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 Moon and Sixpence- W. Somerset Maugham

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“Art is a manifestation of emotion, and emotion speaks a language that all may understand.”- W. Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence

I’d only ever read one Maugham before this (“Of Human Bondage”) but even with just that one read I could tell Maugham was a very special writer and destined to be one of my favourites. I picked up this thin book thinking it would be a quick, simple read, but I wasn’t prepared for the depth and profundity in it. There is a lot going on in this little book, lots to think about.

Reading the back of the book you’ll know that the main character in this book, Charles Strickland, was modelled after Paul Gauguin. There’s no way I would have guessed that for most of the book, until Strickland/Gauguin moved to Tahiti. Even without knowing much about Gauguin’s life, this book was interesting as it took us on a tour of his life, done by a narrator who operates as an unofficial biographer, taking us through Strickland/Gauguin’s life from England to Paris, and finally Tahiti.

Strickland is an awful person and extremely misogynistic. It’s been a while since I’ve read such an odious character in literature. I despised him:

“He was a man without any conception of gratitude.  He had no compassion.  The emotions common to most of us simply did not exist in him, and it was as absurd to blame him for not feeling them as for blaming the tiger because he is fierce and cruel.”

It was surprising to witness how the passion in Strickland seemed to remain dormant for years but eventually caused him to act like a man possessed and completely re-evaluate his life as that passion needed an outlet:

“That must be the story of innumerable couples, and the pattern of life it offers has a homely grace. It reminds you of a placid rivulet, meandering smoothly through green pastures and shaded by pleasant trees, till at last it falls into the vasty sea; but the sea is so calm, so silent, so indifferent, that you are troubled suddenly by a vague uneasiness. Perhaps it is only by a kink in my nature, strong in me even in those days, that I felt in such an existence, the share of the great majority, something amiss. I recognised its social values, I saw its ordered happiness, but a fever in my blood asked for a wilder course. There seemed to me something alarming in such easy delights. In my heart was a desire to live more dangerously. I was not unprepared for jagged rocks and treacherous shoals if I could only have change — change and the excitement of the unforeseen.”

Gauguin comes up a lot in discussions on primitivism and orientalism, and reading up on his time in Tahiti really leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. The discussion on place and how we might be searching for a place where we are free to be really spoke to me, but Gauguin being himself meant taking child brides in the tropics, and that reminded me of the fact that Europeans had/have free reign in some parts of the world all due to their perceived power.. But still, the idea that we can be perceived differently in different areas, and therefore be more suited to one area than another, is interesting:

“I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid certain surroundings, but they have always a nostalgia for a home they know not. They are strangers in their birthplace, and the leafy lanes they have known from childhood or the populous streets in which they have played, remain but a place of passage. They may spend their whole lives aliens among their kindred and remain aloof among the only scenes they have ever known. Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends men far and wide in the search for something permanent, to which they may attach themselves. Perhaps some deep-rooted atavism urges the wanderer back to lands which his ancestors left in the dim beginnings of history. Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds rest.”

It’s hard to summarize this book without bringing up the racist language. There were quite a few racial epithets which, I’m not sure spoke of Maugham’s insensitivity to different races, or just that he was reflecting the language and sentiments of the time. Either way, they were  shocking, and I could have done without them.

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!

 

 

Jazz- Toni Morrison

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“I’m crazy about this City. Daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half. In the top half I see looking faces and it’s not easy to tell which are people, which the work of stonemasons. Below is shadow were any blasé thing takes place: clarinets and lovemaking, fists and the voices of sorrowful women. A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things. Hep. It’s the bright steel rocking above the shade below that does it.”- Toni Morrison, Jazz

Wynston Marsalis said, “Jazz is a conversation, but a nuanced, swift, and complicated one”  , and over time I’ve come to learn and understand this too. What’s even more interesting to me is how  the improvisation in jazz  can be applied to life.

The story  starts with Violet, a woman in her 50s, mutilating the corpse of teenager Dorcas, the former lover (and murder victim) of her husband, Joe Trace. From this passionate scene at Dorcas’ funeral, we get a very emotional story which seems to be an improv, with the story lines reacting both with the city’s surroundings but also with history and personal stories.

To me, the city backdrop and how Morrison works that into her story, is the best part of the book, in particular when the city is contrasted with the rural areas the main characters grew up in. The city carries with it its own energy and I felt it held a lot of hope and promise for people who had survived slavery and life in the countryside. Moving to the city and encountering a whole new lifestyle was a huge turning point in these people’s lives, and I like how Morrison shows that a change in scene can change everything, similar to her approach in Tar Baby;  love is different in the city and in the countryside:

“Little of that makes for love, but it does pump desire. The woman who churned a man’s blood as she leaned all alone on a fence by a country road might not expect even to catch his eye in the City. But if she is clipping quickly down the big-city street in heels, swinging her purse, or sitting on a stoop with a cool beer in her hand, dangling her shoe from the toes of her foot, the man, reacting to her posture, to soft skin on stone, the weight of the building stressing the delicate, dangling shoe, is captured. And he’d think it was the woman he wanted, and not some combination of curved stone, and a swinging, high-heeled shoe moving in and out of sunlight. He would know right away the deception, the trick of shapes and light and movement, but it wouldn’t matter at all because the deception was part of it too.”

The first time I read this I was quite frustrated by the character of Joe Trace; male violence is always difficult to read about, and it’s even more difficult when you know the perpetrator doesn’t get the necessary punishment. Yet, and I’ve seen again and again with Morrison (and this is one of the things I admire about her the most), she is able to relay the facts in a non-judgemental way, and somehow she allows us to feel some sort of compassion.

Apart from Dorcas, the murdered teenager, the character who I felt for  most in this story is Violet. This is a lady who was clearly depressed and searching for something in life. At the age of 56 she said ,”I want some fat in this life.” This is a lady who experienced childhood tragedy, worked hard, was misunderstood,  betrayed by her husband, and became the subject of gossip by her neighbours:

“This notion of rest, it’s attractive to her, but I don’t think she would like it. They are all like that, these women. Waiting for the ease, the space that need not be filled with anything other than the drift of their own thoughts. But they wouldn’t like it. They are busy thinking of ways to be busier because such a space of nothing pressing to do would knock them down. No fields of cowslips will rush into that opening, nor mornings free of flies and heat when the light is shy. No. Not at all. They fill their minds and hands with soap and repair and dicey confrontations because what is waiting for them, in a suddenly idle moment, is the seep of rage. Molten. Thick and slow-moving. Mindful and particular about what in its path it chooses to bury.”

Jazz is an emotional and a very beautiful read. Toni Morrison’s writing style is.

 

Some jazz for you:  Art Blakely and the Jazz Messengers: https://youtu.be/ynZDm50EgBY

In Another Place, Not Here- Dionne Brand

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“They thought that the time would come when they would live, they would get a chance to be what they saw, that was part of the hope that kept them. But ghostly, ghostly this hope, sucking their jaws into lemon seed, kiwi heart, skeletons of pawpaw, green banana stalk.”– Dionne Brand, In Another Place, Not Here

If a favourite poet writes a novel, I’m probably going to read it, especially when the poet is Dionne Brand. I’m writing this review very soon after reading  Brand’s non-fiction book, “A Map to the Door of No Return“, and I’m seeing her experiences and thoughts on immigration, identity, the diaspora, colonialism etc in that book, displayed in this book.  Prior to this I’d only read a few volumes of her poems; in prose form, she is just remarkable and this is a beautiful, intricate book. It did take me a while to get used to the language but once I got into the flow of things it was wonderful.

This book is set in Ontario, Canada and an unnamed Caribbean island (possibly Grenada?). The main stories are those of  Elizete and Verlia. Verlia immigrates to Canada as a teenager, becomes a member of the black power movement in 1970s Toronto, then goes back to her island to try to ignite a revolution there with the exploited sugarcane workers. She meets and becomes lovers with Elizete, who eventually moves to Canada herself. The women’s lives as  immigrants in Canada were very difficult and transformative. When Verlia moves to Sudbury, Ontario to live with her relatives, her observations of whiteness as a black immigrant to Canada were quite interesting. She witnesses and questions the assimilation approach of her aunt and uncle and how this is toxic and seems to result in their emotional death. As immigrants are we supposed to embrace whiteness? Verlia decided she didn’t want to:

“They are imaginary. They have come as far north as they could imagine. And they have imagined themselves into the white town’s imagining. They have come here to get away from Black people, to show white people that they are harmless, just like them. This lie will kill them. Swell her uncle’s heart. Wrought the iron in Aunt Idrisse’s voice.”

This book made me think, and at times it touched on personal thoughts or the many stories I’ve heard about from fellow-immigrants:  immigration isn’t easy. The tough life of a single, black female immigrant in 1970s Canada must have been even tougher. Brand is honest with her portrayal of Canada, and how others often perceive it in a way that sugarcoats very real issues:

“Except that everyone is from someplace else but this city does not give them a chance to say this; it pushes their confusion underground, it wraps them in the same skin and slides them to the side like so much meat wrapped in brown paper.” 

In this Brexit era  when so many immigrants hear the phrase, “Go back home”, it’s a good time to understand why certain immigration patterns even happened. Often people rarely take into account history and how damaging and pervasive the ills of the Empire have been. There’s a realization by so many of us that there is no place where we can be truly free because of history and neocolonialism.

I appreciated this book for  highlighting the  traumatic experiences of immigration. There were several passages that were heartbreaking because they spoke to loneliness, depression, confusion, waiting…:

“She was working edges. If she could straighten out the seam she’d curled herself into, iron it out like a wrinkle, sprinkle some water on it and then iron it out, careful, careful not to burn…”

 “She has too much to tell. That’s the answer, too much she holds and no place to put it down that would be safe.”

“She was trying to collect herself again, bring her mind back from wherever the pieces had gone skittering. She had deserted herself she knew, given up a continent of voices she knew then for fragmented ones.”

This is definitely a book I think will appeal to many. It’s beautifully-written, very thoughtful, and gives a voice to Caribbean immigrant women in the big city in Canada.

 

 

 

 

Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo- Ntozake Shange

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“Streets in Charleston wind the way old ladies’ fingers crochet as they unravel the memories of their girlhoods. One thing about a Charlestonian female is her way with little things. The delicacy of her manner. The force of ritual in her daily undertakings. So what is most ordinary is made extraordinary. What is hard seems simple.”- Ntozake Shange; Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo

What a beautiful, lyrical book. A tribute to black women trying to find themselves, black women who are trying to live outside the box, clearly not an easy feat.It’s a very honest book about three sisters, Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo from Charleston, South Carolina. The book seems to be a patchwork of all sorts of things, such as poems, journal entries, letters from the traditional mother with unconventional daughters whose life trajectories end up being so different from hers, and even some great recipes. The inclusions of all these things made the book into a very sensory, rich experience.

My favourite sister was Indigo, the youngest, whom we unfortunately only meet at the beginning of the book. Indigo talks and communicates with her dolls. She’s a reminder of those people who see the world in a different way, who are perhaps misunderstood by others because of it. I found her to be a very beautiful spirit:

“The South in her, the land and salt-winds, moved her through Charleston’s streets as if she were a mobile sapling, with the gait of a well-loved colored woman whose lover was the horizon in any direction. Indigo imagined tough winding branches growing from her braids, deep green leaves rustling by her ears, doves and macaws flirting above the nests they’d fashioned in the secret, protected niches way high up in her headdress. When she wore this Carolinian costume, she knew the cobblestone streets were really polished oyster shells, covered with pine needles and cotton flowers. She made herself, her world from all that she came from.”

The other sisters, who are older and living away from home, have a lot more than Indigo to contend with, it seems. Sassafrass is a weaver and a writer who is in a very tumultuous relationship with her boyfriend, Mitch.Reading the part about weaving gave me an a-ha moment of sorts:

“…because when women make cloth, they have time to think…So Sassafrass was certain of the necessity of her skill for the well-being of women everywhere, as well as for her own. As she passed the shuttle through the claret cotton warp, Sassafrass conjured images of women weaving from all time and all places…”

One of my favourite sections regarding Sassafrass was when Billie Holliday’s ghost comes to talk to her about the blues and to encourage her to keep writing:

“Who do you love among us, Sassafrass? Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, Freddie Washington, Josephine, Carmen Miranda? Don’t you know we is all sad ladies because we got the blues, and joyful women because we got our songs?”

