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.
My Sample Saturday spotlight this week is turned on three books on my TBR shelves that were short or long-listed for some of the major literary prizes.
As a reminder, Sample Saturday is where I look at all the books I own but have yet to read, and decide which I should part company with and which I should keep.
The Accidental by Ali Smith
This 2005 novel by the Scottish author Ali Smith was Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that year. It follows a middle-class English family whose holiday in a small Norfolk village is disrupted when Amber turns up on their doorstep claiming her car has broken down. Her arrival has a profound effect on all the family members.
It’s written largely in stream-of-consciousness and free indirect style, with multiple narrators I think. The first is the family’s 12 year old daughter Astrid.
I’ve read a later novel by Ali Smith – How To Be Both – which I loved but I’m not sure about this one. Child narrators are such tricky things to get right – the few pages I’ve read of this novel make her seem quite precocious.
The Verdict: Undecided. I need your help to make a decision. Should I keep or let go?
The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco
If you like authors who can combine great storytelling with erudition, Umberto Eco is probably your man. He was a scholar of medieval studies and semiotics until he published one novel, The Name of The Rose, which propelled him into the world of best selling, intelligent fiction which a story of a series of murders in a late-medieval monastery.
The Prague Cemetery is his sixth novel, published in 2010 and shortlisted for the International Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012. It tells the story of a notorious antisemitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – document which purported to describe a meeting in Prague during which Jewish leaders discussed their plans for world domination.
According to the back cover, The Daily Telegraph called this book “an extremely readable narrative of betrayal, terrorism, murder …” But I can’t find the full version of the review to see if that extract was a fair representation of what the reviewer thought of the book as a whole.
I did find The Guardian review which commented: “Once again, [Eco] includes a great deal of eclectic learning, organised (to a greater or lesser extent) around a potboiler plot.” That sounded pretty good but the reviewer then went on to call the book “a tiring plod.”
I don’t much care for books that are plodding so this is headed for the charity shop.
The Verdict: Ditch
Maps For Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam
Nadeem Aslam is a British Pakistani novelist who won the Betty Trask Award with his first novel Season of the Rainbirds. Maps for Lost Lovers is his second novel and was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award and longlisted for the Booker Prize.
It’s is set in the midst of an immigrant Pakistani community in a northern English town where a pair of lovers disappear and are believed murdered. According to the blurb the novel “opens the heart of a family at the crossroads of culture, community, nationality and religion and exoresses their pain in a language that is arrestingly poetic.”
I’m tempted by this one. It’s the portrayal of the immigrant communities that have grown up in many parts of England, that is drawing me to this book. This is a world captured so memorably by Monica Ali in Brick Lane but I’ve yet to find anything set in a different part of the country.
The Verdict: Keep
So that’s one fewer book on the TBR shelves. It’s not going to make any dent in the overall tally however because I’ve been on a buying spree in recent weeks. Did I make the right choices?? What would you save from these three??
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.
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.
- This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell – Read –review posted here
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.
- High Rising by Angela Thirkell Read – review posted here
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.
- Fear and Trembling by Amelie Northomb Read – review posted here
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.