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.