I’m not sure whether I’ll make it a permanent fixture for years to come, but, for now, here’s another set of book suggestions, following those on books on (South) Africa from 2011, some more and also general read in 2012, and even more fiction & non-fiction book suggestions from 2013. If nothing else, it’s actually a nice way to myself to recall the books’ contents and decide which ones are worthwhile mentioning here, for better or worse. To summarise the books I’ve read in 2014 in a little animated gif:
Let me start with fiction books this time, which includes two books/authors suggested by blog readers. (note: most book and author hyperlinks are to online bookstores and wikipedia or similar, unless I could find their home page)
Stoner by John Williams (1965). This was a recommendation by a old friend (more precisely on the ‘old’: she’s about as young as I am, but we go way back to kindergarten), and the book was great. If you haven’t heard about it yet: it tells the life of a professor coming from a humble background and dying in relative anonymity, in a way of the ups and downs of the life of an average ‘Joe Soap’, without any heroic achievements (assuming that you don’t count becoming a professor one). That may sound dull, perhaps, but it isn’t, not least in the way it is narrated, which gives a certain beauty to the mundane. I’ll admit I have read it in its Dutch translation, even in dwarsligger format (which appeared to be a useful invention), as I couldn’t find the book in the shops here, but better in translated form than not having read it at all. There’s more information over at wikipedia, the NYT’s review, the Guardian’s review, and many other places.
Not a fairy tale by Shaida Kazie Ali (2010). The book is fairly short, but many things happen nevertheless in this fast-paced story of two sisters who grow up in Cape Town in a Muslim-Indian family. The sisters have very different characters—one demure, the other willful and more adventurous—and both life stories are told in short chapters that cover the main events in their lives, including several same events from each one’s vantage point. As the title says, it’s not a fairy tale, and certainly the events are not all happy ones. Notwithstanding its occasional grim undertones, to me, it is told in a way to give a fascinating ‘peek into the kitchen’ of how people live in this society across the decennia. Sure, it is a work of fiction, but there are enough recognizable aspects that give the impression that it could have been pieced together from actual events from different lives. The story is interspersed with recipes—burfi, dhania chutney, coke float, falooda milkshake, masala tea, and more—which gives the book a reminiscence of como agua para chocolate. I haven’t tried them all, but if nothing else, now at least I know what a packet labelled ‘falooda’ is when I’m in the supermarket.
No time like the present, by Nadine Gordimer (2012). Not necessarily this particular book, but ‘well, anything by Gordimer’ was recommended. There were so few of Gordimer’s books in the shops here, that I had to go abroad to encounter a selection, including this recent one. I should have read some online reviews of it first, rather than spoiling myself with such an impulse buy, though. This book is so bad that I didn’t even finish it, nor do I want to finish reading it. While the storyline did sound interesting enough—about a ‘mixed race couple’ from the struggle times transitioning into the present-day South Africa, and how they come to terms with trying to live normal lives—the English was so bad it’s unbelievable this has made it through any editorial checks by the publisher. It’s replete with grammatically incoherent and incomplete sentences that makes it just unreadable. (There are other reviews online that are less negative)
The time machine, by HG Wells (1895). It is the first work of fiction that considers time travel, the possible time anomalies when time travelling, and to ponder what a future society may be like from the viewpoint of the traveller. It’s one of those sweet little books that are short but has a lot of story in it. Anyone who likes this genre ought to read this book.
One thousand and one nights, by Hanan Al-Shaykh (2011). Yes, what you may expect from the title. The beginning and end are about how Scheherazade (Shahrazad) ended up telling stories to King Shahrayar all night, and the largest part of the book is devoted to story within a story within another story etc., weaving a complex web of tales from across the Arab empire so that the king would spare her for another day, wishing to know how the story ends. The stories are lovely and captivating, and also I kept on reading, indeed wanting to know how the stories end.
Karma Suture, by Rosamund Kendall (2008). Because I liked the Angina Monologues by the same author (earlier review), I’ve even read that book for a second time already, and Karma Suture is also about medics in South Africa’s hospitals, I thought this one would be likable, too. The protagonist is a young medical doctor in a Cape Town hospital who lost the will to do that work and needs to find her vibe. The story was a bit depressing, but maybe that’s what 20-something South African women go through.
God’s spy by Juan Gómez-Jurado (2007) (espía de dios; spanish original). A ‘holiday book’ that’s fun, if that can be an appropriate adjective for a story about a serial killer murdering cardinals before the conclave after Pope John Paul’s death. It has recognizable Italian scenes, the human interaction component is worked out reasonably well, it has good twists and turns and suspense-building required for a crime novel, and an plot you won’t expect. (also on goodreads—it was a bestseller in Spain)
This year’s non-fiction selection is as short as the other years, but I have less to say about them cf. last year.
David and Goliath—Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants, by Malcolm Gladwell (2013). What to say: yay! another book by Gladwell, and, like the others I read by Gladwell (Outliers, The tipping point), also this one is good. Gladwell takes a closer look at how seemingly underdogs are victorious against formidable opponents. Also in this case, there’s more to it than meets the eye (or some stupid USA Hollywood movie storyline of ‘winning against the odds’), such as playing by different rules/strategy than the seemingly formidable opponent does. The book is divided into three parts, on the advantages of disadvantages, the theory of desirable difficulty, and the limits of power, and, as with the other books, explores various narratives and facts. One of those remarkable observations is that, for universities in the USA at least, a good student is better off at a good university than at a top university. This for pure psychological reasons—it feels better to be the top of an average/good class than the average mutt in a top class—and that the top of a class gets more attention for nice side activities, so that the good student at a good (vs top) university gets more useful learning opportunities than s/he would have gotten at a top university. Taking another example from education: a ‘big’ class at school (well, just some 30) is better than a small (15) one, for it give more “allies in the adventures of learning”.
The dictator’s learning curve by William J. Dobson (2013), or: some suggestions for today’s anti-government activists. It’s mediocre, one of those books where the cover makes it sound more interesting than it is. The claimed thesis is that dictators have become more sophisticated in oppression by giving it a democratic veneer. This may be true at least in part, and in the sense there is a continuum from autocracy (tyranny, as Dobson labels it in the subtitle) to democracy. To highlight that notion has some value. However, it’s written from a very USA-centric viewpoint, so essentially it’s just highbrow propaganda for dubious USA foreign policy with its covert interventions not to be nice to countries such as Russia, China, and Venezuela—and to ‘justifiably’ undercut whatever plans they have through supporting opposition activists. Interwoven in the dictator’s learning curve storyline is his personal account of experiencing that there is more information sharing—and how—about strategy and tactics among activists across countries on how to foment dissent for another colour/flower-revolution. I was expecting some depth about autocracy-democracy spiced up with pop-politics and events, but it did not live up to that expectation. A more academic, and less ideologically tainted, treatise on the continuum autocracy-democracy would have been a more useful way of spending my time. You may find the longer PS Mag review useful before/instead of buying the book.
Umkhonto weSizewe (pocket history) by Janet Cherry (2011). There are more voluminous books about the armed organisation of the struggle against Apartheid, but this booklet was a useful introduction to it. It describes the various ‘stages’ of MK, from deciding to take up arms to the end to lay them down, and the successes and challenges that were faced and sacrifices made as an organisation and by its members.
I’m still not finished reading Orientalism by Edward Said—some day, I will, and will write about it. If you want to know about it now already, then go to your favourite search engine and have a look at the many reviews and (academic and non-academic) analyses. Reading A dream deferred (another suggestion) is still in the planning.