This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.
Is there anything more intimate than cleaning out another person’s home—deciding which of her possessions, collected with love or without thought, is important enough to keep; and what, then, to do with the rest?
Aside from the fact that it usually comes with some degree of sadness, the process requires a set of emotional gymnastics, a series of shifts from empathy to self-interest and back again: This thing is archival or an important memory marker; this meant something to her so it now means something to me; this did its duty but now can be set free; this has no conceivable use for anyone, ever. Family photographs are easy (keep). Recipe clippings from the 1980s are easy (dump). Books—or rather a library, as opposed to a half shelf of bestsellers in the corner of the family room—are almost never simple. A library embodies the trajectory of a life and intellect, and to sort, Solomon-like, through someone else’s story in books is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.
The process, the responsibility, intensifies when this person is your mother.
It took my sister and me under a minute to split up the labor of cleaning out our mother’s apartment when we finally moved her to a nursing home. Her dementia had reached the point where even a full-time home health aide couldn’t give her the care she needed, and when mom landed in the hospital after refusing to take a round of antibiotics for an infection, it was time.
Fortunately, we found a great facility that accepted Medicaid. Unfortunately, that gave us a hard deadline for selling her co-op: once her Medicare-allotted time ran out, Medicaid would then siphon off all her money, including what we needed to pay the mortgage. We had a couple of months; sentiment would have to take a back seat to expediency.
So my sister and I agreed: she would go through mom’s clothes, jewelry, and furniture; we’d split the kitchen; and I’d sort the office and art supplies, general paper ephemera—magazines, recipes, photo albums—and her hundreds of books. This last not only because I’m a “book person,” but because I had a long-term and complex relationship with those books of hers. Which is, I guess, exactly what being a book person means.
Books had always been a language my mother and I shared when she was well: we gave them to each other as gifts, borrowed, traded, talked about what we’d read. Then, as her 10-year descent into dementia accelerated, her books took on a separate identity for me, their simple presence becoming a sort of animal comfort. Whenever I found myself at a loss with her—when she snapped at me and told me to leave, or, some years later, would doze off mid-sentence, or, even later, when her aide would be cleaning her in the bathroom as mom screeched and swore and swung—I would stand by the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and read the titles over and over, cataloging them in my mind the way you rub a worry stone in your pocket.
Her library was unself-conscious in the extreme—potboiler mysteries filed alphabetically with classics, paperbound galleys next to handsome hardcovers and golden-age, mass-market paperbacks from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Her frayed clothbound sets of philosophy and history ruled the top shelves, with oversized art books stacked horizontally on the bottom. Many were gifts from me.
Across the room, lined up on end tables, were more recent acquisitions—offerings to tempt her back to reading after the concussion that started her decline, though I’m not sure she ever got to them. I gave her Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book, Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. From my nephew, Peter Carey’s Theft, Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind. From I-don’t-know-who, The Help—which, bless her, mom would have adored. She was a sucker for stories of love and kindness redeeming all, and equally unconcerned with subtexts of class, race, or politics of any kind.
In fact, for someone who so loved the intellectual intricacies of philosophy, mom flinched at anything morally difficult. Deeply non-confrontational in real life, she let her various blind spots carry over into her intellectual life. She didn’t like to follow politics, she told me when I was a child, because “everyone is so nasty.” And while she approved of broad-brush liberal issues—civil rights, the women’s movement—she did not like anything that made her uncomfortable: cruelty, suffering, ugliness, the moral conundrum of otherwise good people behaving badly. The notes I retrieved from her philosophy books, scrawled on bits and pieces of paper, stuck firmly with the epistemological: what is reality, what is the nature of consciousness, how do I fit in with the world?—phrases and questions written out in her neat, even script, connected by endless ellipses.
For all our lively highbrow discussions, there were places we just did not go. Politics was one; religion another. My father, raised an Orthodox Jew, was a vehement atheist, and religion was something of a dirty word in our house. My mother seemed to have no strong ties to religion, or faith of any kind, even after my parents divorced and she was free to practice what she liked.
But I wonder, now, if the enforced nonbelief of her marriage to my father was a loss for her. She grew up in a loosely observant Jewish tradition, but I never got a sense of whether those habits—which carried through to her first marriage but not her union with my father—were a source of comfort or a burden. Even more, I wonder what, beyond her enjoyment of solipsistic thought puzzles, comprised her inner life. For all our shared talk of art, literature, anthropology, science, and the general nature of the cosmos that sparked in me a deep hunger for knowledge as a child and young adult, I don’t recall our conversations going deep. Nor did Mom and I go to the mats, ever, when we disagreed. I regretted this the moment that possibility disappeared with her cogency—what had I been thinking, not to push her to explain her beliefs, not to help me figure out some of my own intellectual lineage?
In his recent family memoir, The House of Twenty Thousand Books (New York Review Books, 2015), journalist and professor Sasha Abramsky draws on a similar process of reading bookshelves—as well as books—as a way in to the heart and mind of his beloved grandfather, Chimen Abramsky.
