Best Reads of 2015

Following yet another tradition and on the request of Rita, I have put down the five best reads of 2015. Technically, that’s seven best reads rather than the usual five that Rita asked. However, I am throwing in two more because I have always had a problem sticking to rules. Here they are in the order I have read them but in no particular order of preference.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (fiction)

When reading Americanah I quickly got into the ‘good book zone’ mostly because it was a love story but such a political one. The long forays into African hair obviously was quite political by itself. I didn’t like central female character Ifemelu as much as I loved Obinze. Seriously, it’s like Adichie put all the ideal qualities into Obinze because I am sure no one like him exists in fiction. The one place he falters is when he marries the ‘well-fed houseplant’ (Adichie’s words, not mine) of a wife for no reason than the fact that he was dazed by his new wealth. Through the story of the two lovers (Ifemelu and Obinze), Adichie explores the vastly different post-colonial experiences in the UK and America. Finally though the houseplant and sapling are gently let go and the lovers come together to start their long awaited and much deserved life together in Nigeria.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (fiction)

I read Half of a Yellow Sun after Americanah. Does it matter that it was not chronological? There was a certain levity in Americanah that there was no space for in Half of a Yellow Sun. First of all, Half of a Yellow Sun is a historical novel set in Nigeria of the 60s at a time when the Biafran War was on. The Nigerian intellectuals wanted to create Biafra (pronounced Bee-ahfrah) and secede from Nigeria. This led to a civil war and unrest which claimed casualties on both sides. Many countries recognised Biafra but it couldn’t stand up to the military might of Nigeria.

Adichie mined the war part of the story from her own personal family history. The narrator is an outsider, a servant called Ugwu who tells the story of Olanna and Odenigbo. Both are intellectuals and are excited by the creation of this new country. Olanna’s twin sister Kainene and her boyfriend, Richard, chart another kind of journey before, during and after the war. In using twins to tell the story, perhaps Adichie is trying to say that Nigeria and Biafra are twin sisters who might not like each other but are still family. So they must tolerate each other and maybe over time even come to some sort of peace with the other.

To be honest, this book was quite adamant till around page 250 after which it started to yield its secrets and exploded. Half of a Yellow Sun is both a human story as a historical document. A must read if you want to understand politics through literature.

How To Be Both by Ali Smith (fiction)

This is the first novel that left me breathless in 2015. What a brave and audacious write is Ali Smith! The story spans two different centuries and countries – 15th Century Italy and 21st Century England. The concerns are quite contemporary about the fluidity of gender, art and life. The story is narrated by two narrators: in 15th Century Italy, it is Francescho and in 21st Century George who seem to pass through both male and female identities quite easily. The most riveting part of the book is the arrangement. Half the number of copies printed by the publisher Hamish Hamilton has George’s story first and the other half has Francescho’s story first. So it’s a lottery whose story you get to read first. It’s fascinating what this means. Your perception of the novel is going to be driven by what you read first. I read George’s story first. So many levels of duality are explored through this novel. The book made me think so much that I didn’t finally write about it as I would have liked. (The same thing happened to me with Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller the year before last.)

Out of It by Selma Dabbagh (fiction)

Out of It has the distinction of getting me interested in the Palestine issue. I have struggled with understanding such an old and all pervasive issue but it has helped me a lot. You already know what I think of this novel. I am now constantly looking out for more Palestinian writers. I have started reading Raja Shehadeh’s Language of War, Language of Peace (non fiction) and Suhair Hammad’s Born Palestinian Born Black (poetry) thanks to this book.

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (fiction)

I have already discussed this in a lot of detail in a separate post. Suffice it to say that it made a deep impression on me. I look forward to more books from this writer.

The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith (fiction series)

What can I have to say more than what I have already put down here? I have continued to read McCall Smith after writing that post and I stand by what I wrote. I do dread what would happen if I run out of this series but since I am some distance away from such an emergency, I don’t have to worry about it right now. This series is by far the ‘lightest’ set of books I have read the past year. Light in tone that is but not light in seriousness.

Technically these books are classified as ‘crime fiction’ but that is a bit misleading. Yes, there are crimes in the book but it’s the mundane everyday kind: Think stolen office supplies rather than bank robberies. It’s more about human goodness, kindness and generosity and a certain way of life in a country in the middle of Africa.

One could argue of course that the mysteries of the human spirit does need a detective for them to be discovered. And that detective is Mma Ramotswe.

Burn My Heart by Beverly Naidoo (YA fiction)

I have been hearing about Beverly Naidoo about the same time as I was reading Philip Pullman and J.K Rowling. So that’s quite a while back. However, getting my hands on her books did not happen. Where would I find South African YA lit so many years back? Luckily, after so many years I found a book of hers at the British Council library.

