It's the end of the year again -- so fast! -- and I thought it'd be worth taking a moment to reflect on what I'd read over the past year. I also managed to rope in a few friends in to provide their own roundups for the sake of variety. I allowed myself to include long-form journalism as well as books, since this year saw two really fantastic examples of that; of course there were many, many more, but the two below really stood out.
For non-fiction, I came to Noah Feldman's Fall and Rise of the Islamic State a few years after it was published, but found it both interesting and lucidly written, as fine an example for how to explore these issues of ideology and political aspiration in Islam as I know. Students and scholars of political Islam take note.
Matt Aikins notes how a new round of Iraq memoirs are being released, and at the top of these (although it's only half-memoir) must be Wendell Steavenson's The Weight of a Mustard Seed. She tells Iraq's story through the voice and life of a relatively senior figure from within Saddam's armed forces, interspersing it with her own efforts to to research that same story. It's beautifully written -- like her previous book on Georgia -- and, along with Anthony Shadid's Night Draws Near, is always something I recommend to people on Iraq. David Finkel's The Good Soldiers tells the story of the American military's struggles post-2003, again powerfully written.
From Afghanistan, Elizabeth Rubin's New York Times Magazine profile of President Karzai was simply one of the most compelling and interesting pieces of writing that I've read from the post-2001 period. You must read this if you haven't already. Looking across the border, Jane Mayer wrote an absolutely devastating New Yorker piece on the drone strike campaign in Pakistan. I'm surprised it hasn't received more attention. If you haven't read it, stop what you're doing; print it out and make time.
Reconciliation has been one of the most misused buzzwords of 2010. For a different perspective, look no further than Ed Moloney's Voices from the Grave. This is an edited/commentary-rich oral history of two figures from Northern Ireland, published earlier this year now that both voices have died. It shows the inner machinations going on behind the scenes -- including some amazing accounts of prison dynamics and the hunger strikes -- and every pundit and politician seeking to involve themselves somehow in the debate must read this book as a historical and contextual corrective.
I didn't get the chance to read much fiction this year on account of work, but Shahriar Mandanipour's Censoring an Iranian Love Story (reviewed in the New Yorker here) was definitely the most memorable. Time will tell whether it will last, but my sense is that this was something special.
There were countless numbers of books that I wanted to read but didn't find the time. They will be priorities in 2011:
-- Alice Munro's short-story collection, Too Much Happiness
-- Priya Satia's Spies in Arabia (described to me by Matt Aikins as follows: "It's about the cultural environment of Edwardian-era British secret agents in Arabia – their dissatisfaction with Western modernity, their search for some pre-modern, inscrutable purity in the ‘vast desert’ with its ‘timeless inhabitants’, the intuitionist methodologies they developed in response to a ‘mysterious Orient’ that scientific empiricism could not fathom, their cultivated literary mystique and ambitions, their habits of dressing in Arab garb and living so as to ‘become one with them’ – and the complex relationship this had to the military and political imperatives of empire and war.") Who wouldn't want to read that?
-- Nir Rosen's Aftermath (although I'll have to read his earlier Iraq book first…)
-- Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands, an account of the killings and deaths in central and eastern Europe during the 1930s and 1940s.
-- Mary Kaldor's The Ultimate Weapon is No Weapon
-- Michael Lewis's The Big Short, on the financial crisis and how it happened
-- and (although I reckon this'll keep me going into 2012) Richard Taruskin's magisterial Oxford History of Western Music. It's five volumes, but Taruskin is one of the truly great living musicologists and cultural scholars of our day. It's been out for a while but Oxford University Press have recently issued a paperback version selling at just under £60 on Amazon. That's a bargain if ever there was one.
