Category Archives: Six Degrees of Separation
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.
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation kicks off with Jane Harper’s The Dry which I haven’t yet read but has come highly recommended by a friend who knows more about Australian authors than I do. It’s a crime thriller set in a parched Australian farming community.
The Australian outback was the stamping ground of the legendary Ned Kelly. Whether you view him as a working class hero or an out and out villain, his exploits have proved to be rich material for writers. Peter Carey, another Australian, won the Man Booker Prize with his True History of the Kelly Gang, an is an imaginative reconstruction of Kelly’s life story in his own words. It’s quite a remarkable novel of a man who was in trouble with the law from the age of thirteen, descending from petty crime to robbery and murder. Kelly met his death in 1880 in a shootout despite having fashioned himself a protective iron helmet.
Frank Baum went considerably further than just an iron helmet – he fashioned a character created entirely from metal. The TinMan appeared first in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz but made several appearances in many of the subsequent books in the Oz series. Apparently there was a trend in late nineteenth-century America for advertising and political cartoons to feature male figures made out of various tin pieces. Baum, who was editing a magazine on decorating shop windows when he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was reportedly inspired to invent his Tin Man character after he made a similar figure for a shop display.
Baum’s novel was an immediate success but gained even greater popularity once it was made into a film in 1939. I’ll hazard a guess that a large proportion of the millions of people who have watched this film, have no knowledge of the book upon it was based. Still less that this novel, described by the Library of Congress as “America’s greatest and best-loved homegrown fairytale” has been interpreted as an allegory or metaphor for the political, economic, and social events of America in the 1890s. One historian theorised that the Tin Man represented the industrial workers, especially those in the steel industry. Others have claimed the cyclone which sweeps Dorothy to Oz was a metaphor for a political revolution that would transform the drab America into a land of colour and unlimited prosperity.
Since we’re talking political allegory the obvious choice for my next link would be George Orwell’s Animal Farm. But that’s a bit too obvious. I’m going to play instead with the idea that Baum was writing what’s loosely termed a “state of the nation” novel.
Authors have long used the literary form to examine contemporary society so I’m spoiled for choice. I’m plumping for a novel that was very much a product of the Thatcher years in the UK.
Capital by John Lanchester takes into the heart of London in 2008. It’s a city of conspicuous consumption and financial whizz-kids with million pound bonuses in their sights. But behind the gleaming office buildings lies an underbelly of political refugees and embryonic terrorists. In the eyes of the narrator “Britain had become a country of winners and losers.”
Lanchester was not alone in taking a pop at the money men. Anthony Trollope covered similar ground in The Way We Live Now which was inspired by the financial scandals of the early 1870s. Trollope, who had been living in Australia for 18 months, had returned to London in 1872, to find a society (as he saw it) mired in corruption. He satirised this society in the shape of Augustus Melmotte, a “horrid, big, rich scoundrel… a bloated swindler… a vile city ruffian”. His arrogance, ruthlessness and depth of corruption are traits we’ve sadly witnessed too many times in the decades since Trollope’s time.
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien is a reminder that these corrupt leaders don’t always get away with their actions; occasionally they are called to account. O’Brien’s novel takes its title from a tableau of 11,000 empty chairs created in Sarajevo to commemorate victims of the siege by Bosnian Serbs in early 1990s. Her main character – a fugitive war criminal discovered hiding in a backwater village on the west coast of Ireland – is modelled on the real life war crime fugitive Radovan Karadzic.
Just like the people of Sarajevo, the people of Gaza know what it’s like to live in constant fear of attack. The Book of Gaza is a collection of stories by writers from the territory and published by Comma Press. Reading this anthology you can’t help but admire the resilience shown by the people who inhabit a piece of land 26 miles long and 3 miles wide that has been the subject of hostilities for decades.
And so we reach the end of another round of Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we’ve travelled from a drought-stricken small Australian town to a besieged nation on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. As always all the books I mention are ones I have read, though not necessarily reviewed. Creating these chains can be challenging some months but the fun lies in seeing unexpected paths they take, and discovering how other bloggers have gone down vastly different routes. You can follow these on Twitter by searching for the hashtag #6Degrees, or checking out the links at Kate’s blog.
