Saturday, December 31, 2011

[2011 in Books] By Fatma Makki

2011 has been quite a year. To be completely honest, I can't tell you how glad I am that we're at the tail end of it right now. I've experienced the extremes of every emotion, and that can wear a girl out! But ever the optimist (ha!), I'm going to choose to highlight the bright side, and that it, without a doubt, that I have read some really phenomenal books this year. If you're reading this post, you're definitely a bibliophile, and may have been on Twitter and recently seen a hashtag trending for: a book I have read this year. Of course this made me and several other book-loving Tweeps incredibly happy! @_MaryamB and @Noor17 had the great idea of getting us all to write a list of our year in books. So, without further ado, here is my manifestation of the past 364 days in books:

It was a year of Questioning Everything:

If ever there was a year dedicated to questioning the status quo, I believe 2011 is definitely it. I don't think it's surprising that as a young Arab female, this thought would be on the forefront of my mind. I remember the day: February 11 2011. I remember the moment. 4:00 pm GMT. I was in London, in the middle of the City (London's financial hub), and I had just completed my Wills & Administration of Estates exams. I was incredibly sleep deprived because my friend and I had pulled an all-nighter studying for this exam. We had heard of rumblings from the Middle East, but us being in the middle of an incredibly stressful exam period, we were living in our special corner of hell, very selfishly ignoring everyone and everything else. It was 4:00 pm, we were being herded out of our classrooms into the foyer, and I was on my tiptoes looking for my friends in the middle of the seething mass of revelling students. Little did I know that a continent away, thousands of miles away, was a crowd whose numbers multiplied ours by thousands, and for the intensity of their emotion we might have been on different planets. I found my friend at the other end of the room and although her expression seemed too happy to be pleased about a simple exam, I just chalked it up to the lack of sleep. But it wasn't lack of sleep: we met in the middle of that hall, and as I was screaming out 'It went great, hamdillah!', she yelled 'Husni Mubarak stepped down!'. The rest of the day was a daze. We wandered back to Moorgate Station, stopping at the windows of some fancy law firms or banks or other money meccas that make up the City, and would press our faces against the windows, watching the news on the LCD screens that would inevitably be propped up somewhere in the lobby, which were all switched on to BBC News or Sky News. We couldn't hear what they were saying, but we didn't really need to. The expressions on the faces of the people in the crowd said it all. My friend and I were now talking a mile a minute, and I realized that most of what I was saying came out as a question. What does this mean? What's going to happen? What should we do? What CAN we do?

As the weeks passed on, we watched several autocracies, like big lumbering behemoths, toppling down and disappearing into the desert. As exciting and wonderful as it all was, I would always end the day questioning everything. It's funny that I was in the City when my story begins, because the first book that's going to top my list is called
The City & The City by China Mieville. It's what I was reading during those whirlwind days in February. The story is a weird and wonderful fantasy mystery novel, set in a fictional city called Beszel, which co-exists very tentatively with its 'twin city' called Ul Qom. The main character is a detective called Borlu, and the book starts, as any self-respecting mystery would, with a murder. This book is so much more than a mystery though. I would say that the book is a layering of genres, and that mystery is the outer layer, the one that draws you in. As you read on, you get sucked into the world of Beszel, it's unusual politics, the weird lives they are forced to live because of the politics of the day, and the astounding truths that come out in the end that make Borlu: question everything. It's a genre I'm not used to reading, but Mieville is the master of his plot and although the story could easily have been extremely confusing, I was riveted to my couch till the very satisfying end.

The second book under this heading would have to be The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy. This one leads to a much deeper (I believe) series of questions, and despite its brevity (I read it in less than a day), is very unsettling - in a good way - and extremely thought provoking. McCarthy knows that with words, less is usually more. There's a saying I have posted up in front of my desk at the office, a quote by Robert Louis Stevenson, "The only art is to omit". By that logic, McCarthy is a true artist. The book is in fact 'in dramatic form', i.e. a play, and there are only two characters who don't have names, simply referred to as Black and White (because, duh, one is black and one is white). I really don't want to ruin it for the reader, but it starts off with them sitting down in a kitchen, and the whole play takes place in that sparse little room, but the conversation they have is about as deep and meaningful as you can get without breaking out your copies of Aristotle's Metaphysica. The main themes in this book center around death, dying, religion and the afterlife. Don't be fooled by it's 120 or so pages... this book is as heavy as they get and will leave you: questioning everything.

