To make the list, the book had to be published between December 1, 2014 and December 1, 2015.
The best human rights books of 2014 is at the end of the 2015 list.
Once Upon A Revolution: An Egyptian Story, Thannasis Cambanis, Simon & Schuster, January 20
Looking at revolutions in retrospect, you can discern (or assemble) a clear narrative composed of relations of cause and effect and identify the key moments and events, the turning points, but when you’re in the midst of it, it’s hard to get your bearings — there’s so much going on, and it seems to spread out in all directions such that it’s hard to distinguish the main plot lines from the sub-plots. For that reason, one of the challenges of writing a history of a revolution, especially a recent revolution whose repercussions are still being felt, is, on the one hand, not to over-determine things by sticking strictly to an overly coherent plot line and analysis and to give some sense of what it was like to live through it as a participant, and, on the other, not to let it spin off into a million disconnected details (which is what it can often feel like when you’re living it). Cambanis gets this just right by following some key players who represented different strands of the revolution, a liberal, a revolutionary and a Muslim Brother. The excellent documentary, “The Square”, is a good point of comparison: It does what film can often do best — puts you right in the center of the action and gives you a strong sense of what it was like to be there — , but it also has the frequent limitations of film, providing limited context and information, which can very well leave the audience confused about what it is they are seeing. The book is also analytically excellent, and reading it from an HK perspective, another supposedly “failed” revolution, you can see many of the same issues and challenges (such as the fact that a significant portion of the population remained politically somnolent and/or ignorant at a key historical moment) the countries and the revolutionaries faced as well as the strengths, weaknesses and limitations of their activism. Canbassis is deeply sympathetic towards the revolutionaries and also does a fine job critiquing their thoughts and efforts — a great balance. Though I followed the revolution closely at the time, I learned a lot from this book. Time will tell whether it’s a “failed revolution”, though at the moment it appears to be, as Egypt is in a period even darker than under Mubarak.
The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China, Chen Guangcheng; Danica Mills, translator; Henry Holt, March 10
The main plot line of this story is familiar to anyone who reads the news, but even someone such as I who probably knows Chen’s story better than most learned a lot from his book. It’s exceedingly well told, pacy, starting out with his escape, going back to his childhood, and working its way back to that moment when he’s trying to make it out of Dongshigu village and, eventually, to the US embassy in Beijing. Initial reviewers were probably a bit too obsessed with how Chen depicted the intricacies of the negotiations between himself, the US and the Partystate regarding his fate. It was an impossible situation, given that the US set itself up as Chen’s advocate to the Partystate while also working in its own perceived interest (it wanted a solution fast, wanted him out of the Embassy). Chen was probably unrealistic to think he could remain in China with his rights protected, a possibility that was raised to him early when New York University offered him a slot at its Shanghai campus, but the Partystate squelched the idea, and after that, he was pretty much doomed to exile. I found most interesting the parts where Chen tells about how he got interested in the rights of disabled people and the rights of women and families abused by the Partystate family ‘planning’ system. If anything, I would have liked to know more about the evidence of abuses Chen collected around his home region in Shandong. The impression left (and confirmed by a great many other cases) is of an abysmal society where anyone interested in advocating for rights will inevitably come up against the wrath of the Partystate. The story ends with Chen’s departure for the US, so there’s nothing in it about his misunderstanding with New York University. One senses it’s tough in exile. Hopefully, there’ll be a sequel.
The Rebel of Rangoon: A Tale of Defiance and Deliverance in Burma, Delphine Schrank, Nation Books, July 14
A welcome book about grassroots activist, it depicts the lives of young people in Rangoon fighting for democracy, closely following two in particular. The style is novelistic, impressionistic and can sometimes seem a bit sludgy but proves effective in conveying a strong sense of what it’s like to live in constant danger of harassment, torture, imprisonment or worse. Written before the stupendous results of recent elections, the story shows that it took people like these struggling for decades, often with little hope of a tangible, imminent payoff, to achieve what the National League for Democracy pulled off. Here’s hoping that it’s people like these who lead Burma in the future.
The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of the Jews in Wartime Jedwabne, Anna Bikont; Alissa Valles, translator; Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, September 15
Written in 2004, just published in English. About denial. Effective because it centers on a single incident in a single Polish village. For years, the conventional wisdom was that the Nazis had burned to death hundreds of Jews in a barn. Then, around the turn of the millennium, a historian, Jan Gross, blew that cozy consensus up with his book, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. It challenged Poles’ sense of themselves as victims of the Nazis. Yes, but not only. Bikont is a journalist and what is brilliant about her book is that she visits all the key players still alive and catches the fallout of Gross’ book. Having lived under Communist dictatorship for nearly half a century, actively promoting, as it did, false history, the Poles are belatedly coming to (or not) terms with their own long history of anti-Semitism. While this is a specifically Polish story, the patterns of denial of history, and of historical guilt, can be found in a great many societies. Reading it, I found myself thinking what a gargantuan task it will be to one day start to come to terms with the horrific crimes of the Partystate in China and its millions of complicit citizens down through the decades. How to even begin?!
China’s Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State, Nick Holdstock, I. B. Tauris, July 12
Let me start out with a gripe: Terrible title- why “China’s” forgotten people? The very issue is whether they’re China’s or not. And why couple Xinjiang and terror in the sub-title, especially when Holdstock emphasizes that’s exactly what Partystate propaganda tries to do? I imagine this was a publisher’s gambit to make the book appear more “relevant”, but it does the book a disservice, for this is simply the best single go-to book on the history of the Uighurs under Partystate rule. Its tone is exceedingly judicious and objective, and it is critical of the World Uighur Congress and other advocates for Uighurs living abroad, but it still ends up being a damning indictment of Partystate rule. The book does an especially excellent job of tracing how the Partystate developed its “terror” narrative after 9/11 even though until very recently, there were few if any clear-cut cases of terrorism. If anything, what emerges is how much we don’t know about important events over the last few decades because Xinjiang remains such a closed society, difficult to penetrate even for people who have lived there such as Holdstock. The book never really takes seriously the argument that the Uighurs deserve the right to self-determination, whether that would lead to independence or something else. That’s presumably because, as Holdstock repeatedly points out, it’s very hard, in such a repressive environment, to know what Uighurs really think. This book follows on his equally excellent memoir, The Tree That Bleeds, about when he lived in Ghulja and trying to get to the bottom of the infamous “Ghulja incident”.
China’s Human Rights Lawyers: Advocacy and Resistance, Eva Pils, Routledge, December 5, 2014
I’ll start with another gripe here, too: the price — US$160 or $59.95 on Kindle. All right, I know it’s an academic book, but surely the publisher can come up with a better arrangement to make the book more widely available. It certainly deserves to be. It is the most authoritative book on its topic yet. Pils knows inside and out the legal rights defense movement and virtually all of its key players over the last decade, and this is necessary background reading to this year’s crackdown on rights lawyers. It’s based on nearly one-hundred interviews and they make up the heart, and most interesting parts of the book. Sometimes I wish Pils would write a non-academic book and drop some of the jargon and endless qualifications of that style of writing; she certainly has a lot to tell. She’s also an excellent resource for journalists, and I’m surprised how seldom she’s quoted in their reports.
Steel Gate to Freedom: The Life of Liu Xiaobo, Yu Jie; HC Hsu, translator; Rowman and Littlefield, July 16
Another price gripe: This one US$34.66. What’s going on here? Doesn’t the publisher want people — who are not academics or libraries — to read it? It certainly deserves to be read. It’s, to my knowledge, the first biography of Liu Xiaobo to appear in English, and it’s written by a friend of his, no less. He does a great job of getting up close and personal without the hagiographical tendency one might suspect. It also deserves much more attention than it’s received. I wonder whether that lack of attention is due to lame marketing by the publisher or real lack of interest amongst the general reading public. One of the few pieces I’ve come across is Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s interview with Jean-Philippe Beja, who wrote the book’s foreword.
Empty Chairs: Selected Poems, Liu Xia; Ming Di and Jennifer Stern translators, Graywolf Press, November 3
By the woman who’s now spent years cut off from the world under extrajudicial house arrest for being the wife of Liu Xiaobo, this volume is also a fitting tribute to her. It presents a selection of her poetry from over three decades, dating back far before her husband’s most recent imprisonment, in both Chinese and English translation and accompanies them with her haunting, impressionistic photographs. Liu Xia’s poetry is of the kind often called “deceptively simple.” I call it “directly indirect.” You think she’s speaking of one thing only to discover she’s speaking of something else, or of many things. A tough, plaintive voice emerges. The title of the collection is an obvious reference to the chair left empty at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony honoring Liu Xiaobo. Here, it’s used in the plural as a metaphor both for the China of today and for the many emptinesses of our lives. The translators take the metaphor a step further in this fitting statement about the work of translating Liu Xia’s poetry and presenting it to an international audience.
