Well, 2012. It’s been an interesting year, both in terms of my actual life and my reading life. At the beginning of 2012, I was living in North London in a bachelorette flat, working in a boring office job and had oodles of free time to read. I had been back from my year in New York for four months, and was relishing being immersed in British culture again. As such, I was determined to make a concerted effort to deepen my knowledge of British literature and revisit some old classics. I also planned to not buy any more new books and make a big dent in my TBR pile, but the less said about that the better!
Half way through the year, everything changed. I got offered a job as a trainee teacher, and my time suddenly became submerged in finishing projects at work, packing up my flat, and starting to read the books I would be teaching to my soon to be students. I moved back to my mum’s house, and was able to unpack all of my books, some of which had been in boxes in the loft since I first left home at 18. So, while my time for reading was suddenly massively reduced, I had access to a whole range of old favourites plus some books I had been meaning to read for years. I was also encouraged to read some more modern novels in my quest to become as well rounded as possible in my knowledge of literature before becoming a teacher!
I’m delighted to have managed to re-read most of Austen’s novels this year. I was also pleasantly surprised by my rediscovery of Woolf, and I plugged a big gap in my knowledge of early 20th century literature by exploring some absolutely brilliant WWI memoirs. I very much enjoyed the opportunity to make a dent in my pile of Elizabeth Taylors thanks to the centenary celebrations organised by Laura, and I also cemented my adoration of Elizabeth Bowen by managing to get to two more of her novels that were sitting on my shelves. I was disappointed in some of the modern novels I tried towards the end of the year, but I was enthralled by both Birdsong and The Stranger’s Child, which reminded me of how much quality literature there is out there to read that was written in the last couple of decades, and made me promise myself to branch out a little more in future.
So, what of next year? Well, I’m definitely not going to be able to read the amount of books I have managed to in the past; lack of a train commute and a much more demanding job has reduced the free time I have to read to a depressingly narrow window of hours. However, on the plus side, this means that I am taking longer over the books I do have time to read, which is making me a more thoughtful reader, and I am choosing my selections carefully, which means I am invariably enjoying my choices enormously. As I have so little flexibility in my schedule, I don’t want to set myself any rules or targets; my life is full of enough of those as it is, without me imposing any on my leisure time! I do, however, have a couple of projects in mind this year. I have a good collection of Victorian children’s books that I loved as a little girl, and I would very much like to read these again and look at them from a more critical perspective to see what’s lurking under the surface that my childish self missed out on. Secondly, I would like to read some of the books that have sat unread on my shelves for a criminally long time. I’m going to disallow myself from buying any new books until I have read those dusty tomes that have been begging to be opened for far too long. I need to reduce the guilt in my life!
Well, with next year’s reading sorted, I can reveal what my real delights of 2012 have been. Looking through my archives, it never ceases to amaze me how much I forget about what I’ve read…if it wasn’t for this blog, I’d have no idea what I’d been doing this year! Some books, however, were incredibly memorable, and I’ve picked my top 12 below. Enjoy!
The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate
An absolutely brilliantly written novel set during a weekend’s shooting party on an Edwardian estate. Both incredibly witty and desperately moving, it’s the finest depiction of pre war aristocratic life I’ve ever read. There aren’t enough hyperbolic words to describe how amazing this is, and if you’ve not read it, make sure you do in 2013.
The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell
This seminal work of literary criticism explores the impact of WWI on literature and culture. Intelligent, thought provoking and incredibly powerful, this will revolutionise your understanding of 20th century literature and make you desperate to read the work of the Great War memoirists whose books helped to create a new language for the modern age.
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
After not being particularly fussed by my first Barbara Pym a couple of years ago, this blew me away with how funny, poignant and well observed it is. I enjoyed it so much that I re-read bits as soon as I finished, and even my very fussy mum loved it – which is high praise!
Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon
The second of Sassoon’s three memoirs, it is a powerfully understated, engaging and illuminating expose of the conditions at the front during WWI, and a passionate plea for an end to meaningless conflict. Wonderful.
Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins
One of Persephone’s Spring books, this is a startlingly brilliant, fictionalised account of the Penge Murders, which took place in Victorian Kent. Jenkins explores the psychology behind the events with an unsettlingly clarity and empathy that leads the reader to wonder whether there could be a murderer inside of all of us…a perfect novel to read by the fire on a cold winter’s night!
Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf
One of Woolf’s later novels, written during the war and saturated with nostalgia and sadness, this is both a beautiful paean to the glory of Britain as a nation and a landscape and a meditation on what it is to be human. If you’ve always thought Woolf wasn’t for you, this will be the book to change your mind. It’s genuinely one of the most hauntingly beautiful novels I have ever read.
A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford
Sent to me by the wonderful Daunt Books, I had never heard of Sybille Bedford before I read this account of three generations of an eccentric 20th century American-European family and their adventures in love and life. This is a sublime novel; heady, atmospheric and completely engrossing, it possesses you for weeks after you finish reading it. Bedford was a great discovery of 2012, and I look forward to reading more of her in 2013.
Romantic Moderns by Alexandra Harris
This is probably the best non fiction book I’ve read. It’s a compendium of everything you ever wanted to know about the literary, artistic and cultural history of mid century Britain, written in an intelligent, witty and highly engaging manner. It absolutely fascinated me and led me off in so many exciting directions. I felt so enlightened after reading it, as well as impassioned about this largely unsung period in British cultural history. It’s a must read!
The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen
What can you say in a few short lines about Elizabeth Bowen? Breathtaking, mesmerising…an education in the true art of manipulating language. This is a tour de force…once read, it will never be forgotten.
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
A modern novel attempting to recreate a realistic view of WW1? Normally, I’d be up in arms, but the fabulous characterisation and hanging on the edge of your seat plot had me a sobbing wreck by the end, terrified to turn the pages for fear of anything happening to the characters I had grown to love. This reminded me that not all contemporary novels are automatically charity shop fodder!
The Heir by Vita Sackville West
A lovely and enchanting depiction of a man falling in love with a house…it doesn’t sound like much, but it is one of those books that wraps its way around your heart and reminds you of what is important in life. A simply divine little gem of a novella.
Loving by Henry Green
Discovering Henry Green right at the end of 2012 has been a real highlight of my reading year. Like Bowen, he can play with language to create the most fantastically beautiful images, as well as creating characters who come to life purely by the way in which they utter a few mundane words. This is a spectacular, superb, sublime piece of literature that completely mesmerised me. Henry Green and I are going to be meeting with great frequency in future!