Thursday, January 06, 2005

Dear readers, all three or four of you, we've come once more to the turn of the calendar, the start of a new year & the chance to try to make sense of the year just ended. Among other things, this means the announcement of the 2004 Nicholas Laughlin Book Awards, for Caribbean books (i.e. books written by Caribbean authors, set in the Caribbean, or otherwise of particular Caribbean interest) published in the last twelve months. (Read about the 2003 awards here.)

The sole justification for these awards: self-indulgence. My sole qualification as chief judge: for professional reasons (I edit The Caribbean Review of Books), I try my best to keep up-to-date with new Caribbean books; I read or at least flip through most of the review titles that appear on my desk. (This last year I must admit there's been more flipping through than reading.) My personal opinion is the only criterion for the awards, which are restricted to books published in English, since I don't read Spanish, French, Dutch, or anything else. Omissions due to poor memory are very likely. This year there are just two categories, fiction & poetry, because I don't seem to have read enough history, biography, current affairs etc.

Fiction: The Dew Breaker, by Edwidge Danticat. Anthony Winkler's book of stories The Annihilation of Fish also brought much pleasure, & I even heard Winkler read a couple of the stories when I was in Jamaica last May. He is an extraordinary performer, & this was easily the funniest reading I've ever witnessed. Other "big" books: V.S. Naipaul's Magic Seeds, Andrea Levy's Small Island, Lawrence Scott's Night Calypso, David Dabydeen's Our Lady of Demerara.

Poetry: A good year for Caribbean poetry! The Bounty is still my favourite late-Walcott collection, but the best passages of his new book-length poem, The Prodigal, show our essential poet at the height of his powers. At the very start of the year came Ian McDonald's Between Silence and Silence, & James Christopher Aboud's Lagahoo Poems at the very end. Both extraordinary & inspiring books (see my short reviews here & here). I exercise my judge's right to not choose between these three.

Addendum: Perhaps I didn't read very many new books in 2004; perhaps the new books I did read made no great impression. My greatest reading pleasure came from E.M. Forster, whose fiction I re-read entire last January & February; & from the poetry of Keats, Hopkins, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, & Spencer Short, which I read & re-read throughout the year. Alan Hollinghurst's new novel The Line of Beauty disappointed me by being not nearly beautiful enough. It was a year of re-reading, really. And in the last few days I've been reading a fascinating collection of essays etc. by a friend & colleague. This was privately published, & I know the last thing the author wants is publicity of any kind, so I won't mention his name or the title of the book. But the clarity & reasonableness & decency of these essays--many of which tackle life's fundamental & unanswerable questions--have encouraged & inspired & otherwise helped me through the often difficult year-end period, & I suspect this "secret" book will be a constant companion for many years to come.

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