My #ReadAfricanWriters challenge for 2019

This year I plan to read a book by an author from every country across Africa. That’s 54 countries. I’ll blog and tweet about it under the hashtag #ReadAfricanWriters.

And here’s my first entry for the year, a memoir by an author from Rwanda!

the girl who smiled beadsrwandaThe Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After, by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil.

Here’s my quick take:

Wow. Clemantine Wamariya was just six when the Rwandan genocide took place. Separated from the rest of her middle class family, she and her teenage sister Claire traverse several countries, in and out of refugee camps. Eventually they make it to the USA. The book gives a devastating portrait of how conflict and being a refugee can affect a child, and how a young woman seeks to make sense of her experience, including through literature, from Elie Wiesel to W.G. Sebald. Beautiful and gripping and thoughtful. Highly recommended.

Here’s how the publisher describes the book:

Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers, when neighbors began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sounds her brother said were thunder. In 1994, she and her fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years migrating through seven African countries, searching for safety—perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. They did not know whether their parents were dead or alive.

The book also made it onto the Washington Post’s list of notable books for 2018.


How to read a lot of books

In 2018, I read or listened to 104 books. That’s high for me, but I consistently go through dozens of books in a year. Here are some steps I take to help me go through a lot of books and to get the most out of them.

How to read a lot of books

Read in all formats. About half of the books I consumed in 2018 were audiobooks. Another 16 books were ebooks, which I read on my smartphone. And the rest were traditional print books. Consistently having a book in each format means that I can always be reading. Have to wait in a lone line? Read the ebook on my phone! Have to jog out to the car to get something? Squeeze in a few minutes of my audiobook! Have a few minutes before going to sleep? Push through a few pages of my print book!

Each of these formats has its advantages. Ebooks make it much easier to copy passages I love for future reference.  “Audiobooks add literacy to moments where there would otherwise be none,” as psychologist Daniel Willingham has written. Furthermore, when I’m reading a book that takes place in culture distinctive from my own, and the audiobook narrator can represent the accent accurately, the experience is richer. Nowadays, some audiobooks have a full cast, so it’s like a theater in your ears.

Audiobooks are also good for helping me to push through big nonfiction books that I mightn’t otherwise find time for. People say to me, “But I retain less from audiobooks.” That’s probably true for me too, but I’d much rather have 50% [made-up number] of a great book that I listened to than 0% because I was hoping eventually I’d read it but never found time. I also take steps to enhance retention from audiobooks — more on that below.

Many public libraries in the United States have an app which will let you download free audiobooks, like Overdrive. There are also apps you pay for, like Audible. (Here’s my post on getting started in audiobooks.)

With audiobooks, experiment with faster speeds. A few years ago, a friend told me he was listening to books at double speed. I thought, that’s insane! Where’s the pleasure in that? How can you even follow along? So I tried 1.25 speed. It sounded a little fast, but I got used to it, so much so that regular speed started to sound…very…slow… Then I upped to 1.5 speed. And so on. Now my default is double speed. If I’m listening to a book with a narrator with an unfamiliar accent, I slow it down. Same with a book with particularly difficult content — e.g., a technical economics argument or a physics explanation. But with a high speed default, I go through a lot of content.

Shift focus to books rather than movies. Early in 2018, I deleted Youtube and Netflix apps from my phone, and I deleted my normal pop culture podcasts. I replaced them with book podcasts, like the New York Times Book Review podcast and Bookworm. So instead of hearing about movies I wanted to see, I was hearing about books I wanted to read or listen to. (I still saw a lot of movies, and I eventually re-downloaded Netflix because that’s how much self control I have. But it was a strong start.)

How to get the most out of the books you consume

Of course, my goal isn’t just to get through lots of books. I also want to get the most out of the books I’m reading. Here are some steps I take to do that.

Talk about books with other people. Discussing the books I’m reading opens new perspectives and clarifies my own views. I participate in two book clubs, where I chat with friends about great books. One meets at lunchtime during the workday, once every month or two. (You have to eat lunch, right?) Another meets on a weekend evening. I also chat with friends on social media about the books I’m reading.

Some friends and I created a shared Google Sheet on which we each record our books (and movies) for the year, so we can get recommendations from each other and talk about the books that we’ve both read. (For the competitive among us [me], it also fosters a desire to keep reading.)

Another, less literal way of doing this is to read professional review of the book, after I’ve read the book. Great reviewers can often capture what I’ve been thinking but express it more lucidly, saving me the trouble of wordsmithing the perfect characterization.

Make notes. For every book I read, I create a note in my note-taking app (Evernote). If I’m reading a print book, I’ll sometimes take a picture of a passage that strikes me and paste that into the app. If it’s an ebook, I’ll copy and paste key quotes. If it’s an audiobook, when I hear a passage that really strikes me, I jot down a few words in my notes app. Then, later, I’ll look up the quote in full on Google Books or Amazon’s book preview and paste a screenshot into my notes app.

I also have “topical” notes in my notes app, e.g., a note on “education,” and when I’m at my best, I’ll copy great thoughts on education from my book-specific note over to the topical note. But I don’t always get around to this, admittedly.

Write a quick summary. I try to write a short summary of every book I read, along with quick impressions. These are often shorter than the length of a tweet (i.e., less than 280 characters). But years later, they let me remember what my impressions were and what it taught me about the human condition!

That’s it! Those are all my secrets! Now if only I could remember what I read earlier this morning…



My top books of 2018

books 2018 shorter

I read or listened to 104 books this year. Here are some that I really liked.

Over the last few years, I’ve enjoyed reading a lot of fiction by writers from African countries. This was a great year in that regard:
  • What It Means When A Man Falls from the Sky, by Lesley Nneka Arimah. This short story collection by Arimah — from Nigeria — has gorgeous prose and deep feeling. I’d read a novel based on any of these stories. My favorite work of fiction of the year.
  • My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Korede, the nurse, is always cleaning up after her sister… That is, her sister’s murder scenes! It’s a fast-paced, wild ride. Really enjoyed it.
  • Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue. Cameroonian immigrants struggle in NY. Fascinating, heart-reading interpersonal dynamics set against the backdrop of the 2007 recession.
  • Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi. A girl is inhabited by various gods, which translates into multiple personalities including a fluid sexual identity. A fresh, original voice.
  • She Would Be King, by Wayetu Moore. A magical realist tale of the founding of Liberia with three superheroes. It takes a while to get moving, but then it’s unstoppable.
There was even some good fiction by writers outside of Africa:
  • Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee. This captivating epic follows a Korean family over decades during the Japanese occupation of Korea, migrating to Japan early in the novel. My favorite novel of the year.
  • Nutshell, by Ian McEwan. Amazing prose and a tight thriller to boot, all narrated from inside the womb. Think Hamlet… Oh, never mind, just read it.
  • Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck. Brief, beautiful, and tragic. The elusive quest for the American dream, or any dream of a better life.
  • The Power, by Naomi Alderman. What if women suddenly became physically dominant? Power corrupts, no matter the gender. Delightful exploration of shifting power dynamics.
  • Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid. Gorgeously written story of a refugee couple.
  • MacBeth, by Jo Nesbø (translated by Don Bartlett). Nesbø updates Shakespeare’s play as a 1970s crime thriller. Equal part thrilling in plot and fascinating to see how he adapts the old play. Maybe a little long, but it didn’t really lag. I’m just impatient.
  • Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart. A satirical look at the future, where social media is even more dominant than it is today. Think Dave Eggers’ The Circle but farcical.
  • Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff. Groff captures fabulously the loneliness of the person obsessed with the praise of others. Oh, and his wife has secrets. (Think a much more literary Gone Girl.)
  • Archaeopteryx, by Dan Darling. A magical realist thriller novel about society’s misfits, corporations tampering with nature, and immigration — all set in beautiful New Mexico.
  • An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones. When an African-American man is unjustly imprisoned, what’s the impact on a marriage? Heartbreaking. Good writing. Maybe a tiny bit long.
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. Beautiful, difficult novel about a low-income African American family. with ghosts.
  • Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn. Solid thriller. Very dark. Surprised me even when I thought I was done being surprised. (Not as good as her Gone Girl but better than her Dark Places.)
  • Push, by Sapphire. A harrowing account of a deeply abused young woman and how learning to read and write offer a path to healing.
  • Son, by Lois Lowry. This finale in Lowry’s “The Giver” quartet is a great finale, a good meditation on wants and needs, and it makes the third book – Messenger – more satisfying.
  • Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman. Excellent, entertaining retelling of Norse myths. Gaiman narrates the audiobook. A pleasure to listen to.
  • Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor. Binti leaves earth to attend a university with 5 percent humans. Suddenly she’s in the middle of a war. Oh, and she LOVES math. I particularly loved the mathematical meditation.
I read great books on economics, psychology, and political science:
Here are great memoirs:
and memoirs or biographies (and one how-to guide) written as comics:
  • The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir, by Thi Bui. A Vietnamese-American explores her family history and what it means for her identity. Beautiful and powerful. Some Vietnamese history mixed in.
  • You & a Bike & a Road, by Eleanor Davis. Travel memoir of biking across the country. Lots of honest emotion. Quick and interesting.
  • The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea: A Graphic Memoir of Modern Slavery, by Vannak Anan Prum. A Cambodian man is enslaved on a fishing boat. After his escape, his documents his story through the images in this book. Powerful and heartbreaking.
  • Hostage, by Guy Delisle (translated by Helge Dascher). Delisle uses a graphic novel to tell the true story of a humanitarian worker who was kidnapped in the Caucases. It is excruciating in the best way, as we follow the hostage’s thoughts and efforts to escape. (I also liked Delisle’s book Pyongyang, about his year working in North Korea.)
  • Going into Town: A Love Letter to New York, by Roz Chast. “This book is a sort-of guide and also a thank-you letter and a love letter to my hometown and New Yorkers everywhere.” Fun book. I laughed aloud many times.
and graphic novels or short stories:
  • My Favorite Things Is Monsters – Volume 1, by Emil Ferris. My favorite graphic novel of the year (lots of other people agree with me). Compelling, gorgeous, very dark mystery and bildungsroman set in 1960s Chicago.
  • Three Shadows, by Cyril Pedrosa (tr. from French by Edward Gauvin). How far will a parent go to save their child from death? This is an urgent little fable. “In this our springtime there is no better, there is no worse. Blossoming branches burgeon as they must. Some are long, some are short.”
  • Boundless, by Jillian Tamaki. Wonderfully weird collection of short stories in comic format. Ends mid-word.
a couple of essay collections:
one wonderful poetry collection:
and a fun book of literary criticism:
and even some kids’ books:
  • The Moomins and the Great Flood, by Tove Jansson (translated by David McDuff). Delightful, sweet, with beautiful illustration. My favorite Moomin book so far. If you don’t know the Moomins, this is a great place to start. Think Winnie the Pooh but wonderfully weirder.
  • Le Petit Prince, by Antoine Saint-Exupery. Poignant, and troubling as I grow older and increasingly identify with the businessman and the lamplighter. I listened in French, so I didn’t catch everything.
  • Brave, by Svetlana Chmakova. This is the second in Chmakova’s deeply affecting middle school graphic novel trilogy. This one explores bullying and left me in tears.
  • Hilo Book 4: Waking the Monsters, by Judd Winick. A girl’s mom wants her to be a cheerleader; she wants to be a ninja wizard instead. Robots! Aliens! So much awesomeness!
I enjoyed many others that I read, and you can read about more of them here.

The best graphic books of 2018

best graphic books 2018.PNGThese days, there are great graphic books — graphic novels, graphic memoirs, graphic short story collections, comic book compilations — coming out. A graphic novel — Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina — was considered for the Man Booker Prize for the first time earlier this year.

I scoured 15 “best of 2018” lists to identify those graphic books that most people agree are worth your time. (Over the course of this year, I read the top 10 graphic books for 2017 and enjoyed all of them.)

Here are the top graphic books of the year. Enjoy!

1. Sabrina, by Nick Drnaso (recommended on 7 lists)

2. The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang (6 lists)

3. Berlin, by Jason Lutes (5 lists)

A five-way tie for fourth place, each recommended on 4 lists:

4a. Bingo Love, by Tee Franklin et al.

4b. The Lie and How We Told It, by Tommi Parrish

4c. My Boyfriend Is a Bear, by Pamela Ribon and Cat Farris

4d. The Snagglepuss Chronicles, by Mark Russell and Mike Feehan

4e. On a Sunbeam, by Tillie Walden

And a three-way tie for ninth place, each recommended on 3 lists:

9a. Why Art? by Eleanor Davis

9b. Hey, Kiddo, by Jarrett Krosoczka

9c. All the Answers, by Michael Kupperman

There are 134 other graphic books listed on one or two lists. Check them out!

The not writing method of writing

After Katharine Weber published her sixth novel, Michael Silverblatt asks her on his podcast Bookworm, “Do you have secret methods?”

Well, Michael, probably my number one secret method is the not writing, and how much not writing I do that is part of my writing process, if I can use as grand a word as process. So it’s actually only when the not writing is even worse than writing that I am driven back to it.

I also enjoyed this characterization of how she learned to write, alluding to the title of her latest novel.

“Monkey see, monkey do” is probably a reasonable way of describing how I taught myself to write because I don’t have an MFA. I don’t actually have a college degree. I didn’t actually finish high school. So really, reading is how I taught myself to write… Reading novels led me to have a sense of the kind of novel I would like to write, which is the kind of novel I would like to read.

