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!

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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.

Love- Toni Morrison 

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“Young people, Lord. Do they still call it infatuation? That magic ax that chops away the world in one blow, leaving only the couple standing there trembling? Whatever they call it, it leaps over anything, takes the biggest chair, the largest slice, rules the ground wherever it walks, from a mansion to a swamp, and its selfishness is its beauty.”– Toni Morrison, Love

It’s almost September and I’ve managed to keep my Morrison-a-month reading streak alive. Eight Morrison’s later and she never fails to surprise me, even though these are rereads. I enjoyed Love, a well-written  book with a lot  of fodder for discussion. The strange thing is I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone mention it. I wonder why it doesn’t have the same appeal as some of her other books?

Love begins with our narrator introducing us to the coast community the book is set in; she talks about the past in nostalgic tones,  how things have changed, and how things haven’t changed. The main story itself is centered around the legend Bill Cosey, a black entrepreneur, and the women in his life who fight for his attention: his (very) young wife, daughter-in-law, grand-daughter and a few others. Even though Cosey has been deceased for a couple of decades, he is still a very strong, disturbing presence in the lives of these women.

This is a sad  story  of misunderstandings,  bitterness, cruelty, hurt and anger. The three women share a house and we aren’t sure why there is so much hatred between them.   Morrison reveals things slowly and in a non-linear manner, and I’m left wondering how on earth women’s lives can be fulfilling if they are centred solely around men, especially when this competition is encouraged, which, in this book, resulted in very strong feelings:

“Hate does that. Burns off everything but itself, so whatever your grievance is, your face looks just like your enemy’s.” 

“Finally they stopped, moved into acid silence, and invented other ways to underscore bitterness….Like friendship, hatred needed more thank physical intimacy; it wanted creativity and hard work to sustain itself.”

When it comes to Morrison’s writing, what stands out to me most are her descriptions of things, in particular how she uses colour; it’s often a short poetic respite from the tough subject matter she writes:

“Jade and sapphire waves fight each other, kicking up enough foam to wash sheets in. An evening sky behaves as though it’s from another planet– one without rules, where the sun can be plum purple if it wants to and clouds can be red as poppies.”

This was an emotional whirlwind of a book and Morrison takes us in so many different directions, down many paths of discoveries. There is plenty of food for thought in this one: families, their secrets and their hurts.

 “The problem for those left alive is what to do about revenge–how to escape the sweetness of its rot. So you can see why families make the best enemies. They have time and convenience to honey-butter the wickedness they prefer. Shortsighted, though.”

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

Beloved- Toni Morrison

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“Working dough. Working, working dough. Nothing better than that to start the day’s serious work of beating back the past.”- Toni Morrison, Beloved

My first review from August 2013 is here

“Beloved” focuses on the psychological trauma of slavery which permeates the very atmosphere and even emerges in ghost form. It seems to be a good book to read in the light of the recent discussion on the Roots reboot, as well as  the New York Times article which discusses how African-American DNA bears signs of slavery. I feel that for many this isn’t too much of a surprise.

This was a tough read, even tougher the second time around. I never get used to books like this; if anything they get more painful as I become more and more aware of what slavery consisted of. One of the things that always gets to me when reading slave narratives is the burdens the slaves had to endure and with little to no help, but I’m learning about the little things they did to try to endure and survive. Some of their methods may not sound healthy, from our perspectives (for example, limiting love because you know that any time your family could be taken away from you), but this book shows us in many ways how unless we are in a certain situation, it’s really impossible for us to know how we’ll react to it.

At the beginning of the book, former slave Baby Suggs is contemplating colour, all because she is about to die and she has never had the time to do so before. The world of a slave is small and it doesn’t belong to them. And even with freedom the past still haunts them:

“Her past had been like her present–intolerable–and since she knew death was anything but forgetfulness, she used the little energy left her for pondering color.”

Love is one of the themes in this book, and throughout I wondered whether love is ever enough to get over the past.  Paul D and Sethe’s love story is against the odds, with Paul D guarding his heart and Sethe still recovering from deaths, abuse, and children running away. Two very broken people, and Paul D with this sort of mentality:

“He would keep the rest where it belonged: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut. He would not pry it loose now in front of this sweet sturdy woman, for if she got a whiff of the contents it would shame him. And it would hurt her to know that there was no red heart bright as Mister’s comb beating in him.”

And Sethe:

“Would it be all right? Would it be all right to go ahead and feel? Go ahead and count on something?”

This time around I tried to focus more on the characters I didn’t dwell on much in my first read, so Denver, Sethe’s daughter, received more of my attention. I pictured her loneliness, loneliness that caused her to value the company of a ghost, which is why she clung to Beloved, who demands so much attention and affection.I ended up liking her character transformation the most:

“In that bower, closed off from the hurt of the hurt world, Denver’s imagination produced its own hunger and its own food, which she badly needed because loneliness wore her out. Wore her out.”

 

Pain is a given throughout the book, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the following quote: “Can’t nothing heal without pain, you know.” Such a hard truth and the characters in this book had so much more to heal from than the rest of us.

Tar Baby- Toni Morrison

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“The island exaggerated everything. Too much light. Too much shadow. Too much rain. Too much foliage and much too much sleep.”- Toni Morrison, Tar Baby

I think the tropical Caribbean setting and all the talk of candy and flowers fooled me into thinking that this would be one of Toni Morrison’s simpler reads. It turns out that like with most Toni Morrison books, it’s impossible to summarize everything;  there’s just too much to talk about.

In this novel we meet retired rich American Valerian Street living on the L’Isle des Chevaliers with his much younger wife, Margaret, two African-American servants and their niece, Jadine, who is visiting from France.  A sailor, Son, who has abandoned ship,  enters their lives and that’s when things get interesting. I read this book as a story of many tensions, tensions between couples, tensions about old secrets, race, responsibilities, and dreams.

 

For me, the most important character in this book is Jadine. I always like the rebel women and I think she is exactly that. Unlike the other women portrayed in this book, she’s not portrayed as maternal at all; additionally she has unique dreams and aspirations and doesn’t feel the need at all to fall back into the traditional ways of thinking. Out of all the women in the book, she seems to be the only one not willing to be limited by her gender and race. When she says to herself, “…but if you think you can get away with telling me what a black woman is or ought to be…”, well that really spoke to me on so many levels, as I’m sure it will speak to a lot of black women.  Jadine is a light-skinned black woman, called “yalla” by the local islanders, seen of as prim and proper because she lives in France and is a fashion model. Son thinks she’s a sell-out,  and Jadine struggles with her thoughts on her identity as a black woman, her white boyfriend in France, having a white patron, and feeling more comfortable in white culture as that was where she was raised. When she thinks about her boyfriend in France, this is what goes through her mind, thoughts on potential fetishization and “authenticity”:

“I wonder if the person he wants to marry is me or a black girl? And if it isn’t me he wants, but any black girl who looks like me, talks and acts like me, what will happen when he finds out that I hate ear hoops, that I don’t have to straighten my hair, that Mingus puts me to sleep, that sometimes I want to get out of my skin and be only the person inside-not American- not black-just me?”

I felt for Jadine thinking that she might be a race traitor for wanting to go back to France instead of moving back to the States. I had supportive feelings towards Jadine throughout the book because I’ve often been accused of not being black enough  and I think that it’s important for more people to note that as black women our upbringings are diverse, as are our temperaments, personalities, interests and everything else. As such, Son’s treatment of Jadine’s perceived lack of blackness really really irked me because I’ve been on that receiving end, although not as harshly. And Son seems to be the opposite, very rooted in and connected to his blackness and you wonder whether a relationship between him and Jadine could ever work out, so it was a surprise to me that they embarked on a relationship (and I wonder what that says about Son). Their love story was so very intense:

“Gradually she came to feel unorphaned. He cherished and safeguarded her. When she woke in the night from an uneasy dream she had only to turn and there was the stability of his shoulder and his limitless, eternal chest. No part of her was hidden from him. She wondered if she should hold back, keep something in store from him, but he opened the hair on her head with his fingers and drove his tongue through the part. There was nothing to forgive, nothing to win and the future was five minutes away. He unorphaned her completely. Gave her a brand-new childhood. They were the last lovers in New York City—the first in the world—so their passion was inefficient and kept no savings account. They spent it like Texans.”

I was very intrigued about  how place plays a part not just in a story but also in a relationship. On a tropical island everything seems idyllic but after reading this book it’s clear that running  off to a tropical island isn’t going  to solve our problems and we will end up bringing our baggage  with us. And this also got me thinking about how  a relationship started in one place and moved elsewhere works. When Son goes back to the States the way he describes his home is so different to what we have seen in the Caribbean and it makes you wonder how things will change for him and Jadine on a different backdrop:

“Since 1971 Son had been seeing the United States through the international edition of Time, by way of shortwave radio and the views of other crewmen. It seemed sticky. Loud, red and sticky. Its fields spongy, its pavements slick with the blood of all the best people.”

I have to mention the wife,  Margaret, who really annoyed me . I see her as the  non-black friend of a black person who feels as though she has somehow earned the right to make disparaging comments about black people. She can’t possibly be racist because, after all, she has a black friend. Some of the comments that came out of Margaret’s mouth were so foul. I wish Jadine had been stronger and told her off instead of keeping her thoughts to herself:

“She was uncomfortable with the way Margaret stirred her into blackening up or universaling out, always alluding to or ferreting out what she believed were racial characteristics. She ended by resisting both, but it kept her alert about things she did not wish to be alert about.”

This was a great reread and I loved it considerably more this time around. I understood more and I always get renewed appreciation for how Morrison helps us understand why her characters are the way they are but never expects us to side with them.