• Isabelle Osborne

A Year of Reading: January 22

With the dawn of a new year, a new reading journey is upon us! This year, I'm going to track my reading on a monthly basis here on my blog, sharing my thoughts on everything I read across each month.

Overall, January was a very good month for reading. I discovered some new authors, re-visited old favourites and delved into a range of genres. There were a few novels I started but didn't quite finish in January, so I'll chat about those next month.

I'd love to know what you've been reading this month; let me know by dropping a comment below!

Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare

I began this year with a re-read of one of my favourite - if not my ultimate favourite - Shakespeare play. After her brother is drowned in a shipwreck, Viola transforms into ‘Cesario’ and seeks employment in the Duke Orsino’s household. From there, a witty, frivolous and confusing plot unfolds, tangled with mistaken identities, cruel trickery and one of the most famous love triangles in English literature.

This is the play that captured my attention and love of the English language way back when I studied it at A-Level, and it continues to confuse and excite me to this day. Blurring the line between comedy and tragedy, the play explores unrequited love, gender performativity, sexuality, the nature of patriarchy in the Early Modern period and more, and it never fails to show me something new each time I read it.

If you’re looking for place to begin with Shakespeare’s works, Twelfth Night is an excellent place to start, as in my experience it is one of the easier plays to read and understand, whilst also being thoroughly entertaining.

“O time, thou must untangle this, not I / It is too hard a knot for me t'untie.” - Viola, Act II

Nightwood - Djuna Barnes

My joy after reading Twelfth Night was soon diminished once I opened Djuna Barnes' Nightwood, as unfortunately it did not live up to prior expectations. One reason for this was the challenge of staying focused on a plot that was constantly changing direction, location and character focus. This isn't to say I dislike books that adopt this technique; some of the best novels I have ever read carry this vision through remarkably, but Nightwood left me confused and bewildered.

Set in the 1920s, we follow Nora, Felix, the Doctor and their acquaintances as they each navigate turbulent relationships with others and themselves. This is about as concise a plot summary as one can give, as noting the plethora of narratives the novel harbours exceeds the realm of this blog post and would make for a mammoth academic essay. Whilst the language was at times beautiful and mesmerising, overall I found this a perplexing novel for the fact I struggled to get to grips with Barnes' style. Perhaps a second reading would be helpful for navigating the nuances of the images and character, but for now I'm leaving Nightwood on the shelf.

“To our friends,' he answered, 'we die every day, but to ourselves we die only at the end.”

Quite - Claudia Winkleman

I listened to Quite as an audiobook, read by Claudia herself, and it was an absolutely exceptional experience. During her interview on the On Reading podcast, Claudia spoke of the origin of her book being an excuse to get out of teaching her youngest child during the COVID-19 lockdown. A collection of essays and column-like pieces spiralled into this wonderful creation: a fun, energetic, hysterical joy of a book that 'makes a case for the underrated and the imperfect'.

I loved the chapter on friendship, where Claudia goes through the different types of friends we need in our lives, and hearing about the behind-the-scenes of Strictly Come Dancing was of course brilliant. Claudia's wisdom on relationships and children was considered and heartwarming, her honest reflections on holidays, picnics and skiing are hilarious, and her enduring love of and passion for art has even encouraged me (not especially a lover of art exhibitions) to visit a gallery. I also adored the final 'Q&A' section, where she answered questions on her favourite chocolate bars and tips on growing a fringe.

Claudia is an icon, a powerful and inspiring woman whose insights into life are witty and lighthearted, poignant and moving. I'm so glad I came across this book when I did, as it was just what I needed to begin the year.

'And why is it called Quite? Well, because it's my favourite word. It's a raised eyebrow, an aside. 'Well, quite.' But at the same time, it's firm, restrained and it manages your expectations: 'I think you'd quite like this film.' 'That egg sandwich was quite good.' And that's what we need, I think. Things to be quite good. We're bombarded with a lot of images of 'perfect' these days - Instagram, fashion, general showing off. But perfect is boring. High expectations are a killer.'

Go Tell It On The Mountain, James Baldwin

Trigger warnings: racism, violence, murder, suicide, sexual assault.

I have certainly found a new favourite author in James Baldwin this month. His first novel focuses on the experiences of the Grimes family in 1930s Harlem. John is a young man who navigates his confusion surrounding his faith and his animosity towards his father. Gabriel, John's father and the church's pastor, has a complicated and multi-faceted past, whilst his relationship to his sister, Florence, is hostile and fraught, and his wife, Elizabeth, struggles with events in her past.

The way Baldwin is able to traverse between time zones and narrative points of view whilst remaining in the third person is exquisite. Within a sentence he takes us back in time, but rather than being disjointing and disorienting, Baldwin achieves the temporal transitions in such an accessible and seamless way that you always know exactly who is talking and where you are within the novel. The novel is slow, but not in the laborious sense; Baldwin's masterful ability to reveal the plot elegantly and unhurriedly means he can find the balance between keeping you engaged and wanting more without rushing through at a pace that would feel somewhat inappropriate for the characters and their stories. The plot is often harrowing in its subject matter, particularly when exploring how the characters experience and observe devastating, deplorable racial discrimination; please consider the trigger warnings detailed above before reaching for this one.

Overall, it's an assured but modest novel, adopting an understated and quiet confidence in its exploration of human feelings, emotions, experiences and relationships. It is a sublime, timeless work of art.

'But to look back from the stony plain along the road which led one to that place is not at all the same thing as walking on the road; the perspective to say the very least, changes only with the journey; only when the road has, all abruptly and treacherously, and with an absoluteness that permits no argument, turned or dropped or risen is one able to see all that one could not have seen from any other place.'

The Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare

My final read of the month was another Shakespeare play, this time the late 16th-century story of Katherina and Petruchio. Bianca cannot marry until her older sister Katherina, loathed by everyone she meets, marries first. Upon her betrothal to Petruccio, Shakespeare explores the extent to which a husband will repress his wife's freedoms and agency.

The play holds an uncomfortable narrative at its centre, its discussions of female subservience to men particularly frustrating and disappointing to read, especially when considering the intention of a play and its status as an 'entertaining' piece of theatre. I found it difficult to redeem Shakespeare for the fact his portrayal of Katherina's marriage has been justified as being an ironic depiction of the hypocrisies of the patriarchal system of the 1500s.

Overall, another interesting play to read from an academic point of view, though not as captivating as the multi-layered story of Twelfth Night.

“For I am born to tame you, Kate, / And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate / Comfortable as other household Kates.”

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