The Free Negress Elisabeth by Cynthia Mc Leod

This is the novelised true story of Elisabeth Samson, a freeborn black woman in C18th Suriname, when it was a Dutch colony built on slave labour. She became one of the richest landowners in the colony and fought a legal battle for the right to marry a white man, successfully arguing that Dutch law superseded the colonial law against it.

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The introduction explains that it is the result of twelve years of historical research, and I think that’s a strength and a weakness: the best thing about the book is the amount of interesting historical detail, but it does feel a bit like a novel written by a historian. It is solid but unremarkable as literature.

And perhaps because the personal stuff — the dialogue and the characters’ inner lives — is relatively weak compared to the background information which has obviously been so carefully grounded in research, I found myself always second-guessing her portrayal of Elisabeth’s opinions and motivations. Especially since there is a tendency for racial/social issues to be explored in a rather unsubtle way by being put in the mouths of the characters; they sometimes slip into talking in long paragraphs, as though they were newspaper editorials.

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There are of course plenty of issues to explore. So for example, Elisabeth is presented somewhat as a heroic figure, standing up against the racial attitudes of the time, but she also kept slaves herself. And her battle for the right to marry a white man, and establish herself finally as a fully respectable member of colonial society, hardly makes her a fighter for the rights of black people more generally. Cynthia Mc Leod generally presents her as right-thinking but constrained by her time; she was after all in a vulnerable position. But a less sympathetic interpretation might also be possible.

But history is messy that way; and she would still be a remarkable figure whatever she was like as a person.

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I found it engaging and enjoyable, although I was engaged more by the history than the fiction, so I wonder whether it might have been even better as straight biography. Maybe not.

The Free Negress Elisabeth by Cynthia Mc Leod (trans. Brian Doyle) is my book from Suriname for the Read The World challenge.

» All three images are from the British Museum. The toucan and the caiman are from an album entitled Merian’s Drawings of Surinam Insects &c, ca. 1701-1705; the toucan is by Maria Sibylla Merian, the caiman is attributed to her daughter Dorothea Graff. The engraving ‘Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave‘ was engraved by William Blake in 1793 for the first volume of J.G. Stedman’s Narrative of a five years’ expedition against the revolted slaves of Surinam, after an illustration by Stedman.

Whispering Death: The Life and Times of Michael Holding by Michael Holding with Tony Cozier

I enjoy watching cricket, so when looking for books from the West Indies for the Read The World challenge, it occurred to me that a few cricketers must have written books. But I had previously resisted that temptation; because it seemed like an unimaginative choice and, let’s face it, because sporting memoirs tend to be pretty dull.

But in a moment of weakness I ordered Michael Holding’s autobiography from 1993. Holding is one of my favourite cricket broadcasters these days: he seems like a thoroughly nice man, he talks well about cricket, and his rumbling Jamaican accent is one of the great voices in broadcasting. And Tony Cozier, who is a great radio commentator, is a good person to have as a ghostwriter.

Sadly, this book is indeed fairly dull. It’s not a bad book — in fact it’s probably better than average for a sportsman’s memoir — but it’s not one of the rare examples that transcends the genre. There are all kinds of ways one of these books could stand out: it could be funny, or psychologically insightful, or gossipy and indiscreet. But instead this is just a solid, professional bit of writing. Perhaps some of the opinions expressed were controversial at the time, by the mild standards of sporting controversy; but it’s no Ball Four.

In the last chapter, he mentions in an offhand comments that he has three children by three different women, only one of whom had been his wife; and you suddenly get a sense of all the things he hasn’t been telling you. Not that I particularly need to know about his love life, but it’s part of a broader professional discretion. And ‘discreet’ is not the most exciting quality in a memoir.

Michael Holding is from Jamaica, but Whispering Death is my book for Barbados, where Tony Cozier is from. Mainly because there are lots of good choices for books from Jamaica and not so many from Barbados.

Complete Works and Other Stories by Augusto Monterroso

Complete Works and Other Stories by Augusto Monterroso is my book from Honduras* for the Read The World challenge. It is a book of playful, idea-heavy short stories; the influence of Borges is mentioned in the introduction, but I think I would have made the connection even without that.†

It’s actually a translation of two books, Complete Works and Other Stories (1959) and Perpetual Motion (1972) which are somewhat different in character; the ‘stories’ in Complete Works are indeed actual narratives, however short, elliptical or open-ended, whereas many of those in Perpetual Motion are more like essays or aphorisms.

