Friday, May 22, 2009

Best Books, 2008-09

As you can see from my sidebar, over the past few years, I've fallen into the habit of highlighting every May the best books I've read for the first time during the past year as summer reading suggestions for others. During graduate school, things fell into a nice pattern of five works of serious fiction, one of popular fiction, and one non-fiction. In my first year of full-time teaching, however, a funny thing has happened. The balance in my readings shifted heavily toward non-fiction reading mostly in support of my teaching, as I sought both to brush up on areas outside my usual expertise and look for interesting ideas to bring out in class. For that reason, for this year and perhaps future years, the non-fiction category will dominate my recommendation list.


The Waning of the Mediterranean, 1550-1870: A Geohistorical Approach (Faruk Tabak)

The best book I read this year was Faruk Tabak's study of the Mediterranean basin in the early modern period, a work which brilliantly shows the region-wide microhistorical impact of macrohistorical changes, particularly global capital flows and environmental changes. Unlike Fernand Braudel and even more than Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, Tabak has successfully integrated the Mediterranean's eastern and southern shores into the narrative of the whole, providing a new regional context for multiple developments in those areas. As Ariel Salzmann said in the August 2008 International Journal of Middle East Studies: "The rigor of argumentation and weight of evidence leave no way to avoid his conclusion: the Little Ice Age took no prisoners and exempted no culture from its ravages...Nevertheless 'waning' should not be considered synonymous with 'decline.' Farmers who sought higher altitudes revived the arboreal economy of olive trees, adding vines and fodder cereals, and the 'Columbian Exchange' brought intercropping." This book is a must-read for historians of both Europe and the MENA region, as well as those interested in world history and the effects of and human adaptation to global climate change.

One Palestine, Complete (Tom Segev)

Once Zionism took root conflict over Israel/Palestine was probably inevitable, but it wasn't always as present as historical memory makes it. In this work, Segev goes into detail on the Mandate period, which was crucial to the the process of nationalization of both Jewish immigrants and Palestinian Arabs. Segev is an outstanding writer who uses a colorful cast of characters, often in their own words as found in their diaries and letters, to explore the period's trends and the impact of major events. I was, however, left with a small outsider's suspicion of the over-arching narrative in that the events of 1928-9 function as a firm hinge. Before that, almost all conflict is incidental and due to local causes; afterward, it is endemic and national. I'm not say that's entirely wrong, but even though I'm sympathetic to the argument it seems to take things a bit far.

The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000 (Peter Brown)

During the past year, the Library of Congress gave Peter Brown it's award for Lifetime Achievement in the Study of Humanity. In this book, he shows you one of the reasons why - his ability to make the seemingly strange world of the 1st millennium, which he has done more than anyone else to persuade historians to consider as a unit, intelligible despite the sheer foreignness of its ideas and lifestyles. Despite its name, this book also takes a solid look at Christianity in the Middle East with the ascetic holy men who helped make him famous and the rise of its new form of monotheism, Islam. It is also not just lucid, but entertaining, but like Segev's book discussed above.

The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia (David Commins)

David Commins's book is the first by a historian to focus on Wahhabism, rather than simply treating the religious movement within a history of Saudi Arabia. The author uses his deep knowledge of Islam to highlight the ways in which Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab's teachings were truly a break with the past the earned him the wrath of the Ottoman ulema, before going on to chart the evolution of the Wahhabi movement up through the present and its increasing ties to the militant Islamic revivalism associated with Egypt's Sayyid Qutb. This is an important work for those interested in modern Islam in the Middle East.

Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan (Antonio Giustozzi)

Giustozzi, a historian at the London School of Economics, has applied his training to the study of Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, and, discussing the implications of a crisis in rural society during the years of civil war, has broken down the insurgency into different components with different motives often stemming from completely different origins. He also discusses the U.S./NATO campaign in the country and its often unintended consequences. I wrote a more complete review last summer here.

Literary Fiction

The Narrow Road to Oku (Basho Matsuo)

My current nominee for best travelogue ever written is this haiku diary by the undisputed master of the genre about his 1689 journey to remote areas of northern Honshu. Unfortunately, I can't remember it in enough detail to do it justice, and I'm far from qualified to highlight the ways in which it apparently exists in dialogue with previous poetic works referring to the same places, but I can tell you that it combines realism with transcendence and an awareness of the highest sense of pilgrimage in ways that are difficult to duplicate.

Popular Fiction

The Historian (Elizabeth Kostova)

This is really the only popular fiction I read this year, but it's worthy. I mean, it's about historians! More specifically, it's an excellent modern re-imagining of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Kostova, the daughter of a college professor, attended graduate school at the University of Michigan, and evokes the graduate school milieu with unusual realism, while the historical mystery is based in and around what I see as an exciting milieu, the late medieval Balkans and Anatolia, with many chapters set in Istanbul, one of my favorite cities.

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Anonymous arabist said...

Question about the Mediterranean book: a) is it a very scholarly book, focused on historiography? and b) what's its take vis-à-vis Braudel?

5:44 AM  
Blogger Brian Ulrich said...

It's not focused on historiography, but it's scholarly in the sense I had to read it slowly to process it all. As far as Braudel, he positions himself as a sequel, but sees the Med as more unified that Braudel did, while also taking more account of modern ideas about environmental history.

11:57 AM  

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