Category Archives: Six Degrees of Separation
It’s the last Six Degrees of the year hosted by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) and we begin with a book that for many readers is required reading at this time of the year: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It was my first experience of Dickens, introduced to him via an abridged version that nevertheless included some lovely line drawings.
Now the obvious path from here would be a link to another Christmas related novel but I’m going to take a different direction. My thread picks up on the word carol. Or rather, the word Carol as in the girl’s name.
Carol is the title of a 1952 novel about a lesbian relationship by Patricia Highsmith. Since you are all astute readers, you’ll see immediately that my sentence is wildly inaccurate.
Highsmith actually used a pseudonym of Claire Morgan because some of the characters and events in the story referred to her own life. And the book was originally called The Price of Salt but underwent a change of title to Carol when it was re-printed in 1990. This is the title used for the recent film version issued in 2005 and starring Cate Blanchett.
Carol is not the first — and highly unlikely to be the last — novel with more than one title. I’m almost spoiled for choice with my next book in this link. I’m settling for one that underwent an identity change as a result of a mix up between publishers.
Northern Lights is an award-winning young adult fantasy novel by Philip Pullman about an Arctic quest by Lyra Belacqua in search of her missing friend and her uncle who has been conducting experiments with a mysterious substance known as “Dust”. Pullman conceived this as the first part of a trilogy. During pre-publication the UK publishers used a working series title of The Golden Compasses — an allusion to God’s poetic delineation of the world. Across the Atlantic however, the US publishers Knopf had been calling the first book The Golden Compass (singular) mistakenly thinking this related to a device featured on the front cover that looked like a navigational compass.
By the time Pullman decided his preferred name for the trilogy would be His Dark Materials (rather than The Golden Compasses), Knopf had become very attached to their own title., They insisted on publishing the first book as The Golden Compass. This was adopted as the name for the 2007 film version with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.
The Golden Compass/Northern Lights has been controversial ever since its publication in 1995, primarily because it was considered to promote atheism and attack Christianity, in particular the Catholic church. Consequently the book frequently appears on lists of books that are banned from a number of public libraries and schools in the United States.
Another novel that has been fiercely denounced and also banned is Alice Walker’s epistolary novel about racism, sexism and poverty The Colour Purple. Objectors cited its graphic sexual content and also “troubling ideas” about race relations and religion in arguing for its removal from schools.
While The Color Purple does contain a lot of controversial content, none of this is gratuitous. The attitudes and behaviours portrayed by Alice Walker are ugly but they are nevertheless real. Even more worrying is that in some parts of the world, prejudice continues to exist and is all too prevalent.
Rachel Kushner’s 2018 novel The Mars Room is a reminder that prejudice takes several forms. In this novel, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, she shows how the legal and penal system in America works against people from the poorest groups in society. Unable to afford a decent lawyer, they have to rely on state appointed legal representatives who are often too over-worked and too underpaid to do more than a superficial review of their client’s case. Consequently people like the protagonist Romy Hall never get to tell their full story in court including any mitigating circumstances.
I seem to have stepped onto a soap box which may not be what you want to read. This is after all, meant to be the time of year when we display charity, forgiveness and goodwill to each and everyone (and yes that does include the person who just barged into the back of your heels with a pushchair, and the one who biffed you in the ribs with their overlarge backpack.)
So in that spirit I shall make my final book somewhat more uplifting. I don’t do feel-good books (I find them generally too cloying) but I’m sure I can find a book that is a tad bit more cheerful.
Yep, I have it – a good partner to A Christmas Carol in fact since this is book is also considered a classic. It’s another I read and enjoyed as a child though reading it as an adult a few years ago, was a vastly different experience.
I’m referring of course to Little Women by Louisa M Alcott which was published in 1863 and proved so popular it sold more than 13,000 copies within six weeks of its release. Against her own preference, Alcott was persuaded to write the sequel Good Wives. Though I still love the tomboy character of Jo March ( I suspect I was not alone in wanting to be just like her), the overall story was too didactic for my tastes now.
But it couldn’t be more appropriate for this last chain of the year since it begins with a very seasonal reference.
Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
And so we come full circle. We’ve come a long way on our journey, from the Arctic to the American deep south. Where has your chain taken you?
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, begins with Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, a satirical novel published in 19 monthly instalments in the mid 1840s.
Thackeray’s novel follows the life of Rebecca Sharp (“Becky”), a strong-willed, cunning, moneyless, young woman who is determined to make her way in society. She comes to a sticky end, unlike the protagonist of another work which deals with the issue of upward mobility and what it means to be a lady.
In Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, (adapted for screen as My Fair Lady) the flower-seller Eliza Dolittle is taught how to adopt the mannerisms and speech of a lady. She’s so successful she can pass herself off as a Duchess.
Someone who doesn’t need to be taught the right way to behave is Isabel Archer, the central character in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. This tale of a free-spirited young American woman who travels from New York to England to confront her destiny but finds it overwhelming. The novel has an ambiguous ending where we’re uncertain whether she returns to an unhappy marriage with her snobbish husband Osmond or opts for freedom.
Freedom is what Edna Pontellier in The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, desires. Being a wife and a mother are not enough but in the Louisiana community where she lives, there are few other choices she can make. The path she takes is one which has stimulated much debate since the novella was published in 1899 – the first reviewers castigated Chopin but feminist critics since have celebrated The Awakening as a landmark in feminist literature.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah also revolves around a woman’s desire for freedom. Like many of Nigeria’s educated middle class young people, Ifemelu cannot wait to get away from the country and its stultifying atmosphere. But the brighter future she anticipates as a student in America proves problematic as she contends with racism and racial distinctions. She feels truly free only when she stops trying to hide behind an assumed American accent and refuses to artificially straighten her hair.
For strength of character, there is no finer example than Maya Angelou. I Know How the Caged Bird Sings, is the first part of an autobiography in which she describes the challenges of her early years and the racial abuse and sexual abuse she experienced while growing up in the Southern States of America. She also shows how her love of literature helped her deal with her trauma and develop into a self possessed young woman capable of dealing with prejudice.
Sexual abuse figures large in my last book in this chain: Emma Donaghue’s The Room. This is a tale, told by five year old Jack whose entire life has been spent shut inside a 12-foot-square room he occupies with his “Ma”. She is the victim of an abduction and Jack the product of her rape. Despite her confinement “Ma” proves to be a stellar mother but she knows that they can survive only by one supreme act of courage and determination.
And with that this chain comes to an end. I didn’t plan it this way but somehow ended up with a theme about courage and tenacity in many forms.
It’s time for #6degrees which this month begins with a memoir: Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame by Mara Wilson.
The author’s name meant nothing to me but her publisher Penguin Random House informs me that she was a child actress who achieved “stardom” in Matilda and Mrs. Doubtfire. This is a book that I am unlikely ever to read since the acquisition (or loss) of celebrity status holds no interest for me.
The kind of memoir/autobiography that is much more to my taste is one I read earlier this year: Do No Harm by Henry Marsh. Marsh is a neurosurgeon with more than 30 years experience in dealing with one of the most complex systems in the human body. He regularly faces moral dilemmas. How much should he tell a patient’s family about their prognosis? Is it better to let a patient die gradually than put them through extensive surgery which might result in life changing side effects?
The title of Marsh’s book refers to a phrase erroneously believed to be part of the Hippocratic oath, a creed to which all physicians subscribe. The next book in my chain deals with a situation in which that code was allegedly violated by staff at a hospital in New Orleans.
The city’s Memorial Hospital was brought to its knees during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. For five days they battled against flood waters which knocked out its power supply making treatment and medical care nigh on impossible. Once the floodwaters receded, questions began to circulate about the number of patients who had died. Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink traces the circumstances which led to the prosecution of one doctor and two nurses alleged to have hastened the death of the most critical patients with lethal injections of morphine. It’s a book that raises many questions, not only of whether impossible standards of behaviour are expected of doctors but about the level of preparedness of hospitals and other vulnerable places to deal with natural disasters.
Let’s stay in New Orleans with my next book. This is much lighter reading material though ethical questions do play a key role in the plot. In The Pelican Brief by John Grisham a young law student suspects an oil tycoon whose plans to drill on Louisiana marshland populated by an endangered species of pelican, are about to be scrutinised by the Supreme Court, is behind the assassination of two of its judges. A complicated plot but the book moves along rapidly — it was perfect reading material for a long flight many years ago.
I’m very relieved that I no longer have to make those long flights for work. In the days before I set off I’d agonise over which books to take. I had three requirements. The book needed to be substantial enough in size that there was no risk I would finish it before touchdown. But it couldn’t be too fat because I didn’t want all that weight on my shoulder. Above all it had to be completely engrossing to keep my mind off the restricted cabin space.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky fitted that requirement perfectly. Like my earlier books in the chain this one deals with an ethical question: are there ever any circumstances under which it’s acceptable — permissable even — to commit a crime ? The central character of Raskolnikov, an impoverished student in Saint Petersburg, certainly thinks it’s OK provided the crime is undertaken by an “extraordinary person” . He kills two women to prove that he is himself one of these “supermen”. I got so wrapped up in the cat and mouse drama between Raskolnikov and the police officer who wants to bring him to justice, that I was disappointed when we landed and I had to put it aside.
