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The year is zipping by fast and there are plenty of books I’ve still been meaning to read, but here are some favourites that I’ve read so far. I seem to be reading more memoirs recently or, at least, books that are heavily inspired by autobiographical experience. Several of these books fall into that category while being a hybrid of different kinds of books. But, of course, there are some novels I’ve loved and a poetry collection as well. It felt especially poignant to me how some of these books felt like they were in conversation with each other because they touched on similar subjects or events. Maybe that’s just me seeing connections since I read them close together. Whatever the case, these books had a big impact on me and I highly recommend all them! You can also watch a video of me discussing all these books here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUjR0M_yrOE

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

I read this wonderful book at the very beginning of the year. Of course, this isn't a memoir per say – although it does include personal details about how much libraries meant to the author when growing up. It's more a piece of journalistic nonfiction where Orlean considers the case of a horrific fire in the Los Angeles Central library in 1986. She covers the history of this library and the very curious man who was strongly suspected of starting the fire. But it's also an ode to libraries in general and contains so many fascinating facts about libraries and librarians.

Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li

This is a novel but draws heavily on Li's own life because her son sadly committed suicide and this book is an imagined conversation between a mother and son – after the son took his own life. That sounds incredibly depressing and it is an intense experience. But the way their conversation plays out is very touching because when the mother thoughts become too lofty the son brings her back to reality. So it's alternately playful and profound how she considers life, language, motivation and grief.

Kill the Black One First by Michael Fuller

This is a straightforward but very moving memoir. It has a very startling title – and it's meant to be because this was something which was shouted from an angry mob as Fuller stood in a line of police officers during the Brixton riots in 1981. This was an infamous confrontation in London between the police force and members of a predominantly black neighbourhood. At the time, Fuller was one of the few black policemen in London and he found himself caught in the middle of this skirmish when someone in the crowd shouted “kill the black one first” and he knew it was aimed at him. So this memoir is about Fuller's life as a black man who was dedicated to his police work – he became Britain's very first black chief constable – and the work he did to try to bridge the gap between England's racially divided society. It's such a moving and inspiring story. And it's so heartening to know there are honestly good people out there like Michael Fuller.

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr

This is a novel set in South Africa in two parts which are bridged together. The first part concerns a woman named Susan who is forcibly put into a British concentration camp during the Second Boer Wars in 1901 after the British army burned her farm. And yes, this is something the British really did in South Africa; they ran multiple concentration camps during this war. The second half of the novel concerns a teenage boy named Willem who is taken by his parents to a sinister training camp to toughen him up and make him more masculine. Willem just wants to be left alone with his books but his parents are determined to make a man out of him. And this camp is also based on actual training camps which are meant to toughen boys. So both stories poignantly consider institutions and camps which are intended to keep people safe but really destroy their identity and their lives. It's so artfully and beautifully done.

Constellations by Sinead Gleeson

These autobiographical essays follow the trajectory of Gleeson's life from a girl in Ireland where she suffers from multiple medical difficulties and her journey to becoming a great feminist, journalist, wife, mother and writer. The way she writes about illness in this book is so poignant and she draws upon many references from art and literature to reflect about her condition and life in general. It's a stunning book. It just floored me.

The Years by Annie Ernaux

This autobiographically-inspired novel was first published in English last year but it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize this year. It's an incredible look at the past several decades in France through one woman's eyes but is narrated in this unique collective voice which captures the mood and sensibility of a whole community. It's ingenious and inventive and moving and brilliant. It's essentially a woman looking through a photo album but it also contains a whole society. It's amazing.

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

This is a historical novel which is so clever and gripping. It's the story of a woman in the mid-1800s in London who works in a laborious job making dolls, but she aspires to be an artist. So she agrees to become an artist's model as long as she's also given lessons. It's also about a sinister man who becomes infatuated with her. And it's also about the artist's pet wombat (which is my favourite animal.) But this novel is truly excellent in what it says about art, obsession and history.

The Heavens by Sandra Newman

This is touted as the year's most mind-expanding love story and it really is that. It begins as a normal modern day love story where Kate and Ben meet at a party in New York City. But Kate has very vivid dreams where she slips back into a past life embodying the real historical figure of Emilia Lanier who was an Elizabethan poet believed to have been the “dark lady” of Shakespeare's sonnets. She finds that in these dreams she's able to alter history. It's honestly so wild, but also makes you think about destiny and ambition and the meaning of reality. It is unlike anything I've read before.

This Brutal House by Niven Govinden

This is a novel I just read recently and concerns a group of drag house mothers who sit in silent protest in front of New York's city hall. For years children they've taken into their drag houses have gone missing and after the repeated indifference and harassment from the authorities they feel they are past words. It's also the story of Teddy, a child of these drag houses who now works in city hall so is very much caught between two worlds. Niven invokes the feeling and spirit of drag balls in this beautiful book, but he also presents the voices of different groups who are locked in opposition to one another. It's poignant, funny and fierce.

Surge by Jay Bernard

This is a startlingly powerful book of poetry. Jay spent a lot of time in an archive researching and thinking about the 1981 New Cross Fire which was also called the New Cross Massacre. This was a fire that occurred in the early morning amidst a teenage girl's birthday party killing 13 young people and injuring 27 others. Many believed this was a racist attack. The authorities' investigation into the fire was handled horribly and the case was never resolved. It led to protests and an outcry from the black communities in London and was one of the incidents which led up to the Brixton riots (as discussed in Michael Fuller’s memoir). This is a complex subject but Jay so artfully considers the weight of history in these poems, how we memorialize those who've been forgotten or those whose stories can't ever be known. Some of these poems are also very personal reflecting on gender, national and racial identity. I don't often read a lot of poetry but these are poems that made me sit up and listen closely and I love this book.

