Emilybooks of the Year

The thing about sleeping in 3-4 hour chunks is that time bends into something altogether new. So when I say it’s been an age since I last posted here, I mean an age in a peculiarly nebulous sense. It has been an amount of time of which I can’t really conceive. Life before Vita – what was that?

I had hoped to be writing here a little more regularly, but little Vita has proved to be rather a lot to take on and doing everything one-handed means it all takes twice as long. We’ve also moved house, and any writing time I’ve managed to carve out has been siphoned into a couple of journalism commissions which sprung up and couldn’t be refused. There’s one for the Spectator, which you can read here. And the other one is still in the pipeline, so watch this space…

But wow it’s Christmas next week, which is thoroughly disorienting. Not only is it the first Christmas after Vita and therefore, as I explained, it has approached in a strange new way, it is also the first time for years that I’ve not been working in the bookshop during what is always a madly busy, derangedly exciting time. So I thought I must stir myself from my semi-comatose state at least enough to be able to write my EmilyBooks of the Year – for that has become a Christmas tradition from which I would hate to part. So I hope you enjoy the round-up below. The links go back to my original reviews of them, in case you’d like a little more info on the various books.

Looking back on what I’ve read this year has proved both enjoyable and revealing. I think everyone ought to do it, as an exercise in self-reflection. If so, I’d love to hear how you get on and any of your picks for books of the year.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns2014 introduced me to rather a large clutch of what I might fondly term ‘EmilyBooks’ – the oft-overlooked but brilliant novels that I adore reading. I picked many of these for the Walking Book Club, so thinking back to them now yields very happy memories of chatting away on Hampstead Heath. The Home-Maker and Fidelity, two Persephone Books, were both extraordinary. Both are set in small-town America at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both are about women who step beyond their allotted place – going out to earn the family’s living, or having an affair with a married man. Both books are good on how society struggles to handle these misfits, and how the misfits are strong enough to survive. (Incidentally, we were honoured to have a week of the excellent Persephone Post – the Persephone Books daily blog – inspired in part by Vita!) Other brilliant old novels discovered this year include Angela Carter’s Wise Children, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing (but only read it if you are ready for something seriously harrowing), William Trevor’s Love and Summer, Elaine Dundy’s excellent The Dud Avocado (a MUST if you are going to Paris) and – perhaps my two favourites – Meg Wolitzer’s brilliantly funny and very clever The Wife, and Barbara Comyns’ disarmingly simply told and terribly affecting Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. This last will definitely be a future walking book club book – it is tremendous!

The Letter for the KingI was pleased (and not surprised) to see how many of my books of 2014 are published by Pushkin Press. Those of you who’ve not yet discovered this terrific independent publisher, which specialises in bringing the best European fiction to our shores, should do so NOW. Red Love by Maxim Leo is a fascinating family memoir – I’d say it’s up there with The Hare with Amber Eyes for the way he manages to get the bigger picture of history through the filter of his immediate family. It’s all about the GDR and how the author’s two grandfathers – one a Nazi and the other a freedom fighter – could both come to believe so fervently in the new regime. There was also Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, strange and brilliant, and Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb, also strange and brilliant. Both have an eerie, dreamlike feel to them, and thinking back on the now it’s this special atmosphere of the books that has really stuck with me, rather than the ins and outs of the plots. A special mention should go to Pushkin’s children’s book The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. I started reading this as soon as I went on maternity leave, thinking that it would be the ideal gripping piece of escapism for my exhausted brain. It was, and I spent a heavenly few days on the sofa with it. In fact I enjoyed it so much that the husband wanted to read it as soon as I had finished. And then I went into labour. And rather a lot of that strange first day of labour, before we could go into hospital, was spent with me rolling around on a big pilates ball while the husband read the book and I kept asking him irritating questions about where he’d got up to, only he wasn’t allowed to be annoyed with me because I was in labour. Ha! Truth be told, I think having such a good distraction for a book was the only thing that kept him sane, so thank you Pushkin!

Where Angels Fear to TreadJourney by Moonlight is just one of several books I read that are set in Italy, as our blissful two month sojourn in Lucca called for a great deal of geographically appropriate literature. Looking back on it now, I still can’t really believe we got away with it – two months of eating ice cream and lazing around, reading, writing, sketching, sleeping … I wonder if Vita, who was wriggling around in utero, might grow to love these books too? Certainly I’m sure she will share her mother’s love of pasta.

