Category Archives: Six Degrees of Separation
It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, a meme where a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.
This month’s chain begins with a book I have never heard of let alone read. It’s Like Water for Chocolate, a debut work by the Mexican author Laura Esquivel. Apparently the central character grows up to be a master chef, using cooking to express herself and sharing recipes with readers.
The obvious choice for chocolate lovers like myself would be to the best selling novel Chocolat by Joanne Harris. But I think for my first link I’ll use the location where chefs work rather than the ingredients they use.
In 1929, an aspiring author by the name of Eric Blair arrived in Paris. Whether out of necessity because he had his money stolen, or because he wanted to gather material for a book, he began working as a dishwasher in some of the city’s restaurants. The result was Down and Out in Paris and London, the first full-length work by an author better known as George Orwell.
Paris of course likes to think of itself as the gourmet capital of the world. The recently-published Michelin guide lists 10 restaurants in the city awarded the coveted 3 stars (remarkably however this achievement is outdone by Tokyo with twelve 3-star restaurants). Gourmet restaurants attract gourmands which gives me my next book in the chain.
The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery features Pierre Arthens, the greatest food critic in France. In the final two days of his life he wants to track down the most delicious food he has ever eaten. It’s a flavour he recalls from the years before he was critic though he is not exactly sure if it came from his childhood or his adolescent years. As he digs into his memory, he remembers all the dishes he has relished over the years, like this ” Pan roasted breast of Peking duck rubbed with berbère; grapefruit crumble à la Jamaïque with shallot confit … ”
Before I stopped eating meat I was quite partial to duck though I don’t find the combination of fowl and grapefruit very appealing. But then I’m not a gourmand.
All those descriptions of food do however remind me of another character who thinks he has a refined palette. So for my next link let’s leave France behind and move to the English coast to catch up with Charles Arrowby, the central character in Iris Murdoch’s Booker-prize winning novel The Sea, The Sea. Charles, who considers he has had a highly successful career as a London stage director, retires to a bit of a tumbledown seaside cottage to write his memoirs. In between writing and swimming, he prepares his own meals, some of which sound frankly bizarre.
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 i essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London)
I could manage the anchovy paste on toast quite easily but baked beans and kidney beans on the same plate would be a step too far. I’m beginning to think duck and grapefruit wouldn’t be so bad after all….
Charles thinks he is irresistable to women but the protagonist in the novel for my next link would certainly not be one happy to share his lunch table and it’s nothing to do with his after shave.
Marian McAlpin, the protagonist of The Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood, has a problem with food. Meat revolts her but so do eggs, carrots and even rice puddings. Soon she is existing on little other than salad leaves. Her revulsion with food is symbolic of her rejection of the kind of behaviour expected of her as a woman. On the eve of her marriage she struggles against the idea that her change of status will mean she can no longer be herself. Atwood’s first novel was considered a landmark when it was published in 1969 because of its themes about gender stereotyping and objectification of women.
Fast forward some forty years and we find in my next link another author using women’s relationship with food to tackle the same issue. The Vegetarian by Han Kang was one of the most extraordinary and disturbing books I’ve read in many years. Yeong-hye is a docile, obedient South Korean wife until the day she decides to stop eating meat. In the eyes of her husband and family this is an act of gross rebellion against their culture so they try to force her to eat. It doesn’t work. She stops eating all together in the belief she is a tree and hence needs sustenance only from the earth.
The starvation both Yeong-hye and Marian McAlpine experience is the product of mental disturbance but for the protagonist in my next, and final link, starvation is thrust upon her by a force over which she has no control.
White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen takes a real life event in his native Finland, a devastating famine in 1867 that resulted from a series of poor harvests. The food shortage co-incided with a particularly harsh winter. In desperation Marja, a peasant farmer’s wife from the north, abandons her dying husband and sets off on foot through waist-high snow with her two young children. They trudge from village to village, sometimes supported by strangers but just as often turned away and denied even a morsel of bread. It’s a bleak book, and not just because of the many descriptions of the barren, inhospitable landscape, but because of what it says about human nature when faced on the doorstep with suffering.
It’s a sombre note on which to end this chain …
Time for another Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest which requires participants to create a chain of books, linking one to the other in whatever leaps and connections our brains can devise.
Our starting book this month is Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay which is, once again, a novel I have never read. I’ve seen the film many times though — it’s one of those atmospheric productions, seemingly shot through a hazy heat filter and featuring fresh-faced students and a teacher from an Australian girls’ school who scramble about Hanging Rock wearing floaty white muslin dresses and black boots. They disappear without trace. Only one body is ever found.
A picnic followed by a tragedy reminds me of the opening scene of another novel adapted for film —Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love. It begins on a beautiful, cloudless day with a Joe and Clarissa about to begin a picnic. A cry interrupts them and they see a hot air balloon, with a young boy in the basket and an older man being dragged behind it. Attempts to avert a tragedy fail. The event threatens to wreck Joe’s life when he becomes the target of the obsessional attention of one of the other rescuers.
Obsession takes me to Steven King’s Misery where author Paul Sheldon is rescued from a car accident in a snowstorm by a woman who describes herself as ‘his number one fan’. As a former nurse Annie Wilkes has the skills required to mend his broken legs and get him back to health but her true nature is revealed when she discovers the contents of Sheldon’s latest novel. He begins to fear she is dangerously disturbed and to what lengths she will go to get her way.
Annie Wilkes could go a few rounds with another fictional nurse I reckon — Mildred Ratched in my fourth link, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. She rules over a ward in an American psychiatric hospital with an iron fist and steely eyes and it’s her battle for battle against a new patient, Randle McMurphy, that provides the plot of this novel. What Nurse Ratched wants is a ward full of docile patients who follow the rules and allow her to control their lives. McMurphy (who has faked insanity to avoid going to prison) is having none of this and its efforts to get the patients to stand up for themselves that sets him on course for a showdown with the medical establishment.
Writing convincingly about mental illness is tough. Kesey was able to draw on his experience of working as an orderly at a Californian mental health facility. In addition to speaking to patients he also personally experimented with some of the drugs they were given. The next book in my chain is also the product of a mental health worker: The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer. Filer trained and worked as a mental health nurse, then later became a mental health researcher at the University of Bristol. The central character of his novel is a 19-year-old schizophrenic who was sectioned because he couldn’t cope on his own in the community. With the aid of an old typewriter he tries to conduct his own therapy, bashing out his feelings of guilt about something that happened to his brother several years earlier.
Filer gained several awards in recognition of his role in raising awareness through literature to mental healthcare and how the public felt about mental health. His novel earned him the Costa award for first time novel in 2013 and was also named the Costa book of the year.
The following year another debut novel that featured a character with some mental issues won the Costa first novel award. Which brings me to book number five in my chain: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. This is a deeply moving book with an octogenarian narrator who cannot remember what she did a few moments ago or how many tins of peaches she has in her cupboard. Advancing dementia means she doesn’t even recognise her daughter sometimes. But one thing she holds fast to is her certain knowledge that something has happened to her friend Elizabeth and since no-one else will believe her it’s up to her, Maud, to find where Elizabeth has gone.
A female character of advancing age who few would think of as a force for justice. Now who better fits that description than one of the most enduring figures in crime fiction —step forward Miss Jane Marple whose shrewd intelligence and understanding of human nature enables her to solve difficult crimes. For my sixth and final book in the chain I could name any one of the 12 Agatha Christie novels featuring Miss Marple but the one that fits the link best is actually the last Miss Marple book to be written: Nemesis. In this novel, published in 1971, Miss Marple is asked by a dying millionaire to look into an unspecified crime which turns out to involves a missing girl and a millionaire’s son accused of her death. It requires our cardigan-wearing sleuth to take on the mantle of the Greek goddess of Nemesis, a figure who represents justice and he exposure of wrong-doing.
And in a sense that mystery of a missing schoolgirl brings us back to where we began the chain in Australia. I bet if Miss Marple had been called upon the mystery of hanging rock wouldn’t have remained a mystery for very long.
This week’s Top Ten topic (as hosted by Broke and Bookish) is “Ten Series I’ve Been Meaning To Start But Haven’t.” This could turn out to be a very short post in that case since I don’t tend to be a reader of series. Or at least I didn’t think I was until I took a look at my reading over the last few years and the list of books I own but have not yet read. It seems I am already part way through a few series. So let’s talk about those first.
Current Series Reading
The Rougon-Macquet cycle by Emile Zola: a sequence of 20 novels written by the French author between 1871 and 1893. Subtitled Histoire naturelle et sociale d’une famille sous le Second Empire (Natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire), the novels follow the lives of the members of two branches of a fictional family. Zola planned in this sequence to “study in a family the questions of blood and environments.” In other words, he wanted to advocate his theory of naturalism by demonstrating how people are heavily influenced by heredity and their environment. So far I’ve read four of the 20 and each one has been excellent. I have another title on my 20booksofsummerreadinglist which will get me quarter of the way through the collection. That’s fine, I’m in no hurry. If you don’t know Zola’s work and want to get more familiar with it, take a look at the superb readingzola blog created by Lisa and Dagny.
Chronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope: a sequence of six novels set in the fictitious English county of Barsetshire and its cathedral town of Barchester. The novels concern the political and social dealings of the clergy and the gentry but don’t imagine that means they are rather dull – the novels are full of power struggles, social class clashes, financial disasters and frustrated affairs of the heart. They also contain some of the most magnificently rendered characters I’ve come across in literature. I’m half way through the series – next up in my Anthony Trollope project is Framley Parsonage which was published in 1861 and features a young vicar whose aspirations to move up in the social circle make him vulnerable to the machinations of a Member of Parliament with a reputation for debt. More info about Trollope can be found at the Trollope Society website
Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny
We’re now at book twelve in a series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, Head of Homicide at the Sûreté du Québec. Louise Penny’s protagonist is a man of great integrity, a man who refuses to shirk from uncomfortable truths or to turn a blind eye when he senses corruption and wrong-doing even at the heart of the police force. But he’s also thoughtful, gentle and warm – not only to his wife and son in law but to the inhabitants of a small community in the province of Quebec called Three Pines that he discovers during the course of one of his investigations. Three Pines is a superb created fictional place; it’s so small it doesn’t even show up on maps, yet it is home to Gabri who runs the bistro, the acerbic poet Ruth, Myrna who owns the bookstore and the artist Clara Morrow. Each book that takes us back to Three Pines means we get a chance to meet up with these old friends. I’ve read six of the books published so far (a new title is due out this August) but I didn’t read them in sequence. Penny has said each novel is meant to be self-standing but to get the full effect of the character development they are indeed best read in order. So that’s what I’ve now started to do. You can find more about Louise Penny at her website
Series I may not finish
The Shardlake novels by C. J Sansom. I’ve enjoyed a few of this historical crime series which feature a laywer called Shardlake who takes on the role of the ‘detective’. Sansom is a historian by training which enables him to bring the Tudor period to life with all its political machinations, religious upheaval, sounds and smells (he does smells rather well). There are six in the series starting with Dissolution which was the first I read. I’ve read four now – the last one being number 5 in the series; Lamentation (reviewed here) – and though I’ve enjoyed them, the level of enthusiasm has begin to wane. If I wasn’t so close to finishing I probably would give up now, but it seems as Macbeth said
I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er. (Act 3, Scene 4)
Future Series to Read
Palliser Novels by Anthony Trollope: Once I finish the Chronicels of Barsestshire I’m planning to move onto the Palliser novels. This is a series of six novels written between 1864 and 1879 which feature a wealthy aristocrat and politician Plantagenet Palliser, and his wife, Lady Glencora (although they don’t play major roles in every title). The plots involve British and Irish politics in varying degrees, specifically in and around Parliament. There is a bit of a cross-over of characters with those in the Barchester Chronicles – Plantagent Palliser has a small role in The Small House at Allington for example and he has an unwise flirtation with the daughter of Dr Grantly and granddaughter of the Reverend Mr Harding, characters who appear in The Warden and Barchester Towers. The Victorian Web considers the Palliser novels to be superior to the Barchester Chronicles
Strangers and Brothers by C. P Snow: This series of 11 novels, published between 1940 and 1970, is one that has been on my radar screen for about 30 years. So keen was I to read them that I made my husband trek from bookshop to bookshop in Hay on Wye just so I could get all of them in the same Penguin livery. All the novels are narrated by a character called Lewis Eliot whose life we follow from humble beginnings in an English provincial town, through to a reasonably successful career as a London lawyer. In future years he becomes a Cambridge don, and sees wartime service in Whitehall as a senior civil servant. They deal with – among other things – questions of political and personal integrity, and the mechanics of exercising power. This series may not be familiar to you but you’ll possibly have heard the expression Corridors of Power – this is the title of book number nine but was referred to in an earlier title in the series. The term went on to become a household phrase referring to the centres of government and power. Its still in use today though the name of its originator has faded from the public’s mind. What constituted ‘required reading’ in earlier decades is barely heard about now. I’m just hoping that when I do start reading the series, that trek around Hay will prove to have been worth the effort.
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, begins with Shopgirl – a novella written by the comedian Steve Martin (who then turned it into a film). Since I’ve never heard of it, nor read it, nor have any interest in doing so, I’ve had to rely on an internet search to tell me its meant to be a love story.
Well of course the obvious link would be to the novella based on the film of that name, yes i’m talking about Love Story. The one written by Eric Segal that includes the immensely sugary line “love is never having to say you’re sorry’ and whose film version has Ali McGraw looking stunning even when she is dying (how insensitive of the producers to all the cancer patients who end up ravaged by disease). But yes, I confess I did read the book and watched the film. And yes I did cry. But I’m sure you’ll forgive my youthful folly…
So lets hop quickly to another death-bed scene which comes trailing clouds of sentimentality. For this I have to turn to the master of sentimentality himself, Mr Charles Dickens. Death crops up a lot in his novels – not surprising given the mortality rates experienced in the 19th century – and he seems often to wallow in those scenes. One that comes to mind for me is the death of Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son. His demise doesn’t come as any great shock – Dickens drops enough hints for us to know he is never going to fulfil his father’s dream of a son to inherit the Dombey trading empire. Paul’s deathbed scene comes with the kind of lush prose beloved of Dickens.
When the sunbeams struck into his room through the rustling blinds, and quivered on the opposite wall like golden water, he knew that evening was coming on, and that the sky was red and beautiful. As the reflection died away, and a gloom went creeping up the wall, he watched it deepen, deepen, deepen, into night. Then he thought how the long streets were dotted with lamps, and how the peaceful stars were shining overhead. His fancy had a strange tendency to wander to the river, which he knew was flowing through the great city; and now he thought how black it was, and how deep it would look, reflecting the hosts of stars — and more than all, how steadily it rolled away to meet the sea.
Dombey and Son is about commerce and the dehumanising effects of industrialisation on society. But the real force of the novel comes from the way he depicts the coming of the railways and how it transforms a nation. “There were railway hotels, office-houses, lodging-houses, boarding-houses; railway plans, maps, views … There was even railway time observed in clocks, as if the sun itself had given in.”
Dickens was a rail enthusiast but he also recognised its destructive power. An early chapter gives an unforgettable description of how railway construction is a kind of “earthquake” that destroys the old community of Camden Town in London. He turns it into a force that bursts with energy and ultimately into a monster that brings death to one of the characters.
One memorable scene has a train that seems out of control and it shriek, roars and rattles through the English countryside. It reminds me of Emile Zola’s novel La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast) which has a tremendously vivid and exciting scene involving a runaway train. Railways are central to the plot of this novel – the main character Jacques Lantier (the human beast of the title) is an engine driver who has a passionate affair with his cousin Flore. And as in Dombey and Son the train proves to be a means of death. You’ll just have to read the book if you want to know who dies. If you’ve not read it yet, I urge you to do so soon because this is a wonderfully taut psychological tale about madness and obsession and whether murderers are the result of nature:
As if one killed by calculation! A person kills only from an impulse that springs from his blood and sinews, from the vestiges of ancient struggles, from the need to live and the joy of being strong.
And therein I find the clue to my next link. I first read Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola long before I was introduced to his Rougon-Macquart series. It was riveting from the initial introduction to Thérèse herself as a young woman, unhappily married to her first cousin, Camille, a sickly and egocentric man. When the opportunity arises, Thérèse enters into a turbulent and sordidly passionate affair with one of Camille’s friends. But their clandestine meetings are not enough for the lovers – Camille must be despatched toute suite. And then their troubles really begin for the pair are haunted by their actions:
He knew that, from now on, every day would be alike, that they would all bring the same sufferings. And he saw the weeks, the months, the years that awaited him, gloomy and implacable, coming one after the other, falling on him and suffocating him bit by bit. When the future is without hope, the present takes on a vile, bitter taste.
I don’t know how Zola’s first readers could bear the suspense as they waited for the next installment of this story to appear in the journal L’Artiste. I know I could not put the novel down until I’d devoured every word.
Thérèse Raquin is of course a novel about retribution and guilt which gives me an easy transition to the fifth book in my chain: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The whole premise of this novel is that it explores the question of whether there are circumstances under which it’s acceptable to commit a crime ? Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished student living in St Petersburg, certainly thinks so. He believes he is one of the “extrordinary people” which means not only is he permitted to murder two women, but can do so without fear of consequence. The novel introduces us to the theory of ‘Superman’ propounded by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche but don’t let that put you off – you can easily read this as a psychological cat and mouse tale. My review is here.
And now we come to the sixth and final book in this chain. I could take an easy option and go for a link based on place via The Man in St Petersburg by Ken Follett, one of his early (and best) novels. But I rather think I’ll stick with the classics and head back to France to a protagonist whose actions, like those of Raskolnikov, have caught up with her. Poor Emma Bovary. All she only wanted in life was to be surrounded by beautiful things and live an exciting life.
“At the bottom of her heart, however, she was waiting for something to happen. Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon. She did not know what this chance would be, what wind would bring it her, towards what shore it would drive her, if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, laden with anguish or full of bliss to the portholes. But each morning, as she awoke, she hoped it would come that day; she listened to every sound, sprang up with a start, wondered that it did not come; then at sunset, always more saddened, she longed for the morrow.”
But poor Emma is married to a very dull provincial doctor. In search of excitement she begins borrowing money to satisfy her fancy for luxury goods and indulging in a few illicit affairs. When everything collapses about her she sees no way out other than suicide. Hers will be a beautiful death she imagines as she lies on her bed having swallowed arsenic. But Gustav Flaubert shows how, as with so much of her life, Emma suffers from dillusions.
I know we are meant to be critical of Emma, particularly for the way she abandons her daughter, but I also feel very sorry for her. Instead of marrying a doctor she might have had more fun in her life if she’d become a shop assistant. I can imagine her in her element behind the counter of some department store discussing the niceties of leather and lace gloves with society ladies. But then it would have been a very different book and more akin to the version with which this chain started.
#6Degrees of separation, hosted by Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best starts this month with The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. I’ve not read this book though it gained so much publicity when it was published that only sequestration in a remote mountain retreat sans phone, tv, newspapers, would have prevented me getting to know about it. This was a controversial book that puts liberal, middle class attitudes towards child control under scrutiny, via an opening chapter in which an adult slaps another person’s kid who is misbehaving at a Melbourne barbecue. We’re talking here about consequences.
Which leads me seamlessly into another book in which one action, one mistake, has long term repercussions: Atonement by Ian McEwan. The mistake is made by Robbie, the son of housekeeper at a posh country house. He’s passionately in love with Cecilia , the eldest daughter of the household though she’s well above his station in life. He writes her a letter expressing his feelings. He asks Cecilia’s impressionable younger sister Briony to deliver this missive. But he gives her the wrong version, the one that is sexually explicit. Briony opens it and completely misunderstands what she reads. Before the night is over two children have gone missing, a young girl is raped, class prejudices come to light, Robbie is in custody and his relationship with Cecilia seems doomed. I say doomed because this is a novel which ends with a twist … if you want to know what that is, you’ll just have to read the book.
The tempestuous relationship shown in Atonement reminds me of another remarkable novel which deals with class divisions: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. There are other parallels between these two novels: both include a pivotal, emotionally charged scene at a huge fountain in the grounds of a country mansion and both see one of the principal characters go off to fight for their country in a global conflict.
From here it’s but a short step to another novel where an illicit, highly charged relationship is set against the background of war. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks takes us to the theatre of conflict in France during World War 1 and the preparations for what will become the mass slaughter of the Somme. Part of this involves the digging of tunnels underneath no-man’s land and into the enemy’s own defences where the idea is to listen in to their plans. Who could be more suited for this work than coal miners from Wales who are experts at lying on their backs, in the dark, setting explosives and chipping away at the rockface?
Mention of Wales of course brings me back to my homeland. For my next link I could take the easy way out and choose one of the many novels set in the coal-mining area but I thought it would be more interesting to show rather less predictable facets of our Principality.
So let’s start with the fact much of Wales, was – and in many parts still is – prime farmland. Farming and the pull of the land feature heavily in On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin. The title might give you the impression this is about the ‘hills’ formed from the black waste of coal mining but in fact it refers to the Mynydd Ddu (translated to Black Mountains) range in Mid Wales, on the border between England and Wales. This is the location of an isolated upland farm called The Vision farmed by twin brothers Lewis and Benjamin Jones, between whom a special and very strong bond develops. They till the rough soil and sleep in the same bed well into their eighties, touched only occasionally by the advances of the twentieth century and the call for Benjamin to serve his country in World War 1. At times they resent each other yet they are too tightly entwined to be wrought apart and too closely bound with the land to ever leave.
Many of the places mentioned in the novel exist in reality including the market town of Hay on Wye (yes this is the place that hosts the Hay Literary Festival). Mention of Hay-on-Wye and borderlands takes me to Owen Shears’ debut novel Resistance which imagines that the Germans defeated the Normandy landings of 1944. In the sparsely populated farmlands of the Black Mountains, all the men have disappeared, leaving their wives to run the farms and look after the animals. At first they are hostile when a German patrol arrives in the valley but as a harsh winter takes hold they have to find an accommodation of sorts with the invaders.
During the course of the novel we learn that the farmers are all in hiding underground, preparing to become members of a secret British resistance movement. Shears connects their endeavours with an old Welsh legend in which a Prince of Wales sleeps with his solders in secret caves, readying them for a call to arms.
Welsh royalty and conflict between Wales and England brings me to the final novel in my chain: Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman. This is the first of her trilogy about the medieval princes of Gwynedd (an ancient county in North Wales) and their long-standing conflict with the monarchs of England during the12th and 13th centuries. Over the course of the three novels we meet two figures who are central to Welsh history – Llywellyn the Great (known in Welsh as Llywelyn ap Iorwerth) and his grand-son Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, the last native born Prince of Wales. The trilogy is a well researched account of the conflict and battle of wills between the Welsh nobility and the English kings, played out in the castles stretching along the border between the two nations. It feels over-written at times but Penman does show clearly men who have to contend with competing loyalties to family, king and country.
And there the chain ends. We started at a barbecue in Australia’s second largest city and end at a castle in Wales. As always, the books I mention are ones I have read even if, in the case of Sharon Penman, it was some 20 years ago.
We begin this month’s Six Degrees of Separation chain (#6Degrees) with Fever Pitch, a 1992 debut book by the British author Nick Hornby in which he told the story of his relationship with football, and in particular with one club – Arsenal. The book was a huge success not surprisingly, football being almost a religion for a large part of the British population, and went on to become a successful film.
I’ve never read it. While I’ve watched a few matches in the past and can appreciate the excitement, I have little interest in the niceties of the sport. I despair enough when I hear the amateur pundits in the pub talk about a recent match so the idea of reading a book structured chronologically around specific matches fills me with horror. Definitely not a book that will be on my wishlist.
Moving swiftly on however, the first book in my chain maintains the connection to sport.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a short story by Alan Sillitoe that was published as part of a collection of the same name that came out in 1959. Its protagonist is a teenager who comes from a poor family in a working class area of Nottingham in England. His prospects are bleak. Sentenced to time in a young offenders institute he takes up long-distance running – his prowess brings him to the attention of the institution’s ambitious governor. This is a novel about rebellious youth and a refusal to conform. It’s gritty realism is compelling.
Sillitoe was one of the so-called “angry young men” – a group of mostly working and middle class playwrights and novelists prominent in the 1950s that were united by their disillusionment with traditional British society. Sillitoe disliked the label as did most of the other writers to whom it was applied, such as John Osborne, particularly when their work became more divergent in style and theme.
The angry young men also included John Braine whose novel Room at the Top provides me with my second link. Braine was a Yorkshireman by birth who left school at the age of 16 to work in variously as a shop assistant, factory hand and librarian before turning his hand to writing. Like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Room at the Top provides a realistic portrayal of life in a working class community. It’s central character is Joe Lampton, an ambitious young man of humble origins who is determined to make something of himself and leave behind former acquaintances who he despises for their lack of life and character. But his complex relationship with two women shows he is a man of dubious morality. By the end of the novel, he is forced to consider the question of his responsibility for a tragic event. This is a novel which deals brilliantly with questions of morality and social mobility.
My third link comes from another writer whose work is characterised by a social ‘edginess’. Stan Barstow wrote A Kind of Loving (1960) as the first part of a trilogy featuring Vic Brown, a young man from Yorkshire who is slowly inching his way up from his working class roots through a white-collar job. Vic finds himself trapped when his girlfriend becomes pregnant and they are forced, by the social rules of the time, into marrying. A housing shortage in northern England means they have to live with Ingrid’s domineering mother which further cramps Vic’s style. This is a novel very much of its time which deals with ambition, consequences and compromises.
Social realism of course was not the exclusive purview of male writers. Almost a century before the angry young men made their mark, Elizabeth Gaskell turned her attention to the brutality of life in the industrialised towns of northern England. My fourth link in the chain is one of her best known novels, North and South. Set in Manchester (Gaskell novel calls it Milton) the novel looks at the troubled relationship between workers and and mill owners as seen through the eyes of one woman, the clergyman’s daughter Margaret Hale. Forced to move north from her childhood home in the leafy south of England, Margaret’s senses and sensibilities are shocked by the poverty and suffering she witnesses. It’s fair to say that Charles Dickens, Gaskell’s contemporary, covered some of the same issues but I preferred the more nuanced approach adopted by Gaskell – while she detailed the social misery experienced in the slum dwellings of the workers, she balanced this by showing that not all mill owners were oblivious to the suffering of their workers. If all you know of Gaskell is her Cranford novels, you may be as surprised by North and South as I was when I read it about five years ago (see my review here).
Let stick with books set in the industrial heartland of the UK as we move onto number 5 in the chain. The Stars Look Down is a 1935 novel by A. J. Cronin which takes place in a coal mining community in Northumberland. It traces various injustices experienced by its inhabitants over a period from just before World War 1 until the 1930s. Cronin conveys his theme through three principal figures who represent different points of view: one is a miner’s son who follows a political career to try and improve the life of people around him , the second is a miner who goes into business but is accused of being a war profiteer, and the third is the son of an unscrupulous colliery owner. Cronin’s story includes a number of pivotal moments which force these people, and the community to question its values. Like Gaskell he doesn’t come down unequivocally on one side or another – broadly you can see his sympathies lie with the workers but he also shows a recognition that some of the mine owners can be decent human beings.
I can’t get to the end of this chain and ignore fiction written about social conditions in my own part of the world – Wales. So for my final choice I’m selecting a novel that was one of the most highly talked about among my parent’s generation. How Green Was My Valley is a 1939 novel by Richard Llewellyn about the Morgan family whose male members all earn their living in the dangerous world of coal mining. It’s a story told by one of of the sons, Huw, whose academic ability sets him apart from his brothers and gives him a chance to build a future away from the mines. This is a family saga so we get the usual quota of thwarted love affairs, sibling rivalry etc but its the background of the harsh working conditions experienced by this family (and their neighbours) and their total dependancy on the mines, that provide the main interest. Cronin claimed he based the book on his personal experience though this was hotly disputed. Nevertheless the world he depicts is one my parents recognised and felt was authentic, from crippling strikes that caused hunger and set father against son, to questions about whether mine owners compromised safety in the interests of cost cutting and, inevitably to a disaster underground. The title of the book is a recognition that while coal mining brought jobs it also turned the green hillsides into black mountains, a situation that lasted well into my adult years.
And there we must end this chain. We’ve come a long way from the terraces of a London football club, travelling via northern England to Wales, encountering social disruption, class warfare and (mercifully) not much sport……I didn’t think I would be able to link book number six in the chain back to Fever Pitch but just as I was about to press ‘publish’ I had one of those light bulb moments. Fever Pitch is set on the terraces of various football clubs. Much of the action of How Green was My Valley takes places within the terraced houses of the South Wales valleys. How about that for a connection???
