Looking Backward, Looking Forward

Well it’s the end of another year. Last Christmas I was in a cabin on the banks of a frozen lake in a teeny tiny town in upstate New York that could have easily been the setting of a nostalgic 70’s TV drama or a terrible teen slasher film. This year I am in the Kent countryside, at my mum’s house, which is less noteworthy but still lovely nonetheless. As I have days of pleasurable nothingness lying ahead of me, which will largely subsist of me eating clementines and novelty chocolates while lolling around on the sofa, I will have plenty of headspace to devote to planning what I will get up to next year. This year everything has been very exciting, as living in another country and doing lots of new things all the time inevitably is. Finding that same sense of excitement that I felt in New York as my life settles back into an everyday rhythm here in London will be difficult, but not impossible. I learnt a lot of lessons about challenging myself and refusing to allow myself to procrastinate over the past year, and I am determined to take those forward as I enter my (gulp) 26th year.

Personal goals and challenges aside, in my reading life there were some wonderful highlights over the last twelve months, and I have got some brilliant books on my radar that I am looking forward to reading next year. So, here’s my top 10 for 2011, and my top 10 anticipated for 2012. Enjoy!

2011 (in no particular order)

1. To the North by Elizabeth Bowen

This book took my breath away. The writing was exquisite and the characters powerfully enigmatic…one to spend time over, savouring the linguistic prowess of a writer who has become sadly underread in recent years.

2. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

This is the best ‘modern’ novel I’ve ever read; the prose itself was mesmerising – sparsely written, each word chosen carefully and loaded with meaning. I found it haunting, inspiring and life affirming; it really got under my skin. As a story of a life and as a work of art, it is genuinely a thing of absolute beauty.

3. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Wharton is America’s best when it comes to exploring the complexities of upper class nineteenth century life. The doomed love between the two protagonists was addictive and brilliantly portrayed; I loved every single second of reading it, and was absolutely on the edge of my seat.

4. To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski

I loved this daring and controversial story of a woman who uses the absence of her husband during WWII to indulge her sexual longings. To Bed with Grand Music is a fascinating expose of the dark underbelly of vice and hedonism that raged behind the blackout curtains of wartime London, and Deborah is a wonderfully three dimensional anti heroine. It’s Laski’s best novel, in my opinion.

5. Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim

This is such a lovely, light hearted and witty series of musings on life. It has its dark side, but most of it had me roaring with laughter and I was left with the impression that Elizabeth von Arnim was a beautiful, caring, endearing and highly entertaining woman who I would love to have known.

6. The Magnificent Spinster by May Sarton

This was such a discovery for me this year; thanks so much to Thomas at My Porch for sending it my way! It’s a love letter to a woman who embodied such a wonderful, spirited, generous and enthusiastic approach to life, and I found it a deeply inspirational and moving reading experience. It’s the sort of book you should reread every year to remind you of what greatness the human sprit is capable of. If you haven’t read it, you’re missing out.

7. The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims

A random choice, but this book was a really unexpected highlight of my reading year. I don’t remember if I even read Charlotte’s Web as a child, but this exploration of the life of E B White absolutely enthralled me. It was so entertainingly written, making the world of early 20th century New York come alive off the pages, and it gave me a deep admiration and respect for a man whose love of nature and generous soul spawned one of the greatest pieces of children’s fiction of all time. It’s the best literary biography I’ve read, and if you have any vague interest in the topic, you won’t be disappointed.

8. Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Discovering the Little House books while in America was a real source of joy to me. They may be classed as ‘children’s’ books but they are just as entertaining for adult readers in my opinion. Little Town was my favourite but all are brilliant; I had my eyes opened to a whole era of American history and the descriptions of family life and the pains and pleasures of growing up are tender, true and completely timeless. If you’ve never read them, make 2012 the year you do!

