Blogger on Books IX (2021)

The Blogger on Books Series dates back to my time on My Space. Put a book nerd on social media, what am I going to talk about? Books, of course. And a series was born. I write about books just-read. Not every one; just the ones I want to write about. Catch Blogger on Books IVV , VI , VII , and VIII here on the site, and Blogger on Books 1 through 3 on Wadadli Pen (the online platform for the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize, a programme I launched in 2004 to nurture and showcase the literary arts in Antigua and Barbuda, and which I still coordinate). Reviews migrated from my My Space page are tagged as throwback reviews. Also since I’ve started receiving more of these, going forward I’ll be sure to tag with an (RR) any review or complimentary copies received from the author or publisher whether for review purposes or not – all reviews are still my honest opinion. Also-also, a ‘few’ of my quick takes have become lengthier than anticipated. So, going forward, if they do, I’m just going to make them a full review even if, length aside, they still feel like quick takes to me.

Last read … 

Triangular Road by Paule Marshall

American writer of Barbadian descent American-Barbadian Barbadian-American writer Paule Marshall was born in 1929 and this memoir published in 2009 gives a fair span of her life, and if I were ever to write a memoir (I won’t) I think I’d like it to be like this one. Triangular Road, stitched together from a lecture series, picks key points on her writing journey and makes a chapter of each one, providing insight to how that journey inspires and informs her writing.

The book title, Triangular Road, is a not accidental, I would guess, reference to the triangular trade that ensnared tens of millions of Black bodies between Africa, the Americas (the hemisphere), and Europe.

“So that rather than passing judgment or making comparisons, instead of taking a superficial view of people and events, it was for them to educate themselves and to understand the complexity of a Struggle that fundamentally involved people of colour around the world.”

Quote referencing a response given by Langston Hughes in conversation with student activists during their European tour in the 1960s.

She touches down on each continent and, through her experiences, this reader got a more profound sense of who she is – without, as it happens, too many personal details.

“No money as such changed hands. The Dutch ship being low on provisions, the chattel were exchanged for so many sacks of corn, beans and oats, so many barrels of soaked and salted meat.”

She is revealed through the things that concerns her, as in this reflection on the banks of a river in a town in America that had borne witness to the slave trade.

It’s not a confessional. The details it gives, some of which are personal, e.g. the relationship between her parents and her relationship to them, are relevant to framing this story of a writer finding her voice and in the end finding her place.

I first read Paule Marshall in university when we studied Praisesong for the Widow in what I imagine was an African American lit class. So it was with delight that I read of the book’s genesis in Carriacou, offshore Grenada, where she spent a year trying and failing to write until she became unblocked one night during the Big Drum/Nation Dance ceremony. Her description of this ceremony, by the way, makes me want to add Carriacou to my list of places to which I wish to travel – and has me wondering how it missed me on my several trips to Grenada. In her description of the Big Drum/Nation Dance is a reminder of the prose that drew me in through books like Browngirl Brownstones and Daughters.

“Each time the old men drumming announced the theme of a particular “nation,” the women who claimed it as theirs swept onto the dusty circle, which tonight had become sacred ground.”

Nation in this case is their tribe, forgotten by so many uprooted during the transAtlantic slave trade but not by these Carriacou women to whom it had been handed down – and it is my curiousity about if this tradition survives or if memory has been erased that intrigues me.

“For me, the idea for a novel I would write almost a decade later grew out of this overnight trip to what I would always think of as a time capsule of an island. I was scarcely aware of it back then. Yet the sense of a possible story had nonetheless implanted itself…Praisesong for the Widow would be that future novel.”

For someone who enjoys docs on how the creative sausage gets made this book is a gem and this is just one example.

“As an illegal, Sam Burke lived in constant fear of the INS: Any day, undocumented alien that he was, he could be found out, arrested, jailed and deported.”

Sam Burke is Paule Marshall’s father.

She writes for instance of her parents, who they were, how they met, how things fell apart. In the earliest part of her mother’s story another woman looms large. “Her children called her M’ Da-duh, a pet name that on their lips became an honorific title. They said ‘M’ Da-duh’ the way a commoner bowing before royalty instinctively knows to say ‘M’ Lord’ and ‘M’ Lady’.” I remember the deeply felt short story she wrote of her mother taking her and her sister home to meet M’Da-duh.

I remember another short story about the poetry she picked up as a child, seen but not heard, in her mother’s kitchen – and she writes of that time here too, in between the telling of the growing disappointment and distance between her parents and how they each in their way found community to sustain them.

Paule’s community, as mentioned, included none greater than Harlem Renaissance giant Langston Hughes who handpicked her to accompany him on a State Department sponsored tour of Europe.

“Truth is, Mr. Hughes was Night People, that odd and perhaps lonely breed of humankind who are most vividly alive and at their best creatively during the hours between midnight and dawn.”

Excerpt from her opening chapter, a bit of insight on a literary great.

It included, too, among others, Miss Dessah who took her under her wing in Grenada or the older sister of her mother, taken with dementia, who one day looked up and saw with clarity the sister long gone in the daughter who had returned. A recognition which amused Paule given the lifelong tension between her and her own mother – who had never thought her beautiful and never really understood her.

I find so much that resonates and so much that sets me to dreaming in her tales – really six solid tales – of the writing life. The instability and adventuring of it, the uncertainty and the opportunities, the constant work and claiming of it one needs to do, and that Paule did that in to old age – dying in 2019 – is also something that appeals (if one can be as gifted as her in seeking out the grant money to make it happen).

The carefully structed memoir which begins in the US and Europe, moves in to the Caribbean, and finally back home to Africa, ends with her first visit there for what sounds like a huge CARIFESTA-like event bringing all of Africa and its diaspora to Nigeria in the late 1970s. Africa is already on my list but if it hadn’t been, the way she describes the recognition and acceptance would certainly land it there. “We often found ourselves the object of heated debates…as to our possible lineage. Singling out cheekbones, foreheads, the shape of our eyes, the size and design of our lips, the particular spread and flare to our nostrils, our jawlines…they would declare us to be variously Yoruba, Fanti, Ibo, Akan, Igbo, Fulani, Temne, Luo…To be claimed by so many! To possess a face that was generic apparently to the entire continent below the Sahara!”

In 2016, I was a guest of the BIM Literary festival and so was Paule’s son, who was there to collect a lifetime achievement award on her behalf – he did say, I think, that she was by that time in decline and not a particularly happy camper. Later, a picture of her with the prize he’d collected was shared. And to see her seemingly happy made me happy.

I’m top left in this photo call. That’s Evan Marshall (Paule’s son) bottom right.
Paule Marshall.

“My son romped and splashed in the surf, built and destroyed any number of sand castles, chased every tiny sand crab he caught sight of back in to his burrow, all the while chatting away with me,” Paule wrote sharing memories of her time in Grenada while working on her second novel. Her son was three at the time.

It’s moments like those that make this book so charming in addition to, this chapter in particular, illuminating the writing process and how it intersects with living and with, in Paule’s case, her personal history and the collective history of Black people in the Americas. Bonus for me, the visual of what the Caribbean was like in a real, tangible way, before my time – in its simplicity, with its painful history, amidst the rumblings of discontent, and within the pre-resort unbothered beauty of it all.

Older Reads (i.e. books completed)…

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Quick Takes V
The Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books Volume 12 Number 1 2019 edited by Paget Henry – Quick Takes III
The Art of White Roses (RR) by Viviana Prado-Nuñez
The Caribbean Writer Volume 32 (RR) (journal edited by Alscess G. E. Lewis-Brown) – Quick Takes II
Chestnut Street by Maeve Binchy
Cold Case by Faye Kellerman
Daylight Come by Diana McCaulay
The Festival of San Joaquin by Zee Edgell
Finny the Fairy Fish (RR) by Diana McCaulay (children’s picture book with illustrator Stacey Byer)
Fireburn (RR) by Apple Gidley
How to be a Calypsonian (RR) by Desryn Collins (children’s picture book with illustrator Ricky Sanchez Ayala) – Quick Takes III
In Time of Need (RR) by Shakirah Bourne (audio book) – Quick Takes
The Lost Sketchbook (RR) by Imam Baksh (children’s picture book with illustrator Stacey Byer) – Quick Takes III
Museum of Modern Art, New York
My Coral Buddies and Me Cricket Calamity by Shakirah Bourne – Quick Takes V
The Old Guard: Tales Through Time #1 (of 6) (graphic novel by Greg Rucka and Andrew Wheeler with artists Leandro Fernandez and Jacopo Camagni) – Quick Takes II
The Old Guard: Tales Through Time #2 (of 6) (graphic novel by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Eric Trautmann with artist and colourist respectively Valentine De Landro and Mike Henderson, and and Rebecca McConnell nd Daniela Miwa) – Quick Takes IV
The Old Guard: Tales Through Time #3 (of 6) (graphic novel by Brian Michael Bendis with art by Michael Avon Oeming and colours by Taki Soma; and Robert McKenzie and Dave Walker, with art by Justin Greenwood and colours by Daniel Miwa) – Quick Takes IV
The Old Guard: Tales Through Time #4 (of 6) (graphic novel by Matt Fraction with art by Steve Lieber and colours by Daniel Miwa; and David F Walker, with art by Matthew Clark and colours by Rebecca McConnell) – Quick Takes V
The Old Guard: Tales Through Time #5 (of 6) graphic novel by Jason Aaron with art by Rafael Albuquerque and graphic novel by Alejandro Arbano with art by Kano – Quick Takes V
The Old Guard: Tales Through Time #6 (of 6) graphic novel by Vita Alaya with art by Nicola Scott and colours by Annette Kwok, and writing by Greg Rucka with art by Leandro Fernandez and colours by Daniela Miwa – Quick Takes V
Passing by Nella Larsen (audio book) – Quick Takes V
The Rendezvous and Other Stories by Daphne Du Maurier (audio book) – Quick Takes
Ruby’s Dream: The Story of a Boy’s Life by Ronan Matthew
Skin Deep: Race + Culture: Is this the End? (RR) (journal) – Quick Takes II
The Talking Mango Tree (RR) by A H Benjamin (children’s picture book with illustrator Daniel J O’Brien) – Quick Takes
Take us to a Better Place (various authors) – Quick Takes IV
Turtle Beach (RR) by Barbara A. Arrindell (children’s picture book with illustrator Zavian Archibald)
The Wonder of the World Leaf (RR) by Summer Edward (children’s picture book with illustrator Sayada Ramdial) – Quick Takes II

DNFs (the books I did not finish) – it’s a bit early in the year (April May June July October December 2021) for DNFs, especially as I’m usually committed to finishing what I start, but I’m struggling and I’ve resolved to let some of these books go. It doesn’t mean that I have not enjoyed parts of these books but it’s been a long slog in which I’ve either had to start over or the reading has dragged (what’s new, right? but in the case of any book listed here I don’t see a finish line). I’ve debated with myself whether it’s fair or not to say anything at all about books I haven’t finished. So there’s a chance I might edit these thoughts but, for now, if I have any thoughts-so-far, I’ll share those as these books may well be for someone else or some other version of me in some other time (no slights intended).

The Angel Horn: Shake Keane 1927-1997: Collected Poems – I was at the bus stop and having a bad day when I ran out of steam with this one but it’s really quite an interesting poetry collection (the collected works) of a Vincentian about which I shamefully was unaware considering the breadth of his work. So, while I didn’t quite finish the collection, I’m happy to know more about this poet and though I did not finish I would recommend poetry lovers pick this up. I’ll share some notes I made as I read (with the understanding that like my reading, these notes eventually run out): The opening poem was giving me Lonely Londoners vibes at first (which was fine; I like Sam Selvon’s tale of Caribbean immigrants in lonely London) but as it continues and continues it expands to various ethnicities and islands, sometimes mapped on a single body, within the Caribbean and the conflicts and contradictions and camaraderie between them to Pakistan and parts of Africa etc, different parts of so called ‘Empire’ coming together in cold, unwelcoming England and finding family…. “the family was getting bigger and bigger” and the imagery and deeper meaning beneath the imagery is what’s striking me right away…also the absence of women. or Black “West Indian” women anyway. And this, on returning home, “Well, we not settlin een so well” This poem is called ‘Round Trip’. It’s a strong, multi-page opener. I’m at page 14. Hit pause but I go read more. From the second poem ‘Private Prayer (for Walter Rodney)’ “…the compromise/which I am” as a way of describing the Caribbean/West Indian identity…that’s thought provoking – p98 quirky and surreal jazz like – “where it don’t evenself ha grass/much less plum tree/she must be tief it” p. 102 even when I don’t understand what’s happening the way he says things keeps me reading – p100 my neighbor plum tree – I don’t think I have the range to review this (that’s the last thing I wrote except for the words “palm” and “octupuss” and “121”, which I assume refers to the title of a poem and the page they’re on. Maybe some day I’ll return to this one but given the state of my TBR, no promises).

Soucouyant Her Fire Rages by Martha Gomes-Mckie

Callaloo – a literary journal I’ve been reading forever – I didn’t read all of it, mostly skimmed, so though I got to the end it technically counts as a DNF. What I read was interesting but a lot of the writing was too academic for my taste, and too long. Some of the A Van Jordan poems had vivid and evocative imagery, ‘My Old Haunt’ (liked), the Divorce dog story was funny-sad and quirky (I remember checking the author bio intent on adding her to my TBR only to find her already there – Taming it Down by Karin McLarin). This is a respected literary journal attached to a respected writing programme which I have personally benefited from; so I’m not knocking it. Sometimes you just don’t rock with everything the same and that’s okay.

Josephine Against the Sea (RR) by Shakirah Bourne – I’m kind of mad at myself about this one. It took me forever to get this ebook downloaded and lots of back and forth with the author, and I did not realize it had an expiry date and I am loathe to go back to the author to request it again. Me embarrass. Suffice it to say that my Bajan sistren is dope and all reviews point to the book being dope (so, don’t sleep). I’ll try to get a copy of my own at some point; a physical-read-at-my-leisure copy this time.

How to Write and Get Paid (RR) – I was up to page 86 and then I lost the file – it was an ebook.

37 Poems by Lasana M Sekou (RR) – I just wasn’t getting in to this as I’d hoped but I do think there is something here for poetry lovers.

Another Mother (RR) by Ross Kenneth Urken – the author actually sent me this one specifically for review purposes quite a long time ago. And honestly this DNF is more about not having the time to invest than anything else (and finding myself glossing over parts of it, usually parts that feel either too analytical or like information dumps) …though I do think I got about 90+ pages in and some of the writing, when it’s descriptive (not overly descriptive which is sometimes a problem) or narratively driven, is quite lovely. It’s non-fiction about his (Black) Jamaican nanny framed as sort of a Mary Poppins. “Dezna was more than a Jamaican Mary Poppins, of course”, the author has the self-awareness to note, but arguably, at least initially, she is a little too perfect – “Trained as a nurse and a seamstress, she excels at remedying this mishap. She sets an ice pack on my wrist and holds it firm, muttering some healing incantation. I do not ask much but take comfort in knowing she can make the pain go away. I don’t mind being shushed or there-there’d.” She had such a profound impact on this Jewish-American (+white) boy that he went looking for her family in the Jamaican countryside as an adult. He establishes that this is about trying to understand her and her culture rather than ownership and appropriation (albeit some of the latter arguably happens). Though social commentary about Jamaican nannies in the US and investigation in to her life beyond this role is built in, is the purpose really of the telling, she does at times have that ‘magical negro’ quality so often seen in the western imagination, via Hollywood and publishing: knowing everything, fixing everything, making the white people around her life better while seeming almost to have no life or purpose of her own. I can’t say how this plays out in the fullness of the book as I did not finish but it is heartening that the author seems to approach his subject with affection, respect, and self-awareness re his role in not just her life but the telling of it – “I am not the ideal teller of this story”. My own failure notwithstanding, I do think others may find this book finishable.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James – It’s a lot to take in right now, a lot of characters and timelines and just too much, and I’m not as invested as I need to be to try to make sense of it all (it feels like a chore, I feel stupid and confused – and no doubt there are fans of this book who would line up to tell me just how stupid I am); there are some great action sequences (the first time we meet those warriors who walk on the ceiling and the Tracker’s mad dash to escape them) and some interesting character dynamics (Tracker and the Leopard). It’s a very ambitious project from a writer who takes on nothing but (you can read my reviews of The Book of Night Women and A Brief History of Seven Killings to see that I generally appreciate, and am often challenged by, the Booker award winning Caribbean writer’s oeuvre) but after several attempts, I have to tap out. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tackle it (James, a rare celebrity author, doesn’t need me to recommend him); the book’s dry humor, action sequences, epic scope and general world building will appeal to readers looking to do a deep dive in to fantasy that is not based in European lore (which is one of the elements that really appealed to me).

Death on the Danube (RR) by Jennifer S. Alderson – I can legit say this is not the book’s fault. And I appreciate the author sending me a copy, that as much as anything made me determined to push through but through a number of life challenges this season and last, I cannot. But if you like cozy adventure mysteries (think Knives Out but the travelogue version), you’ll like this. Another me, another time, I might have to but for now, I need to move on.

Dr. Susan Lowes (thesis excerpted on the internet) – What I read of it was very interesting in terms of the social history of Antigua and Barbuda. It includes valuable insights to education (e.g. ‘Once the grammar school began to admit nonwhites in large numbers, a grammar school education became the key prerequisite for all the “middle class” occupations and a virtual passport into the civil service. Thus while at first the white population sent their sons to the Antigua Grammar School, conferring superiority on the institution, once selected nonwhites were allowed in, it was the institution that conferred superiority on the student. …while nonwhite access to education was by no means regardless of social class, the fact that such access was often through scholarships meant that a grammar school education occasionally became available to young men and women who, if strictly social and economic criteria were followed, might not have had access to the new opportunities.’).  The book provides interesting insight to events on the road to civil rights like the 1918 riots (i.e. labour unrest violently suppressed), and the challenges in colonial Antigua and Barbuda of finding jobs, getting promoted, getting equal pay, cracking the colour and gender barrier if you were Black, or even just non-white, and non-male, not of the ‘correct’ class, not ‘legitimate’ by birth etc. I don’t have the whole thing which is fine as it’s not the kind of writing I might read cover to cover; a good reference though.

Beneath Lion’s Wings (RR) by Marie Ohanesian Nardin – this was sent to me by the author and came of my interest in revisiting the city of Venice. So, the characters’ ride on the water taxi and seeing Venice for the first time was a nostalgia trip for me. I recognized the landscape with a familiar sense of wonder. There are the romance staples (e.g. the gondolier with eyes as green as the water and the vacationing Hollywood agent in training meet-cute: “They gave each other a smile only fate could have arranged.”). But the descriptions of the location resonated as did the attitudes (“pffft…this is Italy where something is said and another is done” – so Italy is the Caribbean, I knew it!). Good details re the gondola world. The woman is career driven and the love interest/gondolier is a romantic. In conversation with his much more lascivious friend, he says, she “isn’t hot, she’s beautiful”. And when his friend persisted, “Big tits…great ass?” Shut him down with, “Come on man. I’m telling you…when she smiled her face… – her eyes…dark brown…maybe black…and shiny, like her hair. I – couldn’t take my eyes off of her.” Just the guy you want for a rom-com (#notlikeotherguys #sowhatifhestoogoodtobetrue #andhisbehaviourmightbeonthecreepysideinreallife #thatsromance…s). Lovers of modern romance will possibly like this. I couldn’t really get in to it; romances and me still seem to be on a break.

There’s a Cropover arts journal (RR) from last year that I was reading but lost in the purge (I deleted a whole bunch of stuff to help me breathe at some point earlier this year) – it was a mix of professional and amateur artists and writers and uneven piece to piece. One that I did like of what I read was Robert Edison Sandiford’s ‘Entangled’, a quiet reflection on the frustrations of real connection and the photo by Andrew Brown, which may have you tilting your head, but the upside downness of it captures the chaos of Carnival.

In the Dark Soft Earth (RR) by Frank Watson – this is a collection of poetry of love, nature, spirituality, and dreams. I received this review copy too long ago from Plum White Press, a small press literary publisher. I really have not been able to give this book the attention it deserves since receiving it forever ago; the poetry (though brief; I appreciated that) is not really connecting. The visual imagery (e.g. Eleanor Greenfield’s textured The Promise, with a woman standing in marshy water, hand cupped toward a bird) is soft and alluring, and one of my favourite aspects of the book. The poetry itself has a fair amount of imagery as well, nature imagery obviously though nature is not the subject (e.g. P. 18 “the branches of her desire entangle me wherever I go”). She is, the poetic voice seeking or praising her. Lots of water imagery and the soft earth at the edge of it, and the detritus that finds its way there. There should be appeal here to lovers of poetry but at this point I think I had just decided to give up books I wasn’t personally feeling strongly about finishing.

See Blogger on Books VIII
See Blogger on Books VII
See Blogger on Books VI
See Blogger on Books V
See Blogger on Books IV
See Blogger on Books III
See Blogger on Books II
See Blogger on Books I