Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler (Ballantine, $15). For me, the ultimate book about family. I have always found Tyler's characters compelling, in particular their desperate longing to re-create hearth and home in a world that seems to conspire against both. The hero, Ezra, does so by opening a restaurant that serves basically what he feels like making on any particular day — the ultimate home-cooked meal, in effect. An enormous influence on me as I set out to attack similar themes in my two memoirs.
The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany (Harper, $14). This novel of modern Egypt — its tensions and heartbreaks as seen through the lives of the residents of a once-grand apartment building in Cairo—is simply stunning. Published in 2002, it foretold the revolution and the rage that fueled the protests at Tahrir Square.
Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith by Gina B. Nahai (Washington Square, $25). This magical novel, anchored in the old Jewish ghetto of Tehran, gave me the courage to attempt my own book about Cairo’s extinct Jewish community. Nahai is a magical writer. Her style brings to mind a Mizrahi Gabriel García Márquez.
Justine by Lawrence Durrell (Penguin, $15). It's impossible to attempt a book about a vanished Egypt without citing the master. I still get lost reading Justine, still manage to completely identify with Durrell's troubled, tortured Jewish heroine, who floats through the city of Alexandria leaving behind a faint scent of her favorite perfume.
Le Petit Chose by Alphonse Daudet (Mondial, $19). A moving and wonderful French novel about a family that loses its home and its moorings — a family very much like mine, I think. A line from the book — il faut reconstruire le foyer (you must rebuild the hearth) — is a constant refrain in my memoir, as my mother keeps quoting it over and over again.
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos (Hyperion, $16). An exquisite and soulful novel about a pair of Cuban exiles who land in New York. Hijuelos does a wonderful job of capturing the longings of expatriates for their lost culture and country.