A book I haven’t listed is Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James which is another book I loved very much and I made a whole video gushing about it. But I read this at the end of last year rather than this year.

Let me know if you've read any of these books or want to read them now. What are some of your favourite reads from 2019 so far? Give me some good tips!

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The title of Michael Fuller’s memoir “Kill the Black One First” is a startling statement - as it’s meant to be. This was something which was shouted by the public while he was the sole black police officer in a group of white officers trying to keep the peace during the Brixton riots in 1981 (an infamous confrontation amidst racial tension between police and protesters in South London that led to many injuries and widespread destruction.) The phrase epitomises the dire dilemma Fuller found himself in for much of his life working for the Metropolitan Police where he was often subjected to racism from within the predominantly white police force on one side and suspicious anger from sections of the black community who labelled him “coconut” on the other. Fuller recounts his life from his beginning growing up in a care home in the 1960s to eventually being appointed the first black chief constable in the UK in 2004. This is the story of a diligent, bright and sensitive individual who cares passionately about justice. Being a good conscientious police officer was his primary motivation in life. But, because of the colour of his skin, he faced innumerable obstacles which would have deterred many from pursuing this profession or abandoning it (Fuller highlights how few black police officers made a career at the Met due to feeling so isolated.) His journey is utterly inspiring and it powerfully illuminates the dynamics of racial conflict in England over the past fifty years from someone who was in a very unique position.

At the heart of Fuller’s journey is a quest to belong. Margaret, the young woman who ran the care home he was raised in for much of his childhood provided him with crucial guidance which gave him a strong moral core and taught him to “recognise that something’s offensive without being hurt by it. Stop. Think. Decide how you want to react.” This is a somewhat more constructive variation from what RuPaul’s mother famously advised him as a child: “People have been talking since the beginning of time. Unless they’re paying your bills pay them bitches no mind.” Anyway, Margaret’s advice proved invaluable throughout Fuller’s life as he encountered assumptions, prejudice and hatred from many people who seemed to believe that racism was an unchangeable part of English society. Fuller learned not to lash out when confronted with these dogmatic beliefs as it wouldn’t be productive and distance him from his fellow officers: “It made me wonder if I should speak up more often when, for example, my colleagues used racist language. But that could only create divisions, and I had spent the year trying to fit in with my shift, laughing and joking with them and not calling them to account.” However, this also created a tremendous mental burden and feelings of intense loneliness as he was often maligned by both the predominantly white police force and the black community. It sometimes lead him to feel he didn’t belong anywhere and he’s made painfully aware that “I’d been isolated by my colour all my life.”

Anyone who has encountered prejudice or injustice knows how one of the most debilitating consequences of it is how alone it makes you feel. Fuller observes how “Racism is a painful, humiliating thing to experience but the key to that pain is isolation. When others protest, offer support, turn that isolation back on the racists, the pain is greatly eased. Feeling alone with the hurt is far, far worse.” There are several instances where people realised that Fuller was experiencing racial abuse, but failed to speak up and defend him. It takes a lot of conviction to stand up to a bully when you’re not directly involved in the conflict. Probably all of us have experienced prejudice in some form and no one witnessing it intervened. We’ve also most certainly witnessed someone being victimised and not come to their defence. It’s one of the most challenging aspects of being a participant in society. But thankfully Fuller found some allies along his journey who were prepared to stand up to racism alongside him.

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When he was just beginning his career Fuller’s father and friends mocked his desire to become a policeman: “You’re joining the police because you hate injustice! The police ARE injustice!” It’s heart breaking reading about the derision he faced when walking on the beat: “young, black males remained by far the most aggressive demographic towards me.” He faced a long challenging journey to help restore the public’s faith in the police force and institute changes within the police so that officers didn’t practice racial profiling or discrimination. He was instrumentally involved in landmark changes such as installing CCTV cameras in investigation rooms, using computers to look for crime patterns, instituting changes to prosecute hate crimes and helping the community and police to work together through an innovative initiative called Operation Trident. This involved a great deal of creative thinking and personal sacrifice as he frequently put himself at personal risk. It was also an unanticipated extension of his duty and drive as a policeman which was to catch criminals. It shows how police work is a much more complicated and nuanced job than that.

Fuller recounts many dramatic scenes and emotional encounters when reflecting on his long and distinguished career. It was shocking to learn how apathetically some policemen reacted to crime when they knew there was little chance of resolution or conviction – especially with instances of domestic violence or gang-on-gang warfare. An inconceivable amount of resolve was required to stay dedicated to his profession and maintain an active role in helping every victim of a crime. It’s also sobering to realise how the police force and country might not have benefited from his skills in bettering our communities if he’d found venture capitalists willing to take a punt on a very savvy business plan he formulated at one point to open a chain of coffee shops in London (before this became a booming business in the city.) Thankfully he remained with the Met and rose in the ranks to a point where he could implement changes that have utterly transformed police-community relations. He also serves as an invaluable figure of inspiration and hope. The full circle journey Fuller takes us on throughout this memoir is executed with considerable skill, but more than anything I feel in awe of this good man and loyal police officer.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMichael Fuller