Category Archives: Six Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees: From How to Do Nothing to Americanah

This month’s Six Degrees begins with a book whose title suggests it falls into the self-help category. Since I’m invariably disappointed by the superficiality of most of those books I haven’t given much thought to How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell.

But reading the descriptions have got me far more interested. Odell is an artist is a writer and a Stanford professor who has become increasingly disturbed about the effects of our “always on” world. She argues that reacting instantly to every ping of a new text message, constantly checking Twitter feeds and Instagram stories is possibly torching our ability to live meaningful lives, and preventing us from noticing what matters.

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A similar concern formed the basis of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. If you’ve not read it, this is a thought-provoking, and disturbing account of research that shows how the Internet is re-wiring our brains so they become more accustomed to only superficial understanding. We don’t read what’s on our screens, we simply scan with a profound consequence for how we retain and recall information and learn.

Carr’s book was based on the distraction problem caused by content stuffed with hyperlinks, every one of which was calling for your attention. If he was writing it now, he’d be commenting on the added distraction caused by all the marketing messages that bombard us every time we fire up a website or a social media platform. They’re there for one reason, and one reason only: to persuade us to buy.

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The same year I read The Shallows I read The Undercover Economist in which Tim Harford delved into the world of coffee shop marketing. He explains in non-technical terms how Starbucks and other coffee chains price their coffee and drinks to try and get us to trade up.

The economic principles are quite straightforward. Your entry level Americano doesn’t offer much of a profit margin. But add in frothy milk, and call it a latte or a cappuccino and the profit looks more healthy. The ingredient costs don’t go up that significantly but your customers think they’re buying into a life style so they’re willing to pay higher prices. Persuade those same customers they really need (deserve?) a flavoured syrup, a squirt of cream or a sprinkle of marshmallows ( heaven help us, some people want all three) and those profit margins rocket.

I guarantee, when you’ve read Harford’s chapters on Who Pays For Your Coffee and What Supermarkets Don’t Want You To Know, you will never look at a coffee menu in the same way.

Marketing is much older than maybe some of us realise. Émile Zola had his finger on the button in 1883 when he set one of his Rougon-Macquet novels in a Parisienne shop.

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In The Ladies’ Paradise the store owner Octave Mouret has grand ambitions to become more than just a modest size operation. He sets about creating a huge department store, killing off his competitors with his big advertising spend, ‘no questions asked’ returns policy, rapid home delivery and seasonal sales. Mouret uses the mechanisms of seduction, transforming everything for sale into an object of desire, enticing women to lose their heads and buy far more than they need or can afford.

Into this den of consumerism steps Denise Baudu, a young orphaned provincial girl who takes a job in the store because she has to provide for her two younger brothers. She’s taught to smile and agree with customers even when they’re being completely disagreeable, arrogant and rude.

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There are similar scenes in Brooklyn by Colm Toibin which transplants the young Eilis Lacey from her small village life in Ireland, to the bustle of Brooklyn. Ellis, accustomed to the sales technique of the harridan who ran the village shop (customers who want cleaning products on the Sabbath re given short shrift), is nervous as hell when she begins her job in an American department store. Here she’s told, the customer is always right and its Ellis’ job to serve their every need.

Brooklyn is a love story but also a story about the experience of people who leave their homes in search of what they believe will be a better life.

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We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo picks up this theme through the story of Darling, a young teenager who manages to escape the poverty, hunger and despair of Zimbabwe to live with her aunt in “Destroyedmichygen” (Detroit, Michigan).

At first she is surprised by the astonishing variety and plenitude of food, by the wealth of everyday choices. She adopts the new lifestyle, the clothes and habits of her new friends. But then she begins to feel alienated from her motherland and her new life; missing all the traditions and beliefs she grew up with, and at the same time detached from the hectic life of easy gratification in America. 

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It’s a book that reminded me strongly of sections in Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which a brilliant exploration of modern attitudes to race and identity, loss and loneliness.

Her female protagonist Ifemulu, having achieved her dream of a place at an American university struggles to find her identity. Ultimately this girl triumphs when she decides not to conform to expectations about her ethnic origins and colour. The moment she stops hiding her Nigerian accent beneath an American one and refuses to straighten her hair she feels truly free and true to her roots.

And with that we reach the end of this month’s Six Degrees chain. We’ve travelled from France, Nigeria and Zimbabwe to the USA, pausing to pick up a coffee and get our hair done. I hope you’ve enjoyed my meanderings.

If you’re interested in taking part in Six Degrees yourself, take a look at the information provided by our host Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best

Six Degrees: From What I Loved to The Unequelled Self of Samuel Pepys

I can’t believe a month has already passed since my last attempt at Six Degrees of Separation. It always creeps up on me by surprise.

This month we begin with a novel that (once again) I haven’t read. A quick Internet search tells me that What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt concerns an art historian who discovers an extraordinary painting by an unknown artist in a New York gallery.

Hustvedt played with the theme of the unknown artist in her later novel The Blazing World. It’s about a frustrated artist whose work has been ignored by the art world for years. As an experiment she decides to exhibit under the name of three young male artists. The Blazing World was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2014. I started to read it but ran out of time before the library copy had to be returned.

Another of the longlisted books that year also had an art related theme. I loved How to Be Both by Ali Smith which pairs parallel narratives of a teenage girl and a 15th-century Renaissance artist. One of the narratives features  Francesco del Cossa, a real-life figure who produced a series of frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, near Bologna, Italy. 

Smith was inspired to write the novel after she saw a magazine picture of a section of Francesco del Cossa’s frieze. Tracy Chevalier was similarly inspired by a painting when she wrote her best-selling novel Girl with a Pearl Earring  In a Ted Talk she described how, when she views a portrait in a gallery, she tries to imagine the story that lies behind the image. Her novel envisaged a relationship between a new maid servant who arrives at the home of the painter Johannes Vermeer.

Let’s stay in the Netherlands for my next book in the chain, though we’ll have to leave Delft and move to Amsterdam, the setting of Rembrandt’s Mirror by Kim Deveraux. This is such a good book I’m surprised it hasn’t had more attention. Deveraux shows the artist in his twilight years, struggling to regain his artistic inspiration after the death of his beloved wife and muse, Saskia. The catalyst for change is another young servant girl who is initially shocked at Rembrandt’s unconventional life but is gradually drawn into his world.

Rembrandt’s house is filled with secrets and desires but there is also tragedy as a result of the plague. Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death, gives me my next link.

In 1665 an outbreak of the plague swept across Asia and Europe. In Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, it reaches the small village of Eyam in England’s Peak District. As the villagers begin to die, they take the extraordinary decision to put Eyam into quarantine to prevent further spread of the infection. Brooks based the novel on historical fact – visitors to Eyam today will find commemorative plaques outside cottages whose inhabitants were among the 80% of villagers estimated to have succumbed to the plague.

In the novel, the infection is believed to have arrived with a travelling tailor from London.

Which brings me very neatly to Samuel Pepys whose diary gives a vivid account of how the plague that year affected the capital city. I happen to be listening to audio recording of his diaries at the moment, based on a recommendation from Travelling Penguin. For my final link in the chain however, I’m choosing a different Pepys-related book.

The Unequelled Self is a magnificent biography of Samuel Pepys written by Claire Tomalin. The diaries, she learned didn’t tell the whole picture of his rise from humble origins to some of the most important positions in the country. She filled in the gaps using contemporary letters and diaries, Admiralty papers, judicial reports, memoirs and biographies. It’s a fascinating story told often in dramatic fashion and highly readable.

So that brings this month’s chain to end on the suitably topical subject of plague and pestilence. I hope next month’s starting book gives us a a chance to talk about more cheery topics. If you’re interested in taking part in Six Degrees yourself, take a look at the information provided by our host Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best

6 Degrees From Normal People To Turn Of The Screw

We start this month’s Six Degrees Of Separation with Normal People by Sally Rooney, a novel it’s been impossible to ignore since the BBC adaption went live a few weeks ago.  

I’ve not read it but do have a copy of the book, having had it thrust into my hands by a very enthusiastic niece. Will I read it? Probably at some point though when a novel has garnered as much attention as this one has, I tend to lose interest.

It’s about a complex relationship that begins when Marianne and Connell are at school together. Their lives weave in and out of each other as students at Trinity College, Dublin.

On-off relationship. University students. Sound familiar? It should do because this is the territory of another best selling book (and another successful film): One Day by David Nicholls.

The novel visits the lives and relationship of two people who get together as new graduates at Edinburgh University. The narrative spans a couple of decades with each chapter focusing on their situation on a single date: 15 July (St Swithin’s Day). While their friendship endures, coincidences and misunderstandings keep conspiring to prevent it flourishing into something more.

One Day reminded me of another artfully constructed novel about missed opportunities and the choices we make in life. The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett imagines three versions of one woman’s life, starting from an episode on a day when she is cycling to a university lecture. Each version stems from a decision she makes on that day and asks ‘what if this had happened instead, what if she hadn’t missed that opportunity?“.

Opportunities of course are not the only things in life that go missing.

In Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey it’s not things, but people who have gone missing. Ninety-year-old Maud had a sister called Sukey who disappeared without trace seventy years earlier. Now Maud’s long-term friend Elizabeth seems to have gone missing. No-one believes her but Maid is convinced something is wrong and she will not rest until she finds an answer.

A missing girl leads me to Kate Hamer’s debut novel, The Girl in the Red Coat , in which a young girl wanders away from her mother during a story-telling festival, and is abducted by a religious extremist. This is a dark psychological novel that cleverly alludes to the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale.

Every time I see the title of that book I think of the film Don’t Look Now, a thriller based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier in a 1971 collection of the same title. The story depicts a married couple who visit Venice in the wake of the accidental death of their daughter. Traumatised by grief, the husband begins to experience mysterious sightings, including the figure of a small child wearing a red coat similar to the one his daughter was wearing when she died.

It’s a story that follows some of the conventions of the Gothic ghost story as does my final choice in this chain, which also happens to be a short story.

The Turn of The Screw by Henry James was originally viewed as simply a spooky story about the experience of a young governess and children in her care who are tormented by two ghosts at an isolated country manor house. Later interpretations suggest that the ghosts are hallucinations, the products of a delusional mind.

So that’s my #6Degrees; moving from a novel of love to a dark about a disturbed mind. From Normal People to maybe An Abnormal Person?? It wasn’t the chain I originally planned but as I was writing it, entirely different connections came to mind. Not sure what that says about the condition of my own imagination!

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

6 Degrees From The Road to The Arctic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 Degrees From Stasiland to Larkin

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

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

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

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

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

The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

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

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

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

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

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

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

Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch

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

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

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

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

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

What will survive of us is love.

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

6 Degrees From Wolfe Island to Climate Change

This month we begin with Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar a novel I know little about except that the island in question is being destroyed by rising rising sea levels. 

I’m picking up that eco theme for my first book. We’re heading south in search of warmer climes. Our destination is the Caribbean. In Archipelago by Monique Roffey, a father and daughter flee their home on the island of Trinidad when heavy rains are forecast. They are still scarred by the family tragedy that occurred only a year earlier when a torrent of muddy water destroyed their home. As they sail via archipelegos along the Venezuelan and Colombian coast towards the Galapagos Islands, they see the damaging effect of tourism on  fragile natural environments.

My next link is to another novel which reflects on the issues of climate change. Riverflow by Alison Layland takes us to a small riverside community that rises up in protest at the threat their fields and woods will be destroyed by a fracking operation. Tensions mount as the rain beats down relentlessly and the river rises to an ominously high level.

Floods have sadly become a very topical issue here in Wales in recent weeks. Storm Dennis brought chaos when river levels rose to unprecedented levels, leaving thousands of homes and businesses under water. Environmentalist experts have warned we can expect these “once in a generation” events to happen more frequently as the climate warms up.

For days local newspapers, television and radio stations talked about little else other than the floods. But that topic has now been pushed down the news agenda by the prospect of a Coronovirus pandemic.

Which gives me my third link.

In Station 11 by Emily St John Mandel, the world is gripped by a flu pandemic so virulent its victims die within 48 hours. In a few short weeks Georgia Flu sweeps across the globe and claims the lives of 99.99 per cent of the world’s population. The few survivors must learn to live without power, mechanised transport or antibiotics. (talk of antibacterial hand washes, toilet paper and Happy Birthday to You on repeat cycle are long past).

I wish I could offer you something less depressing but it doesn’t get any better because my next book gives us something else to worry about: nuclear war.

The Last by Hanna Jameson opens shortly after a nuclear war destroys much of the Western world. Twenty guests at a hotel deep in the Swiss countryside learn the truth in text messages sent hurriedly by their loved ones in the destroyed cities. Cut off from the outside world and fearful whether help will arrive, when they discover the body of a young girl they are confronted with another fear: that one of them is a killer.

The Last is a locked room/dystopian fiction mash up. Unfortunately the mix of genres doesn’t work that well. The mystery of who killed the girl fizzles out and the dystopian element lacks true menace. The guests seem more concerned about food supplies than they are about the risk of radiation spreading to their part of the world.

Nevil Shute did a far better job of conveying the imminent threat of radiation fallout. On the Beach details the experiences of a mixed group of people in Australia, one of the few habitable places left on earth after a nuclear war.

As monitoring reports indicate the steady southward progression of the deadly radiation, the Australian government provides citizens with free suicide pills and injections so they can avoid prolonged suffering. They also despatch a submarine to track down the source of a mysterious and incomprehensible radio signal originating from Seattle, Washington.

Early editions of the book includes the most famous lines from T S Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men:

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Whether the future comes via a bang or a whimper, unless you’re a climate change denier, you’ll know the signs are not good. Fires; floods; melting ice caps; threatened species give us a general idea of the problems we face..

But the author of my final book in this chain argues that we don’t know the half of it yet. The situation is “worse, much worse, than you think.” says David Wallace-Wells,  in The Uninhabitable Earth. In short chapters he covers the brutal reality of problems like “Dying Oceans”; “Unbreathable Air” and “Plagues of Warming”. He deliberately sets out to shock – and he succeeded. Though short, it’s an intense read. By the time I got to the end I was in a panic.

And on that sobering note I think it’s time I brought this chain to an end. We started on one small island but ended up thinking about the future of the whole planet. I’ll try to be more up beat in next month’s Six Degrees chain.

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