My next book is a reminder that the quest for justice is one that requires the combined efforts of many specialists.
Professor Keith Simpson was a leader in forensic science in England throughout the 1960s and 70s. He pioneered the discipline of forensic dentistry and was prominent in alerting physicians and others to the reality of the battered baby syndrome.
As the first pathologist to be recognised by the Home Office his services were called upon in several high-profile cases including the alleged murder of a nanny by Lord Lucan, the 10 Rillington Place murderer John Christie and the Bloody Sunday shootings in Northern Ireland. In his memoir Forty Years of Murder he reviews many of those well-known cases and some more obscure ones. It’s fascinating reading though a bit gruesome at times — anyone of a squeamish nature might want to skip the photographs.
What Simpson’s memoir shows is how progress in medical science with its ability to closely scrutinise and question evidence, has been to the benefit of both criminals and their victims. It was a very different story in the 1860s which is the period in which my last book this month, was set.
His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet takes us to a remote Scottish community where a 17-year-old crofter is accused of multiple murders. A prison doctor, a criminologist and a phrenologist are brought in to give their opinions on the state of his mind, reaching the conclusion that he shared the same physical characteristics of murderers. Ergo he must be guilty. Although the case is fictional the idea that physical features could be used to detect criminal intent was still being relied upon more than 30 years later in a real life case that features in Kate Summerscale’s The Wicked Boy,
We seem to have moved a long way from the memoir of a film actress in this week’s chain. But that’s part of the enjoyment of doing the #6degrees.
Time for another Six Degrees of Separation. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and the idea is to link it to six other books to form a chain. The links can take any form: similarity of themes or setting; written by the same author or winners of the same prize. The basis of the link is really limited by nothing more than our imagination.
This month we begin with a favourite novel of mine, Atonement by Ian McEwan.
It’s set in a large country house in England between the two World Wars. Events are triggered by the actions of thirteen-year-old Briony who has a vivid imagination. Her accusation about an event she witnesses one hot summer evening has life-changing consequences for her elder sister and the boy with whom she is in love. For the rest of her life she regrets her actions.
I’ve read the book twice and seen the film multiple times and still can’t make up my mind whether Briony is a minx who deliberately misconstrues the event.
For another minx who likes to meddle in other people’s lives let’s turn to Emma by Jane Austen. Though many in her village think she is charming, Emma is a girl who has been indulged throughout her life and ends up thinking she knows best for herself and everyone around her. She loves nothing more than a little matchmaking, thinking she is doing this for the best of the parties concerned but ends up causing more harm than good.
In the league of schemers however Emma is small fry compared to the most wonderful character in the next book in my chain. Obadiah Slope in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers is a master manipulator, a man who hides his monstrous ambition for wealth and prestige under a cloak of piety.
Lest you think that devious behaviour and trickery are confined to England, the third book in my chain should convince you otherwise.
John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row gives us a lovable bunch of rogues, chief of whom is Mack. Steinbeck describes him as “the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment.
It’s Mack who comes up with a way to say thanks to their friend Doc, who has been good to them without asking for reward. The entire community quickly gets behind his idea of a thank-you party. Unfortunately things get out of hand and Doc’s home and his lab where he studies and collects sea creatures from the Californian coast are ruined.
The novel is shot through with nostalgia and sadness (there are three suicides) but also has its humorous moments. By far the funniest episode in the book is when Mack and the boys embark on an expedition to collect frogs for the Doc. Of course it all goes horribly wrong.
Collections of sea creatures reminds me of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I wasn’t all that enamoured by it but it was highly rated when it came out a few years ago . I seem to remember it was one that the then President Obama took on his summer holiday.
It’s the tale of a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths cross in occupied France during World War II. Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, take refuge from the war in St Malo. There the girl’s imagination is fired by the marine life described in her Braille edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and she becomes a collector and expert on molluscs.
Most of her collectables don’t sound edible although the principal character in my next chain, The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery, would probably disagree.
Pierre Arthens is the greatest food critic in France. He relishes dishes like “Pan roasted breast of Peking duck rubbed with berbère; grapefruit crumble à la Jamaïque with shallot confit … ”
Now before I turned vegetarian about a quarter of a century ago I was quite partial to duck. But I disliked the sweet sauces in which it was often served. Remember duck a l’orange or duck with blackberry sauce? I’ve no idea what you’d get if you ordered any menu item “à la Jamaïque” – even a Google search can’t provide an answer (it appears to be the title of a French musical). But I can’t begin to imagine that grapefruit and duck are meant to be companions.
But then I am decidedly not a gourmand. Nor would I want to be if it involves the kinds of concoctions beloved by the central character in my sixth and final book: Iris Murdoch’s Booker-prize winning novel The Sea, The Sea.
Charles Arrowby, retires to the country after highly successful career as a London stage director. In his tumbledown seaside cottage he swims, writes his memoirs and concocts some rather bizarre meals.
For lunch, I may say, I ate and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil is essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London)
The kidney beans/tomatoes/celery/oil and lemon juice combination sounds interesting and I might even be tempted to try that one day. But what they are doing on the same plate as baked beans is completely beyond my comprehension.
All this talk of food is making me feel peckish. Time to wrap up the chain and head for the kitchen. The supermarket was completely out of edible molluscs on account of the fears about post-Brexit catastrophe amongs the bivalve community. So it will have to be beans on toast again. Oh wait a second, bread is in short supply because everyone is stocking up for the inevitable shortage in December.
Right well it’s just cup a soup then…..
Time for another round of Six Degrees of Separation in which the idea is to form a chain of connections from a starting book.
This month our master Kate wants us to begin with Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin, the first of his books in a saga based in San Francisco. This isn’t a book I’ve read though I did start to read the first in the series once. I know its hugely popular but it wasn’t to my taste.
So I’m switching to a different city for my first book.Beauty and Chaos: Slices and Morsels of Tokyo Life is a collection of articles in which journalist and university professor Michael Pronko reflects on the character of this city. He considers the idiosyncracies of its inhabitants and their predilection for maps, drink vending machines, noodles and posh shopping bags. It’s a fascinating exploration of facets of a city that tourists would be unlikely to see or understand.
From there it’s an easy leap to a different representation of Toyko, this time seen through the eyes of the Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Norwegian Wood takes us into the world of the city’s nightclubs, bars and even a porn cinema, a world that provides a wonderful contrast to the books other setting of a sanitorium in Kyoto surrounded by snow-clad hills. It was my first – and to date only – experience of Murakami’s work and as far as I can tell isn’t typical but I was so glad a colleague recommended it to me.
But enough of the Japanese landscape, let’s move to somewhere closer to home which also boasts some fine specimens of trees though I’m not entirely sure what kind of tree Thomas Hardy had in mind with his novel Under the Greenwood Tree. An English oak I suspect. This novel is a celebration of the pastoral life in the Victorian era but although Hardy shows this in terms of continuity and harmony there are points at which the plot involves a confrontation between the old and new orders. The Mellstock choir, for example, which provides one of the two plot lines, are threatened by the vicar’s attempt to replace them with a new mechanical church organ.
The clash of new and old also figures in the novel that is probably the finest example of mid nineteenth century realist fiction: George Eliot’s Middlemarch. This is novel that teems with ideas, about relationships, ambition, social mobility, integrity to name just a few. But Eliot also showed a new spirit of the age with political reformers going head to head against the established gentry, how ambitious young doctors with their antipathy to blood-letting were seen as upstarts and how the new railway age was feared by rural workers. You won’t find a finer novel…..
I wonder what Hardy and Eliot would have made of my next book? Harvest by Jim Crace is also about disruption to the rhythm of the countryside. Crace isn’t sentimental about rural life but he show that the pursuit of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise” is dangerous. The threat in his novel comes in the form of enclosure of common land where, for generations, villagers have tended to their flocks. But their lord and master decides they’ll be more profitable if he turns them over to crops – throwing the villagers out and leaving them without a source of income. This is a novel which verges on poetry at times when it speaks about the connection of man and his environment. I don’t understand why the Booker judges overlooked this for the prize in 2013.
They also (equally unbelievably) overlooked my final book in this chain. Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing takes us to China in the build up to the protest and subsequent massacre at Tianenman Square, Bejing in 1989. This is the background against which she sets her tale of three highly talented musicians whose lives are turned upside down when the Communist-led government decides their music is not appropriate to the new order. This is a novel that is breathtaking in its scope. If you enjoyed Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, then I highly recommend Thien’s novel.
And with that we’ve returned to a city landscape though one that couldn’t be more different than San Francisco. We’ve also had a little sojourn in English woods and fields. Where would your chain have taken you?
Time for another round of Six Degrees of Separation in which the idea is to form a chain of connections from a starting book. This month Kate who organises the meme, has chosen a non fiction work as the trigger book.
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell is one of the few business books I’ve read (rather than just bought and left on the bookshelf). Even more remarkable I enjoyed reading it and found it helpful in my own line of work. Gladwell defines the ‘tipping point‘, as the moment when an idea, a trend or a form of behaviour crosses the threshold, tip and spreads so extensively it becomes a noticeable phenomenon. His first example is about the sudden popularity of Hush Puppies shoes in the mid-1990s but he also goes on to talk about a battle between a director of the New York subway and the graffiti artists who are intent on spoiling the look of his trains.
Gladwell sees how the involvement of different types of people with particular sets of social gifts are essential for change to happen: some are “connectors” who know large numbers of people and who are in the habit of making introductions; “Mavens” are information specialists, the people who delight in gathering information and sharing it. Then there are the “salespeople”, the ones who are great at persuading others to a point of view or to a particular action.
It’s one of these “salespeople” that features in the first book in my chain.
Nelson Mandela was one of the most significant and influential political leaders of our time. His autobiography Long Walk to Freedom profiles his early life, his political awakening and the 27 years he spent in prison for acts of terrorism. But it also shows his ability to persuade people to a different point of view – most notably to the need for reconciliation and not recrimination in post apartheid South Africa. In the final chapters of the book, Mandela — now President of his country — looks to the future and his belief that the struggle against apartheid would continue.
It’s in a post apartheid South Africa that my next book is set.
The Whale Caller by Zakes Mda takes us to a town on the south coast of the Western Cape. It’s become famous as one of the best places from which to watch the migration of Southern Right Whales during the spring and winter. The Whale Caller develops a an affinity with these whales, calling to them using his kelp horn. Much of the book is about the relationship of man to nature but it also has a theme of betrayal. One of the ways this is played out is through a set of characters called The Bored Twins who start off as being playful but they take their games a step too far, with tragic consequences.
The twins in The Whale Caller are not anywhere as endearing as the pair in my next book: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. The Kochamma “two-egg twins” are a mischievous pair, loving nothing more than to indulge in word play, where they read backwards take words and phrases uttered by adults and twist and distort them into their own version. They’re also a jealous pair whose noses are decidedly put out of joint when another young girl comes to stay with the family.
All that talk of twins puts me in mind of a classic in the science fiction genre.
John Wyndham’s The Midwitch Cuckoo gives us more than one set of twins. We get a while village of identical children born within a few days of each other in the same small village. They all appear normal except they have unusual, golden eyes and pale, silvery skin. As they grow up it becomes increasingly clear they are far from humanThese children have none of the genetic characteristics of their parents. As they grow up, it becomes increasingly apparent that they are, at least in some respects, not human. This is one of the few science fiction novels I’ve enjoyed along with the film version called Village of the Damned.
Wyndham’s novel was creepy rather than shockingly scary. If it’s the thrill of the later you’re looking for, then Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black is more likely to suit. It’s written in the style of a traditional Gothic novel using the familiar device of a storywithin a story. This tale of a mysterious spectre that terrifies a small English town, because it heralds the death of children, proved to be a huge success when it transferred to the stage in 1987 becoming the second longest-running play in the history of the West End after The Mousetrap. I didn’t care for the book at all — I thought Hill’s prose was overblown (it’s so tedious when an author loads up the narrative with adjective upon adjective) but the stage play is superb. Daniel Radcliffe’s film version, felt to me like a very pale imitation.
For brilliance in the Gothic vein, we have to turn to a much earlier novel. For my last link I’m chosing a book with a similar title. The Woman in White was the fifth title published by Wilkie Collins and generally regarded as an early (if not the first) example of the sensation novel. Collins ingeniously hit on the idea of telling this story of an heiress caught up in a deadly conspiracy, through multiple narrators. The effect is akin to hearing witnesses in a legal trial with the reader given clues to help solve the case. The plot does stretch credulity but Collins is such a ace storyteller that you get swept along anyway. But the book wouldn’t be half as good without the character of Count Fosco, a larger than life villain who hides his menacing nature behind a mask of intelligence and urbanity. Early critics of the novel were uncomfortable about this character however, fearing it could corrupt susceptible women readers.
And with that we have reached the end of a chain which has gone from a book that caused a sensation when Gladwell published it in 2000 to one that caused a sensation in 1859. A bit of a strained connection maybe but I shall let you all judge.
It’s time to play the Six Degrees of Separation game again. The starting book this month is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I know it was highly regarded when it was published but I didn’t care for it that much. However I read it so long ago I can’t remember exactly why it didn’t hit the spot, just that it didn’t. Maybe if I read it again I might have a different reaction (that often happens) but I have far too many unread titles to go down that path.
Kingsolver’s novel features a family who go to The Congo as missionaries intent on converting the local population. This was at a time before there were two countries both using the word Congo in their name. Today we have the the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the southeast and its smaller namesake, the Republic of the Congo. It’s to the latter that we go for my first link…
Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass is set in a seedy bar in a run down part of the country’s capital. One of its regular customers, a disgraced teacher is asked by the proprietor of the Credit Gone West bar to capture the stories of his clients. They turn out to be a misfortunate bunch all thinking they have been hard done by and wanting to set the record straight.
They’re not unlike some of the characters in Kingsley Amis’ Booker Prize winning novel The Old Devils. This lot are university pals living in a rural part of Wales and, having been regular drinkers in the past, like to spend their time in the pub. Their hostelry of choice is called The Bible and its here that they meet, often not long after breakfast, to while away the hours with gossip, updates on their various medical ailments and generally complaining about almost everything.
They might have more justification for their complaints if they were inmates of the place which is the setting for my next book in the chain: The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson. The Marshalsea is a fetid, stinking prison for debtors – once in, unless you have private means to pay for ‘luxuries’, you end up in the worst section, the “Common Side” where death is inevitable.
Fortunate then the man who can find a way out of this as does Charles Dickens’ Mr Dorrit. In Little Dorrit, her father William gets his escape ticket when it’s discovered he is the lost heir to a large fortune. Dickens uses this novel to satirise the bureaucracy of government (brought to life in the form of his fictional “Circumlocution Office”). He also takes a pop at the class system and its notions of respectability.
A desire for respectability also makes its appearance through two childhood friends in Zadie Smith’s novel NW. To leave behind her black working class upbringing, one girl changes her name, becomes a successful barrister and moves to a plush home in a desirable part of London. Her friend has less success, though she has a degree in philosophy she is still living in a council flat not far from her family home. But their past refuses to remain hidden.
Identity is the theme of my sixth and final book, one that I bought on my first trip to the Hay Festival and so caught up in the moment that I came away with an armload of books by authors completely unknown to me. Fortunately, one of the them, All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu proved to be a thought-provoking book. An African boy arrives in a mid Western USA town on a student visa. Little is known about him, only his name, his date of birth and the fact he was born somewhere in Africa. But he’s a fake, a boy who escaped from a civil war in Uganda by swapping identities with a friend who becomes a paramilitary leader.
And so we end as we began in Africa. Along the way we’ve visited a few bars, a prison and a suburb of London. As always I have included only books I have read.
Where would your chain take you? You can join in by visiting Books Are My Favourite and Best
Time for another Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate in Kew and for once we are starting with a book I know.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden was the first novel I read which gave me an insight into Japanese culture. I don’t remember anything about the plot, I just recall that the book described extensively how geishas are trained to act as entertainers and hostesses. As part of their role they are expected to demonstrate great skill in Japanese classical music and traditional dance as well as witty conversation.
Conversation of a very different kind is at the heart of The Housekeeper and the Professor by the Japanese author Yoko Ogawa. It’s a novella set in modern day Japan about the relationship between a Professor who was a brilliant mathematician until he was injured in a road accident and the woman who becomes his 10th housekeeper (all the previous holders of that job found him too strange). They bond over prime numbers and number sequences.
For an alternative model of a housekeeper let’s turn to one of Daphne du Maurier’s best known novels, Rebecca. In it we encounter Mrs Danvers, head housekeeper at Manderley, the grand mansion in Cornwall belonging to Maxim de Winter and his dead wife Rebecca. Mrs D (we never learn her first name) is a fearsome looking character with a “skull’s face” of high cheekbones and sunken eyes. Not exactly the kind of person to make Maxim’s new wife, a young and naive girl, feel comfortable in her new home, especially when, at every stage, Mrs D is ready to point out how poorly she compares to the glamorous Rebecca.
Maxim met his new wife while on holiday in the French Riviera. It’s during a holiday in that part of the Mediterranean that one of the characters in my next book, meets her future husband. Amy March is the youngest of the four sisters in Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women. She’s vain and self-centered, the daughter least likely to sacrifice her own pleasures for the good of others. But on holiday she matures and reaches a decision about her artistic ambitions and her future. Her reward is to be courted and hitched to Laurie, a rich and handsome boy who lived next door to the March family.
The original readers of Little Women were of course left in no doubt that this is a book designed not just to entertain but to instruct them about how to be better women, ones who put domestic duties and family above self interest. To help them in their journey they have the wisdom and good sense of their mother and a copy of John Buynan’s Pilgrims’ Progress.
Bunyan’s work, published in 1678, has been described as the first novel in English. It’s a claim that’s been disputed — there are at least nine other novels which have been similarly described. Ian Watt, a leading literary academic, argued in favour of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, published more than forty years later.
The lecturers on my English degree course disagreed and put their weight behind Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded by the printer Samuel Richardson. I don’t know if you’ve ever read this tale of the trials and tribulations of a beautiful 15-year-old maidservant called Pamela Andrews. Her master is a country landowner who pesters her, kidnaps her and tries to seduce and rape her multiple times. Eventually he rewards this robust defence of virtue by marrying her and introducing her into high society.
The story sounds interesting and it was entertaining for a time but I remember struggling to get through it because it felt so repetitive and became rather dull. One of reasons I didn’t care for this book may have been that the version I read is substantially different from the one Richardson wrote. Apparently this novel went through revision after revision because Richardson was extremely sensitive to criticism (of which there was a lot, usually on the grounds of morality or manners) so kept making tweaks. In an article marking a new Oxford edition in 2000 more closely based on that original, John Mullen showed how these changes robbed the book of a lot of its vitality.
For readers in the eighteenth century, however, this book was certainly different to anything else they had ever written. Most notably its ‘heroine’ was a low-bred creature, a mere servant girl, when they were accustomed more to reading about courtly ladies and women of virtue. Some of them were scandalised at the idea that mere servants could become part of a higher class. Who was this upstart some of them questioned?
Pamela may have been one of the first characters in fiction to be shown moving well beyond her station in life and adopting manners felt more suited to her betters. But she was not the last, which brings me another maid servant and my final link in the chain. Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring puts the young girl Griet into the home of the painter Johannes Vermier. Griet is an intelligent girl who shows she has an eye for art. But Vermeer’s wife suspects the girl is up to more than mixing paints when she is alone with the painter in his attic studio. Chevalier could simply have written a story about an illicit affair but she made the novel far more interesting by focusing on the restraint between master and servant. And in the end, Griet does get her reward….
And so we reach the end of a chain which has followed a trail from Japan to America, France and England and ended up in the Netherlands. I never expected this chain to take this route but that’s half the fun of the Six Degrees meme, you never know where it’s going or where it will end.
It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation where the idea is to create a chain of book connections. This month we begin with a non-fiction title from 1990: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf.
There is in a clue in the subtitle “How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women” about the primary message of this book. Wolf argues that as the social power and prominence of women have increased, the pressure to conform to unrealistic social standards of physical beauty has also grown stronger because of commercial influences on the mass media. Amongst her evidence she cites a rise in cases of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia and the rapid growth of plastic surgery.
The Beauty Myth became a best seller and generated considerable debate. I remember thinking when I read it that, though interesting and thought-provoking, it wasn’t anywhere near as convincing as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. I’ll give Wolf a lot of credit however for bringing the topic out into the open. Sadly, we see evidence regularly that the issues she saw then haven’t gone away.
Let’s stay with myth and beauty for my first link: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, is a play about a professor who trains a poor, uneducated girl to act and speak like a lady. The title comes from the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor unable to find any real woman who fitted his idea of the perfect female. He carves a statue out of ivory that is so beautiful and so perfect that he falls in love with it and wants to give it life.
Pygmalion is of course a story about transformation and change; a theme which is central to my next book; also by an Irish writer. In Nora Webster Colm Toibin gives us a deep and penetrating portrayal of a middle-aged widow struggling to remake her life after the premature death of her husband. She returns to the office work she thought she had left behind forever, begins listening to the classical music her husband never liked and starts making new friends. One of the most significant signs that she is moving on comes when she visits the hairdresser and emerges with a radical new style.
I could link to another work about transformation, Educating Rita by Willy Russel, in which a young uneducated hairdresser enrols for an Open University degree course because she wants more from life. I’ve seen the stage version and watched the film multiple times (it’s one of my all time favourites) but I can’t really use it for this chain since it would mean breaking my rule that I select only texts I’ve read.
So let’s go down a different path and to another book which uses hair styles as part of a theme about identity. The main character in Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie only begins to feel truly free and true to her Nigerian roots when she decides she will no longer spend hours and vast sums of money on having her hair ‘relaxed’. Hair, she comes to realise, is a political issue in America with black women expected to relax their natural curls with strong chemicals in order to conform to comfortable white norms. Before she makes her first return home to the Nigeria she left 15 years earlier, she visits a salon to have her hair braided.
I’m sticking with the issue of identity for my next book. A Portrait of a Lady is one of Henry James’ most respected novels. It wasn’t one I enjoyed at first reading – I found it incredibly slow (page after page where nothing much happens except someone opens an umbrella)… I must admit I skimmed many passages. It wasn’t until I re-read the book that I began to fully appreciate this tale of a young American woman who insists that she must be free to write her own plot and then to live with the unfortunate consequences of her decisions. Still not sure I understand the ending however….
Consequences takes me to India and to a novel that won the Booker Prize in 1997. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy has two captivating characters in the form of Rahel Kochamma and her brother Esth. They’re used to being the centre of attention so when their new cousin arrives to spend Christmas at the family home, their noses are put out of joint. Their jealousy has tragic repercussions that don’t become apparent until the final chapters of the novel. Until then we’re treated to some tremendous comic scenes involving these effervescent twins.
The family rivalries depicted in Arundhati Roy’s novel remind me of Neel Mukherjee’s novel The Lives of Others which is set in India during the second half of the 1960s. In it we meet three generations of the large and relatively wealthy Ghosh family who live together in one house, their rooms allocated on a strictly hierarchical basis. The patriarchal Prafullanath and his wife Charubala live on the top floor., the widow of their youngest son is relegated to a storage room on the ground floor of the house. Inevitably there are tensions over saris and wedding jewellery.
And with that I’ve reached the end of a chain which has moved from notions of beauty through female identity to familial disputes. If you’re interested in how other bloggers created their chains, take a look at booksaremyfavouriteandbest and also find out how to join the meme hosted by Kate.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step is a common saying that originated from a famous Chinese proverb. Our journey in this month’s Six Degrees of Separation is going to begin in North America but is going to take us rather more than a thousand miles to complete. But we have to start somewhere and this month it is with the book that won the 2017 Man Booker Prize: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.
I’ve not read this and don’t have any plans to do so essentially because it has a vast number of characters and I know from experience I get lost with books of that nature.
The title of this book refers to the 16th President of the United States. But Lincoln also happens to be the name of a city in the UK. It’s also a colour (Lincoln Green is what Robin Hood’s merry men were reputed to have worn). Which gives me a clue for my first link… a city associated with colour.
Reykjavik Nights by Arnaldur Indridason is set in the capital of Iceland, a country to which thousands flock every year in the hope of seeing the phenomena of the Northern Lights. The most common colour seen in this natural light display in the sky, is yellowish-green.
The colour most associated with my next city is red.
If you’ve ever seen the May Day parade in Moscow, you’ll know that it takes place in Red Square watched over from the walls of the Kremlin by members of the Politburo. Just around the corner is another of the city’s landmarks – the Hotel Metropole, renowned as a haunt for kings, politicians and cultural luminaries. In the superb novel A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, Count Alexander Rostov is escorted out of the Kremlin and into the hotel where, by order of a Bolshevik tribunal, he has been sentenced to indefinite house arrest. Instead of his usual suite, he must now live in an attic room while Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval.
The upheaval of the Russian Revolution started not in Moscow but in the city that was, for a time, the capital of the country.
So for my next link let’s travel a little further north to St Petersburg and an early novel by Ken Follett, The Man from St Petersburg. This was the first book by him that I’d ever read. It was so long ago that I can’t tell you much about the story other than it was completely engrossing tale set before the outbreak of World War 1. One thing I do remember is that Follett had clearly undertaken a lot of research yet it never felt like he was just dumping the results on his readers. All the historical detail was carefully woven into the narrative.
But I’m feeling rather chilly after spending so much time in the north. Let’s go south in search of some warmer climes.
The city in Patrick Modiano’s Paris Nocturne is more than a setting, he makes it as much a character as his unamed narrator. With him we go on a meandering journey through deserted streets, across moonlit squares and into the cafes and bars of Paris. This is a novel which so effectively conveys the sense of the French capital that you feel you’re there, sipping wine in a boulevard cafe.
Let’s turn up the temperature even further with my fifth book: The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra. Now I like heat and sun but I don’t think I fancy taking a trip to this particular city. I’d have to wear a burkha and walk a few steps behind my husband, both of which would be anathema to me.
So lets get out of here quickly. The Book of Gaza edited by Atef Abu Saif is a collection of short stories by ten Palestinian writers. They live daily with the dangers and frustrations of restricted movement, military control and curfews and the threat of violence. But through their stories they also show there is another side to life in this embattled region from what is typically seen in media reports. Well worth reading.
And so we have reached the end of the chain this month. We’ve travelled from the land of the free to a land of conflict, and from icy climates to oppressive heat.
If you want to join in with the Six Degrees of Separation, take a look at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest.