In 2016 I was knee deep — about 60,000 words in at the beginning of the year – in writing a novel about the successors of Alexander’s the Great. While I still read and consulted reference books, I also pivoted to reading more fiction that could help me figure out how I could turn hard history (full of holes as it is) into compelling fiction. I turned to an old favourite, David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which I reread to get a feel for Mitchell’s expert handling of a close, third-person narration in the present-tense. I also read fiction that was set in or near the period I was writing about: Harry Turtledove’s Over the Wine Dark Sea, about some swashbuckling Greek sailors (terrible writing); Annabel Lyon’s beautifully moving The Sweet Girl, the sequel of sorts to her amazing The Golden Mean, which was about the relationship between Aristotle and a young Alexander; and Mary Renault, who of course is the queen or grandmother of historical fiction set in Ancient Greece, and whose book about Alexander’s childhood, beautifully titled Fire From Heaven, did not disappoint — although it is a little bit old-fashioned in comparison to Lyon and Mitchell.
I’d been a fan of Diana Athill ever since I read her memoir Yesterday in college, and worked my way through her other books over the years. Alive, Alive Oh! was a collection of essays and would be her last book. I reviewed it for The Millions and completed it by reading Instead of a Book, which is a collection of Athill’s letters to the American poet Edward Field.
In the first half of 2016 I was still commuting to work by train and bus, which is how I got the time to finish Emmanuel Carrère’s book Le Royaume, a 600+ memoir cum novel cum investigative reporting about early Christians. Believe it or not, this book shook French literary criticism to its foundations when it came out in 2014 — everyone was talking about it. I honestly don’t remember much about the novel now.
Then in the summer of 2016 we drove our car back from Montreal all the way to California, and my commute changed to a scenic, 30-minute drive along interstate 280, which meant I read a lot less and started listening to a lot more podcasts, like This American Life and Longform. That’s how I also came to listen to the audibook of Ta-Nehesi Coates’ All the World and Me, narrated by the author, at the recommendation of a colleague. On weekends, G. and I would drive to Santa Cruz to eat fish tacos, sit on the beach, and write in a coffeeshop we liked. On the way we listened to episodes of the Serial podcast.
Several of the books I read that year were for work, so that I could teach them to my students: The Help, The Lightning Thief, Heart of Darkness, The Pearl, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Macbeth — which, strangely and despite having taken several classes on Shakespeare, I’d never read before. As for the other titles, I can’t say I got a lot out of them, but it was interesting to have an external reason to read these books I would’ve probably never picked up myself, a bit like a book club.
As you can see, I continued on my Ferrante fever after having read the first book in the Neapolitan novels during a vacation in Italy in 2015, continuing with the next two novel in the series that year. I had the chance to read Ian McEwan’s novel Nutshell before it was officially released because I reviewed it for The Millions. The novel was a bit of fun, and I would rank it favourably in McEwan’s oeuvre although it’s by no means among his very best. I started reading McEwan in college, after I saw the movie Atonement with Keira Knightley I became a little bit obsessed with him and worked my through his back catalogue (at this point the only novels of his I haven’t read our some of his early ones: The Cement Garden, The Child in Time and Black Dogs) while buying and ready all of his books as they came out: Solar, Sweet Tooth, The Children Act all appear on previous lists. McEwan continues to be a writer that I like to wrestle with, and whose career I love mapping out as it develops, book by book.
Reading List: 2016
David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, La femme qui fuit
Harry Turtledove, Over the Wine Dark Sea
Jacques Poulin, Mon Cheval pour un royaume
Annabel Lyon, The Sweet Girl
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed
Catherine Leroux, Madame Victoria
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
Milan Kundera, L’insoutenable légèreté de l’être
Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name
Maxime-Olivier Moutier, Journal d’un étudiant en histoire de l’art
Diana Athill, Alive, Alive Oh!
Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge
Mary Renault, Fire from Heaven
Diana Athill, Instead of a Book
William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Emmanuel Carrère, Le Royaume
Martin McDonagh, The Leenane Trilogy
Comarc McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night
Geoff Dyer, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (audio)
Ian McEwan, Nutshell
Albert Sanchez Piñol, Victus
Barry Meier, Missing Man
Kathryn Stockett, The Help
Madeline Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing
Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Nancy Huston, L’Espèce fabulatrice
Ronald Wright, What is America?
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Elizabeth Carney, King and Court in Ancient Macedonia
Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief
Laurence Cossé, La Grande Arche
John Steinbeck, The Pearl
Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay