I'm never quite sure how to approach these sorts of lists (at least when I am the one making them). I enjoyed all the books I read this past year in a variety of ways. Some were just comfortable, entertaining reads. They will not likely win any awards, but I think I'd still enjoy reading them again for the cozy feeling they evoke. Some were thrilling and have stuck with me and I still think about them and definitely want to read them again. And some were books I am in awe of due to their place in literature, which I am so glad to have read, but well, might not appear on my list (even though they probably should). By the way, here are last year's favorites.
- Cheri and The Last of Cheri by Colette. I loved this book. I'm not sure why I haven't yet read more by Colette, but I think I am afraid her other novels will not be as good as this was. It is the story of aging courtesan, Lea, and her love affair with the much younger Fred Peloux (who Lea calls Cheri). It is a bittersweet tale, but so true to reality. I loved the character of Lea--no matter how hard things were, how painful her love for Cheri, she was true to herself in the end.
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. This book is a serious meal. There is nothing fluffy about Tolstoy. It is probably a cliche to say this is a great novel, but it is. It has everything--when you read W&P you immerse yourself into a whole, complete world. And while some of the philosophical sections might have been a bit much (for me), I'd like to read it again as one time around is just not enough.
- Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. Another epic story--I seem to be very fond of them. I'm sure you must have gotten tired of all my posts about Kristin, but there is so much to this story. From birth to old age and death you follow the tumultuous life of Kristin Lavransdatter in 14th century Norway. Undset writes crisply and clearly and you get a strong sense of character, time and place in this novel. I hesitate to call this historical fiction, as that smacks of low brow genre, and there is nothing low brow about this book, but it is quality historical fiction!
- The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies. Davies writes such elegant, beautiful prose and his characterization is dead on--these could be real people and real events. And he tells a great story. The story details the impact a German POW camp in Wales has on a small community and in particular on the life of Esther Evans. More than that however, the story is about courage and duty.
- Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. Why on earth did I wait so long to read this book? It is dark, yes. It is not a happy story, no. Ultimately, though, there is something redeeming about the story. Tess is such a poignant character--your heart literally breaks for her. Hardy is an amazing author, and I can't even begin to summarize here what he manages to do in the novel.
- Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. Damn Sarah Waters is a seriously good storyteller. I'm not sure how she manages it. When you slip between the pages of this novel you are in Victorian England. Aside from the setting her plotting is nothing short of remarkable. It's twisty turny and full of surprises!
- Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris. Another consummate storyteller. Harris's Chocolat is one of my all time favorite books, so I wasn't sure what to expect from Gentlemen and Players. It's excellent, but in a totally different way. It's also a twisty turny sort of novel with a shocking ending that I didn't see coming even though she left a trail.
- Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. This is a short, spare book, but very rewarding. The story is a coming of age tale set partially in post WWII Norway. He deserves a wider readership here in the US, though I understand he is an award winning novelist in Norway.
- Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. Barbara Pym is great. This novel is witty and amusing and Mildred has to be one of my favorite characters in literature. She's one of those "excellent women"--single, supportive of all those about her, but also taken for granted. She has amazing (and often humorous) insight into the lives of her friends and neighbors, however.
- Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. This is another sad, bittersweet story, but nonetheless remarkably told. The Claremont, where Mrs Palfrey has come to spend her remaining days, turns out to be not what she expected. It's dreary and full of eccentrics, and Mrs Palfrey is alone save for the unlikely friendship she strikes up with, Ludo, a young writer. Elizabeth Taylor has been one of my great finds this year (along with Barbara Pym).
I feel like my blurbs aren't doing justice to the novels I'm listing here, but they are all excellent reads in their own ways. I should also mention Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (40 pages left to go) and Anne Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, which I greatly enjoyed, too! And although I didn't list Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote, it was an excellent novel (in a different way than the others). I'm glad I read it, as it is such an iconic book in the history of literature. Of course how do I follow that one next year? Dante? Milton? More Shakespeare? It will be interesting to see which books float to the top of the pile!