9. South Riding by Winifred Holtby

I can’t say enough about how marvellous this rich, meaty portrayal of life in 1930s rural Yorkshire is. I fell in love with the characters, and was totally emotionally invested in their stories. Holtby’s writing is so powerful, and her hopes and dreams for the future of humanity are truly inspiring. This has become one of my favourite books of all time; it’s a remarkable legacy of a remarkable woman who died far too young.

10. Can You Forgive Her by Anthony Trollope

Right at the end of 2011, this book came along and reminded me of why I love Victorian novels. Melodramatic, gossipy, hilarious and filled with a cast of dastardly rakes and devious women, this is the stuff that entertained people before TV soaps came along. It’s pure enjoyment from beginning to end, and is the perfect companion for long, dark winter nights.

2012

1. Alix and Nicky by Virginia Rounding

I became obsessed by the last Russian Imperial Family when I was in my mid teens. I learnt about the doomed Tsarist regime in history lessons at school and I was amazed by the likeness of Nicholas II to his cousin, King George V, mesmerised by the beauty of Tsarina Alexandra, and appalled by the tragedy of their final hours, murdered by firing squad along with their five children in a basement in the Urals. How could something so awful have happened to a family that once ruled the largest Empire on earth? And did their daughter Anastasia really survive the massacre that killed her entire family? At that point, the remains of the two ‘missing’ bodies that should have been present in the mass grave were yet to be found and there were many people who still believed that Anna Anderson could have been Anastasia. I loved the mystery, intrigue and tragedy of it all, and I collected hordes of books on the subject. There’s not a lot I don’t know about Imperial Russia, and though I haven’t delved into my collection for a long while, my fascination remains. I can’t wait to get my hands on this new book, out next year, exploring the marriage of Nicholas and Alexandra and shedding new insights on their life together.

2. Titanic Lives: Migrants and Millionaires, Conmen and Crew by Richard Daveport-Hines

Another random teenage interest of mine was the Titanic; next year is the 100th anniversary and this book, exploring the stories of a cross section of passengers on board the doomed liner, looks absolutely fascinating.

3. Spitalfields Life by The Gentle Author

I was thrilled to see that the lovely author of the blog Spitalfields Life will be publishing a book next year. These lively, fascinating and beautifully written accounts of the lives of ordinary people living extraordinary lives in the heart of London are always a joy to read and I’m looking forward to seeing them in print.

4. A Nurse at the Front: The Great War Diaries of Sister Edith Appleton ed. Ruth Cowen

I love a good war diary and there are relatively few around from a woman’s perspective, especially from WWI. Following on from reading the excellent Diary without Dates recently, I’m looking forward to this very much.

5. Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

I loved The Tortoise and the Hare when I read it a couple of years ago, and Persephone will be republishing one of Elizabeth Jenkins’ other books in the Spring. I can’t wait!

6. The Palliser Novels by Anthony Trollope

Now I’ve discovered Anthony Trollope, I will not be looking back. I am planning on getting through the other five books in the series over 2012; they will take up a large chunk of my reading time, I’m sure, but the pleasure they will bring will be more than worth it! I still can’t believe that this quintessential Victorian author has been entirely absent from my reading canon when I claim to be such a Victorianist, and so I am looking forward to being rather more knowledgable about Trollope by this time next year.

7. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

During my rereading of Persuasion this year, many people commented that they felt Mansfield Park was similarly underrated amongst Austen’s ouevre. I’ve only read Mansfield Park once, and was distinctly underwhelmed. I think it has suffered in recent years as only really being studied as part of postcolonial theory (does the location of Thomas Bertram’s plantation really matter as much as all that?!), and much of the richness of Austen’s characterisation and plotting has been left unexplored and unappreciated as a result. Fanny is dismissed by most (me included) as a drip, and Edmund is widely considered an unconvincing hero. Surely there must be more to Mansfield Park than meets the eye, and as it seems to be Austen’s most controversial novel, I am keen to re-read and reassess in 2012.

8. The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

I loved discovering the genius that is Elizabeth Bowen this year. Her writing is so beautiful, and so powerful at exposing the hidden, unspoken griefs lying at the heart of everyday life. I have been saving The Death of the Heart, supposedly her best novel, because I wanted something of hers to look forward to, and I am going to get to it, and the rest of her novels that I have stacked up waiting for me, as soon as I can in 2012.

9. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother by William Shawcross

I got sent this for review before I went to New York and it radiates guilt from my bookshelf, so it’s going to be read in 2012. I don’t know an awful lot about the ‘Queen Mum’ as she used to be referred to in the press; I just think of her as being a very old lady in tasteful pastel two pieces, and I would love to learn more about her earlier life and how she coped with the abdication. I’m hoping this biography will dare to delve beneath the official surface but even if it doesn’t, I’m sure it will be an enlightening read.

10. The Victorian House by Judith Flanders

If Father Christmas/my dad reads his list properly and puts this under my Christmas tree like I very nicely asked him to, I’ll be devouring this in 2012. I’ve meant to read it for years, and now I live in a Victorian house myself, I am intrigued to find out more about who would originally have lived in my home and how they would have used it during the course of their daily lives.

Looks like it’s going to be a busy 2012!!

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37 comments

  1. Well, we share one book on our lists for the year – but I want to read the other nine on your list in 2012! (I daresay I shan’t, but,.. at least one or two)

  2. I’ve read a good many of your top ten and To the North was on mine too. I shall also read Death of the Heart next year. I tried Harriet and didn’t take to it so will be interested to hear what you think. I am a huge admirer of Mansfield Park so hope you will get it this time round!

    1. I’m interested to hear that about Harriet, Harriet – I don’t know anything about the plot but I was hoping it would be similar to the Tortoise and the Hare. I hope I’ll get Mansfield Park this time too! I’m really looking forward to reading it again and getting more from it than the first time round.

  3. If you like books about a child’s eye view of her world then you will love “The Death of the Heart”. It is my favorite Bowen and near the top of my all time favorites list but it is a very poignant story so please be prepared.

  4. What a lovely, thoughtful post. I always enjoy how you write about books with so much passion–something I can appreciate but have never been able to do quite as well as I’d like. I loved Age of Innocence, too–it’s one of my faves! And I read Death of the Heart by E Bowen years ago and recall liking it very much, but I think I shall have to read more of her in 2012, too. So glad this has been a great year for you and I hope 2012 is even better! Love your book list for next year–I may have to try a few of those myself. Have a very Happy Christmas!

    1. Thank you Danielle – but I disagree with you entirely – you write incredibly passionately and I love your book reviews, so there! Hope 2012 will be a wonderful year for you too and I can’t wait to see what you read and discover over the next 12 months!

  5. I’ll be there on the Mansfield Park train. It’s a central part of my life (and what quivering mania that reveals about my psyche I don’t want to know!). It’s valid to think about it (briefly) in post colonial terms, likewise in terms of Marxist theory (I wrote a short story about the scene painter – there’s a minor character for you – as an early socialist revolutionary), gay theory (surely Tom Bertram is gay?) and all the rest of it…but much better just to read it and think about Fanny’s life and Jane Austen’s lessons, moral and stylistic…(That reminds me of Balanchine saying, “Dance, madam, is a moral question.)

    1. Diana, you always have something intriguing and enlightening to bring! I am looking forward to having you along while I read Mansfield Park…you will surely open my eyes to a deeper appreciation! So much to find out and discuss…can’t wait!

  6. Advice (from the old), it is never the physical location but always the mental attitude, which you have in spades. Thank you for enriching my life. And, happy reading.

  7. Merry Christmas, Rachel. Enjoy your time with your mum and family and “pleasurable nothingness” and all it entails. Your blog is always, always a pleasure to read, never more so than now as you review your 2011 list and move forward with ’12. What adventures you have had, on the page and in life, and what wonderful ones await you. Thank you for bringing so many books and insights into my sphere. Penny

    1. Thank you Penny, hope you had a wonderful Christmas with your family. Thank you so much for your lovely comments – I’m so fortunate to have you as a reader and I hope you will continue to enjoy what I read and write next year!

