Best Books I Read in 2010 – Book List

I read 137 books in 2010, and of those books, I gave 19 a five-star rating. Thus my annual task of choosing the top 10 books of the year was a daunting one. It doesn't help that I have so many different ways to rank these books among each other, so many ways to define "best." Do I want to choose books I think other people should read? Do I want to choose books I enjoyed the most? Those two criteria, while not mutually exclusive, would not necessarily produce identical rankings. In the end, I took a middle road. All of these books are, obviously, worth reading. I think everyone should read the top 5. Beyond that, I tried for each book to determine where best it fit.

This year is different from last year's list for a few reasons. Firstly, no Umberto Eco! I did read an Eco novel, The Island of the Day Before, but much to my chagrin it did not receive five stars, let alone a chance to get on this list, which this year was quite competitive. That competition means there are several books that might have made the list but didn't. I suppose I could do a "top 11" list, or a "top 12," because after all, ten is such an arbitrary number. Nevertheless, I like the fact that with ten and only ten spots I have to think hard and choose carefully how to fill those spots.

That being said, there are certainly a few books that deserve honourable mentions. I re-read the Dresden Files in 2010, and four of them are five-star books. One of these, Small Favor, made my top 10 list in 2008. I considered selecting at least one Dresden Files novel for this list; however, as much as I love Harry Dresden and the writing of Jim Butcher, I just read so many other books that I feel more urgently need the recommendation.

I'll also give a shout-out to The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. It's an awesome anthropological science-fiction novel. Similarly, the novellas Act One and Shambling Towards Hiroshima, by Nancy Kress and James Morrow, respectively, made the short list. Both are Hugo-nominated (the winning novella, Charles Stross' Palimpsest, was my favourite in that category, but because it is not listed on Goodreads I didn't write a review for it) and worth reading.

Finally, this year's list includes four non-fiction titles. Not only is this the most non-fiction ever to grace my top 10 list so far, but it's interesting because I didn't read as many non-fiction books this year as I had hoped. I guess I just discriminated well!

Reviews

10. The Prince and Other Writings

by Niccolò Machiavelli

The Prince and Other Writings cover image
ISBN:
9781593080600
Format:
Paperback, 224 pages
Published:
Barnes & Noble Classics, 1532

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Want to know the difference between the Renaissance and present-day society? If Machiavelli had written The Prince today, it would be called Ruling Principalities for Dummies. In the fifteenth century, manuals for prospective rulers took the form of profound philosophical treatises. In the twenty-first century, they're bullet-point lists bound in bright yellow covers with a cartoon on the front. Part history and part philosophy, The Prince is a glimpse into the mind of a Renaissance thinker. As much as it is an exploration of politics, it is also an exploration of personality, a fact that becomes much clearer when it's held up next to Machiavelli's other works, such as The Life of Castruccio Castracani and Discourses on Livy.

If one wants to be reductionist, one can boil down The Prince to a manual on how to keep power. Machiavelli focuses in particular on princes who are new to their principality, as hereditary princes simply need to continue the practices of their predecessors that made the people content enough not to revolt. New princes must establish control over their state, whether it's one they have recently conquered or one they've seized in a coup.

I think it's a mistake to reduce The Prince though. What sets Machiavelli apart is his style, the way he articulates his arguments and advances his philosophy for ruling a principality. He draws on specific cases, both from ancient (usually Roman) history and recent events in 15th-century Italy. Consequently, I've learned more about Italian history from The Prince than any other source. Fifteenth-century Italy was one fucked up place, and it's no wonder that Machiavelli felt the need to write The Prince.

In both The Prince and Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli makes heavy use of examples from ancient Rome. In comparing contemporary Italy to the times that preceded it, Machiavelli usually finds his own time lacking. Although he's a staunch republican, if you read only The Prince, you probably wouldn't know it. Maybe Machiavelli wrote it only as an attempt to get into the good graces of the Medicis. From the way he speaks wistfully of Rome—both republic and empire—I couldn't help but get a sense that Machiavelli's outlining what he sees as the qualities Italy needs in a leader who will restore the country's former glory. As a student of history, Machiavelli knows that Italy was once strong—and unified. Even in Discourses, Machiavelli says that only a single man can found a republic (Chapter 9: "How It Is Necessary for a Man to Act Alone in Order to Organize a Republic Anew. . ."). The Prince, then, is a programme for good leadership of a state. More than just keeping power, The Prince is about being great (a condition that Machiavelli never conflates with morality).

For those of us who live in democracies, we don't always have a clear understanding of exactly what duties occupy the mind of a prince. Machiavelli's writing has certainly been eye-opening and educational for me, simply because he comments on matters that I would never think about. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that some aspects of Machiavelli's pragmatic advice still apply. For example, chapters 17, 18, and 19 elucidate the difference between applying necessary cruelty and engendering contempt or hatred. Machiavelli is, if anything, meticulous in his reasoning. He has no scruples about "misremembering" history or, as is the case in his biography of Castruccio Castracani, outright fabricating it. But when it comes to his arguments, each one is carefully constructed and advanced in order to convince.

I have nothing but praise for this particular edition as well. It's a serendipitous Christmas gift from a friend. I had to read a few chapters of The Prince for a philosophy class, so I took the opportunity to read the entire book (and the "other writings" included here). This edition has notes at the end of every chapter that explain historical references, possible translation problems, and most importantly, mistakes made by Machiavelli. The introduction, timeline, and brief biography of Machiavelli were also helpful in providing context—as previously mentioned, I found this book an informative source of Italian history as well as political philosophy. The inclusion of both The Prince and excerpts from Discourses on Livy provides a contrast of Machiavelli's work that's quite useful. I found The Prince more comprehensive (although this could be bias, as the book only has excerpts from Discourses), but Discourses is a fascinating look at Machiavelli's republican sensibilities, as well as his thoughts on the use of religion in republics.

The Prince is essential for anyone interested in political philosophy. Machiavelli's work has retained its fame for a reason: it is both a philosophical and a rhetorical masterpiece. It's a mistake to write it off either as satire or as some sort of dark endorsement of immoral deeds. That scholars more intelligent and more knowledgeable than I still debate some of the meaning behind Machiavelli's words attests to the their complexity. As for me, while I don't think I'll be acquiring a new principality any time soon, now I feel more prepared should that happen.

9. Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was

by Barry Hughart

Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was cover image
ISBN:
9780345321381
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 278 pages
Published:
Del Rey, 1984

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I'm starting to get to the age where I'm reading books now and saying, "Why wasn't this published when I was younger?! This is what I've been missing all these years; this fills the gap that, until it was filled, I never knew existed!" Although Bridge of Birds was published before I was born, it still provokes a similar feeling (one of, "Why didn't I know about this when I was younger?").

There's something seductive about fables and fairy tales—the real, often grim fairy tales that lurk in the subconscious of every culture. In showing us "an ancient China that never was," Barry Hughart embraces the atmosphere of a fable and the kernel of darkness it should contain. Reading Bridge of Birds was fulfilling—not only cathartic, but reassuring.

