March 2021 in Books

I was in the middle of a few chunky books at the beginning of March and was worried I wouldn’t finish anything by the end of the month, so I slightly cheated by selecting a couple of thin books for each category just in case. I needn’t have worried. Arcadia and The Other Bennett Sister were both big but very easy. The Picture of Dorian Gray was the smallest Victorian novel I came across so far. Am I Just My Brain? was small but it reminded me of my school days when I felt stupid most of the time. I was very glad to meet Virginia Woolf finally – thanks to ‘Reading Oxford’ project, otherwise I wouldn’t have done. Lastly I read two Roald Dahl books to catch up with the essential element of the British childhood that I totally missed.

Arcadia by Iain Pears****

This novel was recommended by Jen Campbell on her YouTube channel. I read a Kindle sample and was extremely intrigued by the first couple of chapters and was fortunate to find a secondhand copy. It’s a delightful headache to summarise the parallel storylines and a mission impossible to do it without any spoilers.

It all starts quite ordinary in post-war Oxford. A professor lives alone with his cat and drafts a novel in his spare time. Teenage girl Rosie from a neighbouring street comes over for a chat every now and then, until one day she found a rose pagoda in the basement that leads to a sunny rural land. There’s no lion or witch, but it definitely has a Narnia feel to it. Then the scene jumps to a more futuristic one: in a sealed off complex for human inhabitants, a research on parallel universes is going on under cover until their star mathematician, a slightly nutty woman, disappears. Back in Oxford, Rosie found a beggar lying on the ground…

It was a bit chaotic and complicated at the beginning as the reader follows a few threads along. But very soon they start to interweave and merge as the river of story rushes ahead. Until suddenly, a waterfall appears and you realise this is going to wash you to quite an unexpected territory.

The Other Bennett Sister by Janice Hadlow*** (Kindle)

This novel is about the life of Mary Bennett, the middle sister from Pride and Prejudice. Multiple BookTubers gave it high praise and one day I found it listed as one of the Kindle Daily Deal titles… The story starts when the Bennett sisters were children. It then overlaps with Pride and Prejudice over a few chapters, filling us in on Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins. And from there, it goes on to tell Mary’s story after the end of Pride and Prejudice. Overall, it’s enjoyable, but it’s slow-ish and the ending is VERY predictable, probably intentionally so?

Two things impressed me most. First, it’s one’s greatest misfortune to have a mother like Mrs Bennett. Secondly, I WILL go up Scafell Pike if Victorian ladies could walk up in their dresses (apparently Dorothy Wordsworth did)!

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf****

The novel is on my ‘Reading Oxford’ curriculum, under Modern Literature category. It was written between 1925 and 1927, and was published in 1927. It’s about the Ramsay family and their guests in their summer home on the Isle of Skye. My jaw dropped at the sheer beauty of her writing. Unprepared for what was coming at me, I accidentally underlined almost all of page one. I never read this writing style called ‘the stream of consciousness’ before and it was certainly a challenge. I kept on going and safely reached the other bank (if you think of a book as a river) partly because it was a short book, partly because although I didn’t get everything, the things I did understand, they resonated.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde****

This novel is also on my ‘Reading Oxford’ curriculum, under Victorian Literature category. It’s about a young and beautiful man called Dorian Gray, who had his portrait painted at the beginning of the novel. Dorian Gray goes on to commit all the wrongdoings and crime possible without bearing any consequences for the next eighteen years. But every sign of ageing, of his sin and ugly heart appears on the portrait, instead of on him.

The book was extremely controversial when it was published in 1890 because the story was deemed immoral. I’m not sure what the reviewers said at the time. My personal take-away of this book from 130 years later is Dorian Gray’s helplessness in his downward spiral. He had a truer mirror than anyone else did; he had a portrait that showed every sign of his sin plainly and instantaneously. He was disgusted by what he saw and he did all he could to hide the portrait from human eyes. But he was powerless to change for the better.

Am I Just My Brain? by Sharon Dirckx***

This is a Christian non-fiction book which discusses the topic of neuroscience, conscience and soul. The first book in this series is Can Science Explain Everything? which I thoroughly enjoyed and learnt a lot from. I wonder if this one is for people who are in the field of neuroscience or those who have thought about this topic in-depth already. I found it hard to follow.

(I didn’t read Can Science Explain Everything? this month – excellent book, highly recommend. I just like the covers next to each other.)

The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl***

I never heard of Roald Dahl until I came to the UK and the first Roald Dahl I read was Mr Fantastic Fox when I visited a house with small children. I bought a beautiful box set as a present but Roald Dahl’s books are so well read and widely in circulation I never had a chance to give them to anybody. So I tore the plastic wrapping open and decided to catch up with British children. I chose The Magic Finger first because it was one of Simon Van Booy’s favourite books as he mentioned in his creative writing class on Skillshare.

One thing that stands out from the short story is the absence of context. It feels like a chapter from a bigger book. There’s no explanation of where this magic finger comes from. It’s quite unique.

Matilda by Roald Dahl***

I was surprised by the suicide and murder mentions in the book. What age is this book for?

The drama from Matilda’s parents and Miss Trunchbull in the first part of the book was so extreme it has to be for the comical and satirical effect. But somehow the journey to Miss Honey’s cottage transports the readers to a more realistic setting. From what’s revealed in her cottage, her life experience was even more unbelievable and her childhood was more abused than Matilda’s, but somehow Miss Honey was more real. I can’t quite explain. It was a very curious reading experience.

Graphs seem to be in trend at the moment. I didn’t understand why people would set goals for the number of books as well as number of pages until yesterday when Leena in her video explained that it’s for people who read one book a month but each one is a thousand pages long and that sort of scenarios. So here you go, my log for number of books as well as pages read since the beginning of the year.

Pie charts are for March only

Currently Reading

As usual, I have two books in the living room, two in the bedroom, and one audiobook in the kitchen.

Ulysses by James Joyce. It’s on my curriculum and I know I have to face it one day so why not today. I’m in chapter… I don’t know which chapter! It doesn’t have chapter numbers or names in my version. I think I found a way to wrestle with it and come out alive. I’ll share more when I succeed in reaching the other bank hopefully in the next month or two.

How Fiction Works by James Wood. It’s the third book on English Literature Criticism in the curriculum and the first one I’m actually enjoying.

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. It’s the sixth Victorian novel in the curriculum. I’m only two chapters in and already loving it.

White Heat by Dominic Sandbrook. A huge non-fiction book on Britain’s social history from 1964 to 1970. It’s a door stop with tiny font size. This was recommended by Slightly Foxed podcast a while back. It has just the right balance of what happened in NO.10 Downing Street and what happened in the streets where ordinary people live their lives. I enjoyed the chapters on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, look forward to Mary Quant, Jean Shrimpton and David Bailey!

The kitchen audiobook is the complete work of Sherlock Holmes read by Stephen Fry. I think it’s worth signing up to Audible for a free trial just to get this!

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