It’s that time again, when evenings are filled with too many drinks, days with too many mince pies, and all energy is summoned for the final push before collapsing in the heavenly Christmas holidays.
I wonder if I’m quite ready to reflect upon the reading year that has past, all those pages that have been turned, worlds that have been entered. My mind is awhirr with bookshop thoughts, for now is a wildly busy time for us. I sit here worrying, do we have enough of X in stock? did I remember to order Y her book?, and feel dizzy with the exhaustion of being polite and helpful to hundreds of people stressed out beyond belief with the Sisyphean task of Christmas shopping. My fingers itch to fold wrapping paper into neat corners around a book, and feel peculiar spread to tap across a keyboard. But this is the year’s final Emilybooks post and, every bit as traditional as a Christmas tree, is the round-up of the books I’ve read this year and a reminder of some of 2013’s reading delights. So which are my Emilybooks of the year?
The year began on a high with Nan Shepherd’s very special memoir of living in the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain. It’s a book which haunted me all the year, filled with mind-boggling reflections written in the best sort of poetic prose. I am still floored by the thought of the tiny alpine flora there which predates the Ice Age. It was a good year for nature writing, with also Edward Thomas’s The Icknield Way, The Silt Road by Charles Rangeley-Wilson, and Olivia Laing’s enchanting To the River, which I re-read with delight.
There was, in fact, rather a lot of re-reading this year, often thanks to Emily’s Walking Book Club, for which I re-read one of my very favourite London books, Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net. Actually, that’s probably one of my favourite books full stop. Other re-reads for the book club, were Beryl Markham’s poetic gung-ho memoir of colonial Kenya, West with the Night, and Laurie Lee’s lyrical As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. I re-read The Turn of the Screw for the Southbank Bookclub, and it was much better and more complex than I remembered, and I re-read Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore – twice! – because it is nigh on a perfect novel: slim, elegant, funny, well-observed, unexpected. All of these books stood up beautifully to a re-read, yielding just as many pleasures as they did first time round. I have renewed my resolution to re-read more, to treat a book with the love and respect accorded to a piece of music, listening to it time and again, rather than considering it finished after a single run-through.
One book that I read for the first time this year, and which I am sure I will re-read is Swann’s Way. It was admittedly quite a high-risk book to take on holiday. All that languid prose, those serpentine sentences promised luxurious pleasure, but I was more than a little anxious Proust might prove too much for my feeble holiday brain. It was, however, completely heavenly. I particularly loved the way he wrote about the power of the little tune of music, and the clever things he did with his long twisting sentences. As Muriel Spark put it in A Far Cry from Kensington, Proust is ‘about everything in particular’. I am already looking forward to re-reading it. If I had to pick just one, then Swann’s Way must be my book of the year.
I also read Flaubert’s Three Tales, although without quite so much pleasure. I picked it up principally as it’s a very thin book, and I wanted something slight before embarking upon the gargantuan task of The Luminaries. Oh, The Luminaries. It took such a long time to read it and ended in such an unsatisfactorary, post-modern way that I have to remind myself that really, while I was reading it (for A MONTH, twice as long as I gave to Swann’s Way) I did actually really enjoy it.
Other good new novels this year were Francesca Segal’s The Innocents and Sathnam Sanghera’s Marriage Material – two engaging ‘outsider fictions’, the one about the Jewish community and the other about the Sikh, and both also re-imaginings of classic novels. There was Idiopathy by Sam Byers, and also The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, both very punchy, written in fizzing electric prose. The Last Runaway, Tracy Chevalier’s novel about a young Quaker woman going to America in the 1850s and getting involved in the Underground Railroad, was an engrossing pleasure. She is very good at giving us quiet but strong heroines, like Griet in Girl with a Pearl Earring, not new, but one I also read this year. Slightly disappointing was Jane Gardam’s Last Friends, only as it wasn’t quite up to the gold standard of Old Filth, yet it was still a pleasure to revisit her winning clutch of characters. My favourite new novel of the year is Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple. I laughed so much in this easy yet ingenious novel, which masquerades as a bit of fluff, but is really a powerfully feminist book, and, although not as beautifully written, it is just as postmodern and intelligent as The Luminaries, and rather a lot shorter.
It was a year to discover some wonderful old classics too. The Millstone by Margaret Drabble, The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. These three are some of the best books I’ve ever read, especially Moon Tiger – what a corker!! It managed to be dizzyingly original in its narrative, as well as so affecting that I cried when reading it in my lunchbreak. There were some wonderful treats from Persephone Books – Consequences by EM Delafield, which was brilliant psychologically, and absolutely devastating; The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal (Edmund’s grandmother), which raised all sorts of questions about Vienna in the 1950s; and The Far Cry by Emma Smith, a very unsettling coming-of-age novel about going to India in the 1940s. There were other wonders too. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower – the woman’s a genius; the little-known Brigid Brophy’s picaresque, lesbian coming-of-age The King of a Rainy Country; Rumer Godden’s Breakfast with the Nikolides; Mary McCarthy’s The Group; Nancy Mitford’s silly, funny Christmas Pudding; Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart – currently reading and loving – and, of course, The Bell Jar, up there with Consequences as one of the most distressing novels of all time.
All these seem rather feminine and rather Anglo-American, I admit. In my defence, I did also read some more “out-there” classics: thanks to Pushkin Press, I discovered Ryu Murakami’s magnificent dystopian Coin Locker Babies and Antal Szerb’s The Pendragon Legend, a kind of much darker Tintin. There was Christine Brooke-Rose’s bizarre and brilliant Textermination, which inspired me to write a short story, and Tove Jansson’s completely delightful The Summer Book. Other classics that are perhaps slightly more ‘male’ than you might expect from Emilybooks are: F Scott Fitzgerald’s messy, brilliant Tender is the Night (so much better than Gatsby) and the flawless-other-than-perhaps-too-neat Remains of the Day by Kashuo Ishiguro.
A brief mention of some short stories: John Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer’ was chilling and unnerving. Incidentally, my friend Katie tells me there is a ‘Swimmer’ thing in London named after this short story, where you literally swim from Hampstead Heath to Brockwell. Charlotte Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ was also brilliantly unsettling. I read a few of Edith Pearlman’s in Binocular Vision, and Alice Munro’s in Dear Life – both elderly ladies, both writing staggeringly brilliant short stories, both at last receiving some long-deserved recognition. There is also Ali Smith’s beautifully produced, wonderfully inspiring collection Shire, in which Nan Shepherd pops up, and Deborah Levy’s excellent Black Vodka.
Also by Deborah Levy is her memoir-essay Things I Don’t Want to Know, which is one of the best things I’ve ever read. Short and smartly produced by Notting Hill Editions, it is a feminine rejoinder to Orwell’s essay ‘Why I Write’, and so much more inspiring. It’s difficult to describe – more engaging than most essays, more political than most memoirs, more powerful, affecting imagery than in most novels. Read it.
I have only discovered over the past couple of years quite how much I love reading memoirs. This year has had some brilliant ones. As well as Deborah Levy’s, Nan Shepherd’s and Beryl Markham’s, all mentioned above, there was Island Summers by Matilde Culme-Seymour, containing so much delicious food-writing that I came out of it both hungrier and heavier. How to be a Heroine, to be published in January, is a very engaging reading-memoir in which Samantha Ellis looks at her reading life and weighs up her various fictional heroines through a tremendous tour of some dearly loved novels. As well as a great chance to revisit some favourites (Anne of Green Gables, Cold Comfort Farm, Jane Eyre and more), it is a tantalising introduction to what I’m sure will be some treats for 2014, such as Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes. There was also Emma Smith’s As Green As Grass – wonderful memories of life around the Second World War by a very spritely ninety-year-old. Penelope Lively’s new Ammonites and Leaping Fish is another hard-to-define book. Part memoir, part reflections on being old, part thoughts on books read, objects collected and part history lesson, it is a box of delights. Perhaps most compelling of all these lives is Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s biography of her grandmother Jan Struther, The Real Mrs Miniver. What a life, and how beautifully written!
Fitting for this time of year, I loved re-reading Susan Cooper’s series of children’s books ‘The Dark is Rising‘. The Dark is Rising is probably the best of the five, and begins on 20th December, Midwinter’s Eve. Chilling, powerful, exciting imaginative, transporting, how I do love to read a brilliant children’s book!
I can’t end without mentioning the big change chez Emilybooks this year. Daphne! Oh my beloved literary tortoise. Which was her favourite book of the year? She is torn between beautifully slow-paced Proust, and Penelope Lively’s Ammonites and Leaping Fish, which features a tortoise or two.
Finally, thank YOU for giving me so much of your reading time and attention during the year. Perhaps you have an Emilybook of the year? In which case I would love to know it. And may I wish you a very happy, book-filled Christmas and New Year.