Rural Reads book club
- Last Thursday of the month
- £1.50 for tea/coffee and biscuits
Drop-in to this new book club at MERL focussing on books with a rural theme in the atmospheric setting of the Museum or garden.
When possible there will also be an opportunity to see rare books and special editions from the University's Special Collections.
Everyone is welcome to come along and join in the discussion and suggest their favourite rural reads for future meetings.
See below for details of the book to read for the next meeting, and for thoughts on the books already read! (Don't worry if you haven't read this month's book, come along anyway and help decide what we're going to read next!)
Next meeting 2014
The book to read for the February meeting is The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier.
This meeting has been cancelled. We are sorry for any inconvenience caused.
There is no Rural Reads in December, so as we have plenty of time, the group has chosen Lorna Doone by Richard Doddridge Blackmore. Published in 1869, it is a romance based on a group of historical characters and set in the late 17th century in Devon and Somerset, particularly around the East Lyn Valley area of Exmoor.
Read our review on the Our Country Lives blog
The book the group has chosen to read for the next meeting is Trespass by Rose Tremain
Set among the hills and gorges of southern France, Trespass is a thrilling novel about disputed territory, sibling love and devastating revenge, by the bestselling author of The Road Home, winner of the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction.
The book we read for the October meeting was Waterland by Graham Swift.
The book is reviewed here by an Amazon reader:
Swift paints a landscape that breathes history and also critiques its validity. The Fens are brought to life before us in a moving and impressive manner. Although at first it took me a while to engage with the characters, I soon became engrossed in the narrative and couldn't put the book down! Anyone that has ever driven or taken a train through the dreary, isolated Fens will appreciate this novel: anyone who hasn't will want to visit this unique land and see it for themselves. A truly great read and worth your time.
The choice for the next meeting is The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Stewart Collis. It is a biographical account of John Stewart Collis’ decision to leave his comfortable academic life to work on the land for the war effort (World War II). It captures the soft –handed city dweller’s naivety and wonder both at the workings of nature and the toughness of life on a farm.
The group has also done a little forward planning for the December/January title – because it’s 2 months between the meetings and there is time to read a longer novel - and so the choice for discussion at the first meeting of 2014 (January 30th) is Lorna Doone by Richard Doddridge.
Read review of Rogue Male on the MERL blog, written by Rob Davies.
The book to read for this month's meeting is 1930s cult thriller 'Rogue Male' by Geoffrey Household. The assassin torturer flees his torturers to hide in deepest Dorset.
In this article in the Guardian Robert Mcfarlane sets out to find his elusive hideout...
The book was Miss Read's 'The Village School'
The book to read for this month's meeting is 'Year of Wonders' by Geraldine Brooks. This is a 'gripping historical novel is based on the true story of Eyam, the “Plague Village". For more details, visit the author's website
The book to read for the next meeting is 'The Snow Child' by Eowyn Ivey, one of the 2013 finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.
As the last meeting had to be cancelled, the book to read for this meeting is still 'Under Milk Wood', a 1954 radio drama by Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas.
March 21st, 2013* (cancelled)
*Please note that the date of this meeting has been changed due to University Easter closure on March 28th.
The book to read for this meeting is 'Under Milk Wood', a 1954 radio drama by Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas.
February 28th, 2013
The book to read for this meeting is 'The Country Child' by Alison Uttley.
The Country Child (1931) is a fictionalized account of her childhood experiences at her family farm home, Castletop, near Cromford.
This choice of book ties in with seminar by Jeremy Burchardt on Tuesday 26th February, part of the current MERL Seminar series Children and the countryside
January 31st, 2013
The book to read for this meeting is 'The colour of milk' by Nell Leyshon.
"The year is eighteen hundred and thirty one when fifteen-year-old Mary begins the difficult task of telling her story. A scrap of a thing with a sharp tongue and hair the colour of milk, Mary leads a harsh life working on her father's farm alongside her three sisters. In the summer she is sent to work for the local vicar's invalid wife, where the reasons why she must record the truth of what happens to her - and the need to record it so urgently - are gradually revealed."
This meeting had a wintry theme.
Everyone selected a passage relating to or describing winter from books and poems. Here are some of the selections for you to enjoy:
- Kilvert’s Diary – Christmas 1870 - lovely descriptions of his frozen bath & ice skating!
- Extracts from Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
- Chapter 5 - “After the Storm” - from The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, in which the temperature was so cold the cows noses froze to the ground!
- Extract from 'Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, by Roger Deakin – 1st January
- Images in 'Black Ice: David Blackwood's Prints of Newfoundland'.
For October we decided to do things slightly differently by creating a MERL anthology of poems! Everyone brought in a favourite poem for the group and we collated them all into a small handout. Here are a few of the choices:
- Fern Hill, Dylan Thomas
- Spraying the potatoes, Patrick Kavanagh
- Naming of parts, Henry Reed
- Judging distances, Henry Reed
- The field, Rose Flint
- Ode to Autumn, J Keats
- Elegy for the Bee-god, Selima Hill
- Digging, Seamus Heaney
- The Darling Thrush, Thomas Hardy
- I am a little church, E E Cummings
- A Shropshire Lad, John Betjeman
The book for the September meeting was Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals.
Escaping the ills of the British climate, the Durrell family - acne-ridden Margo, gun-toting Leslie, bookworm Lawrence and budding naturalist Gerry, along with their long suffering mother and Roger the dog - take off for the island of Corfu. But the Durrells find that, reluctantly, they must share their various villas with a menagerie of local fauna - among them scorpions, geckos, toads, bats and butterflies. Recounted with immense humour and charm, My Family and Other Animals is a wonderful account of a rare, magical childhood.
The book to read for the August meeting was Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.
One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) is the story of seven generations of the Buendía Family in the town of Macondo. The founding patriarch of Macondo, José Arcadio Buendía, and Úrsula, his wife (and first cousin), leave Riohacha, Colombia, to find a better life and a new home. One night of their emigration journey, whilst camping on a riverbank, José Arcadio Buendía dreams of "Macondo", a city of mirrors that reflected the world in and about it. Upon awakening, he decides to found Macondo at the river side; after days of wandering the jungle, José Arcadio Buendía's founding of Macondo is utopic.
Founding patriarch José Arcadio Buendía believes Macondo to be surrounded by water, and from that island, he invents the world according to his perceptions. Soon after its foundation, Macondo becomes a town frequented by unusual and extraordinary events that involve the generations of the Buendía family, who are unable or unwilling to escape their periodic (mostly) self-inflicted misfortunes. Ultimately, a hurricane destroys Macondo, the city of mirrors; just the cyclical turmoil inherent to Macondo. At the end of the story, a Buendía man deciphers an encrypted cipher that generations of Buendía family men had failed to decipher. The secret message informed the recipient of every fortune and misfortune lived by the Buendía Family generations. (from Wikipedia)
Read more of the One Hundred Years of Solitude entry on Wikipedia
The book to read for the July meeting was Owen Sheers' Resistance.
The year is 1944. After the fall of Russia and the failed D-Day landings, half of Britain is occupied and young farmer's wife Sarah Lewis wakes to find her husband has disappeared, along with all of the men from her remote Welsh village.
A German patrol arrives in the valley, the purpose of their mission a mystery. Sarah begins a faltering acquaintance with the patrol's commanding officer, Albrecht, and it is to her that he reveals the purpose of his mission - to claim an extraordinary medieval art treasure that lies hidden in the valley.
But as the pressure of the war beyond presses in on this isolated community, this fragile state of harmony is increasingly threatened.
The book to read for the June meetings was P.G.Wodehouse's Blandings Castle.
The ivied walls of Blandings Castle have seldom glowed as sunnily as in these wonderful stories - but there are snakes in the rolling parkland ready to nip Clarence, the absent-minded Ninth Earl of Emsworth, when he least expects it.
For a start the Empress of Blandings, in the running for her first prize in the Fat Pigs Class at the Shropshire Agricultural Show, is off her food - and can only be coaxed back to the trough by a call in her own language.
Then there is the feud with Head Gardener McAllister, aided by Clarence's sister, the terrifying Lady Constance, and the horrible prospect of the summer fête - twin problems solved by the arrival of a delightfully rebellious little girl from London. But first of all there is the vexed matter of the custody of the pumpkin.
Skipping an ocean and a continent, Wodehouse also treats us to some unputdownable stories of excess from the monstrous Golden Age of Hollywood.
The book to read for the May meeting was Tom Steel's The Life and Death of St Kilda: The Moving Story of a Vanished Island Community.
