Blog Archives

Six Degrees of Separation: From China to South Africa

Hosted each month by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, the Six Degrees of Separation meme picks a starting book for participants to go wherever it takes them in six more steps. As always the books I’ve chosen for my  chain are ones I’ve read though not necessarily reviewed.

Wild SwansThis month we begin with a book that made a huge impression on me Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang which traces three generations through some of the most momentous decades in the history of that country 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.

Wild Swans is banned in China so I could go down that path for my first link but I’m going to stick with China and the Mao regime.

Mao's Last Dancer

Mao’s Last Dancer is the autobiography of Li Cunxin, a boy who was plucked from a peasant family in rural China to become a trainee ballet dancer in Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy.  He and another student got a a chance to study abroad in America as an exchange student – there he discovered that everything he had been told about America was a lie. The book recounts his desire for freedom and determination to perfect his talent under a regime that did not value individual talent and freedom of experession.

The effects of an oppressive regime on the artistic spirit give me my next link.

madeleinethein

Do Not Say We have Nothing by Madeleine Thein (my review is here) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and (in my humble opinion) should have been the winner.  The Booker judges thought otherwise but the novel was critically acclaimed and did pick up a number of other prizes including the Canadian Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards for Fiction.  It’s an astonishingly ambitious novel that covers the Cultural Revolution in China but brings us up to the Tianenman Square massacre of 1989. This is the background against which she sets her story of three talented musicians  whose lives are turned upside down when the government decides their music is not appropriate to the new order.  Thein is Canadian yet her fiction predominantly deals with the Asia. Which gives me my next link: authors who write convincingly about other cultures and settings. 

tenderness_of_wolves.jpg

Stef Penny hails from Scotland but she chose the unforgiving landscape of Canada’s Northern Territory for her debut novel The Tenderness of Wolves. It’s a historical adventure of murder and abduction set in the 1860s that went on to win the 2006 Costa Book Award. Reviewers and judges remarked on the authentic atmosphere of her novel yet Penney had never set foot in Canada – she was suffering from agoraphobia at the time of writing this novel so did all the research in the libraries of London. The snowy landscape of this novel gives me an obvious next link….

Miss Smilla

Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow is a 1992 novel by the Danish author Peter Høeg. It’s typically described as a murder mystery and it does indeed feature the murder of a young boy and a quest by Miss Smilla Jaspersen to find the culprit. But it’s also about the legacy of Denmark and its  relationship with its near neighbour Sweden, its native Inuit people and about the different kinds of snow. Smilla’s father is a famous Danish doctor, but her mother was a Greenlander; hence her feeling for snow.  During the course of the novel we are introduced to many native terms used to distinguish big flakes from frozen drifts and experience the beauty of the landscape.

The concluding chapters of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow sees  Smilla travel through the Arctic ice in search of the truth, a journey which links me to a novel written by an author born 220 years ago this week.

Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s Gothic tale Frankenstein is a novel I dislike intensely. I find most of it so highly improbable as to be unreadable. It does have two really stand-out episodes however. One is the scene where the Creature manufactured by the scientist Victor Frankenstein is first revealed – it’s a hideous figure with yellow eyes and skin that barely conceals the muscle tissue and blood vessels underneath. The second is when Frankenstein tracks his creation to the North Pole and pursues him with a dogsled with the intent of revenging the murder of his bride.

Revenge and experimentation give me my sixth and final link.
The-Monsters-Daughter

The Monster’s Daughter is a debut novel by Michelle Pretorius set in South Africa. (my review is here). It begins during the time of the Boer War when a doctor in a British concentration camp begins conducting genetic experiments on female prisoners. Two children survive as freaks of nature. The novel then follows their lives through the period of apartheid rule and into the new South Africa.

And now I’ve realised that unintentionally my chain began and ended with books that feature oppressive regimes yet we’ve travelled many thousands of miles from China, to Canada, the Arctic and South Africa.

Update September 5 : I corrected the text based on Marit’s comment.

Shopgirl to doctor’s wife in six steps

shopgirlThis month’s Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, begins with Shopgirl –  a novella written by  the comedian Steve Martin (who then turned it into a film).  Since I’ve never heard of it, nor read it, nor have any interest in doing so, I’ve had to rely on an internet search to tell me its meant to be a love story.

Well of course the obvious link would be to the novella based on the film love storyof that name, yes i’m talking about Love Story. The one written by Eric Segal that includes the immensely sugary line “love is never having to say you’re sorry’ and whose film version has Ali McGraw looking stunning even when she is dying (how insensitive of the producers to all the cancer patients who end up ravaged by disease). But yes, I confess I did read the book and watched the film. And yes I did cry. But I’m sure you’ll forgive my youthful folly…

dombey and sonSo lets hop quickly to another death-bed scene which comes trailing clouds of sentimentality. For this I have to turn to the master of sentimentality himself, Mr Charles Dickens. Death crops up a lot in his novels – not surprising given the mortality rates experienced in the 19th century – and he seems often to wallow in those scenes. One that comes to mind for me is the death of Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son.  His demise doesn’t come as any great shock – Dickens drops enough hints for us to know he is never going to fulfil his father’s dream of a son to inherit the Dombey trading empire. Paul’s deathbed scene comes with the kind of lush prose beloved of Dickens.

When the sunbeams struck into his room through the rustling blinds, and quivered on the opposite wall like golden water, he knew that evening was coming on, and that the sky was red and beautiful.  As the reflection died away, and a gloom went creeping up the wall, he watched it deepen, deepen, deepen, into night.  Then he thought how the long streets were dotted with lamps, and how the peaceful stars were shining overhead.  His fancy had a strange tendency to wander to the river, which he knew was flowing through the great city; and now he thought how black it was, and how deep it would look, reflecting the hosts of stars — and more than all, how steadily it rolled away to meet the sea.

Dombey and Son is about commerce and the dehumanising effects of industrialisation on society. But the real force of the novel comes from the way he depicts the coming of the railways and how it transforms a nation.  “There were railway hotels, office-houses, lodging-houses, boarding-houses; railway plans, maps, views … There was even railway time observed in clocks, as if the sun itself had given in.”

Dickens was a rail enthusiast but he also recognised its destructive power. An early chapter gives an unforgettable description of how railway construction is a kind of “earthquake” that destroys the old community of Camden Town in London. He turns it into a force that bursts with energy and ultimately into a monster that brings death to one of the characters.

One memorable scene has a train that seems out of control and it shriek, roars and la bete humainerattles through the English countryside. It reminds me of Emile Zola’s novel La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast) which has a tremendously vivid and exciting scene involving a runaway train. Railways are central to the plot of this novel – the main character Jacques Lantier (the human beast of the title) is an engine driver who has a passionate affair with his cousin Flore. And as in Dombey and Son the train proves to be a means of death. You’ll just have to read the book if you want to know who dies. If you’ve not read it yet, I urge you to do so soon because this is a wonderfully taut psychological tale about madness and obsession and whether murderers are the result of nature:

As if one killed by calculation! A person kills only from an impulse that springs from his blood and sinews, from the vestiges of ancient struggles, from the need to live and the joy of being strong.

therese raquin-1And therein I find the clue to my next link. I first read Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola long before I was introduced to his Rougon-Macquart series. It was riveting from the initial introduction to Thérèse herself as a young woman, unhappily married to her first cousin, Camille, a sickly and egocentric man. When the opportunity arises,  Thérèse enters into a turbulent and sordidly passionate affair with one of Camille’s friends. But their clandestine meetings are not enough for the lovers – Camille must be despatched toute suite. And then their troubles really begin for the pair are haunted by their actions:

He knew that, from now on, every day would be alike, that they would all bring the same sufferings. And he saw the weeks, the months, the years that awaited him, gloomy and implacable, coming one after the other, falling on him and suffocating him bit by bit. When the future is without hope, the present takes on a vile, bitter taste.

I don’t know how Zola’s first readers could bear the suspense as they waited for the next installment of this story to appear in the journal L’Artiste. I know I could not put the novel down until I’d devoured every word.

Thérèse Raquin is of course a novel about retribution and guilt which gives me an easy crime-and-punishmenttransition to the fifth book in my chain: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  The whole premise of this novel is that it explores the question of whether there are circumstances under which it’s acceptable to commit a crime ? Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished student living in St Petersburg, certainly thinks so. He believes he is one of the “extrordinary people” which means not only is he permitted to murder two women, but can do so  without fear of consequence. The novel introduces us  to the theory of ‘Superman’ propounded by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche  but don’t let that put you off – you can easily read this as a psychological cat and mouse tale. My review is here.

madame bovaryAnd now we come to the sixth and final book in this chain. I could take an easy option and go for a link based on place via The Man in St Petersburg by Ken Follett, one of his early (and best) novels. But I rather think I’ll stick with the classics and head back to France to a protagonist whose actions, like those of Raskolnikov, have caught up with her. Poor Emma Bovary. All she only wanted in life was to be surrounded by beautiful things and live an exciting life.

“At the bottom of her heart, however, she was waiting for something to happen. Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon. She did not know what this chance would be, what wind would bring it her, towards what shore it would drive her, if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, laden with anguish or full of bliss to the portholes. But each morning, as she awoke, she hoped it would come that day; she listened to every sound, sprang up with a start, wondered that it did not come; then at sunset, always more saddened, she longed for the morrow.”

But poor Emma is married to a very dull provincial doctor. In search of excitement she begins borrowing money  to satisfy her fancy for luxury goods and indulging in a few illicit affairs. When everything collapses about her she sees no way out other than suicide. Hers will be a beautiful death she imagines as she lies on her bed having swallowed arsenic. But Gustav Flaubert shows how, as with so much of her life, Emma suffers from dillusions.

I know we are meant to be critical of Emma, particularly for the way she abandons her daughter, but I also feel very sorry for her. Instead of marrying a doctor she might have had more fun in her life if she’d become a shop assistant. I can imagine her in her element behind the counter of some department store discussing the niceties of leather and lace gloves with society ladies.  But then it would have been a very different book and more akin to the version with which this chain started.

 

From slaps to battles in #6degrees

the slap #6Degrees of separation, hosted by Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best starts this month with The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas.  I’ve not read this book though it gained so much publicity when it was published that only sequestration in a remote mountain retreat sans phone, tv, newspapers, would have prevented me getting to know about it. This was a controversial book that puts liberal, middle class attitudes towards child control under scrutiny, via an opening chapter in which an adult slaps another person’s kid who is misbehaving at a Melbourne barbecue. We’re talking here about consequences.

Which leads me seamlessly into another book in which one action, one mistake, has long atonementterm repercussions: Atonement by Ian McEwan. The mistake is made by Robbie, the son of housekeeper at a posh country house. He’s passionately in love with Cecilia , the eldest daughter of the household though she’s well above his station in life. He writes her a letter expressing his feelings. He asks Cecilia’s impressionable younger sister Briony to deliver this missive. But he gives her the wrong version, the one that is sexually explicit. Briony opens it and completely misunderstands what she reads. Before the night is over two children have gone missing, a young girl is raped, class prejudices come to light, Robbie is in custody and his relationship with Cecilia seems doomed.  I say doomed because this is a novel which ends with a twist … if you want to know what that is, you’ll just have to read the book.

Brideshead revisitedThe tempestuous relationship shown in Atonement reminds me of another remarkable novel which deals with class divisions: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. There are other parallels between these two novels: both include a pivotal, emotionally charged scene at a huge fountain in the grounds of a country mansion and both see one of the principal characters go off to fight for their country in a global conflict.

From here it’s but a short step to another novel where an illicit, highly charged relationship is set birdsongagainst the background of war. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks takes us to the theatre of conflict in France during World War 1 and the preparations for what will become the mass slaughter of the Somme.  Part of this involves the digging of tunnels underneath no-man’s land and into the enemy’s own defences where the idea is to listen in to their plans. Who could be more suited for this work than coal miners from Wales who are experts at lying on their backs, in the dark, setting explosives and chipping away at the rockface?

Mention of Wales of course brings me back to my homeland. For my next link I could take the easy way out and choose one of the many novels set in the coal-mining area but I thought it would be more interesting to show rather less predictable facets of our Principality.

OnTheBlackHillSo let’s start with the fact much of Wales, was – and in many parts still is – prime farmland. Farming and the pull of the land feature heavily in On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin. The title might give you the impression this is about the ‘hills’ formed from the black waste of coal mining but in fact it refers to the Mynydd Ddu (translated to Black Mountains) range in Mid Wales, on the border between England and Wales. This is the location of an isolated upland farm called The Vision farmed by twin brothers Lewis and Benjamin Jones, between whom a special and very strong bond develops. They till the rough soil and sleep in the same bed well into their eighties, touched only occasionally by the advances of the twentieth century and the call for Benjamin to serve his country in World War 1. At times they resent each other yet they are too tightly entwined to be wrought apart and too closely bound with the land to ever leave.

Many of the places mentioned in the novel exist in reality including the market town Resistanceof Hay on Wye (yes this is the place that hosts the Hay Literary Festival). Mention of Hay-on-Wye and borderlands takes me to Owen Shears’ debut novel Resistance which imagines that the Germans defeated the Normandy landings of 1944. In the sparsely populated farmlands of the Black Mountains, all the men have disappeared,  leaving their wives to run the farms and look after the animals. At first they are hostile when a German patrol arrives in the valley but as a harsh winter takes hold they have to find an accommodation of sorts with the invaders.

During the course of the novel we learn that the farmers are all in hiding underground, preparing to become members of a secret British resistance movement. Shears connects their endeavours with an old Welsh legend in which a Prince of Wales sleeps with his solders in secret caves, readying them for a call to arms.

dragonsWelsh royalty and conflict between Wales and England brings me to the final novel in my chain: Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman. This is the first of her trilogy about the medieval princes of Gwynedd (an ancient county in North Wales) and their long-standing conflict with the monarchs of England during the12th and 13th centuries. Over the course of the three novels we meet two figures who are central to Welsh history – Llywellyn the Great  (known in Welsh as Llywelyn ap Iorwerth) and  his grand-son Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, the last native born Prince of Wales. The trilogy is a well researched account of the conflict and battle of wills between the Welsh nobility and the English kings, played out in the castles stretching along the border between the two nations.  It feels over-written at times but Penman does show clearly men who have to contend with competing loyalties to family, king and country.

And there the chain ends. We started at a barbecue in Australia’s second largest city and end at a castle in Wales. As always, the books I mention are ones I have read even if, in the case of Sharon Penman, it was some 20 years ago.

 

%d bloggers like this: