My reading regret for 2017 is that I read little poetry. Nonetheless, it was without doubt a satisfying reading year, during which I did not indulge in any sort of adventurousness that would have led me to read any book I did not already have an inclination of its quality. From the enlightening to the ambitious to the arrogantly brilliant; authors like Francine Prose, Sándor Márai, Naomi Alderman, Zoe Heller, Wells Tower, Agate Nesaule, Zadie Smith, and Elizabeth Strout have tampered with my sensibilities during the year, ruffled me up, and left me, many times, splendidly discomforted.
All the books I’d set out to read this year had some measure of prior recommendation by colleagues. While it is near-impossible to say with authority that one book is better than another, the books listed here are those that were, in no particular order, most rewarding to me in their humanness, perspective, and, of course, excellence of writing.
Alberto Manguel, a loyalist to words and reading, brings us, in this enthralling anthology, a wide breadth of his journey through age and distance. It is a careful selection of essays that reflect on notable life experiences and his devotion to the compelling power of words and being a reader. He wrote in his foreword, “I believe there is an ethic of reading, a responsibility in how we read, a commitment that is both political and private in the act of turning the pages and following the lines. And I believe that sometimes, beyond the author’s intentions and beyond the reader’s hopes, a book can make us better and wiser.”
In the first essay, A Reader in the Looking-Glass Wood, Manguel reflects on his experience as a young reader of eight or nine, gifted a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass. He writes in such delicate manner, with scholarly brilliant that manages to be rid of pretentions. He ends this essay with a thought: “In the midst of uncertainty and many kinds of fear, threatened by loss, change and the welling of pain within and without for which one can offer no comfort, readers know that at least there are, here and there, a few safe places, as real as paper and as bracing as ink, to grant us roof and board in our passage through the dark and nameless wood.”
It is in this manner of charming prose that he leads the reader through the rest of the anthology, dropping precise and timely anecdotes from the book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass. In the section Memoranda, he wrote passionately of people he admired: Che Guevara, a Latin American political hero; of reading and meeting the writer Julio Cortázar; and, in Borges in Love, of his time with an almost-blind Jorge Luis Borges.
Broken into 10 sections, the anthology is a testament to Manguel’s humanness, deep sense of attentiveness to the melding details of things, intelligence, and his unwavering devotion to words and how they make and unmake the world.
Only a handful of writers have produced first books that can stand alongside, or even topple, masterpieces of some other top writers who have had long and successful careers, and what Hannah Kent achieves in this remarkable book is monumental. Burial Rites is so readable one would not have considered it to be a historical fiction if the obvious connections to the actual events had not been made.
Agnes Magnusdottir, in nineteenth century Iceland, has been convicted and sentenced to death for her involvement in the killing of two men, one of them her employer who was a famous healer. Much of the book is set at the residence of a District Officer and his family, with whom she had been required to wait out her sentence until she would be executed, and her recounting and recalling of how her life had led her to this point. The story of her conviction brings to mind the manner of conviction of Albert Camus’s Meursault in The Stranger; her undoing being her perceived superior intelligence, which swayed the judgement against her despite a lack of definitive evidence. She is too smart to not have been the biggest influence on the crime. A fiercely humane story, Burial Rites stands to alter our manner with people condemned by society.
“I thought nothing of it at first. The ocean looked a little closer to our hotel than usual. That was all.” But that was not all. Minutes later, the ocean would grow into a tsunami. She would survive, or, more accurately, live.
Spending the 2004 Christmas holiday at a national park by the water with her husband, her two sons, and both her parents, Sonali Deraniyagala got the most undesirable Christmas present. The ocean rushed in and claimed them all, including her friend Orlantha, who had only come to ask if they were ready to leave, but Sonali was spared. And Wave is the heartbreaking story of her coming to terms with her grief. What is perhaps most devastating about such magnitude of grief is that she had what could be considered a perfect family, filled with boundless love and achievements. Sonali and her husband were academics who lived in London with their two sons. Most holidays were spent with her family in Sri Lanka.
Wave is Sonali not trying to forget her tragedy, accepting that the people she had loved most would never return. It is an agonising reality. Everything around her reminds her of a particular event or something else of her husband or sons or parents. She lets the loss run its course and managed to transform it into recovery, into relearning how to live again. How does one go about living after this? How does one accept the reduction of loved ones into ghosts and mere memories?
