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Emilybooks of the year

December 16, 2013

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 Living Mountain by Nan ShepherdThe 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 Under the NetMurdoch’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.

Swann's WayOne 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.

Where'd you go BernadetteOther 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.

Moon Tiger by Penelope LivelyIt 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.

The Pendragon LegendAll 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.

Things I Don't Want to KnowAlso 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!

The Dark is RisingFitting 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.

Daphnebooks of the year

I Capture the Castle

October 26, 2011

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

When I read this last week – under a blanket on our sofa, just after the British Gas man had left us with a new boiler and no thermostat, so that our flat swiftly got blissfully hot – I felt ever so snug and reassured. It has got to be one of the most comforting first lines of all literature ever.

I first read I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith when I was ten or eleven years old. I remember very clearly sitting on a bench in the playground of my primary school and telling a teacher that I was reading it. I had hoped she’d be impressed, as it was quite a grown up book, and I thought I was rather precocious to be reading it so young. But she just smiled and said, ‘Oh yes, by the lady who wrote 101 Dalmatians, how sweet.’

I was rather put out. For I Capture the Castle is nothing like 101 Dalmatians. Not that the latter isn’t a great story, but it is something a of a babyish one. This one is a quite different kettle of fish.

I’m not sure if my anxiety levels in the run up to my wedding quite came across in my last post. I was more than a little bit nervous. And stressed. And I found myself unable to concentrate on anything unweddingy. It occurred to me that it was not unlike an illness … which was when I had a Eureka moment.

Whenever I’m poorly – I mean really poorly with a temperature, rather than just a bit snuffly and sorry for myself (which happens at least every fortnight during the winter) – I find there’s nothing better than reading children’s books. When my tonsils were removed last year, I whizzed through loads of exciting books by Philip Reeve, The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness and – thank you Julia for the best recommendation of all time – A Long Way from Verona, my first Jane Gardam. If I retreat back to my mother’s for extra-special TLC, I tend to read through several of my old favourites. The Narnia books, Swallows and Amazons, even Tintin if I’m feeling really peculiar.

I realised that the only thing I could possibly even hope to read in the few days before I got married, was a children’s book.

So I swiftly reread A Long Way From Verona, which I somehow got through in a single blissful night (perhaps as I’ve read it so many times already) and already felt much more human. The following day I popped along to the bookshop, where everyone was surprised to see me and thought I must be terribly excited. I said that actually I felt rather queasy and nervous, but that seemed to get dismissed as nonsense. Anyway, after much browsing of the children’s shelves and finding that nothing that I hadn’t already read looked quite right, I alighted on I Capture the Castle and realised it was perfect.

And I started to read it that very afternoon, in our warm flat, which felt even warmer after reading all the descriptions of the bitterly cold castle where Cassandra lives in very romantic poverty with her beautiful sister Rose, reclusive writer-with-writer’s-block father, and artistic stepmother Topaz. Incidentally, I soon realised – with a peculiar feeling of a penny dropping – that this is the book in which I originally came across the delightfully silly phrase ‘communing with nature’ (which Topaz does all the time).

But the next couple of days passed in such a whirlwind of activity that I was only on around page fifty by the time we went on our honeymoon! But this turned out to be rather fortuitous.

For the HUSBAND (no longer fiancé!), had caught a nasty vomiting bug, we were both absolutely zonked out and happened to be staying in the swankiest loveliest hotel in the world – in a suite that was larger than our flat!! – thanks to my brother’s very generous wedding present. So although we were to spend a great deal of time wandering around Paris feeling like it was terribly romantic and weren’t we happy and in love, we also spent rather a lot of time cocooned in our enormous suite in a comatose state eating chocolate. All of which was rather conducive to reading a gorgeous novel about a girl cocooned in a castle, wanting to be a writer and falling in love for the first time.

I’m sure I’ve said it before, but I shall say it again. I adore coming-of-age novels. And I personally find they are particularly good when the main character wants to be a writer. Yessssss, I hiss to myself in my head, I can relate to this …

Of course, our honeymoon was interesting enough for me not to read the entire thing! But yesterday evening, on the Eurostar back to London, while the husband was sleeping, I read so much of it, in such an intense sitting, that when I got home and saw there wasn’t much more to go, I felt I absolutely HAD to finish it before I could get on with real life again. I felt that I was so firmly ensconced in Cassandra’s world, that I couldn’t possibly get back into my own world until I’d left hers behind.

So I did my favourite trick of staying up very late wrapped up in blankets on the sofa, reading until there were only around twenty pages left. Then I went to sleep and woke up half an hour earlier than I would have done, so I had time to finish it off first thing.

Finishing a book has got to be the best possible way of starting a day. The thing is, normally when one finishes something, it is late and there is a sense of everything ending. Coming out of the cinema in the dark, turning off a DVD or closing a book and looking at the clock to see that it’s well past one’s bedtime, is a bit miserable. To sleep, perchance to dream … I don’t know, I think there’s something a bit depressing about it, especially if one’s very tired.

But finishing something in the morning. Now that is exciting. Then one can breathe deeply, indulge in a moment of reflection, and then look out of the window at a beautiful ice blue sky, spring out of bed for some toast and feel like it is the beginning of something, as well as the end.

And I suppose that today really is the day that I begin something very new indeed. Real life as a married woman begins now. Goodbye to a comforting blissful childhood read of falling in love and yearning and wistfulness, and hello to the very exciting new world!!