Over the course of 2019, I read or listened to 114 books. I adored some, loved many, liked many more, and there were only a few I was unexcited about. Here are the best and the rest.
Books I adored
Among my favorite books of the year are some novels (A General Theory of Oblivion, There There, Mockingbird), short stories (What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky), memoirs (The Lights of Pointe-Noire, The Girl who Smiled Beads, How Dare the Sun Rise), autobiography (Barracoon), poetry (The Sea-Migrations: Tahriib), and one graphic novel (Akissi: Tales of Mischief).
Books I loved
I loved a lot of books this year, so I’ll split these into categories.
Nonfiction I loved
Graphic novels and graphic memoirs that I loved
Fiction I loved
Books I really liked
Nonfiction I really liked
Graphic novels and graphic memoirs I really liked
Fiction I really liked
Poems and plays I really liked
Books that I liked (just, you know, not quite as much)
Books that often had a few ideas or images that really spoke to me but that otherwise I couldn’t really figure out. (No regrets!)
Which books did I get wrong? What were your favorites of the year?
I enjoy movies! I watch movies alone, with my spouse, with my kids, with friends, with my parents, with my siblings. (I haven’t watched a movie with an archenemy yet, but I’m working on it.) Here is what I saw this year. Some are first-time watches; some are rewatches. A few movies appear twice, which indicates that I saw them more than once this year.
Movies I adored
Movies I loved (just, you know, a little less)
Movies I didn’t love but still really enjoyed
Movies I enjoyed reasonably well
Movies that I enjoyed at least some even though they weren’t that great
Beyond the Rice Fields visits Madagascar during the first half of the nineteenth century. A young boy, Tsito, and his family are captured in the forest and sold as slaves. Tsito ends up serving a family with a daughter, Fara, with whom he falls in love. Their story takes place against the backdrop of massive upheaval in Madagascar, with a queen heavily persecuting converts to Christianity and others judged disloyal. Naivo balances an intimate portrayal of Tsito’s and Fara’s lives — the book’s narration alternates between them — with the country’s political shifts. Other characters — Fara’s mother and grandmother, Tsito’s patron, an older slave who serves as a mentor — flesh out the picture. This glimpse into Malagasy history and Naivo’s imagination is well worth the read.
Here is how this ended up being the first Malagasy novel translated into English.
Here are a few lines I liked:
One character observes how Madagascar is changing: This is a sacred land, but it is adrift, at the mercy of outside interests, foreign dealings that go far beyond us. This land is rich, but we’re leaving it fit for pigs and stray dogs.”
On the subtle art of persuasion: “I just told him that the next time, I’d rip his head off with my own bare hands. Sometimes you need to make a convincing argument.”
And, an economist’s favorite euphemism for death: A man “has left for the market of no return.”
Here is what some others thought of the book:
Kate Prengel, Words without Borders: “Beyond the Rice Fields is a spiraling, dense, and prickly work, difficult to access until the foreign reader has agreed to put in some time and effort. But once the effort is put in, it is richly rewarding.”
Meg Nola, Foreword Reviews: “With quiet surety, the novel pairs an elegantly poetic narrative with an intensifying brutality of events as Madagascar finds itself beset by internal strife, French industrialism, and the zealous efforts of Christian missionaries.”
Publishers Weekly: “Naivo provides readers with an astonishing amount of information about Madagascar’s culture and past.”
Ann Morgan, A Year of Reading the World: “Vivid, thought-provoking narration; rich, mind-furnishing imagery; and an insight into a place and time that has hitherto been absent from the English-language literary landscape.”
This is book #50 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019. You can read reviews of all the books here.
Asouf lives alone in the desert. He cares for massive, ancient rock paintings and guides the tourists who venture to see them. He alone knows where to find the sacred waddan, “a kind of wild mountain sheep … the oldest animal in the Sahara.” In The Bleeding of the Stone, the first novel of prolific Libyan novelist Ibrahim al-Koni to be translated into English (by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley), Asouf faces dangerous beasts and bloodthirsty hunters. The entire novel reads like a dream or an extended fable, with an unearthly quality to it. It’s strange and beautiful and magical and tragic.
Kirkus Reviews: “A winning combination of ecological fable, political statement, and lyrical lament for the past… The story’s melodramatic apocalyptic finale seems slightly forced, but in no way dissipates the power of al-Koni’s subtle dramatization of irreconcilable cultural misunderstanding and enmity.”