The repetitive structure of the plot (quest, then return to the village, quest, etc.) combines with the rhythmic style of the prose to manipulate one's emotions. Although Bridge of Birds has a happy ending, with the heroes vanquishing the villain and freeing the damsel in distress, there's a sinister sense that they got off easy and that more was at stake than was ever apparent. There are books that have happy endings because they are "feel good" books that put little at stake. Then there are books that have happy endings because they have something to say about happiness. Bridge of Birds is the latter.

But here I am, talking in vague generalities. One reason I'm doing this is that Bridge of Birds, to me, feels like a complete narrative only when considered as a whole … analyzing the individual parts of the story removes them from the context they need to remain vital. As the ending of the story reveals, it's impossible to understand the quest for the Great Root of Power without understanding the Duke of Ch'in and why he must be deposed. But why believe me? Li Kao, although he has a slight flaw in his character, says it best:

This is a fellow who arranged things so that anyone who went after him would have to wander through the landscape of a homicidal fairy tale, which makes no sense if you think of him as a great and powerful ruler, but which makes perfect sense if you think of him as he once was: a cowardly little boy lying in bed at night, staring in terror at every noise and seeing monsters in every shadow. He grew older, but it can scarcely be said that he grew up, because he was so frightened at the thought of death that he was willing to commit any crime, and even to lose his heart if it would keep him from the Great Wheel of Transmigrations.

This is a diagnosis of the Duke of Ch'in that strikes me as accurate, not just of the character but of the evils he represents. Hughart is also a master of foreshadowing in this book, and as the Duke of Ch'in's identity falls into place and we learn how he came to be so powerful, we see just how well Hughart laid out the steps leading up to the climax: the myth of the Princess of Birds and Star Shepherd, the scrutinizing powers of the Old Man of the Mountain, the tales of ginseng.

It's true that there's an inordinate amount of coincidence in the book, so much so that it becomes almost trite. Yet I'm inclined to forgive Hughart; he takes a gamble, and it pays off.

Aside from his above remarks, and his oft-repeated introductory phrase, I most enjoyed Li Kao for his interpretation of why Number Ten Ox and Miser Shen were devoted to Lotus Cloud but he was not. Master Li's "slight flaw" in his character prevented him from attaining the innocence of these other two, and thus prevented him from seeing Lotus Cloud's hidden godly nature. In that sense, I suspect the Duke of Ch'in is guilty of having supernumerary flaws of character. Master Li has lived long and has grown too cynical to stay completely uncorrupted. He has lived well, however, and preserved his sense of adventure and justice. The Duke of Ch'in, on the other hand, has lived too long, and has not lived well. His longevity has made him a more perverted, corrupted, and more cowardly man than he was in his youth. I found the contrast between the Duke and Master Li the most striking; there were many others, such as the brain/brawn pairing of Li and Number Ten Ox, and the transformations of Henpecked Ho and Miser Shen.

For such a short book, there's an awful lot to Bridge of Birds. The book's description doesn't do it justice and in fact doesn't let on to what actually takes place in the story. As such, Bridge of Birds is something of a hidden gem: it is far more fantastical, much more magical, than what one would initially expect. Suspend your scepticism along with your disbelief, and Bridge of Birds will win over your heart (just don't put it in a box in the middle of a city at the bottom of a lake).

8. The Remains of the Day

by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day cover image
ISBN:
9780886194444
Format:
Trade Paperback, 252 pages
Published:
Lester, Orpen and Denny, 1989

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I have long had a somewhat unhealthy admiration of British humour, which is somehow superior to most other forms of humour in its unique blend of intelligence and absurdity. And no institution, as it is portrayed in fiction, epitomizes British humour better than that of the British butler. Think of Blackadder (in Blackadder the Third) or Batman's Alfred. These unflappable, infallible men serve their employers with a grace that almost defies description. Even in the direst of emergencies, they carry on like it is the most routine circumstance imaginable. There's a word for that.

It's dignity.

In The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro dares to define dignity and give it a voice. My reservations about Ishiguro's narration from Never Let Me Go are absent here: Stevens is a wonderful narrator. His very self-conscious, hesitant attempts at introspection concealed as recollection are just one example of why this book is best described as charming.

Ishiguro demonstrates his talent for using the personal stories of his characters as windows into the past. During his time serving Lord Darlington, Stevens was privy to—but did not participate in—many meetings by very important persons in between the two world wars. We see the master through the eyes of the servant, and Ishiguro brings the unreliability of a first-person narrator to bear, portraying Darlington with all the confusion and inconsistency that the haze of memory conveys.

For the fact of the matter is that Stevens is a very biased narrator, something that is crucial to the theme of this book. We all too often forget that others lived through the history we receive only as story, much revised and often laden with judgement. As someone who learned about World War II from history textbooks, written as they are by the victors, my conception of Nazi Germany has always been a stark and absolute one. As it becomes clear through Stevens' recollections that Lord Darlington was a staunch supporter of appeasement, Ishiguro gives us a glimpse at why intelligent people like Neville Chamberlain could advocate for a policy like appeasement. The Remains of the Day captures not only the events of the past but their essence in a way only fiction can.

Stevens' trip through the English countryside of 1956 presents a contrast to his heyday serving Lord Darlington. Stevens is the last of a dying breed of butlers serving a dying breed of nobility, as evidenced by his difficulty bantering with his new employer, Mr. Farraday. The people he meets on his journey invariably mistake Stevens as a gentleman himself—and he does not always disabuse them of this notion, perhaps out of a sense of pride, but more because of the awkwardness of the situation. In his decades of attempting to cultivate the "dignity" he believes makes a great butler, Stevens has acquired more gentlemanly traits than many who call themselves gentlemen by breeding and blood. He is noble in character if not in deed—a situation that Stevens seems constantly to regret as he reviews his life and his profession.

There's a subtle sense of sadness to The Remains of the Day. Even when Stevens recounts his proudest professional moments, they are tinged with personal loss: the death of his father, and the loss (in more ways than one) of Miss Kenton. Stevens always treats his own feelings cautiously and with a certain dismissive attitude that is easy to mistake for naivety. It's not as simple a case of denial. It might have started as denial in the past, but from the tone of his recollections and the way he phrases some of his opinions, it's clear that Stevens realizes some what of he has missed. He has regrets, but he is at heart a practical man. And he is alone. There are no equals in whom he can confide, not since he has lost touch with the fellow butlers he respected. So Stevens seeks solace in his memories.

The finer aspects being a butler may seem like mundane fodder for a novel. Yet it's that quotidian quality that makes those memories so powerful and The Remains of the Day such a sublime story. The mundane has meaning. Every conversation that Stevens recalls, whether accurate or not, is important; the more ordinary such a conversation seems, the more important it must be—otherwise, why would he remember it? Ishiguro chooses to investigate the vagaries of human existence not in an emperor or a warrior but a butler. As the reactions of the villagers remind us, Stevens exists in that nexus between worlds, neither of the nobility nor quite a part of the common people.

Times have changed since the 1950s. Divisions still exist in society, although they too have changed. But people, for the most part, haven't changed. Like Stevens, we walk the fine line between personal and professional, and at the end of each day, we look at what remains and ask if it's worth it, if we've done well. If we're content. And so, in keeping with a long literary tradition, Ishiguro explores the human condition through a butler. I could not ask for more.

