For my first read of 2021, I grabbed my copy of A Broken People’s Playlist out of the 2021 TBR list. It took all the restraint I could muster not to break my self-imposed rules and read it last year when it was published. A Broken People’s Playlist is Chimeka Garrick’s second book; his first collection of short stories after his impressive debut novel – Tomorrow Died Yesterday. I am very biased about Chimeka Garricks’ works for the single reason that we share a first love – the southern Nigerian city of Port Harcourt. Not enough fiction is set in that first love of ours and of the few written so far, no one does it as well as Mr Garricks. He has set the bar so high with his debut and further elevated the high bar with his sophomore work.
A Broken People’s Playlist is a collection of eleven short stories. A few are interrelated but most are standalone stories. At its surface, the stories are light reflections of everyday life but once you scratch a little deeper, the topics are heavy, topical and socially relevant. The major characters are all broken, either in need of redemption or forgiveness (to forgive or be forgiven). There is the teenage DJ trying to navigate his dysfunctional toxic family life to Ukela who after being damaged by the absence of her father in her growing up years finally begins the path of redemption and healing after she finds real love that is tough enough to make her face the truth about her damaged past.
The major characters in A Broken People’s Playlist are all broken, if not by their choices (like the infidelities of Budha, Kwashi and Kenwi), they are broken by the system (as seen in Godson’s persecution and murder in the hands of the police simply for his unpopular sexual desires). In the City is a prophetic story that is a forerunner to the #EndSARS movement. The endearing thing about this book is that the characters are complicated. Some are broken due to their own bad decisions, others by circumstances out of their control, but one thing is common to them all; they are all seeking redemption in one way or the other. They are all trying to make the best of the hand that nature or nurture had dealt them or that they dealt themselves. This overarching redemptive theme compels the reader to root for these characters like you would root for your neighbours or friends.
All eleven stories are well old and properly developed. My favourite story in the collection is Lost Stars. I liked it most for several reasons – it evoked a lot of memories by its vivid depiction of the city of Port Harcourt, it is Chimeka Garricks’ best attempt at a love story, in my view and it was very touching despite the formulaic plot. For a reader like myself who is rarely drawn to love stories, I was pleasantly surprised. In all, I thoroughly enjoyed all eleven stories and I was also impressed that the author found a way to raise awareness about the environmental degradation that is silently destroying Port Harcourt and its environs. Environmental activists come in different shades. Some are subtly powerful, as can be seen in this instance.
Happy New Year to all!!
A new year means a new reading list. With a bit of deliberate tendency, I have randomly chosen these books for 2021. It is always a task filled with lots of anguish and guilt. There are always more books that I really want to read that are left out than those chosen. It feels like going on a road trip but having to leave behind some of your family members because the car is not big enough to take everyone. Let the journey begin and let us see if we will be able to come back to fetch a few more of the family members left behind.
Let the journey begin and happy reading!!
The most broken record you could here today is that 2020 has been a very awful year. It has been an utterly awful year on all counts. However, like Victor Hugo rightly said, “It is from books that wise men derive consolation in the troubles of life.”
For some unclear reasons (basically laziness and procrastination), I have not filled an entry here in a long one. I have not stopped adding to the library but I have just stopped updating these pages. I just found this photo in the gallery of my phone and decided to use it here before deleting it. This was taken about two months ago after I unpacked the parcel from the delivery man.
Fred Khumalo is a proven storyteller with a couple of award-winning works of fiction. I read one of them earlier this year. However, it took the nostalgic memory of rereading this memoir for me to remember that I first encountered Fred Khumalo the journalist before Fred Khumalo the novelist. My introduction to his career was during his stint at ThisDay newspaper,
Even before 1849 when the elegant William Thompson stopped strangers on the street and asked them if they had enough confidence in him to trust him with their watches till the next day, deceit has been a part of human relationships from little tricks to elaborate scams. Are we all gullible to confidence games? Are some of us immune to cons? Are their traits common to all grifters? These are the questions that The Confidence Game sets out to answer and explore.
