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!

Beauty is a Wound- Eka Kurniawan

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“One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.”- Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound

This book has one of the best, most memorable opening sentences I’ve ever read. And it definitely set the stage for one of the most compelling and engrossing stories I’ve read in a long time. Over 500 pages of prose and I enjoyed every page. Even without having any knowledge of the history of Indonesia, I loved it.

Indonesia seems to have had a turbulent history of colonization, first by the Dutch, then the Japanese. I find the same theme in a lot of novels that focus on colonized subjects who become involved in proxy wars:  confusion over what exactly is happening:

“Look,” she said to another woman next to her, “they must be confused by two foreign nations making war on their land.”

I’m always a fan of anyone who writes compelling, multi-dimensional women. This book traces the history of  Indonesian-Dutch prostitute Dewi Ayu and her four daughters and their characters are written so well. It’s a complicated family history, complicated even further by wars, colonialism, communism, independence struggles, and love. In addition, fairy tales and legends are mixed in to this funny yet tragic story.

 

I like stories that focus on small communities like this. Imagine being part of a community that you were born and raised in, one where everyone knows you and makes room for you because they know they have no choice but to put up with you since migration isn’t a common practice. Something Elizabeth Alexander wrote in her “The Light of the World” has always stuck with me, something regarding African societies (told to her by her late husband) about how the village always makes room for everyone, including the mentally ill, and I saw that in this book; people adapting to each other.

Kurniawan is a great writer, really exceptional. I enjoyed the way he presented Indonesia’s history in a fictionalized account, making it accessible, as well as interesting and educational.. I had no idea, for example, that Indonesia had a history with communism:

“Comrade Salim admitted that he was not a good Marxist, that he didn’t understand all that class theory yet, but he was fairly certain that injustice had to be fought in any way possible. There are no Marxists in this country, he said, but there are plenty of starving masses, who work more than what they get for it in return, who have to bend their knees every time a big man appears, who know nothing expect that the only way to be free from all of that is to rebel.”

I already touched upon the compelling female characters in this book. Cynthia Enloe wrote a bit about brothels in Asia during World War 2 and the Vietnam war and it was something I’d never really thought about before but it was interesting to see that although war is often in the masculine domain , there is a lot about the involvement of women that isn’t considered or that is glossed over. We know women and children are always the biggest victims in war and this book at least lends some warmth and a richer narrative to the stories that aren’t often mentioned, those that are seen as peripheral to the war. This line, “The colonel came to believe that the brothel built up his men’s morale and was good for their fighting spirit…”,  reminds us of how women are used in times of war.

 

Indonesia as a locale for this story was interesting: the dichotomies of native Indonesian vs. Dutch, interspersed with some magical realism, myths, humour and wit, bawdiness, as well as great insights, made the story really come alive. Also, to me the history seemed to be very much like that of many countries where the needs of the people are quite basic, yet are still out of reach due to bad governance:

“Long ago he had heard an imam in the mosque talk about heaven, about rivers of milk that flowed at your feet, about beautiful ever-available virgins, nymphs, about everything being there for the taking and nothing forbidden. All of that seemed so beautiful, really too beautiful to be believed. He didn’t need anything as grandiose as all that–it would be enough for him if everyone got the same amount of rice. Or maybe that wish was really the most grandiose wish of all.”

Prepare to be shocked, outraged, and delighted.