Room

I finally read Room after years of putting it off.  I have a lot of trouble reading about people being kidnapped and IMG_1638violence in general.  However, I feel this story was very well told and the subject was brilliantly treated too.  The general storyline is about Ma and Jack who are trapped in a 11 x 11 foot room, with the only window being a very high skylight .  The room is sound proof and perfectly self-contained, sealed off from the world.  Ma has been held captive there since she was 19 years old and she is 26 when the story begins.  Jack who is only five was born there and has never experienced the outside world.  He only knows the outside world through watching television.  He is the narrator of the story who takes us through their harrowing journey, using his special language.

Jack describes his world, the room, with as much detail as a five-year old with limited vocabulary can.  It isn’t difficult to get a sense of how things are.  He is a very intelligent little boy who knows a lot of things for his age, but not a lot about the simple things in life, like falling rain, playing at the park, or feeling sand between his toes.  In spite of the close quarters, Ma manages to adapt their activities to accommodate Jack’s growth.  She is very clever with teaching and explaining things to him.  She does all of this while tying to preserve his innocence and trying to keep her sanity.  She doesn’t want to frighten him, by telling him too much too quickly.

As the story goes on, we quickly start to understand that the room is home for Jack and a prison for Ma.  Old Nick the captor, is a cold, unfeeling, obtuse person, and it’s because of those reasons Ma and Jack manage to escape.  I commend Emma Donoghue on her capacity to maintain the voice of a five-year old little boy captive.  This couldn’t have been easy.  She cleverly chose how to express his emotions and his desires in a believable way.  Towards the end of the novel, I found myself thinking that Jack was a little spoiled, but had to keep reminding myself that he’d been trapped in a room for 5 years.  It’s hard not to root for this mother and son and to not think about all the recent cases we’ve heard about people in the same situation and wonder how they survived and to what end.

Room is a beautifully written novel.  It will grip you, break your heart, wake up your senses (especially smell), and give you a glimmer of hope in the end.  I urge you all to pick it up.  Donoghue was beat out of the Man Book Prize 2010 by Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Questionwhich received a measly 2.75 stars on Goodreads, whereas Room received 3.96 stars.  Regardless, I look forward to reading The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue, which was published in 2008 and was an Orange Prize for Fiction Longlist in 2012.

Water Street

If you’ve followed me on here for a while you know there are two things I’m not so keen on reading.  The first one is series and the second one is short story collections.  Now it seems as if I’m turning over a new leaf with the later.  Water Street by Crystal Wilkinson is my third attempt at reading them and they seem to be getting better and better.  I dare say I’ve been lucky or I just know how to choose a good book. Whatever it is Water Street is a short Water Streetstory collection you must check out.

The overall themes are about everyday feelings and problems – race, love and family relationships, mental health, getting older, coming of age, among many others.  The characters in the book range from all different types and you’ll want to hear their story during the day and their inner secrets.  You’ll sympathize with them even if you won’t necessarily agree with the decisions they make.  The thing that made this collection stand out for me was the way these middle-class black characters are connected to each other through living in this Kentucky town called Stanford in a community around Water Street.

Wilkinson brilliantly tells each story with emotion, description, and realism.  The stories don’t necessarily finish all tied up neatly and that’s because it’s real life.  That feeling is what drives the book.  This is the first time I haven’t felt like I needed more from a short story collection I finished.  I believe a lot of it has to do with Wilkinson’s first-rate writing and her idea of linking the characters.

Crystal Wilkinson is an African-American author from Kentucky who is one of the founding members of Affrilachian Poets, which is a grassroots organization of writers of color living in the Appalachian region.  She grew up on her grandparents’ farm in eastern Kentucky where they were the only black family.  Wilkinson uses this as inspiration for writing her short stories.  She was a 2003 Long List Finalist for The Orange Prize for Fiction with Water Street and has written other works such as:  Blackberries, Blackberries (2001), and individual works like Holler (2013), My Girl Mona, Terrain, and First Sunday Dinner on the Grounds.  I’ve already read Blackberries, Blackberries and Holler and liked them as well.  I haven’t heard anyone talking about this author and I urge you to give her a try if you’re interested in these themes.  Wilkinson is another outstanding black woman writer is going unnoticed and that’s a real shame.

Writing Seriously – Update Weeks 2 and 3

Well it’s been a while and I’ve been extremely busy trying to keep it all together.  Work is booming and adding to the complexities of my weeks.  I’m trying to do it all but my reading is suffering the most, which I knew it would.  I’m reading about four books at the same time.  I usually never do that!  I’ll be spending the next four days trying to finish reading Water Street, Corregidor, Reading Like a Writer, and You, Me & A Bit of We.

As for my writing course, things have been going really well.  I had excellent feedback on my writing assignments for session 2 and 3.  The main focus of week 2 was point of view and character for week 3.    We looked closely at how first, third, and second person can be used to write a novel and how it affects the reader as the story develops.  We had to choose from two writing assignments: 1.  Write a first person account of someone waking up in the morning and finding something surprising in the kitchen in 300 words.  2.  Try to recreate an unreliable character – write a first person account of someone you know in rather unkind terms but try to suggest that the narrator secretly likes the person but doesn’t want to admit it.  All of this must be finessed in a subtle way and in a maximum of 500-750 words.  I went for assignment #1.

I wasn’t sure where to start so I asked my family for suggestions of what could be surprising to find in a kitchen.  I then set out writing stories on the different surprises.  I wrote four different versions.  I rewrote each of them twice and tried to round them out the best I could. I then had trouble picking the one I was going to put up on the forum.  I finally decided on one and worked on it until I felt it was ready to be seen.

The outcome of the assignment was amazing! There wasn’t one story that resembled the other.  There is so much creativity in this group.  There were only a few who attempted assignment #2.  The second week has made me look at point of view even more closely than I would normally do when reading.  It’s so important and can be the difference of the novel drawing the reader in or pushing him/her away.  It made me look at some other of my favorite books and how point of view was used and analyzing why it works.

Week 3 we delved into character.  I notice when I come up with an idea I usually have the main character detailed in my mind, however developing the other characters that are important to the story aren’t nearly as fleshed out.  They gave us a character questionnaire which lists some points to help define the character in more detail.  Some of these points are: Name, Age, Gender, Sexual orientation, Marital status, Place of birth, Current location, Education, Religious, beliefs, Political beliefs, Occupation, Health, Family, Friends, Pets, Hobbies, Favourite music/books/films/tv, Newspaper/magazines, Clothes, Holiday preferences, Food preferences, Desires/hopes, Fears/anxieties, and Secrets.  This extensive list should definitely help develop characters, but also the storyline.

The writing prompts for week 3 were interesting and revealing.  We were told to try 1. using images for example from a magazine, making up everything from name, occupation, marital status, etc, sketching another person by writing a character sketch on someone we know in first-person, 2. writing about ourselves in a difficult situation thinking about how we may appear outwardly and how we feel, while keeping in mind that no one will see it, and 3. looking at strangers on the train, in the supermarket, etc. and get into noticing the details of their appearance (clothes, shoes, hair-styles, jewellery, tattoos, the things they carry, the type of dog they have).  It was suggested we use one detail as a starting point to develop the entire character.

Observing people has become my new pastime, the thing I never really did before at least not in detail. I’ve even started carrying a small notebook where I can jot down details that I see during the day.  I’ve learned so much in these three weeks not only about writing but also about reading.  I feel like I don’t read in the same way.  This has been altered because we have to critique our peers and we have to respect the critiquing pointers to do it:  clarity, point of view, pace, characters, setting, over-writing, spelling and punctuation.  I seem to be looking at all of this; all the time.  It’s making me a lot more critical than I was before.

The writing assignments which were to be posted on the forum for week 3 were 1. write a character sketch on someone we know well, and could be written in first or third person 2. show a character in action – has just witnessed a crime, has had an argument with a neighbor, or is in a public place with someone they like very much, but that person is unaware of their strong feelings, and had to be written in third person, or 3. write a first person monologue as the opposite sex.   We had to write between 500 – 750 words.  In the end, I chose exercise one and wrote a piece that was really close to home about a teacher going to a student’s house to tutor him in English. She hasn’t seen the student in 5 years.  He’s 18 years old now and still isn’t any good in English.  It was different, but I feel it was the worst thing I’ve written since the course began.  :( Nevertheless, I got good feedback and was told that my descriptive writing was my strong suit and I should stick with that.  So I am…

Writing Seriously…

After the hectic and enjoyable month of February, these next two months will be a lot quieter.  I’d like to thank all of those who kept up, followed, shared, and commented, making Black History Month Reading a success.  Remember #ReadSoulLit has not seen its last days, its pressing on over on Twitter, Instagram, and on here.  Please continue to link the hashtag when you blog or link to social media about books by black IMG_1537writers.  This will help keep up the recognition that black writers so deserve.  So why is everything quieting down for the next two months? Well I’ve enrolled in an intensive online writing course with Faber Academy.  It’s called Getting Started: Writing Fiction (Intensive).

The course has about 15 participants mostly from England, an Australian, and me.  The course started and
we’ve been challenged with writing prompts, but we’ve also been encouraged with George Orwell’s short stories (pretty fantastic writing).  We’ve had to reflect on how much we read (I’ve got that covered), what we read, what to pay attention to, and we’ve discussed books we love and recommend and why.  It was suggested we take a look at Reading Like a Writer A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want To Write Them by Francine Prose.  It so happens I have that one on my shelf and have already started reading it.

So far I’ve found the writing very challenging.  I’ve done one round of writing prompts.  We are supposed to write for 10-15 minutes on the ones that interest us the most and I found this excruciating.  I could hear myself critiquing my writing as I linked one word after the next.  I have to stop doing this or I’m never going to get over the hump.  I must try to put myself in partial NaNoWriMo mode.  I say partial because I need to focus on how I write things too.  Tomorrow I’ll redo the prompts and maybe try the three that I haven’t done yet. I’m hoping that one of my attempts will jump out at me and that’s the one I’ll try to work on seriously.  Try to make it detailed, descriptive, and interesting.  This 500-word assignment is for Saturday.

I’ll also have the arduous task to critique two of my colleagues’ work.  This should be interesting.  This is what I usually do on this blog, with a twist of analysis and how I felt.  In the end, it’s not the same thing.  However, I’m glad that they gave us some specific guidelines to help us concentrate on the importance of writing.  Here are the areas we need to consider when critiquing and I believe they are useful for book bloggers too:  clarity – what kind of narrative is it?  Is it clear? Is it easy to follow what is happening?, point-of-view – Who is telling the story?  Do the view points change?, pace – Is the story lagging?  Try to identify why you feel less engaged., characters – Are the characters engaging?  Do we learn enough about the characters? Is there any information missing?, setting – Is there enough information about the place?  Is the location clearly explained?, over-writing – Are there more words than are necessary? Are we told things that we as the reader can already work out?, and spelling and punctuation – work should be presented in a clean and precise manner.  So poor grammar will be judged.  As they say, being a careful reader is crucial to developing skills and awareness to help with writing.  I’m pretty nervous about all of this but I’m throwing myself into it because I need the answer to the question that most of the other participants are asking as well and that’s, “Can I write?”  So I hope you’ll enjoy reading my updates on this course and maybe a book review or two for the next 8 weeks….

A Small Place

IMG_1516Caribbean literature is something that I haven’t read very much of, but the first two Jamaica Kincaid novels I read were Annie John and Lucy and that was a little over two years ago.  I thoroughly enjoyed them.  So to continue my discovery of Kincaid I picked up A Small Place and devoured it in a few hours.

The first few pages surprised me because Kincaid immediately implements the reader in the story.  She is speaking directly to us.  Many people will feel uncomfortable and resent her accusations, but deep down inside we all know they are true.  Within this tiny  81 page book, Kincaid explains the destruction and profiteering of her home, Antigua.

The story starts with the ugliness of tourism.  This is what will make the reader uncomfortable as we can see ourselves fit into the types of descriptions made about tourists.  The beauty of Antigua, its beaches that aren’t all free to its citizens, the beautiful landscapes, marred by imposing 5 star hotels, are almost stage sets made so that tourism can progress.  The exotic is what doesn’t allow tourists to see things as they are for Antiguans.

Kincaid laments on the lack of decent education in Antigua and the refusal of all past government officials to rebuild the island’s library, which has been virtually out of commission since colonial times.  There hangs on the building a sign which says, “THIS BUILDING WAS DAMAGED IN THE EARTHQUAKE OF 1974. REPAIRS ARE PENDING.” When this book was published in 1988, the renovation had been pending already for ten years.  That library is a definite symbol of the status of the Antiguans and the island as a whole.  They are nothing more than damaged remnants of colonial rule.

Kincaid doesn’t believe that young Antiguans are as well-educated as in her day.  She was educated under British rule with the classics (read Annie John for that understanding).  She realizes that the one thing the youth have in common with her generation is their capacity to admire the people who enslaved them. i.e. The British in her time and the Americans for the young Antiguans.

I could go on and explain to you the other very serious problems on the beautiful island of Antigua but I urge you to read it for yourself.  It is absolutely mind-blowing!  If and when you do, don’t judge the book on how you feel while reading it, but concentrate on all the grave issues facing these people.  I read many reviews on Goodreads saying that Kincaid was angry and why didn’t she do something to fix the library and she obviously doesn’t care because she lives in Vermont.  I felt like the person who wrote that didn’t understand the book.  Well if I were Kincaid I’d be angry too, not that I appreciate at all that angry black woman analogy.  All of the problems she details in this little book aren’t easy to come up against, since everybody is corrupt in one way or another and as for the locals they are just trying to survive.  Endemic corruption is almost impossible to fight against.  Here’s a quote from A Small Place that explains things very well, “In a small place, people cultivate small events.  The small event is isolated, blown up, turned over and over, and then absorbed into the everyday, so that at any moment it can and will roll off the inhabitants of the small place’s tongues.  For the people in a small place, every event is a domestic event; the people in a small place cannot see themselves in a larger picture, they cannot see that they might be part ofKENNETH NOLAND Jamaica Kincaid: unique literary journey. a chain of something, anything.” (A Small Place, p. 52)

Jamaica Kincaid was born in St. John’s, Antigua in 1949,  She now lives in Vermont and teaches at a university in California.  She is a writer, a gardener, and gardening writer.  Her work is qualified as autobiographical and is criticized as being angry.  Her books contain the following themes: post colonialism, neocolonialism, British/American imperialism, adolescence, mother-daughter relationships, racism, sexuality, class, and power.  She has received many literary awards including being shortlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for At the Bottom of the River in 1984 and The Autobiography of My Mother in 1997.  As for me I hope to pick up the controversial See Now Then at some point this year.  What do you think of Ms. Kincaid’s work?  Have you read any of Ms. Kincaid’s work?  If so what was your favorite?