  8. With The Heiress so far away from home this Christmas I’ve found myself thinking of you quite a bit, being away from your family at this time last year. And now knowing a bit of how your Mum must have put on a brave face but would dearly have loved to wave some sort of magic wand and have you appear in your room on Christmas morning. I know you’re enjoying every second of just being with her and the rest of your family while you leave a trail of chocolate wrappers in your wake.
    Here’s to another year of fabulous reading experiences, friendship, and hoping Sir Richard keels over so Lady Mary and Cousin Matthew can finally end our misery! All the best, Rachel, to you and yours…Merry Christmas!

    1. Oh Darlene, it must have been so hard for you this Christmas! I hope you didn’t miss the Heiress too much…and that Downton Abbey Christmas Special made up a little for her absence…wasn’t it magnificent?!?! Sending my love to you and R…I have certainly had a lovely time with my family and it’s been all the sweeter for having missed it last year!

  9. What a lovely post, so much has happened to you in 2011 and I have enjoyed following your blog and seeing what you have been up to as well as all the book posts.

    Thank you for encouraging me to read Persuasion, I might now try Mansfield Park!

    Happy Christmas.

  10. Lovely remembering your posts on books read this year. Mansfield Park has one of my favourite quotes in it. “Nobody meant to be unkind but nobody went out of their way to make her feel welcome.” Happy Christmas.

    1. Thank you Rachel, you are kind! That quote is wonderful! I am looking forward to seeing what other excellent writing I have missed in Mansfield Park. Hope you had a wonderful Christmas x

  11. “Death of the Heart” was on my top five fiction books read this year list. Probably not my favorite Bowen, but lovely book. I live in the heart of Laura Ingalls Wilder country (Minnesota), but I’ve never read the books. I’ve got to remedy that.

    1. I am really looking forward to reading it and seeing how I think it compares with the others of hers I have read, Steve. You MUST read the books – how lucky you are to live so close to the scenes of where she grew up! I’d love to see the prairies.

  12. *!:(!!(^^?''!**!!! what the.....what's that noise....who let you in here??....STAND ASIDE - ITS ME! - BOP says:

    Another nice post, dear R.

  13. Happy reading, and a belated happy Christmas to you Rachel! I’m thrilled you’re giving ‘Mansfield Park’ another whirl, although I warn you I shall spam you relentlessly if you dare not to enjoy it… I like this listing of books you intend to read next year, it’s a good way to ensure you get round to the ones which you are always intending to read but keep missing.

  14. Happy Christmas! Very excited about 2012 books- I just got so many for Christmas and it feels like a new world of discovery at this time of year!

  15. What fantastic reading you had this year (I am especially happy about the inclusion of Little Town!). I’m looking forwards to reading your thoughts on your 2012 books. I was fascinatated by the Titanic while at school and I am looking forwards to getting reacquanited with it next next. I also can’t wait to see what you think of The Victorian House. I picked up a copy of this earlier in the year but haven’t got around to reading it yet.

    1. I know, I really did have a good reading year! I think there should be a good lot of Titanic related stuff going on next year and I’m looking forward to that too – I’m hoping for exhibitions and such like as well.

      I didn’t get The Victorian House for Christmas sadly but I do want to read it so I’m definitely going to get hold of a copy sooner rather than later!

  16. Elizabeth and Her German Garden was also in my 2011 favorites and I want to read Enchanted April in 2012. Also have plans to re-read Mansfield Park (and possibly Emma) this year. Had such a great time re-reading S&S and Persuasion this December.

    1. Alex, The Enchanted April is wonderful – you will love it! Glad you have plans to reread Austen – I have been guilty of neglecting her for far too long.

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