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A Woman Reading by Ivan Olinsky

The decade is almost over and I shall end it as I started: seeking to emulate Simon.  His favourite books of the decade post made me want to look over my own from the last ten years.

In those ten years, I have read 1,613 books.  Some of those are rereads and I didn’t record the many scintillating textbooks I read over the same period for (during which I completed a dozen courses leading to two professional designations and two different licenses – it’s been a busy decade).  But most importantly, the decade is not over yet.  I have a couple of good reading weeks left and I intend to make use of them!

I always enjoy looking back at past years on the blog and was so happy when I put this list together to see what excellent judgement I exercised.  These all remain favourites that I would be happy to pick up right now and start rereading.  And the nicest thing to note is that my 2010 and 2011 favourites, which I struggled to track down at the time, are both back in print and easy to get.  A sure sign of progress over the last ten years!

2010: Mrs Tim Flies Home by D.E. Stevenson

What I wrote: “I fell in love with both Mrs Tim and D.E. Stevenson this year.  Mrs Tim of the Regiment was an excellent introduction to my new favourite heroine but a weak second half prevented it from being a favourite.  Mrs Tim Flies Home, on the other hand, suffers from no such shortcomings and so earned its top place on this list by being simply charming and heart-warming.”

2011: Summer Half by Angela Thirkell

What I wrote: “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.”

2012: The Element of Lavishness edited by Michael Steinman

What I wrote: “I read this in January and, honestly, no other book I read this year came even close to eclipsing it in my affections.  I had never read anything by either Warner or Maxwell before and knew very little about either of them but that made no difference.  Through their letters, I got to know both of them intimately and to witness the wonderful warmth and depth of their friendship as it evolved over the decades.  While both were extraordinary writers, it is Warner’s letters I remember the best now, almost a year after I read them.  She wrote beautifully about the domestic details of her life and the letters written between the death of her partner Valentine and her own death are as good a record of aging and loss as I have ever read.”

2013: Speaking of Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern

What I wrote: “All the other titles on this list were wonderful but not nearly as wonderful as this collection of delightfully eccentric Austen-focused essays.  And, of course, it is the only book I have ever come across that spends a sufficient amount of time lavishing praise on the deserving Emma (if you are looking for the fastest way to my heart, look no further).”

2014: The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope

What I wrote: “The penultimate Barsetshire book, I fell in love with The Small House at Allington as soon as I started reading it. This is Trollope at his most masterful, deftly juggling multiple storylines and a handful of equally-compelling central characters. I am fascinated by Lily Dale, anxious for Johnny Eames, and wildly conflicted over the fate of Aldolphus Crosbie, who I liked far more than any reader is supposed to like the man who jilts the heroine.  Brilliant and perfectly executed, this was the uncontested highlight of my reading year.”

2015: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Letters edited by William Maxwell

What I wrote: “An enchanting collection of letters spanning almost fifty years.  STW was a wonderful correspondent, filling her letters with richly-detailed annecdotesself-deprecating humour, and the most delightful flights of whimsy.  I’ve yet to read a single one of her novels but, after reading this and the wonderful collection of her letters to William Maxwell (my favourite book of 2012), I can’t help but think of her as a close, dear friend.”

2016: I Was a Stranger by John Hackett

What I wrote: “In a year when the world was doing its best to show how cruel and petty man can be, this memoir of the courage and friendship showed by a Dutch family in occupied Holland to the British officer they hid reminded me that, even in the worst of times, kindness, trust, and love can still flourish.  A real gem that I am entirely indebted to Slightly Foxed for reissuing.”

2017: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

What I wrote: “I finally read Lively’s Booker prize winner and it is a masterpiece.  Technically dazzling, Lively plays with her favourite themes of love, history, and, above all, memory as septuagenarian Claudia lies on her deathbed and looks back on her life.  If I could write, this would be how I’d want to do it.  As I can’t, this is exactly what I want to read – again and again and again.”

