Here are the top 16 books I read in 2018, in no specific order. I highly recommend these as they gave me much pleasure or gave me pause to think and ask questions or taught me new things.
Some background info: I have a strong interest in African history and development, literature that takes me to different countries, thought-provoking self-help books and business books that offer new insights into leadership and communication. This list includes books in all these categories. Enjoy.
The Fate of Africa
– Martin Meredith
This book is traumatic. It is the tale of one political failure after another, across the African continent, across the time period when African states gained independence to the early 2000s.
It took me a long time to get through this one, partly because I made so many notes as I read. It had taken even longer to actually start reading it. I’m glad I did. Meredith talks about African governance since Ghana’s independence from Britain in 1957.
We often focus on how Africa has been constantly screwed over by world powers and we hardly look at the big messy picture that our own leaders have painted across the continent. Leader after leader, Africans have seen the use of force, the stirring up of tribal tensions, corruption at unprecedented levels and looting so extensive that in many cases central banks were like piggy banks into which leaders dipped their hands whenever they pleased while at lower levels in governments, the same process was repeated by those who had access to power and resources. Sometimes it seems like there is a script being followed, and those leaders who deviate from it are rare, even as we celebrate ‘a more democratic Africa’ in recent years. And then as I finished the book at the end of July, my home country, Zimbabwe, was sending soldiers onto the streets after an election to shoot at civilians. It’s that same script again…
– Brené Brown
Now I know why I kept coming across Brené Brown’s name. She has done the work; years of research and she puts it down in such a relatable manner in this book. There were so many a-ha and light bulb moments as I read this, it’s crazy. If you do things that you know you shouldn’t do even when you try your hardest not to do them, read this book. If you have a mean streak that you don’t understand, read this book. If you are looking for a way to begin to understand yourself and how you can relate to other people better, read this book.
– Brené Brown
Reading Brené Brown is an act of facing your insecurities and fears. Page after page, I kept thinking, “You felt that too? You’ve been through that too? Other people go through that?” This book is a great way to look back at all the times you’ve fallen down and given yourself excuses to not get up and provides a reflective platform to prepare yourself to rise from whatever floor you are lying on now.
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts
– Joshua Hammer
As an African piecing together bits of the history of this continent that I did not learn in school, this book was a real eye-opener for me. I had no idea Mali was such a rich centre of cultural and intellectual African history, dating back to the 14th century. I also had no idea that over 350,000 ancient manuscripts that prove that there was intellectual discourse and exploration on the continent, spanning fields such as astronomy, medicine, conflict resolution, religion and mathematics that far back, were at risk of going up in flames in 2012 as Al Qaeda made moves to take over the whole of Mali. The work that Abdel Kader Haidara and his colleagues did to save these manuscripts, over and over again from different threats, makes for a riveting story. They risked their lives to preserve and save this priceless heritage and for that, they are modern-day heroes. Joshua Hammer tells their story well and brings in elements of Malian culture, history and politics that add meaningful perspective to the work of Haidara and his fellow librarians and archivists. There are so many acts of bad-assery in this book that it reads more like a thriller than a story about saving crumbling, dusty old manuscripts.
– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda does so many things with this novel. She holds a mirror up for Americans to take a look at themselves. Then she does the same for young, successful Africans. She boldly says, see, this is what it really looks like, stop lying to yourself. And even though the picture that she paints is of things that are not always pretty, she does it so with beautiful language.
She has a way of putting into words things that one has experienced, feared or hoped for but has never been able to express using the tools of vocabulary. She distils race, relationships, religion and class into these deliciously digestible chunks that will make you laugh, drop your jaw in protest and engage in lots of introspection as you are challenged to think about your own participation in the world she reflects on these pages. The first few chapters started off really slowly for me, but soon this book had me and had me good.
The story itself is a simple one, but it is the way it is told and the depth of the lessons it delivers that make this a notable book. Ceiling, come in.
Born a Crime
Born a Crime made me laugh, made me cry and made me think. Trevor is a pretty deep man. He has a way of taking the crazy things that happened to him growing up in his small corner of the world and drawing lessons from them that apply globally. His stories take you into a system of apartheid you thought you knew and reveal layers of the system that were invisible to many people outside South Africa.
The architects of apartheid travelled around the world studying different methods of oppression and came up with a framework of segregation that was physically abusive, mentally repressive and psychologically damaging. It was oppression turned into an art form.
You wonder how anyone can go through the things Noah, and millions of others did, and come out intact. Because of this, there is a lingering pain and sadness in these pages. You respond viscerally with a silent rage, but Noah’s tongue in cheek manner of telling his stories checks your anger. It is his humour and reflective wisdom that shine through again and again. That he is able to look back on the madness that he grew up surrounded by with such light-heartedness is a testament to his character and a reminder of why he is such a good comedian.
This is not just a story of overcoming great odds. There are many of those. This is a story of doing so with one’s grace and humanity still intact. Zimbabwean music legend, Oliver Mtukudzi, says in his song Zvineita Tikudzwe, ‘it is not really what we achieve but what we overcome’ that gets us respect. I have a new found respect for Noah.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston
The language in this book is as illuminating as the journey of self-discovery that the protagonist, Janie, goes through. I love how Hurston brings things to life with her descriptions. For example: “There is a basin in the mind where words float around on thought and thought on sound and sight. Then there is a depth of thought untouched by words, and deeper still a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought.”Say what Zora!?
And: “Love is like the sea. It’s a moving thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from the shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”
The language drives Janie’s story forward as much as the emotions raised as she moves from being a teenager to a grown woman facing love’s joys and trials. I find it interesting that although the book is set in the early 1900’s a few decades after the abolition of slavery in the USA and is about African Americans, it is not centred on slavery or racism, although these are sub-themes in the story, along with colourism. The main themes are self-determination, both of the individual and of communities, gender roles, self-discovery and the meaning of love.
Many of the things that Janie faces in this story as she navigates relationships and societal expectations are still faced by women in the US, and around the world, today, over a hundred years later.
My only critique is that sometimes Hurston’s descriptions are, despite being beautifully written, slightly over-embellished.
I’ll end with another Hurston beauty: “If you can see the light at daybreak, you don’t care if you die at dusk. So many people have never seen the light at all.”
Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life
By Héctor García & Francesc Miralles
This is one of those books that you read and wonder over and over again, as you do, why the information contained between its covers is on the sidelines of common education and knowledge. In a world where we emphasise planning and mapping things out, Garcia and Miralles share the wisdom of focusing more on ‘compass’ and direction rather than on a map.
In a time where goals are a huge fixation, the authors talk about how ‘process’ and habits are far more critical to long-term success, happiness and fulfilment. They travelled to the Okinawa Prefecture in Japan, which has the highest percentage of centenarians in the world, to find out the secrets of the local population’s longevity. Once there, they discovered, not only many old people but lots of contentment and a strong sense of community.
They share their discoveries in this life-changing book. It will challenge the way you think about work, exercise, the food you eat, the amount of time you spend with your friends and family and how you contribute to your community. How did I not know this before?
The Fire Next Time
This book is a fervent call to consciousness. There is so much wisdom here, so much of it pertinent in Baldwin’s USA today as the Black Lives Matter movement pushes for change that should have come with laws that were passed in the 1960s. It is also pertinent the world over as race continues to play a huge role in how resources and opportunities are allocated and as the inequalities of the past echo on in privilege and priority politics – even in African countries whose hard-won independence has not delivered all of its lofty promises.
“The value placed on the colour of skin is always and everywhere and forever a delusion,” states Baldwin with an intensity that manifests itself throughout this book. He realises though, that justice and equality in a world that has known so much hatred is a very hard ask and acknowledges this so eloquently at the end of his book, “I know that what I am asking is impossible, but in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand… history testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.” I have had James Baldwin on my ‘to read’ list for many years and I am glad I finally read his work. Inspired for days.
Heart of Darkness
We cannot and should not sanitise the events of the age that Conrad is writing about here and for this reason, I think that this is an important work of literature.
Conrad uses such beautiful sentences to describe a most sordid time when the plunder of the African continent was about to begin in earnest. I agree with Chinua Achebe’s assertion that this book should be read along with the critiques of it, because it is indeed very one-sided.
The thing I am eager to hear or read about is the narrative of the Africans during all of this. What were they thinking? What were they discussing amongst themselves?
I had no idea that Sudan and Egypt had such a tumultuous relationship in the past. In addition to telling a beautiful story about ambition, lost love and hope, Leila Aboulela opens up a part of Africa’s history that I was not that familiar with.
Set in the 1950s in both Sudan and Egypt, this story follows the story of Nur Abuzeid, a young man destined to take over his father’s business empire, but fate has other plans.
Aboulela takes us through an unfamiliar time and place in a way that draws one in so that by the end of the story you have a picture of the political and social tensions of the time and are rallying behind Nur and his family to overcome them, but are still not sure if you want him to have everything that his heart desires.
This Mournable Body
– Tsitsi Dangarembga
I was a teenager when I read Dangarembga’s first book, Nervous Conditions as a set book at school. I enjoyed it so much that I read it again on my own. In ‘ This Mournable Body’ we meet the same protagonist from that famous debut. She is much older now and life has not been too kind on her.
She struggles with the notion of success and failure and is distressed by her inability to make anything much of her life. At the same time, she is tortured by guilt over relatives she feels she has neglected and comes to a point of self-destruction as she engages in a harrowing mental fight against the demons of her own poverty and failure. The book is a reminder of the many hidden fights that young people growing up during a tumultuous time have to face.
In July, I did a review of this book for The Chicago Tribune.
The Art of Asking
– Amanda Palmer
Every artist trying to figure out how to ask for support from their fans or communities needs to read this book! What do you give to the world as an artist? What do you get back for it? When is asking begging, when is it part of a fair exchange? Amanda tackles issues such as this by telling her own story as an artist.
Just after I started reading this book someone told me, “You know Amanda Palmer is crazy, right?” If I hadn’t already made some headway with the book and liked what I had read up to that point I would have exchanged it for another one. Lucky for me I was more than a chapter into the book by then and was enjoying it.
This is not your typical self-help book which lists the topics to be discussed, then fills up the pages by adding anecdotes to illustrate them. This is Amanda’s journey and how she learnt about the power of being vulnerable enough to ask and the benefits and pitfalls of opening your needs and wants up to the world. It’s also a how-to guide for artists and others wanting to make the most of their online communities. And yes, Amanda is crazy, but in a most beautiful way.
H3 Leadership: Be Humble. Stay Hungry. Always Hustle.
– Brad Lomenick
There are so many things that leaders need to remember to do that it’s sometimes overwhelming. Like, Ikigai (above), this is another book that looks at the power of habit. Lomenick summarises many key skills and practices that need to become part of every leader’s daily routine.
He has put these together based on interactions with some of the top managers and business people out there. For me, areas of weakness like ‘partnership’ and ‘team building’ stuck out and hit home as needing immediate attention.
If you’re a new leader who wants to learn what habits the top leaders in the world prioritise or if you’re a seasoned leader wanting to sharpen yourself and refresh your focus, pick this book up and take its precepts to heart. It’s an easy to read manual for those who need to hone their leadership skills and practice. Habits. Habits. Habits.
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
– Neil deGrasse Tyson
All I can say after reading this book is thank you big brother Jupiter for your gravitational muscles that protect us from so many of the wayward meteoric missiles heading our way all the time. Thank you big G for keeping us grounded and keeping everything in orbit. Thank you dark matter and all the other mysteries out there for keeping us guessing and wondering.
The (7L) The Seven Levels of Communication: Go From Relationships to Referrals
– Michael J. Maher
Michael Maher doesn’t pretend that the knowledge he is offering is new. He makes references to other writers and the lessons they have taught him. The magic of this book is the way he fits it all together, like a great chef who takes all the ingredients that everyone else has and creates a beautiful meal.
This is a business book that will help you in every area of your life. I also like the way he uses narrative to drive the lessons home. I have elevated this one to life-manual status. I am going to read it again. And again.