chestnut book blog

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My ten most influential / inspiring books

A little Facebook meme has been keeping me and my friendship group amused recently. We’ve all ‘tagged’ to write a list of the ten books that have most influenced / inspired us. I thought I’d share mine here to hopefully inspire a few more recommendations and inspirations!

1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The first time I read this book, the world looked a little bit different after I had finished it. I have read this book countless times now and every time I love it a little bit more.

2. Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery
My favourite childhood series and I have a very soft spot for the red headed orphan to this day.

3. Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill
* I wrote a little explanation below for my friends on this one, but if you are a regular here, you’ll know how much I love this one already!

Am I allowed non-fiction? This book is virtually unknown, but I turn to it every time I need a comfort read. It describes the author just reading from her own library for a year, without buying any new books. She discovers old favourites, remembers the authors she has met and the stories around her books. In the end she complies her list of 50 essential books…fascinating and inspiring.

4. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Not as well-known perhaps as The Age of Innocence (which is also one of my favourites) but Lily Bart’s story broke my heart. Beautifully written.

5. The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien
My Dad’s favourite book and so I absorbed this from the cradle upwards! A masterpiece.

6. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Just how did a woman who had barely left a Yorkshire parsonage imagine a man like Heathcliff??

7. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
As a Yorkshire woman, I feel I am allowed two Brontes on my list. This was the first classic I read around the age of ten or eleven and so it has a special place in my heart. I have a quote from Jane Eyre engraved on one of my favourite bracelets: ‘I am no bird, and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will’ …just to remind me!

8. Othello, Shakespeare
Does a play count? I really struggled whether to choose Othello or Macbeth, but went for Othello as I don’t think anyone understands or describes human beings better than Shakespeare and all his genius is displayed in Othello. Having studied both at school and seen them many times, I can quote from them copiously!

9. Atonement by Ian McEwan
The ending astonished me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks after I had read it. A modern classic.

10. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Opened my eyes in so many ways.

I apologise to all the wonderful books that I have forgotten to mention, but this was the list that came to me on Tuesday night. My friends’ lists contained some other wonderful recommendations that I have never read: I’ve added the The Deptford Mice trilogy by Robin Jarvis and Shogun by James Clavell to my wish list! What would be on your list? I’d love to know.


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George Eliot has been on my mind today. I’ve been reading that Edith Wharton admired her and was influenced by her writing. I also went to Highgate Cemetery twice last year – once with my parents and once with my brother and his girlfriend – and saw Eliot’s grave there. A slightly ghoulish day out you must think, but strangely fascinating – I’d really recommend it if you are in London.

Eliot, Karl Marx and Douglas Adams are all buried on the East side, but I’d particularly recommend the West Side (of course, there is no reason you can’t do both). This is the more architecturally interesting area with the Egyptian Avenue and the Rossetti family graves. It was incredibly atmospheric, particularly the first time I went – it was winter and started snowing whilst we walked around. Our guide pointed out the symbolism in many of the sculptures, graves and carvings. It opened my eyes to hidden meanings in familiar objects and images that I’d taken for granted. For example, did you realise the broken pillar often used on graves symbolises a life broken off or cut short? Obvious really, but I was really interested in this as I just hadn’t really thought about it before!

George Eliot's grave

George Eliot’s grave

Since seeing Eliot’s grave and learning a little more about her work through my investigation into Wharton, I’ve been considering reading Middlemarch. Or rather, rereading Middlemarch – I have tried it before about ten years ago and just didn’t get on with it at all. I also tried to read The Mill on the Floss once as well, but also put that down when it all started getting a bit bleak! Have you read Middlemarch? Would you recommend it? I’ve got mixed feelings, but it has now moved from the shelf in the study to my bedside table so that is a sign!

Edith Wharton

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Last year it was the 150th anniversary of Edith Wharton’s birth. To celebrate the fact, I decided to read The House of Mirth just before Christmas 2012. Previously, the only Wharton I had read was Ethan Frome and so I was in for a shock. The House of Mirth had me laughing, cringing and crying uncontrollably. It made such an impression that I am now, three months down the line, writing my PhD proposal on, you guessed it(!), the novels of Edith Wharton!

I have also read The Age of Innocence and The Custom of the Country since Christmas, with Summer next on my hit list. So far, I feel that The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence are my joint favourites; The House of Mirth because of the heartbreaking story of Lily Bart. I doubt anyone could stay composed as they read her words: ‘I have tried hard, but life is so difficult – and I am a very useless person.’. The Age of Innocence is also my favourite because of the perfect ending. I will try not to give it away, but again, could there be a more perfect sentence than this: ‘she said she knew we were safe with you, and always would be, because once, when she asked you to, you’d given up the thing you most wanted’? One other piece of hers that blew my socks off was a short story called Roman Fever. I’m not normally a huge short story fan to be honest as in the past I’ve found them a little unsatisfying but Roman Fever has inspired me to try them again so Wharton’s Ghost Stories and Tales of Old New York will be joining my bedside pile shortly! Which is your favourite Wharton?

I had heard relatively little about Wharton until last year and I wonder if that is because I’ve just missed her or because she is under-rated as a woman writer of mainly shorter novellas? I’ll leave you for now on that note whilst I muse on themes in her work that I might explore for my PhD…