Six Degrees from Ali Smith to Susan Hill
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation begins with a book that has divided opinion ever since it was published in 2014.
How to Be Both by Ali Smith contains two stories. One story features the Italian renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa, a real-life figure who produced a series of frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy. The other story, relates to a teenage girl called George whose mother has just died and who is left struggling to make sense of her death with her younger brother and her emotionally disconnected father.
The book was published in such a way that readers might either begin with Francesco or with George. My copy opened with the Italian artist and I was immediately captivated. (see my review here ). But I know quite a number of bloggers whose opinion I value didn’t rate the book at all.
How to Be Both was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize but the prize went instead to the Australian author Richard Flanagan with The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
This was such a superb book that I’ve struggled to write a review that would do it justice. It’s one of the few Booker prize winners that I want to re-read.
This is a novel set in the context of one of the most infamous episodes in World War 2: the construction of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway. At the heart of Flanagan’s novel is an Australian surgeon, Dorrigo Evans, who to his astonishment becomes something of a legend for his wartime courage at a Japanese POW camp on the Death Railway. The novel ends with an encounter between Evans and one of those captors.
A similar encounter takes place in The Railway Man by Eric Lomax.
This is an autobiography in which Lomax relates his experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II during which he was forced to work on construction of the help Thai-Burma Railway. The book won the NCR Book Award (until it closed in 1997 it was the major UK award for non-fiction) and became a film starring Colin Firth.
A later winner of the prize was another of my all-time favourites – Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang.
This is a family history spans more than a century of China’s history told through the lives of three female generations of Chang’s family. Chang’s mother was a member of Mao’s Red Army while Chang herself willingly joined Red Guards though she recoiled from some of their brutal actions.
As time progresses, life under Mao and his Cultural Revolution became more difficult and dangerous, causing immense suffering. Parts of the book are heart-wrenching as we learn of citizens rallying to a call for metal so it could be turned into weapons, giving up their cooking pots and pans to avoid being denounced by the regime.
My fourth book also recounts times of hardship for the peasants of China.
The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck (my review is here ) is a tale of the fluctuating fortunes of two families: the peasant farmer Wang Lung and his wife O-lan and the rich, wealthy House of Hwang headed by The Old Lord and the Old Mistress. His land is the essence of Lung’s being. When the harvests fail and his family have no more grain or rice to eat, they move to the city where they are reduced to living in a makeshift hut . But Lung always dreams of returning to his land.
The novel won Buck the Pulitzer Prize and was a key factor in her award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938 “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces.
That accolade of “biographical masterpiece” from the members of the Swedish Academy could equally apply to my next choice: Samuel Pepys – The Unequaled Self by Claire Tomalin.
Pepys’ story is an extraordinary one: his origins were humble (he was a tailor’s son) but he became one of the most wealthy and powerful government figures in England in the seventeenth century. He’s most famed of course for his diaries in which he described his daily domestic routine and gave us an account of landmark events such as the Great Fire of London.
Tomalin does a superb job of bringing the man to life, weaving extracts from his diary into details from contemporary letters and official court documents. I read this seven years ago and still remember some of the episodes she relates. (my review is here)
Pepys loved hearing gossip. He also loved to collect books. In his will, made shortly before his death in 1708, he bequeathed his vast library to Magdalene College, Oxford. It remains there to this day.
Not on the same scale as Pepys but the final book in my chain was written by another avid ‘collector’.
The author Susan Hill lives in an old and rambling farmhouse full of cosy fireside nooks and aged beams. It’s also full of bookcases overflowing with books. Howards End is on the Landing ( see my review here)recounts the year she decided to ‘repossess’ these books. For a year she read only those books already occupying a space in her shelves (or on the floor), foregoing the purchase of anything new.
Would that I were disciplined not to buy new books until I had read the old. But my experiment with restraint lasted only a few months.
Six Degrees of Separation #6Degrees is a monthly meme hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to begin with one book title, and then make a chain of six other books. I’ve made one rule for myself – all the books in the chains I create are ones I have read though not necessarily reviewed. I never cease to be astonished at the level of variety across all the bloggers who take part in this meme.
28 thoughts on “Six Degrees from Ali Smith to Susan Hill”
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I love this chain – not least because, unusually, I have read nearly all these books. The exception is ‘The Good Earth’ which I am now encouraged to try, though with some trepidation, never having read anything by Pearl Buck before.
Like you, I can see myself re-reading the Richard Flanagan book at some point. I rarely read a book more than once, but for some reason this rule doesn’t apply to classics. I wonder if other readers make this distinction? I seem to come back to Jane Austen (all her novels) and ‘Middlemarch’ again and again, but novels published in the last 50 years rarely get a second reading.
All of the books in your chain are ones I do not regret reading. ‘Wild Swans’ was challenging, but my absolute favourite on this list is Claire Tomalin’s biography of Pepys.
Great list – thank you!
Well one definition of a classic is that it can be re-read and re-read. I don’t often find a contemporary novel that stands up to that test…. Flanagan’s is the exception. No need to be nervous about Pearl Buck, its not that challenging in terms of narrative style
A great chain, Karen! Like you, I loved the Flanagan so much I couldn’t review it. I have the Lomax in my TBR so I must dig it out for a read. I went through a Chinese literature phase in 2010/11 having spent a month there and the Good Earth was the first book I read and I loved it. I got about a third of the way through Wild Swans and never got around to finishing it, not because it was a bad book but because I was ill for a week and couldn’t read so it got put aside and I just never picked it up again. Your post is a good reminder to give it another go.
What else did you read from Chinese literature Kim? I’ve only come across Lan Yianke , Mo Yan and Ma Jian (though not read). Any experience with these?
I read Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma and thought it was one of the best novels I’d ever read… it’s more than 600 pages so requires some commitment, but I bloody loved it! Can’t think about Tianamen Square without thinking of this book now.
I also read his travelogue Red Dirt, which was intriguing but I had some reservations about — mainly in the form of the narrative voice, which is a bit arrogant and sexist.
Lan Yianke’s novel Dream of Ding Village is worth a read; it’s an eye-opening account of what happens when blood banks are not regulated. Admittedly, it’s a rather grim and depressing story but it will give you a newfound appreciation of the NHS!
Thanks for the insight Kim, shall add Beijing Coma to my list for sure
Enjoyed your chain – as usual I’ve read none of them! I didn’t know Tomalin had done a bio of Pepys – I must see if I can fit that in at some point…
It’s also available on audio and I have a feeling would work really well in that format
Smart set of links, Karen. You’ve brought back bookselling memories with Wild Swans and The Railway Man. Hard to keep in stock so popular were they in their day.
Their popularity was justified – I can’t always say that about some books that get to the top of the best seller list (celeb memoirs especially)
That’s a great chain! I’ve actually just put a post together asking for recommendations of books set in China – I have already read and loved Wild Swans, but not The Good Earth, so I will definitely have to consider reading that one.
I’d never heard of The Good Earth but a friend in Korea recommended it – there is a sequel apparently
I couldn’t read the Flanagan or the Lomax as they have too many personal ties for me. It always amazed me that when The Bridge Over the River Kwai was released ex-FEPOWs were offered free tickets. For many it was the last thing they wanted to be reminded of.
How crass to offer those tickets. Anyone with an ounce of common sense could have said that was a bad idea.
I’ve read The Good Earth a while ago, it was good. Now I need to add some of your other choices to my TBR list. I’m particulalry drawn to the two WW2 books.
Both are excellent though in very different ways Rosie
Another good chain. I loved How to Be Both. My copy started with the present day story and I did not even know there was a choice! It didn’t matter for me. I read the biography of Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin. It was excellent.
Thanks for the tip re Charles Dickens – I did read the one by Peter Ackroyd but wasn’t blown away.
I enjoyed the books you linked. I have only read Wild Swans which I loved and Howards End which I enjoyed despite various reviews. I have Flanagan’s book sitting on my shelf and will read it but haven’t yet. As he is from Tasmania there was so much hype about it I got tired of hearing nothing but…so put it on hold. You know how that goes🤠tr
I can only imagine how much exposure Flanagan got at the time. Not that he needs it – he is already highly regarded isn’t it?
I think this has to be my favourite of all the chains you’ve ever done! I’ve read most of your choices and I really like the way you’ve made them flow from one to the other.
Like you, I struggled to write a review of the Flanagan, such a powerful book, I can see scenes from it even as I write this.
I like the sound of that Pepys. I recently read a fictionalised ‘diary’ by his wife and it made me realise that I really should read him too.
Bless you Lisa, your comment got my day off to a good start… I keep meaning to read Pepys too – mostly what is available in bookshops is the condensed version. Could be enough to begin with though…..
I’ve never heard of that Ali Smith book, but the fact that there’s different editions that start with different stories is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard! What a great idea.
Some people thought it was just a gimmick but I thought it was an inventive way to tell a story
Even if it is gimmicky, I still like the idea of it! haha
An interesting chain! It’s always so intriguing to see the differences on the various blogs! 😀
You seldom see the same book (other than the starting one) mentioned by different contributors..All the chains take vastly different paths