BLOGGER ON BOOKS X (2022)

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 , VIIVIII, and IX 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.

Who am I? Author, Journalist, Editor, Producer, Columnist, Course/Workshop Facilitator, #gyalfromOttosAntigua

Last read … 

What a Mother’s Love don’t Teach You by Sharma Taylor (RR)

Disclaimer: I know Sharma Taylor. We first met when I facilitated a workshop she participated in and met again when we both participated in a workshop together – both in Barbados, where the Jamaica-born author lives and works. We’ve stayed in touch over the years – writer-friends, if you will – as she noted in her book’s acknowledgments. My expectations were high going in to this book (an advance review copy as noted by the RR), not just because it was highly anticipated after selling at auction as part of a two book deal. I have been a fan of Sharma’s short stories (several of which are award winning), sharing several of them in the Wadadli Pen Reading Room and Gallery series, and I have interviewed her here on the blog, that interview probing at why is she is so good at what she does. The truth is, as I said in a social media post on July 7th 2022, her publication day, shortly after finishing the book, her pen is poetry. So not a disclaimer as such, Sharma isn’t the first writer I’ve written about with whom I have a connection outside of the book; I always give my honest impressions just the same. But her arrival as a published novelist does feel like a moment and as I prepare to dive in to my thoughts, it seemed appropriate to show my hand. Finally, I try but there may be spoilers. Now, this:

First, how dope is that cover. I’ve been involved in a cover war of late (at a level unlike any other time in my career), so I am especially appreciative of when a publisher gets it right. This is just right. Not just because of its pretty, rich island tones inclusive of the dark-skinned beauty, but the angle, the earthiness, the space it creates for me as a reader to project one of the novel’s main female characters -Dinah, the mother of the tale -into that image.

Second, Sharma is such a skilled writer. Her descriptions are so fresh (e.g. “The night she had left the moon was like a scythe – a hacked off toenail.”). Come on now! Her prose is so alive. You immediately feel drawn in and quickly find yourself swimming in Jamaican patois that runs freely and reads easily. It shouldn’t be rare to hear creole (our mother tongues as varied as our islands) on the page, but it is still (even among ourselves where the written down language is often the colonizer’s), making this choice political, yet unforced and natural. But this isn’t just dictation. “Is like everyday, the water have to decide if it want to come inside” – what an inventive way to sum up Caribbean water woes. Plus Sharma’s delightful use of language makes for strong and engaging character and narrative voices. “She move her arms around the room, like she swimming in the middle of the ocean doing a backstroke.” Her characterisations run deep and ring true, and this is especially true of her contextualizing of Jamaica (the rich and remote, and the seedy and bleak parts of Jamaica in which the book is located).

Third, off of that, world and plot and lack of easy answers. With regard to the part of Jamaica it visits and the space it will occupy in the literary imagination, What a Mother’s love don’t Teach You can be compared to the Booker prize winning A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Gang violence, garrison communities, the dynamic between don and community, politics and the police as corrupt gangs in their own right, American influence, poverty v. wealth, the innocents (even when they’re not-so-innocent) caught in the deadly crossfire, the incestuousness of it all; all the same, but different same way. The book via use of metaphor, contrast, whom it chooses to center, and just specific vivid description manages to not just show the graphic reality of life and death in a Jamaican ghetto (dead bodies in the street, police and political corruption, the church, crime bosses, class warfare, and losing and finding things and people) but juxapose it with the heart and goodness, innocence and magic also to be found there. The way of this world might seem foreign even if you are from the Caribbean but Sharma draws and layers it, then peals back the layers in a way that makes it (the world and the complicated humanity of those who inhabit it) undeniable.

Fourth, the book’s for me most itch-beneath-my-skin mystery is, of course, is she or isn’t she – see, plot point, Dinah, feels that Apollo, a privileged American boy on a Jamaica adventure with his family, is her long lost son, and the novel doesn’t really settle whether she is or isn’t by the end (as I read it) though there’s a for-all-intents-and-purposes-she-is dynamic to their relationship by the end. It’s not the book’s only hook but it’s one of mine and the answers may not satisfy (because, ah life) but they also don’t leave the reader feeling cheated.

Fifth, the heartbreak – “I just was thinking mi could give my child myself” (tough, heartbreaking choices) … “The fog move like a cloud, then it pull mi and throw mi like a hurricane and if sometime mi don’t even know miself, how mi going know nobody else?” (perhaps the best and most evocative description I’ve seen of alzheimers) … the sadness of watching hope swell knowing it is doomed; looking at this one’s life and that one’s, and resigning onesself to the inevitability of certain dark paths and their tragic outcomes.

‘Listen to yuh conscience,’ I beg her.
‘Who tell yuh mi have one?’ Regina ask. ‘Dem accept conscience at the cashier in the supermarket? What it can buy?’

This is the world of this story and it doesn’t get realer than that.

Sixth, the humour evoked in a natural, very Caribbean, where laugh dey, cry dey kind of way. “Firefighters from the fire station assigned to the Lazarus Gardens community were called to the scene but could not respond due to the absence of a fire truck. When a truck was obtained from another station, it had to be refueled. On arriving at the scene of the fire, firefighters discovered that the fire hydrant was not working, so their efforts were hampered by lack of water. Efforts to get a comment from the Jamaica Fire Brigade have proved futile.” This is a comedy more Caribbean islands than Jamaica have seen play out (my own Antigua quite recently) – it’s not funny but what you can do but laugh.

Seventh, its handling of relationships on the individual level (mother, Dinah, and maybe-son, Apollo and his sort-of-girlfriend, Regina… and on) but also in terms of class distinctions (e.g. women and their helpers, the discomfort felt that one time one of the main ghetto women finds herself on the porch of a woman up in the hills). The differences in experience and not so much values as choices makes for misunderstandings. Example: one character trying to extort money from a friend (“To think, I just ask him for a likkle tax money and him get vex and behave so”), the friend feeling hurt and betrayed, both acting and responding as their environments, one of lack and one of too much, have conditioned them to. Though it is in the end not so simple between them, because (as is the case in life) it never is in this book.

Eighth, the skilled juggling of tension and tone, plot and characters in a quite densely populated story. For example, the way it manages to add dimension to the character I think of as the story’s big bad, whom I will admit I resisted giving too effs about. I can’t say that I did give two effs about him by the end (he is still one of the evillest characters I have met ever in fiction – his backstory doesn’t redeem him, his actions in real time are cold, and his fantasies even more chilling) but there was a grotesque poetry to his characterisation (the way it moved from something very broad to something uncomfortably intimate, as claustrophobic as the character’s reach). I was surprised to find myself enthralled and invested in his character arc by its end.

Ninth, the book’s themes (and I don’t pretend to understand all it is trying to say). Its meditation on power/lack of power and violence, though, was among the more interesting elements. From the rat caught in a trap nature of the life of some of the book’s more violent characters to the meeting between the legit and illegitimate don (pick which you think is which) and seeing that power dynamic play out and as a Caribbean person myself feeling the weight of it. As for violence, some of the worst of it is doled out by the law – brutally, unnecessarily (though I guess all violence is unnecessary and what the book is showing is that there are no good guys and bad guys – and no escaping it; violence reaches even the places where people walk dogs). This is in some ways a treatise on the dehumanizing and inescapable traps that are classism, capitalism, and crime.

That list is longer than I expected when I started freewriting my reflections on What a Mother’s love don’t Teach You, and yet I didn’t love everything about this book. My frustrations with certain characters, and sometimes even with characters whose point of view I generally can appreciate are to be expected, and likely as the author intended. People are complicated and we don’t like even our favourite people all the time. I don’t have to like a character to like them if you know what I mean; so this isn’t that. But watching a character we spend a lot of time with (perhaps the novel’s anchor character) fumble around where he shouldn’t be, sometimes causing harm whether he means to or not, just irritated me. Dinah and Regina (in “prisons of [their] own” and yet not exacting violence on the world) were perhaps my favourite characters, and his relationship with both, especially the former, plus his grand gesture near the end, should make him less annoying, I suppose, as it suggests something of an arc, but it doesn’t. For me, especially as he leaves the story with the same privilege with which he came in to it (and I think I’m meant to see some change in him). Additionally, there is a romantic relationship with two main supporting characters that I just didn’t feel convinced of, and I think it’s that there was nothing in the set-up to suggest the depth of feeling they landed at. Additionally, some logistics (practical and emotional) of one character’s trajectory after a major violent incident seemed out of sync to me and takes some of the air out of the tension around his storyline. Finally, the when of the story though established up top doesn’t feel as pinned down throughout the story as it could be – so that late story references to getting up to turn off the TV or use of a rotary phone are somewhat jarring reminders of that when. I am willing to accept though that some of these might be a fault of the reading, not the writing. I read What a Mother’s love don’t Teach You in stops and starts over time (due to lack of time). That said, the writing was such that when I was reading it, it felt like it flew by, there was such an ease to it inspite of the difficult and at times quite moving subject matter.