“What do you do when you cannot leave and cannot return?” After the death and overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi and his regime, Hisham Matar returns to Libya in 2012 for the first time since his family began their exile from their home country in 1979. He was returning into time. Jaballa Matar – Hisham’s father – had been abducted in 1990 when Hisham was nineteen. Jaballa had been a major opposition to the Qaddafi dictatorship. The Matars had settled in exile in Cairo, and it was from here that Jaballa was abducted. The role of the Egyptian government in the abduction is well documented here.
Hisham, living in London, had over many years initiated various campaigns and met with powerful people in a bid to make Qaddafi free his father. Then a dark secret unveils: the massacre of 1,270 prisoners in June 1996 at the infamous Abu Salim prison, the last known location of his father – and some of Hisham’s uncles and cousins – and around the time after which his father’s location became inconclusive.
“When your father has been made to disappear, your desire to find him is equalled by your fear of finding him. You are the scene of a shameful private battle.” He follows every clue he could find, navigating through the rumours of his father’s location, hopeful his father was still alive. His mother, during those early period after the abduction, recorded football matches – hundreds of them – that her husband would watch when he returns.
Hisham’s mother, a solid figure who complemented his father’s presence, had been instrumental in settling them into their exile in Cairo. “And I suppose that is what we want from our mother,” he wrote, “to maintain the world and, even if it is a lie, to proceed as though the world could be maintained.”
“Was I not doing all I could? Doesn’t a son have a right to know what happened to his father?” He had become obsessed with knowing when his father, who he suspects had been killed, died; if he was killed in the 1996 prison massacre.
In a lyrical prose that distinguishes this memoir, Hisham Matar brings us to meet his extended family that includes uncles and cousins who had been imprisoned by the dictatorship. He took detours to provide brief Libyan histories and to tell compelling stories of people like his cousin Izzo and Izzo’s friend Marwan, who both died in the rebellion that eventually overthrew the dictatorship.
“But it turns out when you are looking for your father, you are also looking for other things.” It is unlikely he will ever find certain other things. “Not knowing when my father ceased to exist has further complicated the boundary between life and death.” but he has come to accept that as his own private misfortune.
One of the best books published in 2016, The Return is a delicate book that, as Colm Tóibín wrote, is “likely to become a classic.”
I once read a veteran editor (whose name I now fail to remember) claim Beloved is the best novel written in his lifetime. It is futile to argue. The story starts this way: “124 WAS SPITEFUL. Full of a baby’s venom.” And in precise, elegant, and enchanting prose, Morrison introduced us to 124, a house that is as much a character in itself, its inhabitants, the history of the house, and the history of its inhabitants. A notable achievement of Beloved is its patience. The story gives nothing away before its due time.
Beloved, a stranger who seemingly just steps out of the air, and who slips herself into the lives of the inhabitants of 124, comes to embody Sethe’s history and her scandalous attempt to save herself and her children: two sons and a baby daughter, from a white slaver she had escaped from to live with her mother-in-law.
Characters and ideas are delicately contrasted. There is a black grandmother called Baby Suggs, whose son worked to buy her out of slavery and who ends up inheriting a white person’s house. Amy Denver of Boston, a white woman, helps a runaway slave woman deliver a baby under extremely uncomfortable circumstances. Mr Garner, an unusually ‘kind’ slave-owner whose residence is called Sweet Home, and ‘The Schoolteacher’ who took over control of the house after Mr Garner’s life winds down. It is these contrasts between people which humanises the novel, distances it from just being another story of slavery.
This is by far the most outrageous and remarkable love story I have ever read. A proud overachiever of a novel, excellent in every regard; so perfect it has what I consider in some novels to be the right length. The quality of writing is so outstanding only a true master of the art could have achieved it. Morrison might just have produced the most representative template of a great novel.
Wells Tower belongs to a generation of writers whose works I’ve enjoyed and found myself seeking, so it was part regret, part relief that I was only meeting his work now.
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is not a collection of stories as bleak as the title might imply. If anything, though dark sometimes, it is unfailingly hilarious. The stories have a wide range of protagonists and plots that show Tower’s diverse breadth of imagination. He does not hold back, drawing images of the ridiculousness of regular contemporary life, describing them with great attention and lucidity. Towers write clear, beautiful, and outrageously funny sentences. In Wild America, “a baby pigeon stolen from its nest, mauled and draped on Jacey’s pillow” by her cat “looks like a half-cooked eraser with dreams of someday becoming a prostitute.”
The characters are, like regular people, seeking fulfilment against bizarre odd. But they are humans, in all their compassion and suppressed vulnerability. They are misunderstood, angry, curious, and, essentially, they love, but sometimes don’t know they do.
I set out on a few books on reading and this is perhaps the most rewarding. Francine Prose started the first chapter, Close Reading, with the question: Can Creative Writing be taught? She answered it with her own experience on becoming a writer. “The answer I give to people who ask about teaching creative writing: A workshop can be useful. A good teacher can show you how to edit your work. The right class can form the basis of a community that will help and sustain you. But that class, as helpful as it was, was not where I learned to write. Like most—maybe all—writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books.”
She advocates that the reader pays close attention to the parts that make a book which she took apart to stand as successive chapter titles: Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialogue, Details, Gesture, etc.
What she did is mostly to advocate that would-be writers, to learn from the masters of the art, do the most important job of reading, and to read closely, to read with a higher sensibility.
Vargas Llosa might have as well shown us ghosts which overrun the earth, for since I read this intelligent book, I’ve been confronted everywhere by what he calls The Civilization of the Spectacle.
He begins with a brief history of (high) culture and its role in societal structures through centuries, and continues to weave through its democratization and its inevitable decline. Culture, which was only accessible to the higher societal class (the elite) became accessible to all, “This commendable philosophy has had the undesired effect of trivializing and cheapening cultural life, justifying superficial form and content in works on the grounds of fulfilling a civic duty to reach the greatest number.
“It is not surprising therefore,” he continues, “that the most representative literature of our times is ‘light,’ easy literature, which, without any sense of shame, sets out to be – as its primary and almost exclusive objective – entertaining.”
This decline, he bemoans, has also diluted intellectuality and integrity in politics. Consequently, in the prevailing culture, popularity is based more on publicity. He expressed scepticism at the chances of this circumstance would improve positively. Because things cannot stay unchanged in our present world, “something else will replace it, perhaps better, perhaps worse, in the society of the future.”
I first read Lesley Arimah when her Light won the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for African Region, and I’d since anticipated the publication of her book. Arimah’s competence in this collection shines through her vibrant, unpredictable prose.
This collection of short stories resonates with unforgettable female characters. Set mostly in Nigeria and the USA, the stories is a celebration of women and their resourcefulness. They are so real one forgets at times the futuristic settings in some of the stories, as the underlining humanness of people exceeds the boundaries of time. The stories range from the realistic to realism, all with a delicious darkness that is bare and unpretentious. Even in a post-apocalyptic or any other reality, we are still just people doing what people have always done: survive.
In a world where females suddenly develop the power of electrocution, how does this affect societal structures? What are the potential consequences of such sudden shift in power? These are among the ideas interrogated in The Power. The book follows the lives of four major characters through the changes the world has been stunned with. Roxy Monke, the daughter of a mobster is one of the strongest, but she has her Power stolen, ripped out of her, by her father who implants it into her brother. She escapes later, powerless, and later meets Tunde, a Nigerian journalist (who I admire greatly in all his characteristic Nigerian resourcefulness), who has also lost his own kind of power – all his life’s work which he’d intended to sum up into a book about his travelling around the world, chronicling notable event on the Power – and in the end, they both remain; two people who used to possess great powers.
“Power doesn’t care who uses it.” Maybe, as humans, we’re not by default equipped for power, for indiscriminate superiority; and such uncontrollable imbalance will always breed a catastrophe. As the novel winds down, Roxy, trying to escape from a camp under attack, witnesses from her hideout a man being raped and eventually killed. “They do it because they can.” The victim was completely paralysed with helplessness and fear, as everyone would be before indiscreet performance of genuine power.
Books I look forward to read in 2018
- Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto
- Half-Light: Collected Poems by Frank Bidart
- A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa
- Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
- Arundhati Roy’s novels
Nurain Oladeji lives in Ibadan, Nigeria. He likes to read books and is fascinated by the secret lives of plants.
This is the second of 10 pieces on Readers on Reading in 2017.