It is that time of the year again! That time when most persons reflect on the year and hand out platitudes and superlatives. Just like I did at the end of 2019 and 2020, while I was still getting through the 42nd and final book of my TBR list, I began to reflect on which of the books I had read this year and which would make this esteemed list.
The most obvious point about these lists of mine is that the books in them are almost never published in the year that I read them. I am a firm believer in the view that most books (even non-fiction titles) have no expiry date. You can find as much joy in a book written decades ago as you will from one published last week. Additionally, the fact that I pick my TBR lists randomly but deliberately means that books that have been on the shelf for years have as much chance of ending up on the yearly reading list as those published and bought days ago. So this is not one of those lists where you find the shiniest new toys from the publishing industry.
Like in the past years, I have tried picking this list based on broad genres but this year there is no pick for football. I read 3 football books this year and while I found each of them decent enough, none was good enough for this esteemed list. So this year, I have gone for Fiction – Novel, Fiction – Short Stories, Non-fiction and Faith. While reading any book, I take pictures of sentences and paragraphs that resonate with me. Since I only read physical books and detest underlining books, these pictures are my chosen alternative. I actually have a folder on my drive full of these pictures and every now and again, I look through them and reminisce over the books from where I had extracted them. In the usual tradition, I will be choosing one excerpt (sentence or paragraph) in each of the categories below.
Fiction – Novel
The mind is a funny thing. In recent days, I have been reminded of a phenomenon that is common in football where a player’s worth rises when he is injured, unavailable and his team is not playing well. Suddenly, fans remember his strong points and overlook the weak points they had been highlighting when he was fit. My last 5 or so reads of the year had been non-fiction and as much as most were decent (and one or two of them excellent), I suddenly yearned for the comfort of fictional reads. I seem to not remember any average fictional work I read this year and all that fills my memory is the exceptional novels I read in 2021. Truth is, I did read some exceptional novels this year. Whether my memory is playing tricks on me is one thing in terms of the average ones, is one thing but the exceptional ones were really good. This was the year I read Bridge, Black Sunday, Deacon King Kong, A Fine Balance and Djinn Patrol on The Purple Line. There were a few other good ones (excluding one or two (like Blacktop Wasteland) that were average in my view) but these 5 were a class apart. The interaction between the reader and the book is always unique. So in choosing these 5 or the final one, my choice is entirely subjective and based o the pleasure I derived from them. A pleasure that could have been dependent on my mood at the time I read them. A mood that could have been conditioned by external factors. The summary of the matter is that any chosen book hit most at the right spot, at that moment. You know that saying by Heraclitus that just as water flows in a river, one cannot touch the exact same water twice when one steps into a river.
I had a hard time picking between Deacon King Kong and A Fine Balance. As different as two books can be but each was extremely satisfying. Deacon King Kong was as straightforward as they come. The plot was seemingly basic but its basic nature only served to highlight the lyrical writing skills of James McBride. I found the tale gorgeous and the writing extremely assured. A Fine Balance on the other hand seemed to verge on the voluminous side (Once a book clocks at more than 320 pages, I am automatically biased against it). However, the relatively large volume is masterfully contained by the masterful storytelling of Rohinton Mistry. The gift of using simple prose to capture a reading audience is a rare gift and Rohinton Mistry has that gift in abundance. A Fine Balance is ultimately a heartbreaking tale but one that you enjoy despite the heartbreak. While breaking the reader’s heart, A Fine Balance makes poignant points about religion, social class, financial status and gender relations. All of these are done without being preachy as is the wont of some writers.
It is my reading pleasure to choose A FINE BALANCE as my Fiction – Novel book of the year.
For my favourite excerpt in this category, I have chosen this one from Black Sunday. There is a whole lot to unpack from this paragraph. It is succinct in its delivery and perfect in its layering. In all of this, it is simple and almost pedestrian. It deals with poverty, sexualization of the female and the causal despair that women have to shoulder amidst everything else.
Fiction – Short Stories
It is no secret that If I had my way, I will rather read novels than short stories. With that taste, you will think that I will not buy short stories collections. Alas! There are a good number of them on the shelves and there is no guarantee that I will not buy more. The advantage of my ”random but deliberate” approach to my reading lists is that it forces me to pick books that I ordinarily may never pick or that would stand no chance of being read until favourites have all been read in almost a decade (which is not a given as more favourites will be added while the unchosen would be gathering dust on the shelves). In 2021 I found a relatively large number of short stories collections in my TBR list. I read four Short stories collections this year and two of them topped the list – A Broken People’s Playlist and A Lucky Man. While the former was excellent all through, the latter was decent but had a few stories that I found outstanding. The former is set in Port Harcourt city while the latter is set around the Brooklyn and Bronx areas. I’m biased about A Broken People’s Playlist. It is set in my home city and the author can do very few wrongs in my eyes but even in my moments of rare objectivity, it is an excellent collection. I have heard an accusation that he is a commercial writer, whatever that means, but I found this collection as impressive as I found his debut novel. In fact, his writing is more assured in this sophomore work.
It is my reading pleasure to choose A BROKEN PEOPLE’S PLAYLIST as my Fiction – Short Stories book of the year.
For my favourite excerpt in this category, I have chosen this one from The Awkward Black Men by Walter Mosley. I had considered Godson’s police chase in The Broken People’s Playlist but at the last moment, I have gone for this. Child-rearing teaches adults a lot of things. In this excerpt, it is obvious the parent has learnt to humanize his children and not consider himself above apologizing, something common among older generations where the adult is always beyond reproach. The funny part is that the protagonist here has refused to apply what he learnt from child-rearing to his dealings with his spouse who he is holding a grudge against in the story.
The low point of my TBR list this year was that my non-fiction collection was not as strong as in previous years. Most of them were average and I can only think of one that stood out – The Intelligence Trap. As the title says, The Intelligence Trap highlights how even intelligence does not insulate the intelligent from making poor decisions and how better decisions can be made by anyone. In a world where we are currently bombarded by information and expected to make definite choices on a myriad of topics, the toolkit that The Intelligence Trap provides is a worthy armour and it is was an enlightening read.
It is my reading pleasure to choose THE INTELLIGENCE TRAP as my Non-Fiction book of the year.
For my favourite excerpt in this category, I have chosen this one from The Intelligence Trap. Franklin’s moral algebra is a vital tool in navigating today’s world where moral and social issues lack nuanced takes and opinions are reduced to my way or the highway. Social media has created a world where nuance is absent and biases are running wild. This paragraph is incredibly important.
Unlike the last category, my picks for this year’s TBR list in this category were above average as usual. I thoroughly enjoyed the books I read in this category in 2021 and of the lot, I found The Wrong Messiah, The Return of The Prodigal Son and The Cross and The Lynching Tree excellent. The latter is different from the rest as it explores a biblical theme from a recent historical perspective. If I had been asked to pick a favourite from these three a week ago, I would have gone for The Return of The Prodigal Son. However, I read The Wrong Messiah last week as the last of the books on my list and recency bias has me in a chokehold. I heard about The Return of The Prodigal Son a few years back in a sermon I listened to and have been longing to read it. The book invites the reader into a level of introspection that leaves one bare but rejuvenated. It opens one to a level of spiritual humility that I found very necessary. If I had read it and The Wrong Messiah around the same time, my final choice might be different but reading the latter more recently and particularly around Christmas, has titled the scale for me. Nick Page is a favourite of mine and I love how he brings alive the first-century Jewish world as he contextualizes the birth, life and (briefly) the death of Jesus Christ. I enjoyed it a great deal and the extensive research behind it coated in Nick Page’s wry sense of humour makes the dry history very appealing.
It is my reading pleasure to choose THE WRONG MESSIAH as my Faith book of the year.
For my favourite excerpt in this category, I have chosen this one The Return of The Prodigal Son. I actually could have chosen any one of 3 or more quotes from that book alone. In the end, I have gone for this. The heart of God, the father (or even mother) is apparent and worship-worthy from this paragraph.
So, those are my books of the year, for 2021. I hope I have conveyed the pleasure I had in reading these picks, just as I enjoyed reading them.
Here is to even better reads in 2022 and a better year on all sides!
Happy New Year in advance!