Monday, May 02, 2005

Best Books, 2004-05

Every year in early May, I recommend the best books I've read during the past year. I didn't read as much as usual due to my Moroccan travels, but here's this year's collection nonetheless. Recommendations from previous years can be found at the sidebar.

A Suitable Boy (Vikram Seth)

My top pick on the year is easily this massive work whose characters kept me intrigued while I was overseas. Set in the early years of Indian independence, it is written in an epic style which passes from grand speeches delivered in Parliament to a shoe executive's hunt for the ideal job to a prodigal son's time in the countryside. The title refers to the quest for a mate for Lata, but that is only one thread in this stunning exploration of lives and worlds that will be read for centuries to come.

South of the Border, West of the Sun (Murakami Haruki)

The title of this book refers in part to song lyrics that fascinate a youth before he learns they just refer to Mexico and a fable about Siberian peasants who, overwhelmed by the vastness of the sky, set off to find what is "west of the sun" until they collapse. It concerns a man named Hajime who, successful both personally and professionally, still wonders after what might have been, and yields to tempation with the appearance of Shimamoto, a mysterious specter from his youth. With its central theme of choosing to let go of the past to be happy in the present, this novel has a bittersweet element to it, yet at the end the characters find an important key to happiness in choosing to be content and work with the life you have.

Our Cosmic Habitat (Martin Rees)

I've always tried to keep up with theoretical astrophysics, and this book is a great way to explore this fascinating field in the hands of a guide capable of explaining its workings while pointing out its subtlety and wonder. From the smallest subatomic levels to the grand scale of the possibility of other universes, Rees has provided a tour that will leave one thoughtful and as eager as he to find out what lies on the next page of the ongoing history of science.

Cities of Salt (Abd ar-Rahman Munif)

This book is a good study of how the coming of Western oil companies changed the Arabian Peninsula in the 20th century, as well as how cultural differences led inevitably to conflict. The work is written strictly from the Arab perspective - I don't think any Westerners even had names - and highlights the perceptual gap as the two communities which come to live in such close economic dependence on one another never truly understand each other as more than a curiosity. This isn't great literature in the sense of exploring timeless truths of life, but is an excellent way to begin thinking about the past hundred years of history in the Middle East and how issues are not always what they seem.

The Autumn of the Patriarch (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

The effects of dictatorship on society has in recent years become the subject of much public discussion. In this stream-of-consciousness work, Garcia Marquez explores the psychological workings of dictatorship with his usual brilliant style and imagery, weaving together both the story of an already amoral man corrupted by power and the need to keep it with a population that has known no other way. As we see at the very beginning, as tyrannical as the unnamed dictator was, people can barely believe that he is in fact no more, and are unsure what to do next.

Dumb Witness (Agatha Christie)

About three years ago I started reading some Agatha Christie novels over a break, and I've been hooked ever since. What separates Christie from other mystery writes I've read is that she prods readers not just to solve crimes, but to understand them, and her stories become as much about the lives of the characters as they do clues and dead bodies. The dramatic personality of Hercule Poirot adds another level of entertainment in a genre that still thrives on drama. Dumb Witness, in which the irrepressible Belgian detective finds murder where everyone else assumes it was just old age, is really a group recommendation for all Christie's Poirot novels.

The Happy Warriors (Halldor Laxness)

This novel by the 1955 Nobel Laureate in Literature was just plain fun. A satire of Old Norse saga featuring two Viking warriors who wander around doing the usual Viking warring and pillaging, Laxness's real target is the modern world and its mythologies, as seen in such scenes as the nominal conversion of a bunch of Vikings to Christianity. I really didn't care about the social satire though - the melodramatic adventures of Thorgeir Havarsson and Thormod Bessason were enough to keep me going until the end. The work also guest stars England's King Ethelred II.



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