Black Island: Two Years of Activism in Taiwan, J Michael Cole, CreateSpace, March 27
These collected essays are essentially about the rise of civil society in Taiwan, focusing on the period leading up to the Sunflower Movement in 2014. For us, in HK, Taiwan is a beacon as the only democratic, rights-respecing Chinese-majority society. So, too, this book shows what such a society looks like, warts and all, still coming to terms with the authoritarian legacy of Guomindang dictatorship. As a study of the development of civil society in a relatively new democracy, this is a fundamental document. Parts 1 and 3 are especially excellent and relevant. Part 2, while also interesting, seems something of a detour, focusing as it does on Christian-influenced activism of a decidedly non-progressive sort.
The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, Lillian Faderman, Simon & Schuster, September 8
Comprehensive, virtually encyclopedic, and also quite a straight-forward, canonical history: if you’ve paid attention at all to the decades-long fight for LGBT equality in the US, the general narrative will not be unfamiliar. But the breadth and depth of this history are greater, and it has a strong focus on the grassroots and great stories to tell, both of how discrimination affected the lives of individuals and of the roles individuals played in gaining their rights. Because following the familiar contours of a fairly established history, it can at times have the air of a recitation. It structure is Before and After: before, things were bad; now, they’re much better. The Before can go on a little long for my taste, but it is definitely successful in conveying just how claustrophobic American society was for gay people; it also sets up the drama of the second part, the After, which is focused on gaining rights; this part is obviously the most uplifting and in many ways, also the most valuable. While it was going on, it was a long, hard struggle, but looking back, the swiftness of the change is breathtaking, and in some ways this book reminds of Gail Collins’ When Everything Changed about the changes in US women’s lives since the 1960s. The accomplishments of the LGBT and women’s rights movement in Western countries are amongst the brightest human rights stories of these years. One can’t help but think they will influence further afield and hopefully lead to improvements in parts of the world where gay and women’s rights are very much not respected.
Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family, Amy Ellis Nutt, Random House, October 20
If you don’t know a transgender person, the whole idea can seem bizarre. Even if you don’t share the sexual orientation of a gay person and don’t know any gay people, you can probably summon up the imagination to figure it out if you’re not too scared to try. But a boy who’s really a girl, a girl who’s really a boy? If you have trouble getting your head around that, you won’t by the time you finish reading this book. Not only does it tell the story of a transgender girl in great depth, detail and empathy, but it also provides the scientific and philosophical contexts to give a solid intellectual understanding. And talk about a human rights story with a happy ending! It couldn’t have happened this way, I thought, with the revolution told in the book above, The Gay Revolution. This book shows a family, a school and a small-town community confronting their own prejudices and hang-ups about gender, identity and sexuality. We can only hope that all societies will some day develop sufficiently that people of non-majority sexual orientation and/or identity will receive the understanding, love and support that Nicole does.
Some books benefit from being read together. The following three go in that category.
The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, Riad Sattouf; Sam Taylor translator, Metropolitan, October 20
This is a brilliant book about patriarchy and how it pervades society (some societies at least) at all levels, from the family to the community to the religious life to the nation, how it pervades the psychologies of everyone in society. Patriarchy and the violence that comes with it, raining down from above in big and small ways, from the strongest to the weakest, from the President for Life to the pater familias down through the veins of children to animals (spoiler: this, the first volume ends with the killing of a puppy). This is the first volume to appear in English. The second has come out in France, and there are three more after that. The book’s been criticized as playing into the stereotypes of Arabs. I wouldn’t know about that, having next to zero experience in the Arab world, but the Arabs hardly have a monopoly on patriarchy — what’s depicted in the novel can be seen in a great many cultures around the world: The recent WEF Global Gender Gap report shows significant progress in cutting the gender gap in health and education — in those areas, it’s 95% bridged. But in political and economic participation, astoundingly, only 20%. … Oh, and I almost forgot: It’s funny.
Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, Mona Eltahawy, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, April 21
Deliciously polemical, says it like it is, pulls no punches, straight from the dedication onward: “To the girls of the Middle East and North Africa: Be immodest, rebel, disobey, and know you deserve to be free.” We need this unabashedly liberationist spirit in many places of the world, and not just when it comes to women’s rights. If The Arab of the Future is the diagnosis, this is the cure. It’s not going too far to say that sexist discrimination and oppression of women is at the heart of much that’s wrong with the Middle East, at least from a human rights perspective. Indeed, Eltahawy argues that personal revolution needs to accompany or even precede political revolution not only for the sake of justice but in order for the latter to be ultimately of substance. Women played a prominent role in the Arab Spring, but what we’ve seen in one country after another is a vicious backlash by reactionary forces both secular and religious, military and monarchical. There are chapters on the veil, on sexual violence perpetrated on the street and by the state, on domestic violence, on the cult of purity/virginity, on women not being allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, and on women discovering their sexual identities and being able and willing to speak out about that even when social and cultural forces militate against it. This book acts as a kind of shout. In a way, one of its biggest points is that there must be a much greater, more widely spread discourse on the issues it raises. Still, I would have liked to see a bit more focus on ways forward, possible solutions, possible routes to progress, visions of a better future. Here is a critical review of the book that makes many good points. If Headscarves and Hymens hasn’t been translated into Arabic yet, it should be. And handed out to all sixteen-year-olds in the Arab world just as Adichie’s Why we should all be feminists will be in Sweden (see below). Plus, it’s got just the sort of no-nonsense cover a book should have.
The Meursault Investigation, Kamel Daoud; John Cullen, translator, Other Press, June 2
There is precious little fiction on the list this year. Don’t know why that is, if it has more to do with me or what’s on offer, I suspect the latter. As ever, when it comes to anything outside the English-speaking world, it’s hard for most anyone to get much of a look-in to the biggest market, the US. Just check out Amazon’s top 100 books of the year and The New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year and count how many were translated from other languages or written by non-American writers, and you’ll see what I mean. This book broke out, one suspects, more than anything else because it riffs on a Western classic, one that a good many kids were forced to read in school. The Stranger has to be one of the most over-rated classics around (and also Camus’ least interesting book), and The Meursault Investigation easily beats it. The brother of the unnamed Arab murdered by Meursault tells the story. Daoud uses this narrative perspective to surreptitiously survey the span of Algerian history since the fictional Meursault murdered the fictional Arab. It is a history of constant betrayal, first by French colonialism, then by pan-Arab nationalism (which proved to be little more than a cover for dictatorship and strongmanism), and then by hideously violent and oppressive Islamism. To this day, the military has a disproportionate influence over the political situation, and Algeria has far from a robust democracy. Reading this book (especially together with the two above), one has a sense that basically what’s not been tried in Algeria as in most of North Africa and the Middle East is democracy. Would that not serve the murdered Arab, his family and his descendants better?
1000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think, Raif Badawi; Constantin Schreiber, editor; Ahmed Danny Ramadan, translator; Greystone Books, July 31
Of all the dictatorships in the Middle East, that of Saudi Arabia can compete as the most absolute and cruelest. (It also happens to be one of those that gets off the lightest in terms of international criticism of its poor rights record due to its oil.) The story of Raif Badawi shows why. Raif is hardly a revolutionary shouting down with the king in the street. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes and a large fine for “insulting Islam”. 50 of the lashes have been administered. Additional sessions of lashing have been postponed at least a dozen times for unclear reasons, though he is said to suffer poor health in prison. The sole evidence against Badawi was statements on his website. This book consists of those statements. As Pu Zhiqiang goes on trial in China for “” based on seven Weibo posts (Partystate apologists might say, At least he won’t be whipped), we begin to see a pattern of how these dictatorships work: These are clear cases of “cut off the heads of the monkeys to scare the chickens,” as the Chinese say. There’s nothing a dictatorship can stand less than someone who speaks his mind in public. Badawi won the European Parliament’s 2015 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought and has been recognized with many other similar prizes by other organizations concerned with free expression.
Captive Society: The Basij Militia and Social Control in Iran, Saeid Golkar, Columbia University Press, February 10
At $60 hardover and $53.99 Kindle, this book like the one about Chinese human rights lawyers and the biography of Liu Xiaobo, is unfortunately out of the price range of most. Its prose is dry and academic, but it is an excellent study in how to control a society. While it’s specifically about the Basij in Iran, it’s relevant to any authoritarian society which is not out-and-out totalitarian (there are few of those left today) where social and political control is exerted using various levers. The Basij is used to buttress support for the regime, to reinforce its ideology and a certain ideology (we are under attack from both without and within; we must remain strong and vigilant against our enemies), and to actually crack down on its enemies. Many have remarked recently on the resilience of authoritarian regimes. It’s important to understand the elements of that resilience if we are to bring about their demise. A study such as this is helpful toward that end.
Guantánamo Diary, Mohamedou Ould Slahi; Larry Siems, editor; Little, Brown and Company, January 20
File under: you can’t make this stuff up. Surreal. Phantasmagoric. A democracy governed by firm rule of law, in which the government is responsible to the people and the president promised to close the illegal Guantánamo when he first became president almost eight years ago, still holds over one-hundred people in a legal black hole, most of them for fourteen-some years now. One of them writes a memoir of his experience in his cell and supporters are able to get it released and declassified and publish it due to the gestures to legal procedure made by a country that’s continually committed itself to this extra-legal process. Considering his circumstances, Slahi comes across as amazingly spirited, with a striking ability to assess all that has happened to him. Guantánamo and other illegalities perpetrated by the US in relation to the so-called war on terror are foremost amongst the causes of the downgrading of human rights and democracy promotion in the foreign and domestic policies of a great many governments around the world: Hey, if the US, the supposed leader of the “free world”, is doing that, why should we care about what we’re doing? This book gives a voice to one amongst a group of people that’s had precious little. It is an emblem of the tragedy of the current situation of human rights in the world today, “security” forever (or at least indefinitely) taking precedence.
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Spiegel & Grau, July 14
Apart from the sheer quality of the writing and the penetrating analysis of the subject matter — how it feels to be a black man in America — , the critical and commercial success of the book and the huge attention its garnered are encouraging for a couple of reasons: 1) its essayistic form, 2) its subjectivity. The long essay doesn’t get nearly the attention and respect it deserves. It is an excellent way to treat a wide range of social and political issues. I would hope this becomes a kind of opening for other essays of this sort and quality, a bit in the way that Michael Moore’s success opened the door to much wider appreciation of documentaries and what they can do, though I suspect the success of this book is a bit more of a one-off. Its subjectivity is both its strength and its limitation. This is not a sociological study; it’s someone who explains how it feels, what it’s like to be a group subject to various forms of subtle and not-so-subtle racism, the not-so-subtle variety including being killed by police for the color of your skin. The subjectivity lends itself well to “exploring the cracks”, getting at the truth in between the truths and declarations and manifestos and academic studies. The facts are there, are indisputable, but how does it feel? Lastly, it’s provocative downbeat. It doesn’t say, Things are bad, but they’re gonna get better. It doesn’t propose solutions. It gives the sense that things are stuck. One of the best reviews of the book is by the eminent scholar Michelle Alexander (who herself wrote the amazing study, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness). She is appreciative but frustrated. It’s easy to point to indicators of improvements, that in many respects the US has come a long way and can still improve, but this book stubbornly insists: Deal with what you keep avoiding. Being “optimistic” in this sense allows readers an easy way out. It’s not a feel-good book. Nor should it be: if my friend had been killed by police and there was no accountability, no justice, I might be equally downbeat, especially when the occurrence is part of a pattern that stretches back in time and up into the present — why shouldn’t one expect it will continue into the future as well? As the book below shows, nothing is fated, it all depends on people’s actions. But it’s a struggle, a continual struggle.
Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, Ari Berman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, August 4
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 — what a huge accomplishment it was: for the first time in the 189-year history of the “oldest democracy in the world”, virtually every adult could vote (first slaves couldn’t, then women, etc) — in effect, the US became a full democracy for the first time. This book, published in the year of the 50th anniversary of the act, shows what a great accomplishment that was while at the same time depicting near-constant attempts to restrict voting rights since then, one of the most cataclysmic being the landmark 2013 Supreme Court decision that effectively annulled one of the key provisions of the act. In a way, the ins and outs and technicalities of voting rights are not the most dramatic or inspiring of topics, but this is a lively book that tells its story well, and its story is that the fight for democracy is a continual struggle; we can never just rest on our laurels. History isn’t naturally progress; we must fight to make it so. To this day, a large number of Americans are disenfranchised, convicted felons in many states first and foremost in those ranks (laws barring them from voting are not only patently unfair deprivation of rights but also have a decidedly racial element to them, considering the high rates of incarceration of minorities).
Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, Steve Silberman, Avery, August 25
Not a rights book per se, but Neurotribes, among other things, has to do with conceptualization of groups of people, and this is a kind of prerequisite in the pursuit of rights. In other words, if a group is not conceived as distinct and deserving of recognition as having certain distinct rights, then it won’t get that rights. So we see that racial and ethnic minorities, women, LGBT people, indigenous people and people with disabilities have been recognized and then legally secured rights. Neurotribes goes back to look at how autism was historically “discovered” and conceived and how it is currently being reconceptualized in terms of definition and those defined as such, as well as their relations to one another and others outside of their distinct “neurotribe”. As much as a medical diagnosis, it is also a social definition. The book is about the need to recognize, respect and celebrate difference. It will be interesting to see how this concept of “neurodiversity” plays out within the coming years and decades. Just when you read the accounts of how hard parents of autistic children have to fight to get the education promised them by law, you realize there’s more than a way to go on this front.
Part of our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library, Wayne A Wiegand, Oxford University Press, October 12
Perhaps not the sort of title or topic that gets the blood flowing, but this book does an excellent job of focusing on an element, access to information, knowledge and culture, that’s indispensible to democracy and any decent modern society (And doing it from the point of view of the people availing themselves of it (as its sub-title advertises). Anyone who’s lived in a society without good access to good libraries and one that has that will know the difference. Public libraries are just about Americans’ most loved institutions, across the political spectrum, but at the same time, they’re being used less and less. In that sense, this book comes at an interesting time, in the midst of what could prove to be (already is?) a sea change in how we receive, partake of and use information and culture. Public libraries are struggling to adapt and there are several competing online library projects. It remains to be seen what will become of all this. Perhaps I’m too much of a bibliophile to be objective — somehow I think a place in society will remain (in those societies that do have good public library systems) for a “temple of books” in the public realm. “Public” is important here, at a time when access to much digital information comes through private companies such as Google. Based on substantial archival research, this book is academic and accessible, in the best sense of both terms. Both the title and the text are inspired by Howard Zinn’s concept of the “people’s history”, and the story is told so as to emphasize what access to good public libraries has meant to people down through the years. Coming from HK, I could identify, as I’ve often thought one of the very best things (and most underappreciated) about HK is its excellent public libraries. (And one need only look across the border at the mainland to realize that a part of the horror of Communist dictatorship and the ways it distorts society is its tight control over information, knowledge, culture. Then again, in another sense, neither the mainland nor the HK has a literary history to be proud of over the last half-century.) Coming back to the sub-title: it’s all about people, citizens, and institutions that promote and cultivate citizenship, as opposed to, say, consumerism. This book promotes meditation on how the ways we access and receive information may be related to concepts of democracy and citizenship and the ways we relate to one another. (LA Review of Books had an excellent review of Part of Our Lives.)
Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition, Nisid Hajari, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, June 9
This is the best book yet to be published in English that focuses squarely on the genocides of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs that occurred at the time of partition/independence. There is no shortage of books on that historical moment, but they tend to focus on other aspects, such as the freedom struggle, the end of colonial rule, independence. The genocides are always mentioned to, but rarely is much attention paid to them. As such, everyone knows they occurred, but neither they nor their legacy up to the current moment have been fully recognized. This book sets that right. In some ways, it remind of what happened in Bosnia when distinct groups that had lived side by side for centuries, not always in harmony but with a certain degree of tolerance, suddenly perceive one another as the enemy that must be annihilated. In terms of the enduring Indian-Pakistani enmity that has been brought to the verge of nuclear confrontation and the role that communalism currently plays in Indian politics, the legacy of the genocides is as relevant as ever. (William Dalrymple had an excellent review of the book in The New Yorker.)
“They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”: A History of the Armenian Genocide, Ronald Grigor Suny; Princeton University Press, March 22
This year marked the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Young Turks during the first world war. This is probably the best book to appear in English about the myriad factors and forces that contributed to the genocide. Covering territory usually mentioned in books about the genocide but not fully explored until now, it paints the clearest picture yet of its causes and for this reason, is an indispensable addition to the literature on the subject both as history and as analysis. The Young Turks were nationalistic, believed they were tasked with protecting the interests of Turks, believed themselves exposed to the east and that the Armenians might become a fifth column in alliance with the Russians and therefore had to be “dealt with.” They enlisted many of the Armenians’ actual and potential local adversaries to carry out the killings and deportations. Thus, the book is also about state formation. In a sense, the Armenians got caught in the transition from empire to state, a state in which there was no place for them due to their religion and ethnicity. The Kurds were saved from this fate since they were Muslims and were also used to kill the Armenians, but the problems with the ethnic exclusivity of Turkish nationalism can be seen in the troubled position of Kurds within the Turkish state up to this day. On the one hand, Turkey can’t face its own history of genocide of the Armenians honestly; on the other, it can’t bring itself to grant the Kurds the full rights and protections they deserve.
We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngochi Adichie, Anchor, February 3
This essay is based on the TED Talk Adichie gave that went viral. It is a measured, moderate, articulate argument about what feminist is and why, as it says, we should all be feminists, the sort of argument that perhaps has the chance of “crossing the divide” and influencing those in many different cultures who find themselves resistant to the notion. It was recently reported that a women’s group in Sweden will be giving all Swedish sixteen-year-olds a copy. The report was followed by the snorting of a lot of cynics to the effect of, yeah, and how many will actually read it? Well, it’s definitely the sort of expression that should be given to those you know who have a hard time grasping the concept and its urgency or even its legitimacy.
Empire of Cotton: A Global History, Sven Beckert, Vintage, December 2, 2014
Cotton used to be at the very center of the global economic system. It’s since been displaced by other commodities, though of course the clothing trade is still a significant part of the globalized world in its current manifestation. While the book covers all aspects of the “empire of cotton”, among other things, it is about the way an economic system relates to and impacts human rights, in this case encompassing everything from the system of slavery that planted and picked the cotton to the misery of millworkers in industrializing societies such as England who worked terribly long hours for terribly little pay. It’s a book that should remind us to look more closely at the current neoliberal global economic order and supply chain, according to which a huge percentage of our consumer goods are manufactured in places with little to no labor rights and protections. Just how much progress has been made? To what extent could we actually been going backwards?
The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Grove Press, April 2
The prose style is a little too flashy for me, but on the other hand, while US books and films related to (what the US calls) the Vietnam War (The Things They Carried, Apocalypse Now, Deer Hunter, etc) focus on the ways in which the US was affected by its “involvement” there, this is one of the few books that is from a Vietnamese point of view. That alone makes it noteworthy, but apart from that, it engagingly explores the psychology of someone who has certain political beliefs but ends up working for powers diametrically opposed to them. That is a theme with which probably a great many people could identify. The question is just which side does the eponymous narrator-protagonist ultimately sympathize with, the side of his beliefs or the side of his actions. The cleft within him is one that runs through many.
Books I haven’t read yet but imagine would have made the list if I had
Dragons in Diamond Village and Other Tales from the Back Alleys of Urbanising China, David Bandurski, Penguin Australia, November 3
The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong: The Untold Story of My Struggle for Tibet Gyalo Thondup and Anne F Thurston, PublicAffairs, April 14
The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, PublicAffairs, September 8
Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder and One Man’s Fight for Justice, Bill Browder, Simon & Schuster, February 3
Violence All Around, John Sifton, Harvard University Press, May 1
Nagasaki: Life after Nuclear War, Susan Southard, Viking, July 28
Out of Nowhere: The Kurds of Syria in Peace and War, Michael Gunter, Hurst, November 15
Rewriting the rules of the American economy: An agenda for growth and shared prosperity, Joseph E Stiglitz, WW Norton, November 6
Inequality: What Can Be Done? Anthony B Atkinson, Harvard University Press, May 11
Best human rights books of 2014
Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, Masha Gessen
The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle, Francisco Goldman
The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall, Mary Elise Sarotte
In the Light of What We Know, Zia Haidar Rahman
The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, Louisa Lim
Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China, Rowena He
The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War, Rohini Mohan
Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, Peter Pomerantsev
Meltdown in Tibet: China’s Reckless Destruction of Ecosystems from the Highlands of Tibet to the Deltas of Asia, Michael Buckley
Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, Leta Hong Fincher
My Tibetan Childhood: When Ice Shattered Stone, Naktsang Nulo and Angus Cargill
In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre, Lara Pawson
The Slaughter: Mass Killings, Organ Harvesting, and China’s Secret Solution to its Dissident Problem, Ethan Gutmann
The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom, Joel Simon