I prefer reading fact embedded in fiction. Last week, I met with a Wareham, Massachusetts book group to discuss Jacksonland, a history of the shameful forced removal of native Americans from their ancestral lands. The history, by Steve Inskeep, an NPR commentator, is thorough and well written as a history. However, as I read it I kept trying to find the arc of the story and, of course, history isn’t that tidy. In addition to my concerns with “story” construction, there’s the problem of memory. Even though I was a history major in college, I am woefully forgetful about my own country’s past (think of Father Guido Sarducci’s “Five Minute University”).
What I do remember is history embedded in a good story. I have learned a lot of history and ethnic culture from reading what is considered fiction. From Donna Leon’s wonderful Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries, I have learned about Venice, its aristocracy, underworld and cuisine. From The Forty Rules of Love I gained a perspective on the Persian poet, Rumi. Faye Kellerman’s mysteries have given me a clearer understanding of what it means to practice Judaism.
This past week I came across an article I had saved (and then misplaced) entitled “Reza Aslan’s Five Favorite Books, from The Week magazine. I met Reza several years ago at Hartford Seminary when he was discussing his book, No God But God. We struck up a conversation and I learned that he had studied at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop before he became a journalist, academic and historian. His subsequent book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, quickly rose to first place on the New York Times Best Seller list in part because of a farcical interview by an ignorant Fox News talking head. He is an excellent writer and I trust his recommendations, which I am passing on and planning to read after I finish what I’m currently reading.*
The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist by Emile Habiby (Interlink, $13). Habiby’s dreamy, darkly comic 1974 novel—about a dim-witted Palestinian peasant who works as an informer for the Israeli government and is suddenly abducted by an alien—remains one of the greatest works of satire in Arabic literature. It also offers a new and absolutely hilarious way of looking at the absurd tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat (Grove, $14). Widely recognized as one of the most important literary works of the 20th century in any language,The Blind Owl is a Kafkaesque novel about a lonely (and possibly psychotic) man living in a terrifying nightmare world of his own making, where the only person he can trust with his thoughts is his own shadow.
A Mind at Peace by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar (Archipelago, $20). Written by the man who almost single-handedly defined the modern Turkish novel, A Mind At Peace follows a group of westernized, urban intellectuals in 1930s Istanbul as they drift through the city in a permanent state of ennui, seemingly caught between the past and the present, tradition and modernity, the East and the West.
The Day the Leader Was Killed by Naguib Mahfouz (Anchor, $13). The Nobel Prize–winning novelist has written dozens of internationally renowned books. But this compact novella, which chronicles the lives of a middle-class family in Cairo in the years leading up to the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, remains as timely a story today as it was when Mahfouz wrote it in 1985.
Samarkand by Amin Maalouf (Interlink, $15). Though written in French, this historical novel by the inimitable Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf is a masterpiece that I try to read at least once a year. The double narrative intercuts the story of the great poet and mystic Omar Khayyam, who composed the Rubaiyat in the 12th century, with the adventures of an American scholar on the hunt for Khayyam’s lost manuscript in the 20th century.
*The novel I am currently reading is All Our Yesterdays (fabulous title!) by Erik Tarloff, about Berkeley in the late Sixties. I was there. I moved to Berkeley in 1964 as a fresh-out-of-Stockton freshman and lived there and in its surrounds for 20+ years. So far, Tarloff’s novel captures the zeitgeist and I am having a hard time getting on with daily life because I want to get back to reading it.