The link below is to an article that takes a look at ten books about books.
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The link below is to an article that takes a look at ten books about books.
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The link below is to an article that looks at books to read that are climate crisis related.
Since the start of lockdown, more of us have taken to our bicycles, grown our own vegetables and baked our own bread. So it’s not surprising it has been suggested we should use this experience to rethink our approach to the climate crisis.
Reading some environmental literature – sometimes called “eco-literature” – can also give us the opportunity to think about the world around us in different ways.
Eco-literature, has a long literary tradition that dates back to the writings of 19th-century English romantic poets and US authors. And the growing awareness of climate change has accelerated the development of environmental writings.
by Indra Sinha
Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People, looks at the Bhopal gas explosion in India – one of the most horrific environmental disasters of the 20th-century. A poisonous gas leak from a US-owned pesticide plant killed several thousand people and injured more than half a million.
The main character in the novel, Animal, is a 19-year-old orphaned boy who survives the explosion with a deformed body. This means he must “crawl like a dog on all fours”. Animal does not hate his body, but embraces his animistic identity – offering an unconventional non-human perspective.
With this wounded “human-animal” figure, Sinha puts forward his critique of India’s postcolonial conditions and demonstrates how Western capitalist domination continues to damage people and the environment in contemporary postcolonial society.
by Ruth Ozeki
Ruth Ozeki’s novel intermingles themes such as motherhood, environmental justice and ecological practice to explore the appalling use of growth hormones in the US meat industry from a feminist ecocritical perspective.
The novel employs a “documentary” narrative mode and begins with a TV cooking show – sponsored by a meat company. While filming the show, Jane Takagi-Little, the director, encounters a vegetarian lesbian couple who reveal the ugly truth about the use of growth hormones within the livestock industry. The encounter motivates Jane to undertake a documentary project to uncover how growth hormones poison women’s bodies.
Is swine flu going to be the next pandemic?
Through a deliberate choice to make all her main characters female, Ozeki draws her readers’ attention to nonconforming, atypical female figures who rebel against social or cultural norms inherent in patriarchal capitalist society.
by J.M. Coetzee
In Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee, a celebrated Noble Prize laureate, who is also known for his outspoken defence of animal rights, interweaves a brutal dog-killing scene with the gang-rape of a white South African woman by three black men.
Praised as one of the South African postcolonial canons, the novel explores complex issues of white supremacy and anticolonial resistance as well as racial and gender violence. It ties these issues with humans’ domination and exploitation of the animals and further challenges our ethical position.
The combination of these two acts – the killing of dogs and the rape of a woman – can be read as Coetzee’s ecocritique of the colonial violence against nonhuman beings and the natural environment.
by Wu Ming-yi
Climate fiction or the so-called “cli-fi” takes on genuine scientific discovery or phenomenon and combines this with a dystopian or over the top twist. This approach underlines the agency of non-human beings, environments or even phenomena – such as trees, the ocean, or a tsunami.
Wu Ming-yi’s novel is composed of four different narratives: a Taiwanese university professor, a boy from the mythical Wayo Wayo island and two other city-dwelling indigenous characters. Their stories are viewed in fragments from the multiple perspectives of the “compound eyes”. At the backdrop is a tsunami which causes the Great Pacific garbage patch to crash on to the eastern coast of Taiwan and the fictionalised Pacific island of Wayo Wayo that brings together all their stories.
Wu blends this unrealistic event with the real-life trash vortex to draw our attention to the severe environmental problems of waste dumping and our unsustainable lifestyles.
by Richard Powers
The Overstory is praised by critics for its ambition to bring awareness to the life of trees and its advocacy to an ecocentric way of life. Powers’ novel sets out with nine distinctive characters – which represent the “roots” of trees. Gradually their stories and lives intertwine to form the “trunk”, the “crown” and the “seeds”.
One of the characters, Dr Patricia Westerford, publishes a paper showing trees are social beings because they can communicate and warn each other when a foreign intrusion occurs. Her idea, though presented as controversial in the novel, is actually well supported by today’s scientific studies.
