It’s time to play the Six Degrees of Separation game again. The starting book this month is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I know it was highly regarded when it was published but I didn’t care for it that much. However I read it so long ago I can’t remember exactly why it didn’t hit the spot, just that it didn’t. Maybe if I read it again I might have a different reaction (that often happens) but I have far too many unread titles to go down that path.
Kingsolver’s novel features a family who go to The Congo as missionaries intent on converting the local population. This was at a time before there were two countries both using the word Congo in their name. Today we have the the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the southeast and its smaller namesake, the Republic of the Congo. It’s to the latter that we go for my first link…
Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass is set in a seedy bar in a run down part of the country’s capital. One of its regular customers, a disgraced teacher is asked by the proprietor of the Credit Gone West bar to capture the stories of his clients. They turn out to be a misfortunate bunch all thinking they have been hard done by and wanting to set the record straight.
They’re not unlike some of the characters in Kingsley Amis’ Booker Prize winning novel The Old Devils. This lot are university pals living in a rural part of Wales and, having been regular drinkers in the past, like to spend their time in the pub. Their hostelry of choice is called The Bible and its here that they meet, often not long after breakfast, to while away the hours with gossip, updates on their various medical ailments and generally complaining about almost everything.
They might have more justification for their complaints if they were inmates of the place which is the setting for my next book in the chain: The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson. The Marshalsea is a fetid, stinking prison for debtors – once in, unless you have private means to pay for ‘luxuries’, you end up in the worst section, the “Common Side” where death is inevitable.
Fortunate then the man who can find a way out of this as does Charles Dickens’ Mr Dorrit. In Little Dorrit, her father William gets his escape ticket when it’s discovered he is the lost heir to a large fortune. Dickens uses this novel to satirise the bureaucracy of government (brought to life in the form of his fictional “Circumlocution Office”). He also takes a pop at the class system and its notions of respectability.
A desire for respectability also makes its appearance through two childhood friends in Zadie Smith’s novel NW. To leave behind her black working class upbringing, one girl changes her name, becomes a successful barrister and moves to a plush home in a desirable part of London. Her friend has less success, though she has a degree in philosophy she is still living in a council flat not far from her family home. But their past refuses to remain hidden.
Identity is the theme of my sixth and final book, one that I bought on my first trip to the Hay Festival and so caught up in the moment that I came away with an armload of books by authors completely unknown to me. Fortunately, one of the them, All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu proved to be a thought-provoking book. An African boy arrives in a mid Western USA town on a student visa. Little is known about him, only his name, his date of birth and the fact he was born somewhere in Africa. But he’s a fake, a boy who escaped from a civil war in Uganda by swapping identities with a friend who becomes a paramilitary leader.
And so we end as we began in Africa. Along the way we’ve visited a few bars, a prison and a suburb of London. As always I have included only books I have read.
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Summer is here at last though the temperatures are far lower than they should be this time of the year. As each month opens I like to take a snapshot of what I’m reading, listening to and watching. So what was I up to on June 1, 2015?
I stayed up far too late reading The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson. It’s a fast paced novel set in London in 1727, a time when, if you got into debt you could end up incarcerated in the grim debtor’s prison of the Marshalsea. Such is the fate of Thomas Hawkins, a young rake with a penchant for drinking and gambling. His only option for surviving the fetid environment is to pay the jailers who are intent on squeezing every last penny out of their captives. But then he is offered an alternative lifeline – his freedom in return for unmasking the person responsible for the death of another inmate. What lifts this book well above the run of the mill thriller is its astonishingly atmospheric quality.
It seems Hodgson is looking to capitalise on her success with this novel. She’s just finished a sequel featuring the same character. The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins, published by Hodder and Stoughton moves the action on one year when Tom, condemned as a murderer is once again fighting for his life. I’ve already put this on order at the library.
I’m between audio books at the moment having just finished the superb Room by Emma Donaghue. I’ve been catching up on some podcasts instead including episodes of The Readers in which Simon and Thomas discuss if there are too many books being published. This was a topic that was aired in Front Row, a BBC Radio 4 program, a week or so ago. To my surprise one of the guests, from a big publishing house whose name escapes me now, agreed there was a surfeit of books published in the UK. There are certainly more than I can possibly hope to keep up with but are there really too many full stop? My first thought went to the number that are self published. Yes there are a few examples where a really good book only saw the light of day because of self publishing and word of mouth promotion. But they are the exception – most of the self published books I come across are sheer dross that the world really doesn’t need. Switching to the output of established publishing houses the question became more difficult to answer. My knee jerk reaction was that they could start by cutting down on the number of autobiographies and memoirs supposedly written by C list celebrities. There are always stacks of them on the remainder tables so clearly their fans are not that enamoured of them. Instead of paying them big advances, wouldn’t the money be better spent helping burgeoning authors? If publishing houses reduce their catalogues of new issues, it will be even more difficult for new authors to get a foot on the ladder. And as for books in translation – the number is pitiful enough now but they’d be unlikely to get a look in in the future given the smaller reader base.
Nothing much of note simply because on June 1 I was in a hotel room in Brussels where the options for English language tv were rather limited. The satellite was also playing up so BBC 1 and 2 were unwatchable which left me with the rolling news channels. 15 minutes of BBC Worldwide or CNN and I’ve had enough. They do little more than recycle the same piece of news endlessly. Ok if all you want are the headlines before rushing out of the room in the morning but as a viewing experience they are dire. Oh well, at least I had a good book.