Reading Challenge March Update

Full disclosure, I have failed on my vow to write a blog post a month. I am hideously behind schedule on this that it looks to be irreversible but fortunately the same cannot be said for my reading. A small silver lining. This post was actually due to be published in March so we’re going to push ahead with it because I really don’t want to re-write it all, and I’ll try to get a move on some others.

So, after my last update on the reading challenge, I’m here to fill in my thoughts on my latest progress. Since last time, I’ve ticked off a few more of the challenges from the list, including multiple books for #2 on the list – ‘A book about any countries I visit this year’. You can see my post on books about India here:

Since there is going to be an entire post on the India books, I haven’t included them here. However, here’s what I’ve crossed off otherwise:

1) A book published the year I was born

For those wondering, this had to be a book published in 1990. There was a fair bit to choose from, but Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried stood out immediately as I had meant to read it in 2013 when I was in Vietnam but never got round to it. When I saw it on the 1990 published list on Goodreads, it felt like a chance to carry out some unfinished business. Loosely speaking, it’s an account of experiences from Vietnam where O’Brien served for several years in a platoon from 1969 – 1970. Now an author, he documents a series of vignettes of his time in service, all the time reflecting on the authenticity of storytelling, and whether stories need to be true in order to be powerful. His style has been coined as ‘verisimilitude’, constantly blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction. As a result, the stories don’t necessarily flow – there are contradictions in events, and each episode seems curiously distinct from the others even though the characters are the same. Whether the events he recounts in this book are truthful or not, they certainly move you, realistically capturing the bathetic nature of warfare, banality of death and the dark humour required to withstand these high pressure situations. It’s apolitical in tone, but raw and sympathetic to the experience.

12) A poetry book

I had quite a lot of fun researching which poetry book I was going to read. I couldn’t decide between picking a poet I liked (Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, Rupi Kaur) and reading one of their collections, or selecting an anthology in order to expose myself to a new poet or things I hadn’t ever read. Eventually, I decided on The Poetry Pharmacy, by William Sieghart, which is a delightful collection of poems put together as cures to ailments of the heart, mind and soul. The collection is informed by his actual poetry pharmacy – a travelling ‘clinic’ where people confide their woes and worries to him, and he prescribes a poem that will help them feel better about it. The cure in the words is the realisation that you are not alone – someone else has felt the same way you have, and in that knowledge comes comfort, increasing the resolve to overcome it. Each poem in the anthology is preceded by a short blurb to explain its inclusion and the maladies that it is designed to alleviate, which adds to the charm of the collection. In addition, the inclusion of the blurb does another job of helping a reader feel like they aren’t alone – by recognising that these afflictions are ones that Siegman has seen multiple times, you come to realise that they are commonplace, and there is some comfort in that. I didn’t love all of the poems that are included, and a couple raised the question to me as to what constituted poetry, but on the whole, they were very enjoyable. Rarely does a poem exceed one page, so they are easily accessible. Highlights for me were Love after Love by Derek Walcott for self-care and being alone, The Way It Is by William Stafford on the purpose of life, and Your Task by Rumi on finding love amongst scores of excellent poems. This book is extremely accessible – it’s the first book of poems I’ve ever read, but it has inspired me to read more.

22) A book that was published posthumously

I had heard a lot about When Breath Becomes Air, written by neurosurgeon and scientist Paul Kalinithi, during his treatment for an aggressive brain cancer that eventually claimed his life in 2016. The book was hailed as a triumph for the beauty of its writing, the devastation of its subject matter and the steadfast resolution and determination of its author when faced with the unthinkable. It was well-written, proving Kalinithi not just to be a talented neurosurgeon, impressive scientist, loving husband, father, friend and colleague but also a gifted wordsmith. Yet his good fortune in these numerous gifts of life is savagely undercut by the desperate unfairness of his diagnosis at such a young age. Whilst I enjoyed reading this book, hearing about his path to neurosurgery and the intricacies of different operations, I didn’t realise the book was going to focus quite so intently upon this. For some reason, I thought this was going to be a little more philosophical and ruminating on the subject of life and death, based on the patients he’d treated and his own experiences of terminal illness. However, I found it to be more of a conventional memoir, albeit with a more distressing twist. I’m glad he is a good writer because otherwise I think I’d have felt underwhelmed. However, that is just on the basis of expectation, not on the quality of the story itself. I do recommend it, but have tissues at hand – it’s a real tearjerker.

11) An audiobook

I’ve listened to a few audiobooks this year including Shantaram and David Copperfield, which I’ve talked about in other posts. I’m planning to continue with them as they allow me to plough through a bit more reading material, particularly when commuting and in the gym. Recently, I’ve enjoyed Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Tess is a re-read for me – I needed to brush up on it because I was tutoring it to a student, whilst Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was a brand new read. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it, but I was pleasantly surprised. It’s short so you get into the action relatively quickly, and it’s fairly pacey so it sustains your attention well. This is something that is crucial for an audiobook because otherwise it is too easy to start daydreaming and realise that you haven’t listened to anything that’s been said in the last 5 minutes. It made me think that Victorian gothic literature might be something I’d enjoy more of, so I have moved on to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to see if the enthusiasm continues. As ever with audiobooks, the production is important – this is another read by Richard Armitage who narrated the David Copperfield production I listened to. The epistolary format of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde lends itself well to audio, as with any first person narration, and Armitage does a good job of subtle yet clear differentiation in voices between Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde. It’s not a book I’d be hurrying back to read but I did find the story more intriguing than I thought I would; particularly the central question of whether we can actually suppress parts of our personality without consequence to our mental stability. Do we all have a dark side, and is it better to indulge it or to stifle it? And at what cost? I couldn’t help but think that these days, with the praise and status attached to ‘telling it like it is’ and ‘staying true to oneself’ at the expense of others, it seems we might need a little more Jekyll restraint and a little less Hyde…

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