Category Archives: Memes

From Lincoln to Gaza in six steps

journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step is a common saying that originated from a famous Chinese proverb. Our journey in this month’s Six Degrees of Separation is going to begin in North America but is going to take us rather more than a thousand miles to complete. But we have to start somewhere and this month it is with the book that won the 2017 Man Booker Prize: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.

I’ve not read this and don’t have any plans to do so essentially because it has a vast number of characters and I know from experience I get lost with books of that nature.

winding-roadThe title of this book refers to the 16th President of the United States. But Lincoln also happens to be the name of a city in the UK. It’s also a colour (Lincoln Green is what Robin Hood’s merry men were reputed to have worn). Which gives me a clue for my first link… a city associated with colour.

Reykjavik Nights by Arnaldur Indridason is set in the capital of Iceland, a country to which thousands flock every year in the hope of seeing the phenomena of the Northern Lights. The most common colour seen in this natural light display in the sky, is yellowish-green. 

The colour most associated with my next city is red.

If you’ve ever seen the May Day parade in Moscow, you’ll know that it takes place in Red Square watched over from the walls of the Kremlin by members of the Politburo. Just around the corner is another of the city’s landmarks – the Hotel Metropole,  renowned as a haunt for kings, politicians and cultural luminaries. In the superb novel A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, Count Alexander Rostov is escorted out of the Kremlin and into the hotel where, by order of a Bolshevik tribunal, he has been sentenced to indefinite house arrest. Instead of his usual suite, he must now live in an attic room while Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval.

The upheaval of the Russian Revolution started not in Moscow but in the city that was, for a time, the capital of the country.

So for my next link let’s travel a little further north to St Petersburg and an early novel by Ken Follett, The Man from St Petersburg. This was the first book by him that I’d ever read. It was so long ago that I can’t tell you much about the story other than it was completely engrossing tale set before the outbreak of World War 1. One thing I do remember is that Follett had clearly undertaken a lot of research yet it never felt like he was just dumping the results on his readers. All the historical detail was carefully woven into the narrative. 

But I’m feeling rather chilly after spending so much time in the north. Let’s go south in search of some warmer climes.

The city in Patrick Modiano’s Paris Nocturne is more than a setting, he makes it as much a character as his unamed narrator. With him we go on a meandering journey through deserted streets, across moonlit squares and into the cafes and bars of Paris. This is a novel which so effectively conveys the sense of the French capital that you feel you’re there, sipping wine in a boulevard cafe.

Let’s turn up the temperature even further with my fifth book: The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra. Now I like heat and sun but I don’t think I fancy taking a trip to this particular city. I’d have to wear a burkha and walk a few steps behind my husband, both of which would be anathema to me. 

So lets get out of here quickly.   The Book of Gaza edited by Atef Abu Saif is a collection of short stories by ten Palestinian writers.  They live daily with the dangers and frustrations of restricted movement, military control and curfews and the threat of violence. But through their stories they also show  there is another side to life in this embattled region from what is typically seen in media reports. Well worth reading. 

And so we have reached the end of the chain this month. We’ve travelled from the land of the free to a land of conflict, and from icy climates to oppressive heat.

If you want to join in with the Six Degrees of Separation, take a look at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest. 

From African crime to games of English politics

It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation. This month we begin in Botswana and the colourful detective Mma Precious Ramotswe (isn’t that a delicious name?) created by Alexander McCall Smith for his No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series. I did enjoy the book but never went on to read any of the later titles, nor watch the TV adaptation.

Crime and Africa provide me with my first link. There’s even a direct connection to book 2 in the chain because on the back of my copy of Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartery is a comment from The Booklist  that the novel will be relished by fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series.

Wife

Actually Quartery’s novel is much darker than McCall Smith’s because in order to solve the  murder of a young female medical student, the investigating detective has to contend with a veil of secrecy about a practice which sees young girls offered as trokosi (or Wives of the Gods) to fetish priests. He finds important clues in the Adinkra symbols that are used to decorate the cloth worn as wraps. Never having heard of these symbols I spent an enjoyable hour searching the web for images to explain their symbolism.

Lives of Others

The book in my next link also dealt with fashion accessories, but this time in the form of the jewellery worn by Indian brides. The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee blends family saga and political turbulence in India during the second half of the 1960s. For light relief we get the squabbling members of the Ghosh family and their petty jealousies over gifts of saris and wedding jewellery. Looking at some images of young brides dressed in jewel-encrusted saris and double their body weight in gold, I remembered a visit to the royal jewellery collection at the Kremlin. What the Tsarinas had to wear for their coronation was so phenomenally heavy I couldn’t imagine how they managed to stand let alone walk.

The moonstone

A gift of jewellery from India is the catalyst for the plot of the next book in my chain. The large diamond in Wilkie Collins’ novel The Moonstone was stolen by a British army officer and bequeathed to his niece Rachel Verinder on her eighteenth birthday. But on the night of her party it goes missing, believed stolen, an event which results in unhappiness, turmoil and ill fortune for her and the cousin who had hoped to be her husband.

jewel-in-crown

Jewels+India+turmoil= The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott. This is the first part in his Raj Quartet collection about the dying days of the British in India and one of my favourite novels of all time. You can see why it has such a special place in my affection by reading the ‘Books that Built the Blogger’ post I wrote for Cathy at 746books.com (here’s the link if you’re interested.)

