Tuesday, January 08, 2008
Best Books Read 2007
1. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. Surrealist adventures of a runaway, "the toughest 15-year-old in the world." Murakami crams Texas-sized philosophy into tight prose that had me reading when I was supposed to be working even though I loved my job.
2. The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi by Arthur Japin. Shows the deep pain of culture clash, displacement, and misguided 'development' plans as far back as the 1800s, it's the story of Ashanti princes forced abroad, which captures its three settings (Gold Coast, Holland, and Dutch East Indies) beautifully. I reviewed this book here.
3. Age Ain't Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife, edited by Carleen Brice. I am not and never will be a middle-aged black woman, so I didn't expect to love this book, but there wasn't much else around to read at the time. I did love it. The true stories within were beautifully rendered by masterful storytellers, and it was a rare non-fiction in that rather than expose a problem it celebrated life and the diversity of experiences it offers us if we live long enough.
4. Food Aid: A Trojan Horse? by Akrofi Dzietror. A very short, succinct attack on United States and European foreign aid policy, and how it is used exclusively to forward Western interests by manipulating recipients in the name of generosity. Enlightening.
5. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. Gorgeous lament for the South African black family, pre-apparteid.
6. Leopold's Ghost: A story of greed, terror and heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild. The picture I had of colonialism in Africa was never rosy, but this book showed the true source of 'darkness' on that continent to be Europeans, and their complete inability to see humanity through the rubber trees. A must read for anyone who wants to understand why there is injustice in the world.
7. May Contain Nuts by John O'Farrell. A hilarious send up of the British upper-middles and their obsession with the academic stardom of their children.
8. African Politics in Comparative Perspective by Goran Hyden. Very academic, very dry, and very much a foreign 'expert' writing about Africa, yet meticulously well researched and shed a lot of light on my own observations of Ghanaian culture and politics.
9. Soil & Soul: People v. Corporate Power by Alistair McIntosh. Impactful and inspirational alternative theological and ecological history of Scotland, detailing two activist victories of recent decades: the purchase of the Isle of Eigg by its residents from their Laird, and the saving of a mountain from total destruction by a megaquarry project, thanks to the help of a Mi'kmaq Warrier Chief and Peace Pipe Carrier.
10. The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy takes me so deep into the heads of his characters that I almost become them and join them in the agony of their existence. No other writer I've read can do it quite like he did.
11. The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi. Another great story of crossing cultures, and a creepy Nigerian ghost story to boot. A big-time page turner, written by Oyeyemi when she was 19 if you can believe it.
12. Age of Iron by J.M. Coetzee. Fantastic exploration of white guilt and apathy in South Africa near the end of apparteid, narrated by a woman facing the end of her own life and reckoning with her failures and that of her country.
13. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the rise of raunch culture by Ariel Levy. A bang on look at what has happened since the split of feminist between the 'pro sex' and 'anti exploitation' camps, and how this division has made many women into accomplices in their own sexual repression and exploitation.
14. Best Canadian Short Stories edited by John Stevens. Great little collection of some of Canada's old-school writers.
15. Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill. A real feat to have a 13 year old prostitute narrate her own demise of hard luck and bad choices and still come of as immensely loveable and sympathetic. A totally engrossing story with immense social value.
16. Kynship by Daniel Heath Justice. An atypical fantasy story in that it's told from the aboriginal perspective, i.e. from the perspective of the ones that are usually portrayed as ogrish neanderthals in the hero's path to glory, in need of trampling. It's well told and engaging as a story and is almost a spiritual experience to read.
17. Embracing Complexity: A journal of my discoveries and reflections in the Holy Land by John Filson. This is a journal written by a friend of mine. His brother published it as a gift. It's a simple and constant medidation on questions of peace and conflict, an attempt to better understand the sources of the latter, and an intentional effort to understand varied perspectives. It is unique in that it makes no argument, it is a balanced and gentle reflection, and I found it shed a lot of light on a confusing faraway conflict with a long history.
18. Island: the complete stories of Alistair MacLeod. If only I could write like he does. The flow of his prose is forceful, meandering, and absolutely natural. This book made me cry. It touched my mind, but it hit me harder on the heart.
19. When They Give You Lined Paper, Write Sideways by Daniel Quinn. I don't agree with everything Quinn says, but he always makes me think about things in new ways. This book is about his method to being a 'Martian Anthropologist', i.e. how he always comes up with unusual, yet usable, analyses of our fucked up culture.
20. Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King. He says so much with so little, is so subtle, is the master of the old adage 'show don't tell.' I read his books and for a while I feel like I know what life is about.
21. You Still Have Chaos in You: My story of madness, and how I learned to live it (with a section on d.i.y. mental healing) by Maryse. This was actually a zine but it was so good I had to include it. Maryse is not an accredited mental health expert but she lays out some of what she has learned as a political radical with mental health issues, and in the process offeres a great analysis of 'normal' and 'abnormal' and what health is really all about in an unhealthy society.
22. Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai. This isn't the best written book I've ever read but it's a great story about growing up 'funny' in Sri Lanka during a time when it was hard enough to be the wrong ethnicity in the wrong place without any other 'abnormalities'. It's also about childhood and loss of innocence, a theme that never seems to get old.
23. The Road to Hell: the ravaging effects of foreign aid and international charity by Michael Maren. A completely cynical, bitter view of foreign aid and charity by someone who has spent 20 years watching Americans, Canadians, Aussies and Europeans make things worse for Africans, sometimes because of incompetence, sometimes corruption, often out of pure cultural ignorance. He knows what he's talking about and again echoed many of my own observations writ large. Unfortunately he didn't bother offering any alternatives, not even just to say stop messing around with things we don't understand, which left a bleak sense of hopelessness about the state of the world that I don't generally share. Given all the evidence he presents of the failure of 'development' (he focuses on charity but really government and business are at least as much at fault) I suppose it's hard to find much cause for hope, but personally I think if we cancelled all Third World debt and stopped telling other nations how to run themselves it would be a good start.
"In the end I couldn't care less about the response, because that's not why I write. I write because it's there in me and I have the ability and I'd likely go mental if I did anything else. I'm not writing a sentence hoping some conservative, petty dickhead sub-contracted by the Globe and Mail is going to get what I'm talking about."
--Joel Thomas Hynes, 31-year-old Newfy writer who just published his second book, 'Right Away Monday'
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This sounds fascinating. Your review was very good, too.
And speaking of great Russian stories, Diary of a Madmna by Gogol is outstanding.
I have to say Disgrace was my favorite this year, recommended emphatically to me by my old writing prof. And I could see why, once I finished it. Talk about hubris eating a person alive...
And I'm going to check out Foe by your recommendation, as well. In exchange I heartily recommend The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Such a heartrending masterpiece! You would so, so, so dig it's depiction of marginalized voices.
eric: yeah that book is amazing. i also published a review of leopold's ghost but it doesn't seem to be on the website. on the subject of gogol, you'll see when i do my film list that one of my favs was 'the namesake' which featured a major character named after gogol. i love stories about the hunger of hubris. I read the Bluest Eye years ago and I loved it. on this year's to-read list is her book, Sula, recommended by my mother.
The narrative is non-linear, focusing on points at which the protagonists paths cross.
Well worth a read.
I did really enjoy Green Grass, Running Water and Female Chauvinist Pigs, though for very different reasons.
Right now I am reading "Savage Beauty". It is the biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay.
PP: school is the great killer of reading for joy.
TWM: they've been used for many things, kept many warm on a cold winter's night, through the light of the wisdom or the light of a censor's flame.
Josie: aha, my wife is a big fan of Edna St. Vincent Millay. I should get a hold of this book for her.
Are they in order? If so, I may look into some of the ones toward the top.
-The Road to Hell
-The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi
-Lullabies for Little Criminals