Cities of Salt by Abdul Rahman Munif

Published in 1984

Originally published in Arabic, Cities of Salt walks the reader through the deserts of a land cursed with harboring the world’s richest beverage. Although the book never explicitly cites the name of the region it is set in, plenty of subtle hints allude to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Arabian government banned the book, along with many of Munif’s other sensitive works.

Munif brings to life Wadi al-Uyoun, eyes of the valley, as a rare sight of luscious colors in the midst of a boundless desert. Genuine honor greets familiar faces from returning caravans. Until one day, a group of white men with strange instruments arrive at Wadi al-Uyoun. The nomadic Bedouins linger around them each day, like birds feeling out the coming storm. It was a silent war, except for one haunting Bedouin whose disappearance drummed the hearts of those who remained behind.

From the back of a camel, we watch the Bedouins rise and fall, watching American hands rip open the bowels of the earth and extract oil from its depths. It’s a familiar tale of settlers pinning their flags to a foreign piece of the earth and declaring it as their own, but with all the rawness censored out of historical accounts penned by the white man.

From the tables of the coffee shop rise the voices of the lost Bedouins, crying out against the injustice of it all, protesting for the humanity they’re believed to exist without.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

A memoir published in 1996

In the streets of Limerick, a young boy drags the head of a pig for his family’s Christmas dinner. His father sits by the fire, filling himself with tea to leave bread for the children. Most of the time, though, he’s somewhere at the bars, and when he comes home, he shakes the boys awake to sing songs of Irish heroes.

It’s an oddly humorous tale of a destitute childhood that knew no comfort, save the occasional plates of fish and chips. The narrator recalls unbearable hardships with a tone that contrasts sharply with the sentiments of the reader. From the harsh streets of Brooklyn to the wet house-flooding climate of Ireland, Frank McCourt speaks of it all with unapologetic rawness. The unending nights of bread and tea, of searching for his father in the bars, of listening to the creaking bed where his mother made ends meet, all gather in the eyes of a young boy who has seen very little of this world besides these bleak images of survival.

I’ve read this memoir three times, and the illustrations of poverty have never reappeared in lighter colors. Yes, it is true there are a plethora of published works on poverty, on alcoholic fathers, on boys who steal to hush their grumbling stomachs, but none have rendered these images with the startling humor of McCourt. His pen sketches the life beneath the lifeless faces, lying before us a wonderful portrait of endurance and stubborn happiness.

And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Published in 2013

I read this novel the year it was published and was disappointed, at first, when I was gifted another copy of it by my roommate this past Christmas. I began reading the book in front of her to feign my excitement for it.

By the second page, I wasn’t feigning at all.

It was finals week, but I couldn’t put it down to pick up the packets of papers I had to study. The second reading allowed me to see even more clearly how tales of suffering can be more beautiful than tales of ease and pleasure.

Like all of Khaled Hosseini’s novels, we begin in the thriving Afghanistan before the Soviets and the men with white turbans appeared in the streets of Kabul. Hosseini transcends the border of Afghanistan to follow the paths of characters who were separated, and those who came together on the ravaged streets of a new Afghanistan.

It is a very upsetting tale of injustice, separation and sacrifice; it may seem like one that does not seem fitting for the summer. It’s a sad song of parting, and the ending does not offer the desired respite after reading so much sorrow.

But, if this misery is all one sees in this novel, then one is not reading it properly.

Beneath the rubble of the land is a heart still stubbornly pulsing with life. Despite all the losses these characters suffer from, they go on living, they on loving, and they go on fighting.

If you are seeking for a gentle book, this is not one for you.

The Secret Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin

Published in 2007

This is Olga Grushin’s first novel and it was originally written in English, which is her second language.

It’s a fascinating story of an artist living under the Soviet regime, which demanded art be used “for the common good as if it were a loaf of bread.”

It was a time during which art was revered as much as it was feared. It was a crucial propaganda tool as much as it was a threat to the communist governance. And, either an artist chose his freedom and painted with shackled hands, or he chose imprisonment and had his shackles removed. Sukhanov eventually chooses the latter. Instead of painting in rebellion, he joins the team of censors who attempt to cleanse the country of all Renaissance and Impressionist paintings and ideas.

Initially, we are introduced to an unsympathetic character who is the editor of a Soviet art magazine, Art of the World. His awkward relations with his family, as well as his self-righteous attitude, make him a hated character, until his delicately constructed contentment begins to crumble, and his true thoughts are exposed.

Suddenly, his surroundings begin to conspire in returning him to the canvas.

The Soviet regime is nearing its end. The walls will be coming down soon. It is not too late for Sukhanov, who was some kind of a genius painter, to let go of the comforts of his captivity and paint in passionate protest as he had before.

Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

Published in 1966

We follow the red-gold locks of a young girl named Meghann from the fields of New Zealand to the outbacks of Australia, carefully tracing the path of forbidden love.

No, this is not another foolish romance novel. It is a wrenching tale of love that will have you feeling as if you’ve never heard of it before.

Meghann, who goes by Meggie, is the only girl amongst a herd of Irish boys. All cling to the land and desire nothing more than to work its fields, except for Frank, whose black eyes and back hair set him apart in many ways from the rest of them. However, in New Zealand, the family is struggling to get by with the meager wages of their father. So, when a letter arrives from their father’s sister, a wealthy landowner in Australia, offering them a place on the land in exchange for working the large sheep station on Drogheda, the family leaves at once.

At the train station, a handsome priest awaits to take them to Drogheda. Meggie was only a little girl at the time, but when her wealthy aunt sees the priest carrying Meggie in his arms, she knew then love would later consume the flames of their lives.

We follow Meggie as she grows into a beautiful woman who slips into the same mistakes as her mother, whose own story remains tucked between the pages until she tries to save her daughter from a similar fate.

Photo courtesy of Professor Bop’s Flickr

headshotAiyah Sibay is a sophomore English literature major and can be reached at

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