Summer Reading

I gallop apace. From a tentative two books a month I’ve reclaimed my past normal of 4 books at the same time. Reading challenges continue to give me the courage to work my underused novel-reading muscle. The Morning News has a summer one (started last year, I think?). I never read all the selections: I look for author names that don’t sound white with exceptions made for books in translation/favourite authors/favourite genres.

Census counted as a favourite author’s title. My love for Jesse Ball is not at all equal to what I’ve read from him–a few poems and a Paris Review short story about a decade ago. His unique, quiet, arresting voice took up space in a corner of my reading mind and never left. I bought his first novel but never got around to it–buried in the interminable TBR pile–and so went the rest. The challenge’s schedule kept me disciplined and my approach afforded me unlooked for flexibility. I didn’t commit to all the books so I started Census long before its July slot. However, I found myself adrift among the book’s pages. I enjoyed Ball’s voice, as always, but the story’s parts hung haphazardly on my mind’s clothing line; lots of gaps and pieces only just hanging on. Since I had reached the halfway point ahead of schedule I decided to reread it up to chapter G again to see if I would understand it any better. Oooh, what satisfaction. I doubt I would have done this without a challenge structure and the promised discussion with TMN’s featured moderator, “judges”, and commentariat.

I fell back in sync with Rebel Women Lit’s selections for summer. The July title is The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline. Reader, it is not going well. It turns out I am weary of dystopian futures and teenage protagonists. I am not a devoted science fiction reader but this subgenre has taken over film and television as well as books, and it has become a bore. Here is all this creative energy put into imagining our destroyed futures. Nutten else cyaan gwaan fi wi? If the writing were stylistically daring or inventive I could muster some excitement but they are all, to a fault, straightforward first or third person narrations in which earth is destroyed all is dark where is hope oh here it is nestled within this charismatic child and may she lead us to a brighter tomorrow the end. I went through something similar with Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone but the fantastical Nigerian setting and the nuanced relationship between the two main female characters kept me in long enough to reach the gripping climax. I hoped The Marrow Thieves’ First Nation leads would do the same for me but its beginning is not as compelling. We are already in the scorched landscape, in a surviving forest, by the fire, the elder about to drop that secret knowledge and gag me if you’ve read, seen, written this your damn self before. I’m about to gag my damn self.

It may get better? It may get better. I may not be in the mood for this kind of work at this time. This is where I ought to exhort you, dear reader, to recommend all the groundbreaking dystopian titles that will rock my world but it would be a hollow gesture. I have such a lovely collection of fantasy titles in Eastern settings by Eastern authors, who could care. There might even by a dystopian among them secure in its ability to amaze and transform. Yeah? So, it’s okay, it’s okay.

Dear Author, a review blog most popularly known for its romance coverage, expanded its review offerings in the past year or so. It’s not that surprising, then, that it’s conducting a summer read-a-long for Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I long aspired to become acquainted, even familiar, with the Russian greats, but only ever managed to know Vladimir Nabokov, and just his English works at that. (I started Demons by Dostoevsky back in my Canada years but, though I remember enjoying it, I did not finish it.) So this project is a godsend.

As on my very brief sojourn with Dostoevsky, Bulgakov proves to be a perfect delight. There’s a lot of absurd humour, wry satire, surreal scenes, moonlit conversations in asylums, with a charismatic, devious, nonchalant Satan at the centre of it all in the figure of a Mr Woland, “specialist in black magic”. I enjoy the metafictional weavings which slip from the main thread to a chapter belonging to one of the character’s novels, which Bulgakov presents seamlessly. Classics can have a fusty, formidable reputation; it’s a treat when they end up being a lot of fun.

Advertisements

Start, Stop, Start

I’m reading a book I am reluctant to acknowledge, one I don’t want to spend too much time in one sitting. I started it late last year but did not make it much further than the gang rape. I included it in my Rebel Women Lit reading challenge yet every time I finished a book, and thought about starting it, I detoured into another’s embrace. I scrolled past its cover on my Moon Reader shelf.

