I don’t know why I felt the need exactly to separate the following books from the previous two categories. I think I try to use a book once in a while to pull back from some of the more particularized reading that I do. So here are what I call “books about ideas” that I read this year.

South Africa

It can get pretty troublesome, though tempting, to discuss a  place as an idea. I don’t want to get into the pros and cons necessarily, but a new anthology of academic and personal essays about Johannesburg, entitled Johannesburg: Elusive Metropolis, shows why it is important to consider Johannesburg as a unique kind of space. Totally dehumanizing and afraid in one sense, it is also a staging ground for all kinds of 21st century African realities: immigration, inner city and peri-urban urbanization of poverty, etc. And don’t let me forget the incredible art, culture, and life that comes out of all this craziness. Missing from either section in the book (academic or personal essays) was a real discussion of the structural issues of urban poverty that are so central to Johannesburg as both a unique city, and was, what many of the writers describe as a quintessentially African city. I was happily surprised to see a favorite former professor of mine, Tim Burke, — described by Sarah Nuttal as “one of the few theorists of African consumer culture” — cited in this book. You can find his internet writings here.


Mike Davis’ Planet Of Slums was a good review of recent literature on the subject of urban poverty. Get through some of the rhetoric — the book is way too “grounded” in the literature and not much reporting on the actual ground — but it is a helpful intro to some of the basic issues and facts.

Hernando de Soto’s Mystery Of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs In The West And Fails Everywhere Else was similarly useful as a starting point. In my work these days, I see policy makers twist his analyses into the simple silver bullets that they are not. Still, the book is a good introduction to some of the ways that land tenure is a fundamental aspect of urban poverty.

The really big picture

I would like to say that “poverty” as a heading is synonymous with “the big picture.” And I do fundamentally believe that poverty is the biggest issue we face as humanity working towards some kind of transcendental enlightenment. But I read two books this year that aim for the biggest macro lens possible, so it is worth somehow putting them into a separate category for the sake of convenience.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue in Empire that the subjects of 21st century “Empire” with a capital E are not the same as previous forms of lower case “i” imperialism. Sovereign boundaries and state structures are not the ultimate determinants of power, but merely tools for global institutions and structures. And the question to ask, they say, is not when to resist, but when not to resist these structures. Since reading this book, I can’t even count how many times I see contradictions of the current order as articulated by Hardt and Negri.

Amartya Sen takes on John Rawls and seemingly all other modern philosophers of justice in The Idea Of Justice. We should not be so concerned with the theoretical perfect system of justice, and focus on principles geared towards increasing justice in the real world, he argues. A compelling plea for both engaged theorizing and action.

Non-fiction for reading for me in the past year generally fell into two main categories: straight-up history and more journalistic narrative. I’ll reserve a third post in my “reading 2009” series for books that I read that fall more into the category of what I call “books about ideas.” Ideas and ideologies are in all kinds of writing, but in that third category this is more explicitly the case.

In any event, it was unsurprising to me that much of my non-fiction reading focused on straight-up history and journalism in South Africa. South Africa is a particularly vibrant place in terms of commentary and other kinds of political and historical writing. New books are coming out all the time on a variety of relevant subjects. It’s the kind of country that is small enough that there are always gaps waiting to be filled. At the same time there is so much energy in this young democracy that keeps writers and readers pushing to fill these holes.

South African politics and current events

By no stretch of the imagination did my reading in South African politics and long-form journalism run the true gamut of what has come out in the last few years. Before I left, I devoured Jonny Steinberg’s Three Letter Plague (published in the USA as Sizwe’s Test). The story follows a young man in a particularly poor, AIDS-riven area of the Eastern Cape who is deciding whether to take an AIDS test. At around the same time, a Medecins Sans Frontier doctor is trying to set up testing and care programs throughout the province. It’s an all-too-rare example of examining a problem equally from three different angles: intellectual / scientific, interpersonal, and political. And Steinberg is just a damn good writer.

Also, on HIV/AIDS was The Virus, Vitamins And Vegetables: The South African HIV/AIDS Mystery edited by Kerry Cullinan and Anso Thom of the Health-E News Service. A series of essays by journalists, doctors, and activists about the ideological and bureaucratic pathologies of the Mbeki government in developing and implementing — perhaps it would be better to say not developing and not implementing — its HIV/AIDS policy.

