Kareem Shaheen is a journalist with Abu Dhabi based newspaper The National. Try not to hold that against him, he's a decent fellow for all that.
Kareem's New Year's resolution is slightly unusual but highly laudable. He's setting out to read a book a week for the year. Yup. 52 of 'em. Rather wonderfully, he's also reviewing them on this blog linked right here.
I gave myself the unenviable task of listing the five books I would recommend to him above all else. It nearly killed me, but here they are: five books for Kareem. Feel free to add your five penny'orth.
A quick note for those of you reading this on FaceBook, which includes many of my literarily inclinated pals, please pop over to the blog if you would like to add your recommendations. Cheers!
The Alexandria Quartet
I think I can say this is my favourite book of all time, although it's really a four-in-one recommendation. Durrell's Alexandria Quartet is a winner on all fronts: set in '30s and '40s Alexandria it's lush, evocative and rich, its vivid characters occupy settings described with a sumptuary's eye, everything touched by notes of the mystical and imbued with a smoky sexuality. The Quartet is just that, a tetralogy - four books that describe the same sequence of events, forming an interlinear which sees its events unfold from four narrative perspectives: Justine, Mountolive, Balthazar and Clea. Structurally, imaginatively, intellectually and lyrically brilliant, it's a book I have re-read many times with joy at every encounter. If I had an ounce of Durrell's genius, I would be a giant. He was, incidentally, an alcoholic who liked to beat women, but I suppose you can't have everything...
Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Thomas Edward Chapman has been something of a hobby for me: I have every book written by him or about him during his lifetime, each one a first edition. I don't have the famous 'subsriber's edition', sadly, but then I'd be sitting on tens of thousands of pounds worth of book if I did. Lawrence's account of the Arab Revolt and his role in it makes for fascinating reading, let alone that it reveals old TE to be an author of considerable power and style. It's classical stuff written wonderfully and stands as truly a great work of literature - regardless of how you view it as history.
The Honourable Schoolboy
John Le Carré
John 'call me David Cornwell' Le Carré has to be one of my favourite contemporary reads. Often shrugged off by snotty, superior types as 'just spy stories', Le Carré's books are a good deal more literary than many suppose - he's a master stylist whose bleak landscapes are peppered with tragedy and human failure, increasingly so as he's grown older. The Honourable Schoolboy is set in Hong Kong during the fall of the British secret service following the uncovering of its head as a Soviet 'mole'. Using back-tracking techniques, basically going where the mole didn't want them to go when he was in place, Le Carré's famous Smiley and company start to buy their way back into viability by pulling off a major intelligence coup. It's unputdownable stuff at every level.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Hunter S Thompson
He hardly needs any introduction, but journalist Hunter Stockton Thompson invented 'gonzo', a school (if it can be elevated to that!) of journalism that celebrates the journalist as participant in the events being covered. And Hunter's idea of immersion is a Mach-speed plunge into the depths of drug-addled frenzy. Brilliantly played by Johnny Depp in the film of the same name, Thompson trod a constant tightrope of alcohol abusing, gun-toting, high speed drugged-up insanity in his quest to cover the Mint 400 desert race in Las Vegas. If Fear and Loathing doesn't make you laugh with manic glee and want to go out and commit a crime, you're not human.
The Name of the Rose
When he's not writing books, Umberto Eco is a professor of semiotics (at Bologna University, as you ask), the study of signs and symbols, and his books reflect his intellectual engagement with the ideas of the dawning of human comprehension that took place as Europe emeged from the dark ages. The Name of the Rose is set in a monastery in Italy, where an English monk and his Italian apprentice attempt to solve a series of murders. Set against a backdrop of Albigensian heresy and the Inquisition, their quest for truth takes place among the mysteries of the massive library-maze and the scriptorium that the Monastery is famed for - and where truth is by practice kept hidden. It's a brilliant whodunnit peppered with ideas and explorations of human thought and symbology. Oddly, I also liked the film but then I'm a sucker for Sean Connery...
So there they are. My five favourite books of all time. I know in my heart of hearts that I'm going to regret this, that the others jostling just under will make me regret this - let alone those that didn't come to mind this morning. I could so easily make it 50 or probably even more. But it's set in stone now...
What are your Five Books for Kareem?