The son and grandson of learned rabbis, Chimen was a renowned collector of modern Judaica and socialist literature—“modern” referring to anything published in the past 500 years—consisting of books, prints, and manuscripts. He eventually amassed an enormous private library that included Karl Marx’s handwritten letters, an early edition of The Communist Manifesto annotated by Marx and Friedrich Engels, an early 16th-century Bomberg Bible (one of the first printed Hebrew bibles), and first editions of Baruch Spinoza and René Descartes.
The London row house where Chimen lived with his wife, Mimi, was double-shelved, floor to ceiling, with books collected over a lifetime, and after Chimen’s death in 2010, Sasha revisited that collection, room by room and shelf by shelf—to paint a portrait of his grandfather as both scholar and family man, to tell the story of his own lineage, and—with evident discomfort—to try and puzzle out the dissonance of Chimen’s decades-long embrace of communism.
Even as he and his family fled the Russian pogroms, and despite the eventual accounting of Joseph Stalin’s atrocities, Chimen remained unapologetically loyal to the Party until the late ’50s. Though he regretted this in later life, eventually replacing those affiliations with a liberal humanist circle who satisfied his need for voluble dinnertime debate, that willful blindness on Chimen’s part was a sticking point for Sasha. On reading his grandfather’s 1953 obituary of Stalin in The Jewish Clarion (on microfilm at the University of Sheffield, as Chimen had—in a rare moment of contrition—burned his own originals), he recalls:
What I don’t realize going in is just how phenomenally awful it really is, just how much he had bought into the cult of the personality. It leaves me gasping for breath, makes me want to run into a shower and scrub myself clean. This isn’t the sweet old man I loved so much; this isn’t the insightful humanist, so suspicious of even a whiff of totalitarianism and who so prided himself on his friendship with the great liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin.
A thoughtful cataloging of his grandfather’s personal history seems to have brought him some small closure. It’s important, too, that he achieved this understanding by way of Chimen’s bookshelves. At the beginning of The House of Twenty Thousand Books, Sasha, writing in his early 40s, recalled:
From my early childhood days, Chimen taught me how to interpret the world around me, how to use ideas carefully to create patterns out of chaos.
And this, perhaps, is why my somewhat obsessive inventory of my mother’s bookshelves gave me comfort in her final years at home. Even if she was now largely the source of the chaos in my life, once upon a time she taught me well.
I siphoned books out of my mother’s library for years. Though mostly with her approval: she had boxed up a wonderful collection of art, design, and photography books during one downsize or another, and she gave them to me once I moved into a house large enough to hold them. Periodically, I’d ask and borrow random items.
And in later years I just took stuff. Sometimes after an extra challenging day with her, spiriting a book home would be my reward. Sometimes my ritual gaze would turn covetous, and though there was no reason not to “borrow” whatever I wanted, the thought that I was taking from someone else’s shelves without permission felt vaguely transgressive. Still, the need to console myself was stronger than the taboo; my copy of Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth will be forever linked in my mind with one early morning I had to race up to her apartment when, on one of her aide’s rare days off, mom had locked the replacement caregiver out and called the cops.
And yet—once I was alone in her apartment with a stack of boxes, tasked with this move, and her books were all mine to do with as I liked, I knew one thing right away: I didn’t want them.
In a different world—maybe a better one—I would have incorporated my mother’s library into my own. Not the crap, of course; not the ARCs, the mass-market potboilers, the bad sci-fi. (I did keep a galley of The Da Vinci Code for novelty’s sake, though I doubt it will ever be worth anything since mom, as she did with all her books, wrote her name in it.) But the lovely old clothbound sets, her collection of Modern Library philosophy, the mid-century novels that epitomized her generation of readers—Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike—could have come home with me. I could have bought more bookshelves and absorbed her eclectic collection into mine in a traditional, intergenerational meeting of minds.
But I don’t have much sentiment for tradition, and, more practically, I’m not an aspirational reader. (My shelves and iPad give lie to that statement, of course—I own far more books than I’ll be able to read in a lifetime.) What coheres my own collection, though, is that every one of them is a book I might read. Though abstractly the possibility of reading Spinoza or Descartes or The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire lights a little fire in my heart, as I imagine the smarter, wiser, better-informed person I could become, I’m also a realist. I’m not going to read them.
So I packed her books up, going through each with an eye out for personal inscriptions, dollar bills, or the photos she liked to use as bookmarks. I filled about 20 boxes from U-Haul, and dropped them off at her local library, five boxes at a time, as per Friends of the Library instructions. It took my back nearly a month to recover.
I did keep a few items: a boxed set of books written by my father, none of which I owned; a lovely oversized book of Käthe Kollwitz drawings, given to mom on her birthday the year I was born and inscribed with extravagant love (“For my liebchen”) by my father; a two-volume set of 1967 Gourmet cookbooks, fat and impractical with cracked leather bindings, full of recipes I can’t imagine wanting to cook, but with a marvelously cringe-inducing ’60s inscription, again from my father: “To Rhoda, Feed me! Happy birthday, with all my love;” a trade paperback copy of Susan Sontag’s On Photography. The rest I let go. I was surprised at how easy it was.
