Category Archives: Six Degrees of Separation

From football terrace to coal disaster [#6Degrees]

fever-pitch

Before he became Mr Darcy, Colin Firth was seen on the football terraces.

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.

1The 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.

2The 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.

3My 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.

4

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).  

5Let 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.

6 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.

Terraced houses, South Wales

Terraced houses, South Wales

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???

Go from Nordic noir to Chinese crime

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.

crime-and-punishmentIt’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?

narcopolisI 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.

maximum-cityI’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. 

wild-swansI 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.

qiu-xialongFor 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….

From Ishiguro to Rowling in 6 steps

It’s time for another attempt at  #6Degrees of separation. I chickened out of last month’s chain because I didn’t know the starting book and my creative juices were not flowing. Lets hope I fair better this time.

sixchains

We begin with Kazuo Ishiguro and Never Let Me Go –a dystopian science fiction novel published in 2005. I’ve not read it. I have a copy on my TBR but am not sure I will ever get to read it since I don’t really ‘do’ sci fi. It’s certainly got pedigree having been shortlisted for the Booker Prize that year and included in Time Magazine’s 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.

I don’t know how you feel about lists like this. Do you immediately begin checking off how many of the novels you’ve read or do you start questioning on what basis the list was constructed. The ones that irritate me the most are those that include words like ‘should’ and ‘must read’. Who are these people to tell me what I should and should not read. I will make up my own mind thank you.

But I digress. I promise to get back on topic……

Link 1: Do Not Say We Have Nothing 

madeleinetheinDigging around for info about Never Let me Go I discovered the title comes from a fictional song on a cassette tape  by fictional singer Judy Bridgewater (you can read more about this here). Many novelists use the inter-textuality approach when choosing their book titles. One of them is Madeleine Thien who has just won Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction with her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing (a novel I thought outstanding and deserved to win the Booker prize this year)Thien takes her inspiration from an adaptation from the Chinese translation of the L’Internationale, the 19th century song adopted by socialist and worker groups worldwide. “Do not say that we have nothing, / We shall be the masters of the world!”.  

Titles inspired by other texts gives me my next link

Link 2: Of Mice and Men

ofmiceandmenThe title of Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is taken from the poem To a Mouse by Robert Burns:

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley”.

The English ‘translation’ is

The best laid schemes of mice and men
Often go awry

This was one of the first books we discussed when I joined a book club in 2013 and was a good example of how your perceptions can be changed. When someone suggested reading it I groaned – Steinbeck in my brain was someone whose work I had tried – and failed – tor head in the past. I thought him ‘gloomy’ and ‘slow’. Of Mice and Men was a delight however. It was poignant  rather than gloomy and on the strength of that experience I went onto read the equally delightful and unexpectedly funny Cannery Row. 

Of Mice and Men has been a frequent target of censors who consider it  vulgar and racist so it’s banned from some school systems in the USA. In the UK however it’s a popular choice on the school syllabus and has been a highly successful stage play.

And so with censorship we come to my next link….

Link 3: Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Front cover of 'Lady Chatterley's Lover', Penguin edition, 1960I simply don’t understand this clamour to ‘ban’ books. It seems prevalent in USA but not confined to that part of the world. My next book in the chain was the subject of huge controversy in the 1960s. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H Lawrence was published privately in 1928 but a full unexpurgated edition was not published openly in the United Kingdom until 1960, when it became the subject of a landmark trial for obscenity. The publisher Penguin won the case, and quickly sold 3 million copies.I read his ‘greatest hits’ (including Sons and Lovers, Women in Love and The Rainbow) and though I’ve still got my old Penguin editions of his books, I can’t say he was one of my favourites authors. For decades Lawrence was required reading on university literature courses though by the time I got to university he was already on the way out. Today he barely gets a mention in those lists of top 100 novels and books you must read.

Forgotten writers brings me to link number 4 

Link 4: Tropic of Cancer 

tropicofcancerHenry Miller is another author whose work was once controversial but like Lawrence, seems to have slipped out of public consciousness – at least he has in the UK, it might be a different story in USA. I read Miller while still at school and during my phase when I went out of my way deliberately to read challenging books. Tropic of Cancer and the later Tropic of Capricorn will forever be associated in my mind with the summer of 1973 when I spent the whole summer getting a sun tan in the garden and reading ‘serious’ authors like Sartre, Camus etc. Tropic of Cancer was a bit of escapism for me with its depiction of life in a community of bohemians in Paris. It didn’t matter that what Miller often described was squalor and the cold indifference of the city’s inhabitants, for a teenager living in a small mining town in Wales, it still sounded amazing.

