I have been blessed with some fine books in 2017. Not all of them were published this year. I tend to store up some reading delights for future enjoyment. One was first published over 400 years ago. But once I get them in my hands and commit to them, should we develop a strong connection, these books become the stars of my reading year and, occasionally, defining moments in my whole reading life.
I present this list roughly in order of pleasure gained and overall value derived. The top four are definitely in order of my favourite books read in 2017.
1. Stay with Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ (2017)
Far and away my favourite read in a long time. For the storyline - I find the best stories for me are disturbing stories - for the conflict, the emotional assault, the heartbreak and the resilience, the characters, the probing into painful relationships, the explosiveness and the sensitivity, the overall cultural setting; this is a beautifully written story. I can’t wait for Ayọ̀bámi’s next novel to come along.
2. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016)
Books always feel more valuable when they come as a present, and this is a treasured example. This is another harrowing tale. It spans seven generations and three continents, from times of slavery in the Gold Coast to a Mississippi plantation and on to Harlem. The many voices and generations are a bit hard to keep up with and the journey is exhausting at times, but the overall story is compelling.
3. BLACKASS by A. Igoni Barrett (2015)
The author’s capitals, not mine, but a cracking good book, worthy of shouting out about it to the world. This is an arresting pastiche on the Kafka classic Metamorphosis. Respectful to the original, but retelling the story with a highly charged, alternative transformation for our time. A skilful, humorous exploration into attitudes towards racial differences. A story about what happens in life when everything suddenly changes and your life spins out of control. A fine expose of Lagos society, with a universally applicable theme.
4. The Sense of Style by Stephen Pinker (2014)
A book on writing by a brilliant writer, “designed for those who know how to write and want to write better”. I am boldly putting my hand out and grabbing this. Note the split infinitive there. Stephen Pinker allows this sort of formal faux pas. Especially when shifting a sentence around to make it grammatically correct would distort the meaning. Pinker is an ardent exponent of Classic style. Getting your meaning across concisely, in a readable form. Not getting constrained by formalities. Good writing, in short. In Pinker’s view, style also earns trust, and style adds beauty to the world.
5. Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis (1952)
A classic Greek novel in the modern sense of the world. A must read if you have been to Crete and you want to gain greater insight into how the locals think and behave. Or at least how they used to. In many ways it’s all quite shocking. Just don’t expect any plate-smashing. The story is a study in extreme male bonding, lost causes, lascivious behaviour, last chances at love, comic events, distressing violence and ultimately sadness in parting. The relationships are intense. This is true of the reading experience too. Be prepared to work hard at this novel. If you don’t like male bravado, and you wouldn’t want to share a glass of fire water with the eponymous hero, probably best not to pick this one up.
6. The Muse by Jessie Burton (2016)
A follow-up to The Miniaturist was always going to be a massive challenge. Sad to say, Jessie Burton has not quite managed another tale of the same stature. Too much stature this time, perhaps. Not enough finesse. The Muse gets by. Not even close to being as inspiring as the title suggests. But some clever time shifts, some upsetting family histories, and a fascinating insight into the world of art curation adds up to a decent read in the end. I can only say this, however, having skimmed over many of the historical sections of the alternating timeline.
7. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1604)
I read the first 800 pages of this 900 page novel over two decades ago. The master work of a medieval Spanish writer who some say rivals Shakepeare. Ahem! It has always been a mystery to me why finishing the book has taken so long, but this year I finally got round to reading the final 100 pages. I can now lay this gallant knight to rest, his chivalry and undying affection for his beloved Dulcinea del Toboso has been handsomely rendered. Sancho Panza can take a well-earned break. And my reading soul finally feels at peace.
8. An Image of Africa (1977) and The Trouble with Nigeria (1983) by Chinua Achebe
The first of these, only twenty pages long, was originally presented in lecture form. It is commonly regarded as a rebuttal of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Achebe’s essay is a definitive African response to European, colonialist thinking. He objects to Africa being represented as "the other world, the antithesis of Europe and therefore civilisation”. He calls out Conrad for his “obvious racism”. Sadly, Achebe’s claim that "white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking" still has at least some relevance today.
On Nigeria, in the longer essay of the two, Achebe is quick to point out that “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership”. Achebe is extremely harsh on his own country, with section headings including Corruption, Patriotism, Tribalism and ‘The Igbo problem’. This internal focus is surprising. The lack of reference to colonial history and western interference is mainly absent here, in contrast to his views in his wider Image of Africa.
9. Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta (2015)
A moving, intimate story of young love, pursuing one’s true callings and desperation when society objects. This story has been praised in some circles as an example of ‘queer’ literature. Otosirieze Obi-Young has dismantled the idea of a trend in queer writing in his magnificent Brittle Paper on this subject, with vast research and thoroughness stressing the intrinsic literary value of works by writers of all persuasions. Okparanta's story must not be labelled small mindedly. Under the Udala Trees is moving. Way beyond moving. It is highly distressing. But it is also charming and evocative, with an engaging mixture of innocence and experience. It demands an emotional response.
10. Dear Ijeawele by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2017)
I cannot imagine any list of my favourite reads where there is no contribution from Chimamanda. This booklet, originally an essay on Facebook, just about makes the list, thankfully. Not a classic literary work, but that’s alright. More a code of practice to refer to when we’re not quite sure what the definitive feminist perspective is on any given subject. Chimamanda invariably has appropriate and incisive advice. Feminism is the 2017 ‘word of the year’, according to the Merriam Webster online dictionary. I wouldn’t dare argue with this. I would, however, prefer a novel, and would learn more that way, I believe. But Chimamanda’s essay, delivered “with so much love”, makes essential reading.
See the Connect Cultures feature: Tough reads in 2017
See the Connected Cultures feature: Happy New Reading Year 2018
© Eddie Hewitt 2017