Sailor Dance by Eleanor Joye Donaldson

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the 2015 Paper Based Advent Book Blog! Day Twenty’s selection soars with the tribute song of a deeply lived, culturally ingrained life of a quintessentially Trinidadian son of the soil, recounted faithfully and with fond, insightful accuracy by his daughter: Sailor Dance: John Stanley Donaldson – The Story, by Eleanor Joye Donaldson.

It has always been easy enough to play party card politics, yet even in the zenith of his service to the People’s National Movement, John Donaldson distinguished himself in his inclusive calls for service to country. This was one of the qualities for which the multiply-laurelled diplomat and former government minister most made his name known: in the consistent application of selfless integrity to his portfolio of achievements. A formidable athlete; prominent statesman; and perhaps most touchingly, a man whose committment to his family life is handsomely detailed in this biography, Donaldson epitomized an existence of patriotic, passionate investment.

These truths of one man’s extraordinary accomplishments and tenderly domestic particulars are brought lovingly to life in Eleanor Joye Donaldson’s uncluttered, affectionate writing style. With equal parts clarity and clear-eyed reminiscence, the daughter reflects on her father’s humble beginnings, tracing a trajectory that is every inch an upwardly mobile success story.

We recommend it for: readers of Reginald Dumas’ The First Thirty Years and Anthony Sabga’s A Will and A Way; biography aficionados who like civically-grounded and culturally accomplished subjects; longtime PNM adherents interested in delving deeper into the origins and successes of one of its historically key figureheads.

Advertisements

Our Book Club Pick: As Flies to Whatless Boys by Robert Antoni

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Published by Akashic Books, 2013

“… there was something gentle & easy & comforting in the island’s mere presence before us: its hazy solidity. The indisputable fact of its simply being there — only a stone’s throw away — despite its dreamlike appearance. And those of us still leaning up against the rail, still gazing through the descending dark, found it difficult, almost painful, to turn we backs to it.”

The year is 1845, and the utopianist visionary, John Adolphus Etzler, is setting sail for Trinidad, along with his fantastical invention, the Satellite, and the members of his Tropical Emigration Society. Among their rank and file is young William “Willy” Tucker and his family, seeking a better life away from their low-class, East End London existence.  Willy, truth be told, is transfixed by the mute beauty Marguerite, also on board the Rosalind — he and Marguerite are from different worlds in England, but he hopes that in this brave new world, he and his sweetheart might tread the same path.

Life holds stark revelations when the Tropical Emigration Society docks in Port-Spain, and Etzler’s machines are put to the test, with drastically useless results. How will these beached migrants fare in the island’s jungle morasses, especially when the “Black Vomit” (yellow fever) begins to snare the travellers, one by one?

Non-fiction category winner of the 2011 OCM Bocas Prize, Edwidge Danticat, praises Antoni’s novel as “a marvel, layered in histories… an unforgettable and matchless work of fiction.” We couldn’t agree with her more: Antoni’s prose pushes linguistic and traditional text-format boundaries in the best way. As Flies to Whatless Boys was Paper Based’s final official book launch of 2013, a fact of which we’re especially proud. Held on December 14th, the event boasted a capacity audience, each of whom listened, rapt, while Antoni read segments of his book — of particular delight was his rendition of the infamous Miss Ramsol character. (Readers who’ve enjoyed Antoni’s story, “How to Make Photocopies in the Trinidad & Tobago National Archives”, from the Trinidad Noir anthology, will recognize the boisterous, colourful character immediately.)

The novel’s immense range; its clarity and depth; its irrepressible sense of humour despite bleak circumstances; the way it tackles historical documentation with a neo-archivist’s repurposing zeal: these and other reasons are why we’re thrilled to proclaim As Flies to Whatless Boys our January Book Club pick! Have a look at our reading circle questions below — if you’ve read the book, do share your thoughts with us, and feel free to add questions of your own in our Comments section.

