Top 10 Books of 2020

I was lucky enough to read some great books this year and if I’m honest, it was hard to pick only a few so that’s why I ended up with a list of ten. I love them all equally so the list is in no particular order.

Daisy Jones & The Six is one of the most atmospheric books I have ever read. This is the story of a rock band in the 1970s, told by the members themselves in a series of interviews all collated together to tell a story. Honestly, it is the best form to talk about a band like this so that every member’s personnality shines through their words. I was just sad the songs were not real.

I love history – especially the Victorian era – and I like true crime, so obviously one of the things I love most to learn about is historical true crime. But you know what’s even better than this? Paying a tribute to the women who lived in grim conditions to end their lives in a horrendous manner, only to be forgotten by the media and history because they were ‘only’ prostitutes. Hallie Rubenhold shows in this book that most of Jack the Ripper’s victims were not, in fact, sex workers but even if they were, they deserve to be remembered and their lives should be celebrated, not their deaths. This is a really fantastic book that’s very accessible, even if you’re not fully aware of the Victorian period in general. I thought it was very engrossing and I read it in a matter of days. It taught me so much about working class history, especially on the side of women which is often discarded by historians. I would also like to add that it isn’t graphic as the author doesn’t really mention the killings themselves, but there are explicit mentions of physical and alchohol abuse.

Bill Naughton was a playwright who wrote the popular play, Alfie (adapted into film 1966, with Michael Caine – would recommend this film!). He was born in Ireland, but grew up in Bolton, an industrial town in Lancashire. In this book, he recalls growing there in the 1920s and working at the cotton mill as a young boy. I got this book for my boyfriend originally, because he is from Bolton and wanted to know more about the past of his hometown, but I ended up reading it and absolutely loving it. Like The Five it’s a very interesting account of working class daily life, and in Naughton’s memoir you can also see what impact time and globalisation had on Northern industrial towns.

This is going to sound strange but I’m not sure why I loved this book so much, but it haunted me for weeks after reading it. I loved all the characters of this book and thought Celeste Ng’s writing was perfectly balanced. What I mean is that she is always fair to her characters even if they are someimes ridiculous or just bad. I haven’t watched the TV show yet, because the book is still so fresh in my mind I’m afraid to be disappointed – but I really want to give it a go this year!

The End of Eddy in English

I wrote a rather extensive review on this one earlier this year so I don’t want to repeat myself too much. I just loved this short novel so incredibly much because it was very raw and honest, and it felt so close to me on aspects of class and ambition, which I have always felt quite alone about when I was younger. If you’re looking to read some translated fiction this year, then please do read The End of Eddy.

Another book I reviewed at length, and I may or may not haave annoyed everyone with my love for this gorgeous novel. It’s so beautiful and lyrical, I can’t recommend it enough.

I have seen this book everywhere on bookstagram and it was definitely worth the hype. The Vanishing Half is the heartbreaking story of two sister with completely different lives and it broaches so many important issues that I find it actually educational. I have reviewed it on here, so please give it a read if you want to know more.

Another very important book that I wish I had seen more people talk about this year. Just thinking of this novel makes me want to cry, but it is the perfect example to understand why we need a movement such as Black Lives Matter. I talk about it in more details in a review, where I tried my best not to get too emotional.

2020 marked my discovery of a very little-known author called Stephen King. I don’t know if you’ve heard about him, but he really is quite good. ‘Salem’s Lot is a small American town suffering from a vampire invasion. I love vampires, so I was really excited to read this story. In the end, what I truly loved was King’s representation of small town mentality by representing various characters hour by hour during the same day. I read some reviews and it appears that’s what people hate bout the book, but I’m always partial to a good backstory and a fountain of details – which probably explains why I love Victorian literature so much.

In the aftermath of my Victorian Literature master, I didn’t manage to read a lot of classics last year. However, the one I read also turned out to be one of my favourite books ever. I always thought this wouldn’t be a book for me for some reason (not sure why!), but I was completely wrong. This novel is so intense and creepy, don’t believe the adaptations you’ve seen of it and just read it!

I sincerely hope that I get read as many great books in 2021. Did you read some great things last year? Please share your recommendations in the comments!

