Love by Anita Moorjani & Angie DeMuro and a Poem by Derek Walcott

“Be your own best friend. Love yourself just as you are!”

is the message that Love: a story about who you truly are teaches children to embrace.

Anita Moorjani, author of Dying to Be Me and What If This is Heaven and illustrator Angie DeMuro have co created this book to help parents teach children how to love themselves, especially through the hard times, and to know and understand that this is something important and valuable for all of us to learn.

Within the beautifully written and illustrated pages of the book, children are taught how to have compassion and acceptance for themselves, and how to love themselves through many everyday situations. The happiness and confidence that can come from learning this ability is a gift that children, even grown-up ones, will carry with them their entire lives.

“You can’t love another unconditionally until you love yourself unconditionally, and when you truly do achieve that, you will never allow anyone to use you or abuse you.”

Anita Moorjani, What If This Is Heaven

At the end of the book is a Love Yourself Pledge, with a space to write the name of the person who has been given the book. Anita Moorjani believes her own childhood might have been changed had she had access to something like this.

Although I have not yet bought a copy for myself, this is a book that I’ve gifted, and one I recommend gifting to anyone who might have the opportunity to read to children and to impart positive messages of love and compassion in today’s increasingly stressful world.

I can’t think of any child that wouldn’t want to be exposed to something as reassuring and heartfelt as this, and it may just make a difference to some who needs to hear its message now, especially as we become more aware of the widespread silencing of victims of bullying and criticism, events or experiences that too often children are too afraid to share with parents.

It reminds me too of a wonderful Derek Walcott poem, which since today is Valentines Day, I share below for you, for not everyone can rely on another to express loving words or gestures on this day, but as Derek shares with us below, we have it in us to do that for ourselves.

So what loving thing are you doing for yourself today?

L O V E   A F T E R   L O V E

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Derek Walcott

 Happy Valentine Everyone!

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Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor

Nuala O’Connor is the Irish author I discovered in 2014 thanks to the Irish Times Book Club.

You may remember last year, I read and reviewed her novel The Closet of Savage Mementos which she wrote under her Irish name Nuala Ní Chonchúir. That novel was about an Irish girl who left Dublin for a Scottish seaside town after the death of her boyfriend and to escape her mother’s dramas. In Scotland she encountered her own drama and was forced to make a life-changing decision.

Now, writing as Nuala O’Connor for US and UK  readers, she pens the story of another Irish woman, the feisty but hard-working Ada, who also leaves Dublin, destined to become housemaid to the Dickinson family. It is a fictional account of the friendship between the Irish maid and the poet Emily Dickinson.

Ada Concannon, the eldest of 7 children, possesses an energetic zest for life that was unappreciated by her previous employer; upon being demoted to scullery maid she decides to seek her fortune elsewhere, taking a passage on the boat to New England where her Aunt Mary, Uncle Michael and a couple of not too friendly cousins reside.

She lands on her feet with the job at the Dickinson household, a family of four with their spinster sisters Vinnie and Emily, neighbours to their gruff brother Austin and his wife Sue, whom Emily appears to (not very convincingly) pine for.

The Frugal HousewifeEmily is reluctant to leave the house, preferring words to company and attaches herself to Ada, the kitchen being one of her preferred refuges, thus friendship with the housemaid most important.

Her friendship with the maid flouts convention and is a kind of quiet rebellion within the home that the poet rarely steps out of.

“When I talk too much, everything I think and feel is wrung from me. I have nothing to write about when all is spent. It takes me so long to restore myself. It is as if I must heal a wound after each party where all is chitchat and glances and fun.”

Ada is adept in the kitchen, devoted to the family and the book The Frugal Housewife that Mrs Dickinson has lent her.

“Think of this as your second Bible,” she said.

Ada is charmed by the quiet and unassuming Daniel Byrne, her stay marred only by the creepy presence of the nephew of Daniel’s boss, Patrick Crohan.

Chapters alternate between Miss Emily’s and Ada’s perspective to reveal brief but eventful encounters in the kitchen and rooms of the Dickinson home, between Ada, Miss Emily and those around them.

Although Ada is outgoing and attractive, she still has something of the Irish reserve and tendency to silence when there is trouble. And trouble there will be. Ada and Emily must attempt to navigate the narrow space between their classes to deal with the trouble, without compromising their reputations.

