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

A Decade in Books: 2010

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.

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In January 2010, as the decade began, I was halfway through the first year of an undergraduate degree in English Literature at McGill University and working part time in a chain bookstore on the South Shore of Montreal. The first book I finished that year was Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End, which had won the Costa Prize and would go on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography later in 2010. I loved that book, but not as much as the first Athill book I read, which was Yesterday Morning. You’ll see many more Athill turn up on my lists from the decade; the memoir she wrote of her publishing years, Stet, appears later in the same year. Athill died in 2019.

Another comforting favourite that crops up a few times in 2010 is Jacques Poulin, a wonderful Québecois novelist who writes short, tender books full of melancholy readers and writers. I admire Poulin for his ability to write what is essentially the same book over and over again, digging ever deeper into similar themes and experiences.

The English novels early in the list–Waugh, Woolf, Orwell, Isherwood, Green and Greene–were all for a class in early 20th century literature. It was a great class and the professor who taught it would go on to become my undergraduate thesis advisor. This class was also my first introduction to Elizabeth Bowen, who soon became one of my favourite writers. The first story I read of hers was “The Dispossessed” and the first novel was To the North, which I’ve promised myself to reread since.

Apparently amid all the school reading, including a number of classical texts, I had time to read for pleasure. I remember buying Ian McEwan’s Solar as soon as it came out. I had loved Atonement, On Chesil Beach, Saturday… and I was bitterly disappointed by his dark comedy about climate change. I also found time to read Wolf Hall, which had just come out the previous year, and loved it.

I know I read at length that summer, as G. and I prepared to spend a year abroad at the University of Bristol, in the UK. When I read 2666 it felt like everyone had been talking about it for the better part of two years. Overall the novel left me perplexed, although I quite liked it. There was a huge Bolaño craze in the early teens, with many of his stories and novels being republished posthumously, but now it feels like he’s hardly ever mentioned anymore. 2666 is the only book of his I read and I’ve always wanted to reread it to see if it still holds up now that the hype has passed.

Reading when I was twenty was a lot about catching up, getting around to books I thought one should read: Conan Doyle, Hemingway, Kafka, Capote, Updike. It felt a little like ticking names off a list. I recall reading Rabbit, Run at the anonymous office in Ottawa where one had to make an appointment to apply for our British visas, and the young employee who was registering my file making a comment about it. I can’t say I remember the novel particularly fondly.

One book that stood out for me that summer was my first David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which really shook me: an eminently readable literary page turner, with just the right pulpy hint of magic. I would go on to read most of Mitchell’s books, but now that I think about it I definitely picked up that one because I found the cover striking. Another favourite that summe was Laurence Cossé’s novel about writers and bookstores, Au Bon Roman (translated in English as The Novel Bookstore), which stunned me. It’s about two friends who open a bookstore that only sells great novels (no celebrity bios, no cookie-butter bestsellers), selected by an anonymous panel of writers. It starts off as a sort of thriller with some of the panelists getting attacked or threatened, but it’s also a love story with a very light touch. I reread it last year and still liked it, but found that it didn’t have quite the same impact the second time around. After I read it I bought copies for several people around me.

There are a few invisible lines between some of the books I read in 2010. I bought Anne Fadiman’s At Large and at Small after seeing it in the bargain bin at work, a serendipitous discovery of a book I didn’t even know existed (I had fallen hard for her collection of essays about reading, Ex Libris). The essay in that book about people who are more active at night (she calls them Night Owls) led me to Al Alvarez’s book Night (ordered used off the internet because it’s out of print), which in turn must’ve motivated me to buy his excellent book about writing, The Writer’s Voice. You can also see that I was indulging in my love for books about books: The Library at Night, Larry McMurtry’s Books, Attachements (which is about a woman who culls her library), Pourquoi Lire? (Why Read?). I still like books about books but ten years on I feel that there was something a bit performative about how eagerly I devoured them as a twenty-year-old. Was I in love with the idea of books more than I was with books themselves?

In the fall we moved to the UK, where I had fewer classes than in Canada and no job, which means more reading time. The streak of Henry James came from a class I had on that writer. I had previously read only a single short story by James, and being encouraged to read so many of his novels and stories in quick success–that sense of immersion into the work and life and voice of one writer–remains a highlight of my reading life.

Another flash of remembrance: reading The General in His Labyrinth, which I had first heard about from John Green’s novel Looking for Alaska, alone in a hotel room near Shiphol Airport in Amsterdam. I was stranded there because of a snowstorm on December 21, my flight to Montreal having been cancelled. From the hotel room window I watched the wind push around curtains of snow tinted orange by the sodium light. A strange way to end the year, and I had a strange book to accompany me. The next day I was able to get on a flight back home to Montreal.

 

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The List: 2010

Diana Athill, Somewhere Towards the End

Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice

Homer, The Iliad

Homer, The Odyssey

Virginia Woolf, The Waves

Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

Lord Byron, Don Juan (Canto 1)

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Eusebius, History of the Church

Christopher Isherwood, Mr. Norris Changes Trains

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Graham Greene, A Gun for Sale

Ian McEwan, Solar

Elizabeth Bowen, To the North

Gerald Graff, Professing Literature

Henry Green, Party Going

Anne Fadiman, At Large and At Small

Jacques Poulin, Chat Sauvage

Helen Garner, The Spare Room

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Roberto Bolaño, 2666

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

Diana Athill, Stet

Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis

Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Louise Warren, Attachements

Andrei Makine, La vie d’un homme inconnu

Larry McMurtry, Books

John Glassco, Memoirs of Montparnasse

Ian McEwan, The Innocent

Stefan Zweig, Voyage dans le passé

Annie Proulx, Close Range (audio)

Jorge Luis Borges, Fictions

Nancy Huston, Infrarouge

Jacques Poulin, Volkswagen blues

Jim Shepard, Like You’d Understand, Anyway

Karen Blixen, Out of Africa

Dave Eggers, Zeitoun

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Vol de nuit

John Updike, Rabbit, Run

Bryan Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life

David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Al Alvarez, Night

Laurence Cossé, Au Bon Roman

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Dominique Fortier, On the Proper Use of Stars

Alberto Manguel, With Borges

Henry James, Roderick Hudson

Henry James, The Europeans

Henry James, Portrait of a Lady

Henry James, The Ambassadors

Christopher Reid, A Scattering

Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice

A.S. Byatt, Possession

Simon Garfield, Just My Type

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The General in His Labyrinth

Charles Dantzig, Pourquoi Lire?

Alberto Manguel, All Men Are Liars