I just noticed with horror that my last blog entry dates back almost a month. All the way back to the day after Abu Dhabi Book Fair, to be precise, which was also the day before a European holiday and about four weeks after the day I discovered the What are you reading? podcast. So there you have it, an explanation of sorts. As it turns out, the combination of fair (book launches!), trip (proper bookshops!) and podcast (book recommendations from interesting-sounding people!) has had a pretty disruptive effect on my blogging morale. To make it up, here is a snapshot of the month’s loot, a stack of brand new books now languishing seductively on my desk.
I should have known that a sharp spike in book shopping expenses would precipitate an utter lack of blog activity. That’s the problem with books: one inevitably leads to another. I’ve always been a bibliophile, but these past weeks I’ve been guilt tripping (why didn't I read more books at uni?) and binge reading (must get through the pile!) like never before.
It all started when Slate’s Culture Gabfest endorsed Matt Debenham’s podcast What are you reading?, which now holds a position of pride among my Stitcher favourites. Listening to Debenham talk to various friends and people he admires about the books they read, I was duly inspired to read more, too. I suppose I ended up buying his novel, The Book of Right and Wrong (2010), out of curiosity, but also out of gratitude for him consistently lightening up my drives between Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
It was the same Cultural Gabfest episode that drew my attention to two other, much older books, both of which ended up in the stack: I Capture the Castle (1948) by Dodie Smith and The Go-Between (1953), by L. P. Hartley. Both are set in more or less enchanting English country estates and follow the escapades of confused but genial teenagers; just what I need to coast me over the seething summer.
Had I gone to Abu Dhabi Book Fair with more money on me, I could have picked up an indecent amount of titles; there was such an excellent choice. But the sellers there didn't take card, so I was limited to what the notes I happened to have in my wallet could stretch to. Here is what I was able to get, after some cajoling and short listing:
Without question, Guy Delisle’s new graphic novel Jerusalem (2012) is the most cherished acquisition, especially since he also gave a charming talk, after which he signed my copy of the book (I've never done this before, but in this case I couldn't resist). His deadpan manner and gracious irreverence are really something to relish, especially when he brings it to something as unfathomable as the Israel-Palestine conflict. I devoured Jerusalem in one night and go back to it often.
Also on top are two catchily titled novels by the Lebanese polyglot, writer, poet and women's rights activist Joumana Haddad, which I can’t wait to read: I Killed Scheherazade (2010) and Superman is an Arab (2012), with sassy covers to match. I was very happy to come across Haddad because her books seem to have a lot of anger and giggles in them, which is always a winning combination. On top of that, I love buying books published by Saqi Books, the wonderfully controversial independent publishing house on London’s Westbourne Grove, not far from where I used to live once. Interspersed with my two charming English country novels, I’m hoping these two will strike a balance between a bit of UK nostalgia and my curiosity about women with attitude in the Middle East.
Next in line are non-fiction books about the Middle East, a genre I get swamped with because that's what I read for work. Here we have the departure point of many a guilt trip, because it is impossible to keep up with all the new titles that keep coming out, especially since the Arab Uprisings began. It’s a subject the publishing world has seized upon, sometimes not with the best results. The documentaries and movies hastily assembled in the run-up to, during or shortly after the uprisings are hit-and-miss, and so are the books. I’m curious to see whether Lawrence Pintak’s The New Arab Journalist (2011), James Zogby’s Arab Voices (2010) and Robin Wright’s Rock the Casbah (2011) live up to the hype.
Another book I’m very excited about reading this summer is also a 'book of right and wrong': the Holy Quran. Yes, I know it sounds a little solemn for summer, but what can I say? Ramadan is coming up and I like the idea of being able to go to the source text myself, rather than just going on other people’s interpretations. So I finally got an English translation, The Glorious Quran (2002), by Muhammad Marmaduke Pikthall. I have given it a special place on the bookshelf since I’ve been told to treat the English paperback with the same respect as the real deal, IE a hardback Arabic edition. That means it may never touch the floor, should not be kept next to titles that somehow defy Islam in any way (I’ll keep Haddad’s novels somewhere else) and generally be treated carefully.
We have now arrived at the bottom of the stack, the three books that nearly caused me to bust my luggage allowance on the flight back to the UAE:
The New Kings of Non-Fiction (2007), by Ira Glass. My favourite radio-show host edited this anthology of what he considered the best non-fiction works by people like Malcolm Gladwell and James McManus. Irresistible. I’m keeping this one as a treat to read once I’ve finished the non-fiction books mentioned above.
Next, an unfeasibly beautiful new edition of The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (2011), edited by Noel Daniel, which has become one of my favourite presents to give to new parents. It is full of vintage illustrations from the past 130 years along with the original tales. Many of the stories are more gory than the average parent may like, but I think we should all respect the Grimms’ legacy and the fact that children are natural born chill seekers. I have a feeling I can’t keep this one next to the Quran, either, can I? Might need to get a new shelf.
To round out the selection, here is something a little sentimental. My parents were hippies, which means I have known of John Seymour’s seminal book The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency (1976) for a long time. My mother was recently given the New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency (2009) by a friend and, as I leafed through it, it turned out to be an exciting read. Although the new illustrations can’t compare to the originals, Seymour’s concise, wry explanations and the whole idea of throwing it all to the wind to start a smallhold somewhere, are excellent fodder for escapist daydreaming. Even if no life-changing decisions ever come of it, it is a wonderful bedtime read and now shares my nightstand with The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm and Jerusalem.
So this is it. My summer reading list, the direct result of that mysterious feedback loop in which literary guilt leads to binge reading, and vice versa. And I haven’t even mentioned the audio books! But that’s for another blog post.