Katherine of Aragon

The link to book number 5 in my chain may be a bit obvious but I’m going there anyway. Katherine of Aragon by Alison Weir is the first in her series about the women who wore the crown of a Queen of England by virtue of their marriage to King Henry VIII. Some managed to hold onto it for a few years, others lost their head over it which just proves the validity of that line from Shakespeare’s Henry 1V part 2 ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

In Alison Weir’s novel we first meet Katherine as a young and beautiful bride to be who has left Spain to marry the heir to the English throne, Prince Arthur. When he dies she marries his brother Henry and gets to be queen. Weir shows Katherine as more than a match for Henry’s intellect and energy but fate, and Henry’s roving eye, means she ends up divorced and a lonely figure banished to draughty manor houses well away from the court.

Wolf_Hall_cover

Katherine in her role as abandoned wife is a key figure in my final book. Hilary Mantel’s dazzling novel Wolf Hall  vividly recreates the life of the man the former queen holds responsible for her demise: Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief advisor. Cromwell is usually depicted in fiction as a shrewd, manipulative and cold figure who will go to any lengths in his master’s service. Mantel turns the traditional portrait on its head and shows Cromwell also as a loving husband and caring father. It’s an extraordinary work of historical fiction; lyrical yet tightly written, bursting with scenes and images that linger in the mind. Quite simply, the most inventive and thrilling historical novel I’ve ever read (apart of course from Mantel’s follow up Bring Up the Bodies).

And so we’ve reached the end of this chain. We’ve travelled from Africa via India to England, from crime and sensational fiction to historical fiction. Is there a connection between our starting book and the one with which I ended? Maybe it’s stretching a point to call the way Katherine was treated as a crime, but she was certainly an innocent victim in a political game.

If you want to play along with Six Degrees of Separation head to Books Are My Favourite and Best where Kate sets us off with a new book each month.  As always all the books I’ve included are ones I have read though not necessarily reviewed.

From terror to persecution in six links

We start this month’s Six Degrees of Separation with Stephen King’s It.  But first I have a confession. Not only have I not read this book, I have never read anything by Stephen King. I know he’s a master storyteller but I have a low tolerance level of anything horrific so never had much interest in his work.

If I were ever to overcome my fear and pick up a Stephen King novel, I doubt that it would be It, based on the fact that it’s about a town where children are terrorized by an entity that takes on the form of a clown. Apparently some of the key themes are the power of memory, childhood trauma and its recurrent echoes in adulthood.

RoomA traumatic childhood is the key element in my first link: Emma Donague’s multiple award-winning novel Room. Inspired by the true life case of Josef Fritzl in Austria, Room tells the story of a five-year-old called Jack, who is held captive in a single room with his Ma. He has never been outside. The room is his entire world.  Despite its subject matter Donaghue has said that Room is not a horror story or a tear-jerker, but a celebration of resilience and the love between parent and child.

L shaped roomFor my second link I’m heading to a different room for another story about resilience in the face of challenges.  In The L Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks, Jane, an unmarried, out-of-work rep actress is turned out of the family home when she becomes pregnant following an affair with an actor. She moves into a dingy room at the top of a smelly boarding house in London, inhabited by bed bugs and a mix of exotic characters. Ultimately her time in the L-shaped room is just a phase in her life before she finds happiness and independence. The people she leaves behind are not so fortunate however; they are so steeped in poverty that they have little hope of escape.

English authorsThere doesn’t seem much hope of escape either for the characters in the novel that provides me with my third link: Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens. In the Victorian era if you couldn’t pay your bills you could end up an inmate of the Marshalsea prison. It was nigh on impossible to pay off the debts because inmates were not allowed to work. Such becomes the fate of William Dorrit who moves his entire family into the Marshalsea when he becomes a bankrupt. His youngest daughter Amy (the Little Dorrit of the title) is born within its walls but like her siblings is sent out to work while her father grows increasingly proud of his status as the prison’s longest-serving resident.

thedevilinthemarshalseaantoniahodgsonFather Dorrit was fortunate that his children’s efforts meant he never ended up in the prison’s most fetid section,  known as the “Common Side”, where inmates were highly likely to die from starvation or fever. Such is the fate that faces Tom Hawkins, the rakish protagonist of the fourth link in my chain: The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson. He can save himself if he can solve the mystery of who killed another prisoner but he also has to keep out of the way of the brutal governer and his henchman.

dorian grayTom is a gambler, a drinker and a womaniser but like all rakes he has a charm that entices. The figure of the lovable rogue and the bad boy abounds in literature so I am spoiled for choice for my fifth link. I’m plumping for a book that featured a handsome, narcissistic young man who indulges in every pleasure and virtually every ‘sin’:  The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Wilde of course was one of the ‘bad boy’s himself, and his book so offended the moral sensibilities of British book reviewers, many of them said he should be prosecuted for violating public morality. He did end up going to prison, for gross indecency.

petalsWilde was not the first – and certainly not the last – writer to be imprisoned. Some like the Marquis de Sade were accused of sexual offences; others like William S. Burroughs and Paul Verlaine for violent assualt. Still more writers have been incarcerated for their political beliefs and their refusal to stay silent. Petals of Blood  by the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o so incensed his country’s government because it criticised the newly-independent nation, that they imprisoned him without charges. His arrest provoked a worldwide protest and led to his adoption by Amnesty International as a Prisoner of Conscience. He left Kenya upon his release after a year in custody.

And so we end on a sombre note. Having started with a fictional horror I somehow ended up with a real-life situation that I find truely frightening: imprisonment without trial and due process of law.

Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate of Books Are My Favourite and Best  is where we start with one book and link in stages to six other books to form a chain. I’ve adopted my own rule to link only to books that I’ve read, even if that was many many decades ago.

 

 

From drugs to racism in six steps

It’s time for another  Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate of Books Are My Favourite and Best where we start with one book and link to six other books to form a chain. My rule is to link only to books that I’ve read, even if it was decades ago.

This month, once again, we are starting with a book that I’ve never read and, I will admit, not even heard of until now: Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis.  The blurb description says:

Set in Los Angeles in the early 1980’s, this coolly mesmerizing novel is a raw, powerful portrait of a lost generation who have experienced sex, drugs, and disaffection at too early an age, in a world shaped by casual nihilism, passivity, and too much money– a place devoid of feeling or hope.

Apparently Less than Zero was published as his debut novel in 1985 when he was just 21 years old, and rapidly gained attention for its portrayal of a hedonistic lifestyle. It became a cult novel.

 

The drug culture also figures large in another novel that came out in 1966 and was also set partially in Los Angeles. My first link is to Valley of the Dolls by the American writer Jacqueline Susann. Its more low brow than Ellis’ novel; Time magazine called it  the “Dirty Book of the Month” ; but it became the biggest selling novel of its year. It relates the troubled lives of three young women who become fast friends in the turbulent post-war worlds of Broadway and Hollywood and  grow increasingly dependent on “dolls” (amphetamines and barbiturates).  They help take the edge off their anxieties for a time but the women become increasingly dependent.  Over the course of 20 years,  each woman strives to achieve her dreams only to find herself back in the valley of the dolls. I’m embarrassed now to think that I ever read this book but it was ‘required’ reading for teenagers who craved excitement even if it was only vicariously.

Dolls of a different kind provide the theme for my second link. In A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, the playwright uses the idea of a doll to symbolise the predicament of married women in Denmark in the late nineteenth century. The doll in this play is Nora Helmer, a mother of three who seemingly lives an ideal existence as the wife of a bank manager. But she feels trapped and frustrated b y the lack of opportunities  for self-fulfillment in a male dominated world. The ending of the play Nora Helmer – wife of Torvald, mother of three, is living out the ideal of the 19th-century wife aroused a great sensation and outrage when the play was first performed.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin similarly provoked a strong reaction when it was first published in 1899 because it featured a woman who sets herself at odds with the prevailing social attitudes of the turn-of-the-century American South.  Set in New Orleans and on the Louisiana Gulf coast it shows Edna Pontellier, a wife and mother, who, just like Nora in Ibsen’s play,  develops unorthodox views on femininity and motherhood with the prevailing social attitudes of the turn-of-the-century American South.  Critics found the behaviour of Edna Pontelier so‘ sickening’ and ‘selfish’ that one reviewer said it ‘should be labelled poison’ but over the century, Chopin’s novella has come to be viewed as a landmark work of early feminism and thus a feature of many university literature modules.

Oppression and freedom from patriarchal control provide my fourth link in the form of The Colour Purple  by Alice Walker. This is an epistolary novel, set mainly in rural Georgia, that reflects on lives of African-American women in the southern United States in the 1930s, addressing numerous issues including their exceedingly low position in American social culture. The protagonist is Celie is a poor, uneducated, 14-year-old girl who writes letters to God because her father, Alphonso, beats her harshly and rapes her continuously. The novel won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction yet has been the frequent target of censors. It appears on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000–2009 because of it sometimes explicit content.

Four my fifth link I’m staying in the US with another book that has been frequently challenged and banned in some school districts because of its unflinching depiction of childhood rape and racism.  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by  Maya Angelou is the first part of a seven-volume series that shows how she rose from a poor and troubled childhood to become a world renowned author and poet, overcoming racism and hostility through strength of character and a love of literature. 

Racism and strength of character  take me to another coming of age novel for my sixth and final link. Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry  by Mildred Taylor is set in southern Mississippi during the years of the Great Depression. Its narrator  is nine-year-old Cassie Logan, a strong-willed girl with a fiery temper whose family fights to hold onto the land that rightfully belongs to them. Once again this is a novel whose content has generated concerns – it was one of the most frequently challenged books of 2002 on the basis that it contained offensive language and portrayed racism.

And with that we are at the end of the chain having stayed mainly in USA but with a little side trip to Norway. One of the things I enjoy about the Six Degrees meme is that it takes you into unexpected places. If you’re wondering about connections other bloggers made, check out the links at Kate’s blog.

Six degrees from chocolate to famine

It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, a meme where a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.

This month’s chain begins with a book I have never heard of let alone read. It’s Like Water for Chocolate, a debut work by the Mexican author Laura Esquivel. Apparently the central character grows up to be a master chef, using cooking to express herself and sharing recipes with readers.

