A review of the best reads of 2012 from selected readers.
Maximilus: The City of Dreaming Books – by Walter Moers
By a wonderful serendipitous occurrence my bank is right across the National Library in Upper-hill. After the frustrations of a sad bank statement I like to walk across and immerse myself in a cathartic process I simply call “book gazing”. This particular day I took a friend along and as we walked by the fiction section he pointed to a book. I didn’t recognize the author or the name of the book but the story seemed interesting enough at first glance. I started reading it that evening. I couldn’t put it down and I probably cried a little bit at its brilliance.
The story is set in a fantastical world of Zamonia where the main trade is books. Everyone reads, writes or in someway earns a living from the book trade. The main character is a young author known as Optimus Yarnspinner from Lindworm Castle. His godfather Dancelot (who spent three months believing himself to be a cupboard full of dirty spectacles) dies and leaves him a short story that he describes as “the most magnificent piece of writing in the whole of Zamonian literature”. Sometime ago a young Zamonian writer had sent him a manuscript just a few pages long, the best story he had ever read. His dying wish was for his godson to read the story, be inspired and go to Bookholm to find the author and learn from him.
Optimus reads the story; “I felt as if I was dancing to heavenly music with a lovely girl in my arms, slightly tipsy after imbibing a glass or two of wine. My brain seemed to be rotating on its own axis. Ideas rained down on me like a spark-trailing meteors that landed with a hiss on my cerebral cortex.” He decides there and then to head to Bookholm to find the author of this magnificent piece of writing and that is where his adventures begin.
Bookholm is a city that has more than five thousand antiquarian bookshops, six hundred publishing houses, fifty five printers, a dozen paper mills and factories producing ink. Haggard poets standing everywhere; loudly declaiming their work in hopes that a publisher might hear them. The whole city is book mad. Soon Optimus falls into the clutches of an evil book collector and is marooned in the frightful catacombs of Bookholm. He faces many dangers and meets the varied creatures that inhabit the catacombs; some good, some incredibly terrifying.
I loved this book because Walter Moers created a world in which any book lover would die to live in. Mr. Moers is also an accomplished illustrator, the book has all these crazy unbelievable characters whom he draws with such care and love. I could imagine myself racing into those bookshops or perhaps strolling down the streets just breathing in the musty smell of old books.
I recommend this book to the young at heart. This is a book filled with imagination, the ridiculous, the irreverent, the hilarious and the philosophical. Walter Moers creative mind has been described as “J. K Rowling’s mind on Ecstasy.”
Lydia: What Looks Like Crazy On an Ordinary Day – by Pearl Cleage
This book sputters with sensuality, crunches with life-affirming vigour and moves the reader to laughter and tears. After a period of living in Atlanta, Ava Johnson has returned to tiny Idlewild, Michigan, her career and life plans smashed by one dark truth- she is HIV positive. Back to the sleepy community of idlewood, she finds herself helping her sister and dear friends from trouble and tragedy, and she finds that although she had planned to stay only a while, she cannot leave just yet. That and because, as it turns out, Ava has fallen inexplicably in love.
“Sometimes you meet yourself on the road before you have a chance to learn the appropriate greeting. Faced with your own possibilities, the hard part is knowing a speech is not required. All you have to say is yes. (page 149)”
Through the book, different issues are discussed such as the church and how it isn’t always a safe place, the stigma against AIDS, the desires to run from life, and issues like young single mothers and crime and drugs in the community.
It is a remarkable where author Pearl Cleage creates a world rich in charisma, human performance, and profound, empathetic understanding.
Linda Kimaru: The Poisonwood Bible – by Barbara Kingsolver
Something fantastic happened this year: I discovered the museum’s annual charity book sale. In the enormous pile I lagged home was Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. This is the kind of book that reaches into your insides and keeps twisting and turning your emotions like a puppet master. You never know what’ll happen next.
The story tells of the fiercely religious Nathan Price’s decision to take his wife and four daughters to the Congo for ministry. It is narrated through the four daughters and their incredibly burdened mother, Orleanna. There are so many layers each one with the power to draw you into the Congo itself. You’ll ask yourself a thousand times what you would have done in each of those situations. It has been years since a book stuck with me and it’ll be years before I put this one to rest.
Sharon: White teeth – by Zadie Smith
I have read a ton of lovely books this year thanks to the great second-hand book revival of Tom Mboya Street, that began sometime last year, but one stood out by far. Zadie Smith’s debut novel, ‘White Teeth’ was for me, in a word, stupendous.
I usually know a book is great if I keep reading out passages to the nearest willing listener. For this book, I made phone calls if I didn’t have anybody close by. It was that good.
Not only was it hilarious and clever, it was incredibly human. Ms. Smith’s ear for dialogue is pitch-perfect and versatile. From Bengali-accented English to south London Jamaican patois, her characters’ voices were so authentic, I felt like I was right there, watching them interact.
The story itself is a complex, quirky, sassy and heartbreakingly funny account of family; How it moulds us and breaks us; how, no matter how hard we try, we cannot get away from it and how we probably shouldn’t try to, anyway. The story covers three generations of three different families who find themselves inexplicably intertwined with very interesting results. How Ms. Smith managed to do this without wearing us down with all that information, is something I am yet to figure out. She painted the characters with so much honesty that you never quite liked or disliked a character. You were simply fascinated by them. I happened to love them all.
Here is a description of my favourite character, Millat and his crew.
[ . . . ] but mainly their mission was to put the Invincible back in Indian, the Bad-aaaaass back in Bengali, the P-Funk back in Pakistani. People had fucked with Rajik back in the days when he was into chess and wore V-necks. People had fucked with Ranil, when he sat at the back of the class and carefully copied all teacher’s comments into his book. People had fucked with Dipesh and Hifan when they wore traditional dress in the playground. People had even fucked with Millat, with his tight jeans and his white rock. But no one fucked with any of them any more becasue they looked like trouble [ . . . ] And they walked in a very particular way, the left side of their bodies assuming a kind of loose paralysis that needed carrying along by the right side [ . . . ]
Ms. Smith is also one of the few writers whose descriptions of places was so clear, your hands start to feel a little dirty. Like her description of O’Connells’ Irish pool bar (which is ran by Arabs and has no pool tables by the way). I swear I can still smell that place.
In conclusion, as I read this book I felt my own oddities suddenly turn into awkwardly beautiful quirks. The characters become your mirror. I was astonishingly enriched by it all. And after I read the last sentence I wanted to either be Zadie Smith, or date her.
Such an incredible feat for a young writer.
Loved. This. Book.
Mwirigi: World War Z – by Max Brooks
I’ll go with Max Brooks “World War Z”. There’s a bit of presentism here since I just finished the book.
Zombies are all the rage right now and Max Brooks is in my opinion the master of this Genre. The book is a collection of interviews with various individuals linked to a Zombie outbreak. So its the story of a Zombie outbreak indirectly told from start to finish through the points of view of the people being interviewed. This in my view is a very interesting way to tell a story.
The first time I saw this literary style was in the short story “Concerning the Bodyguard” by Donald Barthelme. Since great minds think alike, it turns out that this short story is also one of Salman Rushdies favourites
You can listen to him read it out aloud and discuss it with New Yorker Fiction Editor Deborah Triesman here.
Back to World War Z. Its a small book, it shouldn’t take too long to read and it is utterly enjoyable. I would definitely recommend it as a Christmas gift to anyone who enjoys a good read.
Read part 2 of the series here.