I read 11 books in the month of August 2015. The funny thing is that I read five of them in the last three days of the month. Anyway, here’s an overview:
The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski
The Bad Queen by Carolyn Meyer
Bloom by Elizabeth Scott
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Sea Swept by Nora Roberts
Rising Tides by Nora Roberts
Inner Harbor by Nora Roberts
The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side by Agatha Christie
A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland
1. A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland
From Ancient Greeks to E. L. James, John Sutherland guides the readers through the history of literature, starting from myths, touching on epic poems, plays, the King James Bible, poetry, novels and e-books. There are also chapters that are book-related but that do not focus on a certain literary period, genre or author; such as the rise of the printing culture and censorship. Although the title does not specify the literature as the English literature, it pretty much remains within its geographical boundaries as far as the authors go (some authors do go outside of the Great Britain, which becomes relevant in topics such as colonialism), although Sutherland ventures to other European or sub-Saharan or formerly colonized countries. One chapter is devoted to the American literature and some references to it made afterwards in other chapters.
The only consistent feature in the structure of this book is that it is roughly chronological. Some periods are explained through one defining work; others through famous authors during those times; and yet others through literary movements (e.g. modernism). There are chapters devoted to literary periods that were created through external (i.e. (trans)national politics, economy and wars) circumstances. These bite-sized chapters are of course too short to fully satisfy the readers’ curiosity; but it does a great job at whetting their appetite and gives an overview.
I personally learned a great deal about the (past) English culture and biographical details about certain authors. All these information become very useful when I read books from that period or by those writers. For example, why those men were rehearsing a play in the beginning of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or what I should look out for when I read The Fearie Queene, or why Thomas Hardy’s books are so pessimistic. Some chapters, I found, skimmed only the surface – like Jane Austen and the Brontës chapters. But for the most of the time, I was like a child visiting a bookshop for the first time. Fascination, curiosity, and a whole lot of fun! Now, the 20th century generally doesn’t hold my interest (I’m not sure why), so the chapters on modernism, Plath and Kafka were kind of lost on me. But there’s no guarantee how my taste will change.
I wouldn’t recommend A Little History of Literature to be your very first foray into the subject because the book mentions about a hundred different titles and authors, many of them only fleetingly. So unless you already have heard about the majority of them, all the name-dropping might get frustrating. However, if you already have a vague outline of the English literary periods in your head along with their major writers/poets, then I enthusiastically encourage you to pick up this book.
2. Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski
Provocative title, tagline and cover aside (love ’em, though!) Come As You Are offers a detailed, scientific yet easy-to-understand guide to understand your sexuality and to improve your sex lives (if you are so inclined, of course). My apologies to transgendered readers as I have no idea how useful this book will be to you. Come As You Are is primarily targeted at cisgender females but I’d recommend this book to everyone even if they are not a woman or dating a woman.
While reading the book, I felt like as if Emily Nagoski had figuratively taken my hand and led me through the topics of her book, all the while being warm, open, funny and insightful. Indeed she tries to establish a writer-reader connection by telling us about her personal life, addressing us directly and telling us we can contact her about questions or our own experiences.
Come As You Are guides us through: 1. the female anatomy; 2. the dual control model (this also applies to males) – we have both sexual excitation system and sexual inhibition system that can be differently sensitive -; 3. the importance of context in regards to emotional context and cultural context (this can be applied to anything that our culture “teaches” us); 4. what arousal is (especially important: nonconcordance!); 5. what desire is (= arousal in the right context); 6. the orgasm; and 7. the meta-emotions (how we feel about how we feel).
Read this book if you feel more or less ready to learn more about your body, embrace your body and be open and honest about your body.
3. Sea Swept, Rising Tides and Inner Harbor by Nora Roberts
I had arrogantly forgotten how much it hurts on the first day when you have your wisdom teeth pulled out. I had all four of them removed in the month of August, one side at one time and the other side at the second time. I weathered the first time better than the second because I was braced for something much more horrifying but the recovery turned out to be pretty smooth (smoother than I expected, anyway). So by the second time, I was more relaxed… and underestimated the discomfort of the first few days. To distract myself, I dove into the world of Nora Roberts’ Quinn brothers.
In Sea Swept, we have open, honest and force-of-nature Anna Spinelli and hot-headed and protective Cameron. Rising Tides centers around the quiet and thoughtful Ethan who is the master of hiding his past pains, and the level-headed and loving Grace Monroe with her toddler Aubrey (so cute <3). Emotionally more intense than the two previous books is Inner Harbor, in which we meet observe-rather-than-participate Sybill Griffin and Phillip – whose sophisticated and at-ease exterior hides a violent and tumultuous source of emotions deeply buried inside. A lost boy, Seth DeLauter, brings all these people together; the three brothers Cam, Ethan and Phillip, who promised their dying father to look after Seth. They themselves had been runaways and lost boys when Ray and Stella Quinn had saved them and given them a family.
The Chesapeake Bay quartet is about family, friendship, and love. The Quinn family is quite a special kind of family – open, loving, openly loving, loud and crowded and sometimes pushy. But they always have each other’s back and their love for each other makes them who they are. It is also about the small community in St. Christopher, Maryland, and the lives of people who make their living from the Bay.
I used to be a huge Nora Roberts fan for years until I realized that I wasn’t anymore and got rid of the most of my collection. I kept only the books that have a special place in my heart (mostly her trilogies and quartets), and the Chesapeake Bay series is one of those. It was a re-read for me this time and Inner Harbor is still my favorite. There is of course the fourth book, Chesapeake Blue, a Seth story after he has grown up (I think he is in his late 20s or early 30s) but I didn’t re-read it this time.
4. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Another non-fiction and another re-read undertaken by me in August was Susan Cain’s Quiet. The first time I read it, about two years ago, I wrote this quite angry post about my experience of being an introvert. I initially took the book as an excuse to be on my own and to avoid parties. I still prefer a night in with me curled up with a book than a night out partying. But for a long time after reading Quiet, I still lived under the Extrovert Ideal mantra. I still felt like I was inadequate and criticized myself for not being as out-going as I “should” be. So I stayed in, citing introversion as my (silent) excuse, but I still wasn’t happy. When I re-read it after two years, I was ready to accept myself for the way I am. In the end I have the impression I learned more about myself and how I operate, and how I can stretch my boundaries when I need to. But most importantly, I know now that there is nothing wrong with me.
I wish more extroverted people read this book so that they can understand. There is also a chapter of this book about the communication between introverts and extroverts that I found helpful.
5. The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side by Agatha Christie
I’m going through Miss Marple books in the recommended reading order this year, and The Mirror Crack’d was next up! Incidentally, this is the first ever Agatha Christie book that I read (or was read to) two years ago. I knew who the killer was, of course; but that’s not why I re-read Miss Marple’s stories. I read them for the pure coziness it radiates – it’s the little details of Miss Marple’s breakfast, Mrs Bantry and her garden and the walking through The Development, and so on. The investigation itself wasn’t as dull as I’d remembered, either. It really makes a difference whether you read it yourself or whether you were read to. It seems I’m too impatient for audio books!
The thing that left me curious and dissatisfied at the end of 4:50 From Paddington has been answered in The Mirror Crack’d! It turns out Chief-Inspector Craddock is still single (p. 147, or Chapter 10)!
Anyway, in regards to the Miss Marple books: Miss Marple does appear in The Moving Finger, A Murder Is Announced and A Pocket Full of Rye but her appearances are short and towards the end. Just a warning not to get your hopes up! My favorite Miss Marple books (so far) are The Murder at the Vicarage, 4:50 From Paddington and The Mirror Crack’d.
Just a brief excursion to Monsieur Poirot while we are at Agatha Christie: I’m going through the Poirot books chronologically and so far I really enjoyed them all! And I’ve become quite fond of the small detective with huge ego <3 Next Poirot for me is The Mystery of the Blue Train.
6. Haunting Violet by Alyxandra Harvey
As I mentioned above, I read this as an e-book. I got this a long time ago and it was a spur of the moment decision to read it, a I-need-a-book-to-read-for-half-an-hour-before-I-go-to-sleep kind. Well, any book that keeps me up until 3 in the morning gets a nod of acknowledgment from me. They also tend to stick in my memory.
Haunting Violet is set in the Victorian era England, and I mostly read for the historical setting of the story than the plot, actually. Violet’s mother runs a con as a medium – a trick that has been kept secret for some time and has allowed her to rise to a semi-fame. She has recruited two other then-children, Colin and Marjorie, and along with her daughter Violet, they have been helping her run the con. Now they are all invited to Lord Jasper’s manor so that he can entertain his guests with the medium. What none of them factors in is that Violet is a real medium… and her powers awaken just before they arrive in the manor. Confused and disoriented, Violet learns that a tragic accident had happened a few years ago near Lord Jasper’s manor. A tragedy that Violet now knows to be a murder.
Haunting Violet could have been another mediocre YA novel with a love interest thrown in and a half-hearted attempt at investigation – and a dramatic revelation. What I really like about this book is that the story is actually a blend of creepy and normal historical fiction. I also love Violet’s friendship with Elizabeth, her cautious respect for Lord Jasper and her situation of being courted by a rich tradesman’s son and not being sure whether she likes it! Even her dysfunctional relationship with her mother was quite interesting. Oh, and she loves books. Really, a girl after my own heart! The only thing predictable about Haunting Violet is the choice, or opportunity, offered to them at the very end. I would have preferred sheep-keeping.
7. Bloom by Elizabeth Scott
Another re-read! I had fully intended to give this one away and I thought to myself ‘I’ll just leaf through it before I do’ and ended up reading it cover to cover. Bloom is, in a way, a classic study of the high school structure and the arbitrary rules of “popularity” and the self-esteem that goes with it (for many students anyway). Lauren is the narrator of the book and she’s the girlfriend of the most popular guy in the school – a guy who is smart, caring, rather quiet and nice. Lauren is honest about how she feels about Dave: “grateful” that he chose her, wondering what he sees in her, enjoying the fringe benefit of being the “average” girlfriend of the most popular guy, and all the while knowing that she won’t be broken-hearted if he breaks up with her. She likes Dave, and she feels safe with him. And feeling “safe” is very important to Lauren. Of course there’s another love interest that causes her to feel all the feels.
What makes Bloom better, in my opinion, than other YA books with similar topics (and believe me I read a lot of them over the past six years) are Lauren’s difficult relationships with her father and her “best friend”. She loves her father and knows he loves her, but at the same time she’s very careful not to let him affect her too much. She tries very hard not to be like her parents (her mother left them when she was five or so, and her dad has become a serial dater ever since), as if separating her identity from theirs will prevent her from making the same mistakes. Lauren’s “best friend” is Katie and here is how Lauren describes their friendship in chapter 1: “When we first met we used to talk endlessly about how we’d get boyfriends and what we’d do when we had them, and it was only when we actually got boyfriends that I realized without the acquiring of them to talk about, we had absolutely nothing in common. And that sucks, because [she’s] my best friend.” This dynamic changes a bit throughout the novel but nevertheless there is no Big Realization Moment in which Lauren realizes that she can actually have deep, soul-searching conversations with Katie and she’d been just prejudiced and now they’ll be BFF forever ever.
Lauren’s life, in a way, is rather average. And that’s what makes it so relatable. Most of us don’t have a soul-sister or soul-brother as a best friend in high school. We don’t usually meet our life’s companion in the concrete box of education, either. (Although it could be argued that is exactly what the ending of the book implies.)
Oh, and Lauren plays the clarinet. I am, for unknown reasons, fond of characters who play an instrument.
8. The Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-Antoinette by Carolyn Meyer
The sixth book in the Young Royals series (although they don’t have to be read in order!) takes us to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and to the young Antonia just as her betrothal to the French dauphin (later Louis XVI) is being considered. We see the willful and rather awkward 13-year-old girl undergo a painful physical transformation and instructions in French and the French etiquettes. We see her marriage to the dauphin Louis-Auguste and how she learns to tread the treacherous water of the French court. (We also see her unable to manage the inaction in the bedroom with her husband.) Death of Louis XV, becoming the queen, one expensive project after another (Petit Trianon, Le Hameau, the theater, etc.), Axel von Fersen, becoming a mother, scandal and gossip (always scandals and gossips), rising unrest, July 14th 1789, death by guillotine.
Going against the title of the series (Young Royals), Carolyn Meyer accompanies Marie-Antoinette until her death. She did the same thing with Anne Boleyn in Doomed Queen Anne, and Duchessina wasn’t young either when Duchessina ended, but the sheer length of this volume (414 pages compared to 228 and 258 pages, respectively) still stood out.
I usually read historical fiction to get acquainted with that particular period in the particular country. It often piques my interest in the era and country, and I find myself looking up additional information afterwards. Historical accuracy isn’t my main motivation although I haven’t found Carolyn Meyer to be an exaggerating type (aside from some romantic sidelines). Her other books in the series include Bloody Mary, Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn, Catherine of Aragon and Catherine de’ Medici. Some of these women have gained notoriety in their later life. The author’s aim, I understand, is to explore the difficult and often life-threatning childhoods of these young royals and how they might have shaped their adult lives. I found I could empathize with these teenage girls in all cases except one (I just don’t like Anne Boleyn) – and now Marie-Antoinette. I have no sympathy for her disinterest and ignorance in the public life, and that clockmaker husband of hers is no better. Did she deserve to die? No. Was I moved by her ordeal of dealing with the court fashion, distrustful French people, pouring heaps of money on renovating buildings, enjoying card games and theaters? Nope. The author’s ability to create details and atmosphere, however, was impeccable as usual.