October 2021 in Books

If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart

Absent thee from felicity a while,

And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain

To tell my story.

Hamlet, Act 5 Scene 2

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray*****

The was the major event of the month. Vanity Fair is a Victorian novel about the lives of Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley and their friends and families during and after the Napoleonic Wars. After spending a lot of my last year reading Victorian novels, I finally found my favourite. It’s a brilliant show of the good and the ugly, the comical and the tragic. The audiobook read by John Castle is marvellous.

I’ve written a series of posts as I read this month. Head to my dedicated blog posts that are full of highlights, intrigue and spoilers, here:

The post on the final section is on the way!

Being the Bad Guys by Stephen McAlpine*****

A Christian non-fiction book published in 2021. It discusses the questions of how and why Christians have become the ‘bad guys’ in society so rapidly in recent years, especially in the West. His discussion and insights are sharp and fresh, for example: how to process the tug of ‘culture war’, the place of ‘gender identity’ in the context of secularism, Peter’s ‘For it is time for judgement to begin with God’s household (1 Peter 4.17)’, and the mindset to have while continuing to be the ‘bad guy’ – many of these I’ve never thought of before.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare***

My Shakespeare of the month. I try to read one Shakespeare per month, not because I particularly enjoy it but I just don’t think I can get around it if I want to take learning English literature seriously. I don’t read them in any particular order, just what I can find in charity shops that month. This feels unacceptable I’m sorry – but I don’t have anything to say about Hamlet.

OK, just a little. Why is killing his uncle to take revenge for his father’s murder such a hard decision to make? Is it because he can’t expose the murderer because there are no witnesses? But he establishes the evidence and proves the uncle guilty. Is it because he has a mixture of love and hatred for his uncle? As far as I can tell he has nothing but the latter for him. Is it because taking life is against his conscience? He seems to have no problem in killing even the innocent.

I don’t know, I’m still an absolute beginner.

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell****

I’d say it’s autobiographical fiction. Published in 1956, it tells of the years that the author lived as a child with his siblings and widowed mother on the Greek island of Corfu between 1935 and 1939. The book is his observation of a mixture of his family members (mother, sister and two brothers), and all sorts of animals that live on the island. I definitely prefer the sections about people, interactions between his family as well as the locals. It’s hilarious. Also love the book cover.

Feminism: A Very Short Introduction by Margaret Walters***

One of the most accessible in the ‘A Very Short Introduction’ series I read so far. They are all SO academic! I picked this up because I need some historic background and a rough timeline to understand a lot of earlier feminist works. For example, Mary by Mary Wollstonecraft and the Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish. Both of which are included in my ‘Reading Oxford’ project year two curriculum. It did what I needed it to do.

C. S. Lewis: A Very Short Introduction by James Como***

One more Very Short Introduction. The chapters introduce both the major events in Lewis’ life as well as the works published chronologically. I guess each author of these Very Short Introductions was given a mission impossible – how do you write a biography of such a legendary and prolific man in 130 plus tiny pages? It gives a good overview, but it feels rushed. And beware of the spoilers!

Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis***

A 1956 novel that retells the Greek myth of Psyche and Cupid (in which Cupid doesn’t feature much) from Psyche’s sister’s point of view. This is definitely a lesser-known work by C. S. Lewis. Greek myth retelling has become a major genre in recent years – I haven’t been exactly enthusiastic about it but I’m very much aware of it. When I discovered this I thought let’s give it a go. I haven’t read enough to comment on the ‘Greek-ness’ of it, but if you’re familiar with his work, the ‘Lewis-ness’ is very typical.

Mary by Mary Wollstonecraft**

I finished all the books above and realised there was still one week to go till the end of October, so I picked a few smaller books to fill the days.

You might not have heard of Wollstonecraft. I don’t think she’s particularly well-known in the general literature world unless you’re familiar with feminist writings – then she was a bit of a giant figure. Her most famous work is called A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Mary is her only complete novel, published in 1788. Here’s a summary by Wikipedia, Mary is forced into a loveless marriage for economic reasons; she fulfils her desire for love and affection outside marriage with two passionate romantic friendships, one with a woman and one with a man.

It’s short; only about 50 pages. Although it’s on a completely different subject, the writing style reminds me of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The narrative of what people do and what happens is kept to a bare minimum and there are large chunks of monologue about what people think. The similar writing style could be the result of external influences at the time, knowing Shelley and Wollstonecraft barely knew each other, even though they were mother and daughter.

The Contract by Margaret Cavendish***

An obscure 1656 novel by Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle. It might be a work discussing the marriage ‘contract’ or the heroine’s unusual act of taking control of her life and marriage. But to me, this book reads like a fairytale, especially some part of Cinderella – a heavenly young woman with beauty, virtue and wealth, a protective father figure, then at a grand ball the unknown young woman appeared in splendour and disappeared into the night, a rogue prince fell in love, a court scene where the princess’ intelligence and rhetorical skills dazzled all the judges, then they lived happily ever after.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf****

A non-fiction book published in 1929, based on two lectures Woolf delivered the year before. Her topic for those lectures seems to be ‘women and fiction’. I just finished it yesterday and would like more time to think about her argument on ‘women’. I was fascinated by her opinions on many women writers in history, by her imagination and the way she presents that imagination to your mind’s eye. Overall, I enjoyed it more than the only fiction of hers I read so far, To the Lighthouse.

I’m going to spend November mostly reading fantasy. When you just read that line, I’m curious to know which fantasy titles came to your mind? I need to combine this fantasy theme (in a very broad sense, you’ll see) with my Reading Oxford year-2 curriculum so some of my choices might not be the most obvious. But for now, here are the titles I decided on:

  • Beowulf – the oldest book in the list and the ultimate epic heroic writing, from about 1000AD.
  • Utopia – the book that coins the word which means a place that does not exist, from 1516.
  • The Tempest – a Shakespeare play from 1610-1, with monsters, spirit and magic.
  • The Blazing World – a utopian kingdom born of the imagination of an early feminist writer, the Duchess of Newcastle in 1666, I just can’t get over that fabulous title.
  • Alice in Wonderland – A beloved Victorian children’s story from 1865.
  • Piranesi – Just won 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

These are the ones I definitely would like to get to first. If by some miracle I manage to finish them all before the end of the month, I would love to read Ursula le Guin, Neil Gaiman, Diana Wynn Jones, Matt Haig or Michel Faber.

Happy reading!

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