Best Books, 2001-02
My top pick on the year, this tale set in the Indian immigrant community of Califorinia combines legend and reality into a seamless poetic metaphor of life between cultures and away from your familiar enivironment. The plot centers around Tilo, an old woman who owns a spice shop where she dispenses not just groceries, but magical spices meant to solve problems. What stands out most is the writing style, a magnificient blend of poetry and prose that makes even a visit to Sears into one of high drama. The surprise ending reaffirms the main theme: Breaking down traditional barriers to arrive at understanding of both ourselves and other. Right now this is being made into a movie, and even though I'm not always a big movie person, it's one I'll definitely want to see.
The Liveship Traders (Robin Hobb)
The best new epic fantasy series I've discovered since Wheel of Time, this trilogy takes for its setting the high seas and port cities along the edges of great kingdoms, and its characters are the merchants, ship captains, and pirates who dot the edges of more stereotypical works. One distinct element are the ships of the Bingtown Traders, which are magically alive and possess the knowledge and experience of all the captains who have died on their decks. The author's strength is in characterization and the relationships between characters: I think Hobb is the only writer who could have an idealistic young priest make a ruthless pirate his adopted father and actually have it develop naturally and make so much sense that by the end it seems inevitable. The resolution in the third book is easily satisfying, and in the end everything is revealed, right down to the last page when we learn even the name of the man whose hand marks mar Paragon's hull.
Les Miserables (Victor Hugo)
Hugo's epic vision of Paris in the early nineteenth century needs no introduction. I read this for seven of the eight weeks I was in Jordan, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it, even feeling emotional at the end. Hugo's writing is evocative and meaningful, with a cast of characters so memorable that the names of Cosette, Javert, Gavroche, and Jean Valjean have entered into the popular consciousness even turning up as metaphors in TV episodes. Even if it's just for cultural literacy, this is a can't-miss candidate for some hard-core summer reading.
Woman at Point Zero (Nawal el-Sadaawi)
This novel by the Islamic world's leading feminist is the powerful story of Firdaus, based on an inmate the author met while researching conditions in women's prisons in Egypt. Firdaus is a prostitute scheduled for execution for murdering her employer, and her powerful personality literally pounds you from the page as you read the opening scenes. Her story is an important look at women's issues, not only in Egypt, but throughout the world.
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
As a guy, I am bound by the guy code to mock this book, but it really isn't that bad. Teenage girl types will, of course, dig the love story aspects which sustain the book's fame; however, there is also a core of important social commentary about, well, pride and prejudice. Interestingly, both Elizabeth and Darcy, at the very least, seem to suffer from both the title ailments in ways that call to mind the dangers of being too self-righteous in your own principles. The writing is also clear, and it reads quickly and easily.
Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph (Jas Elsner)
This volume in the Oxford History of Art series traces the development of Christian civilization from its Greco-Roman roots, taking advantage of much current thinking about the role of change and continuity in cultural transformation. The illustrations are themselves worth a couple of hours, and the account of different art forms and pieces in their cultural context reveals much about where our own beliefs about both art and elements of Christianity came from. In that sense, this book transcends its original topic and becomes of general interest to all the curious-minded.
The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros)
I did my senior English thesis on Cisneros's Woman Hollering Creek, so it makes sense that I'd eventually get around to reading her other major short story anthology. This book has more of a common thread running through it, as all the pieces concern Esperanza, and artistic young girl developing in a poorer area of an American city. In that sense, it is a lot like a coming-of-age novel in vignettes. As with Divakaruni, the greatest draw is perhaps the writing - no one can turn a phrase like Cisneros can, doing more with two words than some people do in 20 pages. All in all, this won't win the Nobel Prize any time soon, but is worth the time nonetheless.