It’s 9ºC this morning in my little corner of the world but I’m turning the thermostat down a few pegs for the first #6Degrees of 2017! Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best has chosen a mega blockbuster as the trigger for this month: The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo by the Swedish author Stieg Larsson.
I bought this book in Detroit airport (back when the airport still had a bookshop and not the few measly news outlets that exist today). I was en route to Brazil for a business meeting, a trip that was both exciting and daunting. Exciting because I’d never been to South America before but daunting because it was my first week in a new assignment and I felt very wet behind the ears. I didn’t have much time to browse so just scanned the ‘hot titles’ shelf and recognised the book from a recent lunch conversation. Although rather unbelievable at times, it kept me amused on what proved to be a very long journey over two days.
It’s a tricky business choosing books for long journeys – make the wrong choice and you could end up with little to occupy you beyond the in flight magazine (assuming of course that you don’t have a fully loaded e-reader at your disposal). I’ve fortunately not had a disaster (yet) but I’ve had a few really good experiences, most memorably Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky -it was my first encounter with this author and it was so gripping I almost wanted the queue for immigration to go a bit slower (OK, that’s a joke but you get the point). As I stood there a guy in the parallel line to mine caught my eye and started one of those conversations that always start with ‘that’s a great book’ and meander into a list of recommendations. Unfortunately it was too much to juggle a big fat novel, my documentation, laptop bag, handbag and pen/notebook so I couldn’t jot down his recommendations. Who knows what delights I’ve missed out on as a result?
I fared rather better last summer while waiting for a medical appointment. A young Indian girl sat alongside me, noticed I was using a Kindle and started asking for my thoughts on it because she was thinking of buying one. As we chatted, talk invariably drifted into what kinds of books we both enjoyed reading – when I mentioned I’d enjoyed a few authors from her country she started rattling off a whole list of names I’d never heard of before. One of them I’m reading right now – Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil. It’s set in 1970s Bombay (before the city was rebranded as Mumbai) and takes us into the darker depths of the city, into a world of opium dens and brothels. It’s rather a hallucinatory tale of prostitutes, opium ‘cookers’, pimps, alcoholic bad boy artists and addicts. Compelling if rather baffling at the moment.
I’ve never seen any of these characters on my trips to Mumbai though I recognised descriptions of how the city attracts the desperately poor who leave their barren villages in the hope of a new life only to end up sleeping on the pavements or under a road bridge. It’s a fascinating city brought superbly to life in one of my favourite non fiction books – Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta. It’s a series of essays written when Mehta returned to the city of his youth after an absence of 21 years and finds a place of contradictions. Bombay, ‘the biggest, fastest, richest city in India’, is the country’s commercial, financial and entertainment hub attracting those with vast wealth and those without even enough to buy a meal a day. Mehta interviews a cross section of the population from murderous gangsters and the police who hunt them down, film stars who are feted for their roles in Bollywood productions, dancers who dream of escaping from their work in seedy bars to people who live on the streets. At times it makes very sobering reading but Mehta can also laugh at the ridiculous side of the city – he nicknames it ‘the city of no’ because no matter what you want, the first answer will always be a no.
I wish there were similar books written about some other megacities , particularly those in Japan and China, both countries which fascinate me. Historical China I’ve got a glimpse of through Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang which traces three generations through some of the most momentous decades in the country’s history during the twentieth century. If you’ve ever wanted to understand the human impact of Mao’s cultural revolution, this is an excellent starting point.
For more up to date insights I’ve relied on the detective series written by Qiu Xiaolong which I came across by accident while browsing my local library a few years ago. The books are set in Shanghai in the 1990s – the decade when the country began its momentous change into a world class economic powerhouse. All nine titles feature Chief Inspector Chen Cao, a poetry-quoting cop who has high levels of integrity which often bring him into conflict with the Party machinery and his bosses. Well worth reading for the insights these novels give into Chinese cuisine, architecture, history and politics.
As remarkable as Wild Swans undoubtedly is, and as much as I’ve enjoyed the Chen Cao crime series, they don’t satisfy an itch I have to read something equally engaging about China in the twenty-first century. I can find lots of learned tomes but a well written, accessible non- fiction book about modern day China has so far eluded me. If anyone has some suggestions please do send them my way….