Book Review: Saltwater, Jessica Andrews (2019)

Winner of the Portico Prize this year, Salwater tells in vignettes the story of Lucy who grew up in Sunderland, moved to London for her studies, and ended up in Ireland after the death of her grandfather, living in his cottage in county Donegal. Every vignette is written as a diary entry, as if Lucy had just jotted down some memories that constitute the beginning of her life and made her who she is, now.

As you can guess there isn’t really a plot as such in Saltwater, it is more about Lucy navigating life and her relationship with her mother. The latter is a common thread throughout the book – from the unbearable physical distance between their two bodies to the desire of being like her, and reproducing her behaviour in the only way Lucy understands. Mother-daughter relationships are always fascinating and complex, and I think it is perfectly encapsulated in this novel.

In my life in Donegal, I am learning how to take what I want. There are unfulfilled desires, curdled inside of me. I have buried things; swallowed them down and turned off the light. I must learn how to listen to my body again. I must learn how to need, how to ask, how to want.

I briefly mentioned this book when I was reading it in this article, and as I said, it moved me deeply. From the way Andrews writes about her shifting class when she arrives in London and her alcoholic dad, I’m guessing that Saltwater is highly autobiographical. It felt so real and powerful, because I have felt and lived the same things. Seeing adults behave strangely and never being sure of what you’ll find when you get home, running after someone who disappeared… these felt like scenes I have lived and Andrews put words on these feelings of utter despair and shock in such a beautiful way, it was absolutely devastating.

It was also interesting to see Lucy arrives at university in London and being faced with people who had grown up in more privileged backgrounds. Those people have grown up to be who they are and had the space to be so, but Lucy is still figuring herself out because she never had the opportunity to expand on her tastes and desires. In her teenage bedroom, she romanticised a life in London with drunk poets and musicians, but once with them she realised that it wasn’t what she needed but a teenage dream.

I was too full. I was brimming with the possibility of everything. Other people’s lives were carefully curated whereas I was a tangled knot of all the people and places I had ever wanted to be. I was distracted by every bright thing and enamoured with every person I met who promised a more solid version of myself.

She truly finds herself in the loneliness of her Irish cottage and, although I found this part of the novel a little to idealised and romantic, she can start her life from there. Everything leading up to her standing on the beach was a necessary step in her journey to be herself, and not her mother. This is what I think anyway, as this is a coming-of-age story, many things can happen in Lucy’s life after the time of the novel – possibilities are endless, and that’s why I love that kind of stories!

I absolutely loved Saltwater and cannot recommend it enough. Going through the passages I highlighted for this review made me very emotional again, there is both power and calm in this text – it’s just overwhelming. It might not be for everyone as it is told in vignettes, but the structure of the book enables Andrews to be lyrical and dive deep into her memories. I’m not sure she would have had such freedom with a more traditional form. I think it’s a very promising debut, and I’m looking forward to reading whatever Jessica Andrews writes next.

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1861)

I may have just finished my MA in Victorian Literature, but I’m quite unfamiliar with Charles Dickens’s novels. However I had read A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and The Old Curiosity Shop (1840) before I started Great Expectations, so I knew I was in for a treat. I wouldn’t consider myself a Dickens enthusiast but I do believe he is one the greatest storytellers of all times. With Great Expectations, your attention is caught from the very start with the gripping scene of the young orphan Pip being threatened by a convict on the run. I find it tricky to summarise a Victorian novel like this one; they are filled with more or less relevant story lines and characters, and chances are we all have different opinions as to which are better or more important. Essentially, this is the story of Pip who is destined to be a blacksmith but, thanks to an anonymous benefactor (ah, generous Victorian benefactors, how I wish they still existed today!), goes to London to be educated and become a gentleman.

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My copy is from the Penguin English Library collection, with an afterword by George Bernard Shaw (2012) – it’s very pretty but has seen better days indeed

What makes this novel stands out from the rest is Miss Havisham. When Pip is a boy, she requests he comes to visit her and her adoptive daughter, Estella, every week to play. Miss Havisham is an old woman for whom time has stopped on her wedding day, when she received a letter from her fiancé putting an end to the union. She is still wearing her wedding dress and her moth-eaten veil, and in her house, clocks have stopped at the same time and the table is still ready for the wedding reception – including the rotten leftovers of the wedding cake. The scenes in which little Pip visits Miss Havisham are my favourites, by far. Dickens uses Gothic tropes such as ghostly apparitions, the old mansion that serves as a prison – Estella being trapped in this time capsule by her adoptive mother – and introduces quirky characters in scenes that do not make much sense to Pip or the reader. In a little house in the yard, there is a boy who asks Pip if he wants to have fight, Pip has to walk Miss Havisham in a wheel chair singing a blacksmith song, etc. It’s all so wonderfully strange, I loved the atmosphere and really took time to savour my reading of these passages.