7. American Gods

by Neil Gaiman

American Gods cover image
ISBN:
9780380789030
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 588 pages
Published:
HarperCollins, 2000

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Oh, let me count and enumerate the many and various ways I love Neil Gaiman and, in particular, American Gods. I love it because I am insecure and, at times, unsure of my love for it. I love it because it isn't perfect, yet it's still wonderful. I love it because it promises gods and gives us people, and somewhere along the way, somehow, Gaiman manages to make me cry about the death of a goddess who eats people with her vagina.

American Gods holds a special place in my heart, because it is, for me, a problematic work. I cannot remember if this is the first or second book I read by Gaiman, but it has the quixotic and peculiar quality in that I forget how much I like it after I've read it. I'll gush, like I'm doing in this review, but then a year will elapse, and I'll start thinking, "Was American Gods really as good as I thought?" And it isn't just the gushing review that triggers this—there's something dubious about the premise of the book, and the way Gaiman builds up to it, that prevents my mind from fully accepting my unconditional praise and enthusiasm for the story. American Gods is also problematic because I have read it three times now, and I am still not sure I get what it is about.

The book begins with Shadow being released from prison and subsequently being hunted down by the Call and agreeing to work for Mr. Wednesday. While Gaiman's allusions to mythology and literature are obvious, they are also a smoke-screen for the book's underlying subtlety. On the surface, American Gods is about the war between the old gods and the new. The former came to America with immigrants; the latter have arisen as society collectively starts to worship new technologies and sentiments. Now the new gods are poised to annihilate the old ones, who have been growing weaker and fading away any way. Our first indication that the story goes deeper than a mere war among gods lies with Shadow and how he reacts to his role.

Shadow is very difficult to like as a protagonist. He never quite freaks out like many of us would expect. Gods are real, OK. His dead wife is walking around because he tossed a gold coin on her grave, OK. He's made a pact with the Slavic deity Czernobog which, among other things, lets Czernobog take a hammer to his head when all is said and done. All of these incredible events are happening around him, and it rolls off him with so much water. He never quite gets to the point where showing emotion is required. For that reason, I always picture him as a big, glum sort of fellow. Then again, this should not surprise us. His name is Shadow after all, intended to be ironic because of his physically-imposing stature, but remarkably apt for his personality as well.

As a result of this emotional calmness, Shadow often seems passive, even when he is not. He seems to be going along with what the gods have in mind for him, regardless of whether it is in his best interests. Yet Shadow is actually quite assertive, and he shows a great deal of initiative. He sets his wages when considering Mr. Wednesday's offer of employment. He recruits Czernobog with his fatal checkers game, saving Mr. Wednesday a good deal of time. He uncovers the true identity of Hinzelmann in his spare time.

Shadow's apparent inaction is a symptom of a larger stillness to American Gods. There is this war going on, but for most of the book it's a cold war. Mr. Wednesday and Shadow travel across America to recruit other gods in Wednesday's battle plan, and when Shadow isn't acting as bodyguard and driver, he's hanging out in a suspiciously nice-looking village. Despite Wednesday's assurances that "a storm is coming," chapters pass in which nothing urgent seems to be happening. Shadow has ominous encounters with spooks, but it is not immediately clear how these further the plot.

It turns out, no big surprise, that this book is not really about the war between gods at all. I don't really want to include spoilers (although I don't think it's hard to figure this out, and it's rather enjoyable piecing it together), but let's just say that Wednesday's fascination with con games is very relevant. American Gods is Shadow's journey from mediocrity to an awareness of a grander mythology. His evolving role from spectator to minor player to major intervenor allows Gaiman to sink us gradually into his exploration of the interaction between immigrants, the gods and stories they bring with them, and the New World itself. Above all, he emphasizes that there is something about America that makes it inimical to gods. The buffalo man tells Shadow that "this is not a land for gods," and later on Whiskey Jack reiterates that:

"Look," said Whiskey Jack. "This is not a good country for gods. My people figured that out early on. There are creator spirits who found the earth or made it or shit it out, but you think about it: who's going to worship Coyote? He made love to Porcupine Woman and got his dick shot through with more needles than a pincushion. He'd argue with rocks and the rocks would win.

"So, yeah, my people figured out that maybe there's something at the back of it all, a creator, a great spirit, and so we say thank you to it, because it's always good to say thank you. But we never built churches. We didn't need to. The land was the church. The land was the religion. The land was older and wiser than the people who walked on it. It gave us salmon and corn and buffalo and passenger pigeons. It gave us wild rice and walleye It gave us melon and squash and turkey. And we were the children of the land, just like the porcupine and the skunk and the blue jay.…

"This is wild rice country. Moose country. What I'm trying to say is that America is like that. It's not good growing country for gods. They don't grow well here. They're like avocados trying to grow in wild rice country."

So beyond the eternal march of progress, and with it the rise of new paradigms and new gods who challenge the old ones, lies this sentiment that America is just not good land for gods. Thus, the title becomes a paradox: what is an "American" god? These imported deities? The new gods of technology and media? Or the land that provides?

Because they don't have the power to decide this. They don't really make the rules, though they have all become adept at manipulating them, Mr. Wednesday most of all. Humans have the power; humans create gods through their stories, their beliefs, their rituals, and their ideas. We create dark and horrible gods by killing children and worshipping their bones; we create gods of great power and great beauty. And when we stop believing in these gods, cast them aside, they lose power and begin to fade away.

I guess I don't really understand why I love American Gods so much. It's a striking journey across a landscape of beliefs and ideas. Gaiman doesn't stop very long in any one place, choosing instead to forge ahead and let us fill in the rest. It's more than a story about "old gods versus new gods." But I feel utterly unable to communicate why I love this book, why it has carved out a permanent place in my thoughts. There's just something significant to it, to the way Gaiman personifies and then nullifies gods, managing to make them both more and less than myth and legend. The result is something that is not quite a fairy tale yet is more than a thriller or a simple mystery. And it kind of haunts me.

It's just interesting, OK? Plus, the paperback edition I own is just the perfect size.

6. The Speed of Dark

by Elizabeth Moon

The Speed of Dark cover image
ISBN:
9780345481399
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 369 pages
Published:
Del Rey, 2002

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

If I continue reading books this good, then 2010 will be a hard year for reviewing indeed. I had trouble capturing my appreciation for the scope of Anathem, and it took what seemed like forever to formulate a half-decent review of Bridge of Birds. Now Elizabeth Moon has gone and delivered what might be the most complex piece of fiction I've read in months (I'm counting Anathem here too). It's infuriating! When I read a great book, I want to write a great review. The pressure is on!

I don't doubt the veracity of Moon's portrayal of autism in the form of Lou Arrendale. However, her character sketch is far more powerful than that: she portrays someone who is inescapably different from the majority of his society. This is something with which we can all identify, even if we have very little idea of what it would it feel like to be autistic. We all have moments where we feel the uneven walls of society close in, where we question the obviously insane rituals society has inculcated on us.

Watching Lou grow and change even over the short time for which we know him is a rewarding experience. Every relationship, every interaction brings something new to the table and makes the reader look at quotidian events in a new light—sometimes with wonder, perhaps, and often with consternation, but always with an appreciation of how fragile a construction "normal" is.

As well-developed a character as Lou is, few of the other characters in the book approach his level of detail. The two major antagonists, Crenshaw and Don, were both one-dimensional. Although Moon justifies their antagonism fine, as people they didn't feel very real. In particular, Crenshaw lacked the guile to make him a believable villain. I could see him bullishly pursuing his disastrous plan for section A, but behaving that way in front of the police? In front of Aldrin? He should have been somewhat sneakier. Likewise, Don's fate is inevitable from the moment we see him set against Lou. The relationships of the people in Lou's life are interesting, but the people themselves are not.

I have similar feelings about the Lou at the end of The Speed of Dark. I cannot countenance his decision to undergo the treatment, but I recognize that Moon was making a statement about it being an individual's choice—pressuring Lou or anyone else to undergo a treatment to become "normal" is wrong, but if Lou elects to have the treatment … can we really justify denying it to him? Nevertheless, some part of Lou was lost—he himself admits this, but it does not bother the new Lou.

Had we more time to get to know the new Lou, maybe I would feel different. On this more abstracted level, the ending's flaw is apparent: even if one agrees with Lou's decision to undergo the treatment, the ending is too rushed to allow us a fair evaluation of his adjusted character. We get a glimpse at the new Lou and exposition of his future, but a very shallow sense of the man. This is all the more disappointing when compared to the deep and detailed exploration of Lou's mind for the first 330 pages. The Speed of Dark reaches a dazzling, virtuoso crescendo for its crisis moment, as we wonder if Lou will undergo the treatment and what it will mean for him—and for us. And then it fizzles.

The Speed of Dark is a paradigm case of science fiction that isn't science fiction. By that I mean: science fiction that lacks the overt trappings commonly associated with works of science fiction, the type of conventions that deter non-science fiction fans from reading the genre. Set slightly in the future and occasionally mentioning technology we don't have (like anti-aging treatments), The Speed of Dark's "science fiction component" seldom intrudes on the narrative and almost never intruded on my consciousness. I'm not knocking more overt works of science fiction, but I have to laud Moon for her ability to tell a story with such precision of her artifice.

I set out to write this review with every intention of giving The Speed of Dark four stars. I wanted to give it five stars, I really did, but as nearly perfect as the book may be, there are parts that I just wish were different. There were characters who didn't work, and I did not enjoy the ending as much as I enjoyed the journey toward it. And if it weren't for the fact that I did enjoy the majority of the book so much, I could let most of its flaws slide—then again, if that were the cause, it probably wouldn't be worthy of a five-star rating anyway, and I wouldn't have this problem.

The fact is, that five-star rating you see attached to this review was inevitable. I tried to fight it, I did. But the book made me! Despite its flaws, despite my ardent discomfort with the book's ending, The Speed of Dark is just that good. And I need to emphasize that in a way only four stars never could. This is not a perfect book—few books, even ones that I give five stars, are—nor does it approach perfection in any asymptotic sense. The Speed of Dark is a necessary book. It's one of the few books I would venture to say everyone should read.

5. Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State

by Tarek Fatah

Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State cover image
ISBN:
9780470841167
Format:
Hardcover, 410 pages
Published:
Wiley, 2008

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Fundamentalism scares me. Like, causes me to despair and lament the future of human civilization scares me. Fundamentalists seem so diametrically opposed to progress, freedom, and education that I fear what will happen if ever they attain a critical mass of power. Fundamentalism is universal in its appeal to the irrationality of our species: it is not just limited to any one religion. We cannot fight it by identifying a religion with its fundamentalist base and rejecting it; we cannot say, "Terrorists who were Muslim destroyed the Twin Towers, therefore Islam is bad." We're more mature and nuanced than that, right?

I sure hope so. And so does Tarek Fatah, because his book, Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State, is an appeal to logic and rationality. "Islam is in danger" extremists chant, and yes, it is—in danger from them.

Chasing a Mirage is divided into three parts. Fatah first uses present claimants to the title "Islamic state" to investigate what this term means. Then he delves into the history of Islam and examines past countries that Islamists want to use a templates for a the Islamic state. Finally, he singles out some particular examples of how the Islamist agenda is furthered in Western countries. Each of these sections alone would be worth reading. Together, they form a compelling argument both fascinating and bleak.

In "Part One: The Illusion" Fatah elaborates on what he means by the term Islamic state. He uses three contemporary countries—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran—as case studies. These countries both claim to be "Islamic states" in one form or another, and many readers (including myself) associate these countries with Islam. Fatah also looks at Palestine, which he feels is in danger of being hijacked by extremists in an ill-advised attempt to turn it into an Islamic state. In all of these cases, Fatah highlights how attempts to transform Islam into a political system in addition to a religious one have become mired in corruption and human rights abuses. His argument is simple: if these are examples of Islamic states, then he does not want one.

Central to the concept of Islamic state is the supremacy of Islam. Simple enough: there is no god but God (or Allah, if you prefer), and we worship him based on the revelations in the Quran given to us by the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. In an Islamic state, Islam is more than just a state religion. Rather, the entire political and judicial systems are codified according to Islamic practices and principles. Or at least, that is the theory. As Fatah demonstrates in Part 2, there aren't really Islamic principles for politics. However, I am getting ahead of myself.

In their zeal to spread Islam, proponents of the Islamic state lose sight of the little things in life, like, say, human rights. Societies like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have institutionalized a form of hierarchical racism in which Arab Muslims are at the top and non-Arab Muslims are treated like second-class citizens, often as poorly as non-Muslims. At times, this has resulted in genocidal or near-genocidal atrocities, both against non-Muslims and even other Muslims. Fatah spares us no detail as he recounts Pakistan's bloody history. That such actions are committed in the name of Islam is a travesty, for what does it say of one's religion if it condones such violence and abuses? Where in the Quran does it say, "Arabs number 1! Arabs number 1!"?

The fact of the matter, as Fatah explains it, is that the Quran contains no outline for the "Islamic state" that Islamists want. Indeed, apparently even the Islamists don't have a consistent idea of what "Islamic state" means across the board: "Among Pakistan's imams and Islamic scholars, no two agreed on the fundamental definition of either an 'Islamic State' or a 'Muslim.'" This last tactic is all too common:

… the only beneficiaries of the Islamic State were the tyrants who ruled Muslim populations and who were able to silence opposition by getting the Ulema [religious scholars:] to declare that opposition to their government was opposition to Islam.

If someone opposes you, obviously he or she is an apostate. Conveniently, Islamists believe the punishment for apostasy is death. As a result of such an extremist view, Islam has been hijacked.

As horrible as the human rights abuses perpetrated in the name of Islam are, I am even more troubled by this subversion and rejection of democracy. Democracy is a delicate flower that is beautiful when it flourishes but wilts all too easily. Once in decline, it is very difficult to restore. Islamists have often come to power through democratic means, but once in power they turn democracy into a sham, if they bother keeping it around at all. Iran is an example of this subversion of democracy: although their president is nominally elected by the people, elections in Iran are anything but free of intimidation. Worse, the policy implemented by the ayatollahs of Iran "virtually guarantees that no matter what the people of Iran want, they will not be able to dislodge the Islamic theocracy by democratic means." Instead, Fatah notes, "Not all ayatollahs in Iran agree with the current leadership.… It is quite likely that the changes the Iranian people desire in their country may come from within the religious establishment." Despite having just spent an entire chapter discussing the problems with Iran, Fatah remains optimistic about its potential for recovery:

… as long as even a handful of such Iranian clerics speak their mind, and as long as Iranian women rebel against the oppressive misogyny of the mullahs, there is hope for the Iranian revolution to reach its intended potential, a secular democracy where Iran can again play the historic role it once did. A free and democratic Iran where ayatollahs become the people's moral compass, not their executioners, would trigger a renaissance in the rest of the Muslim world.

