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10 Books challenge

I am always late to these trends. I saw this challenge somewhere online and decided to do it, after all, there is no expiry date for these things. So, here we go!!

THE RULES:
List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way.
Do not take more than a few minutes and do not think too hard.
They do not have to be the “right” books or great works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way or the other.

A BOOK THAT MADE YOU THINK

It has to be Greg Boyd’s The Myth of a Christian Nation. It is one book that has revolutionised my Christian faith and made me rethink a lot of things that most of the church regurgitate without much thought. An excellent book that I refer to very often in my thoughts when trying to make sense of the world we live in within the context of Jesus’ kingdom here on earth.

A BOOK THAT SURPRISED ME

A few years ago, I popped into Ouida Book Store with no specific intent but was determined to buy a couple of books to cheer myself up after a bad day. I did not find anything new I really wanted, so I ended up getting a copy of  Black Bazaar by Alain Mabanckou. As is my pattern, I ended up reading it a year later and I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite not being too impressed by his previous world that I own.

 

A BOOK THAT MADE ME HAPPY

Almost every book makes me happy in the sense that I feel nourished by the pleasure of reading the crafted thoughts of others. I struggle to pick one out of the lot. If forced, I would pick one of Nick Hornby’s titles. There was a time when the humour in most of his books cracked me up a lot. High Fidelity it is then.

A BOOK THAT MADE ME SAD

Again, there are a lot of them. Due to my relative immersion into South African literature over the years, I have read a lot of South African fiction that is set in the times of Apartheid. As an outsider, it boggles the mind to reimagine how much evil was done by humans to fellow humans on account of racial differences and how natives ended up living as captives in their own land. A lot of such works of fiction left me very sad. Books like A Dry White Season by Andre Brink and Buckingham Palace’, District Six by Richard Rive. More recently, a book that has left me with very messy emotions is one I recently finished – The Bridge by Enza Gandolfo. I will go for this recent one as the sadness is still very raw.

 

A BOOK THAT MADE ME FEEL NOSTALGIC

Hands down, Tomorrow Died Yesterday by Chimeka Garrick. No one writes about my home city, Port Harcourt, as well as he does and no book reminds me of that city like this book. The city has gone backwards with employment and crime but it still holds a special place in my heart. This book captures the city when the decay has already begun but having left the place for decades now, the nostalgia is still well captured.

 

A BOOK I HAVE A LOVE/HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH

It has to be Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It seems to be universally loved but I have never disliked a book that much. I am no big fan of fantasy and magic realism but that is not why I struggled with this one. I just found it almost incomprehensible to the point of absurdity. I am probably too dense to appreciate it as most people say it is a work of a genius. I respectfully disagree while acknowledging that Ms. Morrison writes exceptionally well, this one was an awfully dragged book.

 

A BOOK THAT I HAVE RE-READ THE MOST

Anyone who has heard me talk about books for more than 10 minutes knows that the undisputed winner here is E. R. Braithwaite’s To Sir With Love. I first read this as a set text over 3 decades ago in high school and have reread it four more times in adulthood. Every time I read it, I see something new in it. It also takes me back to that time when I had no responsibility, was naive about life and had not gotten into this scam called adulthood.

 

A BOOK THAT MADE ME WANT TO TRAVEL

Almost a decade back I read all the family drama fiction that Tony Parsons wrote. I enjoyed how he described streets and landmarks in the contemporary English capital. It did not make me want to travel but made me want to have a flat in Mayfair and chill with a pint in some trendy bar in Soho while catching a play or two at theatres within the West End of London. The geographical descriptions in Man and Boy did that to me – contemporary and accessible.

 

A BOOK THAT YOU WOULD MOST LIKELY GIVE AWAY AS A GIFT

I will go for an odd choice but one I thoroughly enjoyed for different reasons and I think it will suit different tastes – A Nearly Infallible History of Christianity by Nick Page. Even if you have no interest in the Christian faith, this could still appeal to a lover of history. It has a relatively unbiased view of the faith and its rigorous research is coated in a very wicked dry sense of humour. Very laughable book with loads of history between the laughs. I think it will make a good gift for most persons as it is an easy read too.

 

 

A BOOK I WISH I DIDN’T READ

I struggle to think of one. My taste is fairly constant and I rarely pick up a book without having heard about it or the author or a review of it resonating with me.

 

26. The Bridge

This book is a mess! Strangely, that is a very huge compliment. The Bridge is a messy exploration of tragedies and the aftermath of guilt, healing, forgiveness, redemption and justice. However, it is not as linear as the previous line sounds. It is way messier. The book is a mess because the tragedies are well captured, the characters are well developed and the writing is unrelentingly bleak. The Bridge leaves you in a mess of emotions long after the last page is turned.

On October 15, 1970, Australia witnessed its worst industrial accident; a span in the uncomplicated Melbourne West Gate bridge collapsed. 35 construction workers were killed in the collapse and 18 of them were physically injured. Obviously, many more were scarred with trauma for lengthy periods. Based on this true event, Enza Gandolfo has written a story of two interrelated tragedies with many messed up characters. The first tragedy is the trauma of Antonello, a 22-year-old Italian migrant who is a rigger and worker in the bridge. Antonello swapped his shift with a colleague and it is the reason why he is not on the bridge when the large span collapses. However, he is close enough to witness the accident as it happens and sees his colleagues perish in an avoidable accident. The second tragedy occurs 39 years later. Jo and Ashleigh are teenage friends and in the final months of high school. They are preoccupied with the usual things that teenagers occupy themselves with and with plenty of dreams for the future. The closeness of their bond is matched by the disparity of their personalities that is further exasperated by class differences. In an unfortunate incident of drink driving, an avoidable accident occurs. The link between both tragedies is this – one of the teen girls is the granddaughter of Antonello.

The characters in The Bridge are well developed and the writing is plain, sincere and emphatic. Each of the characters carries around the baggage of emotions, truly damaged humans trying to make the best of the hand that fate has dealt them. From Antonello whose unhealed trauma of survivor guilt comes full cycle after almost 40 years of building walls around himself and keeping everyone out of his pain and misery, to Paolina his wife who sees the zest and vitality of her promising marriage sucked out by the trauma of the bridge collapse and her cancer diagnosis in later years, to their children Nicki and Alex who struggle to connect with a father who is present but absent at the same time, to Mandy, Jo’s mother who while wrecked with the guilt of inadequacy in her parenting skills that are laid bare by her daughter’s continuous comparison of her working-class stature and the more upwardly mobile middle-class status of her friends’ parents. That is not all. We still have Jo whose guilt and trauma is palpable and despite how strongly one feels drunk driving, it is hard not to feel her pain and loss. In all of this mess, my favourite character is Sarah. She is Jo’s lawyer and it is a character that allowed the author to excellently explore self-esteem and body image centred around obesity. Her challenges with how society perceives her due to her body shape is a timely reminder that such issues are deeply affecting its sufferers. More importantly, Sarah is a damn good lawyer who enters the world of her clients without blurring the lines between client and personal relationships. Her determination to make a difference in her world is infectious and instructive.

The only small quibble I have with The Bridge is that at some point the guilt narrative of Jo and Antonello becomes excessive and you feel some lines were being repeated with no additional significance. This excess could easily have made the book 10 to 15 pages lighter. This quibble is minor and does not distract from the profoundness of the novel. The Bridge is a well-written book and its messy characters linger for long and its themes are thought-provoking too. Highly recommended.

3.9/5 

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25. BlackTop Wasteland

There are three possible viewpoints a crime fiction can be written in; the crime fighter as a protagonist, the criminal as a protagonist and less often, the crime victim as a protagonist. Blacktop Wasteland takes the second viewpoint with Beauregard ”Bug” Montage as the skilled criminal. Bug is a criminal at heart although he tries to convince himself that that life is in the past. To be fair to him, he makes a genuine effort to draw a line with his past. That his past catches up with him is not the crux of the matter in Blacktop Wasteland. The meat of this thriller is about the life issues that have hedged Bug between in a rocky spot. The melancholy and the constant ache for a better life that has hedged him between a rock and a hard place, are the real deal that makes this book exceptional.

Bug is a loving father, caring son and faithful husband, His car repair shop is going under, his aged mother is about to be kicked out of the care home where she is, his son needs braces, his second son needs new glasses and his daughter is about to skip college due to a lack of funds. None of these family issues is unique to Bug in the real world. What is unique is that he is fighting a demon from his past – one that threatens to define him and his lineage. Maybe if he was not a skilled gateway driver he would be able to banish his demons but because he is an exquisite heist planner and the best getaway driver around, Ronnie comes calling for one last job. A job big enough to tempt Bug but Ronnie and his crew are untidy enough to make the risk almost too much for even Bug and his famed skills.

Like most crime fiction novels, Blacktop Wasteland has lots of violence, guns and action (it also has a lot of car chases). However, what makes it special are the life matters that resonate with the reader long after the last page is turned – family, loyalty, fatherhood and how the colour of one’s skin still mattered in present-day America. Some turns of phrases in the book are a bit too cooked but not enough to stop this from being a very enjoyable read.

