Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A feast of 12 summer readings

There is something magical about books.
It’s a long process that starts with trying to choose what to read, scanning the back cover to get an idea about the story, opening the first few pages to read about the author and his previous works, then drowning in the tale and sometimes not wanting to come up for air.
There’s a lot of talk about books being a thing of the past, how everyone will soon be reading on computers, tablets, mobiles and whatever new gizmos come up. I think this will take a long time because it is linked to whether you can afford to buy these gadgets, and a lot of people, me included, can’t. And please, don’t even mention “saving the trees.”
I can’t be persuaded that reading a book on a machine is better than holding the actual hardcopy in your hand, turning the pages, placing your bookmark, smelling the special odor of paper print…
In a dream world, I would live in a bookstore and spend my days reading. Before the Internet, books were the way to discover the world. Libraries were a journey into a new universe. In some countries, and for many people, they still are.
Reading is an act of freedom – you can choose what to read.
Although I am addicted to my laptop, I don’t feel secure if I don’t have at least two books on my bedside table. Part of the pleasure is the anticipation of what you will discover in your next read. Every night, the laptop is switched off and I dedicate at least an hour to reading.
It seems we have more time to read in summer and the summer reading lists are published. So for what it’s worth, here are 12 suggestions, in no specific order. I have the habit of going through all of an author’s books, so there are some in the list by the same writer.
I omitted the Harry Potter series because I am sure everyone has read them. It’s a great pity if you didn’t. And you are too blazé to be reading this post.
A last thought: books are to be read and then passed on. Read them forward, they are too precious to be kept on bookshelves.

1. The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
Turkish Nobel-laureate Orhan Pamuk is one of my favorite authors. I have read all of his books and they just keep getting better. The Museum of Innocence is about the obsessive love Kemal, a wealthy businessman, bears for Füsun for over 30 years, starting in 1975.  Kemal becomes an obsessive collector of objects of his life with Füsun.
During the first few chapters, there are many times I just threw the book across the room only to pick it up again and get more engrossed in the brilliance that is Pamuk’s storytelling. And as there were more pages to the left than right of the book, I slowed down, not wanting to finish it.
Pamuk has established an actual "Museum of Innocence," which opened in April 2012, based on the one described in the book, down to the cigarette butts. It displays a collection evocative of everyday life and culture of Istanbul during the period in which the novel is set. I would visit Turkey just to go to the museum.
2. My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
I was introduced to Pamuk with this book. It is one of the few I have reread three times already. It evokes all the senses -- it’s like reading, listening to good music and viewing art all in one.
In the late 1590s, Ottoman Sultan Murat III secretly commissions a great book to celebrate his life and his empire. It is to be illuminated by the best artists of the day -- in the European manner. But one of the artists goes missing…
3. The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts by Louis de Bernières 
There is so much more to de Bernières than Captain Corelli’s Mandolin that I think was ruined by the film. Once you have read Don Emmanuel, you will surely rush to get Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman. Be careful if you are reading in public -- these three books will have you laughing out loud and gripped till the very last page.
Set in a fictional South American country, de Bernières’s humor, passion and genius emerge in his description of the place, the characters and ancient history through military atrocities, gangsters and religious upheaval.

4. The Hakawati (The Storyteller) by Rabih Alameddine
“Listen. Allow me to be your god. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagination. Let me tell you a story…”
From those first words, you do listen and go on a journey that you hope will prove unending. It takes you into the lives of the al-Kharrat family and the parallel world of myths. The themes and characters go back and forth in the narrative that is brilliant and dazzling. You get lost in the tales, only to be brought back to the family nursing their ailing father. But with the word “listen…” you are once again in the enchanting world of the hakawati.
5. The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany 
This Egyptian novel is alive and as relevant today as when it was published. Welcome to the Yacoubian Building, Cairo. Like many buildings, it was once grand, now dilapidated, and full of stories and passion. It is a tale of various characters in Egyptian society, some living in squalor on rooftops, others in the apartments and offices below. There is religious fervor, bribers, modern life and ancient culture… all of which make up everyday life.
6. Leo The African by Amin Maalouf 
The book is based on the true life-story of Hassan al-Wazzan, the 16th century traveler and writer who came to be known as Leo Africanus, or Leo the African. From his childhood in Fez, having fled the Christian Inquisition, through his many journeys to the East as an itinerant merchant, Hassan’s story is a quixotic catalogue of pirates, slave-girls and princesses, encompassing the complexities of a world in a state of religious flux. Hassan too is touched by the instability of the era, performing his hajj to Mecca, then converting to Christianity, only to revert to Islam later in life. Through Hassan’s travels and extraordinary experiences, Maalouf sketches a portrait of the Mediterranean world as it was some five centuries ago -- the fall of Granada, the Ottoman conquest of Egypt, Renaissance Rome under the Medicis…
Having finished Leo The African, I rushed to find more of Maalouf’s works. The Lebanese author last month joined the “immortals” at the French Academy. His first book, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, is a masterwork and eye-opener and definitely a must read too.

