Author: bookssnob

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.

Review: Fresh from the Country by Miss Read

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I’ve been trying to read the new Hilary Mantel, but at the moment my mind just can’t stay focused on anything for very long, and The Mirror and the Light is the sort of novel that requires full concentration. I read a few sentences, find my mind wandering, then I read a few more, then I get to the end of the page and realise I’ve taken nothing in whatsoever. So I’ve given up for now. Everything is so strange at the moment, isn’t it? There is the constant worry and sorrow about coronavirus nagging away at the back of my mind, the compulsion to be constantly checking the news even though I don’t want to know any more statistics of misery, the fact that my life has been utterly transformed overnight and I have no idea when it will go back to something resembling the old normality…I know you all know exactly how I feel. However, I am comforted by the fact that communities are pulling together, and people are caring for others in a way they would never have done before. I am comforted by the fact that pollution is reducing, air is becoming cleaner and healthier to breathe, and the Earth has a chance to start doing some healing. I am comforted by the thought that hopefully, amidst the stress and worry and financial difficulty, we are getting the chance to take life at a slower pace for a while. I am comforted by the hope that these positive changes will last; that people will see that they can do without constant consumption, that working environments will permanently become more flexible, that people will take more time to check on their neighbours and friends, that community groups formed to support those who are isolated will remain active, and reduce the chronic loneliness so many people feel.  And another comfort this week has been reading a book that wraps you up in a blanket of cosiness, where no difficulty is insurmountable, everyone gets their happy ever after, and the world is all as it should be. This is exactly what Fresh from the Country is, and I relished every minute. The story of newly-qualified primary school teacher Anna Lacey’s first year teaching in the rawly built, rough-edged Essex suburb of Elm Hill, it is a lovely insight into the world of teaching, as well as a thoughtful commentary on the quality of life in post-war suburbia, and a witty and heartwarming exploration of the challenges of young adulthood.

Anna Lacey is the product of a hearty, happy farming home in the Essex countryside, but her first teaching job on leaving training college is in the depressing, half-built suburb of Elm Hill, where she lodges with the parsimonious Mrs Flynn in her flimsy new-build semi. Everything about Elm Hill is depressing; the constant rumble of bulldozers, the lack of trees and flowers, and the sad looking straggles of raw-brick new build houses scattered around the remnants of an earlier village. However, the primary school where Anna is working is brand new and state of the art, is presided over by an admirable headmistress, and is staffed with a motley crew of entertaining teachers. As such, Anna finds her work enjoyable enough to keep her in the sullen surroundings of Elm Hill, despite the fact that managing a class of over 40 students in a room designed for half that number is an uphill struggle. Amidst the day-to-day triumphs and tribulations of learning to teach, over the school year Anna grows in confidence and understanding of herself and others, makes new friends, discovers what really matters to her, and even begins to fall in love. It’s an absolutely charming tale of a young woman’s journey of self-discovery as she learns to strike out on her own, and though elements of it are rather dated, it’s still a lovely and perfectly recognisable depiction of the first heady and confusing days of newly-adult independence.

This is unusual for a Miss Read in that it’s a stand alone book, so if you haven’t tried her yet, you might want to start here. The Dean Street Press, which republishes middlebrow novelists (check out their blog, Furrowed Middlebrow), has thankfully just republished it in paperback and kindle editions, so it’s very easy to get hold of. I enjoyed it mostly for the description of teaching life; it made me incredibly grateful that it is no longer acceptable or legal to have a class size larger than around 33 (and even that is far too many really) and that I have technology to use in the classroom these days rather than having to do everything by hand. But so much of teaching hasn’t changed: the excitement of September and meeting your new children, the fun of planning interesting and engaging lessons (and the disappointment when they go terribly wrong!), the joy of watching children grow and develop over the school year, and the pride you take in their achievements. There’s also the horrific accidents they manage to have when you turn your back for one moment, as poor Anna discovers during a PE lesson from hell!, and the hideous moments when everything descends into chaos the moment your headteacher/Ofsted inspector enters the classroom…but the less said about that, the better! Overall, if you want a light, heartwarming and thoroughly enjoyable read to distract you from everything…this will be an excellent option. Enjoy!