Tom Steel's acclaimed portrait tells the the extraordinary story of the UK's most gruelling and spectacularly beautiful islands. Situated at the westernmost point of the United Kingdom, the beautiful but utterly bleak island of St Kilda is familiar to virtually nobody. A lonely archipelago off the coast of Scotland, it is hard to believe that for over two thousand years, men and women lived here, cut off from the rest of the world.
With a population never exceeding two hundred in its history, the St Kildans were fiercely self-sufficient. An intensely religious people, they climbed cliffs from childhood and caught birds for food. Their sense of community was unparalleled and isolation enveloped their day-to-day existence.
With the onset of the First World War, things changed. For the very first time in St Kilda's history, daily communication was established between the islanders and the mainland. Slowly but surely, this marked the beginning of the end of St Kilda and in August 1930, the island's remaining 36 inhabitants were evacuated.
Newly updated to include the historic appointment of St Kilda as the United Kingdom's only UNESCO Dual Heritage site, the ongoing search for information about the island and the threats that it continues to face, this is the moving story of a vanished community and how twentieth century civilization ultimately brought an entire way of life to its knees.
The book for the April meeting was Willa Cather’s My Antonia
Set on the Nebraska prairie of the 1880s, My Antonia tells the story of Antonia Shimerda, daughter of a Bohemian immigrant. Through the eyes of Jim Burden, her tutor and admirer, we follow Antonia's struggles and triumphs in the face of life's relentless hardships.
The book for the March meeting was 'A Fortunate Man' by John Berger and Jean Mohr.
In this quietly revolutionary work of social observation and medical philosophy, Booker Prize-winning writer John Berger and the photographer Jean Mohr train their gaze on an English country doctor and find a universal man--one who has taken it upon himself to recognize his patient's humanity when illness and the fear of death have made them unrecognizable to themselves. In the impoverished rural community in which he works, John Sassall tends the maimed, the dying, and the lonely. He is not only the dispenser of cures but the repository of memories. And as Berger and Mohr follow Sassall about his rounds, they produce a book whose careful detail broadens into a meditation on the value we assign a human life. First published thirty years ago, A Fortunate Man remains moving and deeply relevant--no other book has offered such a close and passionate investigation of the roles doctors play in their society.
The book to read for the February meeting was J. D. Ballam's 'The Toymaker'.
A young man investigating his father's untimely death. A woman's initials, carved in an ancient tree. A half-forgotten hex sign revealing a crooked path. An Appalachian community that closes ranks to preserve its secrets. A tale of moonshine, murder and Blue Ridge Mountain magic.
The book to read for the January meeting was Stella Gibbons' 'Cold Comfort Farm'.
This comic novel, first published in 1932, parodies the romanticised, sometimes doom-laden accounts of rural life popular at the time. The heroine, Flora, stays at Aunt Ada Doom's isolated farm in the fictional village of Howling in Sussex. As is typical in a certain genre of romantic nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century literature, each of the farm's inhabitants has some long-festering emotional problem caused by ignorance, hatred or fear, and the farm is badly run. Flora, being a level-headed, urban woman, applies modern common sense to their problems and helps them all adapt to the twentieth century.
The book to read for the December meeting was William Cobbett's 'Rural Rides'
William Cobbett's Rural Rides (1830) provides a vivid account of rural England in the 1820s. In a series of journeys around southern England, Cobbett confronted the English countryside in a time of acute change, and responded to it in his own distinctively radical way, to provide a version of embattled pastoral.
Cobbett could certainly not have been further from the tradition of literary pastoral, since he was absolutely committed to the realities of small-scale agriculture, and was indeed a practising farmer for the last fifteen years of his life.
He was also the foremost champion of the agricultural labourers, and defended their interests in a series of writings in the 1810s and 1820s, of which Rural Rides is an example. But during a time of massive change in the English countryside - the epochal shift to enclosed agriculture was reaching its climax while he was writing - Cobbett devised an account of English rural life which looked back to the values of an earlier age to provide a devastating critique of the present.
The book to read for the October meeting was 'Mill on the Floss' by George Elliott.
This is often understood as a realist and a rural novel, its all-knowing narrator capable of granting access to the material certainty of a pastoral past.
The book read for the September meeting was Rachel Cusk's fictional novel 'The Country Life' about a move from London to the countryside.
The book to read for the August meeting was 'A Dirty Life' Kristin Kimball, a story of farming the land and falling in love.
Find out more about the book on the publisher's website: Simon and Schuster
The book to read for the July meeting was 'A Handful of Dust' by Evelyn Waugh.
In 'A Handful of Dust', Waugh satirises the British landed gentry and mercantile class. The novel is set in the 1930's and focuses on the breakdown of the marriage of Tony and Brenda Last. The aristocratic Tony is preoccupied with the maintenance of his family home, Hetton Abbey, an example of unfashionable Victorian Gothic architecture. John Beaver, a self-interested and impoverished social climber, invites himself to Hetton for the weekend, and soon after begins an affair with Brenda, who yearns for urban excitement.
The Book read in June was 'The Other Side of The Bridge' by Mary Lawson.
"Two brothers, Arthur and Jake Dunn, are the sons of a farmer in the mid-1930s, when life is tough and another world war is looming. Arthur is reticent, solid, dutiful and set to inherit the farm and his father’s character; Jake is younger, attractive, mercurial and dangerous to know – the family misfit. When a beautiful young woman comes into the community, the fragile balance of sibling rivalry tips over the edge.
Then there is Ian, the family’s next generation, and far too sure he knows the difference between right and wrong. By now it is the fifties, and the world has changed – a little, but not enough. These two generations in the small town of Struan, Ontario, are tragically interlocked, linked by fate and community but separated by a war which devours its young men – its unimaginable horror reaching right into the heart of this remote corner of an empire. With her astonishing ability to turn the ratchet of tension slowly and delicately, Lawson builds their story to a shocking climax.
Taut with apprehension, surprising us with moments of tenderness and humour, The Other Side of the Bridge is a compelling, humane and vividly evoked novel with an irresistible emotional undertow."
Read a Review of 'The Other Side of The Bridge' by Mary Lawson in The Guardian
The book read in May was Robert MacFarlane's 'The Wild Places'.
This book explores our changing ideas of the wild. From the cliffs of Cape Wrath, to the holloways of Dorset, the storm-beaches of Norfolk, the salt marshes and estuaries of Essex, and the moors of Rannoch and the Pennines, this book presents the journeys which become the conductors of people and cultures who have had intense relationships with these places.
The book to read for the April meeting was Pulitzer Prize winner, Jane Smiley’s 'A Thousand Acres'.
A successful Iowa farmer decides to divide his farm between his three daughters. When the youngest objects, she is cut out of his will. This sets off a chain of events that brings dark truths to light and explodes long-suppressed emotions. An ambitious reimagining of Shakespeare's King Lear cast upon a typical American community in the late twentieth century, A Thousand Acres takes on themes of truth, justice, love, and pride, and reveals the beautiful yet treacherous topography of humanity.
The book for the March meeting was 'Cider with Rosie' by Laurie Lee, published in 1959
By kind permission of the estate of Laurie Lee, we were able to show an example of correspondence from Laurie Lee relating to 'Cider with Rosie' from the Chatto and Windus publishing archives, held in the University's Special Collections.
Laurence Edward Alan "Laurie" Lee, MBE (26 June 1914 – 13 May 1997) was an English poet, novelist, and screenwriter, raised in the village of Slad, Gloucestershire. 'Cider with Rosie' (1959), is the first in his autobiographical trilogy which also includes, 'As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning' (1969) and 'A Moment of War' (1991).
The novel is an account of Lee's childhood in the village of Slad, Gloucestershire, England, in the period soon after the First World War. It chronicles the traditional village life which disappeared with the advent of new developments, such as the coming of the motor car, and also of the experience of childhood seen from many years later.
'The Wind in the Willows' by Kenneth Grahame.
The University's Special Collections holds several interesting editions.
Did you enjoy the book? Why not add your thoughts to the discussion board on our Facebook page?
'Germinal' by Emile Zola
Here are some thoughts on the book by people who came to January's meeting...
"Zola's Germinal is a book about the struggle of the French mining community against the power and privilege of the management and the faceless mining Company. The book really brings to life the deprivations and drudgery of the mining families and the extraordinarily hard life of those working in the mine contrasting it with the comfortable life of the bourgeoisie. A new man in town allows the miners to believe that they can have a better life and causes the miners to strive to change things. This leads to a forced strike which escalates into conflict, violence and destruction. It's a challenging book which requires persistence to read and the end is rather bleak and only hints at a better future. There is an underlying love story though it is destined to end in tragedy! The book is certainly well written and really creates a mood, bringing to life the sense of place, time and characters. Next time we have a lighter book! - 'Wind In The Willows' by Kenneth Grahame.
Clive Pugh, MERL volunteer
"Although I was warned this wasn't a mid-winter read, as the subject matter is mostly the unremitting labour of down-trodden miners in France, I found it to be a gripping tale. There is a love interest from early on, humour in small amounts and striking images resonating with Van Gogh's 'Potato Eaters' and Kathe Kollwitz's ' The Weavers'. (It came as no surprise to discover on Wikipedia that Kathe Kollwitz had started to illustrate 'Germinal' but instead produced 6 pieces on the weaver's strike in Silesia.) The book has all the same elements of misery, hope, courage and doom as the works she produced. A grim picture but a good read followed by lively discussion at MERL."
"I wouldn't ever have thought of reading Zola, but was glad of the opportunity to do so. I'm not sure whether I enjoyed it exactly, but what I liked about it was the powerful sense of place and culture that was conjured up. The characters also were convincingly developed - both individually and as a group. There is a sense of claustrophobia - both literally, in the scenes down the mines (especially towards the end), and metaphorically, in the fact that the mining families are trapped in their way of life, with their appetite-driven behaviour and lack of culture, vision or aspiration. I also liked the fact that the bourgeois are not portrayed simplistically as villains: it is more complex than that.
In the end, all the characters are to an extent trapped in their own world and world view. Wealth brings its own opportunities for misery. I wasn't clear at the end whether Zola approved of the political action or thought it was futile - the ending is ambiguous. The realism of the harsh poverty of the miners in their bleak landscape fights with the idealism of the philosophers seeking social justice; in the end Etienne walks away from the people he has been trying to encourage into a better reality."
Have you read 'Germinal'? What did you think? Do you agree with the readers above? Continue the discussion on the discussion board on our Facebook page
'The Woodlanders' by Thomas Hardy
The Woodlanders was the natural choice of book to follow 'Wildwood' as Roger Deakin quotes from it in the last chapter.
"When we read 'The Woodlanders' our world adopts new colours. The skyscrapers become giant trees, the airplanes birds, and the pages of the book green leaves in which it is possible to breathe the scents of the forest – a peaceful, scary, and melancholy landscape from which there is no retreat. A rural, sublime society imprisoned in the pages of an uplifting book."
Menotti Lerro's thoughts following the November book club
Fiona Melhuish, our Librarian, was also be on hand to show some Hardy items from the University’s Special Collections. These included some illustrated editions of novels and writings by Thomas Hardy and some examples of songs with Hardy lyrics from the rare book collections, and one of the highlights of the archive collections, the original manuscript for Hardy’s poem ‘We field-women’
The read for the October meeting was 'Wildwood, A Journey Through Trees' by Roger Deakin, described as 'Enthralling!' by Will Self in the News Statesman.
"I like the way Roger Deakin is such a craftsman - almost every piece of wood he tells you about, be it bole, branch, pole or beam, the first thing he tells you is what its measurements are. In a way I think it's a very 'MERL' book and fits in both with the collections (wagons, George Lailey etc) and with Ted Collins's project on contemporary rural crafts. Ted found that most craftsmen working today come from quite middle-class backgrounds and Roger Deakin...seems to fit that mould. (I loved the description of the Beaulieu Road sixth form camp in the New Forest, shows what a huge influence an inspired teacher can have at that age.
I'm also intrigued by the idea of living with and in wood that runs through the book. Deakin seems to want to break down the barrier between wood that is alive and growing and the 'dead' timber etc that we use as building materials. He welcomes the way moss, lichen, insects and birds colonize the timber his house is made from, even though it means decay. The last chapter, where he grafts the double row of ash trees together to make a living chamber, seems to sum up what he has to say about being immersed in nature, part of it. He seems to be saying that we should accept and welcome the dynamic character of the natural world, everything grows and decays, is reabsorbed then grows again, rather than try and stop the clock by fighting against it."
Jeremy Burchardt's thoughts on 'Wildwood'
In September we read 'A Painted House' by John Grisham
The book for August was 'A Month in the Country' by J.L. Carr
The first book, chosen by MERL staff, was H.E. Bates' 'The Darling Buds of May'