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

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.

Le Tarbouche

“We were not expelled. We did not force ourselves out. The truth is somewhere in between. We have always been in between: between two languages, between two cultures, between two Churches, between two chairs. Papa used to say, ‘It’s not very comfortable, but that’s how are buttocks are made.’”

I just finished reading a wonderful novel called Le Tarbouche, by the French writer Robert Solé.

Le Tarbouche is a sprawling family saga set in Egypt, from the end of the 19th to the mid 20th centuries. It follows the Batrakani family, from their humble origins as Christian Syrian immigrants arriving in Alexandria, until their departure from Egypt after the revolution in the 1950s. It reveals a lot about the large ethnic communities that once existed in Egypt—Greeks, Italians, Syrians, Armenians. They owned businesses, started newspapers, built entire neighbourhoods in Cairo at a time when Egypt was turned towards Europe (largely because of their colonial occupants…).

The members of Batrakani family are all Francophiles. Even as the British take control in Egypt, they go to a French Jesuit school and keep up-to-date on the latest fashions in Paris. Some of them even struggle to communicate in Arabic with their maids. And that, of course, is their downfall. Unable or unwilling to become fully Egyptian, despite having invested so much in the country and having earned some healthy returns from these investments, the Batrakanis eventually have to flee when a wave of nationalism seizes the country in the 1950s. The British are kicked out, and with them go everything that represents the “old” order.

One of the things I enjoyed about this novel is that it’s not told in a strict chronological way. Rather, it’s built up in short chapters that form recollections, digressions, anecdotes—so many snapshots for a family album. It’s like meeting an interesting person at a café, and having them tell you family stories. In fact, this book reminded me of a shop-owner we met here in Cairo—someone I’ll try to write about in more detail in the future—who grew up speaking French, English, and Arabic and who still feels more culturally aligned with France.

The book’s title, of course, refers to the tarboosh, that traditional, tasselled red hat, also known as a fez, which became unpopular when Egypt took control of its own destiny in the 1950s. In the novel, one of the family’s businesses is a tarboosh factory, and the “flowerpot” hat becomes a potent metaphor for changing fortunes in changing times.

As far as I can tell, Le Tarbouche has never been translated into English, which is a real shame. You can find some of Solé’s other books, such as The Alexandria Semaphore, in English, and they might provide an interesting introduction to his universe.