This is the second part of a piece on Readers on Reading in 2016. If you haven’t, you should read the first part.
Books serve as a bridge between ourselves and other people. With them, we do not only have the option of living our own life, but we can also observe, empathise, and be a part of other people’s lives.
My main focus this year was on contemporary Western authors—fiction and nonfiction mostly. Although, I read some books by writers in other parts of the world. In making this list, the major criterion was how much I was able to connect with the story and characters. Stories spring from the hope of communicating with others. And these books gave me that.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
After reading a few pages, I knew it was going to be a remarkable book. The powerful voice of the protagonist, Lucy Barton, as she tries to make sense of her life and experiences, draws me to her in a way that I cannot resist. Not only is it a story of intimacy—or lack of it—between a woman and her daughter, it is about longing, and acceptance. As Lucy and her mother bond over stories of people they knew in their past, Strout reveals to us how important familial relationships are in influencing children’s view of the world. Her vivid writing of childhood emotional and psychological deprivation, and her elegant portrayal of loneliness, make her stand out as a true storyteller.
“Loneliness was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden in the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”
Some passages read like compilation of notes. A couple of short paragraphs that may appear independent on the first read but are sure to further the story. Everything is intertwined. Being on the longlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize is no surprise. The story is compelling, and sad and beautiful. I like how she takes her characters through seemingly unimportant activities and conversations but with strong meanings and lasting impact on their lives. A book I read this year with similar themes is Rachel Cusk’s Outline. Not only are the narrators writers with reflective voices, the mood and rhythm of both books are even all through. Strout and Cusk share in their ability to capture the mundane and the complexities of relationships.
Strout’s depiction of the unreliability of memory is also worthy of note. The novel is narrated in hindsight and the protagonist has vague remembrance of some events, just as it is with humans.
“I still am not sure it is a true memory, except I do know it, I think. I mean: It is true. Ask anyone who knew us”
There are few books I have been able to connect with on this level. Reading it was a rollercoaster of emotions, and this explains why it is the only book I read more than once this year, and I know I will read several times.
Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier
This novel is unlike anything I’ve ever read. A Swiss Classics instructor, Raimund Gregorious, gives in to an impulse to abandon his life in search for the unknown. The story recounts his journeys as he delves into the life of a dead Portuguese poet and medical doctor, Amadeu de Prado. He is the hero we encounter through the stories and perspectives of other characters. Through Prado’s notes and conversations with people that knew him when he was alive, Gregorious discovers him to be a deeply intelligent man who was burdened with cares. His relationships, despair, and inner conflict on subjects of love, politics, religion, philosophy, are explored throughout the book.
“Human beings can’t bear silence; it would mean that they would bear themselves”
It is a thought-provoking, philosophical novel that I’ll describe as ‘meaty.’ You can literally highlight almost every sentence, but at some point, the essence of it seems forced because of Prado’s overly melancholic outlook on life. It was a slow read, but that was okay. There are lots of passages worth rereading and even memorizing. If you’re looking for an interesting, fast-paced book, this is a poor choice. I know this book will not leave you the same way you were when you started reading it.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
It is a series of letters written in form of essays to his son, telling him what it is like to be Black in America. He emphasizes that violence and infliction of pain on the Black body has become American legacy. He does this by writing personal experiences and stories of real life incidents to buttress the narrative of racial discrimination.
A book with the same theme that is called to mind is The Fire This Time, a radical collection of essays and poems that also capture racism in America. Written in homage to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, it chronicles daily injustices and tragedies Blacks are subjected to. The contributing writers expressed their anger, frustration, the horror being played out in the country, fear for their lives, and the right steps to take in preparing their kids for the world of discrimination ahead. To teach them what to do, how to behave, and how to respond. Although Coates’ book does not reflect my own experiences as I live in a country where my rights have never been trampled upon because of my skin colour, reading this book was a privilege as it shows how other humans deal with fear daily and how race is an omnipresent cause for worry in America. As the fight against racism is a journey that may never end, Coates did not write this book to provide a resolve to violence against Blacks, they are words of a caring father to his son about what has been, what is being, what may always be, and how he should navigate through. As for the Whites that don’t live in the reality portrayed by Coates, reading the book will probably lead to some form of emotional discomfort, enlightenment and empathy on their part.
Between the World and Me was a great read. Coates’ voice has become an unequivocal protest against injustice in America.
The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath edited by Ted Hughes
Reading Plath was quite difficult in the beginning, but there was something about her soul that I found myself clinging on to. Her words feel like a voyage of discovery and insight. To call her poems just “confessional” would be to underestimate her works. Plath loves to push to the extreme–humour, irony, pain. Her fluidity of language, use of metaphors and intensity are three very notable elements in her works.
She often employs descriptive words and metaphors to create the world she wants to take her readers. The imageries are astounding. Her sarcasm, humour, wit, gut, can be seen all through the pages. Some lines of her poems now reside in my head:
“Always in the middle of a kiss
Came the profane stimulus to cough
Always from the pulpit during service
Leaned the devil prompting you to laugh”
I observed some transitions in her works:
- There were some villanelles in earlier poems but I did not see any in her later works
- Her allusion to natural elements like the universe, sun, moon, was more apparent in her earlier works compared to the poems she wrote between 1956 and 1963.
- Her later works mirrored more candour and intensity
- Use of rhymes in her later works compared to earlier ones was also evident
She has become one of my favourite poets. On some days, I run to her words. Her poems amplify our sameness and differences. This collection of 274 poems communicate her pain, loss, joys. The part I enjoyed reading most is the section, “Juvenilia.”
Also, she has an indirect and direct way of alluding to things, incidents, encounters and experiences. In Stillborn, she metaphorically describes her dissatisfaction with her poems:
“These poems do not live: it is a sad diagnosis.
They grew their toes and fingers well enough,
Their little foreheads bulged with concentration.
If they missed out on walking about like people
It wasn’t for any lack of mother-love.”
I find it unsettling that many people view her poems through the lens of her mental illness and suicide. She writes with both cheerfulness and gloom about a range of topics: love, marriage, literature, depression, suicide, nature, feminism. Her words are raw. It is as though she speaks from a place of isolation, like a voice calling out in the wilderness. I also observed the use of two particular words in several poems: “great” and “clock.” Plath was one of a kind and this is a collection I know I will keep returning to.
What Was She Thinking?: Notes on Scandal by Zoe Heller
It is about a school teacher who has an affair with an underage male student, and everything that transpired before and during the affair. The big scandal is revealed a few pages into the book; no suspense. It is the telling of the story from the perspective of the teacher’s friend, Barbara, that makes it a fascinating read. Her desperation for connection pushes her to take several rash actions. In writing about her friend’s illicit relationship, she ends up revealing more about her crushing loneliness and hypocritical personality, giving the readers a better understanding of her inner motives. This book is funny and engaging. The rhythm is sometimes accelerated and other times slowed. With well-strung sentences, fluid transitioning, wicked wit, and humour, Heller makes it a page-turner.
“Lonely people are terrible snobs about one another, I’ve found. They’re afraid that consorting with their own kind will compound their freakishness. The time that Jennifer and I went to Paris together, we saw an airline employee at Heathrow ask two very fat people in the check-in line where they were both off to. The fat people were not a couple as it happened, and the suggestion that they were panicked them. Leaping apart, they both shouted in unison, “We’re not together!”
Heller writes with such cleverness that makes her characters compete for the “most annoying” title; you find yourself wondering who to root for. There’s also a level of emotional involvement and introspection the book gives you.
“There are people in whom you can detect the seeds of madness – seeds that have remained dormant only because the people in question have lived relatively comfortable, middleclass lives… but you can imagine, given a nasty parent, or a prolonged bout of unemployment, how their potential for craziness might have been realised”
I haven’t seen the movie adaptation, but with actresses like Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, one cannot expect anything short of an excellent performance.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li
In this collection of ten short stories, Li portrays the strange, dark, and unusual aspects of her characters, mostly Chinese. Li’s confidence and wisdom reflect in her writing. It is as though she has fully-formed worlds for her characters and she is not afraid to invite her readers. For someone whose native language isn’t English, she deserves credit for writing such elegant prose. Jhumpa Lahiri, an Indian American writer who also writes beautifully in English language, is readily called to mind.
This Chinese American writer fuses culture, myths, history and personal experiences in such a way that makes her stories delectable. In the title story, she reveals the importance of language in relating and communicating with other people. Here, in a dialogue between Mr Shi, the disillusioned protagonist, and her daughter:
“Baba, if you grew up in a language that you never used to express your feelings, it would be easier to take up another language and talk more in the new language. It makes you a new person.”
Li has an old soul. In this ambitious book, she probes into the depth of the human condition. Most of her characters have secrets, or a part of themselves they are not comfortable with. In all, she has an impressive ability to write about people trying to find their way, and the ones that are totally lost and in denial of it. With other contributions in literature, Li has proven herself to be one of the finest writers of her time.
The Best American Essays (2014) edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan
For someone who just got introduced to nonfiction, reading this anthology felt like being presented a goldmine. I came across some wonderful writers here and went ahead to read some of their other published works. This collection of 21 essays was compiled by John Jeremiah Sullivan and Robert Atwan. Reading it ushered me into a new world of essay writing and made me attempt writing them––something I thought I did terribly at the beginning of this year. The contributors like Wendy Brenner, James Wood, Zadie Smith, Timothy Aubry, amongst others, wrote on several topics. There’s so much to say about it, but all I can write is that I’m grateful for this collection.