I’d got a bit stuck on reading my way around the world, basically because I had two or three books waiting to be read which didn’t appeal to me: I think I’m going to need a plane journey to Australia before I can face the enormous fat modernist novel, and I need a break from Very Serious post-colonial novels from Africa.‡ On that basis, the Monterroso was an excellent choice: well written, intelligent, serious enough but with a sense of humour and, let’s be honest, short. A nice easy tick to get the list moving again.

And since that’s a bit damning-with-faint-praise: I did enjoy this book. To make the invidious comparison, I think there’s a reason that he’s much less famous than Borges; he doesn’t have quite the distinctiveness or surprisingness. But if you like that kind of thing, you will probably like these too.

* As is so often the case, my boring pedantic soul requires me to clarify on nationality: Augusto Monterroso is usually described as a Guatemalan writer. But he was born in Honduras to a Honduran mother and spent his childhood up to the age of 15 moving between the two countries. And spent most of his adult life in exile in Mexico.

† And indeed before reading Monterroso’s essay about reading Borges.

‡ Not that I necessarily dislike serious post-colonial African novels, you understand. I’m just not currently very excited about picking up another one.

» Monterroso’s most famous story is ‘The Dinosaur’, supposedly the shortest ever written. The photo of an origami triceratops is © Emre Ayaroglu and used under a CC attribution licence.

To Sir, With Love by E.R. Braithwaite

I knew that To Sir, With Love was a book about a black Caribbean man struggling with racial prejudice in 1950s London, so I was quite amused that the opening — his description of travelling on a bus full of East End women — reads so much like a white colonial Briton describing the natives of a third world country. It’s the combination of effortless cultural superiority and an anthropological eye.

The women carried large heavy shopping bags, and in the ripe mixture of odours which accompanied them, the predominant one hinted at a good haul of fish or fishy things. They reminded me somehow of the peasants in a book by Steinbeck – they were of the city, but they dressed like peasants, they looked like peasants, and they talked like peasants. Their cows were motor-driven milk floats; their tools were mop and pail and kneeling pad; their farms a forest of steel and concrete. In spite of the hairgrips and headscarves, they had their own kind of dignity.

They joshed and chivvied each other and the conductor in an endless stream of lewdly suggestive remarks and retorts, quite careless of being overheard by me – a Negro, and the only other male on the bus. The conductor, a lively, quick-witted felllow, seemed to know them all well enough to address them on very personal terms, and kept them in noisy good humour with a stream of quips and pleasantries to which they made reply in kind. Sex seemed little more than a joke to them, a conversation piece which alternated with their comments on the weather, and their vividly detailed discussions on their actual or imagined ailments.

There was another particularly fine example of the type later on the book:

I did not go over to him: these Cockneys are proud people and prefer to be left to themselves at times when they feel ashamed.

It could be a conscious literary decision to subvert expectations, but firstly Braithwaite doesn’t particularly strike me as that kind of writer — he’s generally pretty direct — and also I can imagine a white British writer with a similar educational background writing in much the same way; like Orwell’s representation of the proles in 1984.

In other words it’s partially a class thing; Braithwaite was from a very educated background; both his parents went to Oxford, which I assume was pretty rare in Guyana at the start of the C20th, and he studied in New York before serving as a pilot in the RAF during the war and then doing a Master’s degree at Cambridge. But then race is always partially about class. The class structure is one of the ways that racial status can be monitored and enforced. And it was only because of Braithwaite’s race that he was doing what no similarly educated white Briton would be doing: working as a teacher in a grotty East End secondary school. He was rejected from all the engineering jobs which he was better qualified to do, often on explicitly racial grounds in the days when it was legal to tell people that to their faces, and fell into teaching because it was the only option available.

So that’s the set-up: educated, well-dressed black man takes a job teaching in a run-down East End school full of problem teenagers. And if you’ve ever seen a movie where an inspiring teacher goes to work in a deprived inner city school, you pretty much know how the rest of it plays out: he is stern but wise and passionate, and he overcomes their initial hostility and prejudice to teach them the value of education and good manners, and above all he teaches them self respect. And he in turn learns his own lessons, about not being such a snobby prude (although he doesn’t learn the lesson that if you’re a grown man writing about fifteen and sixteen year old girls, there are only so many times you can mention their breasts before it starts to seem a bit creepy).

