My 2016 in Books 

I love books. I hope when I grow up to be able to have lots of them.- Lucy Maud Montgomery, aged 15

So the final figures for this year are 125 books read, considerably less than last year. I read 18 poetry collections, 30 non-fiction, and the rest were fiction.

This year was my year of reading Toni Morrison and I  read a Morrison every month in chronological order. I managed to keep up with writing a review a month until the autumn, but with my new job I’ve had less time and energy for reading. Next year I’ll write a more detailed post of my findings and experiences through this journey.

2016 was a tumultuous one for several reasons. It was hard to focus sometimes but poetry always comes through in hard times, and I read a lot of it. Some of my favourites were Li-Young Lee’s The City in Which I Love You, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Langston Hughes’ Selected Poems, Gwendolyn Brooks’ Selected Poems, Czeslaw Milosz’s New and Collected Poems,  Marge Piercy’s The Crooked Inheritance, and  Mahmoud Darwish’s Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? And for those who missed it, earlier on in the year I compiled a list of diverse poetry. You can find it here

I found some great diverse graphic novels, for example Sita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar, the Aya series from Ivory Coast by Marguerite Abouet, and Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa: A History of Japan series.

I usually read a lot of biographies , and although this year I only read a few, I managed to find some good ones. My favourites were both 5 star reads. Mohammed Ali’s The Soul of a Butterfly was a good one to read after his death and be reacquainted with his legacy. And Grace Jones’ I’ll Never Write my Memoirs  is one of the most fascinating reads I’ve ever come across.

Reading women’s literature is so essential and I’m glad I’ve made a conscious effort to read more of it over the past few years. Ursula Le Guin, Toni Morrison, Dionne Brand, Maryse Condé and Ntozake Shange are women I read a lot of this year and they gave me so much strength.

I also read some good Black satire from Nigeria: Igoni Barret’s Blackass and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout; they are definitely worth reading.

I’m still finishing up a few reads that I’m really enjoying, for example, Mama Day by Gloria Naylor (RIP), So Long Been Dreaming (Eds. Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan), Women Who Run With Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K.  Le Guin.

Some of the great non-fiction I’ve read this year has included Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, Ways of Seeing by John Berger, Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks, The Media is the Message by Marshall McLuhan, and The Deep Zoo by Rikki Ducornet.

My ten favourite reads, in no particular order, are:

The Gathering of Waters– Bernice McFadden

The Sympathizer– Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Blue Castle– L. M. Montgomery

Dreams of Trespass– Fatima Mernissi

Beauty is a Wound– Eka Kurniawan

-The Big Sea- Langston Hughes

A Map to the Door of No Return– Dionne Brand

-A Small Place- Jamaica Kincaid

Sassafras, Cypress, & Indigo– Ntozake Shange

Woman at Point Zero– Nawal El Sadaawi

Next year I plan on continuing my theme of the last few years of reading more diversely and reading more women writers. I also plan on exploring  sci-fi more, and reading a lot of Lucy Maud Montgomery as I really enjoyed her this year. 

Thanks to everyone who reads my blog and engages with me on twitter and Goodreads, you are all very much appreciated<3 Wishing you all a great 2017. Happy reading!

The Sympathizer- Viet Thanh Nguyen

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I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you – that is a hazard, I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.- Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

I attended a panel last year where Roxane Gay, Marlon James, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Shilpi Somaya Gowda were discussing the theme of home in their writing. For immigrants home can be a touchy subject but clearly it can produce great literature.

And this one example: only a person who is from the culture, or who has a connection to the culture, could write something like this with such nuance and insight. I find it intriguing how satire and humour is used to tell tough stories and I am impressed by how well Nguyen does that in this book.We all know about the Vietnam war and have probably seen some horrific images from there, but Nguyen uses satire to tell us the story and it works really well in a way I can’t quite put into words right now. I laugh at Nguyen calling 1975 Vietnam a “jackfruit republic that served as a franchise of the United States”, though I can see how awful that reality must have been.

