perpetrated by the police than by her clients. It’s a jarring bum note in an otherwise fantastic book.

The Trauma Cleaner – aside from being a biography of an extraordinary woman with an extraordinary job and an extraordinary resume – is a book about the satisfaction of imposing order in a chaotic world. The world certainly hasn’t become any less chaotic in the years since its release, so you might say it becomes more resonant as time goes on. I would highly recommend it to fans of Chloe Hooper and Susan Orlean.

Best Selling Books On Racism in 2020

Earlier this year, in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, widespread protests and blanket media coverage drew unprecedented attention to issues of racial justice in the U.S. Because book people are the best people, many of us turned to books about racism and dismantling systemic discrimination to understand how we got here, and how to move forward. This week, I read and reviewed Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race; it was published back in 2017, but this year it soared to the top of the sales charts and became the first (and only) black woman to top the UK’s best-seller list. I decided to take a look at some of the other best selling books on racism in 2020…

Best Selling Books On Racism in 2020 - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Just for a little more context: industry trackers showed a 330% increase in sales for books about civil rights, and a simultaneous 245% increase for books about racial discrimination, from the week of 17 May 2020. The books listed below, most published months or years beforehand, outsold even hotly-anticipated new releases with established followings (like the Hunger Games prequel).

These sales were no doubt boosted not only by the goodwill of concerned booklovers, but also the circulation of anti-racism reading lists by activists. This proves that books by and about people of colour are bankable, they can generate huge return on investment for publishers, when they’re given the attention they deserve. My hope is that, in constructing my own list here and continuing to read and amplify others, the interest in books on racism continues to grow (which will mean we see more of them on our shelves, which means more people will read them, and so on to infinity).

When you buy a book from one of the links below, I’ll get a tiny cut for referring you – but that’s not why I’m doing this. Please do consider seeking these books out at an independent bookstore, or requesting them at your local library, to support those vital resources in our communities.

So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

So You Want To Talk About Race addresses a lot of the practical questions that have been front and center of our minds this year (the reason we’ve turned to books on racism in 2020 to begin with). How should we respond to a racist joke? How can we explain white privilege to someone who doesn’t believe it exists? What are we doing that perpetuates systemic racism, and how can we stop? So You Want To Talk About Race hit the top of the New York Times Best-Seller list this year, so hopefully a lot of those conversations have improved as a result.

How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

Once you acknowledge that racism exists and your role in it, what’s next? That’s what How To Be An Antiracist lays out for you: how to set about dismantling systems that perpetuate prejudice and privilege. As per the blurb, “Antiracism is a transformative concept that reorients and re-energises the conversation about racism—and, even more fundamentally, points us toward liberating new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other.” Not only did How To Be Anti-Racist soar to the top of the best seller lists, the New York Review Of Books named it one of the best books of the year.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Most of the best selling books on racism in 2020 were published at least a few years ago, but The Fire Next Time was actually published nearly sixty years ago. It would seem that James Baldwin’s words in this extended essay on civil rights still ring as true today as they did then. Drawing on his own youth in Harlem, and his insight into the real-world experience of injustice, it is both an exposition of racism and a rallying cry to fight it. Many of Baldwin’s other works went on to hit the best seller lists, too.

Me And White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad

Me And White Supremacy is the book you turn to when you need to take a long, hard look at yourself. It started with a personal development challenge on Instagram, one that called on people to examine their own biases and blind-spots, and is now a foundational self-help text in the fight against racism. Of course, it’s not just journal prompts and to-do lists: Saad includes important context, extended definitions, and directions to further reading that will set you on the path to fighting for civil rights.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

Even though most best selling books on racism in 2020 have been written by people of colour, there’s one notable exception: White Fragility. The author, Robin DiAngelo, is a white woman, and she actually coined the title phrase (“white fragility”, meaning a state of hypersensitivity and intolerance for issues of race, which trigger defensive responses when confronted). Even though the initial reception was mixed, this book hit the best seller lists alongside all of the other books on racism listed here. I think it’s an important example of white people taking responsibility for starting conversations and educating each other, as opposed to leaving all of that emotional labour to people of colour.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

It’s not just non-fiction books on racism in 2020 that soared to the top of the best seller lists! Iconic fiction titles, including Beloved by Toni Morrison, also saw a huge spike in sales. The dirty pragmatists among us might question the logic – after all, shouldn’t we be reading about the real world in order to learn how to fix it? But in fact, reading fiction actually increases empathic responses and, in being more emotive, gives us stronger internal motivation to push for change. Fiction and non-fiction go hand-in-hand when it comes to opening our minds and combating racism, and Beloved is as good a place to start as any.

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