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Mostly Lit's Must Reads

Posted on 12th February 2018 by Martha Greengrass

Whose books, whose experience should we read in order to step out of the bubble? As Black History Month is observed in the United States, we asked the team behind the hugely popular Mostly Lit podcast to provide their list of indispensable reading for those looking to diversify their bookshelves. What follows are twelve books which demand to be read, either this month, or next, or at some point in your reading life.

Named by the Guardian and the BBC as one of the top podcasts of 2017, Mostly Lit is a books and pop-culture podcast, created and hosted by Rai, AlexReads, and Derek Owusu - and managed and executive produced by Clarissa Pabi. The trio chronicle the millennial experience, while exploring the intersection between literature, wellness and pop-culture – all in a fun, irreverent and insightful way. On 9 March they will be recording a live edition of the podcast at Waterstones Piccadilly. Details can be found here.

Rai, Host and Creator of Mostly Lit

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

‘Incandescently magical’ seems to be an appropriate term to describe Hurston’s masterpiece of a novel. Their Eyes Were Watching God took a little time for me to get invested in the story. From the lyrical, almost poetic style of prose, coupled with a simple plot of love, survival and joy, this is a story of womanhood. Young Janie Crawford begins as a meek and naïve bride, but ultimately flourishes as a woman of strength, self-aware and carefree. As a novel that can shake convictions and affirm choices, it is a book for every black woman to read. 

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A masterpiece that is perhaps the most widely read and highly regarded novel in the entire canon of African American literature. When Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off. What follows is the story of a woman "ripening from a vibrant, but voiceless, teenage girl into a woman with her finger on the trigger of her own destiny.

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Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong’o 

I’m only half way through reading this epic novel myself and I knew that it needed to be included in this list. Wizard of the Crow is written so beautifully. It weaves in the language of the Great African Lakes, Kiswahili, with a humour that is both enlightening and refreshing. Through a clever use of magical realism, smart and piercing dialogue and song, the novel captures the lives of the East African man and woman under a totalitarian regime. Its sheer size might be a deterrent, but I’d suggest reading it on a nice, long holiday, preferably when the sun is as its most intense.

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Set in the fictional Free Republic of Aburiria, Wizard of the Crow dramatises with searing humour and piercing observation a battle for control of the souls of the Aburirian people. Fashioning the stories of the powerful and the ordinary into a dazzling mosaic, Ngugi wa Thiog'o reveals humanity in all its surprising intricacy.

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Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe 

When people think of Achebe, they think straightaway of Things Fall Apart. I however, look no further than Anthills of the Savannah. Set in the fictional west African country of Kangan, this is one of the most politically charged of Achebe’s novels, intricately taking us through military coups, political propaganda, the importance of the media and the growth of a country, whilst not forgetting the ties that bind a people through shared goals and a tender friendship. So, if you are more politically inclined with an eye for social structures that keep those in power standing tall, or you simply want to get lost in a new country, this is the Achebe for you.

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Chris, Ikem and Beatrice are like-minded friends working under the military regime of His Excellency, the Sandhurst-educated President of Kangan. In the pressurized atmosphere of oppression and intimidation they are simply trying to live and love, and remain friends. But in a world where each day brings a new betrayal, hope is hard to cling on to.
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AlexReads Host and Creator of Mostly Lit

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Junot Diaz is a resplendent writer. In this his seminal work, he drenched Oscar Wao with the colour, the vigour and edginess of the immigrant experience, all in the face of a society that doesn’t necessarily want them to win. Oscar Wao opened up doors for me as a black student in the Iberian Peninsula, a small town of Avila where I experienced the worst kind of aggression. I found this book and fell in love with the writing, the effervescent characters and the writer himself. For me to open my mind to the Spanish and French speaking worlds, I needed this book about a nerdy, Dominican bookworm from Newark, New Jersey who struggles with the masculinity of forefathers, coolness and love.

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Diaz’s energetic picaresque is a heady brew of magic realism, pop-culture references and frenetic Spanglish, as the titular Dominican child battles both the big, bad world and an ancient fuku curse. Freewheeling, dynamic and thoroughly immersive, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao stands as a classic of contemporary fiction.
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Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Siddhartha is the story of journeys. An Eastern story of the prodigal son. The simplistic narrative forces the mind into thinking outside of itself, something that is never really considered in society today. Siddhartha goes on a journey to understand more about himself, whilst experiencing the lives of others. It’s a story we could all benefit from in this world, since putting oneself first - while necessary in some cases - can also limit others we know. This book is an exploration of limits.

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Integrating Eastern and Western spiritual traditions with psychoanalysis and philosophy, this title tells the story of a young Brahmin's search for ultimate reality after meeting with the Buddha.
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Augustown by Kei Miller

Kei… is a genius. Not many can turn from poetry to prose with ease, but he has done it twice. First with his first novel, The Same Earth, and now with Augustown, the narrative of a small town in Jamaica. The novel chronicles the story of the everyday life of residents, in the face of a strong and attention-gripping plot. In order to understand a contemporary and accurate portrayal of life in the West Indies, we need to remember that there are stories continuing to this day. Although Bob Marley and colonial memories of the Empire Windrush are extremely important, they can become a trope and caricature. These are the stories we need to be pushed to the fore.

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From the winner of the Forward Prize comes a magical and haunting novel set in the underbelly of Jamaica. When Ma Taffy's six-year-old nephew returns home from school with his dreadlocks shorn, she realises that trouble won't be far behind. For, as Ma Taffy knows, each day contains much more than its own hours, or minutes, or seconds. In fact, each day contains all of history...
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Derek Owusu, Host and Creator of Mostly Lit

Prisoner to the Streets by Robyn Travis

Since discovering Robyn Travis I’ve never stopped championing his books. The problem of diversity in publishing has many facets, with Robyn fitting into at least three of them. But he hasn’t let himself be held back, self-publishing his first book and letting loose with his road-realism and authentic use of urban slang, something I’ve not seen a lot of in literature from black British writers. Prisoner to the Streets is a brutally honest account of being ‘on road’ in London, of London’s troubled black working-class boys, and of living a life that's always under threat of being taken away. Literature needed a voice like Travis's and his book provides insight into a world that many misunderstand or refuse to examine.

The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry

This is a book I saw talked about and advertised so much that I built up a defence against buying it. Well, one day I stopped resisting, and with my defences toppled I was instantly taken in Grayson’s unapologetic honesty and charm; he has a lot to say about men and we should all be listening. Although many of his ideas come across humorously, they should not be dismissed with a laugh, as what you'll find are ways to deal with masculinity in the world we live in, and not as we wish it was. Practical and progressive, The Descent of Man is the book I needed on my sixteenth birthday.

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Grayson Perry has been thinking about masculinity - what it is, how it operates, why little boys are thought to be made of slugs and snails - since he was a boy. Now, in this funny and necessary book, he turns round to look at men with a clear eye and ask, what sort of men would make the world a better place, for everyone?
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Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Intimidated by the size and depth of Ellison’s masterpiece, I put off reading it for over a year. Not until I was left with nothing else on my bookshelf did I pick up the book and begin my exploration of black identity in America. Clearly this wasn't going to be an easy read, but from the first line I knew it was going to be an edifying one, a read which would shine a light on things I could barely make out of my own darkness. From the underground, the narrator leads us through his life as an African American, starting with his naïve beginnings at high-school and university to his fully realised ‘wokeness’ as a community activist, staring at his neighbourhood in flames. This book has never left my top five favourites and I will probably be quoting it and forcing it into the hands of my friends and family, until my final friend at the hospital tells me he’s already read it.

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Defeated and embittered by a country which treats him as a non-being, the 'invisible man' retreats into an underground cell, where the author smokes, drinks, listens to jazz and recounts his search for identity in white society.
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Clarissa Pabi, Executive Producer and Manager of Mostly Lit

Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch

I love the title of this book by Afua Hirsch: Brit(ish). It reads, as does the content of the book, simultaneously like a question and an answer; a call and a response, following the mise-en-abyme of questions surrounding identity that seem never-ending — and more often than not tell us more about the questioner than the asked. It is always a tricky question. Where are you from? Where are you really from? Who are you? Here? There? Me? And so on. In her phenomenal book, Afua expertly explores identity on a personal level (as something we forge), identity that on a societal level and the connection between the two. On a personal level (like the author, I too have Ghanaian heritage and studied at Oxford), Brit(ish) resonated particularly with me, articulating what at times can seem ineffable and for showing us how far we have come and where we can go. 

£16.99
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Challenging the harmful legacy of white-centred British history, this is a powerful, hard-hitting examination of modern, divided Britain. Deconstructing the iconography of the Imperial past and its poisonous racist legacy in the modern age, Brit(ish) is essential reading for our times.

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Slay in Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible by Yomi Adegoke and‎ Elizabeth Uviebinené 

As a young black British woman and an avid reader of books on personal development and success, this is a book I can genuinely say I've been waiting for, from at least when I discovered the genre a decade ago. I suspect many others have been waiting even longer, too. Uniquely specific to the experiences of black British women, Slay In Your Lane manages to weave together different areas of Black women's lives. Incorporating research, Yomi and Elizabeth’s own stories, and featuring interviews from a host of illustrious black British women ‘slaying’ in their respective fields, the end result is representative, thought-provoking, honest, humorous and inspirational. It recognises the waves and tsunamis black British women have already made, whilst providing practical advice and inspiration for slaying and succeeding even further, in your own way. 

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The long-awaited guide to life for a generation of black British women inspired to make lemonade out of lemons, and find success in every area of their lives. From education, to work, to dating, money and health, this inspirational, honest and provocative Black Girl Bible explores the ways in which being black and female affects each of these areas - and offers advice on how to navigate them.

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Body Positive Power by Megan Jayne Crabbe (9781785041327) 

If I could describe this book in one sentence, I’d say: EVERY BODY NEEDS THIS BOOK! Body Positive Power is for me is a powerful intersectional feminist opus. Part exposé of the body image industry, part personal story, and part personal development – I think this book is for every person who has ever felt bad about themselves and the way they look and wondered if life would be better if they just looked 'better’. Megan’s unique background makes her best placed to share this story, and it has been incredibly well-researched. Full of panache, sass, inspiration and FACTS, I think this book has the power to change the way you see yourself, other people and the world.

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If you're tired of being at war with your body, then this is the book for you. It's how we've been taught to see our bodies that's the problem... But then she found body positivity, quit dieting, and finally escaped the cult of thin. Where there is no such thing as a `bikini body diet' and 97% of women don't hate the way they look.
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