January 2021 in Books

I decided to do my book wrap-ups by month this year instead of quarterly as I did last year. The wrap-up posts last year ended up longer and longer to the extent that they became tests of patience to read and they made me dizzy scrolling to the bottom. I apologise.

But as soon as I made the decision, behold, I only finished three and a half books in January.

The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories: From Hans Christian Andersen to Angela Carter****(Kindle)

I put it to bed at the half way point of the book on 5th January. The Christmas season ended and I didn’t want to rush through it. So I decided to leave the second half to the next Christmas season.

This is a short story collection about Christmas from around the world and up from various points in history. Most of the authors are new to me and most of them are long dead. Because of the unfamiliarity, I entered every story without knowing anything about what was coming. Every night’s bedtime reading was like a little adventure. The one that stood above all was Reginald’s Christmas Revel by Saki – the writing was so brilliant and funny I searched him and his books immediately. (But I was good, I didn’t buy any.)

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane Ortlund***

This is a Christian book on the doctrine of the heart of Christ. The chapters are short and each one takes either a Bible passage or a bit of teaching from the Puritans or others and zeroes in on one aspect of the heart of Christ.

I sometimes question myself: the person Jesus in my knowledge and experience, is he the same person as portrayed in the Bible? Have I added or removed any attributes without realising? A lot of things I vaguely knew but was not clear about are explained in this book and I learnt once more how shocking Christ’s love for sinners is.

You can listen to a distilled version of this book on Spotify.

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman***

I have thus finally finished the whole series of His Dark Materials. I think the story is too well-known to be worth me summarising it here, especially when the BBC’s brilliant new adaptation has been so recent. The stories are epic. But I personally find some parts of the story confusing. I had no idea what the meaning and significance of Dust was in Northern Lights and I thought I got it after reading the Subtle Knife and I liked the second book. But then I got confused again reading the Amber Spyglass. I can’t list all my questions here because of spoilers but I would be very happy to chat with any fans.

I’m not writing a separate post about His Dark Materials so a few thoughts here.

A couple of things came to my mind when I compared it with two other fantasy novels while I was reading it. I heard more than one person say that they were really shocked when they realised the Chronicles of Narnia was Christian ‘propoganda’. I wonder if people realise His Dark Materials is anti-Christian propoganda? I don’t mean the portrait of the Magisterium – history has proved the church is capable of doing terrible things and I’m not going to justify that. And I don’t mean the portrait of ‘God’ either – the bit about Enoch actually made me laugh. It’s more that truth and lies are subtly twisted and warped, it hurts my little brain even just to begin to untangle the mess.

After all, the devil doesn’t deny the existence of God, he tells lies about God, with some truth mixed in as camouflage. When the harpies in the Amber Spyglass cried “liar! liar!” accusing Lyra of telling lies, it was striking to remember that our heroine’s name sounds so similar to ‘liar’ and her preferred surname was ‘Silvertongue’. Her heroic acts were often achieved through telling lies and she was proud that she was so good at it.

The second fantasy series I compared it with was the Harry Potter books. I much preferred Potter and Co. as a group of people to go on adventure with. The HP world, especially towards the end, was a dark place. But the qualities that the world valued were wholesome, for example: self-sacrificial love, courage, forgiveness, trust, loyalty and friendship. And I loved every bit of it.

But the world of His Dark Materials was a lot of the time hopeless, helpless and random. Compare Harry Potter and Lyra Silvertongue. Both are practically orphans. Both Harry’s parents died but he’s loved. Both Lyra’s parents are alive; both chose to leave her when she was a baby, both have questionable motives in getting her back, and both are quite mad. The world building felt more complicated and grand, but at the same time, more fragmented and scattered. The last battle, for example, was hyped up over the whole book. But what was it all for? It was a bit anticlimax.

North and south by Elizabeth Gaskell****

A victorian novel about a young woman, Margaret Hale, who moved from a quiet village in the South of England to an industrial town in the North with her family. She came with prejudice against the North and against people in ‘trade’ and clearly had a bit of a culture shock. As she got to know a few residents of the town, she started to take an interest in the hardship of the poor working class people as well as the powerful and authoritative ways of the ‘masters’.

Margaret courageously faced up to the challenges of an uprooted life not chosen by her: friendless in social circles, culture shock, poverty, sickness, and death all strike one after another. She lost everything but also gained something very unexpected.

There is a cast of vivid characters. As for the heroin, I was not attracted to Margaret at the beginning: beautiful, perfect and proud. As a loyal Northerner myself, I rolled my eyes at her snobbery against the people and the cityscape of the North. It was only after the ‘fall’ of her moral behaviour and her affections grew towards the end that I started to like her more.

That’s all from me for now. Onto February!

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