A Decade in Books: 2019

When I look at the list of books I read in 2019 I feel a little disappointed because I find that I didn’t finish enough books: 26, which averages to one every two weeks. I could blame work, I could blame writing, I could blame a commute that’s just a little too short (that would be silly, no one complains their commute is too short), I could blame podcasts. But in the end, I just have to remind myself that it’s not how many books you read in the year that matters, but whether or not they were any good.

2019 is the year I joined a book club here in Paris, something I’d never really done before. That’s what led me to read Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. There’s a certain joy to reading and discussing books you wouldn’t necessarily have picked up otherwise. I went through a short-lived Saramago phase when I was eighteen, so I was eager to read more of his work, but I have to say his novel about Jesus did not quite enthral me as much as I thought it would. I hope I won’t be put off from reading more of his novels, since there are many others that look interesting. As for Peter Carey, well I’d never read him before but I had heard a lot about him — booker favourite that he is — so I was excited to finally getting around to his work. The irony, in fact, is that because of some scheduling issue I couldn’t actually make it to the book club meeting where Oscar and Lucinda was discussed, although I did in fact finish the novel. I liked it a lot, although it’s a shame I didn’t get to discuss it because it raised many questions for me. For instance, I wondered why it took so long before the two main characters got to meet… And I couldn’t help but be overwhelmingly impressed with Carey’s imagination and verve, his ability to build a completely believable 19th century world, populated by a cast of insanely Dickensian characters, in England and in Australia. I cannot wait to read more of Carey’s books, especially his other Booker winner: True History of the Kelly Gang.

When I look at the books I read at the end of the decade, I see three beautiful, overlapping trilogies: Rachel Cusk’s Outline series, which broke new ground in auto-fiction and wonderfully smart feminist rage; N.K. Jemisin’s fantasy series The Broken Earth, about a collapsing world and a broken family; and Cixin Liu’s breathtaking, messy science fiction trilogy The Remembrance of Earth’s Past. When I was reading Cusk, I felt like whole new avenues for fiction and storytelling were opening up. For the most part I wondered how she could write something so compelling with a narrator who, for the most part, erases herself in the face others and their stories. Jemisin’s trilogy captivated me, especially the first book which plays so cleverly with timelines and characters. The world she creates and the emotional themes she delves into — especially around loss — are beautiful and terrifying. As for Liu, the high-level concepts and pieces of incredible technology he describes in his books — and which he manages to do it in a very clear, understandable way — is mind-blowing, for lack of a better term. I felt like he forced my brain, and the possibilities it could muster, to expand.

What else? Well, 2019 was the year that Margaret Atwood weirdly won the Booker again (jointly this time) for her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. The Testaments was a storm of a book, but I found it a little too drily plotted for my taste. Knowing that it was coming and that I would want to read it, though, I reread The Handmaid’s Tale in preparation, and what a pleasure that was. The world it creates still holds up so well, but it’s the language that makes that book a winner: the beautiful interiority of the narrator as she goes about her dreadful days, wondering and worrying.

2019 is also the year I got around to reading Proust for the first time. I was always a bit daunted by Proust but I had a feeling that I would end up loving his work. My dream has often been to spend an entire summer out in the country somewhere, lazily but unwaveringly making my way through À la recherche. Alas, what a disappointment! There were one or two bits of the first novel that I did enjoy, but I found the rest exceedingly boring. My main complaint was that he seems to focus all his attention on the most mundane, boring things, and skips over every important plot point casually. It’s like he wants it to be about nothing. Maybe that’s the point, and if so I have to simply admit that, at this time in my life, Proust is beyond me.

The previous year, in 2018, when G. and I were living in Egypt, we read New Yorker articles by the extraordinary Peter Hessler, using them as keys to decipher aspects of Egyptian society: women, money & class, politics… His book The Buried sort of mashes together a bunch of that writing and weaves it with added material, creating a larger narrative about Egyptian society and setting the 2011 Revolution into historical trends, going all the way back to the time of the pharaohs. Hessler writes beautifully and his book is in turns funny and sad; I had a lot of fun reading it to G. at night before bed. It was a pleasure to rediscover some of the wonderful characters from his New Yorker articles in the book, like the epic tale of the neighbourhood garbage collector whom Hessler befriends, and who is locked in a years-long marital battle with his young, educated wife.

Soon the decade came to a close. We returned home, to Canada, for our usual two week trip for the holidays — unbeknownst to us, it was the last time we would be back home before the pandemic of 2020. The last book I read that year was Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, in which he returns to the universe he created in The Golden Compass to continue the story of Lyra Belacqua, seven years after the events with which his trilogy His Dark Materials ended. I inhaled his new book, finding it absorbing and moving and beautifully written, bursting with imagination and wonder. It’s dark, of course, in some ways much darker than the original trilogy, at least in its psychology, but what it really was for me was a statement about the power of storytelling. It’s also a book about movement, travel, and meetings: a wonderful way to end a meandering decade.

Reading List: 2019

Keith Maillard, Twin Studies

Annie Ernaux, Les Années

Jim Shepard, The Book of Aron

Philippe Lançon, Le Lambeau

Eugène Dabit, L’Hôtel du Nord

Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai

Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion

Lawrence Wright, The Terror Years

Ian McEwan, Machines Like Me

Maurice Druon, Les Rois Maudits 1: Le Roi de fer

Gustave Flaubert, Bouvard et Pécuchet

Rachel Cusk, Kudos

Cixin Liu, Death’s End

Mitchell Abidor, May Made Me

Patrick Modiano, Rue des boutiques obscures

Ed. Mark Edele, Sheila F, A. Grosmann, Shelter from the Holocaust

Ted Chiang, Exhalation

N.K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate

Henryk Greenberg, Children of Zion (transl. J. Mitchell)

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

José Saramago, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ

Peter Hessler, The Buried

Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda

Marcel Proust, Du côté de chez Swann

Margaret Atwood, The Testaments

Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust 2: The Secret Commonwealth

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