Despite her groundbreaking work, Dr Westerford ends up taking her own life by drinking poisonous tree extracts at a conference – to make it clear humans can only save trees and the planet by ceasing to exist.
These are just a few books with a specific focus on environmental issues – perfect for your current reading list. To everyone’s surprise, this global lockdown has given us some eco-benefits, such as a sudden dip in carbon emissions and the huge decline in our reliance on traditional fossil fuel energy. Maybe then if we can learn from this experience we can move towards a greener future.
The link below is to an article that lists 50 of the best contemporary novels under 200 pages in length.
The link below is to an article that ranks the various Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories.
Isabel Hofmeyr, University of the Witwatersrand; Aretha Phiri, Rhodes University; Grace Musila, University of the Witwatersrand; Manosa Nthunya, University of the Witwatersrand; Nedine Moonsamy, University of Pretoria; Sam Naidu, Rhodes University; Sarah Nuttall, University of the Witwatersrand; Susan Kiguli, Makerere University, and Tom Odhiambo, University of Nairobi
For those looking from the global North, African literature is often marketed in a narrow way, comprising worthy stories of resistance, written in an uplifting and sober realist mode. Seen from the continent itself, this view has long been brushed aside by the effervescence and animation of ongoing literary experimentation and creativity. I approached literary academic colleagues from South Africa, Kenya and Uganda to choose – and share their thoughts on – one of their favourite books of African fiction. The resulting finger-on-the-pulse list offers a bookshelf that speaks to the vibrancy of both contemporary and older African literature. – Isabel Hofmeyr
Susan Kiguli, Makerere University
The 2007 novel is set in the time of the war to get rid of the dictator Idi Amin. The main character, the adolescent Alinda, and her family have to hide from fleeing soldiers. It is an atmosphere of great angst and fear tinged with hope for the arrival of the liberators, who are a merged force of Ugandan exiles and Tanzanian soldiers. This short novel ingeniously handles the matter of the Lendu woman, the Indians and the Tanzanian soldiers with a blend of suspicion and optimism for the unknown and mystique suggested by foreigners.
The narrative thinks through the gaps and anxiety created by war, where ordinary citizens do not know what to expect. It describes the violence, victims and loss that come with lying in the path of fleeing soldiers and pursuing liberators. The setting is a village near Lake Albert at the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This is a novel depicting a situation of post-independence internal and cross-border conflict. It is a worthy read particularly because it resonates with this time when the world is tense under the weight of a marauding pandemic.
I used to think war meant violent clashes between human beings, but since the arrival of the coronavirus I think it includes human beings confronting disease.
Nedine Moonsamy, University of Pretoria
Tade Thompson’s The Wormwood Trilogy (Rosewater, The Rosewater Insurrection, The Rosewater Redemption) has been widely acclaimed. It was recently nominated for the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Series. For African readers, it is a watershed moment, marking the arrival of an African science fiction trilogy that we so needed and deserve. Set in the near future, these novels capture the interaction between an invading alien population, the Homians, and the citizens of Nigeria.
All three books hit the sweet spot between exploring what science fiction means to us – who, as the characters often point out, have been historically subjected to alien invasions – and the pleasure of simply imbibing well-written and pacy genre fiction.
Teeming with alien life, Wormwood is an extra-terrestrial biodome that embeds itself in Nigerian soil. Its sprawling tentacles provide organic power and, contrary to what one might imagine, people flock to the surrounding community of Rosewood because Wormwood also performs ritualistic acts of healing on sick human bodies.
In contrast to greater Nigeria, where power outages are still frequent and homosexuality illegal, Rosewood has all the makings of an African techno-utopia. Yet at the heart of the trilogy is the niggling question about whether it is ever possible for humans and aliens to co-exist with symbiotic ease.
The novels make use of sharp-witted, hard-boiled detectives to probe further into alien motives; Thompson’s female characters, in particular, are a testament to his talent as they bristle with an unsentimental brand of Nigerian humour. Getting to know these characters makes reading the trilogy rewarding in itself, but Thompson’s world building is a force to be reckoned with. The interweaving of chaotic Nigerian streets, alongside organic extra-terrestrialism and imagined human technologies, is handled skilfully, allowing readers to delve into a seamless African biopunk universe that makes us marvel at the potential of what is to come.
Grace A Musila, University of the Witwatersrand
On the eve of Angola’s independence in 1975, Portuguese expatriate Ludovica Fernandes Mano goes into isolation in her penthouse apartment in the city of Luanda, out of fear of the post-independence future. She seals off her apartment with bricks, withdrawing into a new life with her dog and her garden on the terrace, which keeps her fed. Her only connection to the outside world – which soon descends to a 27-year civil war – is her radio.
Angolan novelist Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion is a riveting tapestry of history, detective fiction and poetic interludes, interwoven with poignant turns of phrase and absurdities delivered with a straight-faced candour. It is a perfect lockdown read, not because it is about isolation, but because Ludo’s self-isolation is filled with hilariously narrated encounters and adventures, including a trained messenger pigeon that keeps two young lovers in contact. Ludo uses small pieces of diamond to trap pigeons for food; but when her trap delivers a messenger pigeon with a note attached to its leg, Ludo decides to set it free so the lovers might receive their message – and with it, her swallowed diamonds.
Ludo spends her time writing out her reflections initially in notebooks, and later the walls of her apartment, using charcoal. We get to read excerpts of her poetic reflections; from whose philosophical musings the novel draws its title.
Her encounter with the messenger pigeon draws an intricate network of the world she has withdrawn from, into her sanctuary, eventually ending her 30-year isolation when a young burglar accidentally discovers her and forms a bond with the now elderly lady.
The novel is a patchwork of short, interconnected stories. They weave a web of connected lives which lend it an expansive and colourful range, through short, pacy, thriller-style chapters, interspersed with Ludo’s poetic reflections. This is a book you read when you want to be surprised, and to have your imagination stretched by startling turns of phrase, odd logic and lyrical philosophical observations about life.
Warm, occasionally absurd, humour renders the inevitable tropes of war-time – torture, executions and profiteering – bearable. Part of the novel’s charm lies in its eccentric characters, like the self-fashioned “collector of disappearances” who tracks disappearances of planes off air spaces, as well as more ordinary disappearances, such as the journalist who apparently vanished right before people’s eyes.
This 2015 novel is a stunning canvas of the historical devastation of the Angolan civil war and richly imagined textures of ordinary people’s everyday worlds told with great warmth and inventiveness.
Sam Naidu, Rhodes University
At a time when the world is experiencing unprecedented restrictions to mobility, Freshwater offers a searing and illuminating narrative about various kinds of border-crossing and about being multiply-located. In this unusual, at times shocking, bildungsroman, Emezi’s protagonist, Ada, is the child of a Nigerian father and a Malaysian mother. From early childhood, and then increasingly as she approaches adulthood, it is clear that Ada exists in a liminal zone: between spirit and human worlds; between cultures and nations; and between sexualities and genders. In retrospect, the novel’s dedication, to
… those of us with one foot on the other side,
that is, to those who do not claim one single affiliation, but both or many, is economically apposite. This liminality is portrayed with astonishing vividness and through varying perspectives, often drawing on traditional Igbo mythology and cosmology to create imagery which is unsettling and challenging.
As an “African” novel, 2018’s Freshwater is innovative and irreverent in the way it marries African religious and cultural beliefs with “Western” geography, religious iconography and cultural symbols, ultimately defying literary categorisation, just as its protagonist repudiates predetermined categories of identity. (The novel is set in Nigeria and the US, and it deliberately presents Ada as a hybrid, transnational character.)
It also contains a rare combination of sensuous, brute physicality with the spiritual. By the end, it is clear that Ada cannot be claimed by her homeland or her diasporic home as she transcends even the human-spirit border to become something which is indefinable, “as liminal as is possible – spirit and human, both and neither”. This bold, contemporary novel captures the porousness of borders, which may prove disquieting for the reader, but also very liberating. In these times of lockdown, Freshwater transports the reader boldly to unexplored, uncanny territory.