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation begins with a book that has divided opinion ever since it was published in 2014.
How to Be Both by Ali Smith contains two stories. One story features the Italian renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa, a real-life figure who produced a series of frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy. The other story, relates to a teenage girl called George whose mother has just died and who is left struggling to make sense of her death with her younger brother and her emotionally disconnected father.
The book was published in such a way that readers might either begin with Francesco or with George. My copy opened with the Italian artist and I was immediately captivated. (see my review here ). But I know quite a number of bloggers whose opinion I value didn’t rate the book at all.
How to Be Both was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize but the prize went instead to the Australian author Richard Flanagan with The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
This was such a superb book that I’ve struggled to write a review that would do it justice. It’s one of the few Booker prize winners that I want to re-read.
This is a novel set in the context of one of the most infamous episodes in World War 2: the construction of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway. At the heart of Flanagan’s novel is an Australian surgeon, Dorrigo Evans, who to his astonishment becomes something of a legend for his wartime courage at a Japanese POW camp on the Death Railway. The novel ends with an encounter between Evans and one of those captors.
A similar encounter takes place in The Railway Man by Eric Lomax.
This is an autobiography in which Lomax relates his experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II during which he was forced to work on construction of the help Thai-Burma Railway. The book won the NCR Book Award (until it closed in 1997 it was the major UK award for non-fiction) and became a film starring Colin Firth.
A later winner of the prize was another of my all-time favourites – Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang.
This is a family history spans more than a century of China’s history told through the lives of three female generations of Chang’s family. Chang’s mother was a member of Mao’s Red Army while Chang herself willingly joined Red Guards though she recoiled from some of their brutal actions.
As time progresses, life under Mao and his Cultural Revolution became more difficult and dangerous, causing immense suffering. Parts of the book are heart-wrenching as we learn of citizens rallying to a call for metal so it could be turned into weapons, giving up their cooking pots and pans to avoid being denounced by the regime.
My fourth book also recounts times of hardship for the peasants of China.
The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck (my review is here ) is a tale of the fluctuating fortunes of two families: the peasant farmer Wang Lung and his wife O-lan and the rich, wealthy House of Hwang headed by The Old Lord and the Old Mistress. His land is the essence of Lung’s being. When the harvests fail and his family have no more grain or rice to eat, they move to the city where they are reduced to living in a makeshift hut . But Lung always dreams of returning to his land.
The novel won Buck the Pulitzer Prize and was a key factor in her award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938 “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces.
That accolade of “biographical masterpiece” from the members of the Swedish Academy could equally apply to my next choice: Samuel Pepys – The Unequaled Self by Claire Tomalin.
Pepys’ story is an extraordinary one: his origins were humble (he was a tailor’s son) but he became one of the most wealthy and powerful government figures in England in the seventeenth century. He’s most famed of course for his diaries in which he described his daily domestic routine and gave us an account of landmark events such as the Great Fire of London.
Tomalin does a superb job of bringing the man to life, weaving extracts from his diary into details from contemporary letters and official court documents. I read this seven years ago and still remember some of the episodes she relates. (my review is here)
Pepys loved hearing gossip. He also loved to collect books. In his will, made shortly before his death in 1708, he bequeathed his vast library to Magdalene College, Oxford. It remains there to this day.
Not on the same scale as Pepys but the final book in my chain was written by another avid ‘collector’.
The author Susan Hill lives in an old and rambling farmhouse full of cosy fireside nooks and aged beams. It’s also full of bookcases overflowing with books. Howards End is on the Landing ( see my review here)recounts the year she decided to ‘repossess’ these books. For a year she read only those books already occupying a space in her shelves (or on the floor), foregoing the purchase of anything new.
Would that I were disciplined not to buy new books until I had read the old. But my experiment with restraint lasted only a few months.
Six Degrees of Separation #6Degrees is a monthly meme hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to begin with one book title, and then make a chain of six other books. I’ve made one rule for myself – all the books in the chains I create are ones I have read though not necessarily reviewed. I never cease to be astonished at the level of variety across all the bloggers who take part in this meme.
Another month when I have been wrestling to make any headway with #6Degrees. It never seems to get any easier!
