I cannot remember when I started being alarmed about the high rate of poor decisions made by intelligent persons. However, the current political and cultural climate has heightened that alarm. One of those days I decided to find a book that dealt with the issue and ended up buying The Intelligence Trap by David Robson. The Intelligent Trap explores why intelligent people make silly decisions, what skills and dispositions make intelligent people susceptible to silly decisions and finally it explores how we can cultivate those positive decision-making qualities that protect us from the errors of silly decisions.
High IQ and other academically-tested intelligence measures are no guarantee for avoiding dumb decisions. The Intelligence Trap highlights decades of research that have pointed out that rather than high IQ, a better predictor of quality decision making is evident-based wisdom. It provides practical techniques that can be used to cultivate wise thinking and escape the intelligence trap of biases. The Intelligence Trap uses the springboard of highly people to highlight that intelligence is no vaccination against stupidity. The anecdotes are illuminating – going from Arthur Conan Doyle’s friendship to Houdini to Arthur Conan Doyle falling for the scam of the Cottingley Fairies photo hoax to the FBI’s wrongful arrest of Brandon Mayfield. The curse of knowledge, inflated self-confidence, earned dogmatism, meta-forgetfulness and motivated reasoning are some of the biases that induce poor decisions of not just highly intelligent individuals but also intelligence communities.
The Intelligence Trap is not just a book that explores the downside of intelligence, it provides antidotes to poor decision-making. Antidotes apply to both the highly intelligent and the average Joe. No other anecdote explores these antidotes other than the stories of Benjamin Franklin told in the book. The intellectual humility and moral algebra that underpinned his decision-making as highlighted in the book are foundations that can be implemented by anyone, irrespective of the person IQ. 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.
The moment I came around to the fact that doubt is not the opposite of faith nor is certitude equivalent to faith, I began to feel comfortable enough to interrogate my moments of doubt as it concerns issues of faith. I have read and enjoyed a few books that have explored the topic. Last year this was the pick for the 2020 TBR list and this year I found myself reading Doubting by Alister McGrath.
Doubting is different from most of the other books on Christian doubt that I have read. It is more pastoral in approach. It is relatively shallow on the philosophical front. What it lacks on the philosophical front it makes up for on the pastoral front. It provides in-depth details on how to overcome doubt for a new believer. It is a vital read that acts as a handy reference.
I finally got around to reading the first of the many Walter Mosley’s novels on my shelf (discounting the short stories collection which I read earlier this year). The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is a very thoughtful but unusual story. It is the story of a 91-year-old Ptolemy Grey who is suffering from early-stage dementia. The book delves into his struggles with the disease and how it impacts his life. Ptolemy remembers random events that happened 8o years ago but struggles to remember how to lock his door or who is standing in front of him. The book and the story in it hold a special place in my heart because I have a parent who is a decade and a half younger than the protagonist and suffering from an even more advanced form of dementia. The impact on not just the sufferer but their loved ones is devastating.
Ptolemy’s mind like his apartment is becoming a jumble of the memories he has accumulated over his long life. The memories pop up every now and again and tell us about the life that Ptolemy has lived. The years have not dulled his longing for his long-dead wife, Sensia, and the colourful life she lived nor have they dulled the wisdom that was passed down my Coydog his childhood mentor who was lynched in the South, as was common back in the days. Past events are uppermost in Ptolemy’s mind to the extent that he is unable to function in the present – clean his apartment, eat properly or even clean himself properly. His saving grace is his grandnephew Reggie. Reggie comes around to take him grocery shopping and cash his retirement cheques. When Reggie is killed in a drive-by shooting, Ptolemy’s life takes a new turn – one that presents him with an opportunity to live more fully in the present while preparing him for a more intentional exit.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is a uniquely crafted book in the way it allows us to enter into the world of a nonagenarian. Ptolemy’s fears, inadequacies and longings are all contrasted with the life he has lived and the social injustices that have impacted that life. In The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey we see how the past, present and future are a constant flux in old age and how diminished memory is a drag in old age. This is a very thoughtful story.
