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

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: 2014

2014 was a year of big change: I finished my thesis and graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing, G. and I got married that summer, and in September we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area where she was beginning a PhD. I remember a lot of my reading from that year vividly, the books locked into a specific time, place, and feeling.

Chris Hadfield’s memoir about being an astronaut is the first book I read in 2014 and I loved it so much that it reminded me how much I used to love space as a kid, and that I wanted to be an astronaut myself for a little while. I wrote an essay about it for The Puritan and read Andy Weir’s The Martian because it was a bestseller and I knew it was being made into a movie.

G. and I spent part of the summer in Germany where she was taking a German language course in Dresden. I read David Mitchell’s Number9Dream in the plane on the way to Germany, rapt, and I read poor Stendhal in Dresden, flopped in the grassy banks of the river Elbe during an early summer heat wave. On weekends we travelled around a bit to places like Berlin and Prague. I had just read Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which is an excellent French book about Operation Anthropoid, an assassination attempt on top Nazi commander Heidrich — “the Butcher of Prague.” In fact we were in Prague just around the anniversary of the events, and G. and I were quite moved when we happened to walk past the church where the agents had hidden and been killed.

Having spent time in Dresden, which was almost entirely destroyed by allied bombing during the war and later rebuilt as a kind of fake version of the city’s pre-war architecture, I wanted to write an essay about reconstruction after war, and read Slaughterhouse Five, whose climax is the author’s real memories of hiding out in a slaughterhouse as a war prisoner when allied bombs decimate the city.

What surprises me is how many books I read in 2014 — 50, which is almost one a week, an excellent average for me. Of course I wasn’t working in the spring, and then I worked a bit during the summer but continued to have a more patchy work situation in the fall until I found a job as a teacher in a private school in the Bay Area at the very end of the year. And so I ate up long, heavy books like The Red and the Black and Bleak House and, when fall came around, I went to the university library and read lots of things I’d been meaning to get to for a long time: The English Patient, Joan Didion, Zadie Smith… These are all wonderful books, wonderful writers. Yes, 2014 was a year of catching up: I finally got around to reading American Gods, The Secret History, Nicholson Baker, Marilynne Robinson, Enduring Love (I’d long been keen on McEwan and was working my way through his back catalogue). I loved them all. This must surely have been one of the best reading streaks of my life.

A few misfires? It seems that everyone was reading The Flamethrowers when it came out; I read it quickly and easily but I remember being a bit bored by it, but then also finding the pan review in The New York Review of Books to be rather unfair. Similarly with The Corrections, a book I had heard so much about (although I read it long after even Freedom had come out). I didn’t find it boring, but can I say that it really brought me anything? No, although I remember the ridiculous scene when one of the characters stuffs a piece of salmon into his pants in an upscale food store and it begins sliding down against his leg. I remember the scene but I can’t say I found it all that funny.

And then there are the books that I continued reading to G. before bed every night — a tradition we had begun with Tim Parks’ wonderful Italian Neighbours. We were somewhat disappointed by his follow-up An Italian Education, but Gopnik’s classic Paris to the Moon was a pleasant book in the same vein (we had no idea we would eventually end up living in Paris about 4 years later). Washington Square was another book we read together before bed, and that one was also underwhelming — but it was also short, thankfully.

A few words on Gloria. Keith Maillard was my thesis advisor at UBC and although I haven’t read all of his books I would hazard to say that this is his masterpiece. I’m ashamed that I actually hadn’t read it before or at least during my time as his student. It’s a wondrous book, the kind of perfect, lengthy novel you can dive into, feel the tingling thrill as it submerges you under its surface. The narration is smooth, masterful: from the first few lines — “It was well past the time when anyone should feel the least bit embarrassed by asking for another drink” — you know you’re in the hands of a master. The novel takes place over the course of a single, long summer in the life of a young woman in the 1950s, who’s hesitating between going to grad school or entering married life, with flashbacks woven in to different periods of her earlier life. There’s sex, violence, love, discussions of literature, beautiful writing. I usually dislike when books use the main character’s name as a title but I can’t see what else this book could possibly be called, because once you’ve met and spent time with Gloria — beautiful, smart, deep, capable, brave; but also proud, troubled, insecure, unsure — she seems so real, like a friend everyone’s heard about, the woman in the room no one can ignore. AND THE THINGS MAILLARD PUTS HER THROUGH. He makes you love her, and then he breaks your heart by having her go through these excruciating coming-of-age trials. But of course she triumphs in the end, and she picks the right choice. It’s an extraordinary novel.