With a fine mixture of well-documented research, captivating anecdotes and down-right excellent storytelling, Maria Konnikova delves into the psychology behind confidence games both from the sides of a mark and a grifter. It concisely explores what makes us vulnerable to a con, the biases that make us marks and the various stages of a confidence game. All of these are explored with very interesting anecdotes. One of my favourites was the story about Ferdinand Demara, one of the most successful confidence artists of all time. A con artist who disguised as a surgeon and pretended to be a Surgeon Lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Navy and operated on 19 Korean soldiers onboard a naval vessel. The tricky part was that he had no medical training of any sort and did not even graduate from high school. This was one of his many elaborate scams. Another exceptional story is the story of William Miller in 1889. He started an investment scheme that is a forerunner to the modern Ponzi schemes of today. This particular anecdote has the full components of a typical confidence game – the play, the rope, the tale, the convincer, breakdown, the send and the touch and finally the blow-off and the fix. It explains why cons are often woven around stories, how our optimism biases make us hopeful for the best once the scheme is succeeding and we believe the success will gon on endlessly even in the face of opposing realities.
The major takeaways from The Confidence Game are that none of us is above falling for a con. Under the right psychological conditions, anyone can be a mark and even a grifter is not beyond being conned. Living in an environment where every confidence game is attributed to diabolical supernatural power, the stories in The Confidence Game and the thought-provoking psychological research in it prove that the success of confidence artists and the failure of their marks are clearly embedded in human psychology. I first read this book 3 years ago and it is as valid today as it was then and I am sure it will remain valid in the years to come as long as grifters and their marks meet in confidence games of all ramifications.
While I was halfway through Chimeka Gariccks’ debut novel – Tomorrow Died Yesterday, the 25th anniversary of the execution of Kenule Saro-Wiwa (and eight others) by the Nigerian state was marked.
I read this book for the first time in 2011. I found it bland enough not to remember what it was about. Fast forward to 2020; I finished my 2020 TBR list and decided to pick a short set of books I had read in the past and always wanted to reread. This is not an opportunity that comes often so I grabbed it with both hands. I could only pick six books (as I did not want to have an unmet target by the end of the year). A Life Elsewhere was one of the random six reread picks.
A Life Elsewhere is a collection of seventeen eclectic short stories. The fundamental theme that runs across all seventeen of them is dislocation. The dislocation caused by migration as seen in Monday Morning – a story about a family that had moved from a war-torn to a safer country. However, life is dislocated at every turn for every member of the family. From the father who has to settle for way less in the form of a job where his dignity is attacked to his wife who feels sad at the growing emasculation of her husband by the new social order. In People You Don’t Know, a young man is sent abroad from London to stay with a relative after an unspecified scandal. There he gets employed to cleans the estate pool even as he struggles to fit in and hold down a permanent job while being unable to keep himself away from trouble. In Arithmetic and The Husband Of Your Wife’s Best Friend, the dislocations are mostly around mid-life crises and the regrets that that stage of life brings. In Something In The Water, a Nigerian man returns to his home country with his foreign wife who is coming to the country for the first time. He is distraught with how things have not changed but actually deteriorated while he was away. His wife on the other hand is intrigued by the different lifestyle she sees and is actually adventurous to the point of irritating her husband. In Gifted (which was my favourite story in the collection), a Nigerian housewife who is living with her diplomat husband in Japan is dislocated both in body and soul. The first source of her dislocation is the isolation she feels due to loneliness and being far from her siblings who are back in Nigeria. She is increasingly isolated in a land where she does not seem to fit in. Secondly, her dislocation is caused by a physically and verbally abusive husband. There is a rare of sunshine at the end when successfully runs for safety with her two kids one afternoon while her husband is away at work.
A Life Elsewhere is a decent collection set in diverse locations that paint vivid pictures of dislocated and lonely characters. There is a pessimism that pervades the stories but it is underpinned in reality and mundane every day living.
A while back, I saw a viral tweet that was asking people for a verse of the bible that encapsulated the reason why they still believed as Christians, As is often the case, I did not engage with the tweet but scrolled through almost a hundred responses. Despite not responding, I was reminded of what my response would have been. Without a second thought, it would have been – Hebrews 1:1-3.
In recent years I have reinforced the foundation that the Christian faith is actually all about the redemptive work as depicted in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the totality of this, the true nature and essence of the Godhead is revealed fully. The rest of the story is a backdrop point to and emerging out of this core. Like C.S. Lewis famously put it and my anabaptist friends are quick to remind us, “It is Christ himself, not the bible, who is the true word of God”. I have long wrestled with the rest of the story that depicts God as obviously contrary to what is revealed in Jesus. If the whole bible is God-breathed and Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, how do I reconcile the insane violence that I see in the old testament with the non-violent Jesus (who died a violent death on a cross)?
This has puzzled me for a long time and I was glad to finally read Cross Vision written by Greg Boyd who is one of my favourite theologians and also one person who is not scared of exploring such difficult and messy topics. In Cross Vision, Greg Boyd tackles an elephant in the room – the vivid and multiple depictions of violence in the old testament and attributed to God. The foundation of Cross Vision’s exploration is a comparison of the old testament’s portrait of God with what is revealed in Jesus’ life, death and ministry. This is a very critical and valid comparison based on Jesus’ response to Philip in John 14. A casual examination of these portraits shows that something is amiss. It is either God is not exactly as he reveals himself in Jesus Christ or that he is exactly as he revealed in Jesus but something else is happening in these old testament portraits. In typical cruciform theology, these portraits culminate in the cross. The culmination is accounted for by seeing how God accommodates the fallen views that humans in the old testament have of the Godhead. Accommodations to God’s marriage ideal, accommodation of a human king, accommodation of war and violence and accommodation of animal sacrifices. In all of these, the old testament people projected their belief unto Yahweh and God accommodated them not because they were ideal but because insofar as any law or activity that is ascribed to God involves a nature that is no Christ-like, it must to that degree be considered an accommodating, sin-mirroring portrait that indirectly testifies to the sin-bearing God revealed on the cross of Calvary. This is the crux of the convincing argument in Cross Vision. In making this argument, all violent portraits of God in the old testament are dissected and the result is most reassuring. The most challenging is Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac. For me, I was not fully convinced with the explanation of the drowning of Pharoah’s army in the Red Sea.
Cross Vision is a very valuable tool for believers who are willing to confront the knotty issue of violent portrayal in the old testament without compromising the God that is revealed in Jesus Christ. Greg Boud has confronted this thorny issue and come out of it with the cross further burnished. I can’t recommend this highly enough.
The odd thing about randomly picking out TBR lists is that you often pick books that you ordinarily would not choose. Why Soldiers of Fortune falls into that category is that while I loathe reading books about Nigeria, one is often curious to understand the working of a system that is utterly this dysfunctional. Any apprehension I felt before reading it was quickly dispelled within the first few pages of the book.
Max Siollun is a Nigerian historian who has made a deserved name for himself as a thorough chronicler of the Nigerian polity. In this volume, he turns his scholarly and research lights on one of the most despicable periods in a perpetually abysmal political history of the Nigerian state – 1983 to 1993. Three critical junctures of the nation’s history are thoroughly explored; the Buhari military coup in 1983, Babangida’s coup in 1985 and the infamous June 12, 1993 elections.
In very lucid prose and with detailed research, Soldiers of Fortune traces the genesis of the Buhari coup, how it was planned, executed and its cluelessness with the instrument of power. In analysing the present, Max Soillun explores the seeds that were sown in the past of previous coups. It also examines how both 1983 and 1985 coups robbed the military of its collective professionalism. The 1985 coup particularly set the nation back as not only did the military become less professional but the entire polity became debased with the culture of settlement. State funds became a tool for compromising every opposition that stood in the way of Babangida’s aimless rigmarole branded as a transition to democratic rule.
While there have been few personal memoirs by principal actors covering the period under review, objectivity and attention to details is what stands Soldiers of Fortune out. The book holds a mirror to the Nigerian polity and the revelation is depressing. Some of the distrust that the populace currently experience is an aftereffect of the dashed hopes and futile transitional journeys that the military governments of this period embarked.
For me, the biggest revelation I got out of Soldiers of Fortune is how it demystified Babangida. Often portrayed as this political genius, the book lays bare the fact that he was a schemer who was adept at using state resources to compromise almost everyone to his side as he embarked on an endless transition programme that was just designed to massage his ego while delivering little or nothing of value to the polity. He used state funds to compromise soldiers in a bit to address his security phobia for counter coups. One is shocked at how Babangida got away with all that he got away with and for so long – there was nothing statemanly about his leadership. He valued his fraternal relationships with his fellow coup plotters over the good of the nation and had a morbid fear (and indebtedness) for Abacha led him to be indecisive in the face of the June 12 crisis.
Above all else, Soldiers of Fortune is a piece of well-researched history that reminds us of the evil and pointlessness of military rule. It also highlights that none of these principal actors can whitewash their pasts. The evidence is well documented.