Talk of The Town is Fred Khumalo’s collection of ten short stories. Short stories are not my favourite type of fiction and I am making a conscious effort not to buy any new ones in the next year. However, I have about a dozen of them on the shelves and this is probably the fourth collection in my 20201 TBR. Some have been below average, a few have been average and one has been spectacular. So, in all, it has been a decent year in short stories for me. Talk of The Town is a decent collection that covers varied themes set mostly in South Africa. It opens up with the titled short story – Talk of The Town, a story that explores township life just before the end of apartheid in South Africa. How consumerism defined social status, the pass system that bred absentee fathers (that is still a problem today, long after the pass system became history) and the vibrancy and colourfulness of township life in general. The returning exiles were a constant fixture of the social life of black South Africans soon after the end of apartheid. Their outlandish tales and sense of entitlement were constant features in most social gatherings. The Guz-Magesh character who is the main character in two stories set in the fictitious Ekhaya watering hole is a familiar character to anyone who has a keen eye for South African polity and its social settings. Gladly, the people are becoming less beholden to those who returned from Exile after 1994. Their fallibility has gotten obvious and it has become obvious that their sacrifice does not make them faultless. This much is obvious in The Invisibles, the second of the Guz-Magesh stores.
Xenophobia is a theme that vibrates in this collection. It is a topic that the author, Fred Khumalo has strong opinions about. Having studied in America decades ago and worked for a couple of years at a Nigerian newspaper that unsuccessfully tried to establish in South Africa, he has a good idea of what it takes to be the other person in public and private spaces. He has the experience of being the odd one in the room and having the weight of unjustified stereotypes fall on your shoulders the moment you open your mouth to speak and your accent betrays your nationality. In Beds Are Burning, Nomcebo is analysed and profiled by the street sweepers and they conclude that she is a foreign whore simply on account of her attire. The theme is revisited in my favourite story in the collection – The Phiri, Esquire. Shirley’s suspicion of Phiri is only because of his nationality.
In all, the stories in this collection are decent and contain some memorable characters. A few of the stories are really good and in all, a decent collection awaits the reader who picks up Talk of The Town.
The first thing to be clear about Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed is that the title is misleading. I picked this up assuming that it was a takedown of the political left (not like I am a big fan of the right). Here the author is taking a longer view and announcing the death of both classical liberalism as espoused by global capitalism and contemporary liberalism as espoused by the social justice movements of the day. The context of Why Liberalism Failed is better appreciated once you accept Deneen’s definition of liberty as a root word of liberalism as against the contemporary meaning. A barrier is immediately created if you refute his assertion that liberty is more about virtue, discipline and containment within communal good.
While he sees the classical liberalism group and the progressive liberalism group as two sides of the same coin, most of the author’s exposition and ire is reserved for the progressive liberals. For largely good reasons, he explains that the quest for individual freedom without limits is a destructive inbuilt mechanism that was destined to fail from inception. A good example explored in the book is how universities have become hostile grounds for the exchange of ideas and opinions as unbridled freedom clashes with the freedom to hold contrary views. Politically, the tendency of contemporary liberalism to resort to imposing the liberal order by fiat via the administrative state run by a small minority will continue to damage democracy and fuel populist discontent. Besides the discontent, it exposes the irony of the situation that liberalism ends up creating a most powerful state when its stated aim is to create a most powerful individual who is not beholden to community or state.
While I agree that both the conservative and progressive sides of the liberal coin and currently defective and rightly taken down in Why Liberalism Failed, I found the arguments slightly repetitive and the end was hugely disappointing. After taking down the left and the right, I was eager for a conclusion that offered light out of the dark tunnel we find ourselves in – none was forthcoming. The best the author offers is a return to household and local economy. Not only is this a simplistic solution, but it is also impractical to the point of utopianism. Similar to another book along the same line that I read last year, I find that pinpointing all that is wrong with current systems is easy, it is much harder to come up with realistic solutions. Why Liberalism Failed is a decent read that highlights the issues with the current conservative and progressive sociopolitical theories. However, it does an abysmal job of pointing out the way forward and it assumes the catholic worldview as universally accepted.
Migration is an urgent topic whether you are for it or against it, the inevitable fact is that the movement of people westward has become a hot topic in our world today. It is this urgent and hot topic that Helon Habilla has chosen to tackle in his fourth novel – Travellers. My TBR is often chosen with deliberate randomness but this year’s picks have thrown some interesting migration themed works of fiction. Whether it is The Year of The Runaways or the more recently read Brother or Travellers. Each has interrogated the issues around breaching geographical boundaries, crossing borders, being forced to embrace a strange land due to a lack of options (in the place you previously called home) and even the burden that such movement and dislocation places on migrants and their future generations.
The narrator of Travellers is an unnamed Nigerian man living in Virginia and married to an American lady. With their marriage on the verge of collapse, he and his wife, Gina, migrate to Berlin where she takes up an Arts fellowship. Trying to fit into life as a migrant in Germany, he connects with other migrants from Africa whose stories are as diverse as their faces but the sense of dislocation, deferred hope and shattered humanity are all uniform. Whether it is the story of Mark who migrates to Berlin from Malawi, a move occasioned by his father’s unwillingness to embrace his life choices. Mark then finds himself being hurled from one detention centre to the other in Berlin due to his migration status. These experiences shape Mark’s view of the world and pose questions to the reader about our shared humanity. There is Manu, a doctor from Libya with his wife and two children. They cross the Mediterranean in very turbulent circumstances. He and his daughter make it to Berlin but his wife and son do not. They had promised to meet at Checkpoint Charlie if they were separated in their journey. Every Sunday, Manu and his daughter go to Checkpoint Charlie and look through the crowd of people hoping to be reunited with their loved ones. It is this hope that kills, in addition to the readjustment of going from being a medical doctor to a nightclub bouncer. There are many more characters whose stories Helon Habilla gives a voice in restrained clean prose that acknowledges the gravity of the topic.
Told in the form of vignettes where the young Nigerian-born academic is the narrator in some of the stories and others where the other migrants tell their own stories, Travellers is uniquely structured in a way that some of the stories are interrelated and others are stand-alone. Irrespective of the interconnectedness or its absence, the overarching themes of dislocation, chasing a hope that always seems to be fading and the trauma of a peripatetic life are elaborately explored in sparse prose. The only issue I have with Travellers is that the spareseness and cleanliness of the prose do not match the urgency of the subject. For such powerful themes under consideration, the characters are flat. In my view, focusing on fewer migrants and having a consistent narrative voice would have aided the character development. In all, Travellers is a very thoughtful read.
In his second novel, Brother, David Chariandy elegiacally narrates a succinct tale of migration, hope, race, community, motherly love and sibling relationship. In less than 200 pages he examines the life of a migrant family whose mother and absent father from Trinidad and their sons Michael and Francis are struggling under the weight of their mother’s sacrifice and the hope that the children will redeem the past and dreams of their mother like those of the other migrant parents in the Scarborough estate where they live. These migrant parents had big dreams that they have now outlived but what keeps them going is that their children will not end up like them.
Brother is told through the eyes of Michael, the younger of Ruth’s two sons. Michael is a young lad that attracts the empathy of the reader. He is a fragile kid that is not readily built for the rough life of the housing project where they live. The prejudice that the police exhibit in policing the neighbourhood makes him even more fragile, leaving him scared and unsure of his place in society. His elder brother Francis is more aligned with the streets. In a fatherless household, one where the mother is mostly absent as she tries to do countless jobs and shifts in a bid to earn enough to barely feed them, Francis becomes a victim of his environment – an environment that is built to exploit and destroy him and people like him. Soon after, tragedy strikes and Michael has to assume a leadership role in the family despite being barely a teenager. The prejudice against his skin colour and means that in addition to the poverty around him, the cards are heavily stacked against him.
Brother is structured interestingly – one step in the present and the next step is in a decade past. The past is centred on Michael and Francis’ childhood and the period around which police brutality reshaped an already impoverished neighbourhood. David Chariandy’s prose is clean if a little too colourful for my liking. There is a brutal honesty about his depiction of migrant life and police prejudice in black communities that are found in his use of language. The structural issues that shape the daily living of the inhabitants of Scarborough are palpable in the pages and brought to light in the prose. Brother is an impressive story that reminds us of the odds that some have to deal with on account of their skin colour and being born or raised in the ”wrong” part of town.
The cross and the lynching tree. Two symbols of humiliation, torture and killing. The former, common in the first century Roman Empire and the latter, common almost two thousand years later in America. At first, the similarity is not obvious but when you engage this historical exploration by James Cone, you see how the cross at Calvary has served as an aid and hope for the black American society as they came to terms with the symbol of the lynching tree both figuratively and literally. And because one can lynch a person without a tree or a rope, the lynching tree remains an indicting rod for the white American church back then when juxtaposed with the centrality of the cross in the Christian faith.
The Cross and The Lynching Tree is a small volume (166 pages without the copious references) that packs a tremendous punch. In it, James Cone outlines not just the history of the lynching tree but how the centrality of the cross and Jesus’ crucifixion served as an anchor and source of hope as black Americans faced the evil of white supremacy depicted in the lynching that went down in America’s south. Just as the crucifixion of criminals on a cross in the Roman Empire was an instrument reserved for insurrectionists and rebels, white supremacists used lynching to instil fear and shame in those who dared to rebel against her dignity of slavery and racism. The fact that the cross was (and still is) God’s critique of power with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat emboldened the black American church to face up to slavery and its offshoots like the lynching tree. Ironically, the white church was largely ignorant of the reflection of the cross as it showed up in the lynching tree. James Cone was particularly critical of Reinhold Niebuhr who despite his theological prowess was unable to expound that while the cross symbolized God’s supreme love for human life, the lynching tree was the most terrifying symbol of hate in America. The lukewarmness of church figures like Reinhold Niebuhr is a criticism that James Cone repeatedly returns to and it is a very poignant one. A criticism that when evaluated fully, exposes the hypocrisy of the white American church and criticism that reminds one of the Afrikaans church in South Africa during the height of apartheid. They found reasons to justify racial segregation and the subjugation of blacks in their own land. Most interestingly, James Con’s criticism of Reinhold Niebuhr reminds me of the difficulty I still have with Paul’s letter to Philemon in the New Testament. I have struggled to reconcile the content of that letter with Paul’s message of the new birth and the kingdom of God. Why was he not bolder in denouncing slavery in that letter. Why did he not tell Philemon that Onesimus was not an object to be owned and that in God’s kingdom there was no master nor slave?
The Cross and The Lynching Tree is an impactful book that looks back in history and reveals the hypocrisy of a part of the American church, the struggles and hope of another part of the church and both revelations are through the prism of the cross. It is thoughtful, provocative and instructive, all at once.
A Fine Balance is the third novel I have read this year that is set in India. 3 random works of fiction that have had provided different degrees of enjoyment. The first was very good and one of my best reads this year, the second was average at best and now the third and final one has been an outstandingly brilliant read, so good that I wonder if I will read anything better this year. In all, India has been a good setting for my 2021 fictional reads. To believe that I have had A Fine Balance sitting on the shelf for almost 3 years!
A Fine Balance is a breathtakingly heartbreaking story written by Rohinton Mistry. Its heartbreaking nature is equally matched by the beautiful prose and masterful storytelling. I generally flinch at bools that go beyond 350 to 400 pages ( A Fine Balance is a little over 600 pages) as my attention was never that great in my younger days and has gotten worse in recent years. A book that comes in at over 600 pages is a breeze when Rohinton Mistry is the storyteller. A Fine Balance is set in India of the 70s. Most of the story unfolds in 1975 when the famous Emergency rule is in full swing and Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister. This was a period of lawlessness and great uncertainty. The dictatorial tendencies of the Emergency rule were used to suppress rights on religious, social and financial divides. A Fine Balance is not a political novel, even with the devastating effects of the dictatorial government policies taking centre stage in the plot, the overarching themes are larger than politics. It is the moving story of four lives that intersect by chance and how their lives are bound together not just by chance but also how macro-political decisions impact individuals in profound long-lasting ways and later their lives forever. With all the suffering in A Fine Balance, one is tempted to see it as a study in theodicy when looked from a philosophical lens but that would be a one-dimensional view of a masterfully told story of human living that employs a panoramic view of ordinary lives that is so relatable that their short-lived happiness gladdens the reader immeasurably and their despair seem so prolonged that you seem to want to hurry up the pages in a bid to quicken their suffering. Such is the bleakness of the circumstances of the characters yet it is so well written that the reader is drawn in and kept glued.