Eloquently put, and right too. I am no fan of Iran. However, in opposing the ayatollahs it behoves one not to demonize them like they have done with the West. This only engenders more hatred and mistrust, and that is something we can ill afford.

Having looked at present-day Islamic states and found them wanting, Fatah decides to look to history for examples of an Islamic state worth emulating. He does this not on a whim but because Islamists often speak of a "golden age" of Islam. So Fatah looks at the period following the death of the Prophet, where Muslims were ruled by the four "Rightly Guided Caliphs." Then he looks at three other examples of empires nominally based on Islamic principles. The result is pretty much what one would expect, especially after reading Part 1. In all cases, these politicians use and abuse Islam to gain power and stay in power. Some of these empires achieved both zeniths and nadirs of civilization. There is no evidence, however, that any of these states witnessed a "golden age." And sometimes it seemed like living as a Muslim, especially a non-Arab Muslim, in an Islamic state sucks pretty bad. And if an Islamic state is a place where not even Muslims want to live … well, who exactly wants it?

"Part Two: The Genesis" is my least favourite section of Chasing a Mirage. It is long, almost too long, and at times it becomes mired in details as Fatah enthusiastically accounts for every name and place and factor involved in the current episode. That being said, there is nothing in this section that feels superfluous. I could not suggest removing anything just to make it shorter, and I cannot fault it for being comprehensive. All I can say is that you will probably want to take this section slowly. Read it a chapter at a time while relaxing with another book.

The final section of the book, "Part Three: The Consequences," is a nice little reward to those who persevered through Part 2. Fatah devotes a chapter each to sharia law, jihad, and the wearing of the hijab, ultimately concluding that each of these phenomena are part of the Islamist agenda in the West. This is where Fatah gets the most opinionated and the most personal, since as a founding member of the Muslim Canadian Congress he was often involved in these issues. On a somewhat nationalistic note, I also want to add that I appreciate how when Fatah says, "this country" he means Canada, not the United States. Obviously I need to read more books about Canadian politics.

Part 3 reminds me of Multiculturalism without Culture, by Anne Phillips. Like Philips, Fatah is concerned that simplistic ideas of unified cultures are being used against us: "In Ottawa, the lobbying by Islamist groups is relentless, putting politicians of all stripes on the defensive as they fear they might be labelled racist or Islamophobic if they criticize Islamists." Islam, like every other religion, is not monolithic. Muslim culture, like every other culture, is not monolithic. It behoves us to understand this and reject the attitudes of Islamists, who eagerly label as apostates any Muslim who disagrees with them.

I was pleased to see that, in addition to rejecting the Islamist requirement that women wear the hijab, Fatah supports a woman's right to wear the hijab if she chooses. From his vitriolic rejection of the former I feared a rejection of the latter as well. Fortunately, Fatah remains consistently pro-choice, which is how I see the matter: in both cases, the government removes freedom of choice. It is not enough to protest against bans of the hijab or the burka; one must also protest against the requirement to wear such coverings. It boggles my mind that some people would indoctrinate their daughters to believe that, if they don't cover their hair, some man will rape them and get them pregnant (for one thing, what does that say about men?!). It boggles my mind that otherwise progressive Muslims will, with a straight-face, parrot the hypocrisy of Islamists who denounce terrorism while calling for jihad. If Muslims and non-Muslims alike want to rehabilitate the image of Islam in the West, we must restore it to the tenets of gender equality preached in the Quran and ignore those voices who call for the submission of women and the demonization of the Other. We must strive to better educate ourselves about these issues, lest in our ignorance we fall prey fundamentalists and extremists, from whatever religion or creed they hail.

Multiculturalism does not mean "separate rules for separate cultures." It is am embrace of every culture, a commitment to preserve freedom of choice. I don't care if you worship Yaweh, Allah, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or even if you don't worship a god at all: treat me like a human being, and I will treat you like a human being. Because that's what matters. And as an added bonus, I promise that even if you don't wear a hijab, I will somehow manage to refrain from stoning you on suspicion of adultery.

Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State is an eye-opening look at the political history of Islam. Tarek Fatah reaffirms Islam as a peaceful, progressive religion and condemns those extremists who would reshape it into something otherwise. Fatah's rejection of the Islamic state is threefold: firstly, Islamists' claim that "Islam is in danger" without an Islamic state is false; secondly, the so-called Islamic states of the past to which Islamists point as "golden age" templates are anything but golden; finally, this struggle to achieve an Islamic state damages what Fatah labels the "state of Islam" that he believes is core to Muslim identity. Furthermore, Fatah does not do what frustrates me about so much of political non-fiction today; he does not say, "this book is merely an attempt to make you aware of the problems" in order to avoid proposing solutions. Chasing a Mirage is full of solutions, alternatives, and hope. This is without a doubt one of the best books I've read all year—and I've been having a pretty good year for reading, so I don't say this lightly. Oh, and the "manufacturer's warranty" included at the end is hilarious.

4. A Short History of Nearly Everything

by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything cover image
ISBN:
9780385660044
Format:
Paperback, 560 pages
Published:
Doubleday, 2003

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I cannot recommend this book enough. No word of hyperbole: this is a book that everyone should read. Bill Bryson takes the span of human existence and produced a popular history of science that's both accurate and moving. A Short History of Nearly Everything is a celebration of science, but it also evokes the sense of wonder about the universe that science makes available to us. And, almost inevitably, it underscores how much we still have yet to learn about our world.

Throughout history, one of the common arguments against the expansion of science has been something to the effect of "science removes the mystery" of the universe. Well, yes, that's kind of the point. But what opponents to scientific investigation usually mean to say, explicitly or not, is that because we know more about the universe, somehow that makes the universe less wonderful. Somehow a universe of quarks and gluons is less romantic than a universe powered by God. Thus, the argument goes, we shouldn't get too serious about this science stuff—it's depressing.

My response: Are you on crack?

I have just as much trouble fathoming how opponents of science find science depressing and nihilistic as they have trouble fathoming how I find science awesome. It seems self-evident to me that science is wonderful, that it is truly the most appropriate vehicle we have for appreciating our existence. But maybe that's just me, and obviously it's not everyone. So what A Short History of Nearly Everything does is level the playing field, extend the olive branch, if you will. Just as this review isn't an anti-religion diatribe, A Short History barely mentions religion. It doesn't talk about Galileo's persecution by the Church or the rise of creationism and intelligent design in the United States. Bryson and his book are above that. They reaffirm a sentiment I already have, and one I hope you share, either prior to or after reading this book.

Science is fucking awesome.

Sure, one can't understand every scientific concept that one comes across. But that's to be expected. Wave-particle duality is tricky stuff. Just as anyone can become a good handyman with some common sense and little experience, anyone can learn a little bit about quantum mechanics—but if you want to build a quantum house, you'll need many years of experience under your belt.