7. Samarkand by Amin Maalouf
Accused of mocking the inviolate codes of Islam, the Persian poet and sage Omar Khayyam fortuitously finds sympathy with the very man who is to judge his alleged crimes. Recognizing Khayyam’s genius, the judge decides to spare him and gives him instead a small, blank book, encouraging him to confine his thoughts to it alone.
Thus begins the seamless blend of fact and fiction that is Samarkand. Vividly re-creating the history of the manuscript of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyaat, Maalouf spans continents and centuries with breathtaking vision: the dusky exoticism of 11th-century Persia, with its poetesses and assassins; the same country's struggles 900 years later, seen through the eyes of an American academic obsessed with finding the original manuscript; and the fated maiden voyage of the Titanic, whose tragedy led to the Rubaiyaat's final resting place.
8. The Rock Of Tanios by Amin Maalouf
An exploration of myth, passion and loyalty from the Lebanon's troubled past, The Rock of Tanios is another superbly rich and rewarding novel from the author of Samarkand and Leo the African. Expertly controlling his multifaceted narrative with prose of great beauty and power, Maalouf delves into the history of an extraordinary life: that of Tanios, child of the mountains. Magic and brilliance on every single page by Maalouf.
9. Some Prefer Nettles, by Junichiro Tanizaki
The marriage of Kaname and Misako is disintegrating. Whilst seeking passion and fulfillment in the arms of others, they contemplate the humiliation of divorce. Misako's father believes their relationship has been damaged by the influence of a new and alien culture, and so attempts to heal the breach by educating his son-in-law in the time-honored Japanese traditions of aesthetic and sensual pleasure. The result is an absorbing, chilling conflict between ancient and modern, and between young and old.
Written in 1929, Some Prefer Nettles is considered one of Tanizaki’s finest works and is as relevant today as it was then. It also gives a rare glimpse into the life of the conflicts inside a Japanese family and the clash between traditional and Western pursuits.
10. Olives, A Violent Romance by Alexander McNabb
Yes, I know. The author is a very dear friend, but Olives would not be on this list if I didn’t think his book makes perfect summer reading and also the perfect present to take to family and friends if you are flying out of Dubai.
Olives makes for compulsive reading as you get taken in by the romance, and by McNabb’s tackling of the more serious themes, including the fight for the region’s water resources, the effects of Israel’s construction of the “security wall,” Palestine, and Jordan. The politics are so well mixed with the romance that the narrative could be taking place in any hotspot and usually does. The characters – the English girlfriend, the embassy representative, the Swede -- are all well placed and credible. I posted about Olives earlier this year and you can read the review here.
In the meantime, I look forward to McNabb’s second novel, Beirut, An Explosive Thriller where we will meet the embassy representative in a much more exciting and lovable role.
11. The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif
In 1900 Lady Anna Winterbourne travels to Egypt where she falls in love with Sharif, an Egyptian Nationalist utterly committed to his country's cause. Some 100 years later, Isabel Parkman, an American divorcee and a descendant of Anna and Sharif, goes to Egypt, taking with her an old family trunk, inside which are found notebooks and journals which reveal Anna and Sharif's secret.
The Map of Love is a massive saga, a story that draws its readers into two moments in the complex, and troubled, history of modern Egypt.
12. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 
In 1960s Nigeria, a country blighted by civil war, three lives intersect. Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, works as a houseboy for a university professor. Olanna, a young woman, has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos to live with her charismatic new lover, the professor. The third is Richard, a shy English writer in thrall to Olanna’s enigmatic twin sister. When the horror of the 1960s Biafra War engulfs them, their loyalties are severely tested, as they are pulled apart in ways none of them imagined.