Grasmere Book Group 2017

The Grasmere Book Group has been going for some years now and we thought it might be nice to share our reflections on this year’s reading. Some of what follows has already appeared in the esteemed organ the Grasmere Parish Magazine but with the idea that the internet is awash with those who have yet to come across us or our village’s excellent monthly bulletin we have gathered our year’s notes together here. One final caveat, each entry is as much about our responses to the books as the books themselves.

JANUARY

As tradition dictates our January meeting decided our reading. This is a chance to get together and talk about what we’ve been given, what we’ve been reading, what we want to read. More than enough books were proposed and following some shuffling, whittling and cherry-picking the year’s schedule was decided.

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FEBRUARY Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks (2001)

February saw us reading a novel that shines a light on the world of Eyam, a Derbyshire village, during the plague year of 1666. Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders (2001) is based on the real-life events of the plague-hit village, imagining how the community decided upon and coped with voluntary quarantine. The book sparked some great discussions. Prime concerns were how faithful historical fiction could be, the novel’s variety of themes and sub-plots and understanding the actions of a cast of characters. On this last point, a similar issue faced some who overheard the book group’s conversation. With some voices candidly addressing the novel’s depiction of passion in a constrained society, the group was deemed to be a gathering of ‘progressive women’. Moreover, the incongruous presence of this particular gentleman caused further confusion. That said, there was broad consensus that Brooks’ writing was enjoyable and so was the book group. 

MARCH The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers (1940)

The March meeting embraced some Americana as we read Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940), a novel of the American south. McCullers was only 23 when the novel was published and the New York Times, reviewing the novel, noted that ‘she is squeamish neither of word nor incident’. The group largely felt this to be true, with many commenting on the distanced impartial narrator.

Some felt this also left the book without drive, especially when combined with a lack of central plot or focus. The novel evolves through a series of sketches of events that happen in a small town in Georgia. Many of the characters develop friendships with Singer, a welcoming deaf-mute character, but as the action moves from an impoverished boarding house to an all-night diner and then a touring fairground the truths of these friendships are tested. The reader gradually experiences a year and then, in a separate compressed section, a day in the life of some of its inhabitants. One member suggested these lonesome sketches reminded them of the paintings of Edward Hopper, and comparisons were also drawn to the writing of Tennessee Williams.

February marked McCullers’s centenary, so the Grasmere book group, as usual, had its finger on the pulse. Whilst some loved the book, some found Lonely Hunter less than immersive, and others were minded to consider looking at her subsequent work, or at least to look up the 1968 film-adaptation of Lonely Hunter.

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APRIL Notes from the Sofa, Raymond Briggs (2015)

April meant an immersive digression into the everyday frustrations of Raymond Briggs and his various encounters with chickens, cars, crisps and nostalgia in the autobiographical Notes from the Sofa. This was a slightly unusual book for the group to tackle, but proved rewarding. A heavily illustrated book of short essays, Briggs’ work showcases with great humour the silent rage that modern society can trigger. There was some concern that the essays would only resonate strongly with a more mature readership (the pieces are all collected from an Oldie magazine column), but this was contradicted by their wide appeal. In retrospect, the only slight disappointment was that the publisher of this title was unable to tell us it would be in paperback by November…

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MAY The Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence (1964)

The May meeting dealt with a recently republished Canadian classic, Margaret Laurence’s 1964 novel The Stone Angel. As with much of Laurence’s work, the novel is set in the fictional prairie town of Manawaka, Manitoba. Told from the point of view of the formidable Hagar Shipley, a ninety-year old lady in the 1960s resisting a move to a nursing home, the novel looks back to the late nineteenth-century and the life faced by Scottish emigrants to Canada. Laurence tells a poignant tale of pride, family, aging and the slippery nature of memory.

The group had some very positive things to say about The Stone Angel and found the novel highly readable. Being told in the first person creates some interesting dynamics and the group had different ideas about the expressions used to show Hagar’s inner-life. Nevertheless, on the whole the group were drawn in by Hagar’s reflections on her own achievements, on her relationship with her father and her shifting sense of her own children. Also discussed: the historical importance of owning houses, war, singing vicars, Hagar’s fatalistic outlook and the history of the vacuum cleaner.

Having covered novels by Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood, Joseph Boyden and LM Montgomery amongst others, over the past few years the group have fast become ambassadors for/survivors of significant works in Canadian literary history.

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JUNE Days Without End, Sebastian Barry (2016)

Barry’s novel has been highly lauded, having already won the Costa Book of the Year award and the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction. To this list Barry can now add the ultimate accolade, approval from the village book group.

A tale of the American civil war, Irish emigration and the so-called American Indian Wars, Barry’s novel is at times harsh and bloody. For most the book proved a page-turner, startling us with the ‘zero-hours contract’ nature of army life where soldiers would take on rolling short-term commitments to conflict.

The language used throughout is an approximation of nineteenth-century Irish-American speech which all agreed required ‘getting your ear in’ but created a compelling voice. Most felt as if they were in the room with the narrator, Thomas McNulty. One member of the group had read previous Barry novels, and even seen some of his plays but was surprised by the different atmosphere of this novel. The group was intrigued to learn that Barry has written several novels about different members of the same McNulty family across generations and left wanting to read more.

The central characters’ cross-dressing, drag performance and normalised gay relationship brought a new perspective to the familiar narrative of the American West. It’s an additional tribute to Barry that Days Without End also manages to subtly depict the dynamics of the Sioux Nation as they struggle to maintain land-use and basic rights in a fast-colonised landscape. It deserves a re-read!

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JULY The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry (2016)

The group broadly warmed to Perry’s tale of monsters, earthquakes, religion and science set between nineteenth- century Essex and London. The gothic tone of the book enticed us and most were immersed in a richly detailed, sensuous world brimming with well-drawn characters and ideas. Perry’s use of history led to a broader discussion about how we imagine the past, and more particularly the world-views held in the past, with some having heard Hilary Mantel’s Reith lectures on the same subject broadcast on Radio 4 in June.

There were also concrete concerns about Perry’s details. One of our number was jarred by the surprising level of detail and slowed by the effect this had on their reading. The name-dropping of oranges bought from Harrods and early descriptions of the Underground as the Tube led to some investigation but Perry’s research was immaculate. We are aware that Perry has received many letters about these sorts of things and would not want to give the impression that we are in league with those who are hastening missives in the mail. Having said that, one member felt a measure of triumph by taking further issue with the growing of blue dahlias from seed. We can only assume such fanciful ideas are permitted in the pages of fiction.

AUGUST The Friday Gospels, Jenn Ashworth (2013)

On a balmy day in August, the group met to discuss Jenn Ashworth’s novel of Mormon life in the North-West, The Friday Gospels. Set in 2010, with the explosion of Eyjafjakkajökull as backdrop, the novel recounts a day in the life of various members of a Mormon family between Chorley and Utah. Readers enjoyed the attention to detail, and the sense of realism mixed with humour and drama. Some were less convinced by the warm conclusion and worried for the ongoing life of the family.

Ashworth visited the village last year to talk about her recent novel Fell, and The Friday Gospels was partially chosen as a way of reading more of her work. All were pleased with the results.

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SEPTEMBER The Gracekeepers, Kirsty Logan (2015)
Logan’s novel is set in a drowned world, a far-future version of our own, where a divide has set in between those who live on the land and those who are forced to dwell on water. It features a floating circus with a dancing bear and acrobats, and a host of folk customs that have adapted to the very wet conditions. These are just some of the reasons why the book is an apt Lake District read.

The group enjoyed the book but some had reservations about the logistics of the world Logan creates. Some found gaps in explanation, which they couldn’t quite swim over. Discussions touched on the dimensions of circus boats, the politics of fluid characters and the necessity of a barter economy. Others questioned why there was no mention of scurvy. Aside from these queries, the book proved compelling even if not to everyone’s usual taste in reading.

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OCTOBER Graphic Novels

October was spent discussing comic books and graphic novels. We all read something different and reported back on our adventures using the Lakes International Comic Art Festival (LICAF) (held annually in Kendal in October) as license to explore a different form of reading. Given the unusual nature of this month, the following comic was drawn to reflect on the group’s discussions…

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NOVEMBER The Coroner’s Lunch, Colin Cotterill (2004)

Colin Cotterill’s The Coroner’s Lunch is the first of a series revolving around the exploits of Dr. Siri Paiboun, the national coroner in the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos.

We found much to talk about, particularly around the historical backdrop to the book, which opens in October 1976. We all felt we learnt a lot about the shift of power in Laos to communist rule, and all found ourselves compelled to look up more information about the country and its history. Some galloped through the plot and enjoyed the twists and turns but one found themself snagging on undigested clumps of historical information and character backstory, and on the description of characters (not being ‘prettily oval’ themself) but we were all intrigued by the setting and the people, particularly Dr. Siri himself. Painted as a cantankerous old rebel who has, in his seventies, nothing much to lose by questioning the authorities, Dr. Siri is an unusual hero for a crime drama.

A quote from a Sunday Times review on the cover compares The Coroner’s Lunch to Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, which we all found a bit misleading: they are very different books in tone and style. It did draw attention to an uncomfortable colonial angle of the book however: Cotterill may have lived and worked in the area he writes about, but it reads very much like a book by a westerner for westerners, so that the historical and geographical setting might seem reduced to a quirky unique selling point. The same was discussed of the supernatural element to the plot. We decided that we could stomach Dr. Siri seeing ghosts of the people in his morgue, but making him the incarnation of a powerful mythic Shaman was pushing the notion a bit too far.

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DECEMBER Winter Tales, George Mackay Brown (1995)

With the days at their shortest, the group gathered around for a timely, seasonal read. Few knew much of Mackay Brown, but were compelled to investigate his life and other writing given the power of these stories. This volume comprises a generous array of vivid tales of Orkney, published in magazines across twenty years of Mackay Brown’s life. We found a real depth of history in Winter Tales, introducing us to a place both remote and also globally connected through its role as a seaport. Here we encountered Vikings, sailors, craftsmen, woodcarvers and many bonny lasses. The tales also provoked a keen feeling of the passing of time with their distilled compression of lives.

Many remarked on the delivery of these tales, and the intimacy of the storytelling voice. Yet some stories were delivered in a sparse and sculpted prose that belied the attachment we felt. Other topics covered in conversation included seasickness, childhood access to reading, the history of the piano, the “basilisk stare” of the TV and folk revival. Ever since we read Elizabeth Edmondson’s The Frozen Lake one year, the December spot has had tough competition for seasonally appropriate reading but Mackay Brown was more than up to the task.

Thus concludes the group’s notes for 2017. Suggestions and new members welcome for 2018. We meet on the second Thursday of each month, at present in the homely surround of the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere.