READING FROM MY SHELVES: APRIL

Books started: 6

Books finished: 6

Books abandoned: 0

Books kept on the shelf: 4

Well, lockdown life continues, and I’m well and truly adjusted to the slower rhythm of my days. I’m back in London, and enjoying the peace and tranquility of my little corner of the city, where the birds are singing, the streets are quiet, and the air smells of nothing but the sweet perfume of the abundant purple wisteria proliferating over my neighbours’ houses. I get up as the sun rises and retreat back to bed with a cup of tea and a book; a treat I never had time for when I had to be at school by 8am. I have a leisurely breakfast, flipping through a magazine or listening to the radio; I’ve become quite addicted to the ever-varied and interesting Radio 4. During the day I teach lessons online, do some marking and admin, chat with colleagues, and when I take short breaks, I have time to do bits and pieces of housework, or sit on my balcony with a cup of tea and read a chapter of a book. I finish teaching around 4 most days, and then I go off for a walk to get some fresh air. Every day I  go wandering around a different patch; it’s surprising how much of my neighbourhood I’ve never even seen. When you’ve nowhere in particular to go and all the time in the world, it’s wonderful how many interesting side streets and passages you can wander down, and I’m finding lovely little pieces of hidden treasure every day. In the evenings, there’s FaceTime and Zoom catchups with friends and family, episodes of new series to try, piano practice, and normally an early night, finishing the day as I start, with a cup of tea and a book. It’s not a bad life. I’m taking what pleasure I can find in every day, trying not to dwell on the things I miss, and not thinking further ahead than what I need to get ready to teach tomorrow. I think I might have inadvertently mastered the art of living in the present, which I’ve been trying to do for years; it’s just a shame it’s taken a pandemic and mass suffering to make me realise that constantly trying to plan ahead and worrying about the future doesn’t really do anything other than make you feel constantly stressed and dissatisfied!

However, I digress; I’m sure what you really want to know is what I’ve been reading this month, and the answer is, not an awful lot, as most of the month was taken up with Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, which I finished last weekend. It was initially a struggle to get into, and I had a few false starts, but once I properly got into it, I was absolutely hooked. It’s a perfect finale to the series, and the slow, inevitable downfall of Cromwell is so compellingly, so cleverly and so subtly written. In the suffocating, self-serving world of the court, every conversation is a tightrope, and every glance a hidden code. No alliance can be trusted, no amount of ancestry can be relied upon for protection. In this final volume of the series, a creeping disillusion begins to take hold over Cromwell. To be at court is to be caught; there is nowhere to hide, and nowhere to escape. Increasingly he feels the bars of this cage pressing upon him as jealous nobles vie to pull him down, and Henry’s favour starts to waver. He may have amassed a fortune, titles, houses and be the most powerful man in the kingdom, next to the king. But his whole world rests on the whims of an irascible and entirely selfish man, and his  days are full of plots, intrigues, petitions – his work to keep everything on an even keel and his own head off the chopping block never ends. He is exhausted, and beset by enemies on all sides – in his heart he starts to long for rest in the heat of a summer afternoon, the smell of lavender, days of blissful emptiness, where he is beholden to nothing and no-one – and yet still he must go on, calculating, cajoling, convincing. The humanity of Cromwell is Mantel’s genius – he is so real, so full of conviction and contradiction – capable of great love and kindness, and yet also so much cold cruelty, but at his heart, still the beaten, unloved child, born in the gutter with his eyes fixed on the stars. I had grown to love him over these three mammoth books, despite his flaws and failings, and I’m not ashamed to say I cried at the end. No words of praise for such remarkable brilliance can truly be sufficient; I honestly can’t imagine reading anything better.

After the emotional end of The Mirror and the Light, I needed something frothy and fun, and I picked up Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, which I’ve been meaning to read for years. I was laughing out loud from the first page; his depiction of British people is horrifyingly, hilariously true, and his affection description of the British landscape alongside his playful digs at the various absurdities of the British psyche were an absolute delight to read. Something else quite interesting to me, reading the book some twenty years after it was written, is how awfully dated the 90s seem in his descriptions of day-to-day life. I was a 90s child, and like to think that my childhood was but a blink ago in a world that looked very similar to now, but reading his descriptions of flounced and floral interiors, drab and dreary B&Bs, mobile phones in suitcases, terrible TV shows and awful beige food, has made the 90s suddenly seem centuries ago, and me feel horribly old! Even so, I loved every minute of this tour of my country, and it made me desperate to get out and go for a brisk walk by the sea and eat fish and chips, wander around a musty smelling cathedral, and take a ride on a miniature railway run by enthusiastic trainspotters. I can’t believe this is my first Bryson, and seeing how much I loved his wry and witty prose, it definitely won’t be my last!

I had a couple of disappointments this month; The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead was voted for by my Year 11 class as their monthly ‘book club’ read, and I hated it (as did they) – how it won the Pulitzer Prize I can’t imagine, as it was dull, unrealistic and utterly unimaginative – I don’t see how making the Underground Railroad very briefly into a real train is that praiseworthy an imaginative leap myself! – and suffered massively from lazy plotting in that the main character was miraculously saved from every tight corner she found herself in. The Old Countess by Ann Douglas Sedgwick is a beautiful old 1920s novel I picked up in a book shop in Annapolis last summer, and I was really looking forward to reading it, as I loved another of her books, Dark Hester, when I read it years ago in New York. This one, unfortunately, is so histrionic and contains cardboard cut-out characters who are all so absurd that I just wanted to throw the book against the wall by the end. It could have been wonderful – a bitter old countess mouldering away in a dilapidated chateau, her mysterious young housekeeper, a young English couple who stumble across the menage and find themselves fascinated and drawn in – but it just degenerates into melodramatic bizarreness that would have made a wonderful silent film, but makes for a terrible book. Definitely not a keeper!

21 Comments

  1. A really good review of several books. I cannot bring myself to read Mirror and the Light yet – I know I’ll get too involved which will not be good at the moment. I met Bill Bryson at a friend’s wedding, and he seemed a really nice man, and my daughter knew him quite well when he was Chancellor of Durham and she was the rep of a charity he was involved in. So I have bought at least one copy of all of his books – I hope you can get hold of some!

    1. The Mirror and the Light is definitely one you can’t put down once you get started, so wait until you’re ready for the commitment! I got the impression that he was a lovely man – I’d love to meet him at a dinner party!

  2. Bryson’s more recent book on England was disappointing (he seemed annoyed and curmudgeonly), but his book about hiking a portion of the Appalachian Trail remains a very fun read. I also quite liked his little book on Shakespeare. And one of his very early books called Neither Here Nor There about his early travels around Europe.

    I love Mantel but haven’t begun the Cromwell series at all. Her early stuff has fascinated me, and her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost.

    1. Oh, really? I was planning on getting the Little Dribbling one next. Maybe I’ll give it a miss! I’m keen to read more of him but I’ve no others on my shelf so it’ll have to wait until charity bookshops are open again! I’d love to read more Mantel outside of the trilogy – I’ve heard so many good things about her books, but the problem is they’re so long!

  3. Bryson’s travel books always have me laughing out loud. In the same way you enjoyed an outsider’s view of your own country, I loved his one on Australia.

    The one thing I haven’t felt much like doing during COVID is reading. Our schools haven’t been closed and our politicians have varied the approach every two weeks, which has meant, as a Head, I’ve been spending days dealing with the changes and doing admin and emails in a continuous loops. My mind is just exhausted. So I be taken up gardening again.

    1. I’m sorry Lucinda – it must be so stressful and frustrating. I gather things are tentatively getting back to normal in Australia now – looks like I won’t be going back to school until September now, which is so sad – I miss my students and colleagues so much. Seeing them on zoom isn’t the same!

  4. Bless you and your students for not liking Underground Railroad. I couldn’t finish it and everyone around me was raving about it. I’m reading the Bryson book now you mention. His Walk in the Woods had me in tears of laughter as did the early one of going back to Iowa, forget the name at the moment. Your days sound lovely with your routines, cups of tea and books. All the best for continued peace in your corner of the world.

    1. I’m glad we’re not alone on the Underground Railroad front! I’m so glad you love Bryson too – I was laughing so much at Notes from a Small Island and I can’t wait to read more. Thank you – hope you are staying safe and well where you are too.

      1. Yes we are well. Bryson is good though I must say Notes has become quite dated . I found his descriptions of the mentally ill in the institution quite offensive now and very politically correct. Things change in society quickly.

  5. I’m sad you didn’t enjoy Underground Railroad. I really enjoyed reading it, much more than Homegoing which came out at the same time, also to much critical praise, but felt forced to me. I have only read two more of Colson Whitehead’s books and really enjoyed both of them. I am wondering if that note of magical realism present in Underground Railroad may be off-putting to some (I love it but know it isn’t to everyone’s taste, and can’t remember now if you are pro- or anti- magical realism). The Intuitionist has some of the same notes as Underground Railroad, I can really see how one novel fed into bits of the other, but I found Nickel Boys to not have those magical realism notes. If you are interested in trying Colson Whitehead again, you might start with Nickel Boys.

    And a resounding yes to Bill Bryson’s Walk in the Woods as mentioned by other commenters. There are still scenes I will remember and laugh about, and I think I read it 20 years ago. Why haven’t I picked up any of his other books? I will have to remedy that when I can visit the library again.

    1. I’m not a fan of magical realism, which is probably one of the reasons why I didn’t get on with it, but I also just thought it was lazily plotted. I won’t be in a hurry to read him again, though the Nickel Boys does sound really powerful so perhaps I’ll get to that at some point. Thanks for the advice.

      I saw the movie of Walk in the Woods and loved it so I will read it one day – it’s always the people you love and keep meaning to read you somehow never seem to get around to!

  6. I love British history and so must read this set. It’s so strange; sounds like modern day politics in the US.

    “He may have amassed a fortune, titles, houses and be the most powerful man in the kingdom, next to the king. But his whole world rests on the whims of an irascible and entirely selfish man, and his days are full of plots, intrigues, petitions – his work to keep everything on an even keel and his own head off the chopping block never ends.”

  7. I also became really invested in Thomas Cromwell’s character as depicted by Hilary Mantel. I haven’t read The Mirror and the Light yet. I also really enjoyed the Wolf Hall TV miniseries and I think Mark Rylance is brilliant as Thomas Cromwell.

    Notes from a Small Island is so funny. I’ve read it several times and I still can’t get through the Glasgow pub scene without wheeze-laughing.

    1. Oh yes, the TV series was wonderful and Mark Rylance absolutely perfect, I thought. I’m really hoping they’ll film the third book at some point, too. Ha – I was surprised at how much I actually laughed out loud – he’s got such a way of pinpointing the foibles of the British!

  8. ”I’m back in London…” I somehow thought we weren’t supposed to be travelling around the country at the moment. If I’d known it was allowed I’d have visited my sister…

    1. Don’t worry Helen, I haven’t been travelling around! A planned short pre-lockdown stay at my sister’s ended up lasting for six weeks after the lockdown was announced while I was there. I was reluctant to undertake any non essential journeys, so stayed as long as I could at my sister’s, but by the six week mark, with no end to the lockdown in sight, I decided I would have to go home, as I couldn’t stay at my sister’s indefinitely for various practical reasons. My brother in law drove me back, so I didn’t have to take public transport, and I followed all the rules by self-isolating for two weeks when I returned. I am certainly not advocating people travelling around to visit relations and didn’t mean to give that impression.

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