A YEAR IN READING – RUNNING WITH CORA

A YEAR IN READING – RUNNING WITH CORA

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“Cora didn’t know what optimistic meant. She asked the other girls that night if they were familiar with the word. None of them had heard it before. She decided that it meant trying.”  – Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad is the last addition to my 2016 top 12 ensemble. Written by Colson Whitehead, the book narrates the travails of a young black girl Cora, in the bursting enclave of a cotton plantation in the early 19th century. The story kicks off with the rote of duty, the daily sun up to sun down laboring on the Randall plantation, the drudgery of slave life. The one respite that bears the slightest semblance to true ownership was the small patch of land left by Cora’s dead Grandma and that too was under threat from the hawkish eyes of the other slaves. Cora’s first hint of bravery reared in her reclamation of her grandmother’s parcel from a feared bully by the very force of her character. Later she would step in to defend another slave in an uncommon show of courage or maybe just crass audacity. This characterization helped the reader to forge an image of this girl, alone in the world and caught in an unfortunate situation.  Mothered by a slave, Cora didn’t have to wonder what her mother’s life was. Her uncertainty stemmed from the unknown fate to which her mother had escaped running away from the farm without any information about her where-about.

Impelled by another free-spirited lad Caesar, Cora made a run for it with the help of a White abolitionist whose life work was furtively dedicated to helping slave’s escape the terrors of their master through an underground railroad.

The nail-biting layered plots in this book is likely going to make you cringe and squirm with fear. It’s a cold cruel world and if anything Cora knows this. She’d lost her family at a very young age. Her companion with which she fled the plantation had disappeared unceremoniously; her friend who’d sneaked after them had met with her death in the cold hands of another brand of savages,  just as cruel as the masters from which she had fled.  As we experience every mile away from the brutal homestead of Cora’s slavehood, we are equally yoked with the determination with which her bounty hunter, viciously motivated is set upon his task. To feel that this innocent girl who has come so far, endured so long might have her small victory upended at the slimmest encounter with someone who would give her away without any compunction is a constant cause for engagement and trepidation.

With many close shaves as Cora trudged from one state to the other, each with its own form of subversive legislation. From the Fugitive state law to Forced sterilization in South Carolina, a devious bounty hunter close at her heels, several oppressive elements lurking in every street corner, Whitehead sucks the reader in for a ride that will have him all spent with adrenaline-jutting exhaustion by the time the book is done.

“Slavery is a sin when whites were put to the yoke, but not the African. All men are created equal, unless we decide you are not a man.”

“A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality.”
“Poetry and prayer put ideas in people’s heads that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world.”

“see chains on another person and be glad they are not your own–such was the good fortune permitted colored people, defined by how much worse it could be at any moment.”

“The music stopped. The circle broke. Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always – the overseer’s cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude.”

“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes–believes with all its heart–that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

“Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.”

What makes this book tick for me is the texture of the narrative. The very jerky moments  at the beginning of the novel are skillfully laid with a soft cushioning of pathos that would make it feel less like you weren’t wading through some slow, awkward build of the story. Even though it started dully, the slow build is like the tedium of the plantation itself, like a automaton programmed for the backbreaking chores of the day. The good news is that it gets easier. Once the escape was set into motion your adrenaline starts to misbehave, your jaws clenched a bit too tightly.

Proudly endorsed by Obama and Oprah Winfrey, The Underground Railroad ascended quickly to the top of my list, and even when it wasn’t quick in captivating me, it held the promise of a great read right from the beginning form its jerky motions.

Colson Whitehead was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize once, the PEN/Hemingway award and has won many other awards.

A YEAR IN READING – MESSING UP THE POLITY

A YEAR IN READING – MESSING UP THE POLITY

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The political dust of the last general election in the U.S has yet to settle. Like all “diligent” citizens of the world, the 2016 U.S General Election was a nail-biting time for me. Nigeria has its dose of trouble but Nigeria has always, and to grieve for Nigeria all the time was a stale and a perennial affair. I could really use some time in the sun, so off to America I wandered; the land  of the free and the home of the brave. In the United States a Republican candidate for the leader of the free world was about to go into an election and he was shooting his mouth haphazardly like a broken faucet. That was a sight. It would have been laughable if it were just some comic actor in a sitcom ribbing us. This was a potential President of the United States! And as ludicrous as the whole affair was, I couldn’t help but notice a cloud gathering – one that had the stamping foot  and the screaming voices of legions of Americans threatening to kick out the old order in a discontented cacophony, one that was gangly soaking up the drivel of the burly, testy man on the campaign podium. How such a racist, sexist pedagogue created a platform that would become a rallying point for many U.S citizens was very worrying to say the least

Let me step back and do a full disclosure. I am with Hillary Clinton. See, I can’t even bring myself to dip that declaration in past tense. That’s how badly hurt I am by America. This pain hurts, I tell you. Abi no be America again.

So while I was admiring Clinton and staying with her, seething at Trump and smhing for him, I decided for balance to find dirt on my heroine, Hilary Clinton in the name of full disclosure. So from a list of anti-Hillary books that had suddenly find their way to the top of the bestseller’s list, I decided to go for the most venomous according to polls. I picked Gary J Brynes Crisis of Character. Bryne was a White House Secret Service Agent during the Bush administration and the better part of Bill Clinton’s.  He was a close observer of the operations of the White House in the early nineties. In his tell-it-all account, Brynes spared no details in tearing into the Clintons. He wrote of the sinister machinations, the sleaze, and the financial impropriety of the first family. He seized on Bill’s  widely publicized romance with Lewinsky, Hilary’s less known temper tantrums and manipulative style; just about any of the Clinton’s linen was starkly brought out for literary airing, and all in time before a historical election in the history of the United States, featuring its first female candidate in a major political party.

So with a Crisis of Character, I sought the truth from where it was likely to hurt the most to prepare my heart for any eventuality.  Hilary isn’t Miss Too Goody Shoe and now I know it like I have always suspected, but against a Trump, I would still had stood for her. My choice here was not a difficult one. I would take her over an undisciplined, unhinged racist, a bigot and an unruly character without discipline or any measure of Presidential decorum to say the least.

The book Crisis of Character is no way near the awesomeness of the dozens of books I have read this year. Placing it on this list is the gravest disservice I could have done to the multitude of titles here, and the others that didn’t make my top 12. But I also know that the things that make us grow and learn aren’t necessarily the things that appease our sensibilities .They are sometimes like the irascible elves that hold up their hands like a witness and share their discomfiting truth, with glee or with remorse.

I don’t know how much this books and others of the ilk helped in ensuring that Hilary Clinton does not become the first female president of the United States (and I don’t think it did much) but I ensured that if I had hitherto had any iota of blind worship for Hilary Clinton, this book disabused me of it, and created for me a level playing field from which to assess the two candidates.

So thank you Gary J. Bryne but there are no quotes from you.  Nonsense !

A YEAR IN READING – PROFUNDITY EXTRAVAGANZA

A YEAR IN READING – PROFUNDITY EXTRAVAGANZA

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“So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”  – Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Give me a thinking man and I will sup at his table.  This is what reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me feels like. Coates’ words drip from a tube of nourishing reservoir bag, coursing evenly through the body in slow sipping motion, it’s hard to imagine ever thirsting again. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor for The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues for TheAtlantic.com and the magazine. His book Between the World and Me released in 2015 won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Coates also received the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 2015.

In Between the World and Me, Coates meanders but not aimlessly on the issue of race in America, the place of the black man and the social order long imbued in the history of the most powerful country on the face of the planet. Like a jab at the heart of a man coding, Coates’ aim was a jolt from the delirium, a snap back to reality, a reality that nothing would be offered to the black man on a platter of equality or equity with his fellow white. This isn’t so much a rallying cry than it is a book of self introspection – the laying down of one’s own experience and ideas. Sometimes it feels like the laying down of a wreath, at other times it feels like the smashing of a gauntlet.  You’d have to decide for yourself.

