My favorite books in the first half of 2017

It is mid-July, which means the window to gush about the books one has read for the first half of 2017 is still open. According to goodreads, I have read and finished 21 books so far (11 nonfiction, 10 fiction). I have also read and abandoned 5 others including, regrettably, some of the books I paid for directly through the nose.

Here is a round-up of my top favorite books, in the vague order from most adored.

Nonfiction

  1. The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee– Medical history is one of the new genres I have discovered this year, and Siddhartha is most definitely my most treasured author of the genre, The Gene its mascot. This book blew my mind, made me giggle, made me cry, and gave me a truckload of new knowledge. Reading this book was definitely my best of times this year. I’m currently reading Siddhartha’s other book; The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, which is just as good, and the one that won the Pulitzer.
  2. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari– It’s difficult to put into words how much I adored this book. I actually ruined my copy because for months I went everywhere with it, sitting quietly in my backpack, re-reading sections, thinking, making it a quiet companion even while I was reading another book or not reading at all. It has a white cover, which is my least favorite thing about it, but even now in its dustiness, folds and peels, I can’t wait to re-read it sometime this year. Two days ago I bought Harari’s other book and Sapiens’ “sequel”; Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. I haven’t read it, yet, but whoop, I’m I psyched!
  3. Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick– History like a thriller.
  4. Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth about Success by Matthew Syed- I don’t highlight or annotate my books, so I prefer to use page markers. I have never used so many markers on a single book as I did this one. So many chunks of wisdom.
  5. Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus by David Quammen- This book read like a horror story. My only issue with it was that it was too short. I saw David’s other book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic at a bookshop recently. It looked at least 600 pages long, and I am so very excited to get it in my next round of book shopping, I can’t keep calm.
  6. Autobiography of a face by Lucy Grealy- This memoir was haunting. For weeks after reading this book, I couldn’t look into a mirror without thinking about it. Man, this life.
  7. Interventions: A Life in War and Peace by Kofi Annan- Candid, raw and everything you hope a book about the UN would talk about.

Fiction

  1. Disgrace by J.M Coetzee– Everytime I see this book on the street or at the bookshop, I get butterflies in my stomach, then start convincing strangers that this is what they want, and not the copy of James Patterson they are holding. This book is it, and definitely my favorite fiction this year [so far].
  2. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion- This book made me laugh, made me cry, and made me just sit there numbed. I didn’t think about it as a book about mental illness at the time (even when Asperger’s syndrome was all over the book), but it is. For the most part though it’s just good ole comedy, and it’s gorgeous.
  3. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison– So sad and lyrical. So so sad.

I also read some seriously underwhelming books. Namely:

  1. On Palestine by Noam Chomsky+Ilan Pappe– What a dud
  2. The Case for Christmas by Lee Strobel- I bought this on a whim along the streets of Nairobi for KES 100 because sometimes it’s good to read “completely random collections”. Oh boy!
  3. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro- To be fair this wasn’t as bad as the 2 above, but it was still pretty terrible.

Those are 13 books. The other 8 were pretty average. There was An Abundance of Katherines by John Green which I gave 4 stars because I thought it was absolutely hilarious, but now I realise it wasn’t that memorable. There was also The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, which while I fell in love with the story,  I now realise the writing was downright average, which means it doesn’t deserve this walk of fame.

On the abandoning front, one of the books I was really looking forward to reading was How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney. But I ended up really really struggling with it, and abandoning it altogether. It is also one of the most expensive books on my shelf which double breaks my heart. I also received The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt as a gift late last year (which I must say seldom happens. I buy all my books which is not something I easily sustain. Gift me books my people!). I have read about 600 pages of it but I can’t seem to have the strength to go on, which mighty sucks.

I have counted, and I have about 40 books in my house that I haven’t read, most of them fiction. I’m semi-ashamed of this number and so here’s to hoping I read a hell lot more in the second half of the year, and buy books a hell lot less.