2018: The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

What I wrote: “Without question, Alexievich’s ground-breaking oral history of Soviet women’s experiences of the Second World War was my book of the year.  More than one million Soviet women served in the military during the war (half of them in active combat roles) and Alexievich captures the full and fascinating range of their experiences in their own words.  It is a powerful and upsetting book and one I will not soon forget.”

2019: To be determined!  Check back on December 31st. (edit: check out my Top Ten Books of 2019 to see my final favourite of the decade)

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Garden Path in Spring by Duncan Grant (1944)

It feels like spring is just about here.  I’ve spent much of this weekend wandering about the city, where signs of spring can be found everywhere.  Snowdrops and crocuses, camelias and early rhododendrons, and, best of all, the first blossoming cherry trees.  After two extraordinarily harsh winters, it’s wonderful to see this and be reminded of how joyful it is to live in Vancouver at this time of year.  My measurement of whether it was a normal spring when I was growing up was whether the daffodils were in blossom on my birthday (February 19th).  This looks entirely possible this year.

It was an active weekend but I still had plenty of time for reading.  I read two great books over the last few days and wanted to share my thoughts while both were fresh in my mind.

On Friday, I managed to read all of Leap In by Alexandra Heminsley despite a full work day.  On my commute and over my lunch hour I happily sped through Heminsley’s tale of how she came to embrace swimming in her thirties.  Heminsley, a Brighton-based journalist and writer, had written an earlier book about taking up running (Running Like a Girl, which I haven’t read) so was no stranger to athletic pursuits but was clearly uncomfortable with the water when her journey began.  It’s wonderfully written and is so observant of the way swimming resonates with women in particular.  Yes, there are the hateful magazines and features on “bikini bodies” every spring but Heminsley finds a true community of swimmers, and recognizes how body shape and size out of the water has little to do with how you move once in it.  And how little vanity is involved in a changeroom.  Heminsley focuses quite a lot on body image towards the end, when her own body is undergoing transformations due to IVF treatment, and I’m excited to hear that her next non-fiction book will focus on this.

I’ve been swimming my entire life and can’t remember there ever being a time when I did not love the water.  I still swim regularly but, unlike Heminsley who finds herself in oceans, rivers and lakes, confine myself to pools during winter months.  That said, I spent Saturday morning walking the seawall here in Vancouver and the water was beautifully clear and flat – the way it often gets in winter.  It looked perfect for a swim.  Maybe one day…

(Also, Heminsley thankfully does not use that awful phrase “Wild Swimming” to describe swimming done anywhere other than pools.  This seems to be a uniquely British piece of linguistic idiocy.  Good riddance, where do they think the majority of people do their swimming?)

On a more practical note, Heminsley’s own frustrations with poorly fitted goggles inspired me to go and buy a new pair this weekend that I am absolutely delighted with.  Considering my last few pairs have all been salvaged from the lost and found, anything would have been a step up.  How luxurious to have goggles that fit and where the anti-fog coating hasn’t worn off!

The Heminsley book was a nice jolt back into fun reading but I was still left longing for a very specific kind of book.  For a few weeks, I’ve wanted something non-fiction, ideally diaries, preferably by a man, with humour and kindness and a bit a something special.  Helpful, yes?

I’d picked up Patrick Leigh Fermor’s letters (Dashing for the Post) last weekend to see if they would suit, but they didn’t hit the spot – close, but not quite.  I thought of returning to Harold Nicolson’s diaries – because, really, when is that not a good idea? – but then had a brilliant idea: why not pick up the Alec Guinness diaries I bought after loving A Positively Final Appearance?  Within a few pages of starting, it was clear: My Name Escapes Me was exactly what I needed.

The diaries start in January 1995 and carry through to mid-1996, a period when Guinness was in his early eighties and, to all intents and purposes, retired from acting.  He and his wife were both suffering from health issues and his friends were dying off at an alarming rate but his outlook is remarkably sunny.  He finds pleasure in old friends, beautiful music, and many books.  His tastes are joyfully eclectic and entirely unsnobbish.  He loves classics, taking pleasure in Shakespeare and Dickens, and gets wonderfully excited about books from favourite modern authors, like Tessa Waugh and John Updike.  An enthusiastic reader is the best kind and his comments (like this one on Anthony Trollope’s The American Senator) were a highlight of the book for me:

Finished Trollope’s The American Senator.  The opening chapters are a bit wearily confusing but once he has got thoroughly underway it is enthralling.  Arabella Trefoil is a great creation and for sheer awfulness matches Sylvia Tietjens in Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End.  I’ve come across her several times, in various disguises but always recognizable, in London, Paris, Cairo and New York – but she lives mostly in Sussex.

And the spirit of kindness and humour I was looking for?  Guinness was full of them.  His regrets are always that he might have made someone feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, the true sign of a kind soul, and almost every day he finds something to smile or laugh over.  The best way to live, really.

I’m off to find a new book to end the weekend with (possibly Elizabeth of the German Garden, which Kate reviewed recently and reminded me how much I want to read) but I’ll leave you with a last word from Guinness to put a smile on your face:

It seems a pity that the good old phrase ‘living in sin’ is likely to be dropped by the C of E.  So many friends, happily living in sin, will feel very ordinary and humdrum when they become merely partners; or, as the Americans say, ‘an item’.  Living in sin has always sounded daring and exotic; something to do, perhaps, with Elinor Glyn and her tiger skin.

If you’d like to buy the books I’ve mentioned (or read a professionally and far more coherently written synopsis of them), check them out using the Book Depository links below.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you):

Leap In by Alexandra Heminsley

Running Like a Girl by Alexandra Heminsley

Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor

The Diaries of Harold Nicolson

The Alec Guinness diaries – both My Name Escapes Me and A Positively Final Appearance – are both now out of print but second-hand copies can be easily found online

 

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The Pakenhams on their wedding day in 1931

I am having a simply marvelous time reading The Pebbled Shore by Elizabeth Longford this week.  I’ve been looking forward to it since learning a bit about Longford while reading her daughter Antonia Fraser’s memoir My History but it’s even better than I’d hoped for.

More ponderously known as Elizabeth (Harman) Pakenham, Lady Longford, she had just the sort of life I like to read about.  Born in Harley Street in 1906, her parents were both doctors (though her mother did not practice) and she grew up in a family where ambition was not limited by gender.  She studied at Oxford and became involved in politics very young, standing as a Labour candidate while still in her 20s.  She was a dedicated social reformer (a passion she shared with her husband), an enthusiastic mother of eight, and, eventually, a biographer.  In short, she is the center of the Venn diagram that charts my interest in 20th Century Britain: she knew all the literary, social and political figures I find most interesting.  Neville Chamberlain was her cousin, Nancy Mitford was a friend, Evelyn Waugh said both horrible and lovely things about her…it is all very, very wonderful.  And, not surprisingly, very, very quotable.

I had to interrupt my reading to share this particularly enjoyable note Hugh Gaitskell scribbled to her while they were at Oxford and which she, deeply amused when writing about it 60 years later, described as ” a gallant effort to raise my spirits”:

Here is an incident to be recorded – On the way home on Saturday night I met [John] Betjeman drunk who having discovered where I had been asked me if I had met a beautiful girl called Elizabeth Harman.  You have such a lot on your side – you ought to make more of it.  Love Hugh.

P.S. This letter appears sinister.  Consciously it isn’t but you never know.

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Young Boy Reading by Henri Lebasque

Reading through Packing My Library by Alberto Manguel, there were almost endless quotes I wanted to write down and share with you.  Some I’m saving for my review but others, like this, demanded to be shared immediately.  I love Manguel’s description of his school library as a place without order, rich for exploration and exciting discoveries.  That is what every school library should feel like to a child.