Even we amateurs, however, can appreciate how cool it is that, for example, our bodies are made of stardust. The heavier elements, of which we are mostly composed, were forged in the crucibles of supernovae light-years away. We're here because some star died for us, and all the atoms managed to travel to Planet Earth. We're here because the Sun pumps out photons that heat our atmosphere, so we don't freeze, and the ozone layer reflects some of the photons away, so we don't fry. Our existence is temporal and transitory and tentative. But we do exist. And regardless of one's stance toward religion, this simple fact is a miracle.

So science can give us miracles too. What Bryson does is take bits and pieces of science, put them in a historical context, and show us the miracles they contain. The result is an appreciation and a better understanding of how the world works.

This is a rather long book—my edition is over 400 pages—and I have to admit it took me a longer time to re-read it than I had anticipated. It's worth the time. Every section is informative and interesting. Although I have a soft spot for physics, the chapters on relativity and quantum mechanics aren't my favourite—perhaps because I've already learned about the concepts elsewhere, so it felt a little redundant. Instead, I really enjoyed reading about the rise of geology, chemistry, and taxonomy. From this book I've learned that fossilization is a risky business; there's way more species hiding everywhere on and underneath the planet than we'll probably ever find; and if I happen to still be alive in a few thousand years, I should probably get volcano insurance.

Even while educating us, Bryson emphasizes how much we don't know. Sometimes the media likes to portray science or scientific theories as "complete" when they are anything but. Perhaps here is where that niggling nihilism starts to rear its head for some people, for Bryson makes it clear that with some things, we probably just can't know, at least not in a timely fashion. On the macroscopic level, once we get out to about the range of Pluto, the distances are so vast as to be almost insurmountable. On the microscopic level, Planck and Heisenberg ensured there would always be a little uncertainty. But I'm OK with that. Preserves the mystery, after all. And provides yet more challenges.

Our ignorance also carries with it a sense of helplessness. We aren't very good at tracking near-Earth objects, for instance, which means if an asteroid does strike us sometime in the near future, we probably won't see it until it hits the atmosphere. Then it will be too late. And even if we did, we don't have the capability to destroy or divert it. Still, lifting the veil of ignorance on one's ignorance is essential to improving one's ability to think critically about science. Who knows: maybe A Short History will inspire some kid to go into astronomy or engineering and invent better asteroid detection equipment.

The upshot of this—as Bryson likes to put it, because his writing style is peppered with repeated phrases like this—is that Bryson presents both the good and the bad of science. As much as science is wonderful, it's also a human enterprise, and we humans are notoriously fallible instruments. Scientists are not immune—indeed, practically prone—to taking credit for another person's work; Bryson is quick to interject anecdotes about the personalities, quirks, and flaws of the persons of interest in the book.

On that note, I wish I kind of had some sort of fact-checking utility for this book. Of course there are references and a bibliography, and Bryson claims in the acknowledgements that various reputable experts have reviewed the material. As much as I love A Short History, however, it is popular science and prone to simplification. So take the anecdotal parts with a grain of salt—for example, contrary to what Bryson claims, NASA didn't destroy the plans for the Saturn V lander (the real problem is trying to find enough reliable vintage parts to construct the thing).

Overall the quality of A Short History of Nearly Everything is just so brilliant that I can't condemn Bryson for his enthusiasm. And I still have several adjectives left, so I can also say that this book is fabulous and stupendous, and you should definitely buy a copy or hold up your local library until it produces one. And if you don't have a local library, you should construct a doomsday device and hold the Earth hostage until such an edifice is constructed in a town near you. Got it? Good.

It's a book worth reading and a book worth remembering; A Short History of Nearly Everything is science and history wrapped in a nutshell of wonder.

3. The Illustrated A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell

by Stephen Hawking

The Illustrated A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell cover image
ISBN:
9780307291172
Format:
Hardcover, 472 pages
Published:
Random House, 2002

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Welcome to our universe. We only get one (regardless of however many there are). The search for a more complete understanding of our universe, out into the macroscopic and deep into the quantum foam, is a search for an understanding of who we are, why we're here … and where we might end up. This is a book of sublime thought that takes the ivory tower and turns it into an ivory ladder that anyone, given inclination and opportunity, can choose to ascend, one rung at a time. I cannot emphasize enough how important this book is to physics: it's a Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica for the masses.

Unlike Newton's groundbreaking scientific treatise, A Brief History of Time doesn't contain Hawking's own body of scientific work, but rather an overview of the development of theoretical physics, including relativity and quantum mechanics. Yet it's as important as the Principia, for in a single book we have a comprehensive look at a field of study often considered by the general populace to be obscure and esoteric. In a few hundred pages, Hawking demonstrates why we should be interested in the universe. He explains how relativity overturned the classical theory of Newtonian gravity, how quantum mechanics has exposed the flaws in relativity, and how physicists continue to search for a theory of quantum gravity to unify relativity and quantum mechanics in a Theory of Everything.

Relativity and quantum mechanics are the foundations of physics, chemistry, and biology as we know them today. While A Brief History of Time cannot, obviously, serve as a detailed explanatory text of every phenomenon, it acquaints the reader with the two fields that underly all phenomena, from optics to cell division. Reading this book gives you understanding that will help you with future intellectual inquiries.

Even if you're not interested in science, however, and have no intention of going further than this book, there's still something in here if you've ever wondered how the universe works. Hawking does not deliver a dry lecture consisting of complicated formulae and logically-implacable mathematical theorems. There are new terms, and some of the concepts might seem counterintuitive, but Hawking always has an analogy or concrete example at the ready. I won't claim that you'll understand everything he discusses—I know I didn't. And, as Hawking points out, even the most brilliant scientists still don't have a complete understanding. At the very least, you'll have a much better appreciation of what we don't understand, and why current scientific theories about the universe work but still have certain problems.

I am immensely grateful to my grandparents, who gave me this book as a Christmas gift, for its illustrations make it superior to previous editions. Utility aside, let's be shallow for a moment: the illustrations make the book so beautiful. This is a true coffee-table book (and probably, for many people, that is all it will ever be, sadly). It's well worth reading, but it's also perfect for keeping in the living room—you can always open it up to an interesting illustration and show off your physics knowledge!

In fact, I would go so far as to say that understanding these two concepts (that there may be more than four dimensions, and that curvature in three dimensions is a straight line in four or more) contributes to an understanding of the majority of this book. The barrier here is one of geometrical conception and not physics knowledge; i.e., you don't need to be able to solve its equations to understand relativity.

Some of the illustrations are somewhat redundant or even confusing. Others are invaluable supplements. For example, both of the books hinge on the idea that the universe has more than three dimensions: there's at least four (spacetime), and probably more like 11 or 26. Now, when Hawking uses the existence of these extra dimensions to explain how relativity results in the curvature of spacetime or why gravity is weaker than it should be, it makes sense—but we can't visualize it, because it's impossible to visualize any more than three dimensions. The illustrations depict four-dimensional space as a three-dimensional diagrams (with a spatial dimension removed and replaced by the time axis), which at least gives a better idea of what Hawking means by, "The mass of the sun curves space-time in such a way that although the earth follows a straight path in four-dimensional space-time, it appears to us to move along a circular orbit in three-dimensional space."

This book isn't perfect. Hawking's original treatment of time travel, for instance, leaves much to be desired. He rectifies this in The Universe in a Nutshell, providing a much more comprehensive look at how general relativity might allow time travel. Yet other parts of the second book heavily retread what Hawking discusses in A Brief History of Time, to the point of using similar or identical examples. This is not surprising, considering the two books were published separately. My advice is that if, like me, you read these books back-to-back, then skip over any parts of The Universe in a Nutshell that you like. Even Hawking admits in the foreword that the book is designed to be less linear than A Brief History of Time; delve into those chapters that interest you and don't worry too much about reading every single word on every page.

Regardless of how one reads it, A Brief History of Time should be required reading. As its track record indicates, it has well served its purpose as an accessible physics text. This is a book that presents theoretical physics as a comprehensible, cohesive conversation between Hawking and the reader. This edition, with its illustrations and the inclusion of a second book, The Universe in a Nutshell, is perhaps the best edition of the two books published to date.

2. Ender's Game

by Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game cover image
ISBN:
9780812550702
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 324 pages
Published:
Tor, 1985

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Books can be like old friends you haven't seen in a while. Your friendship has lapsed, and there's always the fear that when you do resume contact, things will be different and you'll have changed too much to remain friends. Sometimes that's true, and the two of you go your separate ways. I've mostly found, however, that it feels like no time has passed at all. As with friends, books like that feel comfortable the moment you begin turning pages. Reading them just feels right. Emotions begin to wash over you, tinged familiar but ever so altered by the passage of time, for you are not the same person you were when you first read this story. You bring to it new insights and ideas, new prejudices and preconceptions. The experience is different, new, but its power over you remains the same. Books can be like old friends, if you let them back into your life.

I don't remember when I first read Ender's Game. I know I read the novella first, in Orson Scott Card's enormous Maps in a Mirror anthology, and sometime thereafter I read the novel and at least Speaker for the Dead. It was long enough ago that I could recall the plot but not the emotions it had evoked, aside from the fact that my opinion had been positive. Time enough, then, for a re-read.

Before I knew it, I was forty pages in, then a hundred, then over halfway through the book. The plight of Ender Wiggin may be a timeless one, but Card crafts the particulars with enchanting skill. He has a scary ability to make me love him and then hate him: one minute, I'm enjoying his description of Ender's clever new tactic or a victory over a bully; the next minute, I'm reading a sobre conversation between Valentine and Peter or between Valentine and Colonel Graff.

Because that is Card's ultimate treachery. He takes the sublimely cool concept of the Battle Room, and turns it into something twisted: a training exercise for child soldiers. At times, this uncomfortable fact is difficult to remember, because often the characters don't act like children. They are "gifted," and as such are more intellectually developed then their peers. Look deeply enough into their actions, however, and you see the psychology of a child. It's there when Bonzo tries to kill Ender, and when Ender confronts the Game. In fact, it's omnipresent in Ender's case—even as he excels at his studies and at battles, Card constantly reminds us that the military is training a boy (he's six at the beginning of the book and eleven by the end) to become a killer. Is this a justified action, considering that humanity's survival may well depend on Ender's ability to defeat the Buggers?

I don't know.

Maybe I'm the only one. Maybe everyone else who has read this book has a firm opinion on the morality of Ender, of the International Fleet, of Valentine and Peter, etc. For me, however, my ambivalence is another sign of how powerful Ender's Game is. I don't mean to assert that the best books are ones that leave you indecisive. On the contrary, I laud most books for their ability to impart a persuasive philosophy (even if I don't agree with it). Ender's Game does not do this in the sense that I think it's arguing for or against the necessity of training Ender. It's dark, in such a manner that, like Lilith's Brood, it made me feel uncomfortable with myself, made me see what preconceptions I have that I'm not sure I like. So when I say, "I don't know," what I might mean is that I do know, subconsciously, but I don't want to admit the answer to myself.

Card offers a potential justification, if we want it: Ender is a child being manipulated by adults who know the real score; he doesn't know that the simulations are real battles against Bugger fleets; he doesn't know his unorthodox strategy is actually xenocide. We don't have to accept this, however. I get the strong impression that Ender does know what's going on, even if he doesn't know the particulars. He recognizes what many characters say throughout the book: "The teachers are the enemy." He has no control over his life, and the conflict in this book is not human versus alien; it's individual versus society. He worries that he's too much like Peter, perhaps even worse than Peter, hence the irony when his attempt to fail, to wash out even if it means he won't save the world, turns out to be his most crucial success.

And after that success, what then? The world has an eleven-year-old hero on its hands, a symbol so easily manipulated. And a person so empty. Regardless of its morality, the aftermath of Ender's Game underscores the tragedy of the book's premise, and whether or not Ender is culpable, he is a tragic hero. He is broken. He is alone, because he was never close enough to Peter, and while he was once close to Valentine, we see that they can never share what they had as children. They still love each other and look out for each other, but Ender's singular experience has separated him from his sister just as it separates him from the children he commands: Bean, Petra, Dink, and the like. Card strips away the glamour of the hero and shows us the burden and loneliness of being a legend. It reminds me of Dune in this respect.

The power of Ender's Game lies in its perception and its presentation. Ender is trying to save the world from aliens; Peter is trying to save the world from itself; Valentine is caught in between her siblings, ruing the fact that events have conspired to deprive the three of them of childhood innocence. This book is not reassuring, portraying humanity as innately good and capable of triumphing over all adversity. Nor is it pessimistic, portraying humanity as something inherently unstable. It is realistic—maybe an unusual word to describe science fiction, but there you go. To borrow imagery from the novel itself, Ender's Game takes away the gravity and forces you to re-orientate.

1. A Fine Balance

by Rohinton Mistry

A Fine Balance cover image
ISBN:
9780571230587
Format:
Paperback, 614 pages
Published:
Faber and Faber, 1995

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

This is probably the most depressing book I have ever read in my entire life. Not only is its chronicling of four lives bleak and without the slightest hint of hope or redemption, but it does this with a comprehensive scope and an unforgiving manner. Even re-reading it, knowing what was going to happen, did not mitigate my sadness. If anything, it amplified my emotions, because for all of the good things that happen in this book, the moments of joy, I knew how it was all going to go wrong. And this is not some adventure story or a romance where things get bad for a few hundred pages before the protagonists rise in the face of adversity. No, in A Fine Balance, everything goes to hell. And it doesn't get better.

I could spend several paragraphs discussing how this book is depressing. Suffice it to say, A Fine Balance is set in Mumbai, India. It covers over 30 years, from independence in 1947 to the Emergency of the 1970s. Rohinton Mistry follows four characters: two tailors, Ishvar and Omprakash; the widow, Dina Dalal, who employs them in her apartment; and the college student, Maneck, rooming with the widow. These characters endure poverty, oppression, and abuse by those in power and those with power. The tailors, their relatives victims of caste violence in their village back home, arrive in Mumbai only to live in a slum that gets demolished, its slum-lord now in the pay of the government. But living on the streets is not an option, for during the Emergency police have broad discretion when it comes to "beautifying" the streets of the overcrowded, overpopulated city, and losing their residence is by far one of the lesser misfortunes that Ishvar and Om experience.