What have you been reading for the last 6 months? What are some of your favorite books? Let us know in the comments below.

PS: Reviews for these books can be found on the blog, hence this list being restricted to my feelings about the books.

[Book Recommendations] Nerdy and Sad Books

I am at that point again where my reading rate has well overtaken my posting rate. I have four reviews in draft, and I foresee myself spiralling out of control faster than Jubilee’s nominations. So in my attempt to clean up shop [which I suspect will become a necessary ritual], I came up with a list of book recommendations, which cleverly incorporates the books I am yet to review.

I am a bit of an everything kind of girl, except self help books (although I have been considering reading Christian/Religious fiction because I think I’d have such a great time el oh elling at it all). I do find myself leaning heavily towards heavy metal nonfictions though, and especially recently. For fiction I am all over the place, but I like a book that can make me laugh or cry hard (there are not a lot of those). Today’s recommendations are batched up in two categories, “nerdy” books and sad books. Quotation marks around nerdy because I don’t think they are particularly deeply nerdy, I am just grammatically insolvent at the moment [which I suppose wouldn’t happen with a real nerd].

And without further ado, let’s get into it.

1. The Biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

There is a plethora of Steve Jobs Biographies out there, and since I haven’t read them all, I won’t go as far as to say this is the best one or the most accurate. It is, however, by far the most popular and on which the movie, released posthumously and starring the incredibly handsome and talented Michael Fassbender, was based. Biographies of titans have tendencies to sanitise and saint-ise their subjects, and it is remarkable how unbiased Isaacson tried to be on this account. While you read you meet the genius Steve that gave the world the mac and the iphone, but you also meet the inconsiderate, self-obsessed douchebag who drove his employees to the wall. None of these versions invalidate the other, they are just complete as they are. I read the book a couple of years back and watched the movie last year. I hope to read it again this year, and I highly recommend it.

2. The Biography of Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

Elon Musk is one of my favorite people in the world. He is the founder of SpaceX and Paypal, CEO of Tesla Motors and Chairman of SolarCity. He is, by most metrics a true genius. Most importantly [to me at least], he is the man with the vision to take mankind to Mars. For a long time I didn’t know he had a Biography because I live beneath an actual rock but once I did I devoured it in only a couple of days. By the end, I had a completely different understanding of the man. He *is a genius, he *is extremely focused and driven, but he is also a good ol’ arsehole. Just like Steve Jobs. From an African reader’s standpoint, it almost appears as if the Silicon Valley tech genius genetically predisposes one to the uncontrolled oozing of bullshit [Uber’s Travis Kalanick anyone?]. Although I remember a typo with pain, this Biography is splendidly written and an important piece of work. It provides good background of Elon and circumstances that may have contributed to what we now call his genius, good insights on the problems SpaceX had to deal with building their rockets from scratch, how SpaceX had to prove itself over and over as a worthy NASA competitor, politics at Tesla Motors and the OCD that makes Elon both great and a douche. This is one of the books I aim to re-read by the end of this year because it was just so good and insightful.

3. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

This book has been on many recommendation lists over the last year, and not by accident. It is one of the most mindblowing nonfiction non-biographies I have ever read. And just as it sounds, it is a history of Sapiens through the couple hundred thousand years we have been in existence. From our foraging days, through discovery of fire, the cognitive revolution [which gave rise to writing and language], the agricultural revolution, imperialism, the Scientific Revolution, the rise of capitalism etc and how that has evolved and affected or been affected by gender, race, religion and other social strata. At the end of the book, Yuval propounds on the future of mankind, as largely driven by Science and Technology. How long till Sapiens can rid itself of mortality, how long till the widespread of cyborgs? It is clever groundwork for his sequel Homo Deus [which I cannot wait to read] and a poignant close to the book. I only finished this book a few weeks ago, and I just have so much respect for what it accomplished and what it was trying to. You may not be interested in reading Biographies of vastly douche-ic tech titans, which is okay, but you really should want to read this book. While its size might seem intimidating, it is accessible to every type of reader and even makes a few attempts at humor.

4. Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed

If you have ever read any book by Malcolm Gladwell, this book is exactly like that. The objective of the book is to demonstrate how poorly human beings deal with failure and the prospects of failure, and how we can harness failure to become better at failing. Perhaps to its own detriment, this sounds very self-helpy. Even the title is self help-y, which made me a little nervous. Once I dug in though, there was no looking back. Matthew begins with an in depth analysis of the aviation industry, and the industry-wide culture that has made flying one of the safest modes of transport today. He then juxtaposes that against the healthcare industry, a high-stakes industry plagued with repeated errors as there is often no system devised to incorporate medical mistakes into practical lessons. The stigmatisation of failure in healthcare, and indeed in many industries stands in the way of people owning up to their mistakes. It puts their reputation and livelihoods at stake. It is scary to think that there are probably many people who have died of the same types of medical negligence and errors. According to this book, it is why fields like psychotherapy and astrology have grown so slowly, while experimental physics has been growing leaps and bounds. The feedback loop in the latter, which is starkly missing from the former, ensures there is always data to improve with and upon.

Syed then goes on into other areas, such as cognitive dissonance, creativity and high achievement. The book is full of useful anecdotes, spanning from Drew Houston and the founding of Dropbox, David Beckham as the most hated person in the world in 1998 after his red card during the FIFA world cup,  and even David Cameron and George Bush exhibiting shocking levels of cognitive dissonance in 2003 before and after alleging Saddam was harbouring weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I can’t get into the details of all these, and I’m hoping the tasters will make you pick up the book. I can confirm this is a worthy investment.

5. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

This is the book I read most recently, and therefore one I remember very clearly. Don Tillman is a geneticist who may or may not have Asperger’s syndrome. If he does have Asperger’s, he’s definitely unaware of it. What he is aware of is that his struggles with social situations are of epic proportions. He wants to find a wife, but as a socially awkward scientist will not suffer through a myriad of dates looking for the perfect woman; one who does not smoke, drink, preferably rides a bicycle to work, exercises, does not wear make up etc. With help from his friend Gene who has interesting use for the data anyway, they embark on the Wife Project, which aims to Scientifically sieve through all incompatible women and deliver Don his perfect companion. Until he meets Rosie, who is the precise opposite of what Don is looking for. She smokes, drinks, exhibits symptoms of acute tardiness and is emotionally unstable. She is a perfect coital companion alright, but is she really a viable candidate for the Wife Project? What happens next is why you need to read the book. This book is cute, a feel good and beyond hilarious [I did cry at some point though because Don was breaking my heart]. If you are looking for that book to get you into a reading mode and into a good mood, look no further.

The second category is the gut wrenching, heart pounding exhausting amount of sadness. I wanted to recommend 5 books for this, but my word count is already three times my typical posts. So I shall recommend just 1.

6. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The reason I haven’t reviewed this book is because I do not know what to say. It is rare that I read a book and immediately I finish I want to restart. Not because I liked it that much, that happens often, but because I have a feeling I didn’t quite get everything.

The Bluest Eye is a classic African American literature. Told in three different voices, it’s the quintessential story about impoverished black families reeling from slavery in an overwhelming midst of whiteness. Claudia is a friend to Pecola, who is introduced to Claudia’s family as a result of her father’s violence towards his own family. They both go through untold misery, and especially Pecola who is sexually assaulted, resulting into a pregnancy unwanted by everyone [This is not a spoiler, it is introduced on page one of the book, then revisited later on in detail]. Above all, Pecola wants blue eyes. Blue eyes mean beauty, blue eyes mean acceptance and most importantly blue eyes mean whiteness. And whiteness is access-to love, to basic needs, to public resources, to acceptance.

This is the short of it. There are other back stories therein, of Pecola’s father and his upbringing, her mother’s and hers, life at school, other inhabitants of Claudia’s household and their paedophilia ways, prostitutes who live upstairs from Pecola and are just funny and delightful, and race, and race…and race. It is one of the saddest books I have ever read. But not in a I-am-clutching-at-my-pillow-laying-on-a-pool-of-tears sad. Definitely not The Fault in our Stars or Me Before You or When Breath Becomes Air sad (all amazing books by the way. Read them). Just structural injustices sad. Sad almost in a desensitizing way. The type of sadness you have to extract from shock and disgust and anger.

I am in awe of Toni, just like everyone else. I have only this book by her, but she really is that legend. Her writing is unbelievably poetic and poised, complex and well timed. However, and I feel like this is controversial, because Toni is so skilled I felt like she’s not easily accessible-which is a reason to read her slowly. The way she weaves a story, positioning it just right to ensure you feel disgust for injustice and not merely sympathy for the victim, the way she unloads symbolism, the way she can launch a journey of descriptiveness for an entire page. That way, to me, felt somewhat inaccessible, and at the end, it felt like a book to be read twice to be fully comprehended. First time for context, second time for contextualising. I read the book extremely fast to finish it in time for The Read Club’s discussion, and that didn’t help.

But then again, maybe this is just a book above my reading level. Lol.

I shall be reading it again before the end of the year, much slower second time around, and I do highly recommend it.

PS:

  1. Since the above is a reviews mashup, I did go above the word limit.
  2. I am currently reading How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney, you can read it with me if you wish.
  3.  I am looking for The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee, hard copy. I have not been able to find it in Nairobi, if you have a copy I’d be happy to purchase or borrow.

 

 

[Opinion] Why I am Reading the Bible Cover to Cover

About two weeks ago I turned 25 and on top of my birthday wishlist was, of all things, owning a Bible. As it turns out, a Bible is exactly the kind of thing the male of the species is too happy to present to a woman on their 25th; my birthday strung along with it 3 Bibles from three vastly different Kenyan men. I brought the first one home yesterday [the Bible, not the man]; a brown, incredibly well bound Good News Bible.The second, a Gideon’s version, was to be presented to me on Friday, but due to unavoidable circumstances couldn’t, and we await its arrival next week.The third is what I have been informed to be an “African” Bible, which apparently presents the good word in both historical and cultural context, separating real events from metaphorical ones. This promises to be nothing but illuminating and is also to be gifted to me in the coming week. Muchas Gracias, gentlemen.

As I have noted on various platforms, I am not a believer but neither do I have the energy nor mental capacity for [antagonistic] atheism. So why read the Bible at all?

For the last year or so, I have done quite some reading on how religion has evolved for more than two thousand years to what it is today, and its contribution to the formation of the [largely] cohesive society we now experience.It is not in contention that The Bible is one of the main tools through which religion self perpetuates, and therefore I feel that as long as I have not read a religious text in full and in context, I shall not completely understand it for myself regardless of how many second hand sources I interact with. From an intellectual perspective therefore, I will be seeking to understand for myself how the Bible has contributed to the evolution of religion, and how religious text transforms into religious practises.

Secondly, I am interested in how reliable the Bible is as a muse for today’s christian beliefs and how accurately it captures the historical events it purports to relay. This is why I am so excited about a Bible that presents the historical events in context. Religion is problematic in its intolerance to questions, and I feel that context bridges the gap between what is being availed by religion and what is still unanswered. I am the first to admit that my lack of belief is informed by very limited and selected reading of the Bible, and while it’s near impossible that reading the Bible in full will transform me into a staunch believer, I would like to be better informed about my own stance.

Thirdly and finally, I am reading the Bible for mere enjoyment just like I do most books. Due to its cultural significance, I would read it anyway even if it were boring, but it’s a plus that it is arguably one of the most interesting texts in the history of books. The diversity, the stories, the poetry, the conflicts. It is truly a novel worth its name.

PS: I could easily have read the Quran for the same reasons above, but access and relatability is more challenging, so I begun with the Bible. Also, this exercise will quite likely take the rest of the year to complete, but I will provide updates on my progress from time to time .