There has never been a time when there was a surfeit of what to read as our time. Besides wanting to read and finding the time, there are times when we read something—a poem, an essay, a comic or a book—and we feel that reading is its own reward. For those who like to read and do so on a consistent basis, reading is at the very habit they enjoy. For this piece, we feature Eleven Readers with at least 550 books jointly read in 2016—besides other things read that were not books—and reading habits that reach as far back as two decades drawn from, they tell us about their notable reads in 2016 and offer insights into their reading habits, and challenges, they make book recommendations and also talk about their to-be-read—in 2017—lists.
As you will find, there are more references to the works of some authors; Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Yaa Gyasi, Junot Díaz and Teju Cole while Ayobami Adebayo’s debut novel is very fervently anticipated.
Some books can be excitable, yet not exert the kind of force or the kind of power to accord them the honour of prizes or notable mentions. Yet any book, good or bad, excellent or average is a function of a selective bias either from the perspective of the readers or judges of prizes.
I remember reading a review of E. L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey in 2014 and almost basing my decision about whether or not the book was worthy of my time on the negativity of the review. To sum the review into a few words, Kat Brown opined that “the writing was bad”. Another reviewer on USA Today described the book as 50 Shades of monotonous. Yet when I got to read the book months later, I didn’t think the books was half as bad as it had been described in those reviews.
Another instance which comes readily to mind would be Percy Zvomya’s review of Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel The Fishermen which he described as overwritten with many metaphors creaking and stretching beyond the point of breaking. I would eventually get to read the book and fall in love with the writing on the same basis with which Percy debased the book in his review. I would enjoy his use of metaphors to describe, to evoke the images his narrative couldn’t concoct on their own.
This year, I have learnt to form my own biases and decide what fits into my own categorization of what is a good, bad or great book. It has been an enriching experience, I have travelled cities by foot, on trains, fought battles, befriended kings, married princesses, had orgasmic sex and within several turns of pages, my thirst to know more is ever on the increase. Here is my list of 10 Notable Books I read this year. Each title is here because of beautiful, cliché-free prose and daring to wing language to do their bidding like magicians wing their wands.
Season of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim showed his ability to deliver very concise prose through his debut offering; The Whispering Trees. This debut novel of his depicts the realities and the intricacies of the puritanical society which Northern Nigeria is known to be. It darted questions at the societal concepts of right and wrong and more importantly morality. This story is the story of love and lust between two unlikely characters, Binta Zubairu and Hassan Reza Babale and everything that surrounded their relationship.
I enjoy reading very detailed and graphic first chapters in any book I read. This is because this chapter decides how the rest of the book should be for me. It is this chapter which invites me into the narrative and piques my own curiosity. Word for word and sentence for sentence, that first chapter for me was a hit. It reminded me of VS Naipaul’s opening line in House for Mr Biswas in its ability to squeeze in everything important about the book in one beautiful sentence.
The narrative also had a pace about its delivery which would keep a reader’s mind and eye glued till the story ends. It was the kind of narrative that can earn applause at the end as though it was a movie being seen at the cinema.
Igoni Barrett’s Blackass gave us a character that successfully transitioned from being a full blooded black Nigerian man and to a white man. What struck me most about this character of Furo Wariboko was the fact that despite his skin and facial transformation, he retained every other aspect of him, his voice remained the same and his thinking faculties too. The narrative wasn’t big on limiting itself and scope to a single theme but danced around a variety of themes. It moved from racial identity and its effects on the psyche of people and how they respond to these changes to themes of psychological and physical transformation. Especially in a world that is struggling with the problems of racial profiling, xenophobia, homophobia and trans-phobia. Blackass deals subtly with these issues as though the writer intends to provoke a discussion. But what I like most about the book is the ease at which each transition is made, touching on sensitive issues without bordering on sentiments.
Igoni begins the narrative with one of the most powerful opening lines I have ever encountered in a novel.
“Furo Wariboko awoke this morning to find that dreams can lose their way and turn up on the wrong side of sleep”.
Blackass started strongly and maintained that rhythm for the duration of the story. The story centres on the life of Furo Wariboko who, born and bred in Lagos begins the morning of a long anticipated job interview which to him was going to be like any other one—unsuccessful—because of the number of applicants that he would meet there. He woke up that morning and finds out to his horror that he had turned white for no reason at all. This was one of the things I found a little curious about the narrative. I believe like most people that for any change to occur, it must be a result of a process in whatever form that this process may take but like Kafka in The Metamorphosis, this writer decides not to give an explanation.
Blackass is very funny and provocative. Its characters were fully formed, self-aware and they matured with time as the writer intended. Each character was a classical representation of the typical Lagosian. A closer examination of the characters shows that the writer clearly understood the working and politics of a city like Lagos and how it reflected the psyche of Nigerians.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
With one of the most colourful prose I have ever read or encountered in a work of prose, Zusak’s Book Thief runs the risk of being labelled a masterpiece. The Style of the narrative awakens in you, a sense of dedication to imagery. In The Book Thief, the man hiding a Jew named Max Vandenburg is a decorator and part-time accordion player, Hans Hubermann. One of the reasons why he’s hiding this particular man is because Max’s father saved his own life when they were both German soldiers in the First World War. He and his wife, the ever angry and shouting Rosa Hubermann have also adopted a girl named Liesel, the main character of this tale. The growing relationships between Hubermann and Liesel and, later, Liesel and Max Vandenburg are central to the book.
Another delightful thing about the book is the narrator, a very observant narrator in Death who seemed to see the world in colours. This gives the story a kind of balance with glimpses of what is yet to come.
We Need New Names by Noviolet Bulawayo
Easily one of the best books I read this year staking a place because of Bulawayo’s intimate portrayal of Zimbabwe. The first part of the narrative was centred on a little girl in a small shanty town called Paradise which Bulawayo describes in the simplest of language, the kind which is at once alive and confident, often very funny.
I enjoyed reading this book more because of how relatable those experiences which accompanied Darling—the central character—were, the carelessness and carefreeness of childhood and of course, the perfection of the child narrative voice. The second part of the book was a little less dramatic and funny, perhaps owing to the maturity of Darling and the colourlessness of her new reality in the United States. Here, the novel descends into trite observations about the oddness of snow, the sound of gunshots and the clash of cultures when a skinny Zimbabwean marries a fat American in order to get immigration papers.
Never Look an American in the Eye by Okey Ndibe
This book is a witty pile of memoirs about Okey Ndibe’s time of living in the United States and not an angry, anti-American screed as the title implies. It is an addendum to an assumption made by one of Ndibe’s uncles who had been fed with perhaps a few tens of some movies titled Westerns that every American carries a gun and that if you were caught, you being a stranger or a foreigner, it was likely that you would get shot.
In this memoir, we were allowed the luxury of seeing the making of Okey Ndibe, both as a writer and a journalist. He took us on a journey which allowed us to see his relationship with Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and some of his tutors while he was in grad school. The memoirs also gave us front row seats to watch Ndibe’s struggles to keep the African Commentary magazine which had been his reason for going to the United States in the first place.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
I found two things particularly attractive in Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and the first is the manner in which time was handled and also the attention the writer gave into describing to the last detail every plot and every nuance in the narrative despite the timeline. It is a story of friendship between two girls, the narrators being Ferrante and her friend, Lila. A friendship shared through books and continuous juxtaposition of ambition.
The narrative shows both characters as fascinating portraits of admirably strong, ambitious women in a patriarchal world. While Lila is enigmatic and volatile, Elena is often more subdued. These features in both characters are more or less what drove the book. These characterisations are also why I found the book amazing. The characters grew with the narrative and one could almost guess how either of them would respond to any given situation which were presented in the book.
The Dove’s Necklace by Raja’a Alem
This book relied on the brilliant use of a variety of literary devices, notably personification and metaphors. And this usage of these devices without veering off on the idea and ambition of the story is why I think this book is a winner. In some parts of the book, you may be dismayed at the extent of details which the narrator provides but when you critically reason the point of view of the narrative voice, it would sink in and you would find yourself applauding the audacity of the writer to attempt such feats.
