Summer School Review

tumblr_m28hunkihb1rqmm3jo1_1280So, the Summer School is over for another year.  This year it was bigger than ever, and I think, more successful too.  It was clear on Friday that none of us wanted to leave and the bookish talk went on long after our normal finishing time. I had to call a halt in the end just so that the person whose house we were meeting in could have her living room back.  The enthusiasm surprised me rather, because two of the titles chosen as part of the theme of books that take place in bookshops didn’t meet with universal approval.

Almost everyone had enjoyed Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop.  Most of us could remember the time period in which it was set and a number were familiar with the setting. And, it is, of course, superbly written; there isn’t a word out of place nor a word too many. I used Monday’s discussion of the novel to set up what I hoped would become a running theme throughout the week: why do we value books; by what criteria do we account their worth?  This manifests itself in The Bookshop through the question of whether or not to stock Lolita, where the issue would be the quality of the writing.  It was the only time last week when that was the criteria in question.  More pertinent to the way in which our discussion would develop was Mrs Gamart’s attitude towards the Arts in general. Fitzgerald makes it very clear that she wishes to replace the bookshop with an Arts Centre only to add to her own aggrandisement.  The intrinsic worth of the act of creation itself meant nothing to her.

This attitude was developed in respect of books in our second discussion on Sheridan Hay’s novel, The Secret of Lost Things.  This book, set for the most part in The Arcade, a large used bookstore in New York, met with less enthusiasm.  Our general feeling was that it had needed much tighter editing and was to some extent self-indulgent on the part of the writer.  However, it does present an interesting contrast between books loved for their content and those which are valued simply for their rarity, regardless of whether or not they are actually worth reading.  The prices commanded by the volumes in Mr Mitchell’s Rare Books Department when compared with what was being paid in the basement for secondhand review copies of modern novels makes it clear that it is the specific artefact that is valued, not the story that it contains.  Central to the narrative is the possible discovery of a lost work by Herman Melville, a work which had been rejected by his publisher. The price offered for this would pay for my new flat several time over and yet presumably the story itself wasn’t particularly good.  It is the manuscript’s rarity value that attracts attention; that and the fact that the buyer wishes to keep the book completely to himself.

Exclusivity of ownership in relation to pirated ebooks is just one of the themes that we tackled on Friday when we discussed our third novel, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.  I expected that some of the group would be challenged by this book and indeed one or two had found the discussion of Google and the internet difficult to follow, however, it was actually more popular than I had anticipated. Again, we thought that for coherence sake a stronger editorial hand would have been beneficial but it certainly brought our discussion as to what it is about a book that we value into very sharp focus.  For me this novel reinforces something that I realised earlier this year.  A book is the means by which a story is transmitted to a reader, and while I can appreciate a book as a beautiful artefact it is the story that it contains that actually matters to me.  It is the words on the page, however those words and the page are created.  When I realised my move meant that I was going to have to pass eighty percent of my books on to charity shops, my criterion was simple.  If I could get a replacement copy as an ebook then the hard copy could go.

All in all, then, an excellent week of discussion. And already I’ve started to turn my mind towards next year’s topics. With so many current examples, I rather fancy a week discussing novels that are modern day retelling of Homer.  Now there’s a collection of stories that over the centuries have been transmitted in all sorts of different ways.  Any suggestions as to what I might include?


Reading Miscellany

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersWhen I first conceived of the Summer School the Book Group to which many of those who attend also belong didn’t have an August meeting.  In fact, this was one of the reasons that the Summer School was established.  However, for the past two or three years this hasn’t been the case and so when the week chosen is early in the month, as it is this year, it can cause quite a build up of what I think of as ‘necessary’ reading.  As a result these past few days I have been alternating between Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, (prep for leading the discussion on The Bookshop), Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (for the Book Group), Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookshop and, as an easy to pick up and put down read for the evenings, The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell.

Bythell’s book proved to be one of a small number of works that I have encountered over my reading life where the narrative voice is so emphatic I find myself embracing its characteristics in my own speaking and writing.  The first time that this happened (and perhaps the strongest) was with Jane Eyre.  For days I didn’t dare set pen to paper for fear it would appear as if I was attempting a pastiche or, even worse, that I was setting myself up as the next Charlotte Brontë.  Of course, where Bythell is concerned this just meant that I became grumpier and grumpier as the week went on.  I suppose if the majority of your custom comes from passing trade you can afford occasionally to be rude to those who are particularly annoying. If they are unlikely ever again to cross your threshold perhaps it doesn’t matter. However, as someone who was brought up in a small corner shop where every customer was a cherished regular, I cringed at some of his comments.  He complains about how little money he takes, but at times I wasn’t surprised.  Not that this stopped me enjoying the book.  Like most avid readers, I am a sucker for books about books.  Inevitably there is the comfortable feeling that you are in the company of someone of like mind and there is always the possibility that you will come away with a list of titles to add to the one that you already tout around with you wherever you go in the hope that you will stumble across a precious new volume.

In respect of looking for new books, while I may not have a nearby independent bookshop, I have discovered that there is a large used bookstore, Sedgeberrow Books, about twenty miles away in Pershore. Does anyone know it?  And if so, can you recommend a decent nearby tearoom?  As far as I’m concerned I can’t do one without the other but the reviews of local establishments are not encouraging, reasonable food but very poor customer service.  Perhaps they have all been reading Bythell?

Sunday Catch-Up

tumblr_m28hunkihb1rqmm3jo1_1280In the months running up to my recent move I had dreams of what it would mean for the time I would have for reading and for study: far less travelling, no more garden to worry about, a much smaller property to take care of, and even my cleaning done for me.  In my fantasy world (note the choice of words, please) I saw myself studying every morning, taking a leisurely stroll before lunch, followed by an afternoon spent reading and writing here before enjoying the evening either listening to music, reading some more, or out with friends at the local arts centre.

Well, dream on is all I can say.

Most of the last two months has been spent waiting in for delivery men to arrive (never at the time they said they would and often not even on the promised day), trying desperately to persuade the powers that be that I am who I say I am and that I now live where I say I do, frantically attempting to sort out the terrible mess the previous owner left the gas and electricity services in (still not resolved despite three hours on the phone the other day) and perhaps most worryingly of all having to insist to my new doctor that I know more about the way my body works after having lived with it all my life than she does after a ten minute conversation on the phone.

However, (and I may live to regret saying this) apart from the electricity, which Ofgem are now sorting out, and finding myself a new dentist, I think everything is pretty much settled and next week has nothing more exciting in the diary than a hair appointment, a pilates class and a visit to the theatre.  Perhaps I might finally be able to get down to some studying and read something a little more demanding than the detective novels I have been relying on to distract myself over the past nine weeks.

In fact, I have to get down to some reading, and quickly too, as Summer School is only a fortnight away.  We have more participants than ever this year and I did at one point think about running it twice.  Like any book group, if it gets too big, discussion becomes impossible.  The group have chosen to read the three books linked by the fact that they are all set in bookshops so I have a fortnight to re-read and prepare Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, Robin Sloan’s  Mr Penumbria’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sheridan Hay’s The Secret of Lost Things.  I have to say that I was surprised by the group’s choice and it wouldn’t have been my own, but democracy rules and after all I was the one who offered it in the first place.

One detective novel that I have been pleased to read over the past couple of days is James Oswald’s new offering No Time To Cry.  I have a feeling that this has only been published as an ebook at the moment with a hard copy coming later in the year.  It isn’t a new Tony McLean story, but features an undercover Met DC, Constance Fairchild, who is falsely accused of selling out the investigation of which she is a part and of killing her boss, DI Pete Copperthwaite.  On the run from the corrupt cops who were in fact responsible for the disaster, she finds herself caught up in a search for a teenager from her home village, escaping from a home life that ought to provide all she could possibly want (billionaire father) but which, as Con soon discovers, is actually far from ideal.

At first I wasn’t certain how I would fair with a new set of characters; I am more than fond of Oswald’s Edinburgh set-up.  But I warmed to Con very quickly and as the novel progressed I realised (far later than I should) that it shared at least one character with the McLean series. (Probably only one, it is perhaps a little far fetched to think that Mrs McCutcheon’s cat made her way down to London just to offer the same rather stand-offish support to Con as she does to Tony McLean, although I wouldn’t mind betting that there was some sort of feline grapevine in operation there).  I don’t know whether this is intended to be a one-off or the start of a new series. Given the way in which it ends I rather think the latter.  If that is the case then I will certainly look forward to any future episodes.

Moving On

sks41aOne of the advantages of moving to a small market town is that suddenly everything is within reach. I no longer have a twenty minute drive to the nearest shops to buy a week’s supply of groceries, accompanied by the constant worry that when I get there they may be no parking. Instead I simply take the ten minute stroll into town each morning and pick up whatever I need for the day.  If it happens to be a Tuesday, Friday or Saturday even better, the fruit and vegetables will come courtesy of the local farmers’ market.

If I don’t feel like going straight home then there are four or five local cafés where I can stop off for refreshments and wile away a spare half hour with a good book. Importantly, given the (for me) too hot weather we are having at the moment, most of them have shady outside nooks where it is possible to catch whatever breeze is available.

The arts centre, where I have access to music, cinema and occasional theatre, including the live streaming from the National Theatre and the RSC, is even closer – less than five minutes from door to door.  I’ve already been to see An American in Paris and An Ideal Husband and have tickets booked for half a dozen more event over the next few months. When the new chamber concert season starts in the Autumn I shall be signing up for that as well.

What I don’t have is a bookshop – independent or otherwise.

There used to be an independent bookshop in the town many years ago.  It was taken over by Waterstones, but that closed when they cut back the number of stores they felt they could sustain in the face of on-line competition.  This left just an excellent Oxfam bookshop.  My experience of these is that they are either rather tatty places or seriously good. This was one of the latter.  However, last December the local rates went up to such an extent that it was forced to close as well, so now we struggle on with just a W H Smith as a source of reading material.

The existence of a local bookshop says something about a place, I think.  Or am I being too nostalgic?  I suspect that in even the best read communities bookshops would struggle to maintain a steady customer flow in the face of so much competition for readers’ attention.  But a good independent bookshop supports so much more than the buying needs of their clientele. I know of several who are the centre of half a dozen  local reading groups and the one here was responsible for starting a regular programme of visiting speakers long before the literary festival scene took off. It was the hub of literary life.  There are a couple of empty properties along the High Street and each time I pass them I think, ‘if only’, but I suspect I am hoping for too much.

Summer School

IMG_0031One of the things that I have managed to organise over these past months has been this year’s Summer School.  As anyone who has been reading my blog over the years will know, despairing at the cost of literary Summer Schools, I set about establishing my own. Participants are offered a choice of five sets of related books and we then meet on three afternoons during a week in August to discuss the selected novels.  I’ve lost count as to how long we’ve been going now but I think this is either the eighth or the ninth year.  Interest has never waned and I think there is even the possibilty that this year we may have to run it twice; as we meet in people’s homes there is a limit to how many can attend at any one time.  I should know by the end of next week what this year’s books will be but in case you would like to make your own choice here is the list of titles offered.

Family Relations

The Paris Wife ~ Paula McLain

Vanessa and her Sister ~ Priya Parmar

The American Wife ~ Curtis Sittenfeld


Vienna Nights

Waiting for Sunrise ~ William Boyd

The Third Man ~ Graham Greene

Mortal Mischief ~ Frank Tallis


Paying the Price

A Whispered Name ~ William Brodrick

The Reckoning ~ Rennie Airth

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky ~ Simon Mawer


Raiding the Bookshelves

The Bookshop ~ Penelope Fitzgerald 

The Secret of Lost Things ~ Sheridan Hay

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore ~ Robin Sloan



The Thirteenth Tale ~ Diane Setterfield

A Fearful Symmetry ~ Audrey Niffenegger

Sisterland ~ Curtis Sittenfeld

I have a sneaking feeling that I know what the result is going to be, although in a sense it doesn’t matter to me as I put the selections together in the first place and I am hardly likely to pick books I don’t want to re-read myself. They are, of course, all re-reads, you couldn’t put sets together in this way if you didn’t know what the books were about.

So, which three books would you choose if you lived close enough to join in with us?  It will be interesting to see if your selections are the same as those actually involved.

Reading Again

sks41aSo, here we are, The Bears and I ensconced in a spacious if, at the moment, over warm flat in the small Worcestershire market town of Bromsgrove.  However, on sunny days like today, we have a beautiful garden to sit in plus the indescribable comfort of knowing that it is someone else’s job to look after it!  I may come from a long line of market gardeners but the green-finger gene most definitely missed me.  The uncertainty associated with any house move combined with my Aspergers has played havoc with my concentration really since the end of January when I first put an offer in for this place and so I took an executive decision not to attempt to read anything new other than those books that I would need for my two book groups; instead I have been spending time with old literary friends, people/characters that I knew I could depend upon when I just needed to get away from all the pressures that were mounting up. Of course, this has meant that all the projects I set up for myself at the beginning of the year have gone completely by the wayside.  In fact, I am going to have to go back to my earlier posts just to remind myself of what they were! But I am back now and hope to be writing at least twice a week and, just as important, visiting all my blogging friends again.  I have missed you.



IMG_0001Just to let you all know that with luck and a fair wind we will be moving on Tuesday. ‘With Luck’?  Oh yes, it is still all in the balance, and if my Aspergers has had me hanging from the light fittings over the last few months as problem after problem has arisen you can imagine how I am feeling with the last forty-eight hours heaving up on the horizon. If the sale does go through, I don’t know how long I will be without broadband (did you know that if BT promise to deliver something on Monday they will then confirm it for Tuesday and actually deliver it on Saturday?) but this is just to reassure you that The Bears and I will be back probably sometime in June. Our love to you all.