Goodreads Challenge 2019!

It’s nearing the end of 2019 so you know what that means – it’s time to sum up my reading (yay!). 2019 was a good year. Overall, I surpassed my Goodreads challenge of reading 52 books this year by clocking 67 books!

Here’s the list divided into novels, short story collections, nonfiction, memoir, poetry, and graphic novels/comics. The ones I’ve starred are the ones that had a considerable impact on me.

Novels

  1. Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo
  2. Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
  3. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan *
  4. The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson
  5. Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
  6. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok *
  7. Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid
  8. Augustown by Kei Miller *
  9. Golden Child by Claire Adam
  10. Here Comes The Sun by Nicole Dennis Benn *
  11. My New American Life by Francine Prose
  12. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  13. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith *
  14. A House For Mr. Biswas by VS Naipaul *
  15. Crick, Crack Monkey by Merle Hodge
  16. Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid *
  17. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  18. Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery *
  19. My Enemy’s Cherry Tree by Wang Ting-Kuo
  20. A View of the Empire at Sunset by Caryl Philips *
  21. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
  22. The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas
  23. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
  24. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
  25. Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat *
  26. Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Short story collections

  1. Trinidad Noir: The Classics edited by Earl Lovelace and Robert Antoni
  2. What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
  3. How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs *
  4. A Kitchen in the Corner of the House by Ambai
  5. The Transformation and Other Stories by Franz Kafka
  6. Jokes for the Gunmen by Mazen Maarouf
  7. Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link *

Nonfiction

  1. Three Tigers, One Mountain by Michael Booth *
  2. Thin Places by Jordan Kisner *
  3. VS Naipaul’s Journeys by Sanjay Krishnan
  4. Stories that Stick by Kindra Hall
  5. Online Marketing for Busy Authors by Fauzia Burke
  6. Writing is Essential by Judine Slaughter
  7. Elements of Fiction by Walter Mosley
  8. Footnotes by Peter Fiennes
  9. We Need New Stories by Nesrine Malik
  10. Focal Point by Brian Tracy
  11. Beyond Guilt Trips by Anu Taranath
  12. An Uncommon Atlas by Alastair Bonnett
  13. The Bells of Old Tokyo by Anna Sherman
  14. Cuba Then, Cuba Now by Joshua-Jelly Shapiro
  15. Imaginary Homelands by Salman Rushdie
  16. Diasporic (Dis)locations by Brinda J Mehta *
  17. The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla
  18. How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom
  19. The Minimalist Home by Joshua Becker
  20. Unconventional Medicine by Chris Kresser
  21. How to Polish Your Manuscript in 10 Days by Anne Victory

Memoir

  1. In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
  2. At Home in the World by Tsh Oxenreider
  3. The Other Side of Paradise by Staceyann Chin
  4. Autumn Light by Pico Iyer
  5. Educated by Tara Westover *
  6. Apple, Tree by Lisa Funderburg
  7. Malaya by Cinelle Barnes *
  8. A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid *
  9. A Map to the Door of No Return by Dionne Brand
  10. Magic Realism for Non-Believers by Anika Fajardo *
  11. Belonging by bell hooks *

Graphic Novel/Comics

  1. The Wonderful World of Sazae San by Machiko Hasegawa

Poetry

  1. Modern Sudanese Poetry by Adil Babikir

How many books did you read this year? What were your favorites?



What I read in autumn 2019

With winter fast approaching, I think it’s a good time to review what I read over the autumn months. As the weather cooled down, I started to burrow into books again, particularly nonfiction/memoir.  Here are the highlights.

Educated by Tara Westover

This memoir blew me away. I was astounded at the author’s spare upbringing with a fundamentalist Mormon father with idiosyncratic beliefs about education, government, modern medicine, and work. The book largely wrestles with the conflict between family obligation and self-actualization. Westover ends up reaching the apex in education with a PhD from Cambridge University but also suffers familial estrangement. I guess you win some, you lose some.

Autumn Light by Pico Iyer

This memoir reflects on the losses the author’s family has suffered in recent years. First, his father-in-law passes away and his mother-in-law has to be put in home because she suffers from dementia. Second, he wrestles with the fact that his mother lives alone in California. Third, Iyer deals with an estranged brother-in-law whom he has never met. He also shares his experiences with his local ping pong club in Nara. 

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

This series of interlocking stories follow four Chinese immigrant women from war-torn China to contemporary San Francisco. There, these women navigate cross-cultural waters, marriages, and often conflicted relationships with their American-born daughters. Although I hate to say it, Tan’s writing often comes across as “magical” and “exotic.” However, her storytelling and evocative imagery certainly captivate the reader.

The Other Side of Paradise by Staceyann Chin

This autobiographical memoir was shocking and often heartbreaking. Young Staceyann did not have an easy life and it is amazing she was able to make it so far in spite of her life challenges.

Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn

After reading Here Comes The Sun, I was eager to devour this Jamaican author’s sophomore novel. It follows the adventures of Patsy who leaves her daughter behind in Jamaica to start a new life and follow an old lover in Brooklyn.

What it Means When a Man Falls from The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

I first read one of her stories on Granta and was happy to read the rest of them in this delightful collection. However, my favorite story remains “Who Will Greet You at Home.” So haunting!

Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo 

This novel was not at all what I expected. The plot moves along swiftly and deals with corruption in political life and civil unrest in Nigeria. Recommended if you like plot-driven novels.

At Home in the World by Tsh Oxenreider

This memoir follows a family of five who literally travel around the world. When I first started reading it, I was genuinely shocked that the family also visited many places I landed during my own 3 month-long RTW trip with uni friends. The book made traveling with a young family enticing because of the hands-on education the kids received on the road.

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

I wanted to hear the author’s thoughts on writing in a non-native tongue, namely Italian. While reading, I was able to draw a lot of parallels between her struggles learning the language in the native country and my struggles trying to get my head around learning Japanese in Japan.

Trinidad Noir: The Classics ed. by Earl Lovelace and Robert Antoni

Because I enjoyed the first Trinidad Noir from Akashic Books, I decided to read this “classics” version. It includes a lot of reprints from canonical Caribbean authors like VS Naipaul, CLR James, Eric Roach, Derek Walcott, and Sam Selvon. However, because of this, many of the reprints fail to fall under the noir writing genre. The stories that did captivate the noir literary style included work by Sharon Millar, Elizabeth Hackshaw-Walcott, Elizabeth Nunez, Wayne Brown, and Shani Mootoo.

What are you reading right now for fall?

Review: The Bells of Old Tokyo

As a fairly new expat living in the land of the rising sun, it’s always interesting to hear the perspectives of seasoned expats who have called this place home for several years.

Anna Sherman moved to Asia in 2001 and The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations of Time and a City is her first book. In this part-memoir/ part travelogue, Sherman retraces the steps taken by composer Yoshimura Hiroshi in his book, Edo’s Bells of Time, listening for the chime of the old city’s bells in the silent spaces of her loud, 21st century metropolis. Her prose is both lyrical and clipped, as she meditates on seasonal time-keeping in old Edo and contrasts it with digital time-keeping in modern-day Tokyo.

She shows how the traditional Japanese conception of time as non-linear is constantly at odds with Japan’s adoption of progressive, mechanical Western time, a push and pull struggle that mirrors Japan’s juggling between its slick, contemporary image as a postmodern mecca and its ancient Eastern roots. This conflict is also evident in Tokyo’s constant reinvention of itself, forever destroying and rebuilding its spaces so that nothing ever remains permanent, even the author’s beloved coffee shop in the bowels of the enigmatic capital city.

Overall, The Bells of Old Tokyo is a fresh take on a much-admired and much-misunderstood city and highly recommended for anyone who wants to probe into what really makes the Japanese capital tick.

Disclaimer: I received this book as a digital Advance Reader Copy (ARC) from the publishers in exchange for my honest review.

Review: Cuba Then, Cuba Now

Firstly, I found Cuba Then, Cuba Now, the title of the Vintage Short by travel writer Joshua Jelly-Shapiro, to be a bit misleading. It promised reflective essays on Cuba – then and now, but the bulk of the book spoke about another Caribbean island, Jamaica. In fact, Cuba Then, Cuba Now included many excerpts from Shapiro’s first book, Island People: The Caribbean and the World.

Shapiro’s three chapters on Jamaica certainly brought the island alive with keen observations of its people, history, and culture. I liked that the narrative voice was attuned to Jamaican patois, particularly the brand spoken by its Rastafarian community.

The introduction and the chapter on Cuba, however, somehow didn’t make much of an impact on me as a Caribbean-born reader and writer. That said, I enjoyed reading this title and would really like to read Island People next.

Disclaimer: I received this book as a digital Advance Reader Copy (ARC) from the publishers in exchange for my honest review.

Have you read it?

Review: Homeland

“He saw him standing on the shore of the Vistula Spit, scanning the sea with his binoculars – ‘When are they going to come and get us?’ – while behind him the refugee wagons rumbled from the east to west and west to east. Jonathan pounded the armrest with his fist and the words kept hammering in his brain – all for nothing! ALL FOR NOTHING! He didn’t mean the death of his mother or of his father, who’d had to ‘bite the dust,’ or the sofa beds his uncle manufactured, but the suffering of all creatures, the flesh lashed to the stake, the calf he had seen bound and gagged, the torture chamber in the Marienburg, the shuffling procession of mankind beneath the condemning sky.
It’s all for nothing, he thought again and again. And: Who’s to blame?” –
Homeland by Walter Kempowski (Granta, 2018)

I’ll be honest. Before I received Homeland from the publishers, I had never heard of Walter Kempowski before. However, the good thing about reading literature in translation is that you discover voices from all over the world, not just from the English-speaking and writing world. The novel was translated from German by Charlotte Collins. In Homeland, the story is set in 1988, pre-Berlin Wall fall. We follow Jonathan Fabrizius, a writer who goes on a press road trip from Hamburg to former East Prussia/Poland and ends up revisiting the homeland he never really knew. A common theme that runs throughout the work is an existential angst associated with the futility of war, violence, suffering, and death. Reading this work, I was also sharply reminded of my short story “Homecoming” in We Mark Your Memory that explores similar themes of identity, homeland, and belonging. He’s definitely a writer I’d like to read more of.

Review: Exterminate All The Brutes

Exterminate All The Brutes is written by Swedish author Sven Linqvist. It was originally published in 1992 and in 2018, it was translated by Joan Tate and published by Granta Books. This collection of essays include travelogue-style entries on the author’s journey through the Sahara while he researches the social, political, and economic context of the world of author Joseph Conrad. It recounts the theories that were the rage around the time he wrote Heart of Darkness.

In particular, this book delves into the European attitude to the “inferior races,” summed up in Kurtz’ horrible but pithy statement, “Exterminate all the brutes.” The author also intersperses his historical research and reflections with snippets from his personal life including childhood memories and dream-like sequences. Although at times his ruminations can appear disjointed and fragmented, overall, the book offers rich historical details regarding European imperialism on the African continent, particularly how they justify their rapacious and cruel behavior with reference to the “white man’s burden” to civilize the uncivilized world. It’s great critical reading, especially in the world we live in today.

Have you ever read it? What did you think?

A literary travel guide to T&T

If you’re a book nerd like me, then you’ll absolutely adore the idea of literary travel. What is it, exactly? It’s a form of tourism where you visit places that inspired or featured in certain fiction/non-fiction books. For instance, if you loved Anne of Green Gables, then you’ll definitely appreciate visiting the real Prince Edward Island in Canada.

Unfortunately, there isn’t an established industry when it comes to literary travel in my home country of Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean. That’s why I decided to comb literary fiction set in T&T to pinpoint locations you can visit to enrich your reading experience. Of course, many of the locations may not reflect exactly what’s presented in the literature but it’s always nice to compare and contrast the real with the art.

Here are 12 places you can visit on your literary travel tour of Trinidad and Tobago.

1. Black Rock

Black Rock is an actual location on the eastern coast of the island of Tobago which inspired Black Rock/Lime Tree Can’t Bear Orange, the debut of Amanda Smyth, an Irish-Trinidadian author. The seaside location forms the backdrop of Celia’s coming of age story in the 1950s.

“The water here is usually calm. A large black rock jutted out of it, like a little island on its own. On the sand – as fine as dust – I found shells and pieces of driftwood thrown up like old bones and I usually came across a sea pussy or two, shaped like a half a moon and soft like jellyfish.”

2. Chacachacare Island

Located dong de islands (as the locals say), a few kilometers off the northwestern coast of Trinidad, Chacachacare Island is a place where lepers were historically quarantined. It stars in Elizabeth Nunez’s Prospero’s Daughter, a very Caribbean interpretation of The Tempest by William Shakespeare.

“They say the Amerindians named the island for the cotton they used to grow here. I like the other story better, the one about the Indians naming the island after a bird.’ Cha-ca-cha-ca-Ree. I heard it now everywhere, and in between the greenery I saw the flash of yellow feathers, then blue, then red.

We wound around sharp bends in the road. More precipices, more flashes of blue sea, black rocks, white froth curling on the edges of glistening waves. More thick greenery. Color. Flowers, birds.”

3. Chaguanas

This Central Trinidad town in one of the focal points of Nobel Prize winner VS Naipaul’s masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas. In fact, the novel’s Hanuman House was directly inspired by Lion House still standing in the western part of the town. Lion House is still owned by Naipaul’s maternal relatives, the Capildeos.

Among the tumbledown timber-and-corrugated-iron buildings in the High Street at Arwacas, Hanuman House stood like an alien white fortress. The concrete walls looked as thick as they were, and when the narrow doors of the Tulsi Store on the ground floor were closed the House became bulky, impregnable and blank.”

4. Couva

The rural atmosphere of this Central town is highlighted in Nobel Prize Laureate Derek Walcott’s poem, The Saddhu of Couva. Although you may not experience the same milieu there today, you can still feel the poem’s vibe in rustic Central Trinidad villages like Felicity. Here’s an excerpt:

“When sunset, a brass gong,

vibrate through Couva,

is then I see my soul, swiftly unsheathes,

like a white cattle bird growing more small

over the ocean of the evening canes,

and I sit quiet, waiting for it to return

like a hog-cattle blistered with mud,

because, for my spirit, India is too far.”

5. Laventille

Although this North Trinidad urban community is maligned for gang violence today, Laventille is still the birthplace of the country’s national instrument, the steelpan. The community is immortalized by Derek Walcott in his poem, Laventille, and Earl Lovelace in his novel, The Dragon Can’t Dance. Here’s an excerpt from Walcott’s Laventille:

It huddled there

steel tinkling its blue painted metal air,

tempered in violence, like Rio’s favelas,

with snaking, perilous streets whose edges fell as

its Episcopal turkey-buzzards fall

from its miraculous hilltop

shrine,

down the impossible drop 

to Belmont, Woodbrook, Maraval, St. Clair

6. Princes Town

The South Trinidad town of Princes Town has been featured in more than a couple books written by Canada-based Trinidadian authors. Ramabai Espinet talks about Manahambre Road in The Swinging Bridge and Lengua is preserved in Rabindranath Maharaj’s A Perfect Pledge. Here’s a quote from A Perfect Pledge.

This village is a real trap. Bit by bit it will eat up every single person who remain here. This place will never change.” 

Here’s another about the protagonist’s family home on Manahambre Road in The Swinging Bridge:

We lived in a rambling board house set back from busy Manahambre Road. Facing the traffic was Muddie’s flower garden, which she had lovingly planted as a new bride and which, years later, continued to reseed itself into a spectacular array of zinnias and sunflowers. On one side of the house was a massive celamen tree and a chenette tree with spreading branches. At the back, the land sloped downwards, and the structure rose on high pillars, leaving a clean dirt area underneath where we played, with a washtub at one end and a little tin bathroom standing next to it.”

7. Mayaro

This quiet fishing village has been celebrated in many of Trinidadian author Michael Anthony’s novels, including Green Days by the River and A Year in San Fernando. Both are coming of age stories where the protagonists deal with a loss of innocence. Here’s an excerpt about Mayaro in A Year in San Fernando. 

“Somehow, the knowledge that I was going away made Mayaro look very strange. The lime trees looked greener, for one thing, and the sudden down-sweep of the land towards the ravine, rising again at the far, grassy hills, seemed to make the place look unusual this morning, and rare.”

It’s also memorialized in The Amazing Absorbing Boy by Rabindranath Maharaj.

 “Remind me of the place. The wind breathing through the trees and the sound of coconuts dropping on the mud. Ta-dup ta dup. The hairy mangrove crabs and the turtles. The evening sky looking like a big mash up rainbow with all these colors leaking down on the sea. The fresh smell of fish and sand in the mornings. Cascadura jumping up from the ponds like living clumps of mud. Dew skating down from the big dasheen leaves as if they playing with the sunlight. A horsewhip snake slipping down a guava branch as smooth as flowing water. Cassava pone and seamoss drinks.” 

8. Plymouth

Plymouth is also located on the eastern coast of Tobago, next to Black Rock. It’s featured in British-Guyanese author Oonya Kempadoo’s Tide Running.  The novel details the dark underbelly and sex tourism industry of this “island paradise.”

“Just visiting from Trinidad, we could have never seen the darkness of this island. The strength of it overpowered and silenced you. Only after moving here did the calm become unsettling. Traces of resentment glowing under the skin of proud faces, in the gait of mobile bodies. The house, our holiday haven from Trinidad city life, seduced us into its womb, promising peace of mind, crime-free living, and the blue Caribbean Sea. Once Peter’s work in Trinidad had finished, we moved. And now the haven sheltered us from things unknown and deep. Always mothering, giving space for mistakes and meditation, watching over our sleep.”

“The sea rolling and swelling up itself down by them rocks on Plymuth Point. Breathing out, sucking ‘e belly back in. Everytime it spuff slow, li’l crabs stop and hold on tight to the rocks. It fooling them. Only snorting and slurping back in, snuffling and bubbling.”

9. Port of Spain

Many Trinidadian authors write about the capital city with equal amounts of disdain and admiration. VS Naipaul wrote about it in his famous collection of short stories, Miguel Street, Ismith Khan in The Jumbie Bird, Sam Selvon in A Brighter Sun, and CLR James in Minty Alley. In The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, Monique Roffey describes the city like this:

“How he loved this city. Port of Spain. Poor, blind-deaf city. It spanned back, in a grid, from a busy port and dock; worn out now, ruined and ruinous and suffering, always suffering…parts of the city still renewed themselves, rising up against the odds.”

10. San Fernando

The country’s second city is canonized in The Swinging Bridge by Ramabai Espinet as well in as A Year in San Fernando by Michael Anthony. Here’s a quote about the city in The Swinging Bridge:

“San Fernando. An ordinary little city, hardly more than a town when I grew up in it, though it possessed a mayor, a cathedral, its own general hospital. Driving along the southern highway into San Fernando you can easily miss its quiet, distinct charm. The beat is its own, not frenzied or hustling like Port of Spain, a city that hits you over the head with its rushing intensity, its goods, its people, its kaiso music hawked continuously in the streets. No, not that percussive beat, but a steadier, more monotonous rhythm, anchored perhaps to a securer set of values, shored up by habit, by persistence, by the flow of unchanging time.”

“The city of San Fernando housing its twin but separate populations, African and Indian, each lacerating the other, each tolerating the other’s crossovers, the strayaways, the inveterate mixers seduced by curiosity and a taste for difference, whose blood and semen and juices would solidify and form a rickety bridge across which others might begin to cross the rapids that they feared would wash them out into the open sea. My place, this fertile, exuberant, wounded city. Its lovely shadowed hill; its stinking wharf.”

11. St. James

St. James, a suburb of Port of Spain, was the final resting place for Mohun Biswas, the protagonist of VS Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas. Biswas was modeled on Naipaul’s father and you can visit the same house ennobled in the novel, now a historical landmark known as Naipaul House.

“The house could be seen from two or three streets away and was known all over St James. It was like a huge and squat sentry-box: tall, square, two-storeyed, with a pyramidal roof of corrugated iron.”

 12. Quinam

I’ve only come across this popular South Trinidad beach in one poem by Eric Roach entitled On Quinam Bay. However, the location’s a bit macabre because the Tobagonian poet actually committed suicide there, by drinking insecticide and swimming out to sea. Here’s an excerpt from the poem:

Soparee Mai is still maintained

in her south town of quiet ways

and modest means; and south from there

beyond Mendez, in a green plain

of old oil wells and planted teak,

it is land’s end in Quinam Bay.

The road’s a black canal to sea

where Colon’s schooners rolled off shore

and his boats were lugged to land

cleaving the indifferent wave.

Have you been to these places or read these books? Please share in the comments below!