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Jamaica and The Book of Night Women

Just in time for Hurricane Matthews, here’s a book from Jamaica!

(Seriously though, please be safe if you’re in the path of the hurricane. It looks NASTY.

The book of night women by Marlon James (who won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for his other book, A brief history of seven killings).

And no, “night women” is not in reference to prostitutes.

This book is set in Jamaica (obviously) in the 1800’s, when slavery was still legal. It follows the young slave girl Lilith as she grows up on a plantation with hundreds of other slaves. She is gifted with a “dark power” that makes all the other slaves afraid of her, which means not only is she a slave, but she can’t even make friends among her fellow slaves. Eventually, however, she is taken into confidence by a group of slave women who call themselves the Night Women – because they can only meet secretly at night – who are plotting a slave revolt, and need Lilith’s help to pull it off.

But DOES she end up helping?

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I’ll let you guys find out on your own! This was a long book, but a really good one.

I will say that it did take a few pages to get into, simply because it’s written entirely in a Jamaican accent. As in, “Who you be, mon?” It took me a while, but then once I was finally used to it, I didn’t even notice it. But then all of a sudden a white person in the book would start talking, and I would have to totally re-read everything they said because it sounded so weird all of a sudden in my head! It was weird, but in a cool way. I mean, not many authors could pull off writing something so well that you hear EVERYTHING in your head like that.

What have you read from Jamaica?

Cuba and Cuban Layered Coffee

Cuba and coffee – they kind of go hand in hand, you know? So what better treat to serve myself for finishing my book for Cuba, The Motorcycle Diaries, than some delicious Cuban layered coffee?

All you need is sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, whole milk, and some sweet, sweet espresso.

On a side note, this is NOT a good recipe to try if you’re lactose intolerant 0.o

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Seriously though, go try this coffee!

Cuba and The Motorcycle Diaries

So, depending on how old you are, you may have different versions of Cuba in your head.

I grew up with the impression that we should all feel sorry for the poor Cubans trapped with their cruel dictator, who’s only chance of escape was to swim from Cuba to Florida, *hopefully* without drowning.

My parents’ impression was probably something like “holy shit we gotta keep those Cubans UNDER CONTROL before they set up more nukes!!!”

I don’t think my grandma knows where Cuba is. Unfortunately.

I’m hoping my kids’ view of Cuba will be something like “potential vacay spot, beautiful beaches, stuff happened here a long time ago.” That’s the dream, right?

Anyway. I bring to you, from the sunny island of Cuba, The Motorcycle Diaries by the one and only Che Guevara!

The Motorcycle Diaries is actually the travel diary of Guevara’s 5,000 mile journey through South America via motorcycle, while still a medical student. Although he was born to a prominent, middle-class family in Argentina, while exploring South America he was deeply troubled by the deep poverty that he encountered. He came to the conclusion that Communism would help solve the social problems that poverty caused. This book covers the journey that some have said led him to believe in Communism.

Now, Guevara did some things that are…questionable? To say the least? Like, apparently it was his idea to let the Soviet Union bring in their nukes and point them at the US. WHAT he was thinking I have no idea. He also apparently executed about 500 people without a trial. Not cool, Guevara!

But. He cared deeply for the people of Cuba. He cared deeply for the impoverished people he saw all over the world. He wanted to help, and he helped to the best that he knew how. According the History, Guevara’s lasting legacy is actually his work to bring down the illiteracy rate in Cuba. And that’s pretty cool. He wasn’t just another power-hungry political figure, hell-bent on gaining power and wealth and personal comfort. He was willing to go through some shit for his ideals.

He’ll always be a controversial figure, for sure. But in my mind, that just makes him human. Not necessarily forgivable, mind you, but human.

You should probably just read this book to find out for yourself 🙂

Haiti and Claire of the Sea Light

Since I did a post about the Dominican Republic yesterday, I thought I’d go ahead and do the other half of this Caribbean island today.

Welcome to Haiti! If the only thing you’ve ever heard about Haiti has had to do with earthquakes, hurricanes, and disease, then you CLEARLY have not really read anything about Haiti. FYI.

Haiti is located on the western half of an island shared with the Dominican Republic. It is definitely the poorer half of the island, no question. However, it has a rich history of rebellion and sacrifice, just as the Dominican Republic does. Although that doesn’t really play into the book that I’m talking about today – which is: Claire of the sea light by Edwidge Danticat.

Claire is the daughter of poor Haitians who live in a hut near the beach. Her mother died giving birth to her, and she has been left in her father’s care. Her father loves his daughter very much, but fears that he cannot provide enough for her.

An integral part of this story is the fact that they are surrounded by the ocean. Like most island cultures, Haitians have a deep respect for the sea. Lasiren, the goddess of the sea, is very important to Haitian fishermen. Lasiren is the queen of the oceans – a mermaid – and is considered the mother of the world. If you fall under Lasiren’s spell, she will keep you for in her underwater kingdom, either for 7 days or 7 years – the story varies. Interestingly enough, Claire is 7 years old in this story.

Lasiren is considered “mother of the world,” and this is likened to pregnancy in that “as a fetus, we swim for nine months in our mother’s belly. So, the stretch to calling the Ocean our Mother is not all that big – a large body of salt water, rolling and moving with the tides. Not unlike being rocked in the womb of our mother. And, just as early life evolved out of the oceans, we too must change from little fish-like fetuses into human beings at birth.” (Sosyete du Marche, 8/2/2016).

Even more interesting: at one point, early in Claire’s mother’s pregnancy, she and Claire’s father are out on a moonlit sea in his fishing boat. Claire’s mother decides to go for a swim, much to the anxiety of her husband. However, he is quickly distracted by her ethereal beauty in the moonlight. Surrounded by tiny, glowing fish, he likens her to Lasiren herself. At this point, Claire’s mother decides on their baby’s name: Claire Limyè Lanmè, or Claire of the Sea Light. It’s almost as though she is saying her daughter belongs to the sea, before she is even born.

At the end of the story, Claire disappears. Although the reader knows where she is (no spoilers!!!), the other characters in the story do not, and are frantic to find her.

Basically, this is a mermaid story without someone growing scales and a tail.

So what have you read from Haiti?

The Dominican Republic and In the Time of the Butterflies

This, right here, is why I needed to do this project.

Today’s post will be about In the time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez.

Set in the beautiful Dominican Republic in the Caribbean, this country has known its fair share of violence over the years. Ruled by a nasty dictator named Rafael Trujillo from 1930-1961, many citizens of the Dominican Republic secretly became members of a rebellion meant to overthrow the dictator and return the country to a democracy. Trujillo was known for his human rights abuses, including the massacre of an estimated 20,000 neighboring Haitians.

The book follows the story of the Mirabal sisters, Patria Mirabal, Minerva Mirabal, and Maria Teresa Mirabal, who joined the rebellion with their husbands and helped to smuggle weapons and information. They were known by their code name Butterflies.

(If you don’t know the story of the Mirabal sisters, you should REALLY read this book).

So, from the beginning of the book we know that a fourth sister, Dedé Mirabal, is the only surviving member of her family – although it’s not said why. This book was written while the real Dedé was still alive (she passed in 2014), and a lot of the story is told through her “memories.” I say “memories,” in quotes, because Alvarez is using magical realism to tell the entire story. And though the entire story is true, it would not quite be fair to say that it is nonfiction, due to the amount of detail that Alvarez uses. Instead, she bases her story in fact, and then imagines “what it must have been like,” and fills in the blanks with the information we do have. Historical fiction might be a more accurate term, though nearly everything that happens in the book really happened in real life, as far as we know.

One of my favorite quotes is from one of Dedé’s “memories,” as she recalls what it was like when her family was still together on a summer evening:

“But all I hear is my own breathing and the blessed silence of those cool, clear nights under the anacahuita tree before anyone breathes a word of the future. And I see them all there in my memory, as still as statues, Mama and Papa, and Minerva and Mate and Patria, and I’m thinking something is missing now. And I count them all twice before I realize- it’s me, Dedé, it’s me, the one who survived to tell the story.”

In my mind, I can so clearly picture myself as Dedé, looking at her family from the outside. The weird thing with magical realism is that it is SO BEAUTIFUL and yet SO SAD all at once. It has this odd way of grabbing you and forcing you to pay attention because everything is just so tragic and beautiful. In a way, it’s almost too much like real life: acknowledging both the sadness and the beauty of the world. Sometimes you’re moved by the sadness but uplifted by the beauty. And other times, the beauty makes the sadness that much more painful.

I really and truly loved this book, and am so glad I read it. This is one of those books that I kind of never shut up about to my friends 🙂

Also, I’ll admit that I am a little ashamed that I literally had no idea any of this had happened, when the Dominican Republic is really not that far away from the US – and the US had quite a bit of involvement with the Dominican Republic at various points, including occupying the country twice. I really find it shameful that something that happened that close to home within my parent’s lifetime was something that was never even mentioned in school, or at home, or even in college.

This is why I’m doing this project, guys. I am a better person for knowing this story; for having read this book. Read on!

St Kitts & Nevis and Only God Can Make a Tree

I’ve mentioned this book several times already, so I figured I might as well go ahead and tell you all about it 🙂

Welcome to St Kitts and Nevis, two beautiful, teeny-tiny islands in the Caribbean! For this country we have: Only God Can Make a Tree by Bertram Roach.

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This is a very short book – only 134 pages – but it is jam-packed with action. It follows three generations of white, black, and mixed race men and women, focusing on whom they chose to marry – and whom they chose to love.

A lot of this novel is very sad. You can really see how race and the desire to improve one’s situation in life are pitted against each other time and time again. It’s a story that’s not unlike that of some African American families in the United States who attempted to “pass” as white, due to their light skin.

There is also a lot of alcoholism in this family. That, coupled with the racial and marital tensions throughout the novel, mean one REALLY messed up family about three-quarters of the way through the book. I won’t spoil anything, but MAN. Talk about messed up and sad 😦

I’ve been describing this book to my friends as a non-erotic romance. There is sex, but it is “off-screen,” so to speak. The ending is absolutely stunning, though. It’s one of those scenes that leaves a very clear image stamped into your mind’s eye. Again, I won’t spoil anything, but I will tell you that the title is taken from a poem by Joyce Kilmer, whom I had never heard of until I read this book, but maybe some of you have. He was an American poet killed during World War I. The poem we are specifically talking about here is called simply “Trees”:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

And this, to me, is what makes a fantastic book: when it leads you to more books. It wasn’t until I got to the end of this book that I finally realized what the whole point of the book had been. I thought I knew – I thought it was a story about race and racism and the social barriers we put in place because of those things. And it is about these things, but not in its entirety. They’re not the main point. The main point is something much, much bigger that I can’t share here because it would ruin it and I want you guys to read this book!!!!!

What books have you guys read that have led you to other books? Did these other books have an impact on how you read the original book?

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