I’m being a bit glib; there is a lot that’s interesting about this book, and it’s well written. But when I say it’s like a Hollywood movie: it really does read like that. And of course you wonder if it’s too good to be true. Clearly he is an impressive man, and I can believe he was an inspiring teacher, and I expect the broad outlines are all true… but for something which claims to be non-fiction, it just seems like it was written by someone who was willing to burnish the truth for the sake of a good story.

It’s not that I fetishise historical accuracy for its own sake — I don’t have much objection to things like characters being composites of several people — but I do worry that I’m getting a less perceptive, less insightful book if too many if the complications and contradictions have been tidied away.

To Sir, With Love is my book from Guyana for the Read The World challenge. I seem to have been harder on it than I really intended. I think it’s probably fairest to say it’s a good book which has aged badly. But there’s still plenty to like about it.

Mama Lily and the Dead by Nicolette Bethel

Mama Lily and the Dead is my book from the Bahamas for the Read The World challenge. It’s a collection of poems which tell Lily’s life story, running from ‘The Scotsman Gives Lily Her Name (1904)’ to ‘The Granddaughter Sings Lily Home (1994)’. I know Nico a bit via the world of internet poetry, and I’d read some of the poems before, or earlier drafts of them, so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, but it’s still rather different to have them in actual printed paper form and read the whole lot in order.

Incidentally, if you’ll excuse a slight detour, it still seems weird to me to say I ‘know’ someone when I’ve never met or talked to them. Even if I have interacted with them online over a period of years. I feel like we need a new verb for it. Like: “Do you know Bob?” “Well, I knowontheinternet him.” Or: “I’ve had a couple of Twitter exchanges with George Michael, but I wouldn’t say I knowontheinternet him.

Anyway. As I was saying, I’d never read the whole sequence of Lily poems together before, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. At their best they have a sharp in-the-moment-ness, a vivid sense of being a particular point in time. And that brings with it a sense of place, emphasised by the use of Caribbean-inflected grammar.

One thing which struck me as interesting, reading them, is as much a point about me as about the poems. Nico* has a particular stylistic quirk of using neologistic compounds — like, for example, using ‘bonechill’ as a verb — which just slightly makes my critical self uneasy; not because I object to neologising, but precisely the opposite: I have exactly the same tendency myself when I write poetry [perhaps I should say when I wrote poetry]. All the times I have come up with compounds and then cast a jaundiced eye on them trying to decide if I was being self-indulgent have apparently programmed a warning flag into my brain which pings up whenever I see them.

I was going to type out an extract but actually there’s no need, because various of the poems have been published in internet poetry journals; so if you want to read some, just put Nicolette Bethel Lily into Google and it will offer you a variety to choose from. You could start with ‘The Preacher Man Saves Lily’s Soul (1914)’, for example.

And a quick note on the actual physical book, which is rather lovely. It’s a numbered edition; my copy is 35 of 200. As you can see above, the cover is letterpress printed† on handmade Indian paper with bits of flowers in it. What you can’t see above is that it has endpapers, also handmade paper, in a sort of translucent acid yellow with thready bits running through it; or that the pages themselves are printed on high quality cotton paper.

It struck me, when I opened the parcel and saw the book for the first time, that this is one future for printed books in a world of e-readers: to celebrate the physicality of them, to make them into covetable objects in their own right. Although, nice as it is to imagine a flowering of artisanal, boutique publishers producing books which are exquisitely designed and made, I guess it’s a red herring really. The point of books is the words, not the packaging. Any defence of printed books purely on the basis of their appearance is straying into the territory of interior designers who buy leather-bound books by the metre because they make a room look cosy.

And actually I don’t think small publishers would be the winners in a world where books were bought for their beauty. I’ve read a lot of books from all kinds of small presses as part of the Read The World challenge, and Poinciana Paper Press is an admirable exception; much more often the books are rather badly designed. Which is understandable; a small press on a shoestring budget has to focus on what they’re good at, which is hopefully choosing, translating and editing texts.

* And this is where the fact I knowontheinternet her comes in again, combined with the generally informal tone of blogging: ‘Nico’ sounds a bit offhand and casual, in the circumstances, but ‘Bethel’ would sound weirdly formal. Especially since I have actually mostly known her over the years by an internet pseudonym. Ah, netiquette.

† Letterpress printed in, of all places, Camberwell. Not that I have anything against Camberwell; my sister lives there. And I think I had some art classes there as a child, though I don’t remember much about them except making some kind of collage out of bits of magazines, and eating pear drops. It’s just a long way from the Bahamas.

Ragamuffin by Tobias S. Buckell

Ragamuffin is my book from Grenada for the Read The World challenge. It’s a science fiction novel about a universe where humans share space with various other species and can travel from world to world via wormholes. Some of them come from a world which was settled by people from the Caribbean, hence the title and a certain amount of West Indian-inflected dialogue.

It was quite entertaining, I guess; I’m not really much of an SF fan. I read a lot at one stage because my brother used to read them, but since we don’t live in the same house anymore, I’ve largely stopped. I think the most interesting thing about SF is when it’s used to explore ideas: so for example, Iain M Banks’s Culture novels are in a sense a contribution to the Utopian tradition, and among other things, they raise the question of what human society would be like in a situation with limitless material wealth.

Ragamuffin is not really a novel of ideas in that way; it’s inventive enough, but it’s inventive within the standard tropes of science fiction. In a way this kind of space opera is really futuristic fantasy; swords and sorcery, with bionic implants taking the place of magical powers. I always thought it was interesting, incidentally, that two of the most popular works of C20th narrative, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, have such a medieval shape to them. But maybe that’s too much of a detour for this post.

Anyway, sub-genres of SF aside, what really makes the difference between good novels and bad ones is not the genre, it’s always the quality of the writing. Which in this book was perfectly reasonable but nothing remarkable. Even though it’s not the kind of book I usually read, I picked it up thinking it might be a bit of treat to read some escapist fiction. But it never really grabbed me.

» The Aztec figurine of Mictlantecuhtli is from the British Museum. As well as the Caribbean theme in the novel, there’s an Aztec-inspired culture, weirdly enough.

The Country Under My Skin by Gioconda Belli

The Country Under My Skin is a memoir of the Nicaraguan revolution. Belli grew up in a wealthy family but joined the Sandinistas, working secretly for the resistance until she had to flee the country and live in exile until the Sandinistas took power and she could return to Nicaragua. It’s not just a political memoir, though; it is also the story of her marriages and love affairs.

She is clearly a remarkable woman — an award-winning poet, incidentally, as well as everything else — and it is fascinating to read an insiders view of a revolution. She became a prominent figure for the Sandinistas in a PR role, and so she met with people like Fidel Castro, and her portrayals of these powerful men are interesting as well. And it is well-written, which makes all the difference.

I think it’s particularly good when it’s actually in Nicaragua: her life as a disaffected young woman who got married too young to the wrong person, the story of her political awakening, the process by which you join a clandestine organisation, and all the secret meetings and codewords and being followed by the police. Then the period is exile is rather less interesting, before it picks up again with the actual revolution and the immediate aftermath.

I do have some slight reservations, though. These are mainly about her particular perspective. When I got to the end of the book, I realised that it was a book about a revolution and a war which didn’t actually feature any fighting: she was in exile during the revolution itself and she was a bureaucrat in the capital during the war against the Contras. Obviously an autobiography can only tell one person’s story, and this is hers; but it does create the image of a revolution which was all discussing ideas, giving press conferences, writing pamphlets, and delegations to foreign conferences. There is plenty of death in the book, as one after another of her friends, colleagues and lovers get killed, but it all happens offstage.

Similarly, she may be passionately committed to relieving poverty in Nicaragua, but she is never poor herself and she doesn’t spend much time in contact with the poor. I don’t blame her for being from a privileged background, but it is a rather atypical perspective. At one stage when she is working with the resistance, the police clearly suspect or know that she is working for the Sandinistas, but they don’t arrest her and take her away to be tortured as they do so many other people, because, she thinks, of her wealthy family and her society connections.

That’s the nature of books, though: they tend to be written by the kind of people who write books. It’s certainly worth reading, though.

The Country Under My Skin is my book from Nicaragua for the Read The World challenge.

