Annie John – Jamaica Kincaid (1983)

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Since I’ve been digging more deeply into authors (and characters) of color, Jamaica Kincaid’s name has kept cropping up and so when I saw this title in a thrift shop the other day, I picked it up with interest. After struggling mightily with another book and finally admitting defeat, it was with somewhat relief that I picked this one up and found it to be a joy to read. I loved it and will definitely be picking up more of Kincaid in the future.

So – this was a fiction read, a bildungsroman (posh way of saying “coming of age”) that follows a young girl growing up on the Caribbean island of Antigua. It starts in the middle of her childhood and follows to her teens when there is a sudden change that happens to her that affects all her relationships, particularly that between herself and her mother. Previously adored, the teen protagonist now faces her mother with unexplainable rage and resentment, and the reader watches how this enigmatic development affects her life as she grows and changes. It’s pretty hard to watch but understandable for the most part as who, at some point during their teen years, wasn’t sorely embarrassed by one’s parents at one time or another for no particularly compelling reason?

So, as mentioned, protagonist Annie knows that this is how she feels, but doesn’t really understand why; with nothing to put her finger on, the closest that she is able to come to is describing it as “carrying the thimble that weighed worlds” deep down inside her. Who would understand that, she thinks sadly? No one, and her days go by with her repelling all that seemed perfectly fine until a few months ago with the arrival of that internal thimble.

Annie’s early to mid-teen years were deliriously happy with a mutually adoring relationship between her mother and herself, but once that dark feeling is established, things change for the worse and both of them are confused and frustrated by this sudden change. It’s never mentioned, but then neither of them has the right vocabulary to do that. (It’s fairly typical teenaged angst, but when you’re going through it, it’s a big deal, right?)

The narrative is structured as a series of eight chapters, each one describing a particular episode in Annie’s life (big and small) and spotlights the ebb and flow of school friends, confusion about this sudden dissatisfaction of almost everything in life, and no tools to impact it either way. I would think that anyone who was a teenager (or who knows a teenager) would be able to relate on some level, really.

The depths of the descriptions of the lushness of Annie’s life on Antigua reflect the depth of the introspection that is seen through the PoV of Annie. She is a ferocious and witty character with a fearless attitude to life. It’s equally frustrating and admirable at the same time, really.

This was a fabulous read on a rather endless plane journey, but the time passed really quickly (which underscores how good the read was). I loved loved loved this book.

The Girl with Green Eyes – Edna O’Brien (1962)

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Found in a thrift shop one day, I picked this title up having some faint inkling of O’Brien’s name but no clear idea how that was so. I knew that she was an Irish author, and probably wrote gritty domestic drama type stuff which happened to be exactly what I was looking for… So I snapped that little baby up.

This was a good read. The plot was pretty typical (it seems to me) – a young rural Irish lass from a strongly Catholic family falls in love with an “unsuitable” man (much to her parents’ dismay). Then conflict arises (with or without an unintended pregnancy) leading to conclusion. (I’m not knocking the narrative – that was what I was looking for, actually.)

O’Brien writes lyrically about the Irish countryside which leads to an interesting comparison: the quiet and calm of the countryside vs. the high stakes drama of the young woman and her lover. Perhaps this was also a subtle reflection of control: being controlled by the church/being free to make own decisions, the push for women’s rights and the role of women in 1960’s Ireland, perhaps even the idea of Ireland chafing under English rule?

Green_eyes_movieSo – this was a good read. As I came to the end, I realized that this was Volume II in a trilogy (called “The Country Girls”) which follows the trials and tribulations of two young Irish friends. This was fine as a standalone and as a new reader, I didn’t feel lost at all with regard to the narrative.

Some background about O’Brien: according to Wiki, O’Brien is considered by some to be the “doyenne” of Irish literature, and the first volume of this trilogy was banned, burned and denounced by the Catholic Church of the time. After this, naturally, O’Brien left Ireland and went to London where she went on to wrote about the 1960’s taboos about sexual matters and social issues in her work, continuing to ruffle the feathers of the Church.

O’Brien herself was the youngest daughter of a very strict family – her parents were vehemently against literature (except, presumably, the bible) and this is reflected in the comment O’Brien made at one point, saying “Unhappy houses are a very good incubation for stories.” Knowing this and having read this second volume, I think it’s safe to say that this one was fairly autobiographical in places.

This was made in a film of the same name in 1964. Anyone seen it?

So, overall, I enjoyed this read and will probably search out more O’Brien work in the future.

Words New to Me…

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  • Quillig – not sure. Perhaps from the poem “Jabberwocky”?
  • Diddicois – a term often used for travelers with mixed Romani blood
  • Costermonger – a person who sells fruit and veg from a handcart in the street
  • “Play the bones” – “bones” are a musical instrument (usually folk) which historically used to consist of a pair of animal bones (such as ribs), either a pair of bones in each hand or just a single pair in one. (I might be dreaming, but I am also thinking that “play the bones” refers to playing dice (as they would be made of ivory). I may well have made that up though.)
  • Empire Day – a holiday which used to be celebrated in Commonwealth countries to mark the anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birth (May 24), but now celebrated on the second Monday in March.
  • Iphigenia/Aulis – Iphigenia was the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra in Greek mythology whom Agamemnon is commanded to kill as a sacrifice to allow his ships to sail to Troy. (Aulis is the name of the port where the ships had rallied prior to leaving.) (See Cassandra below.)
  • Trophonian – related to Trophonius (Greek mythology) – several versions floating around, as far as I can see.
  • Struwwelpeter – a rather rough German kid lit book with ten illustrated poems, each of which has a clear moral and a disastrous ending of the consequences of not following that moral.
  • Opusculum – a minor work (as of literature). (Opus is an artistic work on a large scale.)
  • Festschrift – a collection of writings published in honor of a scholar
  • Remorid – a member of the family Remora, the suckerfishes.
  • Adventitia – the outermost layer of a blood vessel
  • Coterminously – having the same border or covering the same area
  • Shigoed – hmm. Not sure about this one…
  • Concupiscent – lustful
  • Cassandra – Cassandra was the mortal daughter of Trojan king, and Apollo, god of poetry and prophecy, was so taken by her that he gave her the gift of foretelling the future. However, when Cassandra rejected his advances, he cursed her by declaring that no one would believe her prophesies. The city of Troy is sacked as people won’t believe Cassandra when she prophesies doom.
(Above) - Cassandra in front of the burning city of Troy....

(Above) – Cassandra in front of the burning city of Troy….

Things on Cowboy’s Head – No. 74

Things on Cowboy's Head. No. 74: Papier mache dog model.

Things on Cowboy’s Head. No. 74: Papier mache dog model.

Background Note: Cowboy, as you know, is one of our cats. She is big and friendly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She naps a lot (like Olympic-level). All of which helps with this ongoing project I have going on…

It’s called “Things on Cowboy’s Head” and I am just seeing what I can balance on the top of her head when she’s amenable to that. It’s been fun so far, and she seems quite happy to play along. (She just moves when she doesn’t want to participate.)

(Cowboy’s posts are all gathered in one spot on her own blog.)

Funny Girl – Nick Hornby (2015)

book339This was one of the New Releases Books at the library and I tend to love Hornby as an author, particularly his book columns, and yet hadn’t heard anything about this new fiction coming out. It follows the life of a young Northern 1960’s beauty queen who is chosen to star in a new sitcom of the time which becomes extraordinarily successful. She works with a small group of writers and producers and the book tracks the natural ups and downs of being in the TV business. This wasn’t a deep and meaningful book, but was a nice optimistic kitchen-sink drama with a female protagonist and from her perspective.

A good read, and will probably be made into a film at some point. (In fact, it seemed rather written for a film in retrospect which doesn’t make it any less of a good read really.) I liked it, but even so – when I put the book down, it didn’t always scream to be picked up again. However, that might’ve been me. (“It’s not you. It’s me” type of situation.)

Glad I found it at the library, but I’m also glad that I didn’t buy this in hardback (like I have Hornby’s Believer columns.) Aaah well. Can’t have a home run every time, can you?

So Long a Letter – Mariama Bâ (1980)

book333“…the path of life is not smooth; one is bruised by its sharp edges…”

This is an epistolary novel (swoon) written with the goal of bringing attention to women’s rights in Senegal and it’s certainly a powerful novel. The narrative is a collection of letters from the POV of a newly widowed wife whose husband has just died leaving two wives (herself and a much younger much newer one) and it gives a clear-eyed perspective into what it’s like to live as a woman in a polygamous culture. Her friend (to whom the letters are written) elects to leave her husband when he takes a second wife, even though doing so puts her at an economic and societal disadvantage — she must do what she must do to maintain her dignity. The narrator, on the other hand, has elected to stay with her husband when he chooses to take a second wife (although she hates having to accept this), and it is this comparison of the two Senegalese women’s lives that form the basis of the narrative structure.

senegalThe narrator’s husband has been married to her for more than 12 years – they have children and an established life together – and the new wife he takes is one of her daughter’s friends, much younger and prettier and now very much spoiled by her husband’s wealth (developed, I might add, by the support of his wife #1). Her husband now ignores his #1 family and wife (with his 12 children), and as you might expect, the book simmers with the anger of wife #1 as she relates the story of her life, both before wife #2 and after.

With the husband now dead, both wives are in the 40 days of Islamic required mourning, and this leaves ample time to meditate on her life so far. It’s a powerful construct.

Bâ writes as tightly as a spring ready to be released, and describes life in Senegal extremely well. Life in both the city and the rural villages, the early stages of the labor movement (which is what her husband has done for a career), the machinations of politics, the rights of women and children, and the oncoming unstoppable force of the end of Colonial Rule and changing societal roles – all of these mean that a New Africa is on the way whether Old Africa is ready or not.

I adored this book, although it was not an easy read subject-wise, but the pure emotion that was elicited via the text was incredible. I’m not sure what else (if anything) Bâ has written, but I will be looking for her name from now on. Highly recommended.

(Above) - Mariama Ba.

(Above) – Mariama Ba.

Raymond Briggs – Still Great…

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Continuing with my graphic novel binge from our Snow Day the other day….

book343I dug in my shelves and found “Ethel and Ernest: A True Story” (1998), a GN by English author Raymond Briggs. (You might know Briggs from his work, “The Snowman”, which sometimes comes on TV at Christmas.) This was a wonderful read, poignant with crayon drawings (as opposed to the harsher pen/ink) and closely follows the biographies of two ordinary people who get married and live their lives through the twentieth century. Based on the story of his parents’ lives, this is structured so that the reader sees UK history through the lens of these two people as it happens: WWII, rationing, austerity, stereo, TV, buying their own car, Labor government. They move on as best they can with the husband having stronger political views and the wife pretending to not know and just agree when she really does understand events. Her gentle teasing of her long-time husband, familiar to anyone in a long-term comfortable relationship of any gender combination, will ring true along with a realistic portrayal of aging which, in this case, eventually shows one of the pair having Alzheimer’s. The couple lived in the same house for 41 years which provides an unchanging backdrop to the ever-changing world about them. A lovely and poignant story written with love.

book344Then, I found another Raymond Briggs’ work, “Fungus the Bogeyman” (1977). I had read this when it first came out and when I was 14 and I enjoyed it then, but this reread was a much deeper appreciation as I saw Briggs’ many literary and word-related sly jokes which had gone right over my head when I was younger. The actual story is presented as a “Day in the Life…” of Fungus the Bogeyman who, with his family, lives in dread of clean and dry places up above his home in the open air. He’s not the only Bogeyman, but lives in a community of others, most of whom go up to do their daily jobs of scaring unassuming quiet vicars on an evening walk and waking up babies from their sleep. However, along with this fairly humdrum life, Fungus is also dealing with an existential crisis of his own, pondering the meaning of his life and asking himself: What was the point of being a Bogeyman? He analyzes his life: a lovely dirty wife, a lovely dirty boy called Mould (respecting the UK spelling there), and pets called Mucus. But what more was there for him in his life? Readers are given a detailed field guide (of sorts) to how the Bogeys live and it really was very sly witted on so many levels. Bogeys love literary quotations, but always misquote them so it was fun (and tricky!) to try and work out which ones he was quoting on his bicycle journey to the outer world. I enjoyed this when I first read it in 1977, but I really appreciated the clever wordplay when I read it on Friday.

Scab and matter custard,/

Snot and bogey pie,/

Dead dog’s giblets,/

Green cat’s eye./

Spread it on bread,/

Spread it on thick./

Wash it all down with a cup of cold sick.*

(Children’s rhyme from England, oral tradition.)

(And related to not much — look what I found in my bookshelves the other day looking for graphic novels…a 1974 Star Trek Annual with scary illustrations of Spock and Kirk and co.)

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* The word “sick” (in my English childhood) referred to the actual product of vomiting (i.e. the vomitus). It wasn’t the verb (meaning “generally feeling unwell”) that it is in the U.S., and so when I first arrived in Texas and people referenced that they were (or had been) “sick”, I just thought that there was a lot of throwing up going on which I found to be confusing as ‘Mericans tend to be quite healthy. (I know this small nugget of memory is fascinating and amazing for you all.)

Things on Cowboy’s Head – No. 73

Things on Cowboy's Head. No. 73: Wooden top.

Things on Cowboy’s Head. No. 73: Wooden top.

Background Note: Cowboy, as you know, is one of our cats. She is big and friendly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She naps a lot (like Olympic-level). All of which helps with this ongoing project I have going on…

It’s called “Things on Cowboy’s Head” and I am just seeing what I can balance on the top of her head when she’s amenable to that. It’s been fun so far, and she seems quite happy to play along. (She just moves when she doesn’t want to participate.)

(Cowboy’s posts are all gathered in one spot on her own blog.)