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13. JOBURG NOIR

Joburg, Jozi, Egoli, Johussleburg, etc. Johannesburg is known by a few more monikers asides from the aforementioned ones. This megacity is South Africa’s biggest and busiest city. Established in the late 1880s on the back of migrant mining activities, it is a city as vibrant as can be imagined for a megacity; a city full of hope, trauma and possibilities, each in a substantial measure. It is this sprawling city that Joburg Noir is set in. A collection of 20 short stories that explore and illuminate the very plural nature of the cosmopolitan city.

Joburg Noir, like most short stories collections, has hits and misses. In its favour, there are lots of hits and very few misses. I found some of the stories to be very impressive hits. I particularly enjoyed Weep For Me, Willow by Fred Khumalo, Dreams and Others Deceptions by Keletso Mopai, Nineteen Questions by Nkateko Masinga and The Airport Project by Styles Lucas Ledwaba. In typical Noir fashion, these hits and a few others expose the underbelly of the city – be it corruption, crime, xenophobia or the decay of public infrastructure. More than these, Joburg Noir has an eclectic mix of stories that relive the past and explore the present while pointing the way to a future that serves as a warning. In these stories hopes are dashed, dreams are extinguished and yet in some, hope is rekindled. Like the city, the stories explore the plurality of the city.

The only issue I had was that a few (three) of the stories felt more like essays than fiction. As much as they conveyed the nostalgia of the writers, they lacked any air of fictionality and felt misplaced in the midst of the fictional narratives of the other stories. In all, this was a very decent collection and anyone who enjoyed Lagos Noir should enjoy this too. Recommended.

3.6/5

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12. Prince of Monkeys

Prince of Monkeys reminds me of a conversation I stumbled on a few months back on Twitter. In describing a particular fiction writer, one of the tweets said that there are three types of fiction writers; those who are good writers, those who are good storytellers and those who are excellent at both. Obviously, the last group are an esteemed class and very few. Most fiction writers fall into one of the first two groups. Reading Prince of Monkeys over the last few days, I was reminded of that categorization.

Prince of Monkeys is an incisively dense debut set in Nigeria (mostly Lagos and Enugu) between the mid-80s and late 90s. It follows the lives of four teenagers (actually five if you count Zeenat); Ihechi, Maradona, Mendaus and Pastor’s son. In Prince of Monkeys, they come of age with the military rule and insincere transition to democratic rule in the background. The change in the polity mirrors the changes in the lives of these 4 teenagers. The forming, reforming, adapting and readapting all make for lives in flux and society in a similar flux. They question the decisions that have been made for them by their parents, interrogate their biases and reexamine their political choices in the context of all the changes around them. In all of these changes, they reevaluate their friendships while testing the bonds that glue them together.

Ihechi and his friends come of age as they begin to question the spiritual identities they have inherited from their parents. The search for clarity and conviction is not limited to spiritual beliefs but also sought in sexuality, the pursuit of wealth and political aspirations. Nnamdi Ehirim writes lyrically. His prose, taken in isolation is like butter to bread. However, the excessive use of metaphors and seemingly intellectual jargons distract from the narrative flow. Also, there is way too much going on in the book that makes for a relatively dense read for such a simple plot. I get the feeling that if the author had addressed fewer topics, the narratives would have been tidier. While the portrayal of the Nigeria of a middle-class Gen Z is realistic, the pacing and metaphor-laden prose make it a decent but not spectacular read.

3/5 Prince of Monkeys 1Prince of Monkeys 2Prince of Monkeys 3

 

11. The Longest Week

Nick Page has always had a special place in my heart, hence my excitement was palpable when I found The Longest Week on my 2022 TBR list. You know those quizzes where they ask you to pick an author you’ll love to have lunch with? Most of the time, my choice is always a pub date with Nick Page. Sharing pints of beer with my favourite church historian is a literary dream that can’t be bettered. Nick Page has a knack for providing very rigorously researched history with a great dose of dry humour and all written in a very approachable and accessible manner for the laity and even the unchurched. In The Longest Week, the humour is toned down (but not absent as I doubt he can help himself on that front) but the research is rigorous, extensive and very accessible.

The Longest Week is a reconstruction of Jesus’ last week on earth. It uses the gospels as a guide but they are not used as theological texts but simply historical texts. Beyond the gospels, The Longest Week also relies on historical texts written in the first century by historians outside the church (the works of Josephus feature prominently). The most naive view of historical readings is that there is something like an unbiased version of any history. As N.T. Wright often says, ”if you want an unbiased version of history, go read a phone book”. Nick Page is not unbiased and his historical recollection of the events in first-century Jerusalem from the day leading up to the first Palm Sunday to Easter Monday does not conceal his Christian beliefs. However, he does not produce a Christian apologetic work. The summary is that most of what happened in that week and recorded in the gospels are not as far-fetched as sceptics portray it. Within the context of the culture, politics and religious landscapes of the day, the gospels paint a picture that makes the historical fact of Jesus’ last week incredibly plausible and the Easter and post-Easter conduct of the early church a game-changer. The Longest Week relies on extensive research to paint the backstory of the gospels within the context of the socio-economic culture of the first-century Jewish world, the Roman government and Jewish temple politics.

Reading The Longest Week during this year’s Lenten season has been most timely and enabled me to see the gospels through 1st-century eyes while asking 21st-century questions.

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10. The Street

Having finished Ann Petry’s The Street yesterday, it makes for a good coincidence that I am trying to gather my thoughts on it on Mother’s Day. The Street is a provocative novel that explores the intersection between poverty, racism, sexism and human frailty. Set in Harlem in 1944, it explores the interconnecting layers of these topics through various characters that are developed with sensitivity and realness. All of these characters are shaped by living in and around 116th Street in Harlem. A street that defines the confinement and limitations that the black body had been (some will say, still is) structurally designed to be held down with.

Lutie Johnson, its primary protagonist is a single black woman who believed in the American dream. A dream that she eavesdropped off conversations of the white family that she worked for as a domestic staff. The American dream says that if you worked hard enough and did not give up, you will emerge successful and wealthy. Lutie naively believed this dream and when her marriage breaks down due to the peculiarities of working far from home as a domestic servant for white families, she decides to move to Harlem with her 8-year-old son, Bud, in pursuit of the liberating force of the American dream. What she did not factor in was that the system had created a place for her. A place that was reductive and restrictive – woman, black, poor and single. Characteristics that marked her out to be excluded from the American dream. The claustrophobic and almost unlivable streets like 116th Street reproduced the walls and barriers that the system placed on her and her son, Bud.

Being up against racism, sexism and poverty is an incredible triple combo to have as limiting factors and Lutie found out that the American dream is not a potent enough force against such an oppressive combination. Being poor meant you could not live in a better place than 116th Street, being black meant your options were further limited in terms of labour and being a single woman meant you were an unwilling pawn which men used to express their power, you were a means of expression for men who needed to validate their toxic masculinity. In order to keep the American dream alive (not achieve it, just to keep the hope of achieving it alive), Lutie Johnson is forced to surrender her parenting role to the street. In raising the child viciously, the next generation is trapped by the walls (both real and imagined) that the streets of Harlem represent.

The Street is a sad and depressing tale that addresses structural issues of inequality that are still not adequately addressed 76 years after Ann Petry wrote this book. The ending will be unsatisfying to some readers but that endeared it to me even more. There is still no happy ending to issues that The Street raised, so why should a fictional work addressing these issues end happily? There were too many loose ends at the end but I see that as an indication that the issues which The Street explores have no tidy conclusion even in real life. Most remain unresolved, full of ambiguity and brokenness remains unhealed even in the end. My only grouse with the plot is that I felt the men got off lightly. If Jim had stepped up some more, Lutie and Bob would not have been at the mercies of the system that was stacked against them from the start. Why did it have to be the woman’s role to seek a domestic servant’s job far from home? What stopped Jim from seeking a job as a butler or domestic servant? In all, The street was an excellent read and a true classic (the first novel by an African-American woman to sell more than a million copies) which should be more widely read and evoke introspective conversations.