Another book of essays on recent South African events was the University of Witwatersrand’s collection on the xenophobic attacks in 2008. A lot of good stuff, including Anton Harber’s essay on media complicity and oblivion on this issue (see my earlier discussion of this essay here). This is an issue that too often gets reduced to self-righteous preening and demagoguery when it really demands careful nuance like in Go Home Or Die Here: Violence, Xenophobia And The Reinvention Of Difference In South Africa. It also has a lot of impressive photos by Alon Skuy, a former colleague at The Times.

Jeremy Gordin’s biography of Jacob Zuma did not have particular insight, but it worked well for me as an open-minded “just the facts” approach to a compelling personality. It was especially useful to read prior to the election in April. Mainstream media in this country was a bit of a disgrace in that, only after he was elected, did many who were perfectly willing to pontificate on their fears about a Zuma presidency learn even basic facts of his rather impressive life.

South African history

Philip Bonner and Noor Nieftagodien’s new history of Alexandra township in Johannesburg was inspiring to me as a documenter and historian. Their reliance on hard-nosed field work combined with substantive archival research is a great example for most any kind of history. They could not have written this book without involving people in the community in their field research. Their integration of such a community-based approach to history should serve as a model for further work in modern South African, as well as in other places.

I grew up with a lot of South African jazz that my father used to have in his music collection. Now that I live in South Africa, I’ve been able to explore this a lot more deeply for myself. Gwen Ansell’s Soweto Blues: Jazz, Popular Music & Politics In South Africa connects a lot of the dots in SA jazz history — the early Sophiatown days, exile, rural-urban migration, democracy — and does it in her usual, welcome, no-nonsense style readers of her regular Business Day column know well.

A random assortment

I finally got around to Michela Wrong’s account of the Mobutu Sese-Seko’s fall from power in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), In The Footsteps Of Mr. Kurtz. Shows what happens when a talented journalist gets the opportunity to examine the historical big picture, pull away from the mere day-to-day, while still incorporating her own first-hand reportage.

I am somewhat embarassed that I spent any amount of time reading Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent Of Money. This is mainly because he has been such an incorrigible deficit hawk in his recent newspaper commentary. Still, the book is a pretty accessible financial history, with some interesting anecdotes along the way.

I finally got around to Peter Hessler’s first memoir, River Town: Two Years On The Yangtze. I have been a big fan of Hessler since reading his Oracle Bones a few years ago, and subsequently catching a lot of his articles in the New Yorker magazine. His writing is always compelling and insightful, and he sticks out among American observers of China for two reasons: (1) he is a real student of the country’s history and (2) he integrates the history into his contemporary stories with particular elegance. I’m looking forward to his new book, Country Driving, which is supposed to come out early next year.

In my first full year out of an academic environment, I tried to make sure that I kept up a steady diet of reading. My friend Brian, who graduated a year before I did, wrote on his blog earlier this year, that he felt that his reading patterns were relatively scattershot shortly after graduating, but were tending to become more focused around specific subject areas. So over the next few days, I’m going to try to think out loud about some of the books I’ve read this year, and see what kinds of trends may or may not be developing.

I find that people with a heavy interest in public policy and related fields tend to view fiction as a bit of a diversion. Literary public policy types may view fiction as a necessary diversion, but ultimately, still a diversion from the more concrete stringency of policy, political history, etc, that dominates bookstores in places like Washington, DC. Though I work in what may be most clearly seen as the “non-fiction world” — a mix of journalism, policy, and advocacy — I have tried to keep my personal reading grounded in a more intentionally balanced mix of fiction, non-fiction, and books centered around the inquiry into ideas. As a not entirely unrelated aside, the one place I am sorely lacking is women’s voices. Almost time for some New Year’s resolutions on this score.

South African fiction

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that this was a year in which I moved to South Africa, much of my reading in all three areas was focused on this general area of the world. I read a collection of short stories and articles from Drum magazine in the 1950s. Drum symbolized a period of intellectual and artistic vibrancy in the Sophiatown neighborhood in Johannesburg. The stories in The Drum Decade, edited by Michael Chapman, are concerned with the grit, life and music of that place and time, held by many to have been a golden age of black life in the city.

