Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Books in 2012: A Personal Selection

Though intense work on my forthcoming book Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair (Zed Books) and a new project looking at Mexico meant that I wasn’t able to read as much for pleasure as I ordinarily would (something I hope to remedy in the coming year), some interesting tomes nevertheless crossed my radar. Here are some of the most intriguing of them.  

With all best wishes for 2013,  


A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe  

The Nigerian author’s bitter and brilliant 1966 novel about “the corroding effect of privilege” in post-independence Nigeria sees Achebe turning his sharp eye to the acquisitiveness and moral turpitude of the country’s political elite to nearly as great an impact as he examined the destruction of traditional society in a more famous novel, 1958’s Things Fall Apart.

Up Above the World by Paul Bowles   

Chilly, distant and more than a little strange, the American author’s take on Guatemala reminds one of the lineage of U.S. literature that traces back to Edgar Allan Poe, and how the knowledge that comes from actually being in the world, as opposed to just writing about it, adds to the power of the printed page.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain   

At times overly-garrulous but nevertheless entertaining and enjoyable, Anthony Bourdain’s tale of a misspent youth passed between cuisine high and low was something I have been wanting to get around to reading for a long time and am glad that I finally did.

Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle by Daniel Everett  

A linguistic detective story and a thrilling and respectful account of the author’s years living among the Pirahã in the Brazilian Amazon, this book shows how even the most arcane academic pursuits can be riveting in the rights hands. Though the Pirahã can, quite frankly, sometimes come off as petty, vengeful, cachaça-swilling brutes, Everett’s hard-won insistence that we meet them on their own terms is a refreshing antidote to armchair academia posing as insight. A most unique and enjoyable read.

Kings of Cocaine: Inside the Medellin Cartel - An Astonishing True Story of Murder Money and International Corruption By Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Leen   

An engrossing account of the early to mid period Medellín cartel - Pablo Escobar., Jorge Luis Ochoa Vázquez y su familia, José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha  and Carlos Lehder - and their American enablers and Colombian and American pursuers. Published back in 1989, the book hearkens back to the days when journalists, well, actually knew something about the subjects they wrote books about. 

Angola from Afro-Stalinism to Petro-Diamond Capitalism by Tony Hodges   

A highly informative if often rather dry account of Angola post-1975 independence to the dawn of the 21st century.

 Beyond the Mexique Bay by Aldous Huxley  

Interesting if often somewhat unpleasantly misanthropic portrait of the writer’s travels through Mexico and Guatemala. Huxley seems as if he would have been a most disagreeable traveling companion: Pissy, prissy, at time unthinkingly bigoted and always, it seems, pining for dear old  England.

Michael Manley: The Making of a Leader by Darrel E. Levi  

An illuminating biography of the nearly-forgotten leader of Jamaica’s People’s National Party, this now-sadly-out-of-print portrait is sympathetic but never hagiographic, recalling such forgotten bits as the sadistic brutality of Manley’s Jamaican education and his brief stint as a journalist, and casting a light back to a time when Jamaica was an important player on the regional stage.

The Rwanda Crisis : History of a Genocide by Gérard  Prunier   

Far more authoritative than Philip Gourevitch’s better-known We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, this book by one of the world’s greatest living Africa scholars looks at the background of one of the last century’s great crimes and why the world failed to stop it.

Defeat is the Only Bad News: Rwanda Under Musinga, 1896-1931 by Alison Liebhafsky des Forges  

As an authoritative account of the reign of the Rwandan monarch Yuhi V (born Yuhi Musinga), this book by one of the world’s great Africa scholars, whose life was tragically cut short, examines the complex links of Tutsi royalty with at first German and then Belgian colonial powers in Rwanda.

Curfewed Night: One Kashmiri Journalist's Frontline Account of Life, Love, and War in His Homeland by Basharat Peer  

A welcome addition to the dearth of literature on the conflict in India-controlled Kashmir by the Kashmiris themselves, Peer’s book nevertheless sometimes reads like confusingly-organized journalist’s notes in search of unifying thread, robbing the overall narrative of any great cumulative emotional impact. Peer is particularly effective when writing about his immediate circle of family and friends, though, and the book adds some sickening details of India’s excesses in its most restive region but, to my mind, the most authoritative Kashmiri voice on the conflict remains the late poet Agha Shadid Ali, whose collection The Country Without a Post Office was one of the highlights of my 2010 reading season.

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