Miss Emily is a lively, charming read, she brings her characters to life, especially the Irish and creates a world we can quickly imagine and inhabit. There is something comfortable and reassuring in her prose and novels that makes you want to abandon all else until the last page is turned. Just as she did with Savage Mementos, so too she achieves with Miss Emily. My only regret is that it all ends too soon, I’m still wondering about Ada and could easily follow after her into a sequel.

“For now I need the solace of words. Words bracket silence. That quiet gives propulsion to the words and all that they say. Words smoulder, they catch fire, they are volcanic eruptions, waiting to explode. I like to start small. With the fewest words I can manage. If the words run away, I trip them up and pull them back – they are elastic. If they do not cooperate, I obliterate them.”

Miss Emily audio

The Poet Slave of Cuba, a biography of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarita Engle

CIMG6788Juan Francisco Manzano was born into the household of a wealthy slave-owner in Cuba in 1797.

We know details about the early years of his life thanks to a collection of his autobiographical notes being smuggled out of Cuba to England, where they were published by abolitionists who hoped to raise support for their cause.

He spent most of his childhood close to a woman who insisted he call her Mama, despite the presence of his own mother Maria del Pilar.

 

Imagine

how he must feel in that other home

CIMG6789where he learns the words

of verses, plays, sermons, sonnets

now he’s a parrot, not a poodle

he listens, listens, listens

repeats every sound he hears

from every book in his godmother’s library

Though he wasn’t formally educated, he had a gift for language and poetry and despite the severe punishments he endured for continuing to express joy and suffering through his words.

The other day he recited words so completely new

that I understood the verse

was his own

not borrowed, memorised,

begged from the godmother’s books

Soaring

he said

Spirit

he whispered

CIMG6790Imprisoned

he murmured

and then he went on

I only caught a  few fragments

of his rhyme of delight,

something about a golden beak

something about singing

and wishes

and hope

The woman who kept him initially allowed his mother and any unborn children to buy their freedom and promised Juan freedom on her death. It was a promise rescinded by those still living after the woman’s death, though his mother continued to try to purchase his freedom without result.

Don’t cry, my other mother, the real one, whispers

this is the end

of your sadness

now you are free!

But I am not

it’s a trick

one swift trip

to the house

of my godparents

and then to La Marquesa

instead of the long-promised

freedom.

The Marquesa is a bitter, cruel woman who even when inflicting the most grotesque punishment on Juan, still finds reason to blame him for her own suffering.

Some people can never be satisfied.

The poet-boy for instance.

Nothing is ever enough for him.

marquesaI have to tell the overseers to teach

the same lessons

over and over

locking his ankles in the stocks

tying him to the cross like Jesus.

Or tying him to a ladder laid out on the ground

face down, mouth down

so he cannot speak

except to count his own lashes out loud.

And even when this is done nine days in a row

still he bleeds and weeps,

trying to show me

that he has won

he has triumphed once again

he has proven that he can still

make me sad.

Evil child.

To find out what happens, read this wonderful story of poems, a beautiful collection and tribute to a life of an exceptional poet.

Juan Francisco Manzano didn’t stop producing spontaneous poems until very late in his life, after being arrested for trying to stir up a slave rebellion through his poetry and spending a year in prison. That experience silenced his voice forever.

His work is astonishing, bold, thought-provoking, intelligent and lengthy. Once you begin reading it you can’t stop and I can see why both his work and his story haunted Margarita Engle for so long. That she has been able to condense his experience and thoughts into this humble volume is a gift to readers young and old.

To read the English translation of some of Juan Francisco’s original work, click on this link or the image below:

Poems by a Slave in the Island of Cuba, Recently Liberated;
Translated from the Spanish, by R. R. Madden, M.D.
With the History of the Early Life of the Negro Poet, Written by Himself

Manzano

Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American poet who has published a number of books for young readers in free verse and prose poetry. She chooses interesting subjects that make me want to read everything she has written, they are an introduction to explore further the subjects she introduces. The titles alone are seductive.

The artwork in all her books is fantastic, this work illustrated beautifully by Sean Qualls.

