Tuesday, January 01, 2013

2012 Year in Review: 12 Great Human Rights Reads

Rights Readers had a terrific reading/discussion year in 2012, I think one of our best.  Here are the books we read and enjoyed together:

In January we read Andrew X. Pham's
The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars, the 'prequel' to the author's wonderful memoir Catfish and Mandalawhich we read a few years ago. Eaves tells the story of Pham's father, from the French occupation through WWII and the Vietnam War, in powerful, elegant prose.

We read Susan Choi's novel of paranoia in the age of terrorism, A Person of Interest, in February. I enjoyed her description of academic life in a Midwestern college town, and although her tendency to overwrite slows the book down, I was very invested in the characters by the end and the story had enough 'thriller' in it to propel me forward, eager to get to the satisfying conclusion.

In March, we read A Woman Among Warlords by Malalai Joya. The real pay-off for reading about this brave pioneer for women's rights in Afghanistan was learning that she was the namesake and personal hero for the young Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai who was nearly killed this fall for advocating for education for girls like herself. We look forward to reading Malala's books some day.

We read Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife in April. This impressive debut novel set in the aftermath of the Balkan conflict combines history and folktale in a narrative quest for recovery and healing. I'll be interested to see what this young author does next.

In May, we set sail with National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis' The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World to explore human diversity in remote corners of the globe. Drawing inspiration from such endangered cultures as the seafaring navigators of Polynesia renewed our commitment to language diversity and cultural preservation.

We read Ursula Hegi's novel set on the cusp of World War II, Children and Firein June. This was the first time I read Hegi and it won't be the last. Many of the issues the characters in this novel grapple with--propaganda, reproductive health, the roles of teachers and parents as moral guides-- were especially resonant in this election year.

In July we read Avi Steinberg's memoir about working in a prison library, Running the Books.  We loved the author's humorous insights into prison culture and wise reflections on the value of reading and writing. I managed to spread the love for this book to a second book group. Don't be afraid to suggest it to yours!

As usual, in August we took a break from more serious human rights fare and read The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall. If you enjoyed Alexander McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe, you should give Indian detective Vish Puri a try.

The Devil and Mr. Casement: One Man's Battle for Human Rights in South America's Heart of Darkness by Jordan Goodman, our September selection is a hard book to recommend. The subject, British diplomat Roger Casement's efforts to expose abuses in the South American rubber industry, is fascinating (as is Casement's entire life), but the delivery here is just too dull for the casual reader. If you've read Mario Vargas Llhosa's The Dream of the Celt (which I still want to get to), or you're writing a term paper on the history of corporate accountabilty this would be a good book to consult. Otherwise, I'd hold out for a biopic.

I haven't done a formal poll to find out what our favorite book was this year, but I'd put money on Hector Tobar's The Barbarian Nurseries winning any popularity contest. And that's not just because the author kindly graced us with his presence at our discussion! This book hit all the marks for us with themes like race, class, immigration, parenting and the politics of urban landscaping in a highly readable package. And yes of course, we love a good L.A. story!

In November, we read Anna Funder's Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall. This very personal look at the lives of ordinary East Germans shocked us with how little we knew about the aftermath of reunification and the impunity granted to the secret police. Highly recommended.

Finally, this December, we have read Scenes from Village Life by Israeli novelist Amos Oz. This novel-in-stories spins unsettling tales about what's happening below the surface of a small Israeli town-- a great way to move past the familiar headlines from the Middle East and engage in a new way.

Keep an eye on the blog for news of our great 2013 picks. From what I have read of our up-coming books so far, we will have another great year.

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