A Decade in Books: 2018

In early 2018 G. and I moved to Egypt, where were planning to stay for five or six months, although we were flexible and our future was, to put it casually, uncertain. We rented a flat on the sixteenth floor of a concrete apartment tower in Zamalek, an upscale neighbourhood located at the tip of an island in the Nile, with Cairo on one side and Giza on the other. G. worked on her thesis and visited museums while I entertained a vaguely formed idea to write journalism. I had a completed novel about Alexander the Great’s successors on my computer hard drive. It grew hotter and hotter as the weeks passed, and the AC units in our apartment started to break down one by one, until I spent most of my time in my underwear, either sitting at the ornate dining table sending out pitches to agents and editors, or lying on the sofa, my skin sticking to the dark green leather, reading books.

I read a lot in 2018 because I had time. Naturally, I read books about Egypt, many of which I wrote about in 2018 on this very blog. I discovered Robert Solé and Waguih Ghali and read about the history of Cairo and a novel about the 2011 revolution. I also read books I brought with me to Egypt and which had nothing to do with the country, for example the first books in two acclaimed trilogies, one science fiction and the other fantasy: N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and Cixian Liu’s The Three Body Problem. I loved both of those books and read the sequels over the next couple of years.

To a degree living abroad means reading whatever you can get your hands on. There’s something charming about the serendipity of buying and reading what’s on offer locally. In Cairo I frequented the Zamalek branch of a bookstore called Diwan, which is well stocked in English-language books. That’s where I picked up, once I had read through the pile of books I had brought with me, LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven (surprising and moving) and Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women (earth shattering) and, of all things, Daniel Deronda. Ever since I read Middlemarch when I was twenty years old I’ve had this vague idea of… well, first of all rereading Middlemarch, but also of working my way through all of Eliot’s novels. I’m not sure if I felt that was such a good plan anymore after slogging through Daniel Deronda, but then hanging out in my dusty hot apartment in Cairo without a job was perhaps the only time I’ll ever have in my life to actually read that loose baggy monster without giving it up, or without it taking me months. There are books like that (The Red & the Black comes to mind) where it’s just nice to be able to say that you read them. I can’t say I’m completely put off from Eliot, though; I’d like to pick up The Mill on the Floss someday.

In May my parents came to visit us and we showed them around Cairo before going to Upper Egypt to stay in Aswan and Luxor and see all the beautiful sights. I had heard Lisa Halliday talk on the New York Times Book Review podcast, so I had her book delivered to my parent’s house before their trip so they could bring it to me. I vividly remember devouring Asymmetry on the poolside at the the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan — which happens to be one of the most beautiful pools I have ever been in. It was a bit too hot but it was a stunning place to read, with the aquamarine pool and the palm trees, the glint of the Nile, the feluccas sailing smoothly past, the rounded rocks and ruins of Elephantine island, and the desert beyond. That view is seared into my mind.

That summer G. and I returned to Quebec for a few months to get our lives in order before setting off to Paris in the fall, where G. had obtained a research fellowship. Our plans were more certain! Looking forward to our move to Paris, a city I had been to a couple of times when I was younger but didn’t really know that well, I reread Parisian favourites like Hemingway and Laurence Cossé, and I read Geoff Dyer’s Paris Trance and A Tale of Two Cities and Hilary Mantel’s great hefty novel about the French Revolution (read as another attempt to help wait for her last book in her Cromwell trilogy), A Place of Greater Safety. But the book I remember the most from that summer, a summer spent in Quebec at family cottages and seeing lots of animals like baby foxes and loons and deer and tadpoles, was Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — a book about waiting, and watching, about gathering information about the world around you and spending a long time pondering it. It’s a beautiful book and it moved me deeply, in the truest sense of the word: it moved something in me, it shifted the way I think and feel and read and write.