3.8/5

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24. Deacon King Kong

The start of Deacon King Kong is as explosive and straightforward as it can get – 71-year-old Sportcoat in a perpetual state of drunkenness walks to the local plaza of the Causeway housing project, pulls out a gun from his pocket and shoots the 19-year old drug dealer called Deems at point-blank range. There are about 16  eyewitnesses and they are all sure that Sportcoat’s days are numbered, not just because Deem will seek and get revenge but his drug bosses will need to make a statement as a way of assuring their foot soldiers that they will be protected. It is a relatively straightforward plot that after the first two pages you wonder what the author has planned for the rest of the almost 370 pages. That worry is valid when your expectation is that you are about to immerse yourself into a crime fiction novel of some sort. Deacon King Kong is not any of that and your expectations are soon dashed but dashed for something even better. It is a colourful exploration of the multifaceted humanity of the diverse people that make up the poor community called the Causeway housing project.

There are several things that get you worried by the end of the first two chapters; a relatively basic plot, dozens of characters introduced so soon that you wonder how you could remember them as you suspect it would be a struggle to develop the characters enough to create an impression and the fact that a good portion of the narration is done in New York street slang that is often a drag when overdone. At the end of the book, each of those concerns are torn apart and rendered inconsequential simply because you underrated how good a writer and an excellent storyteller that the author James McBride is. The stories of the interrelated lives of the people of Causeway are as colourful as the prose that James McBride employs to tell them. The prose flows and the storytelling sizzles. At the centre of the plot and the lives of the inhabitants of Causeway are Cuffy Jasper “Sportcoat” Lambkin and the Five Ends Church. Everything revolves around these two and as the master storyteller that he is, James McBride spins the world of Causeway around these two with such shimmering prose that neither big nor small narrative elements are neglected. He does this with the right dose of human intelligence, candour, wit and humour. The crooks are not vilified, neither are they glorified. The complexity of humans is in full view.

The coincidences that marred Bruce Moon’s triple attempt to exert revenge on Sportcoat for shooting Bruce’s foot soldier are as laughable as but excellently told as Sportcoat’s irritability and unwillingness to remember the shooting or his unwillingness to recognize his vulnerability to danger afterwards. Without being overwhelmed with the resolution of the crime as would be expected of any book that starts as Deacon King Kong starts, the story is more about the community that lives in the Causeway housing project. Whether it is about the friendship between Sportcoat and his fellow drunk Sausage, the mutual attraction between Potts the police officer and Sister Gee, the budding romantic feelings between Thomas Elefante and the Guvnor’s daughter or even the dashed hopes that Sportcoat had for Deems as he sees him neglect his baseball skills for a stint on the sidewalks as a drug dealer. In all of these, the struggles are universal and the beauty and ugliness of humanity shine through in almost equal measure. The shooting and the Five End church remain backdrops that enable the community of the Causeway housing project to shine through. Highly recommended.

4/5Deacon King Kong 1Deacon King Kong 2

23. NEW TIMES

Rehana Rossow’s sophomore work of fiction; New Times might not be as exciting as her debut but it is a powerful enough work to warrant some reflection after the last page. New Times gets its name not just from the newspaper that the protagonist Aaliyah (Ali) works in but also as a reference to the times when the novel is set in. Set in 1995, just before and during the Rugby World Cup. and at the onset of the Mandela presidency. These are the new times when the old order of apartheid was being ushered out and new times were taking root. The underlying current is a puzzling look at how and if the new times were indeed beneficial.

Ali is a symbol of the new times not just in her struggles in the New Times newsroom as a new staff but a symbol in her bid to navigate the present while weighed down by the burden and trauma of the past. While at her previous news organisation, she had seen a lot of traumatic events while covering protests as a political reporter. This is not uncommon with South African journalists before 1994. Most of these traumas have gone undiscussed and probably unattended to. In the new times with the change that was promised not panning out as expected, Ali begins to unravel as she wonders if those deaths were futile and in vain. Like Ali rightly said, “sometimes it’s hard to understand the choices people make when they’re finally free“. 27 years into the new times of the rainbow nation, some of the choices of the free have been frankly head-scratching.

it is incredibly hard to pull off a novel that has political activism at its core as it often comes off as preachy and veers close to didacticism. New Times suffers from that defect but the difficulty is eased by Rossouw’s excellent prose and Ali’s life outside work that is so vividly described. The life of a young Muslim in the Cape-Malay’s Bo-Kaap community is vividly painted in words. Ali’s struggles with mental health, the sexual tension between herself and her best friend, Sumaya, the metamorphosis of Lizo her politician friend and the tenacious effort of her grandma Ragmat to keep the homefront steady in the face of multiple challenges, are all vividly told. They are vivid enough to keep the political themes in check and prevent them from elbowing the humanity of Aaliyah and the community that surrounds her out of the spotlight of this well-written work of fiction.

