Saturday, 31 December 2016

Gyred Falcons and Labyrinths of Suffering: Books of 2016

Every year, since this blog was established in 2013, I do a brief review of some of the books I read during the year and found most interesting. This year would be no different. I read a lot of books in a 2016 that has been my busiest year in a long time. They were mostly fiction, can you blame me? It felt as though the more fire they were setting on the world, the more fiction I was reading. In fact I came to a conclusion this year that there is nothing non-fiction books can do for and to a person that fiction cannot do twice or three times more, absolutely nothing.
From the gyred falcons that were Ben and his brothers who could no longer hear their falconer in The Fishermen to the Labyrinth of suffering that General Simon Bolivar was desperate to get out of in his death in The General in his Labyrinth, I present to you, dear readers, my books of 2016.
1.      A Monster Calls
A Monster Calls is a small novel written by Patrick Ness about a boy Conor O’Malley, who was a victim of school bullying; and how he comes to terms with his mother having cancer. Every 12:07 am Conor meets with a towering monster. The monster claims he would help Conor by telling him three stories after which Conor will tell the monster one of his own. As the story progresses, Conor’s mother, who has been undergoing chemotherapy becomes worse. After all of the Monster’s stories, Conor is forced to tell his and confront his personal demons. The Monster Calls is a beautiful story of hope in times of troubles. It is amazing how such a small story is able to mean so much. I think that is one of the important things that stories can do for us. Here’s a nice excerpt: Stories are important, the monster said. They can be more important than anything. If they carry truth.
Conor’s mother eventually died at exactly 12.07 am, however, because of the stories, Conor is able to accept it.
3.5 of 5
2.      This Is How You Lose Her
This Is How You Lose Her is a book of short stories by the amazing Junot Diaz. The first story I read from it was Alma, a fascinating, hilarious, extremely vivid, playboy sort of story. I read it in 2014 as part of required reading for a writing workshop I had attended. At that time I did not know that it was from a book of stories but I found it brilliant and I laughed all through. During the workshop I learnt that it was from a book of short stories by Junot Diaz and I made a mental note to find it. I did not find it until May 2016. What I found most fascinating about it was how Most of the stories, save for the first two, were written in second person, You. I write in second person sometimes and I can confirm that it is very difficult to keep up consistency writing in the second person singular. The stories are a sort of satirical manual, for men on how not to lose a girlfriend – but maybe it depends on who is reading, it could also be a manual on how to be a player. Though the stories are fiction, they seem so real and that is probably what Junot Diaz got right the most with this book. This uncanny ability to make fiction seem like it is a memoir. I am going to give a little excerpt for the first story in the collection so you get a feel of what the book is like.
The first story in the anthology of nine stories is titled The Sun, The Moon, The Stars and here is a short excerpt:
I’m not a bad guy. I know how that sounds— defensive, unscrupulous— but it’s true. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good. Magdalena disagrees though. She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole.
3.9 of 5
3.      Diary of a young girl
This is the story of Anne Frank, a little German-Jewish girl who was killed during The Holocaust. Diary of a young girl, or Diary of Anne Frank, or formerly The Secret Annex, describes her life in hiding as well as those of her immediate family and family friends in a Secret Annex in Holland between 1942 and 1944 during the time Holland was occupied by the Germans in World War Two. The diary is an honest account of what goes on in a teenage girl’s mind. The last few pages though, the Afterword, was a little bit too much to take in within whatever amount of time it takes for one to read three pages of writing. It told of what happened to Anne after the Secret Annex was discovered and the occupants were exposed and she had to stop making entries into her diary. They were deported to a Nazi Concentration Camp and you would have to read the book to discover what happened during that time.
It feels sort of weird rating this book, so I won’t.
4.      The Fishermen
The Fishermen irreverently asks its readers, page after page after page after page: how much heartache can you take? How much heartache can you take? It is written by the vastly talented Chigozie Obioma, it is one of the few Nigerian fiction that I was able to read during the year. It was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2015. It is a story of four brothers growing up in Akure, Ondo State in the 90s: Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin, who narrates the story of the fishermen. The Fishermen tells us how so ridiculously easily the strings that bond a group of people together can be loosened. A madman called Abulu prophesies that the oldest brother, Ikenna, would be killed by a fisherman and that prophesy from a madman was all that was needed to destroy a once tightly woven family. It is not just because this story is fascinating that makes it beautiful, it is the precision of the author, the deliberateness of every single word he uses. It is too easy to imagine that this was a memoir, but how can it be? Many times, while reading, I closed the book and promised myself that I had had enough of this shit, but the writing is too beautiful, the story is too real to just dismiss it like that. The Fishermen is a story that forces you to do things, very few books have that ability. It tells you, ‘this is crushing, but you must move to the next page, you must read the next chapter. You must see that Ikenna was killed, you must see that Boja killed himself, you must see that their mother went insane, that Obembe and Ben …’ I must stop, otherwise I would divulge everything.
It is a brilliant book.
4 of 5

5.      The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is written by John Boyne. It is set in Nazi Germany and Poland. It begins in Berlin with Bruno, a boy of ten, whose father is a Nazi German Soldier, finding out he and his family are moving from their home in Berlin and all his friends and going to live somewhere else; this occurs after a short man whom Bruno refers to as ‘The Fury’ comes to their house with his pretty wife to have dinner with his family. They move to this new place called ‘Out With’ which is a concentration camp in Poland. He finds the place immensely boring what with his lack of friends or acquaintances. In his boredom, he decides to do a bit of ‘exploration’ and he stumbles upon a boy in a striped pyjama, about his age, Schmuel. They become friends and the consequence of their friendship to both of them is not nice.
The story is very simple. It is perhaps the simplest book about Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler that I have read. And this simplicity is present from the start of the book to the end of it. and even in its simplicity, it is a very powerful story that literally takes you back to the 1940s, while both boys, Bruno and Schmuel, sit on different sides of the fence that seperates the concentration camp from Bruno’s house, you get this feeling that you are right there sitting with them.
3.8 of 5
6.      The Alchemist
The Alchemist is written by Paulo Coehlo
This story is about a shepherd boy from Andalusia who has recurring dreams of a treasure lying underneath the Egyptian Pyramids. He meets with an old king and he is offered some advice as well as a couple of magical stones. He embarks on his journey to find the treasure crossing the Mediterranean and trudging the Sahara desert. He meets swindlers, wars, helpers, friends and love. He learns alchemy along the way and is assured that when a person truly wants something, the universe conspires in his favour. The writing, maybe more than the story, is an absolute beauty. The writer weaves his story line around finding something he calls a Personal Legend (one’s purpose in life) dishing coats of advice and guidance in styles that make you marvel at words and how so easily they can be manipulated and made to act out all of one’s fantasies. However, I did not find it to be free flowing. I got caught reading the same paragraphs over and over and over again.    
3 of 5
7.      Bridge to Terabithia
I had wanted to read Bridge to Terabithia ever since I saw one of those Evangelical website review it poorly, saying it ‘apologetically portrays grief’ and words like ‘bitch’, ‘damn’ ‘cremation’ were used. I had not been able to lay my hands on it until I finally found it this year – it was a beautiful read, in all respects. It is written by Katherine Patterson. It is about two kids, Jess Aarons and Leslie Burke who become neighbours and then schoolmates and then friends, they create a magical kingdom which they call Terabithia. She is smart, creative and from a wealthy family; while he is artistic, mature and from a poorer family. It is one of the most frequently criticised and censored books. As a matter of fact, it is number eight on the American Library Association’s list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of the Decade 1990 – 2000, a list which one of my all-time favourite books, Looking for Alaska, which was reviewed last year, also falls in for the decade 2000 – 2010. It has been adapted into movies – twice.
Of the writing, I feel that Katherine Patterson did a beautiful job of making the book work as one that could be read by children and teenagers but also one that could be thoroughly enjoyed by adults. It was simple and witty and contained one of my characters of the year, Leslie Burke, who was, by equal measure, stunning in intelligence and wit. The ending was sad because it was and it is always difficult to come to terms with the loss of someone you have learned to love.
3.8 of 5
8.      The General in his Labyrinth
The General in his Labyrinth is a book about the great revolutionist and liberator of South America, Simon Bolivar. It is written by the phenomenal Gabriel Garcia Marquez, rest his soul. It was sort of a difficult book to read due to the fact that the novel was a labyrinth in its own right. Twisting and turning and snaking and meandering through time until time itself is confused. The story measures, with ruthless precision, the viciousness of politics and the concept of politicking. One does not need to be South American therefore to relate to the story. It talks about wars, triumph, defeat, love, celebrations, romance and suffering, very importantly, suffering. The General as Simon Bolivar was referred throughout the book, suffered a lot. Even in death his suffering continued. On his deathbed, he made one of the most remarkable last words in the history of last words, and then the way it was reproduced in Garcia Marquez’s book is nothing short of phenomenal:
‘The General paid no attention to the masterful reply, because he was shaken by the overwhelming revelation that the headlong race between his misfortunes and his dreams was at that moment reaching the finish line. The rest was darkness. "Damn it," he sighed. "How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!"’
The labyrinth the general was talking about has been said to be very many things by very many people. But for me (and Alaska Young from Looking for Alaska, I must say), the labyrinth is suffering. Like, Alaska said, ‘Bolivar was talking about the pain, not about the living or dying. How do you get out of this labyrinth of suffering?
Did you notice the exclamation mark at the end of Bolivar’s sentence? I did too.
3.5 of 5
9.      My Sister’s Keeper
In 2016 I read very many sad books. But none could compare in its utter heartlessness and irreverence for happiness to My Sister’s Keeper. It was, quite simply, crushing. It tells a story of a designer baby called Anna whose sole reason for existing is so she can be a donor for her sister Kate who has a rare form of Leukaemia. At thirteen, because thirteen year olds think of these things, and because it’s time to donate one of her kidneys to Kate, she decides to sue her parents to the court of law. She wants to be the owner of her own body, she wants to decide for herself if she intends to donate an organ to her sister, she wants to have a say. What I find most beautiful about the book is that it is told from the point of view of all the different characters: Brian (the father), Sara (the mother), Kate (the sick daughter), Ana (the designer baby), Jesse (the brother), Campbell (the lawyer) etc. The book asks us important questions: What does it mean to be a good parent? What does it mean to be a good father? What does it mean to be a good person? Like, every parent wants the best for their children, every parent knows that it is incorrect to bury a child but is it ethically and morally justifiable to sort of taper the life of one of your children in a bid to save the life of another one?
There are excerpt I like from Anna’s point of view:
You know how silence can push in at your eardrums in the dark, make you deaf? That’s what happens, so that I almost miss mother’s answer. “For God’s sake, Brian… whose side are you on?”
And my father: “Who said there were sides?”
But even I could answer that for him. There are always sides. There is always a winner, and a loser. For every person who gets, there’s someone who must give.
It also has one of the most profound quotes on marriage I have ever seen in my life:
The older couples, the ones sporting wedding bands that wink with their silverware, eat without the pepper of conversation. Is it because they are so comfortable, they already know what the other is thinking? Or is it because after a certain point there is simply nothing left to say?
Thinking about the book brings emotions.
It was a sad book. Brilliant, but sad.
3.7 of 5
10.  If I Stay.
If I Stay is written by Gayle Forman. It is about a seventeen year old, Mia, whose whole life changes after her family is involved in a ghastly car crash. I read a review from The Guardian which I found fascinating. I read this book because of that review.
‘Despite her solid relationship with Adam, Mia has choices to make and she chooses to apply for Julliard, one of the most prestigious music schools… even though it is on the other side of the country. But all it takes is one snowy morning, a family trip in the car, a lorry driver not looking the right way… And suddenly, Mia has only one choice left.’
Most of the book had Mia unconscious seeing herself and her weight on others from a perspective that was separate from herself. And so the most important theme was making a choice between Leaving, which was rational considering that her whole family was gone, and Staying, which was going to be respite for her friends and an enablement to proceed with her career in music. The book is about loss, about choices, about facing ones fears. The writing was somewhat uneven. There were lots and lots of flashbacks and it sort of disturbed the consistency and flow of the book. It was an okay read however.  I would definitely recommend it.
3 of 5
Character of 2016
Last year, my favourite character was Cash Daddy from Adaobi Tricia Nwabuani’s I Do Not Come To You By Chance. This year I finally, FINALLY read all seven books from the Harry Potter Series. They are beautiful, all seven of them, they are absolutely beautiful stories. My favourite character this year deserves a separate mention because of how captivating he is. His name is Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series. Even though he died at the end of Half Blood Prince, he is still one of the most influential and inspiring characters in all of fiction. From words to action Albus Dumbledore is definitely a literary personality I would give anything to spend thirty minutes of real life with.

No comments: