Lockdown Reads – Part 1

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One of the few silver linings to the Covid cloud that’s currently hanging over us is (for many of us) more time to read, and as we are members of a literary society, we seem to be embracing this with enthusiasm! I have been thinking for a while that I would love to know which books are helping members through this crisis – are we going for challenge or comfort? George Eliot or Marian Keyes? Andrew Davies’ adaptation of War & Peace or an old episode of Vera? Or possibly a combination of all of these?

Recently Society member Janet Kennerley emailed a few of us with an article about Elizabeth Gaskell which appeared in the Sunday Times on 3 May: Lucy Knight had written a brief but perceptive piece on Gaskell as part of a feature on ‘Books to Hang Out With’ and she recommended her readers to try Mrs G as “one of the more overlooked 19th century writers.” Janet invited us to respond to this and interestingly, the responses also tended to include what people themselves were reading during this weird half-life. This encouraged me to go ahead with my idea and here is the first instalment – thank you SO much to those of you who have responded already, I’ve loved reading your emails….

We know that Elizabeth Gaskell was a voracious reader and when we were researching her reading habits prior to stocking the Study Library at Plymouth Grove, we were truly amazed at the breadth and scope of her reading interests. So, in the spirit of Gaskell, please do contribute to this lovely interactive blog and let me know (honestly!) which books, films, TV are helping you weather the storm…

You can comment below, or get in touch with me by email. 

Libby Tempest, Chair – The Gaskell Society

I suppose pride of place must go to my daily reading of The Guardian, still the finest and most reliable newspaper – in spite of its notorious printing gaffes!

As to novels, I’ve been very impressed with 2 books:

Petina Gappah – Out of Darkness, Shining Light (2019) This covers the account of the final journey of the corpse of David Livingstone being carried by his faithful group of black followers over 1,500 miles from interior Africa to the coast. The story is told by 5 of these followers. It’s no hagiography but a detailed warts-and-all comment about Livingstone’s work in Africa by those closest to him. Much action and dialogue which held my attention.

Isabella Hammad – The Parisian (2019) The title is misleading because, though the main character studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, he is Palestinian and the plot is mostly based in Palestine. The novel covers in great detail and variety, events from the early 20th century up to the late 1930s, just before the start of WW2. You get a panorama of both individual families and public events. There is an excellent review of the novel in The Guardian, which concludes: “The Parisian teems with riches  –  love, betrayal and madness  –  and marks the arrival of a bright new talent”.

John Greenwood

Over the past few days I’ve been marking students’ essays on a women’s writing module I’ve been teaching at the University of Chester and I’ve been delighted to see that many students have chosen to write on Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth. The students stated that they loved the novel and our discussions in the seminars were really lively. I must admit that Ruth is not my favourite Gaskell novel (North and South is that), but I thoroughly enjoyed rereading and teaching it. Students said that Ruth should definitely be on the module next year, so hopefully Gaskell will gain even more fans!

During the lockdown I’ve been exploring Irish literature and loved reading Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster, a heart-rending story of a widow adjusting to loneliness in rural Ireland; Anne Enright’s The Gathering, a bitter family saga set near Dublin; William Trevor’s absolutely wonderful Reading Turgenev which follows the mental deterioration of the unhappy young wife of an Irish draper; and, most recently, Kate O’Brien’s The Last of Summer, a poignant love story set in Ireland a few days before the outbreak of World War II. As I can’t travel at the moment, it’s been marvellous to be in Ireland in my mind, especially as all these novels are so beautifully written!

Deborah Wynne

I’m reading Big Sky by Kate Atkinson. I love Kate Atkinson, as I’m a big fan of a complex, twisty plot with lots going on. This one is part of a popular series about a private detective called Jackson Brodie, who has moved to the North East where his ex-partner and his teenage son are living. His humdrum work of following suspected unfaithful partners is interrupted by an “incident” with a stranger on a cliff, and coincidentally connected, a new client which lead Jackson into a dark and sinister network.

But, guess what popped up halfway through the novel? A teenage boy with a love of Cranford! “A better attraction that the world, in Harry’s opinion would be Cranford World. A place where, for the price of an entrance fee you could call on Miss Matty and drink tea or have an evening of cards, or sing around the piano with your neighbours”

When he and his three-year-old sister get kidnapped and locked in an abandoned caravan: “He tried to take his mind off the situation they were in with a reverie of comforting thoughts – buying a packet of tea in Miss Matty’s Cranford World front parlour (Dear Harry, do come in)”.

As well as the great plot and characters, this book is full of surprises. I’m about three-quarters of the way through and wondering who or what is going to pop up next!

Jane Baxter

Apart from enjoying, and working hard in, my large garden, I read The Mirror and the Light to complete the Hilary Mantel trilogy at 50 pages a day for two weeks plus listening to ‘Book of the Week’ on Radio 4, which was abridged. My husband & I thought there was far too much padding but she could get away with this! I was given Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell for Easter, about Shakespeare’s twin son who died aged 11. Then I had to read Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife too!

I have been watching Normal People and thought the TV serial better than the book. Watched a very sugary portrait of Florence Nightingale to commemorate her birthday on BBC 4. Now enjoying Michael Portillo’s reflections on The British Empire on Channel 5.

Oenone Wollaston

For a while I wasn’t able to concentrate on reading, but I listened on Audible to Timothy West reading The Barchester Chronicles. A complete delight and source of comfort – I had read them before but really enjoyed listening! Lately I have read Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet – it was wonderful!

