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
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