Highlighting Some of my Best Reads of 2019! #bestof2019
We are nearing the end of the year and it’s always a great time to reflect on the year that’s been --the achievements vis-à-vis the goals set at the start of the year, the setbacks and the comebacks, the areas for growth in the new year and best of all, it’s a great time to re-invent yourself and focus on new goals. 2019 has been kind, not without its ups and down, but because I was able to comeback from every set back on my path and came out of it stronger, wiser and with more experience.
As practice, I'm not in the habit of setting reading goals because I feel there's a lot of pressure on me to meet these goals especially when life pulls me in different directions and I am unable to read as much or as fast as I want to. Reading is something I do for fun, as an escape from life’s stressors. It provides for me a platform for learning, for growth and interaction with other book lovers. It then beats logic if I turn it into one of my stressors. I love reading at my own pace, what I want to and when I want to, its waaay more fun that way!
2019 has however been a great year ‘literary speaking’ – I made good progress with my PHD, my book club expanded exponentially and we’ve read 12 fantastic books together this year, I joined up with amazing ladies at The African Review to give visibility to reviewers from the continent, I received my first ARCs, I hosted an International author for a book discussion and pulled together a successful event in Nairobi, I mentored other book clubs in their formation (one in Nairobi and one in Kampala, Uganda) and most importantly, I read some amazing books. Too many amazing books actually.
I also continued my focus on African Literature and Writers of Colour. At the start of the year, I came up with a ‘Reading Africa’ list - a list of must read (translated) books from the 54 countries on the African continent and made my way through most of the ones I had not yet read. You can check out the list here. Coming up with my top 10 was such a task because so many of the books I read this year deserved to be on this list, I ended up with a top 13 which could have easily been a Top 20.
To help me narrow it down, I had to focus on the books that I felt really spoke to me, books that taught me something, made me reckon with my humanity and humanity in general. Books that were transformative, well written and Insightful. Books that made me fall in love with reading all over again. Interestingly enough, my list consists of both old and new books – I have books published in the 1970s and well as books published as recently as Sept 2019. But that’s the magic of books, they are timeless and as relevant now as they were when they were initially published.
FYI – These are in no particular order. I couldn’t pick a top top anything so here is my random list of favourite books read for 2019.
1. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
Published 2nd May 2019
I loved this book because it made me feel seen. I mentioned in my review that I felt I could have easily included my own chapter and would have been welcome, heard not judged. Evaristo creates a safe space for women in this book – to exist in whichever way they so choose and she does so with such compassion. Centered around the lives of twelve characters, Black British women, womxn, womyn, wimmin, sisters, sistahs and sistren, ranging from the ages of 19 to 90+, each with such agency, leading different lives but all somewhat interconnected as we all are, as members of the human family.
As one of the characters, Penelope, muses after discovering she has African ancestry ‘anyone could be a relative.’
Evaristo doesn’t need to, but she proves that she is a gifted writer with this book. Able to cut across generations and embody each perfectly. It’s no surprise that she won the Booker Prize 2019. This was well deserved.
2. The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
Published 21st March 2019
This is an extraordinary book that spans 120 years from 1903 to 2023, a multi-generational story that hosts a multiplicity of subplots, blending in multiple genres (historical fiction, magical realism, speculative fiction/Afrofuturism) and even has a Greek chorus in between chapters narrated by a swam of mosquitoes! It’s A LOT. It requires patience. But, it is brilliant and it is totally worth it.
An error might have set the ball rolling for The Old Drift but Serpell’s seemingly long novel is not long by error but by design. There is purpose to every word, every sentence and every character. Even the secondary and tertiary characters who do not seem to serve any purpose when they are initially introduced come full circle in subsequent chapters which speaks to the level of thought Serpell put into writing this book. She remains true to Zambia’s history and the socio-political environments of each generation. Her characters also bend in with the times making it truly a book that transcends time and generations. A timeless book!