Reading List: 2014

Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics

Michel Folco, Dieu et nous seuls pouvons

Kevin Barry, There Are Little Kingdoms

Louise Fournier, FLQ: Histoire d’un mouvement clandestin

Andy Weir, The Martian

Jean-Christophe Ruffin, Immortelle randonnée

Alice Munro, The Moons of Jupiter

William S. Messier, Dixie

Zadie Smith, NW

Nick Hornby, Ten Years in the Tub

Dante, Inferno (translated by Mary Jo Bang)

Donna Tartt, The Secret History

Paul-Éric Blanrue, Les malveillants

Robin Jenkins, The Cone-Gatherers

Alan Bennett, A Life Like Other People’s

Laurent Binet, HHhH

Neil Gaiman, American Gods

David Mitchell, number9dream

Stendhal, Le rouge et le noir

Charles Dickens, Bleak House

Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

Ian McEwan, Enduring Love

Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (audio)

Rick Gekoski, Outside of a Dog

Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

Joan Didion, After Henry

James Salter, Last Night

Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon

Frederick Taylor, Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945

Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September

Michael Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter

Al Alvarez, Where Did It all Go Right?

Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers

Zadie Smith, Changing my Mind

Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow 2: Dance and Dream

Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage

Tim Parks, An Italian Education

Keith Maillard, Gloria

Christopher Reid, Nonsense

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Henry James, Washington Square

Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Pierre Lemaitre, Rosy & John

Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

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

A Decade in Books: 2011

In 2010, I started keeping track of all the books I read in a notebook. Now, ten years later, I’ve decided to look back at my List of Books of Read from the decade to see what I remember, what has stayed with me, and what I’ve forgotten.

In January 2011 I returned to the UK to complete my year abroad. Once again many of the books I read were dictated by the classes I took, in this case a class on Shakespeare, which made me to read many of the plays I’d never picked up before, and a class on the Uncanny, which explains the Dickens, the Elizabeth Bowen, and the Virginia Woolf early in the list.

What else? Well it’s obvious that my classes at the University of Bristol were not taking up all my reading time, because I still read for pleasure: Down and Out in Paris and London, Alberto Manguel, Muriel Spark, The Master and Margarita. Come to think of it those last two would’ve fit well in the reading list for a class on the uncanny, but I distinctly remember picking them up for myself, and loving them.

In the very early weeks of 2011, G. and I spent a few days on holiday in Paris before returning to Bristol. I quite enjoy seeing books like The Measure of Paris and Down and Out in Paris in London all these years later, now I’m actually living here in Paris–something I could’ve never guessed back then.

For my birthday G. offered me a Year of Reading from an amazing book store in Bath called Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. The concept is that I had a short conversation with a “literary therapist” at the bookstore, who then sent me a novel tailored to my tastes every month. I distinctly remember reading Gould’s Book of Fish in a deer park in Bristol, and finding it both strange and wonderful. Of course several years later Richard Flanagan would win the Booker prize for another novel about building a railroad in the middle of the jungle–and I was glad to have discovered him a few years back thanks to this gift.

G. and I both fell hard for Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana that year, which is a beautiful book and beautifully told, and also one of his most accessible novels, although I believe it’s one that didn’t get a lot of attention. The last book I read in Bristol was Middlemarch, which I loved and have promised myself to reread since. In fact I finished reading it back home in Québec, so it straddles by last days in the UK and my return home.

As I returned to McGill in September and a slightly more rigorous academic schedule, my readings became dominated by two classes in particular: one on Canadian Modernism, and the other on the nature of Autobiography. So you see Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrien, which is of course fictional, mixed in with autobiographical books by Sartre and de Beauvoir, interwoven with less known Canadian classics like John Glassco, Sheila Watson, Ethel Wilson, and Ernest Buckler. In fact one class ended up feeding into the other, as I wrote the final essay for the class on autobiography on John Glassco’s Memoir’s of Montparnasse, which is a wonderful non-fiction book about his youth in Paris, but is interesting because it was highly fictionalized.