My mother’s Tarrytown co-op was no house of 20,000 books, and her 600-odd-volume library had nothing on Chimen Abramsky’s.
But they shared the same bloodline. They don’t call us Jews the People of the Book for nothing, and although the label is originally about Judaism’s relationship to the Torah, how for millennia it has been treated as a live text that invites engagement and discourse, there’s also a cultural reverence for books and education that—while not unique to Jews—has been a given for generations of Jewish families. My parents were certainly the product of that loyalty, products of New York public schools who passed through the City College system and eventually met at Columbia. In our family, learning—which is to say reading—meant mobility and access.
My mother and Chimen Abramsky both loved those little Everyman’s and Modern Library books, with their egalitarian promises of knowledge for all: as Sasha Abramsky says, “They were books produced for every man, at a moment when it was quietly assumed that people in England of all classes and all walks of life were interested in bettering themselves intellectually.” Substitute Brooklyn or the Bronx for England, and you have my family’s intellectual history encapsulated. Like Abramsky’s, my mother’s library was aleatory and curated solely around her interests. While his enthusiasms lay along more scholarly lines, and although he collected around themes—Judaica, Socialism, Marx—there was still, in both their libraries, a deep faith that had nothing to do with organized religion and everything to do with the power of the printed word to elevate, expand, and explain.
And, as I am doing now, Sasha Abramsky revisited his grandfather’s library through memory only. Other than a few items that he and family members kept, the rest of his grandfather’s collection was boxed and sent off; not to the local Friends of the Library, of course, but to be appraised and sold. Utility took precedence over sentiment for Chimen’s library, as with my mother’s, and the books went on to a new life with new readers.
Someday my son will have to pack up all my books and decide what he wants to keep and what goes to the library sale, if there still is such a thing. I don’t need to make his future job harder just because I like the look of an erudite collection on my shelves, or because I want to try my hand at reading what my mother read to see if that makes me any more able to imagine what she thought. It won’t, because I can’t. It’s enough that she instilled that love of far-ranging, inquisitive reading in me. And maybe someone will pick up that battered set of The Great Philosophers for $5 at the Friends of the Warner Library book sale and it will be their gateway to great thought. Or maybe it will go unread and be packed up, someday, by their children, and the cycle will begin again.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Most literary novelists feel relatively confident they can sell copies of their newly published book to their parents, probably to their siblings, maybe (if they haven’t sparred too often over loud music or lawnmowers or leaf blowers) to their neighbors. Their local bookstore, if they still have one, is likely to agree to carry the book too and may even put a copy in the shop window or on a central table.
With a review or two in a local paper, these same writers may also experience the disconcerting ecstasy of seeing their book in the palms of a stranger sitting across from them on a bus or subway. With a few reviews in a national publication or by powerful bloggers and Twitter pundits, he or she may receive SMS’d pics from friends who have seen it in bookstores in other U.S. towns and cities.
But how about beyond the fruited plain? Whose work gets read outside of America?
In 2008, Horace Engdahl, then permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize selection committee, infamously called American authors “too insular,” and “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.” The last American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature was Toni Morrison in 1993; American writers, Engdahl said, “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” The implication was no one cares about contemporary American fiction but Americans.
During the ten years I lived in France, I witnessed firsthand the regional limitations of American literary fiction. But not all American novels go unnoticed. On any bestseller list in France, you’ll find The Help and Fifty Shades of Grey and the latest book by Dan Brown. You’ll also find American literary fiction. You just won’t find all or necessarily the same books as on similar lists in America. [Editor’s note: As the commenters have pointed out Fifty Shades author E.L. James is indeed British and not American. To clarify, her books, like The Help and those by Dan Brown have perched atop American bestseller lists.]
Distribution decisions play an obvious role: if a reader in Lyon can’t get a book, the reader in Lyon won’t be reading it. I was ready to kiss the ground the day my publisher decided to create a paperback international edition for my debut novel, An Unexpected Guest, in addition to the hardback U.S. edition. I’ve subsequently seen An Unexpected Guest on bookstore shelves not only in France, but also in England, Switzerland, and Finland. I receive messages through my website from readers as distant as India and Malaysia. Foreign rights sales also award far-flung readers (and in my case have given me a couple of new first names: “Anna” on the Russian edition; “En” in Serbia).
Set post-9/11 amongst expatriates in Paris, An Unexpected Guest seems a likely candidate for finding a global audience. But every country has its own literary predilections. With a relative absence of cronyism, the playing field is leveled; a new balance of criteria goes into building an audience. It seems to me that French readers frequently go for novels that manage to be both intensely American and yet possess one of the characteristics often attributed to works in their own contemporary oeuvre: dark, searching, philosophical, autobiographical, self-reflective, and/or poetic (without being overwritten). The last French novel I read, Le canapé rouge by Michèle Lesbre, clocked in at 138 pages, and French readers are not dismissive of short American novels either: Julie Otsuka’s 144-page-long Buddha in the Attic won this past year’s prestigious Prix Femina Étranger. But they are not averse to length either (see, for example, Joyce Carol Oates below). They also like authors who like France and have an understanding of French culture. They enjoy being taken to places – U.S. college campuses, inner Brooklyn, suburbia – they might normally never visit.
