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Reading Wales Review: The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed

My Interest

As I understand it, Reading Wales Month showcases Welsh authors. I think it is probably just fine to sneak in another book SET in Wales though. At least I hope so. The Fortune Men dovetails so nicely with Sugar and Slate–the book the host blogger chose for this year’s #dewithon22. Like that book, there is the story of race, religion and what makes someone “belong” in this book, too. Plus, the novel is based on a true story–that’s always interesting.

The Story

maps showing Somalia and Wales

In the Cardiff of 1952, Somali merchant seaman Mahmood Mattan, both Black and a Muslim (but not an American “Black Muslim” of the Nation of Islam) is accused of killing white, Jewish, shop owner Violent. “Moody,” as his white Welsh wife Laura calls him, continues to proclaim his innocence and believe the British justice system will treat him fairly. But on the witness stand Moody is often his own worst enemy. He comes across as angry, arrogant, and prideful. A worse combination for an accused murder could not be imagined. But add in being Black, foreign, married to a white woman, the father of three mixed race sons, and a Muslim and you know the verdict. It would mostly be the same today, sadly.

While Moody is enduring the wait for his hearing and then his trial, we learn his life story from his boyhood in British Somaliland, to his service in the Merchant Navy (Merchant Marine to Americans) during which he sailed the seven seas and proudly lists them in a conversation.

His wife and children endure the sort of racial prejudice, threats to their security, and endless nasty looks and little put-downs that today we know as “microaggressions” while waiting to learn his fate. Moody’s attempts to shield his children are sweet and touching. We see the heart beneath the so-called “arrogance” when his children are involved.

Even at the time of the story, Cardiff has a fairly large community of foreign merchant sailors, but can residents be counted on to tell a Somali from a West African? Can they be trusted to identify the right man? Is there information that could save him that isn’t being brought forward? Does his mother-in-law know something? Does he have secrets? What about his wife?

My Thoughts

This was a slow book to get going, but once it did I did not want to stop listening. I’m not big on crime stories, but this one really pulled me in. It was so eerily like so many court cases today. The fact that so many Black parents still feel that absolutely must teach their young sons how to interact with the police–whether the officer is Black or white. The over-zealous arrest and sentencing of Black men compared to white men committing the same exact crimes is so stark. I only know the US figures, but I honestly can’t imagine it is much different in the UK.

Moody’s mistrust of the police and his understandable unwillingness to kowtow to a bunch of white jurors when he knows he is innocent is so absolutely “today.” Except there was no d.n.a. evidence in 1952, no security cameras, to tell a different story.

I thought of his lawyer telling his that British justice treats a Duke or a man like him exactly the same, but surely he knew that was a lie, right? A Somali sailor in 1952 (or in 2022) treated the same as a Peer of the Realm–laughable.

My Verdict

(ouch on the word choice)

4.0

The Fortune Men: A Novel by Nadifa Mohamed

 

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Reading Wales Month Review: How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn

My Interest

I thought this book would work for the Reading Wales hosted by Book Jotter.  Sadly, Karen at Booker Talk however, pointed out that though born to Welsh parents, Richard Llewellyn is not considered a Welsh author and that he lied about being born in Wales! Not good. Happily, her blog includes another great list of true Welsh authors. And hard to take when the story was so beautifully told. I’m trying not to let that sordid news kill my joy in the story. (This controversy ties in nicely with the Reading Wales book choice for this year: Sugar & Slate by Charlotte Williams, which debates who is Welsh! Two Welsh parents doesn’t add up to being Welsh).

Note: This is a very hard book to review. It is a coming of age story and story of societal change.

The Story

Late in the 19th Century,  a young boy was growing up in the large family of a coal miner–or mine worker since his father was employed above ground. Few coming of age stories have been so beautifully told. As Huw grows up, the mines grow “in”–in closer to the family’s home. We watch a few of his many brothers become involved in forming a union–against their father’s wishes. Another toils in the mine, the comes home to work on inventions. Huw is bright and his father determines to send him over the mountain to the National School. There he encounters a sarcastic and sadistic teacher. Huw’s spirit is saved by a patient pastor and by the steadfastness of his family.

We see the tale of life in the mining village and on and around the mountain as the times change. The morality of “Chapel” is show in the true light of day–some are sincere believers who act kindly, others are full of their own importance and take pains to put people down–just like today. We see the family working and then trying to relax without being bored to death by the lack of entertainment. They turn instead to books. To the Bible, of course each night, but also to what books they own. None are light reading and Huw admits to how the struggled with a few of them.

“O, there is lovely to feel a book, a good book, firm in the hand, for its fatness holds rich promise, and you are hot inside to think of good hours to come.” “How green was my valley then, and the valley of them that have gone.”

All the time though, Huw’s family are educating themselves either through doing or observing, or by reading aloud. Huw learns woodwork; a brother tinkers with inventions that help him build a career. When, later on, Hugh goes to a see a play with a girl just for fun, his father is horrified. (I feel like his father any time I try watch so many of today’s movies or t.v. shows!) Beyond reading there is only the Chapel choir and rugby or boxing for entertainment.

As his life goes on Huw must make choices–to leave home or stay in the mines is the biggest. His brothers go off to make their way in the world in the US or New Zealand. He must come to decide what he wants from life. Meanwhile, the mines are encroaching more and more into the town

My Thoughts

“You must learn to tell worry from thought, and thought from prayer. Sometimes a light will go from your life, Huw, and your life becomes a prayer, till you are strong enough to stand under the weight of your own thought again.”

This was one of the most beautifully-written books I’ve ever read. I’m only sorry I waited till age 60 to read it! There is so much in it that shows up in Appalachia (as we will see next week) and in non-farming towns of the Midwest still today. I especially liked the emphasis on faith and the fact that the mother was so careful about planning for her family’s well-being.

“How quiet is the house when the mistress has gone.”
 

Mothers still must be far more cautious than Fathers in protesting in the workplace. They must think ahead to the outgrown shoes, the empty stomachs, the prescriptions needed when a child is ill. Yes there is welfare and food stamps today, there are food pantries and clothing ministries but mothers are the ones who must go stand in line and fill out the humiliating forms and take the charity that they often do not protest.

“There must be some way to live your life in a decent manner, thinking and acting decently, and yet manage to make a good living.”

There were so many parallels to today as well. The radicalization of the workers–today’s political climate is either far left or far right, and then, too, we have the “Great Resignation” going on which is very radical indeed.  The backlash against former Colonial and slave-owning powers, too, is mirrored in the mistrust and dislike of the English by many in the book. The debate about language–whether English or the “real” language of the people should be used and celebrated is still on-going today. Companies today give great lip service to saving the environment while trading in air pollution waivers and similar. And, of course, most sadly of all, CEO’s still earn such a sickening amount of money they might as well be given Dukedoms to go with it.

My Verdict

4.5

How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn

 

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Reading Wales Review: Sugar & Slate by Charlotte Williams

My Interest

I read this for this year’s Wales Readathon–#Dewithon22, hosted by Paula at The Book Jotter blog. She suggested this book as one everyone could read this year. You can read Paula’s post about the book here.

The Story

“Ever see any of our kind go searching out their white roots?”

Maps showing [Formerly British] Guyana and Wales

Charlotte grows up neither Guyanan nor Welsh. Her black father and her white mother have made her against the rules. She is “mixed.” Where does she belong?

This memoir tells of Charlotte’s life and her search for belonging. It is about the life of someone who is not this and not that. A life always navigating in the middle. Of never being fully accepted by either side.

“Its the same sensation people struggle with when they hear an Asian man speaking with a heavy Scottish accent, or see a guy with dreadlocks riding with the hunt or a black ballerina in a tutu.”

Her childhood is split by her father leaving to reclaim his far-forgotten African roots. Later he will return to his native Guyana instead. Her mother wants to be with her family in Wales but they go off to Sudan and Nigeria. They return to Wales. All of this leaves Charlotte disoriented and a alienated. Unsure of who she is.

She finds her way through normal life while sorting out her confusion. She is treated badly as a teen by the boys in her school. She goes off to University. She makes a life with a white, Welsh husband. When he takes a position in Guyana, her turmoil explodes for she doesn’t fit in there, either.

My Thoughts

This is a brilliant memoir. Brilliant. That’s a word Americans rarely use in this way. But it’s the best word for it. I must have highlighted half the words in the story. Sadly, it is a very difficult book to review. I can say that the prose is vivid and readable and that the emotions are raw. But how to show this? I’m not sure I can–just read it.

What makes someone [insert a nationality]?

Are the generations of Turkish Guestworkers now Germans? Are the Moroccans who settled in post-war France truly French? Should anyone whose ancestors came to North America in a boat or plane be called an “American?” For Charlotte the question of who is, and who is not Welsh, is the same questionbeing asked the world over today in terms of other nationalities. But she does such a superb job of personalizing this question. Of navigating the waters of her own family.

Does having two parents born in Wales make one “Welsh?” Apparently not. This is difficult for an American. Anyone born here, even to parents in the country illegally, is automatically a citizen–an “American.” Does speaking the Welsh language make one Welsh? Not completely. It’s a puzzle. It’s much the same with her parental linage.

“Africa,” as too few Americans realize, is a continent divided up by 19th and 20th Century colonial rulers without regard for ethnic, linguist or other liness of settlement. The “countries” on the continent of Africa, like their borders, are made up. The same is also true in Guyana–there were at one time THREE separate colonial outposts called Guyana, ruled by three different colonial powers. Charlotte’s father was from the British one. But is he somehow an African of whatever ethic origin? Not really. Is he even still Guyanese? It’s all such a puzzle.

I believe this book will be taught in Universities in courses on ethnic identity or self discovery, and other topics, for years to come.

My Verdict

4.0

Sugar and Slate by Charlotte Williams

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Reading Ireland Month and Reading Wales Month

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Thank you to Cathy at 746 Books for again hosting this wonderful month-long celebration of Irish writers and literature.

If desired, this year she has added four weekly prompts:

  1. My Top Five Irish….[anything]
  2. My Year in Irish Lit
  3. Irish or not Irish (sneaky–looking at authors who may or may not be Irish)
  4. New to my TBR –have you added any books to your TBR from posts this month?

New to Reading Ireland Month?

Here are some favorites of mine

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Milkman by Anna Burns is not for everyone, I admit. I LOVED it on audio though I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed it in print. There is a rhythm or cadence to the prose that lends itself so well to audio and Brid Brennan performed the book brilliantly.

Other Irish authors I’ve enjoyed (no apologies for lite reading) are Maeve Binchey, whose books get lumped in with Chick Lit, and some people love them while others hate them. I confess I loved them. Circle of Friends, both the book and the movie, is my favorite I think.

Patrick Taylor and whose books are very nice and set in Ulster. I got tired of the way the series went over time–watered down or should I say “milked” to get the most books. Never mind, the early ones are totally delightful. If you like James Herriot you’ll like Patrick Taylor.

So, you see? You don’t have to tackle James Joyce’s Ulysses.

You can find other Irish authors by reading past Reading Ireland posts.

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Paula at Book Jotter is again hosting Reading Wales Month, aka Dewithon 22. Here is the link to the post’s rules and suggestions.

Since Paula is moving right now, she has suggested a book to read Sugar & Slate by contemporary Welsh author, Charlotte Williams.

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Here in the U.S. you can get it for Kindle for only $6.99

UK readers can use her link to buy it from Blackwell’s.

I bought it and will try to get it read in time. My reading is very hit or miss. I’ve read some this month due to “hurry up and wait” on my new job, but otherwise it’s still very spotty what catches and holds my attention in print these days.

I confess I have not read a lot of Welsh authors. Possibly the best known Welsh-authored books to Americans are A Child’s Christmas in Wales by the poet Dylan Thomas How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn, which I am currently enjoying on audio. Book Jotter is a good host and has a link to her past posts to help you identify more Welsh authors.