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badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Happy New Year!  I hope 2020 is off to a great start for everyone.  Our family traditions here don’t allow much time for reading (lots of outdoor time to ensure the year gets off to a healthy start, followed by cooking time to ensure it also begins with lots of leftovers) but I’ve got plenty of books ready to go.  (So I am, of course, starting the year by reading something off my own shelves.  Oh well.)

Here’s what I’ve picked up most recently:

The Seine by Elaine Sciolino – I loved Sciolino’s last book, The Only Street in Paris, about the rue des Martyrs and can’t wait to revisit Paris in her company.  (Book Depository)

Brief Flower by Dorothy Evelyn Smith – I am happy to report that my interlibrary loan copy of this has no dustjacket and therefore no extremely creepy child.  I’m trying to track down another of Smith’s books (O, The Brave Music, which Simon raved about last year) but in the meantime thought I’d try one of her other books.  There’s a little info on it on Goodreads and I thought I’d give it a try.

Poems of Arab Andalusia translated by Cola Franzen – My big travel plan for 2020 is to spend a couple of weeks in Andalusia next autumn.  It’s a long wait so until then I’ll content myself by reading as much as I can about it.  The main reason I’m interested in going is the region’s Arab history so this volume of poetry seemed perfect.  It will also inevitably remind me of how much I need to reread The Lions of Al-Rassan (which I am 100% okay with).  (Book Depository)

Love from A to Z by S.K. Ali – In my last Library Loot post, I mentioned picking up a different YA book by Ali, which I haven’t actually read yet.  But at the same time I’d placed a hold on this, her newest release about two Muslim teens who meet in Qatar.  I read it just after picking it up and really enjoyed it.  And I don’t think I’d ever read something set in Qatar before! (Book Depository)

The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion – Like everyone who read it, I adored The Rosie Project and can’t resist its sequels (even though I though the second book wasn’t very good).  Hoping for better things with this one! (Book Depository)

Less by Andrew Sean Greer – The time has finally come.  I have heard so many glowing, enthusiastic things about this novel from readers I trust that I am finally overcoming my completely illogical bias against Pulizter Prize-winners to give it a try. (Book Depository)

What did you pick up this week?

As we enter the last hours of 2019, I’m not quite ready to let this year go.  I loved 2019; it was full of achievements, wonderful times with family and friends, lots of travel (I went to Europe twice!  And on my first trip I absolutely fell in love with Brittany) and, most excitingly, a new nephew.

With all that going on, I completely collapsed as a blogger, reviewing almost nothing, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t reading!  Here are my favourites (ranked, obviously) from this year:

10. Clouds of Witness (1927) – Dorothy L. Sayers
I reread Strong Poison for the 1930 Club and enjoyed it but it was this earlier volume that reminded me of all the things I love about Sayers.  Here she has set up a perfect country house murder scene, made even more perfect by the fact that this time it is Lord Peter’s own family members who are suspected of the murder.  Sayers introduction of the other houseguests as they eat breakfast is perhaps the best scene she ever wrote and the entire novel just shines.  It also allows plenty of time for Charles Parker (let everyone else be in love with Lord Peter, for me it’s always been the solid, hardworking Charles), which I can only view as a good thing.

9. Home Fire (2017) – Kamila Shamsie
Good lord, what a book.  Set across three continents and told by a variety of narrators, Shamsie crafts a heartbreaking contemporary retelling of Antigone.  Unforgettable.

8. A Green and Pleasant Land (2013) – Ursula Buchan
Such fun!  Buchan tells the story of how Britain worked to improve food production during the Second World War.  It’s full of the sort of little details I love – did you know tomatoes were grown in ornamental pots outside of gentlemen’s clubs in St James? Or that, pre-war, only 9 of every 100 onions eaten were grown in the UK? –  and does a wonderful job of highlighting the professionals whose hard work and innovation truly made a difference.

7. Mountain Lines (2017) – Jonathan Arlan
I have no idea how this passed me by when it was first published but I’m so glad I stumbled across it this year.  Arlan writes humorously and honestly about his journey along the GR5 trail from Lake Geneva to Nice. For me, this was the perfect style of travel memoir and inspired me so much that I literally put the book down mid-chapter to reach out to my friend and convince her to go hiking in Austria.

6. Piglettes (2015) – Clémentine Beauvais
An utterly joyful YA novel about three teenage girls who, having been cruelly and publicly named by their peers are the ugliest girls in their town, band together to pursue the things they want most.  By cycling to Paris.  While selling sausages.  It is full of energy and humour and insecurity and confidence and I defy anyone not to love it.