But just as there are many sorts of French authors, each American author admired in France brings an own set of attractions. Following are eight examples.
The New Yorker
During the ten years I lived in France, I could have easily believed Paul Auster was America’s preeminent living author. French prizes that Auster has won include the Prix France Culture de Littérature Etrangère, the Prix Medicis étranger, and Grand Vermeil de la Ville de Paris. In a 2010 interview, Auster, who lived in Paris from 1971-74, explained his cult-like status in France, thus: “In France, they feel I am on their side. It helps that I speak French. I am not the American enemy.” But can that account for the ardent following, which extends across the Continent, for his very New York-centric fiction? On his official Facebook page, a multi-lingual collage of comments, a Slovakian woman has this to say: “I generally don’t like American writers, but this one is really special, readable yet in-depth and philosophical.”
Douglas Kennedy’s renown overseas was chronicled in a 2007 TIME article entitled “The Most Famous American Writer You’ve Never Heard Of.” It’s hard to pigeonhole Kennedy’s ten thought-provoking-yet-page-turner novels, but their immense popularity in France — indeed, in all of Europe — is borne out by the droves of adoring fans who line up for his signature and a second’s worth of his Irish-American charm. (I’m not making that up. I’ve seen them.) A Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Kennedy keeps a home in Paris and speaks fluent French, but he was born and raised in New York City. His first three novels were published in the US, but when the last didn’t meet outsized expectations, U.S. publishers scattered. Alas for them – his fourth novel, The Pursuit of Happiness, sold more than 350,000 copies in the UK and more than 500,000 copies in France in translation alone.
The Soul Mate
Written more than a decade ago and more than 750 pages long, Blonde continues to fly off the shelf in French bookstores. The Falls won the 2005 Prix Femina for Foreign Literature. French director Laurence Cantet just brought out a film adaptation of Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang. I asked Joyce Carol Oates about her avid French following. “For me,” she says, “the very sound of French spoken is musical, beautiful, subtly cadenced.” Her involvement with French language began in high school; as an adult she has taught and published French literature. “This is my background for writing, and my relationship with the French reading public may be related to it.” She also praises her translators. But the French devour Oates’s dazzling, precise prose equally in English; at France’s largest English-language bookstore, WH Smith/Paris, along the Rue de Rivoli, Oates is one of the nine American authors of literary novels most in demand with customers. Perhaps her novels take French readers into an America that simultaneously surprises and confirms their expectations?
Philip Roth first won acclaim in France with Goodbye, Columbus in 1960; his fame was cemented with Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969. He’s since won the Prix de Meilleur livre étranger for American Pastoral and the Prix Médicis étranger for The Human Stain. The French often speak of a quasi-autobiographical quality in his works, citing it as a passageway to truths about certain periods of time and segments of society in America. It was during an interview about his most recent and apparently last novel, Nemesis, with the French publication, InRocks, that Roth chose to announce his intention to retire from writing fiction. The news spread like wildfire throughout France before it could even be picked up by a U.S. news agency.
Go to “books” on the French Amazon site, type in “Laura,” and the first prompt to come up will be “Laura Kasischke.” Kasischke’s most recent novel, The Raising, became a bestseller in France within a matter of days; it was shortlisted for the 2011 Prix Femina Étranger, and nominated for the JDD France Inter Prix and Telerama-France Culture. Be Mine and In a Perfect World have sold prodigiously. In the U.S., Kasischke, who teaches at U. Michigan, has probably won more acclaim for her poetry. She graciously points to “having a fantastic editor and press… [and] fantastic translators” when I ask her about the recognition for her novels in France. But Kasischke was the other female author on the list of nine top-selling American authors given to me by WH Smith/Paris — like Oates, she is being read both in translation and in English. “She is the painter of the American Midwest, an America where behind the walls of nice manners live individuals overwhelmed with sadness and boredom,” influential French journalist Francois Busnel stated on French television last year.
Whether set on the border areas of the U.S. and Mexico, in the South, or in post-apocalyptic landscape, Cormac McCarthy’s novels wax dark and darkly reflective. Oliver Cohen, Cormac McCarthy’s French editor, has explained their popularity in France thus: “McCarthy reveals a collective anguish, to which he figured out how to give a shape.” French novelist Emilie de Turckheim offered me for further insight: “[McCarthy] manages…. to use, with virtuosic erudition, all the lexical richness of his language… at same time as abusing and decomposing English syntax to create a language brutal, impressionistic, extraordinarily poetic, capable of mimicking the immense violence of everyday life.” The French routinely compare him to Faulkner, a deceased American author they venerate. The French translation of No Country for Old Men sold about 100,000 copies. La Route, aka The Road, has to date sold over 600,000, with no sign of abating.
