Am I really in my final year? Am I really going to graduate after this? With a DEGREE? I can’t think too much about it without getting dizzy and honestly, a little bit sad. I know I’m going to be doing a masters but I’m going to miss my undergraduate courses.
For now though, I’ve still got the next academic year ahead of me, and you’re here for the books I’ll be studying, not me being philosophical – so let’s go!
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
This book follows the Jarndyce family as they wait in vain for the conclusion of a lawsuit that has stretched on for generations. We are taken through the story either by an unnamed narrator, or a young woman named Esther Summerson, who is the newest ward of Mr Jarndyce. It’s very much a social issues book that reminds me a lot of Hard Times.
I’m currently 250 pages into this one and I have to say that I’m not loving it. It’s a chunky one and I’m really feeling every single page of it right now. It’s very slow paced and has so many characters whose stories haven’t really intersected yet so are just tedious to read about. I’m hoping I will start to like it more but honestly, I think this is going to be one I have to get through and analyse rather than enjoy.
Walden: Civil Disobedience and Other Writings by Henry D. Thoreau
This is an essay collection by Henry D. Thoreau. I haven’t read this yet so forgive me if this isn’t accurate, but I believe that Thoreau was an abolitionist, who focused on nature and simple living in his essays. He was also a transcendentalist, meaning he believed people are at their best when they are independent and self-reliant, exorcised from the institutions and governments that have corrupted us.
I’m looking forward to reading his essays as he seems like a really interesting guy. Though this volume is over 600 pages, I think it’ll be manageable if I tackle just one essay a day.
London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew
This is another non-fiction book described as a ‘masterpiece of personal inquiry and social observation’ following the everyday lives and struggles of the working classes in London during the 19th century. We’ll be using this book to compare with Bleak House.
I think this will be more of a struggle to get through than Civil Disobedience because (I think) it is one long account rather than separate essays. It might have to be another that I just have to bite the bullet and dive into.
The Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge
This play is set in the Irish countryside in the early 19th century and follows our main character, Christopher Mahon. He has claimed to have murdered his father, which propels him to celebrity status in his hometown. However, when his supposedly murdered father returns to the town, Christopher’s life is thrown into chaos.
I’m really excited for this one! Not only is it lovely and short after those three doorstops, it’s also a play that I hope I can find on Youtube after I’ve read it. Plays are always such a nice change of pace, especially when I have to read so many novels. I also find the theme so fascinating and eerily applicable to life now when it comes to the cult status of serial killers, etc.
Selected Stories by Katherine Mansfield
I’ve never read any Katherine Mansfield before but this collection is packed with 33 of her short stories, so we’re going to get very well acquainted over the next few months. Mansfield was born in New Zealand and moved over to England in 1907, where she became friends with writers such as D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. In fact, Virginia Woolf is quoted as saying ‘I was jealous of her writing. The only writing I have ever been jealous of’. That’s enough to get me excited!
Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf
Continuing the Woolf vein, the next book I have to read is Between the Acts. This was her final book before her death, and is described by her as the most ‘quintessential’ of her novels. This book is set over one day in the summer of 1939, where a pageant is celebrating the various periods of British history. The celebrations are tainted however, with the threat of war hanging over the guests. I think the book explores themes of gender, literary history, the uncertainty of the future, and questions of unity.
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
I hadn’t heard of this book before it popped up on my reading list but the plot has me very intrigued. The Good Soldier follows our narrator, John Dowell, who is the husband in one of the crumbling relationships in the novel. Through the book, he takes us on a journey during which three characters end up dead and one is lost to madness. It sounds as if these couples are part of the twentieth century elite, gallivanting through Europe with disastrous consequences.
Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot
I really knew nothing about this poetry collection, though I’ve read and enjoyed some of T.S. Eliot’s poems before. This is what I could glean from Wikipedia about Four Quartets:
‘Four Quartets are four interlinked meditations with the common theme being man’s relationship with time, the universe, and the divine. In describing his understanding of the divine within the poems, Eliot blends his Anglo-Catholicism with mystical, philosophical and poetic works from both Eastern and Western religious and cultural traditions, with references to the Bhagavad-Gita and the Pre-Socratics as well as St. John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich.’
Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys
This little book follows a young woman named Sophia in Paris in the 1930s, who has come to the city to find courage and seek independence. She is teaching herself not to trust or expect kindness from men, and to practice ‘indifference’. I immediately connected to that, I have to say. I’m very much looking forward to getting to know Sophia.
Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas
This play was commissioned by the BBC, and is an account of a spring day in a fictional Welsh seaside village of Llareggub. From what I can gather from the synopsis, we follow multiple inhabitants of this village and get to know their personalities, histories, desires, and hopes. I was totally drawn in by this quote on the back:
‘Dusk is drowned for ever until tomorrow. It is all at once night now. The windy town is a hill of windows, and from the larrupped waves, the lights of the lamps in the windows call back the day and the dead that have run away to sea’.
The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino
This story chronicles the history of the universe from the big bang, through millennia and across galaxies. Our narrator is a ‘cosmic know-it-all’ named Qfwfq, who shifts between different physical forms throughout the book. It’s supposed to be thought-provoking and beautifully written, but most people love it for its humour and whimsy, which I’m completely down for.
Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
I don’t know how to summarise Jeanette Winterson’s books in a succinct way and still capture their uniqueness, so I’ll leave you with the official synopsis:
‘This is the story of Jeanette, adopted and brought up by her mother as one of God’s elect. Zealous and passionate, she seems destined for a life as a missionary, but then she falls for one of her converts. At sixteen, Jeanette decides to leave the church, her home and her family, for the young woman she loves.
Innovative, punchy and tender, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is a few days’ ride into the bizarre outposts of religious excess and human obsession.’
This book is autobiographical, but Winterson uses herself as a fictional character. I’ve never read a book written like this so I’m looking forward to seeing if I enjoy it!
Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih
Again, the synopsis on my version of this book is fantastic, so I’ll let it do the talking:
‘When a young man returns to his village in Sudan after many years studying in Europe, he finds that among the familiar faces is a stranger – the enigmatic Mustafa Sa’eed. As the two become friends, Mustafa tells the younger man the disturbing story of his own life in London after the First World War. Lionised by society and desired by women as an exotic novelty, Mustafa was driven to take brutal revenge on the decadent West and was, in turn, destroyed by it. Now the terrible Legacy of his actions has come to haunt the small village at the bend of the Nile.
The story of a man undone by a culture that in part created him, the book is a powerful and evocative examination of colonisation in two vastly different worlds.’
I’m so excited to read and examine this book, and I’m glad that colonisation is a topic we’ll be exploring in literature this year. This list is otherwise very white, and very upper middle class.
Stuff Happens by David Hare
This play was written in response to the Iraq War, described as ‘a history play’ that deals with recent history. It was did very well on its run in the Olivier Theatre, and then again in New York, playing at capacity all throughout. It seems very political, with people like Tony Blair, George W. Bush, Alistair Campbell, Jacques Chiac, and Saddam Hussein as characters.
I’m holding off on judgement, as I think plays about real-life people and events can be tricky, but the glowing reviews this has is giving me hope.
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Finally onto the final book! Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of eight stories, each exploring the heart of family life and the immigrant experience. We are taken from America to Europe, India, and Thailand, as characters follow new lives forged in the wake of loss.
Again, I’m very excited for this collection, especially as Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer in 1999 for her collection, Interpreter of Maladies.
And those are the books! I’d say I’m much more excited about the contemporary/20th century books than the 19th century, but I have an open mind.
Have you read any on this list? Let me know and we can chat!