Sunday, 17 April 2011

Summer School ~ 2011

Every year I look longingly at the adverts for Summer Schools, especially those which involve a study of some aspect of the literary world.  And, every year I force my gaze away from those same adverts for one simple reason - the cost.  A week at a Summer School at one of the UK's universities can set you back anything between £400 and £800 and that's before you factor in accommodation, board and transport.  Even if I didn't live on a very fixed income there is no way that I could even begin to think about splashing out that amount of money.

Well, last year, I decided to do something about it.  It seemed to me that if I felt this way there must be others with the same desires and the same problems meeting them.  I began by canvasing members of my U3A group to see what interest I could gather there and before I knew it I had a group of a dozen other avid readers who were all keen to see if we couldn't put something together for a little less in the way of financial layout.

What I eventually devised was a week in which we met on three afternoons, the Monday, Wednesday and Friday, to discuss three separate, but linked, books.  We met in a different person's house on each occasion and someone different led each discussion.  That way no one was asked to take on too much of the burden of hosting or of preparation.  We all dropped 50p into a saucer on the way out every time we meet to cover the cost of tea and biscuits and as a consequence the week set us back by the grand sum of £1.50 a head.  It was a roaring success.  We started on the Monday with Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, moved on to Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone and finished up the week with Andrew Taylor's The American Boy.  By the Friday meeting we were so involved with the books and with our comparison of the treatment of crime in the nineteenth century that I had to force people to leave so that Jen could have her home back.

Needless to say, we are repeating the experience this year and running a music equivalent as well and the time has come for me to put together lists of possible literary trios so that this year's group can decide what they would like to read.  I'm going to follow the same pattern as last summer when I offered five sets of three books and asked people to rank them one to five in order of preference.  I then totalled the marks for each set and the one with the lowest score was chosen.  In fact, it was a very close run thing last year and four of the trios pushed each other hard.  That makes it easier this time round because I can retain the three losers on the list.  There was one set that no one was interested in, so that will have to be replaced and I need a final group to fill in for those we actually read last year.

Choosing the books is more than half the fun.  There are some criteria I have to abide by.  Everything has to be easily and cheaply available and we don't want anything too heavyweight.  This is supposed to be fun, after all. Other than that, the literary world is my oyster.  This is where I've got to.

Groves of Academe

The Secret History ~ Donna Tart
Gaudy Night ~ Dorothy L Sayers
Nice Work ~ David Lodge

Then and Now

Ghostwalk ~ Rebecca Stott
A Secret Alchemy ~ Emma Darwin
The House on the Strand ~ Daphne du Maurier

The Regeneration Trilogy

Regeneration ~ Pat Barker
The Eye in the Door ~ Pat Barker
The Ghost Road ~ Pat Barker

221B Baker Street and Beyond

The Hound of the Baskervilles ~ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Final Solution ~ Michael Chabon
Arthur and George ~ Julian Barnes

Authoboigraphical Fiction

The Master ~ Colm Toibin
The Hours ~ Michael Cunningham
Girl in a Blue Dress ~ Gaynor Arnold

The first three are the runners up from last year.  The first and third speak for themselves.  The second comprises three books that all work in two different time periods.  The first new group is one I've put together from books that have something to do with either Sherlock Holmes or his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the second (for which I desperately need to find a better title!) is made up of books that fictionalise aspects of a writer's life.

Now, here's where you come in.  Are there any obvious contenders for those last two groups that I've missed?  I don't want to put one of the Mary Russell books into the Sherlock Holmes set.  I know the people who will be participating and I don't think it would work.  But, are there other re-imaginings of Holmes' adventures?  And what about other books that fictionalise authors?  I would have loved to include the new David Lodge, A Man of Parts,  which is about H G Wells, but it's still only in hardback.  Any suggestions will be gratefully received before I have to finalise the list at the end of the week.


  1. Well, there is also David Lodge's book on Henry James, Author, Author, although perhaps that is too much Henry James! There is also Ghost Light by Joseph O'Connor about the playwright John M. Synge. It looks like it's out in paper in the UK. Those lists sound wonderful! I would vote for Groves of Academe, except I've already read two of the books, and Then and Now and Autobiographical Fiction sound wonderful too. Do let us know what you end up reading.

  2. All I can come up with is Nicola Upson's novels featuring Josephine Tey. All the lists sound wonderful, the summer school is a great idea.

  3. Daphne by Justine Picardie comes to mind, and I hear good things about Jude Morgan's take on the Brontes in A Taste of Sorrow, though I have yet to read my copy.

    As to Mr Holmes, Fabrice Bourland's The Baker Street Phantom, set in 1932, sees Lady Conan-Doyle approaching a detective agency with tales of mysterious events at 221 Baker Street ... but maybe that's a bit too far removed.

  4. Dorothy, I would have loved to include a David Lodge, but I couldn't put two James books in and the Toibin is definitely better, I think. I will look at the O'Connor thug. And don't worry, as we run up to August you will hear far too much about how we get on.

    Joanne, I know the Upton, but I think they are more crime fiction than an exploration of the writer's character or life, which is what I was looking for. She might be a good one for next year, though when I will put another more general crime list together.

    Fleur, 'Daphne' was on the list that no one wanted to read last year, so I daren't put it on again but the Morgan is one I haven't heard of at all so I'm off to investigate right now. I think you're right and the Bourland is probably too far removed, but if they do choose that trio then I might well put together an additional reading list and include it there.

  5. Yes, I thought Toibin was better too, though I did enjoy Author author, and am looking forward to the Wells one.

    Tracy Chevalier has done one on William Blake called Burning bright - I haven't read it though and wouldn't recommend her for a literary study, so why am I even saying it?

    More interesting might be Peter Carey's Jack Maggs which is a bit of a riff on Great Expectations but also features a (major) character who represents Dickens. It's an intriguing book.

  6. Oops, and meant to say what a great idea. I might use it myself in the future. (And, I do hope you are feeling better by now)

  7. What a great idea and wonderful lists! I am jealous of your group and sad that I live far away because yours is the kind of summer school I would love to attend!

  8. I love your idea--this sounds like fun. Money is always a problem--I agree, but this sounds almost better as you are familiar with those in your group. I'm not sure it would work, and I've not read it but Michael Dibdin wrote a book called The Last Sherlock Holmes Story. And Carole Nelson Douglas wrote a series of books told from Irene Adler's perspective, though again, this may not be what you're looking for. I love your lists--especially the first one!

  9. WG, much better thank you and I do so agree about Tracy Chevalier, especially the Blake book.

    Stefanie, if you ever find yourself in the UK at the right time you have a standing invitation!

    Danielle, it does make things easier knowing each other, you're right and while I agree that Dibdin might not be quite the sort of writer For this group, I didn't know about that book and I shall certainly be reading it. Thanks.

  10. Sounds like a great idea.

    I bought The Suspicions of Mr Whicher for a friend's birthday some time ago and she enjoyed the book, though I haven't read it myself. I believe a TV series based on it is about to start (I think!).

  11. I wouldn't vote for Groves of Academe or Then and Now - but only because I've read those books - and can recommend them all!

    I can't add any more titles, sorry.

    PS - I've read The Suspicions of Mr Whicher - a fabulous book and the series on ITV starts on Sunday. I'm not sure about watching it as I don't want to have to compare it to the book, which I know I'll end up doing when they change it.

  12. Nikki-ann and Margaret, some of the people involved in last year's Summer School and I were talking about the serialisation yesterday and apparently the pre-release reviews are not too good. So, I don't think I shall be watching it. I hate to have books ruined by poor dramatisation.

  13. What a brilliant idea, I love the categories that you have chosen. I started my literary holidays for exactly the same reason, the commercial ones and courses were just too expensive by far. By organizing it myself, accomodation, books, visits etc, it is a fraction of what we could have paid.

  14. What a great idea. I love the academic fiction category. I keep meaning to set up some kind of Jane Austen society in my area, but still haven't got around to it - an inspirational post.

  15. Leah, if what you want isn't available then go out there and sort it. We are clearly two women with a single way of looking at the world!

    VR it's making the first move that matters. Once you do that you soon find that there are others out there like you who feel the same way. I bet you'd have dozens of takers for and Austen society. The massive Shakespeare Library in Birmingham grew from the collection of just such a privately organised group.

  16. Love the summer school idea. Am going to propose it for my book group and/or my bookish neighbours... or actually, might even try it for family holiday next summer (a week with parents, siblings, partners and hangers on - we need something to talk about other than needling each other!)

  17. Rose, I find the main hurdle to be negotiated is getting people to commit to reading three books ready for discussion in the same week. It demands a very different sort of commitment from that required for a monthly book group. Make sure you notify people of what the books are with enough time for them to have read them all.

  18. Annie, I'm green with envy. I love the playful way you've put these things together -- especially tucking Barker into the middle. (That's going to quite a week for you all!) No suggestions, just admiration shaded with wistfulness.

  19. Carol, we won't read them all this year. The group has to choose just one group. At the moment there is no clear leader which is a shame as I'd like to get on with preparation.