Between the World and Me was one of those blockbusters everybody was talking about in 2015. President Obama had it on his summer reading list  that year too. Many a times blockbusters and intelligent books don’t reside in the same pod. This one’s a double whammy! It is written in the form of an epistolatory piece from father to son, which makes it the more poignant. It is confrontational in tone, addressing race in America. It touches on that almost-forbidden paternal love from a black ‘endangered’ American father trying to protect his son from a fate, even he really doesn’t have the remedy for. The father’s existence in itself is hung  thinly by a cultural thread that regards him as inferior to his fellow citizen. Coates in this book wrote on social justice, the civil right movements and sundry other topics. This mint size book (compared to many others on this list) is fascinating in its scope and sheer profundities, the beauty of the prose and the superbly crafted sentences that bring home a message that is a grim depiction of an America so polarized by a racial fissure deeply etched into its foundation.

I couldn’t help thinking how universal truth is and how it can be deployed here in Nigeria. Instead of us trying to bury the past, that has refused to stay buried, shouldn’t we just un-clutter the dark basement of our history once and for all and see what direction we find.

This is not a book to talk too much about. The book talks plenty about things in its small fist punch. Here:

“I was learning the craft of poetry, which really was an intensive version of what my mother had taught me all those years ago—the craft of writing as the art of thinking. Poetry aims for an economy of truth—loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts.”

“Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man. We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.”

“You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.”

“I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.”

“One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.”

“The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean.”

“My mother and father were always pushing me away from secondhand answers—even the answers they themselves believed. I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. That is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being “politically conscious”—as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.”  – this quote left me reeling.

“Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not get out.”

“You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this.”

 

A YEAR IN READING – A MILLION GEMS FOR A GOLDFINCH

A YEAR IN READING – A MILLION GEMS FOR A GOLDFINCH

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“That life – whatever else it is – is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.”  – Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch.

Reading The Goldfinch this year was a belated catch-up really. With the number of incredible books released every year there is a possibility that a great number of them would be hidden in plain sight – passed over again and again. Between catching up on the recent years’, rereading old classics, keeping up with the contemporaries, very many good titles get lost in the shuffle. I read The Goldfinch roughly three months ago. It’s been idling away on my TBR for a while. So when September came and things slowed down on the fiction- reading front I decided at last to see to it.

 The Goldfinch is another book that reviewers are adorning with stars, sometimes too sparsely at other times flamboyantly. In some way, I can understand why. The first few pages of this book were a bore. A lot of time I’m thinking, ‘there are a gazillion books in the wings that you wouldn’t get to finish if you are blessed with a thousand life times, why do you like to punish yourself thus?’. But when you are a serial reader you are a survivor in ways many ways many would never understand. You’ll be able to sniff water by the very sight of a cactus in a desert. I knew there was something to this book and I just couldn’t give it up when I sense I could stumble on that something any time. And  boy, did my patience pay off or what!

The denouement was fa-bu-lous. Some stories hook you from the beginning with a scented bait and drag you through the slimy mud of plot into the bottom of the ocean, others offer nothing but the faintest ray of light, pulls you out of the mud to the fresh clean air of a bespectacled shore. The Goldfinch belongs to the latter.

In the midst of the desolation there were characters who made me laugh, and more importantly there were tons of quotes for my scrap book. What’s even more amazing is how you can generate a mammoth story from a speck.  But I suppose in the order of things in literature there are no specks to be dusted away; there are segues of subplots and back stories and spin-offs from that tiny grain of an idea that holds the writer by the gut, that just can  not be washed down by a shot of whiskey. Only a pen poised over a blank paper or the mad tapping at the computer would do. From these atomic situations, a cosmo of words is birthed – the big bang that produces the thousand words of essays, a few pages of novellas, and many hundreds of novels. There is nothing to be toyed with in the handling of an idea that has found a foothold in your guts.