The last sister, Cypress,  is a dancer. Her story seemed to be the most complex to me:

“Cypress was always smiling. She had made amends with her living, and thoroughly expected everything to happen to her, given time and the way her luck ran. She was round and sturdy, but elastic like a gathering of sunflowers in a balmy night. Cypress liked sweet wine, cocaine, and lots of men: musicians, painters, poets, sculptors…photographers, filmmakers, airplane pilots.”

The book contained lots of conversation about art and black spirituality. The art discussion in particular was interesting, given the eurocentrism of art, and the microaggressions in the art world (“You don’t need all that ethnic flourish, Leroy, you are too good to work in the Negro idiom.“)

I don’t think I can write a review that does this book any justice without a reread but I will say that as a black woman this touched me deeply, and it showed me how difficult it is sometimes to live outside of the box particularly when so much is expected of you. I think this book respects individuality and honours our journeys into becoming the women we were meant to be. I’ve been reading a lot of books by black women and the commonality is that  they present us with  multifaceted black women with deep thought lives who have to struggle more than most, but manage to do so. The exploration into the lives of these women was wonderful. This is a book I’ll definitely be rereading.

“Where there is a woman there is magic. If there is a moon falling from her mouth, she is a woman who knows her magic, who can share or not share her powers. A woman with a moon falling from her mouth, roses between her legs and tiaras of Spanish moss, this woman is a consort of the spirits.”

 

When We Were One- Zaji

 

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“We are parthonites. Our story is a cyclical one, one that cannot be easily told. In sharing the now, we allow the young parthonites to see the moments gone, so they can have greater cycles to come.”- Zaji, When We Were One

I enjoyed reading this novel about an Afrofuturistic utopia only inhabited by women. Humans are now known as parthonites, and have transcended in so many ways. Humanness is associated with problems, vileness, and brutality. But in this society these things are no longer an issue. The planet is Gaia where there is a connection with the earth and everyone. There is a respect for all and a spiritual connection with the earth:

“Everyone understood that in order to live in harmony with the planet, they had to understand it.”

The ancient records of the parthonites hold records about our time and they will be needed when the parthonites are attacked by outside forces. The parthonites are shocked by our stupidity, just as we shake our heads at our ancestors who engaged in slavery, anti-semitism and other atrocities. The only difference perhaps is that these parthonites recognize and learn from these lessons:

“Parthonites noticed the evident shift from physical enslavement to mental, emotional and intellectual enslavement.”

There is soon to be conflict in this utopian society and it first makes itself known with the birth of one of the sisters, Nzingha:

“Nzingha, without a doubt, was different in more than just the physical and emotional aspects. As time passed, parthonites began to realize that her entire way of thinking was different. She was not in sync with everyone else, and found herself in constant conflict with her peers and elders.”

The prose is thoughtful and quite poetic and the content definitely makes me long for simpler times when we lived in close-knit communities and were in greater connection to the earth. The whole idea of oneness resonates, the importance of being one, not just as people but with the planet too.

For me, this book brought up a lot of thoughts on the human condition and how we will be remembered by future generations. Also, is there a way for us to return to simpler ways of living, to feel more connected to each other and the earth? Clearly, as this book illustrates, we miss a lot by not being so.

What I also liked  was the community, the sisterhood,  and how they never give up on each other. They can’t, they are one. Through their interactions we learn so many lessons, lessons too about what we take for granted, for example time:

“All these notions picked up by a few, with nothing in nature as the marker for their truth. All were illusions designed to hinder and limit.”

The previous quote reminded me of the great essay, The Tyranny of the Clock, by  the anarchist George Woodcock.

A very smart and enjoyable read. A huge thank you to Zaji for sending me a copy of this book.