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Saturday, December 18, 2004

Favorite Books of 2004 (That I Haven't Reviewed Yet), Part One

Since it is now that time of year, other bloggers have been writing up book recommendations lists. Not to be outdone, here are five of my favorite books that I've read this year that I haven't written reviews of yet. The second part is coming soon.

In no particular order:

William Dalrymple From the Holy Mountain: Journeys Among the Christians of the Middle East - In 1994 British author and journalist William Dalrymple set off from Mount Athos to follow the path of a journey taken by Saint John Moschos in the seventh century across the eastern part of the Byzantine Empire, Christianity's heartland before Islam erupted from the deserts of Arabia. Travelling through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, and Egypt he documents the continuing decline of Christianity in the lands of its birth, combining history and tales from the remarkably strange theological ferment of the Byzantine era with meetings with Christians of the region, from monks and priests to wealthy businessment to ordinary people. He shows how Christianity is draining out of the Middle East, partly as a result of violent intimidation from resurgent Islam (as in Egypt), partly as mistakes made by Christians (as with the Maronites in Lebanon), and political intimidation from non-Christian governments (as in Turkey and Israel). A wonderful book that is a sad look at a vanishing world.

Alex Kerr Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan - A passionate polemic from a long-time resident of Japan, raging against the systematic environmental destruction unleashed by the Japanese government and the construction industry, the sidelining of traditional culture in favor of cutesiness, the bureaucracy, the educational system, and the enormous wastefulness of the Japanese mania for building monuments. It is very much a work of the 'lost decade', and doesn't take into account Japan's recent economic revival. Overall, it is an excellent, hard-hitting, and provocative look at modern Japan that discusses all sorts of things that are usually ignored in Western reports of Japan.

Norman Cantor In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World it Made - In the middle of the fourteenth century a biomedical Holocaust swept Europe, eventually killing a third of the continent's population. In this book historian Norman Cantor draws together recent scientific and historical research to show the impact of the plague on England, how it swept away much of traditional life and transformed life in the future. It is a book full of unexpected insights, such as how much of modern Anglo-American property law was laid down in cases dating from the period, when the complete extermination of so many of the great aristocratic families created the need for new procedures for dealing with property issues. He also discusses how a lot of recent scientific research has shown that the bubonic plague was not the only disease, as anthrax (borne by cattle) also played an important role in the mass death.

Franklin Foer How Soccer Explains the World - American writer Franklin Foer looks at the world's most popular sport as a way of explaining modern responses to globalization. In the football context, globalization has meant both the breaking of barriers and the strengthening of tribal identities - Nigerians may be playing for Ukrainian teams, but the sectarian hatreds of Glasgow's Old Firm remain as strong as ever. This is a wonderfully entertaining book, discussing a great range of subjects, from the Red Star Belgrade hooligans who became some of the most vicious practicioners of ethnic cleansing in the Balkan Wars, to the bizarre hyperfame of referee Pierluigi Collina, to the problems of the game in Brazil, the intersection between anti-Semitism and football in Europe, the bizarre hatred of 'soccer' from much of the American media, and the role of Barcelona FC as the standard-bearers of Catalan nationalism.

Aidan Hartley The Zanzibar Chest: A Story of Life, Love, and Death in Foreign Lands - A war memoir from a white Kenyan, a child of British colonialism, who spent the 1990's working as a stringer for Reuters. Based in Nairobi, Hartley traveled throughout Africa reporting on events as they unfolded, from the horrors of the Rwandan Genocide to the chaotic collapse of Somalia to more prosaic everyday events. It's a beautifully written memoir that wryly catalogues the chaos he found surrounding him in the world and in his personal life, leavened with a great sympathy for his subjects and an unquenchable love for humanity that shines through even the most misanthropic and cynical moments.

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