Nguyen’s protagonist was interesting too, as a half-French half-Vietnamese communist agent, who was both an insider and an outsider. I appreciated the perspective of someone who doesn’t quite belong anywhere, who, because of his peripheral position in society, gives such insight to both Vietnamese and American culture.  It brought to mind the unique perspectives minority writers bring to their writing, the nuances they can pick up that others might not be able to:

“Ah, the Amerasian, forever caught between worlds and never knowing where he belongs! Imagine if you did not suffer from the confusion you must constantly experience, feeling the constant tug-of-war inside you and over you, between Orient and Occident. ‘East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet’, as Kipling so accurately diagnosed”.

Nguyen picks out racial microaggressions and western hypocrisy without naming them as such, and then proceeds to show us how ridiculous they are. He makes observations that are incisive and hilarious:

When he interviewed me, he wanted to know whether I spoke any Japanese. I explained that I was born in Gardena. He said, Oh, you nisei, as if knowing that one word means he knows something about me. You’ve forgotten your culture, Ms. Mori, even though you’re only second generation. Your issei parents, they hung on to their culture. Don’t you want to learn Japanese? Don’t you want to visit Nippon? For a long time I felt bad. I wondered why I didn’t want to learn Japanese, why I didn’t already speak Japanese, why I would rather go to Paris or Istanbul or Barcelona rather than Tokyo. But then I thought, Who cares? Did anyone ask John F. Kennedy if he spoke Gaelic and visited Dublin or if he ate potatoes every night or if he collected paintings of leprechauns? So why are we supposed to not forget our culture? Isn’t my culture right here since I was born here? Of course I didn’t ask him those questions. I just smiled and said, You’re so right, sir. She sighed. It’s a job.

It’s really a fascinating novel that deserves all its accolades.

Something  I remember from the panel is that Nguyen was discussing censorship in Vietnam and how  a publisher in Vietnam wanted to translate the book into Vietnamese. As Nguyen said, “I’d be surprised to learn that I’d published a novella!” His great sense of humour was what led me to read this book and I’m so glad I did.

Tender is the Night- F. Scott Fitzgerald

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After lunch they were both overwhelmed by the sudden flatness that comes over American travellers in quiet foreign places. No stimuli worked upon them, no voices called them from without, no fragments of heir own thoughts came suddenly from the minds of others, and missing the clamour of Empire they felt that life was not continuing here.- F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

Fitzgerald has an absolutely beautiful way with words. He uses very stylized language and writes down some profound thoughts. And that’s what tricked me at first into thinking this would be a profound story. Like in The Great Gatsby, his characters are not likeable and just seem so disconnected from the world. It’s quite interesting reading Fitzgerald writing about American life in France, including black riots, at the same time that I was reading Langston Hughes The Great Big Sea: the contrast between the lives of black and white Americans in France in this period is huge.

This is a story about rich Americans in the French Riviera. The story revolves in part around Dr. Dick Diver, charming man, the ultimate host and object of adoration of teenager Rosemary, an upcoming actress, who Fitzgerald describes thus: “Her body hovered delicately on the last edge of childhood–she was almost eighteen, nearly complete, but the dew was still on her.” Attraction between the two is immediate, despite the fact that Dick is married.

I was raving about this book at first. Fitzgerald is an amazing writer and I think that his writing style initially blinded me to the flatness of the plot. The last thing I want to read is a book about privileged shallow and selfish rich people who are not introspective and just do whatever they please, but when Fitzgerald writes passages like the following, it makes it a bit easier to stomach, and fills you with hope that the characters in the book will say things you actually want to hear:

“Following a walk marked by an intangible mist of bloom that followed the white border stones she came to a space overlooking the sea where there were lanterns asleep in the fig trees and a big table and wicker chairs and a great market umbrella from Sienna, all gathered about an enormous pine, the biggest tree in the garden. She paused there a moment, looking absently at a growth of nasturtiums and iris tangled at its foot, as though sprung from a careless handful of seeds, listening to the plaints and accusations of some nursery squabble in the house. When this died away on the summer air, she walked on, between kaleidoscopic peonies massed in pink clouds, black and brown tulips and fragile mauve-stemmed roses, transparent like sugar flowers in a confectioner’s window — until, as if the scherzo of color could reach no further intensity, it broke off suddenly in mid-air, and moist steps went down to a level five feet below.”

But they didn’t. And after part 1 of the book, which I quite liked, which at least promised more, parts 2 and 3 fell extremely flat; I was completely let down.

Part 1 of the book was basically rich people in Paris and the French Riviera, having parties and going shopping. Everything seems perfect but on the surface you are aware that some things are waiting to reveal themselves.

In part 2 we find out what’s wrong and there is discussion of mental illness which I thought was quite candid and progressive for that time. Diver is a psychiatrist who is an admirer of Freud, so there is an interesting dialogue about psychology in this book. When we learn about how Diver met his wife, I was slightly disturbing, to be honest. Diver’s character was the most complex and I’m still  not sure how I feel about him. He has a predilection towards young women and patients and although I felt this book was quite progressive seeing as it discussed mental health in the 1920s, I just couldn’t, in the end, get past the superficial and superfluous characters.

The Blue Castle- L. M. Montgomery

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Valancy had lived spiritually in the Blue Castle ever since she could remember. She had been a very tiny child when she found herself possessed of it. Always, when she shut her eyes, she could see it plainly, with its turrets and banners on the pine-clad mountain height, wrapped in its faint, blue loveliness, against the sunset skies of a fair and unknown land. Everything wonderful and beautiful was in that castle. Jewels that queens might have worn; robes of moonlight and fire; couches of roses and gold; long flights of shallow marble steps, with great, white urns, and with slender, mist-clad maidens going up and down them; courts, marble-pillared, where shimmering fountains fell and nightingales sang among the myrtles; halls of mirrors that reflected only handsome knights and lovely women–herself the loveliest of all, for whose glance men died. All that supported her through the boredom of her days was the hope of going on a dream spree at night. Most, if not all, of the Stirlings would have died of horror if they had known half the things Valancy did in her Blue Castle.- Lucy Maud Montgomery, The Blue Castle

This is the sort of book that makes me so glad to be a reader. Montgomery is an EXTREMELY talented and beautiful writer. Recently I’ve been finding myself wanting to read more of her work because it’s honestly like a balm. There’s  a feeling I would get very often as a child when I was discovering the world of literature and everything was fresh and new; it’s a feeling  that as an adult I rarely get close to reliving, but in this book I did see some glimmers of it.

I’d never read any Montgomery books outside of the Anne series and anyone who’s read those books knows how special they are. This story took me back to my preteens in Africa when I was first introduced to Anne by my aunt who then lived in the Maritimes (Nova Scotia). Now that Canada is my home, and because I’ve visited Prince Edward Island, Montgomery’s beloved home, I have to say I feel even more attached to Montgomery now, knowing first-hand where she got much of her inspiration from.

This is the story of 29-year-old spinster, Valancy Stirling, the old-fashioned and archaic word for single woman being used because those were conservative times where a woman who was single after a certain age was considered to be a loser. As the book said, “She was twenty-nine, lonely, undesired, ill-favoured–the only homely girl in a handsome clan, with no past and no future.” Our heroine is single, miserable, and part of a large clan where she sees herself as invisible, has a lot of fear, has no friends, and has never really known happiness in her life. In her sad existence, all she has is her blue castle: her imagination. A pivotal experience in her life (no spoilers), however, changes her life forever.

I loved the new Valancy; I fully support women who have thrown off their shackles, decided enough is enough, and have decided to live authentically. Recently I’ve been reading a lot of feminist texts that have reminded me what this empowerment means and just how important it is. Rereading Audre Lorde and rediscovering her famous quote,  “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you”, made me think of how apt it was in Valancy’s case, and how life-giving it is when we realize that we can totally be free:

“‘I’ve been trying to please other people all my life and failed,’ she said. ‘After this I shall please myself. I shall never pretend anything again. I’ve breathed an atmosphere of fibs and pretences and evasions all my life. What a luxury it will be to tell the truth! I may not be able to do much that I want to do but I won’t do another thing that I don’t want to do. Mother can pout for weeks–I shan’t worry over it. ‘Despair is a free man–hope is a slave'”

The freedom and life that Valancy experiences after the big turning point in her life warmed my heart. And it made me laugh to read how Valancy’s relatives thought she had gone mad because of course free-thinking women have clearly lost it.

What I also adored about this book was Montgomery’s veneration of nature. Although the book is set near Muskoka, Ontario, Montgomery got her nature-writing muse from PEI which is, in my humble opinion, one of the most beautiful places in Canada. Montgomery’s descriptions of nature makes you want to be in it:

“…the woods, when they give at all, give unstintedly, and hold nothing back from their true worshippers. We must go to them lovingly, humbly, patiently, watchfully, and we shall learn what poignant loveliness lurks in the wild places and silent intervales, lying under starshine and sunset, what cadences of unearthly music are harped on aged pine boughs or crooned in copses of fir, what delicate savours exhale from mosses and ferns in sunny corners or on damp brooklands, what dreams and myths and legends of an older time haunt them. Then the immortal heart of the woods will beat against ours and its subtle life will steal into our veins and make us its own forever, so that no matter where we go or how widely we wander we shall yet be drawn back to the forest to find our most enduring kinship.”

Highly recommended! One of my favourite reads of the year ❤

A Mercy- Toni Morrison

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“In short, 1682 and Virginia was still a mess. Who could keep up with the pitched battles for God, king and land?“- Toni Morrison, A Mercy

It’s been a very busy month but I’ve somehow managed to keep my Morrison-a-month reading streak alive. It’s hard to say new things about Morrison’s writing in this review that I haven’t said in my others, but it’s a fact that Morrison always manages to bring a period of history to life, by not just using dry facts, but also by telling people’s stories, sharing their thoughts, and their experiences. I love stories about bravery and survival, and stories like this one show me how people have used their resolve and adaptability to survive.

The book is set in the 17th Century in the Americas, in a place with a mixture of freeborn people, slaves, and settlers from different European countries. I rarely read about the Dutch in North America so this was an interesting perspective. I kept thinking about how stressful it must have been, and I was reminded of Marlon James’ “The Book of Night Women“, a book that showed me that among the different Europeans in the Americas there was also a racial hierarchy, and they had different ways of doing things, reacting to, and interacting with, each other.

One thing I thought about more this time were families and relationships that arose out of necessity.We have engaged Dutch girl Rebekka in the ship making friends with prostitutes and other women she would never have made friends with in Europe. We also see unrelated slaves forming a sort of family too. The New World is a strange place where different types of people are flung together, and it just seems like the women recognize their mutual dependency on each other, whether they like it or not. I felt the experiences and fears of the various women in this book were the strongest part of this story:

“Don’t die, Miss. Don’t. Herself, Sorrow, a newborn and maybe Florens- three unmastered women and an infant out here, alone, belonging to no one, became wild game for anyone. None of them could inherit; none was attached to a church or recorded in its books. Female and illegal, they would be interlopers, squatters, if they stayed on after Mistress died, subject to purchase, hire, assault, abduction, exile.”
There’s so much sadness in this book, and a sense of isolation. For myself, living in North America over 400 years after this book was set, it’s really difficult to imagine how life must have been like at the beginning of America’s history.

Paradise- Toni Morrison

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They shoot the white girl first, but the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here. They are 17 miles from a town which has 90 miles between it and any other. Hiding places will be plentiful in the convent, but there is time, and the day has just begun. They are nine. Over twice the number of the women, they are obliged to stampede or kill, and they have the paraphernalia for either requirement–rope, a palm leaf cross, handcuffs, mace, and sunglasses, along with clean, handsome guns.- Toni Morrison, Paradise

In my opinion Paradise is one of the most complex books Morrison has written, and possibly the one I’ve had the most trouble reviewing. This is my second reading of it and I feel I need at least a couple more before I truly get it; I’m happy with what I gleaned from it this time around, but to put it all down in words is still difficult.

Paradise tells the story of the black town of Ruby, Oklahoma, founded by former slaves who find themselves rejected both by white people but also by lighter-skinned black people (“Us free like them; was slave like them. What for this difference?”). Ruby was created to insulate the townspeople (as much as possible) from Out There, the outside world:

Out There where your children were sport, your women quarry, and where your very person could be annulled…

Since reading Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, I’ve been curious about the founding of black towns.Through this fictionalized account I was able to think more about how black towns were formed (the “why” is easy enough to guess at), but it’s also clear to see that towns like these, often founded with high hopes,  are definitely not utopian.  Ruby ends up becoming quite insular and patriarchal, and full of strife not only due to inter-generational quarreling, but also because of the women in the Convent. Throughout the book independent women, such as the women living in the Convent, are met with ridicule, scorn, hatred, and fear. The Convent is a haven, a refuge for  women who have experienced trauma and hardships in their lives, and a place where women are enterprising and self-sufficient. The Convent women actually benefit the town, but all that labour and kindness  is taken for granted and unappreciated in the end. It’s practically a witch-hunt where strong, independent women are the scapegoats when things aren’t going well:

So, Lone thought, the fangs and the tail are somewhere else. Out yonder all slithery in a house full of women. Not women locked safely away from men; but worse, women who chose themselves for company, which is to say not a convent but a coven.

Morrison is one of the best at illuminating  different aspects of African-American history with human stories. This always helps me  appreciate the history even more and also think of the people involved, not just the bare facts and figures that we are often fed when we are taught history, so much so that we often feel removed from it. Definitely recommended for those who enjoy challenging reads!

 

 

Gathering of Waters- Bernice L. McFadden

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“Dearest, you cannot bury a soul! Souls are light, darkness, and air.”- Bernice L. McFadden, Gathering of Waters

I love it when I read a page of a book and I instantly know I’m going to love it. I’ve been in a sort of fiction reading slump and this book got me right out of it.  Thanks to Didi @ Brown Girl Reading for recommending it to me. It’s one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read all year, hard to put into words how it touched me but it really did.

It all starts in Money, Mississippi, with the death of a hooker, Esther, whose vindictive spirit inhabits a little girl and one of Emmett Till’s murderers, the bad eggs of the book. I read this book in a few hours, thoroughly engrossed in its intelligently woven together story-lines that spanned generations. It mixes together magical realism, history and a love story, so utterly well. There was amazing dialogue and a story-line that pulled at my heartstrings a lot, especially the story of Emmett Till, and his death, that was dramatized in this book in such an, I’m not sure how to put it, honouring way? It makes so much sense to me to memorialize those people who are no longer here to tell their own stories, as a way to always remember them.

Emmett Till’s fictionalized love story was really sweet and a reminder me how an innocent life was lost and would never experience all of the things he should have, all due to racist evil:

“To Tass, Emmett was everywhere and present in all things. He was all over her mind, pressed into the seams between the floorboards, glowing amidst the stars and there in the sweet swirl of sugar, milk and butter in her morning bowl of farina.”

History is something that doesn’t go away, and I like how this book included the historical context , because clearly things don’t occur in a vacuum; everything is connected. History has shaped the present and things don’t just disappear without being dealt with; they permeate to the present. The history of racism is responsible for a lot of present-day woes. The flood after Hurricane Katrina is mentioned in this book, as is the Great Mississippi flood .Water was a motif throughout the book, it seemed like water both reveals the evil but also gets rid of it.

One of the most shocking things in this book for me were Till’s murderers; reading up on how they benefitted financially from the murder reminds me of another person who shall remain unnamed. And the repercussion of their awful act is that it affected the entire country  :

“J.W. and Roy didn’t just snatch the childhood away from Emmett; they stole it from every single black child in Mississippi.”

I’d definitely recommend this book, not only for the wit, great storytelling, but also the beautiful writing.

 

An excerpt from Audre Lorde’s poem, “Afterimages”

I inherited Jackson, Mississippi.
For my majority it gave me Emmett Till
his 15 years puffed out like bruises
on plump boy-cheeks
his only Mississippi summer
whistling a 21 gun salute to Dixie
as a white girl passed him in the street
and he was baptized my son forever
in the midnight waters of the Pearl.
His broken body is the afterimage of my 21st year
when I walked through a northern summer
my eyes averted
from each corner’s photographies
newspapers protest posters magazines
Police Story, Confidential, True
the avid insistence of detail
pretending insight or information
the length of gash across the dead boy’s loins
his grieving mother’s lamentation
the severed lips, how many burns
his gouged out eyes
sewed shut upon the screaming covers
louder than life
all over
the veiled warning, the secret relish
of a black child’s mutilated body
fingered by street-corner eyes
bruise upon livid bruise
and wherever I looked that summer
I learned to be at home with children’s blood
with savored violence
with pictures of black broken flesh
used, crumpled, and discarded
lying amid the sidewalk refuse
like a raped woman’s face.