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

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

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