Category Archives: Six Degrees of Separation

6 Degrees From The Road to The Arctic

We start this month’s Six Degrees Of Separation with a novel that’s a cult classic.  

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a disturbingly  dark post-apocalyptic novel in which a father and son walk alone through a landscape ravaged by a catastrophe. It’s a novel I read but didn’t enjoy at all – I found it repetitive and jerky. 

The unnamed duo were heading south on their journey but for my first link I’m heading in the opposite direction.

Richard Flanagan won the Booker Prize in 2014 with The Narrow Road To The Deep North. It’s one of my absolute favourite Booker winners 

The “road’ in the title is actually a railroad – the infamous Thailand-Burma Death Railway of World War 2. The novel shows how the lives of the prisoners forced to work on the railroad and the Japanese soldiers who guard them, are impacted long after the end of the war. In the novel Flanagan  asks questions about reconciliation and atonement. 

The experience of Japanese prisoners of war feature prominently in a Town Like Alice by Neville Shute. He was inspired to write the novel after meeting a woman who was part of a group of women and children captured by Japanese forces. In Shute’s version, the group is forced to march from camp to camp for two and a half years. 

After the war, Shute’s protagonist travels to Australia to track down a soldier who had stolen food and medicines for the women on their march. Eventually she finds him in the Queensland outback. 

An author very familiar with Australia’s isolated bush regions was Miles Franklin. It’s the setting for her first novel, My Brilliant Career, a coming of age tale of a headstrong girl in whom ambition blazes. Franklin gives her heroine Sybylla Melvyna belief that she is destined for a life more fulfilling than rearing cattle and sheep or being “shackled” in marriage. 

Sybylla reminds me so much of the eponymous character in  My Ántonia by Willa Cather. That too is set in a wild landscape (Nebraska) among farmers  and settlers who battle against nature to make a living. Appropriately for this month’s chain, it opens with a train journey during which two passengers reminisce about Antonia – a spirited girl they once knew. Cather’s novel celebrates the beauty of the Nebraskan plains yet it doesn’t sentimentalise the harshness of the climate. 

There is no hint of sentimentality either in my fifth novel, A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale. Set in the remote plains of Saskatchewan, Canada, Gale shows his central character, Harry Cane, arrive as a homesteader with barely an idea of what to expect. He’s never farmed, never done any manual work and in his first winter, has no shelter except a tent in which to ride out sub zero temperatures. 

Harry is an exile, escaping from a comfortable life in England to avoid discovery of a homosexual relationship that would, if made public,  have ruined him.  

Let’s continue with this idea of travel as a form of escape and pick a novel in which the character goes even further north to evade capture. 

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan sees a young slave boy travel take flight from a cotton plantation in 19th-century Barbados, ending up in the Arctic circle. He does travel by road and rail occasionally but the most remarkable journey in the novel is the one he takes by hot air balloon.  As a plot device that takes some beating! 

So that’s my #6Degrees; moving from a dystopian novel to stories set in harsh landscapes and ending with a journey to the end of the earth. We’ve travelled by foot, train and balloon (doesn’t quite have the same ring as planes, trains and automobiles but I tried my best)…

Next month we start with a book that it seems impossible to escape right now – Normal People by Sally Rooney.

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six others to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the titles on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

6 Degrees From Stasiland to Larkin

It’s time for Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. 

We start this month with Stasilandby Anna Funder, a book I’ve not heard of nor read but which I think I would enjoy. It’s a set of personal accounts about individuals who resisted the East German regime. Other accounts are from people who worked for its secret police, the Stasi.

From here I can make a very obvious link to a book I read last year: Stasi Child by David Young. It’s the first title in his crime series set in East Germany during the era of the Cold War. Young conveys the bleakness of life in East Germany where anyone can be “persuaded” into helping the Stasi by informing on their friends, neighbours and relatives.

Part of the plot of David Young’s novel involves the disappearance of children, a theme which links me to my next novel.

A Child In Time by Ian McEwan was one of the first books I read by this author. It was published in 1987 and concerns a couple whose three-year-old daughter was kidnapped. The book concerns itself with the aftermath of that event, from the point of view of the father, an author of children’s books. It also focuses on the idea of time as being relative, fluid and unstructured. For that reason it is sometimes considered to be a time travelling story.

The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Remember the fuss about this novel when it was published in 2003? It was one of those books that “everyone” seemed to be reading. It wasn’t one I enjoyed. I just couldn’t buy into the premise about time travel.

It’s a love story about a man with a genetic disorder that causes him to time travel unpredictably, and about his wife who has to cope with his frequent absences and dangerous experiences. Henry DeTamble mostly travels to places related to his own history, places with which he is familiar like the library where he works.

For my next link I’m continuing on the theme of libraries.

The Librarian by Salley Vickers was not a great hit with me. It was chosen for the book club to which I belong. It concerns a new children’s librarian who arrives in a small town, determined to improve the lives of local children by giving them the right books. Then she begins an affair with a married doctor, much to the outrage of the town’s inhabitants (the book is set in the 1950s so reflects the moral indignation of the times)

But this book failed to live up to the promise of its blurb. I gave up around page 80 because I couldn’t take any more of the trite nature of the narrative.

Much more enjoyable was another novel set in the 1950s about a librarian who has just been appointed to a new post.

Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch

Book number five in my chain is set in the city of Hull, a place of Teddy Boys, trolley buses, travelling salesmen, fish and chips and spartan rented rooms. Into this bleak, mundane world steps Arthur Merryweather, newly recruited as head librarian at the city’s university.

Part mystery, part love story, Larkinland is a novel loosely based on a period in the life of the poet Philip Larkin. Larkin moved to Hull in 1955 as Librarian at the University of Hull (a post he held until his death). He disliked the place intensely, describing it as “a dump” whose sole redeeming feature was that it was flat, so making it good for cycling.

I can’t leave this chain without turning to the words of the poet himself.

High Windows was Philip Larkin’s final full poetry collection. Published in 1974 it contains two of his most famous poems: The Whitsun Weddings and An Arundel Tomb. As a special treat, click here to experience Larkin reading the latter poem.

Larkin’s poems provide solace for the soul, particularly in these times of turbulence and uncertainty. So I shall end on his most often quoted (often misunderstood) line.

What will survive of us is love.

This month’s chain has taken us from the inhumanity of life in East Germany, to a poem that for many people speaks of hope. It’s always surprising where these 6 Degrees chains take us.

6 Degrees From Wolfe Island to Climate Change

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.

6 Degrees From Fleishman to Women’s Rights

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…..

From English seaside to Nigerian city: 6 Degrees of Separation

Sanditon by Jane Austen is the starting point for this month’s episode of Six Degrees of Separaton, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best.

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.

Jane Austen

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.

Irish Murdoch

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.

Donal Ryan

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.

Colm Toibin
One the Booker judges overlooked?

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.

Leopold Borstinski

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

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’.

Americanah
Robbed of the Booker Prize?

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.

Six Degrees from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland

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.

Original illustration (1865) by John Tenniel  in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. Source Wikipedia, Public Domain

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.

Yoko Ogawa

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.

Cover of the first edition, source Wikipedia under Creative Commons Licence

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) 

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