Here Is Where We Meet by John Berger
Having read Ways of Seeing, a book on art criticism in which he was one of the contributors, of course I realised he is not one of those writers you read once and forget about them. Berger writes with clarity. A few months ago, I read an interview in which Teju Cole, a writer I adore very much, was asked for the book that has had the most influence on his work. Here Is Where We Meet, he said. And I knew I was going to read it. In this book, Berger writes about memory, grief, death with such sublimity. It is about the people the narrator has met at different times in his life. It begins with a meeting with his mother who has been long dead. These meetings and conversations take him to different places. One needs to read closely to follow the transition of scenes. The pages are sprinkled with poetic lines.
“Women always wonder about other lives, most men are too ambitious to understand this. Other lives, other lives which you have lived before, or which you could have lived. And your books, I hoped, were about another life which I only wanted to imagine, not live, imagine by myself on my own, without any words. So it was better I didn’t read them.”
Reading him felt like communing with an extraterrestrial being.
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
In this book, Duhigg uses research to explain how habits are formed and how they can be broken or changed. He used Rosa Parks’ story, for example, to explain the importance of social ties. She was quite influential in her community, hence the massive support and outcry after her arrest. I found most of the stories fascinating. From a variety of case studies, he shows how routines are developed. If you are familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s works, then you will have an idea of what Duhigg did in this book. I applied some of his practical strategies and found them quite helpful. Although there are instances he started a story and jumped off to another one, and later came back to the first one. It appeared stylistic at some point, and totally unnecessary in some places. But in all, it was a fantastic read.
Zinky Boys by Svetlana Alexievich
Zinky boys is the name given to people who died in war and shipped down in zinc coffins. This book is a product of personal interviews the writer conducted with the surviving Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan war and the relatives of the dead. In 2015, Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” Told in several voices, the book chronicles the lives of war victims. Some were told they would be taken to other destinations, only to find themselves in Afghanistan when the plane landed. Some civilians, of their own volition, joined with the intention of serving and providing succour to the soldiers, but their well-meaning intention soon became a nightmare as some ended up badly injured, sexually assaulted, or dead.
“Mum, buy me a puppy and call it Sergeant so I can kill it when I get home”
The pages bleed truth, revealing the upsetting realities of war. Writing this review brings back the memories of the anguish I felt while reading it.
“We don’t need anything. Just listen to us and try to understand. Society is good at doing things, ‘giving’ medical help, pensions, flats. But all this so-called giving has been paid for in very expensive currency. Our blood.”
Antifragile: The Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
It is a sort of follow-up to his 2007 book, The Black Swan. He tells us antifragile––which isn’t a word that exists in the English dictionary––should not be confused with resilience. To be resilient is to return to the former shape after external pressure, but to be antifragile is to become even better, having benefitted from chaos, stress, and errors. For example, the mythological Hydra—a serpent-like creature with numerous heads—grew two heads each time one was cut off. He argues that the social policies, political systems and even our private activities should not be overprotected from randomness.
“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility…”
The book started off pretty well, but soon became repetitious. Finishing it was an obligation for me, but I did not waste my time reading it. He illustrates several instances of antifragility, but did not suggest steps to take to become antifragile. Although his ideas are scattered all over the book, with close attention, a reader will be able to pick the important points. With a mixture of confidence and boastfulness, Taleb proffers his theory on how to live in an uncertain society.
Looking Forward to Read in 2017
Dear Friend, From My Life, I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li
My first encounter with Yiyun Li was in the anthology, The Best American Essays (2014). Reading her essay, “Dear Friend, From My Life, I Write to You in Your Life”, was cathartic for me. In it, she attempts to assay time and memories. Her words reflect honesty and vulnerability. It is my favourite essay and the most read in the collection. Li is a brilliant writer and I just can’t wait to read her memoir.
Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo
Adebayo is someone I admire up close, and at a distance. Everyone I know who has ever read her is awaiting her debut. First story of hers I read was “A Kind of Happiness,” published in Ilanot Review. She writes about struggles, especially between couples, with such beauty and grace. Several magazines have listed Stay with Me, as one of the most anticipated books in 2017. Adebayo has the ability to make her readers see themselves in her characters. And I have no doubt that she has come to stay.
Kemi Falodun loves words and fine sentences. She writes short stories, essays, and occasionally, book reviews.
When I first received the invitation to make a list of my notable reads in 2016, I momentarily panicked, unsure whether I had read enough books. How could I explain that most of the readings I had undertaken in the year were dissertations and monographs.
At first, it was almost impossible to recall most of the books I had read. Isn’t that a common occurrence with readers? You want to house characters or specific descriptions or authorial comments from a notable book in your mind but the house but your memory will tell you that you are only a tenant yourself.