3.5/5  New Times 1New Times 2New Times 4New Times 5

22. The Return of The Prodigal Son

I first heard about Heuri Nouwen’s The Return of The Prodigal Son when it was referenced during one of the most impactful sermons I can remember ever listening to. The sermon was preached in 2010, I heard it in 2014, got the book in 2018 and only got around to read it days ago. While all of these actions happened in recent days and years, the foundation of this excellent book is set in 1669 when Rembrandt painted an exceptional piece based on the parable told in the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. A sighting of a print of the famous painting in 1983 by Henri Nouwen begins a life-changing exposition which is the crux of this tenderly written book.  In The Return of The Prodigal Son, Henri explores the parables from the perspective of the younger son, the elder son and the father. All of the exposition juxtaposes the intricate details of the painting onto the text of Luke 15 and all scripture in the background.

The level of introspection that Henri Nouwen enters into and invites the reader to join him in is what makes this book a life changer. I instantly saw myself in both the younger and elder son while being convicted of my inadequacies. More importantly, the parable, the painting and by extension the book are not really about the prodigal son or the resentful insecure nature of his elder brother. The central character in the story is the father. A father who is actually quite prodigious by nature. The prodigal nature of his life is littered in every tiny detail of the story and The Return of The Prodigal Son makes a keen observation of each one of these tiny details. This is a perfect love that casts out fear. The reassurance that one gets from reading this book is a pointer because it is a book that will be revisited repeatedly in the future.

4.1/5

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21. The Year of The Runaways

I had mentioned in an earlier note that I have three works of fiction set in India in my 2021 TBR list. The Year of The Runaways is the second of the three. Sweeping between India and England (mostly Sheffield) and between the early teenage years of its protagonists and present-day, The Years of The Runaways follows the lives of three young men who have been pushed by poverty and other excruciating family factors into a desperate search for a new and better life. Tarlochan (Tochi) is a former rickshaw driver who refuses to say anything about his traumatic family life in Bihar before he migrated illegally to the UK. Avtar has taken great risk to the point of organ harvesting to make the journey to a land where he thinks his fortune will be turned around. Randeep whose chaotic nature means that Avtar has to keep protecting him. Avtar has a student visa for which he is not interested in schooling. Randeep has a visa wife (Narinder). Their reasons for migrating differ but the desperation of their actions and the grimness of their lot while in England is uniform and almost indistinguishable.

From afar each bears the burdens of their families and each is the candle that keeps the hopes of their families from being extinguished. It is a heavy load to bear and made even heavier by the illegality of their stay in the UK and the unavailability of decent enough jobs to service the enormous loans that facilitated their migration. All of these make The Year of The Runaways a very painful and grim read but one that is grounded in the reality of what life is for the average migrant who is seemingly helpless enough to dream of migration as the only option in the face of shrinking options at home.

In the midst of the gloom and suffering that encompasses the three male protagonists is the welcome diversion of Narinder, Randeep’s via wife. Narinder’s character is a welcome diversion not just because she is not a migrant (she is British of Indian origin) but also because her characterisation lacks the three male protagonists. Apart from their background, nothing separates Avtar and Randeep and their lives in England is basically interchangeable. There is no depth in their characterizations. Her battles and internal conflict between spiritual devotion and human empathy, between the chains of patriarchy and freedom and that between innocence and loss, are keenly observed and her character evolution is apparent.

Altering between four protagonists was always going to be tricky but what makes it worse in the case of The Year of The Runaways is the lack of depth and similarity in the characterization of the male characters. This made it difficult to track which character was in focus most of the time. The Year of The Runaways is sustained by the realism of the plot. However, it is let done by the workmanlike nature of the prose. It reminds me of a recent discussion I read online where someone said some fiction writers are storytellers while some have a gift for writing and that very few have both. After reading this book, I am inclined to believe that Sunjeev Sahota is more of a storyteller. This is not one of those books where you are captured by a sentence, quote or paragraph. It is one where you recognize the reality of the plot and empathize with the characters without finding any of them memorable.