Sarah Nuttall, University of the Witwatersrand
I recommend Namwali Serpell’s 2019 Zambian tour de force The Old Drift. This is a long book – all 563 pages of it – by a writer whose prose and outsize imagination will hold you spellbound throughout. It’s a postcolonial family saga across three families and three generations. It is also the story of the great Zambezi river, and its capaciousness, capriciousness and capacity for revenge in the face of human-centred attempts to control it.
Serpell unfolds her canvas along two trace-lines of Zambian modernity: the building of the Kariba Dam, the biggest man-made dam in the world at the time of its construction; and Edward Nkoloso’s Zambian National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy and his attempts to send the first Afronauts to the moon. The novel is grounded in precisely rendered historical events but also has a partially speculative sweep. Its final scenes take place in 2023, with a smart techno-twist. The story is narrated not just from a human perspective but from that of a mosquito swarm, a “bare ruinous choir, a chorus of gossipy mites”.
This is a book that asks for your time – and now you’ve got it. Read. And be riotously rewarded.
Manosa Nthunya, University of Pretoria
It may as well be the case that at this very trying historical time, it may be difficult to appreciate the offerings of fiction. After all, on a daily basis, we are being asked to read and reread the world, asking ourselves if the catastrophe that has befallen us will pass. What comfort, then, can fiction offer when the very future is at stake? But read on we must – and we do – because it remains an activity that allows us to see how large the world is, despite seeming very small at the moment.
A book that could be worthy of consideration is Nkosinathi Sithole’s Hunger Eats a Man (2014), a novel that examines the devastating effects of poverty in the rural areas of South Africa.
Much of the literature that is being produced in contemporary South Africa has a bias towards the city, with often very little reflection on the experiences of people who live in rural communities.
In this award-winning novel, Sithole opens a world that is marked by deep adversities, exploitation and an increasing disillusionment with a nation still learning how to crawl. It is a book worth reading, and reflecting upon, as we start counting down the inevitable costs of this catastrophic moment.
Tom Odhiambo, University of Nairobi
Alain Mabanckou’s fiction may not be known in much of Anglophone Africa but translation is making it easily available. Mabanckou’s 2005 Broken Glass, set in a bar, Credit Gone West, is a good read for times likes these – easy enough for someone interested in light reading; deep enough for someone looking for a nuanced depiction of African modernity. For those who can no longer access their beloved pub, it will remind you of the sounds, smells, sights, that only a bar can produce, from the beginning to the end.
The tragic life of Broken Glass, the narrator, who appears “self-quarantined” in the bar, mirrors those of the different characters in the society, whose stories we hear in the many anecdotes he tells. The dark humour, satirical tone, endless allusions, and lack of conventional punctuation (sometimes making it tedious to follow the tale), all build up to a dystopic story. But, in the end, the bizarre story in Broken Glass should surely lead you to search for more of Mabanckou’s novels.
Aretha Phiri, Rhodes University
The oldie on the list, from 1983. An award-winning novel by JM Coetzee, Life and Times of Michael K evokes a desperately depressing sense of subjective fragility and existential nothingness – concerns for which the author is well known.
Set during a period analogous to civil war, it’s a story about a seemingly insipid and largely enigmatic character whose journeys across and encounters with inhospitable landscapes and unwelcoming communities from the Western Cape province to the Karoo see him, at the novel’s end, gathering water from a well with “a teaspoon and a long roll of string”.
And yet Michael K’s vacuous itinerancy also suggests something pathetically hopeful about the existential journey and signals something ironically prescient about the will to endure. Michael K is a sobering read for these testing times.
Isabel Hofmeyr, Professor of African Literature, University of the Witwatersrand; Aretha Phiri, Senior lecturer, Department of Literary Studies in English, Rhodes University; Grace Musila, Associate Professor in the Department of African Literature, University of the Witwatersrand; Manosa Nthunya, PhD candidate in Literature, University of the Witwatersrand; Nedine Moonsamy, Senior Lecturer, University of Pretoria; Sam Naidu, Professor, Department of Literary Studies in English, Rhodes University; Sarah Nuttall, Professor of Literature, University of the Witwatersrand; Susan Kiguli, Associate Professor of literature, Makerere University, and Tom Odhiambo, Senior Lecturer in Literature, University of Nairobi
There’s a reason why one of the most important American novels of the twentieth century, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), begins with an epigraph by the writer Herman Melville and an allusion to the ghosts who haunted Edgar Allan Poe.
If you want to understand anything about the US in the 20th and 21st centuries, you need to know 19th-century American literature. The 19th century was when many, if not most, of the problems and ideologies that define American culture were codified, and literature of the period shows creative responses to this change.
For the first half of the 19th century, a lot of ink was spilt worrying whether the US would ever have a literature of its own. Many famous writers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, urged Americans to leave English literature behind and take up specifically American themes, peoples and spaces.
At the same time, indigenous and enslaved Americans such as Harriet Jacobs, William Apess and Frederick Douglass used their pens and their rhetorical might to urge the US government to end race and ethnicity-based persecution and genocide.
After the American Civil War (1861-1865), writers rarely worried about whether the country had a literature and whether it was any good (it quite obviously was). They had innovated new genres (think of Emily Dickinson’s spare and searing verses) and turned their attention to issues of inequality embedded in American culture, as in Kate Chopin’s proto-feminist novella The Awakening and Charles Chesnutt’s exposure of racism and white supremacy in the post-Reconstruction South.
The following five works embody both the beauty of 19th-century American literature as well as its ability to change hearts and minds.
Jacobs’ slave autobiography may not be the earliest written or the most famous, but it’s a devastatingly effective piece of storytelling that reads like a novel. Jacobs’ story of surviving slavery is so remarkable a narrative that sheds a rare light on the female experience of slavery.
Written under a pseudonym (Linda Brent), for a long time scholars assumed it must be fiction written by a white abolitionist. It wasn’t until African-American and feminist scholars unearthed the true identity in 1987 of Harriet Jacobs that the truth of her life story was accepted. Her narrative has since become a classic text of resistance, and it’s an essential read for understanding how white supremacy continues to function in America today.
Walt Whitman was a virtually unknown journalist and printer when the first edition of Leaves of Grass thundered upon the American literary world. The strange book listed no author and contained a casual engraving of Whitman with hand on hip and head cocked to the side. Most importantly, it included poems like the world had never seen before. Poems with long cascading lines and little rhyme or metre to be found. Whitman continually added to and edited Leaves of Grass over the course of his life, crafting his biography in poetry that we now recognise as revolutionary in both form and content. It made Whitman a touchstone for 20th-century poets like Allen Ginsberg and Adrienne Rich.
If you’ve seen the most recent movie adaptation of Little Women (or any of the many previous adaptations), you’ll know that there’s something about Alcott’s novel (originally two novels, now published as one) that strikes a chord. Written in the shadow of the Civil War, Little Women draws upon Alcott’s own remarkable family life among famous Transcendentalist writers and thinkers in Concord, Massachusetts. It’s a skillfully crafted book about how the dreams of childhood do and, more often, do not come to fruition.
In the late 19th centuries, a genre called “local color” dominated American literary magazines. These stories introduced areas of the increasingly expanding United States to those living in urban centres. African-American writer Charles Chesnutt turned this genre on its head in his series of “conjure” stories – tales of magic and cunning told by a formerly enslaved man named Julius to entertain a white northern businessman. Julius’ stories weave together African-American folklore and Southern Gothic ambience to expose white supremacy in the south before the Civil War. These stories indirectly comment on the racism that continued to haunt the post-Civil War US under a different guise.
While these days Melville’s gargantuan 1851 novel Moby-Dick may be more famous (and
you should definitely read that too, when you have a few months to spare), nothing packs a punch quite like the novella Benito Cereno. Based on the story of a real slave revolt on board a ship, the text is paced like a horror story and full of ambivalences and doubled meanings. It reveals the true horror of race-based chattel slavery and anticipates the eruption of violence that would tear apart the United States within a few short years.
The link below is to a list of 243 free popular non-fiction ebooks.
