Step into 2019 equipped with classic fiction and non-fiction. Here are a few book recommendations from five of our editors.
If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
By Zainab Rahim
This short novel from the sharp, profound mind of social critic James Baldwin took me through a whirlwind of emotions and left me disturbed for days after. Narrated through the voice of a young woman in love, the story is desperately hopeful yet painfully unfair. The reader experiences black joy, black love, in a raw, honest and strangely warm way given the circumstances. The characters are incredibly well-developed, each sibling and parent uniquely affected by the central plotline. As graphic as Baldwin’s other novels, Beale Street openly references rape, and false accusations of rape, which is as relevant now as it has ever been. The US is renowned for putting men of colour behind bars without trial, some losing decades of their lives to prison, and this knowledge makes the story ever more excruciating. I didn’t enjoy Another Country (1962) nearly as much as Beale Street (1974), so this novel took me by surprise, and I look forward to seeing Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation when it’s released in the UK later this month.
Humayunnama by Princess Gulbudan Begum, Translated by Annette S Beveridge
Review by L Amatullah
In the #MeToo era this gem holds notable resonance. The History of Humayun, also known as the Humayunnama, is a little known but profound 16th century biographical work by the Mughal princess Gulbudan Begum (1523-1603). Daughter of Zahir al-Din Muhammad Babur (1483-1580), the founder of the Mughal Empire (1526-1857), the Humayunnama is the princess’s insightful account of a kingdom in formation. While modern critical readings often try to squeeze the Humayunnama into a domestic box, the work is anything but. It narrates the conquests of Emperor Babur and Emperor Humayun’s (1508-1556) reigns, crucially detailing the pivotal role Mughal women played in these vulnerable moments. One example is that of Khanzada Begum (1478-1545), elder sister of Babur, whose authority was such that she was known as “Padshah Begum” or Lady King. Khanzada would regularly intervene and lead mediation during major political difficulties, for instance, during the conflict between Emperor Humayun and his feuding brother Kamran. In a context where popular emphasis is often on male Mughal actors, Gulbudan’s work is a must read that offers a unique female perspective. Although Wheeler M Thackston translated the work in 2009, my own recommendation is that of Annette S Beveridge published in 1902. Beveridge’s work shows remarkable attention to detail and scholarship, alongside being a sensitive translation by one female intellectual of another. Being a dated publication, it is also readily available to download for free.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Review by Fatima Jichi
Americanah is a story about identity and belonging. Ifemelu leaves Nigeria for America, and finds success as a blogger. Her journey highlights America’s obsession with race, a concept foreign to Ifemelu growing up in Lagos. Discussions in the book are familiar, but Adiche draws an interesting distinction between the African-American and non-American black experience. Although the ‘Americanah’, the one who has become American, is celebrated back home, Ifemelu defiantly holds on to her accent as a marker of her identity and longs to return home. Having grown up in Lagos myself, I found parts of the book funny, recognising ‘Americanisms’ I found odd when I first moved to London. But it’s the experience of Obinze, Ifemelu’s high school love, that British readers will find most familiar: he moves to London, to a hostile environment and to fear-mongering headlines about immigrants. While Americanah’s storyline isn’t the most engaging, I loved the book as a whole.
Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World by Adam Tooze
Review by Louis Bayman
With epic scope, economic historian Adam Tooze has written the first history of the global financial crisis a decade after it began. Tooze previously documented how the last century was shaped through the multiple crises of the interwar years; he argues that the crisis which began in the crash of the subprime mortgage market in 2007-8 is of no less significance for the 21st century. Tooze reminds the reader that the world’s entire financial sector was for a period on the brink of complete collapse – a point since obscured by elites who have sought to shift the blame to state deficits, welfare payments and immigration. But he also charts for the first time why a crisis in the US sector has hit the whole world so badly, namely because US and European banks have become so completely intertwined in contemporary globalisation. Finally, and with bitter anger, he shows how austerity policies have deepened this crisis into a protracted, and self-inflicted, wound which has refused to heal, nowhere more so than through the misguided policies of European governments themselves.
The Destitute by Mustafa Sadiq al-Rafi’i
Review by Sharaiz Chaudhry
This was one of the most powerful books I have read in a long time. Written by a clerk in the sharia courts of Egypt under British rule during World War One, The Destitute gives a unique, spiritual perspective on the poverty the author saw all around him. The book is firstly a critique of the rich who, through their greed, make fellow humans suffer, and secondly an attempt to console the materially poor, putting their poverty in perspective. With regards to the former, al-Rafi’i explains how poverty is the physical representation of miserliness and lack of mercy shown by the rich. His attempts to console the poor focuses on material possessions within an Islamic framework – they are valueless unless coupled with the elevation of humane principles. It is this that drives him to say, “The poorest… is not one who is unable to find food for his stomach; the poorest… is one who is unable to find food for his sensibilities!”
With the exception of the last chapter, a critique of war (which seems slightly out of place), the book provides hard-hitting and unique insights on topics we confront every day: wealth, poverty and religion. Because of this, The Destitute is a must read for any concerned with these subjects.
Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
Review by Zainab Rahim
The plight of Manchester’s working classes in the 1840s is described in vivid detail as we witness a tale of spiralling poverty in Mary Barton. There were so many relatable (and painful) comparisons to draw with the social issues prevalent in our UK cities today through the carefully crafted protagonists. The novel provides a brilliant background to understanding the beginnings of the workers’ unions and the Chartist movement, as the industrial era began to fail the poorest. Although Mary and Jem’s love story is sweet enough, it is really John Barton who left an impression with me – famished, infuriated, and eventually plagued by his own conscience. I really wish that the author came back to the single fateful cartoon scribbled by the careless son of a rich man, but she rushes to reconciliation towards the end, without prodding class inequality any further. This was an enjoyable and accessible read, and you’ll get used to the Lancashire dialect in the conversations.
Fatima Jichi is legal affairs editor at The Platform and a law student (Bar School) interested in criminal justice and penal reform.
Sharaiz Chaudhry is spirituality editor at The Platform who studied Middle East Politics at university before pursuing traditional Islamic studies.
Louis Bayman is film editor at The Platform and an academic based at the University of Southampton.
L Amatullah is the joint editor-in-chief of The Platform.
Zainab Rahim is the joint editor-in-chief of The Platform.
Featured image from the British Library