Archive for the ‘Black History Month’ Category

I have long wanted to read a Jacqueline Woodson book and I finally got around to reading her latest ‘Red at the Bone‘. I read this for ‘Black History Month’ alongwith ‘WOC Reads‘ and ‘The Bookdog Says‘. We had such a fascinating discussion on it.

Melody is a teenager who is celebrating her sixteenth birthday. When she walks into the party, we see her parents, we see her grandparents, but things aren’t what they seem. And soon we know why.

At this point, I’m in a dilemma. Should I summarize the plot and analyze it and reveal its secrets? Or should I give some vague clues to it which will entice the reader to go and pick the book and read it herself? After a lot of thought, I decided on the second one. So here goes.

Red at the Bone‘ is a story told from different perspectives. Each chapter has a different narrator or point of view and we see the story unfold through different eyes. Along the way, the story explores different themes, love, family, race, exploring one’s sexual identity. As the story moves along we get deep into the twentieth century, into history, into dark deeds and heartbreaking happenings, we meet people rising from the ashes and people trying their best but not able to rise. It is a haunting story, sometimes beautiful, sometimes moving, sometimes heartbreaking. There is so much packed in the story, that sometimes it is unbelievable, how such a slim book can carry so many heavy themes. It doesn’t feel that all these complex themes are forced into the story like we might do in the last minute into our overstuffed travel suitcase, but it feels like they are a natural part of the story.

We meet a fascinating cast of characters along the way, Melody and her best friend Malcolm, Iris and Aubrey and Jam, Sabe and Po’Boy and CathyMarie. We also meet Baby Benjamin who is beautiful and who is too good for this world. On the way, Jacqueline Woodson sprinkles literary stars in our way – Paul Laurence Dunbar and bell hooks and Audre Lorde and August Wilson.

I loved ‘Red at the Bone‘. It is a beautiful coming-of-age story, a beautiful love story, a moving exploration of identity. And many other things. I can’t wait to read more books by Jacqueline Woodson.

I’ll leave you with three of my favourite passages from the book.

“Prettiest baby you’d ever want to see. For the few weeks he was with us, he’d open his eyes and look right at you – like an old soul. Like it was somebody from the past trying to tell you something.”

“Guess that’s where the tears come from, knowing that there’s so much in this great big world that you don’t have a single ounce of control over. Guess the sooner you learn that, the sooner you’ll have one less heartbreak in your life. Oh Lord. Some evenings I don’t know where the old pains end and the new ones begin. Feels like the older you get the more they run into one long, deep aching.”

“That’s why I don’t buy it when people say children don’t know. That they’re too young to understand. If they can walk and talk, they can understand. You look at how much growing a baby does in the first few years of its life – crawling, walking, talking, laughing. The brain just changing and changing. You can’t tell me all of it’s not becoming a part of their blood. Their memory.”

Have you read ‘Red at the Bone‘? What do you think about it?

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For a long time, if we were looking for Ethiopian literature, it was like looking for the elusive unicorn – it was hard to find, especially if we were looking for something in English or in English translation. The only book with an Ethiopian link out there was ‘Cutting for Stone‘ by the American novelist Abraham Verghese. Then Dinaw Mengestu burst on the scene with a couple of novels on Ethiopia. And then Maaza Mengiste published her first novel ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze‘.

Maaza Mengiste’s first novel was well received and got acclaim in newspaper reviews, but I don’t remember bloggers and book reviewers in social media reading it or reviewing it. It mostly slipped below the radar, I think. Then nearly ten years later, Maaza Mengiste published her second novel ‘The Shadow King‘ and this time, the timing was right. The book caught on like wild fire, there was a buzz among reviewers everywhere, the book got into award shortlists, including the shortlist for the Booker Prize, and suddenly, a long time after she started out, Maaza Mengiste became an international literary star. Very well deserved, I think. It is so nice to see her put Ethiopian literature on the world map.

Ethiopia has gone through challenging times for the past 80 years. It started with the Italian invasion and after a brief lull of peace after the Second World War, a military dictatorship came to power with Russian support, with recurring coup d’etats every few years. Even the end of the Cold War era didn’t improve things, with the new democratically elected head of state of that time behaving like an emperor, a civil war continuing in Eritrea in the north, and frequent fights with Somalia in the south. These days things are getting worse, with the federal government going to war against one of the state governments – and I am not using ‘war’ as a metaphor here, because it is actual war with two armies fighting against each other. I hope the current Ethiopian leaders come to their senses, and step back and resolve their differences by peaceful means.

Having spent most of my early childhood in Ethiopia, I have a soft corner for this beautiful country and its wonderful people. Till I was around ten years old, nearly all my friends were Ethiopian. I used to consider myself a honorary Ethiopian when I was a kid (More about all this later in a separate post.) So it gives me a lot of pain to see one of my favourite countries hurtling from one crisis to another.

Maaza Mengiste focuses on two different parts of 20th century Ethiopian history in her two novels. Her first novel is set during the time the military coup overthrows the emperor. Her second novel is about the time of the Italian invasion. They are two different fascinating times of modern Ethiopian history, and I am looking forward to reading the two books soon.

Have you read either of Maaza Mengiste’s novels? What do you think about them?

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Today’s post for ‘Black History Month‘ is about Viv Richards.

Viv Richards is my alltime favourite cricketer and my boyhood hero. For many boys from my generation, he was a hero, he was the cricketer we all wanted to be. Young people played with tennis balls and rubber balls, on the streets and in the rice fields, and dreamed of batting like Richards. Viv Richards was not tall for a West Indian cricketer, but he was dark and handsome. The sight of Viv striding into the ground at the fall of a wicket, twirling his bat, chewing gum, with his maroon cap on, with an expressionless face, was a majestic sight to behold. He was cool and style personified. Then he went to the crease and took guard – it was nearly always a leg stump guard, a middle stump guard was for chickens – and looked at the bowler. Some fans say that he glared at the bowler, but I don’t remember ever seeing him do that. By that time, the bowler had given up hope (atleast from the point of view of us, fans) and the magic began.

Cricket fans from across the world loved watching Viv play – the great love that fans had for him transcended national boundaries. He was adored by his fans from his hometown of Antigua of course, an island which has a population of around 96,000 people, and the cricket stadium there is named after him, but his international fans outnumbered the fans from his own island – he was like Pele or Federer.

Viv was an attacking batsman, one of the best that there ever was. Watching him play was like watching a master at work on his art. When he was playing his natural, flamboyant, stylish game, playing the ondrive, or his famous, majestic hook, or his legendary inside-out shot in which he stepped outside the leg stump and drove the ball over long off for a six (he played that shot off the final ball in the 1979 World Cup final), it was thrilling to watch. When he played a defensive game – yes, he could rein in his attacking instincts and do that too, his innings on square turning pitches were legendary – it was amazing to see how he adapted to the situation and to his team’s needs. Whether he was attacking or defending, he did that with style, and it was a pleasure to watch.

Featured in the first picture below is the cover of Viv Richards’ autobiography. It is beautiful to read. Featured in the fourth picture is Viv and his great friend Ian Botham – it is so hard to believe that these two played for the same team. Envy those Somerset fans so much!

Viv started playing for the West Indies cricket team in the middle ’70s and he retired in the early ’90s. He won every award and every trophy there is, and was highly respected and admired by his contemporaries. He held many world records. As his great contemporary Michael Holding once said, if Viv had wanted and if he had been selfish, he could have set many more records which would have been beyond the reach of players of the next few generations. But he was a person who didn’t care about records and statistics and always played for his team. He captained his team with distinction and he retired with an unbeaten test record. After he retired he was awarded every honour there is and he was knighted. It is appropriate to call him Sir Vivian now. But to old fans like me, he’ll always be Viv, the Master Blaster.

These days, Viv is in his sixties, and and is enjoying a second innings as a cricket commentator. He is funny and humorous as a commentator and is a pleasure to listen to. He also mentors T20 teams and is active on Instagram sharing his thoughts with old and new fans.

There have been many great cricketers who have come on the scene since the great Viv retired. But in my opinion, he was the greatest. That majesty, that style, that cool, that intensity – we will never see the likes of him again. For me, he was the one and only.

Frank Keating once wrote about his favourite boyhood hero, Tom Graveney –

“The batsmanship of Our Tom, was of the orchard rather than the forest, blossom susceptible to frost but breathing in the sunshine. Taking enjoyment as it came, he gave enjoyment which still warms the winters of memory.”

I can’t write beautifully like this, and I think I’m still not old enough to talk about the winters of memory, but I hope that one day, when my hair is fully grey, and I am sitting in front of the fire, on a winter evening, with my dog sitting next to me, I’ll remember Keating’s lines and I’ll think about my favourite Viv playing those majestic pulls and hooks and inside-out shots, and I hope my old wrinkled face will beam with pleasure.

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February is ‘Black History Month‘ and I thought that as part of the celebrations, I’ll write about some of my favourite books, writers and people. Today, it is about C.L.R.James‘ classic ‘Beyond a Boundary‘.

Beyond a Boundary‘ is a book which is a memoir, a social history and a sporting history, all rolled into one. This style of writing was unusual when the book first came out and so it was unique and the book broke new ground. In the book, James talks about his own life and how he started playing cricket, and then covers West Indian cricket history from the beginning of the 20th century till around the 1960s. He also looks at West Indian society and culture through a cricketing lens. The book asks the question, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” That question has acquired a legendary status since James’ first posed it, and has the same kind of significance that Camus question in the first passage of ‘The Myth of Sisyphus‘ has. Many have pondered on what that question meant, and what could be its potential answers. Whether the book answers that question or not, you have to read it to find out.

Beyond a Boundary‘ had a mythical status in my life, because I had heard many older cricket fans talking about it in revered tones, and I had dreamt of reading it since I was young, but the book was out-of-print and was hard to find. Then, one day I discovered that there was an edition in print by Duke University Press. It was ironic, because cricket is not an American sport, but this book, which was one of the greatest cricket books ever written, was out-of-print in cricket playing countries, but an American university press kept the flame burning, by keeping the book alive, keeping it in print. I paid a king’s ransom to get that edition. When a few years later, the book came back widely in print, I got two more copies 😁 The book on the left in the picture is the Duke University Press edition, while the one on the right is the newer one.

After I got the book, I read it in one breath and it gave me goosebumps throughout. There is a reason it is revered by older cricket fans. It is a beautiful love letter to West Indian cricket, and cricket in general, the best there is. James’ prose is beautiful and gorgeous, and it feels like he is an intellectual from the 19th century, because he doesn’t shy away from difficult words – one chapter is called ‘George Headley : Nascitur Non Fit‘, another is called ‘Alma Mater : Lars and Penates‘. We take it in our stride, of course, and we continue reading, and we feel that we are in the presence of a master. James thoughts on the great Learie Constantine, on how the first black captain of the West Indies cricket team was appointed, and on the great Frank Worrell, are a pleasure to read. James also shares his love for books and reading and places them in a cricketing and cultural context. It is not often that we find discussions on William Hazlitt and William Makepeace Thackeray in a book on sport.

Beyond a Boundary‘ is one of the greatest books on sport, society and culture ever written. It is a love letter to the West Indies and to the game of cricket. It deserves to be more widely read.

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