This month’s starter book is Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist published in 2018, which I’ve not heard about let alone read. Some basic research tells me it’s about a horrendous episode of bush fires in Western Australia in 2009. They were among the country’s worst fires and caused the deaths of more than 100 people.
Four years earlier, a natural disaster caused the loss of some 1800 people in Florida and Louisiana. They were victims of Hurricane Katrina, the deadliest hurricane since 1928. Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink is an investigative account of how some of those people died – they were all patients at the Memorial Hospital in New Orleans. Suspicion fell on a few of the medical staff who were accused of unlawfully hastening the deaths of some of those patients.
In Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux, it is to avoid catastrophe that Allie Fox takes link his family away from their comfortable home in Massachusetts to a new settlement in Honduras. He has become increasingly critical of American consumerism, education and culture and is convinced that a world war is imminent,
While in Honduras he builds a huge ice-making machine called ‘Fat Boy’ powered by hydrogen and ammonia, and transports the ice it produces farther up the river to isolated tribesmen, only to find to his disgust that missionaries have already reached them and ‘corrupted’ them to the ways of the West.
Barbara Kingsolver’s best selling novel The Poisonwood Bible features one of those missionary families: the Prices of Georgia. They move to the Belgian Congo where each of the four daughters develop differently as they adapt to African village life and the political turmoil that overtakes the Belgian Congo in the 1960s.
The setting of the Congo gives me the link to my next book: Joseph Conrad’s best known novella: The Heart of Darkness. It’s a tale within a tale of a steamboat journey to trading posts alongside the Congo river and one man’s obsession with an ivory trader called Kurtz whose methods and interactions with native inhabitants are morally ambiguous.
Heart of Darkness raises questions about imperialism and racism and sees little difference between so-called civilised people and those described as savages. Similar questions appear in the next book in my chain: R. L Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Although this was essentially an adventure story written for young boys, it poses some interesting questions about moral integrity. Some of the characters who are meant to be upstanding figures of authority – the Squire and the Doctor – are shown to be just as avaricious as the recognisably evil pirates.
It’s a good reminder that fiction written for an audience of young readers can seem simple but is often quite complex when examined more closely. Which takes me to the next and final book in my chain this month. Well actually its just the first book in a very large series.
You might just have heard of Harry Potter…. J K Rowling’s tales of a boy wizard are considered to have done more to encourage young people (especially boys) to read than any number worthy government inspired initiatives. They can be viewed as little more than a spiced up version of the tried and tested boarding school yarn, albeit with a bit of magic sprinkled about. But look more closely and you’ll find a lot more going on: questions about loyalty, dishonesty and the nature of true friendship, for example. Of course, being aimed at children, the presiding morality is that evil (in the form of Voldemort) must be destroyed whatever the cost and good must triumph. The question however is whether the way evil is destroyed is appropriate. Does Harry always come out of his encounters with Voldermort with his integrity intact?
And on that question I will bring the chain to an end. We’ve moved from a book about fire and a deliberate act of damage, to clashes between cultures and good and evil. I had no idea when I started this chain that I would end up talking about Harry Potter!
It’s time for another round of Six Degrees, a monthly meme hosted by Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is to begin with one book title, and then make a chain of six other books.
This month we begin with Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk which follows the experience of an unnamed man who joins an underground fighting club to help him deal with insomnia. Since I find boxing and bare knuckle fighting abhorrent, I’ve not read this book and have no intention of doing so in the future.
But let’s stick with sleep disorders and move onto a novel I have read.
The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens won the Booker Prize in 1970. She pulls back the curtains of a seemingly respectable Jewish family to show the misery of drug addiction. Infant prodigy; brilliant barrister; the apple of his parents’ eyes… Norman Zweck appeared destined for even greater things until at forty-one he becomes a drug addict, confined to his bedroom, at the mercy of his hallucinations and paranoia.
Though its more than seven years since I read this book I still recall some of the first scenes which described the hallucinations Norman experiences when he tries to sleep. The worst are shimmering silvery creatures that he sees crawling towards him from the skirting boards in his bedroom.
Bernice Rubens hailed from Cardiff, the capital city of Wales (thought I’d just slip in that patriotic bit of info). Though highly regarded in the seventies, she’s largely forgotten about now, much like the author of my third title: fellow Booker winning author Stanley Middleton.
Middleton wrote 44 novels before his death in 2009. You’ll have a hard job finding any of them in bookshops today which is a terrific shame.
Holiday, his Booker winner takes place largely in the head of Edwin Fisher, a university teacher in his mid-30s, who has taken a solitary holiday in an east-coast resort town after the collapse of his marriage. Like so many people in the early 1970s, he stays in a boarding house. If you want a glimpse of how the Brits used to holiday before the advent of the package tour to Spain, this would be a great book to read.
Mention of boarding houses takes me to Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch. This novel is a brilliant evocation of Hull in the period when the poet Phillip Larkin was head librarian for the university. Tulloch’s central character, Arthur Merryweather (a version of Larkin) arrives at the library to begin a new job, moving into digs run by Miss Glendenning, occupying a tiny room furnished with narrow bed, unshaded lamp and peeling wallpaper. Miss Glendenning believes firmly in “keeping up appearances”, running her establishment with strict rules about mealtimes though she seems blissfully unaware that some of her tenants are not all that fine and upstanding.
Miss Glendenning is typical of the predicament experienced by many middle class women in post war Britain, particularly those whose husbands had died in the conflict.
In book number four of my chain, Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, we encounter one such genteel household whose members are driven by necessity to let out rooms in their over-large house. Widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter Frances didn’t bargain on having to share their home with a working class couple. They find the Barbers rather gaudy and lacking in the finesse that they are accustomed to within their own circle of acquaintances. But Frances finds her life becoming dangerously entwined with that of the Barbers.
The Paying Guests is a novel about actions, taken in the spirit of friendship, that have far reaching consequences.
For my fifth book in the chain I’m moving forward a few years to the time of the Cold War, a period when your friend, neighbour, or partner, could turn out to be a spy. In Helen Dunmore’s Exposure, suspicion falls on the father of a rather ordinary middle class family, living in an ordinary terraced house. All he did was to help a friend, but now he is under arrest. To escape public attention and humiliation his wife Lily spirits the children to a small village on the English coast. But before she leaves, she buries a briefcase, believing that she is protecting her family. What she will learn is that no one is immune from betrayal or the devastating consequences of exposure.
Trains are a recurring theme in Exposure. The novel opens with a man taking a train to a home he’s never been in before, Lily, experiences fear every time she hears the whistle because it brings up a past that she has hidden while for her husband, the sound makes him think of escape.
Let’s stick with novels in which trains play a key role for the last link in my chain. I could easily have chosen Anna Karenina or Murder on the Orient Express, but I’m going with. Emile Zola’s La Bête Humaine. (The Human Beast). This contains a brilliant realisation of the world of railways and railwaymen, with a high octane scene involving a runaway train. But it’s also a novel which depicts uncontrollable passion, leading to murderous intentions, – a fitting way I thought to end a chain that began with passion, although one hopes that a bout in the boxing ring doesn’t result in death.
It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation – hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best – where each month, a book is selected as the start of a chain. The idea is to link it with six other books.
This month we begin with The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles which was published in 1969. I remember enjoying it though the details are a bit hazy. The film version with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons left a lasting impression, primarily because Streep got to wear this fantastic hooded cape that I yearned to own.
The novel relates the intense relationship between a former governess and an amateur naturalist. Sarah Woodruff, the Woman of the title, is also referred to as “Tragedy” and as “The French Lieutenant’s Whore”. She lives in the coastal town of Lyme Regis in Dorset as a disgraced woman, supposedly abandoned by an officer from a French ship. Much of the novel sees her standing on The Cobb, a stone jetty, staring out to sea.
The Cobb plays a key role in a novel from a much earlier period, Persuasion, the last novel fully completed by Jane Austen. It was published at the end of 1817, six months after her death. On a visit to Lyme Regis, one girl’s impetuous behaviour leads to a serious fall and concussion. It causes a change of attitude by a naval captain towards her sister Anne, the girl who he once wanted to marry but who rejected him.
All comes right in the end which is more than can be said for the unfortunate couple in my next book who play out their relationship just a little further along the same coastline. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007.
It’s an achingly sad novella about the young couple Edward and Florence, who arrive to spend their honeymoon at a hotel near the beach. Though this novel is set in the Sixties, they are both sexual innocents, very nervous about their first night together. The gulf that develops between them that night affects the rest of their lives.
Florence is a talented violinist, who dreams that one day, the quartet she has formed, will be esteemed talented enough to play at the prestigious Wigmore Hall in London.
The violinist in my next novel is already a success yet he is haunted by memories of the pianist he loved and left ten years earlier. An Equal Music by Vikram Seth sees the two lovers find each other once again but one of them has a secret that could mark the end of any hopes of a permanent reconciliation. Not surprisingly, this is a novel that is suffused with feelings of sadness and loss.
An Equal Music is about the desire to return to the past, to rekindle a former relationship. My next choice is also about the desire to return to the past but this time the desire to find the former lover represents a form of escape.
The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West recounts the return of Captain Chris Baldry, to his large country estate near London, from the trenches of the First World War. Suffering from shell shock, he doesn’t remember the death of his infant son, doesn’t recognise his wife nor his cousin, doesn’t even know that he is married. All he remembers is Margaret, with whom he had a summer romance 15 years earlier. All three women have to decide whether they should try to “cure” him and return him to the here and now.
My final book in this chain has not one but two connections to The Return of the Soldier (this instance of over-achievement is unlikely to be repeated so enjoy it while you can). Both were debut novels written by young women. Both disappeared from public view for decades but are now considered as modern classics.
My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (a pseudonym for her actual name of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin) was written in 1901 when she was 20 years old. It was intended as a tale set in the Australian outback, to amuse her friends but its popularity and criticism that it was more an autobiography than a novel , caused the author to withdraw the book from sale until after her death. Since 1966 it has never been out of print. The author left a permanent mark on the Australian literary scene with her endowment of the Miles Franklin prize.
And there we must bring this chain to an end. We’ve been to Dorset and the South East England and finally to Australia. Hope you enjoyed the journey. I’ve read all of the first six books mentioned and am currently reading My Brilliant Career.
It’s the last Six Degrees of the year hosted by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) and we begin with a book that for many readers is required reading at this time of the year: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It was my first experience of Dickens, introduced to him via an abridged version that nevertheless included some lovely line drawings.
Now the obvious path from here would be a link to another Christmas related novel but I’m going to take a different direction. My thread picks up on the word carol. Or rather, the word Carol as in the girl’s name.
Carol is the title of a 1952 novel about a lesbian relationship by Patricia Highsmith. Since you are all astute readers, you’ll see immediately that my sentence is wildly inaccurate.
Highsmith actually used a pseudonym of Claire Morgan because some of the characters and events in the story referred to her own life. And the book was originally called The Price of Salt but underwent a change of title to Carol when it was re-printed in 1990. This is the title used for the recent film version issued in 2005 and starring Cate Blanchett.
Carol is not the first — and highly unlikely to be the last — novel with more than one title. I’m almost spoiled for choice with my next book in this link. I’m settling for one that underwent an identity change as a result of a mix up between publishers.
Northern Lights is an award-winning young adult fantasy novel by Philip Pullman about an Arctic quest by Lyra Belacqua in search of her missing friend and her uncle who has been conducting experiments with a mysterious substance known as “Dust”. Pullman conceived this as the first part of a trilogy. During pre-publication the UK publishers used a working series title of The Golden Compasses — an allusion to God’s poetic delineation of the world. Across the Atlantic however, the US publishers Knopf had been calling the first book The Golden Compass (singular) mistakenly thinking this related to a device featured on the front cover that looked like a navigational compass.
By the time Pullman decided his preferred name for the trilogy would be His Dark Materials (rather than The Golden Compasses), Knopf had become very attached to their own title., They insisted on publishing the first book as The Golden Compass. This was adopted as the name for the 2007 film version with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.
The Golden Compass/Northern Lights has been controversial ever since its publication in 1995, primarily because it was considered to promote atheism and attack Christianity, in particular the Catholic church. Consequently the book frequently appears on lists of books that are banned from a number of public libraries and schools in the United States.
Another novel that has been fiercely denounced and also banned is Alice Walker’s epistolary novel about racism, sexism and poverty The Colour Purple. Objectors cited its graphic sexual content and also “troubling ideas” about race relations and religion in arguing for its removal from schools.
While The Color Purple does contain a lot of controversial content, none of this is gratuitous. The attitudes and behaviours portrayed by Alice Walker are ugly but they are nevertheless real. Even more worrying is that in some parts of the world, prejudice continues to exist and is all too prevalent.
Rachel Kushner’s 2018 novel The Mars Room is a reminder that prejudice takes several forms. In this novel, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, she shows how the legal and penal system in America works against people from the poorest groups in society. Unable to afford a decent lawyer, they have to rely on state appointed legal representatives who are often too over-worked and too underpaid to do more than a superficial review of their client’s case. Consequently people like the protagonist Romy Hall never get to tell their full story in court including any mitigating circumstances.
I seem to have stepped onto a soap box which may not be what you want to read. This is after all, meant to be the time of year when we display charity, forgiveness and goodwill to each and everyone (and yes that does include the person who just barged into the back of your heels with a pushchair, and the one who biffed you in the ribs with their overlarge backpack.)
So in that spirit I shall make my final book somewhat more uplifting. I don’t do feel-good books (I find them generally too cloying) but I’m sure I can find a book that is a tad bit more cheerful.
Yep, I have it – a good partner to A Christmas Carol in fact since this is book is also considered a classic. It’s another I read and enjoyed as a child though reading it as an adult a few years ago, was a vastly different experience.
I’m referring of course to Little Women by Louisa M Alcott which was published in 1863 and proved so popular it sold more than 13,000 copies within six weeks of its release. Against her own preference, Alcott was persuaded to write the sequel Good Wives. Though I still love the tomboy character of Jo March ( I suspect I was not alone in wanting to be just like her), the overall story was too didactic for my tastes now.
But it couldn’t be more appropriate for this last chain of the year since it begins with a very seasonal reference.
Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
And so we come full circle. We’ve come a long way on our journey, from the Arctic to the American deep south. Where has your chain taken you?
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, begins with Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, a satirical novel published in 19 monthly instalments in the mid 1840s.
Thackeray’s novel follows the life of Rebecca Sharp (“Becky”), a strong-willed, cunning, moneyless, young woman who is determined to make her way in society. She comes to a sticky end, unlike the protagonist of another work which deals with the issue of upward mobility and what it means to be a lady.
In Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, (adapted for screen as My Fair Lady) the flower-seller Eliza Dolittle is taught how to adopt the mannerisms and speech of a lady. She’s so successful she can pass herself off as a Duchess.
Someone who doesn’t need to be taught the right way to behave is Isabel Archer, the central character in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. This tale of a free-spirited young American woman who travels from New York to England to confront her destiny but finds it overwhelming. The novel has an ambiguous ending where we’re uncertain whether she returns to an unhappy marriage with her snobbish husband Osmond or opts for freedom.
Freedom is what Edna Pontellier in The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, desires. Being a wife and a mother are not enough but in the Louisiana community where she lives, there are few other choices she can make. The path she takes is one which has stimulated much debate since the novella was published in 1899 – the first reviewers castigated Chopin but feminist critics since have celebrated The Awakening as a landmark in feminist literature.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah also revolves around a woman’s desire for freedom. Like many of Nigeria’s educated middle class young people, Ifemelu cannot wait to get away from the country and its stultifying atmosphere. But the brighter future she anticipates as a student in America proves problematic as she contends with racism and racial distinctions. She feels truly free only when she stops trying to hide behind an assumed American accent and refuses to artificially straighten her hair.
For strength of character, there is no finer example than Maya Angelou. I Know How the Caged Bird Sings, is the first part of an autobiography in which she describes the challenges of her early years and the racial abuse and sexual abuse she experienced while growing up in the Southern States of America. She also shows how her love of literature helped her deal with her trauma and develop into a self possessed young woman capable of dealing with prejudice.
Sexual abuse figures large in my last book in this chain: Emma Donaghue’s The Room. This is a tale, told by five year old Jack whose entire life has been spent shut inside a 12-foot-square room he occupies with his “Ma”. She is the victim of an abduction and Jack the product of her rape. Despite her confinement “Ma” proves to be a stellar mother but she knows that they can survive only by one supreme act of courage and determination.
And with that this chain comes to an end. I didn’t plan it this way but somehow ended up with a theme about courage and tenacity in many forms.
It’s time for #6degrees which this month begins with a memoir: Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame by Mara Wilson.
The author’s name meant nothing to me but her publisher Penguin Random House informs me that she was a child actress who achieved “stardom” in Matilda and Mrs. Doubtfire. This is a book that I am unlikely ever to read since the acquisition (or loss) of celebrity status holds no interest for me.
The kind of memoir/autobiography that is much more to my taste is one I read earlier this year: Do No Harm by Henry Marsh. Marsh is a neurosurgeon with more than 30 years experience in dealing with one of the most complex systems in the human body. He regularly faces moral dilemmas. How much should he tell a patient’s family about their prognosis? Is it better to let a patient die gradually than put them through extensive surgery which might result in life changing side effects?
The title of Marsh’s book refers to a phrase erroneously believed to be part of the Hippocratic oath, a creed to which all physicians subscribe. The next book in my chain deals with a situation in which that code was allegedly violated by staff at a hospital in New Orleans.
The city’s Memorial Hospital was brought to its knees during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. For five days they battled against flood waters which knocked out its power supply making treatment and medical care nigh on impossible. Once the floodwaters receded, questions began to circulate about the number of patients who had died. Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink traces the circumstances which led to the prosecution of one doctor and two nurses alleged to have hastened the death of the most critical patients with lethal injections of morphine. It’s a book that raises many questions, not only of whether impossible standards of behaviour are expected of doctors but about the level of preparedness of hospitals and other vulnerable places to deal with natural disasters.
Let’s stay in New Orleans with my next book. This is much lighter reading material though ethical questions do play a key role in the plot. In The Pelican Brief by John Grisham a young law student suspects an oil tycoon whose plans to drill on Louisiana marshland populated by an endangered species of pelican, are about to be scrutinised by the Supreme Court, is behind the assassination of two of its judges. A complicated plot but the book moves along rapidly — it was perfect reading material for a long flight many years ago.
I’m very relieved that I no longer have to make those long flights for work. In the days before I set off I’d agonise over which books to take. I had three requirements. The book needed to be substantial enough in size that there was no risk I would finish it before touchdown. But it couldn’t be too fat because I didn’t want all that weight on my shoulder. Above all it had to be completely engrossing to keep my mind off the restricted cabin space.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky fitted that requirement perfectly. Like my earlier books in the chain this one deals with an ethical question: are there ever any circumstances under which it’s acceptable — permissable even — to commit a crime ? The central character of Raskolnikov, an impoverished student in Saint Petersburg, certainly thinks it’s OK provided the crime is undertaken by an “extraordinary person” . He kills two women to prove that he is himself one of these “supermen”. I got so wrapped up in the cat and mouse drama between Raskolnikov and the police officer who wants to bring him to justice, that I was disappointed when we landed and I had to put it aside.
My next book is a reminder that the quest for justice is one that requires the combined efforts of many specialists.
Professor Keith Simpson was a leader in forensic science in England throughout the 1960s and 70s. He pioneered the discipline of forensic dentistry and was prominent in alerting physicians and others to the reality of the battered baby syndrome.
As the first pathologist to be recognised by the Home Office his services were called upon in several high-profile cases including the alleged murder of a nanny by Lord Lucan, the 10 Rillington Place murderer John Christie and the Bloody Sunday shootings in Northern Ireland. In his memoir Forty Years of Murder he reviews many of those well-known cases and some more obscure ones. It’s fascinating reading though a bit gruesome at times — anyone of a squeamish nature might want to skip the photographs.
What Simpson’s memoir shows is how progress in medical science with its ability to closely scrutinise and question evidence, has been to the benefit of both criminals and their victims. It was a very different story in the 1860s which is the period in which my last book this month, was set.
His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet takes us to a remote Scottish community where a 17-year-old crofter is accused of multiple murders. A prison doctor, a criminologist and a phrenologist are brought in to give their opinions on the state of his mind, reaching the conclusion that he shared the same physical characteristics of murderers. Ergo he must be guilty. Although the case is fictional the idea that physical features could be used to detect criminal intent was still being relied upon more than 30 years later in a real life case that features in Kate Summerscale’s The Wicked Boy,
We seem to have moved a long way from the memoir of a film actress in this week’s chain. But that’s part of the enjoyment of doing the #6degrees.
Time for another Six Degrees of Separation. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and the idea is to link it to six other books to form a chain. The links can take any form: similarity of themes or setting; written by the same author or winners of the same prize. The basis of the link is really limited by nothing more than our imagination.
This month we begin with a favourite novel of mine, Atonement by Ian McEwan.
It’s set in a large country house in England between the two World Wars. Events are triggered by the actions of thirteen-year-old Briony who has a vivid imagination. Her accusation about an event she witnesses one hot summer evening has life-changing consequences for her elder sister and the boy with whom she is in love. For the rest of her life she regrets her actions.
I’ve read the book twice and seen the film multiple times and still can’t make up my mind whether Briony is a minx who deliberately misconstrues the event.
For another minx who likes to meddle in other people’s lives let’s turn to Emma by Jane Austen. Though many in her village think she is charming, Emma is a girl who has been indulged throughout her life and ends up thinking she knows best for herself and everyone around her. She loves nothing more than a little matchmaking, thinking she is doing this for the best of the parties concerned but ends up causing more harm than good.
In the league of schemers however Emma is small fry compared to the most wonderful character in the next book in my chain. Obadiah Slope in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers is a master manipulator, a man who hides his monstrous ambition for wealth and prestige under a cloak of piety.
Lest you think that devious behaviour and trickery are confined to England, the third book in my chain should convince you otherwise.
John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row gives us a lovable bunch of rogues, chief of whom is Mack. Steinbeck describes him as “the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment.
It’s Mack who comes up with a way to say thanks to their friend Doc, who has been good to them without asking for reward. The entire community quickly gets behind his idea of a thank-you party. Unfortunately things get out of hand and Doc’s home and his lab where he studies and collects sea creatures from the Californian coast are ruined.
The novel is shot through with nostalgia and sadness (there are three suicides) but also has its humorous moments. By far the funniest episode in the book is when Mack and the boys embark on an expedition to collect frogs for the Doc. Of course it all goes horribly wrong.
Collections of sea creatures reminds me of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I wasn’t all that enamoured by it but it was highly rated when it came out a few years ago . I seem to remember it was one that the then President Obama took on his summer holiday.
It’s the tale of a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths cross in occupied France during World War II. Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, take refuge from the war in St Malo. There the girl’s imagination is fired by the marine life described in her Braille edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and she becomes a collector and expert on molluscs.
Most of her collectables don’t sound edible although the principal character in my next chain, The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery, would probably disagree.
Pierre Arthens is the greatest food critic in France. He relishes dishes like “Pan roasted breast of Peking duck rubbed with berbère; grapefruit crumble à la Jamaïque with shallot confit … ”
Now before I turned vegetarian about a quarter of a century ago I was quite partial to duck. But I disliked the sweet sauces in which it was often served. Remember duck a l’orange or duck with blackberry sauce? I’ve no idea what you’d get if you ordered any menu item “à la Jamaïque” – even a Google search can’t provide an answer (it appears to be the title of a French musical). But I can’t begin to imagine that grapefruit and duck are meant to be companions.
But then I am decidedly not a gourmand. Nor would I want to be if it involves the kinds of concoctions beloved by the central character in my sixth and final book: Iris Murdoch’s Booker-prize winning novel The Sea, The Sea.
Charles Arrowby, retires to the country after highly successful career as a London stage director. In his tumbledown seaside cottage he swims, writes his memoirs and concocts some rather bizarre meals.
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 is essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London)
The kidney beans/tomatoes/celery/oil and lemon juice combination sounds interesting and I might even be tempted to try that one day. But what they are doing on the same plate as baked beans is completely beyond my comprehension.
All this talk of food is making me feel peckish. Time to wrap up the chain and head for the kitchen. The supermarket was completely out of edible molluscs on account of the fears about post-Brexit catastrophe amongs the bivalve community. So it will have to be beans on toast again. Oh wait a second, bread is in short supply because everyone is stocking up for the inevitable shortage in December.
Right well it’s just cup a soup then…..