Saturday, January 14, 2006

My longtime readers--the one or two of you who've been following this blog's three-quarter-hearted progress since October 2002--may recall that at the turn of the last three new years I've announced the part serious, part joking 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 previous twelve months. I managed to be fairly comprehensive in my 2002 and 2003 versions, but 2004 was patchy--I was forced to admit that I seemed to have read less than usual that year, & I reduced the categories to two, fiction & poetry.

I almost didn't bother with the whole exercise this year. As more & more books arrive in the post & pile up on the floor of my office--the capacity of the bookshelves has long been exceeded--I seem to have less & less time for the fundamental activity of reading, & I worry that this trend is simply a by-process of growing older & so will not be reversed anytime soon.

[Pause for lengthy quotation: "... it would not be hard to prove by an assembly of facts that the great season for reading is the season between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. The bare list of what is read then fills the heart of older people with despair. It is not only that we read so many books, but that we had such books to read.... For the first time, perhaps, all restrictions have been removed, we can read what we like; libraries are at our command.... For days upon end we do nothing but read. It is a time of extraordinary excitement and exaltation. We seem to rush about recognising heroes." --Virginia Woolf, "Hours in a Library", in vol. 2 of the McNeillie edition of The Essays]

Further: perhaps I blinked a few times too many as I trudged the year's shore, but the Sargasso Sea of Caribbean literature didn't seem to throw up many remarkable treasures in 2005. (See my colleague Jeremy Taylor's similar lament in this mini-essay in the Caribbean Beat blog.) The biggest disappointment, perhaps, was the new Robert Antoni novel, Carnival--I spent weeks trying to convince myself I'd just missed the point, not spotted the key. Some new novels by writers I won't name here proved literally unreadable--I couldn't get more than a few pages in. It may be that as I get older--& subconsciously do the daily arithmetic of How Much Time Is Left--my tolerance for less-than-life-changing books dwindles. Also I seem to have slipped past some boundary into the Age of Rereading--I'd rather settle down with a Forster I've read six times already than tackle a new novel, almost any day.

Further yet: as my one or two regular readers know, 2005 was for me the Year of Guyana, and much of my reading time was occupied with the study of the classic Guyana texts. I reread Naipaul's Middle Passage and Salkey's Georgetown Journal in preparation for my first trip to Guyana last February, & soon after my return home plunged into Evelyn Waugh's Ninety-two Days, Waterton's Wanderings, & Pauline Melville's wonderful novel The Ventriloquist's Tale, which I somehow had managed never to read before. I re-read Wilson Harris's Palace of the Peacock twice--the first time I was no better for it, the second time I found the lovely line "the map of the savannahs was a dream", which for a while I adopted as the working title of my own Guyana Project. On a second-hand book stall on the south bank of the Thames I stumbled providentially on an old orange Penguin edition of Nicholas Guppy's Wai-Wai. I reread Charlotte Williams's Sugar and Slate, persevered through her father Denis Williams's abstruse Prehistoric Guiana, was defeated by the leaden prose of Vincent Roth's journals, read Cheddi Jagan's West on Trial at high speed, kept going back to Naipaul (V.S.), checked out Naipaul (S.)'s Jonestown, reread my Carter & Seymour, read any amount of reference material, realising, the more I read, how little I knew. It's a wonder, thinking over it now, that I had time to read anything else at all.

All this digression in order to explain the thinness of my 2005 awards list.

As always: the sole justification for these awards is self-indulgence. My sole qualification as chief judge: for professional reasons 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 cross my desk. My personal opinion is the only criterion for the awards, which are restricted to books published in English. Omissions due to poor memory are inevitable. In previous years I named winners in certain categories, but my reading this last year hasn't been methodical enough for that.

The 2005 Nicholas Laughlin Book Awards go to:

Thank God It's Friday, by B.C. Pires, a collection of B.C.'s newspaper columns spanning fifteen years: inconsistent & sometimes annoying (which is always part of the fun with B.C., though), but at its finer moments a funny, wise, moving book that says more about life in Trinidad in the last decade & a half than pretty much any novel I've read. (Read my review here.)

"One Scattered Skeleton", by Vahni Capildeo, a forthcoming memoir by a thrilling young Trinidadian writer, which I'm lucky enough to have read two versions of in manuscript (the rules, strictly speaking, don't say only published books qualify!), & of which I published an excerpt in the November 2005 issue of The Caribbean Review of Books, under the title "Say If You Have Some Place in Mind". This is the first book I've come across that truly captures the Trinidad I grew up in, the Trinidad of the late 1970s and 1980s, of middle-class childhood in & around Port of Spain--& with wit & steely honesty & verbal acrobatics.

Sweetening "Bitter Sugar": Jock Campbell, the Booker Reformer in British Guiana, 1934-1966, by Clem Seecharan, a major study both of Campbell & of Guyanese politics in the three decades before independence. Not without its biases, but massively researched, appropriately thought-provking, & cleanly written--no small virtue in this age of unreadable scholarship.

I've never included art books before--i.e. those with predominantly pictorial content--but one of the most striking books I came across last year was Moko Jumbie: The Dancing Spirits of Trinidad, a resplendent volume of images by NY-based German photographer Stefan Falke, who's been visiting Trinidad & shooting Carnival for close to twenty years. Two hundred photos of young moko jumbies (costumed stilt-walkers, for non-Trini readers who don't know the term) from the Kilimanjaro School of Arts and Culture--learning, practising, mastering the art of the stilts, and finally lording it over the streets during Carnival--"making to become gods", Keith Smith put it, in his review in the February 2005 CRB.

And now for the hon. mentions--all books that I particularly enjoyed or found very useful & which have a permanent place on my bookshelves: Olive Senior's Over the Roofs of the World; The Angel Horn: Collected Poems, by Shake Keane; The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse, ed. Stewart Brown & Mark McWatt; My Jamaica: The Paintings of Judy Ann MacMillan; and Making West Indian Literature, by Mervyn Morris.

Fiction is completely missing from the above lists, but I should say that there are two promising-looking books I haven't yet got around to reading that may find themselves awarded or hon.-mentioned at some point in the future: The Godmother and Other Stories, by Jan Lowe Shinebourne, and John Crow's Devil, by Marlon James.

Addendum: I haven't updated it since October, but for an extended list of my 2005 reading with some brief annotations, you can always glance at my life list. I was disappointed by the two books I'd most looked forward to last year, Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Zadie Smith's On Beauty. I waited far too long--or exactly long enough?--to read Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia. As usual, the poets who saw me though the year were Yeats, Hughes, Walcott, Heaney. Funniest book I read last year was Malcolm Bradbury's Unsent Letters. In 2006 I must try to read more funny books.


Anonymous said...

"I seem to have less & less time for the fundamental activity of reading, & I worry that this trend is simply a by-process of growing older & so will not be reversed anytime soon."

Does online reading have anything to do with the trend? I know that my time spent reading online digs into what was once spent thumbing actual pages. It's also been bad for my attention span. Once I'm reading something for more than 15 pages - even if it's a 500 page book - I feel like it's time to click a mouse.

"I waited far too long--or exactly long enough?--to read Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia."

What's that mean? I think In Patagonia is probably my favorite Chatwin book.

Nicholas Laughlin said...

No, I don't think it's online reading so much as a proliferation of obligations & tasks--as I get older I seem to amass projects, I feel there's no time to waste--& I can't remember the last day I got out of bed with no deadline looming close ahead, with a feeling that my time was absolutely free to do what I pleased.

Chatwin: I mean that it seems I came across In Patagonia just at the moment when it could do me most good....