But slowly, titles came rushing to my mind like long lost friends, demanding once again, to be reacquainted. Then I was faced with the problem of compressing my list. At that point, I was sure of what I’d write in response to the invitation.
So here is my list, in no particular order.
The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux
This book came to me from the Kofi Awoonor Memorial Library in Ibadan, where I work as an administrator. It has afforded me another understanding of Theroux’s ingeniousness as a travel writer, a model traveller worthy of emulation. It is a travel account of the author’s journey from his home in Boston, USA to South and Central America.
But, what it recounts is not just mere fun travelling, not just sightseeing, not just a search for the extravagance and luxury. No. It is not a journey through capitals either. It is aimless travel. Many things come alive in the account. The simple people the author meets, who offer opinions on many things; peasants, who symbolise the poverty of the continent; his meeting in Argentina with the legendary writer, Luis Jorge Borges.
Although I have not travelled South and Central America, I have vicariously travelled through Theroux to those parts of the world. I recommend this wonderful travelogue to anybody who is interested in the art of travel writing, for many things. It is without airs. This beautiful book is peopled, graphical, concise and poetic. In fact, there is a page from the book I have taken the liberty to versify as a poem, and nobody could argue the authenticity of the passage as poetry.
The Hate Artist by Niran Okewole
Do not let us start a lecture on ‘what’s (not) poetry’. The little space here could not contain such lengthy argument. Moreover, it’s a topic that has been considered reasonably by scholars and poets. And there are schools of thought concerning this, Valéry’s for instance, that poetry is meant to appeal to emotions directly. But this volume rather appeals to the intellectual faculty of a reader first before scratching the consciousness of the reader for empathy or whatever.
Also, the book has been dubbed and perceived by some readers I have come across as ‘intellectual acrobatics’ because they feel it is too daunting to interpret. I’d rather not subscribe to such a lowbrow view. I embrace the complexity of the volume for its successful and daring experimentation. The Hate Artist is the kind of poetry that there are too few samples of in contemporary African writing. It shows metaphors can and should stretch our imaginations, that metaphors can be found in names and bibliographies. I am proud of this book that it is written by a Nigerian poet. I discussed this as well as the thematic preoccupations of the volume with the poet [here].
Written in an epistolary form, told in simple, endearing language, and narrated by the chief character in the story, Balram Halwai, a psychopath and self-styled ‘entrepreneur’, White Tiger is an exceptional novel that addresses the struggle between the upper class and the lower class in a modern India of outsourcing and entrepreneurial possibilities. It is bitingly satiric, with the motifs of poverty, corrupt practices in government, which has widened the gap between the rich and poor, condemned their relationship to that of servants and masters. But Balram, though born in a poverty-stricken village, rises to wealth in New Delhi through his deceitful, murderous scheming. I will remember this book for being unmercifully satiric. Aravind Adiga is a storyteller.
A Slim, Green Silence by Beverly Rycroft
When a devastating secret is let out in the open, people shudder with a fear that may infect their skin with goose bumps because it is like seeing a huge snake slither down a tree in one’s compound. You wonder, has the snake really been there all along? And, for how long? These form the contentions of the novel. Read my full review on Wawa Book Review.
Looking for Transwonderland by Noo Saro-Wiwa
This is the travel account of Noo Saro-Wiwa—daughter of the late environmental activist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa—in Nigeria, her country of origin. The merits and faults of the book could be considered on two levels, as autobiography and as travelogue. I would consider it simply as a travelogue, and I think its merits as a travel account outweigh its faults.
The travels in this account cover some important cities in Nigeria, from Lagos, Ibadan, Abuja, Kano, Benin City to Port Harcourt. It reveals the country’s many frustrations and paradoxes, its complex people who cling to religion untiringly. But what actually distinguishes this book is that it veers away from the tourism and pleasant travel typical of some travel writers in Nigeria. Although, she was lured to visit monumental and historic places, her response to them is contained. In all, I think it’s a brilliant travelogue.
My Secret History by Paul Theroux
Let me also tell you another thing about Paul Theroux. Whenever you see that name on a book, you can confidently buy it. Whatever it is you are looking for in a book, you will certainly find it in his writing. He’s better known for his non-fiction where he has achieved a trademark for his travelogues, but Paul Theroux is also wired for fiction.
This highly controversial book straddles fiction and non-fiction. But what makes it controversial is the tantalising question of how much of it is fiction and how much is fact. It’s suggested by some critics that it’s, in fact, a straight autobiography dealing with the author and his failed first marriage.
What I really like about the book is its prose. Whatever it is, fiction or non-fiction, it’s good writing. It is the story of Andrew Parent, a libidinous writer and traveller who leads an interesting double life. He first discovers sex as an altar boy, and his sexual contentment has never been met since.
Andrew soon becomes a volunteer worker in Africa, which is characterised by a sexual frenzy in which our protagonist contracts gonorrhoea. As a married man, now a prominent writer, he tries to stay faithful to his wife, at least a bit, but he still keeps a mistress in another home, on another continent.
At the end, the marriage comes undone when on return from a trip, he discovers his wife is having an affair and his wife catches him with his mistress as well. Paul Theroux is a sensuous writer, even in his travelogues, which is not surprising as he is an enthusiast of Gustave Flaubert.
So, it is not unexpected that this work of fiction is ‘erotically charged’ to the extent that it is even described by one reviewer as ‘pornography’. But beyond sex, the story also touches on the troubled life some writers lead in their marriages. It’s a wonderful read and I could read it all over again.
Selected Poems of Femi Oyebode by Femi Oyebode
Many younger poets in Nigeria do not know the name Femi Oyebode. I myself recently came across it. But ever since I came in contact with Oyebode’s poetry, I have had to place him among the best Nigerian poets I have read. And I think this alienated poet deserves more recognition in the literary space of his home country for the ebullition of his craft.
This collection of his work, from six poetry volumes, selected and enthusiastically introduced by the scholar Onookome Okome, offers a wide range of thematic excursuses tinged by hues of migrancy and exilic consternations. There is a voice in his poetry, a longing voice, that searches for home, a metaphysical home and the home of his country. But of course, these are only fragments of what can be obtained from his poetic collage.
The selected work also offers an insight into his craft, in terms of stylistics. Obododimma Oha says of the poet, “Oyebode’s… poetry is metaphysically rich, semiotically decentring, and politically committed to a racial/ethical means”. I’d say you should watch out for my interview with the poet.
The Story of Anna P, as told by Herself by Penny Busetto
It is a rara avis, empathetic, compelling novel. The book is a major contribution to modern African literature and offers a rethink of how that literature is defined. The Story of Anna P is a disturbing, haunting story of a woman on a remote Island in Italy who just lives day-by-day expectant of nothing. She suffers from repressive amnesia, trauma and sexual abuse. Actually, her memory loss is so chronic that she cannot remember how she she’s come to settle on the Island except for her passport saying she is South African and through occasional traumatic flashbacks.
She’s connected to a murder she cannot remember but suspects her connection to it and must face the law for it. The story gives an insight into troubled people who may appear normal on the face of it but who may be utterly broken and suffering a devastation they may not even be aware of.
The strength of the story really lies with the character Anna P, her inner disintegration rather than her external vision. It is for this purpose I have freely lent a home to the fictional character in my mind. Maybe she will occupy a spot there for a long time. And, Penny Busetto should be praised as well for the accomplishment that is this novel. This has kept me on the lookout for her next book, just as I am awaiting Jennifer Makumbi’s next book. Here is my interview with the author. I’ll also recommend a review of the book, which can be found in Saraba’s Special Issue on the 2015 Etisalat Prize.
Plays by Anton Chekhov, Second Series by Anton Chekhov
Bernard Shaw, feeling intimidated by this Russian playwright declares, “Every time I see a play by Chekhov, I want to chuck all my own stuff into the fire.” His reason for saying this is not farfetched or over exaggerated. Chekhov’s is a name that has closely been associated with drama. Here is a collection, of comedies, eight plays, mostly in one act, except for the two plays that are in four acts.
‘On the High Road’, ‘The Proposal’, ‘A Tragedian in Spite of Himself’, are good, enjoyable reads in which minor conflicts, like vodka, bring out the comedy that can be found in little disputes. And the four-act play, ‘The Three Sisters’, is a little bit close to what can be called an absurdist drama. His play is also easy to read because he uses more dialogue and an unadorned dramatic aesthetics. Of all the plays I have read this year, I could say this collection by Chekhov really stands out.
The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany
This novel has been acclaimed by literary critics as one of the powerful contributions to modern Arabic literature. The choice is obvious. The book is extraordinary for many things; it’s a wonderful literary accomplishment.
Having just two chapters, the plot is a fragment of many lives in contemporary Egypt, assembled together through an uncanny force and needs. There is Zaki Bey el-Dessouki, a metaphor for the earliest ruling class in Egypt before the 1952 Revolution, who has an unquenchable thirst for women. In its treatment of sexuality, there is also Hatim, a trace into the repression of queer sex in modern Egypt.
Bringing to the fore Islamist extremism, there is Taha el Shazli, representing the pauperised class, who is let down in reaching his dream by an unjust social setup and in effect turns him to terrorism. The Yacoubian Building is a book of people. It can also be read as a parable because the same building that houses the affluent class of Egypt also houses the underclass of that social order.
The book is frank about the sexual themes, like Mahfouz’s Sugar Street, unlike some Arab witters pussyfooting around the theme. But beyond this, the novel is also pervaded by the corruption in Egyptian government.
Not Worth the Hype
Of course, once in a while, a reader may come across books that do not meet his standards, based on his predilections for learning and what’s in his baggage. Also, it is a question of individual perception. What I regard an average or bad book may be an excellent read for someone else. For example, what if I had said Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things is a pretentious, beast of a book?
On the other hand, as a reviewer, I am also aware that books should not merely be dismissed without offering a careful consideration of their literary demerits. For this reason, I will decline to give a list here. The little space afforded me will not permit me to analyse fully why I consider the books on such a list average or not worth the buzz some people have created for them.
Looking Forward to Read in 2017
My reading does not usually have a particular, pre-set direction. To be candid, I have not made a list. I seldom do. I am just looking forward to advancing my knowledge of the interdisciplinary connexion between poetry and mathematics, to read more travel books with Jenny Diski’s Stranger on a Train topping my list, and to read more books from my favourite authors. I look forward to reading more cookbooks, plays and other new books by African writers.
Tope Salaudeen-Adegoke is an editor, literary critic and poet from Ibadan, Nigeria. Tope is the co-publisher of Fortunate Traveller, a travel journal. Also, he is the administrator of the Kofi Awoonor Memorial Library in Ibadan. He writes for Wawa Book Review, Abuja, and FilmsandCinemas, Lagos. He enjoys travelling and cooking. He is presently experimenting with poetic forms, including mathematical poetry, but does not know when his debut poetry collection will be ready. @LiteraryGansta is his alter ego on Twitter.
For the last 6 years I have consistently read 100 plus books. How do I do it? I read 2 books every week. I belong to a book club that prescribes a book a week, so I never run short of what to read. I also found a system of reading early mornings, lunch (also steal time from work) and bed time, so my reading doesn’t succumb to the excuse of there is no time. Reading is one of the pivotally things I believe I was sent to earth to do. Maybe that’s why I was sent in this age not the stone or bronze ages, the democratisation of the options to read is a bonanza, I can start with a physical book, move to my phone, read on my laptop and end the book on my kindle.
Reading 100 plus books makes it hard to come up with a condensed list of 10 notable reads but I will give it a shot.
No One Writes to the Colonel by Gabriel García Márquez
Gabo is my favourite author and every year I must read and reread a couple of his books. This book was my favourite of the ones I read this year. The Colonel and his wife are poor and grieving the death of their son. They have nothing; the poverty is well captured by Marquez’s descriptive skills. For 15 years without fail the Colonel has waited for a mail that will contain his pension, but the postman comes every Friday but has nothing for the Colonel. The novel has no beginning nor ending. The reader is dropped in the middle of a pessimistic story without conflict but rich in irony.
Gyasi’s debut is a glorious epic voyage of black history from three hundred years ago to the present day. The horrifying act of slavery is delicately captured and the implications are laid bare for people to see. It starts with the separation of two sisters, Effia and Esi, and tells the story of their genealogy with each person’s story told with discipline and fine craft. It is hard to believe that this is a debut from a writer who is just 26 years old. It is hands down my best book for the year.
The Black Widow by Daniel Silva
This book is the sixteenth of the Gabriel Allon series and I have read all of them and it is my favourite. Gabriel Allon is a legendary Israeli spy, assassin and art restorer. He has led the most delicate and dreaded missions and has paid heavy prices on many of them. In this one he faces a villain, Saladin, who has orchestrated some dastardly attacks on some of Europe cities and is largely unknown. This book takes you the dark and ruthless world of ISIS, shows you the brain-washing it carries out and how amorphous network it is.
The Cartel takes you to the dark world of the drug cartels and the mayhem they create in the Americas. DEA agent Art Keller had put Adan Barrera away in Book 1, The Power of the Dog, but Adan Barrera is out of prison and ready to put his dynasty back again. But the fervent Keller goes all out to stop it from happening. An epic story of power, corruption, revenge, violence and justice spanning ten years of bloodletting and scheming.
Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole
I dare say that Teju Cole is one of the most brilliant intellectual writers from Africa, I admire his thought provoking essays and his photography. I am yet to read his latest book Known and Strange Things so while waiting I decided to reread this gem of a book. I initially didn’t like it when I first read it years ago because at thought it pandered to the single story of wretchedness in Africa the West likes, but now I see it as an honest portrayal of everyday life in Nigeria. It seems the Nigeria of then is even better than now, tells a lot.
Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John
Elnathan John was a literary superstar before he published his first book. He has an enormous talent and ego to boot, so the spotlight was out to see if his book will match the talk. Elnathan John delivered with this delicate and unflinching gaze at what gives rise to fundamentalism and radical movements. Dantala is a street boy who is preyed on by a society that is inverted. He is recruited by politicians during elections to cause havoc and barely escaped with his life when the police tried to restore calm. He escaped and was taken in by a sheik, but the quiet, calm life is upended again when the sheik’s deputy leads a radical movement.
Almost all reviews will state that Blackass is a retelling of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, this is true, but it is a big exploration of the ‘what if’ question and the attendant changes it brings. Furo Wariboko wakes up one morning before an interview and discovers that he has changed from a black man to a white man. This condition instantly changes his status in Lagos. Blackass is an intense black comedy that looks into the identity question.
The conclave is a congregation of cardinals, the princes of the Catholic Church, who assemble to choose a pope when there is a vacancy and it is as competitive as any group of men can be. Cardinal Lomelli is the Dean of the Congregation, he is in charge of coordinating the process, he expected a straight forward election, but when he discovered that a cardinal was asked to resign by the pope before his death and another had fathered a child early in his ministry and they were all front runners, he just had to do something. The more actions he took the more he discovered that he was twisting the race and it was getting out of hand. The pressure to choose a pope, the political system in the Vatican and the expectation of the people are captured here. A thrilling quick read which stays with you. Robert Harris the author of Fatherland and Enigma still has the ability to spike your pulse.
To Quote Myself by Khaya Dlanga
Read my review here.
Read my review here.
Not Worth the Hype
This book was a media sensation in Nigeria. Most illegally downloaded book in Nigeria and also a bestseller. Toke Makinwa is a celebrity in Nigeria. She decided to write a memoir about her life, how she became Toke the celebrity but she just focused on her failed marriage and serial cheating former husband, Maje. The narration was flat and insipid but I think it is a book people still need to read for the lessons inherent in it.
And After Many Days by Jowhor Ile
It had a good start but the story could not be sustained. Jowhor Ile is a good writer with a lot of promise, he was hyped by Chimamanda Adichie and I am sure that didn’t work in his favour with this ok debut book. I look forward to his second book; I hope he fulfils his promise.
Butterfly Fish by Irenosen Okojie
The only book this year I did not finish. May not be a bad book, it may be due to how I felt at that point, but this book did not hook me at all. It dragged and was drab. I like magical realism and I will give this book a second glance in 2017.
Looking Forward to Read in 2017
- Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole
- Never Look an American in the Eye by Okey Ndibe
- Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo
- Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
- Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo
Ifeh Agbonmire is a bookworm, has neither cats nor dogs, writes as a way to free the thoughts spinning around his head but primarily is a reader.
2016 was a great year for books and book lovers and the beautiful world of literature. Here are the ten notable books I read in 2016.
This beautifully written satire is about a young man’s isolated upbringing in the unpopular ghetto of Dickens. Raised by a controversial father amidst racism who performed practical tests on him. He enlists the help of the town’s most famous resident and initiates the most outrageous action conceivable—reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school in the 21st century which lands him in the Supreme Court. What gripped me about this book was how Paul Beatty painted sad reality in the best way known to man, through humour.
That’s the problem with history, we like to think it is a book—that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it is printed on. It is memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.
Submission by Michel Houellebecq
Submission as the title entails tells the tale of the fatalistic future of France. Told through Fracios, a middle aged professor going through existentialist dilemma in a politically tensioned nation. Alliances have been formed and Islamic laws have come into force; women are veiled, polygamy is encouraged and life in France sets a new course. This book piqued my interest initially because it was released on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attack.
Only literature can grant you access to a spirit from beyond the grave—a more direct, more complete, deeper access than you’d have in conversation with a friend.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
This tells the coming of age story of a magically gifted young man who grows into the most notorious wizard the world has ever seen. I found this an interesting journey because it was written in poetic prose, every word blending into each other and the ingenuity of mixing magic, music, and poetry into a gripping piece.
We understand how dangerous a mask can be. We all become what we pretend to be.
Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger
Berger takes the reader on a journey on six certain factors that makes products and ideas popular. From consumer products, policy initiatives, and even viral YouTube Videos, the professor of Marketing asks the vital question; Why make things popular and reveals the six basic principles that drives all sort of things to become contagious.
People don’t think in terms of information. They think in terms of narratives. But while people focus on the story itself, information comes along for the ride.
This captivating memoir of South African comedian Trevor Noah explores the life of being a coloured child during apartheid, growing up with a rebellious, religious mother and an abusive stepfather. Trevor Noah guides the reader through how racism, privileges, violence and humour shaped his life keeping the authors till the painful last pages.
I remember being told as a child, “if you don’t hit your woman, you don’t love her”. That was talk you’d hear from men in bars and in the streets.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Harari’s brilliant book on the history of Mankind takes the reader from a timeline of history to the present, from the Cognitive Revolution to the Agricultural Revolution, to the Unification of Humankind and to the Scientific Revolution. Harari wrote this in flowing prose that even a non-science oriented person will find it deep.
How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
This book depicts the tragic fate of the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. It is a compelling masterpiece that spread the disappointment of love, the disparity of families and the unbalance of nature. This book nearly drove me to tears.
Change is one thing. Acceptance is another.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
This psychological thriller revolves around Roderick Macrae who commits a triple murder back in 1869. Recounting the actions that led to his conviction in form of memoir, transcripts, and newspaper report made this book really enjoyable.
One man can no more see into the mind of another than he can see inside a stone…
Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey
Set in Ghana, Kwei Quartey introduce the readers to Detective Darko Dawson who is sent to the village of Ketanu to investigate the murder of a young AIDS worker. Not only will he unravel that the murder as a crime of passion but be thrown into a maze that includes clarity on his mother’s disappearance and cultural influence of rural life. The other strength of the book is its exploration of modern Ghana where traditional beliefs in witchcraft and healers exist alongside modern scientific and medical practices in an often uncomfortable way and did I mention Darko’s love for Malta Guinness?
Wizard of The Crow by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o
This African masterpiece deserves an honourable ovation because of its portrayal of Africa’s postcolonial mentality. Set in the Free Republic of Abraria, the novel depicts with unwavering humour certain elements of truth through a myriad of character from the anonymous His High Mighty Excellency, the eponymous hero; The Wizard, sycophant ministers and a corrupt world organisation.
Ngugi exhibits his sheer genius with this one.
Does rough weather choose men over women? Does the sun beat on men, leaving women nice and cool?
To Jack, the small room his mother had been confined to was the world, in a twist of fate, he escapes and sees the world and its wonders. Room was truly a captivating read. Personally, this novel revealed how well we are comfortable in our space when there is so much more.
Scared is what you’re feeling. Brave is what you’re doing.
The Girl On the Train by Paula Hawkins
Hawkins debut novel takes on a psychological journey about Rachel, whose life has taken a rough turn and takes the same commuter train every day until something changes. Rachel sees this as a chance to offer help but she is thrown into an inexplicable situation where she finds that her perception isn’t her reality. A noteworthy criticism is the fact that the reader finds himself faced with an unreliable narrator.
Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John
Elnathan’s BOAT focuses on the fifteen-year-old Dantala who grows up in violence in a society crippled by political upheaval, religious intolerances and social fragmentation. In fine prose, Elnathan delivers a worthy debut novel.
Women can be very annoying. Sometimes they are very nice and they make you stay up all night thinking about them, unable to breathe because you feel your heart wanting to jump out of your chest. Other times they act as if the world is theirs to take, as if men were made to fulfil their every need.
The novel opens with Furo Wariboko physical transformation from a Nigerian to a white man, he is thrown in to the daily existential struggle of living in Lagos. The artful description of Lagos and social media woven together to deliver this fierce satire is a force to reckon with.
Crudity is a disease that exacerbates rather than cure.
One of the reasons I will never leave Nigeria is because, in this country, anything can happen.
Not Worth the Hype
Othuke’s debut novel, Odufa, is a lover’s tale about Anthony Mukoro and the eponymous Odufa. I dare say this book portrayed masochistic love and this is the kind of book a reader finds himself struggling to finish but couldn’t wait to be done with.
The novel centres around a mother and her daughter’s life but honestly it took a lot of self-will not to throw my phone at the wall, that was how exasperated I was.
It used to be a welcoming idea to write about the Nigerian-Biafran Civil War, but this book is an exemption the reader will find himself reading a theme that has become a trope in Nigerian literature. One major let down in this book was the writing style, which could have given the book a lift despite the errant plot.
Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
This is not a book to be reckoned with except a reader wishes to deal with the abstract and not meaningful writing elements like veritable plot which this book found lacking.
Harry Potter and The Cursed Child by Jack Thorne
Told Nineteen years later when the Hogwarts squad from the Harry Potter series are all grown, Harry Potter’s son Albus embarked on his own journey with expectations to meet. What didn’t do it for me is the deviation from the initial franchise, it is an absurd thing to learn that after Voldermort had dissipated, we learn he had a child. No! No! One can’t bear such heartache and then there was also the insipid adoption of time travel. These are more just made the book underwhelming.
Randomly, I fear for myself not to include Toke Makinwa’s On Becoming but I have to say, I have mixed feelings concerning this book because it took a great deal of strength to write about so much imitacy and memories but it won’t deviate the open minded reader from the fact that so much masochism disguised as love was served in this memoir. Also, the author had benevolently won our empathy till the last few pages where she started blaming herself. Toke well done! You played yourself.
Adedapo Adesanya lives in Lagos. He spends his time tutoring, reading and listen to good music.
If you’re done reading this part, you can continue to the third and final part.
2 thoughts on “Books We Read: 11 Readers on Reading in 2016—Part 2.”