My earliest public library was that of Saint Andrews Scots School, one of the several elementary schools I attended in Buenos Aires before the age of twelve.  It had been founded as a bilingual school in 1838 and was the oldest school of British origin in South America.  The library, though small, was for me a rich, adventurous place.  I felt like a Rider Haggard explorer in the dark forest of stacks that had a earthy smell in summer and reeked of damp wood in winter.  I would go to the library mainly to put my name on the list for the new Hardy Boys installment or a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories.  That school library, as far as I was aware, didn’t have a rigorous order: I would find books on dinosaurs next to several copies of Black Beauty, and war adventures coupled with biographies of English poets.  This flock of books, gathered with no other purpose (it seemed) than to offer the students a generous variety, suited my temperament: I didn’t want a strict guided tour, I wanted the freedom of the city, like that honor (we learned in history class) that mayors bestowed in the Middle Ages on foreign visitors.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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Our shelves currently (after a massive clear-out)

As I’ve mentioned, I’m in California right now staying at our family’s holiday home.  Between the swimming and the hiking and the general relaxing I have, naturally, had lots of time for reading and lots of time to consider our collection of books.

There is a certain uniformity to the oddness of any holiday home’s book collection and ours in no exception.  Which lead me to some musings on how that comes about…

1. Ideally, begin by inheriting a collection of books. These should be books on topics you have absolutely no interest in, primarily published during an era you have no interest in, and take up lots and lots of space on the bookshelf, leaving you little space for your own books.

2. Accumulate books abandoned by guests. Because you are a generous sort of person, you invite friends to visit you. Hopefully these are friends are literate and bring their own books.  However, even literate people chose ridiculous things to read on holiday and, once done, generally realise how ridiculous their choice was and so abandon it with you before they go home.  Watch your library grow with bad thrillers, mysteries, and other airport books in this deeply unsatisfying manner.

3. Watch your favourite books disappear. The majority of guests won’t bring enough books to last the length of their holiday.  If they had to fly to reach your place, they will inevitably need something to read on the flight home.  Equally inevitably, they will not pick something as trashy as what they contributed to your library.  No, they will pick one of the books you have carefully snuck into the shelves to ensure you have something to read.

4. Absorb the tastes of your family members.  Odds are, your close family are your most frequent visitors.  If one of them is a book-lover, be prepared for their tastes to begin to dominate your collection.  For some people (ahem), vacations are a wonderful time to browse bookstores and rejoice over library book sales.  You will inevitably be gifted books as a result of these.  Pray that your tastes align with your family member’s and hope for the best.

5. Get rid of nothing. You are on holiday when you are here, why would you want to spend that time sorting out books instead of reading them or doing vacation-y things?  A clear out every fifteen to twenty years is permissible.

Our shelves pre-clear-out – more soapy sagas, American bios, and books on early 1990s Russia

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As I mentioned last week, I have fled south in search of sunshine, warmth, and, since they also like these things, my parents.  I have to say it is a nice change to see sun each and every day!  I am already deeply tanned after only a few days, chlorine-soaked from all the swimming, and slowly starting to relax into proper vacation mode.

And, as we all know, the best way to relax is with lots of books.  Most importantly, I did not leave my Kobo on the plane this time (like I did when headed to Croatia last June) so I have plenty of e-books and a few physical ones to keep me busy – in addition to the healthy but rather eclectic book collection that resides here at my parents’ condo.

Easing into holiday mode requires lots of light reading for me.  Which is why I’ve been dashing through romances, polishing off Alyssa Cole’s much-praised new release, the first book in a new series from Loretta Chase, and a collection of Georgette Heyer’s short stories.

But, because this is me and I can’t entirely forgo substance, I’ve also been reading a fascinating comparison of the Nordic societies and America (hint: America does not look great in comparison) and a beautiful, thoughtful book from Alberto Manguel about his relationship with his personal library, Packing My Library, with his customary digressions into the fascinating, obscure, and learned corners of history and literature.

Also entertaining me has been the audiobook of The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley, one of my favourites of her novels.  I do a lot of walking down here (or anywhere, for that matter) and it’s a delight to have such a good book to keep me company on my strolls.

I’m a bit stalled as to what to read next.  Do I go with one of the many e-books I borrowed from the library?  Anne Tyler could be perfect right now, or maybe the early adventures of Eric Newby.  Or do I defer to one of the physical books I’ve brought along?  I only brought three (see what restraint is forced on me by harsh airline carry-on rules?) and, with the Manguel read, now have a history-rich travel book about the Byzantine East and a cosy-sounding wartime novel about a vicar’s wife awaiting me.

Life is good when these are biggest decisions I need to make.

My holiday books

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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Through a Cottage Window, Shipley, Sussex by Charles Ginner

This is a slightly ironic post title since, thanks to the glorious weather we had yesterday, I haven’t actually done that much reading this weekend.  But I am happily dipping in and out of things in between my outdoor adventures (and sometimes during) so I thought I’d share a bit of what is making me happy this weekend.

I’ve been busy catching up on magazine and newspaper articles (perfect short reading) and really enjoyed the following:

They Just Want to Meet the Nice People – inspired by the musical “Come From Away” (which in turn is inspired by what happened when international flights were grounded in Gander, Newfoundland on September 11th), theatre-goers are booking trips to Newfoundland in search of the kindness and community-spirit depicted in the show.  Which, in Newfoundland, is frankly never too hard to find.

In Solitude What Happiness? – is loneliness the last taboo?

Fifty Ways to Avoid Readying Your Garden for Spring – now that the freakish dump of snow we received last week has finally melted and I can see my garden again I need help thinking of ways to avoid working in it.

The Misunderstood Byzantine Princess and Her Magnum Opus – really interesting piece about Anna Komnene and a recent reassessment of her place in Byzantine history

The Reason Why Comfort Food is No Longer Comforting – exploring why processed foods, though designed to make us feel comforted with their blend of salt, sugar, and fat, never actually hit the spot.

Bookwise, I am adoring The Fear and the Freedom by Keith Lowe, a history of how the Second World War helped shape the modern world.  It’s thoughtful and entertaining and extraordinarily wide-ranging.  And if I hadn’t already thought Lowe was brilliant he would have earned my undying devotion for the very first section of the book, which challenges the reader to reconsider all the archetypes we’ve been presented with (heroes, villains, victims) and think more deeply and in a more informed way.

However, it’s a rather serious topic and doesn’t suit all moods so I’ve been alternating it with some lighter reading.  I breezed through Jenny Colgan’s new novel, The Endless Beach, and finished it convinced that all the romantic pairings are doomed to give the women involved the maximum possible emotional stress.  Not a particularly satisfying end, to be honest.

What is far more satisfying has been the arrival of The Year of Less by Cait Flanders.  Flanders is a Canadian writer whose adventures in personal finance I have been following on her blog for several years now (this is the sort of exciting thing I do to feed the professional financial planner side of me you rarely see on this blog).  After having gotten a hold of her debt, she challenged herself to be more mindful of her casual spending by implementing a year-long shopping ban.  This book is a chronicle of that year but also a memoir of how she got to that place in her life.  I picked it up from the library yesterday afternoon, strolled over to a nearby park bench, and immediately started reading.  It’s not a how-to guide, rather it’s a very personal account of one woman’s relationship with her money and her spending habits.  And it’s good (which explains why it has been recommended by the NY Times and Vogue).

Finally, I have Four Gardens by Margery Sharp all ready to go.  I’ve read the beautiful prologue and can’t wait to get further into this lovely-sounding novel.

And that’s it for me now!  Off to enjoy another day.  Happy Sunday, everyone.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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