I have also read Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End and am currently reading the sequel, A Thousand Moons. They are about the Indian wars and the American Civil War – often brutal and horrific but the love and care between the main characters is very moving!

Sorry, no Mrs Gaskell, but I have watched the BBC adaptation of North and South…

I have also enjoyed The A Word on BBC 1 – Christopher Eccleston as the Grandfather is excellent!

Kathleen Chetwood

You find me in the middle of Wives and Daughters!! I find during this time I want a book I can inhabit and Wives & Daughters fills that need perfectly. It was a recent email from Libby that made me think – “I haven’t read that for ages” – in fact it’s eight years! I keep a diary of books I read. The big advantage of a long time gap is, although I know I love the story, I have forgotten lots of details so it is almost like reading it for the first time.

Just before the Self Isolation began we had a lovely holiday in Northumberland. This always includes at least half a day in Barter Books, one of the best second hand bookshops in the land. This time I came away with a collection of short stories by the Irish author Frank O’Connor: it’s called My Oedipus Complex & Other Stories and it contains, I think, one of the funniest stories ever. Called First Confession, if you read it (only 9 pages long) and don’t laugh out loud, check your pulse! Another purchase was Wild Olives by William Graves, son of Robert. It is a description of his life from age 6 when he and his family went to live in Deya, Majorca. This too certainly allowed me to leave this strange time and wallow in sunshine, sea and an existence which has long disappeared. Robert Graves dominates the book, charismatic but a difficult father & husband and ultimately, a tragic figure.

Also briefly, I must mention a couple of books published by the wonderful Persephone publishers. Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton, a story of 4 sisters in 1953 dominated by their demanding and disturbing mother: and The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby addresses the difficulties a young woman must face to leave small town Yorkshire in 1924. If Persephone books are new to anyone, do check their catalogue of forgotten books, mostly from the early 1900’s: anything by Dorothy Whipple is worth reading and so many more. R.C. Sherrif’s Two Weeks In September, a gentle story of a family’s annual holiday has become one of my favourite novels, again a description of a lost time.

TV – well – Normal People of course, wonderful, I admit to watching the whole series on iplayer. Now I am enjoying State of Happiness and enjoying seeing another series full of actors I know nothing about.

Kate Smith

I’ve been reading The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield, a between-the-wars story: The Light between Oceans by M.L. Stedman, an ethical dilemma: Transcription by Kate Atkinson, WW2 aftermath with spies. Dipping into James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson and The Retreat from Burma by James Lunt.

Watching WW2 movies, black and white mainly; also travelogues and cooking with Simon Reeve, Michael Portillo, Rick Stein. Lastly, Emma with Jennifer Eley (yet again.)

Jackie Stevenson

I turned to a very old friend during lockdown – my much-loved 50p Puffin edition of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which I’ve had since I was very small. It’s definitely battered, and its pages are discoloured, but it’s an ageless story, which never fails to offer hope. I know it’s sentimental, but I really don’t care. I refuse to ever be too old for this wonderful book.

I’ve been enjoying audiobooks too; a recent favourite being Stuart Maconie’s Hope and Glory. In it, he chooses one landmark day from each decade of the twentieth century, then explores it using a charming blend of fact, travelogue, comment and very English digression.  It’s very much from a working-class perspective and like listening to a kindly, fascinating Wigan uncle.

TV wise, it’s The Great British Sewing Bee for me. Entertainment, creativity and nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat drama. Who could ask for anything more?

Linsey Parkinson

I have not read as much as I should have really, as I’ve been doing quite an amount of writing – blogs for the Society and the House.

Reading Gaskell – I have read Lois the Witch for the Gaskell House read-along. I actually find that story quite disturbing – the way so much of what we feel is secure ground can be shifted from under us. Six Weeks in Heppenheim for the Month in Writing blog and re-reading Ruth for the psychiatry conference. So much for Gaskell.

I love Mary Braddon novels and have recently read An Open Verdict, which I enjoyed and which has much in common with A Dark Night’s Work in its exploration of a dark deed and the effects it has on characters and relationships: also Dead Sea Fruit which I liked less but found quite interesting. About illegitimacy and a child’s search for his father with lots about theatre.

Pursuit by Joyce Carol Oates – about obsession and stalking. Very dark as Oates always is.

Edward Lloyd’s Penny Dreadful Ruth the Betrayer – not at all high-brow and rather far-fetched but good fun in places if you like that sort of thing, which I happen to.

Diane Setterfield’s Once upon a River – strange mix of history, mystery and supernatural. I enjoyed it, though I liked Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent even better.

Elly Griffiths – Stranger Diaries – this was intriguing but definitely a deckchair read! Clery – The Rise of Supernatural Fiction.

Watching films & TV, I do less of – but I DO like watching detective fiction, mysteries and psychological horror. Loved The Missing – watched all of them: also liked The Victim and The Dublin Murders. Lewis is a bit annoying, prefer Endeavour. I don’t really see many films. I did watch The Sense of an Ending on iplayer, which I thought was watchable but not great. Oh – I liked The Stranger on Netflix – it’s Richard Armitage so what is there not to like? Amy and I watched that together.

Any suggested watching for a teenager????? Save me from the soaps and American horror!

I am looking at Hilary Mantel but will wait until I have more spare time – Ha ha…..

Diane Duffy

Lockdown Reads part II