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Summer reads: our readers’ top picks

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Our readers pick their top books to read this summer

Summer is ostensibly a period of warm, lazy, sunny days when one can lie back and get on with reading that book that you’ve been threatening to tackle for ages. However, as someone once remarked, there is no such thing as an innocent read. The task still remains to equip oneself with the ideas to understand and transform the material world and also be entertained at the same time.

Last month saw the election of Pedro Castillo, a self proclaimed Marxist-Leninist, as President of Peru. This makes Mike Gonzalez’s In The Red Corner: The Marxism of Jose Carlos Mariategui worth exploring. It is the first biography in English of a long neglected but influential Peruvian Marxist thinker who has inspired generations of Latin-American militants.

Africa’s Last Colonial Currency: The CFA Franc Story by Penny Pigeaud and Ndongo Samba Sylla is a forensic examination of the imposition of the CFA Franc by France on a number of African countries. By pegging it to the Euro,  this allows the French ruling class to continue to pillage their resources and inhibit their developmental efforts.

Amilcar Cabral: The Life of a Reluctant Nationalist by Antonio Tomas is a sympathetic portrait of the leader of the National Liberation Struggle in Guinea-Bissau. It was a struggle that ultimately contributed to the triggering of the Carnation Revolution in Portugal. Tomas uncovers new detail on the tensions in the movement that resulted in Cabral’s assassination in 1973.

Max Siollun’s What Britain Did To Nigeria explodes the myth that colonialism was a civilisational imperative designed to bring “light” and knowledge to transform the blighted lives of the heathen. Not for nothing did Karl Marx proclaim that capitalism appeared on the historical stage with blood oozing from its pores.

The assassination in 1987 of revolutionary and President of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara, united African youth and the working people in grief. Usually when a ruling class scumbag is assassinated, it is party time! Brian J. Peterson’s Thomas Sankara: A Revolutionary In Cold War Africa demonstrates that despite the militaristic, top down approach of Sankara’s project, it was a genuine but doomed attempt to transform the country and bring real benefits to the mass of working people.

Finally, Breaking Up The British State: Scotland, Independence and Socialism is a wonderful book that should be read by all. It sets out the case for Scottish Independence scientifically plus it is a veritable tutorial on Scottish history and the place of the working class in it.

  • Tokunbo Oke

Studying English literature at university, I get bored of reading the same few old white authors such as William Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy. These authors took up almost the entirety of my course for the last academic year. Because of this, after browsing my local radical bookshop, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall stood out to me. Although still considered a classic, a genre I enjoy, there is something very different about it.

It is one of the earliest lesbian novels and as an LGBT+ person, it feels quite enlightening to get a glimpse at how other LGBT+ people were thinking and writing 90 years ago. With LGBT+ history and education severely lacking in Britain, I’m hoping this fiction will give a glimpse and understanding of a time when LGBT+ people faced severe oppression. It was famously banned for obscenity when it was published which makes it fit nicely in my library alongside Marx, Trotsky and Orwell. There is something fascinating to me about reading books which other societies deemed to ban for spreading harmful messages.

  • Sky Golding @SkyGolding2

I’ll definitely be reading Ghassan Kanafani’s Return to Haifa.  Kanafani was an author and revolutionary activist in the Palestinian struggle. You may have seen viral videos of interviews with him circulating during the recent wave of protests. Exiled from his home in the 1948 Nakba, he spent the rest of his life fighting for the right of Palestinians to exist and return to their homes. Return to Haifa explores the feelings of longing and alienation felt amongst displaced Palestinian populations. It is an important contribution to the argument for the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their homelands and against Israeli settler colonialism. And from what I’ve heard, it is beautifully written!

I’m also looking forward to Poor by Caleb Femi. Femi won Guardian book of the year for this book of poems exploring the experience of growing up black, male and working class in Peckham. It captures the joys and vibrancy of life, but also the sadness and hardship of racism, poverty and police stop and searches. I look forward to jumping into his depictions of an area I grew up near.

  • Oisin Challen-Flynn

Undreamed Shores by Frances Larson tells the stories of five women who studied anthropology at Oxford University in the early years of the 20th century. It explores the hurdles they faced in finding funding for expeditions, and the disappointments on their return. For example, one woman could only get her account of a year living with the Evenki in Siberia published by Mills and Boon.

The Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories of Mystery Illness by Suzanne O’Sullivan examines modern cases of what used to be called mass hysteria. In Sweden there have been hundreds of reports of refugee children falling asleep and not waking up for months. Elsewhere fits, convulsions and fainting have taken hold. O’Sullivan attempts to understand these as one phenomenon, rejecting the idea that if something is psychosomatic it’s not “real”.

