Besides a category titled, “Not Worth the Hype”, the books are scintillating recommendations for 2017.
A memorable reading year for me, 2016 is second to none in this ageing decade. From A. Igoni Barret to Yaa Gyasi, the experience of reading Edward P. Jones and Elena Ferrante more than once, knowing the possibilities in African (historical) fiction through the sheer power of Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s fiction, and the gift of discovering necessary nonfiction in Ta-Nehisi Coates and Bruce Schneier’s Works.
Very quaintly, 2016 proved to somehow be about America as a dominant world power and this was well-represented, from America winning the Literature Nobel and Man Booker at once to it being clear that Nas could have the same claim to the Nobel for literature as Niyi Osundare. The only way I can expect more from 2017 is in the spirit of full optimism.
Here is a highlight of my notable reads in 2016.
In a Dele-Giwaesque manner of reportage, Peter Pomerantsev weaves the journalistic and the literary in this brilliant exposé of the new Russia.
Nothing is True and Everything is Possible sits comfortably between timely reportage and delayed whistleblowing, revealing the intricacies of modern, layered corruption, lacing the revelation with vignettes of Russia’s history and thus giving a nuanced context and backdrop to the series of unveilings the reader is about to encounter, one is made tellingly aware of the abyssal gamut of opportunities corruption does engender.
From Jambik Hatohov to Solzhenitsyn to Vladimir Putin to how the death of a Russian model in London just three days before her 21st birthday is connected to how a specific part of London (and the UK’s economy) is being targeted and taken over by foreign expats and how countries such as Nigeria (mentioned at least twice in the book) and Turkey seem to be cosplaying but are ultimately coalescing, to hints at why George Orwell’s 1984 owes a great debt to Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s “We” (implying that We is a ‘Classic’s Classic, the way James Salter is a ‘writer’s writer’ and Henry Green is a ‘writer’s writer’s writer.’
If corruption was a game of soccer, this book would be a testament to why Russia is thrice the game player Nigeria is. Both countries are losing, of course—or winning, just in case you’re part of a sacred order of elven folk in a post-GRRM, futuristic adaptation of ASOIAF set right at the heart of Crimea.
Brilliantly taking the reader into a tour that ‘scapegoats’ Russia, considering that there is no uniqueness to the basic form of what the book uncovers, Russia may have a stylistic hang on corruption but theirs is simply a solitary, eclectic reinvention of a phenomenon whose ubiquity is arguably, global. It’s like being introduced to Russian liquor; it is simply easier to personalize the experience than to generalize it. Pomerantsev opens up a global, critical conversation about wealth appropriation through political means, and what it means, or could mean for all the parties (or players, as no one is neutral, not even the innocent, having been forced into becoming the opposition) involved, in terms of benefits, consequences, ramifications and even complications, this particular kind of corruption is a citizen of the world, by way of the new Russia.
Helen MacDonald’s part, memoir, part tribute, part biography is unpretentious and remarkably intelligent. MacDonald uses clipped precision of diction and a painstakingly well-done intertwining of three different but ultimately related strands of narrative to invite us into her difficult but uniquely personal journey of loss and grief. This exquisitely written but somewhat emotionally tasking read comes with an implication and an unspoken question, how close can one be in a relationship be with anything or anyone; a thing, a pet, someone one has never (and certainly will never meet face to face), a spouse, a relative or anyone for that matter? It proffers an answer I find acceptable: As close as one wants. I would love to reread this book every two years. It’s that unforgettable.
“Have you seen the moon tonight? She is a thin slice of remnant hope.”
This was how Simi described the moon that crowned the vantablack-dark sky at 9pm on May 5th, 2016. Keep that in mind.
Once in a deep sky-blue moon, you finish a book and marvel.
Kintu is a multigenerational Ugandan epic that begins from the earliest Ugandan ancestry to modern day, cleverly cutting out the period of invasion and colonization. It explores several generations of a polygamous ancestor through the effects of a shared curse.
At once reminiscent of Thomas Mofolo, Chinua Achebe and Ayi Kwei Armah, Makumbi writes African stories with a cultural profundity that is contemporaneously unmatched and almost inimitable. Imagine a list of the most undervalued novelists from and writing* out of Africa and imagine Makumbi unwittingly and undeservedly holding a membership card. Keep that in mind
Kintu’s place as a timeless epic will take is taking too much time to be rightfully acknowledged, possibly due to the fact that even within Africa, the book is only readily available in East Africa and literary gatherings—the most significant readerly counterincentive I have recently observed. In a partly euphoric, partly ironical twist of fate, its much-delayed US publication is due in 2017. Keep that in mind.
Kintu is ‘a thin slice of remnant hope’, a virile attestation to the fact that fiction from Africa still holds what it formerly held, and that lovers of African fiction can now behold – a contemporary epitome of the standards previous generation of African writers upheld – something so long since they last beheld.
On the book cover, there is a one-line blurb from Alice Seobold. It reads: Elena Ferrante will blow you away! If I wrote that blurb, it would have read: ‘Beware! Elena Ferrante will blow you apart!’
While it isn’t true that Elena Ferrante must blow you away or apart. She likely will.
The story of Lenu and Lena is at once quotidian and highbrow, set in Naples, the first of four volumes of delicately written, attentively told, and vividly imagined coming-of-age tale that can leave a reader feeling–in what is likely to feel more like an experience than an activity of intense perusal–catatonic, wallowing in a depth of immersion that is trancelike, you look away from the page and you feel like you’ve just come out of a séance.
In this possible Künstlerroman, the reader is offered a voyeuristic passage into the lives of two friends—an account of friendship that is searing, vivid, unforgettable and gut-smashing all at once—told with mirror-like clarity, leaving you with an almost unavoidable, wickedly compelling sense of faux-nostalgia.
Bruce Schneier is an avenger**, to avoid the general superhero cliché. He might be the closest we currently have to a real-world Tony Stark or Peter Parker—or a hybrid of both, judging by what he does on the pages of this book. A Tony Stark earned by virtue of his tech-savviness and a Peter Parker earned, if only by the journalistic quality of his writing, you get the both of them in one.
There’s also a fine line that connects Bruce Schneier with Aaron Swartz, who is now of blessed memory, if you know where to look on the same line you might also find some Snow in a den.
While Bruce Schneier is not Edward Snowden, this book is as Snowden as it can get in 400 pages. A book that is as revelatory as 1984 was prophetic. If the book had been released under the title of 2084—as a somewhat more befitting ode to George Orwell’s dystopian classic—not because it owes that book anything in its own right but because these two books unwittingly share a connection— like the connection between two consecutive Best Picture winners, but a little more— it could have turned out to be an unmistakable misrepresentation of the message it bears.
This prophetic nature of 1984 is totally complemented by the revelatory nature of Data and Goliath to the point that it is very safe to say both books are ‘perfect analogues’ of each other—despite and not because of their differences—the way a man is to a woman. Where one is prophetically poignant and subliminally unsettling, the other is acutely revelatory to the point of being almost superliminally instructive. Both books however still retain a marked timeliness, relevance and usefulness to their eras, despite maintaining almost the same degree of integrity.
In a world where corporations and governments misdirect their intentions with the dexterity of Harry Houdini, Schneier shies away from equivocation, from indirectness, from innuendo, from hyperbole and from nonsense****. He tells it the way it is, putting a definitive digital security bible in readers’ hands.
In a line of gatekeepers that may—or may not—have included Yevgeny Zamyatin, George Orwell, Dele Giwa, Aaron Swartz, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange, Peter Pomerantsev as well as the fictional Elliot Alderson, Bruce Schneier takes a much deserved seat.
Ficre Ghebereyesus is at the centre of this totally human, very subliminal memoir of loss, the second in a set of books on loss and grief*** I read within the last 12 months. This is easily one of the most unforgettable books I read in 2016. Besides acknowledging loss in all its validity and immensity—it’s bold, unruly confrontation and subtle determination to tear you apart by incentivising you with necessary grief.
Liz Alexander takes us through her memories, her low moments and personal struggles—the whole gamut of a healing process centered around intimacy and love.
Memory is a theme that replays frequently, to the honour of her Ficre, and as a testament to a marriage well-spent and a union enviable by every measure. Memories of Eritrean recipes cooked and eaten together, of simple and subtle moments, of places, of people, of tales and things shared, memories of a dual oneness, consecrated by loss, made sacrosanct by demise and glorified by a love that once was, still is and will now certainly forever be—because of and not despite of a transition.
I will have to suffer a serious memory impediment before I can forget Ficre, whom I have come to know as much as the book allowed. Utterly readable, unflinchingly evocative and desperately redemptive. I have recommended this book to more people than any other this year and I will not hesitate to do so again.
Racheal Kaadzi Ghansah’s moving essay—part tribute, part recollection and part invocation—to of and about James Baldwin is a discursive, necessary and timely piece of deserved canonization. Considering the title of the anthology is a Tribute to Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.
Wendy S. Walters’ personal inquisition about the remains of indentured African slaves in Modern day America which took her on repeated journeys to New Hampshire and Portsmouth is the basis of her deep, revealing essay which gives substance and deep posthumous honour to the memory of African slaves who were “carried like chattel on ships to America; sold to other people; stripped of their names, spiritual practices, and culture; worked their entire lives without just compensation; were beaten into submission and terrorized or killed if they chose not to submit; were buried in the ground at the far edge of town; and as the town grew, roads and houses were built on top of them as if they had never existed.”
Kevin Young and Claudia Rankine’s essays are two of my favorites from this collection. Very personal, intimate reflections of what it means to be black, as in Young’s deconstruction of Racheal Dolezal’s kind of blackness and Rankine’s unapologetic description of black life, written with orgasmic intensity and ferocious veracity, from years and years of experiential observation.
Emily Raboteau’s photojournalistic essay about how five New York boroughs maintain informative vigilance on ensuring police accountability, Jose Older’s futuristic essay about black lives and what it would be worth in posterity and Edwidge Danticat’s reflective piece of how the label of refugee in modern context is employed and deployed against certain race classes make this collection a compulsory read for now, as well as one of epochal relevance later.
Jesmyn Ward’s rightfully indignant preface, as well as her essay about how it is almost impossible for black Americans to construct a family tree going back generations, is part protest, part polemic.
The revelation that comes with Garnette Cardogan’s poignant juxtaposition on walking in a black body on the streets of Jamaica and on the streets of New York is achingly terrifying and ultimately disquieting especially because it could seem very surreal and ultimately unimaginable—which is how we’d rather have it and how it should be—but very sadly is not.
The fire this time is both a response, a testament and an armour, in the face of recent (and current) racial injustices, very necessary and a gift, to self-conscious black people anywhere.
Netflix’s Narcos is the latest widely-acclaimed take on TV on the war on drugs but allow me to introduce you to Adanito Barrera, the character at the centre of this modern-day crime thriller set primarily in Mexico but runs across three continents for all bad intents and purposes. It had the most satisfying ending of any fiction I read this year, and one of the greatest. This book merges a personal vendetta between two former friends on either side of the law with a gripping inside look at the war on drugs in Mexico from the viewpoint of every player involved—Youths, Elite Forces, Cartels, Journalists, The Mexican & US governments, Older Citizens, Civil Servants and Rogue Military forces. Only the lucky ones and the death-defiantly brave have the option of choosing a side, that option had been thrust upon everybody else. In a story that shakes you from fiction into reality, this book left the only other crime thriller I read this year—which was set in Lagos—in the dust. It is as thoroughly delightful to read as it was scrupulously-researched. The cartel leaves you better than it met you.
Simply one of the best debuts of any African writer in the past decade. Yaa Gyasi’s novel explores several generations descended from two sisters, from a city in Ghana to several cities in the United States. Using little vignettes from the lives of particular descendants, Gyasi deftly executes a story that a far less disciplined writer would have made, unforgivably into a needless tome. The writing is beautiful, not without inadequacies but perhaps the strongest thing that Homegoing brilliantly does is spin a concentric web of a shared maternal bloodline, while deftly using that to explore the ravaging effects of slavery and enslavement, questioning accepted norms about the implicit culpability of the colonized and making a well-informed polemic about displacement and resettlement, racial tensions, gender inequality and above all, the toxicity of privilege. Homegoing redeems itself ten times over for every single flaw you’ll squint to discover. Alongside Kintu, this text should be required reading within Africa, as well as anywhere else where there is great taste in African historical fiction.
Borne out of eagle-eyed observation of racial tension, violence and seemingly innocuous but morally debilitating stereotypical assumptions based solely on race, yet suffused in verses at once elegiac and graceful, devoid of the indignant overtone you’d expect from a black writer writing about black inequality and injustices, the collection reads like a testament than an indictment. Its sheer force and hypnotic poignancy are not its hallmarks, it is its almost inimitable portrayal of racial prejudices in America that makes this gem compulsively rereadable and a contemporary classic. Rankine does with Citizen, what Ta-Nehisi Coates did with Between the World and Me.
“Because of your elite status from a year’s worth of travel, you have already settled into your window seat on United Airlines, when the girl and her mother arrive at your row. The girl, looking over at you, tells her mother, these are our seats, but this is not what I expected. The mother’s response is barely audible—I see, she says. I’ll sit in the middle.”
In a year that saw the release of at least two other widely acclaimed debuts; Ocean Vuong’s Whiting Award-winning Night Sky with Exit Wounds and the comprehensive, brilliant and formidable, National Book Award-winning Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis, Sarah Howe’s debut collection stands out in style and form. A collection that weaves intricate, cross-cultural allusions together with deep, uniquely richly-complex duple metaphors, Howe distills her intelligence with a fiendish erudition which is only matched this year by that of Robin Coste Lewis’, sometimes making for an unflinching test of the reader’s noesis. I picked up five new words from this collection. My favourites: quincunx and quadroon.
