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.
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!!