READING FROM MY SHELVES: SEPTEMBER

Books started: 4

Books finished: 3

Books abandoned: 0

Books kept on the shelf: 2

It’s been a slow reading month again here. I am continuing to struggle with exhaustion, despite being back at school for six weeks now; many of my colleagues feel the same. We normally feel pretty tired when we first come back to school in September and are thrown back into the fray again after our bodies and minds have become used to a lovely long rest, but by now, the tiredness has normally abated and we’re back in the rhythm of the teaching day. This is an exhaustion that makes me want to curl up and sleep at 8pm, leaves me struggling to wake up in the morning, and makes me find it hard to concentrate on anything once I get home from work. Discussing it with a colleague yesterday, we came to the realisation that we’re all suffering from an anxiety so deep-seated we haven’t even noticed it anymore. I liken it a bit to how leaving background apps running on your phone slowly drains the battery without you realising. Living in a world that is so different in so many ways, remembering all the new rules, constantly being alert about where you’re standing and what you’re touching and who you might be making feel uncomfortable, as well the lack of certainty about anything, the fear of things never going back to normal, and the general feeling of being totally out of control of your own life, has all contributed to a deep-boned tiredness I’ve never experienced before.

So, I’ve been taking care of myself as much as I can; not pressuring myself to do more than I feel able to, and focusing on what brings me joy, as Marie Kondo would say. The highlight of my month was going to the theatre. I went to see An Evening with An Immigrant by Inua Ellams at the wonderful Bridge Theatre, which was absolutely wonderful – so powerful and thought provoking, but also funny and heartwarming and truly inspiring. I loved every minute, and it was euphoric to be back in a theatre again. As I sipped on my interval wine and sat back and enjoyed the people watching of my fellow audience members, I felt, for a moment, like I had slipped back into my old life. It gave me hope to be there, in that space, with other people who love the Arts and were clearly thrilled to be there too, experiencing something communally again. If you’re in London or its environs, I would strongly recommend booking one of the upcoming performances; we need to support our theatres! The National Theatre is also opening again this month…I shall be booking tickets and can’t wait to get back inside one of my favourite places in London!

Reading this month has been minimal and has consisted of two re-reads and an Agatha Christie, as well as some fantastic Gloria Steinem essays. I kicked off the month with the marvellous The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, which left me an emotional wreck for the second time in my life, and is still one of the best books I have ever read – not having read it since I was at university, I was worried it wouldn’t have the same profundity as I had found the first time, but I was delighted to find it just the same work of genius as before. Simon and I discussed it on our Tea or Books? podcast here, and we both agreed it is just the most quietly, brilliantly devastating novel. If you don’t know it, it’s the story of a butler, Stevens, in the 1950s, looking back over his career and his relationship with the former housekeeper of the Hall where he continues to work despite its heyday being long gone and its rooms largely shut up, and it has to be the most heart wrenching depiction of emotional repression and missed opportunity I have ever read. Though it’s funny, too, I must mention that – there are some lovely moments and humorous asides that lift the tone and add to the complexity of Stevens’ character. Ishiguro’s artfully restrained prose is pure pleasure to read and the story will continue to stay with me forever. It’s a perfect Autumnal novel, and if you haven’t yet read it, now is the time!

I also re-read Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea for teaching purposes, which I found even more brilliant than my first reading back at university. Rhys was a phenomenal writer; this has reminded me I must explore more of her work. The exotic, superstitious malevolence of nineteenth century Jamaica is so vividly drawn, and the descriptions of lush groves singing with the pattering of summer rains, and the stifling nights filled with the fear of eyes watching and plotting revenge in the darkness, are mesmerising. Rhys’ reimagining of the Bertha-Rochester marriage and the experiences that formed both of the characters’ personalities and behaviour towards one another is such a magnificent example of both feminist and postcolonial literature. In giving Bertha a voice and a life outside of the attic of Thornfield Hall, she opens a window into a nineteenth century patriarchal and colonial world that entirely shifts the narrative of Jane Eyre into a new and deeply troubling direction. We’ve been having marvellous discussions in class about it, after having just studied Jane Eyre; it’s a challenging novel for my sixth formers to grapple with, but they’ve loved exploring how an author has taken a story and made it into another one all of her own. We even wondered today whether Jane would one day end up the same way as Bertha, trapped in the lush green dell of Ferndean when Rochester decides he wants a new, younger model…a revisionist sequel lies potentially in the making there!

Here’s hoping October has me finding more time to read; I need to get back to those shelves of mine – I’m still stuck at K!

5 comments

  1. I’m so sorry to hear about how you’re feeling. Uncertainty and anxiety are exhausting and burnout has been extraordinarily high this year, even among those who are able to work from home and don’t have to face the added daily stresses you have. Good luck and I hope things start to feel better eventually.

  2. Oh the anxiety is terrible, I’m struggling much more now than I was when we were in complete lockdown, it’s so soul destroying, and I feel your pain/frustration. Wide Sargasso Sea is a wonderful novel, I’ve not read it in years, but remember it vividly. I must admit, I have never been totally convinced by Jane’s happy ending, much as I love the book, so there could be something in the question of whether Rochester would have ever tired of her. I hope October is a better month for you.

  3. What would we be/do without our precious books? Re-reading books as we grow older is quite an experience, making us compare our present selves with the people we once were. Over the years I’ve loved all of the books you mention. Now you’ve reminded me that I should visit Ishiguro again.
    The best book I know which expresses repressed love and missed opportunties is Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek, so full of sorrow and courage.
    I’ve been reading your blog since you started it and it feels very sad and strange to hear you knocked back by these awful circumstances. I hope – I know – you’ll pick up again as we all must. All the very best!

  4. Despite all your anxiety and tiredness, it is lovely to read that your students enjoy reading and discussing books and coming up with potential revisionist sequels.
    I discovered Inua Ellams on a BBC programme some time ago, and although I’m not someone who usually enjoys poetry, I really liked his readings of his texts, and the insights that go into them. Lucky you to have been able to enjoy a theatre evening.
    Wishing you a much happier and restful October.

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