Theo Dekker, with his mother broke into the pages of this book in an art gallery that would soon have him motherless, lost and alone (except for a painting). Feverishly antsy for something he had done, the traumatized thirteen-year old had to deal with an innocent mistake that would define the course of his life forever. Becoming a globe-trotting art enthusiast with an insidious history, his life goal became both a personal and a philosophical one of naming the un-named, in his search for a lost treasure in the seedy world of European art dealership.

The Goldfinch dramatizes that wanton, helpless, shameless pride we have for things we are passionate about.

When a book touches you so like The Goldfinch did me, when it touches on something you feel deeply in your soul the way Tartt digs into it, you just know it has to make your list, and only because we don’t all feel just as strongly as other people feel about their passions, I’ll excuse anyone who wants to take a pass on this one. But it’ll be good if you’ll read it if not for the story itself but for the abundance of freshly distilled wisdom contained therein. This book re-emphasizes for me what all great work of art is –philosophy. And you know me, I love anything that tinkers with my brain. This one tickled it.

Donna Tartt was exquisite. I didn’t think I was going to say this when I started this book but here I am.

But yeah, sometimes you have to dig for the gem.

And here are some gems for you:

“A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

“Because–isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture–? From William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mister Rogers, it’s a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: “Be yourself.” “Follow your heart.”

“Because I don’t care what anyone says or how often or winningly they say it: no one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is a catastrophe. The basic fact of existence – of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do – is a catastrophe. Forget all this ridiculous ‘Our Town’ nonsense everyone talks: the miracle of a newborn babe, the joy of one simple blossom, Life You Are Too Wonderful To Grasp, &c. For me – and I’ll keep repeating it doggedly till I die, till I fall over on my ungrateful nihilistic face and am too weak to say it: better never born, than born into this cesspool. Sinkhole of hospital beds, coffins, and broken hearts. No release, no appeal, no “do-overs” to employ a favored phrase of Xandra’s, no way forward but age and loss, and no way out but death.”

“And as much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”

Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted–? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight toward a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?…If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or…is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?”

“—if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.”

How can anyone resist such beautiful prose? You sef look am now!

 

Living in Gidi : Something of a Review

Living in Gidi : Something of a Review

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I’ve got my copy of Isaac Newtøn Akah’s ‘Living in Gidi’.

Here Isaac looks through a tiny pin-hole at Lasgidi in all of its maddening chaos and intemperate glory. He humorously captures the strifes of a hustler in this maniacal city, from the weekend-ly owambes to the resourceful conductor we love, from the save-by-the-bell story of a night that could have gone awry to the very humane Lagos that offers a free ride, no rituals involved.

You can process these tales in your dark imagination as a non-initiate; I-can-never-live in Lagos-if you-offer-me-ten-billion type or you can stand unabashedly in the glow of Isaac’s flash like a resident Lagos model whose story is being told through the narrative lens of a creative writer. Either way you will be alright, as we say in Lagos.

And yes there are cracks of humanity too to help you see that this writer, for all of his ‘Smart Aleckiness’ does bleed too. He might be cloaked in humour, but his heart sometimes slips down his sleeve. (I see you bruh !)

The ‘palmitic’ Pope Itodo Samuel Anthony is not left out of this tale. He makes an appearance too: ditched his gourd for a moment (or did he) and opened each episode with lines thrown from up the towering height of the Palm tree (for who does not know that that is where great wisdom resides next to the bottom of a gourd). Here we are offered a view into the picturesque Lagos of Isaac’s- crazy and all from this overlooking height.

Living in Gidi is replete with the tales we do not all have the words for. Tales that softens the edge of our roguish Lagos core with a perspective and an abiding message.

These are light-hearted stories for your reading pleasure.

Available on Amazon and Okadabooks

A YEAR IN READING – NOT SO LITTLE A LIFE

A YEAR IN READING – NOT SO LITTLE A LIFE

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“You see, Jude, in life, sometimes nice things happen to good people. You don’t need to worry—they don’t happen as often as they should. But when they do, it’s up to the good people to just say ‘thank you,’ and move on, and maybe consider that the person who’s doing the nice thing gets a bang out of it as well, and really isn’t in the mood to hear all the reasons that the person for whom he’s done the nice thing doesn’t think he deserves it or isn’t worthy of it.” ― Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life

In A Little Life, I sauntered through 720 pages of life – not so short a life, I know.  Every page dense with wisdom; words like dew, words like sun, words that lighten your feet, words that leaden them. A Little Life surged, it ebbed, but it never disappointed. Like life, I wanted it to end this minute, I wanted it to go on forever.  In between this rashness I pondered life anew, friendship for one, suffering for another, and then redemption, and then pain and then death (Aha!). This is one book that had me flailing through a flurry of emotions so intense, it was like hypnosis. People who loved  A Little Life, loved it passionately and those who hate it, do with every fibre of their being and with heavy investment of their emotions.  Congratulations Yanagihara, look what you did!

Let me quickly say that this book was the one book I wanted so badly to review. I scribbled feverishly through it like a maniac but now I can’t find the words.  I’m so disappointed right now mostly because I know that there is nothing I can say here that will do justice to this book. That’s a shame   because this is a book that deserves to be read. I’ve waited for my muse to show up, read other reviews, read section of the books again, yet I feel inadequate for this task. Heck, I should have written a review immediately after the book!

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A Little Life is a treasure.

But hear me guys, A Little Life is the real deal. My social media walls are flecked with beautiful tidings from and on the book ever since I read it in early May. If I could, I would buy a thousand copies and have it distributed as Christmas gifts to you all. Nobody should be allowed to die without reading it. Nobody!

So, how did I come about it?

My knowledge of A Little Life came on a wave of rave reviews. Prior to reading it, I was inundated by positive recommendations from my book club, my mailing lists, round-table talks etc. Every four out of five persons who’d read it thought it was awesome.  And that was a problem. When a book is awash with too many accolades, it often falls short of my expectation, even if the commentators are the nerdiest book buffs around. It’s always best to err on the side of caution.  Because of this, I made no effort to research the writer or on the story itself. I wanted to be rid of all the noise and maintain a certain aloofness from the frenzy. In short, what I sort was a personal taxonomy for a book that has been labelled, cached and exhibited in different literary fora.

But what do I have to lose, really?

So in the beginning of May, I tumbled into the book cautiously.

By the time I was into the 50th page, every sense of apprehension had totally dissolved into absolute immersion.

A Little Life is not that book, and I’m not afraid to add my voice to that rooftop gang of high-praisers going hoarse from exhaustion that this is the book.  I’ll risk my voice on this one. It’s that good.

This is a book I will be reading over and over again in years to come.  With over 700 pages there is nothing dismissively out of place in this book for me. Every turn of a page was well worth it. If you are given to tears, order your Kleenex and get enough fluid in your system. I assure you you will need it. If you have a steely heart, expect to be hammered, it will leave a dent on you.

A Little Life is a story of four guys who met in college and forged a bond of lasting friendship. These men went on to become successful in their different fields. The story revolves around the lives of Malcolm, Jude, JB and Willem in a swinging arcway, carefully unveiling the backgrounds and quirks of these distinctive characters as much as they are willing to share. One after the other, they came into their own: Malcolm the highly-sought  after blue-blooded architect designing plans for high rise buildings and personal homes of the affluent all around the world, JB the tempestuous biracial photographer whose greatest creation would be inspired by his friends, Willem  the dashing waiter-actor who would successfully cut his nose among the Hollywood big leaguers and Jude the troubled  lawyer and Mathematician. On the pages of Hanya Yanagihara’s book, nothing is forced. These fictitious characters have to give their consents. With the cerebral and reclusive Jude, the experienced reader might be able to catch on early that the juiciest stuff lay with him and that he might be the hardest nut to crack; and the reader would be right.  Often impelled by his more vivacious friends, Jude’s evolution as the epicenter of the story came not from any authorial summon but in the patient dig into the past and the careful exposure of vulnerabilities. Jude’s reticence would be aptly caught through the scope of JB’s exhibitionist lens and later on by Willem’s nurturing and unrelenting love.

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In this book, Yanagihara cultivates the reader’s curiosity to a fever-pitch crescendo. Mystery (and misery) tickles curiosity and Yanagihara knows this. By slowly (and you can see how difficult this is) peeling off the layers of silence and disguises, what’s left of the story is the rawest grittiest tale that I have read in a long while.

When I have read a book so utterly compelling as this, I never let it go with the characters or the book. I have never been satisfied with a protagonist receding into the sunset, the better if they don’t.  A Little Life ended with a drawn curtain with shadows of haunting memories. Ever since May, I have hung on to the author; scouring the internet for her interviews, seeking her out on social media,  reading everything she’s ever written, done about everything I could from across the Atlantic to really get to know this woman.

Because this is the thing: Hanya Yanagihara’s characters are so memorable it’s easy to forget that they are creations; that she was there in the room when Jude writhed on the bathroom floor, his wrist bloodied from the razor cuts; that she was there when Willem’s car crashed and Malcolm designed his fabulous works. It’s so much easier to forget the forest for the tress. Yanagihara is a master pupetteer.

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A fine writer!

If for one thing, I am glad for the fame this book has had because it deserves it. I mean, there are numerous fan clubs of the book on the internet. The other day I saw an alittlelifebook instagram account. There are merchandises customized for the book (I’ve only seen two books that matched this popularity; Harry Potter and The Faults In Our Stars) and I’m so delighted by this. Yanagihara may not know it yet, she’s made me a lifelong fan of hers, and sooner or later I would have her know it.

The younger me was a dilettante. I loved reading simply for the pleasure. Reading was orgasmic. It was my adrenaline shot. I could get off those pages and never feel remorseful over a hangover when I’ve been up all night reading.  It’s hard to explain what gives you the kick, but books did it for me. Every book that has thrilled me has made my resolve stronger to be a success as a writer. Even then, my flirting with reading has trailed into something more serious. Now, I look out for style and construction and plots and all that jazz when I read, which can sometimes bog down an enjoyable pastime. Reading A Little Life was a teachable moment that added no foil to the pleasure of the book. This is one book that cannot easily be forgotten.

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Memorable quotes from the book:

“What he knew, he knew from books, and books lied, they made things prettier.”

“…things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”

“Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely?”

“Fairness is for happy people, for people who have been lucky enough to have lived a life defined more by certainties than by ambiguities.
Right and wrong, however, are for—well, not unhappy people, maybe, but scarred people; scared people.”

“But these were days of self-fulfillment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble. Somewhere, surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.”

A Little Life is a treasure. I learnt about Law, Philosophy, Music, Art, Architecture and places. Yanagihara incorporated all of these in her story in a manner that speaks brilliance. Just posting these lines from the book, I feel a surge of pride. Pride, that I found this one book I wish I could have written . If I do make you read this book eventually, and you need someone to talk to, holler at me. I’d like to have your take.

Meanwhile, have a Merry Christmas!

A YEAR IN READING – THE MAN, MANDIBA!

A YEAR IN READING – THE MAN, MANDIBA!

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I do not share the nostalgia with which my parents or my elder siblings now talk about the hey days of the African liberation movements. Growing up in Nigeria in the early 90s, my first encounter with the word Aparthied came in the form of an audacious quote written on the light-blue wall of my sister’s room.

APARTHIED IS A CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY.

This in itself was a crime – an act of defiance against a house-rule sternly upheld by my father.  You didn’t need to chalk a string of words on his beautiful wall to draw his ire. Something as light as leaning against the wall or dragging your body innocently along it peeved my dad so bad, you get punished.

My father liked to articulate your wrongs to you when you are being punished.

This is why you are being punished.

When you do not eat the onions that your mother took her time to splice into your fried egg, you deprive your body of the flavonoids and antioxidants and the vital chemicals that your body needs to grow strong and healthy, and you throw it in your mom’s face that she’s wasted her time trying to make your food special. Do you understand?

When you do not say ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’ when you greet an elder, it means you don’t see them any different from your friends who are of the same age as you, and that is not a way to show respect. It rubs badly on you as a good boy and on me as your father who is supposed to train you to be a good boy. Do you understand?

Yet days turned to months and then years and I’d yet to see my sister answer for her crime. In that period of teenage self assertion typically noted for rebellion and constant parental warring, not once did the topic of the defaced wall come up.

It took me many years to figure it out. For one, my dad must have been secretly proud that at least my sister was learning something positive from school that a clean wall suddenly mattered no more.

Indeed APARTHIED IS A CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY, maybe censorship for taking a stand for this is too.

Those words remained with me initially for a privately convenient purpose. I had really believed that it would become my hall pass with my parents for any misdemeanor that would have otherwise got me in trouble with them (though I never really got to use it). Later the real meaning moulted out of the puerile and has remained a mantra of social justice with me ever since.

But much more was the figure, whose larger- than- life image bounded my father and my sister together in an unusual, if tacit alliance for once, Nelson Mandela!

When you have a gazillion books waiting to be read, the luxury of choice can quickly turn into a struggle. Sometimes it’s numbing.  I don’t like to research books beforehand. I like to walk into a book not knowing what to expect or with as little information as possible but there are not enough tabula rosas on the biography front. Especially a Mandela biography.

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Oh, tell me about it!!!

Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom had been on my TBR list for a very long time. Every time somebody mentioned Nelson Mandela’s name in a discourse or a picture of him flashed across the screen, I would feel a stab of guilt. I would often console myself that this wasn’t a book to be rushed. I wanted to remember everything when I get around to reading it. I wanted so much to imbibe the spirit which with Mandela fought, to experience in fellowship the suffering of a people, to be inspired by this great stalwart of liberty and freedom.

Many a time, I had passed over this book, leaving it like a wine in a cask waiting to mature. Except of course, I was the one who needed to step up. Because I’ve admired Mandela for so long, I felt I couldn’t read his memoir merely to check it off my list.

So, before the madness of 2016 settled in (though Olamide’s back- to- back statement had set the social media agog. Isn’t that the very playground for madness?)  I ensconced myself in the sedate dawn of the New Year, away from the maddening goons of social media, picked up the book and read the incredible story of this illustrious African son in apartheid South Africa.

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And the winner is… MANDELA!!!

Mandela was a leader of thought in civil rights and that for me is enough in a world so subversive to ideologues. To be incarcerated for 27 years in prison where the conditions were no better than that of a hovel is a lesson in endurance that I cannot even begin to imagine. I can’t begin to talk about how I feel reading this book but here is a snippet that aptly captures the man Mandiba.

“I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.”

Surprising that as a prisoner held in the gallows of his own conviction in spite of several entreaties within and without to make him give up the fight for what he believes in, he still spared a thought for his oppressors.

I find this very inspiring knowing how he had to sacrifice his health, his dignity when he could have done nothing. Indeed it was a long, torturous walk to freedom for the South African people and the ANC leaders who were at the forefront against the white Germans. Mandela’s patriotic fervor did not waver; he was dogged and resilient to the very end. Sadly, there are not many of him around anymore.

Not reading this book early enough was a mistake, albeit an honest one.  This is not a one-time kind of book. Now, I can’t remember much about it except the profound sense of pride I felt as an African (and I sense that  on its own is enough). I imagine I’ll be reading it ever so often (so help me God) and will have my kids emblazon the words/legacy of Mandela on their walls, their workroom spaces, their lockers, the walls of their heart, anywhere they may choose to.