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 IV, V , 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.
Last read …
The Festival of San Joaquin by Zee Edgell
I have enjoyed many books – you’ve read about some of them in my Blogger on Books series – but it’s been a long, long time since a book made me cry. Belizean writer Zee Edgell’s Festival of San Joaquin did that, and honestly I’m not even sure why. I only know that the book is so immersive, so tuned in to the main character’s point of view, that I hurt for her and want things to work out for her, and find myself mirroring her suspicions and fear of hoping, and dogged resolve to keep going. I want the best for her and am afraid to believe, as she is, that life can ever be good, as it n/ever was.
Her name is Luz Marina, and that name is not the only thing that feels poetic about this prose. Edgell’s writing is alluring in the best way, a garden of words and aromas and emotions, prickly and beautiful as some flowers in any garden will prove to be.
Luz Marina is a peasant girl, as guileless as they come. Steeped in tradition and family, she surrenders any personal dream to the responsibilities that come of being the oldest when a drunken brawl turns her father invalid. A ‘fortuitous’ meeting with a wealthy woman earns her access to a world that can improve her family’s circumstances. She learns a lot in this new world but any sense of independent thought or agency comes much, much later, after a tragic turn of events.
I am telling this in a linear way the story does not. As Edgell tells it, when we meet Luz Marina she is on (or just recently released after) trial for murder and it takes us the length of the book to find out what truly happened – and it doesn’t feel gimmicky, and we don’t feel cheated, though we hunger for the whole story almost from the beginning. But with narrative that moves like a wooden cart over a bumpy unpaved back road, Edgell seems to say, we’ll get there, we’ll get there…but here’s what happened, and it is as unsequenced as memories in real life.
We have an unreliable narrator in Luz Marina who does not until much later remember exactly what happened that fateful day – though Edgell gives us enough to suspect what and why, if not the specifics of how. Luz Marina who sees a court appointed psychiatrist not only doesn’t have her full story straight in her head, she knows she cannot trust her feelings for she is a trauma survivor who doesn’t even fully understand how damaged and wronged she is, even by the society with which she tries to make right.
One character I come around on, heartily, throughout the course of the book is Luz Marina’s mother, Mama Sofia, who was in the end, less a background figure and burden than I expected her to be – there is a lot under the surface too. How would this tale look from Mama Sofia’s point of view, one gets a sense in her reactions to Luz Marina’s reactions, and it is complicated enough to be interesting.
As if guarding the community and Luz Marina and Mama Sofia’s secrets because it’s none of our business, Edgell doesn’t satisfy every curiousity we have about their lives and that leaves us feeling as unsteady as they are for the duration of the narrative. But in the end, I find myself accepting that that is all, as the novel ends with the story taking a new turn with several possibilities.
Beyond plot, this is a masterclass in characterization and perspective, one in which there are no handlebars or guides available to the persona, one in which mistakes are made, repeatedly, and yet, and yet, it never feels like the writer has lost the plot. A plot which by the way makes a sub-plot of eco-commercial globalization, simple people and big business, capitalism and rural innocence in a way that does not feel improbable to any Caribbean reader. She intertwines these threads of malice and power, family and faith, yearning and terror, heartbreak and hope.
And, as she does so, Edgell makes it feel easy, though I don’t believe it must have been, or maybe it was, maybe she just has the gift. For this is a stirring tale, one that dances between reality and memory and dream giving each equal treatment, as if to say it’s all the same in a world where the fates of characters can be made or unmade in the streets among the masquerade of the Carnival, i.e. The Festival of San Joaquin.
A beautiful book, and it hurts, but, amazingly, does not leave you bereft.
Older Reads (i.e. books completed)…
DNFs – it’s a bit early in the year (April 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). 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).
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.
Beneath Lion’s Wings 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 from last year that I was reading but lost in the purge – 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 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.