READING FROM MY SHELVES: FEBRUARY

Books started: 10

Books finished: 8

Books abandoned: 1

Books kept on the shelf: 7

Books bought: 4 (oops)

It’s been a bumper reading month, largely because I’ve been on half term for two weeks and had a nice long journey to Devon on the train so have had plenty of time to read. I have also bought quite a few books – but most of those were for school purposes, so I like to think they don’t count. And I read them all as soon as I bought them, so I’m at least not adding to the pile!

So, what did I read this month? Well, I finished Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women, which had been on my shelves since it came out last year. I’m sure many of you have heard of it; a shocking, data-based exploration of how the world is biased against women in pretty much every facet of day-to-day life, it’s a sobering, enlightening and inspiring read in that it sets out practical, unemotional ways forward for society. I’m sure many people have the impression that it’s a man-bashing polemic, and Criado Perez has received a lot of unbelievably vile abuse from men as a result of her work, but it really is a very measured, well researched and written account of how the world is built for men – often not out of any malice, but just out of a lack of thought – and she explores how this damages and restricts men’s lives as well as women’s. Anyone who cares about the world being a more equal place for everybody should read it. This one’s definitely staying on my shelf, as I know I’ll be lending it out frequently!

Next was a book I’ve had on my shelves for so many years I’m almost embarrassed to admit it; it was actually the first Virago Modern Classic I ever bought, when I was a teenager. Dorothy Canfield Fisher is one of my favourite middlebrow American novelists, and Her Son’s Wife is a very emotive and thought provoking tale of what happens when a widowed teacher, Mary Bascomb, who has put all of her love and hope into her only son, has to share her son and later granddaughter with his selfish and childish wife. I thought this would be a straightforward nightmare mother-in-law story, but it’s so much more than that, and the characters are drawn so fully and sympathetically that it’s difficult to decide who carries the most blame for the awful situation the characters eventually find themselves in. Fisher is, as always, at her best when describing the love between adults and children, and the devotion of Mary to her granddaughter (the hideously named Gladys – much to Mary’s horror) and her realisation of the damage her suffocating love has wrought on her son is powerfully and movingly drawn. She is also wonderful – as one would expect from one of the earliest advocates of the Montessori method – brilliant at describing Mary’s work as a teacher. Mary is an incredibly complex character – demanding and exacting of herself, she fails to see how her inflexibility pushes others from her – but at the same time, the reader cannot help but sympathise with the way her son and his wife use her. The book finishes on a note of ambiguity, and it’s certainly a story that will stay with me. However, I did feel it was a little overlong and overwrought in places, and as such, I haven’t kept it on my shelf – it’s been given to a friend who I know will enjoy it, and left space for something new to fill its place!

I very much enjoyed Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl, which has been languishing on my shelves since I bought it when I lived in New York, many moons ago. I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read by Willa Cather, and this is no exception; set in Virginia just before the Civil War, it looks at life on an estate where the proud mistress, Sapphira, becomes irrationally jealous of one of the slave girls, Nancy, and believes she is having an affair with her loyal, religious husband. She sets out to make Nancy’s life hell, to the point where her daughter, Rachel, has to resort to desperate measures to try and get Nancy out of her mother’s clutches. It is a beautifully written, wonderfully evocative novel that demonstrates Cather’s skill at bringing a place and its people to life. Nothing much happens, but it doesn’t need to; the characters are so life-like and the prose such a pleasure to read that I couldn’t bear to put it down. I’ll certainly be keeping this one, and I’m now half way through the final unread Cather on my shelf, Shadows on the Rock, which is quite the change of scene: 17th century Quebec!

The first new book I bought and read was Isabel Greenberg’s wonderful graphic novel, Glass Town, which brings to colourful life the juvenilia of the Bronte siblings, as well as telling the story of their lives. For fans of the Brontes, it’s a joyous read, with a lively, well written narrative and beautiful illustrations that imagine the kingdoms of Angria and Gondal.  For those who are yet to be introduced to the Brontes, it’s a marvellous introduction – I’ll definitely be using this at school! While on holiday in Devon last week, I picked up Lightning Mary by Anthea Simmons in the gift shop of the wonderful Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter – it’s a children’s book about Mary Anning, of the fossil collecting fame, who’s a bit of a local legend in East Devon. I thought it might be a good book to get my younger students to read, and I loved it, so I definitely will be recommending it to them – it’s got plenty of real history blended with a good plot and lively characters – perfect for 9-12 year old readers. In a charity shop in Exmouth, I also picked up a children’s book – Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time. It’s a lovely old edition and I have had it recommended to me several times, so I thought, perhaps now is the time to read it! I whipped through it on a windy and wet afternoon in Devon, and I loved its time travelling narrative between twentieth century and sixteenth century Derbyshire, with Penelope Taverner finding herself drawn into a tragically doomed plot to save Mary, Queen of Scots. It’s another one I think my kids at school would love, so it was definitely worth picking up!

I also bought 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep by art critic Jonathan Creary after seeing a wonderful exhibition inspired by his work at Somerset House (now finished, unfortunately), which looks at how capitalism is gradually eroding sleep from our lives as when we’re sleeping, we can’t be productive or exploited. The exhibition gave me much food for thought, but the book itself, while containing some pertinent comments about the ‘always on’ nature of our daily lives, and the ‘attention economy’ we’re all subjected to through the use of smart technology, it’s written in such an obtuse style I can’t be bothered to keep wading through it. I wish academics would learn to write in clear, comprehensible prose rather than a lot of pseudo-intellectual waffle. Perhaps then more people would read their research!

So, it’s been a productive reading month. I’m hoping to keep up the pace next month – though Hilary Mantel’s new novel coming out next week may slow me down – it’s almost 1000 pages long!

12 comments

  1. If you would like to read more about Mary Anning, I recommend Tracy Chevalier’s book Remarkable Creatures, which also features a Sense-and Sensibility situation of a more middle class woman and her mother being sent to live at the shore because it is cheaper than maintaining them in London. Chevalier always does her historical homework, and it is an engaging read.

    1. Ruth I read Remarkable Creatures a couple of years ago and must confess I didn’t love it – it was my first Tracy Chevalier and I didn’t get the hype at all. But she certainly brought to life the period very well!

  2. I’m really enjoying the monthly updates of your reading quest. I would imagine besides your discovery of liking a book (or not) there’s an interesting self-discovery element. What did I think it would be? Why keep it all this time?
    The new Emma looks a little too 21st-century arch for my taste, despite the beauty of scene and costume. Maybe some of that is just the music and editing of the trailer.
    I’m counting the days to the publication of Hilary Mantel’s final Cromwell book, and am taking a couple of days off to be able to submerge. A highlight of the year!

    1. Thanks Jennifer – I’m glad they’re proving interesting! Yes absolutely. I have found myself wondering why I didn’t pick up books I’ve thoroughly enjoyed – by authors I already love – years ago. It’s an interesting question to ponder – why do we read what we read when we read it – and does it make a difference? Yes the new Emma was a little too modern for my liking too. It lacked the subtlety Austen does so well. But still worth a watch – though perhaps more when it comes out on Netflix. Oh you lucky thing to have two days off to enjoy it – I shall have to hide myself away somewhere at the weekend and hope no one disturbs me! I’m so excited!

  3. Rachel, I am curious: Are you planning to take the plunge right into ‘Th mirror and the light’ or are you going to re-read ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the bodies’ first?
    I’ve read WH twice [though not in the recent past] so pobably I’ll read Bring up the bodies before tackling the final of the triology.

    1. Hi Hina – yes I am going to plunge right in. I don’t have the patience to wade through both of the others again first – it’d take me a good month or more to do that, so I’m just hoping I can remember enough to enjoy it properly. I think I will. Though if I had more time I’d definitely go back to the beginning first!

  4. I’m so glad you enjoyed Invisible Women! I read it last year and have recommended it at least once a week since then to friends, relations, and random people trying to mind their own business. Such an important book!

    1. Isn’t it wonderful!? My kids at school have got bored of me banging on about it but I really do think everyone should read it! We need to spread the word!

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