Category Archives: Memes
We start this month’s Six Degrees Of Separation with a novel that’s a cult classic.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a disturbingly dark post-apocalyptic novel in which a father and son walk alone through a landscape ravaged by a catastrophe. It’s a novel I read but didn’t enjoy at all – I found it repetitive and jerky.
The unnamed duo were heading south on their journey but for my first link I’m heading in the opposite direction.
Richard Flanagan won the Booker Prize in 2014 with The Narrow Road To The Deep North. It’s one of my absolute favourite Booker winners
The “road’ in the title is actually a railroad – the infamous Thailand-Burma Death Railway of World War 2. The novel shows how the lives of the prisoners forced to work on the railroad and the Japanese soldiers who guard them, are impacted long after the end of the war. In the novel Flanagan asks questions about reconciliation and atonement.
The experience of Japanese prisoners of war feature prominently in a Town Like Alice by Neville Shute. He was inspired to write the novel after meeting a woman who was part of a group of women and children captured by Japanese forces. In Shute’s version, the group is forced to march from camp to camp for two and a half years.
After the war, Shute’s protagonist travels to Australia to track down a soldier who had stolen food and medicines for the women on their march. Eventually she finds him in the Queensland outback.
An author very familiar with Australia’s isolated bush regions was Miles Franklin. It’s the setting for her first novel, My Brilliant Career, a coming of age tale of a headstrong girl in whom ambition blazes. Franklin gives her heroine Sybylla Melvyna belief that she is destined for a life more fulfilling than rearing cattle and sheep or being “shackled” in marriage.
Sybylla reminds me so much of the eponymous character in My Ántonia by Willa Cather. That too is set in a wild landscape (Nebraska) among farmers and settlers who battle against nature to make a living. Appropriately for this month’s chain, it opens with a train journey during which two passengers reminisce about Antonia – a spirited girl they once knew. Cather’s novel celebrates the beauty of the Nebraskan plains yet it doesn’t sentimentalise the harshness of the climate.
There is no hint of sentimentality either in my fifth novel, A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale. Set in the remote plains of Saskatchewan, Canada, Gale shows his central character, Harry Cane, arrive as a homesteader with barely an idea of what to expect. He’s never farmed, never done any manual work and in his first winter, has no shelter except a tent in which to ride out sub zero temperatures.
Harry is an exile, escaping from a comfortable life in England to avoid discovery of a homosexual relationship that would, if made public, have ruined him.
Let’s continue with this idea of travel as a form of escape and pick a novel in which the character goes even further north to evade capture.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan sees a young slave boy travel take flight from a cotton plantation in 19th-century Barbados, ending up in the Arctic circle. He does travel by road and rail occasionally but the most remarkable journey in the novel is the one he takes by hot air balloon. As a plot device that takes some beating!
So that’s my #6Degrees; moving from a dystopian novel to stories set in harsh landscapes and ending with a journey to the end of the earth. We’ve travelled by foot, train and balloon (doesn’t quite have the same ring as planes, trains and automobiles but I tried my best)…
Next month we start with a book that it seems impossible to escape right now – Normal People by Sally Rooney.
Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six others to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the titles on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.
It’s time for Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best.
We start this month with “Stasiland” by Anna Funder, a book I’ve not heard of nor read but which I think I would enjoy. It’s a set of personal accounts about individuals who resisted the East German regime. Other accounts are from people who worked for its secret police, the Stasi.
From here I can make a very obvious link to a book I read last year: Stasi Child by David Young. It’s the first title in his crime series set in East Germany during the era of the Cold War. Young conveys the bleakness of life in East Germany where anyone can be “persuaded” into helping the Stasi by informing on their friends, neighbours and relatives.
Part of the plot of David Young’s novel involves the disappearance of children, a theme which links me to my next novel.
A Child In Time by Ian McEwan was one of the first books I read by this author. It was published in 1987 and concerns a couple whose three-year-old daughter was kidnapped. The book concerns itself with the aftermath of that event, from the point of view of the father, an author of children’s books. It also focuses on the idea of time as being relative, fluid and unstructured. For that reason it is sometimes considered to be a time travelling story.
The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Remember the fuss about this novel when it was published in 2003? It was one of those books that “everyone” seemed to be reading. It wasn’t one I enjoyed. I just couldn’t buy into the premise about time travel.
It’s a love story about a man with a genetic disorder that causes him to time travel unpredictably, and about his wife who has to cope with his frequent absences and dangerous experiences. Henry DeTamble mostly travels to places related to his own history, places with which he is familiar like the library where he works.
For my next link I’m continuing on the theme of libraries.
The Librarian by Salley Vickers was not a great hit with me. It was chosen for the book club to which I belong. It concerns a new children’s librarian who arrives in a small town, determined to improve the lives of local children by giving them the right books. Then she begins an affair with a married doctor, much to the outrage of the town’s inhabitants (the book is set in the 1950s so reflects the moral indignation of the times)
But this book failed to live up to the promise of its blurb. I gave up around page 80 because I couldn’t take any more of the trite nature of the narrative.
Much more enjoyable was another novel set in the 1950s about a librarian who has just been appointed to a new post.
Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch
Book number five in my chain is set in the city of Hull, a place of Teddy Boys, trolley buses, travelling salesmen, fish and chips and spartan rented rooms. Into this bleak, mundane world steps Arthur Merryweather, newly recruited as head librarian at the city’s university.
Part mystery, part love story, Larkinland is a novel loosely based on a period in the life of the poet Philip Larkin. Larkin moved to Hull in 1955 as Librarian at the University of Hull (a post he held until his death). He disliked the place intensely, describing it as “a dump” whose sole redeeming feature was that it was flat, so making it good for cycling.
I can’t leave this chain without turning to the words of the poet himself.
High Windows was Philip Larkin’s final full poetry collection. Published in 1974 it contains two of his most famous poems: The Whitsun Weddings and An Arundel Tomb. As a special treat, click here to experience Larkin reading the latter poem.
Larkin’s poems provide solace for the soul, particularly in these times of turbulence and uncertainty. So I shall end on his most often quoted (often misunderstood) line.
What will survive of us is love.
This month’s chain has taken us from the inhumanity of life in East Germany, to a poem that for many people speaks of hope. It’s always surprising where these 6 Degrees chains take us.
This month we begin with Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar a novel I know little about except that the island in question is being destroyed by rising rising sea levels.
I’m picking up that eco theme for my first book. We’re heading south in search of warmer climes. Our destination is the Caribbean. In Archipelago by Monique Roffey, a father and daughter flee their home on the island of Trinidad when heavy rains are forecast. They are still scarred by the family tragedy that occurred only a year earlier when a torrent of muddy water destroyed their home. As they sail via archipelegos along the Venezuelan and Colombian coast towards the Galapagos Islands, they see the damaging effect of tourism on fragile natural environments.
My next link is to another novel which reflects on the issues of climate change. Riverflow by Alison Layland takes us to a small riverside community that rises up in protest at the threat their fields and woods will be destroyed by a fracking operation. Tensions mount as the rain beats down relentlessly and the river rises to an ominously high level.
Floods have sadly become a very topical issue here in Wales in recent weeks. Storm Dennis brought chaos when river levels rose to unprecedented levels, leaving thousands of homes and businesses under water. Environmentalist experts have warned we can expect these “once in a generation” events to happen more frequently as the climate warms up.
For days local newspapers, television and radio stations talked about little else other than the floods. But that topic has now been pushed down the news agenda by the prospect of a Coronovirus pandemic.
Which gives me my third link.
In Station 11 by Emily St John Mandel, the world is gripped by a flu pandemic so virulent its victims die within 48 hours. In a few short weeks Georgia Flu sweeps across the globe and claims the lives of 99.99 per cent of the world’s population. The few survivors must learn to live without power, mechanised transport or antibiotics. (talk of antibacterial hand washes, toilet paper and Happy Birthday to You on repeat cycle are long past).
I wish I could offer you something less depressing but it doesn’t get any better because my next book gives us something else to worry about: nuclear war.
The Last by Hanna Jameson opens shortly after a nuclear war destroys much of the Western world. Twenty guests at a hotel deep in the Swiss countryside learn the truth in text messages sent hurriedly by their loved ones in the destroyed cities. Cut off from the outside world and fearful whether help will arrive, when they discover the body of a young girl they are confronted with another fear: that one of them is a killer.
The Last is a locked room/dystopian fiction mash up. Unfortunately the mix of genres doesn’t work that well. The mystery of who killed the girl fizzles out and the dystopian element lacks true menace. The guests seem more concerned about food supplies than they are about the risk of radiation spreading to their part of the world.
Nevil Shute did a far better job of conveying the imminent threat of radiation fallout. On the Beach details the experiences of a mixed group of people in Australia, one of the few habitable places left on earth after a nuclear war.
As monitoring reports indicate the steady southward progression of the deadly radiation, the Australian government provides citizens with free suicide pills and injections so they can avoid prolonged suffering. They also despatch a submarine to track down the source of a mysterious and incomprehensible radio signal originating from Seattle, Washington.
Early editions of the book includes the most famous lines from T S Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men:
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Whether the future comes via a bang or a whimper, unless you’re a climate change denier, you’ll know the signs are not good. Fires; floods; melting ice caps; threatened species give us a general idea of the problems we face..
But the author of my final book in this chain argues that we don’t know the half of it yet. The situation is “worse, much worse, than you think.” says David Wallace-Wells, in The Uninhabitable Earth. In short chapters he covers the brutal reality of problems like “Dying Oceans”; “Unbreathable Air” and “Plagues of Warming”. He deliberately sets out to shock – and he succeeded. Though short, it’s an intense read. By the time I got to the end I was in a panic.
And on that sobering note I think it’s time I brought this chain to an end. We started on one small island but ended up thinking about the future of the whole planet. I’ll try to be more up beat in next month’s Six Degrees chain.