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

The Buried by Peter Hessler

While we were living in Cairo in the first half of 2018, we used Peter Hessler’s longform pieces in the New Yorker as keys to decipher the country we were living in and finding so hard to understand. In engaging essays, Hessler wrote about garbage collectors, Chinese lingerie dealers, Arabic teachers, local politicians. The portraits he painted were keys that helped us comprehend social and economic factors what we could sometimes guess but not always see beneath’s the city’s dusty surface.

I’ve written about Hessler here before, about how we located the building where his family used to live in Zamalek, just a few blocks down from our own apartment block. Hessler lived in Cairo for five years, arriving in 2011 in the midst of the Egyptian revolution. As I’ve just finished reading Hessler’s book, The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, I wanted to share a few thoughts about it.

It was a bit of a strange reading experience since the book is largely made up of the writing Hessler already published in the New Yorker, here reorganized and sometimes cut up so he could it embed it more logically within a larger narrative. I was curious to see how this would work, and it does work; although the book feels slightly disjointed in places, Hessler manages to weave together the different strands of his research, reporting, and memoir into something whole. It’s not entirely a coherent whole, but then the country whose present and past he is digging into isn’t very coherent, either.

In addition to brief glimpses into his own family life — Hessler is married and has two twin daughters — the strands that make up the book are, for the most part, characters Hessler befriends. The two standouts are Sayyid, Hessler’s local garbage collector embroiled in an intense and long-lasting divorce with his wife, and Hessler’s translator Manu, who is gay and whose well-being and safety is increasingly imperilled. Hessler’s displays his amazing skill as a writer and reporter when he’s able to use these stories to tease out larger topics and issues that touch upon Egyptian history and society more broadly. Saiid’s story, for example, involves gender norms and relations, education, literacy, class, and religion. Hessler is an expert storyteller with an eye for the characters who can carry bigger themes.

Readers looking for a blow by blow account of the Egyptian revolution will be disappointed, but what Hessler offers is in many ways richer, and just as layered and interconnected as the history of the country he’s digging through. The Buried is without a doubt the most accurate description of contemporary Egypt — its challenges and opportunities — I’ve come across, and the best way to understand what it’s actually like to spend a lot of time in Cairo.

G. and I only lived in Egypt for five months. We loved our experience and can’t wait to visit again, but when the time came to leave I felt like I’d had enough. I admire Hessler’s tenacity and taste for adventure; he stayed in Egypt for five years, many of which must not have been easy as the country didn’t know where it was headed from month to month during the revolution. Learning the language, acquiring a car, befriending locals in an authentic way… The pay off is a rewarding book, intelligently and compassionately written.

In a moving testament to the Egyptians that give the book its energy, Hessler gives the last scene of his book to Wahiba, the wife of Sayyid the garbage collector. Her simple, hopeful coin toss is a resonant metaphor for a country brimming with potential, sometimes overburdened by its own history, and always teeming with contradictions.

Peter Hessler’s Cat

Journalist Peter Hessler spent five years living in Cairo with his wife and twin daughters, from 2011 to 2016. He’s been writing excellent pieces in the New Yorker about his experiences in Cairo, for example one about his neighbourhood garbage collector (the piece ends up being about the broader social, political, and cultural implications of the garbage business in Egypt, as well as men-women relations in the country), and another about Chinese expats who sell kinky underwear in Egypt. I highly recommend his writing, which, as the best non-fiction often does, starts by describing something small and then expands to encompass larger questions.

Last week, the New Yorker published a new piece by Hessler, which is, among other things, about the cat he got while he lived in Zamalek in order to keep rodents at bay (he lived on the ground floor and, rather frighteningly, his baby daughters were getting bitten by mysterious rodents). The cat in question is a traditional Egyptian breed called Mau, and he called his Morsi, after the Egyptian president who’d just been elected at the time. Before the year was out, the president had been deposed, but the cat remained. Hilarious adventures ensue when the cat runs away and the expat has to run around the neighbourhood calling after him.

Hessler mentions that the apartment building he lived in had distinctive railings of wrought iron made to look like spider webs. G. and I both took a short walk in Zamalek after our Arabic lessons the other day, looking to see if we could spot it. G.’s hunch led us down a street we’d never walked on before, and we came face to face with the building we were looking for at the end of it. There’s now some construction on the street right in front of the building, which probably wasn’t there when Hessler lived here.

It’s always nice to see a place in real life after you’ve read about it, and we had a good time imagining some of the scenes from the piece and trying to figure out which unit Hessler and his family probably lived in. Although that elevator shaft will probably give us nightmares for weeks to come (I won’t give it away, so you’ll just have to read Hessler’s article yourself if you want to know).

Hessler has a book on the way titled The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, and I look forward to reading it when it comes out next year!