2023 was the year I finally finished Clarissa but may be no surprise that it’s not included in top ten favourite books. It’s a very varied list this year, with a number of books that came out this year and even a rare appearance of some non-fiction. So, out of the nearly hundred books I read, which were my top ten favourites?
So, without further ado….
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
The second longest book I read this year, it was well paced and well observed.
Anna Karenina’s opening line is one of the most famous in literature. It’s easy to see why, it has an aphoristic certainty that put’s it up there with Pride and Prejudice’s more ironic take. I don’t agree with it though, happy families are just as varied (and potentially interesting) as unhappy ones. It does set up the arena of the plot though, the book follows three couples in particular, the choices they make (or are driven to make) and the results thereof.
The first couple is Dolly and Stiva Oblonsky. They’ve been together for several years and Dolly has subsumed herself into motherhood, yet she’s shocked when she discovers that Stiva has been having an affair with the nanny. It’s revealed throughout the book that Stiva has affairs with lots of people. What’s more, he doesn’t see them as affairs because his matrimonial heart is still with his wife, even if his having fun body is with someone else. He’ll never learn and she either has to accept it or not. He’s also getting the family into debt by trying to live the high life without the income. Yet he’s also utterly loveable, to the other characters and (to this reader) and his faults come from the same openness that make him loveable.
Then there’s the titular Anna Karenina, her husband Alexei and the Count Vronksy. Anna is Stiva’s sister and seems to share his traits of being immediately likeable to everyone, indeed, she’s loveable to everyone. Vronsky is one of those who is sucked into her orbit by her charisma and can’t help himself. She also can’t help being drawn to him, it’s not that her husband is a bad person, but he’s not a passionate one and it’s stifling her. That she must choose between her lover and her son is a huge strain for her.
The final couple is Levin and Kitty. She was initially after Vronsky, and so turned Levin down. This sends him into a spiral and, when Vronksy ghosts her, sends Kitty in one also. They emerge from their spirals and start to spiral together. Despite clearly being Tolstoy’s favourite character, Levin is the prickliest and most awkward person in the book who other thinks everything. (Also, I don’t think Tolstoy liked children very much, they are always described as screaming, shrieking or snotty).
This is a book where everyone is an idiot. Levin is clearly so, as is Stiva - but Anna could choose a happier resolution for her predicament, Vronsky could get out before he was sucked in, Alexei could have shown Anna more love. Everyone’s an idiot. Everyone’s human. It’s a wonderfully observed book, told often through micro-expressions and small fluctuations of character’s eyes. Also, the characters are envisioned that the things that make them idiots and the things that are good and noble about them come from the same springs. Whether it’s Stiva’s openness, Anna’s passion, Levin’s neuroticism, Alexei’s caution - they are the sources of both their joy and despair, it’s very human.
The most famous tragedy in the book, is frequently foreshadowed in such a way to make it seem inevitable, but even as a reader aware of the tragedy, it came suddenly. There was this very immersive part, where Anna is distraught, hardly aware of where she is going or what she doing, only that everyone she sees irritates the hell out of her - then it happens and it’s still shocking. Then you realise it’s just Levin chapters for the next hundred-odd pages.
To be fair those Levin chapters are pretty good. They show him growing up a little and connecting to something worth living for. Anna Karenina is a book which happens largely at balls, dinners, nightclubs and family gatherings, but it ends quite cosmically, with Levin realising his place in the wide universe and accepting it.
Most impressively, especially for a book of 900 pages, its phenomenally well paced. There aren’t the languors of Clarissa, or the sense that all the stuff in the book is cancelling out the other suff, like Les Miserables. Anna Karenina knows when to put its foot down and when to ease up. It takes time to establish the cast, giving them small trials to attempt. It teases parallels between getting married and having a divorce. There’s a very cunning break between the moment Anna tells her husband about the affair and the resolution of that. It uses its length to make the world feel lived in and handles plot and pacing impeccably.
No surprise, but it is very good.
Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching by H.C Barkley
Odd that a rat-catching handbook should be one of the most charming books of the year, but there we are.
Charm may not be the first word evoked by a guidebook for catching rats, but Studies in the Art of Rat-catching by Henry Barkley is surprisingly charming.
While it’s true that the subject is primarily rat catching, and there are chapters about what is needed to do the job, it’s not a simple, no-frills guide.
For a start, the author pretends to be the character of Bill Joy, a warm-hearted old fella with a warm-hearted honesty and a weakness for pipe tobacco. He’s a tough man, believing that leather gloves are for wusses and that a proper rat-catcher should expect being bitten by a rat a few times. Yet he shows many examples of being a softie, especially when it comes to his dogs. Insult him all you want but don’t be mean about those mutts. While he says he’s not a ‘sentimental, fat pug on a string’ kind of person and wouldn’t have a dog in the house, but don’t believe that. ‘Bill’ says that he can talk to his dogs, and that one mutt had snitched on a ‘prigging policeman’, who was actually jailed several years for theft.
While this is not much of a book for rat lovers (or rabbit fans, 650 of them are killed in a weekend in this book), it is a book for dog lovers. The book exudes love for them, with ‘Bill’ having a chat with a little child about if dogs go to heaven, concludes that of course they will and imagining the many wagging tails he can’t wait to see when he gets there. Of the dogs he describes, I particularly took to Grindum, a big-faced, vicious looking bulldog with a habit of slow blinking and a temperament so gentle that the rats sometimes get the better of him.
The introduction of Grindum also allows Barkley to pursue what (might) be the book’s real purpose, to tell a sentimental story. A family turn up in an empty shack near the village; mother, father and two children. The man doesn’t work but he does drink and one day a crime is committed he is suspected of it. He bumps into the narrator and says that he is going to hand himself in to the police for a shorter sentence, that his children are cared for and that he just wants to sell his dog. The narrator receives the dog, Grindum, takes him home, only to find the two children have followed the dog to his house and that the older boy in particular won’t be parted from him. It’s revealed that they’ve seen their mum murdered and their dad ran away.. of course ‘Bill’ takes them in.
The anecdote is beautifully written though, and the pathos built up well. There’s a moment when he describes how the little girl had a face with “a sad, careworn old look which I pray I may never see on a child’s face again” as she silently comforts her brother, which is very affecting. He describes how the children have grown up and that some people say the boy, Jack, is a bit off, a bit cracked. His response, “If Jack is cracked, then I like cracked boys”. He’s also very generous about his wife in this section.
Jack is then included in the next anecdotes, where they have a good and bad day’s ratting and then a rabbitting holiday by the sea. This leads to a series of sentimental anecdotes about the lives of sailors, and a poor little ‘crippled’ boy with the ‘beauty of a girl’. The descriptions of the storms are very evocative and the danger and heroism of the fishermen conveyed well. - Though this does make the book a ‘hodge-podge’, as he says.
While Studies in the Art of Rat-catching does contain advice and information, what tools to use, how to look after ferrets and how to train a dog - but it’s not a straight up rat-catching handbook. This is clear from the way the book contains more scenes of anecdote and sentiment than rat-catching. It’s also clear from the use of a character, ‘Bill Joy’ - how many of the events in the book are true?
What’s more, the book pretends to be a textbook for use in upper-class schools. The introduction talks about how he knows the children would rather be doing fun things like conjugating Latin verbs, but they need to learn the noble arts of rat-catching so they don’t fail and have a pointless career like politician. However, by the end of the book, it’s clear the rich kids won’t make it as rat-catchers, it’s “too much above their intellect”.
The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G Wells
H.G Wells is not an author I’ve ever thought as my favourites, but I’ve yet to read one by him that I didn’t enjoy.
I thought it was one of those books where the one thing everyone knows about it is the secret, like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or The String of Pearls. It turned out I was a little wrong though, having assumed the beast-men (and women) were devolved people, not evolved(?) creatures.
HG Wells uses both belt and braces in making sure that Prendick, and the reader, are trapped on the island. First there’s a shipwreck, starvation on a dinghy, rescue and then being kicked off that boat onto Moreau’s island. Once there, the mystery is solved fairly quickly, the main issue is how to live with that mystery. Moreau has control over his creatures due to ‘the law’, a collection of demands and threats. With each of them having fearful memories of their time in Moreau’s hands, they obey in fear. It’s strangely, viscerally horrible and hasn’t lost that impact.
The creatures themselves seem like parodies of human forms and types such as the philosopher ape-man’s big and little thoughts, the dog man’s loyalty or the grotesquely obsequious sloth man. Of course man is the true monster and we are left with a very Swiftian ending (which Prendick even recognises) that, like Gulliver, he can never look at people the same way again.
Also, this seems to be a book bands like, or at least House of Pain and Devo.
To The Chapel Perilous by Naomi Mitchison
Considering I read ten Naomi Mitchison books in 2023, this is the only of her books to enter the top ten.
There are two central conceits to the book: What if there were newspaper journalists around to record the stories of the Round Table? And, what if every knight who has won a grail in the centuries of tradition actually did?
These two what-ifs come together really well. Leanors is a broadsheet journalist under the editorship of Merlin and Dalyn is a tabloid journalist under the editorship of Lord Horny (aka, The Devil). Both newspapers are utterly against the notion of many grails, a multitude of grails would weaken the whole idea of a grail quest and a grail knight. It’s only special if there’s one. So, both newspapers declare Galahad’s quest and grail the ‘true’ one, mainly because his is the simplest story. However, this doesn’t stop there being a whole bunch of other grails and the two reporters go to the different headquarters of the various knights to report.
As much as I’ve enjoyed the Mitchison books I’ve read, I haven’t found her as funny as I was expecting, this book is funny. There’s fun to be had with Merlin and the Devil as newspaper editors. There’s a lovely running gag about the ‘subs’, who are sub-editors, but also implied to be monstrous troglodyte-esque sub-humans. There are the mythological animals who serve as photographers in this world, including the Chad. The Chad confused me at first, not being a mythological creature I had heard of, but he’s the Chad of the old ‘Wot no…’ cartoons (known as Kilroy in the US).
There were also numerous references and gags to Arthurian legend. They mention that Taliesin is too high-brow to include the blue collar grail quest stuff. Sir Dinadan is referenced as a humour columnist. The different knights at grails are wonderfully characterised, whether it’s the pre-christian wildness of Peredur/Percival’s grail in the Forêt Sauvage, or the messianic version found at Joyous Garde. It became a little more serious when the whole Lancelot/Guinevere thing came out and the characters were catapulted to the end of Arthur’s reign - though there were still some fun bits about how Modred had buffed up.
A quote in the book says, “if you can keep it light, you can say a lot more”, and I wish Mitchison had followed that rule a bit more in her other books. To The Chapel Perilous manages to be both light and dense, like a satisfying cake. I’m not sure what someone unaware of various grail stories and general Arthurian Lore would get out of this book, it has the potential to be quite confusing but as someone who likes that stuff, this is a fun time. What’s more, it actually has points to make about the validity of lots of small truths rather than a single authorised Truth - and that’s a message that appeals to me.
Reynard the Fox by Anne Louise Avery
Not my first Reynard the Fox - the one I read in 2019 didn’t reach my top ten, this version did.
In 2019, I read a 2015 translation of Reynard the Fox that declared it was the first in over a century. In 2023 I read this 2020 translation. It would seem Reynard the Fox’s are like buses, wait a hundred years and two turn up at once. As such, it’s hard for me not to read Anne Louise Avery’s translation without comparing it to James Simpson’s.
One thing that is striking, is it’s clear they are both translating the same Caxton original. Not only are all the events the same, but really odd little details (like a particular villager that is described as having ‘long fingers’) are the same. The other striking thing is that Avery’s is twice as long as Simpson’s. While he went with plain sentences that matched the line drawings that illustrated his version, Avery goes maximalist.
Where Simpson might have a chapter that’s a paragraph in length, Avery will make it six or seven pages. Where something may be a line in Simpson, it’ll be several paragraphs in Avery. There’s much here that could be cut out, the two page description of the different mice Tybert likes to eat, the invented gossip given to each minor character, the many lengthy descriptions of food. If lengthy lists of food were cut out this book, it’d be a hundred pages shorter - but then it wouldn’t be itself. If Simpson is offering a clear translation to simply put across Caxton’s take on the story, Avery wants you to roll and languish in that story. Which is to say, it’s longer, and far more verbose but it feels richer and more lived in. Even the descriptions of food serve a purpose, food is the primary motor behind most of the animal’s actions. They may be anthropomorphised, but they are wild animals at heart.
None is more wild than Reynard. He’s something of an anti-hero, he may make the rich, the powerful and the bullies look silly but he also preys ceaselessly on the weak. “A fox can only ever be a fox…and those who disagree deserve all the obfuscation and trickery a tod can throw at them.” Avery’s excess of description really helps with the characterisation of Reynard. Here he is cool, suave, dressed to the nines. He is a domestic homebody who loves playing with the children and revere’s his wife’s intellectualism. He’s convincing and flattering, and when things get really bad and he finds himself lost for words, we really feel for him. This is despite Reynard’s completely amoral attitude to everyone around him.
It also helps the characterisation of the other animals. King Noble the lion is a bit of an upper class twit, a comfortable toff who’d rather be at a joust then ruling Ghent. Tybert the cat is a scholar of Boethius and completely regrets being drawn into the whole sorry story. Bruin the bear, for all his strength, is kind of loveable because all he really wants to do is eat nice food and be left alone. Isengrim the wolf is painted truly odiously, and Avery wants to remind us how rank he smells whenever he crosses the reader’s path. He’s terrible to his wife, Lady Erswinde (who is called Lady Arsewind in the Simpson version) and we enjoy seeing his comeuppance.
One of the odd results of this maximalist interpretation is the strange anthropomorphises in the animal kingdom of Ghent. At once, it’s truly sad that Reynard decapitates Lapreel the Hare, or preys on the family of Chanticleer the chicken, but then it’s not a tragedy when the royal court have a feast where they eat dozens of capons, swans and geese. Sometimes it’s played as hypocrisy, King Noble castigates Reynard for his little predations yet gorges on half his subjects, but mostly it’s not mentioned.
Another odd result of the maximalist telling is that the moments of violence and gore are less stark. Bruin having his skin and ears ripped off, the priest losing his testicle, the fight between Reynard and Isengrim are all less visceral because they are couched in so many words.
That said, I think it’s a brilliant retelling and both work well in different ways. Avery’s is a more inviting, luxurious place to be, and if she scaled back a little we wouldn’t get the detail of the gibbet with the rattling bones of a squirrel, “a notorious nut thief from Limoges”. And that would be a loss indeed.
If you want to look at all the books I read last year, they can be found on my list here.
Next week for the top five.