May 2022 in Books

Hi there, this is my May wrap up – sorry it’s late! We’ll also do a bit of June planning at the end. I attempted to do both the Asian Readathon and the Historical Fiction Readathon in May at the same time but didn’t do either well. The lesson for the future is that I should just stick to one challenge at a time! For example, I decided to do the Asian Readathon so last minute, I didn’t spend time to research properly and chose three Asian books that were somewhat similar – all poetical, philosophical and a bit abstract – and that didn’t work well.

As usual, if you prefer watching me talk about these books, I’ll link my YouTube video at the end.

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

This is one of Shakespeare’s comedies and I’ve posted a dedicated blog about it already. In that post (read here) I gave you a summary of the story, and we looked through some gorgeous photos from previous RSC productions, we examined the website of the Summer 2022 production, especially the setting and the photos. I also did a London vlog on my YouTube channel where we watched the play at the Globe Theatre. I shared my initial thoughts during the interval inside the Globe and immediately after the show finished.

It’s been a few days since I watched it and I’ve been thinking more about it. Overall the first half surprised me and delighted me more than the second half. I think it’s because the second half had most of the conflicts, things were building up to a climax, it was emotionally heavier and more intense, and ultimately the lines were just more well known. I guess it was more difficult to impress the audience or stand out from all previous productions.

The first half was more lighthearted and there was more scope for imagination and reinterpretation. It concentrated on shaping the characters – there was one Beatrice by Shakespeare but there are so many ways to portray her. Who was our Beatrice, the Beatrice of the Summer 2022 production? Same with everyone else – who were our Benedick, Hero and Claudio? The uniqueness of these actors came through most in the first half. We felt like we knew them, we fell in love with them, we were emotional invested by the time we watched the conflicts in the second half.

Watching the play in theatre was an amazing experience and I thoroughly loved it.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

This is a collection of short stories that was published in 1979. These are fairytale retellings, including ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Puss in Boots’, ‘Erlking’, ‘The Snow-child’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. ‘The Bloody Chamber’, the title story and the longest, is based on ‘Bluebeard’. It gave me the vibe of Daphne du Maurie’s Rebecca.

Angela Carter specifically said they were not adult fairytales. She wrote them to explore their hidden meanings and potentials. Maybe they were not written as adult fairytales, but these are definitely not for children!

The stories are very dark and gothic. The writing style is too ornate for me as I prefer more straightforward storytelling. These are also full of violence and sex, especially a lot of explicit description of sex. They might be symbolic and have deeper meanings but I don’t like reading a man raping a dead girl.

On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

I read this one because of the Asian Readathon. This is a fiction of a Vietnamese family living in the US through the eyes of a boy.

I was mostly struck by the devastating effect of war over generations on families and young people. I read Finding My Father last month and Transcendent Kingdom last year. On Earth reminded me these two titles a lot, not the writing style but the social issues – broken family, absence of father, racism, mental illness, poverty, drug addiction and teenage death.

We watch all these hardship experienced by a very tender-hearted, small and vulnerable child and, later, teenager. We watch how he tried to survive, like a small tree in a dark corner of the garden twisting its branches and squeezing through fences in order to reach the sky and the sun. He was so hungry for love, it made me very sad.

The language is poetic and beautiful. But because of its poetry-like quality, it can be abstract in some parts and I don’t always follow but that’s just my perennial problem with poems.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

I read this one because of the Historical Fiction Readathon and it’s definitely my favourite of the month. I wrote a blog discussing Dickens’ attitude towards the French Revolution, if he was on the side of the people or the aristocrats. You can read it here.

If you’ve been following me for a while, you’d know that Vanity Fair by William Thackeray was one of my favourite books last year. Among all the chapters of Vanity Fair, I loved the ones that were set before, during and after the Battle of Waterloo most.

Dickens and Thackeray both wrote about ordinary people’s life against the background of war and social unrest. I also loved the same element in Gone With the Wind. I think I’m drawn to the contrast between the overwhelming force of war and the vulnerable but resilient individual human life. It often brings tears to my eyes.

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li

I picked this up because of the Asian Readathon. It’s the memoir of Yiyun Li. This is the only non-fiction this month and I was looking forward to it. But in the end I read about 15% and didn’t finish it.

It’s philosophical and reflective, mostly about her thoughts and feelings, and a lot of them in the context of her mental health issue.

My problem was each night I read half an hour and by the next day I couldn’t remember what I read the night before. Maybe this is not the right book of hers to start with. It’s a very different type of memoir to, for example, Jonathan Bate’s I read recently. I could keep notes and tell his stories to other but Li’s sentences slip through my fingers.

How Do You Live? by Yoshino Genzaburo

I picked this up also because of the Asian Readathon. It’s fiction strictly speaking but it blurs the boundary a bit. The story is in pairs of two halves.

Partly it is about a 15 year old boy called Copper and his everyday life. He goes to school and has three friends from the same class. They do the normal school things, they play games, visit each other’s family, and face bullies.

Copper has an uncle, who plays a teacher and guide role to Copper. The second half of each pair is his uncle’s reflections on Copper’s daily events, introducing ideas and more importantly, ways of thinking and ways of living to Copper. It covers a random range of topics: Newton and science, Napoleon and history, food production and people’s relationship across the world. These were written in diary entry and letter forms, addressed to Copper. It reminded me of Sophie’s World – first it tells stories and these are followed by philosophical reflections.

This English translation exists largely thanks to Miyazaki’s upcoming animation film. At many places I could see exactly the animation is going to look at, but other places I wondered how Miyazaki is going to make the audience see the complicated thought processes and emotions. I look forward to the film!

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

I was really pleased to discover this novel in May because it fit the challenges of both the Asian Readathon and the Historical Fiction Readathon. But because of its length, I didn’t finish it in May.

This is not my first ever Indian novel but hopefully the first I manage to finish. It was written in 1993 and is set in 1951. I’ve been getting to know some families in India and slowly navigating through some fascinating cultural differences. It introduces a whole new world.

At the beginning, it reminded me of Pride & Prejudice. There’s a mother figure who sounds exactly like Mrs Bennett whose life ambition is marrying her daughters off to good families and suitable men. It gives a lot of insights into Indian marriage and relationship.

We also see men at their workplaces – a lecturer of English literature in university, trades men in shoe making business, government ministers and high court judeges. We see the roles of women, for example, what they can and can’t do. Some of them live in various degree of seclusion, while some go to parties every night or openly debate in parliament.

June Planning

Next month I’m going to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication of Ulysses by reading Ulysses for the second time, as well as reading A Portrait of a Young Man as an Artist, which is about one of the characters in Ulysses but a few years earlier.

I’ve also started Shakespeare World as a Stage by Bill Bryson. It’s like a biography but short! For Shakespeare’s play itself, I’ve read a couple tragedies and a comedy in the past few months so I’m going to turn to a history.

Obviously I’ll keep reading A Suitable Boy – which I thought was going to be hard work but actually entirely delightful.

Happy reading everyone!

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