As we settle into the second half of 2017, The Republic is pleased to announce the first instalment of our annual August Reading. Every year, our August Reading will serve the same purpose as “Summer Reading” does in the parts of the world where there are summers. That purpose being to offer and discover the year’s most important books (which may not be books published that very year). On this occasion, we have asked some of our contributors what they are currently reading, or will have read before the end of the year.
For their recommendations, read on.
Author: Asfa-Wossen Asserate
Publisher: Haus Publishing
This is, arguably, the most comprehensive and even-handed biographical account on Emperor Haile Selassie I. The author, Asfa-Wossen Asserate—a prince by birth—is Haile Selassie’s great nephew. And, in writing the emperor’s biography, this familial link afforded Asserate an intimate perspective on the emperor’s life.
Although not all the details Asserate provides are based on the author’s first-hand experience, Asserate drew from sources (such as his father and grandfather) who had access to the emperor and his inner circle. He introduces Haile Selassie as a reformer and an autocrat whose personal history—with all of its promises, upheavals and horrors—reflects in many ways the history of the twentieth century itself. Brace yourself for a historical joyride.
Author: Ryzard Kapuscinski
Publisher: Penguin Classics
I happen to be one of the few people (or maybe there’s more than a few of us) that approaches Kapuscinski’s work with a great degree of cynicism. What is implicitly presented as a well-researched, intimate, and balanced historical account of events is, in my view, nothing more than an entertaining insight into the author’s imaginative mind; where the lines between fact and fiction sometimes blur but, nevertheless, make for a brilliant, well-written piece of literature. It is through this lens that I approached Kapuscinski’s account of the events that led to the toppling of the last Shah of Iran, one of the most infamous of the US client-dictators.
Author: John G. Jackson
If, like me, you are still on a quest to unlearn—so that you can relearn—everything you have ever been taught about African history (which, by and large, has been through colonial perspectives and, therefore, unsurprisingly, detailed in Africa’s colonial history but less about the continent’s complex pre-colonial times), then this is a place to start. Yes, implicit in text is an quiet anger at the way the continent’s history has been presented in the mainstream, but if you accept that there is a need for a broadening of the continent’s history, then you may be sympathetic to anything that may come across as defensiveness.
Author: Marilynne Robinson
Irony is nature’s big joke. In so-called “ironic situations” we are forced to laugh at our small mindedness and our consistent incapacity to fully grasp paradox. As a master of the oxymoronic, Marilynne Robinson prunes her irony to be simultaneously witty and solemn, proving—without flamboyance—that nothing is exactly as it seems: strangeness can be familiar, and the possibility of success can be troublesome because disappointment always follows, lurking in the shadows of potential; resting in places that are certainly easier for us to attain in our erring humanity.
Robinson is removed from the politics of time. In its stead, she attends to the purpose of timing. While she doesn’t operate in the time on which flights are scheduled, she is delicate with the time that makes the lives of her characters long; “breakfast time, supper time, lilac time, apple time”.
Author: Alexander Edmonds
Publisher: Duke University Press
Beauty is one word that seems so sure of itself despite, in fact, being nothing but a victim of time, standing on the pedestal that people and civilizations build for it. No standard of beauty is beautiful forever because, as irony will have it, beauty is also somewhere in rebellion against standards. And so, tackling beauty is like trying to hold water in your hands: you will often look up from your page and ask yourself “what exactly am I trying to do here?”
First off, beauty often seems trivial. Secondly, it is a word that attaches itself to much subjectivity. No matter the argument for the objectivity of symmetry, beauty will always meander away from the singular or the certain. In Pretty Modern…, Edmonds uses the philosophy of healthcare in Brazil to address the seeming triviality of both modernity and beauty. And, in great defense of both, he wonders why we belittle the trivial as if the entire world isn’t triviality made profound by the things we tell ourselves. Are we scared to think that maybe beauty matters? Are we scared that we aren’t of the kind of beauty that matters? His book constantly puts me in front of my mirror where I focus on the parts I care about, and ask myself why I care.
Of Vows Belonging to Premature Weddings
Author: Khadija Yusra Sanusi
In Of Vows Belonging to Premature Weddings, Khadijah Sanusi uses words to punish us, for normalizing atrocities against a common “Her.” She accuses us of watching carelessly, as those atrocities grow less shy, hungrier and more stifling as they become certainties about life, for all “Her”.
Sanusi’s concerns are curiously animated: ears come paired, love comes measured (like oil and water, in litres). Wielding the power of silence like the power of her words, text and space collaborate to show that reason may not always rhyme. In fact, it may take a rebellious left. Or, it may stay in a straight line of questions all charging towards the final period as a combative collective, needing to know why or why not.
“You are good enough
Sanusi says; as an announcement, a chant, a declaration, a decision, a fact, a prayer? Alas, this dialogue between statement and question is not unusual; for she uses both wit and dread to pinch our conscience, leaving us to question ourselves by ourselves.
Lennon Chido Mhishi
Author: Petina Gappah
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Author: Brian Chikwava
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Author: Yvonne Vera
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Currently, I am reading The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah; Harare North by Brian Chikwava; and Butterfly Burning by Yvonne Vera. I chose these three books of fiction by Zimbabweans because I have grown more and more to appreciate the power of the imagination, and the richness of narratives that are captivating, challenging, relatable and, sometimes, recognizable.
In a way, these books are to me part of the process of establishing a genealogy of writing and knowledge-making amongst Zimbabweans in particular, in a manner that does not necessarily seek to supplicate. There are many other books I could have included—that is, of course, the beauty of texts, especially fiction. Such texts do not lay claim to a singular truth, nor pass themselves as definitive accounts of a people’s history or present. One can read them in various ways. They intricately intertwine the beautiful, hilarious, silly and the painful, amongst many other experiences.
From Vera’s poetic rendering of the lives of Phephelaphi and Fumbatha; Chikwava’s ownership of language, his humorous and biting portrayal of the brutalities of the elsewhere; to Gappah’s ability to capture the banal and quotidian of Zimbabwean life—even amidst socio-political and economic challenges—as well as broach the tragedies of postcolonial Zimbabwe and its rhizomatic, if not splayed, identifications. It is in telling the multiple ways of being Zimbabwean; in asking who gets to tell stories of Zimbabwe, and how and what stories are told, that these books provide for me an example of different styles and narratives that contribute to the rich tapestry of the, albeit frayed, fabric of Zimbabwe. Or, rather, an ideal of the multiple stories Zimbabweans can tell of themselves. One might even hazard to say it is an ideal to which many throughout Africa aspire. For to be known largely through the stories and truths of others might as well be to not be known at all. As a saying in Shona goes, chinoziva ivhu kui mwana wembeva anorwara.
Author: Lee Kuan Yew
This fascinating book tells the story of Singapore’s remarkable leap from the shackles of uncertainty and under-development to an economic success story. Author and founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, skilfully delivers a compelling narrative of how a nation can surmount redoubtable challenges to emerge an economic success story. Perhaps, a lesson for African leaders is the utmost need to de-emphasize ethnicity, strictly enforce the rule of law, develop and stick to a coherent set of policies necessary for economic advancement. However, the book evokes serious questions about the role of autocracy in development, questions that development practitioners still grapple with to date.
Author: Angus Deaton
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Economist and Nobel laureate, Angus Deaton, tells the story of the remarkable improvement in wealth and health over the course of human history. On the one hand, it is a story of hope; a narrative of how man has managed to significantly improve his economic wellbeing and largely conquer many of the diseases that have threatened his existence. On the other, it shines a light on the resultant inequalities from that growth. The book tells a cautionary tale of how growth can produce inequality, and how inequality can render those left behind in the leap from poverty and disease worse off.
Author: Yuval Noah Harari
An international best seller, and for good reason. The book is a must-read for those curious about understanding the significant historical factors behind the dynamics of the modern world. Written in language that helps even causal readers get a grasp of the main ideas, the book debunks some ideas and theories about why some areas develop faster than others. It also indicates the holes in the current knowledge set on some big historical questions.
Author: James C. Scott
Publisher: Yale University Press
A forthcoming but highly anticipated book for those interested in economic history. The book discusses the role or grains and technologies built around grains in the rise of the earliest states.
Love Does Not Win Elections
Author: Ayisha Osori
Publisher: Narrative Landscape Press
The book chronicles Ayisha Osori’s experiences attempting to run for a seat in Nigeria’s House of Representatives. Although she did not succeed, the book provides insight into the inner workings of Nigerian political parties—an excellent read for those interested in understanding how local politics in Nigeria works.
Author: Nadja Spiegelman
Publisher: Riverhead Books
A memoir, ‘I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This’ follows the life of the author as she revisits her childhood memories and, in the process, reshapes her relationship with her mother and grandmother. This is one of those books that one must simply read and re-read. I’ve found myself underlining so many sentences while interrogating my own childhood and current relationship with my mother.
Author: Lesley Nneka Arimah
For months, I have been looking forward to the Nigerian release of this collection of short stories. If the title story is anything to go by, then I know I’m in for a treat. Arimah writes unusual but beautifully imagined stories that make me envy her world-building abilities.
Thicker Than Water
Author: Oyin Braithwaite
This has been one of those surprising gems because it is a self-published novella I got on OkadaBooks. The story, a delicious piece of noir fiction, is set in Lagos and follows the lives of two sisters, one of whom commits a few murders while the other helps her to cover them up.
Author: Thomas Aquinas
Aquinas is the archetypal Natural Law theorist, and indeed the Thomist tradition of Natural Law, as the name suggests, begins with him. Although Natural Law theory is no longer ‘sexy’ in either contemporary political and/or legal philosophy, Summa Theologica remains one of the more important texts in the Western philosophical tradition.
Probably one of, if not the most, difficult texts to grapple with in Western philosophy. What I find most delightful about it is the clarity that the text brings to understanding Aristotle’s somewhat less challenging works such as Politics, and The Nicomachean Ethics.
Author: H. L. A. Hart
It has been said many times before but contemporary legal theory would be literally unrecognizable in its current form without Hart’s Concept of Law.