I have read and reviewed The Wild Book, based on the life of the author’s grandmother who struggled with dyslexia, and she has other tempting titles such as:

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom

The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba

The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist

Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck

Top Reads 2014

It’s tough to have to choose one, and all the books below have been excellent reads, but the one standout for me was Prayers for the Stolen, because I haven’t stopped thinking about it all year,  it’s always top of mind when anyone asks me about a good book I’ve read recently, just as I still recommend Caroline Smailes The Drowning of Arthur Braxton from 2013 and Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child from 2012, all outstanding reads.

The Stats

This year I read 57 books, basically one book a week, 79% of my reads were fiction, 16% non-fiction and 5% poetry. I managed to read books by authors from 18 different countries and this year 40% of what I read was translated from another language. 54% of the books I read were printed books and 46% I read on a kindle. 63% were written by a female author.

Outstanding Read of the Year 2014

Prayers For The Stolen by Jennifer Clement

prayers for the stolen This book had a huge impact on me at the time of reading,  a fictional account of a girl named Ladydi growing up in a part of Mexico where it is dangerous to be a girl, so the mother’s disguise them as boys, from the moment of their birth.

An insightful read, about a tragic issue, told with empathy and humour and helping to raise awareness of the plight of so many women and girls unable to speak out for themselves. A must read.

 

And in no particular order, My Top Reads for 2014!

Top Fiction

1.Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (translated from Russian by James E. Falen)

Eugene Onegin 7 8The epic book length poem Eugene Onegin was my surprise read of the year and pure delight. I avoided reading it for years and years thinking it would be inaccessible. It was hilarious and a riveting read.

I read it two chapters at a time in a read along and was thoroughly entertained by that cad Eugene Onegin and bemused by that reader of far too many romantic novels Tatiana, and broken-hearted at the fate of the poet. Absolutely brilliant and I would quite like to read another translation after some of the comparisons other readers made as we read, what turns out to be not quite the same version. More Pushkin definitely.

2. Nada by Carmen Laforet (translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman)

Nada (2)Nada was being passed around friends all exclaiming its wonder, a book written by the author when she was 23 years old and based on her own similar experience as a young woman moving to Barcelona to study. It takes place in the shadowy aftermath of a traumatic civil war, its effect hanging over her family. Andrea, now an orphan, arrives to stay with relatives, however her stay is not as she’d imagined it, the family are full of eccentricities and Andrea finds more refuge in the gloomy streets and with her new friends than in the oppressive atmosphere of the apartment among her strange relatives. A feverish, coming of age classic.

3. We That Are Left by Juliet Greenwood

We That Are Left (2)A title I was waiting for, having loved Eden’s Garden and this promised to be just as good, set in World War One and featuring a cast of women characters who are changed by the war in ways that will continue long after.

From Cornwall to Wales to France, we follow Elin as her husband leaves for the war and she must assume responsibility for the family estate and is propelled into a dangerous mission to rescue her friend in the thick of fighting. It concerns the changes thrust upon women during the war and their refusal to go back to the more submissive role that was expected of them before the war. They prove they are just as capable of handling a crisis and if necessary will manage on their own. Brilliant, thrilling and unputdownable.

4.The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal)

True DeceiverThe True Deceiver is the first novel I have read by Tove Jansson, having read three collections of her short stories (The Summer Book,  A Winter Book and Art in Nature) all of which I enjoyed, so this was an interesting departure to stay with the same characters throughout and it is quite a thrilling read, clearly inspired in part by her own experience, facing up to the artist struggle.

It is the perfect winter read, set in the snow bound winter months, while they await the thaw. Anna is an aging artist who lives alone and is content for it to be that way, her contact with the outside world through the many letters from her fans. But someone in the village has other plans and slowly makes herself indispensable to the older woman, preying on her vulnerabilities. And the true deceiver? That is the question that reading the novel reveals.

4. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein)

My Brilliant FriendIf you haven’t yet succumbed to #FerranteFever keep an eye out for this book and the two that follow it, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave & Those Who Stay. They narrate a friendship between Elena and Lila, set in an impoverished neighbourhood of Naples, one tries to escape  her place in society via a university education and a marriage that will elevate her status while the other uses her intelligence in a relentless, fearless and  often ruthless quest to survive. The books are compelling and may be semi-autobiographical, however the author remains an enigma, using a pseudonym and not ready to own up to his/her identity – believing that if a book has any merit, it will find its audience.

