January 2020 Reading

While I’m a pretty fast reader and I do love to read, I also don’t always prioritize reading as I’d like to. It’s so easy to become distracted by other things (especially screens), so I haven’t started off the year with a lot of reading.

Ok, confession time over. I thought that posting the books I’ve read on here, a public (though quiet) corner of the internet might help remind me to keep reading and to think about what I’m reading. Novel thought (pun definitely intended).

Here’s what I read in January

This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

I already gave this a mini review on Instagram: I think this novella is best described as sci fi prose poems between two characters on opposing sides of a time war…. Weird, lovely, and best if you let it wash over you.

This is not for you if you’re looking for well-explained world building or you like detail of how a society works. This book gives fascinating details and glimpses of the two sides of this time traveling war, but not a lot of plot–it’s about the relationship unfolding between Red and Blue.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles (via Audible)

Another book with lovely prose, threading the needle of understated and romantically overblown. Count Alexander Rostov is tried by a Bolshevik tribunal and sentenced to life at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow. The only reason he wasn’t executed immediately or sent to Siberia was a revolutionary poem written years earlier. The Count is moved from his luxurious suite to an attic room and warned that if he leaves the hotel he will be shot.

Thus, at age 33, Alexander Rostov begins his life of house–er, hotel arrest. The book follows the Count’s adventures as he gets to know the hotel staff and regular guests. The story dips in and out of his life every few years to describe an interesting anecdote or introduce a new character.

Characters are (mostly) rendered in loving sketches as the Count gets to know them, disarming with his charm and eager to make friends in his new life. The style of writing gives time to unfolding friendships and treats difficult events not lightly, but with a light touch. It doesn’t dwell on misery, though there is plenty between the lines in 20th century Moscow, but it is more a meditation on the hopeful spirit of humanity and the impact and consolation we give one another.

While sentenced to a restricted life, the Count did not allow his life to shrivel, and his relationships enriched both himself and others.

Here’s what I didn’t finish reading in January

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

I wanted to like this book about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, but I couldn’t get into the writing style. I abandoned this book after reading 255 pages…I might pick it up again some day, but it didn’t want to make me keep reading.

What didn’t I care for? I didn’t like that some of the dialogue was in normal style (starting a new paragraph and in quotation marks) and some dialogue was just in a paragraph without quotation marks. Is this trying to be more true to history? I have no idea, but it confused me occasionally about who was talking when several characters were referenced in a paragraph and then there was dialogue embedded in the text.

I also thought it moved quickly through parts that were more interesting and slowly through parts that were less interesting to me. Since it’s from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view, the first couple hundred pages he’s not at court often and thus is removed from most of the action. That’s fine, but must we spend so much time on background?

If any of you loved this book I’d be interested to hear why — did I give up too soon? Did I not notice interesting details I should pick up on?

2020 Reading Goals

I still have my goal of reading these 50 classics before August 1, 2023, and as a subset of that goal, I’m participating in Karen of Books and Chocolate’s Back to the Classics 2020 Challenge.

Here are the categories, along with the book I’m considering reading for the category. I haven’t decided on everything yet, so I’ll update when I’ve picked a book for the category.

  • 19th century classic: Great Expectations -C. Dickens
  • 20th century classic:
  • Classic by a woman author: Villette -C. Bronte
  • Classic in translation: Kristin Lavransdatter -S. Undset
  • Classic by a person of color: Things Fall Apart -C. Achebe
  • Genre classic (I’ve picked mystery): The Woman in White -W. Collins
  • Classic with a person’s name in the title: My Cousin Rachel -D. duMaurier
  • Classic with a place in the title: Alas, Babylon -P.  Frank
  • Classic with nature in the title: Cold Sassy Tree -O. Burns
  • Classic about a family: Pride & Prejudice -J. Austen
  • Abandoned classic: The Picture of Dorian Gray – O. Wilde
  • Classic adaptation: Little Women -L. Alcott

We’ll see how it goes! I need to finish the two books I’m currently reading, and then I’ll tackle one of these. Maybe I should start with Kristin Lavransdatter since it’s a hefty tome (Goodreads tells me it’s 1144 pages).

General reading goal: 45 books in 2020. We’ll see how it goes!

The House on the Strand

For my Classics Club Spin, I ended up with Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand. I knew nothing about it going into reading the book, except that I’ve enjoyed other du Maurier works and assumed it would probably be a slightly creepy, atmospheric read.

While The House on the Strand has a little less of the horror about it than some of her other books, there is still a sense of creeping dread and the protagonist certainly makes some questionable decisions. The sense of dread increases as you approach the end….

The novel is a first person account of a restless and rather impressionable man, Dick Young, who has come down to Cornwall to his friend Magnus’s house for a holiday.

Dick is in between jobs and is at the house a few days before his new-ish wife, Vita, and two stepsons are due to join him. Magnus has allowed Dick to use his house for free, but mentions that he (a scientist) has an experimental drug that he wants Dick to try. Mangnus assures him that he’s taken the drug himself and it’s perfectly safe. Sounds like steep rent to me.

Dick reluctantly agrees to help and finds himself transported mentally back to 14th century Cornwall following a man called Roger, steward of a local landowner. While Dick can follow and observe, invisibly, any attempt to interact with the 14th century jerks him back into the 20th, nauseated and confused.

As time goes on, Dick becomes more and more fascinated with the 14th century and the people there and less interested in his own life and relationships, which causes a bit of marital strife when Vita shows up a day early and wants to talk about their future.

Both the past and present stories were interesting, and I appreciated the way Dick was characterized and the way he convinces himself that everything is totally under control and he can stop any time he wants to (he just doesn’t want to yet).

I enjoyed this book, though I don’t know if it’s the best du Maurier, and it kept me intrigued to find out what happened in the end. Speaking of the end, I don’t want to spoil it, but I’d be glad to talk about it with you if you have an interpretation.

In a funny turn, I read both this and Blake Crouch’s Recursion back to back, which was more weird time travel than I was expecting at once!

★ ★ ★ ★

Sense & Sensibility

“Marianne, who had the knack of finding her way in every house to the library, however it might be avoided by the family in general, soon procured herself a book.”

I bought the Audible version of this book read by Rosamund Pike earlier this year and promptly forgot about it. I think I wasn’t in the mood, or maybe it was while I was reading War & Peace, so I re-discovered it in my Audible library again this summer. Summer is a great time to read Jane Austen, so I pressed play and enjoyed Pike’s mellifluous voice (the word is fancy, but Pike as a narrator does live up to it).

As is usual with Jane Austen, her wit and keen observations are on full display here. No one escapes completely unscathed, and the number of ridiculous characters is high.

In case you want a plot refresher… when Mr. Dashwood dies, he leaves–by law–nearly everything to his son John, with a parting plea to look after his wife and daughters (John’s stepmother and three half-sisters). John is (easily) influenced by his greedy wife, Fanny, and does nothing for them (in a masterful description of willing manipulation early in the novel).

The widow Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, move to a small cottage near some relatives and adventures ensue. Attractions, secret engagements, differences of temperament, and different ways of handling disappointment make up the rest of the story.

The sense and sensibility of the title come primarily from Elinor and Marianne who behave in nearly opposite ways when confronted with romantic disappointment:

[Chapter 23] “…when she joined them at dinner only two hours after she had first suffered the extinction of all her dearest hopes, no one would have supposed from the appearance of the sisters, that Elinor was mourning in secret over obstacles which must divide her for ever from the object of her love, and that Marianne was internally dwelling on the perfections of a man, of whose whole heart she felt thoroughly possessed, and whom she expected to see in every carriage which drove near their house.”

The minor characters in an Austen novel are always a delight as well. Lucy Steele in particular this time struck me as one of her great villains. Lucy is sharp enough to notice that Elinor has attracted the attention and admiration of Edward Ferrars (whom Lucy hopes to marry), and forces her confidence upon Elinor in a scene that is enraging but oh-so-polite. She depends (rightly) on Elinor’s good character,fortitude, and manners to inflict pain.

[Chapter 24] “I was somehow or other afraid I had offended you by what I told you that Monday.”

“Offended me! How could you suppose so? Believe me,” and Elinor spoke it with the truest sincerity, “nothing could be farther from my intention than to give you such an idea. Could you have a motive for the trust, that was not honourable and flattering to me?”

“And yet I do assure you,” replied Lucy, her little sharp eyes full of meaning, “there seemed to me to be a coldness and displeasure in your manner that made me quite uncomfortable.

If there were an Austen heroine I feel I’m most similar to, it’s Elinor Dashwood. She’s quiet, calm, and practical, but she’s also deeply sensitive. She shuts herself down before expressing emotion; it’s clear she has strong emotions like her sister, but while Marianne allows herself full expression (and maybe some wallowing) Elinor tamps hers down to not cause others pain.

Both sisters need to learn from one another and meet a little more in the middle, which they do a bit by the end of the novel.

There are varying opinions on the ending, and I agree that when we do get to the end tying things up seems a bit hasty. While I’m not completely sold on the ending like I am the ending of Pride and Prejudice, I still appreciate the characters and the journey, and Austen’s style of writing and keen observation never cease to delight me.

★ ★ ★ ★

Up Next: Classics Club Spin #21

As part of my reading life, I have a goal of reading 50 classics in 5 years (well, a little under 4 years at this point), and the challenge is always which one to pick up next!

I have a couple of reviews that I need to finish writing up from books I read this summer, and then I need to choose some fall reading. To that end, the Classics Club has helpfully launched another Spin, which is where the reader lists 20 books on their TBR (to be read) list, they pick a number and the corresponding book is the one to pick up next.

I’m currently listening to Great Expectations on Audible (I have 16 hours and 25 minutes remaining, so that should keep my ears busy), so I won’t include that in my spin possibility list. But for a physical book to read next, here’s my list:

  1. Acehbe, Chinua: Things Fall Apart
  2. Bronte, Charlotte: Villette
  3. Camus, Alber: The Stranger
  4. Collins, Wilkie: The Woman in White
  5. Du Maurier, Daphne: The House on the Strand
  6. Du Maurier, Daphne: My Cousin Rachel
  7. Eliot, George: The Mill on the Floss
  8. Hemingway, Ernest: A Moveable Feast
  9. le Carre, John: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold
  10. L’Engle, Madeleine: Many Waters
  11. L’Engle, Madeleine: An Acceptable Time
  12. Marquez, Gabriel Garcia: Love in the Time of Cholera
  13. Orwell, George: Animal Farm
  14. Sayers, Dorothy: Gaudy Night
  15. Shakespeare, William: Richard II
  16. Sophocles: Antigone
  17. Trollope, Anthony: Barchester Towers
  18. Undset, Sigrid: Kristin Lavransdatter
  19. Waugh, Evelyn: Brideshead Revisited
  20. Wilde, Oscar: The Picture of Dorian Gray

I’ll update this post next Monday with the winner.

Update: The winner is #5, The House on the Strand, by Daphne du Maurier. Excellent! I feel like du Maurier is an author best read in the fall or winter due to her atmospheric novels, so I’m looking forward to reading this one.