Best Books, 2005-06
The Man in the Iron Mask (Alexandre Dumas)
My top pick for the year is this time-tested classic dealing with the final adventures of the Three Musketeers crew of Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D'Artagnan. The third volume of a trilogy originally published as Ten Years Later, its fast-paced action kept me up late several nights running. The work is darker in tone than previous works in the series, as after the crisis point it takes on an almost Revenge of the Sith feel with proponents of a new manner of government hunting down guardians of the old, but it also invokes themes of aging as the musketeers sense their time passing. The work also deals with timeless themes such as the difference between leading loyal followers and commanding servants and pastoral happiness versus adventure and activism. Getting to this point requires some wading through earlier novels, but in my opinion it was worth it.
The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
This stunning firat novel of Afghan writer Khaled Hosseini explores themes such as forgiveness, friendship, privilege, and violence amidst the dramatic, haunting, and poignant backdrop of the past 30 years of Afghanistan's history. The characters are real, the thoughts are deep, and only a bit of over-the-top coincidental plotting kept this from occupying the top spot. Unless Hosseini himself tops it, this will become the definitive literary treatment of Afghanistan's recent civil wars, and will preserve their memory because people will always read it for it's pure literary value.
Davita's Harp (Chaim Potok)
This is a beautiful coming-of-age story about a girl who comes to value her religious heritage, not as dogmatic truth, but as an individual choice to seek comfort in timeless traditions following the deaths of important people in her life and the breakdown of the modern leftist ideologies with which she was raised. Her gender also plays a role, as the fact she is female sometimes causes her trouble in finding her place within her tradition's institutions. I read this book in a single evening, and that's not something I do much anymore.
Dance, Dance, Dance (Murakami Haruki)
As is usually the case with Murakami, this novel is pretty weird. Although it can easily stand alone, it is a sequel to The Wild Sheep Chase, and features the return of the Sheep Man who bears an important lesson: "You gotta dance." Through a series of weird experiences, the listless narrator steps out of his routine and tries his moves on the dance floor of life. It's hard to say more than that, as so much of the pleasure of reading Murakami is in the weird, unexpected stuff that happens, so I'll just say instead that for some reason this novel made me feel ready to take on life.
The Rock (Kanan Makiya)
I already blogged about this once, so let me just repeat myself: As a historian of this period, I loved the way Makiya brings out the early affinities between Islam and Judaism, such as the caliph Umar's interest in Jewish holy sites as opposed to Christian cathedrals, and was absorbed by his lyrical weaving together of traditions so that it is often hard to tell which elements come from which religion. The Dome of the Rock, too, becomes more than just a Muslim shrine, but a monument to Jewish tradition, as well, built on the Rock explained through Ka'b's stories to honor the figures whom Jews hold most sacred. It is a beautiful, engaging vision, one which we can only hope will one day sink roots into the region in which it is set.
Angels and Demons (Dan Brown)
I enjoyed this more than The Da Vinci Code, but then I was in it for the thriller rather than the religious conspiracy theory, and whatever else you can say about it, this book is a page-turner filled with enough plot twists to keep you guessing until the very end. There's also some meaty philosophizing about the relative roles of science and religion, and Brown's more devout critics might be interested to know it definitely leaves a place for religion in our modern science-dominated world.
The Politicization of Islam (Kemal Karpat)
This massive capstone to the career of one of the world's most distinguished historians of the Ottoman Empire is designed as a study of how the Islamization policies of Sultan Abdulhamid II laid the foundation for the modern Turkish nation. Along the way, however, Karpat encompasses most of the globe as he explores relations between Europe and various Muslim societies, a confrontation which contributed to an awareness of unity among the former as they looked to the Ottoman Empire as a power which could protect them ruled by one who claimed the title "caliph." This is not for those with just a casual interest - suffice it to say there are two whole pages devoted to Comoros - but those who are serious about developing a deeper understanding of forces which have shaped our world should give this a read.