My third book is by a writer I would never dream of completing any book list without. It's called PopCo by Scarlett Thomas. I've reviewed her on this blog before, so I'm not going to say too much more about it .Suffice it to say I've written fanmail to the wonderfully smart and amazing Scarlett Thomas, because yeah I'm lame like that and no I don't care who knows it. This book is phenomenal just like her others, and I think the book yells out at every page for you to QUESTION EVERYTHING.

It was a year of Being Connected in a Fragmented World

Anyone with a pulse will know that social networking is the talk of the town these days. You can't walk into a bookstore, open a magazine, look at the news, or even go to the cinema (seen The Social Network yet?) without those two words popping up. And truly it's been a marvel. I won't say that it's started revolution, because revolutions were and always will be in the hands of the people no matter where we are or when or how far technology advances. But without a doubt it has provided a huge catalyst for revolutions. The amount of information that's out there it boggles the mind. I joined Twitter this year, and I'm so glad I did. I'm connected to people all around the world. This year the world population reached 7 billion, and that's a pretty huge thing to think about. Usually that depresses me because my egotistical self feels so small and worthless and whatthehellamIaloneinthisworldwith7billionsoulsandthatsnotevencountingtheanimalsandbugs
didyouknowthere'smorechickensintheworldthenpeopleholycrap! But Twitter's great, and so is Facebook and all those other awesome concepts that are out there. In keeping with the theme of books, I've discovered a number of book-related sites which have revolutionized the way I read and choose books: there's BookMooch, LibraryThing, BookRiot, etc. And OF COURSE Omani Book Mania! Most of these, I found through Twitter. And so if I may get all mushy for a moment, I'd like to say that it's heartwarming to know that somewhere in that vast blue and green expanse, you will always find someone, somewhere who will get what you're saying. If you say it on Twitter, you'll be aware of that someone because they'll RT or favorite your comment!

And so this leads to my fourth book which is very appropriate for this year and theme:
Ghostwritten by David Mitchell. This guy has a serious knack for bringing completely disparate stories and then linking them together in the most natural way. He did it with Cloud Atlas, which is his more popular book, I believe. But I liked Ghostwritten more. They story is split into 9 parts, 9 different places in the world, and somehow all connected in the most ingenious ways. They're never obvious or glaring, just subtle little sentences, slipped into the paragraphs as smoothly as a bribe in a crooked cop's hand. The main characters of each little bit of story is not even necessarily someone you would like: a terrorist, a mistress, a crooked banker, or even an unearthly spirit. Nevertheless, somehow you understand them, you can occupy their life the way the noncorpus occupies other people's bodies. Oh wait, you don't know what a noncorpus is right? You'll have to read the book to find out. Nya nya! Throughout the stories, I never ceased to be amazed at how much these people lived in their own little bubbles, never truly aware of the extent of their reach, and how closely connected they were with the lives of people they would never meet, and even how those lives will affect
theirs. We truly are connected in this fragmented world.

It was a year of Sorrow, and Learning how to Say Goodbye

This year, after 5 years of living in Southampton, England, I had to up and leave behind a whole life I had built for myself. I knew this day would come, I knew it was inevitable. Nevertheless, it was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do in my life. Saying goodbye to the unbelievably amazing people I've met throughout those years, to the little apartment I've turned from a shell into a real home for 3 of those years, and all of my favorite local haunts in Southampton, and in the UK in general. I know that saying goodbye is an inescapable part of everybody's life, but I believe it's something that I will never master, and it will always carry that malicious little sting with it. As for sorrow, I believe
that goes hand in hand with saying goodbye, and I think the world has experienced it's fair share of sorrow this year. As I mentioned in the last heading, we are connected in this fragmented world, and nothing connects us quite like sorrow. So although I experienced my own solitary sadness, I was also connected to the sorrow of the people who have lost loved ones all over the world, whether over natural disasters like in Japan or Pakistan, or whether it was because of the hubris of men, like in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and always Palestine.