It took 21 books to mature my palate. I discovered it was best read in interlude: on buses, in reception areas, before the perennially late rehearsals, the lulls during rehearsals. I did not add it to my Goodreads “Currently Reading” as a way to…pretend I wasn’t really reading it? To acknowledge that I was not reading it in the same fashion as the others. To make its reading experience less veritable? I had stalled with this book often enough before that I did not trust this newborn consistency. Perhaps if it again fell by the wayside no record meant no taint on my social media record. (In truth, I have stalled with four books this year, all noted. When did I believe that social media certified any aspect of my life at all?)

It may be my most challenging read this year. I had not given much thought to how a fat person, an obese person, a morbidly obese person experiences the everyday. There are few narratives out there that centre their experience. They are white male comedic sidekicks or sassy black female support. The stories never take on the shape, inhabit the form, and elucidate their interiority the way Roxane Gay does in Hunger. She makes me question the entire framework within which we understand weight and further confirms my opinion that science is not a sufficient means for understanding ourselves and the world, at all.

***

Isn’t that what education is all about? Getting the student to sincerely say what the teacher wants to hear?

Another book I read in spurts, until I enlisted the reading challenge jumper cables, was The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Until this book, the USA media behemoth had taught me everything I knew about the Vietnam War. (Even its title reveals this as Vietnamese people refer to it as the American War.) That muddy entangled morass that is US film, news, documentary, music etc presented it mostly as Woo Those Hippies and Darn Those Vets. I was startled every time I re-learned about the French colonial presence. (Before this book it was a foodie manga title in which the characters associated crêpes with Vietnam rather than France.) I did some flurried googling when the protagonist’s superior organised a small military unit to reconnoitre in Thailand as a first move to reignite the war with the communists. I had never heard of this before–was this truth or fiction? (It was true.)

It’s a spy novel but a detailed one. I haven’t read many spy novels but I imagine them as pulpy, propulsive, flashy reads. This one is as much about capturing, in some small way,  Vietnamese American life as it established itself in those disruptive times, as it is about any military intrigue. The first person narrator is at turns endearing, arrogant, terrifying, pretentious, amusing and sympathetic. We start in Vietnam’s southern capital before the retreat, pass through refugee camps, US university campuses, nightclubs, wedding receptions, and Hollywood film sets before we get quite the hautoclaps ending.

The opening paragraph is spiffy and gives you a good idea of what kind of ride you’re in for. It fulfilled my “debut novel written by a person of colour” prompt.

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.

I know a place…

…where we can carry on 🎵.

Ah! The blogging goes in fits and starts but I have found redemption in books again. My original goal for the reading challenge was 12 books in the year. It’s near the end of April and I’ve read 10.

  • Here Comes the Sun – Nicole Dennis-Benn
  • The Book of Joan – Lidia Yuknavitch
  • The Akata Duology: Akata Witch and Akata Warrior – Nnedi Okorafor
  • The Binti Trilogy: Binti, Home, and The Night Masquerade – Nnedi Okorafor
  • Pachinko – Min Jin Lee
  • Prudence – David Treuer
  • The Marvellous Equations of the Dread – Marcia Douglas

Prudence proved to be a bit of a headscratcher. I turned the last page and thought to the ether, What was all that about? Treuer, why did the white character get so much play in your book and why did you silence the title character, introduced to the reader as a corpse, until the very end and I knew, just knew there was something about these WWII novels, we never gel.

Clarity can come from unexpected places. As an anime fan and a feminist I support a site called…Anime Feminist. The staff run a podcast and its currently doing a Watchalong: a series in which staff members plus invited guests watch a legally available anime show, and share their critiques. The current show is Michiko & Hatchin, set in Brazil, and one of its prominent themes is the desire for whiteness and how that affects black/brown characters like Michiko vs Hatchin who passes for white.

Certain things about Prudence started to click. Frank, a gay white kid from Chicago, visits a mountain town every summer because his parents own a vacation property there. He forms his closest personal relationships with Felix, the property’s caretaker, and Billy, a Native American local who assists Felix on the property. They remain close over the years until a violent disruption in the woods creates an irreparable fracture which WW II enlistment and time widens.

Frank’s perspective anchors the first half and he is rarely absent from other characters’ inner thoughts. His mother overthinks everything, including his well-being; Billy is ardently in love with him; he is something of an adopted son for Felix who lost his own family to disease while he fought overseas in WW I.

His presence barely dims in his absence, fuelled by Prudence’s obsession with him in the second half. It’s an obsession that doesn’t make sense until near the end when she takes over the story. Yet it doesn’t quite make up for what came before. Frank, simply by being, with his awkward scrambling at performative masculinity, his naïve/oblivious privilege, his closeted desires, ultimately acts as a destructive force that wrecks many lives.

It was so frustrating to read! But the frustration served a purpose. The book’s substance increases as it lingers in my mind but I don’t want to reread it. (Sorry, Treuer.)

Prudence matched the “book written by an author who is Indigenous, Native American or First Nation” prompt for my reading challenge. Lit Hub led me to more native writers with Hawaiian Authors on the Island’s Literature. It’s good to be reading again.

I did it!

This must be how Elle Woods felt after graduating from Harvard Law. Better because I’m an overachiever and finished not one, but two novels in the year of our Lord 2018. And di year just start.

Here Comes The Sun” left me in a stunned mess. Nicole Dennis-Benn took all my mixed feelings about Montego Bay, went beyond it, and allowed me to look at the town anew. (The view didn’t improve.) Odd fact: the book recently got nominated for the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Award.

Edward Stanford established his map-making business in the heart of London and at the height of the British Empire. His maps fuelled a passion for adventure, exploration and foreign travel, which in turn led to an explosion in travel writing.

Over 160 years later, the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards exist to celebrate this most exciting of genres and seek to celebrate the best travel writing, and travel writers, in the world.

…right? If you’ve read the novel you know it is not about providing that kind of excitement. (Let’s not even get into the colonialist trappings–it’s probably difficult to find a UK anything without them. The blood runs still.) Further reading lead one to recognise that Nicole Dennis-Benn’s book was shortlisted for “Fiction, with a Sense of Place” category, which made it all less bewildering.

Go buy it, it was so good. My review barely touched on what made it such a memorable and poignant read. For Jamaicans, current events make it a prescient one.

The other novel I finished was The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch. Lawd a mercy, nooooooo. It was a peculiar, unsatisfying, occasionally repulsive experience. It felt contradictory in spite of itself. Yuknavitch presented gender and even humanity as fluid, yet her takes on femininity and masculinity were at times binary, banal and pedestrian.

What must it be like to carry the burden of humanity–and its end–around in a woman’s body when a woman’s body was made to create life?

Wasn’t a man’s body made to “create life” too, Lidia? And Yuknavitch keeps dropping lines like this

…in her mind’s eye she can feel how near rage and love are in us all. We try to pretend they are opposites or at far poles from one another, but really they meet and bridge at the center of a face.

as if they are profound insights rather than conventionally expressed clichés. She repeated this thought a lot with the same earnestness. It was weird.

I can’t give it a proper a review. It’s something of a Big Idea book and I have no intention of rereading it in order to give it just deserts. But it will get a separate post, partly because the only black person in the entire novel is a random soldier Joan wants to bone for about a second or so.

Ayuuuuuup.

I’ve started on my second novel for the Rebel Women Lit Challenge: Prudence by David Treuer; my pick for “a book written by an author who is indigenous, Native American, or First Nation”.

Here Comes The Sun review

Hardships there are but the land is green and the sun shineth.

This lyrical line was an explanation of the symbolic colours in the Jamaica national flag; black, green and gold. In 1996 (according to Wikipedia) the government changed the meaning for black: it now represents the citizenry’s strength and creativity. With “Here Comes the Sun” Nicole Dennis-Benn creates a tangible palimpsest of this “black” double-meaning. At the end, which narrative will emerge most visible beneath the white-hot sunlight?

The song “Here Comes the Sun”, written by George Harrison of Beatles fame, is an optimistic ditty that fits in with the commercial Sun, Sea, Sand image the Jamaican government flogs to tourists. Here is a welcoming warmth to melt cares away. Locals like the character Alphonso Wellington, of the landed gentry, work with or sidestep government, to create and enjoy this modern plantation paradise. They have villas perched to enjoy the seascape; elegant bamboo fans that whirl over artwork, not unlike the novel’s cover art, as they listen to jazz (perhaps Nina Simone’s “Here Comes The Sun” cover) and savour local sweets. And what of our strong, creative black people? (Rest assured, no major hotel owner in Jamaica, to this day, is black.)

Screenshot_20171211-160638

No modern plantation is complete without exploited labour. Our tourism model’s origins can be traced back to the Jamaica International Exhibition in 1891. Foreign owners, incentivised to import foreign goods and material, built massive estates on the advice of foreign consultants, with enthusiastic governmental support. It’s not that different now. Left out of that official narrative, except as grinning natives presenting our goods, ourselves on a platter for consumption, Dennis-Benn centres the hotel clerks, housekeepers, vendors, taxi drivers in this dark paradise. For them, the sun is a harbinger of suffering: from the daily punishing rays that draw sweat from every pore to a life-stealing drought that drives farmers to tears and drink.

Yet we still dream. The story starts at night with Margot, an ambitious, enterprising head hotel clerk who supplements her small salary with sex work. Hers is a service the hotel offers with the owner’s full knowledge–he coerced her into it from his first day on the job.

At first she despised herself for letting him touch her. But then she despised herself for the pride that made her believe she had a choice.

Delores, her mother, is an architect’s of Margot’s self-loathing. A produce and craft vendor, she herself had a poor relationship with her mother Merle. In Delores’ flashbacks Merle is an angry, verbally and physically abusive figure. Delores continues the tradition: every encounter with Margot is marred by conflict, underpinned with dark secrets barely restrained. With their dreams for themselves either dead or mutated, they place all their idealistic hope in Thandie, Delores’ daughter and Margot’s half-sister. She’s a high school student with impressive artistic talent whose forceful spirit strains against the notion that there is only one successful path for a poor, black girl like her: a traditional education and a proper profession as a doctor.

Margot and Delores bank on Thandi as the one who will make it. Like the old mattress, Thandi is that source in which they plant their dreams and expectations.

As you read the novel that image will resonate and take on even worse implications than you may now imagine (trust me). What I love about Dennis-Benn’s novel is how she deftly delineates the horrific and dehumanising while making it personal. She brings a sense of clarity, urgency, and heart-wrenching emotional realism to the oft-repeated arguments worn out online, in the newspapers’ opinion pages, and summarised in year-end statistics.

This is a book that will wring your heart out. Verdene, a returning resident from the UK, is Margot’s secret lover. Secret, as Verdene already deals with regular harassment for being a witch who will prey on the neighbours’ daughters. Secret, because Margot herself is conflicted about the relationship; one that is a saving grace for both of them in so many ways but which Margot can’t quite treat as real. Thandie finds succour in her childhood friend’s brother who everyone tells her to avoid. They may live in the same village but her elite high school places her a rung above a working teen out of school.

The myriad intersections at which status is calculated is as complex as any 19th-century English novel. A single exam can launch one above or pitch them below. There are parts of one’s identity that make one vulnerable and others that protect. The conventional wisdom that hard work and ambition guarantee ascension, or at least stability, is crushed beneath a bulldozer.

Chicken merry, hawk de near and when him de near yuh must beware

In this illusory dreamland, these characters struggle to love, to flourish. In what ought to be abundance, they battle for the freedom to realise their own stories in a space that for some is too, too narrow.

Part way through my journey under the sun

IMG_20150412_125034_1I’ve completed 41% of Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes The Sun. She takes the reader over treacherous terrain, exploring, discerning, tenderly excavating Delores, Margot, Thandie, and Verdene, as they traverse Montego Bay, exposed under the sun.

It’s a story about women in whom Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” manifests. So far. Cyaan see how it can go otherwise…at this point. Delores has no dreams for herself, helped to kill Margot’s, and retains only a stringent hope for Thandie. Margot’s dreams mutated into a darkness she constantly fears will envelop Thandie. She has not recognised how she has become darkness’ agent. It’s a wretched cycle with no happy end in sight.

Mi still want the happy ending tho, God know. Nicole, do sup’m fi I and I nuh 😅😌?

Parts of this book evoke claustrophobic feelings. It’s like they’re living in the middle of an active volcano with the lava bubbling beneath and the sky visible but too far away. Maybe they are the lava. Maybe they are the volcano.

I love Thandie most of all, partly because she is the one I can relate to the most. (Hi, ego.) Your heart can’t help but ache for this sweet, artistic, high school student, still so young, who has to reckon with a mother and sister whose love is hard, scaly, oppressive, barely likkle juice left in the heart. Not because dem wicked but because of what humans have done to humans in paradise, whether it’s emotional abuse at home or sexual abuse everywhere else.

I don’t want to do a review now but I already plan to gift this book when my friend visits in a few months. There are so many things Dennis-Benn gets right about Mobay, making connections to different occurrences that never occurred to me–Mobay, born and raised–that I wanna place this book in every politician hand.

Yuh nuh tink dem know already tho? 🤔

Next section is entitled “Chicken Merry Hawk Deh Near”. I hope di chicken is Alphonso, one of those tired white Jamaicans, because hawk reach di rest already! Nicole, consider my heart.

Rebel Woman Lit Challenge

This should shock me back into…some kind renewal, reemergence, reconnection, re re re.

I selected the Light Reader’s Plan with a couple prompts substituted from the Avid Reader’s. RWL seems a little too US-centric sometimes (more in the social media presence than actual book selections). It was easy to drop the gentrification prompt for “a speculative fiction written by a Caribbean author”. I may still get The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang for my “chick-lit featuring persons of colour” but may swap it for “a book that takes place in North-East Asia”. I have a lot of Japanese lit yet to be absorbed. I appreciate that the prompts have a more global focus.

About half of my selections are books I started last year but never finished, or intended to start but never breached. One of them I tried more than once. Only manga managed to retain my attention, besides one or two romance books. There’s nothing wrong with manga but it gets old.

RWL revealed its official selections up until May. Besides the Akwaeke Emezi title, I don’t imagine our lists will intersect at all. A few of mine were 2017 group selections.

Kiki’s Light Reader’s Plan

  1. A novel with an LGBTQIA+ main character – Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis Benn
  2. A book by an Indigenous, Native American or First Nation writer – Prudence by David Treuer
  3. Speculative fiction by a Caribbean author – Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson
  4. A book with a neurodiverse main character of colour – Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
  5. A chick-lit featuring persons of colour – The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
  6. A memoir by a woman of colour – Hunger by Roxane Gay
  7. A debut novel by a person of colour – The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
  8. A book with an elderly main character – Memento Mori by Muriel Spark
  9. A book inspired by traditional African beliefs – The Akata series by Nnedi Okorafor (or Zoo City by Lauren Beukes)
  10. A recent poetry collection by a woman of colour – A Merchant of Feathers by Tanya Shirley
  11. A book set in a Caribbean country – How to Escape from a Leper Colony and Other Stories by Tiphanie Yanique
  12. A book under 200 pages by a person of colour – The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

 

First blog post

My love for literature was a defining feature of my life. Yet for the past few years, it became more of a surface affectation. Why?

I regress. I imagine withered brain cells; stunted vocabulary; regurgitated aphorisms; copycat insight.  Others take on life’s complexities as I retreat into a trite, hackneyed, utterly unsatisfying imaginative existence.

Halfway through 2017, I subscribed to the Rebel Women Literature newsletter. For half of last year, I lurked over all their doings, got some books, didn’t read a damn thing (except one or two Safiya Sinclair poems).

It’s the new year. The grandest pronouncement I can imagine for myself in this stasis is the RWL 2018 reading challenge. I used to read 50+ books a year. I’ll start with 12.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