2022: A Year in Reading
It’s been a few years since I started tracking the books that I am reading on Goodreads and I am always amazed when I discover how many books I am able to go through in 365 days. This year, I am told that the 87 books that I have read exceeds the goal I had set for myself of 75 which was actually an adjustment from my original goal of 50 which I had exceeded at some point before the end of the year.
Of the books that kept me company 25 stood out for me as really enjoyable reads. In no particular order, here they are:
Caste. The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. It took me nearly a year and a half to finish reading this book. I would describe it more as a heavy read rather than a difficult read. It is also a necessary read as we interrogate the issues of racism that humanity has to contend with. Even though I felt some portions of it read as didactic, I realized that the education that I was receiving as I read it was part of the interrogation that was required.
Memorable lines: Compared to our counterparts in the developed world, America can be a harsh landscape, a less benevolent society than other wealthy nations. It is the price we pay for our caste system. In places with a different history or hierarchy, it is not necessarily seen as a taking away from one’s own prosperity if the system looks out for the needs of everyone.
Patchwork by Ellen Banda-Aaku. It is always refreshing to read a story set on the continent of Africa that is not centered around trauma. With this I was transported to Lusaka in the late 1970s and immersed in the trajectory of Pumpkin’s life. Taking us through the trials and triumphs of one girl’s life, Ms. Banda-Aaku adopts a narrative style that is so relatable, it could be you or someone close to you.
Memorable lines: In bed, I peer through a gap in the curtains and count the stars I can see in the sky. The sounds of the day die down slowly. TVs are turned off, fewer doors slam shut and voices fade. The sounds of night take over: frogs croak, a dog barks, a car horn at the gate in the distance…. I pull a piece of thread from my nightdress and put it under my tongue. I should use a piece of grass but I’m desperate. Putting a piece of grass under the tongue stops things from happening. It works on the same principle as a prayer.
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver. I have been a fan of Ms. Kingsolver’s writing since I first read The Poisonwood Bible and later The Lacuna, both of which are two of my favorite books of all time. Like these and her other pieces of work, she powerful blends innovative writing with imaginative storytelling. This time imaginatively adapting Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (another personal favorite) to tell a similar story of a boy’s tumultuous coming of age. So many memorable lines, it was hard to pick: Meanwhile the McCobbs were in some serious shit. Their car got repossessed. It was a late model Dodge Spirit, leased, sky blue, none of that I guess being the point. Mr. McCobb couldn’t get to work anymore, so he lost his job, was the point. You tell me why it makes sense for guys wanting money from you to come and take your car, so you can’t earn another dime. That’s the grown-up version I guess of teachers yelling at you for hating school.
Tomorrow, And Tomorrow, And Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. This was one of my last minute discoveries of the year. It seemed to be on some many 2022 best reads that I thought I would get a copy, take a peek, and probably get to it some time in the future. But once I started reading, I could not put it down and set everything aside to make room for this one. Great storytelling combined with artful use of language. I liked how this one took me through the world of video games in a way that did not let me lose sight of the players in the actual story that was being told. File this under, remarkable reading discovery of 2022. Plus, the flashbacks and the flashforwards textured in this book made it an incredibly engaging story.
Memorable lines: “Always remember, mine Sadie: life is very long, unless it is not.” Sadie knew this to be a tautology, but it also happened to be true.
Lightseekers by Femi Kayode. I have an extremely eclectic reading taste but there are two genres where the lines need to neatly fall into place for me to remain engaged: mystery and thriller. Mr. Kayode took me on a wonderful thrill ride with this one. Well written, beautifully imagined, and deeply insightful.
Memorable lines: ‘Even when the British brought several tribes together and drew a marker around the Niger and Benue Rivers and called the funny circle inside Nigeria, our people did not worry. What is in a name? What could be so different after all? Our people had lived in peace with everyone one from the west, the north and even among the easterners, long before the white man came to call us all by one name.’
Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta. Short stories have always been my favorite genre to read and write. Where most short stories move glancingly through the character’s life, Ms. Reid-Benta does something unexpected with this one, with each story showcasing the growth of the main character in ways that were delightful to read. It also takes into the world of the Jamaican immigrant community living in Toronto, something that I had not previously encountered in fiction
Memorable lines: I remember the sound of boiling water, the blurry sight of my mother turning away from the stove. The television was on and our one window was open. I remember opening my mouth to speak, to gift her one of my excuses, and then I remember bending over, hands on my knees, and hurling on the spot.
Nearly All the Men in Lagos Are Mad by Damilare Kuku. If short stories are my first love, then I have an even softer spot for stories set in my hometown, Lagos. With this particular collection, I was pulled in by the title and became enmeshed in the lives of the motley of characters so beautifully laid out in each story.
