Hello. Here we are at the end of 2020. These days at the end of the year are usually deliciously languid, relished after the hustle and bustle of Christmas and its preparations. This year, however, I have found them too long, probably because there was so little hustle and bustle preceding them and because I haven't seen another human being apart from the Best Beloved since Christmas Day. I haven't been unhappy, we have had two beautiful snowfalls this week and I have eaten mince pies and drunk wine, knitted and watched films, but I am ready to move on now and leave this horrible year behind.
It's time to show you the books I have read this year. I'm not a fast reader so I was amazed that I read four books in January (although let's face it, the weather was horrible so I didn't really go out anywhere) and thought that I would have no problem hitting my target of twenty books by the end of November. Four!! The first was a Christmas gift, Grandmothers by Salley Vickers. Nothing much happens in this book but it perfectly encapsulates how I feel about being a grandmother. I read a disparaging review of it in The Guardian and it was obvious to me that the critic wasn't a grandmother because she just didn't understand the relationships in the book. I enjoyed it, and I also enjoyed the physical presence of the book: it's a comfortable size in the hand, beautifully bound and has a ribbon bookmark. What more could I want?
Having finished Grandmothers in four days, I was prompted to reread Miss Garnet's Angel by the same author. I first read this novel when it was published in paperback in 2002 and considered it one of my favourite books. Eighteen years later I still loved it and perhaps understood and appreciated it even more with the benefit of those eighteen years of life experience. It's certainly staying in the house.
My next book was Burial Rites by Hannah Kent which fictionalizes the true story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland, in 1829. I've been to Iceland and its landscape, architecture and way of life are intrinsic to the story. I loved it and tried to pass it on to The Teacher but she pointed out to me that she had already read it and lent it to me so it was, in fact, her own book!
January's final book was Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte. I've read this before too, but that was more than thirty years ago and I couldn't remember it. It's a wonderful novel, if you are put off by the idea of reading "the classics" I recommend this as the style is easy to read and it's only 180 pages long. I polished it off in three days and was left outraged and saddened by the way young governesses were treated by their employers in the nineteenth century.
So, I thought I should read Miss Bronte's other novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. To be quite honest, it's not as good as many people proclaim it to be and I spent weeks mired in it. I think my biggest problem with it was that I didn't sympathise with the narrator, although there's also the fact that while The Tenant is supposed to be an independent woman, she's ultimately reliant on her family's financial and practical support and she makes an annoying marriage choice. I'm trying not to spoil it for you in case you want to read it yourself but really, don't bother, read Jane Eyre instead. This paperback book has now fallen apart, having been used for serious study twice and reading "enjoyment" twice more so out it will go.
After trudging through that one I moved on to The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge. I picked this up from a free stall because I read The Herb of Grace by the same author three years ago and enjoyed it very much. This one started off well but I was a bit disappointed by the end. I thought it was a bit old-fashioned, but that doesn't usually put me off a book, I like old-fashioned, so it must have been something more. However, I'm glad I read it and it can leave now.
That one took me up to the middle of April and I read two more books that month - we were in lockdown and I still couldn't go out anywhere. The first was The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce. This is the second of her books which I have read and enjoyed. It is about music but it's really about people and relationships and community, subjects in which I am very interested, and it's very well-written.
Next came Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I really shouldn't have read this but it was so good that I couldn't help myself. In the opening chapter, a virulent new strain of influenza appears and eventually wipes out 99% of the world's population. Do you see why I shouldn't have read it? It's a marvellous novel about memory, loss and the importance of art and if we weren't in the middle of a global pandemic I would be urging you all to read it but it's a bit too close to the bone for these times.
In May I read Holy Fools by Joanne Harris. I have read a few of her books and enjoyed them and this one didn't disappoint. However, after I finished it I decided that I needed to give myself a good talking to. There's always something dark in her novels and, on top of Station Eleven, it really didn't do my mood any good. There was enough darkness in the real world without escaping to it in books so I decided that my next book shouldn't be one of the serious novels lining my To Be Read shelf but instead it should be something light and comforting. So when Martin Jarvis began reading Just William by Richmal Crompton every morning on Radio 4 I reached my dusty paperback down from the shelves which hold the books I have had since I was a child and, for the first time in more than forty years, opened the cover. It was perfect. Actually, Martin Jarvis was perfect, even the Best Beloved enjoyed listening with me and he actually allowed me to read chunks of my book aloud to him! Amusing, light and comforting, it was just what I needed.
In June I continued in the same vein and read What Katy Did by Susan M. Coolidge. Again, it is more than forty years since I read this, and it provided a good escape from reality. This cheap copy was not mine, it must have come into the house for one of my daughters, and when I found the first spelling mistake I knew that it would have to go as soon as I finished it. I cannot abide spelling mistakes.
I had really slowed up by this point. I tried several grown-up novels and cast them aside before I had a brainwave and fished out The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. I know that I'm a bit late to the party with this one but honestly, please read it if you haven't. Again, it's about the healing powers of relationships and community and it's beautifully written. Like The Music Shop, this one was passed on to me by my mother so Ma, if you're reading, please would you like to lend me The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, the companion novel?
I completed Harold's journey on 6th July and I didn't pick up a book for another two months. My brain just wouldn't settle down and let me become absorbed in a novel. However, in the middle of September we went away to the seaside for a long weekend and I wanted to take a book with me, just in case. I scanned the shelf and spotted Coastliners by Joanne Harris, another novel which has been sitting waiting for more years than I care to remember, and I thought that as I would be by the coast, this book might be suitable as I do find that reading a book in some context enhances my enjoyment. It was indeed suitable. Ms Harris always crafts a fine story and I enjoyed it very much, sitting on the beach in the sunshine, until the denouement, which I thought was rushed and so lacked credibility. However, I am glad that I read it.
Next came Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, another of my childhood books, this one dating from the 1970s when a Puffin paperback cost 25p. I love this story SO much, before I wanted to be Jo March I wanted to be Pauline Fossil. Reading this book again was easy, calming, comforting and really quite delightful and I didn't choose anything else for a while afterwards, not because I didn't want to read but because I wanted to keep living in this one.
Book number fifteen was a properly grown-up book, The Other Side by Mary Gordon. I didn't like it. I stuck with it because I hoped that it would get better and because I always finish a book once I start it but it didn't get better and with one exception, the characters didn't become more likeable. This book was passed on to me and I shall now be passing it out of the door.
Reading My Dream of You by Nuala O'Faolain brought me to the end of November. This was passed on to me by my bookish aunt who was interested in our family's Irish heritage and it's about a middle-aged woman who returns to Ireland after living in London for all of her adult life to research a nineteenth century mystery. I enjoyed it and I am glad that I read it.
That brought me almost to the end of November. There are only sixteen books here so I missed my target of twenty but I'm not really disappointed because I have read sixteen books, which is fourteen more than I read in 2017, and there was a point this year when I thought that I may only read eleven, and let's not forget that I slogged through The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and The Other Side, for which I deserve some sort of endurance award.At the beginning of December I pulled out these books to dip into through the month. Nigel Slater's The Christmas Chronicles was new last year and Jostein Gaarder's The Christmas Mystery was new the year before. Each of them is a bit like an Advent calender, with a short chapter to read each day. They are relatively new friends but I intend them to become old friends. New for this year was Yuletide, which is great if you are at all interested in British customs, traditions and folklore, and Dorothy Wordsworth's Christmas Birthday, which is a poem written by Carol Ann Duffy and beautifully illustrated by Tom Duxbury. I like to read my battered old copy of The Tailor of Gloucester every Christmas as that is when it is set, and you already know that I like to read a book in context if it's possible. Growing up I found this story quite creepy, all those mice scurrying about behind the skirting boards and being trapped under teacups by Simpkin, ready for his dinner, but I like it much more now and find it heartwarming. Beatrix Potter claimed that this was her favourite of the Tales.
Now, all this dipping was fine and festive BUT I found myself wanting to read something longer, a proper story. I wasn't sure quite what because I didn't want anything completely immersive when there were Christmas preparations to be made, and I really wanted something seasonal, but what to choose? Then I had a lightbulb moment: I remembered that my mother had told me about an article in The Telegraph at the beginning of December which stated, "A warm November with Christmas decorations up early has led to a reverse Narnia, where it is always Christmas and never winter." Narnia! I took out of its slipcase my precious copy of The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. It made a perfect December read, particularly for this year - ice and snow, Father Christmas, spring emerging to bring hope and the triumph of good over evil. I'm sure you can see the metaphor.
My last December read was a gift from Father Christmas (whose handwriting is identical to my mother's - isn't that funny?). This is not my first copy of A Christmas Carol but it is the first one which is new to me and it is a beautiful edition, sitting well in the hand and with a good-sized font, which is increasingly important to me as the years pass. I read it over a couple of days after Christmas.
So, that was my year in books. It has been the strangest year of my life and I know that some people embraced the opportunity afforded them by lockdown and read dozens of books but I found myself unable to do that and at times when I felt that the ground was always shifting beneath my feet I found stability, comfort and relief in reading books I loved when I was a child and novels about the importance of caring human relationships.
Tonight we shall light fire and candles, eat, drink and be merry, just the two of us, as usual.
See you next year.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x