Category Archives: Six Degrees of Separation
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.
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.