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!