» Un pueblo unido jamás será vencido! is © Burkhard Schröder and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

City of Arches by Vivian Child

A slightly odd one, this, or at least slightly unexpected. I keep various lists of possible books for the Read The World challenge, and City of Arches was on one of them as a book from St Vincent and the Grenadines. But while I must have known what sort of book it was when I made a note of the title, by the time I ordered it I was under the impression it was a childhood memoir. Perhaps because of the subtitle, Memories of an Island Capital.

In fact it’s more like one of those local history books written by enthusiastic amateur historians. It’s based on a collection of newspaper articles about notable local buildings and their history. So I now know a lot more about the typical architecture of St Vincent: arched arcades and hooded sash windows are the most notable features, but also balconies and decorative fretwork and so on.

If it was only about architecture it might be pretty hard going, but there’s enough of the history and human interest stuff to make it an enjoyable read — especially since it’s only 150 pages of large type with lots of illustrations. A typical entry is something like this:

This attractive house was built around 1926 in typical Kingstown style by Mrs. Jennings (née Rosalind Constantine) from Calliaqua, while her husband was absent, working with the railways in Nigeria.

The builber was Jim Campbell. At that time it stood on its own extensive grounds with fruit trees, and pastures with cattle, sheep and fowl. The only house nearby was the estate house on top of the little hill where Mr John Hazell lived for many years.

The house is of plastered stone construction, although the upper storey has has a wooden gallery partly closed in on the front an supported by arches below. The inside wall of the gallery is painted a beautiful shade of blue.

Enclosed on two sides by the upstairs gallery the spacious living room walls are decorated with a hand painted, coloured design of blurred crossing diagonals, and old and unusual feature. Note the practical and graceful outside stone staircase, a feature often seen in the older suburban and rural homes.

Mr Jennings retired in 1932 and the couple lived out their lives in this comfortable home, disturbed only when rioters in the 1930s hid the goods they had stolen from the stores of Kingstown among the bushes near their home.

The house is now the residence of Mrs. Carol Saunders, Mrs. Jennings foster child. Her husband, Mr James Saunders was a clerk in a business and they had three sons.

It’s a rather wonderful mixture of architectural description, completely mundane biography and just a few intriguing details that hint at the real emotional lives of the inhabitants: a husband away in Nigeria, rioters, a foster child. Since I have no connection to St Vincent and no particular interest in its architectural heritage, I found myself reading it like some kind of austere modernist novel: lots of fragmentary narratives that never quite resolve into anything more than the sum of its parts.

» The photo of Back Street West is © Karl Eklund. It’s not the most flattering picture you’ll ever see of St. Vincent, but it does demonstrate the colonial style of architecture with arched arcades and hooded sash windows.

Beka Lamb by Zee Edgell

Beka Lamb tells the story of a few months in the life of a fourteen-year-old girl — Beka — and her slightly older friend Toycie, who both attend a convent school in Belize. It’s published as part of the Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series, and so it has one of those rather off-puttingly institutional covers that makes me feel like I’m back in school. And indeed I’m sure it works well as a GCSE set text: it’s short, it’s about a teenager, it has lots of themes that would provide material for classroom discussion (race, class, politics, colonialism, teenage pregnancy) and it has lots of local colour.

Saturday, pay day for many families, was the biggest marketing, house-cleaning, and cooking day of the week. women and girls, whether they lived in a ‘good house’ or a ‘dawg-siddown’ scrubbed, dusted, polished and cooked in order that they might do as they pleased Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, satisfied that their duty, as best as could be managed with what was available, had been done.

Lunch on a Saturday was mostly crushed avocado or potted meat sandwiches, with perhaps pounded calves’ liver fried with lots of onions and creole bread for six o’clock tea. But the intense activity, and the smells of what was to come on Sunday noon, assuaged the need for bigger meals. In the houses of even the poorest, at the very least red kidney beans and bits of salty pigtails stewed on outdoor fire hearths waiting for the addition of raw rice, assiduously picked over for stones, and washed several times until the water ran clear. And in the houses of those that could better afford it, chickens, pork, or beef roasted in ovens; great pots of grey-black relleno soup thickened on stoves with a dozen hard-boild eggs per pot bobbing up and down like dumplings, and the corn mills of the town ground busily in preparation for the mounds of tortillas that would be needed the following day. Seafood and groundfood were rarely cooked on Sundays: fish, crayfish, conch, yams, cocoa, sweet potatoes, breadfruit and the like were everyday fare.

In fact I think it’s a quirk of a certain kind of post-colonial novel to almost overdo the local colour. The book is absolutely full of references to foodstuffs, flowers and trees, bits of local tradition, references to history; it’s like one long assertion of Belizeyness. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact I enjoy all that stuff (particularly the food!). It’s just an observation of a phase that, perhaps, national literatures tend to go through.

I did enjoy this book, btw, so I hope my comments don’t across as negative. I enjoyed all the descriptive stuff, found the story engaging, and learn at least slightly more about Belize than I knew before. So that’s all good.

Beka Lamb is my book from Belize for the Read The World challenge, and is also my fifth book for the Caribbean Reading Challenge.

» The picture, ‘Relleno Negro‘, is © moviesandcheese. I don’t think it was taken in Belize, but it’s clearly much the same dish.

Masters of the Dew by Jacques Roumain

When I opened the package and saw the cover, I thought for a moment that the bookseller had cocked up and sent me a romance novel by mistake. But they hadn’t; Masters of the Dew is that slightly curious thing, a peasant novel. Curious because, generally speaking, peasants don’t write novels — the hero of this story is illiterate, in fact — so these books are written by outsiders, for whatever reasons of their own.

Jacques Roumain was from a wealthy Haitian family, educated in Europe, a politician, ethnologist and at the time of writing this book in 1944, a diplomat. He was part of the nationalist resistance against American occupation, founded the Haitian communist party, and later founded the Bureau d’Ethnologie. I imagine that the ethnology itself was originally political, as is so often the case: a wish to celebrate an authentic local identity creates an interest in traditional peasant culture. But certainly you can see how the nationalism, the communism and the ethnology would all feed into a peasant novel.

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And given that background, it’s not a complete surprise that this is a novel about a strong, handsome peasant, uneducated but thoughtful and eloquent, sincere and full of integrity, who returns from working in Cuba, where he has been politically awakened by the experience of sugar-cane workers striking for better pay, and teaches the other villagers that only by working together, and putting aside their feuding, can they save their village — in this case by creating a new irrigation system.

However, the fact that the political messaging is a bit unsubtle — there’s also a corrupt local police chief and when one of the characters dies, they can’t have a church funeral because they can’t afford the fees — doesn’t make this a bad book. The descriptive passages are particularly strong and the dialogue is effective too, although apparently we are missing a certain amount in translation. In the original, Roumain apparently struck a compromise between using Haitian creole — which would have been authentic but difficult for his French-speaking readers — and putting pure French into the mouths of his peasant characters; songs and proverbs are quoted in creole and the dialogue is sprinkled with creole words. The translators, Langston Hughes and Mercer Cook, rather than trying to find suitable English equivalents or having the characters speak some kind of rural American dialect as a substitute, has them speaking standard English. I think that’s probably a solid decision, but there’s a whole layer of local flavour which is lost.

She sat next to him, leaning against the trunk of a macaw tree, her dress spread around her, and she clasped her hands around her knees.

The plain unfolded before them, surrounded by the hills. from here they could see the mingling of acacia trees, huts dispersed in the clearings, fields abandoned to the ravages of drought, and in the glare of the savanna, scattered cattle moving. Above this desolation crows on the wing hovered. Over and over they made the same circuit, perched on the cactus, and, frightened for some reason, flayed the silence with their harsh cawing.

Masters of the Dew is my book from Haiti for the Read The World challenge, and also my fourth book for the Caribbean Reading Challenge.

» The photo is ‘Degraded mountains‘, © Trees for the Future and used under a CC attribution licence. The damaging effect of deforestation comes up in the novel.

The description for that photo on Flickr says ‘The degraded mountain of Tibois (Top of Arcahaie)’; according to Wikipedia’s Arcahaie entry ‘the weather in this little quiet place is extremely pleasant and the feelings is unbelievable.’ Although I expect sooner or later some killjoy will edit it.

Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

After really struggling with that Ugandan novel recently, I picked up Annie John to read next because it is admirably short: 148 pages. Just about enough to feel like a short novel rather than a long story, but I was still able to read it one sitting.

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It is the story of Annie John, a girl growing up in Antigua, told in the first person. Not surprisingly, perhaps, given the length, it is one of those books where not very much happens. There are a few incidents—an illness, some friendships—but nothing very remarkable. The focus is on Annie’s relationship with her mother, which starts out very close but becomes increasingly conflicted in adolescence, and ends in a somewhat open-ended way with her leaving home. Which obviously ends that chapter of her life but doesn’t provide any particularly tidy resolution.

Hedgie provides a fuller account of the book over at his place, so I’ll leave it at that and just say that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and quote a bit:

During my holidays from school, I was allowed to stay in bed long after my father had gone to work. He left our house every weekday at the stroke of seven by the Anglican church bell. I would lie in bed awake, and I could hear all the sounds my parents made as they prepared for the day ahead. As my mother made my father his breakfast, my father would shave, using his shaving brush that had an ivory handle and a razor that matched; then he would step outside to the little shed he had built for us as a bathroom, to quickly bathe in water that he had instructed my mother to leave outside overnight in the dew. That way, the water would be very cold, and he believed that cold water strengthened his back. If I had been a boy, I would have gotten the same treatment, but since I was a girl, and on top of that went to a school only with other girls, my mother would always add some hot water to my bathwater to take off the chill. On Sunday afternoons, while I was in Sunday school, my father took a hot bath; the tub was half filled with plain water, and then my mother would add a large cauldronful of water in which she had just boiled some bark and leaves from a bay-leaf tree. The bark and leaves were there for no reason other than that he liked the smell. He would spend hours lying in this bath, studying his pool coupons or drawing examples of pieces of furniture he planned to make. When i came home from Sunday  school, we would sit down to our Sunday dinner.

Annie John is my book from Antigua and Barbuda for the Read The World challenge, and my third book for the Caribbean Reading Challenge.

» The picture was taken on Antigua but has no other particular connection to the book. Nice though, I thought. I found it on Flickr; it is © Jeremy Quinn and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

I really enjoyed this one; it’s lively, full of energy. Funny. It’s written in a colloquial style, sprinkled with slang, bits of Spanish and SF references.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a novel about a Dominican family in New Jersey. Oscar himself, obese and nerdy, was born in New York, but the book interleaves his story with the family history; his mother’s life in the Dominican Republic, then further back again to tell the story of her parents. It is, among other things, about the immigrant experience, about being a Dominican in New Jersey but always slightly an outsider in the DR. And what it means to be Dominican anyway if you can’t live up to the stereotype, if you are in fact a fat nerd. And the sections about his family before they left the DR, there are other things: life under dictatorship and so on. 

Glancing over the Goodreads reviews, they seem to mainly trend towards OMG this is teh best novel EVAR with a sprinkling of people who are irritated by one or other of the books quirks: the heavy use of Spanglish, the footnotes, the multiple narrators, the fact that the book is only partly about what the title says it’s about. One of the people in my mother’s book group  apparently disliked it because he likes books to start at the beginning and then go in a straight line to the end.

You probably have a pretty good idea before you start what your tolerance is like for that kind of thing; personally the non-linear narrative and the various narrative voices don’t bother me at all, and while I’m not a big fan of footnotes in novels they weren’t especially irritating in this book. The Spanglish/Spanish was more of a problem for me personally because I don’t know any Spanish, and while a combination of context and the remnants of the French and Latin I learned in school were enough to deduce what some words meant, whole sentences were generally beyond me. I’m certainly not suggesting that he shouldn’t have used the Spanish, and it added to my enjoyment more than it spoiled it, but I was probably missing out on a lot of what was going on. Caveat emptor.

I wouldn’t go quite as far as best book EVAR either; I don’t think it’s even the best novel I’ve read this year, and I’ve only read two. But I did thoroughly enjoy it. Here’s an extract:

It seemed to Oscar that from the moment Maritza dumped him—Shazam!—his life started going down the tubes. Over the next couple of years he grew fatter and fatter. Early adolescence hit him especially hard, scrambling his face into nothing you could call cute, splotching his face with zits, making him self-conscious, and his interest—in Genres!—which nobody had said boo about before, suddenly became synonymous with being a loser with a capital L. Couldn’t make friends for the life of him, too dorky, too shy, and (if the kids from his neighbourhood are to be believed) too weird (had a habit of using big words he had memorised only the day before). He no longer went anywhere near the girls because at best they ignored him, at worst they shrieked and called him gordo asqueroso! He forgot the perrito, forgot the pride he felt when women in the family had called him hombre. Did not kiss another girl for a long long time. As though almost everything he had in the girl department had burned up in that one fucking week.