In the midst of the sorrow, the tears, the fits of rage and the passionate entreaties, I found the time to read the fifth book on my list, a wonderful, wonderful book which is very well respected but I still don't think it has the recognition it deserves. That would be Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. It's narrated by Janie Crawford (a black woman living in the deep South in the states in those difficult years after abolition but before the civil rights movement), as she recounts the story of her life to a neighbor. The language used in the book lends itself to the story she tells, and she speaks in that simple-yet-profound, soulful way that seems to come naturally African American writers of that period (sometime in the '30s I think). By the end of this book, I was moved to tears, by the way Janie expressed her sorrow, but also the way she pushed through it. I really loved this book.

As for my sixth book, I'm going to put it under this heading, although at first glance it may not seem like the right place, but bear with me! This is The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa. I found out later that Vargas Llosa is a Nobel laureate, which usually brings to mind dense and over-literary books. But this book is so easy to read, and one of the most enjoyable I've ever read in my life. The story's protagonist is Ricardo, and starts off with his 15 year old self, in a small town called Miraflores in Peru. That summer, he meets and falls into a love that will define the rest of his life.

As I hate spoilers, I will try not to say anymore, but at the end of the book, I sat thinking about what I just read. Ricardo spent his whole life anguishing over an elusive girl (the Bad Girl, as she is known throughout most of the book). As I read the book, his sorrow over her was always apparent. But only after I finished did I understand (in my own interpretation at least) that this is in fact a book that talks about a man who is learning how to say goodbye, and this is a journey of a lifetime. W
hat a book.

My seventh book has sorrow pouring out of every page, but in way that is bittersweet and tender, and with a style that is unique to this writer. I'm talking of course about Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. I feel as though this is his best so far, but I plan on reading every single one of his books and am open to being proven wrong. The story is about a man in his 30's who hears the song Norwegian Wood by The Beatles, and this sends him on a trip down memory lane, about the women who influenced his life during his student days, Naoko, Reiko and Midori. Even the way the story begins, with that churning pain that only nostalgia can bring, is a perfect precursor to a story that talks about loving and losing, and everything in between.

It was a year of Laughter

It's not all gloom and doom. I've always loved laughter. I'm a huge fan of comedy in all its forms. I love stand up comedians, and I love watching documentaries about stand up comedians (plug: you should watch a documentary called I Am Comic! Hilarious). I believe every cliche about laughter: that it's the best medicine, that it gives you a longer life, etc. But this year I've needed it more than ever. I needed to know first of all that I don't have to take myself so seriously all the time, and second of all I don't have to take ANYONE else so seriously all the time either! A little bit of mockery and mirth never hurt anyone!

My eighth book taught me that, which is Summer Moonshine by PG Wodehouse. It centers around Sir Buckstone Abbott, who is a member of the declining aristocracy of England. His country manor is costing him a fortune to run, so he decides to take in guests in order to make a bit of money and ward off total ruin. That summer, the guests arrive, and as is perfectly natural with all of Wodehouse's brilliant books, hilarity ensues. This book has made a Wodehouse lover out of me, and I cannot wait to get my hands on some more of his wonderful books, which I know I'll enjoy just as much. The characters are usually self-important, speaking in the most pompous English imaginable, and Wodehouse has a genius way of creating the most ludicrous imagery imaginable, and scenes that are just unforgettable.

In keeping with the theme of this heading, as well as that of declining aristocracy, I bring you the ninth book on my list, Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol. Well, what can I say about this book? It's never-ending. Literally. Gogol died before he could finish it, so practically ends mid-sentence and also the last ten or so pages are barely intelligible because they skip through a lot of the story because the manuscript was damaged before it got to the publishers all those centuries ago. I can't tell you how frustrated I was! But the book is still worth a read. Here, the main character, Chichikov, makes his first entrance into a normal sized town somewhere in Russia, and we soon find out that his aim is to buy up all the 'dead souls' that the landowners have (landowners used to 'own' the peasants who worked on that land as well, who were known as serfs, colloquially referred to as souls, and were traded and treated as being as marketable as any other property). We, the readers, learn about him at the same time as those villagers do, and it's a great method used by Gogol of keeping this very intriguing character interesting to us. He is referred as 'the hero' throughout the novel, perhaps sarcastically, but there is no doubt that the point of the entire novel is to cast a scathing and satiric glance over the cream of Russian society at that time, and the system of serfdom that existed during Gogol's lifetime. I read a lot of this book in coffee shops, which was a bad idea, because I also spent a lot of time spurting coffee out of my nose.

