Home > Personal Posts > Best of 2012 : my choices among the books I read

Best of 2012 : my choices among the books I read

December 27, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Mafalda_merci2012 is ending and now is the time for me to look back on my reading year and think about the books I loved the most. I don’t have any categories, only what we call in French my “Coups de Coeur”, literally “blow of the heart”. (I still don’t know the English equivalent of this phrase, so if someone can enlighten me…)

1 – The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

This one stayed with me. I have a special connection with Newland Archer, even deeper than the one I felt with Ralph in The Custom of the Country. He reached me personally and I understand him better than I’d wish to. I think Wharton portrays men the way men writers don’t, in their humanity, their weaknesses.

2 – In the Absence of Men by Philippe Besson.

Besson is my discovery of the year. I love the flow of his prose, the way he describes passion as a demanding force, a hurricane. It’s not a wailing passion like the Romantics describe it. It’s a compulsive force the characters surrender to but always with their eyes open and perfectly aware of the risks they’re taking. This one also made Max’s end-of-the-year list, which is a great reference for me.

3 – Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

Philip Roth and I are in a one way literary relationship. In appearance, I have nothing in common with Nathan Zuckerman. And yet, there’s something in Roth’s prose that always crawls under my skin and stays there. It’s the heady mix of the trivial and the deep thinking, coloured with dark humour. He seems to write effortlessly but this degree of apparent nonchalance is the brand of a gifted and skilled writer.

4 – Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi.

Bone chilling. It haunted me after I read it and I need to read another of her books to connect her with something else than this story.

5 – The Ripening Seed by Colette.

Adolescence pictured in a breathtaking prose. A revelation for me. And why had I never read Colette before?

6 – The Enchantment of Lily Dahl by Siri Hustvedt

I’m not a specialist but it floated in the air of this novel a scent of a Noir novel. It’s not crime fiction but I had the feeling some of the codes of Noir applied there. It’s beautifully written and the characters are unusual.

7 – Miss Mckenzie by Anthony Trollope.

I owe this one to Guy and last year’s virtual Christmas gifts. I loved it. I loved Miss Mckenzie, Trollope’s prose and his undercurrent feminism. It seems like a light novel but it’s not. It’s a precise picture of the society of that time and the condition of women.

8 – La curée by Emile Zola

Guy pointed it to me when he was reading all Zola. I loved it for the characters and for the historical background of the Second Empire and the transformation of Paris. Some things don’t change in human behaviour when money or sex is at stake.

9 – Washington Square by Henry James.

On the second reading, I saw the violence of the battle of wills between Catherine and her father. I still don’t know if Morris’s intentions were honest or not. Does it matter? I think that James wanted more to write about the confrontation than about the love story.

10 – Cakes and Ale by William Somerset Maugham

Beside the exceptional prose, I read it the same year as Exit Ghost and both explore the posterity of a writer. How can a writer control what others will write about him after his death? And then of course, I’m reading all Thomas Hardy, so the connection with this writer was interesting too.

In addition to this selection of books, I want to draw your attention to several other French books:

  • Kennedy et moi by Jean-Paul Dubois
  • Tu verras by Nicolas Fargues
  • Eloïse est chauve by Emilie de Turckheim.
  • Apocalypse Bébé by Virginie Despentes
  • A Slight Misunderstanding by Prosper Mérimée

I hope I piqued your curiosity, that you’ll be interested in trying one of these books. They’re really worth it. To the readers of this blog, I’ll say thank you. Thanks for taking the time to read my rambling, babbling or chatting about books or whatever the appropriate expression is. Thanks for the comments and for clicking on the Like button to say “Hi, I’ve been there”

I’ll continue writing billets about the books I read in 2013. Sharing my thoughts with you is a real pleasure and I hope you’ll still be willing to read them.

All the best, Emma

Categories: Personal Posts
  1. December 27, 2012 at 12:35 am

    Possibly heart stopping? it describes some experience or something that is so shocking, exciting, exhilarating or scary that it seems like it will result in your heart stopping its beat. Great selection of reads, have always liked Zola.


    • December 27, 2012 at 8:55 pm

      No, not “heart stopping” It’s more something you like at first sight, it’s not rational and it’s something you want to share with others. In bookstores or libraries, you’ll find bookmarks or signs with “Le coup de coeur du libraire”, where an employee does a little review of the book to say why they recommend it.
      These were all wonderful books. I also read The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb and it could have made the list too.


  2. December 27, 2012 at 3:34 am

    cakes and Ale is a great favourite Emma, so I’m happy to see it make the list (along with Zola, Trollope, James and Wharton).All top flight in my opinion.


    • December 27, 2012 at 8:57 pm

      I wonder what you’d think of Exit Ghost, especially since you know Cakes and Ale well.
      I owe several great books to you. I had to eliminate Strangers on a Train but it was excellent. It stayed with me too.


  3. December 27, 2012 at 4:59 am

    I’m fascinated by all things 19th Century France, so I must read the Zola novel. Thanks for the heads up!

    As for the English phrase – I think the closest I’ve heard has Italian roots, but is presented in English. From Mario Puzo’s Godfather – “the lightning bolt”.


    • December 27, 2012 at 8:59 pm

      Have a look at Guy’s blog, for Zola. If you’re interested in France in the 19thC, I really recommend the Mérimée mentioned here, A Slight Misunderstanding, it’s fantastic.


  4. December 27, 2012 at 9:28 am

    I’ve read quite a few of them and liked them all. I have a feeling I will read Besson very soon.


    • December 27, 2012 at 9:00 pm

      I’m curious to read your review of the Besson. Do you have En l’absence des hommes or L’homme accidentel?


      • December 28, 2012 at 4:14 pm

        En l’absence des hommes. I’m actually planning to pick one book per Best of list of the bloggers I like the most and read those soon. I should be in for some great reads, don’t you think? Btw I have discovered a new blog during Dickens in December and think you would like it a lot. You have to just look at the best of list to know – and she read the whole of Proust in one month – and regrets it.:)


        • December 28, 2012 at 9:14 pm

          That’s a good plan, provided that you choose like-minded bloggers.
          Thanks for the link, I’ll have a look at this blog.


  5. TBM
    December 27, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    I have only read The Age of Innocence. Newland was such a great character: flawed and strong. I’ll have to add the rest to my TBR. Happy holidays!


    • December 27, 2012 at 9:01 pm

      I loved to two Wharton I’ve read. I want to read The House of Mirth now.
      Happy holidays to you too.


  6. Brian Joseph
    December 28, 2012 at 1:16 am

    You remind me of how much there is out there to be read! I have only read one on your list and they all look good!


    • December 28, 2012 at 9:13 pm

      Hi Brian
      Sometimes it’s frustrating isn’t it? All these wonderful books and such a limited time to read!


  7. Alex in Leeds
    December 29, 2012 at 7:51 pm

    Ooh, I haven’t read that Zola. Really must read more of his work in 2013. 🙂


    • December 29, 2012 at 9:24 pm

      This is not among his most famous works but it’s wonderful and would deserve to be better known.


  8. January 1, 2013 at 12:37 am

    Happy to have stumbled across your blog and this fabulous list for 2012 which will carry into 2013. I enjoyed reading Wharton for the first time this year in acknowledgement of her 150th anniversary and as an alternative to the much celebrated <Dickens, have yet to read The Age of Innocence though and look forward to reading it soon.


    • January 1, 2013 at 2:26 pm


      Thanks for visiting my blog and for your kind words.
      I loved The Custom of the Country as well. Which Wharton did you read?


      • January 1, 2013 at 2:38 pm

        I started out with Ethan Frome as a winter read and then read Summer as it was being performed as a play in London and someone asked me to write something coinciding with that. Am looking forward to the society novels next. These two I read reminded me a little of Irene Nemirovsky, especially her book Fire in the Blood, a really interesting comparison with Edith Wharton’s characters and the cultural references and differences between America and France in that era.


        • January 1, 2013 at 10:02 pm

          I have Ethan Frome at home too but I want to read The House of Mirth first.


  9. leroyhunter
    January 3, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    Cakes & Ale would be on my list as well and I thought Olmi very powerful when I read her. I didn’t get to any Wharton in 2012 but Custom of the Country is right at the top of the tbr. Loved La Curée as well.

    Thanks for all the thoughtful and provocative billets!


    • January 3, 2013 at 8:59 pm

      I think you’ll like The Custom of the Country. Undine Spragg is unbelievable.

      Thanks for reading my billets and for leaving thoughtful comments.


  10. January 3, 2013 at 10:11 pm

    neat to see Zola in your favorites.
    you will find my list in this post:


    • January 3, 2013 at 11:14 pm

      I’ll read Money with my book club this year.
      Thanks for the link.


  11. January 4, 2013 at 8:10 am

    Happy New Year to you too, Emma! I am hoping to read an Edith Wharton book this year. After reading your post I will try ‘The Age of Innocence’ first. I am also hoping to read more French literature this year and Collette is on the top of my list. ‘The Enchantment of Lily Dahl’ sounds like a fascinating book from your description. I will look for it. Nice to know that a Somerset Maugham book made it into your list of favourites. He is one of my favourite writers. I enjoyed reading about your favourite books of 2012. Thanks for this wonderful post!


    • January 4, 2013 at 10:35 pm

      Happy New Year to you too, Vishy.

      The Age of Innocence is beautiful but The Custom of the Country is stunning. The story in The Age of Innocence is more a classic whereas The Custom of the Country is something entirely new. I don’t think Undine Spragg compares to any other character.

      I need to try another Colette. There’s a great post about her on Litlove’s blog.

      I’m reading The Moon and Sixpence with my book club this year. I can’t wait.


      • January 5, 2013 at 8:29 am

        Thanks Emma! I will add ‘The Custom of the Country’ to my ‘TBR’ list. I will check out the Collette post in Litlove’s blog. So wonderful that you are reading ‘The Moon and Six Pence’! Hope you like it. It is one of my favourite books! Happy reading!


        • January 5, 2013 at 10:06 am

          Happy reading with the two Whartons too!


  12. January 5, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    Some good recommendations there, Emma! Seems that 2012 was a good reading year for you. I reread The Age of Innocence recently after you mentioned it in a comment on my blog (or was it yours?). In any case, it was a wonderful read, and I enjoyed it more this time than when I first read it years ago. I had a lot more compassion for Newland and Ellen, and understood the compromises a lot better, especially in the constraints of the society they lived in.


    • January 5, 2013 at 10:21 pm

      Thanks Andrew.

      I mentioned Newland Archer when you tagged me for the Liebster Award. I had the same reaction as you. It was my first reading but I’m sure that, as a teenager, I would have been very frustrated by the ending. Now I understand Newland and I felt sorry for him. My younger self would have probably thought he was a coward. My older self thinks he was wise enough to know his limits and fully understand the consequences of a decision led by passion. I felt compassion for all the Newlands in this world.


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