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: 2015

G. gave me a wonderful gift in 2011, which came from one of my favourite bookstores, Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, England. I was treated to a “bibliotherapy session” in which I sat down with one of the booksellers and told her about my tastes and interests. She then sent me one specially packaged book every month for a year, with a personalized note. I’m ashamed to say that it took me much longer than 12 months to actually get around to reading the twelve books I received that year, and I think Kanoko Okamoto’s A Riot of Goldfish was the last one I finally picked up, the first book I read in 2015. I’m even more ashamed to admit that I don’t remember anything about it…

In 2015 I was living in Palo Alto, California, and commuting every day on the CalTrain to a private school where I taught English, French, and History. I read a lot in the train and in the bus on the way to and from work, in intense 20 minute sessions. And I got up very early to write a novel I started that year about the successor’s of Alexander the Great. A lot of the books I read were research for my novel: primers on the Hellenistic age, biographies of Alexander’s councillors and successors.

Other than these “research” reads, there are some standout books from that year that I recall very well, two in particular. The first is LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. I can’t remember why I picked this novel up, I think it’s just the kind of book you hear about and mean to read. I fell very hard for that book. I remember reading it, gripped by the story, the characters, the voice, and that wondrous world while walking back home from the train station one day. I was focused on the book and all of a sudden I got struck on the head by a passing bird. I was quite stunned, I looked around a bit, but then I went right back to walking and reading.

The other standout from that year is Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which I started reading while on a two-week holiday near Naples. I had come to join G. who was working on an archaeological dig in Italy that summer. During the day G. was on-site so I went off, either taking the train into the city to walk the dank alleyways and visit museums, or else driving the rented Fiat 500 (nicknamed “Spritz”) around to surrounding villages and interesting historical sites. I had a nice time and it was great to visit alongside reading Ferrante, who depicts the city in such stark terms.

Living in the US, getting books from the university library or buying them from excellent local second-hand sales, I caught up on a lot of American literature I’d failed to get around to before. More Didion, whom I grew very fond of, and also some Updike, Roth, Robinson, Chabon… The Greats. After reading LeGuin I thought I’d open up to more sci-fi and picked up Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest Aurora, about multi-generational space travel in search of a new planet to inhabit. It was a good read, with a superb premise and a really interesting storytelling aspect.

There are several books I read because of my job as a teacher: some were suggested by my students, others felt required by the situation or the class I was teaching. That’s how I got around to Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (in college I had actually acted in one of his other plays), A Streetcar Named Desire, and why I reread things like The Old Man and the Sea and 1984, which are curriculum standards.

I continued to read to G. at night before bed, and in 2015 we undertook our most ambitious project to-date: Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, which I had already read in college and remembered fondly. If memory serves we both had a lot of fun with it, and it’s the sort of book that lends itself well to being read out loud with all the repetitions, vivid descriptions, and hilarious dialogue. Although I think it took us something like 8 months to finish it, so it really felt like we’d finished a reading marathon by the end…

Reading List: 2015

Kanoko Okamoto, A Riot of Goldfish

Guy Delisle, Pyong Yang

Lydie Salvayre, Pas Pleurer

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake

Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Peter Green, Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age

Joan Didion, Where I Was From

Michel Houellebecq, Soumission

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

Cesar Aira, The Seamstress and the Wind

Steven Galloway, The Cellist of Sarajevo

James Romm, Ghost on the Throne

Marguerite Duras, L’amant

Charles Baxter, Burning Down the House

Joan Didion, Play It as It Lays

Edward M. Anson, Eumenes of Cardia

Tennesse Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire

Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow 3: Poison, Shadow, and Farewell

Jacques Poulin, Un Jukebox dans la tête

Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Philip Roth, American Pastoral

Jane Hornblower, Hieronymus of Cardia

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Henri Carrière, Papillon

Paul Cartledge, The Hunt for a New Past: Alexander the Great

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Waldemar Heckel, The Last Days and Testament of Alexander the Great

Zadie Smith, On Beauty

Ian Worthington, Alexander the Great: Man and God

Chigozie Obioma, The Fishermen

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

Joseph Roisman, Alexander’s Veterans

Rudyard Kipling, Kim

John McGahern, Amongst Women

Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora

George Orwell, 1984

Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve

Anakana Schofield, Martin John

John Updike, Rabbit Redux

Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

David Mitchell, Slade House

Diana Athill, After a Funeral

Banana Yoshimoto, Kitchen

Rupert Thomson, Secrecy

Ian McEwan, The Children Act

Michel Rabagliati, Paul à Québec