Category Archives: Six Degrees of Separation
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.
It’s time for #6degrees once more. Let’s hope I’m more successful this month than I was in January when I couldn’t get beyond book number 3 in the chain.
Guess what – yet again I’ve not read, nor even heard of the book with which we’re meant to be starting this month’s chain.
It’s Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner.
When I saw the title initially my brain scrambled it with the Flashman series from the 1960s. So I started thinking of books featuring other rakes and rogues. I got halfway through the chain before I realised the mistake…..
Let’s start again shall we.
Taffy Brodesser-Ankner’s name happens to connect nicely to my home country. “Taffy’ is a ‘friendly’ generic description of a person from Wales (a bit like calling New Zealanders “kiwis”.) No-one really knows how the term Taffy came about – it might have been a mangling of the common Welsh name Dafydd but it could equally have originated with people who lived near the river Taff.
Whatever the origin it means I get the chance to promote an author from Wales.
I can’t do better than choose The Cove by Cynan Jones, not only because this is a superb novella but Cynan is a very Welsh first name (it’s the Welsh word for chief in case you’re interested). The Cove features a kayaker badly injured by lightening, clinging to the hope he can get back to safety and the woman he loves.
The watery setting links me very nicely to Life of Pi by Yann Martel. It’s a strange tale about a young boy called Pi who is adrift in a lifeboat in the middle of an ocean. Though he’s the sole human survivor of a shipwreck, he is sharing the lifeboat with a hyena and a male Bengal tiger.
The novel ends on a note of mystery because Pi gives two versions of how he managed to survive. It’s up the reader to decide which to believe.
As an arch deceiver, Pi could go head to head with the protagonist in my next linked book: Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle . Mary Katherine Blackwood (known as Merricat) is rather a minx, leading us a merry dance with her clues about how the members of her family ended up poisoned by arsenic. In true Gothic tradition this is a novel that takes place in a rambling ruin of a house.
Bly Manor, the setting for Henry James’ The Turn of The Screw isn’t a ruin but just like the Castle, it’s a place of mystery. Shortly after a young governess arrives at the isolated country manor house, she begins to suspect that the two children in her care are tormented by ghosts. Or are they? We have only her word for it since no-one else in the house sees these figures and the one person to whom she confides her suspicions is highly sceptical.
The first readers of this short story viewed it purely as a spooky story but new interpretations began emerging in the 1930s. The question now is whether James wrote not a simple, but effective ghost story, but a far more complex and disturbing psychological tale of delusion and insanity.
Let’s stick with governesses who are misunderstood.
Is Jane Eyre a heart-warming novel of a poor governess who overcomes challenges and obstacles but finally finds happiness in the arms of Mr Rochester? Or is she the alter ego of mad Bertha, his first wife whom he locks up in the attic? Is Jane Eyre a sorry figure upon whom other people like to trample? Or is she, as feminist critics maintain, a champion for the rights of women to have a life of their own choosing?
Now I could take the easy path here and link to the author of a twentieth century landmark work of literary criticism. But as much as I appreciate Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, she was standing on the shoulders of another giant.
So let’s make the final link in my chain a much older yet still ground- breaking work of feminist literature.
Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in part as a reaction to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution, published in late 1790 which argued that religious and civil liberties were part of a man’s birth right.
Wollstonecraft went one step further, and, argued for women’s rights to be on the same footing as men’s. Her work was discredited when, after her death, details emerged of her unorthodox lifestyle.
And so we’ve come to the end of the chain. I didn’t realise when I chose Wollstonecraft that there was any connection to Fleishman Is In Trouble. But now I see that it’s been called “a powerful feminist book”. The circle is complete…..
I don’t think we can really call this a book; a ‘fragment’ would be a more appropriate description because when Jane Austen laid her draft aside due to ill health (she died four weeks later) she had written only 12 chapters. In 23,500 words she really had space barely to set the scene and introduce the characters.
How the plot would have developed we simply don’t know which is a shame because Sanditon is the first Austen work set entirely at the seaside. The change of location gives her the opportunity to expose a heroine to a completely unfamiliar environment and experiences. The book actually ends as the heroine is about to experience sea bathing for the first time.
The seaside location triggered a memory of another novel where the main character takes to the waters.
For my first link I’m choosing The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. In this Booker winning novel we meet Charles Arrowby, an esteemed London theatre director who has recently retired to a seaside cottage in the south of England. There he goes swimming in a nearby cove each day, contending with tricky steps and dangerously rough waves.
By contrast the sea in my next book is not a form of exercise but a means of escape.
From A Low And Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan opens with a doctor’s family of Syrian refugees who take to the sea to scape the fundamentalists in their country. They put their lives in the hands of human smugglers. Catastrophe ensues. The father eventually washes up in Ireland.
It’s a brilliant novel using a situation that will be painfully familiar to anyone who followed the recent atrocious case of the Vietnamese people found dead in a container lorry in England. Ryan’s novel reminds how, throughout history, people have left their homelands in the hope of finding a brighter future in a foreign land.
There are many novels that use emigration and travel as a theme. But I thought I’d choose another Irish author for my next book.
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín won the Costa Novel Award in 2009 and went on to become an award winning film. It takes a young unmarried girl who, unable to find work in her home town, is persuaded to leave Ireland for New York where she has been promised, wonderful opportunities await her. America is a culture shock and there is the heartbreak of knowing she may never see her sister or mother again.
Tóibín chose the suburb of Brooklyn as the new home of his protagonist. In the 1950s it was a neighbourhood with a strong Irish and Italian population.
Though overcrowded Brooklyn was relatively settled and safe, especially when compared to another New York neighbourhood, also densely populated by immigrants, in which my next book is located.
In the early 1900s the Bowery was a dangerous place to live. The Bowery Slugger by Leopold Borstinski shows a neighbourhood ruled over by gangs drawn from Italian, Irish and Jewish settlers. Violence and extortion was the name of the game. A young man could quickly rise to the top, but only if he was willing to use his fists or a knife.
One of the interesting themes in this book was the idea of dislocation. The Jewish settlers who come to live in the Bowery try to hold on to their language and traditions as a way of dealing with the strangeness of their new home.
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo picks up on this idea of dislocation, showing that life in the new ‘promised land’ doesn’t always turn out the way the settler expects.
Zimbabwe is a country on its knees in this novel. It ‘s government is inept and corrupt and its people reduced to selling trinkets and reliant upon foreign aid agencies for support. Hardly surprising they want to leave.
Look at them leaving in droves, the children of the land. Those with nothing are crossing borders. Those with strength are crossing borders. Those with ambitions are crossing borders. Moving, running, emigrating, going, deserting, walking, flying, fleeing — all to countries whose names they cannot pronounce.
Thirteen year old Darling is one that makes it out. She gets to Michigan and finds it strange and unwelcoming to incomers. She does make friends but they reject her because she also tries to retain her connection to her old home. They want her to be completely ‘American’.
What my final book in this chain shows is that no matter how strong the bond is to one’s homeland, it’s difficult to rewind the clock and return.
In Americanah, we encounter a young girl who attains her dream to escape Nigeria and secure a place at Princetown university in America. To fit in, she straightens her hair, hides her accent and adopts American slang. When she returns to Nigeria she’s called Americanah because of her blunt, American way of speaking and of addressing problems, a label she resists and resents. But if she’s not American then neither is she wholly Nigerian for her country has changed as much as she has.
On that note I’m bringing this chain to a close. We travelled a long way from the English coast to Ireland and Africa. There’s a connection between them that I never realised until the end. The sense of alienation I highlight in the last few choices, can apply equally to Sanditon, Wish I could claim that it was all by design but actually it was a complete fluke.
It’s time for another episode of Six Degrees of Separation, (#6degrees) a literary version of a word association game. The idea is to begin with one title and let your mind take you to six other books.
We begin with a classic that has never been out of print since it was first published in 1865. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (the pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) baffled critics initially because of its fantastical creatures, bizarre adventures and nonsensical riddles. But it’s since been the subject of numerous academic papers about the symbolism found in the novel.
One aspect often highlight has been the numerous references in the novel to mathematics (Carroll’s own field of study). Poor Alice finds herself completely out of proportion and gets completely muddled when she tries to perform multiplication.
Perhaps Alice needed to take some lessons from the Professor in my first book in the chain: Yuko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor.
This is a delightful book about a wise old academic who leads a younger mind to enlightenment. Due to a traumatic brain injury, a once great mathematician has only 80 minutes of short-term memory available to him before he forgets everything. When he introduces his housekeeper’s young son to the beauty of numbers, a bond of friendship begins between the three.
Charlotte Bronte chose a teacher as the protagonist of her first novel. The Professor was based on her experiences in Brussels, where she studied as a language student and was herself a teacher. Anyone reading this expecting to find a novel as full of drama and passion as Jane Eyre is going to be disappointed. It’s about rather more ordinary people and events – definitely no madwoman in the attic or jilted brides.
The Professor was rejected by most publishing houses it Britain, remaining unpublished until after her death.
Rejection is something the author of my third book knows only too well.
Yann Martel had a less than enthusiastic response when he approached the big London publishing houses with his second novel, Life of Pi. Maybe they thought this tale of a boy stranded on the Pacific Ocean with a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra and a Bengal tiger was too far out to be commercially successful.
They were wrong.
Martel eventually found a publisher in Canada willing to take a risk. The novel went on to sell more than 10 million copies worldwide and won the Man Booker Award in 2002. The film adaptation won four Academy Awards in 2013 and is now a highly successful play running in London’s West End.
Life of Pi deals with metaphysical and spiritual questions but it’s also an adventure story. If you prefer dry land for your adventure, my fourth book may be more to your taste.
The Call of the Wild by Jack London is a favourite of mine from childhood though it made me cry.
It’s set in Canada at the time of the Gold Rush when there was high demand for strong sled dogs. One of these, a St. Bernard and Shepherd dog cross by the name of Buck, is stolen from a very comfortable billet in California and sold into service as a sled dog in Alaska. There he is forced to fight in order to survive and to dominate the other dogs. He becomes progressively feral in the harsh environment, relying on instinct to emerge as a leader in the wild.
Buck would undoubtedly have enjoyed life considerably more if he’d been the lucky dog featured in my next book: Belle et Sébastien by Cécile Aubry.
Belle is a Great Pyrenean dog found by the six year Sébastien near his village in the French Alps. Sébastien was abandoned as a baby and spends his days in the mountains looking for his mother. Belle was treated badly by her owners but managed to escape into the mountains. The two become inseparable and go on many adventures together in a novel frequently described as “heart- warming.”
The author Cecile Aubrey turned to writing after a successful – though short – career as a film actress in the 1950s. She came to public attention in her home country on the strength of Pony, a television series for children and the film and tv version of Belle et Sébastien which became an international success when translated and broadcast by the BBC.
Her success was however modest when compared to that of another actor turned author, David Walliams. His children’s books have sold more than 25 million copies worldwide and been translated into 53 languages.
His debut novel, The Boy In The Dress, provides me with my final link since, by good fortune is protagonist is, like Sebastien, a child missing his mum.
Twelve-year-old Dennis lives with his dad and brother following the break-up of his parents’ marriage. He finds comfort remembering his mother’s yellow dress and pleasure in playing at dressing up with a friend.
And there I think it’s time to bring this chain to an end. We’ve travelled down a rabbit hole to Brussels, across the Pacific Ocean to the Alps and England to find friendship among tigers and dogs. Where would your six degree of separation take you? Play along by visiting the host Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best)
What connects a true story about women’s sex lives in the 21st century with a novel about friendship in Japan?
No that’s not a trick question.
It’s my feeble attempt to signal the latest episode of Six Degrees of Separation, a sort of literary version of a word association game.
This month we begin with Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, a book which has made it to the top of the New York Times best seller list. I’ve not read it or in fact even heard about it but apparently its an in-depth look at the sex drive of American women.
Women and sex. An easy choice for book number one in my chain.
In Women In Love , D H Lawrence focused on the loves and lives of two women: Gudrun Brangwen (a painter) and her schoolteacher sister Ursula.
Its high sexual content and the intensity of the relationship between these women and their lovers caused controversy when the book came out in 1920. One critic described it as “dirt in heaps—festering, putrid heaps which smell to high Heaven.”
Lawrence is one of those authors who has been in and out of favour. At the time of his death in 1930 he was viewed as a man who had wasted his talents on producing pornography. But he had huge fans in E M Forster and F R Leavis. It was heir view of Lawrence as a great imaginative talent that prevailed so much that in the 60s and 70s Lawrence was a stalwart of university reading lists.
But now? You barely hear his name and I doubt he’s required reading for any literature students.
The fickle world of literary criticism might have put paid to D H Lawrence but it was the making of Kate Chopin.
Her novella The Awakening was reviled when it was published in 1899 – “essentially vulgar” was one contemporary’s description. But the growth of modern feminist literary criticism since the 1960s brought a re-evaluation of Chopin’s work. The Awakening is now considered a landmark in feminist literature for its portrayal of a woman whose emotional and sexual awakening led her to walk out on her husband and children.
The protagonist of All Passion Spent, the book I’ve just finished reading, didn’t walk out on her husband but his death was the catalyst for her decision to forge a new path in life.
At 88 years old Lady Slane’s children think they know what’s best for her and how she should live out the rest of her life. But this is one woman who’s done suppressing her own desires while being the dutiful wife of a great man. Now its time for her to strike out on her own, finding new friendships and re-discovering one from her past. .
Lady S put me in mind of the widow in Elizabeth Taylor’s wonderful novel Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.
Mrs P is not as wealthy but she shares a similar distaste for spending her twilight years in her daughter’s home. The Claremont Hotel introduces her to a mixed bag of similarly displaced guests who have developed their own strategies for dealing with the loneliness of old age and its financial challenges.
Talking of hotels brings me to A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles which focuses on Count Alexander Rostov, a charming aristocrat who falls foul of the new Communist ruling party. They sentence him to imprisonment in a tiny attic room in Moscow’s swanky Hotel Metropol.
Not an easy feat to fashion an engaging tale from a character whose is limited to the walls of the hotel. But Towles gets around the problem by having the world come to the Count. The result is a novel rich in atmosphere and human drama that celebrates dignity, loyalty and friendship.
Friendship is central to the plot of my final book in this month’s chain: Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto. The setting is not as grand as the Hotel Metropole however because it takes place in a small seaside inn in Japan. Two girls who were once close friends reunite at the inn for one last summer before the place is closed. Like most of the Japanese novels I’ve read this was beautifully atmospheric.
And there I think it’s time to bring this chain to an end. We’ve travelled from America to England, from Russia to Japan. Touched on sex, old age, feminism and friendship. Where would your six degree of separation take you? Play along by visiting the host Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best)
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation (hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best) begins with Murmur by Will Eaves; a book I haven’t read. Some quick research revealed that this novel delves into the consciousness of the mathematician and and cryptologist Alan Turing during the period when he was undergoing chemical castration as punishment for gross indecency.
Turing’s pioneering work on artificial intelligence enabled the German naval code (Enigma) to be broken during World War 2, shortening the war by as much as two years and saving countless lives.
Artificial intelligence, its promises and dangers, were explored in 2001: A SpaceOdyssey by the British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. On a mission to Saturn the on-board computer HAL 9000 is meant to maintain the space craft and protect the astronauts but it begins to develop a will of its own. Clarke’s novel highlights problems that can crop up when man builds machines, the inner workings of which he does not fully comprehend and therefore cannot fully control.
The word odyssey has come to mean any epic journey. In Swahili such a journey is known as a safari. And that links me nicely to Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux. It’s an account of a journey taken when he was pushing 60, from Egypt to South Africa, taking in Uganda and Malawi, countries where he had lived and worked in his youth. What he finds are countries that are falling apart through war, famine, Aids, political chaos. He seems most incensed by the convoys of aid workers he encounters. In his eyes they’re ineffective because they’re foreigners who don’t engage with local people who actually know the country and the cultures they are seeking to help.
Paul Theroux had a famous falling out with his friend, the Nobel Laureate V S Naipaul, who also drew upon his experience of Africa in his own writing. A Bend in the River published in 1979 tells the story of Salim, a small shopkeeper who buys a business in a town at “a bend in the river” in an unnamed African country. Though highly praised and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it was also criticised for a perceived defence of European colonialism in Africa.
It’s to a river in one of those colony-ruling countries that our journey now heads.
Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River is set at an ancient inn on the Thames. On a dark midwinter’s night the regulars are engaged in their favourite entertainment, telling stories. The door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child. Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Or are there magical forces at work?
This is a novel that straddles the line between realism and the supernatural. Magical realism isn’t a genre I enjoy much which is why I struggled through Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.
In essence the novel is the life story of Saleem Sinai, a child born on the stroke of midnight, at the exact moment that the newly independent state of India comes into being. He and the 500 plus other children born at the same time, enter the world with unusual powers — in his case psychic and olfactory powers — that create a mystical bond between them.
The mention of children with remarkable powers takes me to the final novel in my chain.
In Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, Lyra Belacqua is a young girl who inhabits a universe parallel to our own. Raised in the cloistered world of Jordan College, Oxford, she has an uncanny ability to see past, present, and future and the truth by using a golden compass or an alethiometer. The skill enables her to fulfil an ancient prophecy that she is “destined to bring about the end of destiny” and ensure the stability of the universes.
Maybe my imagination is working overtime but maybe there is a parallel between Turing and Lyra; two people destined to be saviours of mankind.
And there I think it’s time to bring this chain to an end otherwise the connections might become even more ridiculous.