3. House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma
I had an interesting relationship with this book this year, I read it twice. In my first reading, I hated the Protagonist, Zamani, so much so I couldn’t go through with it. In my second reading, I was more empathetic and more receptive to Zamani’s motivations. It became easier to digest and it easily shot up to being one of my best reads for 2019.
I was also privileged to sit down with the Author, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma later in the year (read all about that here) and she was able to shed more light on the book and offer us a better understanding of the historical and political underpinnings of the events centred in the book.
House of Stone follows the story of Zamani as he tries to ingratiate himself in the lives of his landlords Abednego and Mama Agnes whose son, Bukhosi, has recently gone missing. Zamani is on a mission to re-write his history and fashion for himself a new existence and to do this, he needs to occupy the place of Bukhosi in the lives of Abednego and Mama Agnes. He is desperate to unearth their hi-stories and claim them for himself. As a narrator, Zamani is quite unreliable and flawed and he employs unorthodox methods, preying on their vulnerabilities to uncover these hi-stories. In this retelling and recollection of personal histories, we see Zimbabwe’s silenced and traumatic history come to the fore merging the lives of all these characters.
Novuyo has written a Masterpiece that you dear human, deserve to read.
4. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Published 24th September 2019
This year, I really enjoyed genre blending and Ta-Nehisi Coates did not disappoint with The Water Dancer. Blending in between Historical fiction and magical realism, Coates tells the story of the dark aspects of American history with great compassion.
The Water Dancer is more than just a slave narrative though, it makes you really see slavery for what it was; its intricacies and complexities. It was never a simple matter of men being taken from Africa and shipped across the Atlantic, forced to work in fields and sold at the whims of their masters, but a collective consciousness that failed humanity. It was about the women who were tied to slavery through their children, the price some had to pay for freedom, the personal cost and sacrifices made, the white abolitionists and the individualistic interests that propelled the underground movement, the gravity and pain of loss and the historic dehumanization of black people.
This is a story of reckoning and an important one.
5. Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Published 4th June 2019
This is a book that made me question and re-evaluate my own notions on motherhood, freedom and choice. It intricately weaves in between the lives of Mother and daughter- Patsy and Tru – pulling them apart in unimaginable ways and allowing them after years of separation to come to a place of rebuilding.
This was my first body of work by Dennis-Benn and I am now very interested in reading more of her.
Patsy is beautifully executed with characters that are rich, wholesome, believable, flawed and real. The story is told in such an engaging way, fast paced but not too fast that you feel lost, I could have easily read another 100 pages.
6. The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
Published 1st March 2009
With this book, Marlon James reinforced my belief that he is a certifiable literary genius. He has the ability to reach into the depths of your emotions and make you feel all sorts of emotion - sad, angry, hateful, hopeful, devastated, disappointed, heart-broken, grief stricken and resigned. He has the ability to get you heavily invested in the story and characters; have you worried about them and losing sleep wondering what would become of them.
I loved this book for many reasons, one because it made me question and re-evaluate my understanding of Good and Evil. Is there a universal good and universal evil? Can human beings agree on what is good and what is evil? Who determines who or what is evil because the way I see it, the ‘perpetrator’ of the injustice always feels justified and rational in his actions? Nobody ever thinks their actions as evil, everyone believes they are acting in their best interests. In the interest of Self-preservation. Were the slave drivers evil or were the slaves evil in instigating a bloody revolt in an attempt to free themselves?
7. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Published 2nd Oct 2014
The irony of it what there was nothing ‘brief’ about the book alluded to in the title. It is an EPIC, action packed 686 paged book, with 75+ characters, more than 20 narrating voices and covers a span of almost 20 years. It is a book that requires grit, concentration, some background on Jamaica during the 70s through to the 80s, the heart for Patois and a LOT of time. This is not a book for the faint-hearted.
On December 3rd, 1976, 2 days before the ‘Smile Jamaica’ peace concert that Bob Marley was headlining, seven men with guns stormed his home at 56 Hope Road, Kingston, Jamaica and opened fire. He was shot in the chest and arms, his wife Rita, on the head and his manager in the stomach. The gunmen were never apprehended. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James is on a micro scale a fictional retelling of who these gunmen were and their fates post assassination attempt. James takes full artistic liberties with this retelling, it almost had me believing the events transpired exactly as depicted in the book. On a Macro scale, this brilliant book is about the post-colonial Jamaica fall out. About the social constructs of a third world country and its complex political underpinnings at a time when the country was faced with unprecedented cases of gang violence, gang supremacy wars, political tension, pervasion of drugs and social disintegration; fueled by external influences from the CIA, the Cubans and Colombians, in a battle of competing ideologies - socialism vs. capitalism.
I loved that James makes no apologies for writing half the book in Patois in all its vulgarity, splendour and lyricism. Whilst this was for me the most difficult part of the book, you get the hang of it as you go along. This book is a masterpiece and is about so many things that the longest review would still not have scratched the surface. I highly recommend this book.
8. Beloved by Toni Morrison
Published 16th Sept 1987
In 2019, I picked up my first ever Toni Morrison and made myself a promise that I would read everything she had ever written. I have since read a few and will read more next year. I read Beloved a few months prior to her demise and I was completely blown away!! Her death hit me hard. I felt like I had just discovered a gem and she was swiftly yanked from my grip. Rest in Power Ms Morrison.
In Beloved, we are introduced to Sethe, an escaped slave woman who kills her own child and is prepared to kill the rest of her children than have them captured and returned to a life of slavery; and the ghosts that haunt her. It Is however not just another slavery story but a poignant reflection on the trauma of it, the long term psychological effects on self and family and the tragedy of memory. There are ghosts in the narrative, the ghost of Beloved, the slain child, but also the ghosts of the past ravaging their present, holding fort and refusing to let go. Morrison characterisation is flawless and multidimensional. None solely painted as good or evil but as humans capable of good and evil and I loved that.
I’ll be first to admit though that this was not an easy read, it was intense and difficult to understand at first. It took me a long time to get through it because I had to re-read chapters, but I assure you it is worth every single page and every re-read. A masterpiece that perfectly weave together a story of pain and violence, and of triumph and love.
9. Sula by Toni Morrison
Sula made me think deeply about my female friendships and what they mean to me; those that have stood the test of time and those I’ve lost along the way.
This is a captivating book about the friendship between two girls - Sula and Nel - with very different personalities. Paradoxically, these differences in personalities that draw them to each other in childhood are the same differences that pull them apart in adulthood, obliterating their once close friendship. As adults, we are more unforgiving, uncompromising, resistant and these traits, in part shaped by our upbringing, makes it difficult to nurture relationships as was evidenced by Sula and Nel. I absolutely loved this book and I can unashamedly confess that at this point, nothing Morrison has written is flawed in my eyes.
Morrison had this uncanny ability and gift of not only understanding but relaying in her works certain aspects of human nature in a way that very few can. Reading any of her books, you get the feeling that she has internalized your thoughts and re-framed them in a way that makes it so simple to understand.
10. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Published 1st June 1970
The Bluest Eye, another gem by Ms Morrison had me deeply thinking about beauty standards and how I see myself as a black woman in a world that is every day reinforcing notions of beauty that are so far from who and what I am. Pecola in The Bluest Eye believes she is ugly and she prays for blue eyes because all the pretty little girls in the milk cartons she consumes and the dolls she plays with have big blue eyes.
This messaging shapes how she sees herself. She believes that if she had blue eyes, the bluest eyes, she would see things differently. She would be beautiful, loved and accepted. Her quest for blue eyes, set against a backdrop of a dysfunctional and abusive family, drive her to insanity such that when she is raped and becomes pregnant at 11 years old, she believes that everyone is staring at her because her eyes, finally turned blue. And that’s the most tragic ending to a book I have read in a long time.
I absolutely loved how uncomfortable the books makes the reader because in that uncomfortable state is where we start conversations and find avenues for growth that can be the set up for the change we want to see. This book was published in 1970 but it is still so relevant today especially with the permeability of social media and its power to shape our ideals. If you haven’t read this book yet, please pick it up. This is essential reading.
11. The Dragonfly Sea by Yvonne Adhiambo Owour
Published March 12th 2019
The Dragonfly Sea is one of those books that I finished and was never able to pen down a review. I didn’t know how to do it. Every time I attempted to write a review, I felt unworthy, inept, a fraud. I read this book with one of Kenya’s finest book critics, Fifi @kenyanbibliophile and we had numerous discussions which were so enlightening.
The Dragonfly Sea is a bildungsroman following the story of Ayaana, a six years old curious, explorative, free-spirited girl living in the nondescript little island of Pate off the Kenyan Coast. So nondescript is this tiny island, it does not appear in maps as Ayaana later points out. Ayaana is in a constant state of questioning and search for identity. She spends her days scanning the shore as the boats dock, playing guessing games and wondering which one of the men getting off the boats is her father. She is enthralled by the sea, its beauty and its wonder and has a deep longing to find a father. Her search for identity see her move from Kenya to China and Turkey and back to her small Pate island in her homecoming. Much like the ebb and flow of the sea, Ayaana’s life and is a series of goings and comings as she tries to find a calmness in her search.
This was definitely a highlight for this year!
12. Let’s Tell This Story Properly/Manchester Happened by Jennifer N Makumbi
Published 23rd May 2019
I am not a huge fan of Short stories but this is one that knocked my socks off! I picked this up mostly because I had read Kintu last year and marveled at Makumbi’s prowess. Kintu was top 3 in my 2017 and so when I found out that Makumbi had another book out, I didn't need any convincing to pick it up. The anthology is a collection of 12 short stories, divided into two parts – Departing and Returning. Departing tells the stories of Ugandans, newly arrived and/or trying to navigate this new land. Through these stories we see how hope can quickly turn to despair, how this new land that does not make room for your culture can affect your personality, how you cling on to who you were even though you can see yourself changing a little every day, how relationships with those who welcome you can take a turn for the best or worst, the lengths you will go to, to stay even when it’s clear you are not welcome and how the community can offer solace and grounding.
Returning focuses on those who return to their homeland to discover things are not as they hoped. The condescending attitude of the populace towards the returnees, the new culture shock, the impatience with this developing world that never seems to be get off its feet. The confliction with wanting to belong, knowing the foreign land took something of you and that you may never really fully reintegrate.
This is an incisive book and stories are told with such depth. I am so excited for Makumbi’s book ‘The First Woman’ coming out next year, I hope she keeps blessing us with a new book every year!
13. Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi
A gripping and moving story about Firdaus, an Egyptian woman trampled upon by patriarchy and relegated to the bottom of the bottom of the human pile. And how from rock bottom, at point zero, she was able to find inner strength to live by her own rules and stopped being a victim.
This was a story that was so resonant. A story not just about Firdaus but a story of a woman you know. A mother, a sister, a friend or a neighbour. Firdaus embodies a woman failed by society and then killed by the same society because her continued existence was a constant reminder of our failure. Like a zit on your nose, oozing out puss, and staring back at you every time you look in the mirror. You can’t hide it and you can’t cover it up. I highly recommend this book for women and men. It not only makes you think, it makes you uncomfortable and challenges you to re-examine your values and principles and how our society is set up glaringly prejudiced against women.
That sums up my best reads for 2019! Have you read any of these titles and did any make it to your top list this year? I’d love to know what made it to your list and your shortlisting process – what considerations did you have when picking your best reads? Let me know in the comments.
P.S If you haven’t read any of these books, I sure hope you will add them to your reading list in 2020. You are awesome, you deserve it!