As usual, here is a list of all the books I read from July to September each with a short summary. The stars are my GoodReads rating. The four and five star books are the ones I think good value for my time and worth re-reading in the future. If I could give half stars (I can’t), Among Others, Scythe and When Breath Becomes Air are more enjoyable than rest of the three-star books.
The stars reflect my personal taste, not how skilfully-crafted or how significant a book is. I thought I should clarify that just in case you’re shocked seeing my stinginess towards Jane Eyre…
A small news update right at the end of this post.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles**** (Kindle)
One of the best this year so far. Fiction. Set between 1922 and 1954 in Moscow, Count Rostov lives his entire existence in a hotel. It sounds grim but it’s quite the opposite. He makes friends, he finds romance, he’s even given a family. Moscow and the whole of Russia change rapidly outside the hotel’s revolving doors. But the gentleman keeps his spirit and conduct as a gentleman and life responds with kindness. Overall a very warm book. See my full review here.
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn**
Non fiction. A couple in their fifties, who lost their home and income, go on a walk along 630 miles of the South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset, via Devon and Cornwall. The walk itself is an amazing endeavour. But I find the book bitter at places. See my full review here.
The Obelisk Gate by N.K.Jemisin***
Fantasy. The second book in the Broken Earth trilogy. The storyline was engaging (but not as memorable as the The Fifth Season) but I kept having trouble following Jemisin’s logic in the narrative and in characters’ conversations (had this issue with The Fifth Season as well). When, for example, a character had a lightbulb moment realising something’s significance, I couldn’t always follow, ‘what did she just realise?’ That jolted me out of the flow of the storytelling quite often.
Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder*****
The only five-star book this year so far. I understand some people find it too textbook-ish. After all, it tries to present the whole history of philosophy, which is ambitious in itself. It’s also written for young people in their teens. So it takes care to engage and to avoid academic terms. Best of all, it uses the fictional sections of the book as thought experiments, so the reader learns as well as experiences the philosophical theories and ideas. I think it’s a marvellous book! See my full review here.
A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes***
Fiction. Retelling of the aftermath of the Trojan War from a female perspective. Interesting but it doesn’t stand out. See my full review here.
In His Image by Jen Wilkin***
Christian non fiction. What is God’s will for my life? Which uni, which city, which job, which person? ‘I know what I’d prefer but is that what God prefers? Shall I pray an all-encompassing ‘your will be done’ and leave it at that? Or shall I voice what I want but risk being disappointed? I know whatever the outcome, God will use it for my good. But why I’m still anxious about it?’ If that sounds familiar, this book might help a bit. Jen Wilkin suggests we move from asking ‘what should I do’ to ‘who should I be’. See full review here.
Scythe by Neal Shusterman***
Youth adult fantasy. After Sophie’s World, I read a series of books about girls who are fifteen years old. Scythe is about two young people becoming apprentice killers in a world without death. It has a very distinctive Young Adult feel to it, not in a negative way. I like the protagonists and the world building. It’s fresh to read about an all-seeing all-knowing governing body that’s not corrupt! See full review here.
Among Others by Jo Walton***
Fiction. A Welsh girl’s struggles in an English boarding school and her refuge and joy in reading books and meeting bookish people. A very good portrait of an awkward teenager girl! See my full review here.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi***(Kindle)
Non fiction. If you are having a chitchat with someone and say, ‘you know that doctor book?’ There are generally two options that come to people’s mind, ‘do you mean This Is Going To Hurt, or When Breath Becomes Air?’ I read This Is Going To Hurt earlier this year (see review here). In comparison, This Is Going To Hurt is more about the hospital through a junior doctor’s eyes; When Breath Becomes Air focuses more on the author’s reflection on life as a human, on the medical professional as a doctor as well as a patient, in light of his impending death.
Slogging Along in the Path of Righteousness by Dale Ralph Davis****
Christian non fiction. One of my ‘course’ books studying Psalms. As in the previous book on Psalms, Davis takes his illustrations very seriously!
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell****(Kindle)
Fiction. I spent the whole of August reading this, not realising it’s over 1000 pages! It’s about a young woman’s struggle during the American Civil War and the Reconstruction era from the perspective of the South. I didn’t realise the significance of those three words before I set off, ‘of the South’! I loved the characters even though most of them are flawed. I learnt loads about American history. Very good writing. See my full review here.
Dominicana by Angie Cruz**
Fiction. About a young Dominican immigrant’s life in New York in 1960s. Fascinating topic but not well developed. See my full review here.
Lanny by Max Porter***
Fiction. The closest thing to poetry I read so far this year. The story centres on a boy called Lanny and it’s set in a small commuter village of London. It uses an airy and magical approach to discuss some dark and complicated social issues. What I like most is the portrait of the boy.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë ***
I’ve been thinking about this since I finished reading Jane Eyre: what gives it the enduring popularity? What made it great at the time when it was first published and makes it stay in the market and people’s shelves and minds all these years? How do we know if a new release in 2020 will have the same endurance? By the way, is it just me? Mr Rochester feels very much like Rhett Butler!
1984 by George Orwell****(Kindle)
It’s too troubling to write a dedicated blog post. I cowardly don’t want to think further about it, for now at least. The impact it has by simply reading through the book is enough. When I was reading it, I kept having images from the film The Lives of Others in my head. A very good film it is.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by James Marlon*
Fantasy. First book of the year that I didn’t care to finish. To be fair, I read a third of it before I gave up. I didn’t like or dislike the first section. It reminded me some of the typical Chinese films where people fly around on the roofs and cut each other to pieces. It gets fouler and fouler as it goes. Foul in both senses of the word, 1) offensive to the senses, especially through having a disgusting smell or taste or being dirty, 2) wicked or immoral. It’s gruesome for gruesome sake. I read 1984 at the same time, which has quite some horrific and spine-chilling scenes, but they’re for a purpose. But Black Leopard, Red Wolf has not given me a reason and I’m disgusted to read even one more page.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling***** (audio book)
This one was out of the blue. I listened to the whole book in two days because I bumped into it so why not. I read it in Chinese when it first came out many years ago. I still remember the days when a copy was passed from room to room in university dormitories and each person had to read day and night to be able to finish it before the next person snatched it from you. (Why was there only one copy I cannot remember.) The translation was excellent. And then obviously I watched all the films multiple times. This was actually the first time I read the original text in English. Well Stephen Fry read the text. Stephen Fry’s voice acting is first class. It’s one of those comfort reads. It brings back cosy memories.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets J. K. Rowling**** (audio book)
Same as above. It was great to have an already familiar book to listen to on the go when I do food shopping in Aldi, or go for a walk after work.
English Literature, A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Bate****
It’s a small book that packs in great deal. Very educational and informative. A lot of interesting facts about ‘English Literature’: what’s the definition of ‘literature’, what’s the definition of ‘English’, when and how it started as a study subject, what impact studying English literature has had on social movements.
Thank you for reading this far. Here’s a bonus section…
Bonus: My ‘Reading Oxford’ Project
At some point towards the end of August, I was frustrated by the patchiness of my knowledge of English literature, fed up by my futile attempts at keeping up with all the new releases, and so decided to correct the problems by find myself a reading list from an English Literature degree. I found a few, and settled on the Oxford University one. So in theory, I’m reading the same sort of authors and eras as an Oxford English Literature student would be at the moment.
My hope is at the end of my DIY education (2022), I’ll have touched on Old English, Middle English, Renaissance, Restoration, Romanticism, Victorian, Modern Literature and some theories, thus having a clearer ‘big picture’ of the subject. In the first year I aim to read roughly 36 books from Victorian era, Modern era, Shakespeare and on literary theory (and maybe one or two Old English), and depending on how it goes, plan the second year (or give up?). I’ll write a review for each book. Obviously I won’t have any tutors to discuss things with or to mark my work. But I’ll have to do without and that’s OK.
Books I’ve read for this project are marked in blue. As you can see, I’ve read Jane Eyre, 1984 and English Literature, A Very Short Introduction so far and I’ve already failed by not writing a review for 1984. (The other two are to come.) But that’s the advantage of a DIY education: I won’t be expelled.
Since the beginning of the project a month ago, I have already realised how expensive an English degree must be. All those books! So I aim not to buy any new books which are outside the ‘curriculum’ until at least Christmas (preferably Easter). But I won’t restrict myself to reading books from the curriculum only. (Imagine reading 1984 only all day!) Fortunately there are still quite a few books on my shelves to mix things up a bit. And I certainly won’t deprive myself of 99p Kindle Daily Deals if anything worthwhile come up. So I don’t think the variety of book reviews here on my blog will suffer too much.
Very excited about this project and I’ll keep you updated.
In real world news, my city is in lockdown again. The weather has been glorious most of spring and summer. But I’m slightly apprehensive what lockdown in dark and gloomy November will do to everybody’s mental health. Will there still be half-naked drunkards in snow in town as usual?
Keep reading and stay sane!