Friday, January 04, 2008

A year's reading

My two or three longtime readers may recall that for five years running (2002-06) I engaged in a semi-serious little exercise called the Nicholas Laughlin Book Awards (see appropriate links in the sidebar to the right), in which I listed what I thought were the best Caribbean books of the preceding twelvemonth, always accompanied by profuse caveats. Were I to keep up the tradition, I'd be announcing the 2007 version of the NLBAs just about now. Instead, I've sort of stolen my own thunder, over at Antilles--where, a few days ago, I posted the names of the 2007 CRB books of the year, as collectively chosen by the magazine's editors.

Everyone else does year-end lists, I thought, so why not us? So I asked the CRB's contributing editors what they thought were the outstanding Caribbean books of the year and collated the results--no one of us can read everything, but collectively I hope we managed not to miss any truly remarkable new titles. There were nine books on the final list: two novels, a collection of short stories, two collections of poems, two memoirs, and (intriguingly) two books on art history. They were written by two Jamaicans, a Bahamian, a St. Lucian, a Grenadian who lives in the US, a Trinidadian, a Dominican-American, a Haitian-American, and a team based at Yale. One of our rules of thumb was that all the books on the list must be of interest to general readers across the Caribbean--thus excluding scholarly books (however excellent) relevant only to specialists. Two of the books--the art history titles--are by academics and published by university presses, but both are accessibly written and have much to offer those of us outside the field who happen to be interested in what visual documents can tell us about Caribbean history and culture.

These nine were the standouts--you may as well read the list before you continue here--but of course they weren't the only noteworthy books of 2007. Editing the CRB means that I receive and skim through perhaps 150 books a year. About sixty of these get despatched to reviewers, and a few dozen more are "noticed" in our "Also noted" column. I simply don't have the time to read as many of these new titles as I'd like--who does?--but a good few make it into my own personal "to read" pile. The new Caribbean books I've enjoyed reading or have put aside for reading in due course include:

- Sharon Leach's book of stories What You Can't Tell Him, one of the year's nice surprises; life in contemporary Kingston as lived by a series of middle-class women trying to balance career, romance, and sanity, and figure out what success means. Someone described the book to me as "Sex in the City, but Jamaican", but that's not really apt--these stories are too melancholy, clear-eyed, truthful.

- V.S. Naipaul's book of linked essays A Writer's People--always interesting, always a must-read, but frustratingly self-involved, like so much recent Naipaul. It won't ever be a favourite, but it did send me back to his earlier work. (I think I was thoroughly over-Naipauled in 2007.)

- New Caribbean Poetry, the anthology edited by Kei Miller, featuring poems by eight younger poets from across the region, including a couple who were completely new to me, and whose work I'll be following carefully from now on.

- Raymond Ramcharitar's first book of poems, American Fall, which I'm glad and relieved has finally been published. I'm even more interested to read whatever he writes next. (Raymond is no fan of the CRB, as anyone who reads his now-hibernating blog already knows; I agree with him about many things, disagree about many more; but he's an often brilliant writer and one of the most intriguing public intellectuals--if such a term has any currency here--Trinidad has produced in a generation.)

- Also Kwame Dawes's memoir A Far Cry from Plymouth Rock; Anthony Jospeh's long prose-poem The African Origins of UFOs, which I heard him read from in August; and Meiling, an elegant, understated biography by Judy Raymond. Madison Smartt Bell's biography of Toussaint L'Ouverture is a to-read. Three art books I'm pleased to have on my shelf: the catalogue of Infinite Island; The Storyteller, a concise retrospective of Roberta Stoddart's career; and Cuba Avant-Garde, the catalogue of an exhibition of contemporary Cuban art from the collection of Howard and Patricia Farber.

What am I looking forward to in 2008? New novels by Marlon James and Kei Miller; Patrick French's biography of Naipaul; Edward Baugh's biography of Frank Collymore; a new book of poems by Vahni Capildeo; Ian McDonald's Selected Poems; a young adult novel by Lisa Allen-Agostini; Anu Lakhan's book on Trinidad street food. (Also, frankly, my own new edition of Naipaul's early family correspondence.)

What was my great belated discovery in 2007? The work of Alejo Carpentier, especially Explosion in a Cathedral and The Lost Steps. (Thanks to my friend Anne Walmsley for inadvertently encouraging me to pluck from the shelf my long-ignored copy of the former.)

What were the highlights of my non-Caribbean reading last year? I seem to read fewer and fewer new books. Michael Chabon is one of my favourite living writers and I felt I'd been waiting forever for his new novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union (which sent me back to re-read his three earlier novels). I can't believe I waited so long to read The Road to Oxiana, which is now one of my touchstones--and why are the rest of Robert Byron's books out of print? After years of resisting the charms of Gabriel García Márquez, I finally gave in. I continue to delve into obscurer aspects of the history and landscape of Guyana, and was arrested some months back by Graham Burnett's brilliant Masters of All They Surveyed, a study of nineteenth-century surveying, map-making, boundary-drawing, and Robert Schomburgk. I spent the last days of the waning year in the agreeable company of Jan Morris. At Marlon James's insistence, I at last read Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red, and was glad I did.

Concise version?

Book of the year, Caribbean, new: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz

Book of the year, non-Caribbean, new: The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon

Book of the year, Caribbean, non-new: Explosion in a Cathedral, by Alejo Carpentier

Book of the year, non-Caribbean, non-new: The Road to Oxiana, by Robert Byron

Writer of the year: Robert Byron.

On! on!

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