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9. What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky

Short stories are a strange form of fiction. A well-developed narrative that has to arrive at its destination in a few pages, unlike a novel. Some arrive at the destination and others barely leave the starting point. What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky is a collection of thirteen short stories set mostly in the USA and Nigeria. All the stories have female protagonists. Females of all ages, in different settings, trying to navigate the world and the obstacles that confront them. From Buchi in Buchi Girls, who is navigating the hostilities that her own sister and brother-in-law throw at her and her daughters after they are forced to move in with them when she is widowed, to the protagonist in Windfalls whose mother raised her to be a prop in her scams. A venture founded on deceit and false alarms. In Light, Enebeli Okwara’s daughter is torn between both parents as the parents navigate the intricacies of parenting a young female teenager while the parents are continents apart. In Wild, Ada is forced back home to Nigeria from the USA because her mother considers her wayward and in need of a cultural reset. While staying with her aunt in Lagos, she teams up with her cousin Chinyere, whose own mother also resents her. Each mother thinks their niece will be a better example to their own daughter.

In Glory, Glorybetogod Akunyili faces the typical Nigerian single woman’s nightmare – parental nagging due to marital status. Not only do her parents pin their hopes and aspirations on her, Glorybetogod’s mother considers her incomplete until she brings a suitor home. This story highlights the fact that this Nigerian problem has crossed the border and is now present in the diaspora as it is back home.

One thing that is constant in What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky is conflict. Conflict in familial relationships, conflicts between the status quo and changes and conflict in historical settings. While What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky is critically acclaimed, I can’t claim to have been impressed by the collection. Very few of the stories grabbed my attention and stuck in my memory despite all being well written. There seem to have been more misses than hits. Of the few hits, I really enjoyed Glory and Buchi Girls.

2.8/5

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8. The Five Wounds

I really did not know what to make of Kirstin Valdez Quade’s The Five Wounds until I had passed the halfway mark. By the end, I was very satisfied and the characters had left an indelible mark in my mind. From the thirty-three-year-old unemployed alcoholic Amadeo to his fifteen-year-old daughter Angel, who shows up at Amadeo’s door in Las Penas, New Mexico pregnant and estranged from her mother to Amadeo’s mother Yolanda who has just been diagnosed with brain cancer and is more scared of her family unravelling in her absence than she is about the tumour in her brain. All of these characters and more make The Five Wounds memorable because they are complicated and reward the reader’s attention with a thoughtful reflection on family dynamics, redemption and forgiveness.

Amadeo seeks redemption for his directionless life by joining a Catholic sect and is chosen for the ritual of acting Jesus and playing out his passion during the Easter procession. He has to carry the crucifixion cross but chooses to go a step further by getting himself nailed for real. While the book starts out with that religious narrative, it soon becomes apparent that The Five Wounds is a universal story that explores complicated family dynamics as Amadeo and his family members seek one form of redemption or another by attempting to repair broken relationships, forgive each other and themselves, while also fighting the human urge to be vulnerable and open to disappointments.

While some would find Amadeo to be insufferable, I found him a bumbling character who never ceased to seek redemption. It did not matter how often he failed or how ridiculous his attempts were, he kept giving it a go. The cross which Amadeo carries at the beginning of the book is truly metaphorical for most of the characters. Amadeo has to bear the cross of being hopelessly dependent on his dying mother Yolanda (who has managed to keep her terminal illness a secret) and also the cross of his alcoholism. Angel bears the cross of her resentment towards her parents who have truly failed her in their parenting and Yolanda bears the cross of being the glue that holds together a dysfunctional family while also keeping her health prognosis a secret. In my view, the most vulnerable of the cross-bearers is Angel and she is the one who suffers the most under the weight of her crosses – not yet an adult but having to bear the weight of adulthood and motherhood. She struggles with postnatal depression, body confidence, issues of sexuality and all of that while struggling to forgive her parents and even herself.

The Five Wounds is a very immersive story that not only leaves the reader with well-formed characters that linger for long but also vibrates with humour and delight.

3.9/5

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7. How To Like Paul Again

I have not been one of those who disliked Paul, although I have had an outstanding misgiving for a long time (I felt he sat on the Slavery fence as depicted in his letter to Philemon his friend. For such a fiery character I expected him to come down heavily on the evil of slavery and tell Philemon that Onesimus owed him nothing). In view of this, I was eager to see how How To Like Paul Again addressed this particular issue and a few of the other issues for which readers of Pauline epistles have grown to dislike him (or not laud him at least) in recent generations.

How To Like Paul Again is a small volume that surprisingly left a huge impression on my view and appreciation of the Pauline epistles. Its approach is incredibly refreshing. It highlights four of Paul’s letters; the one to the church in Ephesus, the church in Corinth, his letter to Philemon and the church in Galatia. In exploring each of these letters severally, the author is guided by two crucial principles. Firstly, that scripture (particularly the New Testament) should be contextualized within the original setting which is the first century before juxtaposing the scenarios into our 21st-century world). Secondly, Paul’s epistles as much as they are believed by Christians to be God-breathed, that they are real letters written to real groups of people. The epistles are part of correspondences between Paul and the addressed. Some are letters written in reply to letters written by the other party, while others are letters written to address real issues that have happened to real people. The epistles were not written primarily as doctrinal statements.

While I was familiar with the first principle, I had not contextualized the second principle before reading How To Like Paul Again. I rarely viewed the Pauline epistles as real letters, which meant I was reading a portion of previously ongoing correspondences. Line by line, the author of this book highlights how Paul’s tone changes based on the nature of the correspondence, his prior and current relationship with the addressed audience and the complexity of the subject. Like eavesdropping on a telephone conversation, a lot can be deduced from the tone of what is heard on one side, we can deduce what has come before, from the what is heard on one side and we can deduce what question is being answered. Deducing what may have led to Paul’s response or his tone is not an exercise in speculative imagination but one that helps us locate our current situations within the many struggles of the first-century church and allows Paul’s words to minister to us in very specific ways. This refreshing approach helps us to solve most of the prevalent accusations against Paul – legalism, misogyny and a perceived lukewarmness towards slavery.

How To Like Paul Again is a very accessible read for non-theologians and not only did I find it illuminating, I found myself reading the scriptures with a fresh zeal and added enthusiasm. It is highly recommended and a new favourite of mine.

4.3/5 

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6. A Hibiscus Coast

Witha a combination of magazine and newspaper clippings, flips in and out of multiple points of views and settings in two locations, Nick Mulgrew explores the delicate themes of migration, belonging, trauma and land ownership. Set in the late 1990s, A Hibiscus Coast has nineteen-year-old Mary as its primary protagonist, who on the back of two current violent acts and the recurring trauma of a past bereavement finds herself suddenly migrating to New Zealand alone and without her parents.

Nothing about migration is ever easy. While we Nigerians are often flooded with tales ofmigrant successes, it is rarely a smooth ride. It often has a sense of emotional dislocation on the migrants as they seem cut off from their roots and struggle to juxtapose the nostalgia with current realities. This struggle is made worse in Mary’s case as her relocation was never planned. She is being forced to transforminsfrom a slacker to a responsible young adult without any of the underlying issues that had made her slack in the first place being addressed. Mary as a character is so delicately written that the reader is compelled to feel te pains of transformation that she has to deal with. Mary has to deal with the trauma of her only sibling’s sudden death years ago. Trauma and unresolved grief have followed her across many continents. From Durban, South Africa to Orewa, NewZealand. From one Hibscus Coast to another Hibiscus Coast. However, Mary is not the only one who is struggling in the South African ex-pat community in New Zealand. There is also Mark, who has migrated with his wife and kids to Down Under but is feeling compelled to bond with families that he ordinarily would not relate with but has to in order to avoid alienation.

Juxtaposed with the story of Mary and her struggle for belonging, is the story of the ex-pat South African community in Orewa. A story that highlights a total lack of introspection on the part of that community; a recurring deficit that is endemic in the white South African population. Unwilling to see how they could ever be a part of the problem, always wanting to have their way without considering how it impacts others. Always believing that they have the answers and others are nothing but part of the problem – A typical DA mentality. Just like Mary’s grief follows across oceans, Mike, Karin and Alette’s ingrained desire to dispossess without any concern for the natives follows them along the same path. Land ownership is not a topic that is peculiar to black South Africans alone and as Buck Cooper’s narrative highlights, land is at the core of humanity and it is not an issue that will be fixed solely by capitalism’s economic theories.

A Hibiscus Coast is a very well-written and thought-provoking read. I found it a little dry as I considered the writing a little too technical and too polished for my liking (I prefer them rough at the edges). Overcooked sentences have a tendency of not leaping out of the pages for me and this was the case with A Hibiscus Coast. However the plot and themes were powerful enough to pull me through.

3.5/5

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5. Justice

Michael Sanders has been called the rockstar of modern political philosophy. This is not because he is eccentric but largely because he makes these existential questions about the polity accessible to the average reader who struggles to grasp philosophy. A couple of years ago I had read What Money Can’t Buy and this year excited to find Justice in my 2022 TBR list.  Justice was actually an earlier book of his. At the heart of Justice is the existential question of what is right and wrong and what underpins our notions of rightness. Justice invites readers of all political persuasions to reconsider familiar political topics within the prism of political theories to deduce which views denote the right thing to do. In all of these views, the conflict between individual rights and the common good is laid bare.

As simple and accessible as the book is, Sandel does not choose the easy option of being unnecessarily didactic. Sandel examines utilitarianism, liberalism and the shades in between both while using familiar trending societal issues and the political theories of Kant, Aristotle, Mill and Rawls as a backdrop for each analysis. He forces the reader to arrive at his/her own conclusions about the correct course of action. He does have an opinion (subscribes to a certain version of communitarianism) but it is not rammed down the throat of the reader nor is any view under review disparaged. While the philosophical principles can be a bit overwhelming for a casual reader like me, one thing that Justice achieves is that it creates humility in the heart of the reader as the question of what is good or bad for the society is more complicated than fundamentalists on either side often portray. I think I will reread this once more this year as there is a lot to chew and digest within the pages of Justice.

4/5  

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3. DRY

Jane Harper’s atmospheric debut The Dry is a classic crime novel in the sense that there is a central crime and whodunit remains a mystery till the end. However, it has not won many awards and topped several bestselling lists for being typical. What makes it stand out are realistic portraits of not just the Western Victoria landscape but how well the drought season in the fictional outback town of Kiewarra is captured. This realistic portrayal matched with Jane Harper’s excellent storytelling means that The Dry is a formidable debut and a very enjoyable read.

Luke Hadler is found dead at his home. It looks like an apparent suicide but the outrage takes understandably bigger proportions because his wife Karen and son Billy are also killed. The crime rocks the small town of Kiewarra and the multiple death is not the only thing rocking it – the drought and attendant heat are making everyone in the town cranky and visibly irritable. Aaron Falk returns home from Melbourne to attend the funeral of his childhood friend, Luke. He ends up staying longer than he first imagined as he tries to join forces with the local police to unravel the mystery of the death of his friend and his wife and son. The mystery in The Dry is not just the primary death in view but also the sudden death of a mutual friend of Aaron and Luke, twenty years ago.  The death of that friend is a mystery that has a bearing on Luke’s death as it explains the hostility that Aaron faces in his informal investigation into Luke’s death and also clouds Aaron’s views on the theories that surround Luke’s death.

One thing is almost certain in a fictional tale set in a small town – there are many secrets. Secrets outsize the population of the town. The Dry weaves twenty-year-old secrets as they bring to the fore a previously unresolved murder and the current triple deaths. Red herrings abound and the author keeps the reader guessing until the least expected suspect emerges as the killer. While swinging between the past and the present, Jane Harper’s storytelling skill keeps the reader engaged and ensures that one remains focused on the present (unlike Aaron who often let the hostilities of the past impact his judgement in the present). While the prose was nothing special, the storytelling is top-notch. The depiction of a drought-filled Australian outback and its heat was palpable in the story. It was as palpable as the joyless character of Aaron Falk. It was often hard to tell if the title referred to the principal character or the weather in Kiewarra. Whichever it is, it is as spot-on as the story itself.

3.2/5