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Best Reads of 2012

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This is going to be quite a difficult post to do, as I’ve read so many books this year and loved so many of them, that picking just a few or putting them in order will be a bit of a strain! So I’ve decided to just list a few of the stand-out reads that really made an impact and stayed with me the most:

Elizabeth Taylor

This was the year I discovered the *other* Elizabeth Taylor, thanks to the wonderful LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group.  Over the 9 months since I did, I’ve read all 12 of ET’s novels and I think she’s an amazing and underrated writer. Her subtlety, her eye for detail, her economy of style and her ability to get to the nub of things have made her one of my favourite writers. It’s difficult to pick out a favourite – at the moment I’m tossing up between “A Game of Hide and Seek” and “Blaming” but I think this might change as I reflect on her books.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day – definitely my Persephone of the year! I’m ashamed to say I only discovered this wonderful publisher in 2012 and am still on catch-up. I love the variety of their books – from thrillers to romances to cook books to – well anything that seems to be neglected and need rediscovering! “Miss Pettigrew” is one of the best feel good reads I’ve ever had!

In The First Circle– for Russian Reading Month I undertook a number of volumes, including this chunkster. I’ve read and loved Solzhenitsyn’s work since my teens and this book absorbed me for a number of days. Wonderful writing and wonderful translation – the later subject being something that exercised my mind a lot recently and still has me searching out the best versions of some of my favourites!

A Christmas Carol – a re-read for Dickens in December and my, did I enjoy it! A perfect little book packed with everything you need for a great creepy and yet  uplifting Christmas tale celebrating the best side of humans – lovely!

If on a Winters Night a Traveller / Cosmicomics – hard to pick just one Calvino, as I have re-read three this year and want to re-read more. These are very different books in many ways but still with Calvino’s distinctive voice. One of my favourite authors ever!

A Pin to see the Peepshow – this has to be my Virago of the year! I read this quite soon after joining the VMC group and loved it. A brilliantly written, very moving and absorbing story with a heroine who was flawed but who deserved more than life served up to her. I recommend it to everyone.

Guard your Daughters – surprise hit of the year amongst LT members, thanks to Simon‘s championing of the book. A lovely, surprisingly deep volume with a portrait of a lively and endearing family, and how they can conspire to keep an unnatural status quo going without realising it. As many have said, it cries out to be reissued by Persephone.

I haven’t read an awful lot of non-fiction lately but two volumes stand out:

Bright Young People by D.J. Taylor – an excellent read, telling the tale of the bright young things of the 1920s, even-handed and scrupulously fair – a great example of how all factual books should be written.

Nabokov by Gogol – and as if to contradict myself, Nabokov’s unconventional portrait of Gogol by concentrating on specific work still manages to bring the great Russian writer alive, while entertaining the reader with some amazing prose!

Honorable Mentions

A few titles worth mentioning that nearly made it onto the favourites list (and actually the list itself might well be different if I had written it yesterday or tomorrow!):

Conquered City – Victor Serge

What’s Become of Waring – Anthony Powell

Cruise of the Rolling Junk – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Red House Mystery – A. A. Milne

I’ve had a wonderful year of reading, only 6 months or so of which have been rambled about here since I started blogging. It’s possible that I’ll set myself some reading challenges for 2013 – but whether I stick to them is another matter!

Christmas Bookish Lovelies!

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Not content with spoiling me on my recent birthday, my family and friends provided me with some treats at Christmas too! First up are three rather nice volumes from OH, all of which are parts of ongoing serial-types:

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I’ve read all Mankell’s Wallander series and also all of Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde series, so both of these were well received. The Nicola Upson “Josephine Tey”  books are new to me but I’ve been wanting to read them for a while as I love Tey’s books.  However, OH seems to have presented me with book four, which is a perfect excuse to track down the other three….!

Next up, some gifts from Eldest Child:

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I confess to being a great lover of Cath Kidston, and a wannabee-sewer so her “Sew!” book may come in handy! As for the cookbook – I’ve been vegetarian since I was 18 and have drifted in and out of veganism many times (always being seduced by damn cheese) – but I think my health would benefit from the shift back to veganism so this is a rather timely gift.

Youngest Child came up with something very lovely too:

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As I’m a huge fan of Sylvia Plath, this book about her visual artwork is of course essential – very excited!

And finally the in-laws, under instruction from OH, provided this:

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Of course, I was lucky enough to see the actual Scroll on its recent visit to the British Library so I was very excited to receive this volume. I confess, it’s the first one I picked up from the lot to read! Thanks, lovely family!

And a last-minute addition from an old friend, V:

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I do love the original Holmes stories and have read some offshoot books, so I’m hoping this will be good! Thanks, V!

What about you? Were you spoiled this Yule?

Some Christmas Thoughts

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As Christmas arrives and the year draws to a close, I find myself wondering a little where the time has gone. It has been something of a year for me. Real life has been quite trying at time, with health scares (fairly manageable fortunately) for myself and OH. In March I stumbled across LibraryThing and its very wonderful Virago Modern Classics group. I joined instantly and have met online some amazing and generous people who are part of the group. This led me on to some equally wonderful book blogs and it was this that spurred me on to start my Bookish Ramblings here. I enjoy sharing book chat and thoughts with people, and I’ve come across some brilliant books I’d never heard of before – and probably wouldn’t have without these online folks.

One of the fun things on LT is the Virago Group’s Secret Santa, which I signed up for this year. My Santee is overseas and I haven’t heard yet that they’ve received their gifts – I do hope they get their safely. My wonderful SS sent two lovely parcels all tied up with ribbon – here they are:

Don’t they look gorgeous?

I managed to put off opening them until today and here they are in all their glory – “Miss Buncle’s Book” and “Miss Buncle Married” by D.E. Stevensons – two lovely Persephones!:

I confess I guessed who they were from when they arrived, as Kerry has been kind enough to send me a duplicate book in the past. But I was thrilled to bits to receive these as the Miss Buncle books have been on my wishlist for so long – and these are lovely new editions with bookmarks included. Thank you *so* much Kerry – I couldn’t have received anything better!

So, I hope all my fellow VMC groupers, and anyone else who reads this blog, has a wonderful festive season – see you all in the new year when I will try to sum up some of my best reads of 2012!!

Fabulous Finds: Some pre-Christmas Virago Lovelies

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OK, I know it’s nearly Christmas and I shouldn’t be buying any books, just waiting to see what Santa brings – but a couple of new Viragos have made their way onto my shelves. It just couldn’t be helped!

The first up is this lovely Elizabeth Taylor:

Previously I only had a modern version of this title, but I was lucky enough to be picked out of the (digital) hat to win this thanks to Dee and her lovely posts on Laura’s site – thanks Dee! The cover is gorgeous and makes me want to read this book all over again.

The second is this:

Now I confess that Northanger Abbey is one of my favourite Austens, but the copy I have is an ancient, tatty cheap one – so this lovely volume, for £2 in the charity shop, was impossible to resist!

So, sorry Santa – but I promise I will be *very* excited if I get any books tomorrow 😉

Virago Volumes: Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor

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After a joyous year (well, about three-quarters of a year in my case) of the LibraryThing Elizabeth Taylor Centenary celebrations, we have finally reached Taylor’s last book, “Blaming” which was published just after her early death in 1975.

“Blaming” opens with Amy and Nick holidaying in Istanbul. They are a middle-aged couple with children and grandchildren, and Nick is recovering from an operation. They befriend slightly a fellow traveller, Martha, an American author who is younger than them. Martha comes to Amy’s aid when Nick suddenly dies during the trip and back in England keeps in touch with Amy, who is trying to pick up some kind of life gain after her loss. However, truth be told, Amy does not really like Martha and when events in the latter’s life take a serious turn, Amy is left wondering whether she is to blame and if she could have done more to help Martha.

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Joanna Kingham’s introduction to my edition describes her mother’s struggle to finish this book while fighting her disease. But despite this (or maybe because of the effort she put into it) I found this one of Taylor’s strongest works. It has all her wonderful hallmarks – strong characterisation, acute observation, the ability to capture events in a few words – and is one of her most compelling reads.

Amy is an interesting protagonist, and as I look back on Taylor’s books, typical of many of the women characters she writes about. She is middle/upper class, with no particular occupation but defines herself in relation to her husband and children (and then grandchildren). I think we would find fewer female characters like her nowadays as culturally women generally have a less restricted outlook on life, but at the time Taylor was writing this was much more common. And like Midge in “The Wedding Group”, Amy finds it hard to cope with being alone. She has a son James and a rather intimidating daughter-in-law Maggie, whom she is determined not to be a burden on, and two grandchildren – Isobel and Dora. The two little girls were brilliantly portrayed – Taylor is so good at children! – but I think I would have had trouble dealing with Isobel on a regular basis, as does Amy. With Dora, she has a particular bond and this grandchild helps Amy to move on from her loss.

Martha herself is a complex character, and it would seem from reading Nicola Beauman’s biography of ET that she is based on a friend of Taylor’s, who tragically took her own life in somewhat similar circumstances to Martha. In many ways it is hard to sympathise with Martha – she has an irritant quality which affects Amy (who thinks she should feel grateful to Martha but is annoyed by her) and also us as readers (well, me in any case!) She is the complete opposite of Amy – untidy, fidgety, scruffy and in many ways detached. Taylor describes the Anglophile writer’s career in a very few words:

“Her few books were…well reviewed, and more or less unknown. Without fretting, she waited to be discovered.”

I wonder here if she was having a little dig at herself and her neglect as a serious novelist. There are also possible generational and class differences which are also manifested in the contrasts between Amy and her daughter-in-law Maggie. This is demonstrated by such simple comparisons as the way in which Amy will eat formally at a table served by Ernie whereas her son’s family eat at the kitchen table – and the fact that Amy is somewhat fazed, when looking after her granddaughters, at the thought of having to defrost and cook a meal. But Martha does make it very hard to like her – her brashness, nosiness and well, rudeness repel the other characters and the reader. She eventually marries but one wonders really why she did so – she wishes to stay in England, not return to small town America, and seems to have little in common with her husband Simon. Her descent into a depressed mental state is handled delicately by Taylor – hinted at more than stated outright – but her lonely suicide is terribly sad and despite her irritating habits you would not wish her to end her life this way.

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Once again, we have a wonderful cast of supporting characters painted by ET. Ernie, Amy’s cook and general factotum, is an ex-forces man and entertaining in his own right. Then there is Gareth Lloyd, family doctor and friend of Amy and Nick, whose wife was Amy’s great friend and who died a little while ago. Amy is in many ways steered towards Gareth and it becomes inevitable that they will marry. This relieves Amy’s family of any necessity of taking care of her, gives Gareth a purpose in life and gives Amy someone to base her life around. Perhaps this resolution was a little un-Taylor-like – I don’t usually look to her for a traditional happy ending – but is quite a neat tying up of things.

As for the title – well, there is plenty of guilt and blame going around in this story. Amy feels guilty about Nick, about how she behaved on their holiday, about how she treats Martha; James feels guilty about his mother and how she will cope on her own (to the extent of bullying her a little bit about her spending and hinting she should move from the house she loves to a flat; and there is the final huge guilt Amy has about Martha and how she behaved towards her. The final scene between Amy and Simon is heartbreaking, where Amy reveals the truth about Martha’s “escape money” which she left with Amy. Should she have said nothing and left him with her illusions? Should she blame herself more for letting Martha down and not getting in touch with her on her return to England? In the end, the final blaming and assigning of guilt is left slightly ambiguous and perhaps for the reader to decide.

I’ve really enjoyed reading Elizabeth Taylor’s work this year – it’s been a voyage of discovery for me as I hadn’t come across her novels before – and this one ranks as one of my favourites. Her character portraits were spot on and the locating of the start of the novel away from the home counties was refreshing. I warmed very much to Dora, the eldest granddaughter and I came out of this book feeling that I would want to re-read it despite the sadness.

So many thanks to the LibraryThing Virago group for introducing me to this wonderful novelist (and particularly Laura who curated the event so beautifully) – and now I’m very much looking forward to next year’s Barbara Pym readalong!

Dickens in December: re-reading A Christmas Carol

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In this year of celebrating one of the country’s greatest novelists, Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Postcards from Asia are running a “Dickens in December” event and I have decided to join in by reading at least one of the great man’s works! Today is the day earmarked for a readalong of “A Christmas Carol”, probably his best-known book, and one I’ve read many times over the years – though not recently, I must say.

xmas vintage

I should confess up front that I have had to re-read this book before today as I this is my final day at work before the Christmas break and so finding any reading time today will be very unlikely (despite ACC being a short work!). I have a lovely new volume of ACC (plus other Christmas stories) in the Vintage set presented to me by my lovely OH earlier in the year, so this is the one I read.

There can’t be many people who don’t know the plot of “A Christmas Carol “- miserly old man is visited by ghosts and is redeemed and turned into a Good Human Being in time for Christmas. The story is ingrained in our collective consciousness – the name of Scrooge is now synonymous with meanness and the expression “Bah, Humbug!” was plastered over Christmas Santa hats when I went round town last weekend. So you might be forgiven for approaching this book with a slight sense of knowing the plot and wondering what the point of reading it again is.

Alistair Sim as Scrooge

Alistair Sim as Scrooge

Well, the joy of the language for one thing. From the opening sentence, Dickens draws you straight into the plot and writing is just wonderful. In a short work like this, Dickens’ wordplay is condensed to the essential and in some ways is all the better for it. He can paint a picture in a short paragraph that will stay with you and haunt you, appropriately enough.

What also impressed me about this work was the incredible amount that Dickens packs into his 100-odd pages. You get four main ghosts (and a host of others); misery and poverty; life stories; comments on the state of humanity; and at the end of it joy and redemption. It takes a real skill to get so much into a story which is so well told. As for the characters – well, there’s a beautiful cast and they come alive instantly. Scrooge and his late partner Marley, who are driven by business; Scrooge’s poor clerk Bob Cratchit and his happy but impoverished family, including poor frail Tiny Tim; Scrooge’s family including his nephew Fred; his first employers, the Fezziwigs; his lost love Belle – to name but a few. Yes, that many living and breathing amazing characters in such a slim novella – a sign of genius in my opinion.

And there are many messages embedded in the story about charity and meanness; the poverty and suffering in Victorian society, particularly among children; the curse of acquisitiveness; the joy and happiness that can be gained by having a family – but this never gets in the way of the plot. One of the most chilling parts is when The Ghost of Christmas Present reveals two emaciated children beneath his robes and declares that the boy is Ignorance and the girl is Want. Dickens was a crusader for social reform and the book reflects his deeply felt concerns without the story suffering.

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This *is* the quintessential Christmas story and it would also be a fabulous introduction to Dickens for anyone who hasn’t read him yet and is a bit intimidated by the size of some of his books. I found this moving, scary and uplifting and I was knocked out by it after not reading it for many years. Thanks to the ladies for organising the readalong and getting me to revisit this one – I love it all over again!

Birthday Bookishness!

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It was my birthday at the weekend (I’m not saying which one….) and my family were kind enough to spoilt me with some very bookish gifts! Some of these were as a result of hints, but some they came up with on their own, so I was very pleased (to say the least!)

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First up, other half very cleverly found a couple of books on Agatha Christie’s Notebooks, with unreleased stories. As a life-long lover of Dame Agatha’s work, this was a great treat!

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Next up, Youngest Child presented me with a beautiful US Penguin edition of “Little Women” to replace my childhood volume which I’ve lost over the  years. This has a lovely faux-embroidered cover and the ragged-cut edges US paperbacks have – gorgeous!

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Middle Child produced a rather wonderful treat in the form of a signed copy of Will Self’s latest novel, “Umbrella”! I love Self’s work and saw him give a very funny talk and reading session a few years back. He did the same thing recently in her local town and she went along and picked up a personalised copy for me, which I’m very excited about!

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And Eldest Child went to my wish list, circulated among family, and came up trumps with Robert Macfarlane’s “The Old Ways”. I’ve read a lot about this book recently so I’m very much looking forward to reading it.

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Last but not least on the bookish front, OH treated me to a CD – a BBC/British Library collection of Sylvia Plath (and Ted Hughes) interviews and readings – much excitement!

So I am in the luxurious position of having lots of reading material to choose from and not knowing what to pick up first – thank you, lovely family!

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