I paid a few visits around the world this month – via books obviously, being restrictively located in this time and age of world history (aka COVID). I met up with my dear childhood friend Anne Shirley in Canada; I watched a few Russian masters swimming in a pond in the rain with awe and a dropped jaw, guided by a new teacher and friend from the US; I was shocked by what happened in France and Belgium during the First World War, even though I only saw very few incidents.
I even went to India for a few days but decided to leave early: one book I gave up on this month was Kim by Rudyard Kipling. I was defeated by the old-fashioned language. I don’t know his reason for using this style but it’s certainly not because it was written a long time ago. Kim was published in 1901, but it read a lot older than, for example, Jane Austen which was published almost a century earlier.
Northanger Abby by Jane Austen****
One of Austen’s six full-length novels. “It was completed in 1803, the first of Austen’s novels completed in full, but was published posthumously in 1817” (Wikipedia). Among the six novels, I’d say Northanger Abby‘s heroin Catherine Morland is the most childlike and least dignified and least mature. She does not judge people or events wisely at the beginning and makes some bad friends because she’s young and has never been in society before. But she’s not stupid and she learns and improves quickly. She’s not my favourite Austen heroine, but I do like her.
Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller***
Fiction, published in 2021 and shortlisted for the Women’s Prize. It’s about twins in their fifties who have lost their mother and suddenly find themselves in bewildering and desperate circumstances. The writing is excellent but I have to say the story is depressing. The main character is too helpless to fend for herself but too proud to accept any help. Unfortunate things happen one after another until one day suddenly, the bad luck let up and everything is fine again.
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery****
Fiction, published in 1908 in Canada. I was chatting with a Canadian friend about this yesterday. Why do I love it so much? It was one of the first novels I read in English language. I was about the same age as Anne but her life was totally different to mine. The differences in the historic period, in the geography, in the natural environment and the culture all fascinated me. And what a sparkling personality!
(Regarding the recent TV adaptation, I like the look of the actress. I think she fits well with the general description and the spirit of Anne Shirley. But I really don’t like the additional background stories and the extra plots.)
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett****
A children’s novel published in 1905 in the US. This was another childhood friend revisited. I didn’t include this in my introduction as one of the places I visited this month: even though the book was published in the US, the entire story happens in London. I was curious about it and a quick search shows that the author was born in England and moved to the US and then moved back to England later in life and finally moved back to the US and died there. I also just realised that she’s also the author of The Secret Garden as well as The Making of a Marchioness. I had no idea they were written by the same person.
Reading about the main character Sara Crewe straight after reading Anne of Green Gables, I can’t help comparing the two. Sara was eleven when she became an orphan and fell into hardship. Anne was thirteen when she was adopted, so when Anne was eleven she was also living a bitter life. What was Anne Shirley like in a cruel household, hungry and cold being driven about like a slave? The book doesn’t say a lot about her past. But we know what Sara is like “living in plenty or in want”: she kept the same self-respect and gentleness in both praise and abuse, she looked out for the poor and lowly when she was wealthy as well as when she was a beggar. She showed immense inner strength that she remained to be a true ‘princess’.
A Little Princess had just the right amount of harsh reality and sweet dreams, loneliness and friendship, hopes and despairs. It’s really an excellent story.
William – An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton****
Fiction, written in 1918 “in a tent within sound of guns and shells” (Persephone Books). It’s about an English couple who were forced to face the brutality of war. One day the worst a person can do to you is to be rude, unpleasant and disagreeable. The next day there’s physical violence, merciless hatred and meaningless pain and death. But at the same time, there’s unexpected kindness. An excellent book.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë***
Fiction, written in 1847. A re-read for me but the first was a long time ago. It’s too famous a classic to need an introduction from me. Do I like it? Not really, everybody’s so horrible to each other. People keep doing cruel things to each other because their ‘love’ is so fierce and twisted.
No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood*
Fiction, published in 2021 and also shortlisted for the Women’s Prize. It’s about social media and a women’s life and those around her. It’s written in short and fragmented paragraphs, possibly to imitate the writing style on social media. A lot of the references can probably only be recognised by people who use social media. I really looked forward to it because two of my frequently-visited BookTubers highly recommended it. But sadly most of it was lost on me.
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells***
A science fiction novella published in 1895. It’s hard to know how groundbreaking and how forward-thinking this book was when it was first published. But some images are familiar even now. For example when the main character travels forward in time, people moving around him “seemed to shoot across the room like a rocket”. It’s also very interesting to see his idea of human society and development in the far future. That is very different to what many sci-fi novels and films imagine now, but then very few of them attempt to look THAT far into the future.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders*****
‘In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading and Life’. A 2021 non-fiction book about Russian short stories and writing. My second five-star book of this year. I’m so thankful to have come across this book and been able to afford to read it so soon (thanks to my ‘sponsor’ Kindle Daily Deals).
I’ve learnt so much. I can feel myself becoming a better reader from one chapter to the next. Thank you George Saunders, you’re a generous and excellent teacher! There are many many genius writers, but I have yet come across excellent teachers who are willing and capable of explaining this craft in such engaging, straightforward and sincere way.
This book has introduced me to short stories, to Russian literature and to the art of writing. It made me curious and passionate about all three. I now have the idea to dedicate this summer to Russian literature and I certainly have to re-read some of Katherine Mansfield.
Lastly, stats so far from this year:
Happy reading folks!