Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

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

Christmas Pudding

December 9, 2013

Christmas Pudding by Nancy MitfordWe discussed Christmas Pudding, Nancy Mitford’s wonderfully silly, laugh-out-loud second novel, at Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday.

Hampstead Heath was beautiful, the sun sweeping across it and warming us as we gathered around a bench at the Druid’s circle, scoffing mince pies and fruit loaf, wondering if Mitford would have considered our location to be London or country – a dichotomy she explores in her novel. Yesterday, wandering through such expansive space, while looking out across the crowded city, Hampstead was the best of everything. We did, however, recall Elizabeth von Arnim’s contemporary novel The Enchanted April, and thought that Nancy Mitford might have agreed with Lady Caroline:

Perhaps people who lived in Hampstead might be poor; indeed, must be poor, or why live in Hampstead?


Christmas Pudding is the perfect antidote to the stresses of Christmas itself, when overfed families are liable to be at each other’s throats. I read it very quickly and laughed out loud on several occasions. I say, at the first sign of any trouble this Christmas, retreat to a sofa and pick it up and it will considerably brighten your outlook! In any case, it was exactly what I needed after such an upsetting read as The Bell Jar, a very affecting novel, the horror of which has haunted me all the week.

(Yes, the sharp-eyed amongst you will notice that The Golden Notebook – the final, most daunting novel in the Margaret Drabble recommends trilogy – has been put on hold. And, I’m afraid, it continues to be on hold, most likely until the New Year, when I hope I might have a spurt of energy that might inspire tackling such an intellectual, meaty, thick book.)

Christmas Pudding has a terribly silly plot: The improbably named Paul Fotheringay is distressed because his first novel Crazy Capers, which he wrote as a poignant tragedy, has received rave reviews as a hysterically funny farce. His friend, the inimitable ex-courtesan Amabelle Fortescue, advises him to write a serious biography for his next book, and he decides on Victorian poetess Lady Maria Bobbin for his subject. He writes to the present Lady Bobbin asking if he might visit and read her ancestor’s diaries. On receiving his letter:

She read it over twice, found herself unfamiliar with such words as hostelry, redolent and collaboration, and handed it to her secretary, saying, ‘The poor chap’s batty, I suppose?’

Thus rejected, Paul turns to Amabelle again, who devises an ingenious plan. She is friendly with Lady Bobbin’s teenage son Bobby Bobbin, who is at Eton (of course), and is a fun-loving, self-confessed snob. She engineers it so that Paul will go to stay with the Bobbins over the Christmas holidays in the guise of Bobby’s tutor. Amabelle has conveniently rented a nearby cottage, and Paul and Bobby spend all their time supposedly riding and golfing etc, while actually sneaking off there to play bridge. Add to this Paul’s falling in love with Bobby’s bored sister Philadelphia, and a certain Lord Lewes who becomes a rival for her affection, and a host of other minor characters all brilliantly daft, and you get a pudding of delight!

Carry on JeevesIt reminded me very much of PG Wodehouse. I kept expecting to bump into Gussy Finknottle and his newts. Here, the equivalent to Bertie Wooster’s twitty friends, are Squibby Almanack and his friends Biggy and Bunch, who are more passionate about Wagner than debutantes. Missing, however, from Christmas Pudding, so essential to Jeeves & Wooster, is Jeeves! For while Mitford has her posh twits aplenty, she pays no attention to manservants or any staff at all. There is a brief mention of Amabelle’s groom, who exercises the horses to fool Lady Bobbin, while Paul and Bobby play bridge, but that’s pretty much it. One can only conclude that Mitford was interested only in the antics of the upper classes, not the lower. Perhaps she felt capable only of dissecting the problems faced by people of her own class. Perhaps she was simply a snob, but if so, I hope we can forgive her, seeing as she is so good at poking fun at and pointing out the many shortcomings of all her toffs.

Mitford pays a great deal of attention to the question of marriage, which is shown to be more-or-less the only option for upper-class woman. The great question is whether to marry for love or for money. Advice on this tends to be rather unromantic. Amabelle says:

If I had a girl I should say to her, “Marry for love if you can, but it won’t last, but it is a very interesting experience and makes a good beginning in life. Later on, when you marry for money, for heaven’s sake let it be big money. There are no other possible reasons for marrying at all.”

Later on she says:

The older I get the more I think it is fatal to marry for love. The mere fact of being in love with somebody is a very good reason for not marrying them, in my opinion. It brings much more unhappiness than anything else.

While lesser novelists might be tempted to write a run-away love affair, the sort of Sybil and Tom narrative of Downton Abbey, Mitford takes care to stress the sensible unromantic realities beneath all her silly farce.

At Emily’s Walking Book Club, we were all rather enamoured with the winsome character of Amabelle. She has the most autonomy of all the characters and is able to choose her fate as well as manoeuvre the others into helpful positions. I wonder if there is something of Mitford herself in her, with her spirit of fun, and writerly controlling of the plot.

Another point that walkers raised was that while Christmas Pudding should read as a period piece, capturing a 1930s situation that ought to be inconceivable now, in actual fact, little has changed. There remains a feeling of entitlement amongst the upper classes, especially in politics, with the Lords who decide they might take up their seat in the House. Just look at our Etonian cabinet, raged the walkers. I felt rather proud that we’d managed to get so political. Who dares to claim that reading novels is less serious than reading non-fiction?!

So while on first glance Christmas Pudding is the perfect book to raise one’s spirits, providing some light relief to what can be a rather dark time of year, on further scrutiny there is a great deal of serious stuff to discuss. Marriage, politics, class, matriarchy and more. What a clever, skilful novelist Nancy Mitford was!

I set Daphne the acid test of choosing between Christmas Pudding or some rocket leaves:

Christmas Pudding 1

The rocket caught her eye immediately.

Christmas pudding 2

She made a beeline for it.

Christmas pudding 3

And consumed it with relish.

Christmas pudding 4

Then, faced with the prospect of Christmas Pudding, she seemed rather weary.

Christmas pudding 5

I can see that Christmas Pudding is rather too fast-paced for her. Or perhaps she simply finds the snobbery rather tedious. Or perhaps she simply prefers the writing of Mitford’s great friend, Evelyn Waugh.

The Funny Thing About Christmas Books

December 13, 2010

Christmas has very definitely arrived at the bookshop. Crowds of people pulse into the little shop, clotting around tables in order to pick up fistfuls, armfuls, bagfuls of books, leaving the till ringing, pumped full of its pecuniary lifeblood.

For the bookseller, lunch-breaks are a fond memory, wrapping skills are at a premium, and – most satisfyingly – so is good advice. For this is the time when bookselling expertise comes into its own.

As Christmas inches closer, shoppers look increasingly desperate. By Christmas Eve, some customers will be looking so unbelievably stressed, I will worry that if they don’t find the right present within the next five minutes then they might crumple into a heap on the floor, crying, slowly rocking to and fro. Being able to point the shopper in the direction of a good present for Auntie Betty, cousin Mavis or son George is particularly rewarding when one feels one has staved off, if not an ambulance, then at least a valium or two.

But there is one situation that never fails to surprise me:

‘Please can you help me, I need to buy a present for my son.’

‘OK. How old is he?’


‘And what sort of books does he enjoy reading?’

Silence. The person appears to be trying to examine a spot on the top right of their forehead. ‘Oh, well, he doesn’t really read books.’

‘Not any books?’

‘No. Well, I mean he used to when he was younger. He loved the Lord of the Rings. But since university and getting a job, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him with a book.’

‘What sort of work does he do?’

‘Oh he’s in the city.’

‘Right, perhaps a book on economics or the financial crisis?’ I offer.

‘Oh no, he’s not really interested in any of that.’

‘Well what is he interested in?’

‘He loves The X Factor. And he plays football every Saturday.’

Then why, I long to ask, why are you buying him a book? Is it because we’re the only shop near your house that’s still open after five thirty? Is it because you feel some sort of urge to continue educating him in a positive way? Is it because he’s already got all the X Factor merchandise, and ten pairs of football socks?

Of course the details vary, but again and again, customers get utterly stuck trying to buy a book for someone who doesn’t read books. But publishers have cannily come up with a solution to this Yuletide problem … humour books.

From the end of September onwards, mini hardbacks and tiny paperbacks begin to trickle into the shop. Priced between £2.99 and £12.99, each one will illicit at least a passing chuckle from a Christmas shopper. At the bottom end are titles such as Don’ts for Husbands and at the top end (although I worry that perhaps that makes them sound a little highbrow) are titles like Sexually I’m More of a Switzerland – a collection of personal ads from the London Review of Books.

In the instance above, I would bring the lady over to a table crammed full of these little books and point out ones like A Simples Life, the faux-autobiography of the meerkat from the telly adverts; Delete this at your Peril, a collection of spoof replies to spam emails; and perhaps even I Could Go On … unpublished letters to the Telegraph, the follow-up to last year’s success, Am I Alone in Thinking.

I’m pretty sure that the lady would have a little giggle at them and would then buy the meerkat book for her son, perhaps picking up a Don’ts for Husbands as a stocking-filler too. On Christmas Day, I expect that the son’s immediate disappointment on being given a book would be relieved by seeing the friendly face of the meerkat, his stalwart companion from X Factor ad breaks. He’d probably have a little flick through and then put it next to his loo, to be opened in future idle moments of constipation.

I’m not sure what it is that offends me about humour books. Perhaps there’s a rather unattractive element of bookish snobbishness. ‘You mean you’d rather buy this rubbish over Tolstoy?’ a little bit of my brain scorns. But I’d like to think it’s more of a feeling of mournfulness for a lost book. These pages will never be read and loved and cherished in the way that books deserve.

People who read and love books rarely even glance at these little humour books. The history nut will be drooling over Neil MacGregor’s stunning A History of the World in 100 Objects, or Amanda Foreman’s latest tome A World on Fire. Literary biography enthusiasts will be poring over Rosamund Bartlett’s Tolstoy, or looking at How to Live, Sarah Bakewell’s unusual biography of Montaigne. For poetry lovers there’s the stunning new Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, or Don Patterson’s Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Fiction readers are utterly spoilt for choice – once they’ve negotiated their way through the latest Philip Roth, Paul Auster, Jonathan Franzen, and the Booker shortlist, there are also several recently published collections of letters and diaries – like those of Saul Bellow, for instance. If someone were to give one of them the meerkat book, they’d treat it like a slap in the face.

Occasionally a customer might say to me, while he or she is somewhat guiltily watching me zap piles of expensive books for them at the till, that it must be hard for me to resist all the books, when constantly surrounded by them. It really is hard. There are so many brilliant books, especially at this time of year. I’m trying to whittle down a Top Ten for the Spectator’s Arts blog, and finding it incredibly tricky to limit myself to just ten good books.

And, perhaps because I spend all day among them, I love buying books as Christmas presents for friends and family. Over the weeks I realise that X would love that particular book, and Y might enjoy another. But, of course, there are some friends of mine who don’t share my love of books. That’s when I go and buy panettones, or chocolates, or clothes, or jewellery, or something else from the multitude of possible Christmas presents that are arrayed over our High Streets, markets and the internet. I don’t just decide to get them a silly little ‘loo’ book.

But perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps humour books really are essential to surviving Christmas.

For many, Christmas is rather a stressful occasion. Adults going ‘home’ to their parents for the day, or a few days, swiftly regress to acting like teenagers. Couples argue over which set of parents they’ll spend it with; siblings who haven’t seen each other for months are forced together to pull crackers over mince pies and end up sniping at each other; young children get overexcited and exhausted and start crying by the time it’s the Queen’s Speech, having already jealously trampled on toys that their cousin/sister/mum’s best friend’s son has been given.

Yes it’s a time for families to be happy and cosy together, but the reality is that many families are rather complicated and this yanking everyone together for a day can be disastrous.

Perhaps this is when humour books come to the rescue. Perhaps, after a heavy Christmas lunch, when everyone’s run out of things to say and  you realise you’re stuck with them, in the middle of nowhere, until the following morning, then you can open something like A Simples Life (the meerkat book) and find yourself giggling.

In the post-Christmas lunch slump it’s unlikely that you’d get very far with anything more heavyweight, partly from gluttony-provoked exhaustion, partly from wine followed by port and brandy, partly from children careering around the room either on sugar highs or in tears, and partly due to the endless adult interruptions – ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ from the mother, ‘Did you say something?’ from the grandparent, ‘What’s that you’re reading?’ from the father. This is not the time to start War and Peace, or even Bartlett’s biography of Tolstoy. It is, in fact, the perfect time to dip into something reasonably mindless, something from which you don’t mind being disturbed, and something that might even make you respond to the interruption mid-laugh, or at least mid-smirk.

In light of this, perhaps I’d be inclined to buy Parlour Games for Modern Families, a rather charming book in a Cath Kidston sort of way. I’d hope that rather than trying to hide with one’s nose in a second-rate book while half-listening to a painfully limping conversation, this little book might prove sufficient to cajole everyone into a game of Charades, or Blind Man’s Buff, or even – and I expect this one might go down the best – Murder in the Dark.