Monthly Archive for April, 2016

What We Talk About When We Talk About Books


Sunshine in Durham today, lighting smiles and warming conversations. Was it only yesterday that relentless drizzle weighed so heavily? The enigma of our weather and its creation of an atmosphere. Not unlike Durham book Group’s experience of this month’s writer, Raymond Carver, in his 80’s collection of short stories entitled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’, recently published anew in the UK. One of our readers, Lorraine had studied his work as a literature student at Durham and invited us to share her enthusiasm for his artistry and skill in communicating the atmosphere and intensity of brief encounters, scenarios in the lives of characters who may have long-standing relationships or be strangers meeting by chance. Difficult subject matter is recounted starkly, fleetingly, in ways that leave lasting visual and emotional impressions.

In this collection of 16 short stories spanning only 135 pages, Carver engages the reader as an observer, a passer-by whose attention is drawn to something seemingly ordinary that transforms, surprises or shocks us. We glimpse human tragedy, the loss of relationships through misfortune, waning intimacy, alcoholism, horrific violence. His first story, ‘Why Don’t You Dance’, is about a young couple stopping to browse through a yard sale and reflecting on the desperate circumstances. The seller is a drunkard, down on his luck who wants them to dance to his records. The couple buy his furniture at low prices. The story ends some weeks later with the girl searching the records contemptuously, and puzzling again over the man’s situation. Readers were equally surprised by those stories that delight and comfort suggesting the hope of relationships being mended, as in ‘I Could See The Smallest Things’. Overall favourite was the title story of the collection, appearing as the finale and finally discussing what love is through recounting a wife’s love for her abusive and violent ex-partner and her current husband’s description of an elderly couple in hospital who could only be happy if close to each other. Readers described how the impact of alcoholism on human relations of all kinds is conveyed so skilfully in this final story.

It is not easy to discuss a collection of short stories since there is no one story or set of characters to hold centre stage. Nevertheless, a rich and diverse array of responses to the stories and the writing emerged. Most felt the emotional impact of Carver’s subject matter, using words like ‘grim’, and ‘disturbing’. Were books only enjoyable if not too disturbing, one reader asked? Not when considering the high ratings many of our readers gave this collection! Carver’s style communicates volumes in few words, like photographs, expert close ups that convey the realities of human relationships, warts and all. Several readers described experiencing the stories as films, sometimes recognising them in films they had seen. Some readers had checked out Carver’s biographical information, noting his own struggles with alcoholism and its effect on his life and wondering how this had informed his writing.

As you will know from the previous blog, our group is on the move. It is sad to be moving away from the venue provided by one of the group’s founders, Ashley, and her delightful café, Leonard’s. Needs must, however, and we are delighted and excited to have found a new home that can accommodate our size and diverse membership needs. Waterstones has welcomed us with open arms, offering space, refreshments and the promise of potential discounts for members.

Angela Douglas


69 Saddler Street

A Classic Yarn

A rather late blog this month! Apologies. Retirement fills life with endless tasks…. As well as time to appreciate the wonders of Durham footpaths in the spring……

Durham’s New Writing North book group chose to revisit one of George Elliot’s classic tales, ‘Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe’, this March. Published in 1861, it transports the modern reader into the world of the peasantry and gentry in Victorian England, setting the gripping story of Silas within the fascinating context of nineteenth century social and political mores. A weaver at that time was an independent artisan who either worked for himself and carried his spinning wheel and supplies on his back, traveling from town to town, or worked with other weavers in a stable community, sometimes doing both. Early on we learn how Silas has fallen on hard times and lost both his childhood community and his wife-to-be following betrayal by his best friend, accusing him of robbery that he didn’t commit and convincing this small protestant settlement of his guilt. To add further insult to injury, his friend later marries his wife to be. In response he has left his childhood home and become a traveling weaver, moving from place to place then settling in Raveloe. He is a recluse, a character viewed with suspicion by most of the locals. Silas shuns human contact and turns his affections to the horde of gold coins he amasses from his earnings. Elsewhere in Raveloe we glimpse the degenerate behaviour of the local gentry, local Squire, Godfrey Cass and his brother. Godfrey is desperate to maintain their land and status but neither he nor his idle alcoholic brother have the money. Whatever money he has goes to his brother who blackmails him about his estranged secret peasant wife who had his child. In another dramatic twist of fate, Silas’ life is upturned by Godfrey’s brother stealing his gold. Silas runs from his cottage distraught, wild, seeking, at last, the support of his neighbors. Meanwhile, a ‘golden child’ has appeared in his cottage, abandoned when its mother dies on the roadside en route to Godfrey Cass, the father. Silas sees this as his miracle child, adopting and caring for her. Gradually we witness him rebuilding his capacity to connect with people and the great joy and warmth of spirit replacing the miserly seclusion of his previous years in Raveloe.

imageDespite the somewhat simplistic and romantic nature of the story, our readers generally loved this book. George Elliot’s masterly depiction of social and political themes, descriptive prose and attention to detail in local dialect brought the characters alive . It was as if the reader, too, was invited into the heart of the community. Most of all, readers enjoyed the heart warming change in Silas. A moral fable for its time, yet still as pertinent today. There were minor irritations noted in the writing style at times. Was there a judgmental attitude towards the destitute mother of Eppie over her drug taking? Did Elliot run out of steam when tackling the ending? Was it too much of a ‘Happy ever after’ conclusion? A stereotypic fairy story? It has echoes of Rumpelstiltskin when he refuses treasure as a substitute for the miller’s daughter’s child in payment for having enabled her to spin gold and says “No, something alive is dearer to me than all the treasures in the world.”

For further information about George Elliott’s Silas Marner, check out Silas Marner: A Study of Transition by Shirley Galloway,

Next month’s read is an early 80’s novel by American writer Raymond Carver, master of short stories, recently published in the UK, ‘What we talk about when we talk about love’. In May we treat ourselves to the debut novel from Nigerian writer, Chigozie Obioma, ‘The Fishermen’, short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2015. In July NWN has arranged for us to host a Polish translator visiting the UK. More details about the book she will talk about will be provided so check out the blogs for May and June. Autumn will find us engrossed in the Durham Book Festival NWN book groups choice, hot off the press.

Meetings remain at St Leonard’s coffee house for the time being though we may be moving in future to enable disability access, so do check the blogs!

Newcomers always welcome. Just turn up and we’ll sort out your details later.

Angela Douglas