As creative and original as it is irreverently funny, this is not the tokenistic satire you’ve come to expect from writers desperate for an attempt at social commentary. Jarrett Kobek defiantly points out things in his own distinctive manner, emphatically repetitive and stubbornly inventive, he is prismatic where another writer would be content with being kaleidoscopic. A work of full savage satire, the depth of which is only rarely surpassed. He imagines a futuristic world where the internet has more stakes in reality and the shows how we are currently implicit in creating that world. In both styleand form, Kobek dishes out a cynical but compelling criticism of popular culture, racial tensions, the dangers yet to come on the internet and human nature, what you get is a book that slowly packs a concatenation of punches, each as enfeebling as the ones before and after, knocking down the gigantic opponent that the readiness with which we deny our own culpability in the state of the world today has become.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has predecessors in Olaudah Equiano, James Baldwin and Frantz Fanon and he is still as original as any of them. Coates’ book is written as a three-part letter to his young son—a dissection of the current wave of racial injustices and what it takes, means and requires to own, be in and hope to maintain a black body in modern-day America. Written in graceful, luminous and conscientious prose, this seminal book reads like a sacred text and feels like a first-person shooter videogame. We are all Coates’ young son as it turns out, as we get all of his loving, tender, fatherly guidance and a deeper, keenly-observed dimension into the deep-seated racial classism that has awakened to represent the recurring generational canker that it has—sometimes sleepily but overall—consistently been for over a century. This is the most important book I read all year.
- David Remnick’s profile of Leonard Cohen in the October 17, 2016 Issue of The New Yorker.
- Wesley Morris’ article in The New York Times on Black Male Sexuality in Pop Culture.
- Akin Adesokan’s 2013 article on Obayemi Onafuwa, the artist popu larly known as Teju Cole.
- Butterfly Fish by Irenosen Okojie
- Room by Emma Donoghue
- Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
- The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
- Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel
- Fela: This Bitch of a Life by Carlos Moore
Not Worth the Hype.
If this book was an orchard, the flowers in it certainly die faster than they grow. You have in your hands a novel which the sum of all its parts add up to a fraction of its whole. In a work that treats the quotidian without scope, ambition, finesse or panache, it is almost a mismatch of ideas, a book that suffers from a frailty of plot coherence that made some of its tolerable parts needlessly long and the worse ones, unrepentantly boring, even though you’ll find a couple of beautiful sentences in strange passages like you’ll find Riddler’s trophies in Batman: Arkham Asylum. If you read only the first and the last twenty-five pages, the saying that no knowledge is lost will hold true of the book in a literal sense in this case. Wait for the lazily-contrived denouement, which ends the endurance test that I found this book to be. No spoilers, you are welcome to take the test.
Liz Strout’s latest book isn’t exactly a page-turner, even though I turned every one of its pages without respite or consolation. In this experimental novel, two characters babble back and forth about their past. You’re expected to feel the implied weight of emotion in the whole experience but this seems like something one cannot do without first ascending the alps for six months of austere living to elevate the mind towards the border between sanity an insanity, a place where this book might really be fun to read. Reading this novel was a joyless experience for me. It was like taking a long ride to the beach to find out the beach is closed. A Bailey’s Prize, and then for a lack of restraint, Man Booker contender. It lost to Lisa McInerney’s much better book and didn’t make the shortlist of the latter, an award for which I will say it was carelessly, if not unworthily, longlisted. This novel feels impoverished in comparison to other books that have similarly unlikable—but contrastingly, deeply felt—characters such as Penny Busetto’s The Story of Anna P and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. My name is not Lucy Barton.
Under the Udala Trees is the only novel I have read that set an LGBT story at the backdrop of the Nigerian civil war. Something is commendable about the book and that is what it tries to do. I do welcome novelistic ambitions but when they are followed with a lazy writerly cathexis, (in this case of an LGBT discrimination and persecution story built against the chaos of the well-storied Nigerian Civil War) a visibly perfunctory novel is born. This birth, which admittedly, is a birth before it is any other thing is one riddled with undeniable congenital abnormalities. A plot that is force-fed by nothing but the sheer force of the insistent will of completion. You will find better value for your time in Kim Brooks’ I’m having a Friendship Affair, and that’s not even a novel.
Books I’m looking forward to read in 2017.
- All Things Leonard Cohen (at last.)
- Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo
- The Return by Hisham Matar
- Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
- Rotten Row by Petina Gappah
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
- Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
- Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole
- Longthroat Memoirs by Yemisi Aribisala
Security, Surveillance and Big Data
- 1984 by George Orwell
- Data and Goliath by Bruce Schneier
- I Hate the Internet by Jarett Kobek
- The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser
- The Internet of Us by Michael P. Lynch
- The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains by Nicholas Carr
Loss and Grief
- An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination by Elizabeth McCraken
- Grief is a Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
- H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
- The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
- The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke
- The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
- Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala
Trust is a Netizen, Reader & DeppHead.