A Decade in Books: 2016

In 2016 I was knee deep — about 60,000 words in at the beginning of the year – in writing a novel about the successors of Alexander’s the Great. While I still read and consulted reference books, I also pivoted to reading more fiction that could help me figure out how I could turn hard history (full of holes as it is) into compelling fiction. I turned to an old favourite, David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which I reread to get a feel for Mitchell’s expert handling of a close, third-person narration in the present-tense. I also read fiction that was set in or near the period I was writing about: Harry Turtledove’s Over the Wine Dark Sea, about some swashbuckling Greek sailors (terrible writing); Annabel Lyon’s beautifully moving The Sweet Girl, the sequel of sorts to her amazing The Golden Mean, which was about the relationship between Aristotle and a young Alexander; and Mary Renault, who of course is the queen or grandmother of historical fiction set in Ancient Greece, and whose book about Alexander’s childhood, beautifully titled Fire From Heaven, did not disappoint — although it is a little bit old-fashioned in comparison to Lyon and Mitchell.

I’d been a fan of Diana Athill ever since I read her memoir Yesterday in college, and worked my way through her other books over the years. Alive, Alive Oh! was a collection of essays and would be her last book. I reviewed it for The Millions and completed it by reading Instead of a Book, which is a collection of Athill’s letters to the American poet Edward Field.

In the first half of 2016 I was still commuting to work by train and bus, which is how I got the time to finish Emmanuel Carrère’s book Le Royaume, a 600+ memoir cum novel cum investigative reporting about early Christians. Believe it or not, this book shook French literary criticism to its foundations when it came out in 2014 — everyone was talking about it. I honestly don’t remember much about the novel now.

Then in the summer of 2016 we drove our car back from Montreal all the way to California, and my commute changed to a scenic, 30-minute drive along interstate 280, which meant I read a lot less and started listening to a lot more podcasts, like This American Life and Longform. That’s how I also came to listen to the audibook of Ta-Nehesi Coates’ All the World and Me, narrated by the author, at the recommendation of a colleague. On weekends, G. and I would drive to Santa Cruz to eat fish tacos, sit on the beach, and write in a coffeeshop we liked. On the way we listened to episodes of the Serial podcast.

Several of the books I read that year were for work, so that I could teach them to my students: The Help, The Lightning Thief, Heart of Darkness, The Pearl, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Macbeth — which, strangely and despite having taken several classes on Shakespeare, I’d never read before. As for the other titles, I can’t say I got a lot out of them, but it was interesting to have an external reason to read these books I would’ve probably never picked up myself, a bit like a book club.

As you can see, I continued on my Ferrante fever after having read the first book in the Neapolitan novels during a vacation in Italy in 2015, continuing with the next two novel in the series that year. I had the chance to read Ian McEwan’s novel Nutshell before it was officially released because I reviewed it for The Millions. The novel was a bit of fun, and I would rank it favourably in McEwan’s oeuvre although it’s by no means among his very best. I started reading McEwan in college, after I saw the movie Atonement with Keira Knightley I became a little bit obsessed with him and worked my through his back catalogue (at this point the only novels of his I haven’t read our some of his early ones: The Cement Garden, The Child in Time and Black Dogs) while buying and ready all of his books as they came out: Solar, Sweet Tooth, The Children Act all appear on previous lists. McEwan continues to be a writer that I like to wrestle with, and whose career I love mapping out as it develops, book by book.

Reading List: 2016

David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, La femme qui fuit

Harry Turtledove, Over the Wine Dark Sea

Jacques Poulin, Mon Cheval pour un royaume

Annabel Lyon, The Sweet Girl

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed

Catherine Leroux, Madame Victoria

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Milan Kundera, L’insoutenable légèreté de l’être

Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name

Maxime-Olivier Moutier, Journal d’un étudiant en histoire de l’art

Diana Athill, Alive, Alive Oh!

Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

Mary Renault, Fire from Heaven

Diana Athill, Instead of a Book

William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Emmanuel Carrère, Le Royaume

Martin McDonagh, The Leenane Trilogy

Comarc McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night

Geoff Dyer, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (audio)

Ian McEwan, Nutshell

Albert Sanchez Piñol, Victus

Barry Meier, Missing Man

Kathryn Stockett, The Help

Madeline Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Nancy Huston, L’Espèce fabulatrice

Ronald Wright, What is America?

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Elizabeth Carney, King and Court in Ancient Macedonia

Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief

Laurence Cossé, La Grande Arche

John Steinbeck, The Pearl

Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

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