In September we moved to Paris and, to our surprise, we fell in love with our neighbourhood, with the city. We hadn’t expected to be so charmed. I found a job within a month or two but in the meantime I had a few precious weeks of free time left to read great European novelists. I swallowed up books by Rachel Cusk and Patrick Modiano and W. G. Sebald. I reread The Ambassadors, one of the best novels ever written about Paris, which I had discovered 8 years earlier in a seminar on Henry James at the University of Bristol, and found just that little bit more dull the second time around. And I got to writing seriously again: I started a new novel set in different key periods in the 20th century, so I read about the 1919 Peace Conference and about how France and Britain divided up the Middle East in the wake of World War I. I picked up Colm Toibin’s beautiful novel Brooklyn in a used bookstore on the Left Bank (there is such a joy to buying and reading books that you’ve heard about for years and that you already know that you will enjoy). And then, when I did have a job and the weather cooled and autumn was dwindling to short, dark days, I read Elif Batuman’s extraordinary, loose, messy, hilarious novel The Idiot in the Metro on the way to and from work. And I finished the year almost as I had started it, reading Robert Solé, and dreaming about a hot dusty city baking under the sun.

Reading List: 2018

Laurent Binet, La septième fonction du language

Robert Solé, Une soirée au Caire

N. K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season

Oman Robert Hamilton, The City Always Wins

Amin Maalouf, Un fauteuil sur la Seine

Sebastian Barry, Days Without End

Diaries of Waguih Ghali: Volume 1 1964-1966

Joe M. McDermott, The Fortress at the End of Time

Emmanuel Carrère, D’autres vies que la mienne

Waguih Ghali, Beer in the Snooker Club

Salima Ikram, Ancient Egypt: An Introduction

Diaries of Waguih Ghali, Volume 2 1966-1968

Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem

Robert Solé, Le Tarbouche

The Essential Tawfiq Al-Hakim

George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Lathe of Heaven

Maurice Leblanc, La comtesse de Cagliostro

Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women

Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry

Max Rodenbeck, Cairo: The City Victorious

Julian Barnes, Levels of Life

Cixin Liu, The Dark Forest

Alberto Manguel, Packing my Library

Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Laurence Cossé, Au bon roman

Natalie Morrill, The Ghost Keeper

Laurent Gaudé, Le tigre bleu de l’Euphrate

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety

Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Frank L. Holt, The Treasures of Alexander the Great

Geoff Dyer, Paris Trance

Robert Garland, Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks

Katherine Dunn, Geek Love

James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Rachel Cusk, Outline

James Barr, A Line in the Sand

W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz

Rachel Cusk, Transit

Patrick Modiano, Dora Bruder

Craig Brown, Ma’am Darling

Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919

Laurence Cossé, Nuit sur la neige

Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn

Henry James, The Ambassadors

Patrick Modiano, Un pedigree

Elif Batuman, The Idiot

Robert Solé, Le sémaphore d’Alexandrie

Moving to Paris: A Reading List

I love compiling lists of books. I have running lists of books I’ve read, books I want to read, books I want to buy, books I need to consult for research, and books about places I’ve been to or places I’m going to.

From the moment I knew we would be moving to Paris, I compiled a list of great books set in the city that I wanted to read or re-read. That list keeps growing and changing every week, but here it is at the moment (and in no particular order).

A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel9780312426392

I’m an inveterate admirer of Mantel’s Cromwell books, so I’ve long wanted to read her brick-sized novel of the French revolution. It was the first book she wrote, although she had to wait a considerable number of years (and other books) before publishing it. I agree with critics that it could’ve done with less history, but you can definitely see in this carefully researched and intriguingly written novel the seeds of what Mantel would later do in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies: take figures who were at the periphery of power during a time of momentous change, and explore the fissures and stress points in their inner lives. I learned a lot about the main players behind the revolution, who were living day by day and, for the most part, had really no idea what they were doing. Also: what a great title.

220px-MoveableFeastA Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway

How could I not? Like many others I loved this book as a teenager, when I romanticized Paris in the 20s, the Left Bank cafés, the artists, etc, etc. I quite enjoyed this second read-through, although I have to say the second half doesn’t live up to the promise of the first–too much time spent trying to undermine Scott Fitzgerald. Still, the description Hemingway conjures of writing in steamy cafés, ordering white wine and oysters, remains magical and unforgettable. Following the Paris attacks in 2015, the book became a bestseller in France.

