My Life in Books

5 books that inspired Canada Reads finalist Omar El Akkad

The author of American War shares the books that impacted him culturally and creatively.
Omar El Akkad is a finalist on Canada Reads 2018 for his novel American War. (Peter Power/CBC)

Omar El Akkad is an award-winning Egyptian-Canadian journalist, whose on-the-ground reporting from the NATO-led war in Afghanistan, the military trials at Guantánamo Bay, the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Mo., earned him Canada's National Newspaper Award for Investigations and the Goff Penny Memorial Prize for Young Canadian Journalists, along with three National Magazine Award honourable mentions. These experiences inspired El Akkad's debut novel, American War, which is being defended by Tahmoh Penikett on Canada Reads 2018.

Below, El Akkad shares five books that resonated with him.

A Death in the Family by James Agee

A Death in the Family is a novel by James Agee published posthumously. (Penguin Random House)

"This is maybe my favourite novel of all time. It was published posthumously, mostly because Agee died and his family didn't have very much money. There's been some controversy surrounding potential alterations to the original manuscript, but pound for pound it's the most emotionally surgical book I've ever read. I'm biased because I read it shortly after my father died.

"This is basically a fictionalization of Agee's father dying when he was young, so it hit home. It has one of the most beautiful prologues of any book I've ever read. The myth is that he wrote it in 90 minutes. He sat down and wrote it in one shot."

​The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz

The Cairo Trilogy is a series of by Egyptian novelist and 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature winner Naguib Mahfouz. (AFP/Getty Images;Penguin Random House)

"In addition to being a beautiful story and a photorealistic account of what it was like to live in that part of Egypt in that time, it also has personal resonance with me because when my father was a child he lived in the old part of Cairo, El-Hussein. It has the El-Hussein Mosque and back alleys, silversmiths and coffee shops. He would sneak into one coffee shop in particular, which was run by a guy named El Fishawy. He would sneak behind the tables because he was a kid and wasn't allowed in.

"At night, Naguib Mahfouz would hold court at this place and the poets, the musicians and the luminaries of Egyptian society would go. I envy that because I never had that. I never marinated in one place, I've been moving around my whole life. So Naguib Mahfouz to me is the epitome of someone who marinated in one place and got it right."

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Song of Solomon is a novel by celebrated American author Toni Morrison. (Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Alfred A. Knopf)

"I now divide everything into what I read before and what I read after this book. Before I read it, I thought it was possible to have beautiful writing in a book or have an incredibly powerful and dangerous political message in a book or have a world-changing technique to do something fundamentally new. But I didn't think you could do all of those things at once. Then I read Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.

"It was the first Toni Morrison I read, and it was life changing for me. It was one of those books where I understood two things right away. One, that I would never have the kind of talent to be able to do this. Two, that it was possible. That made a difference in my life as a writer. Then I went and read everything else by Toni Morrison that I could get my hands on."

No Knives in the Kitchens of this City by Khaled Khalifa

Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa is the author of No Knives in the Kitchens of this City. (Oxford University Press)

"When this book originally came out in Arabic in 2014, it won one of the most prestigious Arabic prizes. It came out more recently in English. It's this epic family drama of a single family living in Aleppo. It covers about 40 years from the 1960s to just before the civil war breaks out. It's part Dostoevsky, part Orwell. It's what happens to people when they're in a society that's crushing them. It's beautiful and difficult. It got no attention in this part of the world, and that's a shame."

​What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

What Belongs to You is American novelist Garth Greenwell's debut. (Garth Greenwell/Pan Macmillan)

"It's maybe the most honest love story I've ever read. I went to see him give a reading at a community college outside Portland. I had read the book, in which every sentence dances. Every sentence is music and it's beautiful, it's honest and it's experiential. He obviously went through a lot of this stuff. He is for, my money, one of the best new writers in America. I love his work."

Omar El Akkad's comments have been edited and condensed.

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