Not that his “girlfriends” fared much better. It seemed that whatever bad no-love karma hit Oscar hit them too. By seventh grade Olga had grown huge and scary, a troll gene in her somewhere, started drinking 151 straight out the bottle and was finally taken out of school because she had a habit of screaming NATAS! in the middle of the homeroom. Even her breasts, when they finally emerged, were floppy and terrifying. Once on the bus Olga had called Oscar a cake eater, and he’d almost said, Look who’s talking, puerca, but he was afraid that she would rear back and trample him; his cool-index, already low, couldn’t have survived that kind of paliza, would have put him on par with the handicapped kids and with Joe Locorotundo, who was famous for masturbating in public.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz is my book from the Dominican Republic for the Read The World challenge, and is my second book for the Caribbean Reading Challenge.

» The photographs, Thanksgiving In Paterson, NJ and Desfile y Festival Dominicano de New Jersey, are both © remolacha.net and used under a Creative Commons by-nc licence.

The President by Miguel Angel Asturias

The President is my book from Guatemala for the Read The World challenge. I’m probably going to count it it towards Scavella’s Caribbean Reading Challenge as well, although I haven’t really worked out my list for that yet. It comes with one high recommendation: Asturias was, as it says on the cover, ‘Winner! Nobel Prize for Literature’.

It is a book about life under a dictatorship; at the beginning a Colonel is murdered under slightly freakish circumstances, and the repercussions spread out from there, starting with the President using the murder as a pretext to target other politicians. The President isn’t particularly about the president himself, but the psychological and social impact on other people of the arbitrary and ruthless exercise of power.

I have to say I was left slightly cold by it. I don’t know if I would have read it any differently if I’d checked to see when it was written before reading it (d’oh!). It turns out it was actually written between 1922 and 1933 (though not published until 1946), which makes some of the stylistic quirks seem rather more radical and others more forgivable.

The things I might need to forgive – i.e. what I found irritating – is a certain overwrought quality to the prose, typified by the plentiful use of ellipses… and exclamation marks! Knowing that the book was written at least four decades earlier than I thought provides a degree of context for that, I think; quite a lot of books from the interwar period have a hint of intellectual melodrama to them. When I was reading it, though, I just thought it might be a very dodgy translation.

And on the other hand, the surreal aspect to the writing – the narrative slips into almost dream-sequence passages, and the action and characterization is sometimes slightly grotesque – is clearly not, as I vaguely thought, a pale imitation of Marquez. Rather, Asturias is probably an important influence on a writer like GGM.

Still, this is all post facto stuff, and when I was reading it I was rather less charitable. It was sporadically brilliant – after reading the first chapter I really thought I was in for a treat – but it never quite gripped me. It follows various intertwined characters, which meant no strong central narrative to pull me back in once my attention started wandering.

Anyway, here’s an extract:

Nothing was visible ahead. Behind them crept the track like a long silent snake unrolling its fluid, smooth, frozen coils. The ribs of the earth could be counted in the meagre dried-up marshlands, untouched by winter. The trees raised themselves to the full height of their thick, sappy branches in order to breathe. The bonfires dazzled the eyes of the tired horses. A man turned his back to urinate. His legs were invisible. The time had come for his companions to take stock of their situation, but they were too busy cleaning their rifles with grease and bits of cotton that still smelt of woman. Death had been carrying them off one by one, withering them as they lay in their beds, with no advantage to their children  or anyone else. It was better to risk their lives and see what would come of that. Bullets feel nothing when they pierce a man’s body; to them flesh is like sweet warm air—air with a certain substance. And they whistle like birds. the time had come to take stock, but they were too busy sharpening the machetes the leaders of the revolution had brought from an ironmonger whose shop had been burned down. The sharpened edge was like the smile on a negro’s face.

 I think this is a good book which, for whatever reasons, didn’t grab me. Shrug.

» The picture is of José María Orellana, president of Guatemala when Asturias started writing the novel, as he appears on the one quetzal banknote. It is © Oscar Mota and used under a CC attribution licence.

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