This last post of the year is always one I contemplate writing with a little trepidation. I know I've read a lot of good, satisfying books, but have there been some really amazing ones where I think "now this is why I love reading"? And this being an odd sort of reading year anyway where I couldn't seem to finish a good lot of the books I started, would I even have ten favorites to share? As it turns out, I do. I keep a spreadsheet of titles read and little bits of information that I find interesting to take note of, and I found that I had marked more than the obligatory ten, so have cheated a little and have a dozen good reads.
So, once again I'll share my own 'fine print'--Some of my favorites might be surprising to other readers, but for me these books simply clicked. Whether they are classics or not, literary or comfort reads they have all been memorable, made me sigh with satisfaction or floored me by the story or writing style. The top two books have been really stand out reads for me this year, and the latter eight my own notable books of the year. I've linked back to original posts, though a few of the books I didn't write about as I would have liked (and the Sarton book has a post forthcoming as I just finished reading it yesterday!).
Testing the Current by William McPherson -- I really loved this book. This is how my post began when I wrote about it: "Some books elicit a contented sigh upon turning the last page. Not only does William McPherson do that, but it gets a "wow" (imagine a thin low whistle) from me in response to it as well. How did he do that? Create such a perfectly evoked world, so wholly believable? This is a story in which lots happens and not very much at the same time. Much like life. I want to go grab a copy and press it into your hands, so you can read it, too."
Journal of Solitude by May Sarton -- May Sarton was an amazing woman and this was, for me, an amazing book. She articulates in this journal some of the very things in my life that I have been struggling with this year. While she asks more questions than gives answers (and isn't that the way life is and should be, really), it's nice to know I'm not alone and that I don't have to have all the answers, but to be looking for them is what matters most.
And the Rest: (in the order that I read them)
Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey -- Quite a quirky story filled with wry humor and whimsy even if it's perhaps a little sobering, too. For me, a perfect little slice of life. I liked the film adaptation, too.
The Last of Summer by Kate O'Brien -- Interestingly I read three Viragos and all three show up on my favorites list. Obviously I need to read more VMCs next year (already in the works . . .). It's a quietly elegant story set in Ireland in the days leading up to WWII.
At Weddings and Wakes by Alice McDermott -- I called this a "beautifully lyrical" story, one that is finely crafted and observant of the inner lives of the characters--primarily women. It's the story of an Irish-American family living in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 60s. I have her newest on my list of reads for 2014!
Borrowed Finery by Paula Fox -- Sometimes you pick up a book and start reading and something just clicks. You can tell from the very first page that you are holding in your hands a perfect read. That's what I experienced with Borrowed Finery.
The Bread and Butter Stories by Mary Norton -- I know you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but that is what initially prompted me to buy this one. Norton wrote short stories for publication in order to put food on the table and pay bills--hence these being 'bread and butter stories'. Another wry observer of women's lives. She wrote from experience and you can tell--the stories have a timeless quality to them. I only wish she had written more--she is better known as the author of the children's book The Borrowers. I'll be revisiting this one.
A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor -- How fitting that I discovered this book thanks to William McPherson. He recommended it in the afterword of Testing the Current. It's a readalike of sorts. This is a rich story in which Taylor explores the vagaries of memory.
Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh -- Lindbergh is much like May Sarton in her quest for knowledge--and not just the sort you find in books. She writes from experience, but she writes about the different phases of a woman's life, and this is a book that can speak to different readers on so many levels. It's eloquent and beautifully written. Another book where I penciled notes and dog eared pages. Both this and Sarton's books may well be annual reads for me.
Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym -- Pym is a delight and this a wonderful comedy of manners. I do like a heroine who not only knows herself and her sense of worth, gets her own happily ever after yet it's a happy ending that's not expected or typical.
Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo -- This is an excellent crime story--gritty and passionate, a little dark and very melancholy. It's the first of three books, which I expect may well get darker in the telling. I'm looking forward to reading the others and they already sit on my pile for next year.
Fenny by Lettice Cooper -- This is a beautifully written novel filled with the warmth of the Italian sunshine and the satisfaction of a life well lived. This is a story that is full and replete with characters who are solid and feel real. They, especially Fenny, do not end up in the same place they began.
And I have a few honorable mentions, too.
Best comfort read: In a Good Light by Clare Chambers (was there any doubt?)
Most atmospheric read: The Lewis Man by Peter May
Book I can't believe I waited so long to read: Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh (I can't tell you how many years the book sat unopened on my bookshelf).
Book that has sat too long on my nightstand (but I'm not giving up on it): Mad Puppetstown by Molly Keane (that's what happens when you decide you want to read an author's works in the order they were written--I swear I am going to begin reading it in earnest January 1)
Book I never thought I'd finish: Hah. The Quincunx by Charles Palliser
Book I liked more than I expected to: The Devil by Leo Tolstoy
Best new find of the year: There were several but Mary Norton's Bread and Butter Stories really clicked with me
Most widely varied reads: Flush and Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf. It's a testament to her genius that she can write two amazing books--one so very challenging (the former) and one so completely accessible (the latter) and yet both be so full of meaning and style
Authors I'm glad I discovered (and will read more of): Mary Hocking, Paula Fox, Peter Taylor, Jean-Claude Izzo, Sian Busby and Lauren Davis
I have lots of reading ideas (I hesitate calling them plans, because I never know quite where my reading will take me until I get there) to start out the new year. I'm sure they'll change and expand over the course of the year, but I've had a number of books on my mind, genres I want to explore or read more of. I'll share those tomorrow. And now onwards to 2014!