Best Books, 2007-08
The Brothers Karamazov (Feodor Dostoyevsky)
The best book I read last academic year was Dostoyevsky's masterpiece, a literary argument for the path of all-encompassing love and humility cast amidst a vision of redemptive suffering in a corrupt world searching for answers. Its hundreds of pages move quickly through sharp character portrayals, family conflict, romantic entanglements, and crime and courtroom drama. Who was responsible for the death of Fyodor Karamazov? To some extent, each of his sons, including the saintly Alyosha, bears some of the blame, though only one committed the murder and another stands trial.
The Lover (A.B. Yehoshua)
This may be the Great Israeli Novel. Most non-Israelis will read it as a means of trying to understand Israel or the Arab-Israeli conflict from a literary perspective. Yehoshua, however, shows the personal depths of the divisions within Israeli society, as few of his characters actually know each other. At the same time, he points toward reaching out and forming personal connection as a means of healing the individuals who come from the different social and cultural blocs. Even if the setting in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War is particular, the author's vision makes this a work of timeless import.
Shahnama (Hakim Abu al-Qasim Firdawsi)
You don't need to appreciate archaic literary forms to enjoy Iran's national epic. Characters, for example, are much more developed than in Homer, and heavenly powers are much more removed from the action. It is not a single story, but rather a weaving together of tales of Iran's mythical origins to the fall of the Sasanians, tales which have entertained generations and inspired countless works of art and adaptations from the time it was written right up to the present. Here you can read about the the blacksmith Kaveh's revolt against the dragon king Zohak, the heroic exploits of Rustam and his tragic duel with his son Sohrab, the invention of chess and its introduction into Iran, and the love story of Khusrau and Shirin, among many others.
Love in Exile (Bahaa Taher)
Bahaa Taher is one of the greatest living Arabic writers. This book, about a committed Nasserist effectively exiled to Europe and his struggles to deal with his own personal feelings and the tumultuous world around him. In addition to the theme which provides its title, this novel works as an interesting tour of many contemporary issues, from the rise of Islamism to the world of well-meaning NGO's and whether or not they actually do the good they intend.
Emma (Jane Austen)
Austen once wrote that she didn't think people would like this works title character and heroine, but perhaps because times have definitely changed since then, I liked her. Emma Woodhouse is a prideful but well-meaning young woman, capable of both irrational jealousy and soul-searching repentance. She needs to start a charity or, perhaps, in modern terms, go work for a well-meaning NGO. Her plans don't always work, and the fact the reader figures out where things are headed well before she does adds a comic element, but in the end she falls in love with the right man, as Austen heroines are wont to do, and we wish her well.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (J.K. Rowling)
In this most anticipated book of the year, J.K. Rowling showed off her story-telling genius not only by telling a great tale that provides a satisfying conclusion to her series, but going in a direction few, if any, expected. I understand the debate about the final scene, but that should not detract from just what Rowling accomplished here, with the excitement and suspense racheted up to new levels and the exploration of new mysteries both deeply personal for the characters and unanticipated for everyone.
Lords of the Land: The War for Israel's Settlements in the Occupied Territories (Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar)
My time in Jerusalem brought home to me just how insidious Israel's West Bank settlements are, and how obsctructive they are to achieving a lasting peace. This work compiles the story little known in the United States, and even among many Israelis, of how a movement of committed religious fanatics have appealed to Israeli fears and nationalist nostalgia to advance their agenda of ensuring that Israel one day extends from the river to the sea, and how the State of Israel continues to support them even against its official policies. This is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict.