Books I Read in March

It’s the start of another month and time for another literary round-up of the books I’ve read recently. In March, I read one non-fiction title and three novels. Let’s start with the non-fiction book: a biography of Jane Austen by historian Lucy Worsley.

2017 marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. At just forty-one, she died tragically young. The cause of her death is unknown, but some scholars have suggested Addison’s or Hodgkin’s disease. However, some new research recently came to light — it’s possible that Jane was unintentionally poisoned by arsenic, a popular ingredient in Georgian medicine.

Worsley’s book, Jane Austen at Home, is one of the publications timed to commemorate her death. I’m an Austen fan and I’ve read several well-researched biographies (Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin is one of the best), so I was already familiar with the facts of Austen’s life. However, Worsley has taken these facts, along with historical context, letters and info from other sources, and woven them into a highly enjoyable book.

After I finished reading, I felt like I knew Jane Austen much better than before. There’s always going to be a certain amount of mystery about her life, especially as her sister Cassandra destroyed many of her private letters after Jane’s death. Worsley avoids speculating too much, while also suggesting ways for the reader to interpret the events of Jane’s life.

When you think of Jane Austen, images of grand country houses, sprawling parkland and wealthy young men probably come to mind. But Austen wasn’t rich, and her books are set in a world which she could not fully access — she was looking from the outside in. As an unmarried woman, she was forced to rely on a small allowance from her father and, later, from her brothers. Money was a source of concern and after her father’s death, she was dependent on her wealthier brothers to provide her with a home.

I found parts of the book quite moving. She wrote six of the finest novels in the English language, but much of her time outside writing was spent on day-to-day housekeeping. As she wrote in one of her letters to Cassandra: “Composition seems to me impossible, with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb

She needed space to write and be creative, but she didn’t even have a room of her own. As Worsley points out, it’s lucky for us that she never married. Otherwise, she would have almost certainly produced babies rather than books.Despite having to rely so much on her family, Austen comes across as being an independent spirit (as much as a woman could be independent in the 1800s), who was entertaining, witty and perceptive. Whether you’re a dedicated Austen fan like me or someone who only knows a little about her, I’d recommend Worsley’s biography as an insightful and enjoyable read — 4/5.

My next three reads were fiction, and they all have very different settings: Korea and Japan, modern-day America, and Soviet Russia.

One of them was Pachinko by Min Jin Lee — I received a free digital copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for honest feedback. It’s an epic saga, set in Korea and Japan, which spans eight decades and four generations of the same family.

It begins with Sunja, a young girl who becomes pregnant by a yakuza — a Japanese gangster. When a Christian minister, Isak, offers to marry her, he saves her from being a societal outcast as a unmarried mother and takes her to start a new life in Japan.

The historical context was eye-opening for me, as I didn’t realize that Korea was under Japanese occupation from 1910 until 1945 or how badly the Korean people were treated in Japan at that time. Many were forced to live in segregated areas and were viewed as second-class citizens.

At almost 500 pages, Pachinko is certainly an epic read. I don’t mind long books if they hold my attention all the way through, but with this one, I felt a stronger emotional connection with Sunja and the characters at the beginning of the story. Later on, around two thirds of the way through, the plot became rushed and some chapters/sections ended abruptly.

Without including any spoilers, I felt that some of the characters’ actions weren’t fully explored towards the end.  I was also surprised that major world events which happened during the time of the novel — two world wars, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — were barely mentioned at all. I don’t think it will be one of my stand-out reads of 2017, but it was a worthwhile read — 3.5/5

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny was my next March read. I received an advance reader copy in exchange for an honest review. It’s a sweet, funny novel with delightful characters who made me laugh out loud. The plot focuses on a married couple, Graham and Audra, and their son.

Audra is Graham’s second wife and her personality is a polar opposite from his first wife, Elspeth. Elspeth, a lawyer, is sophisticated, quiet and introverted while Audra is a social butterfly who thinks nothing of inviting strangers for dinner and delights in making friends with anyone.

Standard Deviation is a light, easy read. Its strength lies in the vividness of the characters and Heiny’s gift for writing entertaining, perceptive observations and dialogue — 4/5

My last March read — The Patriots by Sana Krasikov — took me to Soviet-era Russia. The publishing house Granta Books sent me a copy to review, and I’m planning on publishing a longer post about it next week. It’s a compelling novel which follows the life of Florence Fein, a young Jewish woman growing up in 1930s Brooklyn.

Florence knows that she doesn’t want her life to be confined by her family’s expectations, and she leaves New York to embark on a career working in Moscow. But she soon becomes entangled in Communist Russia, and her American citizenship can’t protect her.

“Florence could feel a constriction in her chest…She had been foolish enough to hope that whatever she was walking into would affect no one but herself. Now the truth was catching up with her at the speed of her galloping heartbeat…Now they had summoned her. And they knew everything.”

Decades later, her son Julian visits Moscow and finds that his mother’s KGB file has been opened to the public. In this file, he finds out the truth and the events that his mother was always reluctant to speak about.

The Patriots alternates between Florence and Julian’s perspectives, between decades and across two different continents. Krasikov’s writing is well-researched and detailed, building up a picture of the characters’ motivations for their actions and also the historical setting of the book. An excellent read — 5/5.

What did you read in March? Do you like the sound of any of the books in this post?

Books I Read in February

Like last month, I only read two full books in February, although I’m a good portion of the way through two other books which I’m reading at the moment. The pace of my reading has slowed, and I usually only fit a few chapters in during an evening. We’ll see if this ‘two books a month’ average continues through the year. I hope not, as there is so much that I want to read and I’ll fall behind!

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Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks was my first February read. It’s a slim novel which looks at the past of a retired doctor, Robert Hendricks. The book moves between his present-day life as a retired doctor in the 1980s, his experiences in the trenches of World War II and, later, his work as a psychiatrist in the 1960s.

The plot is hinged on a letter that our protagonist receives from a mysterious stranger, retired neurosurgeon Alexander Pereira, who invites him to a small island on the south coast of France. There, Hendricks confronts aspects of his past, and his father’s suffering in the First World War. The traumas of the twentieth century are never far from the surface. Continue reading

I Want to Spend All My Money on Books

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The Leeds Library, UK. Photo by Michael D. Beckwith. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

I won’t, of course, seeing as it wouldn’t be very practical. But, you know, a girl can dream! My idea of luxury is having a house with a dedicated reading room: somewhere with wall-to-wall books, a cosy woollen armchair, a dog to curl up by my feet and, best of all, unlimited time to read and think. An old English country estate, with a large house and extensive grounds, would suit my requirements perfectly.

But, alas, I don’t have millions in the bank, and I don’t actually spend much money on books anyway. Most of the books I read are galley copies, also known as advance reader copies (ARC), and I usually get them through publishers or NetGalley.  They are uncorrected proof copies which publishers distribute to generate some publicity and get people talking ahead of the official publication of a book.

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Trespassing Across America

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Something that fascinates me about America is the fact that there is more land without people than there is with people. It’s easy to get bogged down in the mire of the ever-raging political battles and America’s position on the global stage, but the true spirit of the U.S. lies in its uninhabited wild spaces.

But despite being wild and open, much of the privately-owned land is not open to hikers. When Ken Ilgunas set out on a 1700-mile walk from Alberta to Texas in 2012, following the proposed route of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, most of his journey took him across “No Trespassing” land.

As Ilgunas explains, walking across wild America is difficult unless you’re either in a national park or on a trail approved by the government — “In America, the so-called freest country on earth, no one really has the right to roam” (Ilgunas, 2016).

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My Literary Wish List

A few weeks ago, Emily January over at The Bookshelf of Emily J. posted this post with ten books that she wouldn’t mind getting for her birthday. Emily suggested that her readers could post their own literary wish lists too. My birthday isn’t for another eleven months but here are ten books I would be delighted to be given. Perhaps I will gift them to myself! 😉

Divided by a Common Language: A Guide to British and American English (2007) by Christopher Davies.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know that I love language and the study of linguistics. One thing, out of many, that fascinates me about language is the fact that English has so many varieties around the world. I am interested in differences between the U.S. and the U.K. in general but language differences are especially interesting to me.

One Night in Winter (2014) by Simon Sebag Montefiore

There is something about literature which is set in Russia that I find absolutely enthralling. I read Sebag Montefiore’s sweeping, epic novel Sashenka a few years ago. It began in 1916, at the beginning of the Russian Revolution, and it was a compelling read. Sebag Montefiore is a historian as well as an author and so his novels are always scrupulously well-researched and historically detailed. He has written several books — fiction and non-fiction — about Russia and its history. I can’t wait to read One Night in Winter.

Sweet Tooth (2012) by Ian McEwan

Set during the Cold War, Sweet Tooth is about a young Cambridge graduate and compulsive reader, Serena Frome, who is recruited to MI5 in order to infiltrate the literary circles of writers whose politics are in alignment with the government. It is a story of love, betrayal and espionage and it sounds intriguing!

Homage to Catalonia (1980) by George Orwell

This October, I am due to go to Catalonia to teach English. Homage to Catalonia is Orwell’s account of his time spent fighting against the fascist Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. I have studied the Civil War as part of my degree and there is much more for me to learn about this brutal time in Spanish history, which led to a forty-year political dictatorship. The legacy of the Civil War and Franco’s oppressive political regime can still be seen in Spain today; the cultural taboo surrounding the war and the dictatorship is only just starting to be broken.

Hard Choices (2014) by Hillary Clinton.

There are too few women in high-ranking political positions and in leadership roles in the workplace. Regardless of political views, I think Hillary Clinton is an inspiring person simply because she is a woman who has achieved a prestigious position, despite the sexism that women often face in the world of politics. I read her earlier memoir, Living History, and I look forward to reading her latest.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban (2013) by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb.

Continuing with the theme of strong women who want to make a difference in the world, I Am Malala is a remarkable story of the determination of a Pakistani schoolgirl who speaks out for education. After being shot in the head by the Taliban on her way home from school and undergoing emergency surgery, Malala has been (and continues to be) on an awe-inspiring journey and has become the youngest ever nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. She is an amazing young woman!

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish (2013) by David Rakoff

Until his untimely death from cancer in 2012, David Rakoff was a regular contributor to This American Life and I always enjoyed hearing his humorous and often poignant stories. Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish was published posthumously in 2013 and Rakoff wrote it entirely in rhyming couplets. I have heard a number of his stories in rhyme on This American Life; they are often thought-provoking and always enjoyable.

Looking for Alaska (2006) by John Green

I keep hearing hype about John Green but have never read any of his books. I thought I would add this to my wish list so I can find out what all the fuss is about.

The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling).

Crime isn’t my usual genre of fiction but as a fan of Rowling’s writing and superb storytelling, I want to read this. I remember when the real identity of Robert Galbraith was leaked last year. There was such a media storm! I wrote a post about it entitled Musings on Fame, Fortune and the Pseudonym of J.K. Rowling.

In the Skin of a Lion (1997) by Michael Ondaatje.

This book was recommended to me by Caitlin Kelly from Broadside Blog. The main character is Patrick Lewis, who “arrives in Toronto in the 1920s and earns his living searching for a vanished millionaire and tunneling beneath Lake Ontario” (Goodreads).

What is on your literary wish list at the moment? Have any of the books on my wish list caught your eye?