Comfort reading for discomfiting times

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The world is becoming a strange place, isn’t it? I walked to work this morning along almost traffic-free streets; I could actually hear a glorious cacophony of birdsong, as if I were on a country lane rather than one of London’s main arteries. Bloomsbury’s squares were empty; on any other freshly-washed-sky day in March, with the sun shining and the air sweet with the smell of blossom, these little oases of green would be thronged with workers and students enjoying the longed-for warmth and light after so many weeks of rain and cloud. The huge courtyard in front of the British Museum was desolate as I wandered past at lunchtime; usually packed with snaking lines of tourists and school children, a mere handful of hardy visitors trickled up the steps to enjoy what I am sure must have been the rather surreally empty galleries. Everywhere is so devoid of people that London is starting to look as lonely as an Edward Hopper painting. I’ve often wished for a bit of peace, fewer crowds, less bustle  – but now I’ve got it, it’s not blissful, but merely disconcerting.

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As of tomorrow, school is closing, and the children are all going home – for how long, we don’t know. I’ve told them to keep a diary; their own Journal of a Plague Year.  It will be something to look back on, a story to tell a future generation, perhaps. A time to reflect on what we value most, what we miss, what we can actually do without. A time to realise that actually, our day-to-day lives are full of privileges and choices and freedoms we take phenomenally for granted, and really are not, as much as we might like to think of them as being so, guaranteed. I’m no scientist; I don’t pretend to understand the statistics and the risks and the rights and wrongs of government strategies. All I know is that at times like this, rather than panicking, and obsessing over things I can’t understand and can’t control, I prefer to look outwards for what I can learn, how I can adapt, and what I can do to help others. And one of the things that always helps me when the world seems to be falling down around my ears is reading; nothing heavy, nothing too complicated or intellectual, but instead good, well-written yet undemanding prose that sweeps me away into another world and makes me forget about this one. So one way I would like to help all of my lovely readers out there who might be worried – for many of us have friends and relatives who are ill or vulnerable or lonely who we have good reason to worry about, me included – is to give you a list of books you can hopefully find comfort in over the next few weeks, and perhaps share them with your friends and family, too. Maybe you could start a facetime/whatsapp/skype book club as a way to connect with friends or family who are self-isolating, or feeling lonely if they live alone and are now working from home. Books have always been such a wonderful way to bring people together, and even if we can’t be physically together, they can still spark conversations and provide shared experiences, making us all feel a little more connected, and a little less discomfited, I hope. Anyway, here they are – my top five comfort reads. I hope some of these will bring you joy and peace at this time of world-wide trouble.

  1. The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard – this marvellous collection of five novels tells the story of the various members of the multi-generational Cazalet family from the pre-war 1930s to the post-war 1940s. Every character is brilliantly drawn and wonderfully multi-faceted, every plot line is utterly compelling, and every setting is evocatively realised. You’ll find yourself so drawn into the pages that the hours will pass by like seconds as the world Howard conjures casts its spell.
  2. The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M.Delafield – one of the funniest and most heartwarming books there is, Delafield’s witty and warm account of the various trials and tribulations involved in navigating the many hurdles of 1930s middle-class life are as comforting as a cup of tea and a plate of hot buttered toast. You’ll laugh out loud and grin delightedly with recognition at the awkward conversations, wardrobe malfunctions and domestic disasters that dog the Provincial Lady’s well-meaning attempts at keeping up appearances!
  3. Emma by Jane Austen – definitely the most cerebral of my choices, I know the story and the characters like the back of my hand and yet every time I read it, something new strikes me and I marvel afresh at the brilliance of Austen. Sinking into the world of Highbury is like going off to visit a group of old friends, and I never fail to giggle mercilessly at the ridiculousness of Mr and Mrs Elton and to whoop with joy when all comes right at the end. This is pure pleasure from start to finish – perfect balm for the troubled soul.
  4. Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher – my mum has a huge collection of Rosamunde Pilcher books and when I was a teenager and had run out of my own books to read one stormy night, my mum gave me Coming Home to try. I was instantly hooked and I very quickly read my way through them all, though Coming Home has always remained by favourite. Set in a beautiful stately home in Cornwall and telling the stories of childhood best friends Loveday and Judith, it’s an addictively good story with plenty of surprises, romance and tragedy to keep you absorbed for hours. Plus there’s a wonderful TV adaptation to enjoy starring a very young Emily Mortimer – well worth watching afterwards!
  5. Thrush Green by Miss Read – I discovered this book a few years ago when staying in a holiday cottage, and was surprised at how well-written, insightful and just downright lovely it was. The comfort in the whole series of Thrush Green books is that everything always turns out just as you think it will, and everyone gets just what they deserve, but beneath the simplicity and predictable nature of things, there’s a subtlety and a perceptiveness in the handling of characters and their emotions that gives them far more weight than other novels in this genre. I have grown to love the characters over the several books in the series I’ve read, and whenever I need something to make me feel that all is right with the world, I reach for a Miss Read.

I’ve illustrated this post with photographs I took today, on my walk to and from work, of the beautiful blossom that is coming out on the streets near my flat. It lifted my spirits to think of how, amidst the madness, nature continues in its usual rhythms. Spring is still coming, the world is still turning, and all will come right in the end.

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REVIEW: AUNTIE MAME BY PATRICK DENNIS

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Reading from my shelves continues with this little gem from the 1950s. Auntie Mame was a runaway hit in the USA when it was first published, and made its author’s name (Patrick Dennis is a pseudonym; his name was actually Edward Everett Tanner). It was transformed into a stage play and a movie, and I can imagine it translates very well; I’d love to have seen it on stage. The book is light-hearted, genuinely funny and very well written, with a wide array of fantastically eccentric characters and a wry narrator in the now-grown ‘Patrick Dennis’, who recounts his many adventures with his outrageous Auntie Mame since she became his guardian on the death of his absent, conservative and phenomenally wealthy father when he was just ten years old.

At the beginning of the novel, Auntie Mame is a devastatingly beautiful, glamorous aesthete in her thirties, living in a gorgeous apartment in the heyday of 1920s New York. She is surrounded by a bevy of artistic and eccentric types, such as her actress friend Vera, who insists on speaking in a manufactured British accent, and is looked after by her Japanese man servant, Ito. She has been an actress and a chorus girl, but is far from stupid; she is well versed in French literature and fascinated by Freud. Patrick falls in love with his blithe, free-spirited young aunt immediately, and gleefully conspires with her to outwit the trustee of his trust fund, who wants to send him to the boarding school his father had wanted. Instead, he goes to a progressive school Auntie Mame discovers in New York, where he runs around naked with his classmates until his trustee finds out, and sends him off to be educated properly. While at school, Auntie Mame draws Patrick into her various madcap schemes, from becoming a champion horse-riding Southern Belle to impress the family of her billionaire husband, to chaperoning her pregnant secretary, who has been jilted by the ghostwriter working on her sure-to-be-bestselling autobiography. Forever reinventing herself, Auntie Mame becomes more and more uncontrollable and more and more embarrassing to Patrick as he gets older, always turning up and causing difficulties just when she’s not needed, but as he reluctantly discovers as he enters into adulthood, his clever, audacious and ever resourceful Auntie Mame often knows better than him – especially when it comes to matters of the heart.

I loved the character of Auntie Mame, and Patrick, too – their unlikely relationship is brilliantly drawn, and the cast of weird and wonderful hangers-on that surround Auntie Mame at various points of her life are a joy to discover. The settings are wonderfully evoked too; Patrick’s hellish, draconian boarding school sounds far worse than anything Eveyln Waugh depicts in Decline and Fall, and I loved the faded Southern grandeur of Mame’s husband Beau’s family estate. Each chapter moves forward in time and introduces a new escapade, and so even if one adventure or one location doesn’t interest you, there’ll soon be another along to draw you back in again. This is exactly the sort of light and frothy book that is quite typical of this immediately post-war period, and I very much enjoyed being entertained without having to think too much. It is a little over-long, and one or two of the escapades could have been cut without a loss to the rest of the book, but as it stands, it’s a fabulous read for when you need a pick-me-up, and as such, it’s perfect for these cold, rainy days of late Winter/early Spring, when you’re waiting desperately for the first rays of warm sunshine to pierce their way through the clouds.

TRAVEL: DEVON

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During half term, I spent a lovely few days by the sea in Devon with my sister and her family. They have a holiday home in Exmouth, which is a charming, unspoiled seaside town just half an hour away from Devon’s pretty cathedral city of Exeter, from where you can get a fast train to London in as little as two hours. This makes it a very easy trip for me, as I can catch a train in the morning and be by the sea in time for a fish and chip lunch!

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Exmouth marks the start of the Jurassic Coast, which snakes around Devon into Dorset, and is famous for its red cliffs within which are nestled a wealth of fossils. Lyme Regis is its most well-known resort, where the marvellous nineteenth century fossil collector Mary Anning found some of the world’s first examples of plesiosaur and ichthyosaur fossils (and Louisa Musgrave takes her tumble off the Cobb in Persuasion!). You can go for wonderful walks along the cliffs where the views out across the sea are beautiful, but in the wind and rain of this trip, it wasn’t quite the right conditions to enjoy it!

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Instead, we walked along the seafront, admiring the lovely Victorian villas dotted above the cliffs, and the pretty tropical gardens, while brave souls kite surfed above the choppy waves. We walked along the Exe estuary to the gorgeous, quintessentially English village of Lympstone, which is a delightful huddle of cottages and smart nineteenth century villas, and mooched around Exmouth itself, which isn’t really touristy at all, and still feels like a place where real people live rather than the somewhat manufactured, cutesy feel some seaside resorts in Devon and Cornwall have. There is a fantastic sweet shop that my nephews and I always make a beeline for as soon as we arrive – my favourites are coconut mushrooms – and some cute local cafés where you can get Devon’s speciality – cream teas. We also love eating fancy fish and chips for dinner while looking out across the sea in the harbour front restaurant, Rockfish, and curling up by the fire with a nice glass of something in The Grove pub, while the waves crash outside.

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Further afield, it’s a short drive to Exeter, where there’s plenty to do if the weather necessitates indoor activities. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum is an absolute delight – one of those regional Victorian museums that contains a totally random hodge-podge of stuff donated by intrepid nineteenth century travellers to antique lands, it truly has got something for everyone. Some highlights were a giant stuffed giraffe, elephant and a lion shot by the King, an exhibition of Honiton lace, a collection of nineteenth century African tribal dress, an Egyptian mummy in a recreated tomb, and a selection of Jurassic Coast fossils. Even my oldest nephew, who at 13 is interested in little beyond the contents of his phone, was entertained for an hour. If you find yourself in Exeter with some time to spare, I highly recommend the RAMM – and what’s more, it’s completely free! Also in Exeter, we went to see the Cathedral, which is very beautiful, and wandered through some of the older cobbled lanes of shops, as well as going for a delicious pizza down on the newly restored waterfront. Exeter has some wonderful architecture, is surrounded by green open fields, and while filled with plenty of shops, restaurants and attractions, has a refreshingly tranquil feel. It is well worth a visit.

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Despite the only fleeting sunshine, a week by the sea did wonders for me. I love breezy walks along the shore and the feel of salt spray on my skin. There’s nothing like getting the London muck out of your lungs and taking life at a slower pace for a few days. I am already looking forward to returning in the summer. And one day, who knows? Maybe it’ll be a permanent move!