5. The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismialov (translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield)

The Dead Lake

This is why I wait until the end of the year before creating my list, because who knows what special book gems we might discover before the final curtain call. The Dead Lake is part of the Peirene Press coming-of-age series published in 2014 and tells the story of Yerzhan, a boy growing up at a remote railway siding in Kazakhstan, an area where atomic weapon testing is carried out.

There are only two communities where he lives and he adores the neighbour’s daughter and it is to impress her that he walks into that lake at 12-years-old and stops growing. It is a stunning and unforgettable novella and an insightful glimpse into a nomadic culture, that we are privileged to be able to read thanks to the passionate endeavours of our friends at Peirene Press.

6. The Bees by Laline Paull

Bees2

The Bees is an extraordinary feat of the imagination, narrated from the point of view of Flora 717 a sanitation worker bee. It is about life in an orchard hive and the threats both internal and external to the hive. Totally convincing, the Hive is like a cult and each bee knows its place, its role and responds by instinct and receives energy from the Hive Mind, the Queen and the collective conscience of the Hive. Flora is different and as we discover why, we begin to fear for her life. A stunning, original work, I was enthralled but the story and love that the author was inspired by a Bronze Age Minoan palace in translating a real beehive into a fictional landscape.

 

Top Non-Fiction

Ex Libris1. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

This was the very first book of the year I read and a special read for booklovers. It contains 18 bookish essays from the bibliophile Anne Fadiman, written over a period of four years, in which she talks about how she became so book obsessed and shares many often hilarious anecdotes. It was also recommended and gifted to me by the talented blogger and world-wide reader VishyThe Knight.

Arctic dreams2. Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

First published in 1986 and winner of the National Book Award for non-fiction in the US, Artic Dreams is a compilation of poetic nature essays written by a compassionate, scientific, nature loving mind, as he observes those creatures whose natural habitat is the arctic, whether they are polar bears, seals or Arctic people. Some of my best recommendations, as was the case with this book, come from Valorie at Books Can Save a Life.

Vera Brittain3. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

I planned to read this right from the beginning of 2014 when it was republished as an anniversary edition to commemorate the beginning of World War one. Vera Brittain was an intellect and despite it being seen as a waster of time by many ion the provinces where she came from she set of for Oxford to compete with the boys, whom most of her friends were.

One by one, her friends, her brother, her fiance went off to fight and not able to concentrate on something that seemed meaningless in the face of war, she volunteered as a nurse. Testament of Youth is taken from her journals and is an insightful, at times heartbreaking insight into a lost youth, and an attempt to understand humanity and to prevent us from repeating the same mistakes. A brilliant book, about to be released as a feature film.

H is for Hawk4. H is for Hawk by Wendy Macdonald

There haven’t been so many non fiction titles that called out to me this year, but this one did immediately and I pushed it to the top of the pile to read and was riveted by Helen Macdonald’s grief stricken, obsessive encounter with Mebel, he Goshawk she raises, spurning human company and comfort in the aftermath of her father’s death. Great to see it then win the Samuel Johnson prize.

 

Brown Girl Dreaming5. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

What a delightful memoir in free verse from a well-known children’s writer, writing of her childhood spent between South Carolina and Brooklyn, NY tales of family members, a new brother, her passion for words, being Jehovah Witness and making a great friend. Reminds me of the equally talented Margarita Engle and her collection of novels in verse.

 

Voila!

So what was your outstanding read(s) for 2014?

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline Woodson was unknown to me, though she is a prolific writer, having already published 30 books and been shortlisted this year for the Hans Christian Andersen Award for her lasting contribution to children’s literature.

Brown Girl DreamingI saw it mentioned on twitter, as it recently won a National Book award in the US and it has the most beautiful, striking cover and when I read that it is a memoir of the author’s childhood, written in free verse, I just knew I had to read it. And I’m not the only one, of the seventeen books US President, Barack Obama bought on a recent book buying spree with his two daughters, this book was sitting on the top of the pile.

Brown Girl Dreaming is an easy reading collection of anecdotes in free verse, that tell of Woodson’s childhood growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s in Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn , New York, not so much focused on herself, she paints a picture with words of all those around her, their inclinations and beliefs, the daily rituals that made up the ambiance within which she spent her early years.

She has something of both the North and South in her, moving comfortably between the two and she wouldn’t have it any other way. She collects aspects of her childhood that have stayed with her and that shaped who she is today and she discovers old stories that fill out her experience and deepen her roots and sense of belonging.

“When we ask our mother how long we’ll be here,

sometimes she says for a while and sometimes

she tells us not to ask anymore

because she doesn’t know how long we’ll stay

in the house where she grew up

on the land she’s always known.”

After her mother leaves her husband and Ohio behind, bringing three small children to her own childhood home, the children are drawn into their Grandmother’s ways, including regular attendance at the Kingdom Hall, where they become part of a Jehovah Witnesses community, which has a significant impact on their upbringing and keeps them out of trouble, though it also has its consequences and is something the author will eventually leave behind.

“Everyone else

has gone away.

And now coming back home

isn’t really coming back home

at all.”

Jacqueline, named after her father who wanted her to be Jack, observes the individual brilliance of each of her siblings, she acknowledges their talent and discovers her own, a love of words and despite the challenges they confront her with, she never loses sight of her dream to be a writer and to catch those words that sometimes eluded her on the page.

“I am not gifted. When I read, the words twist

Twirl across the page.

When they settle, it is too late.

The class has already moved on.

I want to catch words one day. I want to hold them

Then blow gently,

Watch them float

Right out of my hands”

I couldn’t help but recall the Cuban writer Margarita Engle’s exceptional The Wild Book, not just because it too is a brilliant volume of prose poetry written for both a young and adult audience, but because its subject also includes a child with a love and fear of words.

Jacqueline WoodsonBrown Girl Dreaming is a beautiful book and a compassionate collection of childhood, a celebration of all the author’s family and n its writing, it enabled her to reconnect with many of those whom she hadn’t seen for years and in doing so, to learn of and preserve more of the family’s stories that had been within the family for generations.

Her poems are like a giant tapestry and the members of her family, her neighbourhood and friends make up the complex colours and patterns, infused with story, emotion, excitement and foreboding, the fabric of her childhood.

By the time you get to the end, you feel like you know them all and to complete the experience the author has shared her collection of black and white family photos.

The Toga and the Rose by Sheighle Birdthistle

The Toga and The Rose is Sheighle Birdthistle’s latest collection of heartfelt poetry.

An Irish poet who founded the Poetry Corner in Aix-en-Provence, a group that meets monthly in the English bookshop, Book and Bar, Sheighle’s work is a wonder to read and arresting to listen to.

As I said to her after reading the collection the first time, there were moments when I realised I was holding my breath until the end of the poem, as if breath or movement would break the spell and silence might help ensure an ending I could cope with.

Her poems navigate the roller coaster of life’s events and emotions and she captures many of them with a choice of words that invoke powerful meaning and create suspense. From the darkest depths to the cusp of enlightened contentedness, it is a ride worth taking.

TogaFrom The Hand of God Gloved,

a life that should have been yellow, coloured grey’

to the desolation of Syria where

‘the falling leaves drop like huge tears of sorrow,

On the poppies scattered at their roots.’

 

and the absence of words in A Starry Night,

Words, stars, words blending

And rending us poets rigid with wonder

As we ponder.’

 

The poems of the Son and Daughters,

The Four Souls of My Body

‘we love each other, in different ways,

tempests and gentle torments,

Flowing like angels wings’

The Toga and The Rose

The Toga and The Rose

From family to humanity, we are affected by emotions both familiar and far from the hearth.

 

The Lady hostage of Burma,

Katrina of New Orleans

 

interspersed with many starry nights, sometimes bearers of hope, on other occasions harbingers of catastrophe, predictable only in their unpredictability.

Comedie de livreSheighle will be reading from The Toga and The Rose this weekend at La Comédie du Livre literature festival in Montpelier, where you can buy a copy of her book or via O’Mahony’s Booksellers and a range of online bookshops.

A grand weekend of literature of not just poetry, but also a focus this year on Scandinavian writers, including Jón Kalman Stefánsson, who the Shadow International Foreign Fiction Prize Team just voted as their choice for the top prize for his book The Sorrow of Angels.