Squalor, poverty, loneliness, Paris – what book do those words conjure up for you? For me there is an obvious link to a writer known for his vehement opposition to social injustice. And so we get to my next link. 

Link 5: Down and Out in Paris and London

orwell-downadnoutThis was the first full-length work published under the pen name of George Orwell. Orwell, or to give him his birth name Eric Blair, had gone to Paris in 1929, living in the trendy Latin Quarter along with people like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. At some point he had his money stolen. Whether out of necessity or just to collect material for an essay, he took on casual work as a dishwasher in restaurants. He turned his experience into “A Scullion’s Diary” but it was rejected by Cape. He then added the London section and tried to get Faber & Faber to publish it – only to get the rejection from T. S Eliot who was the editorial director. The book didn’t get published until 1933 but though it had a positive response from other writers, it was another six years before the general reading public began to take an interest in Down and Out in Paris and London. Multiple rejections but then roaring success is the link to my final novel.


Link 6: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

J. K Rowling is now one of the wealthiest authors in the world harry_potterwith an estimated fortune of around  £600million. But the book which set her off on the journey to stardom almost didn’t get published.  Her agent spent a year touting it around the London publishing houses only to get rejection after rejection – a lot of the editors thought it was too long for child readers. It wasn’t until it got into the hands of Bloomsbury’s chief executive Barry Cunningham, that it attracted attention and that was only because, before reading it, he gave it to his eight year old daughter. When she told him it was “so much better than anything else” that he took a closer look and decided it would fit within a portfolio Bloomsbury was creating for children’s literature. He paid Rowling an advance of £2,500. The initial print run of 500 copies in 1997 didn’t indicate Bloomsbury was that convinced. But the book began getting favourable reviews and then won a National Book Award and a gold medal in the 9 to 11 year-olds category of the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize.  The following year, Philosopher’s Stone won almost all the other major British awards that were decided by children.Within two years sales had reached 300,000 and the phenomena of Harry Potter was underway.

From Never Let Me Go to Harry Potter; from science fiction to fantasy via connections I would never have expected to make. It’s been fun finding those links. You can join in the fun with this monthly meme hosted by Kate at the Books Are My Favourite and Best blog.

#6Degrees: From a locked room to the mystery of Shakespeare’s identity

flowersWe begin this month’s Six Degrees of Separation chain #6Degrees with a 1979 novel that was a best-seller:  Flowers in the Attic by V. C. Andrews, a chilling story of four children who, on the death of their father, are hidden in an attic room for years so their mother can get her hands on a legacy. Five further novels were published that feature the same group of children though none had the same level of commercial success as Flowers in the Attic. I remember reading this in the period between finishing my finals exams in university and the results. “Everyone” was reading it that summer. Though it was an antidote to all the heavy literary works I’d had to read for the past three years, I didn’t rate it much. I wasn’t at that stage in my reading life where I was comfortable with abandoning books that were just not hitting the mark but this novel definitely falls into the category of Books That Wasted my Time. They were time wasters because they distracted me from far more interesting reading,

devilEqually time wasting was a series of novels by Dennis Wheatley which I devoured during my mid teens. Quite why I was so enthralled by these stories of black magic written in the 1930s I have no idea. Maybe it was just part of the typical teenage rite of passage where everything dark seems appealing (I recall dressing in black a lot at that stage). The one I recall most was The Devil Rides Out which I think was the first in the series. I won’t bore you with the plot – every book in the series had pretty much the same formula which involved a group of people who are called upon to fight  against the forces of supernatural powers. There was a lot of stuff about the protective power of pentangles as far as I recall.

catcher-1From around the same period comes another book I wish I hadn’t bothered to read: Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger. It was required reading amongst my contemporaries in school and probably its themes of teenage angst and alienation resonated with many of them but it left me cold. I realise in saying this that I am bucking accepted wisdom that this is ‘a great novel’ – it does after all feature on many lists of ‘novels you must read.’  But I couldnt get excited about the disjointed form of the narrative and really couldn’t have cared two hoots about Holden Caulfield and his antics in New York hotels.

gatsbyNor did I care about another ‘classic’: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’m treading on even more dangerous ground by classing this as a ‘time-wasted’ novel; it is after all considered one of the greatest American novels of all time. I did try to like it, reading it more than once. But though I enjoyed the period detail – all those lavish Long Island parties – I found Daisy Buchanan rather foolish and Jay Gatsby pathetic.  I’ve heard several times how ironic this book is in its critique of the American Dream but that was lost on my because I found the novels so SLOW….

 

labyrinth-1At least The Great Gatsby was well written which is more than can be said for the next time waster on my list: Labyrinth by Kate Mosse. Yet another ‘popular’ novel which friends kept pressing me to read. Published in 2005 this is an archaeological mystery English-language novel set both in the Middle Ages and present-day France. It was published in 2005. It divides into two main storylines that follow two protagonists from different time periods who we later discover are related. Ultimately this is a story about the quest for the Holy Grail. I enjoyed some of the historical detail especially the sections set in Carcassonne which I have visited, but this was the novel that demonstrated to me that a) I have too high a level of scepticism to enjoy books which involve secret symbols and codes and b) my friends reading interests do not coincide with mine.

There are not as many time wasting novels these days because I have weened myself off the feeling that once I’ve started reading something I need to finish it, even if I don’t like the book. But now and again a time waster creeps through.  Top of the list was one of the first novels I was sent for review. Today I wouldn’t have got beyond the first few pages but as a new blogger I felt honour bound to review books I got sent for free. Will the Real William Shakespeare please Step Forward was one such book. It is a book so poorly conceived and badly written that should never have seen the light of day. To say any more would be to waste yet more time however and there are better ways I can think of to spend the next few minutes than telling you about a book that should be avoided.

So there you have it; a chain that takes us from a locked room mystery in the USA to a literary quest set in the heart of England.

Six degrees: From Year of Wonders

I’ve never tried my hand at the Six Degrees of Separation but the latest chain resulted in some creative linking by a number of bloggers. It got me thinking what connections I could find.

The chain starts with Year of Wonders, a novel that was an international best seller for Geraldine Brooks. Year of Wonders is based on a true-life story of the small Peak District village of the village of Eyam that put itself in quarantine to prevent the spread of the dreaded bubonic plague. If you don’t know this book, I hope my review will persuade you to beg/borrow/buy it soon.

The plague also makes its appearance in an audio book I just finished – Rembrandt’s Mirror by Kim Deveraux  – which features a young servant who goes to work in the painter’s house in Amsterdam and ends up becoming his muse and model. I won’t reveal exactly how the plague fits in because that would reveal too much of the plot but I can recommend this book if you enjoy historical fiction set in the seventeenth century.

If you’re thinking the servant/painter’s house/Netherlands combination sounds familiar, you wouldn’t be far wrong because this is also the premise of Girl with a Pearl Earring  the best-selling novel by Tracy Chevalier set in the Delft studios of the painter Vermeer.Chevalier said she was inspired to write the book having seen the Vermeer painting at the Mauritshuis art museum in The Hague (you can hear her Ted talk on this here).

From the Mauritshuis it’s but a short step to the United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. This is a key location in   Edna O’Brien’s most recent novel The Little Red Chairs in which a war criminal known in his country as the Beast of Bosnia is found hiding in a remote Irish village. He is captured and taken to the Hague to stand trial for genocide just as Radovan Karadžić was and sentenced earlier this year to 40 years’ imprisonment for atrocities and war crimes.

Violence and crime committed during war also feature large in the novel I’ve just finished reading – Moskva by Jack Grimwood. It’s a page turner of a thriller that begins with the discovery of a young boy’s body at the foot of the Kremlin and the disappearance of the British Ambassador’s daughter. The year is 1985 and Gorbachev is the man who has just taken the hot seat as leader of the Soviet Union with the intent of rescuing the crumbling economic and political system. The plot takes us back to 1945 and the Russian advance on Berlin. What happened then is something the KGB and the Politburo would prefer remain a secret but they have a determined adversary in the form of Major Tom Fox, a man used to going undercover in some of the world’s hottest spots.

Moscow. Snow.  KGB. Bodies. It wouldn’t be a thriller set in Russia without these features and they don’t get much better than Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith, published in 1981. The story follows Arkady Renko, a chief investigator for the Militsiya, (the civil police) who is assigned to a case involving three corpses found in Gorky Park, an amusement park in Moscow, who have had their faces and fingertips cut off by the murderer to prevent identification. So realistic a picture did it depict of everyday life in pre-Glasnost era, that the book was immediately banned in the USSR. It’s still one of the best thrillers I’ve read set in Russia.

So in six smallish journeys we’ve gone from plague to political intrigue and from a small village in England to  a Dutch city in its golden years and from painters to men determined to get to the truth.

 

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