The alternative book review

 Jo Lateu, Peter Whittaker, and Vanessa Baird on the latest releases in radical publishing.

Planet Palm

by Jocelyn C Zuckerman

(Hurst & Company, ISBN 9781787383784)


Palm Oil. Such a benign name for a product so cheap and so adaptable that it has found its way into a dizzying array of our foodstuffs, cosmetics and household products. There is palm oil in everything from pizza to deodorant, chocolate to shampoo. This vegetable oil is obtained from the fruit of the oil palm tree, Elaeis guineensis, originally grown in West Africa but transplanted to Southeast Asia a century ago, where Indonesia and Malaysia now grow over 80 per cent of the world’s supply. The story of how this little fruit has been, and continues to be, at the centre of so many of the planet’s woes is told in Jocelyn Zuckerman’s sobering investigation, Planet Palm.

Beginning with an historic overview of palm oil’s development, she shows how its spread was built on slavery, land theft and cultural destruction. Running as constant threads through this story are exploitation and colonialism. Massive land clearances and deforestation to grow vast palm oil plantations have had devastating environmental consequences, from carbon emissions to deadly smog and habitat loss for endangered species such as orangutans and hornbills.

Mixing reportage with analysis, Zuckerman presents the case against palm oil, showing how its ubiquity has contributed to the steep global rise in cases of obesity and diabetes. She makes the compelling case that we humans must wean ourselves off our present palm oil dependency for our own health and for the health of the planet. She ends the book by identifying serviceable methods by which we can realistically do this, from stewardship schemes and sustainability certification to grassroots action and fast-tracking alternatives. PW

Speak, Okinawa

by Elizabeth Miki Brina

(Granta, ISBN 9781783785971)


Growing up, Elizabeth is embarrassed by her mother’s inability to pronounce her name properly (she says ‘Erizabesu’). She gets frustrated by her mother’s subservience, her otherness. Elizabeth just wants to fit in, in the white suburban community she, her ex-US Army father and her Okinawan mother call home. And yet, despite being smothered by parental love, she feels ‘strange, wrong, out of place’.

What follows is the usual adolescent rebellion and attempt to escape her family. But her troubles follow her, and it gradually dawns on Elizabeth that before she can work out who the ‘I’ in her story is, she needs to understand the collective ‘we’.

Language plays a pivotal role in all this: unable to speak Japanese (or, more correctly, the Okinawan dialect), Elizabeth can only communicate on a superficial level with her mother, who speaks limited English. All the power in the family rests with Elizabeth’s father, and it is with him that the daughter wholeheartedly aligns herself.

Speak, Okinawa is many things: a memoir, a travel journal, and a potted history of Okinawa (known today for the longevity of its inhabitants but also for the US military bases that still cover 25 per cent of the island). It is the story of how a daughter fights against but finally embraces her dual heritage, how she learns about the trauma of an abused island, and witnesses the poverty, generosity and strength of her maternal family. The realization of her place in this story she calls an ‘epiphany of connection’.

Above all, this is a warm, honest and heartfelt narrative about Elizabeth learning to love her heritage, her parents, and – with all her failings – herself. JL

China in One Village

by Liang Hong, translated by Emily Goedde

(Verso, ISBN 9781839761775)


The old village school is now a pig farm. Educational levels have fallen; studying is considered less important than making money. Grandparents look after children left behind by parents working in the city. Rivers have been destroyed; construction has gone into overdrive, and the people have lost connection with the land… All in all, Liang Hong finds little to be positive about when confronted with the impact of modernization on her family’s village in Henan Province.

Having spent a decade away from home, the author returned in 2010 to interview villagers, aiming to observe, through the prism of a single village, life in contemporary rural China. The resulting book, published now for the first time in English, was a bestseller in China and is required reading for anthropology and sociology students there. Her close observation and social commentary on everything from religion and parenthood to politics and culture expose the growing divide between urban and rural, rich and poor, educated and uneducated.

Liang Hong, being a member of the village’s principal clan (as she describes herself), and now part of the intelligentsia (again, in her own words) on occasion comes across as condescending when writing about the village and its inhabitants. Her status somewhat undermines her argument that villagers who move to the city ‘can only struggle on the margins’ and places her awkwardly on the ‘other side’ of the social divide. This aside, China in One Village is an engaging read, with lively first-person narratives from a wide variety of villagers. It is in these stories that the universality of people’s hopes, fears and frustrations really shines through. JL

Havana Year Zero

by Karla Suárez, translated by Christina MacSweeney

(Charco Press ISBN 9781913867003)


Cuba’s ‘Special Period’ – plunged into deep economic crisis by a collapsed Soviet Union – has provided a rich backdrop to the island’s most vivid and engaging modern fiction. The likes of Leonardo Padura spring to mind. The starting point of Karla Suárez’s novel is 1993. ‘Year Zero… the year of interminable power cuts… Zero transport. Zero meat. Zero hope. I was 30 and I had thousands of problems…’ says maths lecturer Julia, the novel’s chatty first-person narrator.

Julia becomes captivated by a piece of surprising information: that the telephone was actually invented in Havana by an unfortunate Italian scientist called Antonio Meucci. She embarks on a quest for the document that will prove this, giving the inventor and Cuba their rightful place in history. But her mission involves other people, each with their own complex reasons for getting their hands on that missing document: her former professor and part-time lover, Euclid; a sexy and effortlessly desirable artist called Ángel, novelist and compelling storyteller Leonardo, bubbly Italian tourist, Barbara, and Ángel’s absent ex-wife, Margherita.

What follows is both a portrait of a nation at its lowest ebb and a comedy of errors, full of intrigue, hustle, bustle, sly observation, sex, lies and science. The humour builds as Julia’s plotting to uncover the truth becomes ever more devious and she resorts to mathematical theorems and sex as her reality touchstones. Her research is all face-to-face – and body-to-body – in this pre-internet world where even the phone rarely works. That’s not the only irony in this quirky and highly entertaining mystery – with a gleeful twist in its tail. VB