Young Adult Fiction (YA) picks apart first experiences, good and bad. They are often stories about the psychological and moral growth of a protagonist, which balance romance with social issues such as gender, race and class. Although marketed to an older audience, Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel Normal People shares many of the tropes of great YA fiction. A coming-of-age story, its lead characters, Marianne and Connell, navigate love and class while developing a better understanding of who they are and want to be.
The fact that such a popular book targeted at an adult audience shares many similarities with YA is not surprising. For over a decade now, YA fiction has enjoyed a growing readership. Although it is aimed at teens, the books have proven popular with adults too. According to a survey by Bowker Market Research in 2012, 55% of YA book purchases were made by adults, and 78% of those adults said the books were for themselves.
With Normal People having just been adapted for television, people have once again been won over by Rooney’s quiet but powerful story of love and pain. Search for the book and you are sure to be presented with the question “What should I read after Normal People?”. So for those lusting for more, here are five YA books to fill the hole left by Connell and Marianne.
One of the most famous books on this list, The Hate U Give was lauded for its no-holds-barred approach to some of America’s most contentious issues, including the weaponising of racial stereotypes and the killing of unarmed Black people by police. The book’s protagonist Starr is from the poor black neighbourhood of Garden Heights. She’s forced to witness the police shooting of her childhood friend, Khalil. While demanding justice, Starr attends a mainly white private school where to fit in and avoid stereotypes, she changes almost everything about herself – her style of clothing, her language, and her connection to Khalil. She also dates a white boy who doesn’t understand why Starr feels alienated at the school. Thomas explores their relationship with an expert touch, examining the nature of poverty and class privilege that is often intertwined with race.
A funny “what if” novel where George Washington became the first King of America after the Revolution. It follows three royal children: Bea, Jefferson, and Samantha, as they navigate romance in the public eye and their feelings for partners who are considered unworthy because of their working-class backgrounds. McGee states that her fiction is heavily inspired by British royalty. The book does an excellent job of analysing the pressures of fame and the responsibility of monarchy through the lenses of class and gender. American Royals examines the detrimental effect of social scrutiny of the rich and famous and in many ways echoes the criticism levelled at the British paparazzi in the wake of Princess Diana’s death.
It may seem odd to refer to Pride and Prejudice as YA but, like Normal People, it does share many of the same tropes of the coming-of-age story. It is about a young woman navigating the path between girlhood in the family home to adulthood through marriage.
Austen’s prose is witty and tongue in cheek, offering glimpses into the aristocratic society of Regency England. A book ahead of its time, Pride and Prejudice is outrageously funny in its critique of gender and class. Elizabeth breaks the mould of feminine conformity as an intelligent woman who is unafraid to speak her mind. Austen is careful and meticulous in her attempts to distinguish the term “gentleman” from the term “aristocrat”. In doing so she reveals that the two are not indistinguishable – the men in her fiction are often aristocratic, but their class status does not excuse their problematic actions.
Like The Hate U Give, Rivera’s coming-of-age novel puts the relationship between race and class under a microscope. Margot struggles with reconciling her conservative Puerto Rican upbringing with the lives of excess and indulgence of her friends from her mostly white prep school. After she’s caught stealing her father’s credit card to impress her friends, Margot is forced to serve time in the family’s grocery store in the Bronx. There, she meets Moises, an ex-drug dealer fighting against gentrification and the eviction of local Latinx citizens to make way for luxury apartment blocks. It’s an engaging story that does not hold back on its criticisms of stereotypes and depictions of poverty caused by societal racism.
For something different but in the same spirit, this is a fantasy tale of unlikely lovers – sensible Blue who comes from relative poverty and Gansey, the king of the local elite boy’s school, Aglionby Academy. While Blue holds down an after-school job and makes her own clothes, Gansey is rich and well connected.
Gansey blunders his way through talks about money and privilege, and regularly upsets his friends with his ignorance and his belief he can buy his way through life. He throws money at situations and people expecting it to solve problems, including bribing the school to not expel a troubled friend. Through Blue and Gansey, Stiefvater utilises the popular YA trope of star-crossed love. A trope that is based on class divides and magic that can be traced back to canonical texts such as Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
The link below is to an article that looks at why the New York Times Bestsellers List is ‘the’ list.