The balance in A Fine Balance is not just between hope and despair but across religion, social class, financial status and gender. The search for balance plays out randomly and indiscriminately to Dina, a Parsi widow, Ishvar and Omprakash, two migrant tailors from the rural areas, along with Manesh a student who has been sent by his parents to study in the city. In coming together to form an unusual family bond in Dina’s tiny flat, each of the four is trying to change their circumstance in the face of the repressive Emergency rule – Dina is seeking independence from her patriarchal elder brother, Manesh is distraught at the changes in his family dynamics and refuses to let go of his childhood, while Ishvar and Omprakash are refusing to accept their lot as ”untouchables” as members of the tanners’ caste. As each of them seeks to change their lot, compromises are made, despair and joy intermingle with the latter in short supply and the former in excess supply. The randomness of hope’s extinguishment is heartbreaking. Therein lies the balance or imbalance at the heart of the story.
A Fine Balance is an exceptionally well-written book that explores ordinary human lives beautifully even when conveying the trauma of being at the receiving end of oppression. The structure is also worthy of commendation – it starts from the point where the lives of all four main characters converge then backs off to their past before returning to their present and proceeding into the future. The present is both collective and individual and the narrative, which is in the second person alternates flawlessly. I still have a few more novels left in my 2021 TBR list but I am almost certain that in A Fine Balance, I have read my best book of 2021. Now I need to find a way to manipulate the settled process of selection in order to get the other Mistry’s novel on the shelf into next year’s pile.
Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Happy Marriage is an exploration of a marital relationship between a Moroccan couple. It is set during the early 2000s and in France and Morocco. While the title of the book is highly ironic and sarcastic, the book deals with critical issues that are often at the root of most dysfunctional marriages – class issues, infidelity, lack of trust in financial matters, patriarchal double standards and lack of love. All of these and more are present in the marriage between the famed painter and his wife. Beyond the dysfunctionality of the marriage between the protagonists, The Happy Marriage is a study in narration and perspectives.
The painter met his wife in 2000 and they got married in Paris soon after. Being Moroccans seem to be the only shared identity between them. The painter is a famous artist and comes from a rich stock in Fez, Morocco while the wife was born of peasants in rural Morocco and fostered by a French couple who returned back to France from Morocco with her. It might seem inconsequential to some but it is a major factor that shapes the marital relationship between the groom and bride’s extended families. The wife feels unwelcome and the husband struggles to empathise with her over her insecurity in the face of his siblings’ attitude to his wife and her family. As seen from his wife’s view, the disrespect and insecurity that the extended family generated were as hurtful as the painter’s infidelity. The underlying themes in The Happy Marriage are universal and are issues that will wreck any marriage. The unwillingness of either party to be a little more introspective and consider their faults is a true red flag for any marriage. The painter thinks his infidelity is justified. He thinks he has been a good husband and is the victim in his own story. His wife thinks otherwise and manages to sway the reader to her side that her husband is a pretentious westerner who harbours archaic Moroccan view on marriage where different rules apply to both parties. She also thinks her aggression and occasional violence had been justified. As unlikeable as both characters are, their plights are real and very relatable.
As relatable as the content is, The Happy Marriage is a very dry read. At a point, I wondered if the dryness was the fault of the translator or the very plodding prose. The Happy Marriage is divided into two unequal parts. In the first part, which is about three-quarters of the book, the protagonist is the painter. We begin in 2000 and with the couple living in Casablanca and the painter having suffered a massive stroke and is on the road to recovery. This first part is written in a third-person narrative and I found this choice of narration strange and stifling. It made this part of the book read like a news report. In it, the protagonist details his marital life and career while justifying his philandering moves and absolves himself of the failure of his marriage – it is all his wife’s fault. In the second part of the book, his wife takes centre stage and replies to him. She is firm, direct and at the same time haphazard in her defence. She starts by highlighting a major point in her husband’s diatribe – he never mentions her by name. She is Amina and in retaliation, she calls him ”Foulane”, an Arabic word meaning ”any old guy”. While her husband’s story is detailed and extensive, hers is direct and passionate, offering an intimacy that sways the reader’s allegiance. In all, The Happy Marriage is a dry read with universal themes that call for introspection from any reader who is willing to look beyond the fault of others and examine theirs. It takes a huge effort to push through as the prose is generally uninspiring.