5. Last Witnesses (1985) – Svetlana Alexievich
A bleak but incredibly moving oral history of children’s lives in the USSR during the Second World War.

4. A Brightness Long Ago (2019) – Guy Gavriel Kay
A new novel from Kay is always cause for celebration and this one absolutely did not disappoint.  It ranks among his best works and artfully weaves Italian Renaissance history into Kay’s fantasy world, laying the foundations for the events of Children of Earth and Sky.  It is intelligent, entertaining, and through Kay’s uncharacteristic use of the first-person perspective for much of the book, even more poignant than usual.  I loved it and look forward to rereading it again soon.

3. The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) – Rosemary Sutcliff
Inspired by Slightly Foxed’s reissuing of this, I picked it up for a reread and was immediately caught up in Marcus’ story and quest for the eagle of the famed lost legion.  This is historical fiction and children’s writing at its absolute best.  It’s a book my father loved as a child, that I loved, and that I hope the next generation of our family will love just as much.

2. Invisible Women (2019) – Caroline Criado Perez
Until last week, I was certain this was going to be my #1 book of the year.  But then a charming Russian count appeared and that was that.  But this was still the single most impactful thing I read this year.  Caroline Criado Perez, the Oxford- and LSE-educated journalist and human rights campaigner (and reason Jane Austen is now on the £10 note), looks at how data bias harms women around the world.  Why do more women die in car accidents than men?  Because cars are designed to be safe for men (there are no crash test dummies based on female body composition).  Why are women 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed when they have a heart attack?  Because their symptoms are different from men’s (and men are the ones who are studied).  The examples go on and on and become more and more maddening.  Invisible Women is an extraordinary and extraordinarily important book and one that should make you mad, regardless of your gender.

1. A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) – Amor Towles
This is a perfect example of why you must always wait until the absolute last moment to select your best books of year: I only finished reading this on Saturday.  And I’ve been bereft every day since that I don’t have more of it to read.  I never wanted this charming story of a Russian count confined to a grand Moscow hotel to end but when it did it was so satisfying and right that I physically hugged the book to myself.  This is clearly going to be a favourite for years to come.

Sometimes the stars align and an author produces a work so perfect, so utterly satisfying and joyous on every page, that you never want the reading experience to end.  That was what I found when I picked up A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

Now, this is hardly an unheralded gem.  It was well-reviewed and widely read when it came out in 2016, appearing on several prize lists, and Bill Gates, a reader par excellence, has shared his own love of it.  So I am, as usual, a little behind the times.  But the beauty of books is that they wait for the reader to find them when the time is right and, for me, this was the perfect time.

The story opens in 1922 in Moscow as Count Alexander Rostov is being sentenced by a people’s committee.  Their usual inclination to dispose of a member of the leisured class is checked by one thing: a poem written by Rostov more than a decade before that was sympathetic to the revolutionary cause.  And so their verdict is unusually lenient: house arrest for life.  But Rostov has no home of his own – the family estates having been seized – and lives in the Metropol Hotel at the heart of Moscow.  So it is there that he, age 32, is sentenced to live out the rest of his days.

And so it is within the walls of this last pillar of old-world elegance that our tale unfolds, a place where ballerinas from the Bolshoi dash in for a drink, where the French chef ensures that every dish is a masterpiece, and where every detail is thought of, cared for, and perfected.  It is a world that suits Rostov well and, even after he is moved into a dingy attic room from his stately suite, he finds ways of adapting to his new circumstances.

It is this graceful adaptability that provides the true charm of the novel.  Rostov is a product of his upbringing and it is the gentlemanly traits he has been trained in that allow him to weather his trials.  Before his incarceration, his days were, as he explained during his trial, devoted to “Dining, discussing.  Reading, reflecting.  The usual rigmarole.”  He was a friend to poets and princesses, a world traveller, and darling of hostesses for his easy conversation, excellent manners, and ability to smooth difficult situations.  He knew the world and loved its many pleasures.  Now captive in the hotel, he must set about building a life on a smaller scale, mastering his new world and seeing to the little preferences and pleasures that make life – whether it be in a palace or a prison – tolerable.

This he does with such ingenuity and nonchalance that it is impossible not be charmed by him.  If you grew up reading about orphans living in attics or poor young women making sad garret rooms into welcoming havens, you will be delighted by Rostov’s immediate actions.  And then even more delighted as through the years he makes a true home at the Metropol, finding new friends and a purpose.

The story follows Rostov over the course of thirty-odd years, years where he is largely insulated from the wider changes happening in Russia.  But he is not oblivious to them, staying as well-informed as ever (as any good gentleman would), and as Russia becomes increasingly dangerous, he begins to worry about the future of those he loves.  For, in thirty years, he has found people to love: friends, a lover, and a daughter-of-sorts whom he has raised from childhood.

A Gentleman in Moscow reminded me of nothing so much as an Eva Ibbotson novel, which is just about the highest praise I can think of.  It has the same charmed nostalgia of her books, capturing a world of lost European elegance, and Rostov shares the same optimism and practicality as Ibbotson’s protagonists, who, when faced with disaster, can smile, persevere, and use all their charm and talent to bring about a solution.  It is also peopled with delightful secondary characters: a willowy actress, who throws tantrums but has enough humility to clean up after them; a serious child who introduces Rostov to all the secrets of the hotel; a shy seamstress with a lazy eye and a warm heart; and so on.  Towles, like Ibbotson, takes care to make each character memorable and loveable and, in doing so, creates a world that is just a little kinder, a little more fantastic, than the one we know.  Just the kind of world we like best to escape to in a novel.

 

Of all the books I read this year, Last Witnesses by Svetlana Alexievich was the most harrowing.  Yes, I read other tales of war, and stories of tragedies, but it was this that left me the most upset and the most unsettled – something Alexievich has a talent for doing.  Why?  Because of its simplicity in describing the most devastating of things: children’s lives upset by a long and bloody war.

Originally published in 1985 (alongside The Unwomanly Face of War, my favourite book of 2018), this history of Soviet children’s experiences of the Second World War was finally translated into English (by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) in 2019.  Like all of Alexievich’s books, it is an oral history where her subjects speak for themselves.  Now adults, Alexievich gives us their age at the time they were remembering and, most intriguingly, their job.  Sometimes it’s easy to see how childhood experiences led to future careers, and sometimes it is a tale of how something – something we will never know – went wrong along the way.  It is always fascinating.

For the Soviets, the Second World War was devastating. Something like 25 million people died in only a few years, infrastructure and huge parts of the country were destroyed, and everyone’s lives were changed.  For children, who could barely understand what was going on, it was a particularly fraught period and Alexievich leads her interview subjects in ways that reveal how most of them were still living – decades later – with the consequences of what they had been through as children.

For an unsettling large number of her subjects, the war meant a chaotic evacuation from cities, the loss of parents, and a lonely childhood in orphanages.  Some arrived traumatized, knowing their parents were dead (perhaps having seen them die), while others found themselves displaced and in orphanages as, they hoped, a temporary measure:

What’s left in me from the orphanage?  An uncompromising character.  I don’t know how to be gentle and careful with words. I’m unable to forgive.  My family complains that I’m not very affectionate.  Can one grow up affectionate without a mother?

Ira Mazur (Five years old.  Now a construction worker)

But the farther we moved away from home, the more we expected our parents to come and take us, and we didn’t suspect that many of us no longer had any parents.  This thought couldn’t even occur to us.  We talked about the war, but we were still children of peace.

Marlen Robeichikov (Eleven years old.  Now section head in a town council)

There are moments of happiness in the book and they were a welcome relief from the overwhelming trauma of so much loss.  Memories of fathers coming home or the announcement of the end of the war provided a necessary contrast and glimmer of hope.  But even happiness was not uncomplicated after so much suffering:

I was the last to find out that our troops were in the village.  I was sick.  When I heard about it, I got up and ran to school.  I saw a soldier and clung to him.  I remember that his army shirt was wet.

He had been embraced, and kissed, and wept over so much.

Valia Matiushkova (Five years old.  Now an engineer)

In the end, what the book left me with was a deeper understanding of the post-war USSR/Russia and, to some extent, its relations with the rest of the world.  Diplomacy is really the art of repairing the damage done by the last war.  But when a nation has endured so much collective trauma, when all of its people are faced but such bleak memories, how can anyone else understand where they have come from and how they now view the world?

Even now I…All my life I’ve cried in the happiest moments of my life.  Drowning in tears.  All my life…My husband…We’ve lived in love for many years.  When he proposed to me: “I love you.  Let’s get married” – I burst into tears.  He was frightened: “Did I upset you?”  “No!  No!  I’m happy!”  But I can never be completely happy.  Totally happy.  It somehow doesn’t come out.  I’m afraid of happiness.  It always seems that it’s just about to end.  This “just about” always lives in me.  That childhood fear…

Tamara Parkhimovich (Seven years old.  Now a secretary-typist)

credit: Domino

This is where I would like to spend the holidays.  In bed, surrounded by books, with a dog curled up at my feet.  Ideal.

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)