The timing couldn’t be better for the launch of Packabook’s Jamaica page.
We have just seen the release in the UK (those of you in the US will need to wait until April – sorry!) of Andrea Levy’s new novel The Long Song, the story of July, a Jamaican house slave on a sugar plantation.
You may know Levy from her 2004 novel Small Island which, while it has Jamaican references, is predominantly set in Britain. It was a book that won much praise and a slew of prizes including the Orange Prize for Fiction, and it left many of us in great anticipation as to what she would write next.
As Packabook readers, we couldn’t be more delighted that Levy decided to explore Jamaica itself with this new novel.
Set in the 19th century, The Long Song centres on the relationship between July and the mistress of the plantation, Caroline Mortimer. It is a time when change is in the air, and there is a gathering movement for freedom. Levy takes us through all this, right up until the eventual abolition of slavery on the island in 1938, and the years following emancipation.
Levy herself is the child of Jamaican migrants,and was born in Britain in 1956. At least one of her ancestors was born into slavery, but she knows little of their story. Interviews with Levy since the release of the book have revealed her passion for the subject and in fact she has described herself as ‘obsessed’.
The reviews for The Long Song have been filled with praise. Here are some of them if you need some more convincing.
And after reading those, I just know you are going to find it impossible to resist ordering the book yourself. So here’s the link.
But of course, we have many other books on our Jamaica Page. In doing the research to find some great titles for you, we uncovered some real gems.
Among them there’s The Pirate’s Daughter by Margaret Cezair-Thompson in which we witness political change and the glamor of Hollywood visitors to the island through three generations of women. There’s Marlon James’s powerful debut novel John Crow’s Devil and there’s some laughs to be had with The Lunatic by Anthony C. Winkler or Mari SanGiovanni’s Greetings from Jamaica – Wish you were Queer.
All of these books can be better enjoyed with a little background understanding – so here’s a few key facts about Jamaica to help you on your way.
- The island of Jamaica is in the Caribbean Sea about 90 miles (145 kilometres) south of Cuba. It was first claimed by the Spanish, and then became a British colony after it was seized by the English in 1655. It is still part of the British Commonwealth
- The capital is Kingston
- Slavery was part of Jamaica from the days of Spanish colonialism when African slaves were brought to the island. The trading of slaves was banned in 1807, but it was the 1830’s before slavery itself was officially abolished.
- Jamaica became independent in 1962 after a brief time being a part of the Federation of West Indies.
- Over the years, many Jamaicans have chosen to migrate to other countries, especially to the U.S, Canada and Britain.
- The country has many resources including bauxite and sugar, but despite this there is also a great deal of crime and poverty. There are both luxury resorts and densely-populated ghettos.
- When many of us think of Jamaica, it is of music, food and a rich mix of culture – and of course the reggae master Bob Marley!
So with the dregs of winter hanging about here in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s time to let a little sunshine in and start reading a Jamaican novel this month. Head over to our Jamaica Page and choose your favorites.
And we’ll start working on titles for next month’s New Country page – Iran. As always, any suggestions are most welcome…..
Suzi from Packabook
We have had some great suggestions of books emailled to us over the last week, so we thought we’d highlight a selection of them for you. These are the books other Packabook readers suggest you read if you want to focus on a particular country.
Karen from the Books and Chocolate blog suggests to us that to get yourself in the Italian mood, you can’t go past several books that take us to the Italy of years gone by.
A Room with a View by E.M. Forster, gives us a glimpse of Florence during the Edwardian years, and it is friendship between women in the 1920’s that is celebrated in The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim.
Moving ahead a little bit, Somerset Maugham’s Up at the Villa is set in Florence just before World War II, and delves into the life of a beautiful ex-pat British widow.
Karen also recommends Somerset Maugham for a book set in 1920’s China. Maugham’s Painted Veil takes us to cholera-infested regions of the country, as adulterous Kitty Fane learns there is more to life than the shallow existence she has so far been living.
There’s more scandal in Oswald Wynd’s The Ginger Tree, set in Japan in the early years of the 20th century when Scotswoman Mary Mackenzie has an adulterous affair with a Japanese nobleman and is cast out of the ex-pat community.
There are some common themes and time frames in all of these novels, and if traveling back into the past as well as to exotic countries appeals to you – then you can’t go wrong with these suggestions. Visit our books set in Italy, books set in China and books set in Japan to find out more and discover plenty of other great novels. Thank you Karen for your great recommendations.
But sometimes while looking for books to add to Packabook, we come across a red herring.
You would think a novel entitled Brazil would be a certain read for those interested in knowing more about the former Portuguese colony. But Judy Gould has written in and said that while she thinks it is an excellent novel, John Updike’s book does little to portray the country itself – so it looks like we’ll have to leave it off our Brazil page.
These are just some of the many tempting novels you can find at Packabook, but we are always keen to hear your recommendations. If you have a novel you think is ideal for Packabook readers – one that gives us a great portrayal of the place in which it is set – then please let us know by email, or in the comments below. We would love to include you on our next Readers Recommend post.
Suzi from Packabook
A disaster such as the earthquake in Haiti is one which can bring our attention to a place we may never have thought much about in the past.
One of the poorest nations in the world, Haiti has suffered far more than is fair for any country. Haitians have been subject to violence, political instability and brutal dictatorships, and now they face a complete breakdown in law and order as they attempt to cope with this latest disaster.
These are the images we will see on our television screens, and the stories that will be told to us by journalists at the scene. There will be attempts to tell the greater story, but it is impossible to really get to the heart of a country through the short amount of airtime available in news bulletins, and amidst the constraints of a natural disaster.
So why not delve a little deeper into the stories of ordinary Haitians through a few of the novels that have been set there?
Learn more about Haiti through its fiction
In her novel The Dew Breaker, Haitian born Edwidge Danticat shares the story of a prison guard during the brutal dictatorship of voodoo physician Francois ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier. Now a U.S. immigrant, the guard, who is skilled in torturing dissidents, begins to reveal his past life to the daughter who adores him.
In Breath, Eyes, Memory, Danticat tells us the story of Sophie, a young Haitian girl who moves to New York to live with a mother she hasn’t seen since birth. It is a story that explores the suffering and courage of Haitian women, as well as the superstition that permeates much of Haitian culture.
Traveling much further back in Haiti’s history The Kingdom of this World focuses on the Haitian Revolution and the country’s liberation from French colonial rule, told through the eyes of the slave TiNoel. And violence is once again the subject matter in Rene Philoctete’s Massacre River – the story of the slaughter of thousands of Haitians along the Dominican border in 1937.
These novels may make grim reading, but they are each an integral part of Haiti’s story. This is your chance to understand a little more of the Caribbean’s first independent state and the challenges it has faced.
We will be seeing much more of Haiti on the television in the weeks to come. It is easy to see those on the screen as something far distant from ourselves, but as always, literature helps us to understand the lives of others just that little bit more – reminding us of the human face behind the tv images.
It’s thought that up to 25,000 may have died later from being exposed to the gas.
But while it may be 25 years since the disaster, people in the area are still dealing with the effects. Campaigners say toxins are still leaking into the groundwater, while the authorities say the area is safe. This anniversary is seeing marches by survivors and activists, and a number of other commemoration events.
Meaghan Delahunt’s novel ‘The Red Book‘ tells of an Australian photographer, Francoise, who travels to Bhopal 20 after the event. She is inspired to go there after seeing a photograph taken of a child at the time. There, she meets Naga, a Tibetan refugee who’s family died in the disaster, and Arkay, a Scottish monk who is struggling with addiction.
As she documents the effects of the disaster, her relationships with Naga and Arkay develop, and The Red Book gives us a glimpse into the impact of such an event on India and its people.
Here are some links to news stories about Bhopal
But to find out a little more of the human story behind the Bhopal disaster, why not read about it for yourself in The Red Book.
If you’d like to explore the country further, take a look at other books set in India we have discovered….
The building of the Taj Mahal is a fascinating tale which Ben Kingsley is about to explore in film – but you can get your hands on the story first…
A visit to the Taj Mahal is often cited as a highlight for anyone visiting India. But apart from being a magnificent construction, the Taj has the most romantic of stories behind it.
In 17th century Agra, the grief stricken Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan decided to build a fitting memorial to his dead wife Mumtaz Mahal. More than twenty years later and with the labor of 20,000 workers, ‘The Taj’ was built.
The story has so intrigued veteran actor Ben Kingsley, he has announced he will produce and act in a film to be called ‘Taj’ in 2010. Much respected in India after his 1982 biopic ‘Gandhi’, Kingsley describes the building as ‘an indelible monument to passion and love’.
But you don’t have to wait until the film is released to find out more about the story.
Timeri Murari’s Taj: A Story of Mughal India explores the love Shah Jahan had for his wife as well as the political struggle of the time. With so little known about Mumtaz Mahal, the detail of the love story is necessarily fictionalized, but it is surrounded by historical fact.
At the time of writing this post, customer reviews on Amazon consistently give the novel five stars, with some delighting in the extra insight it gave them before visiting the mausoleum itself.
A second novel, Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors tells the tale from the perspective of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s daughter, Jahanara.
She recounts the story of her parent’s love, giving us a Mumtaz who is her husband’s political advisor and sometimes companion in battle. But before she dies while giving birth to her 14th child, Mumtaz passes on her many skills to her daughter, preparing her to pick up from where her mother left off.
This novel gives us another view of Shah Jahan’s grief and the political intrigue of his court. It contrasts the opulance of Jahana’s world with the poverty that surrounds it – but most importantly for anyone interested in the Taj Mahal, we get an inside look at the building of the mausoleum itself.
While there will no doubt be many interpretations of the story behind the building of the Taj Mahal, including that which will be given to us in Kingsley’s film – why not read one or both of these novels to bring this UNESCO World Heritage Site alive for you right now. What a difference it will make when you finally have the chance to visit the Taj Mahal itself.
Have you been to the Taj Mahal? What can you tell us about the love of Shah Jahan? Let us know in the comments….
Here are some links to articles about the film:
And if you’d like to discover more books set in India, take a journey to our main site…
The team at packabook