One of my favourite things to find in Victorian novels is London, or rather, characters walking streets I walk too. This might be personal as I find that some people are quite indifferent to it when I share my joy of reading novels that take place ‘RIGHT ACROSS THE STREET! OH MY GOD, IT’S HERE, IT’S WHERE I LIVE! I’M LIKE A VICTORIAN, I KNOW WHAT THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT’. I should also add that I come from a place which is absolutely never mentioned in novels, or films, or TV, or anything for that matter. I guess that if you’re from London or its surroundings, it not very surprising for you to see familiar places in films or books. But in any case, Dickens describes London in such an atmospheric way and writes about places that you can still see today. For example, in Great Expectations, the lawyer, Jaggers, has his office in Little Britain (the part of the street along Postman’s Park probably looks very much like what Dickens had in mind) and when Pip walks around Smithfield, he mentions the strong smell coming from the meat and poultry market which can definitely still be smelt today (although the current building was built a few years after the novel was released so I am sure the smell was nauseating back then).

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A picture of Little Britain I took about a year ago

All in all, Great Expectations is a wonderful novel to read as it is thoroughly entertaining. Despite its length, it’s also very accessible in its writing style and subject matter. After all, social mobility, money and heartbreak are still at the core of our concerns today.

Cover image is a still from David Lean’s adaptation of the novel (1946).

Villette, Charlotte Brontë, 1853

Largely based on what Charlotte Brontë lived during her time in Brussels, Villette recounts Lucy Snowe’s journey, from her godmother’s house in England to a boarding school for girls in the fictional kingdom of Labassecour (but Belgium, really). Lucy is a very secretive and passive girl of fourteen when we first meet her, and she’s staying with her godmother at Bretton. The latter has a son who goes to school so he’s not always at home, but even when he is, Lucy doesn’t have any particular link with him. One day, little Polly comes to stay at Bretton as well, her mother is gone and her father needs to go to the continent for business so he leaves his daughter with Mrs Bretton. The six-year-old Polly quickly becomes infatuated with Graham Bretton, who’s on holiday from school. Lucy mainly observes this funny little girl in her relationship with sixteen-year-old Graham, who merely amuses himself. When her dad comes to get her home, Polly is devastated to leave although thrilled to see her beloved father again. Shortly, Lucy too leaves Bretton and since she has no relatives whatsoever – apart from her godmother, of course – she has to work. She becomes a caretaker for a dying old lady, and when the latter dies, she finds herself without purpose. She decides to use her small amount of money to go abroad and hopefully, find new perspectives on the continent. Somehow, she manages to get hired by Madame Beck in her pensionnat for girls, in the town of Villette, where she becomes an English teacher. In Villette, she will meet M. Paul, a strange man who teaches literature, and people from her past.

Villette book cover

When you start reading Villette, it is very hard to see what is so appealing about it. Lucy Snowe is so passive and odd, you actually wonder why she’s the narrator and how this could become interesting. But then, you get caught up in her story and finish the book wondering what actually happened to you during your reading. I did not think the story of this novel was peculiarly gripping or rich, but when I first started to sum it up here, I realised that it was quite the opposite. There are so many things to say! So many things to be told!

However, I would like to focus especially on the strength of Villette and how incredibly powerful this book is.

‘Descending, I went wandering whither chance might lead, in a still ecstasy of freedom and enjoyment; and I got – I know not how – I got into the heart of city life. i saw and felt London at last: I got into the Strand; I went up Cornhill; I mixed with the life passing along; I dared the perils of crossings. To do this, and to do it utterly alone, gave me, perhaps an irrational, but a real pleasure. (chap. 6, p. 54)

First of all, it seems to me that the passion Charlotte Brontë put in her fourth novel is nowhere to be found in the rest of her works – even in Jane Eyre. And that’s something to say! Like Jane Eyre, Lucy Snowe has to come to terms with the fact that she will probably never marry because she has no situation and no family.  Both women are incredibly strong in their research for a life of their own. However, in Villette, there is a more personal dimension that changes radically from Jane Eyre. I don’t know exactly to what extent this story is autobiographical but it is clear that some characters and events are real. Charlotte and her sister Emily spent several months at Pensionnat Heger, in Brussels to improve their skills as teachers, in 1842. A year later, Charlotte returned on her own and spent a year there. We don’t know for sure what happened in Belgium, but when she came back to England, Charlotte started to write love letters to her former professor, Constantin Heger. Her letters remained unanswered, and we can only but guess that this was a traumatic experience for Charlotte; a heartbreak that she struggled to part with since she first wrote The Professor in link to her experience in Belgium, and then Villette. We suppose that M. Paul is a depiction of Constantin Heger, and that Madame Beck is actually a representation of Mrs Heger. With this novel, Brontë manages to rewrite history and face her female rival to end up with the man she loves… or does she ? The ending of the novel is very blurry and open, the reader is free to choose the ending he/she pleases. Unfortunately, I am not of the optimistic kind but in any case, because this story resonates so much with the author’s life, there is a great strength added to it when you read the novel.

Moreover, there is a fantastic cast of characters which has a true richness to it – each different and embodying a myriad of aspects of society. As Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar argued in The Mad Woman in the Attic, the women of Villette are representations of all the dimensions that constitute Lucy’s inner-self. I quite argue with that reading, of course, but even if we consider these female characters on their own, they are absolutely convincing. Even a 21st-century reader can see similarities between the women in the book and some women in real life. It is the same for the male characters. Charlotte Brontë had a remarkable eye for her characters’ psyche, and Villette is no exception. However, what is really significant is how these characters behave with our narrator, and main character. Some barely speak to Lucy throughout the whole novel or are quite cold to her (although not distant, in the case of Mrs Bretton); some have negative comments and attitudes towards Lucy (I think of the very blunt description Ginevra makes of Lucy, ‘you have no relations; you can’t call yourself young at twenty-three; you have no attractive accomplishments – no beauty.’, chap.14, p.169). Only two characters stand out of the crowd for their relatively warm appreciation of Lucy: Polly and M. Paul. It is quite interesting to consider that, if we consider that Polly is nothing else than the externalisation of Lucy’s repressed need for love and Paul is what we could define as a ‘love-interest’ (although, their relationship is a bit more complex than a simple crush, or romantic interest). Talking about these characters and their relationships with Lucy Snowe leads me to the core of the novel, and its main source of power – Lucy’s inner-self.

Indeed, the restraint that she shows is incredibly strong, she refrains herself from living and becomes her own prisoner, in a sense. Only the reader knows her true self, and we can still doubt about this fact since she holds information back. At first, Lucy appears incredibly passive, she observes people and lives through their experiences. During her trip to Labassecour, she becomes a little more active but keeps her voyeuristic habits once at Madame Beck’s school – just like the latter, who is described always observing others. Lucy is secretive, and even her reader wonders whether he or she actually knows her. She never explains what happened to her family, and we cannot help but to feel that she is in the waiting, she does not know what for but her life has yet to start. This is a depiction of the plight of many Victorian women considered as ‘redundant’ because they could not marry, and being a wife and mother was the only purpose of woman’s life. This is illustrated in the following quote :

‘I will permit the reader to picture me, for the next eight years, as a bark slumbering through halcyon weather, in a harbour still as glass – the steersman stretched on the little deck, his face up to heaven, his eyes closed: buried, if you will, in a long prayer. A great many women and girls are supposed to pass their lives something in that fashion: why not I with the rest?’ (chap. 4, p.38)

Lucy has thus no choice but to refrain from expressing herself and keep her true self for the evening, when she is free to wander in the garden of the school. Unlike Polly or Ginevra, Lucy cannot rely on the sweet love or admiration of a man to grow up. She has to manage and do that on her own, because as Ginevra says, she has nothing – not even beauty. However the repression of her needs will lead her to a terrible nervous breakdown, when she is absolutely alone in the world with no one to care about her. This passage is strikingly powerful because Lucy is at a complete loss and the reader can but feel her utter suffering. Her strength also comes from her will, but also from her acute knowledge of her situation. She is a young woman and if she might start dreaming at one point, she quickly realises that she is not made to be the heroine of a novel (in the traditional sense of the term, for a romantic story, especially), although she wishes she could be:

‘The love, born of beauty was not mine; I had nothing to do with it: I could not dare to meddle with it, but another love, venturing diffidently into life after long acquaintance, furnace-tried by pain, stamped by constancy, consolidated by affection’s pure and durable alloy, submitted by intellect to intellect’s own tests, and finally wrought up, by his own process, to his own unflawed completeness, this Love that laughed at Passion, his fast frenzies and his hot and hurried extinction, in this Love I had a vested interest; and whatever tended either to its culture or its destruction, I could not view impassibly.’ (chap.39, p.555)

Villette is not a happy love story, and there is a dark pessimism that cannot be found in Jane Eyre, or not to the same extent at least. It is, however a book that overpowered me and swept me off my feet. It is so very powerful in the strength of its feelings! I first started to read it  year ago, but was definitely not in the right place for that. I relate to Lucy, a lot, so I have to feel alright to read her story or I am the one having a mental breakdown. Also, I sometimes felt a bit insulted because Charlotte Brontë did not like Catholics, and French people. Here is a quote about the inhabitants of Villette, ‘The natives, you know, are intensely stupid and vulgar; but there are some nice English families.’ (chap.6, p.61)

Richard Redgrave, The Sempstress, 1846

The featured image is Richard Redgraves’s The Sempstress (1846). Although Lucy is not a seamstress, this painting is Lucy Snowe. The woman is wearing a pink dress, like the new dress Lucy wears to go to the opera with the Brettons. She seems to be a prisoner of the room, whilst people seem to be starting to live outside. Maybe this house in the background is La Terrasse? The way her face is lit is rather dramatic and reminds me of more religious paintings. She appears as a martyr, a representation of the many Victorian women who could not be themselves and did not really belong anywhere, because of the impossibility of them getting married.

He Knew He Was Right, Anthony Trollope (1869)

“A man who is a gentleman in his cups may be trusted to be a gentleman at all times.”

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Louis Trevelyan is young and wealthy English man who meets Emily Rowley during a visit to the Mandarin Islands. Emily is the eldest daughter of the governor of the island and quickly the pair falls in love, and Louis proposes to Emily. Louis and Emily, and her sister Nora goes to live together in London. It is a very happy household, quickly joined by a baby boy.

However, quite rapidly, the marriage of Louis and Emily starts to wither when an old friend of Emily’s father visits her. This old friend is Colonel Osborne and he has the reputation to maintain quite close relationships with married women, let’s say. Louis does not like to have his wife’s name associated with such a man and orders Emily not to see him anymore. She feels hurt by his mistrust and decides to disobey him because she feels like she has nothing to feel guilty about. This lack of obedience drives Louis so angry that he decides to have a separation. Emily and her sister, and the boy, have to go from a relative to another to live as they can – their parents being too far away to be able to do anything at all to help them.

Louis gradually loses his mind for he keeps thinking about his wife’s attitude and whether or not she did have an affair with Osborne. He ends up in Italy and is but the shadow of his former self. Emily joins him there in the hope of winning him back and restore him to health, also because he has brought their child with him. Somehow, Emily manages to convince Louis to come back to England with her to start afresh.

That is the main story of this novel, but being an almost 900-pages book, there are many parallel stories like that of Nora’s suitors and Miss Stanbury’s inheritance, so it is very hard to sum up this great tome in just a small paragraph. There are so many interesting characters and turns in this story, it is so rich that I am not sure whether I am able to do it justice.

“Words spoken cannot be recalled, and many a man and many a woman who has spoken a word at once regretted, are far too proud to express that regret.”

I find very interesting to study relations between men and women during the Victorian era, and I have learnt so much with He Knew He Was Right. For instance, I know that it was not uncommon at the time to send a small photograph of you to the man you love. I thought that this practice really started much later in the century, and I found that very important to see how relationships could evolve. There is a fantastic set of characters of all ages and backgrounds, and so many details, that you get a good grasp of the period. And although, there’s some literary goodness to it of course, I found the style to be of very little importance when it comes to what was actually said.

Trollope was not really an advocate for the rights of women since he was quite Conservative, but with this novel, you could really doubt it. His strongest characters are women who manage to live their lives as they intend to. First, there is Miss Stanbury. She’s a rich old woman, and a spinster. She had a love story with a man in her youth but they never married – it seems to me evident thus, that this dear Jemima lived in sin for a while, which I find quite shocking for such a Conservative woman. She struggles to accept and understand progress, especially when it comes to young women’s dresses and hair – she just cannot stand chignons – and the author makes fun of that with, I think, a lot of tenderness. She is an old woman, and as many old women still today, they love to criticise the new ways in ridiculous terms. But although I laughed at her, I couldn’t help but to notice that she was a very strong woman who deserved respect. She has very strong values, sometimes maybe too strong when she disinherit her nephew who has become a writer for a radical penny newspaper, and she follows them without compromising her heart and feelings. She is well-aware of people wanting to take advantage of her for her money, but she never lets them play too long.

But she is nothing compared to Nora. Jemima Stanbury can afford to be stubborn in her ways, Nora Rowley just cannot. But still, when a rich aristocrat proposes to her, she refuses. She understands all the advantages that such a union would bring but her mouth says no. There was something in the proposal that did not feel quite right, and there was something missing from her as well. Her mind is set on Hugh Stanbury (Miss Stanbury’s nephew) and although, he cannot support her, she decides that she will marry him anyway. It is obviously as romantic as it sounds, but in a very realistic novel like this one, it is more a proof of Nora’s strength.

And then, there is Priscilla Stanbury, Hugh’s sister. She is not rich at all, she is quite plain and fully accepts the fact that she will never marry. And she even clearly states that she doesn’t like men this much. Of course, she’s thought of it because every girl is raised towards that goal and she knows the comfort it would bring her. But she is alright with being single and not knowing love – also because she is very pragmatic and clever, she knows love is not the foundation of most marriages around her. Somehow, she reminds me of Jane Eyre: Jane at first accepts the fact that she has to work for herself and will never be part of the ‘married world’. She is not too sad about it – she seems quite indifferent to it before she meets Rochester – but she still knows that this is not a satisfying life, either.

“If I had a husband I should want a good one, a man with a head on his shoulders, and a heart. Even if I were young and good-looking, I doubt whether I could please myself. As it is I am likely to be taken bodily to heaven, as to become any man’s wife.” 

It’s no secret that the Victorian society was absolutely patriarchal, but it is very interesting to read about what the impact was on ‘real’ people. I say people because men suffer from this attitude, too. In the novel, the victim is Louis Trevelyan. He slowly becomes mad because of all the pressure he puts on himself: a wife has to obey her husband. And his wife doesn’t, which makes him a bad husband. I do not think he actually cares that much about the details of Emily’s relation with Osborne, what is important to him is his wife’s obedience because that is the way a marriage is supposed to work. He believes what he has been told and thinks that a woman on her own is not much, she has to let her husband guide her towards morality and propriety. However, Emily is not so submissive and she has a rather strong personality and set of principles. She obviously is a victim of Louis’s patriarchal beliefs since she found herself with nowhere to live with her child. A woman had just no right at the time and without her father or husband, she was nothing. Helen Graham, in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, has a brother who helps her find shelter, but Emily only has an uncle who can’t really support her.

Nonetheless, I believe the first victim of this authoritative society is Louis. If he hadn’t has as much pressure to tell him how to behave as a husband, he would not have started this in the first place. But because society expected him to behave a certain way, he acted accordingly and dragged many other victims in his downfall.

He Knew He Was Right is an amazing novel that I can’t recommend enough. Because it is so long it obviously suffers from repetitions, which are sometimes very heavy and boring because you understood the first time you read it, a couple of chapters ago. And although, they had me sighing with exasperation quite a few times, it was nothing compared to the richness of what I was able learn.

The novel was adapted for TV by the BBC in 2004. I haven’t watched it but I read it was quite good and must be probably more digestible than this massive tome!

2017

I am so glad 2017 is behind us, now! This year has been like the opening of A Tale of Two Cities for me: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ Sheer bliss and utter despair have cohabited this year and it did not feel amazing.

As for books, this has not been a fantastic year at all. In 2015 and 2016, I read a bit more than 50 books so I set my Goodreads challenge to 60 books for 2017… That may have been a bit too much for me, or that may just have been the wrong year to set such a challenge to myself. In the end, I read 32 books – which I know is still pretty decent. I also realise that it’s a bit silly to count your love of reading in books read, because it just depends on the size of it and the pace at which you read. I was just a bit disappointed because I know that I can do better than that…

But that’s exactly the point of 2018 for me: this year will be the year of self-love, or at least an attempt at being softer with silly old me. As a result, I decided to go easy on me and set my challenge for this year to 35 books whilst keeping in mind that the important thing is to read anyway. And if possible, to read fulfilling books that make me react and think.

Anyway, I thought I’d do a little summary of my reading year on here because I just love to read that sort of articles, and like to reflect on the things I read.

The shortest book I read this year was The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan, which is 128 pages long. I don’t remember every detail but I still have the feeling of proper weirdness I had when I read it. It’s about a couple who’s on holiday and they meet a very strange man and the story becomes very weird, indeed. The sort of weird that you can’t really let go but that you can’t fully make sense of. The writing was beautiful, though!

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The longest book, with 590 pages, was The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë. This book is absolutely amazing and whilst I was reading it, I thought ‘I can’t wait to re-read it.’ – which I’d like to do this year, maybe. It’s the story of this mysterious woman who arrives in a village with her child. No one knows who she is or where she comes from, but she seems to be over-protective of her child which raises the villagers’ curiosity. Especially that of Gilbert, the main narrator, which is one my favourite male character ever, hands down. I cannot recommend reading this novel enough, it is just perfect.

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I re-read six books this year, including one of my all-time-favourites: L’écume des jours (Froth on the Daydream), by Boris Vian. This is the most poetic and creative book I have ever read, but it is also bleak and dreadful. Colin meets his wife, who quickly becomes sick and he has to spend all of his money in order to cure her. Meanwhile, his best friend Chick gets more and more obsessed with philosopher Jean-Sol Partre (yes it is a not-so-subtle reference to the one and only Jean-Paul Sartre) and spends huge amounts of money in fake relics. With a very jazzy soundtrack, there is also a vivid criticism of the world of work which Vian despised. I first read it when I was 14 and I am quite happy I have re-read it as an adult because I have been able to understand things a lot more and make more sense of the different messages Vian tried to convey.

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It is quite funny because the book I read in 2017 which has the best ratings on Goodreads is also the book I enjoyed the least. I am talking about Coleen Hoover’s It Ends with Us. It deals with very serious issues like domestic abuse but I was just not convinced. First, I thought it was not really realistic and I could see the writer behind every plot twist or things like that. Besides, there were a few sex scenes which made me cringe a lot. I am not a big fan of sex in novels for I often find them unrealistic and just badly written, but here it was particularly the case. I went to the London Girly Book Club to talk about it in August, and I feel like most of the girls there thought about the same as me – which I found quite comforting.

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My two favourite books of 2017 are Clair de Femme (Womanlight) by Romain Gary and How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis.

9782070296064-usRomain Gary is one of my favourite authors and I remembered why by reading Clair de Femme. It’s about this man who runs away from home because his wife is very ill and has decided to commit suicide. He thus decides to stay away whilst she does that and reminds himself of all the time they’ve spent together whilst he slowly loses his mind. This a sad, sad story but this is beautiful. Sometimes, it doesn’t make much sense because the narrator is going absolutely nuts – and you can understand why – but it is filled with poetry. I saw there is a film adaptation with Romy Schneider and Yves Montand, so maybe that can be good, who knows!

 

how-to-be-a-heroine-by-samantha-ellisLater on this year, I felt deeply in love with non-fiction thanks to Samantha Ellis’s book, in which she goes through the heroines she had when she was younger and re-evaluates them now, as an adult. It is fascinating, and very easy to relate to if you’re obsessed with books. But the reason why it made me fall for the genre is because I just loved hearing somebody’s story. Ellis comes from a very background and tells her story in such a natural and realistic way, I feel like I learnt so much with her. And she also provided me with a massive to-read list, which is always a nice bonus.

 

Anyway, 2017 was the year of massive ups and downs and I am very glad to start afresh with lots of things to look forward, and hopefully, many more fascinating books to come.

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Reuben Sachs, Amy Levy (1888)

A few weeks ago, I went to Persephone Books in London. If you have never heard about this wonderful little publishing house/ bookshop, let me tell you a bit more : this London-based publisher publishes almost exclusively women’s works. Most of them have actually been forgotten and Persephone gives them a new life so that they can be loved again. As a consequence, you won’t find many contemporary works but mostly stories from the 20s-50s. That being said, at their wonderful little shop on Lamb’s Conduit Street, they also sell art books and some novels that they picked and which beautifully complement the tone and spirit of their work. But since they’re mainly a publishing house, you are likely to find them in your local bookshop or library – or you can order online, of course.

Anyway, I went there and picked a couple of books including Amy Levy’s Reuben Sachs. I did not know anything about this book, apart from the description of Levy as of ‘a Jewish Jane Austen’. I was really curious to read that book because it is a Victorian story about a man, written by a woman and that’s exactly the sort of things I want to work on in the future.

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Reuben Sachs is a young man who’s been struggling with handling stress lately and he has been prescribed a stay abroad by his doctor. When the novel begins, he is back in London and ready to lead a successful career in politics. His whole family is introduced as he comes back and meets with them – his mother, his sister, his cousins, etc. And then, Judith Quixano whom we soon understand Reuben is in love with. She loves him too, but she is very sensible and knows she’s far too poor for him, who needs a wealthy wife in order to succeed in his career.

It sounds pretty basic for a Victorian novel, right? But trust me, it is everything BUT basic.

I found it very hard at first to understand what was the author’s point of view, because the narrator rarely states an opinion clearly. But after reading the very last line, it all made sense: this is a book about the complexity of identity, and all the paradoxes that come with it.

Levy, writing at the end of the 19th century, had in mind racial theories that are no longer acceptable today. She describes Reuben’s figure and movements as typical of his race in a rather unflattering way, but somehow places him on a pedestal. To me, he appears as the wise one through most of the novel. It turns out that he was not entirely, because he sacrificed his happiness for money and got punished for that (I’m staying as vague as possible in order to not spoil the ending – but it must still be easy to guess, though!). However, the reader cannot help but to look up to him as every other family member does in the story. You almost have to admire his devotion. This dedication can be found in most characters here, be it work-related or family-wise. Surprisingly enough, it is not so obvious as regards religion – apart from Solomon and Mr Quixano, none of the characters seems very concerned as to why they believe in this particular orthodoxy. Leo and Esther are a bit more critical, especially the former who seems to be a free spirit in this family: he doesn’t live in London because he studies in Cambridge in order to be a musician. Obviously, his family does not really agree with this goal, but he is still arguably free since he’s away from them. He prefers Cambridge to London, which he hates. On the contrary, Reuben is dearly attached to his hometown and we can understand so from the very first lines : ‘he was back again: back to the old, full, strenuous life which was so dear to him: to the din and rush and struggle of the London which he loved with a passion that had something of poetry in it’. Somehow, the city is also rather harmful to Reuben and we can’t really know for sure whether Levy praises life in London or not.

This paradoxical side to the novel is omnipresent, especially when it comes to religion, and I’m still not sure what to think. Most characters accept their religion without much questioning, as I previously mentioned, but they make a point to live by the rules and traditions that come with it. This novel comes as a response to George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda where the Jewish community is romanticised – Levy directly criticises this book in her novel. Here, we seem to have a realistic portrait of the community, it is certainly not perfect (Levy has been accused of antisemitism because of how she describes her people) but it feels truthful. What is confusing is the internal fight that seemed to have taken control of the author: she is Jewish and that’s a part of her personality and culture in which she grew up, but she’s a woman, and quite a feminist, so she can’t really stand the way her religion has to look down on women ‘“Blessed art Thou, O Lord my God, who hast not made me a woman.”  No prayer goes up from the synagogue with greater fervour than this.‘. She is for a more modern vision of it all, she considers herself as Anglo-Jewish, but turning to the English society somehow means to turn her back on where she comes from… it is a vicious circle that seems to have no end in Reuben Sachs.

Speaking about the title, this novel should really be called Reuben Sachs and Judith Quixano. The novel follows Judith for the most part, although it always has something to do with Reuben. Judith is beautiful, sensible and humble; she basically is the perfect Victorian woman. But there is not much else to say about her. The only really interesting thing she does is to turn to poetry when she is utterly desperate. She realises how important it is, even though she does not understand it.

Although on the whole the book was a nice little read, I found the style to be a bit too much: too pompous and not exactly fitting the tone of what was told. It didn’t prevent me from crying like a baby and using up half a dozen of tissues at the end, but it seriously prevented my enjoyment for most of my reading. In the end, I think that the most interesting facet of Reuben Sachs is Amy Levy: a genuinely interesting person, through whom it is nice to ponder on identity and religion, especially in a time of change like that of the 19th century, but I wouldn’t absolutely recommend to read it since it feels way longer than it actually is.