2019 in 50 Books

Better late than never, right?

The COVID19 changes to my work plans has given me more time to read and write but way less time to concentrate on doing either of those. So I thought I might as well use the chance to look at the books I read last year and see what I particularly enjoyed!

Although I read a lot, I can rarely remember plot. I often remember characters, and I remember whether I liked or didn’t like something. So, to be true to the reality of this I’ve included only a short review as I wrote it on my Instagram last year (unless I really loved it and insist you should read it).

Here we go. Hope you enjoy!

1 – Ken Liu: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories: Marvellous fantastical short stories.

2 – Antoine de Saint-Exupery: The Little Prince: Always beautiful.

3 – Jacqui L’Ange: The Seed Thief: Magical! Full of lore and passion and plants and food and adventure. Had me hungry and lusting for travel. I also love books that make you want to learn about something else and this book had me googling plants and looking up gods and goddesses. Loved it!

4 – Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire: I haven’t read a book in a single sitting for ages. Started this at 10pm last night and couldn’t stop reading. Spectacular and devastating.

5 – Alain de Botton: The Course of Love: Loved this and feel grateful for its lessons. Anyone who is or has been in a relationship should read it.

6 – Penguin Moderns: Albert Camus: Create Dangerously: Very cool essays from Camus.

7 – Nic Sheff: Tweak: I watched the film ‘Beautiful Boy’ last week and it was so haunting and sad. This is the other memoir that the film is based on. It’s visceral and dark but ultimately hopeful.

8 – Sarah Knight: The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k: A few useful things but overall a bit smarmy and self indulgent I thought.

9 – Binyavanga Wainana: One Day I Will Write About This Place: Set in Kenya but really set in the writer. A memoir about loving a difficult complicated country, always wanting it to do better – to optimize the potential that’s so obvious to you. I could relate. At times very funny and at times very sad. Wainana passed away last year – a huge loss for the literary community.

10 – Jeanette Winterson: Oranges are not the Only Fruit: The fictional account of a childhood that needed surviving. Looking forward to reading the memoir soon.

11 – Claire Dederer: Poser: The memoir of ten years of yoga practice and all the flexibility of heart and mind that comes with it. Made me want to visit the coastline near Seattle, write more, and do more yoga that is less about the abs and hot pants and more about the heart.

12 – Jeanette Winterson: Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal: This was incredible. Beautiful writing that I feel grateful to have read. ‘Creativity is on the side of health — it isn’t the thing that drives us mad; it is the capacity in us that tries to save us from madness.’ This memoir is so sad and wonderful and emotional. She writes with a clarity of voice and prose that is astounding.

13 – David Sedaris: Naked: Some of this I loved and laughed out loud, some I reflected on how much one person can notice, others I was repulsed at how humour still gets away with so much prejudice, and other parts I felt sad, for the unsaid, the hidden.

14 – A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven: The story is gripping right from the beginning, and then the characters grip you too. Very dark and strange. South Africa appears in the story too – villages and game farms and highjacking (is this what the outside thinks is here?) Really enjoyed the writing.

15 – Beneath the Skin: Great Writers on the body: Picked this up on a whim at Kalk Bay Books and it is lovely. Thoughtful, beautifully written essays on various parts of the body. Appendix was my favorite I think, and then nose.

16 – Penguin Moderns: Audre Lorde: The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House: Amazing amazing amazing. 🙌🙌🙌🙌🙌🙌👏👏👏👏👏👏💪💪💪💪💪

17 – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman: Good Omens: Laughed out loud a lot. Particularly loved the four hoursemen.

18 – Sara-Jayne King: Killing Karoline: Hard reading. Brave writing.

19 – June Eric-Udorie: Can We All Be Feminists? Fresh writing, lots of new and young voices. (Oh, and obvs the answer is – YES! Please and thank you).

20 – Kirsten Miller: The Hum of the Sun: A story of family and love and understanding. At times sparse and other times lyrical. A lovely read.

21 – Sarah Winman: Tin Man: So beautiful. A good cry at the end.

22 – Margaret Atwood: The Penelopiad.  Just finished her MasterClass and it was nice to hear this in her voice and dry humour.

23 – Amy Chua: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. This was great! I laughed so much. So much compassion and gratitude for the moms out there just doing what they believe is right. 

24 – Tessa Hadley: The Past: Wonderful and immersive. Thick rich characters.

25 – Lauren Groff: Fates and Furies: Loved this book. Such a fun use of form and style. The characters were rich and captivating and complex. Will think of Lotto and Mathilde often.

26 – Stephen Pinker, Matt Ridley, Alain de Botton, Malcolm Gladwell: Do Humankind’s Best Days Lie Ahead? Transcript of the Munk Debate. Pleasing combo – only Gladwell commented on the fact that no women were involved. Think it would have covered different ground if there had been.

27 – Claire Fuller: Bitter Orange: An interesting and creepy plot, but a bit drawn out and a few too many architectural references to be my cup of tea.

28 – Malcolm Gladwell: David and Goliath: Loved this. Talented talented writer making complex connections so simple.

29 – Naomi Alderman: Disobedience: I found it strange, interesting, a little sad. Peculiar self-destructive characters that felt very real.

30 – Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go: I loved this story when I saw the film a few years ago, and it was still wonderful to read all these years later

31 – Albert Camus: The Stranger (L’etranger): It is a strange book but somehow compelling. You can’t quite believe it’s all happening to him – how life seems to happen to him rather than him living. Odd.

32 – Esther Perel: The State of Affairs: I could read Esther Perel every day. She’s so frank and honest and practical. A powerful look at what infidelity says about our ideas of fidelity, of love, of power in relationships. Highly recommend!

33 – Nicole Dennis-Benn: Here Comes the Sun: Absolutely loved this. Powerful characters, powerful plot. A reflection on destiny and free will.

34 – Dominique Botha: False River: Beautiful lyrical writing. Like being in a time machine in some parts. All the prizes were very well deserved.

35 – Meg Wolitzer: The Female Persuasion: Wolfed this down. Loved it.

36 – Greta Thunberg: No One is Too Small to Make a Difference: A collection of her speeches from the last six months. Amazing inspiring climate activist. Key message – we have to start now, stop making excuses, listen to the science, and reduce our carbon. 💪

37 – Margaret Atwood: The Testaments: So great to be back in the story in the written form. Pacy, thrilling, clever 👌

38 – Makhosana Xaba: Running and Other Stories: Running was so powerful.

39 – Tara Westover: Educated: Breathtaking. Couldn’t put it down.

40 – Judy Klipin: Recover from Burnout: Such useful ideas, tips, exercises. Extremely valuable read 💪

41 – Matthew Walker: Why We Sleep. The irony of finishing this book while sleep deprived on a red-eye flight is not lost on me. Very interesting read. Key message: sleep as much of you can and your life, health, and productivity will all improve

42 – Sally Rooney: Normal People: Adored this. Started it yesterday on my lunch break and read til the wee hours last night and finished it tonight. So many true things expressed so simply. And the author was born in 1991, which makes me feel very inspired.

43 – Lisa Taddeo: Three Women: Marvellous. True life told so beautifully. So much to think about sex and power and love and gender. Will have to come back and reread. 👌👌

44 – Roxane Gay: Not That Bad: This collection was incredible, extremely difficult to read, and so full of truth.

45 – Louis Sachar: Holes: A young adult book I started reading with some kids I read to. Not what I normally read but I enjoyed it, especially the friendship between the boys.

46 – Amy Heydenrych: Shame On You: Pacey thriller that was quick to read and had a great ending!

47 – Pat Barker: The Silence of the Girls: The story of the women in the Iliad and what they endured. In telling a story about women Barker has also told a story about men and their dangerous pride.

48 – Penguin Moderns: Anais Nin: The Veiled Woman: Saucy short stories 👌

49 – Malcolm Gladwell: What the Dog Saw: I love listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcasts and now that I’ve heard him so much I hear him when I read him. It imbues his books with a childlike enthusiasm for the world. He always reminds listeners/readers to be more curious and to ask more questions. Enjoyed this a lot, especially the piece about Late Bloomers (there is still time everyone!)

50 – T.S. Eliot: Points of View: T.S. Eliot on literary criticism, poetry, and other poets. Most of it written before 1935. I thought the bits on literary criticism were still relevant today.

Feminism Is at the Open Book Festival 2018

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This year’s Open Book Festival in Cape Town has, as usual, an amazing line up of writers and public intellectuals coming together to talk about literature, politics, and many other things. The festival takes place from 5 – 9 September in Cape Town.

This year the Open Book Festival team has given amazing support to Feminism Is, and has five events scheduled around the book, as well as many others with a feminist focus.

5 September
20.00 – 21.00 Feminism Is: Pumla Gqola, Dela Gwala and Thembekile Mahlaba explore their journeys to feminism and answer FAQs in the company of Sara-Jayne King Fugard Studio

GET TICKETS

6 September
16.00 – 17.30 Feminism Is: Listening Room: We invite all persons of trans experience and/or those who identify as women/womxn to share personal experiences that shape their feminist identities in a safe and respectful space. Please keep contributions to a maximum of 5 minutes to allow as many voices to be heard as possible. Hosted by Joy Watson with contributions from Janine Adams, Kit Beukes, Michelle Hattingh and Ming-Cheau Lin and Tshepiso Mashinini. Fugard Studio

RSVP

7 September
14.00 – 15.00 Feminism Is: Body Politics: Anna Dahlqvist, Melanie Judge and Tlaleng Mofokeng speak to Joy Watson about taking control in the context of patriarchy Fugard Theatre

GET TICKETS

7 September
18.00 – 19.00 Feminism Is: Talking Feminism: B Camminga, Helen Moffett and Tlaleng Mofokeng explore divisions and how they can stand in the way of feminist conversations in the company of Yaliwe Clarke Fugard Theatre

GET TICKETS

9 September
12.00 – 13.00 Feminism Is: Reflections: Jen Thorpe wraps up the series of ‘Feminism Is’ events and asks Pumla Gqola, Haji Mohamed Dawjee and Nwabisa Mda to share their thoughts on SA feminism today Fugard Theatre

GET TICKETS

Check out the full programme here for more details on other amazing feminist events.

Franschhoek Literary Festival this weekend

I’m really excited to be heading to Franschhoek Literary Festival this weekend. I’ve been to the festival a few times, but this will be the first time I’ll be on a panel – and what an exciting group of women I’ll be on it with. Come through

  • Friday 18 May
  • 10am
  • Travellers Lodge
  • Feminism in 2018

Mohale Mashigo, author of the UJ Debut prizewinning The Yearning will be leading the panel. She’s also an award winning singer-songwriter. Check out more about her, here  or on Twitter @BlckPorcelain

Helen Moffet is a poet (see here and here), environmentalist, editor, and writer. She has helped tons of South African writers to get their manuscripts into tip-top shape, whilst winning poetry awards, and tweeting a storm. Find out more about her via her website, or follow her on Twitter @Heckitty

Last but not least, Tshegofatso Senne is a writer, digital content creator, and speaker. Her website is so beautiful, and she’s got links to all her writing there. She also makes stationery!! Find out more about her here and follow her on Twitter @MbongoMuffin

Get tickets via Webtickets!

Short story 2: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Cell One

Lucky I started ahead of time because it’s already more than two weeks since my birthday, and I haven’t gotten around to reading any more short stories. I did, however, read Marlene Van Niekerk’s Agaat which absolutely blew my mind, and was over 600 pages long. So, I don’t feel too bad.

Second story – one of my favourite authors, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. If you haven’t read any of her books you are SO lucky, because now you have the chance and I’m jealous!!

I read Americanah first, at a very tough time in my life, and particular sentences have stuck with me to this day. I then read Half of a Yellow Sun about the Biafran war in Nigeria (an epic, you miss the characters, both love and despise them, it’s truly phenomenal) and Purple Hibiscus (a family drama that is powerful and painful). I’ve watched her talks on feminism, the importance of African writers writing for themselves, and have critiqued her engagements with gender. She is an imaginative, creative, and skilled writer. Reading her books is like diving into another world, being immersed in it, and having to come up for air but wishing you could breathe under water.

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So, when I visited the library last week, paid all the fines that I’d incurred by taking so long to read Agaat, and my eyes landed upon her collection of short stories The Thing Around Your Neck, of course I picked it up.

The shout on the cover says ‘She makes storytelling seem as easy as birdsong.’ The book contains twelve stories, and as with Kazuo Ishiguro’s book, I started with the first one, Cell One.

First sentence: The first time our house was robbed, it was our neighbour Osita who climbed in through the dining room window and stole our TV, our VCR, and the Purple Rain and Thriller videotapes my father had brought back from America.

The sentence made me laugh, because it sounded like I was talking to a fellow South African (after all, we’ve all been robbed before). The sentence implied a sense of the inevitability of being robbed, even by ones neighbour, which for some reason made me smile. But this sentence works much harder than that. It tells us that the family who is being robbed is wealthy (they own a TV and VCR, they’ve been to America), they are living in Nigeria but not untouched by American culture (MJ and Prince), and they know their neighbours by name. The sentence also tells us that by the end of this story, they will be robbed again. It creates a world and a plot in just a few words.

The story is set in the University town of Nsukka, a name I recognised from Half of a Yellow Sun which is also set there. The families in this neighbourhood are academics, but as the story progresses young men and boys in the community become caught up in ‘cults’ (what we would call gangs) and so the robbing and crime increase. It’s a story that considers the futility of retaliation, and the confusion of belonging.

The narrator’s brother becomes a part of this criminal world, with severe consequences, and finds himself arrested after staying out past a curfew. The story explores the family’s reaction to this. Their denial, their smugness, their helplessness, their relief when in the end he is returned to them.

Though the focus of the story is the family, Adichie also explores the theme of the treatment of prisoners by police in a situation where police are lawless themselves. She doesn’t preach to us about it, but you are unable to read about it without thinking about how unjust and inhumane it is, particularly when an elderly man is arrested because the police can’t find his son who has committed the crime. We read about police roadblocks, the normality of bribes, and the ability to almost live a normal life within this. It felt so familiar to me as a South African reader, and as a South African who lives a good, financially secure life amidst broader societal collapse.

I suppose what I took from this story is the idea that thinking yourself different / separate / other than the society you live in is just a farce, but also, that people always have the possibility to surprise you.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the collection.