Archive for January, 2009

Short stories, long discussion!

What a great turn-out for the January meeting – when surely the fireside or even the duvet must have held quite an attraction!
We were discussing the short story collection Constitutional by Helen Simpson. I put my cards on the table straight away and said I absolutely loved this collection, which for me was perfect Christmas/New Year reading – it could be dipped into like a box of chocolates and the stories themselves were all set at this wintry time of year.
It was interesting that when I admitted to not reading short stories very often, I found myself in the majority – lots of nods around the table. Yet as the discussion went on, people began discussing other short story writers from James Joyce to Alan Bennett and it became clear that, in fact, we all read them a little more often than we realise! We all agreed what a precise and difficult art it is to write a short story – and one in which Helen Simpson is quite unusual, in that she has always specialised in this medium, rather than becoming a successful novelist and then producing a short story collection when more established.
Another interesting thing that emerged is that most (though not all) of us agreed on which stories they found the least successful – If I’m Spared and The Green Room. (In this we differed from some very eminent reviewers in the quality press!). But we enjoyed the humour of the collection with its underlying anger and the accessible themes of ageing, frailty, being wanted and needed – and ultimately, hope and renewal in The Door and the title story Constitutional.
We enjoyed picking out some of Simpson’s brilliant and memorable turns of phrase – such as her description of Christmas as being a time “when adults demanded simple joy without effort, a miraculous feast of stingless memory.” In the same story (The Year’s Midnight) was the lovely description of the resentful au-pair: “a crouching Fury of a woman,” “baleful as Durer’s engraving of Melancholia.”
The writer also has acute powers of observation when it comes to conversation and dialogue – the account of the children’s conversation in Early One Morning was particularly authentic. One reader said she felt as if she had been standing outside the subject’s windows, getting a brief but accurate snapshot of their lives, before moving on to the next – I thought this was a great way of describing the satisfaction that Simpson’s short stories offer.
If anyone’s interested to read more I can recommend two of her other collections, Dear George and Hey Yeah Right Get A Life.
Two members also suggested the story collection by Yiyun Li, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, which sounds as if it would be a fascinating read.
(Note to Book group members: I may have suggested that Helen Simpson was involved in the short story event on 31st January. I’m afraid I seem to have made that up – apologies!).
At the meetings I’m always interested to know what else people have been reading. It’s great to get recommendations from readers who you trust! How’s this for a variety: Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle (we will ignore the dark mutterings in one corner about Richard and Judy!); Sid Chaplin’s Day of The Sardine (and you can get this from the North-East-based Flambard Press) – and Thackeray’s 1847 classic Vanity Fair.
So – for something completely different, next month we will turn to Chinua Achebe’s seminal work, which I’m sure will make for a great discussion. Hope to see everyone next month,
Next meeting: Tuesday 24th February, 6.30pm. Doolally’s, Marygate, Berwick. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.


About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit

January 2009
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