2012 Book Reviews – I

I had the opportunity to read a lot of books in 2012; many were worth sharing, and some no one should waste time on. So, I’ve decided to take some time this month to post reviews for all of them.

They’re a total 16 books. Since this is fairly time consuming, I’ll probably be posting them in groups of 3 or 4.

Here are the first 4:

1. Children of Gabalawi,   Naguib Mahfouz

2. How to Find Fulfilling Work,   Roman Krznaric

3. The Psychopath Test,   Jon Ronson

4. Lost at Sea,    Jon Ronson.

1.    Children of Gabalawi     أولاد حارتنا – Naguib Mahfouz , 1959 Children of Gebelawi

First, a note about the author: Naguib Mahfouz’s (1911-2006) career spanned 70 years, in which he wrote 34 novels, 350 short stories, and 5 plays many of which have been adapted into films as well as translated into various different languages. His works are set in Cairo where he spent most of his life, and most are in the eras before and after the 1952 revolution.

In 1988, he was awarded the Nobel prize in literature for the “forming of an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind”. Mahfouz remains the only Arab writer to have received the Nobel prize in literature.

Now, a note on the book: The controversial theme of the book, in which God, Adam, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad are allegorically depicted, caused an attempted assassination on Mahfouz in 1994, when he was stabbed in the neck. This attack injured the nerves leading to his right hand, and subsequently affected his ability to write with it for more than a few minutes at a time, nevertheless he continued to write. The novel was also banned for 50 years from many countries, and only started circulating in 2006.


This was the first time I read a Naguib Mahfouz book in Arabic; actually it was the first time I read any book in Arabic! The book is 500 pages long, so it took me a while, but it was worth it. A simple story on the outside, but the analogies inside won’t be missed, and neither will the message. Whatever religion you belong to or even if none at all, the imagination with which this book was written definitely makes it a worthy read.

Mahfouz takes the story of the creation of mankind, starting with Adam (whom he gives the Arabic name Adham) & Eve, followed by Adam’s rivalry with his brother – Satan/ ‘Iblees’ (given the Arabic name Idrees), their subsequent expulsion from heaven, followed by the rivalry between their sons, and the emergence of prophets and civilizations from among their grand-kids and great-grand-kids and turns it into a simple tale. The representations of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, their stories and obstacles although different, won’t be missed.

I found this book to be an ingenious portrayal of the continuous cycling of human civilization between prosperous times and crumbling times. The rivalries, betrayals, deception, and weakness at some points, balanced out by honesty, strength, and fairness at other points is the infinite character of the human race.  It also captures the continuous shift of power from one people to the next; and the ease with which the newly powerful will forget that they were once weak, and how they will readily oppress their weaker neighbours.

The message, as I see it, is that all of civilization sprang from one man – Adam, yet in the pursuit of money and status – we, his children have forgotten that we are brothers. And thus our world is plagued with poverty and war.

Mahfouz concludes with an analogy of what is today the conflict of science versus religion – where the rise of scientific advances has been met by an increasing distance from God, faith, and religion.

This was one of the most creative books I’ve read in a long time. I’m also glad that I was able to read it in Arabic, it taught me how much Arabic literature loses when translated into another tongue. So, even if you know very little Arabic, I still recommend you try. And if you don’t, I’m sure the English version would do. Reading this book felt like someone had summarized for me, in 500 pages, thousands of years of humanity past and maybe given me an understanding and a glimpse into the thousands of years to come.

  1. 2.    How to Find Fulfilling Work – Roman Krzanaric , 2012

Short. Effective. Insightful. Truly a mind-opener.

The best thing about this book is that it is not your classic self-help, 7 easy steps to success and happiness, sort of book. Rather, it opens your eyes to different perspectives and stimulates your mind to think and come up with your own solutions for your own life. Some of the stories inside are very inspiring. My favourite is the girl who for her 30th birthday, realizing that she had been undecidedly jumping from one job to another for too long, gave herself the birthday gift of trying out 30 different jobs, until she met the perfect one.

This book tackles a lot of the confusing feelings many people (including myself) have towards work, success, and fulfillment by presenting to us the origins from which these feelings emerged, and creative ways to motivate yourself to do that which you find most fulfilling.

By adding live examples from a myriad of people and professions, Krznaric shows the reader that if he’s confused about work and life, then he’s not the only one out there and that his/her feelings and rationalizations are justified. Afterwards, he follows up with ideas that help you change your life toward a more positive direction, such as having a ‘bespoke career’ in which you invent your own job to suit your lifestyle and talents.

One of the ideas presented in this book that really struck a chord with me is that contrary to popular belief, there is no one perfect job out there for each of us. Rather, there is a best suited job for us in each field, and it’s only a matter of finding it. For example, if one chose to be an artist maybe they would do best as a photographer, but say they had a computer science major, maybe they could work in internet marketing, and so on.

How to Find Fulfilling Work is part of a series of books written by authors from an enterprise called The School of Life. Their aim is to give good advice on dealing with every day worries and intelligently fixing them. I stumbled upon this book by chance, but seeing the positive effect it has brought on my mind-set and my approach to my career, I’m sure I’ll end up reading more of their works.

This book is a must-read to anyone at any stage of life. I’ve added the link to the talk given by Roman Krznaric on his book, as well as a link to the books page on the School of Life website.



3.    The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry – Jon Ronson, 2011

I reviewed this book 2 posts ago but here are the links to the author’s TED talk and to his interview with Jon Ronson.  http://www.ted.com/talks/jon_ronson_strange_answers_to_the_psychopath_test.html


4.    Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries – Jon Ronson, 2012


I first heard about this book on The Daily Show ( link above); I decided to read this one and The Psychopath Test, because I found Ronson’s description of his adventures rather amusing. I started with the previous one – in which he was literally following mad people around the world trying to interview them and bring to us the human side of them as much as he could. Lost at Sea seems to be a continuation of his journey after madness. It’s also organized as a collection of articles, only it has less of his thoughts and anecdotes than does the Psychopath Test.

The opening chapter is rather funny, it’s an interview with the band Insane Clowne Posse, but the book is very dynamic. It moves from one topic to the next – some plain bizarre, some pretty serious. But all in all, he doesn’t lose his subtle humor or as Jon Stewart calls it, his sense for ‘investigative satire’!

Reading this book, you’re certain to meet some pretty interesting people; some are trying to create robots with a conscience (cyber-consciousness), others are parents who believe they have Indigo children. There are people who spend their lives waiting and preparing for the first signal of extra-terrestrial life; and people trying to donate their kidneys to random strangers. There’s also Jonathan King, Stanley Kubric, the founders of amazon, and the so-called psychic Sylvia Browne.

What I love most about Jon Ronson’s style is how he challenges his interviewees’ bizarre beliefs with direct questions, then his objective presentation of the facts albeit mixed with his own sometimes humorous thoughts; and most importantly his ability to see past the  weirdness and present these people to us as fellow human beings.

If anything, this book is certainly entertaining and enlightening. It’s long, but since it’s organized into articles, you don’t have to read it in one go. Definitely recommend!


Next on my list are:

The Tipping Point – Malcolm Gladwell  

Fe-mail: The Trials and Tribulations of Being a Good Egyptian Girl – Amy Mowafi

Tuesdays with Morrie – Mitch Albom

Life of Pi – Yann Martel

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