Just listen to this:

“But in mi brain, it different, is like the dress not loose but paint on har skin and har tummy look like a football, and I thinking that is just the other day mi was a barefoot boy kicking football down the lane in Lazarus Gardens, kicking up dust wid the other barefoot boy dem and it feel like a lifetime away from this moment now in this hot, stinking cell that smell like piss and fart.”

Beautiful and ugly same time; that’s this book.

Older Reads (i.e. books completed)…

The 2021 Perito Prize AnthologyQuick Takes II
A History of Barbuda under the Codringtons 1783-1883 by Margaret T Tweedy – Quick Takes I
Harriet’s Daughter by Marlene Nourbese Philip
Heart and Soul by Maeve Binchy – Quick Takes II
Selected Poems by Lorna Goodison – Quick Takes I
Victoire: My Mother’s Mother by Maryse Conde (translated by Richard Philcox)
Yemoja’s Anansi: A Short Story by Christal Clashing

DNFs (the books I did not finish) –

Quicksand by Nella Larson – This is more a pause than a DNF. “Her mind trails off” the narrative says of the character and, honestly, same. I struggle with audio books. I do still want to read this one but I’ll need a book-book.

Adda – Speak Out! Issue 1 – There are seven creative pieces in this first installment of the Speak Out! online journal published to the Commonwealth Writers platform Adda. I am entering it as DNF because I only read two in full as part of my #readCaribbean June reading. Those two are “Things must change” by Lloyd D’aguilar and “Attiya Firewood” by Lisa Latouche; the former of Jamaica and the latter of Dominica. Both stories were tense and violent social commentaries and riveting each in its own way – though one is in the urban jungle and one in a more rural, almost pre-modern space.

Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books Volume 6 Number 1 Summer 2013 – This is not really a DNF but I didn’t read it cover to cover so much as scan it, pausing to read the things that held my interest and for anyone interested in Antigua and Barbuda academic thought on politics, society, philosophy, and literature this annual publication is definitely a must-read, and I actually liked this one given its focus on “reconstructing our neglected literary tradition and review its books”, compared to some of the later Reviews. I had some mental pushback (and at least one serious recoil) which at least signals engagement. I learned things as I always do reading these. Sometimes the reading is challenging given its base in academia but when it connects, it roots deep. Example: “Many of us were programmed to consider ourselves not to be Africans…we do not know ourselves and some of us do not wish to know ourselves” – p. 23 “ And there are always little nuggets of information that may not be important-important but make the Antiguan in me take note anyway. Example, the detail about enslaver and founding father of America Thomas Jefferson, drinking only 12-year-old Antiguan rum “as it was the best in the world” – p. 24. The most interesting segment to me though was the feature essays segment (about 100 pages from p. 53 – p. 153) – its four articles ‘Frederick Stiles Jewett: A Connecticut Poet and Newspaperman in Antigua’ by Gregory Frohnsdorff, ‘Through an Enlightened Lens? John Luffman’s View of Antigua in the 1780s’ by Robert Glen, ‘Antigua and the Antiguans: the Question of its Authorship’ by Edgar Lake, and ‘How He Kick She’ by Radcliffe Robins.

Kirkus Reviews LXXXVIII, No. 24 December 2020 – This is actually a keepsake for me as it includes the Kirkus Review of my book Musical Youth, selected as one of its top indies of 2020 – and I was reading it to find out about other books favoured by Kirkus but time constraints force me to shelve it (for now?) but I will keep it for reference.

Managers’ First Aid Kit: A Practical Guide to Remedy the Three Most Common Managerial Challenges by Joan H Underwood – This would be a good read for management trainees or new managers, some of it is even applicable to life outside of the organization as it’s about shifting how you do things. As my own obligations pile up, however, and my reading tanks, I had to make another cut and this was it.

Rise up, Sista by Kristine Simelda – As with most of my DNFs, this is not meant as a knock against the book but at this time I need to make some cuts because there’s only so much time and I’m not really connecting with this one. For anyone who might be interested in the tale of a reggae artist and British rocker in the 1960s, definitely check it out though.

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