What I’ve been reading

dont call us deadDon’t Call Us Dead, by Danez Smith — I compiled ten lists of the “best poetry collections of 2017,” and this was the most commonly recommended, on five of the lists. With good reason. Smith writes tragic, beautiful poems about black men killed by the police, living black and gay, being HIV+, and more. I highly recommend this collection.

i spent my life arguing how i mattered
until it didn’t matter.
who knew my haven
would be my coffin?
dead is the safest i’ve ever been.
i’ve never been so alive.

absurdistanAbsurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart — In this all satirical / all the time novel, Misha Vainberg, a Russian who studied “multicultural studies” at Accidental College in the US, can’t get a visa back to the States after his father killed a businessman from Oklahoma. So he travels to former Soviet republic Absurdistan in hopes of making his way to Europe. Mayhem ensues, big time. The book had many funny parts, but I never fell in love with it. (Also, too much obesity-based humor for my taste.) Particularly amusing to me was Misha’s charitable foundation (“Misha’s Children”) which sounded like all too many sort of well-meaning foundations established on the whimsical ideas of their benefactors’ sense of what it means to do good in the world. Walter Kirn of the New York Times writes: “This novel is so immodestly vigorous, so burstingly sure of its barbaric excellence, that simply by breathing, sweating and standing upright it exalts itself.” Nothing is sacred in Shteyngart’s world: here’s an absurd scene in which Misha proposes a “Holocaust for Kidz” exhibit:

Through the magic of Animatronics, Claymation, and Jurassic technology, the inane ramblings of underqualified American Hebrew day school teachers on the subject of the Holocaust will be condensed into a concise forty-minute bloodbath. Young participants will leave feeling alienated and profoundly depressed, feelings that will be partly redeemed and partly thwarted by the ice-cream truck awaiting them at the end of the exhibit.

harry potter sorcerer stoneHarry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by JK Rowling — I was reading this to my daughter, and I realized that Harry is ultimately unnecessary in the climax of this book. (Super spoiler alert!) After Harry has retrieved the sorcerer’s stone, so Quirrell / Voldermort weren’t able to get it, Harry asks Dumbledore how he was able to get the stone when Q/V couldn’t. Dumbledore says, “Ah, now, I’m glad you asked me that. It was one of my more brilliant ideas, and between you and me, that’s saying something. You see, only one who wanted to find the Stone — find it, but not use it — would be able to get it.” So Q/V wouldn’t have been able to retrieve the stone even if Harry hadn’t been there. [Sad trombone.] My daughter argues that it was just training for the future; possible. I’m reminded of the episode of The Big Bang Theory in which Amy demonstrates that Indiana Jones is totally unnecessary to Raiders of the Lost Ark.

beverlyBeverly, by Nick Drnaso — Before Drnaso wrote Sabrina, the first graphic novel ever longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, he wrote Beverly. It’s a collection of interconnected graphic short stories — graphic is in “graphic novel”) — that paints a dark, sad portrait of youth in America. Kids’ dark visions spill out onto the page; parents and children communicate and don’t at the same time. It’s a quick, worthwhile read. Janet Potter writes for the Chicago Reader that “Drnaso’s stories and characters, and perhaps his view of the world, are like that—difficult to watch, achingly realistic, and all too familiar.” Dan Kois writes for Slate that “Drnaso’s stories are full of moments in which the bubbling reservoir of anxiety or feeling or darkness boils to the surface. I read it in big enthusiastic gulps, then felt a little sick to my stomach afterward.”


all the answersAll the Answers, by Michael Kupperman — What’s the legacy of a child celebrity? During World War II, Joel Kupperman was a regular on the radio show — and later, the TV show — Quiz Kids. In this graphic memoir, Kupperman’s son tries to understand how being a child celebrity ruined his father. Useful insights into how child stars are exploited for the purposes of others. On Vulture’s June list of the best comics of 2018 so far.


The Washington Post’s list of 100 notable books is out. Two are by African writers.

The Washington Post has its annual lists of 50 Notable Works of Nonfiction and 50 Notable Works of Fiction. Lots of great writing, but not much by African writers. On the fiction list, we have Lagos-based Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer, which I’m excited to read and comes out in a few days. On the nonfiction list, we have The Girl who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After, by Rwandan-born Clementine Wamariya (and Elizabeth Weil).

Honorable mention to Tomi Adeyemi — American-born but of Nigerian parents — for Children of Blood and Bone, also on the fiction list.

What other fiction and nonfiction books by African writers — released in 2018 — should be on this list?