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2019: The Reading Year In Review

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair … we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Dickens must have been looking over my shoulder in 2019 because it was definitely a year of mixed fortunes.

I started with great optimism that I would – finally – complete my Booker Prize project. But I’m ending the year with one book still to go.

In January I was confident I would also finish the long-overdue Classics Club Project. Yet, here I am a year later with two books adrift from that total of 50.

On the plus side of the 56 books I read this year, 39 were by authors I’ve never encountered before. Some of them are going to be writers I will want to read more from in the future; such as Diane Setterfield, Vita Sackville-West; Brian Moore and Patrick Gale.

I also added four new countries to my world of literature reading list thanks to the 20booksofsummer reading project (or in my case 13 books). Austria, Croatia; Jamaica and Rwanda brought the total of countries to 41 and edging me closer to the target of 50.

And now for the 2019 roll of honour

Shortest Book Of The Year

Sanditon by Jane Austen. Calling this a book is actually stretching the description. It is only 128 pages long and isn’t complete. It’s a fragment of a novel Jane Austen was writing when she succumbed to illness. She laid it aside and died before she could complete the text. It was re-issued in 2019 to coincide with a new television version written by Andrew Davies – you can’t even call it an adaptation since he admitted he’s used all of Austen’s material before even episode 2. Not that it matters because I watched part of it, thought it was dire, and resolved not to bother any further.

Longest Book Of The Year

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is 614 pages of sheer bliss. He takes four strangers from different backgrounds and with vastly different attitudes to life and throws them together in an unamed Indian city. Around them the country is in turmoil as the declaration of a State of Emergency gives official licence to detention, torture and forced sterilisation. The novel is a joy from start to finish.

Biggest Surprise Of 2019

I read eight non fiction books this year; more than in any previous year. Even more of a surprise – five of them were outstanding. One is even shortlisted for my Book of the Year award. I seem to be developing an interest in memoirs which is a genre I’ve never given much thought to in the past. It will be interesting to see if this continues through to next year.

Best Book By Welsh Author 2019

The prize goes to Alis Hawkins for None So Blind, the first in the Harry Probert-Lloyd historical crime fiction series. Set in rural Wales in the nineteenth century, this novel demonstrates admirally how to seamlessly weave research into a novel without detracting from the narrative flow.

Most Disappointing Book 2019

I had three contenders for this award. William Boyd’s Love is Blind and Kate Atkinson’s Transcription were in contention but ultimately I gave the prize to An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.

Cue wailing and gnashing of teeth among the thousands of readers for whom this was a favourite book of 2019. It was hailed as a powerful story about a miscarriage of justice and the black American middle class experience. But I never felt the injustice issue was being tackled head on in a way I would have expected given all the praise heaped on this novel.

Best Non Fiction Book 2019

I’m really spoiled for choice but I’ve narrowed the options down to three books. Becoming by Michelle Obama was an outstanding mix of humour, insight and reflection This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay took us behind the scenes of the medical profession in the UK with a book that had the ability to make me chortle and vent in equal measure. Reading The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, the memoirs of a couple who embarked on a 600 mile walk when they were evicted from their farm left me awed by their resilience but angry at the way homeless people are viewed.

And the winner is ….. The Salt Path. I felt I walked every step with this couple, feeling their hurt when people shunned their company and sharing their joy in nature. A tremendous book that deserves all the praise it’s received.

Best Book In Translation 2019

A Whole Life by the Austrian author Robert Seethaler was remarkable. Just 149 pages long it was an evocative, tender story of a quiet soul who has a remarkable capacity to accept whatever life throws at him. It was moving but wasn’t sentimental. Just pitch perfect I thought.

Best Book 2019

And now for the ultimate accolade: the title of my favourite book from 2019. I was looking for a book that I enjoyed reading at the time but have continued to think about long after I closed it for the last time. I asked myself which book/s had I recommended most frequently and which book/s had I talked about most often during the year.

There were four books that stood out.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West for its tremendous portrayal of an elderly woman

How It All Began by Penelope Lively; an exquisitely contrived novel of seven lives derailed because of a single event.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore is an unflinching yet sympathetic portrait of loneliness. It qualifies as the most painfully sad book I’ve read for many years.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. For the reasons I described earlier.

And the prize goes to ……

…. The Salt Path. A book I have urged friends everywhere to buy and read. I hope I’ve encouraged you all to go out and buy/borrow it as soon as possible.

Freedom Triumphs Even In The Twilight Years

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

How can I even begin to do justice to a novel so beautiful, elegant and thoughtful as All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West?

This is a novel which confounds the stereotypical portrayals of older people often found in literature. I’m sure you’ve come across them. There’s the senile grandparent in the rocking chair; the hyper-critical crone; the indomitable matriarch; the feisty woman and any number of variations on those themes.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

Vita Sackville West’s protagonist is a very different creation. A woman who, in the twilight of her life turns out to be not ‘the very incarnation of placidity’ described by her children but a woman with a quiet determination to be free.

Lady Deborah Slane is 88 years old and recently widowed. As a young girl she yearned to become a painter. But the spirit of the age and the expectations of her family were against her. So she became instead the wife of “a great man”, the perfect consort of the Viceroy of India and Prime Minister of Britain.

Plans Confounded

When he dies, the couple’s six children are left with a burning question: What To Do About Mother. They agree the house is too big and too expensive for her but where should she live? They know their duty but really none of them want her as a permanent fixture in their homes (far too disruptive). But what if she rotated among the married couples, spending time with each as a kind of paying guest?

And so they put another set of expectations in train, believing their dutiful mother will see the merits of the plan. But they have completely misunderstood this woman. Lady Slane astounds them when she reveals she has made her own plans and has absolutely no need of their help at all. She declares:

“I am going to become completely self-indulgent. I am going to wallow in old age. 

She escapes her children’s clutches by forsaking her home in desirable Kensington for a rented house in the not so desirable suburb of Hampstead.

There she gathers an odd assortment of companions: the owner of the house Mr Bucktrout; her loyal French maid Genoux and the jack-of-all-trades Mr Gosheron. Into this close circle comes a secret admirer, Mr Fitz-George, a savvy art collector who met Lady Slane when she was the highly attractive Vicereine of India.

Freedom to Live

All Passion Spent shows that with physical freedom comes the freedom to explore the past and make sense of the world. In this new phase of her life Lady Slane reflects on frustrated artistic passions, on being young and growing old and on the nature of happiness..

Had she been happy? But one was happy at one moment, unhappy two minutes later, and neither for any good reason; so what did it mean? It meant, if it meant anything at all, that some uneasy desire wanted black to be black, and white, white; it meant that in the jungle of the terrors of life, the tiny creeping creatures sought reassurance in a formula.

At times satirical and at times amusing, All Passion Spent is insightful about the delights of living according to one’s own desires. Vita Sackville West’s friend and lover Virginia Woolf had, two years earlier, argued the necessity for a woman to ‘room of her own’. Lady Slane doesn’t get her room until late in life but she takes full advantage of the freedom it offers to her life on her own terms.

Multiple Delights

There’s so much in this novel that is sheer delight.

The portrayal of the ghastly children with their platitudinous conversations is masterful. I loved the scenes where Lady Slane and her young (er) friend Mr Fitz-George stroll slowly on Hampstead Heath, stopping frequently because they’re tired (though they pretend they want to admire the view).

Above all I adored the refreshing depiction of an elderly lady who delights in her new found independence. Vita Sackville-West shows us a woman whose calm conventional facade hid a passionate nature and an artist’s eye.

She remembered how, crossing the Persian desert with Henry, their cart had been escorted by flocks of butterflies, white and yellow, which danced on either side and overhead and all around them, now flying ahead in a concerted movement, now returning to accompany them, amused as it were to restrain their swift frivolity to a flitting around this lumbering conveyance, but still unable to suit their pace to such sobriety, so, to relieve their impatience, soaring up into the air, or dipping between the very axles, coming out on the other side before the horses had had time to put down another hoof; making, all the while, little smuts of shadow on the sand, like little black anchors dropped, tethering them by invisible cables to earth, but dragged about with the same capricious swiftness, obliged to follow; and she remembered thinking, lulled by the monotonous progression that trailed after the sun from dawn to dusk, like a plough that should pursue the sun in one straight slow furrow round and round the world – she remembered thinking that this was something like her own life, following Henry Holland like the sun, but every now and then moving into a cloud of butterflies which were her own irreverent, irrelevant thoughts, darting and dancing, …

Only as she approaches the end of her life is her true self set free.

If you’ve not read this book yet, I’d suggest you go out right now and buy/borrow/beg a copy. I promise you will not be disappointed.

If this books gets you thinking about how older people are depicted in literature, do take a look at the Bookword blog where Caroline reflects on that very topic. 

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West: Fast Facts

All Passion Spent first appeared in 1931 under the imprint of the Hogarth Press, an independent publishing house run by Leonard Woolf and his wife Virginia. Vita Sackville-West had been Virginia Woolf’s lover and they remained good friends.

Vita Sackville-West was a successful poet and journalist as well as a novelist. She was twice awarded the Hawthornden Prize for Imaginative Literature: in 1927 for her pastoral epic, The Land, and in 1933 for her Collected Poems.

With her husband Sir Harold Nicolson she created the celebrated garden at Sissinghurst Castle, near Cranbrook, Kent, now owned by the National Trust.

Snapshot May 2017

Hello to May. Before I get into the snapshot of my reading life on the first of this month I wanted to share with you some wonderful news. You’ll have seen from a post t the start of this year that I’ve been dealing with a serious health issue. It’s almost  a year now since I was diagnosed with cancer and started the treadmill of treatment. First chemotherapy, then radiotherapy, followed by liver surgery in January and then just five weeks ago further surgery. Going for the post-op check up today I expected the consultant to tell me that I’d need to do yet more chemotherapy but to my surprise – delight I should say – he not only told me that it wasn’t necessary but the recent tests have shown a full recovery and no sign anywhere of malignant cells. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” he said. Since this month also sees a landmark birthday for me, I am in celebration mode. I might even be able to risk a small glass of wine (my first drop of alcohol since January 26).

Reading

On May 1 itself I was nearing the end of  The Primrose Path by Rebecca Griffiths, a book I bought late in 2016 as part of my intention to read more work by authors from Wales. It’s her debut novel and has attracted a lot of praise with good reviews in a number of the more popular UK newspapers. My edition includes a lot of quote from bloggers too – from CrimeFictionLover who called it a “cracking debut from an author who shows great promise” and  Bibliophoenix who thought it “disturbing, mysterious and quite unpredictable.”  I wouldn’t call it ‘cracking’ but I was certainly impressed by Griffiths’ ability to manage multiple narrative threads and bring them to an unexpected ending.

Most of the books I read in April I really enjoyed with the star being The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Unfortunately I also encountered a book which I could not finish – Muriel Barbary’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It was one of the first books I bought when I decided about four years ago it was time to expand my reading to countries outside of UK/USA. It started off well with the introduction to the two main characters – one is a concierge of an apartment building who secretly conceals her intellectual interests in books, films, philosophy and the other is the daughter of a wealthy family in the building who decides to kill herself because of all the hypocrises she sees in the world. The novelty of Barbery’s alternating narrators soon wore off – by the time I got to page 100 I was finding it tedious. So off its gone to the charity shop.

State of my personal library

One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books ( I thought it was 299 but then discovered my list of ebooks was incorrect) and a plan to hold off from adding to that number for the first six months of the year. It’s not a book ban as such – I know that if I really, really wanted a particular book I would just go and buy it or borrow from the library. So far I’ve been restrained – I haven’t bought anything and have just two books on loan from the library (Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and one about the Wars of the Roses.). Having done a little bit of a clear out of books I realised I would never read my level of ‘owned but unread’ books is now down to 280.

Wishing for…

I’ve been rather restrained with my wishlist on Goodreads. In March I added Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout which is a collection of linked stories about one community and also Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera which has been described as one of the most arresting novels to be published in Spanish in the last ten years. I haven’t done brilliantly with Spanish authors until now so I hope that description proves to be true. I’ve also been keeping an eye on the Shadow Panel for the International Man Booker Prize (you can see all their reviews of the shortlisted novels here). The one calling to me most is The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen which is about a family living on a small Norwegian island.

On the reading horizon…

After my recent post about reading books that are out of your comfort zone, I’m ready to take the plunge into my own dark zone of sci-fi. Armed with a list of recommendations from bloggers in response to my question ‘where do I begin’ I went off to the library only to find that most of these titles were not available. Some of them are buried in the basement of the county library (a place where it seems the library staff are not keen to visit) so I shall have to wait for Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea series and also for anything by William Gibson to come back from the deep. In the meantime I shall give Station Eleven a go.

There are a few other titles jostling for attention however which might squeak in before Station Eleven. Do I go for A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki? Or Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question? Or All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West. As always, when the moment comes to take a book from the shelf, it will invariably be none of these – something else will have taken my fancy.

 

Stocking and restocking the shelves

I love this time on a Sunday when all the chores are done and I can snatch some relaxation before getting ready for our Sunday evening ritual of a trip to the local pub followed by a pasta meal and a movie.

I can do this in the warm glow of satisfaction that I’ve achieved one of my projects for this weekend – a long overdue tidy up of my bookshelves. One thing led to another and what started as a project involving shelving in one room quickly morphed into a sort out of all bookshelves dotted around the house. The result are two very large bags waiting to be donated to a local charity. They were enjoyable reads but realistically I am never going to read them again so I’d rather they brought pleasure to someone else instead of gathering dust in my home.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, I decided it would be easier if I organised the books alphabetically instead of grouping them project (all Booker winners on one shelf, classics club reads on another). Alphabetical would make it much easier to see what I have and thus avoid falling into the trap of buying the same book more than once (I’ve ended up with two copies of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and two of Frog by the Nobel Laureate Mo Yan).

The tidy up couldn’t have come too soon because I needed room for some recent purchases.

Viragos

 

Devoted Ladies is the fifth of Molly Keane’s novels but will the first by her that I will have read. Published in 1934 this novel moves Keane out of the world of the Irish landed gentry for the first time and into the world of fashionable, chic London living. It was a bit of a shock for readers used to her previous works to discover in the early pages that the romantic interest this time would be a stormy relationship between a lesbian couple. The novel is a satire on a hedonistic 1930’s world and has apparently a rich, dark humour.

I was actually looking for a reasonably priced and good condition copy of All Passion Spent when I came across Family History. This is the novel Vita Sackville-West wrote immediately after the highly successful and lucrative All Passion Spent. According to the introduction by Victoria Glendinning. Family History did reasonably well when it was published in 1932 it wasn’t a best seller and has since been largely neglected. Glendinning comments that her own feelings about the book have changed – in her biography of Sackville-West she called it a “not very distinguished novel” reflecting the authors own confused personal life at the time but now sees Family History has more depth and complexity than first appreciated.

The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall would have been a good choice for The 1924 Club run by Stuck in a Book and KaggsysBookishRamblings in October. But I didn’t get organised in time. But who needs an excuse to read a Virago anyway? This is Radclyffe Hall’s second published novel although it was the first she actually wrote. It’s the story of Joan  Ogden a girl growing up in a stuffy town in England in the 1930s but desperate to break free and become a doctor. On her side is her governess but opposing her ambition is Joan’s mother, a gentle tyrant who knows how to wind Joan around her little finger. Which of these women will ultimately win? I’ve had a glance of the first chapter and love how quickly the battle is set between Joan and her stultifying retired middle class parents.

Any of you read these yet? Which would you suggest I read first?

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