A Decade in Books: 2017

The list of books I read in 2017 isn’t very long. That year I was working long hours as a teacher, commuting to work by car, finishing a long novel I was writing about the successors of Alexander the Great. I read on weekends, in the evenings — and so never as much as I wanted to.

The year started with Chanson Douce, a troubling french novel that had won the Goncourt, France’s top literary prize, in 2016. The novel tells the story of a Parisian nanny who murders the children she takes care of. It’s extremely well done, a slow burn, psychologically acute study of class, privilege, and care.

I reread many books in 2017, a lot of them because I was teaching them: All Quiet on the Western Front, Maus, Cloud Atlas, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I love all of these books, and I had picked them for that reason, and because teaching them gave the chance to revisit them. I also reread Mantel’s Wolf Hall, preparing myself for the third volume of her Cromwell trilogy which I knew would come sooner or later (it would be another three years!) and because I wanted to put her strong present tense voice back in my head to help me along with my own writing.

Strange to see Alice Munro’s Friend of My Youth in the list. Sometimes, reading my way through Alice Munro’s collections seems like a life’s work; I take so much joy knowing that I still have many of her books to read. And yet, I was just looking at the book on my shelves the other day — the one I have is a first edition hardcover I got at a used book sale — and thinking that I hadn’t read it yet. I have no memory of any of the stories inside and legitimately thought I’d never opened it before. Maybe I should revisit it too.

That fall G. and I returned home to Quebec for a week to visit family and meet my niece, who had been born in the summer. While there I read Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, which had just come out: the book that introduces his new Book of Dust trilogy. I was glad to be able to review it for The Millions, but it meant I had to gulp it down fast to crank something out while it was still relevant. Thankfully, it’s a beautiful book and was well worth the ten-year wait since I’d first read His Dark Materials.

Near the end of 2017 it was becoming clearer that G. and I were planning our escape from California. I left my job and we hauled most of our belongings across the USA in a small blue Toyota Yaris, “storing” (read: dumping) them in my parents’ basement so we could go spend a few months in Cairo, Egypt, where G. had research to do for her PhD. My plan was to take this time off and abroad to write. I had about finished my book about Alexander the Great’s successors, so I wanted to find an agent and work on some non-fiction. That may be why I picked up two strong non-fiction books at the end of the year: Ta-Nahesi Coates’ masterful, messy collection of essays We Were Eight Years in Power, and John McPhee’s non-fiction masterclass Draft #4 (both of which had just come out).

I’m surprised I didn’t read more books about Egypt to prepare for the trip but I did pick up Yasmine El Rashidi’s novel Chronicle of a Last Summer; I knew the author from her very beautiful, thoughtful pieces about Egypt in the New York Review of Books. As it turned out, El Rashidi’s family house (which is described in the novel) was actually on the same street as the apartment building we ended up living in Cairo — but I didn’t know that yet as 2017 was drawing to a close).

To close: a few word on Red Sparrow, a thriller I picked up after hearing New Yorker editor David Remnick say he’d liked it. I read it to G. in the evenings before going to bed (the movie was going to come out a few months later) but unfortunately it wasn’t much to our taste. Perhaps we’re more on the team of John le Carré, who also appears on the list, with a book he published that year bringing back his wonderful character George Smiley after a long hiatus.

Reading List: 2017

Leïla Slimani, Chanson Douce

E. M. Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

Guy Delisle, S’enfuir

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, Aphrodite’s Tortoise

Mary Renault, The Persian Boy

Art Spiegelman, Maus

Elizabeth Carney, Women and Monarchy in Macedonia

Deborah Campbell, A Disappearance in Damascus

Stefan Hartmanns, War and Turpentine

Donald Engels, Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army

Bryher, Gate to the Sea

Daniel Pennac, Le Cas Mallaussène I: Ils m’ont menti

Nicolas Sekunda, Macedonian Armies after Alexander

Alice Munro, Friend of my Youth

Euripides, Bacchae

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Alain Farah, La Ligne la plus sombre

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy

Yasmine El Rashidi, Chronicle of a Last Summer

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

Robert Harris, Imperium

Madeleine Miller, The Song of Achilles

Elena Ferrante, The Story of the Lost Child

Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Christian Cameron, Tyrant: Funeral Games

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black

Philip Pullman, La Belle Sauvage

John le Carré, A Legacy of Spies

James Dashner, The Scorch Trials

Ian Worthington, Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece

Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow

Jacques Poulin, Le Vieux Chagrin

Ta-Nahesi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power

John McPhee, Draft No. 4

A Decade in Books: 2013

I’m continuing my series of posts going through the books I read over the last decade, this time with 2013.

For the record, I would like to point out that I was reading Alice Munro’s last book Dear Life at the very beginning of 2013, months before she won the Nobel Prize for Literature later that year. And what a well deserved win that was, proof that there is after all some justice in the world. I only point the timing because of course once she’d won the prize I saw people reading her books everywhere around me, I couldn’t help that snarky, readerly self-importance: I liked her before the Nobel!

2013 was a year that I remember for its writing more than I do for its reading. I was living in Vancouver, doing an MFA in Creative Writing. I had started working on my thesis at the end of 2012, a novel about three brothers caught up in a terrorist organization fighting for the independence of Québec, and so most of 2013 was spent drafting that manuscript. The previous year I had discovered Hubert Aquin, the post-modern Québecois writer who committed suicide in 1977, not too far from where I went to college in Montreal. I wanted to model my novel on his work, and read another one of his books that summer. I remember feeling energized by his writing, discovering that a Québecois writer was trying to emulate great, global writers like Nabokov felt very exciting. That’s why I also read Gordon Shepard’s excellent HA!: A Self-Murder Mystery, which is a long book, written in English, that explores Hubert Aquin’s suicide. It’s the sort of book that shouldn’t exist, really, because it’s so niche (who reads Aquin? Who reads Aquin in English? Who reads a book about Aquin in English?). But it’s profoundly moving and extremely interesting, and so I’m glad that someone was willing to write it, and someone else was willing to publish it!

G. was finishing up her master’s degree at Oxford in the spring so I went to visit her for a few weeks. I had seen an exhibit on Art Spiegelman at a museum in Vancouver and wanted to write about it for the literary website The Millions. I remember writing an essay about Maus in a coffee place that was set up above a bike shop in Oxford. The coffee was delicious, it felt nice to have all this time in front of me to read and think about books. I’m fairly sure it was my mother who gave me Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing, a somewhat laborious but breathtaking book about music and race in America. Since then Powers has won the Pulitzer for a novel about trees, but my second memory from my weeks in Oxford is reading The Time of Our Singing on a park bench while G. was working on a paper in the library. An old lady sat next to me and, thinking that I was studying and wanting to encourage me, gave me half of her KitKat bar. She said I reminder her of her son.

I love Al Alvarez although I don’t think ever wrote anything better than The Writer’s Voice. He really represents another generation, he was a 20th century man of letters who ended up in the 21st century as by accident.  During that same trip in England I visited (discovered?) my favourite book store, The London Review Bookshop in Bloomsbury. I can’t remember what else I bought but I know I spotted a new Al Alvarez in the window: Pondlife. It’s a very moving diary, focused around the swimming ponds on Hampstead Heath where he went to swim whenever he got the chance, and whatever the season. It’s also a book about aging, and about giving things up.

I originally wrote that last paragraph in the present tense but I recently learned that Alvarez passed away in 2019. He was 90, so I’d been expecting the news, but still. What a shocker. He was a brilliant and somewhat undervalued writer. The Writer’s Voice should be required reading for creative writing programs.

What else? I finally got around to reading Nabokov’s Pale Fire and loved it. Funny to see James Salter on my list, as I was just re-reading A Sport and a Pastime this summer — working as I was on my own “France” novel, with some sex in it. Back in 2013 I read Salter for just that reason, because I’d heard somewhere that he was great at writing sex scenes, which of course he is. His style is a little tight for my taste but he has some beautiful, precise prose in that book, and it’s so atmospheric.

Malarky is the debut novel of Irish-Canadian author Anakana Schofield, whom I interviewed in the summer of 2013 for the website of PRISM international magazine. That was one of the interesting aspects of being in a writing program: meeting writers for the first time, having long conversation about craft and books. It made the whole experience of writing feel more legitimate, in a way. Although the author told me Malarky was quite tame, all things considered, I think with its looping style and strongly voiced prose it’s safe to say that this book is experimental, and it makes me realize how much I was going for “difficult” reads, or at least books that pushed the boundaries of fiction with writers like Aquin, Nabokov, Anne Carson, Réjean Ducharme… Even Elizabeth Bowen, whose books I usually adore but whose WWII-novel The Heat of the Day I found dense. It left me, well, rather cold.

At the other end of the spectrum, perhaps, is a novel that purported to be experimental in its structure since the plotting and characters were based on astrology, although in fact it was more traditional, Dickensian in its voice, pacing, and plot. I ended the year with The Luminaries, which came out that summer and won the Booker Prize that fall (and was recently made into a BBC mini series). There’s always a certain pleasure to reading a book just as it comes out, to dive right into the hype alongside everyone else. I remember the book somewhat well; I remember the voice, and some of the scenes flash in my memory. As I recall, Catton uses the adjective “fat” a few too many times in the opening chapters, and I remember that for all it’s careful plotting and multiplying characters I was a bit disappointed at the end of the book, as the chapters became shorter and shorter — waning as they are meant to — we are left with a trite flashback about rain falling, and love.

Reading List: 2013

Alice Munro, Dear Life

Joël Dicker, La vérité sur l’affaire Harry Québert

ZZ Packer, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

Lucien Bouchard, Lettres à un jeune politicien

David Malouf, An Imaginary Life

Seamus Heaney, Seeing Things

Gordon Shepard, HA!: A Self-Murder Mystery

Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red

Gabriel Josipovici, Whatever Happened to Modernism?

Noel Streatfield, Sapplings

Denys Arcand, Euchariste Moisan

David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

Art Spiegelman, Maus

Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing

Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day

Anakana Schofield, Malarky

Al Alvarez, Pondlife

Cesar Aira, The Literary Conference

Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire

Mordecai Richler, Barney’s Version

John le Carré, Smiley’s People

Hubert Aquin, Trou de mémoire

Alan Moore, V for Vendetta

Alice Oswald, Memorial

James Salter, A Sport and a Pastime

Ben Downing, Queen Bee of Tuscany

César Aira, Varamo

Keith Maillard, Running

Réjean Ducharme, L’Avalée des avalées

Adam Gopnik, Winter

Wajdi Mouawad, Forêts

Louis Hamelin, La Constellation du Lynx

Joseph Boyden, The Orenda

Eleanor Catton, Luminaries

Francis Spufford (ed.), The Antarctic