Ann Morgan, A Year of Reading the World: “Al-Koni pushes the spiritual aspect of the natural world into the realm of magical realism, introducing a series of strange interludes in which gazelles speak and waddan (the ancient desert sheep that roam the mountain ranges) assume mystical powers… They all work to further the sense of wonder and wistfulness for a shrinking way of life that pervades the text.”
This is book #49 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019. You can read reviews of all the books here.
Amadou Hampaté Bâ was a writer well-known in his native country of Mali and beyond. He lived 90 years and wrote both fiction and nonfiction. In 1957, he wrote a biography of and collection of teachings by his spiritual leader, Tierno Bokar. He rewrote the book in 1980, and it was published in English as A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar — translated by Fatima Jane Casewit — only in 2008.
Tierno Bokar was a Muslim spiritual teacher and Sufi mystic from what would become Mali. He lived from 1875 to 1939.
In the first half of this book, Bâ paints Bokar as a wonderfully wise, tolerant teacher. The tone is deeply loving, even hagiographic. Later in Bokar’s life, his reputation was destroyed as adversaries used a difference in religious interpretation against him. Some of this part of the book was challenging for me to follow given my complete lack of background.
The second half of the book recounts Bokar’s teachings. I’m not Muslim nor Sufi, but I found much to enjoy and to consider.
Here are some passages that struck me:
On memory: “In Africa, when an old person dies, it is as if a library has burned down.” (Amadou Hampaté Bâ)
On saying no: “If you ask a favor of the people of Segou and they want to refuse it, they will do so with so much intelligence and courtesy that you will find yourself obliged to thank them.” (Fily Dabo Sissoko)
On physical violence: “Material weapons can only destroy matter but not the principle of evil itself, which always rises from the ashes stronger than ever? Evil, he was to teach us, can only be destroyed by Goodness and Love.” (Bâ paraphrasing Bokar)
On being eighteen: “He was eighteen, the age of torment, the age of many dreams, of many pathways.” (Bâ)
On self-denial: “It is necessary to deprive the soul of some things that are permitted so that it does not aspire to things that are forbidden to it.” (alGhazali)
On using religion poorly: “Tierno Bokar was the victim of the ignorance and obscurantism of men who confused clan loyalty with religious commitment and who had forgotten that tolerance is a fundamental principle in Islam.” (Bâ)
On simplicity of expression: “He had an aversion to those who expressed themselves in anything other than ordinary language.” (Bâ on Bokar)
On clarity of language: “One of the characteristics of ‘sorcerers’ was to use impenetrable language.” (Bâ)
On teaching: “Speak to people according to the level of their understanding” (Bâ quoting the Prophet)
On learning about other religions: “You will gain enormously by knowing about the various forms of religion. Believe me, each one of these forms, however strange it may seem to you, contains that which can strengthen your own faith.” (Bokar)
On humor: “Always being overly serious is something that cannot be taken seriously!” (Bokar)
No one has a pure pedigree: “Do not dig too much around the roots of the illustrious trunk of your origins because beyond several layers of earth you risk discovering that the roots originate in a mass of refuse.” (Bokar)
In other words, “from every royal palace you will find an alleyway that leads to the thatched cottage of a poor person.” (Bokar)
On detachment: “It is for man to act, using all of his faculties, but then to keep his heart serene concerning the outcome of his actions.” (Bâ)
On spiritual knowledge: “There are three ways to know a river: First of all, there is the man who has heard the river spoken about and becomes capable by imitation and repetition to describe it without having seen it himself. This is the first degree of knowledge. Then there is the man who has undertaken the journey and who has arrived at the banks of the river. Seated on the banks of the river, he contemplates it with his own eyes and is a witness to its majesty. This is the second degree of knowledge. Finally, there is the man who throws himself into the river and becomes one with it. This is the supreme degree of Knowledge.” (Bokar)
On the sacred around us: “Islam is not an escape towards the sacred, but rather, a conscious integration of the sacred on all planes of existence.” (Bâ?)
This is book #48 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019. You can read reviews of all the books here.
For a time, K. Limakatso Kendall taught at the National University of Lesotho. While there, she gathered stories by or about the women of Lesotho. (Three quarters are by women; the rest are by men, recounting stories told to them.) In the wonderfully idiosyncratic collection, Basali! Stories by and about women in Lesotho, Kendall presents 16 of these stories, plus a small collection of annotated photos of life in Lesotho.
Many of the writers are first-time authors. Some are recounting their own experiences, others are telling stories that happened to others. The fight for a good education comes up repeatedly (on the optimistic side), along with repeated incidents of domestic violence (on the pessimistic side). Several stories center on the search for work and the quest of women to help their children survive. What some of the stories lack in style, they compensate for in passion and insight.
Here are a few passages that stood out:
Vengeance as motivation for education: “I promised my aunt that I would live to retaliate. The old woman needs to see me going up the ladder while she is swimming in the mud of poverty.” (Monica Nthabeleng Ramarothole, “The African Goddess”)
Illegal immigration for education: “There was no place to hide. The alternative was to lie down flat in the veld and hope that our city clothes blended in well with the bush… We had heard that schools in the former protectorates were a lot better by comparison.” (Nomakhosi Mntuyedwa, “Escape to Manzini”)
The outward signs of communism: “Ntate Mokhehle is a Communist… When he speaks, poisonous flames come out of his mouth.” (Hilda ‘M’amapele Chakela, “How I Became an Activist”)
On not reading African writers in a Lesotho school: “We were not reading African writers; we were not even told that Africans were capable of writing novels or plays.” (Hilda ‘M’amapele Chakela, “How I Became an Activist”)
This is book #47 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019. You can read reviews of all the books here.
Joseph Brahim Seid, a writer and politician (he was Minister of Justice for nearly a decade) from the Republic of Chad, wrote a collection of folktales in the early 1960s — Told by Starlight in Chad. “I invite you, dear reader, to come and sit with us, under a blue sky strewn with stars, to listen to these stories and legends, which tell of marvels and wonders. We ask only one thing: that you share in the joy of our candor and our innocence.”
This collection of 14 tales is a delight. In one (“The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, Hidden under an Ass’ Skin”), a woman gives birth to a donkey, but a beautiful girl is hidden under the donkey skin. One boy sees the beauty and proposes marriage, to the initial ridicule and ultimate acclaim of all. In another, reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel (“Gamar and Guimerie”), two siblings are chased off by a wicked stepmother but then rescue a monster in exchange for great riches. In “Nidjema, the Little Orphan Girl,” the titular character seeks to escape a terrible home environment and encounters terrible monsters and even death itself. In my favorite, “The Magic Cap, Purse and Cane,” a young man seeks the hand of a sultan’s daughter. He is treated horribly despite his access to various magic items, and the ending of the story manages to surprise.
The translation into English by Karen Haire Hoenig, published in 2007, has its own story. Hoenig’s father nearly completed a translation of the book, but after he passed away, the manuscript was lost. As a labor of love, his daughter took up the task.
This is book #46 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019. You can read reviews of all the books here.
Alain Mabanckou was born in the Republic of the Congo — not the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the other one, sometimes referred to as Congo-Brazzaville. In his early 20s, he left to study in Paris. Later he moved to the teach in the United States. Then, after more than two decades away, he returned to his hometown, Pointe-Noire, for a visit. In his memoir of the visit — The Lights of Pointe-Noire (translated into English by Helen Stevenson), he artfully alternates between stories from his past and his experience of re-encountering family members, friends, mentors, and others. I’ve read many memoirs of growing up in Africa, some of them very good, but Mabanckou offers a lyricism that is mesmerizing and exceptional. I could have spent much longer with him on this visit.
My previous experience with Mabanckou has been mixed: I liked Black Moses moderately well and I couldn’t get through African Psycho. Some reviewers mention that characters in this book appear earlier in Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty. In this book, Mabanckou’s old high school philosophy teacher tells him that Memoirs of a Porcupine is his favorite of Mabanckou’s novels. After reading The Lights of Pointe-Noire, I’ll try some more of his work.
Here are a few passages that stood out to me. Only the last is in the author’s voice. The others are him recounting what others say to him over the course of his visit.
On shoes: “You know, Uncle, if you don’t have new sandals, you can’t get to school on time, you have to spend two hours in the street mending them and when you tell the teacher he won’t listen, he just says ‘little liar’, but it’s not true, I’m not a liar!”
On writing: “I don’t have that tapeworm in my gut that writers have, that eats away at their insides every day.”
On fertility in wartime: “Between you and me, babies still get born even when there’s oil and war in a country. The worst of it was, people went on making love even when people were falling like flies in the war. I expect you’ll be wondering: why didn’t they wait for the end of the war, to make love? Oh no, if you waited for the end of the war, people would forget how to make love, by the time the whole dirty war ended we’d be making love with animals!”
On American English: “We told the Americans they could do what they liked with our oil, we weren’t going to learn their weird English, where you talk through your nose, like you’ve got flu.”
On self-publishing: “I also packed the self-published books which had been given me by various local authors. I promised myself I would read them in Europe or America. There is always something enriching in the suffering of a creator who hopes his bottle thrown into the sea will one day reach its destination.”
The Complete Review has links to many other reviews of this book as well as choice excerpts. Here’s an excerpt from Suzi Feay’s review in the Financial Times: “The account is not linear but organic and spiralling, as Mabanckou ranges over his past according to whatever stimulus confronts him…. Sparklingly translated, this compact and artful memoir illustrates the universality of the maxim: you really can’t go home again.”
This is book #45 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019. You can read reviews of all the books here.
Rashidah Ismaili was born and spent her childhood in Cotonou, Benin. As a teenager, she married and moved to New York City. Over her career, she wrote poetry and short stories, taught and counseled. I read her poetry collection, Missing in Action and Presumed Dead. It’s a beautiful collection. Even when I was unsure of the meaning, I was struck by the powerful imagery, as in the final stanza of the final poem in the collection, “Correctus Historum”:
We will once again since our old songs
of joy. Call our gods to come to us
in a language we understand. And we
who have given to others so much,
give to ourselves our strength.
Our best. And beg our gods to
give us more to give to this world
we make with our own hands.
Of course, once in a while, I come across a poem that feels like it’s written just for me, as in Ismaili’s “Diaspora-1”:
“It is a mystery we are not sure to solve.
There is so much data to collect.
So many variables to consider.
We have read empirical studies,
comparative literature. They tell us…”
This is book #44 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.
Over the course of my project this year to read a book by an author from each of Africa’s 54 countries, I’m struck by how many countries have just one novel available in translation. The Ultimate Tragedy, by Abdulai Silá from Guinea-Bissau, is one example. As Efemia Chela writes, that’s “a lot of weight to bear.” The novel also has an extended history—written in 1984, published in 1995, and published in English — translated by Jethro Soutar — only in 2017.
Silá’s novel has a more discrete three-act structure than most: it feels almost like three novels in one. In the first act, my favorite, thirteen-year-old Ndani leaves her rural home to seek work as a housegirl in the capital, Bissau. With tenacity, she achieves a position where she is renamed and continuously mistreated by her white employers. Until, that is, the mistress of the house gets religion and shifts to evangelizing mode. This section gives a vivid, engaging, and occasionally lurid picture of race and class dynamics between the colonizers and their domestic workers.
In the second act, a community leader clashes with the Portuguese official above him as he seeks to improve his community. A new school in the community brings a teacher, who takes an interest in the leader’s wife — Ndani! In the third act, Ndani faces further trials in a new context. (To reveal more would spoil too much.)
I enjoyed The Ultimate Tragedy, especially the first act, and I look forward to more literature from Guinea-Bissau — including the rest of the trilogy that this book initiates — making it into the English language.
Efemia Chela, Johannesburg Review of Books: “The Ultimate Tragedyleaves a lot to be desired. The book overall is unmemorable, despite its interesting wordplay; the characters are not constructed with much depth; the plot feels familiar, its story fairly typical of many African works of fiction, but less inventive than the continent’s great novels.”
Jessie Stoolman, Asymptote: “The novel reads like an uninterrupted conversation about what the future holds for this nation, seemingly on the verge of liberation… The Ultimate Tragedy serves in many ways as a sort of literary privilege-check, introducing histories as well as literary/linguistic styles rarely given space on an international platform.”
Ann Morgan, A Year of Reading the World: “Translator Southar has done deft work to encourage the learning process that this text demands. By choosing to leave numerous words in their original language and trusting to the context to elucidate them, he encourages readers to let go of the guide rope of the narrative and become comfortable with the unfamiliar.”
This is book #43 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.