Memoirs of Montparnasse, by John Glassco

Memoirs-of-Montparnasse_1024x1024I haven’t re-read this book yet but brought it with me to Paris to do so. I remember it being even better than Hemingway’s memoir when I read it in my early twenties. Glassco was a Canadian poet who also escaped to Montparnasse between the wars when he was just seventeen, and wrote his memoir of that time when he was living out his middle age in the Eastern Townships, on long afternoons buoyed by gin. Glassco’s account is somewhat fictionalized, but it’s a great read with fantastic sweep, and lots of charming raunch.

Au Bon Roman, by Laurence Cossé (in English: A Novel Bookstore, translated by Alison Anderson).

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I fell pretty hard for this novel when I first read it back in 2010. It’s about two people who are somewhat disappointed by life, but they love reading good novels and open a bookstore together. The one thing that stayed with me the most from the book is that there’s a little trick with the narrator: you start thinking out that it’s in the third person, but then realize that it’s actually narrated from one of the characters. Upon re-reading it this summer I found some of the emotional impact somewhat lessened, but I was still taken with the beautifully created characters and the melancholy atmosphere. I love this novel because it is an unabashed celebration of the power of good literature.

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

220px-Tales_serialI’d long meant to read this Dickens, for the most part because it’s among his shorter novels. As I was reading it this summer I did wonder where he was going with the crazy plot for most of the book, but by the end all of the pieces he had set up in the first part did come together and the story clicked into gear towards a satisfying ending. Dickens doesn’t really take the time describe Paris very well, but his vicious take on both the corrupted aristocracy and the blood-thirty crowds of revolutionaries is fun. He spares no one–as long as they’re French! I’m growing a bit tired of Dickens’ female characters, however, who are always based on the same sweet passive model.

The Ambassadors, by Henry James

9780141441320This is one of James’ late, great masterpieces, and is the ultimate arriving-in-Paris read, so much so that I’ve been slowly savouring it since we arrived. James himself said that the best way to enjoy his books was to read about five pages a day, but to keep at it “without losing the thread.” In The Ambassadors, a wealthy American woman sends her middle-aged suitor, Strether, to Paris to convince her son, who may or may not be having an affair with a rich countess, to return to America. But then, against all odds, Strether begins to fall in love with Paris–the food, the artwork, the architecture, the atmosphere. As the novel progresses, it’s unclear who is corrupting whom. The pleasure of the novel is in witnessing Strether’s slow transformation, which sometimes looks more like self-delusion. The dialogues are also wonderfully witty.

Paris Trance, Geoff Dyer

9781466869875Geoff Dyer is one of those writers that I’m still not sure what to make of. I read his books and I can’t say I enjoy them, exactly, but they  make me think, and I do keep coming back to his work. I picked this novel up by chance when I saw it at Blackwell’s in Oxford this summer. What a treat: compulsive, self-aware, elegantly written, sexy, melancholy. It’s about a group of expat friends living from party to party in Paris in the 1990s, and the inevitable moment when the parties have to end. Dyer is better known for his non-fiction, but this novel proves he can do fiction just as well.

La Septième Fonction du Langage, by Laurent Binet (in English: The Seventh Function of Language, translated by Sam Taylor)

imageA follow-up to Binet’s sometimes frustrating but nonetheless compelling HHhH, his second novel is a crazy romp through the world of  French philosophers in the early 80s. It begins with a simple but intriguing premise: the influential literary critic Roland Barthes died in 1980, struck by a van–what if he was actually murdered? The story is fast-paced and, in the end, becomes a little too heavy handed in its pastiche of Dan Brown-esque conspiracy thrillers, but the early scenes set in the houses and university offices of the likes of Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, and Kristeva are a delight. My favourite cameo is by Umberto Eco, who is, of course, the smartest of them all.

*All images taken from the publishers’ websites, or Wikipedia.