3/5

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19. The Awkward Black Man

There are certainly too many books in the world to fit into a lifetime. You could live and not hear of some authors or read their books in your lifetime.  One of such authors, I did not know until recently is Walter Mosley. Until last year I had barely heard the name and not seen any of his books. How I had not heard of such a revered author with over 54 published works (most of them critically acclaimed), is a wonder in itself. Since then I have gotten over half a dozen of his books and The Awkward Black Man is one of his two books that found its way into the 2021 TBR list. Short stories are not my favourite form of fiction but you will not guess so with the amount of short stories collections that I randomly picked for my 2021 TBR list.

The Awkward Black Man is a collection of seventeen stories of black men living life on the margins due to their awkwardness. Interestingly, the awkwardness is not about their race but about characteristics that can be applicable to anyone irrespective of the colour of their skin. Some marked out by their weight, mental illness, infidelity, mortality and inability to handle social interactions. As is often the case with short stories collections, some of the stories in The Awkward Black Man are ordinary and unmemorable, while others are excellent and seem too short as you wish the beauty of the lasted longer. However, one common thread runs through the entire collection – Walter Mosley’s unique ability to capture the imagination and attention of the reader throughout. His writing is sharp and clear-eyed, with enough detail to draw you in. Even with the uneven nature of the collection, I enjoyed some gems in it. Pet Fly, Reply to A Dead Man, The Letter and Breath were excellent. Reply To A Dead Man was my favourite story in the book. While I am not sure I look forward to another short stories collection from the author (that is because I am not really a big fan of short stories), I am enthralled enough with his writing skill to look forward to his novels in my collection.

3.2/5

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18. BLACK SUNDAY

Black Sunday is Tola Abraham’s well-written debut that follows twin sisters Bibike and Ariyike and their younger brothers, Peter and Andrew. The sociopolitical upheaval in Nigeria is a minimal backdrop to the plot as changes in the country is a catalyst for their mother losing her comfortable job in a government parastatal. Their father is largely unemployed but it matters little as their mother’s job is good enough to ensure that they all live a decent enough middle class life.  Their dad is more available for school runs and other home-bound responsibilities. Their entire family life is turned upside down when their mother is sacked. This sack is the beginning of the pain, abuse, abandonment and poverty that envelopes the whole book.

The first thing that struck me about Black Sunday is how excellent Tola Abraham’s prose is. For a debut novel, the writing is accomplished. Also, she creates a very realistic portrait of family experiences in Lagos, Nigeria – both for the middle-class life that the twins and their family lived before their mother lost her job and the life of poverty that they fell into thereafter. It takes a special skill to write about poverty for a story set in a developing country without turning it into poverty porn. Tola Abraham has that skill.

The thing about poverty is that it stripes you of options. The thing about economic and political decisions by politicians is that it has real-life consequences. Our politicians seem oblivious of this fact. The solitary political decision that led to Bibike’s mother losing her job is what pushed her family into poverty, destroyed their family bond and striped all members of the family of options to the deplorable point where being abuse became enticing. A lack of options makes some victims become vulnerable to abuse. There is a lot of sex in Black Sunday but sadly most of it is non-consensual. Power dynamics distort even the few that seem consensual. Females are all on the receiving end of this abuse of power. The younger brothers, Peter and Andrew, are distant beneficiaries of the abuse as it provides a means for their sisters to take care of them. However, one is left to wonder what the plight of the boys would have been if they had no elder sisters whose desirability were being exploited. it is a bleak prospect all round.

As if the abuse and poverty is not a bleak enough combo, abandonment makes it worse. The cruel reality of teenagers and pre-teens waking up one morning and finding themselves parentless is very traumatic. It is one thing for a father or mother to abandon their kids but for both parents to up and leave their children in the face of difficulties is something almost unimaginable. The scene where Peter seats in his grandma’s veranda looking far into the horizon until nightfall while anticipating the return of his runaway father is heartbreaking. Broken people are always vulnerable and nowhere is this more visible than in the exploitation of Arikiye by the hypocritical brand of pentecostalism displayed in the story.

Black Sunday has a lot of good going for it but lets itself down on some critical fronts. The book is written in a form where each of the four siblings is the protagonist in each chapter and tells their story in the first-person narrative. This is a bit problematic as it makes the book feel episodic and unwholesome as a novel. As you approach the closing chapters. you realise that a lot of mini-narratives had been nothing but distractions and the very introspective chapters of Peter and Andrew that held so much promise had been abandoned without closure. The ending seemed rushed and dull. In all, what started as a very explosive novel petered out in the end. Also, one is left wondering if the alternating POV of 4 characters was the best structure for the plot. Despite these misgivings, Black Sunday is sustained by the excellent writing of Tola Abraham – not just excellent prose but very keen observation of middle-class Lagos living and universal ills that resonate well. For these reasons, it is well recommended.

3.6/5

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