The time is 1951 to 53. Mathew and Mugo, two kids on either side of the colonial divide, forge a tenuous friendship by being thrown by circumstances to spend time together. It’s a difficult time. Not just because of complexities of race and colonialism, it’s also because this is the time of the Mau Mau revolution, the violent uprising before Keyan independence which left so many Kikuyus dead, whether innocent and not.

This is the story of an accident that involves Mathew or bwana kidogo (little master in Swahili) and Mugo the son of Kamau, the man who worked at Mathew’s Dad Grayson’s farm and stables. A small incident burns through the lives of both the boys affecting them in different ways and tearing them up within and apart from each other.

The book made a huge impression on me. I cried at the injustice of Mugo’s life. I cried for most of the second part of the book. How much injustice is there in this world! I am enraged and outraged that so many Mugos and Kamaus have had to endure the wrath of the greedy White Man. Colonialism has so much to answer for. No amount of reparations – if ever considered – can ever amend the lives scattered, lost and warped because of it.

This is my first Beverly Naidoo and she is a formidable writer. This is how YA lit should be – no easy answers, no happy ever afters, just the raw story.


The selected words of a year

I have been tagged by Atul Sabnis. I have not been blogging as frequently as I used to and I haven’t tagged or followed a tag in a long while. So Atul, this is for you.   

Rules: Select one sentence from a post that sets the tone for the month. This is not a compulsion but if you want to please follow the tag.

Note: The number in brackets indicates the number of posts written in that month.

January (5) From Pondicherry and the Blues: Some sentences catch you unawares like a fishing hook and don’t let you go.

February (1) From Phrases Stocked and Killed:  Can we risk going over the edge metaphorically?

March (7) From Writing in a Café: What I am aware of is that I am an oddity sitting in a café in the middle of a summer work day, trying to read a book, write a few sensible words, watch the blue froth collect at the bottom of a glass like something the Dead Sea would throw up and catch my dose of calm before I am ready to face the world again.

April (2) From Underground: If you stay underground too long/ I’ll send poems to seek you out

May (1) From Serendipity: Ah, the connections we perceive and weave.  

June (6) From Restless: Today, I am gripped by a restlessness that I cannot explain.

July (5) From How do you exorcise your grief: I write long-winded poems / meant for unseeing eyes.

August (0) No entry.

September (1) From Taramandal – a study of characters:  The play tells us that even the most unlikely people are actors…

October (1) No textual entry.

November (4) From The things people don’t want: “Oh, you have kept all things that people don’t want!”

December (8) From Capturing the future: The more I think about it the more it appears that photography is an art of capturing a moment that belongs to the future.

Five books and a philosopher

After a long time I went a little book crazy yesterday. It all started with Alain de Botton, my latest new author discovery. (He has been around for a while; it’s just that I’ve discovered him now.) His accessible philosophic style is seducing me into reading whatever he has written so far. So off I went to the nearest bookstore to ransack it. Only to be sorely disappointed. Only the Consolations of Philosophy was available. The Essays in Love/on Love (British/American titles), the one I wanted to figuratively pounce on was off the shelves. (A friend of mine who swears by his ideas has promised to give it to me.) But that didn’t stop me for getting some other books. This is my loot:

(1) Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton (Philosophy)

(2) Prison and Chocolate by Nayantara Sahgal (Memoir)

(3) The Naked Woman by Desmond Morris (Natural History)

(4) The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris (Natural History)

(5) The Good Body by Eve Ensler (Play)

Please note: None of the above listed books is fiction or poetry!

Books I’d like to live in

Thanks Jen Robinson, a passionate young adult literature reader and reviewer, for this list. I thought that I was sufficiently well acquainted with Young Adult literature to make it.

3 Children’s Books that I Would Like to Live in:

  • His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman.
  • Island of the Aunts by Eva Ibbotson.
  • The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle by Catherine Webb.

3 Schools from Children’s Books that would have been Cool to Attend:

  • Hogwarts. (A tad predictable what the hell!)
  • The Mayfair Academy for Young Ladies from Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea.
  • The Hallendorf School in Vienna from Eva Ibbotson’s A Song for Summer.

3 Books that I Like, but would NOT Want to Live in:

  • The Bartemeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud.
  • The Eddie Dickens trilogy by Philip Ardaugh.
  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman.

3 Schools from Children’s Books that would NOT have been Cool to Attend:

  • Crunchem Hall from Matilda by Roald Dahl.
  • Camp Half-Blood in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan.
  • Harriet’s school in Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.

It’s an open list. Anyone who is interested can take it up.