Thinking of pasta, there was The Leopard, with its infamous macaroni pie, a wonderful novel, which I loved discussing on a walking book club at the Perch Hill Feast. There was Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence – obviously good, because everything by her is good, but perhaps not quite as good as her others. Christ Stopped at Eboli – a classic piece of anthropological observation, which made Southern Italy in the 1930s seem like another world entirely. There was Portrait of a Lady, which was good but something about James’ coldness, and the nastiness of it all, made it seem rather sour. Best of all the Italy books was the double-Forster hit of A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread – it was such a treat to have an excuse to revisit them.

H is for HawkI loved re-reading various classics this year, as well as the Henry James and the EM Forsters, there was Brideshead Revisited – so much more enjoyable to read for pleasure rather than studying it for A Level – and Jane Eyre, every bit as good as I remembered, and also Pride and Prejudice. This last was wonderful, and the other thing we did when I went into labour was watch the boxset of the BBC adaptation – a great way to pass quite a lot of time!

There was a substantial chunk of non-fiction: The Examined Life, which was the perfect January book – ideal for a bit of sober self-examination. How to be a Heroine – a paean to many brilliant novels, written so charmingly that you end up feeling that Samantha Ellis is a bit of a heroine herself. The Rings of Saturn, which was a rare instance of a book being both heavy-going and brilliant – I kept wanting to say thank you Sebald, for stretching my brain in so many of these bizarre directions. And, finally, two wonderful memoirs: The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg – astonishing insight into Germany during the war, written by an English woman who’d married a German – and H is for Hawk, which I adored so much that I nearly called my daughter Mabel in homage to the hawk. I was very happy to see that this won the Samuel Johnson Prize.

How to be Both by Ali SmithI also enjoyed some new novels: the wonderful Chop Chop by Simon Wroe, who I should say is a friend, and I should also say has just been shortlisted for the Costa Prize – hurrah!!! And also Homecoming by Susie Steiner, which I started off thinking would be all about sheep farming, but actually it’s about families and change. And there was, of course, the supreme treat from Ali Smith: How to be Both. How I adored this book. Smith has a way of writing that makes modern fiction seem so exciting and makes me feel lucky to be a reader.

Last but not least, comes a book which is particularly special to me: Park Notes by Sarah Pickstone. Not only is this a beautiful book about women writers finding inspiration in Regent’s Park, but it also features my first ever piece of work to be published in a book!

I hope this little round up might provide some inspiration for Christmas reading, or indeed shopping. Once we get to 2015, Emilybooks will be back for real, and so will the walking book club – our next meeting is on 25th January to discuss Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone. Vita’s rather excited about it!

Park notes


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31 Responses to “Emilybooks of the Year”

  1. Alice Says:

    It’s lovely to have you back Emily, I silently squealed ‘oh goody’ when I saw notification of a new post. So glad to hear about Vita – what a lovely, and suitably literary, name! I look forward to following your reading again next year.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thanks Alice, it’s wonderful to be back! And thank you – I’ve enjoyed reading your posts while I’ve been away in babyland.

  2. Elaine Cumming Says:

    Brilliant some definate nominations for my Jan 15 book club, Our spoons came from woolworths and Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf had sadly been lost in the ever growing piles. Sadly thats what twenty plus years of parenthood has done to me, I have never managed to adjust my speed of aquisition of books to my reduced time for reading but I have managed to grow three young avid and speedy readers. Hope you have a great Christmas.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Well done on growing the readers – I have a fear that Vita might end up hating books in a bid to rebel… Let me know how you get on with the book club – would love to know what you make of the books.

  3. airandangelsblog Says:

    Lovely post Emily – great to see you posting again, and you’ve provided me with inspiration for a few last-minute literary Christmas presents, so thank you! Definitely hoping to make it to the first Walking Book Club of 2015 (especially as I’ve never read any Drabble), so I’ll get going on The Millstone forthwith. Oh, and Vita is officially the awesome name ever – great choice!

    • emilybooks Says:

      Hooray! V pleased to have been of service with the christmas pressies, and I do hope you enjoy The Millstone – looking forward to discussing it with you.

  4. The Northern Reader Says:

    Congratulations on your newest reader and our love to her from the frozen north. Dear Zoo for her this Christmas, perhaps, and The Mighty Dead for her mama – not least because it’s by the other Vita’s grandson.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thanks! And thanks for the reading tips for both of us – I fear that my brain is so mushy at the moment that Dear Zoo might be more on my level…

  5. Cosy Books Says:

    Congratulations, Emily! Hope you’re not too, too exhausted…you’ve done well with this post! It’s my favourite time of year for reading about the books everyone enjoyed just that little bit more than the rest and ‘Our Spoons…’ must be pushed higher up my tbr list.

