Six Degrees of Separation

Six degrees from chocolate to famine

It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, a meme where a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.

This month’s chain begins with a book I have never heard of let alone read. It’s Like Water for Chocolate, a debut work by the Mexican author Laura Esquivel. Apparently the central character grows up to be a master chef, using cooking to express herself and sharing recipes with readers.

The obvious choice for chocolate lovers like myself would be to the best selling novel Chocolat by Joanne Harris. But I think for my first link I’ll use the location where chefs work rather than the ingredients they use.

In 1929, an aspiring author by the name of Eric Blair arrived in Paris. Whether out of necessity because he had his money stolen, or because he wanted to gather material for a book, he began working as a dishwasher in some of the city’s restaurants. The result was  Down and Out in Paris and London, the first full-length work by an author better known as George Orwell.

Paris of course likes to think of itself as the gourmet capital of the world. The recently-published Michelin guide lists 10 restaurants in the city awarded the coveted 3 stars        (remarkably however this achievement is outdone by Tokyo with twelve 3-star restaurants).  Gourmet restaurants attract gourmands which gives me my next book in the chain.

The GourmetThe Gourmet by Muriel Barbery features Pierre Arthens, the greatest food critic in France. In the final two days of his life he wants to track down the most delicious food he has ever eaten. It’s a flavour he recalls from the years before he was critic though he is not exactly sure if it came from his childhood or his adolescent years. As he digs into his memory, he remembers all the dishes he has relished over the years, like this ” Pan roasted breast of Peking duck rubbed with berbère; grapefruit crumble à la Jamaïque with shallot confit … ”

Before I stopped eating meat I was quite partial to duck though I don’t find the combination of fowl and grapefruit very appealing. But then I’m not a gourmand.

The Sea, The SeaAll those descriptions of food do however remind me of another character who thinks he has a refined palette. So for my next link let’s leave France behind and move to the English coast to catch up with Charles Arrowby, the central character in Iris Murdoch’s Booker-prize winning novel The Sea, The Sea. Charles, who considers he has had a highly successful career as a London stage director, retires to a bit of a tumbledown seaside cottage to write his memoirs. In between writing and swimming, he prepares his own meals, some of which sound frankly bizarre.

For lunch, I may say, I ate and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil i essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London)

I could manage the anchovy paste on toast quite easily but baked beans and kidney beans on the same plate would be a step too far. I’m beginning to think duck and grapefruit wouldn’t be so bad after all….

Charles thinks he is irresistable to women but the protagonist in the novel for my next link would certainly not be one happy to share his lunch table and it’s nothing to do with his after shave.

AtwoodMarian McAlpin, the protagonist of The Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood, has a problem with food. Meat revolts her but so do eggs, carrots and even rice puddings. Soon she is existing on little other than salad leaves.  Her revulsion with food is symbolic of her rejection of the kind of behaviour expected of her as a woman. On the eve of her marriage she struggles against the idea that her change of status will mean she can no longer be herself. Atwood’s first novel was considered a landmark when it was published in 1969 because of its themes about gender stereotyping and objectification of women.

the vegetarian-1Fast forward some forty years and we find in my next link another author using women’s relationship with food to tackle the same issue.  The Vegetarian by Han Kang was one of the most extraordinary and disturbing books I’ve read in many years.   Yeong-hye is a docile, obedient South Korean wife until the day she decides to stop eating meat. In the eyes of her husband and family this is an act of gross rebellion against their culture so they try to force her to eat. It doesn’t work. She stops eating all together in the belief she is a tree and hence needs sustenance only from the earth.

The starvation both Yeong-hye and Marian McAlpine experience is the product of mental disturbance but for the protagonist in my next, and final link, starvation is thrust upon her by a force over which she has no control.


White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen takes a real life event in his native Finland, a devastating famine in 1867 that resulted from a series of poor harvests. The food shortage co-incided with a particularly harsh winter. In desperation Marja, a peasant farmer’s wife from the north, abandons her dying husband and sets off on foot through waist-high snow with her two young children. They trudge from village to village, sometimes supported by strangers but just as often turned away and denied even a morsel of bread. It’s a bleak book, and not just because of the many descriptions of the barren, inhospitable landscape, but because of what it says about human nature when faced on the doorstep with suffering.

It’s a sombre note on which to end this chain …



What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

23 thoughts on “Six degrees from chocolate to famine

  • A sombre note, but it’s good to remember we are never that far from famine.

    • Sadly that is the case – what annoys the hell out of me is when famine happens in a country where the government leaders have become incredibly wealthy but then expect other countries to bale them out

  • buriedinprint

    What a delicious combination of works. Esquivel’s book is a long-time favourite; I still think of her when I am cooking certain dishes!

    • I had never heard of the book until it came through as the prompt for the latest six degrees chain. Interesting idea on which to base a book though.

  • Great chain, Karen. I thought Hunger was superb. Beautiful writing despite it’s utter bleakness.

    • It was painful to read White Hunger, especially those scenes were she is turned away when all she wants is a piece of bread

  • From chocolate to famine is indeed an unusual path but full of wonderful books in there!

    • Its fun to do these chains because you never know where they are going to take you

  • Very clever link between The Edible Woman and The Vegetarian – I had all but forgotten about The Edible Woman… (even in this period of Atwood-mania!).

    I loved The Gourmet – the descriptions of food were fabulous but it was the punchline ending that won me.

    • Do you know I can’t remember how The Gourmet ends ….

      • That happens to be often. I say it’s because the plot is often the least interesting thing to me as I’m reading so when I get to the end, I usually think, fair enough and then wonder about the meaning of the book, the author’s intent and how s/he went about achieving it.

        • with me its sometimes that I feel the ending is the weak spot of the novel

        • Well EM Forster famously agreed, I’d say, when he said he Wishes novels could just end when the author has said what they want to say! I think he has a point. For me, I think, it’s mostly about the journey. I rarely wonder too much about how it’s going to end.

          BTW my husband and I have given up watching THE FALL because the journey was becoming just too grim and we suspected there wasn’t going to be an ending even at the end of the second series BUT that’s crime and I probably do like an ending (aka resolution there).

        • Oh yes crime has to come to a conclusion for me too because I am such a duffer I need someone to come forward at the end to explain everything.

      • Without spoiling it, his favourite food was something quite ordinary…

        • I am now going to have to find a copy of this book in the library and look up the ending.

  • Great selection of books, some I’ve been eyeing off and some I’ve never heard of before. That’s what I love about this meme.

    • It astonishes me how vastly different the chains are even when everyone starts at the same place

  • Fascinating list Karen. You made me laugh with “I could manage the anchovy paste on toast quite easily but baked beans and kidney beans on the same plate would be a step too far. I’m beginning to think duck and grapefruit wouldn’t be so bad after all….” Must say, the idea of Duck and Grapefruit doesn’t greatly appeal to me either.

    I don’t think I’ve read a Finnish book. This sounds – hmm – good.Love the cover.

    And, I like your post heading, chocolate to famine. Very good!

    • Its one that does lend itself to a re-read. It’s years since I last looked at it though


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