Fictive Folk with Whole Words: A Reading Project

The title, admittedly, might need some work, but I’ve had this essential premise brewing for some time now: exploring books read by your favourite television and/or film characters, who may or may not be based on characters from books themselves. Fictional men and women reading fiction (or non-fiction, too) — the thought alone opens up endless possibilities for interpretation. For instance, how much can we glean about the character of True Blood‘s Tara Thornton, when in our first glimpse of her, she’s reading The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, and studiously ignoring an admittedly-obnoxious customer at the Super-Sav-A-Bunch?

She’s not messing around, either — that’s a hardcover.

The genesis for this idea probably began stirring with my teenaged Gilmore Girls obssession. I wanted to read everything Rory had ever read, and it secretly pleased me that, in fact, so much of her library was *my* library, too. I wouldn’t dare try to claim this as an original concept: a simple Google search for “Rory Gilmore Reads” will return several well-conceived book blog challenges and meticulously-moderated reading lists. It’s heartening, in fact, to see how we flesh and bone bibliophiles adore and support the reading habits of our fictionalized archetypes, wherever we may find them.

Rory Gilmore reads James Joyce’s Ulysses, and The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. What would hook me, back then (and even now) were the rapt looks of concentration on her face — like there was truly nowhere she’d rather be, but there with the pages and print. 

I don’t know just yet the specific form that this reading project will take, but it feels freshly promising to embark on it, in the fine company of all you Novel Nichers. Feel free to shower me with suggestions, or links to images of your favourite fictional characters cuddled up to their treasured tomes.

If you were a character in a film or episodic series, what book would you most want to be caught reading?

Links of Interest:
Tumblr: Fictional Characters Reading Books
The Reading Lists of Your Favourite Fictional Characters – Flavorwire
What’s on Rory Gilmore’s Bookshelf? – Bust Magazine
What Does Don Draper Read? – Black Book
♣ Tumblr: The Lisa Simpson Book Club
♣ 10 Fictional Bookworms And What They Imply about Real Bookworms – L.B. Gale

Jess Mariano reads Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude at a moment in the Gilmore Girls plot that’s poignantly apt. He was, admittedly, a first class bumscullion, but his earnest devotion to literature made him well-nigh irresistible. That, and Milo Ventimiglia is gorgeous.

Books, Bites and The Allen Prize

The official event flyer.

The Allen Prize for Young Writers hosted a fundraiser sale last Saturday at Alice Yard. I was pleased to volunteer my time and expert novice sign-making abilities, but I confess straightaway that I had ulterior motives. (Books. Used, delicious books.)

I interviewed Lisa Allen-Agostini, founder and chair of the Allen Prize, in the midst of a packed 2012 Bocas Lit Fest schedule. It was only then that I realized properly how indispensable the foundation has been to fledgling young writers, particularly those who receive no other recognition for their work. The Allen Prize is a not-for-profit organization, dependent on goodwill and the revenue generated by events such as these. The first of these baked goods and used book fundraisers was held in late August, and one can hope (dream?) that the Trini bibliophile crowd will be treated to a third before year’s end, or early in 2013.

Customers linger thoughtfully in front of the Literary Fiction section.

I browsed. I taped up price lists and endeavoured to respond helpfully to patron queries. I shamelessly hid books I’d earmarked for myself minutes before customers wandered in. (I paid for all my books, okay.) I had brilliant conversations about all manner of bookish topics, and I avoided throwing myself upon the delectable pastries. There are distinct things I love about used book sales: the rich multiple-partner marriage of tomes from so many households, each title telling not just the story in print, but the funny, weird, moving stories of their previous owners. We learn so much about books and the people who loved or loathed them, through margin scribblings, dedications, curious bookmarks, a dogeared page or much-creased spine.

(L) Joshua Sammy, the 2012 Allen Prize Young Writer of The Year, in conversation with children’s storyteller Auntie Thea and romance writer, Heather Rodney-Diaz. (R) A patron browses selections in Caribbean fiction.

The Allen Prize posse knows how to host a seriously addictive second-hand book sale. That’s good news for the talented young writers who benefit from the worthy fundraising, and equally happy tidings for those in love with all things literary.

 My shameless, shameless haul.  

For more information on the work that The Allen Prize for Young Writers does, visit their official website, as well as their frequently-updated Facebook page. Event photographs courtesy Lisa Allen-Agostini.
Photo collages created with Pixlr. 

The three books of my 26th birthday.

I turned twenty-six on August 18th. Part of these celebrations involved the merry claiming of Novel Niche’s very own, spiffy domain! That’s right… instead of holding to that handy ‘dot wordpress dot com’ suffix, I took the plunge, and now Novel Niche lives at ‘dot net dot com’. Apart from the ability to fit the blog’s name more handily and elegantly upon business cards, and the thrill of its triple alliteration, nothing else has changed. I haven’t gone corporate, I’ve just… embraced the delights of a new address.

I cannot recall a single birthday where my mother hasn’t gifted me a book, or several. This year it was one, and I am glad it came unaccompanied. There’s something to be said for the single title in your hands, the way it demands your attention, especially if it’s worthy. My mother never gifts me books that won’t, sooner or later, inhabit precious space in my interior weather.

Library Journal describes This Strange Land, (Alice James Books, 2011) the third full-length poetry collection of Jamaican poet Shara McCallum, as “poems of ruin and rebirth, … a marvellous collection filled with a lovely and evocative music.” Even more entrancing than this is fellow Jamaican writer Lorna Goodison’s assessment:

“Jean Rhys could be the presiding spirit of this moving collection, which mines deep veins of loss and displacement. The personal and the political converge in new ways in these finely crafted poems, and readers should be prepared for unexpected turns and genuine surprises.”

A collection governed by that particular Jean Rhys-ian sentiment and spirit will win me over, I know, in ways I may find difficult to articulate, in the aftermath of my experiences with the work. I wasn’t exaggerating when I called Wide Sargasso Sea my Everything Book, back when I recommended six Caribbean novels for summer/long vacation/life reading. I am just as eager to discover just how Rhys “presides”, as Goodison suggests, in these poems, as I am to find out how McCallum speaks, hearing the shape and weight of her poetic concerns as articulated in her own voice. (The collection is beautifully accompanied by a CD of the poet reading several of her pieces.)

I’ve been lucky enough to hear Shara McCallum read her work before, at a 2012 Bocas reading with Guyanese poet, Fred D’AguiarThis Strange Land was longlisted for the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. When I heard McCallum read, I knew I would need to acquire her work, vitally and through urgent means, so it made the best kind of sense to be surprised with it on my birthday, by my mother. That language of essential, literary knowingness, can be so tenuous, so impossible to script convincingly between two souls. I am infinitely lucky to have that with my mum.

My uncle and I have this tradition: no matter how busy our lives get, he takes me book-shopping on my birthdays. Last year, he bought me The Amazing Absorbing Boy by Rabindranath Maharaj (at whose 2012 Bocas reading I was present, and on which I shared my thoughts), and Turkish writer Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love. This year, I chose two titles firmly rooted in Caribbean terra firma.

Haitian writer Myriam J. A. Chancy’s The Loneliness of Angels (Peepal Tree Press, 2010) was longlisted for the 2011 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, and is hailed on the Bocas blog as “steeped in Haitian history, charting human connections across gulfs of time and space.” Told from multiple narrative voices, spanning generations, borders, languages and communities, the novel hints, even from its blurb, at a transformation (or else a confirmation) of how Haiti is perceived. It feels that it will be a necessary read, if not an easy one. Spiritual matters are said to bind the novel’s numerous threads, and I am, I confess, almost singularly concerned in seeing how this is borne out.

Chancy read from The Loneliness of Angels at this year’s Bocas festival, too, but with the program as delightfully stuffed as it was, I couldn’t make it. When next she reads here, I will endeavour to be in attendance, my well-read copy in hand.

Another writer whose Bocas reading I missed was that of Indian author Rahul Bhattacharya. His novel, The Sly Company of People Who Care, (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2011) was the winner of this year’s Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, and generated quite a bit of buzz at Bocas, too. It is annoying to consider that Kirkus Reviews touts the book as “occasionally rippling with pidgin English and yet always sparkling with literary insights”, as though the presence of the former could automatically be thought of as a detractor to the latter. Kirkus goes on to say that the narrative is set “within the landscape of a forgotten corner of South America…an exotic locale”, compounding my issues with its nonetheless glowing write-up. I’m much happier quoting the dust jacket’s other critic, Sam Lipsyte:

“What a voice, what a startling, funny, charming, provocative voice! Rahul Bhattacharya’s narrator is a true wanderer and a gifted poet of description. The journey he takes us on, through Guyana, through histories and selves, is a wonder.”

Perhaps the reality of having grown up/continuing to grow up in a former colony, of inhabiting a place that others feel comfortable breezily grouping as “oh, the islands“, perhaps that has led me to think of “exotic” as pejorative rather than laudatory. No islands are created equal; there is nothing in Trinidadian history that ought compel one to think it is synonymous with Guyanese history, a reality that writers like Bhattacharya doubtless know. I love reading novels about Guyana, not because it is an exotic place, but because the novels are about Guyana. That an Indian native has written what’s been called the quintessential Guyanese novel is not a deterrent. It hints to the possibility of more access to seeing, and to the abundant richness of discovery — both of which can lead to the finest writing.

I’d meant to close this post with thoughts on the book I ordered for myself, in recognition of twenty-six bibliophilic years. I’ve wanted it for so long, and been quietly enthralled with its writer for even longer. I will speak of it, and her, another time, when my order is delivered, and I’m holding that much-anticipated volume in my grateful, hungry hands.

A First Letter from Lizzy Bennet

I love writing letters. Some time ago, for a postal swap, I was asked to write a fictional introductory missive, adopting the personage of one of my best-beloved literary characters. I was urged to really get under her skin; to share a glimpse of the kind of woman she was; to, if not plumb her depths, then present her truly, with all the eager possibilities a first letter can afford. When I put pen to paper then, I thought it would be interesting to meet Lizzy fairly early into the events of Pride and Prejudice… before too many dances have passed, before several sparks can fly: you know, before much of that high-spirited Regency rabble-rousing gets thrown down.

Here is what I wrote.

Dear Morgan,

It is my distinct pleasure to be writing to you on this rainy, windswept evening…grey clouds pattern the sky, while the deepening chill in the wind signals to me that winter draws ever closer. As I sit at my writing desk, safely and securely ensconced in the bedroom I share with my dear sister Jane, at our father’s Longbourn estate, I wish most sincerely that you and all those you love are in the very best of health and happiness.

It always pleases me greatly to pick up my quill in celebration of a new and lively correspondence; I do so abhor those dreadful social functions at which one must smile, and simper, and pretend to be charming and easily charmed at every occasion – though, t’is true, I do love a lively dance! There are few activities in my twenty-year old existence, thus far, that enrich the spirit, tingle the toes and bring hearty laughter to the lips as a rollicking country dance!

As you may have guessed by now, my name in full in Elizabeth Bennet, but my family members and friends usually call me Lizzie or Eliza, as it suits them. My mum is often wont to call me Elizabeth when she is out of sorts with me for my peculiar habits and mulishly stubborn choices, which is more often than I suppose I should own to! I have lived my entire life at Longbourn, and am the second eldest of five sisters, but closest, I confess, to my eldest sister Jane, who is the very soul of goodness and sweetness, never thinks ill of anyone, even when perhaps she ought, and has the most charitable heart of any man, or woman, of my acquaintance. She has recently become enamoured, in her quiet way, of a dashing, if slightly dim young man called Mr. Charles Bingley, and I have high hopes for them eventually forming a serious attachment. I can think of few, if any, who deserve a life of happiness as much as Jane.

I suppose it ought to be my major preoccupation in life to endeavour myself matched to a young man of suitable prospects, or a man who makes a decent figure a year, as my mother would put it (though I think she would describe the matter much more loosely than that, alas. Apart from Jane and my dear father, I admit that I am not close to any of my other family members, though I certainly do feel fondness for the rest of them; they do not know me in the way that Jane and Papa do). Honestly, I find that I cannot seriously burden myself with fawning over every man who seems to have a laden purse and gives me an inviting glance at an interminable country ball.

I hope you will not think it too silly, Morgan, but I wish to marry for love… I wish to meet a man with whom I can hold forth in vigorous, sustained conversation and debate! A man who loves to read, to take long, contemplative walks, but above all, a man who will not be afraid to be truly himself with me, in every way, as I should surely feel free to do in his company. I have witnessed the ways in which an unhappy marriage of convenience can erode the lives of two people, slowly and excruciatingly. I do not want that to be my fate… I think I would prefer the life of a so-called ‘old maid’, for at least I would be allowed to be myself, and much happier for it, I firmly believe.

You know, at the same dance at which my sister made the happy acquaintance of Mr. Bingley, I too had an encounter with a man, but I cannot claim that I took any level of pleasure in it. Indeed, not! I found this man in question, Mr. Darcy, to be rather haughty and full of himself. He looked the entire time as though the event was decidedly beneath him (but I could not help but wonder if he was merely uncomfortable and awkward, and decided that a frosty illusion of control would make him seem superior?) Either way, I feel certain that he and I shall not be fast friends – far from it.

Apart from hoping that I shall one day find a partner for the sake of true love – oh, I do hope I don’t sound like a hopeless romantic! – I try my best to be realistic on all points, especially since I live in a household of, for the most part, exceedingly silly females. I spend much time with my thoughts, as well as in the glorious open woods and trails. I adore walking. It gives me deep personal strength, and the space I need to think, to reflect and to have wondrous conversations with Jane, Papa or my dear childhood friend, Charlotte Lucas. I particularly like spending time with Charlotte; we’ve known each other since infancy, and have shared so much that we’re often of one mind on most things. She is a beacon of common sense, a practical, good-natured and wonderful friend. I may not have the most enthralling life, from any outsider’s perspective, but I am lucky to have been gifted the presence of dear friends and wonderful books. Reading transports me to new and exciting worlds daily… but I do often long to see more of the world, to travel far and wide, to take control of my own destiny, wherever it may lead.

Mr. Darcy’s sisters, incidentally, were also at the ball I mentioned earlier. My mother was very much taken in with them, as is her way to be impressed by young ladies of great finery (and one of them has married well, so I suppose she is moved to flattery by that as well). I confess to you that I cannot trust them, nor think of them so kindly. I felt their criticizing eyes on me and my family, particularly my frivolous younger sisters, Kitty and Lydia. Now, I cannot claim to approve of the ways in which Kitty and Lydia will carry on, flirting with all the young and dashing gentlemen as they do – but why should standards of behaviour be different for a woman’s social conduct, I ask you, as opposed to a man’s? I have observed that a man may generally behave as he will without direct criticism, but it is an entirely different tale for a woman. I do hope that I will live to see more equality in the ways men and women are treated! I will strive, in my own small way, to make changes.

I have greatly enjoyed writing with you, Morgan. I am off to the post now with Charlotte for a leisurely walk, to think, laugh, and mail this letter to you!

Wishing you great happiness and health, now and always, affectionately,

~Eliza Bennet

At the great encouragement of my talented romance writing friend, Morgan Kelly, I’ve shared this letter. Perhaps it will incite scorn in the Austen purists; perhaps it will delight those more open to the notion that we can live freely and unreservedly with the books we love, entering into conversations with the characters who inhabit them. I have many other ideas for future literary letters, including a narcissistic rant from American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman to himself (because who else would he write to, anyway?), and a blotted parchment ramble from Wide Sargasso Sea‘s Antoinette, to her curiously distant English husband (and, just maybe, a response from him, in one of his weaker moments.) I hope you’ve enjoyed encountering Elizabeth in this non-canon fashion! It was a pleasure to strive towards inhabiting her thoughtspace, gleaning a sliver of her concerns, listening to her passionate heart beat in time with the pen’s thoughtful, considered slant.

Black and white images used (from top to bottom):
Woman Writing Letters by Charles Dana Gibson
Elizabeth Bennet by LindseyKal
Elizabeth Confronts Darcy by Edwin Phillips
Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (1980 BBC adaptation)

Talking with Lisa Allen-Agostini about The Allen Prize for Young Writers

Lisa Allen-Agostini. Photo: Richard Acosta

I tell her I’ve been writing since I was 11. A strange thing happens to me when Lisa Allen-Agostini then puts this pointed, precise question to me during our mid-Bocas Festival conversation:

“How did you feel, at 11, as a young writer, beginning to discover your own voice?”

The truth? It was as terrifying as it was liberating. I realized, with the retroactive shock of absolute clarity, of just how isolated I was in my pre-adolescent writing world, of how much I longed, without even articulating it specifically to myself, of someone to let me know: what you’re doing is valid. It isn’t a waste of time. Thankfully, I had my mother’s incredible support in my writing life, as the years went by, but nothing compensates for that 11 year old girl’s absolute uncertainty, her silent, shy worries. I had my mother, and Lisa’s children have her, but we both acknowledge grimly: thousands upon thousands of our nation’s budding writers have had, for so long, no one… and this is the void that The Allen Prize for Young Writers seeks to fill.

“There was no guesswork over my writing ambitions”, Lisa tells me… just as much as there’s been no guesswork about her commitment to furthering the hopes and dreams of young authors and poets. Her love of children’s books has stood her in good stead throughout her life; it didn’t taper off when she became an adult. It’s important to remember the distinction, too, between writing for children, and writing by children, she reminds me. I’ve got to nod in recognition of this, as I know that the latter category often faces severe ordeals in being legitimized, to say nothing of published. This is why initiatives like the well-stocked NGC Bocas Lit Fest’s Children’s Programme bring Lisa joy – because they help mark a clear path forward. The fact that the 16-story collection, Children’s Stories from the Bocas Lit Fest 2011, is available for purchase nationwide: this is significant, too, but how much notice does it receive in our local media? How many good stories do we tell about young people reading and writing, and seeking to script out a future from their passion for literature and storytelling?

Lisa and the winning Allen Prize writers of 2011, at the awards ceremony on the 29th.

The galvanizing moment in Lisa’s writing career came when she won Clico’s annual Put it in Poetry Competition for secondary school students. (Sadly, the prize is no longer active.) The win signalled to her the beginning of infinite possibilities she could imagine for herself and her work. It’s that strength of imagination she hopes to share with The Allen Prize program participants. The foundation is about much more than the bestowing of a cash prize, though that’s one of its highlights. It hosts annual, intensive workshops with established writers in mentorship roles, as well as three seminars yearly, which address multiple aspects of a young writer’s craft, process and everyday concerns. As telling testimony to the practicalities of the program, The Allen Prize also guides and facilitates the potential publication, staging and transmission of participants’ completed works, enabling fresh, promising talent to forge significant relationships that can well last a lifetime.

Lisa and I discuss the worrying dearth of regional young adult fiction, a bemusing irony when one considers the vast popularity of that particular genre in worldwide publishing. We chuckle irreverently over what, to us, seems like the lacklustre presentation (though we use much meaner terms to describe it!) of Caribbean literature in most Trinidadian bookshops (with the notable exception of a special few, such as Joan Dayal’s Paper Based Bookshop at The Normandie). Frankly, Lisa’s tired of Caribbean literature getting the short end of the stick… within the Caribbean, no less, and what gets her hackles up is the underrepresentation paid to young writers in particular. All the better, then, that one of the festival highlights this year celebrated The Allen Prize for Young Writers, rewarding the talent and ambition of our upcoming who’s who in all things local and literary. Held on the last day of full festival activities, the event was a well-attended, inspiring success, and will hopefully serve to draw even more reluctant young writers out from beneath their sequestered stairwells, showing them – look, it’s okay to fully and unapologetically embrace your dreams.

“When I get an idea, an idea worth pursuing, you can be certain that I’ll follow it,” Lisa smiles, and I think I speak for most people when I say that Trinidad and Tobago is the better for Lisa’s unflinching persistence, her fierce dedication which proves that the best stories can be scripted with pencils and crayons just as well as they can with an exclusively adult pen.

For more information on the work that The Allen Prize for Young Writers does, visit their official website, as well as their frequently-updated Facebook page.

Group photo by Rodell Warner, our official 2012 Festival photographer.

Paper Based: 25 Years of Bookselling Excellence

This year's shortlisted titles (bottom row) on display in the bookshop window!

A few days before the adrenaline high of the 2012 NGC Bocas Lit Fest was launched, I had the opportunity to sit in the lobby of the Hotel Normandie with Joan Dayal, the proprietress of Paper Based Bookshop, which occupies a cozy nook of the hotel foyer. It’s a little disconcerting to me that more Trinbagonians don’t know about Joan and her shop, which is one of the reasons I felt compelled to interview her in the first place. Paper Based shouldn’t be a well-kept secret, as romantic as that notion seems… it is a supportive bastion for all things Caribbean and literary. Really, when one thinks of acquiring the next Earl Lovelace novel, or the upcoming release from a promising, fresh regional talent, Paper Based is the place to turn, first.

The heart of what fuels a business founded in books, Joan tells me, is a love of reading. She’s quick to add that many other pragmatic concerns must run alongside this bibliophilia, otherwise one might find oneself at the helm of a sinking ship. Thankfully, that sort of demise seems never to have been on the cards for Joan, who runs her establishment with generous helpings of acumen, of a keen investment in the literary pulse of the people, of a solid commitment to research in reading trends. She has kept in touch with what readers want to read, with how readers appreciate the feel of a bookshop that’s not mired in profit margins, in a way that I daresay larger conglomerate booksellers tend to miss.

Gorgeous ARC magazines proudly preening!

Joan and Paper Based’s loyalty to the Bocas Lit Fest has its roots in the very reception of the idea of an inclusive literary festival on these shores. She tells me of her early talks with festival director Marina Salandy-Brown, wherein the two lamented the dearth of ground-level, home-brewed celebrations of our islands’ writers, readers and publishers. What distinguishes their conversations from so many that are had, cross-island, about the state of local literary appreciation, is that Salandy-Brown, along with a core collective of supportive individuals (of which Joan is and continues to be a proud member) purposed to actually do something about it. The result is what we’re currently enjoying – four unfettered days and nights of bookish delight, and a festival calendar that extends far beyond this event-crammed long weekend. Joan is visibly proud when she speaks of Paper Based’s role as the festival’s booksellers’ coordinator. I imagine of how difficult it would be to encounter this warm enthusiasm in an impersonal, unapologetically commercial paperback pusher, and, even mid-interview, I’m flooded with gratitude for the very existence of Paper Based – a telling marker that Joan is doing multiple things right, in an age where brick and mortar bookstores are literally crumbling beneath the yoke of financial sustainability, both home and abroad. Times are hard, we both agree… but the people keep reading.

As I’d hoped it would, my talk with Joan really runs the gamut. We muse on the evolving trends in publishing, principal among them the rapid ascent of the e-book’s popularity, of the fact that Kindles, Nooks and Kobos have become as indispensable as mobile phones to so many. We discuss the difficulties inherent in sourcing book orders from foreign countries, and the exorbitant costs of shipping, issues which have been aired at the inaugural meeting of the Caribbean Literature Action Group (CALAG), which convened one day before the festival launch. With bold, necessary initiatives like CALAG and the Bocas Lit Fest on the rise, the future seems bright for the world of Caribbean arts and letters, doesn’t it? In the midst of this, Joan reminds me, it’s important to continue encouraging our vibrantly promising talent, a mission to which Paper Based has dedicated itself over the years.

A certain book blogger poring over Rahul Bhattacharya's novel, The Sly Company of People Who Care.

A bookshop loved equally by both readers and writers, Paper Based held its 25th anniversary celebrations on March 3rd, to a deeply appreciative audience. Andre Bagoo, one of this year’s featured festival writers, had his work read by Barbara Jenkins and Jaime Bagoo. Other writers sharing their work included novelists Lawrence Scott (who read from his forthcoming poetry collection), prolific and celebrated author Earl Lovelace, winner of this year’s fiction category prize for Is Just A Movie, and poet-academic Jennifer Rahim. From every description I’ve heard of it, it sounds like it was a fantastic event, and I’m dreadfully sorry to have missed it. I’ve since resolved to make up for it by attending every single future Paper Based event that occurs while I’m present in Trinidad. Having been to a couple in the past, I can attest to the knowledge that they are a rare treat for those who enjoy author-reader interaction and stimulation.

It is quite impossible to wish someone like Joan Dayal anything but all the best, given her quiet generosity, her unflagging devotion to our regional arts, and her personal investment in our nation’s attitudes to reading, and so I wish her the bookish best, repeatedly! Here’s hoping that Joan and I can sit down in another twenty-five years, to chat once more about Paper Based’s rousing, and encouraging, successes.

Many thanks to Joan Dayal for her willingness to be interviewed, for her generosity in response and availability. This interview was originally posted on the Bocas Lit Fest blogPhotos by Keroy J. Chee Chow.

Paper Based Bookshop is located at The Normandie, 10 Nook Avenue, St. Anns, Trinidad. Its opening hours are Mon.-Fri.,10.00 – 18.00, and Sat.,10.00 – 16.00. To get in touch, you can call the shop, at +1 868.625.3197, email at, and visit the well-updated Facebook page.

My 2012 Bocas Lit Fest Diary: Bocas’ Eve

Last year, in April, at least an entire library of my bookish dreams became page-turning realities, when I attended, and blogged for, the 2011 Bocas Lit Fest. One of the best things about this year’s festival is that I have the chance to do it all over again.

Don’t misunderstand; even if I weren’t part of the merrily busy Bocas staff, I would be no less in love with this festival. I’d still be present at as many of the events as I could reasonably stuff into my day. I’d still leave home early in the morning, to return long past the sunset, weary, my mind still turning a thousand gears of creative hyperstimulation. I’d still be sitting on the amphitheatre steps of the Trinidad and Tobago National Library on the festival’s last day, thinking that the next Bocas can’t come too soon.

The fact that we’re celebrating a second Bocas should, I hope, put paid to the notion that an entire festival seeking to highlight the importance of books, reading and publishing is flighty, fanciful, or worse, non-sustainable. So much of what makes us of these islands has its genesis in a singular, inimitable style of storytelling. How can it be claimed that the honouring of Caribbean and Caribbean diaspora stories is unworthy of every effort we can make to keep sharing those tales?

I confess that one of the best curated memories I possess of last year’s Bocas was sitting outside the Old Fire Station, after a New Talent Showcase that featured the readings of an exciting voice in prose fiction, and a Cropper Foundation co-alumni, Alake Pilgrim. While speaking with her about her work, two schoolgirls strolled by, the trail end of their conversation within earshot.

Girl I: What it have going on here? Something was advertising in the papers, ent?

Girl II: I eh know, nah. I think might be some book thing, but I eh know. 

Perhaps it’s reactionary of me to be sad. I know that not everyone likes reading. Not every one thrills to the sight of writers they’ve only up until that point encountered in the pages of their favourite novels, their best-beloved poetry collections, their most fiercely defended non-fiction paperbacks. I’m not saying that the country should grind to a halt to take the Bocas Festival in… but it worries me that a basic awareness is lacking. It worries me that festivals like these, which seek, at their core, to be all-embracing, all-encompassing, generously ecumenical in outreach, instead often appear to be elitist, exclusive and esoteric fora wherein only red wine is sipped, where only Standard English is allowed. People… please, perish the thought.

I believe that, on Bocas’ Eve, if I want to transmit one message over all other messages about this celebration, it is this:

All are invited; all are welcome.

Let’s not be literary exclusivists at the 2012 NGC Bocas Lit Fest. Let’s be lovers of books. A full day of events kicks off bright and early at 9 am tomorrow. I hope to see you there, with your notepads/ novels for signing/ fresh enthusiasm in tow!

To learn more about the Bocas Lit Fest, visit the website, here.
For Thursday 26th April, 2012’s full schedule of events, visit here.

For Friday 27th April, 2012’s full schedule of events, visit here.
For Saturday, 28th April, 2012’s full schedule of events, visit here.
For Sunday, 29th April, 2012’s full schedule of events, visit here. 

Reading Ruminations: January to March 2012

Dear Novel Nichers,

Welcome to this, the first post of its kind, my introductory entry to a reading journal! I’ve been feeling for some time the desire to incorporate other aspects of book-loving to Novel Niche, to round out the palette of reading fare you can expect to encounter here. (This means that I’ll also be resuming the Charting Children’s Literature and Story Sunday features, soon, and with great enthusiasm.) I love the process of crafting a full-length review, but I reminded myself that there’s more to the bookish connection, and its sustenance, than an uninterrupted stream of those. I plan on sharing these reading retrospective rambles monthly, so since I’ve not done any for January and February, this month you get all three, sandwiched together! Without further ado…

Books Read: 5 

Ah, Swamplandia!… Karen Russell’s first novel and Novel Niche’s first full-length review of 2012. What an intriguing title with which to begin my reading year! From it, I was reminded of how much I adore ambitious moxy in storytelling, even when the results aren’t as pristine or polished as the clamouring critical crowd demands. I moved on from the Floridian bayou to the Middle Eastern markets and mosques of Distant View of a Minaret, by Alifa Rifaat, which I borrowed from the Tunapuna branch of my local library. Rifaat’s stories explored the ways in which traditionally devout Muslim women chafed against the yoke of what I recently described as “male hegemonic bastardry.” (Yes, I was a little emotively worked up, at the time.) These are important stories to have read, and I am glad I discovered them when I did. My reaction to them was complex and fragmented, which convinced me that this slim collection warrants a second reading before I review it.

Readers, I have long had the suspicion, ever since reading (and rereading, and rereading some more) “What You Pawn I Will Redeem”, that Sherman Alexie is one of my special literary boyfriends. (Shh, he doesn’t know about it just yet.) His young adult title, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is one of the most essential reads of this year for me. It was harrowing and hilarious, jarring and jocund. I’m going to review this one, without a doubt. I also bought it, so in keeping with my 2012 bookish giveaway resolution, I’ll also be making a gift of it to someone. This time, it’ll be someone in particular, so stay tuned to find out who! Right on the heels of this read, I got intimately acquainted with the bloody, bruised slew of Fight Club references that have been sailing over my head for several years. This was my first Palahniuk (actually, it was Palahniuk’s first Palahniuk too, heh heh), and it’s only spurred me on to devour more of his work. The book was gritty, gorgeous and entirely too short, but more on that in a future review. I rounded January out with one of my Netgalley reads, the Mark Vonnegut memoir, Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More Sobringing the full-length review tally for 2012 up to two, where it has stayed since. I never suspected I’d read a Mark Vonnegut before a Kurt, but that reaffirms my delight in the power of literary trajectories to surprise you.

Books Read: 2

This was a brief month for books; only two titles were read. I probably spent a lot more time planning which books I was going to read, and ended up reading… well, significantly less than I’d projected. I began the month with one of the titles my mother gave me for Christmas 2011, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, a collection of essays by smart, caustic-witted Sloane Crosley. A difficult read to place in my affections for a few reasons (which I’ll get into when I review it in full), but I found the book to be a chuckle-inducing stroll through humorous non-fiction, compared to the work of David Sedaris, but not quite at his altitude. The other book of February was the pictorial delight, Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It’s one I have returned to several times since reading, to pore over, to marvel at the contagious poetry of Selznick’s story, a story distilled through words and images with equal ebullience. I think of it as indispensable reading for all dreamers, designers, engineers and film enthusiasts, as well as for all those who enjoy the sensation of adventuring through a book, delighting in the journey and all it uncovers.

Books Read: 5

March’s figures match January’s, with a total of five books being read. The first of these was the feisty, nigh unputdownable Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, which I also consider to be my first speculative fiction read of 2012. Swamplandia! possesses hints and glimmers of the supernatural here and there, but Zoo City is all-out, unapologetic spec. fic. at its finest—and wow, does it ever work. The second title of March is classified beneath a sub-genre of spec. fic. called “weird fiction”, which, I admit, I’d not encountered before. You know when people describe the book they’re reading with the cautious preface, “Well, um, it isn’t for everyone…”—that description is tailored to books like this, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It’s rare for me to encounter a reading experience wherein most of the conclusions appear foregone, where you feel reasonably certain you won’t be surprised, to then brush up against goosebump-prickling passages, every other page. Weird fiction fans, and general admirers of non-orthodox tales, will, I think, agree that Jackson’s book is (literally) frightfully good.

My third read of March 2012 was a Netgalley-provided copy of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, which in all likelihood will be the next book I review, given its prominence at the forefront of my thoughts. There is so much to say about this book. In my notes taken while reading, I remarked,

Tron meets The Karate Kid meets a World of Warcraft raid, meets… a LAN Party!”

It will, I promise, make sense in my review, but if you’re even remotely intrigued, and if you were born in and identify with the 80s, and if you are even fractionally a self-avowed nerd… you should really read this book. Now. Yes, right now. The book I read right after Ready Player One was Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, a melancholic, oft-scatological, searing, bewildering examination of human frailty and decay. What else would one expect from Leonard Cohen, after all? This is a difficult book to love, and it’s hard not to feel singed at the ways it wounds the sensibilities (by setting them on fire)—and wow, is this ever a Not for Everyone sort of book—but if it is for you, you won’t be able to deny it.

The last book of March, Jean Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark, made me think of Beautiful Losers often. I think it’s because of how mercilessly both works interrogate the most vulnerable, achingly secret selves we try to keep veiled, how they investigate the depths of individual excess and the terrible curse of unwished-for loneliness. This is the third book I’ve read by Jean Rhys, the woman who wrote my Everything Novel†. I think the reason that I’ve only read three of her books thus far is because I am saving them, hoarding them against the knowledge that the list of Rhys titles is distressingly finite. There won’t ever be any more. I am making what exists count, as counterintuitive as that seems. Perhaps where your Everything books are concerned, you’re allowed to be at least mildly irrational.

† For my thoughts on the concept of an Everything Book, read my post recommending six Caribbean novels.


♣ I have a horrifying substantial number of full reviews to draft, edit and post. The more I think about this, the more I realize that, for me, a review is as painstaking and delicate a process as crafting anything else I write. In many ways, it takes less out of me to write certain poems. Sometimes the verses just happen to me, if you take my meaning. Book reviews rarely ever just happen. They require mulling, deliberation, copious tea consumption, and care. I am always sensitive to the truth that when I review, I am handling someone else’s work, too. My review is the space where their work (the text) meets mine (the review). If we, the book blogging community, are ever going to escape the pernicious labelling cast on us  by other, ‘loftier’ literary critics, we need to work well. We need to be able to proudly and, at times, aggressively, defend our body of work against attack—and for that to happen with any conviction, quality (and an assurance in the quality of what we write) has to be present. I’d rather work well and slowly, than hyper-prolifically, with mediocrity.

♣ I’ve purposed to read more literary work from the Caribbean in April, largely in the spirit of celebrating the upcoming Bocas Literary Festival. At present, I’m reading two books side by side: Earl Lovelace’s Is Just A Movie and Michael Anthony’s The Year in San Fernando. Is Just a Movie has already won the fiction category for this year’s OCM Bocas Prize, and… even without having read the other contenders, even without having reached more than a quarter of the way through the book… I cannot be surprised. Lovelace’s prose is phenomenal. It makes the act of reading as immersive and natural as breathing. You forget that you’re holding a book in your hands. You are there, in the village of Cascadu in 1970s Trinidad, in the aftermath of the Black Power rebellion. You are there, listening to men hammer and coax the magic out of a steel pan; you are there, learning how to die excellently in the WhitePeople movies despite the urgings of directors who’ve come to film in foreign, exotic locales. Arundhati Roy (author of another Everything Book, The God of Small Things) said this about the book:

Is Just a Movie is not just a movie, it’s a poem, too.”

I cannot think but that she is entirely right, even if my estimation is premature. Maybe there are books you get the measure of, from the opening chapters, and if you are wrong about your first, blushing impressions, then the results can, and do, break your heart.

♣ Some questions for my dear Novel Nichers!

  •  Do you have a favourite read for the first quarter of 2012?
  • Perhaps some of you curate online reading journals—I would love to see them, of any and all descriptions.
  • How goes your April for reading, thus far? Are you loving/loathing what’s currently on your bookish bedside table?
  • Maybe you’ve read one/some/all of the books on my quarterly list… what are your thoughts on these titles? Do you eagerly agree or vociferously shun my own opinions? I’m hoping for a rousing literary debate in my near future!

Novel Niche Recommends: Six Caribbean Novels

Dominican writer, Jean Rhys.

As January drew to a close, I found myself in a delightful conversation with two dear intimates (be careful you didn’t read that as inmates), on “best of” book lists. The topic fire-starter was Project Gutenberg’s compilation of the Best Books Ever Listings. I scanned some of the listings, and while they all featured many prominent titles from around the globe, I grew disheartened, as often I do, by the lack of Caribbean literature presented there. Here’s exactly what I said in the conversation thread:

More lists to love! Ah, I wonder how many books from the Caribbean are on these? I am like a broken record, harping on that, but it’s been much on my mind of late. I shall just have to bolster the tradition of making lists of books from the islands, then! 😉

One of my friends had an exceptional suggestion… that I curate a list of six books from these islands for her summer reading. My other friend, who also lives in a climate where “summer” is less a cultural affectation and more of a sweltering reality, eagerly agreed that she’d be up for a Caribbean Book Challenge in the warm, sultry months.

Since I’ve been whinging to myself about reading more regional work, I decided to try a different tack with this list. I’m recommending three books I’ve already read, and adored, as well as three works I’ve not yet approached. (How does one recommend books one hasn’t yet read, you might ask? I’m recommending them on the strength of expectation I attach to them, based on the promise they show, not necessarily (or at all) on the accolades they’ve won.) My friends are both superlative, sensitive, wise readers, and I’m hoping they will come to this list with even a glimmer of the excitement I feel, in composing it.

Three Titles I’ve Not Yet Read

Is Just a Movie by Earl Lovelace (Trinidad)

One of the illustrious three titles on the OCM Bocas Prize shortlist, and the winner of the prize’s fiction category, Is Just a Movie is Earl Lovelace’s sixth novel. Any Caribbean literature devotee worth her… heh, well, worth her Salt (Lovelace’s fifth novel) will have encountered this prolific prose master’s publications. (Yes, compulsory secondary school readings of The Schoolmaster count, but they don’t make you an enthusiast!) I’ve only read two of Lovelace’s novels so far, and I heartily want to make this my third. In fact, this book was one of twelve Caribbean titles I challenged myself to read last year—thus far, I’ve read only three, proving that I’m addicted to making reading challenge lists, but that I need to work on that pesky follow-through. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing the author read from this book before its publication, and I was mesmerized… as was everyone present in the audience that day, if appearances were anything to go by. I look forward to encountering that scene again as I read, and smiling at the memories it evokes. The OCM Bocas judges described Is Just a Movie as “a tapestry of island history . . . steeped in place and full of beautifully realised characters.” I’m eager to explore it!


The Book of Night Women by Marlon James (Jamaica)

Superficially, a cover and title like these cannot help but catch the eye. James’ second novel caught mine when I first saw it, about two years ago, browsing through the shelves at Paper Based bookstore, one of the best repositories for regional lit. on this island. Kaiama L. Glover, in her review of the novel at The New York Times Sunday Book Review, likened the author’s writing to the work of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker—hefty endorsements, both. As Baker summarizes it, the plot of The Book of Night Women “takes us back to the cruel world of a Jamaican sugar plantation at the turn of the 19th century.” I’m extremely excited to see what James brings to the table of this old, sad discussion, which holds the potential for emotional liberation through harrowing catharsis in its very telling. This particular book has also been much on my mind since my book blogging colleague Amy reviewed it last year, as part of The Real Help reading initiative she co-founded.


The Ghost of Memory by Wilson Harris (Guyana)

There are writers from these islands whose names I feel I’ve known all my life, whose books have lined the shelves of libraries close to my heart. The writers I’m thinking of specifically are those with whose works I feel I should be more familiar, because I want to be more familiar with them. Their names are, among others: Edgar Mittelholzer; Anthony Winkler; Jamaica Kincaid; Erna Brodber; Michael Anthony; George Lamming… and Wilson Harris is on that list, too. I am personally involved in an ongoing relationship with his mesmerizing, ensorcelling first novel The Palace of the Peacock. The thought of being unmoved by that particular literary journey is terrifying to me—you know, of being someone who “just didn’t get it.” This isn’t to say I hold a grudge against strictly linear readers (though I wonder how much fun they’re having), but suffice it to say that The Ghost of Memory would probably irritate, rather than enchant them. Stephen Howe’s review in The Independent informs me that this, Harris’ twenty-fifth novel, will also be his last. I read his first many years ago; I’ll read his last this year, and spend the rest of my life filling in the spaces of the other twenty-three.

Three Titles I’ve Read

Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo (Trinidad)

This is Shani Mootoo’s first novel, and it remains my favourite work of hers. Nothing I’ve read by her hand in the past several years has come close to matching my emotional response to this seductive, sorrowing tale, set on the fictitious island of Lantanacamara, narrated by a gay male nurse, Tyler, as he grows close to his taciturn patient of many secrets, Mala Ramchandin. I don’t want to suggest that Mootoo’s subsequent novels and short fiction pieces (I’ve not yet had the pleasure of reading her poetry collection, The Predicament of Or) have taken a nosedive in quality—far from it. In fact, the unfairness is stacked on my end, since I’ve approached every Mootoo publication hunting down a similar sense of lush magic, of the beautiful urgency wherein lyrical language dances with an unforgettable story. As I remarked to one of the readers for whom I’m making this list, one of the primary reasons I need to reread Cereus Blooms at Night is to gauge how much of my adoration is based in nostalgia. Even if it turns out to be the lion’s share, I cannot think I would love it any less.


Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy (Jamaica)

To put it simply, this is one of the better Caribbean reads I’ve encountered about finding yourself—about the realization that that process is rarely ever simple, that it comes studded with difficulties and detours one can’t possibly foresee. We might think we’ve got a decent benchmark on how far back the long arm of our history goes, but Levy’s protagonist in Fruit of the Lemon, Faith, learns that you can’t ever truly know until you take the journey. This was one of the three Caribbean titles from last year’s challenge that I did read, and I reviewed it here. Summoning this title to this list reminds me, too, of how much I want to read Small Island, the author’s penultimate novel to date, and one of the books I received in last year’s Yuletide Book Gifting.


Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Dominica)

There are some books in life about which you will find it impossible to be impartial. When someone asks you how you feel about them, you will hear the word “Everything” fall out of your mouth, and you will, perhaps, be a little bit irritated when people ask you to elucidate. Everyone’s got an Everything book… and Wide Sargasso Sea is mine. In fact, it’s one of only two titles I am extremely reluctant to review on Novel Niche, because I think my thoughts would less resemble coherent reviews than they would desperate love letters scented with my fangirlish glee. I could never make a “reading the Caribbean” list without including this book. It is one of the first titles I read that sought to interrogate and respond to colonial perceptions of island identity. It’s immeasurably poetic while being rapier-sharp in its economy. It’s brutal, bold, visionary, shockingly sad and… well, you know. It’s everything.

Some post-listmaking musings:

♣ Picking six novels wasn’t intentional at first, but I decided to stick with it, so I’ll be making separate lists for my Caribbean picks in short fiction, poetry and non-fiction, too.

♣ It wasn’t intentional, either, that the three unread books are by male authors, and the three read ones are by women. Getting into my thoughts on gender roles in writing would take several posts, but in short, I try not to be reductive on either/in any spectrum of the equation.

♣ Most, if not all, of the writers I’ve referenced here have their points of identification and origin in lands additional to the ones I’ve listed. I have offered in brackets alongside their names, the islands with which they are chiefly aligned, with which they chiefly align themselves by birth, residence, inclination, and any and all such markers of prominence. (Now I want to do a completely separate blog post on the (inter)national naming of writers, of how they carve out their geographical footholds… *files away that thought dutifully*)

♣ If anyone else has got an Everything book they’d like to share, please do! I love knowing about which books fellow readers love (and hate) best.

♣ Do you plan on adding any or all of these six novels to your reading queue? It would be fantastic to hear how you get along with them!

 “The island had given me the world as a writer, had given me the themes that in the second half of the twentieth century had become important.”
— V.S. Naipaul

Yuletide Books of 2011, and a 2012 Resolution

I didn’t get my mother any books last Christmas. I know… what was I thinking? In my defense, my favourite second-hand bookshop underwent a severe truncation of its store space this year, which was rather disheartening, considering that the bulk of reading material I gift to others, including (and especially) to her has been whittled down in selection. I made, all tomes considered, a much better bookish showing in the Yuletide book exchange of the year before. Still, I promise, I got her nice things… pretty, thoughtful, carefully selected things. (Yes, I’m hanging my head in shame over the lack of books. I’ve already got her three for this Yuletide, in advance against my guilt.)

She, however, being my mother, continues to give me the best books, and last year beneath the Christmas tree, there were nine, each one corresponding to an aspect of my reading tastes with the exquisite, comfortable ease of synchronized swimmers finishing each others’ chlorine flourishes.

1. Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, edited by Neil Astley. Bloodaxe Books. 2002.

Hailed on the front cover as “a magnificent anthology” by Philip Pullman, the author of one of my favourite books in the History of Ever, I got the immediate impression that Staying Alive would be nothing less than that: magnificent. Astley brings together, from all the despairing, life-affirming cloisters and corridors of the world, a five hundred poem collection of how to get through the pain of living by embracing it, how to write deep into sorrow, how to sing with exultation even by the wayside of grief—the things the best poems are made of, frankly.

My first thoughts: A-ha! I saw this book lying around the house, unguarded, in the weeks leading up to Christmas. I should have known it would be for me. My mother knows me so well. I trust so few people to give me poetry that speaks to my sensibilities, but she nails that feat every time.

2. I Was Told There’d Be Cake: Essays by Sloane Crosley. Riverhead Books. 2008.

There will always be room on my shelves for acerbically-conducted, intelligently rowdy, self-and-societally-investigative non-fiction, and Crosley’s collection appears sculpted on the riverbed of such tenets. Colson Whitehead endorses the work as “hilarious and affecting and only occasionally scatological … sardonic without being cruel, tender without being sentimental …”. Can I get into something thus-described? Very absolutely, yes. I think I’ll keep I Was Told There’d Be Cake handy in my purse for those moments in the upcoming year when I’d like the comfort/swift kick combination in literature that few writers, even those calling themselves satirists, seem to achieve.

My first thoughts: Hmm… this writing seems like it’d be comparable to the work of David Sedaris—ah, there it is, on the front jacket, being compared to David Sedaris. I feel a little self-satisfied, I don’t mind saying.

3. Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey. Harper Perennial. 2008.

This is James Frey’s first novel, though, somehow, that sounds like an odd statement—the blurb assures me it’s entirely true. Indeed, the first page of the work proper advises the reader (somewhat ominously?), “Nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable”: as clear a clarion call for fiction as ever I’ve heard. The narrative is described as being peopled with vibrantly unforgettable characters, whose poignant, fiery stories all combine to etch a portrait of the vast, insurmountable protagonist: the city of Los Angeles. I enjoy reading fictive pieces that are presented as homage/hatchet job to specific cities, so I’m hoping that Bright Shiny Morning will live up to its dazzlingly-depicted premise.

My first thoughts: Look, it’s a James Frey novel! I’m beginning to round out my Frey collection. Hmm… why haven’t I read A Million Little Pieces yet, anyway?

4. Three Junes by Julia Glass. Anchor Books. 2002.

Michael Cunningham (The Hours) says that this book “almost threatens to burst with all the life it contains”. I adore Michael Cunningham, but I’ve been suckered before by the beaming endorsements of even my favourite writers, on books over which I ended up feeling very lukewarmly. Glass’s first novel, this is an intergenerational familial examination spread across several continents, the kind of fare, that, depending on how well it’s told, makes for either a tearjerker of a Hallmark movie or a rousing low-budget, indie-produced theatrical success. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it embodies attributes of the latter.

My first thoughts: This sounds like the epitome of adult contemporary book club fare. Oh, look… it’s a selection of “Good Morning America’s “Read This!” Book Club”. It’s a good thing my mother got me this one. Mass media endorsements (in the vein of Oprah’s cheery, validatory stickers which I adore pulling off my personal copies) tend to send me running. I’m such a snob.

5. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. HarperCollins. 2009.

The only hardcover of the gift pile, and rightly so—everything about this book seems to imply a subtle, sexy swagger. The novel’s plot is concerned with charting the story of Harrison Shepherd, an American adventurer who forms friendships with the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo while working in Mexico. He traces his life between the north of his provenance and ambition, and the south of his imaginative and personal development. The result is described by the Chicago Tribune as “rich…impassioned…engrossing…Politics and art dominate the novel, and their overt, unapologetic connection is refreshing”. I’m hooked before the fact, which is one of the most perilous and exciting places to begin with a freshly-acquired work.

My first thoughts: Why haven’t I finished reading The Poisonwood Bible yet? Is it because I began it, became darkly compelled, then put it down because I felt the need to produce writing of my own that would speak as strongly to my own concerns? Is it because I was jealous? Quite possibly.

6. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. Vintage Books. 2008.

Okay, show of hands: who remembers Anis Shivani’s vitriolic, rapier-sharp article on The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers? Have a look at it, if you’ve not come across it before—though you might shake a stick at many of his conclusions, you’ll probably concede his writing style to be immensely enjoyable, in a piquant, vigorous fashion. I bring it up because Shivani… um, praised Jhumpa Lahiri as being the only readable writer on his cautionary list. The short story collection’s blurb describes Unaccustomed Earth as having rendered, in exquisite craft, “the most intricate workings of the heart and mind”. I am particularly interested in seeing how much of Shivani’s admonition is true, of how well Lahiri’s otherwise colossally-famed talent suits the short fiction format.

My first thoughts: Didn’t I see a film adaptation of The Namesake, protagonizing the Indian half of the Harold and Kumar franchise? He displayed surprising depth.

7. Wandering Star by J. M. G. Le Clézio. Curbstone Press. 1992.

Telling the twinned tale of two women trying to navigate their lives as successfully as possible against the backdrop of Middle Eastern war, Wandering Star proclaims itself as no lightweight: “2008 Nobel Prize Winner” is emblazoned across its front cover in a self-assured swath of red. I feel somewhat chagrined to not have known this before—to not, indeed, have even heard of Le Clézio before this point. Acclaimed by Le Figaro as “…a luminous lesson in humanity amid the ruins of civilization and intelligence”, I have little doubt that this will be an impacting read, and will endeavour to also read it in its original French, either afterwards or concurrently.

My first thoughts: The Peruvian song that prefaces the body of the work is beautiful:
Wandering star
Transitory love
Follows your path
Through seas and lands
It breaks your chains
(It’s even lovelier in Spanish.)

8. Lush Life by Richard Price. Picador. 2008.

HBO is still proud of The Wire. Why shouldn’t they be? From what I hear (because I’ve yet to see), it’s one of those television series that helped define what outstanding TV means today. No doubt once I’ve seen it in its entirety, my life will be neatly dissected into “before and after I saw The Wire” references. I mention this because Richard Price is one of the cowriters of that small screen bastion, and the premise of Lush Life sounds no less terrestrially gritty: two Lower East Sides collide in a catastrophic turf war that redefines everything in insidious, startling ways. Described by Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) as “…our best, one of the best writers of dialogue in the history of American literature”, Price is a writer whose work has eluded me until now. Does your mother gift you blood-spattered, street-fresh fiction over the Christmas breakfast table? She should!

My first thoughts: Oh my goodness, that is a lot of endorsements on the back cover. It’s a wall of admiration. Almost every one of these people praises the author’s dialogue. The dialogue must be…. boom, outstanding! I really need to start looking at The Wire.

9. Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea. Back Bay Books. 2009.

Luis Alberto Urrea’s book covers always seem to herald some sort of imminent magic—magic waiting to leap into your lap and command your bookish attention. “Magical” is just the word that Vanity Fair uses to describe the book (and just that word, too, no others), while the Seattle Times calls it “a wondrous yarn in the hands of a terrific storyteller”. Spurred on by visions of The Magnificent Seven, nineteen year old Nayeli embarks on a rousing U.S. adventure with her compatriots, hunting down recruits for her own team of seven stalwarts, so that she can bolster her village against the threat of bandidos. Are you rolling your eyes at this premise? Shame on you! Magic is most malleable when charted on a secure system of disbelief, didn’t you know? What’s Christmas day without the offering of at least one book that trails along the glittery, bandido-infested highway?

My first thoughts: Why did I not finish The Hummingbird’s Daughter? Why have I not finished, or begun, quite a few of the other books written by these authors? Too many books, not enough world and time. Read more—everything else, less.

People other than my mother also gift me books, with varying degrees of success, though I’m pleased to say that 2011’s non-maternal literary offerings all met with approval and gratitude. I’m a nice girl, so I’m always grateful for the books I get! My inner snob might just sneer at the Oprah stickers, but there were none of those to be had on the following titles.

From my brothers:

1. Small Island by Andrea Levy. Headline Review. 2004.

Having read both Never Far from Nowhere and Fruit of the Lemon, (the latter which I read and reviewed for my ambitious, ultimately unsuccessful Caribbean Writers Challenge 2011) it’s difficult for me not to get excited about Andrea Levy’s work. I’ve had my eye on Small Island for a while now, so it was a pleasure to unwrap it over Christmas morning tea. Levy writes evocatively of the quandaries inherent in straddling identities, of the persistent struggle of finding one’s place, when one belongs to places. Set in 1940s England at a time of shifting perceptions regarding race, class and colour politics, the novel focuses on the concerns of a handful of people who find themselves entrenched in the mire of a world that’s changing whether they embrace it or not. I particularly enjoyed seeing the specificity of praise offered by the Evening Standard: “Never less than finely written, delicately and often comically observed, and impressively rich in detail and little nuggets of stories”. This novel won the “Orange of Oranges” in 2005, acclaimed as the best book of the Orange Prize for the past decade. I’m eager to read why.

My first thoughts: I really need to read more Caribbean writing.
(Yes, I did have that thought in italics. It was/is urgent.)

2. Songs of Love and Death, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. Pocket Books. 2010.

Anyone familiar with my reading habits will already know that I have a mild… well, more than mild fascination with Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I reviewed A Game of Thrones last year (plans to review the other four are on my Best Intentions blogging to-do list), and having finished A Dance With Dragons in less sittings than you’d imagine, I’m already avid for something bearing G. R. R. M.’s seal of approval. This collection of stories documenting star-crossed lovers seems to have arrived at a fortuitous time, therefore. It boasts contributions from Neil Gaiman (The Graveyard Book), Diana Gabaldon (the Outlander series) and Tanith Lee (the Tales from the Flat Earth series), as well as several other authors, all beloved in their specific genres. Melding speculative fiction with romance  and fantasy, this gathering of darkly and sweetly twisted tales will probably provide a platter of uneven delights (as most short fiction anthologies tend to do), but I expect to be delighted, nonetheless.

My first thoughts: So this is what you’re doing when you should be working on chapters for The Winds of Winter, G. R. R. M., you grizzly old goat.

From my cousins:

1. Juliet by Anne Fortier. Ballantine Books. 2010.

I will confess upfront to not being the biggest fan of Romeo and Juliet. Give me the tragic splendour of Antony and Cleopatra, if you’re giving me tales of Shakespeare’s tempest-tossed lovers. Still, Juliet comes with a lofty recommendation from the Washington Post, wherein the writing is thusly described: “Fun … engaging … The Shakespearean scholarship on display is both impressive and well-handled”. As a huge proponent of deftly-decorated Shakespearean scholarship put to poetic/prosaic good use, I’m incredibly intrigued, though I doubt, somehow, that the calibre of writing will be on par with the lush fantastic-historical embellishments of A. S. Byatt’s Possession (though, to be fair, few books, if any, dwell in that rarefied company, for me). When endorsements like the Washington Post‘s are proudly flanked by ones from Elle and Marie Claire magazine, too… well, I suppose I just wonder, is all. I know. I’m a snob.

My first thoughts: So Anne Fortier holds a Ph.D in the history of ideas from Aarhus University… what exactly would a doctorate in idea-history entail?

2. Frog on the Log, written by Leyland Perree, illustrated by Joelle Dreidemy. Alligator Books. 2011.

I’m pleased to say that I have read Frog on the Log from cover to cover, and plan to feature it in my next Charting Children’s Literature post. This is  the tale of Frog, who is much taken with his log-residence, and is loath to leave it under any circumstances. Even when a storm washes away the permanency of his former abode, he drifts downstream, clinging to said log, soliciting the aid of other woodland creatures. When they insist that he can only be aided if he gives up his log, Frog staunchly refuses… but to what end will his stubborn, house-proud insistence lead him, as the river’s end rushes ever closer?

My first thoughts: FROGS!!!

As for my 2012 resolution when it comes to books, here it is:

I will give away every single book I buy for myself in 2012.

I’ve had this intention for some time now, but was, frankly, nervous about implementing it. Books are my ultimate sanctuary of revelling in the joys of material ownership. To gift them, even ones I’ve waited for ages to buy, has previously seemed like too much of an imposition. I’ll willingly part with pretty much anything else, I’ve told myself, so why should this giving extend to my favourite things?

Without wanting to carry on too much about it, I think it’s precisely because books are my favourite things that I must give them away. Someone reminded me, recently, that a book lives anew every time it’s read and held, cherished by someone new. That on its own would be reason enough for me to embark on this project.

Some of the books will be given to specific people whom I believe would love certain titles. Some will be offered up as randomly selected (or thematically-selected, such as the less impartial ‘best response wins book’ system), giveaways here on Novel Niche. I’ll likely also make some of the giveaways exclusive to my e-mail, WordPress, Facebook and Twitter followers, as a continued mark of gratitude. All book gifting will be logged on Novel Niche in one format or other.

It’s 2012… as pertinent and as timely a year as any to give the things that matter most. For everyone who’s read and found resonance with even a fragment of a post on Novel Niche, thank you. I have so very much more to share.