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 … 

Ruby’s Dream: The Story of a Boy’s Life (RR) by Ronan Matthew

My biggest problem with Ruby’s Dream: The Story of Boy’s Life was I wish it had committed to the memoir genre rather than feigning being fiction – that was distracting, but overall the story of this boy’s life was an interesting read. It begins on his (Ferdinand Antonio apparently not Ronan Matthew) arrival in New York, a new Caribbean/British West Indian (at the time) immigrant from Santa Maria (not Antigua, but not not Antigua – which was named for a church in Spain named Santa Maria de la Antigua). It covers his early years in the States, the rough going of trying to find work when you’re not from the US and are a person of colour (even a white-seeming though not white-passing person of colour, a “shell dolly” as he was called on the island), and ends with his graduation from university, the first in his family to do so. It goes back to the island a number of times to fill in that complicated family history and paint a picture of the world he came from – in some of the more vibrant parts of the book. And in these island spaces at least, the veil between fiction and memoir strains and sometimes tears because from the names of places to significant dates including the 1736 rebellion to the cricket days and the cricketer and his football playing brother (Sir Vivian and Mervyn Richards, though not named as such) to the debt that Harvard owes Antigua in reparations for slave money from a plantation owner used to start Harvard Law to the island’s claim of having 365 beaches, one for each day of the year, there is no question that Matthew is rebuilding the world around his own life. And that that world is Antigua. I understand the use of fiction as a filter but he needed to commit either way in order to either help this reader suspend disbelief (pretend it’s not his story, not Antigua) or commiserate fully with a life that journeys from tragic to triumphant.

The tragic parts include the death of his mother when he was too young to understand what he had lost, but feeling it nonetheless, and the abuse at the hand of a father he barely knew (an oddly familiar father to those of us who knew men of this type). The Catholic schooling and education by white (and one Black) Brother who assumed themselves inherently superior to the people they served, the poverty (cardboard in the soles of shoes because there were no new shoes to be had), the oppression of racism which manifests in many ways including the generational rape of Black women who then birthed children abandoned on the one hand, not quite belonging on the other. Boys like the author/main character. All of these and more. Including the oppressive sweat shop labour, the disease of drugs around him, the crime, the bewilderment, the triple shifts while paying his way through college in his New York years. But ultimately finding purpose and success, the note on which the novel (memoir?) quickly ends.

It is well framed in that sense, rather than trying to tell a whole life, focusing on a chapter of that life that holds a compelling arc.

It was a good read, especially after I realized the repetition (saying the same thing in the same way over and over) that made the introductory segment feel drawn out, for the deliberate narrative style it was. And while the book could use additional editing to better make some connections and perhaps re-order some segments for flow and internal coherency (it felt sometimes like information download rather than structured narrative), and maybe rein in some of the repetition for pacing reasons (e.g. the six pages plus just riding the train in the beginning), plus some minor proofing, it worked generally. It put you in the moment and held you there – e.g. the disorientation of being a fish out of water in a city where no one made eye contact (every Caribbean person on their first trip to the Big Apple has some story like this).

Another notable literary device, the use of contrast, life on an island v. life in the big city; the register also stands out to me, feeling overly formal initially but seeming to relax as the writing went on (or maybe I didn’t notice it as much as I got in to the story). Something I never adjusted to though, how long the chapters felt – that could have done with some breaking up, for momentum.

One of the interesting dynamics of books of this type as well is the social history built in to the personal history – in this case largely 1960s and 1970s but with call backs to earlier times in the lives of working people and the emergent middle class on a not-yet-independent island in the English speaking Caribbean. For me, some of the more interesting bits were the social history of the Ovals area where the boys played and observed the adults around them, and near the end when he delved more in to his family history and in so doing the history of race, class, privilege, and movement of people in the former slave colonies. This could have been explored more but by then it felt a bit like a rush to the finish which is unfortunate.

In the memoir or ripped from real life fictions of Antigua and Barbuda’s publishing history, I can’t think of another book that quite occupies the space this book does because of the author’s racial make-up and place in society – and I would have been interested in more of this aspect of it.

Ultimately though this is a heartbreaking tale of a young boy-cum-young man first trying to understand and later working to figure out and define his place in the world. Interesting insights to the immigrant experience and outsiderness generally. Vivid in its descriptions and though the character is himself emotionally closed off in his real time reactions to the things happening to him, the reader can’t help but feel for him (credit to the author for his handling of the horror of the situations relative to the vulnerability of the main character).

Older Reads (i.e. books completed)…

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Quick Take V
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 Take 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)
How to be a Calypsonian (RR) by Desryn Collins (children’s picture book with illustrator Ricky Sanchez Ayala) – Quick Take III
In Time of Need (RR) by Shakirah Bourne (audio book) – Quick Take
The Lost Sketchbook (RR) by Imam Baksh (children’s picture book with illustrator Stacey Byer) – Quick Take III
The Rendezvous and Other Stories by Daphne Du Maurier (audio book) – Quick Take
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 Take 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 Take 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 Take 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 Take V
The Old Guard: Tales Through Time #5 (of 6) graphic novel by by Jason Aaron with art by Rafael Albuquerque and graphic novel by Alejandro Arbano with art by Kano – Quick Take V
Skin Deep: Race + Culture: Is this the End? (RR) (journal) – Quick Take II
The Talking Mango Tree (RR) by A H Benjamin (children’s picture book with illustrator Daniel J O’Brien) – Quick Take
Take us to a Better Place (various authors) – Quick Take 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 Take II

DNFs (the books I did not finish) – it’s a bit early in the year (April May June July 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).

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