Seishi Yokomizo was writing in the Golden Age of detective fiction, but his work has only recently been translated into English. In 2019 Pushkin Press published The Honjin Murders, the best known of his novels. It’s a classic locked-room mystery, with clues for attentive readers and a detailed map of the murder scene. Our crumpled detective is pleasingly quirky, and the plot revolves around changing class distinctions in rural Japan in the 1930s. I’ll be moving straight on to the next in Pushkin’s series, The Inugami Curse.  

  • Sally Campbell @SallyCampbells

Rahul Raina’s How to Kidnap the Rich is a brilliant and funny satire on Indian society. It’s about inequality, the empty promises offered to the poor, and the reality behind the facade of what passes for progress.

I heard Don Paterson on the radio discussing William Shakespeare and immediately wanted to read more from him. Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets is a journey through the poems that is entertaining, knowledgeable and unafraid of being irreverent. You don’t have to agree with everything Paterson has written to find the book a revelation.

Alaa al-Aswany’s The Republic of False Truths is about the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. It has all the hope of that time, and the reality of the bitter repression that followed. If you read and enjoyed the author’s earlier work The Yacoubian Building, then make sure you read this one too.

The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz is a terrifying work. It’s a story of a German-Jewish businessman who after Kristallnacht gradually realises the full horror of the rise of the Nazis. It was written in 1938 by a 23 year old and then published in an English translation. Two years ago the German original was found and this is a new translation.

  • Charlie Kimber @charlieswp

First on my list is Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, The Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes by Adam Hochschild. Pastor Stokes’ life was more dramatic than that of any fictional heroine.

Rose and her family were Jewish immigrants to London’s East End. They immigrated to Ohio in 1892 where she became a child labourer in a cigar factory. She became a radical journalist and strike leader in New York so her marriage to a millionaire socialite sparked a wave of front page stories. Rose was arrested for her anti-war activities and became a founding member of the American Communist Party. Reviews suggest that Hochschild, who is himself a politically-committed historian, has done Rose’s remarkable story justice.

Another timely biography of an epic life is Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Lourverture, by Sudhir Hazareesingh. It is many years since I read CLR James’ biography so I can’t wait to revisit the incredible story of Toussaint and the black revolutionaries of Haiti.

A new biography of the poet and artist William Blake is always exciting for Blake fans. John Higgs’ William Blake vs The World promises to tackle the complex relationship between Blake’s visionary work and the physical world he inhabited. Reviewers have noted how the book returns us to a world of riots, revolutions and radicals—and helps to appreciate both Blake’s genius and his relevance for today.

I am a big fan of Australian crime writer Jane Harper, so I will also be reading her latest novel, The Survivors. Harper’s novels focus on how relationships in small communities in the Australian outback are strained by past secrets and the unforgiving environment.

  • Judy Cox @judycox53219275

2020’s extraordinary Black Lives Matter uprisings have encouraged a new generation of people to look to the great struggles and leaders of the past for inspiration. Malcolm X is one of those figures and many students will, no doubt, have begun with his autobiography ghostwritten in 1964/65 by Alex Haley. Important though that work is, it inevitably feels unfinished as Malcolm died before its publication.

As Haley himself suggests at the end of his foreword, “a new chapter, written by historians” was necessary to consider his legacy. Manning Marable’s Pulitzer Prize winning 2011 biography subtitled Malcolm X: A life of reinvention provides a fuller insight. It has now been joined by another excellent account, The Dead Are Rising by Les and Tamara Payne.

Les Payne spent almost 30 years interviewing family members, schoolmates, criminal acquaintances, members of the Nation of Islam and even FBI informants in his quest to understand the complex and brilliant man behind those horn rimmed spectacles. He also seeks to answer the vexed question of who was behind Malcolm’s assassination in February 1965. Sadly Payne himself died before completing his book, but fortunately his daughter Tamara ensured that this weighty tome made it into print.

It was in the aftermath of Malcolm’s death, “in the spirit of” and in order to carry on his struggle that Oakland students Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Much has been written by and about them including Newton’s Revolutionary Suicide and Seale’s Seize The Time. 

On a trip to the re-opened Bookmarks bookshop I was delighted to see that there is a new graphic novel simply titled The Black Panther Party. Written by David F Walker with illustrations by Marcus Kwame Anderson it charts the spectacular rise and equally dramatic demise of an iconic movement.

  • Brian Richardson @Richardson67B

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