Memorable lines: I am sure you don’t need me to tell you that I never liked your so-called Uncle Fimihan. I tolerated him, because people like us that don’t have parents collect any family we can find to represent us, so we won’t suffer too much in this world without the protection we have lost. This uncle might as well been found on the roadside based on how useless he was, but I didn’t complain about him coming over once a month to eat all the meat in my soup and imply that I was barren.
The Last Resort. A Chronicle of Paradise, Profit, and Peril At the Beach by Sarah Stodola. In recent years, I have made an effort to carefully seek out pieces of nonfiction to add to my reading list. I am a little persnickety about the topics that are covered in these books and I selectively curate these readings for their ability to inform and possibly instruct. I was particularly drawn to Ms. Stodola’s book and the promise it held in informing and maybe even entertaining me about the coastal beach resorts worldwide. Extremely well-researched. If you read this book, don’t be surprised if you find yourself gnashing your teeth with envy knowing the pockets of paradise the author had to visit to write the book. It is an eye-opener as far as what it means to be a world traveler and holiday-maker in a world that is increasingly being ravaged by the effects of a changing climate.
Memorable lines: Two hundred and twenty miles off the coast of Brazil, a collection of twenty-one islands known as Fernando de Noronha rivals any location in the world for its exquisite beachfront landscapes. It has all the elements that people look for when they head to the beach: gorgeous blue-green waters, incredible diving and snorkeling, killer surfing, dramatic volcanic landscapes, the whitest of sand beaches, average temperatures that hover around 80 degrees year-round, and the highest concentration of dolphins in the world.
These features remain intact not because Fernando de Noronha is a freak of nature, which it is, but because its local government has seen fit to limit tourism development and redirect existing tourism revenues towards waster treatment, careful infrastructure maintenance, and conservation efforts.
Men Don’t Cry by Faïza Guène. Translated from French by Sarah Ardizzone. This was another interesting discovery that made its way to my reading list this year. I am always fascinated by books that are translated from the original language and how the translators work to retain the authenticity of the story being told. I had wanted to read this one in its original language but got my hands on the English translation instead and can confidently say that I still really enjoyed the story. Translators continue to remain the unsung heroes of the book publishing world.
Memorable lines: ‘It’s the contradiction that I find shocking… I mean, to be fully French, you have to deny part of your heritage, part of your identity, part of your history, part of your beliefs, and yet even when you succeed in achieving all of that, you’re still reminded of your origins…So, what’s the point?’
Jacqueline in Paris by Ann Mah. It has been several decades since Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis dominated the global scene as the American First Lady and later the wife of the shipping magnate. Yet, her influence continues to be felt and while she might often be remembered for the powerful men she was married to, it is important to also remember that there was a time that she was a single woman making her way through life. Ms. Mah pays homage to that in this beautifully imagined tale about the semester that she spent living and study in Paris. It cannot have been easy to piece together events from a person’s life to render a fictional spin and also capture sensory details with convincing accuracy, such as in these memorable lines: Outside, the sky was dark and heavy, the clouds almost low enough to touch. The air held the ominous, expectant calm that precedes a storm, and I knew we had chosen exactly the wrong moment to take a walk. Indeed, we had scarcely gone ten steps when the rain began, little flecks growing to fat drops, which quickly transformed into a deluge. Everyone scattered from the streets, dashing into buildings, huddling beneath porticos and awnings.
Powder Necklace by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond. This book has been on my reading list for at least five years. It could be more. I do not have any particular excuse as to why it took me this long to read it, but I can say when I finally decided to pick it up, it was worth the wait. The British-Ghanaian experience comes to life in this one with unforgettable stories and characters that you quickly become emotionally invested in.
Memorable lines: I nodded, feeling for some reason that I would see them again, even though I hoped it wouldn’t be in Dadaba. As we pulled away from them I said good riddance to Dadaba. If I never saw the place again, it would be a blessing. But I would miss Hari and Ivy and our nights on the farm drinking, dancing, and laughing under the moon and stars. I would miss Brempomaa, my sister broni from Brooklyn, who could carry a bucket of water on head like a Ghana-born even though she didn’t look or speak anything like one. I would never forget them.
Someday, Maybe by Onyi Nwabineli. This was my favorite book cover of the year and while the story covered heavy themes, the prose was beautifully rendered. The characters could have done with a little more nuance especially when it came to the depiction of the grieving process but I came away with the realization that we all have different ways that we approach unspeakable tragedy and this was a window into one way with memorable lines like this: The answer is no. I don’t want to be happy. There is no happy. I am content to wallow in this cesspit for all eternity because it is like poking at a mouth ulcer with the tip of your tongue – inadvisable, painful, but addictive. What I choose to say to my little brother instead: “Someday, Maybe.”
God’s Children Are Little Broken Things by Arinze Ifeakandu. I first came across Mr. Ifeakandu’s writing when the title story of this collection was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize. I knew after reading it that I would be looking out for anything else he writes, so I was extremely pleased to spend time this year reading his debut. He gracefully and tenderly shares tales about the lives of queer people living in a society that does not welcome them, humanizing them as they should be.
Memorable lines: Every night, before Chief left the shop, he bought provisions worth more than what Auwal sold all week, and Auwal wondered what he told his wife when he returned home all those nights, bearing the same things he had bought only a night before. Auwal imagined that on his way home he flung the provisions out his car window, he seemed like that sort of man, ebullient and careless, a man whose path flowed with the oil of abundance.
Là Où Le Soleil Disparaît by Corneille. I have been listening to Corneille’s music for years and also knew about his incredibly tragic backstory and I approached reading his autobiography armed with the knowledge that there was a darkness embedded in his life story. It is the way he is able to overcome the darkness and come into the light that makes this a fantastic story to read.
Memorable lines: Un Nègre se souvient toujours du premier Nègre qu’il a vu à la télé. [Translation: A Black Man always remembers the first Black Man he sees on the television]
So Distant From My Life by Monique Ilboudo. Translated from French by Yarri Kamara. I tried unsuccessfully to get a copy of this book in its original language and I am beyond thankful to Ms. Kamara for bringing Ms. Ilboudo’s story to an English-speaking audience, with memorable lines such as these: Most rumours have no father nor mother. The poor orphans are thrust from a malicious mouth to a willing ear. It is impossible to trace its progenitor, in order to oblige them to swallow back down their incestuous work. There are rumours, however, that are signed works.
Between Everything and Nothing. The Journey of Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal and the Quest for Asylum by Joe Meno. A couple of years ago, I had read a news story about the two gentlemen from Ghana who had made the perilous trek across the United States to the Northern border and into Canada. Nothing prepared me for the details of the story brilliantly narrated in this book. It is at once the story of two men’s journey to freedom and an exposé on the unfair treatment that asylum seekers face aptly captured in memorable lines such as these: Although it may appear otherwise, the detention center at Eloy is a commercial enterprise first and foremost. It is not a public prison or military installation. Its employees are not subject to the same guidelines and training procedures that CBP and ICE officers must face. Since opening in 1994, the Eloy facility has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in profit and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Its existence, and the rapid development of many other private prisons and detention facilities over the past few decades, call into question the ethics of an industry that benefits from an inefficient immigration system.
The Sex Lives of African Women. Self-Discovery, Freedom, and Healing by Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah. A racy title for a topic that is taboo in many of our African societies. What I enjoyed most about the essays in this collection is the diversity in thought of the writers and how it eradicates the urban legend myth that there is only one way to be an African women. There are intriguing stories in this collection that are refreshing as they are true and liberating about what it means to be desirable and sexual in a Black woman’s body. As is captured in this memorable line: When we think about freedom it is easy to imagine that it is a far-off, distant place, but in reality, we can all be free in the here an now. We achieve freedom when we let go of societal expectations, and when we find out people – those who love us, care for us and hold us up when we start slipping.
Vagabond. Wandering Through Africa on Faith by Lerato Mogoatlhe. There are books that you read and you want everyone in your circle to read them and then you are completely confounded because as much as you do, the book is not available for sale in the US. This is by way of a call to action to the publisher of this book to see if there is a way to make it accessible to the American reading public. One reason that I hope more people over here can read it, is because I hope it serves to debunk certain widely held beliefs about what it means to live in and travel through Africa. In a series of delightful and real essays, Ms Mogoatlhe does not sugarcoat the reality of those who choose to wander the continent, but what I will be eternally thankful to her for, is how she elegantly and thoughtfully humanizes our people. There are a ton of memorable lines in this one, including: Without emotional historians to recount the horrors of the Transatlantic slave trade, I can reflect on one of the greatest crimes against Africans’ humanity without feeling like a sham. I struggle to mourn slavery because to paraphrase Lucky Dube in ‘Victims,’ we’re still licking wounds from brutality and humiliation. Africans are still in ball and chains; enslaved by racism, sexism, poverty, violence and bad politics. I will not cry about the past, no matter how gruesome, when the present is just as ghastly. I will not put on a performance of sorrow and despair.
Violeta by Isabel Allende. Translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle. This was one of the first books that I started the year with. The publishers had given me an advance review copy in exchange for an honest review. Ms. Allende has earned her place in history as a masterful storyteller and with this tale, where she traces the life of the title character from her birth during one pandemic to her death during another pandemic nearly 100 years later, she introduces us to a cast of unforgettable characters and a story for the ages and memorable lines such as these: My husband wanted a woman as unconditional in her love as he was, someone who would go along with the plans he had for his life, stand behind him, and express the undying admiration he thought he deserved – but he had the misfortune of falling in love with me. I couldn’t give him any of that, but I swear that I tried to, tenaciously, because that was the mission that had been assigned to me. I was sure that if I just faked it long enough I would end up becoming the perfect wife he expected me to be, without any aspirations of my own existing entirely to serve my husband and children.
Manifesto. On Never Giving Up by Bernardine Evaristo. Here’s another one that I wrote a review for and which I see myself going back to read (it is a writer’s manifesto, if there ever was one) just for memorable lines such as this: I have had several head-banging conversations along these lines with people who, in essence, see blackness as inferior to the supposed universality of whiteness, and who admire writers of colour who create white-led narratives, and who are seen as elevated from the rest of us who ‘can’t get beyond our race.’ This is not to criticize any writer for their storytelling choices, we should all be free to write whatever we like.
The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan. I have read all of Ms. Ryan’s books, pieces of historical fiction that transport the reader to another place and time and demonstrate the resilience of women who are able to make things happen against all odds, even in times of war. In this one, which as you might have guessed has a lot to do with cooking, Ms. Ryan inserts recipes of the culinary delights that some of the characters are making throughout the course of the narrative and that makes it truly stand out.
Memorable Lines: Breakfast in Fenley Hall was always served in the yellow salon. It was at the back of the great house, where oblongs of morning sunlight traversed the parquet floor entirely at their leisure. The buttery walls, interspersed with white trim, were coated with portraits of unknown and unrelated forbears surrounded by horses and hounds.
The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley. This is the second one of the Ms. Foley’s books that I have read, and like the first one, The Guest List, she writes stories that reveal the unexpected in imaginatively divine ways and a ton of memorable lines: You know, I read somewhere that sixty percent of us can’t go more than ten minutes without lying. Little slippages: to make ourselves sound better, more attractive, to others. White lies to avoid causing offense. So it’s not like I’ve done anything out of the ordinary. It’s only human. But, really, the important thing to stress is that I haven’t actually lied to her. Not outright. I just haven’t told her the whole truth.
Each of Us Killers by Jenny Bhatt. I like short stories where the writer takes the seemingly mundane action, like a regular commute to work, or a visit to a friend in a different neighborhood, and spin them to create a magical tale. It is not an easy thing to do because the brevity of the tale means that the writer is working with less real estate than a full length novel and there is only that much space to get the reader engaged and emotionally invested in the characters and whatever it is they are up to. Ms. Bhatt has been able to successfully achieve this with the stories in this collection. From Life Springs, my favorite story in the collection, here is one memorable line that will stay with me for a long time: Memories are strangely blended things, made up of many details and, as with baking, they rise in expected or unexpected ways.
If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi by Neel Patel. Thoughtfully imagined, Neel Patel is clearly a keen observer of life and the complexities that lie within it. So many of the characters in this collection are familiar and their issues are relatable, it reminds you that the line between fiction and reality is easily blurred and immensely thin. More than anything, Mr. Patel is able to render the immigrant experience in such a exquisite detail with memorable lines such as these: I was frightened each morning on my way to school. During the Pledge of Allegiance, I held my breath like I did when we drove by a cemetery, wary of the vague expressions on my classmates’ faces. My teachers made us watch movies on slavery and segregation and then told us we were lucky to be living in the greatest nation in the world. It seemed implausible even then.
Travelling While Black. Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move by Nanjala Nyabola. If in reading the book title, you assume that this is a book about traveling, you will be mistaken, at least not the sort of travel that you are thinking. Ms. Nyabola’s essays capture the many nuances, pleasures and complexities that are associated with existing in a Black body while traveling on the journey of life. Yes, she does touch on her experiences as a Black woman traveler but this book covers so much more than that. The complication one’s identity when the color of your skin, and the place where you are born make others fail to recognize your shared humanity. So many memorable lines, it was hard to choose: In English, the word tribe has both Latin and Old French roots, and the dictionary says that it began as a reference to one of the twelve political and ethnic groups that emerged from Jacob’s twelve sons in Judeo-Christian theology. The ethnic group is an idea that there is an original kinship connection between people, one that can be traced beyond immediate and extended family to a defined moment in history. The ethnic group is less than a family, but more than a random collection of strangers. It is the belief that if you yank on the thread of connection, you can eventually find an original stitch uniting everyone.
So there you have it: 8 non-fiction books including an autobiography and four essay collections. 17 fiction books including 5 short story collections, an imaginative take on the life of one of America’s inspiring female icons, a sweeping epic inspired by two pandemics at different points of global history, a modern retelling of a beloved classic, an insightful look into the world of video games, two heart-racing thrillers, two coming of age stories about girls becoming women two different African societies, and the world keeps spinning on its axis while we read our way through life.
I hope everyone reading this had a wonderful year of reading, and maybe even read some of what I read this year. May 2023 bring more engaging and captivating reads your way.