I enjoyed many of the novels I read for the class on Canadian modernism, but the one that stayed with me the most was Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, which is so energetic and wild, and also addresses many interesting political and cultural topics relevant to Quebec in the 1960s. I would incorporate many of these themes in my own writing as I prepared to undertake an MFA in creative writing after finishing my undergraduate degree.

Reading List: 2011

Perrine Leblanc, L’Homme blanc

Stephen Scobie, The Measure of Paris

Henry James, The Golden Bowl

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Terre des hommes

George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Euripides, Grief Lessons: Four Plays (Translated by Anne Carson)

Colm Tóibín, The Master

William Shakespeare, As You Like It

Alberto Manguel, A Reading Diary

William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Charles Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood

William Shakespeare, Richard II

Ferenc Karinthy, Metropole

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

Muriel Spark, Memento Mori

William Shakespeare, King Lear

William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

Elizabeth Bowen, The House in Paris

Lewis Buzbee, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop

Diana Athill, Instead of a Letter

Mikhael Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

John Updike, Rich in Russia

Sue Gee, Reading in Bed

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

Virginia Woolf, Orlando

William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood

Dinaw Mengestu, Children of the Revolution

Richard Flanagan, Gould’s Book of Fish

Carl-Johan Vallgren, Rubashov the Gambler

Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

Henry de Montherlant, Chaos and Night

George Eliot, Middlemarch

Gabriel Zaid, So Many Books

Gustave Flaubert, L’éducation sentimentale

Jacques Poulin, Les yeux bleus de Mistassini

David Gilmour, The Film Club

Jorge Luis Borges, Poems of the Night

Javier Marias, Your Face Tomorrow 1: Fever and Spear

Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise

Marguerite Yourcenar, Mémoires d’Hadrien

Ernest Buckler, The Mountain and the Valley

Ethel Wilson, The Equations of Love

John Glassco, Selected Poems

Sheila Watson, The Double Hook

Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers

Jean-Paul Sartre, Les Mots

Simone de Beauvoir, Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée

Alberto Manguel et Claude Rouquet, Conversations avec un ami

Pietro Grossi, The Break

Frank O’Connor, Selected Stories

A Decade in Books: 2010

In 2010, I started keeping track of all the books I read in a notebook. Now, ten years later, I’ve decided to look back at my List of Books of Read from the decade to see what I remember, what has stayed with me, and what I’ve forgotten.

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In January 2010, as the decade began, I was halfway through the first year of an undergraduate degree in English Literature at McGill University and working part time in a chain bookstore on the South Shore of Montreal. The first book I finished that year was Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End, which had won the Costa Prize and would go on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography later in 2010. I loved that book, but not as much as the first Athill book I read, which was Yesterday Morning. You’ll see many more Athill turn up on my lists from the decade; the memoir she wrote of her publishing years, Stet, appears later in the same year. Athill died in 2019.

Another comforting favourite that crops up a few times in 2010 is Jacques Poulin, a wonderful Québecois novelist who writes short, tender books full of melancholy readers and writers. I admire Poulin for his ability to write what is essentially the same book over and over again, digging ever deeper into similar themes and experiences.

The English novels early in the list–Waugh, Woolf, Orwell, Isherwood, Green and Greene–were all for a class in early 20th century literature. It was a great class and the professor who taught it would go on to become my undergraduate thesis advisor. This class was also my first introduction to Elizabeth Bowen, who soon became one of my favourite writers. The first story I read of hers was “The Dispossessed” and the first novel was To the North, which I’ve promised myself to reread since.

Apparently amid all the school reading, including a number of classical texts, I had time to read for pleasure. I remember buying Ian McEwan’s Solar as soon as it came out. I had loved Atonement, On Chesil Beach, Saturday… and I was bitterly disappointed by his dark comedy about climate change. I also found time to read Wolf Hall, which had just come out the previous year, and loved it.

I know I read at length that summer, as G. and I prepared to spend a year abroad at the University of Bristol, in the UK. When I read 2666 it felt like everyone had been talking about it for the better part of two years. Overall the novel left me perplexed, although I quite liked it. There was a huge Bolaño craze in the early teens, with many of his stories and novels being republished posthumously, but now it feels like he’s hardly ever mentioned anymore. 2666 is the only book of his I read and I’ve always wanted to reread it to see if it still holds up now that the hype has passed.

Reading when I was twenty was a lot about catching up, getting around to books I thought one should read: Conan Doyle, Hemingway, Kafka, Capote, Updike. It felt a little like ticking names off a list. I recall reading Rabbit, Run at the anonymous office in Ottawa where one had to make an appointment to apply for our British visas, and the young employee who was registering my file making a comment about it. I can’t say I remember the novel particularly fondly.

One book that stood out for me that summer was my first David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which really shook me: an eminently readable literary page turner, with just the right pulpy hint of magic. I would go on to read most of Mitchell’s books, but now that I think about it I definitely picked up that one because I found the cover striking. Another favourite that summe was Laurence Cossé’s novel about writers and bookstores, Au Bon Roman (translated in English as The Novel Bookstore), which stunned me. It’s about two friends who open a bookstore that only sells great novels (no celebrity bios, no cookie-butter bestsellers), selected by an anonymous panel of writers. It starts off as a sort of thriller with some of the panelists getting attacked or threatened, but it’s also a love story with a very light touch. I reread it last year and still liked it, but found that it didn’t have quite the same impact the second time around. After I read it I bought copies for several people around me.

There are a few invisible lines between some of the books I read in 2010. I bought Anne Fadiman’s At Large and at Small after seeing it in the bargain bin at work, a serendipitous discovery of a book I didn’t even know existed (I had fallen hard for her collection of essays about reading, Ex Libris). The essay in that book about people who are more active at night (she calls them Night Owls) led me to Al Alvarez’s book Night (ordered used off the internet because it’s out of print), which in turn must’ve motivated me to buy his excellent book about writing, The Writer’s Voice. You can also see that I was indulging in my love for books about books: The Library at Night, Larry McMurtry’s Books, Attachements (which is about a woman who culls her library), Pourquoi Lire? (Why Read?). I still like books about books but ten years on I feel that there was something a bit performative about how eagerly I devoured them as a twenty-year-old. Was I in love with the idea of books more than I was with books themselves?

In the fall we moved to the UK, where I had fewer classes than in Canada and no job, which means more reading time. The streak of Henry James came from a class I had on that writer. I had previously read only a single short story by James, and being encouraged to read so many of his novels and stories in quick success–that sense of immersion into the work and life and voice of one writer–remains a highlight of my reading life.

Another flash of remembrance: reading The General in His Labyrinth, which I had first heard about from John Green’s novel Looking for Alaska, alone in a hotel room near Shiphol Airport in Amsterdam. I was stranded there because of a snowstorm on December 21, my flight to Montreal having been cancelled. From the hotel room window I watched the wind push around curtains of snow tinted orange by the sodium light. A strange way to end the year, and I had a strange book to accompany me. The next day I was able to get on a flight back home to Montreal.

 

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The List: 2010

Diana Athill, Somewhere Towards the End

Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice

Homer, The Iliad

Homer, The Odyssey

Virginia Woolf, The Waves

Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

Lord Byron, Don Juan (Canto 1)

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Eusebius, History of the Church

Christopher Isherwood, Mr. Norris Changes Trains

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Graham Greene, A Gun for Sale

Ian McEwan, Solar

Elizabeth Bowen, To the North

Gerald Graff, Professing Literature

Henry Green, Party Going

Anne Fadiman, At Large and At Small

Jacques Poulin, Chat Sauvage

Helen Garner, The Spare Room

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Roberto Bolaño, 2666

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

Diana Athill, Stet

Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis

Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Louise Warren, Attachements

Andrei Makine, La vie d’un homme inconnu

Larry McMurtry, Books

John Glassco, Memoirs of Montparnasse

Ian McEwan, The Innocent

Stefan Zweig, Voyage dans le passé

Annie Proulx, Close Range (audio)

Jorge Luis Borges, Fictions

Nancy Huston, Infrarouge

Jacques Poulin, Volkswagen blues

Jim Shepard, Like You’d Understand, Anyway

Karen Blixen, Out of Africa

Dave Eggers, Zeitoun

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Vol de nuit

John Updike, Rabbit, Run

Bryan Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life

David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Al Alvarez, Night

Laurence Cossé, Au Bon Roman

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Dominique Fortier, On the Proper Use of Stars

Alberto Manguel, With Borges

Henry James, Roderick Hudson

Henry James, The Europeans

Henry James, Portrait of a Lady

Henry James, The Ambassadors

Christopher Reid, A Scattering

Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice

A.S. Byatt, Possession

Simon Garfield, Just My Type

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The General in His Labyrinth

Charles Dantzig, Pourquoi Lire?

Alberto Manguel, All Men Are Liars

The Buried by Peter Hessler

While we were living in Cairo in the first half of 2018, we used Peter Hessler’s longform pieces in the New Yorker as keys to decipher the country we were living in and finding so hard to understand. In engaging essays, Hessler wrote about garbage collectors, Chinese lingerie dealers, Arabic teachers, local politicians. The portraits he painted were keys that helped us comprehend social and economic factors what we could sometimes guess but not always see beneath’s the city’s dusty surface.

I’ve written about Hessler here before, about how we located the building where his family used to live in Zamalek, just a few blocks down from our own apartment block. Hessler lived in Cairo for five years, arriving in 2011 in the midst of the Egyptian revolution. As I’ve just finished reading Hessler’s book, The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, I wanted to share a few thoughts about it.

It was a bit of a strange reading experience since the book is largely made up of the writing Hessler already published in the New Yorker, here reorganized and sometimes cut up so he could it embed it more logically within a larger narrative. I was curious to see how this would work, and it does work; although the book feels slightly disjointed in places, Hessler manages to weave together the different strands of his research, reporting, and memoir into something whole. It’s not entirely a coherent whole, but then the country whose present and past he is digging into isn’t very coherent, either.

In addition to brief glimpses into his own family life — Hessler is married and has two twin daughters — the strands that make up the book are, for the most part, characters Hessler befriends. The two standouts are Sayyid, Hessler’s local garbage collector embroiled in an intense and long-lasting divorce with his wife, and Hessler’s translator Manu, who is gay and whose well-being and safety is increasingly imperilled. Hessler’s displays his amazing skill as a writer and reporter when he’s able to use these stories to tease out larger topics and issues that touch upon Egyptian history and society more broadly. Saiid’s story, for example, involves gender norms and relations, education, literacy, class, and religion. Hessler is an expert storyteller with an eye for the characters who can carry bigger themes.

Readers looking for a blow by blow account of the Egyptian revolution will be disappointed, but what Hessler offers is in many ways richer, and just as layered and interconnected as the history of the country he’s digging through. The Buried is without a doubt the most accurate description of contemporary Egypt — its challenges and opportunities — I’ve come across, and the best way to understand what it’s actually like to spend a lot of time in Cairo.

G. and I only lived in Egypt for five months. We loved our experience and can’t wait to visit again, but when the time came to leave I felt like I’d had enough. I admire Hessler’s tenacity and taste for adventure; he stayed in Egypt for five years, many of which must not have been easy as the country didn’t know where it was headed from month to month during the revolution. Learning the language, acquiring a car, befriending locals in an authentic way… The pay off is a rewarding book, intelligently and compassionately written.

In a moving testament to the Egyptians that give the book its energy, Hessler gives the last scene of his book to Wahiba, the wife of Sayyid the garbage collector. Her simple, hopeful coin toss is a resonant metaphor for a country brimming with potential, sometimes overburdened by its own history, and always teeming with contradictions.

Something Important Has Been Lost: The Diaries of Waguih Ghali

The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties, Volume 1: 1964-66. Edited by May Hawas. American University in Cairo Press, 2016.

The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties, Volume 2: 1966-68. Edited by May Hawas. American University in Cairo Press, 2017.

On December 26th 1968, the Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali, author of one acclaimed novel titled Beer in the Snooker Club, committed suicide in the flat of his editor and friend, Diana Athill. For the previous four years, Ghali had been keeping a diary, whose last entry he addressed to her: “I am leaving you my Diary, luv—well edited, it would be a good piece of literature.”

Almost twenty years later, in 1986, Athill published After a Funeral, which recounted her friendship with Ghali, whom she called Didi in her book. After a Funeral follows the push and pull in their relationship, and the inexorable decline in Ghali’s mental health. Ghali lived in Athill’s flat, but his visa didn’t allow him to work, so he didn’t have a regular income and couldn’t pay her rent. His efforts to make money by writing were stifled by his depression. Whatever money he managed to make he spent on gambling and alcohol.

The Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif published a scathing review of After a Funeral in the London Review of Books when it came out. She revealed Didi’s true identity and celebrated Ghali’s novel, which was then out of print. As for Athill’s book, Soueif ends her review by dryly stating: “He would have probably liked it better if she had edited his diaries.”

Readers would have to wait thirty more years before that happened, partly because the diaries were lost. The notebooks were misplaced when Athill moved to a retirement home in 2010, and Ghali scholars who wanted to access them for their research thought them lost forever. But it turned out that Deborah Starr, a professor at Cornell, had photocopied all 700 or so pages of the diaries ten years before on a research trip to London. The photocopies were digitized and are now part of a Ghali archive on the Cornell University website, along with some manuscripts and a stash of letters from, to, or about Ghali, including one from Philip Roth, who wrote Athill in 1963 to put her and Ghali in touch with Paul Engle, director of the Writers Workshop at Iowa (Roth, who was obviously a fan, even agreed to pay for Ghali’s transportation fees with a “long term loan of $100”).

It was the Egyptian academic May Hawas who finally edited Ghali’s diaries, which were published in two volumes by the American University in Cairo Press in 2016 and 2017.

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In the first volume, which covers the period from 1964 to 1966, Ghali is working for a British military base in Rheydt, West Germany. He attempts to write a novel, short stories, and a play, and he visits London for a brief interlude (“London…London…LONDON. My town, my city, the only place on earth to which I belong, my spiritual abode, my love, the great love of my love. No sooner have I been there, than I have started to worry about leaving it…”). Ghali dislikes Germany and his job with the army, and spends much of his time dreaming of moving away.

Volume 2 picks up with Ghali finally living in London, in Diana Athill’s flat. It follows Ghali’s tortuous descent into poorer mental health, as well his fraying relationship with Athill. A trip to Yugoslavia, which Athill also recounts in After a Funeral, is a turning point in their relationship. In one of the most interesting sections of this second volume, Ghali goes on a reporting trip to Israel following the Six-Day War, which made Ghali feel “disgusted, more humiliated and insulted,” specifically by Nasser’s declaration that Egypt lost because Israel had the support of Britain and the United States. Ghali writes pieces for the Times, and gives a few lectures upon his return to London. During one of these lectures, in May 1968, someone calling himself “a representative of the Egyptian government” rises and declares that Ghali “is not Egyptian. He has defected to Israel.” For the rest of the year, Ghali feels progressively worse, until he overdoses on sleeping pills on Boxing Day.

Both volumes of the Diaries are united by recurring themes: drinking, gambling, difficulties with writing, and sex. Ghali appears to have been popular with women, although they were a source of anguish as well as pleasure, depending on the woman and depending on the moment in their relationship. At the start of a new affair, he remarks: “It is this business of love again, you see. There must be some insufficiency in me to provoke in me those terrible yearnings for someone I cannot possess. I repeat cannot possess, because I never yearn for someone whom I know would love me back.” When a woman is interested in him, he begins to despise her. When she dismisses him, he becomes obsessed. Although he recognizes the pattern himself, he is unable to escape it. The reader gets dragged along.

It’s surprising how little current events or politics make it into the Diaries considering the momentous events that took place while Ghali was keeping them. For instance, he never mentions anything about Martin Luther King, or the events of May 68. Politics do crop up, inevitably, around the Israel trip. Ghali recounts that, at one of the lectures he gives at the Israel Student’s Union in London after his trip to Israel, he tells the audience that “the Israelis were feeling themselves superior to the Arabs… racially so, and this was a surprise to me, as well as making peace with their neighbours impossible.” Members of the audience stand to give “anti-Arab tirades.” Ghali is “astonished to see that most, or nearly all of them, were rather ignorant, bigoted and…reactionary. All those who spoke supported America’s policy in Vietnam, didn’t care two hoots about black South Africans.”

Ghali appears to have been strongly attuned to racism, and he was equally alarmed by some of the casual racism he witnessed in post-war Germany, which he saw as shocking remnants of Nazism, sometimes hiding in plain sight. His incisive, albeit sometimes overly critical, portrait of 1960s small-town Western Germany is one of the most interesting aspects of the first volume of his Diaries.

There is a scene in Beer in the Snooker Club, in which the main character, Ram, comes to blows with his patronizing cousin Mounir, who has just returned from studying in America: “He didn’t know there was any racial discrimination in America. He had never heard of Sacco and Vanzetti, he did not know what ‘un-American activities’ was. No, he did not believe there were poor Puerto Ricans or poor anyone else in America. Who was Paul Robeson? Red Indians without full citizenship? What was I talking about? I must be mad. All he knew was that he had spent three years in America, had picked up their pet phrases and had been given a degree.”

Thinking about the letter Roth wrote about Ghali in 1963, about the $100 he offered, one could imagine an alternate version of Ghali’s life in which he goes to America and joins the Civil Rights movement.

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Hawas, in her introduction to Ghali’s Diaries, writes that, for Ghali, “In some way, the diaries replace the novel as another creative genre, like the short story or novel or poem, simply another way, in his words, that a writer could ‘create something.’” For a writer struggling to write, keeping a diary can be a low-pressure short cut, a way of producing something, of seeing blank pages fill. Ghali himself becomes aware of how important his diary is as he is writing it; he often goes back and re-reads older entries commenting on his past mental state. At one point, he remarks, “The strange thing about this Diary is that I find it so imperative to write everything I did or that has happened to me—as though if I didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen, or, rather still (because, after all, there are things I wish didn’t happen) if I didn’t write it down something important has been lost.”

Although the Diaries have been expertly edited by May Hawas, with an excellent introduction, interesting interviews, and useful notes, I’m not sure they are as good a piece of literature as Ghali hoped they would be. While fans or scholars of Ghali will enjoy learning more about him as a person, they can also be a tedious read as they were most often written by Ghali at his worst. “Going mad, as I seem to be going,” he writes in his very first entry, dated May 24th, 1964, “perhaps it’d be better to keep my Diary […] if only for a streak of sanity.” Later on, he notes that the diaries “emanated through a death-wish.” One night where he feels particularly serene, he recognizes that “[t]hese Diaries have always been full of miseries and moans.”

Still, there are glimpses of the writer who was able to create the masterpiece of social critique, humour, and empathy that is Beer in the Snooker Club: incisive observations, glimmers of levity, poetic turns. In one bravura entry dated November 3rd, 1967—in fact, just after the comment about “miseries and moans”—Ghali reminisces with great tenderness about a woman he once loved, in Paris, when he was a medical student: “Then she came to Paris, Madam Piquot gave me a room again at 33 Rue des écoles. How lovely it was. What bliss. We just wanted each other. She was shy, always, and I was timid. We would sleep in the afternoon, and that also made her shy. The shutters close with a faint light. And she would say, ‘Toutou, turn around, just go somewhere.’ Do you know, I only saw her naked once.”

In passages like this one, we (or perhaps the rhetorical “you” Ghali employs in that last line) see what may have been the inspiration behind some of love scenes in Beer in the Snooker Club, or else the seeds of a second novel that never was.

At other times he is funny and irreverent—and much of the humour arises from what has occurred in intervening years. Of the man of letters Ian Hamilton, who later married Ghali’s own defender Ahdaf Soueif, he writes: “Not unpleasant, but a nincompoop. How did he ever become editor?” Reading V.S. Naipaul in December 1964, Ghali remarks: “He will, hélas, never be a great writer (not popular, either, complimentary nowadays).—Too engrossed with himself, his feelings, his thoughts which should only be a concern to himself and not expect others to feel.” Ironic, of course, considering the content of the Diaries and his later wish to see them published.

The Diaries may not often show Ghali at his best, both as a writer and as a person, but if they are part of a Ghali renaissance that will lead to new conversations about him and bring more readers to Beer in the Snooker Club, then they will have done something admirable. It was also the editor’s hope that the Diaries would give young writers, especially Egyptian and Anglo-Arab writers, permission to explore, to develop their voice, to write about the places they live in, wherever that may be.

Ghali’s novel is currently in print in English on both sides of the Atlantic, which hasn’t always been the case, and a new French edition was published last year under the title Les Cigarettes égyptiennes (which is better than its original title, Les jeunes pachas, which Ghali mocked as being “pompous”). Beer in the Snooker Club, set in the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution of the 1950s, is more relevant than ever, with Egypt re-assessing itself in the aftermath of another revolution that, to some degree, has brought it right back to where it started. Ghali’s characters—zealous, exuberant, disillusioned—have aged well.

Near the end of Beer in the Snooker Club, Ram tells Didi, the rich girl he wants to marry, “‘I want to live with you in a beautiful house with lots of books bound in leather. To take you out to the poshest places. To go for drives in the desert in our car. To caress you and make love to you every night. To buy you the most beautiful clothes, jewels, perfumes in existence…’ and I involuntarily laughed – this tic of mine of suddenly laughing – ‘with your own money of course. Because you are very rich.’”

In Cairo, there is one last traditional bookbinder, whose shop is tucked away behind Al-Azhar mosque. I dropped off my copy of Beer in the Snooker Club there one April day in 2018 and it came back to me a few weeks later, bound in smooth, dark red leather. The author and title are engraved on the spine in neat gold letters. The slim paperback has been turned into a luxurious object; it looks damn fine on a bookshelf. I think Ghali would’ve liked that.

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.

Cairo: The City Victorious

But sometimes – in April especially – the wind changes ominously. Brewing up from east or west, it sweeps the desert blustering into the city. Stifling hot and teased with whirlwinds, the sandstorms counterpoint the river, serving to remind Cairo that even as the water of life flowers through its centre, death lurks at the edges of the valley. Cairenes need reminding. The city’s ceaseless urban racket casts an amnesiac spell. It is easy to forget how close the utter empty silence of the desert lies.

Eager to learn more about Cairo’s history and to keep my Mamlouks straight from my Fatimids, I’ve been reading Max Rodenbeck’s Cairo: The City Victorious, which was published by the American University in Cairo Press back in 1998.

It’s an interesting book, and I’m glad I picked it up, although I found it a bit dense and couldn’t read much more than 10-20 pages at a time. There’s a lot of stories and information here, with some chapters following a more thematic approach, and others running through the chronology of Cairo, from its origins in the pre-historic city of Om (today located in the upscale suburb of Heliopolis) to the metropolis of 20+ million people it has now become. Rodenbeck is also lyrical at times, crafting the right phrase or finding the right metaphor to capture a smell, a sound, or a sight.

While I learned a lot reading Cairo: The City Victorious—it’s obvious that Rodenbeck adores the city and knows it very well—I think the book suffered a bit from a problem of personality. At times it read like a straight up “biography” of Cairo, encompassing large swathes of Egyptian history condensed into a few pages, while at others Rodenbeck couldn’t help but describe a few of his personal experiences in the city: meeting a workshop owner from a baladi neighbourhood, having dinner with a gossipy gin-sucking upper-class lady, encountering a Sufi mystic in a tent during a night festival. Yet Rodenbeck deals with scenes like these ones hastily. He offers the minimum of context before zooming back out into a broader social history of the city.

Max Rodenbeck is a correspondent for The Economist, and perhaps that’s why he appears to be so uncomfortable in the first-person mode. Yet the parts of the book where Rodenbeck swoops in on tangible moments gave me the strongest impressions. I would’ve loved for the author to make this book more personal, to offer more details about his own life and experiences in Cairo, while offering some of the historical material as background. Instead he seemed too intent on erasing himself from the story, unless when absolutely necessary.

This book was a bit of a missed opportunity for me, but it was still a very interesting read. And, yes, I can now tell apart the Fatimids apart from the Mamlouks.