Oh, the excruciating pain of making this list! I am very pleased with the end result but how cruel to have spent the last few days playing off my favourite books against one another to get down to the ten you see here (and ten it must be for when I attempted to make a list of fifteen things got wildly out of hand). What I did realise quickly was what an excellent reading year I’ve had, full of wonderful, memorable books. May 2012 bring more of the same!
10. The Unlikely Disciple (2009) – Kevin Roose
The best books are the ones that get you so excited that you cannot stop talking about them, so that soon all your friends and family know exactly what you’re reading. That is what happened while I was reading The Unlikely Disciple. Roose, then an undergraduate at Brown, went ‘undercover’ for a semester at an evangelical Christian university. His insightful, respectful, and very detailed chronicle of his time there left me highly entertained and incredibly engaged, pondering some of the issues he touched on (the influence of religious groups in politics, evangelical Christianity’s attitudes towards women, and journalistic ethics, to name a few) for weeks after I had finished reading.
9. Skylark (1924) – Dezső Kosztolányi
Set in 1899 in a small town in Austria-Hungary, this is the story of Skylark’s mother and father and the joyous week they spend enjoying themselves while their spinster daughter is away visiting family. Mother and Father’s excitement at their outings to the restaurant and the theatre (and, in Father’s case, a meeting of the local drinking club) is humourously and heartwarmingly told but it is the return of the pathetic, pitiable Skylark (and Father’s outburst in anticipation of her return) that truly makes this a brilliant novel. A wonderful and sympathetic view of the burden faced by parents with beloved but unmarriageable daughters.
8. An Appetite for Life (1977) – Charles Ritchie
Ritchie, though he was a prominent diplomat, is now best remembered for his skill as a diarist and rightly so. This, the earliest published volume of his diaries, covers the years 1924-1927, as Ritchie was finishing off his studies in Halifax and then experiencing the delightful distractions on offer at Oxford during his first year there. Ritchie is marvellously candid and his daily ponderings – here, unsurprisingly given his youth, focused on women, sex, and school – manage to be both amusing and touching.
7. Christopher and Columbus (1919) – Elizabeth von Arnim
I took the longest time to decide which von Arnim novel was going to make the list but this beat out The Pastor’s Wife by the sheer force of its charm. A light, fanciful escape from reality, Christopher and Columbus tells the story of two orphaned teenage German-English twins and their exploits once shipped off to neutral America by their uncle during WWI. While sailing, Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas befriend the delightful, doting Mr Twist, an American millionaire who made his fortune by designing a no-drip tea pot. The adventures of this trio make for enchanting reading, with von Arnim’s witty narrator saving it from descending into anything too saccharine.
6. Earth and High Heaven (1944) – Gwethalyn Graham
Without question, this was the biggest reading surprise of the year. My first reaction upon finishing was that it was the most Persephone-like non-Persephone book I’ve ever read. Set in Montreal in 1942, the novel revolves around the challenges faced by Erica Drake, an editor at a newspaper, and Marc Reiser, a lawyer, when they meet and fall in love. Anti-Semitism and family relationships are at the heart of this novel but it is also full of comments on the war, whether it be French-speaking Canada’s reluctance to be involved or the deadening effect of the destruction of the London Blitz, experienced first-hand by Erica’s sister. It is an absolutely amazing novel that deserves a much wider audience.
5. Hostages to Fortune (1933) – Elizabeth Cambridge
My love for this quiet novel has come on slowly. I enjoyed it when I read it, yes, but with each passing month I find myself loving it more. I remain particularly impressed with Cambridge’s portrait of Catherine and William’s marriage and how it evolves, through separation during the war, the arrivals of babies, and the numbingly chaotic years spent scrambling to raise ( and afford to raise) their three children.
4. The American Senator (1877) – Anthony Trollope
My first encounter with Trollope was an unqualified success. Since then, I’ve read The Warden and Barchester Towers and enjoyed both but neither came close to equaling my delight with The American Senator. Was it Mr Elias Gotobed’s comically offensive but generally true statements that charmed me so? The love story of the gentle, deserving Mary Masters? Or was it the magnificent anti-heroine, Arabella Trefoil, whose single-minded pursuit of a husband is awesome to behold? The combination of these stories makes for an eventful, always fascinating, deeply satisfying novel that quite rightly convinced me that Trollope was an author after my own heart.
3. Wives and Daughters (1866) – Elizabeth Gaskell
I feel a bit of a cheat to place a reread so high on my list but…This book is absolutely perfect and fully earned its spot. I don’t think I will ever tire of Molly Gibson, Cynthia Kirkpatrick, Squire Hamley or, that most magnificent creation, Mrs. Hyacinth Kirkpatrick Gibson.
2. Howards End is on the Landing (2009) – Susan Hill
In any other year, this book would have probably garnered top spot. Hill’s memoir of a lifetime spent in the company of books and other authors delighted me from the first page to the last. Everything about this book was perfect for me. There was enough of the familiar in Hill’s reading to comfort me (because one of the delights of reading about books is coming across opinions on books you know well) and enough of the new to excite me and make me eager to track down those unknown titles. Even before I had finished reading my library edition, I rushed out to buy a copy of my very own.
1. Summer Half (1937) – Angela Thirkell
Anyone who has been following my blog this year could have probably predicted that Thirkell would take the top spot. Since my first encounter with Thirkell last January, I have fallen completely in love with her Barsetshire novels and, of the twelve I’ve now read, I think Summer Half is the most perfectly formed. It centers on the masters and students of Southbridge School and their interactions with some of the local families. As with all good Thirkell novels, romance is in the air and the narrator’s sharp wit is there to comment on both the comically disastrous pairings and the ideal but bumbled ones. Most importantly, Summer Half introduces my favourite Thirkell character, the astounding Lydia Keith. Of all the books I read this year, not only is this the one that I am most eager to return to, it is the one I most wish I owned countless copies of so I could pass it on to everyone I meet.