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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.

Howtobe bothHow 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. 

The Narrow Road

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.

The Railway Man

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.

Wild Swans

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.

thegoodearth

 

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

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’.

Howards End

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.

The 20 Books of Summer Referendum

The in/out debate over UK’s membership of the European Union is nothing compared to my own debate on whether to join the Twenty Books of Summer Challenge. I’ve been in a quandary ever since Cathy at 746 books announced the challenge is about to begin.  “Out” says the rational part of my brain which knows that a) I have no hope in hell of reading 20 books in three months and b) I don’t do all that well with reading to a list. “In” screams the emotional side of my brain which argues that it sounds like a lot of fun.

Maybe it was the influence of today’s sunshine but the two sides seem to have reached a point where they agree to disagree and have signed a compromise pledge allowing me 50% participation. Step forward the “BookerTalk not the 20 books of summer list”  whereby I read just 10 books.  Which means I join in with the fun but have none of the angst if I don’t make it. And just to give further protection, right brain has allowed me to pick more than 10 books so I don’t feel the need to go off piste.

My list is a mixture, mainly of Booker Prize titles (still trying to get that challenge completed by year end), short story collections and Viragos. With the exception of the first two, they are all part of my TBR collection.

I’ve loved O’Farrell’s work ever since a friend gave me The Disappearing Act of Esme Lemmox so of course when I learned she had a new novel out (that the Guardian newspaper called “technically dazzling”, I immediately got my name on the library reservation list. Good news is it’s arrived just in time for me to make this the first one I read for the challenge.

  • The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester. did not finish

This is a new title in the British Library Crime Classic series.  I have an advanced copy via NetGalley. It was first published in 1864 and is said to be the first novel in British fiction to feature a professional female detective.

  • NW by Ali Smith Read

Smith is someone I’ve long felt I should get to know better. Her last novel “How to be Both” was stunning so I’d like to read some of her back catalogue. I just happen to have NW on the bookshelves.

Thirkell’s name keeps cropping up amongst bloggers but I’ve never read her. This is probably one of the least demanding of the books on my list.

  • A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford

A Virago copy I picked up in a charity shop. Should be good for the All August All Virago themed reading month.

  • Frost in May by Antonia White

Another Virago. In fact the first Virago I ever read. I was fairly young at the time. Will it hold my attention as much the second time around?

  • Last Orders by Graham Swift. Read

Swift won the 1996 Booker Prize title with this tale of a group of friends who set off for the seaside to scatter the ashes of one of their members who just died. I enjoyed the film. Mr Booker Talk tells me I’ll enjoy the books just as much

  • The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis.

Another Booker winner – this time from 1986. It’s set in my home country of Wales

  • Life & Times of Michael K  by J M Coetzee. Read

My third and final Booker winner, from 1983. This will be the third Coetzee book for me to read. The previous two have been superb. Hope this makes it a hat trick.

  • The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimanda Adichie Read

I’m guilty here of the ‘save if for a rainy day’ syndrome. I am eking out Adichie’s work because it’s so good but now I have only Half a Yellow Sun left to read. I somehow don’t want to start it because then it will be over. Stupid I know. In the meantime I shall enjoy this collection of her short stories that I picked up on my first visit to the Hay Festival Oxfam shop.

  • An Elergy for Easterly by Petina Gappah

Another short story collection, this time from a Zimbabwean author. Gappah made the 2016 Baileys Prize longlist with her novel, The Book of Memory, becoming the first author from her country to reach this stage of the award.

I regularly ask work colleagues for recommendations of authors from their home country. For Belgium, the name of Amelie Northomb was mentioned regularly and was recommended in the View From Here feature on Belgium. Fear and Trembling is actually set in Japan but is the only one of her works I have.

  • Tree of Life by Maryse Conde

Conde is a French (Guadeloupean) author who was a finalist for the Man Booker international award a few years ago. Tree of Life is a multigenerational story about the emergence of the West Indian middle class and tells the politics of race and immigration, and the legacy of colonialism in the Caribbean. It will be the first book I’ve read by an author from that part of the world.

So there you have it. 13 titles that should keep me quiet over the summer months. If I do make it to 10 I’ll consider it a miracle but the fun isn’t really whether I make it – it’s the getting there.

How to be both by Ali Smith

Howtobe bothIn How to be both, Ali Smith provides a masterclass in how to play with the form of the novel and stuff it with layers of meaning and yet still make it highly readable.

Most of the advance publicity for this novel focused on the fact that there would be two versions of the book on sale. The reader wouldn’t know until they started reading which version they had purchased since both had identical covers.  Some readers would open it to find the spirit of the Renaissance Italian painter Francesco del Cossa awakening to discover a teenager scrutinising one of his frescos. Others would begin with the story of that teenager, a 21st century Londoner known as George, who is subsumed by grief over her mother’s death.

Two stories, both labelled part one, that can be read in any order. I imagine many people would decide this book was not for them based on that description, maybe thinking Smith had really written just two short stories rather than a full novel. Or worse still,  querying whether this approach was simply a marketing gimmick.  Neither reaction would be doing justice to this book. It isn’t a book of two distinct and separate halves. Still less is this a gimmick. Instead what we have is a finely constructed  dual narrative in which each story dovetails with and reflects the other and where the very duality of structure is fundamental to a key theme in the novel — how the meaning of images and words change when looked at from different perspectives.

Many of the scenes, particularly in the George part of the book, pose questions about ways of seeing. The questions come from George’s mum, a freethinking and subversive woman who challenges her two children to consider art and history in new ways. At one point George recalls a visit with her mother and young brother to the Palazzo die Diamanti in Ferrara, near Bologna.  Although entranced by del Cossa’s frescos, George is less than enamoured with her mother’s detailed explanation of how art restorers sometimes discover under drawings that are significantly different than the finished work.

Which came first? her mother says. … The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?

The picture below came first, George says. Because it was done first.

But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?

Which comes first? her unbearable mother is saying. What we see or how we see?

Francesco del Cossa becomes the thread that connects George to her dead mother, helping her to come out of her cloud of grief, to interpret life in a new way.   Finding del Cossa’s painting Saint Vincent Ferrer in the National Gallery  her first reaction is that’s it’s nothing special,  that it’s looks just like any other religious painting, featuring a severe faced monk who seems to be admonishing anyone who has the audacity to stop and look at the painting.

But then you notice that he’s not looking at you. He’s looking past and above you, or into the far distance, like there’s something happening beyond you and he can see what it is. …

And what is it that has attracted the attention of the monk? Could it be the spectre of the artist himself who watches George (mistaking her for a boy).  The two are inexplicably connected:

…it is as if a rope attached to the boy is attached to me and has circled me and cannot be unknotted and where the boy goes I must go whether I want it or don,t

This is just one of the playful, puzzling aspects of the book. It’s a book that probably should be read one and a half times if you want to truly understand how cleverly it has been constructed I read the medieaval part first and having got to the end of part two, immediately returned to part one looking for the patterns and connections. If I’d read George’s story first, would my experience have been any different? Something I’ll never know  but I have a feeling that whichever way you read it — whichever part you encounter first, you’ll be dazzled.

 

End note

How to be both is published by Hamish Hamilton. It was short listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. And if this doesn’t win I will be astounded.

 

 

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