READING FROM MY SHELVES: MARCH

Books started: 5

Books finished: 4

Books abandoned: 0

Books kept on the shelf: 3

Books bought: 5 (but most of these were for work…)

At the beginning of the month I would never have guessed I’d be finding myself in the situation we’re all currently in. I was merrily going about the busyness of my daily life, rushing between my usual whirl of school and social activities, aware of the looming threat of coronavirus but never truly believing it would lead to a countrywide lockdown. The science teachers at school, when asked about how viruses worked, said it seemed like a storm in a teacup. I, possessed with only the mere wisps of GCSE Science floating about somewhere in my brain, was reassured. In the staffroom, we kept on drinking tea and planning our Easter holidays, thinking ahead to the summer term and the fun projects we could do with the children. I skipped off to the bookshop in my lunch break to buy Hilary Mantel’s new novel, baulking at the size of it and wondering when on earth I’d have time to read it. I excitedly booked theatre tickets for April and May – Shakespeare at the Globe, 4000 Miles at The Old Vic – and arranged weekend visits to the upcoming spring/summer exhibitions in London museums with friends. The blossom began to burst forth from the beautiful trees that line the Georgian streets and squares where I live. I started to contemplate not wearing a coat to work in the morning. Spring was unfurling before me as a realm of sunny, flower-scented possibility. So much to do and look forward to as the light-filled evenings lengthened. How naive I was.

If Coronavirus hadn’t happened, right now, I’d be in Tibet, on a once-in-a-lifetime school trip with my students that I was enormously lucky to be asked to accompany. Instead, I’m at my sister’s house in Kent, surrounded not by the foothills of the Himalayas and ancient temples, but the rapidly greening English countryside. I’m seeing out the lockdown here, as my sister didn’t want me to be alone in London. I’m glad of it; being able to walk outside, across the freshly ploughed fields that fill the air with a wonderful earthy fragrance, and enjoying the sight of primroses, daffodils, snowdrops and celandines peeking out from the hedgerows has been a huge boost to my spirits. I’m being kept very busy; I’m teaching every day from home, on zoom, which has been quite the adventure (if you want a taste of what it’s like, this video is hilarious and disturbingly accurate!), and helping my sister teach my nephews, as well as keeping up with friends and family much more regularly than I would normally over Facetime to ensure no one is getting lonely. Initially I thought I’d have tons of time to read, and brought stacks of books with me to my sister’s, but I’ve actually had barely any time at all. Adjusting to a whole new routine has been surprisingly exhausting, not to mention the difficulties in concentrating on anything when the world seems to be falling apart around us!

My reading this month has consisted of just four novels, two of which I’ve already reviewed; Auntie Mame and Fresh from the Country, which were both incredibly enjoyable in entirely different ways. I’ve just finished re-reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which I am teaching to my sixth formers and hadn’t read since I was their age. It’s been a surprisingly apt read for our current times – I’d forgotten how Ivan treats his time in the Gulag – with an utter determination to make the best of his situation, and a kindness and consideration towards others weaker or less able to adapt to the conditions than him. A couple of scenes really stood out for me – one, when he stays late to finish laying the bricks he has started, because he wants to finish the mortar and not waste it by letting it freeze over night, and also because he enjoys seeing a job finished and finished well – and two, when he relishes every last morsel of his bowl of thin porridge-like substance called kasha, taking the time to enjoy the sensation of his stomach being full. Sent to the Gulag for eight years, Ivan doesn’t waste time in feeling bitter or in railing against his situation, but instead, focuses on making the best of it and taking satisfaction from the small elements of his existence he can control. My students and I have found our understanding and appreciation of the text enriched enormously by our present lockdown state, and it is a wonderful testament to the strength and tenacity of the human spirit.

Just before the lockdown, when the bookshops were still open, I bought The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts on the recommendation of a colleague. It couldn’t have been more perfect timing, as it has been a wonderful companion read to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, as well as a brilliant way to escape, even if only in my imagination, to a completely different landscape. Roberts is quite the intrepid explorer, and even though she doesn’t play the piano, she has always been fascinated with Russia and its history, much like me. It was an encounter with a pianist in Mongolia who longed for an instrument of her own reflective of her family’s Siberian roots that set Roberts off on her journey across Siberia to find both a piano for her friend and also to discover the history of the pianos that had been brought to this often wild, hospitable and remote territory over the past three hundred years. From pianos brought by the wives of Decembrist exiles in the 1820s, the last piano played by the imprisoned Empress Alexandra in the house where she and her family were murdered in Ekaterinburg, and pianos played by Gulag prisoners, to the raft of cheap pianos imported to bring culture to Siberian children through the setting up of many music schools in the 1960s, many pianos have been scattered through these isolated, snow-bound communities that seem the last place where you might find such a symbol of European culture. Some are just memories now, stories told by elderly Siberians reminiscing about pianos they saw or heard as children; others are the stuff of legends, whispered about, but never found. Some still very much exist, and are the centre of their windswept communities; others lie in ruins, remnants of abandoned settlements too far-flung to retain a population once the Soviet Union collapsed. Within this journey to discover pianos, Roberts ends up discovering much more; the fascinating history of a region and a people long misunderstood and maligned, the individual, often surprising stories of the people she meets and who help her along the way, and an appreciation of what music can mean to people cut off from the rest of the world for much of the year. It’s a truly lovely book that taught me so much, and has given me titbits of so many stories I now want to go off and discover more about. And once the world starts to go back to normal, I think my first big trip abroad is going to be a return to the Trans-Siberian railway, which I last travelled on when I was 16. It’s high time to go back!

I’m hoping that this month, I’ll feel more settled in our new circumstances and have more time and concentration abilities to read. I’ve got to get cracking on The Mirror and the Light, and I have a couple of teaching books to read to prepare for my classes after Easter. I’ve bought Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights with me to read – another book about travel that will hopefully take me off in my imagination to foreign climes – and I want to read Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier, as a friend has just read it and said it’s wonderful escapism, so that sounds like just the ticket. I hope that everyone reading is safe and well, and able to find light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel. Personally, I have found that focusing on small things has helped me to stay positive and to even take pleasure in the restrictions of my day. Having the time to drink a whole cup of tea in the morning without needing to abandon it half way through to rush off to work is one example; it’s a very minor thing, but being able to sit still, relax and just be for half an hour before I start my day has made a world of difference to how I feel. As difficult as our circumstances are – and I fully recognise that many are struggling with incredibly difficult ones at the moment, far more than just being stuck indoors, like me – I do think it is something of a gift to have been given this time to stop for a while. It might not seem like one at the moment, but I can’t help but wonder, once things go back to some sort of normal, whether we might all find our lives have changed for the better by allowing ourselves to slow down and take stock of what really matters in this often frenetic world of ours.

21 comments

    1. I loved reading Auntie Mame. I wanted to be her when I was younger. I hope you will enjoy it very much! My favorite movie adaptation is the one with Rosalind Russell.

  1. As always I read with interest your article but when will I find time to read all your recommendations ? Even in confinement days go too fast .

  2. Here, In Australia, your blogs are read with relish. With family in England and having a deep closeness to your country, your choice of reading matter brings both closer. Keep safe and thank you.

  3. My husband mentioned something similar. He hopes that when this is all over that Americans will continue to live a more slower life. I would love for him to be right, but I think the rush-rush is too engrained in our culture. Still, like you, it’s nice for me to drink a very large cup of tea without having to rush out the door. Small pleasures.

    1. I hope we’re all going to learn to embrace a slower life. Where has all this rushing around got us, really? Small pleasures are definitely the way forward. I am loving not having to constantly be somewhere else!

  4. Rachel, it is good to hear you are well, sheltering with your sister, and finding light during these times of shadows. We have been on a STAY in place order for what seems an eternity, but, in reality has been several weeks now. Illinois, and especially the Chicagoland area, is feeling the devastating impact of COVID19. We are fine, take long, socially distanced walks every day, work on own projects, pray, and carry on. As always, I come away from your post with more books on my list Thank you.. You might enjoy The Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

    1. Thanks very much Penny. I’m glad you’re fine too, and are able to get out and about and keep busy. It’s all we can do! I hope you’ll enjoy one of these books…and I’ve heard that Amor Towles recommended highly elsewhere too, so I know I need to check it out! Thank you! Stay safe, Penny!

  5. A lovely blog post, as usual. I too should re-read “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, but mostly I am intrigued by “The Lost Pianos of Siberia”, which sounds fascinating. It reminds me of Rachel Polonsky’s “Molotov’s Magic Lantern”, which also takes personal objects as the start of a real and writing trip around Russia.

    1. Thanks very much! Lost Pianos is indeed brilliant – if you’re interested in Russian history then it is a must read. I had seen Molotov’s Magic Lantern when it came out but didn’t get around to it – I’ll make sure I add it to my list – thank you for reminding me!

  6. I’ve never read “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, but after your thoughtful review, I will. Just grabbed the ebook from the library. I vastly prefer paper books, but am giving thanks for my Kindle Paperwhite now! I so enjoyed the calm tone of your posting… no whining, no pontificating, no seeing into the future. Here and now. Thank you.

    1. I hope you’re enjoying Ivan Denisovich, Christina! And thank you so much for the compliment! Trying to stay in the present moment over here – some days are better than others!

  7. Hi, I’ve just come across your post about reading “one Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich” and on the strength of your comments I have finally started reading it. I had two copies on my shelves, both with different translators. One is translated by H.T.Willetts and the other by Ralph Parker. I much prefer the prose style of Parker, even though the Willetts translation is supposed to be the one recommended by Solzhenitsyn (according to the blurb on the back cover.)
    I was wondering who was the translator in the edition you are reading with your students and if you know of the above two that I have mentioned.
    With many thanks,
    Kristine

    1. Hi Kristine, thanks so much for your comment. I’m really intrigued by what you say because I did some research into the translations available of Solzhenitsyn in English and I couldn’t find any other than Ralph Parker’s. The only published version available in the UK seems to be Ralph Parker’s and I haven’t seen or heard of any translated by H.T.Willetts. I’d love more information about the Willetts – is it drastically different to the Parker?

      1. Hi Rachel, The H.T.Willetts translation is a Harville publication, 1991.-, a single book format.
        On the front it says “The authorised translation by H.T.Willets of the restored text”
        Yes, I think it is quite different in style – more ‘abrupt’, shorter sentences, not as pleasant to read. (It may appeal to some students who want a quick read 🙂 )
        Kristine

  8. Hi,
    An up-date on the Willetts translation… I started reading this translation as the small book format made it easier to read than the Parker version which was part of a larger book of Nobel Prize writing. I have found that it is a very readable translation after all and I am quite enjoying it.
    Kristine

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