  6. BookerTalk Says:

    You succeeded in adding to my reading wish list :). Enjoyed your Spectator piece too…

  7. joannamcampbell Says:

    I really enjoyed your post, Emily, and was particularly interested in your choice of Barbara Comyns as I love her writing. Once I had finished Our Spoons Came From Woolworth’s, I read all her other books too, one after the other. It must be time to reread them as I am sure they can be enjoyed again and again.
    I read Love and Summer this year too. I love William Trevor and my favourite of his novels is The Children of Dynmouth. I also enjoyed Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone enormously.
    I shall definitely read the Past Is Myself, which sounds like just my kind of book, set in such fascinating times.
    I hope you have a lovely, not-too-exhausting Christmas.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thanks Joanna. And I’m ashamed to say that I’ve only read Our Spoons by Comyns and Love and Summer by Trevor – I hope that I’ll get to know some of their other books in 2015. Enjoy The Past is Myself. Slightly Foxed publish a very smart little hardback edition, if you feel like treating yourself.

  8. clodge2013 Says:

    Emily, so pleased you are blogging again. And oddly thrilled that you have called your little one Vita, esp as you recommended All Passion Spent earlier this year for the older women in fiction series.

    Thanks for such a great list. Lots to agree with here, and some new pickings too.

    May your reading continue and your little Vita be a joy.


    • emilybooks Says:

      Oh thank you Caroline. Yes it is funny that this Vita is so little and yet the other one’s wonderful novel is about someone so ancient! Glad you like the list too. Have a great Christmas.

  9. jaggedwithsophistication Says:

    First of all, a big welcome to Vita! How does she get on with Daphne?

    Am so happy the walking book club is back, I’ve missed the walks, the discussion, the people, and, above all, the chance to read books I might have not picked up otherwise. It’s wonderful reading outside one’s comfort-zone, one is bound to make amazing discoveries.

    So glad you enjoyed Antal Szerb! He’s very little known, yet his books are strange and poetic. I wish he’d written more before he died, or, rather, that he’d lived to write more. Such a pity. I’ve read him in Hungarian, I’d be curious to see whether he “feels” the same in translation.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Hello! Looking forward to catching up at the next walking book club, and yes, if only Antal Szerb had written more – I really enjoyed The Pendragon Legend too.

  10. lynnpedersenpoetry Says:

    H is for Hawk and Park Notes are on my list! Congrats and happy reading and best wishes for more sleep in the New Year!

  11. semicolonsherry Says:

    I added your list to my collection of end of the year book lists at my blog Semicolon. Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve added Our Spoons Came from Woolworths to my personal TBR list on the strength of the title alone.

  12. Alice Says:

    So lovely to read a round up from you Emily, I was hoping there would be one before the new year. Vita is a beautiful name; I feel as if I could read about a Vita in a Victorian novel, which makes the name even better. I’m thoroughly impressed you managed to move house with a small one and just before Christmas! The thought of moving at any point of the year, on my own, brings me to tears.

    You’ve mentioned so many wonderful books, it’s making me want to read Our Spoons Came From Woolworths all over again. I think I’ve still got a few of these books – which I bought on the recommendation of your review – yet to read. I’ll have to prioritise them come January.

    I look forward to more posts in 2015, have a wonderful new year’s eve with little Vita!

    • Alice Says:

      I think this may be my second comment, forgetting that I had done it once, but I’m not sure…. December has scrambled my brain!

      • emilybooks Says:

        Hello Alice, yes you have already commented, but how lovely to have another one from you! So pleased you enjoyed the roundup and looking forward to reading more of your posts in 2015.

  13. Bespoke Traveler Says:

    Thank you for offering your 2014 reading round-up, I’m especially interested to check out Park Notes. This year was definitely a classic re-reading venture and it is fun to see that we both enjoyed Where Angels Fear to Tread, Jane Eyre, and Pride and Prejudice! Another great English classic enjoyed was Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Looking forward to seeing more of your book discussions in 2015. Have a wonderful New Year!

  14. JAR Says:

    Emily, lovely to read your blog again. Must say I laughed at your choice of book for your walking book club. I’m a great Drabble fan and find it hard to choose between her and her sister. 🙂

  15. Angie Says:

    A really lovely post Emily. Lots of inspiration for me there. You reminded me (again) that I need read the wonderfully titled ‘Our spoons came from Woolworths’ Great to have you back

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