Here are some selections from Matt Aikins, intrepid journalist and the talent behind Harper's profile of General Razziq, The Master of Spin Boldak:
Every year it seems as if there are more good books being published and less time to read any of them. 2010 was no exception. There is a sort of 'second wave' of in-depth reporting coming out of the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts. Joshua E. S. Phillips' chronicle of torture by US soldiers in Iraq, None of Us Were Like This Before, is among the best. It's unflinching in every sense of the word: neither from incendiary portrayals of the depravities US military might inflicted on innocent Iraqis, nor from a nuanced and empathetic understanding of the torturers themselves, in many cases ordinary Americans who found themselves swept up, beyond morality, by forces within and without that they could hardly comprehend.
Finally, two of my favorite reads from 2010 were not actually published in 2010. Jane Mayer's The Dark Side is astonishing not only for its comprehensive indictment of the expansion of executive power under Bush, but for how well-written and engrossing it is. And Out of Afghanistan, Diego Cordovez and Selig Harrison's out-of-print account of almost a decade of negotiations leading to the Geneva Accords, (which paved the way from Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan) should truly be a must-read for every Afghanistan expert. It's extremely relevant right now.
In 2010 we finally saw some quality Af-Pak books hit the shelves, three of which are indispensable. Antonio Giustozzi's Decoding the Taliban: Insights From the Field contains selections from some of the most careful and learned observers of the Afghan insurgency; if you don't have time for the whole book, read Tom Coghlan's take on Helmand. Giustozzi's other release this year, Empires of Mud, is a fascinating study of warlordism in Afghanistan, a much-abused term that warranted the close attention. My Life in the Taliban by Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef provides a rare glimpse into the mind of a senior Taliban figure. In particular, the descriptions of life during the anti-Soviet insurgency in Kandahar are an important contribution to our understanding of the country's history.
Outside of the South Asia field, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks gives a compelling look at the intersection between genetics, medical research, race and class. It traces the story of a poor, cancer-ridden African American woman and her unlikely (and unknowing) contribution to medical science: a cell sample that has been used to study cancer for decades. Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom looks at Bush-era American suburbia. I don't think it quite lived up to its hype, but it is an important and enjoyable read nonetheless. Finally, for the mathematically inclined, I recommend Oded Goldreich's P, NP and NP-completeness: The Basis of Complexity Theory, which gives of a good overview of the P-NP problem in computer science, which made the news this year for almost getting solved.
And these from Naheed Mustafa, a friend and journalist who is hopefully soon starting work on a great project she has up her sleeve:
I always feel like I’m six months to a year behind in my reading. I end up doing so much reading for work that I can’t get around to reading the things I want. But certainly there are worse problems one can have. I do read a lot of long form journalism and some of the pieces I especially enjoyed have already been mentioned above (Elizabeth Rubin’s profile of Hamid Karzai) and Jane Mayer’s drone piece.
Daniyal Moinuddin’s collection of short stories In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was compelling and on the whole I thought it was an eloquent presentation of the fading of the traditional landowning class in Pakistan’s Punjab. The other two books I finally got around to reading and am happy that I did: Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb and The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill – both Canadian writers. Neither was published in 2010 but, like I said, I’m always behind.
There are several long form pieces I’d suggest as well. Two from Basharat Peer who I think is one of the most phenomenal journalists of our time and has an eloquent, literary style of writing: Kashmir’s Forever War in Granta 112: Pakistan and The Road Back from Ayodhya in The Caravan. The third is an astonishing portrait of Roger Ebert written by Chris Jones for Esquire entitled The Essential Man. Jones’ attention to detail and the tiny cues he picks up are brilliant. Roger Ebert wrote a response to Jones’ profile (on the whole positive) that you may want to read to get some sense of the process (I’m obsessed with “process”). Also, another Esquire piece called Eleven Lives by Tom Junod about the oil workers who were killed in the Deepwater Horizon explosion back in April of this year.
My last recommendation is actually a short excerpt from a memoir my dear and lovely friend Rahat Kurd is writing. It’s about growing up Muslim in Canada. The essay was printed in Maisonneuve magazine: Things That Make Us Muslim.
Your suggestions and recommendations are welcome in the comments below.