Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson



One of the highlights of my trip to the Trinidad and Tobago Literary Festival (Bocas Lit Fest) was meeting Naomi Jackson. We met during the Business of Translation session and subsequently went to lunch together. She helped me with the menu since it was the first time in my life I’d heard of buss-up-shut. And I was only familiar with callaloo because I remembered seeing it on an episode of The Cosby Show.

A couple of days later, Naomi and Tiphanie Yanique, the author of How to Escape From a Leper Colony and Land of Love and Drowning, were featured in the Family Ties session. Stephen Narain facilitated the discussion about books inspired by family stories. That’s where I learned about The Star Side of Bird Hill’s cover art. It was a painting given to Naomi by the artist, Sheena Rose. Naomi requested that the art be her book’s cover after realizing that it’d be perfect for Star Side. Some said this was wishful thinking with a powerhouse publisher like Penguin Press, but Naomi pulled it off! She writes in detail about "The Perfect Covergirl" at Literary Hub!


Naomi gave me an advanced copy of the book before leaving Trinidad, but you know how we do here at Reading Has Purpose, all reviews posted genuinely reflect my thoughts and are not influenced by external sources. So here we go...


We meet Dionne and Phaedra two weeks after their arrival to Barbados. Their mother, Avril, has sent them from Brooklyn to stay with their grandmother, Hyacinth, for the summer. It’s clear right away that sixteen-year-old Dionne doesn’t want to be there, while her younger sister Phaedra takes advantage of the time she can spend Hyacinth. 


While most of the community’s citizens enjoy participating in activities organized by The Bird Hill Church of God, Dionne would rather fill her time playing with make-up, clothes, and boys. She often reminisces about her best friend and fun times back in Brooklyn. But she also recalls times when she was responsible for taking care of herself and Phaedra because Avril suffered from depression, and their father was no longer around.

In the meantime, Hyacinth is teaching Phaedra several skills, dream interpretation, midwifery, and obeah, to name a few. Phaedra fills with pride as Hyacinth reveals details about Avril’s childhood and the way people on the island loved her. Phaedra gets closer to Hyacinth, literally, during their time together as she yearns for the affection she never received from her mother.

Dionne begrudgingly begins spending more time with Hyacinth about halfway through the book and Hyacinth has to tell her more than a few times to mind her manners. I even found myself losing patience with Dionne because in the first place, I never had the gall to disrespect my grandmother, and in the second place, I would’ve gotten smacked long before Dionne did if I somehow found the courage get out of line.

Top L to R: Naomi, Stephen, Tiphanie 

As the girls continue to wait for news on when they will return home, an unexpected event leads the girls’ father to find them in Barbados. While Dionne see’s his return as her way to escape from the island, Phaedra isn’t so sure. Hyacinth tries to warn Dionne that no good can come from the father who never saw fit to come for them until tragedy struck. He tries to explain his relationship with Avril to the girls and the novel comes to a suspenseful close as his actions reveal that Hyacinth and Phaedra's concerns are warranted.

Although this book is obviously a summer release, with numerous references to the Caribbean climate, it didn’t feel like a summer read to me. I guess because I like to associate summer with lighter, quicker reads. The characters are dealing with a lot and the narrative slows down at times. But all in all, I couldn't help but do a little reminiscing of my own as Naomi envelops the readers in local culture with references to food, festivals, and climate throughout the book. I've already marked her Washington, DC book tour stop on my calendar. You can go here to see if she's coming to a city near you. The Star Side of Bird Hill hits shelves today!

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Monday, June 15, 2015

When Washington Was in Vogue by Edward Christopher Williams


I discovered Washington Was in Vogue through DC By the Book, a project that identifies and compiles a database of literature set in DC. It is the second of three books that I decided to read because of the initiative. Breathing Room by Patricia Elam was the first.

The novel, which is referred to as a lost novel of the Harlem Renaissance, unfolds as a comical series of letters written by Davy Carr to his friend Bob. (I believe Song of Solomon is the only other novel I’ve read that captures the friendship of two men.) Davy is in Washington, DC to do research for a book about the African slave trade. While there he meets a young woman named Caroline that he’s not quite sure how to handle. But through the letters he sends to Bob, it’s obvious that he’s falling in love with her.

As Davy becomes familiar with his new surroundings, he gets absorbed into circles of friendship and finds himself right at the center of life as a black elitist in Washington, DC. They are people that play as hard as they work and love an elaborate affair that will bring people together. One such occurrence is an HBCU football classic between Hampton and Howard Universities.  People travel from all parts of the country to attend parties and reunions that take place because of the annual event. On game day, people don their best apparel and catch up with those they didn’t manage to see before the game. Even today, HBCU football classics are a huge deal, and can still be considered more of a fashion show and social function than sporting event.

This colorfully written book also does some pretty heavy lifting. The author decides to tackle some  community issues. After spending some time with his new friends, Davy decides he must be in the company of the wealthiest individuals around town. But an acquaintance points out that the professions of those individuals could not afford them the lifestyles of which they boast. In other words, there’s a lot of keeping up with the Joneses.

It’s even stated that many of these self-proclaimed, well to do individuals are ignorant about things that should be most important. While they are about town making sure they are seen at the festivities surrounding the football game, the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill is dying in Congress.

The book goes on to address colorism, passing, and even delves into women’s issues. Even though a love story does play out in the book, all characters don't have the same luck. Apparently the supposed lack of eligible bachelors is a one hundred year old problem. But there were many things in this book that made me think, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Originally published in 1926, When Washington Was in Vogue is a fun and thought provoking read that's definitely flown under the radar. It was the only book published by Edward Christopher Williams, the country's first black professional librarian. He died in 1929 and was a librarian at Howard University at the time.

“Youth - which has so much more of time - is so much more impatient than maturity.” 
When Washington Was in Vogue


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When Washington Was in Vogue on Amazon

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

I read The Other Wes Moore in February 2014. It was one of many draft reviews that I never posted. Since it was so close to being finished, I decided to clean it up and get it on the blog. The story is about two people with the same name, growing up in the same city. The author becomes a Rhodes Scholar while the other Wes ends up serving life in prison.
My biggest qualm about this book is that author Wes made inferences the reader should’ve been allowed to make. I didn't feel like the story was fair to the incarcerated Wes and have many times wondered if incarcerated Wes felt the same way. I would’ve preferred a story that was more balanced.
However, the book did make me think about some things. Would the outcome be the same if two people made the same mistake but in different environments? I had not considered the impact some mistakes or poor decisions have on your life are closely related to the environment in which those mistakes were made. What if you're in an environment where you're expected to become an upstanding citizen instead of one where you're expected to become a part of the prison population? What if you're in an environment where your support system includes aunts, uncles, two parents, and teachers instead of one parent and maybe a sibling?
At some point in life you begin to think about the future. But that's easy to do when your present isn't burdensome. Although, I didn't think it was that simple until incarcerated Wes admitted that the first time he thought about his future was after his fate, a lifelong prison sentence, was sealed. I can understand how if you’re doing what you have to do to survive, your most pressing priority is the present.
The book read like two men with the same name, growing up in the same place with less juxtaposition than I anticipated. The reader is able to identify some differences in the lives of the two men that could answer some questions about how things turned out. But ultimately I was left wondering about the other Wes. Wes Moore’s new book, The Work: My Search for a Life That Matters, was released earlier this year. The paperback will be released on July 21.

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The Other Wes Moore on Amazon
The Work: Searching for a Life That Matters on Amazon

Friday, May 22, 2015

Literary Goodness

There’s so much literary goodness going on right now! If you missed something, here are a few highlights:

The Warmth of Other Suns, better known as the book that I never wanted to end, will be adapted into a historical drama television series! You may remember Isabel Wilkerson made my list of Authors That I Hope Are Writing Another Book. There’s no news on when the series will air, but I will be following this closely.


 Roots is undergoing a makeover and will return to television next year. Two of the original actors from the book’s television debut, back in 1977, are playing a major role in writing the remake. I am not a fan of big books, but I really feel like this is the time to finally read this one. My paperback copy has been collecting dust for a shamefully long time. I guess someone decided the same of their hardback. I snatched it right up when I saw it at one of my favorite used bookstores.  

The Brief History of Seven Killings by Jamaican novelist Marlon James is becoming a television series thanks to HBO. The book received a slew of accolades last year. I decided that I wouldn’t read it after attending the book tour, but I guess I should reconsider...

The date is set for the release of Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book! He's another author that made my list of Authors That I Hope Are Writing Another Book. His memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, is a beautiful story. It's a book for readers. So when I learned that he'd be speaking at Loyola University's 2015 Martin Luther King, Jr Convocation, I made time to go to the event. He was speaking about his highly acclaimed article "The Case For Reparations." It was the highest attended event in the history of the ceremony!

His first novel Between the World and Me will hit shelves on September 8th. It's about an interracial family in pre-Civil War Virginia. Wait until you have a look at the description for this book on Amazon!




Do you know of any exciting literary news!?

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The Warmth of Other Suns on Amazon
Roots: The Saga of an American Family on Amazon
A Brief History of Seven Killings: A Novel on Amazon
Between the World and Me on Amazon

Monday, May 18, 2015

Part 1 Recap: Trinidad and Tobago Literary Festival (Bocas Lit Fest)


The Business of Translation 

The first session I attended had a panel of industry professionals give their inside perspective on the publishing world’s view of translation. I’ve only read one translated book, I think, So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba, and I wondered how close the translation came to capturing the sentiments of the author. However, I did not consider that all translations are not created equal. Although it seemed obvious after it was said. 

Johnny Temple, Founder of Akashic Books, emphasized the point by saying, “In order to translate Gabriel García Márquez [the world-renowned Colombian novelist whose book One Hundred Years of Solitude is on my high priority list] you need a translator of Gabriel García Márquez caliber.” This left me itching to ask the question, and I finally got a chance to do so, how do you know if you’re getting a good translation!? Literary translator Frank Wynne’s response was golden, “Pick up a book, read the first ten pages. If it doesn't work, either you hate the author, or you hate the translation.” 

L to R: Johnny Temple, Ria Julien, Frank Wynne
The notion of First World countries accepting other world literature entered the discussion. After two of the panelists made remarks about inclusivity, Temple interjected emphatically, “In America, African American Literature is separated from “regular” literature which is an abomination, since the best writer in the world is Toni Morrison.” How much do you love that! 

Temple went on to mention the Akashic Noir Series whose manuscripts require that people write stories about the towns that they know, the places they grew up in. And not stories of transplants writing about places they now call home. Several of those books have found their way to my to-read list.


The Unknown Eric Roach

There was a thoughtful tribute to poet and playwright Eric Roach where several authors read their favorite poems by Roach. The Tobagonian was certainly unknown to me and other than an article published by Caribbean Review of Books in 2010, a web search didn’t uncover much. To me, this confirmed the need for the session.

L to R:  Laurence Breiner, Danielle Gianetti, Andre Bagoo, Kenneth Ramchand, Earl Lovelace

The audience was informed that the University of the West Indies holds Roach manuscripts that need attention. The organizers stated that their goal was to have someone leave the tribute having been inspired to write about Roach. And that maybe someone would even be inspired to write his biography.

The tribute was encouraged by legendary Trinidadian novelist Earl Lovelace who knew Roach personally and subsequently became a student of his work. Lovelace closed the session by saying, “I think, basically, we should look at Roach again.” Thanks to the festival, I’ll be having a look for the first time. The organizers are planning a more elaborate celebration for later in the year. 

If you asked a question  that didn't get answered here, Part 2 Recap is coming...


Thursday, May 7, 2015

I'm Back From the Trinidad and Tobago Literary Festival (Bocas Lit Fest)!


 Lit Fest swag!!

I’m back in the swing of things after an amazing trip to Trinidad. Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to do much writing. I hope to finish a series of posts on the festival this weekend, but I don’t want to leave you hanging until next week!

Attending the Trinidad and Tobago Literary Festival makes my list of best decisions ever. I’ve been to several book festivals stateside, but this book festival was is my favorite. Here’s why: 

  1. Location. Location. Location. Trinidad is a beautiful place. It took two days to figure out how to use public transit but once we got it, it was very efficient. It turns out we didn’t need to use it much! More on that below.
  2. The authors are accessible. This is the festival’s fifth year. So it’s still relatively new and small. Plus the venue is set up so that all events are in close proximity. It seemed as if there were as many authors as there were attendees! Look to your left or right at any given moment, and your favorite author might be standing beside you!
  3. The readings are dynamic. This wasn’t a festival where you listen to an author read from their book and then listen to them talk about it for thirty minutes. Many of the readings were done as sessions. The sessions had intriguing, creative, and cerebral topics directly related to the genre of the authors’ books.
  4. Literature lovers can unite. As mentioned above, the conference was small. So not only was it easy to interact with the authors, it was easy to interact with other literature lovers. I met two attendees that were there from New York and I plan to reconnect with them at the Brooklyn and/or Harlem Book Festivals!
     
Many thanks to Robert for showing us around Trinidad!

You may remember I attended the festival with Jacqueline. Well, she went for a walk one morning and met Robert, a Trinidadian. Robert volunteered to drive us all over Trinidad. I asked him about Blanchisseuse, one of Trinidad’s villages. It sparked a conversation that eventually led him to say, “Oh, you know the place?” To which I replied, “No, I’ve just read about it.” Ha! It's true. I had never been to Trinidad. I'd only read about it in Lauren Francis Sharma’s Til the Well Run’s Dry! Reading truly does take you places; believe it!
 
Yours truly with Prince and Jacqueline
I can’t remember how we met Sheldon, but he took us to one of the best restaurants in Port of Spain. The next day, we wanted him to take us to the beach. He wasn’t available so he called his friend to take us. About two hours later, we were in the car with Prince, headed to Maracas Beach! If you ever make it to Trinidad, you must go to Maracas. The ride there is actually more impressive than the beach itself. The views are breathtaking and it's where I was able to capture the shot above. But since this is a book blog, I won't carry on about our fortuitous adventures.  

I'll be posting about the festival next week. If there are any question you want me to answer, drop them in the comments below! 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Redemption in Indigo: A Novel by Karen Lord


Redemption in Indigo is the third of four books I chose to read in preparation for the Trinidad and Tobago Literary Festival which, by the way, starts today!!! I’m glad I didn’t skip it which I thought about doing to read Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique, but I’ll get to in the next few weeks. I was not familiar with Karen Lord before learning that she’s attending the festival. The author was born in Barbados and resides there now.  

When the story opens, Paama has left her gluttonous husband Asinge and returned to the home of her parents. Asinge goes to her village to bring her back, but his self-indulgent actions lead to a series of blunders that leave the people of Paama’s village applauding her for leaving her foolish husband. Unbeknownst to Paama and Asinge, Asinge’s actions are being manipulated by spirits.

Meanwhile, the spirit Indigo Lord loses his power, chaos, as punishment for past actions. Indigo Lord becomes upset when other spirits tell him that his power has been given to a human. Indigo Lord wants his power back and sets out to find the person who has received it. After doing sloppy research, Indigo Lord mistakenly concludes that his power was given to Paama’s sister when, in fact, the power has been given to Paama in the form of a Chaos Stick.  

The situation comes to an anticlimactic plateau, but things remain interesting as Indigo Lord learns that taking back his power is not as simple as taking away the Chaos Stick. So he kidnaps Paama and the journey of him convincing her to return his power begins. During their time together, Paama has a revelation about her husband’s actions that leads her back to him.

The book contains countless other characters and we don’t get to know any of them intimately. Some exit the story as quickly as they enter. But that doesn’t distract from the huge lessons packaged in the tiny chapters. With the simplicity of the delivery and the fable-like quality, a seasoned reader doesn’t have to be attentive to catch most things. I even double-checked to make sure this wasn’t a young adult book.

Redemption in Indigo was a fun and quick read. Although I’m learning to appreciate speculative fiction, I must say, I’m not a fan of some aspects. Spirits occupying the body of animals, which I also observed in The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson is a bit of a distraction to me. Since I’m new to the genre, I’m not sure if that’s par for the course, but I hope to avoid this type of theme in future. I looked at Lord’s other novels and I’m not sure I’d enjoy them as much as this one. That may change after I attend her book reading on Friday. She and Nalo Hopkinson are doing a session together!

“And yet, as the undying ones know and as humans too often forget, even chaos cannot overcome the power of choice.”  
Redemption in Indigo

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Redemption in Indigo: a novel on Amazon
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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson


The Salt Roads is the first of four books I chose to read in preparation for Trinidad and Tobago Literary Festival. Nalo Hopkinson was not on my radar before I learned that she was a festival attendee. Her press kit indicates that she born in Jamaica. She has lived in Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana and for the past 35 years in Canada. She is the author of six novels, a short story collection, and a small poetry collection. 

The Salt Roads opens in St. Domingue on a sugar plantation. There we meet Mer, a slave and healer. Learning how Mer makes potions to cure varying ailments of the slaves is fascinating. And I got a few laughs from her interactions with Ti-Bois, a slave child who follows behind her learning the craft. But there is tension between Mer and Makandal, a slave with the ability to transform himself into animals. Makandal wants the slaves to revolt while Mer opposes any idea that may bring harsh punishments to them. Makandal thinks that no punishment is worse than their current plight.Things go terribly wrong once Makandal convinces a small group to go along with the plan.

We meet Jeanne, a third generation “entertainer,” in Paris. She hopes that Charles, a rich writer, will decide to marry her since she now relies on him to support herself and help her purchase medicines for her aging mother. When Jeanne is not entertaining Charles or taking care of her mother, she is with her lover and friend Lisette who is also an entertainer. The dynamics of Charles and Jeanne's relationship takes a shocking turn when Jeanne falls ill and decides that Charles's money isn't enough for her to be happy.

We eventually come to know Thias who lives in Egypt. She’s a young prostitute that decides to run away but upon making it to her destination, she decides she has no choice but to continue using her body to pay her way. Unfortunately, I started losing patience with the book shortly after Thias is introduced.

As the narrative vacillates between the three sets of characters, the connection comes through the gods that occupy the characters' bodies. But I felt like the movement between storylines was unbalanced. I missed some characters while reading about others and the third set of characters seemed to come out of nowhere, appearing late in the book.

I wasn't aware that two of the storylines follow characters that are sex workers. So I didn’t expect there to be so many sex scenes. In addition, Hopkinson includes heterosexual, bisexual, and homosexual interactions which I think is uncommon for one book and for a book set in the times of this one.

The verdict is still out for me on this author, but you can sign me up for more speculative fiction, including Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring and my current read Redemption in Indigo.  If you have recommendations, leave them in the comments!

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Monday, April 27, 2015

How to Escape from a Leper Colony by Tiphanie Yanique


How to Escape from a Leper Colony: A Novella and Stories is the second of four books I chose to read in preparation for the Trinidad and Tobago Literary festival. I almost decided to skip the third and fourth books after finishing this one because I wanted to dive right into Yanique’s novel, Land of Love and Drowning.

I read many sections in these stories that made me pause, close the book, close my eyes, and just sit with it. And that’s how it took me ten days to read a book that could’ve been read in two. “Fresh new voice” sounds clichè but it’s true; her writing is refreshing.

The hodgepodge of characters was refreshing as well. With many of them being immigrants, or the children of immigrants to the Caribbean, they are exceptionally diverse in race and religious backgrounds. Observing how these individuals bond or separate based on these differences adds depth to the stories.Then there are moments you completely forget you are reading about people that have differences at all.

I believe that nothing under the sun is new. So the originality in some of these stories was pleasantly surprising. As if the stories themselves weren’t captivating enough, I was enthralled by method she uses to tell the last two. The same setting is visited three times but from the point of view of three different characters. As you read, and think back, it changes your opinion of them from when they were first introduced. You reassess the things they said, the things they did. It made me think about a familiar saying, one that probably isn’t familiar enough, “It’s hard to hate someone if you know their story.”

How to Escape from a Leper Colony, the first short story in the book, was the winner of Boston Review’s short story contest and is published on its website. The story, set on Chacachacare Island, is where we meet a fourteen year old girl sent there to bury her father and because she had become a leper. I plan to visit Chacachacare Island this week. It is now abandoned.

I had not heard of this book, published in 2010, before doing a search for books by authors attending the festival. I’m glad I found it only five years after its release instead of fifteen or twenty! Although it has its flaws, I almost forgot what those were because of all the good.  I’ll have a front row seat when she does her book reading on Saturday. 

“He runs his hands along the coffin in the show window...It must cost ten thousand dollars...He wonders if it is the kind of coffin he could be buried in. If he is worth this kind of thing or if he can simply afford this kind of thing - which is sometimes the same and sometimes different depending on whom you are talking to.” How to Escape from a Leper Colony

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How to Escape from a Leper Colony on Amazon
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Monday, April 13, 2015

Author Event with Lawrence Hill



January turned into the month of reading Lawrence Hill after being swept away by The Book of Negroes, my first read of the year. I finished all three of his novels that same month. And this month, I finally got to see the man himself!

I could’ve listened to him talk for hours! He is such a vessel of knowledge. Hill discussed the amount of research required to pull the book together and he did rely on some experts. He had many connections, having been a journalist, and wasn't bashful about calling them up.

Hill wanted to write The Book of Negroes for some time but didn't think he was ready to do so before he did. Once he said that, I thought about the love that oozes from the narrative, and it became obvious that this story was nurtured. I asked myself, if I had a story this captivating in me, could I have waited until the right time to share it with people. I truly believe he has been rewarded for his patience, and so have we. 




He received other offers to adapt the book into a movie, but he wanted to give it to someone whose work he could trust. Authors have little say once they sign on the dotted line. After astutely waiting for an ideal time to write the book, it only made sense that he would take his time when handing it over to be made into a movie.

Someone asked about the book’s US title, Someone Knows My Name. It came about when bookstores were not ordering copies of the book with the original title. But when the novel became a miniseries,using The Book of Negroes as the title, naysayers quickly warmed up to the idea and the US publisher is reissuing the book with the original title.

Hill’s fourth novel and tenth book,The Illegal, will be released in Canada on September 1, 2015 and in the US in early 2016. According to the HarperCollins press release: Lawrence Hill says, “I have been thinking about the lives of undocumented refugees since meeting Sudanese expatriates in West Berlin in the 1980s. In Canada, the United States and around the world, millions of people have to survive with a huge question mark over their lives. Will they be deported? Persecuted? Executed? What do their lives look like while they are hiding in rich nations and trying, against all odds, to get on with their lives? These questions became my obsession and the inspiration for The Illegal.

This. Sounds. Awesome!!! I don't usually request advanced review copies of books, but this may be a worthy occasion. 

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The Book of Negroes/Someone Knows My Name on Amazon
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