The obvious choice for chocolate lovers like myself would be to the best selling novel Chocolat by Joanne Harris. But I think for my first link I’ll use the location where chefs work rather than the ingredients they use.

In 1929, an aspiring author by the name of Eric Blair arrived in Paris. Whether out of necessity because he had his money stolen, or because he wanted to gather material for a book, he began working as a dishwasher in some of the city’s restaurants. The result was  Down and Out in Paris and London, the first full-length work by an author better known as George Orwell.

Paris of course likes to think of itself as the gourmet capital of the world. The recently-published Michelin guide lists 10 restaurants in the city awarded the coveted 3 stars        (remarkably however this achievement is outdone by Tokyo with twelve 3-star restaurants).  Gourmet restaurants attract gourmands which gives me my next book in the chain.

The GourmetThe Gourmet by Muriel Barbery features Pierre Arthens, the greatest food critic in France. In the final two days of his life he wants to track down the most delicious food he has ever eaten. It’s a flavour he recalls from the years before he was critic though he is not exactly sure if it came from his childhood or his adolescent years. As he digs into his memory, he remembers all the dishes he has relished over the years, like this ” Pan roasted breast of Peking duck rubbed with berbère; grapefruit crumble à la Jamaïque with shallot confit … ”

Before I stopped eating meat I was quite partial to duck though I don’t find the combination of fowl and grapefruit very appealing. But then I’m not a gourmand.

The Sea, The SeaAll those descriptions of food do however remind me of another character who thinks he has a refined palette. So for my next link let’s leave France behind and move to the English coast to catch up with Charles Arrowby, the central character in Iris Murdoch’s Booker-prize winning novel The Sea, The Sea. Charles, who considers he has had a highly successful career as a London stage director, retires to a bit of a tumbledown seaside cottage to write his memoirs. In between writing and swimming, he prepares his own meals, some of which sound frankly bizarre.

For lunch, I may say, I ate and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil i essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London)

I could manage the anchovy paste on toast quite easily but baked beans and kidney beans on the same plate would be a step too far. I’m beginning to think duck and grapefruit wouldn’t be so bad after all….

Charles thinks he is irresistable to women but the protagonist in the novel for my next link would certainly not be one happy to share his lunch table and it’s nothing to do with his after shave.

AtwoodMarian McAlpin, the protagonist of The Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood, has a problem with food. Meat revolts her but so do eggs, carrots and even rice puddings. Soon she is existing on little other than salad leaves.  Her revulsion with food is symbolic of her rejection of the kind of behaviour expected of her as a woman. On the eve of her marriage she struggles against the idea that her change of status will mean she can no longer be herself. Atwood’s first novel was considered a landmark when it was published in 1969 because of its themes about gender stereotyping and objectification of women.

the vegetarian-1Fast forward some forty years and we find in my next link another author using women’s relationship with food to tackle the same issue.  The Vegetarian by Han Kang was one of the most extraordinary and disturbing books I’ve read in many years.   Yeong-hye is a docile, obedient South Korean wife until the day she decides to stop eating meat. In the eyes of her husband and family this is an act of gross rebellion against their culture so they try to force her to eat. It doesn’t work. She stops eating all together in the belief she is a tree and hence needs sustenance only from the earth.

The starvation both Yeong-hye and Marian McAlpine experience is the product of mental disturbance but for the protagonist in my next, and final link, starvation is thrust upon her by a force over which she has no control.

whitehunger_web_0_220_330

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen takes a real life event in his native Finland, a devastating famine in 1867 that resulted from a series of poor harvests. The food shortage co-incided with a particularly harsh winter. In desperation Marja, a peasant farmer’s wife from the north, abandons her dying husband and sets off on foot through waist-high snow with her two young children. They trudge from village to village, sometimes supported by strangers but just as often turned away and denied even a morsel of bread. It’s a bleak book, and not just because of the many descriptions of the barren, inhospitable landscape, but because of what it says about human nature when faced on the doorstep with suffering.

It’s a sombre note on which to end this chain …

 

10 (or more) books on the horizon

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday invites us to list the books on our reading horizons for autumn. I had intended to say that I don’t have an Autumn reading plan because a) I’m no good at sticking to these kinds of plans b) I haven’t long finished working through the 20booksofsummer list so am suffering a little list fatigue and c) I’m a hopeless prevaricator so can never make up my mind in advance what I want to read.

But then of course I remembered that I have a little unfinished business with my Booker project. So by default I seem to have a plan of sorts because I want to finish this project by the end of the year. That means I know there are  seven Booker Prize winners I will be reading in coming months.

7 Booker titles

2015 – A Brief History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)

2004 – The Line of Beauty (Alan Hollinghurst)

2003 – Vernon God Little (DBC Pierre)

1994 – How Late It Was, How Late (James Kelman)

1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle)

1974 – The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)

1972 – G. (J Berger)

Based on the insight from several bloggers I’m saving The Line of Beauty and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha until the end. The order in which I read the other five will be down to the mood I’m in at the time I’m ready to start a new book.

What else is in the offing?  

Reservoir 13From the library today I picked up a copy of Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor which was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize and – according to many comments I’ve seen – deserved to be on the shortlist but was overlooked by the judges.  In it, he depicts the aftermath of the disappearance of a 13 year old girl during a New Year’s holiday in a village in the Peak District. Over the course of 13 years, McGregor shows how life goes on in this community after the initial shock of her disappearance. To get the best idea of this book take a look at Susan’s review at A Life in Books.

I’ve already started reading this it being a perfect day to sit in the sunshine with a coffee and read. And so far it’s turned out to be a remarkable book…

I have a few novels I’ve agreed to review including a crime story in the style of the Golden Age of Crime, a historical fiction book set in Versailles and a new work by Richard Flanagan called First Person which is apparently a story about a ghostwriter haunted by his demonic subject.

And then there are a few Elizabeth Taylor and Penelope Lively novels that are calling to me, and it’s time I revisited some of my classics club list. which has a few Anthony Trollope and Emile Zola titles I fancy. But wait a moment, what about all the Louise Penny titles I bought on my last trip to the USA? And the authors from Wales that I’m trying to highlight….

Even with my less than stellar arithmetical skills I realise I’m way over 10 books. Better get reading hadn’t I????

10 favourite classics

This week’s Top Ten meme hosted by the Broke and Brookish is about a few of our favourite things. I’ve neglected my Classics Club project this year but looking back at the list of books I put together 5 years ago reminded me of so many other classics I’ve loved over the years. So here are my top ten classics .

From the Seventeenth Century

1. Paradise Lost by John Milton  (1667). I can remember sitting on my bed in

Lucifer-The-Fallen

Depiction of Satan, illustration of the central character of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. 1866.From Wikepedia under creative commons licence

my university halls of residence feeling daunted by having to read this for a tutorial. It was a monster of a book because of the extensive notes to explain Milton’s references. And boy did I need those explanations not being blessed with a deep knowledge of the Bible or the classics. But I still found this epic a gripping read with its rebel angels, the clash of good and evil, creation of the world and then the fall from grace of Adam and Eve. Yes it’s long and the prose is often convoluted but well worth tackling.

From the Nineteenth Century

This was the century that saw the greatest change in the form and nature of the novel. From early realist texts of the early part of the century, by the end we’re in the realm of stream of consciousness. So many wonderful novels from which to choose that I could easily have just done a list of 10 favourite 19th century novels. But I’ve tried to pick ones that are novels I never tire of reading.

2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813) There is no way that a list of favourites from the nineteenth century could ignore Jane Austen. This one can be read as a story about romance but as the title indicates Austen was more concerned about social issues. In this novel we get issues of social class and the precarious position of unmarried women.

3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847) This was one of the first classics I ever read and it’s still giving me pleasure 50 years later. Obviously my understanding and interpretation of Charlotte Bronte’s most famous novel has changed over those decades. But that’s one of the beauties of this novel, that it can be read in many different ways. At it’s most basic level it can be a story of a put-upon orphan to finds love and happiness. Delve deeper however and you can find ideas about women’s right for independence and a fulfilling life; the unenviable position of governesses and 19th century attitudes towards science in the form of phrenology.

4. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871) Another novel that lends itself to multiple readings and interpretations. I know so many people who have started to read this book but struggled because it’s a bit slow to get going and has a very large cast. One way to read it is to think of it like a soap opera with a few key relationships – the ‘eternal triangle’ of Dorothea, Casaubon and Ladislaw and the predatory Rosamund who snares Dr Lydgate and almost bankrupts him. Look beyond that however and you’ll find  a novel about ambitions for great medical discoveries, altruism and electoral reform. All are thwarted. This is a novel about big ideas but one that also shows how gossip can bring a man down.

5. Germinal by Emile Zola (1885) My first experience of reading Zola and, though I’ve gone on to read a few others by him, this is the one that has  a special place in my affection. It’s hard reading not because Zola’s prose is impenetrable but because of the subject matter –  a struggle for survival by impoverished miners in France. They take strike action  in the hope of a better future but their rebellion is violently crushed by the army and police.  Uncompromisingly harsh this is a novel that is unforgettable.

6. The Awakening  by Kate Chopin (1898) A novella about a woman who feels trapped in her role as wife and mother that was deplored at the time of publication but has come to be viewed as a key feminist text. Edna Pontellier’s process of “awakening” and self-discovery that constitutes the focus of the book takes several forms: she learns to swim, has an affair and leaves her husband and children. But her freedom doesn’t provide her with happiness. The ending is enigmatic – does Edna’s action represent a failure of her bid for freedom or is it a liberating triumph?

From the Twentieth Century 
8. A Passage to India by E. M Forster  (1924) Set against the backdrop of the British Raj and the Indian independence movement in the 1920s, Forster’s novel traces the disastrous consequences when well-meaning but clueless representatives of the colonial class mix with those who are subjects of the Raj.   It features a tremendous set piece of an expedition to the Marabar caves where something happens (exactly what is a typical Forsterian ‘muddle’ that causes the disgrace of an Indian doctor and inflames the ruling Sahibs. The novel might feel a bit dated at times but it’s on the ball in its depiction of the difficulties in bridging cultural divides.
Heart of the Matter9. Heart of the Matter  — Grahame Greene (1948). Few authors do a better job of portraying people undergoing a moral crisis and tortured by their consciences. Greene himself didn’t care much for this book but I find his story of a British police officer who becomes embroiled in a moral crisis when he tries to do the decent thing for his wife who has had to endure years with him in a decaying, rotting African outpost of the British Empire. In the end there is no way out for him, except one of eternal spiritual damnation.

 
10. Cry, the Beloved Country  — Alan Paton (1948). I’m staying in Africa for my final choice. This novel is set in South Africa on the eve of apartheid,. Paton uses the story of a clergyman who travels to Johannesburg from his home in a small rural village and discovers racial tension, economic inequalities between black and white and a breakdown of traditional values.  Paton uses multiple voices to expresses his love for South Africa and his fear for the future of his homeland. This is a novel of protest in a sense but its also an appeal for justice.

10 novels I wrestled with .. and sometimes failed

The topic for this week’ s Top Ten Tuesday meme is all about books that were a struggle to get through.

Lets start with two that were such a struggle I never made it to the final page. They were both Booker prize winners.

1. The Famished Road by Ben Okri was the first Booker winner that I failed to finish. In fact I barely got off the starting blocks with this one because the first chapter was so full of what seemed to me pretentious magical realism nonsense that I simply could not bear to read any more. This is the opening sentence:

In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.

Now I was ok with the first two sentences but the third pulled  me up short. It just didn’t make any sense – why is a river hungry and why is it more hungry than a road?

The book continued in similar odd style about  some spirit child whose siblings want to rescue him from the human world. I made it to page 80 and then lost patience.

finkler question-12. I fared better with The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson in the sense that I read more of it before it too, was abandoned.  The issue this time wasn’t pretentiousness; I just found the book boring. I could have persevered to the end but it would have been a real self ad that’s now how I want to use my time. Reading should be a pleasure not a chore. My review is here.

Let’s move on to a few novels that I did finish even though sometimes it was a painful experience.

3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Yes I know it’s a classic (it will celebrate its bicentenary next year)  and I know it was an exceptionally bold book particularly from a female writer. As I said in a post earlier this week, there are some parts which I think work really well. Who can forget the passage when Dr Frankenstein first set the creature he has formed as a result of  his experiment:

It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

It all went downhill from there on unfortunately with some ludicrously improbable plot developments. Even a memorable scene towards the end where Frankenstein and the creature are engaged in a battle on the Arctic ice field  failed to rescue the book for me.

Now I bet you are wondering why, if I disliked this book so intensely, I read it to the end. The answer is simple – it was required reading for a course I was taking with the Open University about realism in the novel. We were asked to consider how even within a novel held as a prime example of the Gothic genre, it was possible to find many characteristics of realism.

Another set text for the Open University, although in a different module, also proved challenging for me.

dracula.jpg4. In my young teens I saw countless Dracula films ( my dad liked them but was too scared to go on his own) but I never got around to reading the Bram Stoker novel until about 2005. I took it on holiday and remember being transfixed by the first section which is set in Dracula’s castle in Trannsylvania. Jonathan Harker is a solicitor sent to provide legal support for a property transaction  but after a few days at the castle realises he is effectively a prisoner and that his host has some strange powers. Worse follows when he encounters three female vampires who simultaneously entrance and repulse him. Stoker is masterful at building the suspense in this section – real ‘ hold your breath’ kind of writing. The rest of the novel is essentially an adventure story with good ranged against evil. The Count gets to London but has to contend with the forces of good in the form of Harker’s fiance and an odd character by the name of Van Helsing.  They and a few others begin rushing around London to try and track down Dracula and eradicate him. It’s all good fun if rather silly at times but the major obstacle for me was the dreadful manner in which Stoker renders Van Helsing’s speech. He’s meant to be an eminent scientist, a doctor, philosopher, and metaphysician, an intelligent man in other words yet Stoker makes him come across as a bumbling idiot much given to malapropisms and clumsy phrases. Maybe this is an attempt to emphasise his foreign origin (he is from Amsterdam) but it was difficult to keep a straight face sometimes when he was in a scene.

This reminds me of a couple of other ‘classics’ that I’ve found a challenge. Both happen to be by the same author.

5.  Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens I think I’ve now tried to read this about five times but have yet to finish it. The odd thing is that I come to a halt at almost the same place each time – shortly after we begin the chapters set in Paris. There is one chapter which has an elderly shoemaker who is going to be rescued and taken to home to England and to safety. I can’t put my finger on why I struggle to get beyond this point but my husband also hits the same brick wall.

6. Bleak House by Charles Dickens.  This novel has an outstanding opening which Dickens uses to criticise the English legal system and the way one of its divisions, the Chancery Court ruins people’s lives. He uses the symbolism of heavy fog which persists in London and particularly around the court which is sitting in judgement on a long-running case of wardship and inheritance – the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. This being Dickens its not long before he introduces us to a host of characters – and therin lies my problem. I cannot get these various people straight in my head which is disappointing because some of them are wonderful creations ( particularly one Lady Dedlock). I have reached the halfway mark but came to a halt – not that I have given up. I recently watched a BBC adaptation which proved invaluable in helping me work out who is who. I am determined to return to the fray with Mr Dickens at some point in the future.

It’s not just the classics that I’ve struggled with, sometimes I have an issue with bestsellers.

7. I usually enjoy Kate Atkinson‘s writing but her 2013 novel  Life After Life (my review) left me cold. The heart of the novel is a premise in the form of a question: What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? The central character Ursula Todd is born, dies, is born again, dies again .. and again… and again. An interesting premise but it became repetitive and I wasn’t interested enough to want to know how it all turned out so I gave up.

8. All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is one of those novels that ‘everyone’ seemed to be reading a few years ago. It tells the story of two teenagers during World War II (WWII), one a blind girl in Nazi-occupied France, the other a German orphan boy pressed into service by the Nazi army. A lot of reviewers and bloggers thought this was a page turner but I found the style of writing hard to digest. Virtually every noun had to come with an adjective, there were many anachronistic Americanisms and a heavy reliance on short sentences which had the effect of making the text feel very choppy.

And finally, I have a challenge with fiction from one particular country – Spain.

Infatuations9. The Infatuations by Javier Marías was a novel I was looking forward to reading on a holiday in Spain. He’s considered one of the country’s greatest contemporary writers and had come highly recommended by bloggers who know a thing or two about literature in translation. My experience was disappointing. For 180 pages (just a few pages shy of the book’s half way mark) we had barely any plot development yet oceans of digressive narrative and dialogue which traced the same argument over and over again. I abandoned it and went in search of a different Spanish author.

10  I landed on  Enrique Villa  Matas who is often described as one of the most inventive  of contemporary Spanish novelists. Dublinesque  had been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2013.  It’s about a sixty year old recovering alcoholic whose publishing business has collapsed.  On the strength of a dream he hatches a plan to take three of his former authors on a pilgrimage to Dublin to celebrate Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce masterpiece Ulysses is set.  While there they will also commemorate the end of the Gutenberg era. One hundred pages into the book we were still nowhere near Dublin. Instead we had a lot of talking, a lot of reflecting and a mass of literary references, many of which I didn’t understand. It felt like a game was being played and I was not asked to be a member of the team. I abandoned the book. I’m still in search of a good Spanish author so if anyone has recommendations, do let me know.

Six Degrees of Separation: From China to South Africa

Hosted each month by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, the Six Degrees of Separation meme picks a starting book for participants to go wherever it takes them in six more steps. As always the books I’ve chosen for my  chain are ones I’ve read though not necessarily reviewed.

Wild SwansThis month we begin with a book that made a huge impression on me Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang which traces three generations through some of the most momentous decades in the history of that country during the twentieth century.  If you’ve ever wanted to understand the human impact of Mao’s cultural revolution, this is an excellent starting point.

Wild Swans is banned in China so I could go down that path for my first link but I’m going to stick with China and the Mao regime.

Mao's Last Dancer

Mao’s Last Dancer is the autobiography of Li Cunxin, a boy who was plucked from a peasant family in rural China to become a trainee ballet dancer in Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy.  He and another student got a a chance to study abroad in America as an exchange student – there he discovered that everything he had been told about America was a lie. The book recounts his desire for freedom and determination to perfect his talent under a regime that did not value individual talent and freedom of experession.

The effects of an oppressive regime on the artistic spirit give me my next link.

madeleinethein

Do Not Say We have Nothing by Madeleine Thein (my review is here) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and (in my humble opinion) should have been the winner.  The Booker judges thought otherwise but the novel was critically acclaimed and did pick up a number of other prizes including the Canadian Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards for Fiction.  It’s an astonishingly ambitious novel that covers the Cultural Revolution in China but brings us up to the Tianenman Square massacre of 1989. This is the background against which she sets her story of three talented musicians  whose lives are turned upside down when the government decides their music is not appropriate to the new order.  Thein is Canadian yet her fiction predominantly deals with the Asia. Which gives me my next link: authors who write convincingly about other cultures and settings. 

tenderness_of_wolves.jpg

Stef Penny hails from Scotland but she chose the unforgiving landscape of Canada’s Northern Territory for her debut novel The Tenderness of Wolves. It’s a historical adventure of murder and abduction set in the 1860s that went on to win the 2006 Costa Book Award. Reviewers and judges remarked on the authentic atmosphere of her novel yet Penney had never set foot in Canada – she was suffering from agoraphobia at the time of writing this novel so did all the research in the libraries of London. The snowy landscape of this novel gives me an obvious next link….

Miss Smilla

Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow is a 1992 novel by the Danish author Peter Høeg. It’s typically described as a murder mystery and it does indeed feature the murder of a young boy and a quest by Miss Smilla Jaspersen to find the culprit. But it’s also about the legacy of Denmark and its  relationship with its near neighbour Sweden, its native Inuit people and about the different kinds of snow. Smilla’s father is a famous Danish doctor, but her mother was a Greenlander; hence her feeling for snow.  During the course of the novel we are introduced to many native terms used to distinguish big flakes from frozen drifts and experience the beauty of the landscape.

The concluding chapters of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow sees  Smilla travel through the Arctic ice in search of the truth, a journey which links me to a novel written by an author born 220 years ago this week.

Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s Gothic tale Frankenstein is a novel I dislike intensely. I find most of it so highly improbable as to be unreadable. It does have two really stand-out episodes however. One is the scene where the Creature manufactured by the scientist Victor Frankenstein is first revealed – it’s a hideous figure with yellow eyes and skin that barely conceals the muscle tissue and blood vessels underneath. The second is when Frankenstein tracks his creation to the North Pole and pursues him with a dogsled with the intent of revenging the murder of his bride.

Revenge and experimentation give me my sixth and final link.
The-Monsters-Daughter

The Monster’s Daughter is a debut novel by Michelle Pretorius set in South Africa. (my review is here). It begins during the time of the Boer War when a doctor in a British concentration camp begins conducting genetic experiments on female prisoners. Two children survive as freaks of nature. The novel then follows their lives through the period of apartheid rule and into the new South Africa.

And now I’ve realised that unintentionally my chain began and ended with books that feature oppressive regimes yet we’ve travelled many thousands of miles from China, to Canada, the Arctic and South Africa.

Update September 5 : I corrected the text based on Marit’s comment.

From Austen to Forster in six steps

It’s time for another round of Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best and for once I have read the starting book in the chain. For anyone unfamiliar with Six Degrees of Separation each month the idea is that from the book chosen as a starting point we find link to another book, and another using whatever flights of fancy and free associations our brains can muster. As always the books in my chain are one I’ve read.

The starting point this month is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in honour of the author’s bicentenary. The story of five daughters of the Bennett family was her third published novel and arguably most popular work in her lifetime, going through three editions before her death. The multiple tv and film adaptations produced since have helped maintain its popularity. One of the key turning points in the narrative arc is when Lizzie Bennet, second eldest daughter, visits Pemberley, the large country estate of Lord William Darcy, a wealthy landowner with whom she has previously clashed. Lizzie’s delight in seeing this estate brings her realisation that she might have misjudged this man and “that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!”

For my next link I’m choosing a book where the central character finds a door into a new world via another large country estate .

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh traces from the 1920s to the early 1940s, the life and romances of the protagonist Charles Ryder, including his friendship with the Flytes, a family of wealthy English Catholics who live in a palatial mansion called Brideshead Castle. He becomes seduced by the charms of the family but ultimately the relationship turns sour, not because Charles is of a different class but because they are Catholic and he cannot understand the hold religion has on their lives. Waugh wrote this as a convert to the Catholic faith and his novel reflects themes of divine grace and reconciliation as the characters struggle with their beliefs.

Like Waugh, Graham Greene was a Catholic convert who also explored the  drama of the struggles within the soul from a Catholic perspective. I could chose one of several books for my second link but I think I’m going to opt for  The Heart of the Matter (my review)  which is my favourite Greene novel. It details a life-changing moral crisis for Henry Scobie, an assistant police commissioner in a British settlement on the West Coast of Africa during World War II. A superb book about a tortured soul who wants to do the right thing but finds himself morally compromised.

Greene was at one time an agent of the British intelligence service and supervised and befriended by Kim Philby, a man later revealed as a traitor and Soviet spy. They worked together in what is known as MI6. Which gives me my next link …

John le Carré is a highly successful British author of espionage novels. He could write authoritatively about spies and their practices because he was, for a time, one of them. During the 1950s and the 1960s, he worked for both the British Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service under his real name of David John Moore Cornwell.  He’s best known for his masterful novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which is a fiendishly intricate plot about a traitor at the heart of the security service. But I’m going to select his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold which is a tremendously atmospheric novel set in Berlin at a time when the city was divided by the wall. Much of the force of Le Carre’s writing comes from the way he portrays the inner conflict of his characters and in this one, he features Alec Leamas, a British agent, who has been sent to East Germany as a fake defector with a mission to spread disinformation. By the end he has to choose between a German girl with whom he has fallen in love and his duty to his country.

Berlin and the cold war. Now that reminds me of the first Ian McEwan novel I read, The Innocent. Set in 1950, this centres on a joint American and British security operation to build a tunnel from the American sector of Berlin into the Russian sector to tap phone lines of the Soviet High Command. Leonard Marnham is the young Englishman tasked with the set up and repair of the tape recorders used in the tunnel. He’s out of his depth and bungles along until he finds in a spot where betrayal becomes easy.

 

That idea of an innocent caught up in something he doesn’t fully understand gives me my next link.  L P Hartley’s The Go-Between is the recollection of 1900 when 13-year-old Leo Colston spends the summer at a grand country house in Norfolk, rented  by the family of a prep-school chum, He gets caught unwittingly in a love affair between his friend’s beautiful sister and a neighbouring farmer.  Initially is involvement is all rather innocent, he just acts as postman between the pair but each of them is eventually very nasty to him and he’s made to feel an intruder rather than a welcome guest.

 

For my final link we’re going to visit another country house though this is on a less grand scale. Howard’s End by E. M depicts the clash of attitudes between three families, the rich and capitalistic Wilcoxes, the half-German Schlegel siblings (Margaret, Tibby, and Helen), whose cultural pursuits have much in common with the real-life Bloomsbury Group; and the Basts, a poor young couple from a lower-class background. Leonard represents the aspirations of the lower classes; he is obsessed with self-improvement and reads constantly, hoping to lift himself up. But he is never able to transform his meager education into an improved standard of living. Through an accidental encounter with the Schlegels he sees a chance to change his fortunes. The Schlegel’s well-intentioned idea of helping him go horribly wrong when, because of their advice he loses his job and becomes destitute. Another example of an innocent seduced by a world outside his own experience.

And with that we’ve looped back to book number 2 in my chain and not just thematically. The TV adaptation of  Brideshead Revisited starring Jeremy Irons, was in fact filmed at  real country house called Castle Howard.

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