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: 2017

The list of books I read in 2017 isn’t very long. That year I was working long hours as a teacher, commuting to work by car, finishing a long novel I was writing about the successors of Alexander the Great. I read on weekends, in the evenings — and so never as much as I wanted to.

The year started with Chanson Douce, a troubling french novel that had won the Goncourt, France’s top literary prize, in 2016. The novel tells the story of a Parisian nanny who murders the children she takes care of. It’s extremely well done, a slow burn, psychologically acute study of class, privilege, and care.

I reread many books in 2017, a lot of them because I was teaching them: All Quiet on the Western Front, Maus, Cloud Atlas, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I love all of these books, and I had picked them for that reason, and because teaching them gave the chance to revisit them. I also reread Mantel’s Wolf Hall, preparing myself for the third volume of her Cromwell trilogy which I knew would come sooner or later (it would be another three years!) and because I wanted to put her strong present tense voice back in my head to help me along with my own writing.

Strange to see Alice Munro’s Friend of My Youth in the list. Sometimes, reading my way through Alice Munro’s collections seems like a life’s work; I take so much joy knowing that I still have many of her books to read. And yet, I was just looking at the book on my shelves the other day — the one I have is a first edition hardcover I got at a used book sale — and thinking that I hadn’t read it yet. I have no memory of any of the stories inside and legitimately thought I’d never opened it before. Maybe I should revisit it too.

That fall G. and I returned home to Quebec for a week to visit family and meet my niece, who had been born in the summer. While there I read Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, which had just come out: the book that introduces his new Book of Dust trilogy. I was glad to be able to review it for The Millions, but it meant I had to gulp it down fast to crank something out while it was still relevant. Thankfully, it’s a beautiful book and was well worth the ten-year wait since I’d first read His Dark Materials.

Near the end of 2017 it was becoming clearer that G. and I were planning our escape from California. I left my job and we hauled most of our belongings across the USA in a small blue Toyota Yaris, “storing” (read: dumping) them in my parents’ basement so we could go spend a few months in Cairo, Egypt, where G. had research to do for her PhD. My plan was to take this time off and abroad to write. I had about finished my book about Alexander the Great’s successors, so I wanted to find an agent and work on some non-fiction. That may be why I picked up two strong non-fiction books at the end of the year: Ta-Nahesi Coates’ masterful, messy collection of essays We Were Eight Years in Power, and John McPhee’s non-fiction masterclass Draft #4 (both of which had just come out).

I’m surprised I didn’t read more books about Egypt to prepare for the trip but I did pick up Yasmine El Rashidi’s novel Chronicle of a Last Summer; I knew the author from her very beautiful, thoughtful pieces about Egypt in the New York Review of Books. As it turned out, El Rashidi’s family house (which is described in the novel) was actually on the same street as the apartment building we ended up living in Cairo — but I didn’t know that yet as 2017 was drawing to a close).

To close: a few word on Red Sparrow, a thriller I picked up after hearing New Yorker editor David Remnick say he’d liked it. I read it to G. in the evenings before going to bed (the movie was going to come out a few months later) but unfortunately it wasn’t much to our taste. Perhaps we’re more on the team of John le Carré, who also appears on the list, with a book he published that year bringing back his wonderful character George Smiley after a long hiatus.

Reading List: 2017

Leïla Slimani, Chanson Douce

E. M. Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

Guy Delisle, S’enfuir

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, Aphrodite’s Tortoise

Mary Renault, The Persian Boy

Art Spiegelman, Maus

Elizabeth Carney, Women and Monarchy in Macedonia

Deborah Campbell, A Disappearance in Damascus

Stefan Hartmanns, War and Turpentine

Donald Engels, Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army

Bryher, Gate to the Sea

Daniel Pennac, Le Cas Mallaussène I: Ils m’ont menti

Nicolas Sekunda, Macedonian Armies after Alexander

Alice Munro, Friend of my Youth

Euripides, Bacchae

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Alain Farah, La Ligne la plus sombre

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy

Yasmine El Rashidi, Chronicle of a Last Summer

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

Robert Harris, Imperium

Madeleine Miller, The Song of Achilles

Elena Ferrante, The Story of the Lost Child

Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Christian Cameron, Tyrant: Funeral Games

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black

Philip Pullman, La Belle Sauvage

John le Carré, A Legacy of Spies

James Dashner, The Scorch Trials

Ian Worthington, Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece

Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow

Jacques Poulin, Le Vieux Chagrin

Ta-Nahesi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power

John McPhee, Draft No. 4