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Self-Isolation Literature Part II: Books I Read During the Great Lockdown of 2020

Books I picked up during the months I spent self-isolating. Part of a series called Isolation Literature, where I share my thoughts on various works of literature to entertain you during your time at home. In Part I, I talk about my favorite works of literature. This time, I’ll talk about the books I managed to finally tick off my bucket list as well as new discoveries.

Once upon a time, I was an avid reader.. Then college happened, and I went from reading ten books a year to two a year, in which the only reading I managed to squeeze in was during long-haul flights and salon visits. Fast forward to April 2020, in which the whole world has been forced to hunker down at home in an effort to flatten the curve. Suddenly, instead of dinners with friends at the hottest new restaurant in town people are finding themselves stuck at home, with ample free time at their hands. Some take up baking, others pick up new languages, while I found myself reading for pleasure much more than in previous years. Now, when we officially end quarantine I will have officially transformed to one of those annoying people who blurt out statements like “I wish I could speak Russian just so I can read War and Peace in its original language.”

Books I Read

  1. Middlemarch by George Eliot (9/10)

Middlemarch is a Victorian novel set in the early Victorian era during a period of political change (around the time of the Reform Act which set to change voting rights to include more commoners) and was written by Mary Ann Evans under the pen name of George Eliot. I am Honestly so proud of myself for reading this book.. During the beginning of lockdown I went on a book-buying frenzy to make sure I didn’t lack reading material for weekends at home, and one of the books I bought was Middlemarch because I wanted to see what the fuss was all about as it’s highly regarded as one of the best books in the English language, and writers such as Virginia Woolf sing its praises. All I can say is that you might find the beginning quite boring because it takes time to introduce the three parallel storylines of the book (Dorothea, Dr. Lydgate and the Vincy family) as Evans takes great care to flesh out their backstory and personalities but once you reach 25-30% of the book things get very interesting and around 75% into the book the plot gets very interesting. Overall though, I think the best and most admirable thing about this book is that it has a ton of plot twists, but are so elegantly done. Stay tuned because I have more to say about the novel and a separate review is coming!

  1. East of Eden by John Steinbeck (9/10)

This was my thought process: I definitely have not read enough American literature… Oh, I loved Of Mice and Men, I think I should start with reading Steinbeck’s other works.. Plus East of Eden is supposed to be his magnum opus, though Grapes of Wrath is probably more well-known. I’m so glad I picked it up because I think it must be the best American novel I’ve ever read.

For a more detailed review of East of Eden and Steinbeck’s other works, check out our Author Spotlight on John Steinbeck.

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (10/10)

If you look up “Books Everyone Should Read”, “100 Best Books” or “Literary Tomes That are Worth the Read” I’m sure War & Peace will come up in nearly all those lists. I am also sure that a great deal of people have started reading W&P due to quarantine. It is, after all the perfect candidate to finally check off your bucket list – it’s very long, a classic and highly recommended.. Perfect quarantine reading material! Yes it does get boring at times when Tolstoy is giving us a history lecture. The first few chapters of these non-stories are great to read, but after a while his ramblings get tiring, though he does make great points. The description of war and military strategy is so detailed and quite enjoyable even for someone without much knowledge of that area. The book shows the complexities of war and military strategy, of the little acts of humanity between enemy troops, and that nothing is black and white even during a war. The characters in the book are so well-written and you sympathize with them so much. Pierre is such a well-written and lovable character that you keep rooting for, even when he messes up (which he does a lot). Prince Andrei and his father and sister are also such well-written characters with great developments while the Rostovs are some of the kindest-hearted people you can’t help but cry with them when their misfortunes just keep piling up. Though parts of the story were gut-wrenching (e.g. deaths, occupation of Moscow), the book ended on a high note which surprised me (it is a Russian novel, after all) but is so so satisfying. HIGHLY recommended. I didn’t even intend on reading this book this year, but one day I started reading it and that was it.. I just couldn’t put it down and would spend weeknights and weekdays just immersing myself in the amazing world. I finished this book in about a week which now that I look back is quite insane as it’s over 1200 pages in the edition that I got. Plus, there’s a great podcast that has a book reading and analysis for each chapter. Perfect! Stay tuned for an in-depth review (still working on it, I have sooo much to say about what is now my favorite novel of all time that it’s hard to get it down on writing).

