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18. The Man I Think I Know

Mike Gayle’s The Man I Think I Know is a refreshingly different read for me. It is a simple novel about two men. Men who are devoid of toxicity, destructive ego and a presence of vulnerability that humanizes their pain. The Man I Think I Know is about male friendship. Much more than friendships, it is about second chances and redemption and highlights how easily lives can be turned in a split second.

James and Danny were high school classmates. Though classmates, they did not mix much due to the differences in their social classes. James was a posh kid from a rich home while Danny was from a poor background who only go to attend an elite school because of a scholarship he won. The barrier created by their backgrounds comes crashing down after their individual lives are turned around for the worse after different incidents. Years later, they find themselves at a care home. James as a patient and Danny as a carer. There at the bottom, they find each other and a platonic friendship that revels in the vulnerability of their individual pain lead the road to their individual redemption.

Redemption and second chances are at the heart of The Man I Think I Know. The unrealistic tone of the book is that everyone who seeks a second chance gets it. While that is not always true in life (some don’t even get the first chance, much less a second one), it is a very humane tale that stirs hope in the reader and reminds us how life’s turns are so fickle. The structure of the book in which both James and Danny take turns in being the protagonist in subsequent chapters gives depth to the character development despite the simple nature of the book. The Man I Think I Know is not a deep read but a thoroughly enjoyable one.

3.3/5

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17. Ghosts of the Tsunami

March 11 2011 was no ordinary day. An earthquake shook Japan. However, the earthquake which moved Japan four feet closer to America and caused the earth to move ten inches off its axis was a precursor to something more disastrous. It led to a tsunami that killed over 18 thousand people. In Ghosts of the Tsunami, Richard Lloyd Parry evaluates the effect of the Tsunami on the Japanese and particularly its impact on the people of the Tohoku region with a specific focus on what happened at Okawa Elementary school.

At Okawa Elementary school 74 of the 78 students who remained on the school field after the earthquake died. In Ghosts of the Tsunami, Parry explores not just the circumstances surrounding their death but the trauma and grief that their death has caused their parents. All of these are done within the context of how grief is processed within the Japanese culture. This is a society where seismic shifts have defined daily life. Evacuation drills and emergency processes are part of every school curriculum. In exploring this disaster, Ghosts of the Tsunami examines what went wrong at Okara Elementary School that day. Were the school officials negligent or ill-prepared? The answer to that question is not provided but the ways in which the government officials are evasive impact the grieving process of the parents in a very moving way.

In reference to the Japanese society, Herman Ooms once said that “The dead are not as dead there as in our own society”. This point is brought alive in how the grieving parents in The Ghosts of the Tsunami cope with their losses. Ancestor worship is a big thing in Japan and investigating how they cope we see the thin line between the living and the dead, in their view. This makes their pain even more palpable and enables their perseverance in searching for the bodies of their dead loved ones.

Ghosts of the Tsunami is a very well-written memoir. The topic is not upbeat and in fact very depressing but the author manages to explore a great depth of the grief that enveloped the survivors of this natural disaster while dignifying the dead and the living. The only issue I had with the book was that fewer survivors would have been focused on as the sheer volume of survivors covered in the book, making it harder to keep track of whose grief was being explored at each point in time.

3.3/5

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16. Fortunes of Africa

It is unclear where Africa would be today without the rapacious impact of colonialism. Fanciful retrospective views would often proclaim that its future would have been so bright that without the intrusive force of colonialism Africa would have been the envy of the rest of the world. Racist views on the other side deduce that without the benevolent intervention of the West, Africa would have remained a backwater to date. More considerate views would conclude that without the destructive and evasive effect of the West, the future of the African continent was unknown, as no one knows what the people themselves would have made of themselves over three thousand years later. What is certain and acceptable to anyone devoid of insincerity is that the plunder and exploitation of the continent and its resources disfigured Africa so badly that it is impossible to understand its present without incorporating the effect of the past on the conquered and her conquerors.

The Fortunes of Africa is a panoramic view of the continent that spans back as 3000 years. It captures the fortune of the continent in this period. A panoramic view that encapsulates the economic, social and cultural themes in the period with economic themes taking a center stage. It makes a clear and undeniable claim that the riches of the continent have shaped the past and present of Africa. The greed and plunder by the West were only triggered because there were resources to be exploited. If Africa had been less endowed, the story might have been very different. Not satisfied with shipping slaves and resources away in the course of regular expeditions, European conquerors in the spirit of explorative adventure invaded and overrun African locals in a bid to not just access the resources but also the land that hosted the resources. The Fortunes of Africa chronicles the way many cast characters played a part in the history of the continent; from religious leaders to kings to explorers to freedom fighters to warlords. From exploiters masquerading as explorers to foreign corporations, the cast has been varied but the purpose has remained the same – plundering the wealth in various guises.

A history of a continent as large as Africa and dating back so far back is a huge task that Martin Meridith undertakes with great aplomb. His narrative is crisp, concise and coherent. He obviously lays greater emphasis on some countries than others (Egypt, South Africa and Ethiopia get more detailed insights) but by taking a pre-colonial view of the continent’s boundaries, a holistic view is presented.

The thing about greed is that it is often limitless. Europeans went from plundering African resources in occasional forages to not only conquering the locals but taking their land. Land remains a touchy subject in Africa and of the many interesting anecdotes in The Fortunes of Africa, none highlights this as well as that told about the 1659 battle between the local KhoiKhois and the Europeans. In the negotiations that followed, a Dutch participant recorded one of the Khoikhoi’s grievances as follows; “They spoke for a long time about our taking every day for our own use more of the land which belonged to them for all ages, and in which they were accustomed to pasture their cattle. They also asked whether if they were to come to Holland, they would be permitted to act in a similar manner?” That question has still not been answered almost 400 years later and puts into context the ongoing land agitation in South Africa.

The Fortunes of Africa is not only about the distant past. It is also about the relatively recent past. Post-colonialism, the plundering has continued, this time by Africans themselves. The future is yet unknown but in charting the course, the past must be reckoned with and the economic past is what Martin Meridith has captured so succinctly in The Fortunes of Africa. I slugged through this as I found the early parts too ancient for my non-history-loving self but the structure and narrative kept me going and the impeccable summary of a long time period makes for an interesting reading experience with lots to ponder on long after the last page.

3.7/5

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15. The Scapegoat

Sophia Nikoloidou’s The Scapegoat is a timely read. It goes far back and recent in the eras it captures in this thoughtful historical fiction novel. It takes a nuanced look at the 1948 murder of American journalist George Polk  (the namesake of the prestigious Polk Awards) who was killed in Thessalonica while investigating the corruption in the right-wing Greek government. In order to cover up the state’s alleged complicity in his murder, the crime is pinned on Grigoris Staktopoulos, a journalist and former communist, despite the non-existence of believable proof. The plot of The Scapegoat is anchored on two planks of history; Polk’s murder in 1948 and the 2008 Greek Financial crisis. Both planks have the common thread of lack of trust in the political elite by the polity.

Soon after the 2008 financial crisis, with the Greek polity in despair and the people feeling let down by their politicians, the past is examined through the lens of the present as Minas Georgiou a high school senior is despondent, bored and gropes his way toward adulthood. His despondency reaches the point where he opts out of his final exams and is unwilling to go to university. The unwillingness is alarming for his intellectual parents – his mother and grandmother are teachers and his father is a journalist. From childhood, they have prepared him for a legal career and his current rebellion means their invested dreams in him are dying. Teta (Minas’ mother) approached Souk his History teacher to intervene. Souk is an eccentric and unusual character. Unlike most teachers, he has chosen to challenge his students to think critically. His idea of intervention is to ask Minas to write an investigative report on the Polk murder.

Alternating between 1948 and 2010, the story not only mirrors the past in the present, the cynicism, evasive tendency of the governing elite and the self-preserving tendency of the governments at all times to find scapegoats to pin its failure on reverberates across the time periods. Minas’ relationship with Evelina his classmate mirrors what happened between his grandmother and Evelina’s grandfather Dinopoulos in the 1940s. Dinopoulos was the lawyer of Gris (the character based on Grigoris Staktopoulos) and he is the major physical source of Minas’ research for the assignment that Souk has given him. In all of the back and forth, one thing remains constant, the loss of hope in the government by the people is palpable and constant. The hopelessness is captured in Dinopoulos recollection of the 1948 case and recycled in Minas’ loss of hope in the system in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. In both cases, the government works hard to absolve itself and find scapegoats to blame.

While The Scapegoat is a complex story that Xrays the Greek political system, it is timely because its application is certainly universal and current. While the first-person narrative for multiple characters across the two time periods was slightly distracting, the structure works in the end because Minas the main protagonist truly typifies the angst and despondency of the polity.

3.4/5  

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14. The Curious Rise of Alex Lazarus

Soon after reading The Curious Rise of Alex Lazarus, I checked online for a novel with a similar theme and/or plot. I found none. My initial conclusion is that a new genre has been created by Adam Leigh; Fictional Business Memoir. Using language that would not be out of place in either The Financial Times or be out of place in Tony Parsons’ Man and Boy, The Curious Rise of Alex Lazarus, explores the human drive for pursuit and ambition in a capitalistic 21st-century entrepreneurial landscape. All of this is done with a good dose of humour, devoid of a condescending tone and a total absence of verbose.

There is an ordinariness that permeates The Curious Rise of Alex Lazarus. This ordinariness works out quite well. It makes it very relatable. At one turn it feels like you are reading about one of those narcissistic American tech founders and in the very next turn, you recognise several of the Nigerian fintech founders whose excesses and hubris have gone viral on social media in recent months.  You can even recognize colleagues in one or more of the many colourful characters in this book. In keeping with the ordinariness of the plot, it makes sense that the two main characters; Alex and Julian met in the most ordinary of circumstances – while watching over their toddlers on the playground.

Alex has had the itch to pursue an entrepreneurial venture for a while. He finally takes the plunge when he meets a willing partner in Julian. They both strike up a partnership and set up a parenting website. The company ends up growing bigger than the founders ever imagined. The Curious Rise of Alex Lazarus covers the full gambit of the startup ecosystem; the fundraising, selling hope and expectations, the toll it takes on familial relationships and the tensions that make or break partnerships. While all of these are in the fore, what gives the book its relative depth is the philosophical question that goes on in the background – what exactly is ambition? How far should one go in pursuit of it? Are the trade-offs worth it? In the midst of all the funny jokes and everyday plots, there are serious issues that the narration tries to grapple with in the book.

The structure of The Curious Rise of Alex Lazarus is excellent. It starts from the present where the company has imploded and takes a reflective view of the years that led up to the present. It unfolds the present from the past. Adam Leigh is an exciting storyteller. More of a storyteller than a writer (and that is not a slight at all). I found myself yearning for Alex to take the money and run before he got eaten up by the sharks, while also rolling my eyes at Julian’s solipsistic tendencies. Characters are as real as we know and see in our everyday working lives.

3.5/5

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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.

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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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