Grasmere Book Group 2018

Another year has passed for the village book group and it’s a joy to share with the wider world what we’ve been reading. Gathered here are some of our monthly reflections which have previously been serialised in that esteemed village organ, the Grasmere Parish Magazine. They’re testament to the rich reading and the rich conversation that the group prompts.

After a lively January meeting discussing potential books for our attention, we settled on our year’s reading. Winter lingered in the village, and providing you have sufficient heating, made for perfect reading conditions.

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February: Kazuo Ishiguro, Nocturnes (2009)

February’s meeting gathered to talk about the new Nobel laureate, Kazuo Ishiguro, and his first short story collection Nocturnes(2009). This clever set of stories proved engaging. There were some mixed responses to particular stories but the overall cycle found some firm fans, drawn in by both comedy and musicality.

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March: George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo (2016)

The March meeting saw a much-reduced cohort assemble to discuss George Saunders’ Booker Prize winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo (2016). Whilst there were strong champions of the book, many were not able to attend and so we might say this novel divided people. Focusing on a newly grieving Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the American Civil War the story is compelling. Told through the voices of multiple biographers, and over a hundred ghosts that haunt the graveyard where Lincoln’s son is freshly buried, it is also a quite unusual read!

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April: Tove Jansson,Letters from Klara (1991, tr. Thomas Teal 2017)

April’s book group discussed Tove Jansson’s short stories Letters from Klara (published in 1991 but translated into English for the first time in 2017). Most people found the stories engaging and awkwardly charming. Some people found them simply awkward. All agreed they stuck in the memory with last sentences and hidden meanings to make you think. Conversation also dwelt on Jansson as culturally Swedish, given the interesting position of Jansson as a Swedish-speaking Finn and on questions of translation.

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May: Jackie Kay, Red Dust Road (2010)

In May we discussed Jackie Kay’s memoir Red Dust Road (2010), the story of her search for her birth parents. Kay, the current Scottish makar, was born to a Nigerian student and a nurse from the Highlands and adopted by white Glaswegian communist parents. The book takes us to such exotic locales as Nairn, Nigeria and Milton Keynes as Kay reconnects with lost family members. Conversation touched on the difficulties faced growing up Black in a predominantly White Glaswegian community, surprise at her birth parents religious conversions and the role of song and togetherness in creating a sense of extended family.

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June: Zadie Smith, Swing Time (2016)

June’s meeting saw Jan and Kay’s birthdays, so the book group began with prosecco and several kinds of cake, setting a new precedent that will be hard to match. Generally the group found that they enjoyed reading Zadie Smith’s Swing Time (2016) but felt like there was something lacking. The varying plots are threaded together, and whilst interesting in themselves, could each have been separate stories. Some of the members imagined a different version of the novel that focused on Tracey and the narrator’s friendship, reminding them of the work of Elena Ferrante. The unreliability of the unnamed narrator and their location in the book was also a topic of some debate. Many agreed with the idea that the novel was less than the sum of its chapters.

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July: Emile Zola, Thérèse Raquin (1867, tr. A Thorpe 2013)

The July book group eerily predicted the World Cup’s victors by arranging a date with French literature. After tackling some short stories once before it had been suggested that we attempt some Emile Zola. So, as a group we read the novel Thérèse Raquin (1867). Murder, intrigue, shopkeeping, consumption, art and the advantages of the city… all are staples of our opening conversations but this time these topics arose from the book. Members shared their experiences with French classics, misconstrued crime passionnel as a pastry ingredient, feared for French cats in literature, contemplated the workings of guilt and found a lot to unpack from a short (though some thought it could have been shorter) novel.

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August: Kamila Shamsie, Burnt Shadows (2009)

Our August meeting tackled Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows (2009). The novel takes in a broad sweep of time and geography, from the atomic bomb in Nagasaki, to the partition of India, and the more recent wars and political unrest in Afghanistan and America today. The personal lives of the novel’s characters become entwined in the politics and drive a lyric read. On the evening, we were treated to an audio of Shamsie explaining her aims in the book, followed by a lively discussion. Most found the book engaging but a consensus felt the later half of the book was less convincing. This was in part due to new characters emerging who elicited less readerly investment in their lives.

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September: William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (1936)

September saw all the members immersed in the long, allusive sentences of William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! (1936). A novel from Faulkner’s fictional Mississippi county of Yoknapatawpha, Absalom, Absalom! was quite a hard read. Challenging connections are made by the reader in the telling and retelling of the events on a Southern plantation.

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October: Malcolm Thorogood, The Soul Must Go On (2018)

October’s book group discussed local resident Malcolm Thorogood’s recent spiritual memoir The Soul Must Go On. Thorogood’s book prompted a great deal of discussion on the nature of scepticism, belief and grief.

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November: Pajtim Statovci, My Cat Yugoslavia (2014, tr. D Hackston 2017)

November’s meeting focused on Kosovan-Finnish writer Pajtim Statovci’s debut novel My Cat Yugoslavia, originally published in Finnish in 2014 and translated into English in 2017. Seldom do we ask the question, ‘but would it be the same book without the talking cat?’ Statovci’s hybrid narrative of immigration, alienation and generations prompted just such thoughts. The book also brought broader conversations about perceptions of the former Yugoslavia and migrant journeys.

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December: Robert Barr, The Triumphs of Eugene Valmont (1906)

The final book group of the year met with a feast of mulled drink, mince pies and mystery tales. December’s reading was Robert Barr’s The Triumphs of Eugene Valmont (1906). In a recently reissued Oldcastle Books/Gaslight Crime edition, Barr’s interlinked short stories feature the French detective Valmont. Many noticed the similarity between Valmont and Agatha Christie’s Poirot. However, we were able to relate Christie’s response to this pointed observation (from Laura Thompson’s biography) ‘I think nothing of Valmont’. The group noted some stand-out stories, drawn to the easily gulled participants of ‘The Absent-Minded Coterie’ and surely ripe for a TV adaptation, the clever, haunty ‘The Ghost with the Club-Foot’. For keen followers of Grasmere book group, this was the traditional ‘obscure Canadian’ text amongst the year’s reading, suggested by the Canadianist in residence. (Barr’s book was also recently a feature on this excellent Canadian literature blog )

— Will Smith