Policeman Nasser al-Qahtani is assigned to investigate the death (and possible murder) of a woman who fell naked from a window onto the Lane of Many Heads, an alley in a poor section of Mecca. Positive identification of the dead woman is complicated by the disfigurement caused by her fall and by the silence of collective shame that hovers over the victim’s exposed, naked body.
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
Oyeyemi is arguably one of the most important writers of this generation. This book contains some beautiful writing with an incredible penchant for detailing. Her stories were real to the points of being labelled fantastic. I particularly enjoyed her interplay of the themes of youth and desire throughout the stories that made the book. There is a reassuring grace and subtlety to her style of delivery which makes the narratives very believable.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
If there was a book, I badly wanted to read this year, this was the book. Written in a blend of Spanish and English, Díaz delivered what I believe to be a masterpiece. The story is like a biography of sorts for Oscar, who has never had many good things happen to him in his short life which was punctuated by his disastrous weight issues. Despite all these, the young man harboured dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien or Stephen King and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the fukú—the ancient curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still dreaming of his first kiss, is only its most recent victim—until the fateful summer that he decides to be its last.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is an unusual story. A story that is at once difficult and disturbing at the same time. It is the story of an event seared into the fabric of history told in the innocent voice of a young boy. This story will break your heart. It is the story of nine-year-old unhappy Bruno; his father has a new job and he’s leaving his comfortable house, his neighbourhood and his three best friends behind. His big sister Gretel is hopeless, for like older sisters everywhere, she’s in a world all her own, though it is obvious she isn’t thrilled about the move either. Their servants are tight-lipped and nervous, and Bruno’s mother tries to explain that this is not only a promotion for his father, it is his duty she says but Bruno is not convinced.
I like this book for various reasons, one of these reasons is simplicity in delivery and also suspense. The narrative is woven in such a manner that despite its childlike simplicity, nothing is given away about the outcomes and despite the story being set in a familiar past, the reader still needs to turn the page to untangle themselves from the web of mystery that the book was woven with. If you haven’t already guessed, John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a young adult novel about the Holocaust.
Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier
This is the story of an aging philology teacher, who finds a book of memoirs in a book store and starts to read them. The author of the memoirs was a Portuguese doctor and a resistance fighter during the Salazar dictatorship. Gregorius, the teacher, believes he has found his fantasized soul mate in this resistance fighter, Amadeu Prado, a brooding and tortured aristocrat.
The story of Amadeu Prado’s life reveals itself to him in bits and pieces as he completes his journey to Lisbon to talk to all of Prado’s relatives, friends, and teachers. It is through Prado’s life that Gregorius discovers and virtually relives a life of passion he never allowed himself as a fifty-eight year-old dull ancient-language teacher. One of my issues with the book was that it seemed like a drag with very long soliloquy like thoughts expressed in long boring sentences, but eventually I got used to them. I got to travel through Europe in all its intimacies with the writer. This is one of the reasons why I found this book fantastic.
Not Worth the Hype
Here are three notable books I didn’t enjoy.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
This book came highly recommended and also after winning the Man Booker prize, one may have been right not to expect less from it. In terms of prose, it was an amazing work of historical fiction into the life and death of Bob Marley. But it makes my bad books for the year because of the same reason it can be ascribed as a good book. I found the switching from personality and voice very distracting and the book became a bore barely few pages in to it. I could not easily identify the timelines or the characters. I had to keep going back to look for sentences to define things that should have held my attention.
Bury Me Come Sunday Afternoon by Nike Campbell-Fatoki
I endured this collection of stories and for me, asides one or two stories in the collection; the rest is unworthy of this author. The narratives are ridden with everyday clichés almost as if the writer intentionally wanted to display her not so good works in a book.
And After Many Days by Jowhor Ile
When I started the book, I enjoyed the writer’s directness, his fast short sentences and straight-to-the-point-ness. The story was majorly about the disappearance of a supposedly moral and upright boy. The writer was detailed in his descriptions, hence the perfection of his opening chapter. But the following chapters took us on a journey of pasts, most of the details there honestly were not necessary for me. They didn’t move the narrative forward in any way. But like I always say, I am entitled to my biases. The story moved from what it began with—the disappearance of a boy—to a careful study into the lives of members of his family. I didn’t think we needed to read all those bits. I was pissed that the writer neglected his hook and circles back to him only later at the end of the story when I as a reader had almost completely forgotten about him despite the initial story being all him.
Looking Forward to Read in 2017
Hopefully, 2017 will give me the chance to read more rewarding books.
Here are the books I look forward to reading the most.
- Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole
- Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi
- Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo
- What It Means When a Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Arimah
- Carnivorous City by Toni Kan
Tolu Daniel is a writer and photographer.
This year has been a successful reading year, but I didn’t realize I had read this much until I took out the time to compile this list. I found it a bit challenging picking out the books I have listed here because I had a tall list of very incredible books. Having done this, I feel more satisfied than I would have done after having chocolates—they are my favourites.
A Rare Blue Bird Flies with Me by Youssef Fadel (translated by Jonathan Smolin)
Written in parts, it was refreshing and different to read a dog give its account of what was happening in Morocco. It also reminded me of Nigeria, the judiciary and the fate of many who are in jail without trial. The imagery used was powerful so much that I could perceive the stench of rotten human bodies through the pages of the book. It has a universal theme of decay and most nations of the world can relate to this.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Roy’s technical narrative compelled me to read the book twice and slowly both times. Once I went past that challenge, I was in for a serious and almost tragic reading. It has a great command of diction, imagery and skill.
The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith
Weirdly witty. This is how best I can describe this book. The characters are distinct. The story line is unusual. I liked the narrative casualness and humour even when something tragic was about to happen. You wouldn’t find this in most books.
I didn’t enjoy reading this book much, mostly because I found it too academic. A lot of academic materials that should have stayed out were included, which explains for how bulky the book is. Beneath the academic pages is an engaging story and I liked the narrative style and language of the author.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
At that point where Florentino and Fermina stood naked in the comfort of the ship, staring at each other’s wrinkles, the former perceived the smell of old age, and only then did he realize he was grey. He had spent his entire life chasing a woman. I paused at this point and asked myself, is this it? When our dreams eventually come true, what next after that? Perhaps another ambition to fill our days with? It made me realize the nothingness in life. I liked the way this book engaged me, the emotion on every page and how much it made me think deeply about life.
The Fourth Dimension by David Yonggi Cho
It taught me how to pray the right way. My spiritual life became better.
Nowergian Wood by Haruki Murakami
I thought this book was sick when I was done. I said that much to a friend. It felt like being in a psychiatric hospital without really being there. This feeling wasn’t overwhelming, merely emotional that I couldn’t help but connect with the characters like I knew them.
Imasuen unapologetically uses pidgin without translation. By doing this, I felt at home and connected to the energy of the narrative. The humour helped to ease my suspense when it got rough in the book. The vivid description is a major plus to this book because even for someone who have never been, the vibes and colours are so alive in words; it would feel like you have been to Nigeria.
Season of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
I first read Abubakar’s debut book Whispering Trees and there was so much soul and ease in the way he told the stories that I was looking forward to reading this one. It wasn’t exactly what I expected. The narrative ease I had seen in his debut book was lacking in this one. The novel was edited to an antiseptic point. I enjoyed the story a lot but wondered why certain characters were forcefully killed.
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
I have read all three of Hosseini’s books that it has become really hard to draw the line between each book. Certain themes resonant in his books: poverty, family, marriage, war etc But one thing remains certain, Hosseini is a great story teller, his story would pull at your emotions, cause you pain and even make you cry a bit, but you will always remember Mariam and her sacrifices.
The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin
Adventurous, informative and entertaining. This is what you get as Chatwin takes you on a ride to the world of the aboriginals in Australia. I found this semi fictional book more informative then pleasurable. A lot of characters zipped past and it was a bit difficult trying to sort them out in the head, what with the fast pace of the book. But largely it will always stand the test of time because of its historical content.
This book for me reiterates the well known fact that humans are selfish in love and life. I related to it in a lot of ways. It was insightful.
- Ake Review Journal, Volume 2&3
- The Rainbow Lied: An online anthology
- A Half formed thing, by Ehizogie Iyeomoan, Ikechukwu Nwaogu and Servio Gbadamosi
- If Everyday were Christmas by Su’eddie Vershima Agema (Short story)
Looking Forward to Read in 2017
These are some of the books I look forward to reading in 2017.
- Red Sorghum by Mo Yan
- A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
- Son of Hamas by Mosab Hassan Yousef and Ron Brackin
- The Satanic Verses by Salman Rusdie
- Night Watch by Patrick Modiano
Debbie Iorliam is a poet, writer, editor, model and a fellow of Ebedi International residency.
2016 was a difficult year as far as reading books was concerned. In no other year in recent memory have I had so many books bought or gifted which I have still not read. At the top of this list is Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, both of which I hope to get to in the coming days yet. I think back with nostalgia for 2000/2001, a year in which I read well over 150 books (I made a list!) borrowed from my professor friend’s library. This year, I have barely made 30. For the most part, these have been African writers.
My favourite book this year was Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account—a powerfully imagined story of a North African, Mustafa al-Zamori, who presses himself into slavery and ends up on the historical Narvaez expedition. Now renamed Estebanico by his Spanish masters, they set sail for America seeking gold, meeting the resistance and hostility of several indigenous American groups. The further north they go on the increasingly delusory quest, the more the ordered society of slave and master and the elaborate rules that hold it in place fail and degenerate. Only four persons survive, and in the historical account, Mustafa/Estebanico’s voice is muted. It is this voice that Laila Lalami assumes and makes central. Her prose is quite beautiful.
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms comes next to this—a story about a middle-aged woman in conservative northern Nigeria who falls in love with a weed dealer in his twenties. I read it at about the same time as Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday. Both are set in northern Nigeria and aim to tell stories about characters whose lives are impacted by forces outside their control—religion and culture—and ensuing tragedies. Both books are important. Abubakar’s characters come across as more organic and from that great opening sentence, he is able to keep the pace of the novel even until the end. Both novels approach their subject with a slant peculiar to each writer, which in turn informs the choices of style and point of view. The effect is that Abubakar’s comes across as a novel about people and Elnathan’s come across as a novel of ideas about people. Both answer the question of how much scope a person has in choosing to control their fates.
Early in the year, I enjoyed Zukiswa Wanner’s London, Jo’burg, Cape Town which, like Lalami’s book, was also published in 2014. Zukiswa is one of the finest writers we have on this continent and this book about South Africa in the period after the end of Apartheid is important reading. Using prescient observation along with a special class of humour, the shades of colour of the rainbow nation are examined for their frays in the story of British-born African, Martin, his white British wife Germaine, and their biracial child. The story of their lives and the tragedy of it, and perhaps of a bewildering South Africa too, is told with empathy even when it saddens. My gutsy friend, Hawa, writing as H. J. Golakai, also published a lovely read, a crime thriller titled The Lazarus Effect in which we follow Voinjama “Vee” Johnson, a Liberian journalist who follows the story of a murdered girl through a peculiar dysfunctional family while keeping the demons of her own trauma from the Liberian civil war and love at bay. The novel starts off slowly but once Ms. Golakai hits her stride, there’s no letting up.
A recent good read, great read even, is Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North which recalls the fate of Australian prisoners of war pressed into building a mad railway for the Japanese through Burma in the course of World War II. Using the memories of a “hero POW”, Dr. Dorrigo Evans, in today’s Australia, the experience of the men on the line and the stories of the Japanese Army commanders and their Korean accomplices, it questions love and suffering equally candidly. It is a moving account, a story of death and the many senselessness-es of life, of diarrhoea and cholera and madness. At the heart of it is the killing by all present, Japanese, Korean and POW alike, of a sergeant named Darky Gardiner, who most symbolized hope and who is beaten to death. Flanagan is able to enter the motivations of men all on the brink of death and something in this sad choreography makes a powerful novel. It reminded me of Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K in its brutal eye to human degeneration, only this is far more elegant, far sadder.
I’m a sucker for great prose and the master of prose this year is Maik Nwosu. His new book, A Gecko’s Farewell, is one of those for which the temptation to underline prescient language is strong. I imagine that falling into this temptation will lead to a sort of art, yellow highlighting marker on paper like zebra stripes or leopard patches. Farewell is the story of three exiles of disparate lives who meet online. There’s Etiaba, a sacked Nigerian schoolteacher; Nadia, an Egyptian photojournalist endangered for taking a timely photo of an Islamist terrorist just before he unleashes mayhem, and Mzilikazi, a fugitive South Africa boy soldier the only survivor of a village massacre in Kruger Park. Then there is the inimitable Dr. Lookout, a serious madman walking the endless plank of sanity in dystopian country, for which release can only come from falling and exile from a homeland where one is no longer at home. As they narrate the stories of their lives, some of the most enduring images of Africa are created by Maik Nwosu’s prose. This is writing of sheer, sheer beauty.
The second instalment of Chuma Nwokolo’s Nigeria centenary short stories collections belongs on this list. How to Spell Naija Vol. 2 comprised fifty short short stories of great hilarity and drama which, in truth, paint the most profound picture of Nigeria there ever can be. In telling a friend about the book, I said at a point that “Chuma knows people.” She misunderstood me, quite tellingly, to mean that the author was “connected” in the Naija sense of being a friend, relative or client to powerful people. What I meant was that Chuma knew people down to the minutiae of their lives, to the motives that impel them for which they are ashamed to admit and sometimes for which they adopt the patent Nigerian in-your-face. The earlier collection, Vol. 1, made my Ketchup List in 2014—five print books I promised to publicly eat with ketchup only if anyone bought and did not enjoy reading—and while I have not made such a list for 2016, Vol. 2 is a top contender.
Being a poet, I should speak about the better poetry collections I have read in this year, to even out a bit a prose heavy list. The first should be an old one, HOWL by Allen Ginsburg, a gift from a German friend. There is a tendency to think of dead poets, such as Ginsburg, as being “prophets” when their writing seems to speak to today’s realities—the loss of identity and our incapacity to be happy, the seeking for something greater to make sense of things, a something we know does not exist. This is the core of HOWL. Yet, I think the reality is slightly different. These writers do not speak to us, know nothing of us. They speak instead to something unchanging and prophets they are, every few decades, from Milton to Eliot, to Lorca to Ginsburg, all come to speak for an inexhaustible sadness because even with all the years and technology and changing fashions, men have not changed really. Another memorable collection is Ahmed Maiwada’s 2013 Eye Rhymes, a short collection of great stylistic innovation. I do not think a more innovative poet than Maiwada exists in Nigeria—in terms of form and style, in terms of the prescience of his language and the overarching poetic vision. I liked his earlier Fossils but I think Eye Rhymes is a far superior collection with its use of eye rhymes and a coherent cornucopia of allusions. As with Niran Okewole’s 2007 collection, Logarhythms, it saddens me greatly that these poems are not better known and read much more widely. And then of course, there is Amu Nnadi, who gave us A River’s Journey this year. It is a really great collection of poems that threshes the riverine image, clearly inspired by Christopher Okigbo’s The Passage from Heavensgate and Gabriel Okara’s The Call of the River Nun. In most of the poems gathered, Amu Nnadi does what he seems best able to do, which is evoking pure mood in the reader. These poets are all different, but they all are doing something poetry.
In talking about the year gone by, I must also say a few words on my half-read pile. At the top of this is Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me which I started and even started annotating as I read but which went missing at some point. I am hopeful that when I clarify my dwellings in the New Year, I will find it hidden somewhere and not in fact stolen. There’s also Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, which I read halfway and has remained by my headrest for months now. It is amongst the modest five I intend to finish before the end of January. There are a few books I would like to read which I have not bought yet—Toni Kan’s Carnivorous City, Leye Adenle’s Easy Motion Tourist and Yemisi Aribisala’s Longthroat Memoirs and then there is Kenyan writer Oduor Jagero’s Ghosts of 1894 and Zimbabwean Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s debut novel which follows her brilliant short story collection, Shadows, published in 2012. Finally, in a year of reading, mention must be made to the digital platforms where I surfed from one world of story to the next by following generous hypertext breadcrumbs—primarily, these are Jalada, Praxis Magazine and Expound Magazine.
Richard Ali is a Nigerian writer whose poems were first published in 2008. He has served in the National EXCO of the Association of Nigerian Authors and sits on the board of Uganda’s Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation. A member of the Jalada Writers Cooperative based in Nairobi, his work has been published in African Writing, Jalada, Saraba Magazine and elsewhere.
My favorite books of 2016 gave me what I really needed this year, great storytelling and fiction that dealt in truth.
I read more than 135 books this year, so my list was determined after considerable hand-wringing and a closely guarded (completely proprietary) re-reading and well thought out process.
The Happy Marriage by Tahar Ben Jelloun
This book tells the story of a painter who was confined to a wheelchair after suffering from a stroke allegedly caused by his wife. As his wife reads his version of the event. She gives her own version of the story.
It’s unusual to find a book at once freewheeling, controlled, and startlingly observant. The writing is clear; we were allowed to sympathize with both sides.
Although this is a translated work, it is written in bare, straightforward, almost skeletal prose.
I feel so bad for just discovering this author and even recently found out he gets mentioned every year as a possible contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature. I think we really need to read more books from North Africa.
Jennifer Makunbi was asked in an interview at the Ake Festival “What are the new frontiers of African literature?”
She answered “Pre-Colonial Africa”. To boldly go where no Europe has touched. Can you imagine stories set in historical Timbuktu? Can you Imagine personalities like Mansa Musa, Zwangendaba, Lubengula being brought back to life the way we see Richard III or Henry VIII all the time? For me, pre-colonial African history is the new frontier for literary adventure.”
This why her debut book about a generational curse passed down from as far back as 1750 to descendants of Kintu, is at its most rigorous and richly detailed — and as riveting as any thriller.
Set in Uganda, it starts with the murder of Kintu Kamu, who was killed because he was mistaken for a thief. Some months later, his killers are all found dead in horrendous conditions.
The author then takes us back to 1750 when it all started. Makunbi combines history, politics and, most of all, a gripping family drama into a tale of constant plot twists and dark humor.
This book is well researched and so rich in depth, I had to keep convincing myself that it is just fiction.
I absolutely agree with the other reviewers saying this should be compulsory reading for every human being. One of the best and most intense stories I have ever read. I always love fiction that dealt in truth and this is why this book is beautiful.
Another pre-colonial literature, set in the 1700’s, spanning decades and generations.
Meet Effia and Essi, two half-sisters, one was sold into slavery and another was married to a slave trader by her cunning stepmother.
Tackling questions of slavery, survival and endurance in Ghana and America across 250 years, this book is precise, artful, ingenious and most importantly, a vastly entertaining feat of storytelling.
Even after reading, I feel reparations have to be paid to families affected and separated by slavery/colonialism.
I can’t talk about this book without getting all emotional and I am happy that Yaa Gyasi did not resort to poverty/White people worshipping porn to make her point. She captured so many stories and she handled them beautifully.
Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole
Teju Cole is a wonderful essayist. His writing skills and use of language are superb. In this collection of essays, he name drops—a lot—and introduces us to writers/books that have influenced him. I particularly love his conversation with Aleksandar Hemon.
This collection of essays is so beautiful. It turns the conventions of an essay inside out. It is more than the portrait of an unusual photographer or writer, it is an exploration of why arts/books are important, how we are made and unmade in the stories we tell about our lives.
Although, his attempt at faking depth was obvious but there is poignancy to the book that remains long after the reading of it has finished.
The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
I can relate to book a lot because I also lost my uncle unexpectedly to a fatal accident on Lagos, Ibadan express way. Just like Ficre’s stairway death in this memoir, my uncle’s death was so shocking and heartbreaking.
Elizabeth heartbreaking and sublime memoir is an intensely personal story of her own loneliness, profound isolation, and constant mind-numbing fear of losing her husband unexpectedly. “He was just playing with me hours ago, we had plans, he was going to make more art.”
When I read, I thought of it as a memoir about the inevitability of grief, suffering and the elusiveness of consolation.
It’s been months, but I can’t stop thinking about Elizabeth Alexander. How is she doing? Has she remarried? Is she happy now? How are the children doing? Has she sold his studio? Is she going to auction his art to let go? I find myself googling her at odd times trying to see if she is doing well.
No one has perfect spouses, and no one can write a perfect book about them. But Elizabeth has come close.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
This book explains why I so often prefer fiction to non-fiction these days. Who could write a story as interesting and moving as this? It is suspenseful, sometimes chilling, humane and wise.
Two hundred pages-plus of effortless reading. A story that begins with the simple premise of a man trying to so hard to feed his family but turns into a page-turning extraordinary thriller.
There are many reasons why I loved this book a lot—its richly characterized voices, its sumptuous period details, its dark sense of humor and healthy but never grating awareness of itself. None of these even gets close to why it’s such a marvel. Even the preface is awesome.
It is basically unspoilable. It’s the kind of mystery/crime fiction that gives you a scare and makes you question everything. Even after reading, this book still left me with the, who do unit question?
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My inability to stand White savior stories stems from the fact that I have read too many White on Black hate books. Just look at the Underground Railroad, where black people and people who house them live in constant fear of being mugged and burnt at the stake by the white majority.
This book tells the story of how slaves who have escaped from their masters, are ferried and cargoed through the Underground railroad to freedom.
Whitehead is well-informed and skillful in unfolding a story, presenting detailed descriptions of people whose inner lives and social histories are generally ignored by traditional literature. Whitehead describes black fear, black inferiority complex as created by slavery and its aftermath.
This book was utterly brilliant. The pleasure of reading it was palpable.
The Sellout is a profoundly moving, brilliant book that will make you laugh, cry, snicker and then laugh again. I am not exaggerating the laughter, I laughed a lot.
It is talky and intellectual, and it takes us through race relations and identity in America, repression, desire, political resistance, creativity, and intellectual curiosity.
Clever, funny and curiously misunderstood, this book is a masterly study of black interactions, behaviors, and the nature of identity. It tackles some serious issues without getting heavy.
A poignant but deadly accurate depiction of racism in America. People of color will recognize and relate to the black humor! A deeply satisfying book, totally deserving of the Man Booker.
The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shula
Riz Ahmed’s ‘Typecast as a Terrorist’ published in The Guardian made me borrow this book. 21 well-written essays from black, Asian and minority ethnic voices emerging in Britain. Despite the fact that it was written majorly by immigrants working in the media and/or entertainment industry, its coverage of systematic racism and abuse still made me shudder.
But this is more than a group of immigrants coming together to tell ‘our story’. This is an exploration of immigrant life and identity written with deep personal vulnerability, profound and courageous conviction about the future of immigrants in Britain.
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
This is an uncommonly insightful, sincere, and sobering revelation of how to really and actually become a good writer. One of the most significant books on writing and meditation I have ever read.
I have been trying so hard to write and concentrate this past few year, I am a shitty writer and this book reassured me that even that is okay. And that as long as I have a draft, focus on my craft, I would get better.
A beautifully written insight into writing, it certainly opened my eyes. It’s a very simple read, but the reader takes away a clearer, more complex understanding of writing.
Zainab Quadri takes beautiful book-centric flat lay photographs that you can check out on Instagram, @zaynabtyty.
This is the first part of a piece on Readers on Reading in 2016. Go on and read the second and third parts.