Discussion Questions for As Flies to Whatless Boys:

  • The novel is opened with two epigraphs: one from William Shakespeare’s King Lear, and one from “The Schooner’s Flight” by Derek Walcott. Which of these do you find ties in more directly to the heart of the book?
  • Many of the people and events in the novel have their basis in historical fact. What do you think of this marriage of fiction to reality? Do you think some historical figures and happenings ought never be creatively interpreted, or do you think everything that’s happened in History is worth exploring imaginatively?
  • Miss Ramsol, director of the Trinidad & Tobago National Archives, has been described as “the best thing about the book” — do you agree? What do you think her letters add to the novel (or would you have preferred the book without them?)
  • Willy and Marguerite share an unconventional romance, most of which unfurls aboard the Rosalind. Do you think their relationship would have been possible in nineteenth century London? What other unconventional relationships exist in the book?
  • John Adolphus Etzler could be said to be both a charlatan and a visionary: are there any Etzler-esque, larger than life con artists in today’s world? Do you think you would have been tempted to sign up for the Tropical Emigration Society?
  • The bond between Willy Tucker and his father is a moving one, explored in the novel in a variety of ways. Which interaction between the two Tuckers most moved you, and which piece of advice given from father to son, did you find most meaningful?
  • Does your favourite moment of the novel take place on the sea, or on the land; in England, or in Trinidad; in the nineteenth century, or in 2010? Do you feel, by novel’s end, that Willy has made the right choices — and how would you choose, were you in his shoes?

Previous Book Club Picks:

Wishing for Wings by Debbie Jacob
Between Bodies Lie by H. M. Blanc

Our Book Club Pick: Wishing for Wings by Debbie Jacob

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Published by Ian Randle, 2013

“Maybe in the past, a long time ago, I was a criminal but not anymore. I’m just a usual individual right now. I’m going to behave myself and go to plays and learn my work. A tiny, little feeling inside of me says I’m more intelligent than I may think so I’m going to utilise that.”

So says Shawn in an eager letter to his CXC English Language teacher, Debbie Jacob — an unlikely instructor for the task of furnishing several young inmates with the inner workings of the English syllabus, according to Jacob herself. Though the journalist, author and librarian retained misgivings about the quality and consistency of her tutelage, she persevered, incorporating stories, essays and subject material outside of the scope of the often-rigid, unimaginative course matter. The personal stories of the boys under her charge, as shared in Wishing for Wings, are a testament to both her determination, and that of her students.

As Jacob reminds the reader multiple times in clear, unornamented prose, the fates of the boys in remand behind the Youth Training Centre’s forbidding walls are seldom thought of in a positive light. The conditions under which they are mandated to live and function are highly questionable, and in these austere circumstances, it seems hardly likely that hope can flourish. Yet, beneath Jacob’s guidance, the young men she teaches gradually emerge from the shells of their necessary armour, sharing more of their secret aspirations and plans for self-betterment.

In a sense, Jacob’s voice in this narrative is kind yet peripheral: she sidelines her own personal tales to repeatedly let the boys’ contributions — in the form of essays; book reviews; dream sequences and letters — shine through. The end result is a frankly unforgettable journey, one which, by its end, will have you considering these remarkable youths as far more than “inmates”. Their futures will gleam with promise, augmented by the power of flight they’ve earned through unremitting work and their longing for brighter horizons.

Given the rich possibilities for both discussion and inspiration that lie in the pages of Wishing for Wings, it’s no wonder that we’re pleased to select it as our official November Book Club Pick! Here are a few reading circle questions to help get you started: please feel free to share additional ones in the comments section.

Discussion Questions for Wishing for Wings:

  • Much has been made of the famous poem that opens the book: “Dreams”, by Langston Hughes. In what ways is the use of this poem as an epigraph especially suitable for these boys’ stories?
  • The first assignment that Debbie gives her YTC charges asks them to select which animal they would most like to be. If pressed with this question, which animal would you choose, and do you think the choice reveals anything in particular about your character?
  • Jacob often expresses dissatisfaction with the course material assigned to CXC English Language, calling them “boring textbooks filled with irrelevant material.” What do you think of her alternative teaching methods, and do you think they would be successful in a conventional classroom setting?
  • Did you find yourself rooting for one boy above all the others? Which of Jacob’s students did you feel the most for, while reading, and if his future was described towards the book’s end, how did his progress (or lack thereof) make you feel?
  • After finishing Wishing for Wings, were any preconceived notions you held about life at the YTC in Arouca destroyed? What recommendations would you make, to have life behind those gates become a healthier environment for the young prisoners there?
  • During the course of the book, Debbie makes loans and gifts of novels and other reading material to her students, in the interest of broadening their appreciation of the world, and its different inhabitants. If you could recommend just one book to an impressionable young person, which would it be, and why would you select it?
  • “English,” Debbie tells her students, “is about learning how to express yourself.” In response, they inform her that English is about life. Which of these perspectives do you agree with more, and if you agree with neither, how do you define the purpose of an education in English?

Previous Book Club Picks:

Between Bodies Lie by H. M. Blanc

Our Book Club Pick: Between Bodies Lie by H. M. Blanc

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the beginning of a brand new feature here at Paper Based: our very own online book club! Few activities can encourage a warm sense of readerly community like an intimate gathering of friends, discussing the novels that have moved and inspired, confounded and shocked them, over glasses of wine and potluck dinners. A book club is that reassuring reminder, bolstered by the voices of its members, saying, “The way you feel about books matters; you needn’t be a critic or fancy reviewer for your opinions on good (or lousy) literature to count!”

With that sentiment firmly in mind, we’re especially pleased that our first book club pick is also a first novel, one by a promising young talent in Trinidadian fiction. Between Bodies Lie tells an age-old story in a specifically Caribbean setting: that of two life-weary, intelligent souls finding and clinging to each other amidst chaos and declining personal fortunes. Down on his luck as a novelist, Cristobal Porter flees to an unnamed Caribbean island (ostensibly Trinidad, or modelled after it) in search of inspiration and information for a new book. His disenchanted, dominant mistress Nadia follows in his wake, but her waning charms are a paltry match for the mystery and sad beauty of Ana Kaplan, wife of an overbearing American consul. As Ana’s husband and Nadia find their way into each other’s arms, Cristobal and Ana embark on an intense, complex relationship, one whose borders are hard to define, and whose results will be impossible to predict.

Lavishly imagined, composed with a fine ear for the rhythms of language, Between Bodies Lie makes for gritty, satisfying reading. Summed up in a starred Kirkus review as “a masterfully written exploration of the beauty and cruelty of love, as sharp as it is sensual,” the novel’s chief strength lies in its unflinchingness. Blanc really pares down to the marrow of his subject matter, giving the reader frank assessments of human sexuality, island politics and personal frustrations, while imbuing his prose with an almost feral beauty. The novel may not comfort she who reads it cover to cover in one unputdownable sitting, but it seems impossible to walk away from it unmoved, or without several burning questions that crave discussion.

On that note, here are some reading circle questions to get you started! If you’ve got any additional ones to contribute, feel free to leave them in the comments section.

Discussion Questions for Between Bodies Lie:

  • Cristobal insists on calling Ana by her full first name, when he learns what it is. Is Ana made up of two distinct selves, a personal and a private one?
  • To what extent are all the characters in the novel intensely personal about the secrets in their lives?
  • Real love or sun-soaked tropical infatuation: how would you describe Cristobal’s feelings for Ana, and how do you think they’re altered by the final scenes of the novel?
  • Cristobal’s  research for his novel focuses on the island coup — how wise do you think he is, to delve so deep into tropical politics?
  • Do you get a strong sense of Trinidadian society in the author’s portrayal of this unnamed Caribbean destination?
  • What do you think of the roles of the less focal characters in the novel, particularly the islanders?
  • Focus on Cristobal’s relationship with Coraline — does it strike you as odd, or do you feel a “rightness” to it?
  • Say you were Cristobal: would you favour the sad, contemplative mystery of Ana, or the wild, ambitious devastation offered by Nadia?
  • Is it possible to say that Cristobal has one ideal type of woman, or does he seek out attractive traits in every woman he sees?