It was a year of Learning what Home Is

As I've mentioned, I've left my 5-year home, and returned to Muscat, which although is not the city I was born in, it is where my roots are, and am learning every day how to call it home. This last year especially has been a great experience in that sense. I thought a lot about what we mean when we say we 'come from' somewhere. Where do I come from, then? I've lived in Paris, Muscat, Southampton, Muscat again. In about a year and a half I'll hopefully be moving to London for a bit. And after that, who knows? I think society's changed so irrevocably that who we are and where we come from are two things that are constantly changing and evolving, sometimes related, sometimes not.

The first book I read when I moved back to Oman was my tenth book, when I was spending most of my time in bed, or just sullenly gliding around my house, like the most emo ghost on the planet. That is The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. Quoyle is the unlikely hero of this story, described as a big, ugly clumsy oaf of a character, with no particularly redeeming qualities in him. He falls madly in love with Petal, probably the most evil human being that ever exists (in his world) and yet he loves her unconditionally, marries her and they have two kids. After years of marriage and her unbearable cruelty to him, she kidnaps the two girls and tries to sell them to sex traffickers. Fortunately she dies in a car accident and the girls return to him, and with the life insurance money and help from his aunt, Agnis (rough around the edges but kind-hearted), he decides to start a new life for them, taking them from their dumpy little place in Mockingburg, New York to Quoyle's Point, a desolate little corner in Newfoundland, Canada; the home of his ancestors and his namesake. This story is full of wonderful and intricately described characters. I love the hero's courage and his absolute determination to find a better life for his little girls and his family. The home he and Agniss work hard to rebuild is their ancestral home, a creaking lonely beast without a neighbor for miles. The story is full of metaphors about home and where you come from and speaks volumes during the silent moments when I could almost feel the cold winds of Newfoundland blowing through my window, even all the way in hot, hot Muscat during the summertime.

It was a year of Finding the Fascinating in the Mundane, and Embracing the Paradox.

"But Fatamo," you say, "how can you find something mundane to be fascinating? By its very nature, a mundane thing is mundane! It can never be fascinating? Could you find a fork fascinating? What about a salt and pepper shaker on your kitchen table? A bathroom? HA! Fatamo you talk nonsense!" And I would say that you were right; that there is nothing very interesting or particularly fascinating about a salt and pepper shaker, or a fork, or a bathroom... but there is something about those things, and that is where the paradox lies.

No one can teach you appreciation of such things with as much style as the author of my final, eleventh book. I said in the beginning I learned to question everything, and I got some fascinating answers in At Home by Bill Bryson. Why does a fork have four tines? Why do we even have a salt and pepper shaker so confidently sitting there on our kitchen tables? Why do we have bathrooms? Kitchens? Do you think these questions are silly? Bill Bryson will show you why they're not. All I can say is I'll never look at anything the same way again, because I know that behind the most ridiculously dull looking thing, there is the most exciting history ever. His book is the ultimate in confronting your assumptions: it makes you find the fascinating in the mundane. Now I can see this, and a bed is not just a bed to me anymore. I've learned to embrace that paradox and run with it. I'm usually more into fiction than non-fiction, but if I could recommend one book this whole year, this would be it without a doubt.

As I wrote up this list, one word keeps popping up. The memories they bring up are so different. This year I remember, dancing with joy, weeping my heart out, suffering from sleep deprivation, freezing cold in London, sweating bullets in Muscat, soaking up the sun in Spain during the summer with my friends, laughing with my family, fighting with my family, loving, leaving, asking, answering, giving, taking, winning, losing, trying, failing, trying again, succeeding, hugging, fighting, warring, peacing, being silly (like the two non-verbs I just said). But one word keeps rearing its inconspicuous little head all over the place: learning. That's what this year has been for me, and that's what these books have been for me: a learning experience. You might have gathered from my first paragraph that I hated this year. But in the spirit of embracing the paradox, I've got to say, I've loved every second of this year.

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