The Emergency happened before I was born, in a land far removed from me. It is nothing more than a name to me, a period in the recent history of a country related to mine by imperial ties and immigrant exchanges. So this book lacks the personal resonance it has for those who did live through this period, whether in India or abroad. And I haven't really ever experienced any of the hardships Mistry depicts here. Nevertheless, I can still appreciate A Fine Balance as a depiction of suffering during a time of turmoil and tyranny. And yeah, it is depressing, but I do not agree with those reviewers who find this a valid reason for panning the book. Mistry makes you feel sad for a reason.

While not perfect, Mistry's four protagonists are all good people. We learn this early in the book, for he recounts their past to us in a series of flashbacks so verbose as to transcend mere exposition and become true parts of the plot and narrative. Dina grows up under the thumb of her older brother, her dreams of becoming a doctor squashed by a patriarchal society. Instead she resorts to marriage as an escape, enjoys a happiness too rich to last long, and becomes a widow. For her, as with everyone, the question is how to make enough money to get by. Ishvar and Om come from a caste of tanners; their father made the defiant transition to tailoring and paid for the insolence with his life. They carry on in his tradition, but they have come to the city seeking work. Maneck has come to the city also looking for escape and edification; he is enrolled in a one-year college certification on air conditioners. He's not a very good student, but he is happy he has left his hometown, and with it his unsatisfying relationship with his father.

These are ordinary, everyday people. They do not invite the misfortune that befalls them. Why do bad things happen to good people? A Fine Balance is many things, but it is not theodicy. It is instead a look at the consequences of a certain zeitgeist present in India at the time of the emergency. We see it in the way that Ishvar, Om, Dina, and Maneck all become victims, yes, but this zeitgeist pervades the novel on every level. It is present in the attitudes of Mistry's minor characters, in the exclamations of approval from Mrs. Gupta and Nusswan regarding the Emergency and its effect on trade unions, in the derision of Beggarmaster and the guilty conscience of Sergeant Kesar. Just as ordinary people ignored the obvious injustices happening during the Holocaust, so too did ordinary people rationalize and justify the brutality and the injustices that occurred during the Emergency. Some, like Mrs. Gupta or Nusswan, do it for economic reasons, whether or not they believe such actions are truly justified—scarily enough, some do. Others, like Sergeant Kesar, care less about the political significance of their actions and more about the moral significance.

I like Sergeant Kesar. He is a very minor character, but he is an example of how Mistry manages to make the scope of his political themes so broad. There are plenty of stock characters in A Fine Balance, but for every goonda mindlessly enforcing the will of a landlord or minister, there is a Sergeant Kesar or an Ibrahim, an authority figure with a name and a face. These are antagonists or sometime-allies who, for one reason or another, are probably good people but have managed to end up in the wrong line of work at the wrong time. They struggle with their jobs, with the way they interact with people like Dina Dalal. This struggle is a poignant counterpoint to the innocent suffering of our four protagonists. The Emergency is not a monolithic movement of one group oppressing another. It is, Mistry shows us, a tumultuous period of conflict as one government tries to stay in power while elements subvert it for their own purposes.

That seems to fit with India, a country always in flux as a result of its vast population and rich history. Indira Gandhi's desecration of democracy destabilizes the country, but it is just another straw on the back of an already over-laden camel. From Ishvar and Om's backstory we learn of the deterioration of the caste system, and the resulting resistance from those, like the Thakur, who have power in the villages. From Maneck's childhood we see how urban development and expansion, commercialism and competition, are changing India's rural landscape and endangering some enterprises, like his father's general store. Dina's tale is more personal and more gendered, but it is also a story about family and independence. As she points out, independence is an illusion. We are all dependent on each other, especially in a city as big as Mumbai, and the culmination of the relationships of these four characters is an illustration of their interdependence. Ishvar and Om's detainment and disappearance profoundly affects Dina and Maneck, both personally and professionally; likewise, Dina's troubles with the landlord threaten Ishvar and Om's livelihood.

But I digress. In A Fine Balance, Mistry juxtaposes the turmoil of the Emergency with many other events occurring simultaneously to alter India's zeitgeist. The result is a snapshot of a country that has always fascinated me for its conflict and its contradictions. Mistry's descriptions of life in Mumbai, especially for the impoverished, are almost beyond my ability to grasp, so different are they from what I know. India is in that interesting zone between developing and developed nation (though I am aware such terminology is, as ever, controversial). Its economy is so huge, so rich, both real and with potential, yet its massive population faces problems of education, poverty, and health. It is a fascinating country with very real challenges, both now and in the 1970s when this novel takes place.

All this, of course, does not really address that central question: why so depressing? Why couldn't Mistry weave a thread of hope through his quilt of a story? In my opinion, Maneck's ultimate fate obviates any possible solace one might find in the tenuous equilibrium achieved by Dina, Ishvar, and Om. It is a grace note that manages to overpower the end of the book, cause shock and dismay, and colours anything that follows. I don't want to spoil it if you haven't read the book, but it is an action of such implicit nihilism that it is emblematic of the tone of A Fine Balance.

Simply put, if this book ended on a "happy" note, if Ishvar, Om, Dina, and Maneck emerged with little in way of complaint, then their suffering would have been meaningless. That is a major claim to make, I know. Other books involve characters who suffer greatly only to emerge triumphant and all the better for it, so what makes these ones different? It is both the nature and the degree of their suffering. Their experiences are so brutal, so dehumanizing, that any serious redemption would minimize them too much for the reader. In order to emerge from such experiences triumphantly, it would have to be through actions of their own doing, through some form of resistance that overcomes the adversity. This would contradict the sense of powerlessness that Mistry wants to communicate, the utter helplessness in the face of an implacable political climate created by corrupt politicians and police. Ishvar and Om are not, cannot be revolutionaries. Dina and Maneck cannot be subversives. So when they suffer and submit and then it is over … well, it cannot really be over, not until they are devastated. Mistry must administer a coup de grâce that finalizes the destruction he has plotted since page one.

This book is fiction, so it must have a beginning, middle, and end. But it is as close to being true as fiction can get, both in verisimilitude and in attitude. It is neither uplifting nor endearing but wearing. Even the most optimistic person would feel besieged by Mistry's careful and persistent erosion of everything good from the universe of A Fine Balance. And this holds up to repeated readings, because his depictions of characters both major and minor are just so vivid, so believable, so tortuously touching, that you cannot help but care about what happens to them, even when you know it will be nothing good.

And so, I am not sure what to say, except that this is one of my favourite books, and in my opinion, one of the best books ever written, period. There will always be those who disagree, who pick it up, trudge through fifty or a hundred or two hundred pages, and then declare it a waste, a wash, unimpressive or boring at best. I don't know how to respond to those people, or even if I should respond. All I can say is that few books have ever affected me so much as A Fine Balance. Many books have moved me; many have entertained me and charmed me and made me laugh and cry. But A Fine Balance has left an indelible mark upon me. It is a work of consummate skill. This book is fiction, so it must be false. But it is a sad, depressing book, because somewhere out there in the past and the present and, yes, the future, every single bit of it is, in some form, true.