A Decade in Books: 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading List: 2016

David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, La femme qui fuit

Harry Turtledove, Over the Wine Dark Sea

Jacques Poulin, Mon Cheval pour un royaume

Annabel Lyon, The Sweet Girl

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed

Catherine Leroux, Madame Victoria

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Milan Kundera, L’insoutenable légèreté de l’être

Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name

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

Diana Athill, Alive, Alive Oh!

Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

Mary Renault, Fire from Heaven

Diana Athill, Instead of a Book

William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Emmanuel Carrère, Le Royaume

Martin McDonagh, The Leenane Trilogy

Comarc McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night

Geoff Dyer, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

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

Ian McEwan, Nutshell

Albert Sanchez Piñol, Victus

Barry Meier, Missing Man

Kathryn Stockett, The Help

Madeline Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Nancy Huston, L’Espèce fabulatrice

Ronald Wright, What is America?

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Elizabeth Carney, King and Court in Ancient Macedonia

Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief

Laurence Cossé, La Grande Arche

John Steinbeck, The Pearl

Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

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: 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