President Trump and his cronies would like us to believe that the spread of COVID-19 is totally under control, but all indications show that this pandemic is far from over and our #StayAtHome period is going to continue for a while. It is precisely during times like these—amid great social, political, and economic uncertainty—when we most need literature to soothe our souls, lift our spirits, cheer us up, and remind us of our humanity as we wait for this virus to pass. Here are my top 10 recommended reads for the summer.
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THE OLD WOMAN AND THE RIVER
by Ismail Fahd Ismail; translated by Sophia Vasalou
This tops my list of favorite reads this year. It is a charming, heart-warming, and utterly enjoyable novel—the last work by celebrated Kuwaiti writer Ismail Fahd Ismail (1940-2018). It is set in Iraq at the time of the Iran-Iraq War. At times reminiscent of Don Quixote and of Jean Giono’s The Man Who Planted Trees, it is a story that tells of the hell of war, but also of the beauty of the landscape and the resilience of a wise, old woman and her determination to honor the land and her husband’s memory. It is beautifully rendered into English by Sophia Vasalou. If you’re planning to read only one novel this summer, this should be the one.
This is Moroccan writer Anissa Bouziane’s acclaimed debit novel, which won the Prix Littéraire Sofitel Tour Blanch. From New York during 9/11 and its fallen towers to Morocco’s high Atlas Mountains and its searing dunes, this novel is an exploration of the fraught soul of our time and it needs to be read slowly. In beautiful prose, it draws a compelling portrait of what happens to us when the world for no reasons of our own, starts viewing us entirely differently. It is a great literary accomplishment and I can’t praise it highly enough.
TWENTY YEARS OF THE CAINE PRIZE
FOR AFRICAN WRITING
The Caine Prize is the leading African literature award, also known as the African Booker Prize. This fabulous collection, which celebrates the prize’s 20th anniversary, gathers the winning stories from the past two decades. The stories are splendidly diverse. The introduction by celebrated Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri is a great addition. He writes that the mostly young writers represented in the collection deliver “tales political, tales harrowing, tales humorous, tales told with vitality and passion and intelligence.”
THE DARK SIDE OF LOVE
by Rafik Schami; translated by Anthea Bell
This dazzling novel spans a century of Syrian history in which politics and religions continue to torment an entire people. With its feuds, lovers, murders, villains, and assorted heroes and heroines, this is a novel to enjoy and to ponder. It is a thriller, a heartfelt tribute to the author’s hometown, Damascus, and a great and moving hymn to the power of love. This 900-page novel is one of my top #StayAtHome picks. I highly recommend it as I would all other novels by Rafik Schami.
by Adania Shibli; Translated by Paula Haydar
An exquisite, powerful novella by celebrated Palestinian writer Adania Shibli that transports readers to her West Bank homeland. There is so much richness and beauty in this work. It has soul; it has rhythm; and cries for reading over and over again. When you’ve finished it, I highly recommend reading Adania’s second novel, We Are All Equally Far From Love. Adania Shibli’s signature style comes from holding back. The silence in both her novels builds an unnerving suspense.
B AS IN BEIRUT
by Iman Humaydan; translated by Max Weiss
This is a fascinating and haunting portrayal of life in war-torn Beirut during the civil war. Originally published in Arabic, Iman Humaydan tells a multilayered and multi-voiced story of four unforgettable women living in the same building. I found it to be a compelling read and a subtle but powerful protest against war and sectarianism. Iman Humaydan’s novels are engaging portraits of the lives of women. You will also love her latest novel The Weight of Paradise.
EVERYTHING GOOD WILL COME
by Sefi Atta
This is the debut novel of Nigerian author Sefi Atta (she is now working on her 6th novel). It won the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature and it is a favorite of mine. I still remember the excitement and enthusiasm I felt reading the manuscript and discovering a new, brilliant, literary talent. It is a witty, coming-of-age story that traces an unusual friendship of two young girls into their adult lives, against the backdrop of tragedy, family strife, and a war-torn Nigeria. I also recommend Sefi’s short story collection News from Home.
by Jean Gibran and Kahlil Gibran
This is the definitive biography of a much loved poet and author of the classic The Prophet. Gibran was a poet, a painter, a rebel, a global citizen, and an immigrant from his beloved Lebanon. His compelling story is one of overcoming barriers faced by many immigrants. In the age of Trump and rising xenophobia, there is no better time to read this enlightening book that chronicles the life and work of a man who transcends borders and generations. It also includes a wealth of archival photos and never-before-published paintings by Gibran.
Memoirs of a Hidden Observer
by Moustafa Khalifa; translated by Paul Starkey
This is the most powerful novel you will ever read about Syria under the Assad regime—with echoes of Solzhenitsyn and Kafka’s The Trial and, in some instances, its imagery is akin to Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. It is the story of Musa, a Syrian political prisoner of conscience. It takes the form of a diary that he keeps in his head and writes upon his release from Tadmur, Syria’s most notorious prison. I highly recommend this novel not only for the writer’s brilliance, but also as an important perspective of the tragedy that has befallen the Syrian people.
by Jabbour Douaihy; translated by Paula Haydar
Jabbour Douaihy—a celebrated Lebanese writer—is one of my favorite novelists, with an incredible eye for detail. That’s why I have published three of his novels so far. June Rain is a masterpiece that was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It tells the story of a 1957 gunfight that took place at a village funeral mass and depicts the divisions that left the inhabitants suffering for generations. It is a moving and powerful portrait of identity and division in Lebanon that is as relevant today as it was when the massacre of one Christian community by another took place 40 year ago. You will also enjoy Douaihy’s Printed in Beirut, which is a dazzling mystery set in the world of Lebanon’s book publishing industry.