April 2021 in Books

Reading this month is hard going but satisfying. I spent most of my daytimes reading Ulysses and bedtimes Far From the Madding Crowd, then How to Be A Victorian. All of them are chunky books. The progress felt really slow. But I’m pleased to report I have finished all three of them, plus a few other books in snatched moments here and there.

Here they are.

How Fiction Works by James Wood****

The best book on literary theory so far. Or to put it another way, it’s the only one I can follow. I read both English Literature and Literary Theory in the Oxford ‘A Very Short Introduction’ series and had no idea what they were on about most of the time. But How Fiction Works is educational and accessible. I did feel like a better and more equipped reader by the end. It gave me new lenses to read novels through (“ah that’s indirect speech!”) and reasons to read more novels.

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy****

Unfortunately I watched the recent film adaptation featuring Carey Mulligan last year with the plot line still very clear in my mind, so I was a bit impatient with it. I would have loved it more if I didn’t know who Bathsheba was going to end up with.

What I love best is the conversation and interaction among the farming community, for example, the scene when Oak is first introduced to the group in the malthouse, and when they crowd around the young Cain Ball anxiously to hear about their mistress and he’s choking nearly to death on food.

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J. M. Barrie****

The publishing history of Peter Pan books is slightly complicated but let’s say this book was published in 1906.

Do not read the free Kindle version, it’s missing two chapters and the chapters are in wrong order. I read the Google Book version a second time to correct that problem. Despite the confusing reading experience, I really loved it. It’s so full of surprises; the storyline as well as the writing. It’s delightful to read. It’s nothing like what I expected it to be, although apart from Peter Pan never growing up, I knew nothing about Peter or his story.

However, I then started reading Peter and Wendy. It’s obviously an expanded version of Kensington Gardens, some of the details are exactly the same. But I don’t like Peter and Wendy as much. It’s not as natural as Kensington Gardens. It feels like a fresh graceful young girl got painted with too much makeup and became rigid and clumsy.

Ulysses by James Joyce****

How do you rate a book like this? I don’t feel qualified to have an opinion. What the author achieved is jaw dropping, I’m totally in awe. But personally did I enjoy it? Well, yes, I enjoyed the bits that I understood. How much did I understand? Maybe 60%. How often did it put me to sleep? The other 40% of the time. But it’s worth a read. A few recent books have the ‘unusual’ features of not having punctuations, or each chapter is written in a different style. Well, it’s all been done by Ulysses already, in 1922.

My being able to read every sentence and finish the whole book is completely thanks to the fabulous audiobook read by Jim Norton, and the SparkNotes. Without either of them, I would have given up long time ago.

How to Be A Victorian by Ruth Goodman***

The book follows the course of a day in a Victorian person’s life: it starts with waking up at the beginning of the day in the bedroom, then moves on to getting dressed, having breakfast, going to work, going to school, enjoying leisure time and ends again in the bedroom. It goes from what an individual person might be eating, wearing, how they travel to work, how they do laundry to a much larger picture of Victorian society: food and nutrition, science and technology, law on child labour and education. It covers absolutely loads.

My reason for picking up this book was to get some context for the Victorian literature I read. I think in this sense it’s done a good job. The medicine chapter reminded me of the hilarious account of when Mrs Joe Gargary pours tar water down the throats of Pip and Joe (Great Expectations chapter 2 by Charles Dickens). The work chapter reminded me of the ruined health of Bessy Higgins working in a cotton mill (North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell) and made sense of the boy in extreme loneliness running all the way across the fields just to see a passerby (A Shepherd’s Life by W. H. Hudson). The clothes chapter gave me a better idea what Shepherd Oak would have looked like in his ‘smock-frock’ and ‘gaiters’ (Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy).

I would love the book to have said more about people of the upper and middle classes. It spends a lot of the ‘day’ with working class families and paints a pretty grim picture of Victorian life. When I read Victorian novels, I often wish to time travel to live their lives for real. But according this book, their lives are just miserable day after day. I’ve been thinking why.

I’m sure both the fiction and this book are true to life, but the focus is different. When a novel tells about the life of a working class person, it would not usually dwell on details like how cold it is when you get out of bed and how disgusting a cesspit is, it’ll be about the person’s thoughts and actions in their situation. Context of real life is just context of the story. The difficulties seen from our 21st century perspective were just ordinary everyday life there and then. I’m sure people in 150 years time would think our life now unfathomably difficult: People have to travel every day for an hour in cramped trains underground to get to work and another hour to go home? Surgeons open up the left side of your scalp instead of right by mistake? The 2021 pandemic killed how many? But for us in our situation, it’s not ideal but what can you do? We just get on with thinking, loving and living. It’s just life. That’s probably the difference between a Victorian novel and a non-fiction study of the Victorian life.

My only complaint of this book is that the writing sometimes feels like a Wikipedia page or a school textbook, a bit dry.

Persuasion by Jane Austen****

Jane Austen is consistent. If you’ve read Sense and Sensibility, you have read Pride and Prejudice and Emma, and Persuasion won’t surprise you. Obviously they’re different, but really they’re all the same. But I think this proves that Jane Austen is a genius. A few chapters into Persuasion, I knew exactly how it’s going to end (and the end has proved me right), but she still made me patiently read all the way till the last page. I wouldn’t care one bit about these sorts of relationship trivialities in real life (being married for too long no doubt), but she has the magic of making people believe in love and romance all over again.

May Reading Plan

The first plan for May is to be fully occupied by the 1900 to 1950 Readathon. I have compiled a huge list and whittled it down to about ten options (see below). I’m cheating by starting before the beginning of May: I read Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906) already. Other books on the final list include:

  • Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forster (1905)
  • Short story collection by Katherine Mansfield (1910-1923)
  • The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence (1915)
  • William a Englishman by Cicely Hamilton (1918)
  • The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy (1924)
  • The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayer (1934)
  • Mariana by Monica Dickens (1940)
  • The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis (1942)
  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947)
  • Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym (1950)

I said ‘first plan’ just now which means there’s probably a ‘second plan’. Yes, just a small alteration.

Last time this year I read the whole six books on the Women’s Prize shortlist and that unsatisfying reading experience was one of the major prompts for starting my ‘Reading Oxford Project’ – in short, I was so fed up with chasing newly published books that I decided to start anew right from the beginning: to build my literary foundation with classics.

At the end of my post last year, I said I probably won’t be reading through shortlists anymore in the foreseeable future, which I haven’t been, until this month when 2021 Women’s Prize caught my attention again. A few BookTubers have been reading the whole longlist (sixteen books) and selecting six personal favourites. The shortlist was announced on Wednesday night just passed, and it sounds a lot stronger than last year.

Though I’m intrigued, I stand by my decision from last year that I won’t read the whole shortlist before the winner is announced (or after). However, a few books do pique my interest enough to add them into my reading plans. Transcendent Kingdom landed on my doorstep today, and I’ll read it straight away. I would also like to read Piranesi, Unsettled Ground, No One Is Talking About This, in this order.

Looking forward to May very much with all this wonderful reading ahead!

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