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(Some) Books of 2008


Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: excellent prose, well-rounded characters and scenes, and a nuanced description of Nigeria’s ruling elite in the 1960s, descriptions still reflective of today’s dissolute leaders. Chimamanda manages to handle themes of class and power and passion in a subtle yet telling tone, without affectation.

Measuring Time by Helon Habila leads us through mythic moments that nostalgically expose the poignancy of childhood and identity, the sensitivity of memory and loss, and the ambivalence of heroism and history. Habila’s prose is as hypnotic and gripping as a snake charmer’s tune.


Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan: Akpan writes with dry-eyed wisdom, and is never apologetic or over-emotional when revealing the appalling state to which we subject our continent’s children. In the midst of poverty or tribal and religious warfare in Kenya, Ethiopia, Gabon, Nigeria and Rwanda, children are forced to learn the language and codes of survival, but what really saves their humanity and ours is their familial love. Perhaps Uwem Akpan goes too far in showing the very worst of our nature: while the children provide hope, I was left wondering if that was enough to save them from a similar fate befalling them in future, that is, their growing into another generation of helpless parents. But perhaps, the author is serving a stark warning—that if we don’t care for the weakest among us then we are all endangered. The stories in Say You’re One of Them will stay in my head for a long time.

God’s Bits of Wood by Sembene Ousmane: my bookclub selected Sembene Ousmane’s book which I first read in high school far too many years ago, and I was thrilled to re-read it with adult eyes. The language is lush, the details are so vivid that the book almost reads like a movie and the characters are so keenly observed and multi-layered that despite their intimidating numbers, they make deep impressions. The novel is ambitious, funny, intelligent—cutting about colonial rule without being didactic. We learn much about Senegalese pre-independence culture without feeling lectured or talked down to. The strength of the women is portrayed without coming across as bearing a militant authorial agenda. The moral authority that keeps the railroad strike at the heart of the novel going is moving and believable. The book was published in 1960 and reads like a literary thriller written in contemporary times.


The third volume of Albert Camus’ Notebooks, covering the period between 1951 and his death in 1959, was released this year. Amidst the philosophical jottings, plot ideas and scattered memoirs, we see Camus’ gnomic and melancholy reaction to being informed he had won the 1957 Nobel Prize. What kind of person created those unconsoling novels, plays and essays? In photos, Camus always looked like a cool cat: his mind, on the contrary, was white hot.


By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano is a mesmerizing story about a priest with a poet’s heart, set in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship. Bolano (who died in 2003 at age 50) is a writer’s writer, and he knows where to go for broke.

The Clash Within by Martha Nussbaum is an engrossing book about the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India. The book is full of good things, but what I find most striking is the author’s objectivity, the way she manages to impartially depict individuals suspected of genocide. I admire the worldview which informs that kind of writing.


The Shack by William P. Young: I read this book at a time in my life when I needed to. This is a story of tragedy and triumph. It is a book about your faith and how it is tested beyond what you think you can bear. It is also a book about breaking down preconceived notions of who you think God is, what you think your purpose in life is and how you relate to the world based on these ideas. This book is simply written—it is an easy read but it is also a book that will pervade your every thought long after the last page is read. William Young originally wrote this book for his children, and this may be responsible for a depth and simplicity that is often missing in jaded writers. This is a fresh perspective and I highly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to rediscover who they are.


The Magic of Malgudi by R.K. Narayan: It is difficult to believe this book was first published in the 1930s, as the stories are very contemporary. The book is a perfect illustration of the saying: there’s nothing new under the sun. Narayan’s characters are so alive they leap out of the pages of his book. You cannot read this book and fail to connect emotionally with the characters he’s created.

Ali Smith’s Girl meets Boy: this is a re-imagining of the myth of Iphis. Smith’s scope of (re) imagination is impressive. Plus, this novella has one of the best opening lines ever.


Two books I read this year that definitely made an impression on me would have to be Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. For Kafka on the Shore, it is a beautifully written novel, almost poetic in its use of language, and its dark, moody nature appeals to me. It is a fascinating novel where emotions and feelings become almost too beautiful to describe. Shantaram on the other hand, is raw and almost vulgar. I loved this book because it was filled with lots of adventures, one after the other. I never knew which way the narrator would go. Also, the fact that it was based on real events made it a very interesting read. Its pages were filled with gang wars, sickness, death, love, pain, beauty, blood, happiness, sadness—it felt like buying a trip to India with all sorts of adventures included the package.


Blonde Roots by Bernardine Evaristo is a tale of what one might call “reverse slavery”—it imagines that it was the blacks (Aphrika) who enslaved the whites (Europa). This imaginative, and humorous, turning of history on its head furnishes the reader with new light in which to view the transatlantic slave trade and to review notions of racial power and guilt, at the same time gently issuing a reminder about the universality of human cruelty.

Home and Exile by Chinua Achebe: this compilation of a series of lectures delivered ten years ago at Harvard University is vintage Achebe—full of timeless wisdom, humour at once questioning and answering, and that storytelling genius that the world first glimpsed fifty years ago. “You cannot balance one thing; you balance a diversity of things,” Achebe writes in the book. Home and Exile contains the meditations of a gifted and compassionate writer balancing dispossession and repossession; province and metropolis; memory and metamorphosis.



Two re-readings this year—coincidentally both Pulitzer Prize winners. Toni Morrison’s breathtaking ghost story, Beloved, is a novel I had difficulty with when I first read it, but upon re-reading I’m always flabbergasted at its lyricism, beauty and haunting, brutal rendition of slavery and its devastating repercussions.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection, The Interpreter of Maladies, is a wonderful evocation of the Indian, specifically Bengali, immigrant experience in the United States. The wife of a recent US arrival flounders while her husband attempts to carve a career for himself; a young couple exchange confessions in their apartment during evening blackouts; a translator interprets illnesses for a doctor on behalf of his patients. Understated and always beautifully written.


Coconut by Kopano Matlwa: this tale is particularly stunning as it is told from the perspective of two teenage girls, one from a middle class family and the other from a poor home. Race, gender and the lingering effects of apartheid are strong themes in this novel and the writer takes the reader far away with her lyrical and compassionate prose.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence: D.H. Lawrence has remained one of my favourite writers over the years. I found myself rereading this novel which was first published in 1928 and yet I still find it one of the boldest and daring literary texts which tackle sexuality. Doris Lessing’s introduction at the beginning of the 2007 Penguin Classics edition was also an interesting analysis of the author and his work.


The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence by Martin Meredith: over 750 pages long, this is a comprehensively researched and fluidly presented narrative about African peoples in the past half century. I put it down only to pick it up again; I do not lend it.

Letter to My Daughter by Maya Angelou is a collection of delicious stories of wisdom and experience and poetry and wit addressed to the daughter Ms. Angelou never had. It is a small volume that reflects various dimensions of her as a person, mother, wife, performer, writer, teacher, poet and speaker.


Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee: reading the novel, it was not always clear where Senor C. begins and Coetzee ends. Good read, with flashes of Coetzee’s brilliance as a writer, but I still maintain that Coetzee will never again write anything as good as The Life and Times of Michael K.

Allah is not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma: literature on child soldiers in West Africa’s civil (and resource) wars have grown into a genre of its own. In the US the most notable exponents of this genre are perhaps Ishmael Beah (A Long Way Gone: Memoir of a Boy Soldier, which was promoted by Starbucks and from which an excerpt was published in the New York Times magazine) and Uzodinma Iweala (who authored the novel Beasts of No Nation). Even the novelist Chris Abani has tried his hand at the genre. For me, the best of this genre is Ahmadou Kourouma’s novel. First published in French in 2000 and translated into English in 2005, it is a more compelling read than all the above combined.


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