Es’kia Mphahlele wrote for Drum and went on to a storied career as an educator and writer in South Africa, in exile, and upon his return home towards the end of his life. Down 2nd Avenue gets at a lot of the troubles of impermanence and harshness of growing up as a young black man in the urban centers of present-day Gauteng province. Mphahlele’s sympathetic eye for his own emotions and those of others is a good lesson for writers and readers anywhere. His description of his decision to go into exile illuminates the dilemmas faced by many South African writers and artists especially during the 1950s and 1960s. I think this may be a set work in most South African schools, but if you’re in a new place, sometimes you have to start with the basics!

Niq Mhlongo’s Dog Eat Dog was a fun, insightful look into the mind of a student at Wits in Braamfontein, the neighborhood just north of the Johannesburg city center that is also home to my office. My impression is that some of the discussions about race relations in the immediate aftermath of Nelson Mandela’s elections have become more complicated and perhaps not such an obsession fifteen years later. On the other hand, universities in South Africa still have a lot of old white men (and women) running the show. I can imagine the opening scene between Dingz — the main protagonist — and a stodgy white lady in the university bursary office to be just as likely today.

Mandla Langa’s The Lost Colours Of The Chameleon is an unabashedly political novel. But it comes at the psyche of dictatorship, corruption, and the crumbling of a family dynasty from a highly personal level. More insightful than the pop-psychoanalysis of an actual, non-fictional leader like Thabo Mbeki that Mark Gevisser did in his A Dream Deferred last year (published in the USA in 2009 as A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki And The Future Of The South African Dream). And yes, I did read the full version of the Gevisser book — none of this “abridged” nonsense!

Elsewhere in Africa

Dambudzo Marechera’s Black Sunlight was republished this year. The Zimbabwean “enfant terrible of African literature” lived up to such a billing. The novel really gets inside the madness of an unnamed city under seige. Avoids being hyper-politicized by including a spoonful of sexual desire on the part of the narrator.

I didn’t know until recently that Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene also published books during his prolific life. I recently finished a collection of two novellas, White Genesis and The Money Order (no link — I bought it used and I think it is out of print). The first is about the societal effects of polygamy and male dominance in traditional Senegalese society, the second about the intersection of inept, low-level bureaucracy, migration, and urban poverty in Dakar.

United States

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee is not really fiction, but it is so experimental in terms of form that I think it is alright to include it here. I read this as part of a long-term syllabus I am crafting for myself for writing about poverty. Perhaps we can excuse this as being of its time, but I don’t think a writer from a position of privilege need ever spend so much time emoting about his own guilt if he aims to really engage with the circumstances of his subject. Crass sympathy (“oh, poor them”) is not a good substitute for truly engaged empathy. Still, this was well worth reading and I’m happy I didn’t do it as part of a college course, as many American students do. It demands a more unconventional kind of reading for which there is rarely time in college.

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Evening Redness In The West was by far the bloodiest, most violent book that I have ever read. I will always be down with McCarthy’s totally morbid vision of human nature and the particularities of how that plays out in the American context.

Outsider Europe

I read a couple of Russians this year basically on a whim and my feeling that I have a natural affinity for 19th century Russian literature, even though I have not read so much of it. A friend gave me The Brute and Other Farces by Anton Chekhov just before I left for South Africa in March. A good read for a year of farces encountered both personally and throughout the world.

Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls has a lot of farcical aspects to it as well. A crazy traveling entrepreneur laughs in the face of landowners throughout the Russian countryside. Good stuff.

Finally, this would have been a great year in fiction reading if only because my favorite writer of all time, Orhan Pamuk, finally came out with his new masterpiece, The Museum Of Innocence. An incredibly obsessive character portrait of a self-described “anthropologist” of his own life. Turns out this means that the main character, Kemal, constantly feeds his obsession for his almost-there love, Fusun, and the city where he suffers, hates, and loves: Istanbul. Also, before I left the United States, I picked up Pamuk’s collection of essays, Other Colors. It was great to read him find fragments of his city, his book collection, and his own novels.

More on the inaugural poet from Ta-Nehisi Coates:

When Clinton picked Maya Angelou it was revolutionary for a lot of young black kids in schools across the country–we had to study that poem in English class. Picking Alexander is a much more subtle move which I hope folks won’t miss. Put bluntly, the whole “competence aesthetic” has been extended to the poets also. I’m not dissing Clinton here, or giving undue credit to Obama–this is about the moment in history. So much has changed since then.

I’m not sure why I’ve gotten on this kick about the inaugural, but I guess I’m interested in how this new presidency will or won’t embrace the arts – something about which the Bush administration never gave a damn.

Once I’m already discussing the day’s proceedings and their symbolism, it would be absurd not to mention the pick of Rick Warren to give the invocation at the inaugural. Like many, I call shenanigans on this move. Sure, Obama wants to seem inclusive, but a guy who thinks gays are the equivalent of pederasts is not the way to do it. The counter-balance of Rev. Joseph Lowery (a powerful religious advocate on GLBT issues) is small consolation. It’s important to stand up to bigots even – and perhaps especially – if they carry the Obama imprimatur. If we’re so inclusive, where’s the token anti-semite to take part as well?

So apparently the Obama inauguration team is trying to choose which poet should read from their work on the big day. First off, I’m curious as to why the last few Republican presidents haven’t chosen to have poets read at their inaugurations. It’s one thing to be anti-intellectual, which has been at least one strain of the Republican rise – and hopefully fall – over the last half century, but can’t we all just agree that poetry is for everybody. Maybe there isn’t a Republican poet who’s any good? I don’t know – I don’t claim to be an expert on the state of American poetry.

John Lundberg, in that Huffington Post piece to which I linked above, has an interesting suggestion:

[Philip] Levine might be the most poignant choice, given the country’s current economic struggles. Raised in a blue collar family in Detroit, Levine writes poetry that champions the working man. Here’s an excerpt from his poem “Drum,” which begins by describing a blue-collar scene:

We sit
for lunch on crates before the open door.
Bobeck, the boss’s nephew, squats to hug
the overflowing drum, gasps and lifts. Rain
comes down in sheets staining his gun-metal
covert suit. A stake truck sloshes off
as the sun returns through a low sky.
By four the office help has driven off. We
sweep, wash up, punch out, collect outside
for a final smoke. The great door crashes
down at last.

Later in the poem, Levine conflates working class and classical imagery, making the scene seem heroic and even timeless.

…In the darkness
this could be a Carthaginian outpost sent
to guard the waters of the West, those mounds
could be elephants at rest, the acrid half light
the haze of stars striking armor if stars were out.
On the galvanized tin roof the tunes of sudden rain.
The slow light of Friday morning in Michigan,
the one we waited for, shows seven hills
of scraped earth topped with crab grass,
weeds, a black oil drum empty, glistening
at the exact center of the modern world.

If Obama is concerned about the inauguration taking on a tone that’s too ethereal for these tough economic circumstances, Levine’s unpretentious writing might prove an effective foil. Levine’s message suits Obama’s focus on the middle class and on the hard work and sacrifice it will take to get through a deepening recession. It seems wise to choose a poet who has long lived that life and sung within it.

I can’t decide whether it would be too hard to take a poet singing the Michigan ‘working man’s blues’ as Obama promises to ‘renew America’s promise’ – the theme of the entire inauguration proceedings. Regardless, it could be powerful stuff.

One thing that I’ve been thinking about for a while is how Obama uses seemingly more universal language as a way to avoid discussing race (i.e. health care isn’t a black problem, it’s an American problem; lack of equality – economic (?) – isn’t a black problem, it’s an American problem; lack of equal pay for women isn’t a black problem, it’s an American problem, etc). It’s not that I don’t really disagree with the logic of any of those points or others that he ends up addressing through similar arguments, but it seems like there are aspects of all of these social problems that are rooted significantly in racial disparities. This is not really an either/or proposition. We should be able to note the universal and particularized aspects of these kinds of problems.

So when it comes to deciding which poet should speak at the inauguration (assuming it’s only one and I’m not sure if that’s a correct assumption), I wonder whether the poet should somehow represent the deracialized / universalized working class, the focus of both Obama’s policies and rhetoric, or the more particular African American historic nature of the inauguration. I would be surprised if Obama did not refer to the day’s special significance to African Americans and their history, but I imagine one debate right now among inauguration planners is how much to be explicit about this aspect of the day. The real tightrope walk is how to have the inauguration – whether it be the choice of poet or Obama’s speech – address a seemingly universal (read: deracialized) historic moment, while simultaneously pointing to the fact of its universality precisely because it is so tied up in its racial dimensions.

I’m not a big reader of travel writing, per se. Most of the books that I’ve read that are sold in such a section in bookstores are more like outsider or insider accounts of a given country or place rather than accounts of a specific trip through a specific geographic space. Books like Giles Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain, and Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul are two of my favorite “travel” books, but both of those authors actually live in the respective places about which they write. I mention those two examples because they write with a particular sense of understanding and empathy that marks the best travel writing — both books grab the reader and inspire an emotional connection to the place about which they write, warts and all.

When it comes to modern travel writing Paul Theroux is probably the biggest name by far. He travels all over the world, maybe just by train, maybe just by boat, and tells readers about literary and political luminaries wherever he lays down his head. My friend Alex gifted me his copy of Dark Star Safari, Theroux’s account of traveling through Africa earlier this decade. I was interested to get to this, as I had studied a number of accounts written by early Western explorers in Africa in Professor Timothy Burke‘s class called “Image of Africa.”

In Safari, Theroux meanders from Cairo to Cape Town, including stops in Sudan (pre-genocide), Ethiopia, Uganda, Malawi, and Mozambique. To many readers’ eyes, given Theroux’s narrative here, this trek is just a series of godforsaken hellholes. Corrupt government, dependent locals, and useless foreign aid workers are the characters that populate much of this text. While it is clearly no academic document, Theroux occasionally makes wry observations about foreign aid, but too often poisons it with his ubiquitous arrogance and lack of empathy. Beyond dispute is Theroux’s contention that foreign aid workers don’t necessarily help those in need to help themselves. Still, foreign aid workers have noble intentions, brave treacherous circumstances, and, at the end of the day, usually bring much needed aid (i.e. help). It seems — as some older South African relative who I may just be imagining might say — a little rich for Theroux to take on foreign aid workers while he goes across Africa writing an erotic novella and reading and rereading Heart of Darkness for inspiration.

For Theroux, Africa is a soapbox that he should realize has rather shaky foundations for the methods he uses to draw his conclusions. He notes not one positive cultural experience throughout the entire trip. No music. No African writers (beyond the South African Nobel-winning novelist Nadine Gordimer). I don’t necessarily blame him for his frustrations. Travel in any developing country is difficult, and there is no disputing that most African countries are in bad economic, and even societal straights. Still, to condemn these people to their destitution without a ray of hope in sight requires a more worthwhile approach to purely anecdotal observation.

Theroux suffers the fate of many a Western observer who aims for the crucible of Africa (like his beloved Conrad) — a loss of the capacity for empathy, and ultimate disgust. I picked up a free copy of Tim Butcher’s new book Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart at WHYY. It might be hard for Butcher to avoid a similar sense of disgust, as Congo is once again in the news as one of the most messed up places on earth. Maybe he managed to catch a little soukous?

Does anyone know of a travelogue of anywhere in Africa that somehow avoids these pitfalls? Please let me know.

Originally published on WHYY’s Sixth Square blog:

A growing bilingual author series in North Philadelphia is getting its biggest name in its over thirty year history this Friday evening. Taller Puertorriqueño in North Philadelphia will be host to Dominican-born and central New Jersey-raised Junot Díaz, fresh off winning the Pulitzer Prize earlier this year for his debut novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Oscar Wao drew almost unanimous praise upon its release for its combination of the sensibilities of comic books, science fiction, literary fiction, and New Jersey Latino immigrant communities. Díaz had even considered releasing a more multimedia-oriented product, inspired by his childhood love of comic books, before deciding to keep the story bound to a more old-fashioned ink and paper novel…

Read the rest here.