According to Sylvia Whitman, proprietor of the English-language bookstore near Notre Dame Cathedral, Shakespeare & Company, Russell Banks and Jim Harrison are among the five contemporary American authors most frequently requested by their French patrons. (The other three are Auster, Kennedy, and David Foster Wallace.) Banks and Harrison use literary realism to take their readers into richly tinted but not always rosy pockets of modern America. Harrison, whose numerous fiction works include Legends of the Fall and just-released The River Swimmer, lives in Montana; in France, he’s been described as “the bard of America’s wide-open spaces… of the eternal conflict between nature and society.” Like McCarthy, Harrison is considered a literary descendant of Faulkner. Russell Banks, whose many novels include The Sweet Hereafter and most recently The Lost Memory of Skin, lives in upstate New York; InRocks has called him “the best portraitist of marginal society in America.” In 2011, he was awarded him the rank of Officier des Arts et Lettres by the French Minister of Culture. Russell and Harrison both also write poetry — a sort of win-win, all things considered.
Ultimately, finding readership in France or elsewhere is like any love affair: alchemy, composed of varied, delicate elements. “Reading, an open door to the enchanted world,” wrote French Nobel laureate Francois Mauriac.
Image via christine zenino/Flickr
While sending out calls for contributors, one writer responded to my email with the observation that these lists “seem to be the new fashion.” True. In the past few weeks, on Twitter and Facebook and wherever else I went to play hooky, these lists — 100 Notable Books, 10 Best Novels of 2011, 5 Cookbooks Our Editors Loved, etcetera — were lying in wait, or rather, Tumblr-ing all over the place. Of course, as an eternal sucker for the dangled promise of a good book, I had to read this one, to see what was on offer, and that one, to get it out of the way, and oh yes that one, because . . . just because. I’m not complaining, far from it. I’m just establishing that I have read a lot of these lists, in only the past few weeks, and shared them myself on Facebook and Twitter, usually at times when I should have been working; and now, since I am sick and tired of being sick and tired of seeing the same books on list after list after list, lists drawn up by respected, respectable folks in the same circles of influence, I have reached out to a band of fresh voices (some new, some established, some you know, some you will soon) and compiled the alternative, the underground, the “oh-yes-that-one” list of favorite books of 2011.
Faith Adiele, author of Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun: When Precious Williams was three months old, her neglectful, affluent Nigerian mother placed her with elderly, white foster parents in a racist, working-class neighborhood in West Sussex, England. Precious: A True Story by Precious Williams tells this wrenching story. I kept reading for the clean, wry, angry prose. Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip is a brilliant example of how poetry can resurrect history and memory. In 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered 150 Africans thrown overboard so the ship’s owners could collect the insurance money. Philip excavates the court transcript from the resulting legal case — the only account of the massacre — and fractures it into cries, moans, and chants cascading down the page. I was tempted to recommend Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir, since it came out in 2011. It does a lovely job capturing Kenya on the verge of independence, but read side by side, Wizard of the Crow demands attention. A sprawling, corrosive satire about a corrupt African despot, filled with so-called magical realism, African-style. Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda by Jean-Philippe Stassen. Rwanda-based Belgian expat Stassen employs beautifully drawn and colored panels to tell the tragic story of Deogratias, a Hutu boy attracted to two Tutsi sisters on the eve of the genocide. After the atrocities Deogratias becomes a dog, who narrates the tale.
Doreen Baingana, author of Tropical Fish: Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou is, despite its misogynistic tendencies in parts, a brilliant book. A biting satire about desperate conditions and characters who hang out at a slum bar called Credit Gone West, it should make you cry, but you can’t help but laugh bitterly.
Lauren Beukes, author of Zoo City: If a novel is a pint, short stories are like shooters: they don’t last long, but the good ones hit you hard and linger in your chest after. I loved African Delights by Siphiwo Mahala, a wonderful collection of township stories loosely inspired by Can Themba’s Sofiatown classic “The Suit.” In novels, Patrick DeWitt’s wry western, The Sisters Brothers, was fantastic, but I think my favorite book of the year was Patrick Ness’ beautiful and wrenching A Monster Calls, a fable about death and what stories mean in the world.
Margaret Busby, chair of the fiction judges for the 2011 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature: White Egrets by Derek Walcott is a superb collection of poetry. Using beautiful cadences and evocative, sometimes startling images, Walcott explores bereavement and grief and being at a stage of life where the contemplation of one’s own death is inevitable. How to Escape a Leper Colony by Tiphanie Yanique is a very accomplished collection that delivers thought-provoking themes, nuanced and vibrant writing, an impressive emotional range and a good grasp of the oral as well as the literary. Also I would mention Migritude by Shailja Patel. Patel’s encounters with the diaspora of her cultural identities — as a South-Asian woman brought up in Kenya, an Indian student in England, a woman of color in the USA — give this book a vibrant poignancy. “Art is a migrant,” she says, “it travels from the vision of the artist to the eye, ear, mind and heart of the listener.”
Nana Ayebia Clarke, founder of Ayebia Clarke Publishing: Deservingly selected as overall winner of the 2011 Commonwealth Best Book Prize, The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna tackles the difficult subject of war and its damaging psychological impact. Set in Sierra Leone in the aftermath of the civil war, Forna’s narrative brings together the good, the bad, and the cowardly in a place of healing: a Freetown hospital to which a British psychologist has come to work as a specialist in stress disorder. The story that unfolds is a moving portrayal of love and hope and the undying human spirit.
Jude Dibia, author of Blackbird: There are a few novels of note written by black authors that I read this year, and one that comes readily to mind is Fine Boys by Eghosa Imasuen. This was a story that was as beautiful as it was tragic and revelatory. It told the tale of two childhood friends living in a country marred by military coups. Striking in this novel is the portrayal of friendship and family as well as the exploration of cult-driven violence in Nigerian universities.
Simidele Dosekun, author of Beem Explores Africa: My favorite read this year was The Memory of Love (Bloomsbury, 2011) by Aminatta Forna. Set in Freetown, Sierra Leone before and after the war, it tells of intersecting lives and loves thwarted by politics. I read it suspended in an ether of foreboding about where one man’s obsession with another’s wife would lead, and could not have anticipated its turns. As for children’s books, I have lost count of the copies of Lola Shoneyin’s Mayowa and the Masquerades that I have given out as presents. It is a colorful and chirpy book that kids will love.
Dayo Forster, author of Reading the Ceiling: It is worth slogging past the first few pages of Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, to get to a brilliantly captured early memory — a skirmish outside his mother’s salon about the precise placement of rubbish bins. Other poignant moments abound — as a student in South Africa, a resident of a poor urban area in Nairobi, adventures as an agricultural extension worker, a family gathering in Uganda. With the personal come some deep revelations about contemporary Kenya. Read it.
Petina Gappah, author of An Elegy for Easterly: I did not read many new books this year as I spent most of my time reading dead authors. Of the new novels that I did read, I most enjoyed The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, who writes once every decade, it seems, and is always worth the wait. I also loved Open City by Teju Cole, which I reviewed for the Observer. I was completely overwhelmed by George Eliot’s Middlemarch and W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, both of which I read for the first time this year, and have since reread several times. I hope, one day, or maybe one decade, to write a novel like Middlemarch.
Maggie Gee, author of My Animal Life: I re-read Bernardine Evaristo’s fascinating fictionalized family history, the new, expanded Lara, tracing the roots of this mixed race British writer back through the centuries to Nigeria, Brazil, Germany, Ireland — comedy and tragedy, all in light-footed, dancing verse. In Selma Dabbagh’s new Out of It, the lives of young Palestinians in Gaza are brought vividly to life — gripping, angry, funny, political. Somewhere Else, Even Here by A.J. Ashworth is a stunningly original first collection of short stories.
Ivor Hartmann, co-editor of the African Roar anthologies: Blackbird by Jude Dibia is a deeply revealing contemporary look at the human condition, yet compassionate throughout, well paced, and not without its lighter moments for balance. The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, spans 61 years of his short stories and shows a clear progression of one of the kings of Sci-Fi. The Way to Paradise by Mario Vargas Llosa is a vast, powerful, and masterful work, which focused on Paul Gauguin (and his grandmother).
Ikhide R. Ikheloa, book reviewer and blogger: I read several books whenever I was not travelling the world inside my iPad, by far the best book the world has never written. Of traditional books, I enjoyed the following: Blackbird by Jude Dibia, Open City (Random House, 2011) by Teju Cole, One Day I Will Write About This Place (Graywolf, 2011) by Binyavanga Wainaina, and Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson. These four books bring readers face-to-face with the sum of our varied experiences — and locate everyone in a shared humanity, and with dignity. They may not be perfect books, but you are never quite the same after the reading experience.
Eghosa Imasuen, author of Fine Boys: American Gods (William Morrow; 10 Anv ed., 2011) by Neil Gaiman is a novel of hope, of home, and of exile. It superbly interweaves Gaiman’s version of Americana with the plight of “old world” gods, many of them recognizable only by the subtlest of hints. We watch as these old gods do battle with humanity’s new gods: television, the internet, Medicare, and a superbly rendered personification of the sitcom. Read this book, and see the awkward boundaries between literary and genre fiction blur and disappear.
Tade Ipadeola, poet and president of PEN Nigeria: An Infinite Longing for Love by Lisa Combrinck. The voluptuous verse in this stunning book of poetry is a triumph of talent and a validation of the poetic tradition pioneered by Dennis Brutus. I strongly recommend this book for sheer brilliance, and for how it succors the human condition. Desert by J.M.G Le Clézio emerges essentially intact from translation into English, and it weaves a fascinating take of the oldest inhabitants of the Sahara. It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower by Michela Wrong tackles endemic corruption in Africa and the global response — a powerful book.
David Kaiza, essayist: The Guardian voted The Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm as one of the top 100 books of the past century. I don’t care much for these listings, but there is a lot of truth to that choice. Hobsbawm is a Marxist historian, and his insight into the 200 years that re-shaped man’s world (and, as he says, changed a 10,000-year rhythm of human society) is transformational. In 2011, I read 10 of his books, including the priceless Bandits which put Hollywood’s Western genre in perspective and, among others, made me appreciate The Assassination of Jesse James as much as I understood Antonio Banderas’ Puss in Boots. There must be something to a historian who makes you take animation seriously.
Nii Ayikwei Parkes, author of Tail of the Blue Bird: This year I finally managed to read and fall in love with The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, which had been sitting on my shelf since last year. It draws on the little-known true incident of a ship of European Jews forced into temporary exile in Mauritius close to the end of the Second World War and weaves around it a simple, compelling story of friendship between two boys — one a Jewish boy in captivity, the other an Indian-origin Mauritian who has already known incredible trauma at a young age. The friendship ends in tragedy, but in the short space of its flowering and the lives that follow, Nathacha Appanah manages to explore the nature of human connection, love, and endurance, and the place of serendipity in ordering lives. A great read. My plea to my fellow Africans would be to pay more attention to writing from the more peripheral countries like Mauritius and the Lusophone countries; there is some great work coming out of the continent from all fronts. Given my fascination with language, especially sparsely-documented African languages and the stories they can tell us, I have been enjoying Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass, which is a fascinating re-examination of the assumptions language scholars have made for years. Drawing on examples from Australia, Europe, Africa, Asia, and America, he argues that contrary to popular lore, languages don’t limit what we can imagine but they do affect the details we focus on — for example, a language like French compels you to state the gender if you say you are meeting a friend, whereas English does not. Brilliantly written and accessible, I’d recommend it for anyone who has ever considered thinking of languages in terms of superior and inferior.
Adewale Maja-Pearce, author of A Peculiar Tragedy: Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt. Her argument was the presumed complicity of Jews themselves in Hitler’s holocaust, which necessarily created considerable controversy. Eichmann was a loyal Nazi who ensured the deaths of many before fleeing to Argentina. He was kidnapped by Israel and put on trial, but the figure he cut seemed to the author to reveal the ultimate bureaucrat pleased with his unswerving loyalty to duly constituted authority, hence the famous “banality of evil” phrase she coined. Arendt also notes that throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, only Denmark, Italy, and Bulgaria resisted rounding up their Jewish populations as unacceptable.
Maaza Mengiste, author of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze: I couldn’t put down Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih and wondered what took me so long discover it. The story follows a young man who returns to his village near the Nile in Sudan after years studying aboard. There is startling honesty in these pages, as well as prose so breathtakingly lyrical it makes ugly truths palatable. With a new introduction by writer Laila Lalami, even if you’ve read it once, it could be time to pick it up again. What more can I add to the rave reviews that have come out about the memoir One Day I Will Write About this Place by Binyavanga Wainaina? I found myself holding my breath in some parts, laughing in others, feeling my heart break for him as he tries to find his way in a confusing world. Wainaina’s gaze on his continent, his country, his family and friends, on himself is unflinching without being cruel. The writing is exhilarating. It explodes off the page with an energy that kept me firmly rooted in the world of his imagination and the memories of his childhood. By the end, I felt as if a new language had opened up, a way of understanding literature and identity and what it means to be from this magnificent continent of Africa in the midst of globalization. It’s been hard to consider the Arab Spring without thinking about the African immigrants who were trapped in the violence. The Italian graphic novel Etenesh by Paolo Castaldi tells of one Ethiopian woman’s harrowing journey from Addis Ababa to Libya and then on to Europe. At the mercy of human traffickers, numbed by hunger and thirst in the Sahara desert, Etenesh watches many die along the way, victims of cruelties she’ll never forget. Thousands continue to make the same trek today — struggling to survive against all odds. Her story is a call to remember those still lost in what has become another middle passage.
Nnedi Okorafor, author of Who Fears Death: Habibi by Craig Thompson is easily the best book I’ve read this year. It is a graphic novel that combines several art forms at once. There is lush Arabic calligraphy that meshes with unflinching narrative that bleeds into religious folklore that remembers vivid imagery. Every page is detailed art. The main characters are an African man and an Arab woman, and both are slaves. Also, the story is simultaneously modern and ancient and this is reflected in the setting. There are harems, eunuchs, skyscrapers, pollution. I can gush on and on about this book and still not do it justice.
Chibundu Onuzo, author of The Spider King’s Daughter: The Help by Kathryn Stockett struck all the right chords. The plot was compelling, the characters were sympathetic, and the theme of race relations is ever topical. If you’re looking for a gritty, strictly historical portrait of life as a black maid in segregated Mississippi, perhaps this book is not for you. But if you want to be entertained, then grab The Help.
Shailja Patel, author of Migritude: In this tenth anniversary year of 9/11, the hauntingly lovely Minaret by Leila Aboulela is the “9/11 novel” I recommend, for its compelling story that confounds all expectations. Hilary Mantel’s epic Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall, had me riveted for a full four days. It shows how a novel can be a breathtaking ride through history, politics, and economics. Everybody Loves A Good Drought: Stories From India’s Poorest Districts by P. Sainath should be compulsory reading for everyone involved in the missionary enterprise of “development.”
Laura Pegram, founding editor of Kweli Journal: Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D.G. Kelley is “the most comprehensive treatment of Monk’s life to date.” The reader is finally allowed to know the man and his music, as well as the folks who shaped him. On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe. In this novel, the reader comes to know sisters with “half-peeled scabs over old wounds” who use sex to survive in Antwerp. Winner of this year’s National Book Award for poetry, Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney is a stunning work of graceful remembrance.
Henrietta Rose-Innes, author of Nineveh: Edited by Helon Habila, The Granta Book of the African Short Story is a satisfyingly chunky volume of 29 stories by some of the continent’s most dynamic writers, both new and established. The always excellent Ivan Vladislavic’s recent collection, The Loss Library, about unfinished/unfinishable writing, offers a series of brilliant meditations on the act of writing — or failing to write. And recently I’ve been rereading Return of the moon: Versions from the /Xam by the poet Stephen Watson, who tragically passed away earlier this year. I love these haunting interpretations of stories and testimonies from the vanished world of /Xam-speaking hunter-gatherers.
Madeleine Thien, author of Dogs at the Perimeter: Some years ago, the Chinese essayist, Liao Yiwu published The Corpse Walker, a series of interviews with men and women whose aspirations, downfalls, and reversals of fortune would not be out of place in the fictions of Dickens, Dostoevsky or Hrabal. The Corpse Walker is a masterpiece, reconstructing and distilling the stories of individuals — an Abbott, a Composer, a Tiananmen Father, among so many others — whose lives, together, create a textured and unforgettable history of contemporary China. Liao’s empathy and humour, and his great, listening soul, have created literature of the highest calibre. My other loved books from this year are the Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom’s story collection The Foxes Come at Night, a visionary and beautiful work, and Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.
Chika Unigwe, author of On Black Sisters Street: Contemporary Chinese Women Writers II has got to be one of my favorite books of the year. I recently picked it up in a delightful bookshop in London. When I was growing up in Enugu, I was lucky to live very close to three bookshops, and I would often go in to browse, and sometimes buy books. It was in one of those bookstores that I discovered a dusty copy of Chinese Literature — and I flipped through and became thoroughly enchanted. I bought the copy and had my father take out a subscription for me. For the next few years the journal was delivered to our home, and I almost always enjoyed all the stories but my favorite was a jewel by Bi Shumin titled “Broken Transformers.” I never forgot that story and was thrilled to discover it (along with five other fantastic short stories) in this anthology.
Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, author of God of Poetry: Search Sweet Country by B. Kojo Laing is a great novel that curiously remains unsung. Originally published in 1986, and reissued in 2011 with an exultant foreword by Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, Search Sweet Country is a sweeping take on Ghana in the years of dire straits. As eloquent as anything you will ever read anywhere, the novel is filled with neologisms and peopled with unforgettable characters. B. Kojo Laing is sui generis.
Zukiswa Wanner, author of Men of the South: On a continent where dictators are dying as new ones are born, Ahmadou Kourouma’s Waiting for the Wild Beast to Vote remains for me one of the best political satires Africa has yet produced. I Do Not Come to You By Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is a rib-cracking book highlighting a situation that everyone with an email account has become accustomed to, 419 scam letters. The beauty and the hilarity of this book stems from the fact that it is written — and written well — from the perspective of a scammer.
Michela Wrong, author of It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower: Season of Rains: Africa in the World by Stephen Ellis. It’s rare for a book to make you think about the same old subjects in fresh ways. The tell-tale sign, with me, is the yellow highlighting I feel obliged to inflict upon its pages. My copy of Ellis’ book is a mass of yellow. It’s a short and accessibly-written tome, but packs a weighty punch. Ellis tackles our preconceptions about the continent, chewing up and spitting out matters of state and questions of aid, development, culture, spirituality, Africa’s past history and likely future. The cover photo and title both failed to impress me but who cares, given the content?
The gorgeous paperback edition of our own Garth Risk Hallberg’s A Field Guide to the North American Family is now out. Also new and noteworthy are Francisco Goldman’s New Yorker excerpted story of the death of his young wife Say Her Name, Meg Wolitzer’s The Uncoupling, Ann Packer’s Swim Back to Me, Blake Butler’s There is No Year, and Phillip Connors’s intriguing debut, Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout. Elsewhere, we’ve got Tina Fey’s raved about memoir Bossypants and a new and long in the works biography of Malcolm X, whose author, Manning Marable died just last week on the eve of the book’s publication. Finally, now out in paperback is the fiction blockbuster The Help.