  1. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (9/10)

This book is insane, and I absolutely love it. I can honestly say I’ve never read anything like it. The best I can do to explain it is that the devil and his two apprentices come to wreak havoc and expose absurdity and corruption in Soviet-era Moscow, and parallel to this are flashbacks of Pontius Pilate and Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Jesus) in Jerusalem. A detailed review is coming soon so stay tuned!

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (9/10)

Hurrah for Karamazov! What a glorious novel — here is one of the greatest literary creations of the Western world and I wasn’t disappointed. Here Dostoyevsky brings to life the most despicable, the most frustrating as well as the most lovable characters in literature (Alyosha and Father Zosima, no doubt). I slightly regret reading this so soon and going through it so quickly, because (1) according to the internet it’s Dostoyevsky’s best book and more importantly (2) it’s definitely one of those books you should take your time with because the beauty of the book isn’t in the plot. The plot itself isn’t too complicated, don’t expect to be on the edge of your seats the entire time — it’s not that kind of murder mystery. Rather, it’s in the long monologues and philosophical detours taken by the characters. This book is incredible and I would love to reread this in the near future. The only reason I didn’t give this a 10 is purely personal taste — I didn’t find myself enjoying it so much to the point of not being able to put it down like I did with Anna Karenina or Persuasion. It’s likely because Tolstoy generally makes more commentaries on Russian society and politics while Dostoyevsky focuses on morality and my preference is to read about the former. It’s often been said that “Tolstoy is the sociologist and Dostoyevsky is the psychologist of Russian literature” and having read a few books from each author I think this is pretty much true.

  1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (8/10)

This is a book I never would have picked up had it not been a book club pick as the theme put me off so much. However, after reading a few chapters I realized how beautiful the prose is. Nabokov has a unique writing style that is just so beautiful, which I suspect is due to his synesthesia. By the way, Nabokov has got to be one of the most badass writers out there. He escaped Russia during the Bolshevik revolution (he was a noble, and yet his brother was an anti-Tsarist, but also anti-Bolshevik — it’s complicated..) to Germany and France, married a Russian-Jewish émigré, and escaped Europe at the end of WWII. Having received an education typical to Russian nobles, Nabokov was fluent in several languages and translated Lolita to Russian by himself (with the help of his wife), and made corrections to the French translation. Another fun fact is that he taught Ruth Bader Ginsburg European Literature at Cornell. Judge RBG (RIP) speaks fondly of Nabokov and explains why Nabokov chose to write in English (mainly) though it wasn’t his first language: “He spoke about what he liked in the English language,” she said once in a talk. “If a speaker wants to say ‘white horse,’ you say ‘white horse’ in the English language. “You see the white before horse,” she said, “so when you get to the horse, it is already white. In French you say, ‘cheval blanc,’ but you think brown horse first and you have to convert it.”

  1. Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy (8/10)

This one is a very quick read (just under 100 pages on my particular edition). Yet it’s very profound and still manages to give you the famous Tolstoy commentary on Russian society. Highly recommended for younger readers interested in Russian literature, or those looking for an entry point to get back into the habit of reading.

  1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (9/10)

I did not expect to love this book as much. You may mock me as much as you like, I had never read any of Tolstoy’s works before! I made the mistake of thinking this would be “just a love story”. Oh, how wrong I was! I honestly could not put this book down whenever I had the chance, and finished it in just under a week (which is great considering I was working from home five days of the week) and this book is around 800 pages. Where to begin? Well, obviously everybody knows the story is about a married St. Petersburg socialite (Anna) and her affair with a young officer, Count Vronsky. Parallel to this is the story of Levin who is in love with Anna’s sister-in-law. Levin is an anomaly in the book, he is a noble but doesn’t live in the city. Instead, he chooses to live in his country estate and works the land, continuously trying to improve his methods of agriculture and labor management. I could go on and on about Levin.. I think he’s one of the best written characters in literature. Of course, this is a Tolstoy novel so every detail gives you insight to the late 19th-century Russian society, from the lavish dinners and operas to small characters such as Lvov, brother-in-law to Anna’s brother who is a Russian diplomat but can barely speak Russian but is noted for his dedication to his family.

  1. No Longer Human by Osamu Dasai (7/10)

This book was recommended to me through the book club and I’m so glad I read it. It is compelling from the get-go and you’re curious to learn more about the main character who doesn’t “feel” and consequently hurts himself and others around him. I won’t say more because it’s a short book and I don’t want to spoil it. It’s set in pre-WWII Japan, which isn’t a period I’ve read in literature before.

  1. The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway (6/10)

I don’t get it. Sorry to all the Hemingway fans out there but I just didn’t get it and didn’t like it. I don’t understand why people are obsessed with this novella. I guess it is written very well and does have a few good moral lessons here and there but the book overall is quite unmemorable. However I will need to read 2-3 more novels from Hemingway to see if his works are to my taste. I mean, there must be a reason people rave about his books so much. If you have any recommendations, please let me know!

Books I Tried to Read But Couldn’t Finish… Yet

Since my prolonged period of self-isolation I just haven’t been able to finish a single work of non-fiction, though in normal circumstances I’m a big fan of works pertaining to economics/sociology. Is anyone else having that problem? I wonder why that is.. Perhaps once I get into a period of normalcy I’ll be able to enjoy and appreciate works of non-fiction again.

1. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty (Acemoglu and Robinson)

I’ve started the first six or so chapters of this book, and so far it’s exactly my kind of book. The book makes the argument that the largest determining factor for the success of a nation is its institutions. For example, the different institutions set up by colonizers that led to “extraction colonies” and “settler colonies”. This is one of the views that may explain why former colonies such as the United States and Mexico differ so wildly in Economic fortunes and political stability. This has interested me for the longest time because I come from a developing country very rich in natural resources and I keep questioning why it is that countries that have very little natural resources make up the majority of developed nations.

  1. Good Economics for Hard Times (Abhijit V. Banerjee, Esther Duflo)

My first attempt at listening to an audiobook (thank you, Amazon Prime for the Audible trial! If you’re interested, here’s a link where you can get two free audiobooks on your free trial). As someone interested in development economics, this book was incredible! (Of course, I wouldn’t expect any less from the noble prize-winning couple). The book disproves typical myths pushed by divisive politics such as anti-immigration. No, the typical citizen from Mexico isn’t obsessed about crossing the border. And no, an increase in low-skilled migrants does not push wages down. Banerjee and Duflo disprove these common misconceptions which has formed the basis of identity politics by citing studies and using hard facts and figures.

  1. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Everyone always says this is one of the best books ever written and one of the most influential books in the Western world, etc so I had to pick it up. This book is hilarious but the format of the novel makes it so (in my opinion) it’s better to read it bit by bit over a longer period instead of in one go. It’s kind of like a sitcom in novel version… Get the edition translated by Edith Grossman, that’s the one that I found to have the best reviews.

Next Up

I bought (or am currently reading) the following books. If and when I do finish them, I’ll do a part II of this post so stay tuned 🙂

Dear Readers, thank you for taking time to read my reading-related ramblings.. Comment down below with books you’ve been reading during your period of self-isolation. It’s September and where I am and unfortunately the virus has not shows any signs of slowing down.. I think this list might just get longer.

If you’re like me and are too ambitious about the books you want to tackle and end up abandoning books halfway (and only going back to it several months afterwards) goodreads is a great way to keep track of your wish list and reading progress. You can even make your own virtual book club with discussion topics there!

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