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Six Degrees from Atonement

six-chains-logo

Time for another Six Degrees of Separation. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and the idea is to link it to six other books to form a chain.  The links can take any form: similarity of themes or setting; written by the same author or winners of the same prize. The basis of the link is really limited by nothing more than our imagination.

This month we begin with a favourite novel of mine, Atonement by Ian McEwan.

It’s set in a large country house in England between the two World Wars. Events are triggered by the actions of thirteen-year-old Briony who has a vivid imagination. Her accusation about an event she witnesses one hot summer evening has life-changing consequences for her elder sister and the boy with whom she is in love. For the rest of her life she regrets her actions.

I’ve read the book twice and seen the film multiple times and still can’t make up my mind whether Briony is a minx who deliberately misconstrues the event.

Emma

For another minx who likes to meddle in other people’s lives let’s turn to Emma by Jane Austen.  Though many in her village think she is charming, Emma is a girl who has been indulged throughout her life and ends up thinking she knows best for herself and everyone around her. She loves nothing more than a little matchmaking, thinking she is doing this for the best of the parties concerned but ends up causing more harm than good.

barchester towers

In the league of schemers however Emma is small fry compared to the most wonderful character in the next book in my chain. Obadiah Slope in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers is a master manipulator, a man who hides his monstrous ambition for wealth and prestige under a cloak of piety.

Lest you think that devious behaviour and trickery are confined to England, the third book in my chain should convince you otherwise.

cannery row

John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row gives us a lovable bunch of rogues, chief of whom is Mack. Steinbeck describes him as “the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment.

It’s Mack who comes up with a way to say thanks to their friend Doc, who has been good to them without asking for reward. The entire community quickly gets behind his idea of a thank-you party.  Unfortunately things get out of hand and Doc’s home and his lab where he studies and collects sea creatures from the Californian coast are ruined.

The novel is shot through with nostalgia and sadness (there are three suicides) but also has its humorous moments. By far the funniest episode in the book is when Mack and the boys embark on an expedition to collect frogs for the Doc. Of course it all goes horribly wrong.

Collections of sea creatures reminds me of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.   I wasn’t all that enamoured by it but it was highly rated when it came out a few years ago . I seem to remember it was one that the then President Obama took on his summer holiday.

all the light

It’s the tale of a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths cross in occupied France during World War II.  Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, take refuge from the war in St Malo. There the girl’s imagination is fired by the marine life described in her Braille edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and she becomes a collector and expert on molluscs.

Most of her collectables don’t sound edible although the principal character in my next chain, The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery, would probably disagree.

The Gourmet

Pierre Arthens is the greatest food critic in France. He relishes dishes like “Pan roasted breast of Peking duck rubbed with berbère; grapefruit crumble à la Jamaïque with shallot confit … ”

Now before I turned vegetarian about a quarter of a century ago I was quite partial to duck. But I disliked the sweet sauces in which it was often served. Remember duck a l’orange or duck with blackberry sauce? I’ve no idea what you’d get if you ordered any menu item “à la Jamaïque” – even a Google search can’t provide an answer (it appears to be the title of a French musical). But I can’t begin to imagine that grapefruit and duck are meant to be companions.

But then I am decidedly not a gourmand. Nor would I want to be if it involves the kinds of concoctions beloved by the central character in my sixth and final book: Iris Murdoch’s Booker-prize winning novel The Sea, The Sea.

The Sea, The Sea

Charles Arrowby, retires to the country after highly successful career as a London stage director. In his tumbledown seaside cottage he swims, writes his memoirs and concocts some rather bizarre meals.

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 is essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London)

The kidney beans/tomatoes/celery/oil and lemon juice combination sounds interesting and I might even be tempted to try that one day. But what they are doing on the same plate as baked beans is completely beyond my comprehension.

All this talk of food is making me feel peckish. Time to wrap up the chain and head for the kitchen. The supermarket was completely out of edible molluscs on account of the fears about post-Brexit catastrophe amongs the bivalve community. So it will have to be beans on toast again. Oh wait a second, bread is in short supply because everyone is stocking up for the inevitable shortage in December.

Right well it’s just cup  a soup then…..

 

Reviews In Short

With just a few weeks left of the year the only way I’m going to catch up on the backlog of reviews is to batch a few of them in one post.

The Dinner by Herman Koch

This was an interesting take on a moral dilemma. It poses the question of how far parents will go to protect their children, even when they have committed a despicable act. Two brothers – one a political leader tipped for the top, the other a teacher with a bit of a past – and their wives meet for dinner in an upmarket restaurant in Amsterdam. We discover that this encounter is organised not as a social occasion but to discuss what stance to take about a crime committed by 15 year old sons. The nature of that crime, and the resentment the teacher feels towards his more successful brother, is revealed slowly as dinner progresses. The dinner itself is wonderfully funny if you enjoy laughing at the pretentiousness found in the kind of restaurant favoured by foodies. The provenance of every item on the plate is described in minute detail by a oleaginous  maître d’ determined to get through his script though all the guests want to do is get stuck in. The humour nicely counters the darker elements of the narrative.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Apparently this 2015 best seller was labelled as “the next Gone Girl“. There is some similarity. Both titles featured the word “girl” (clever me for spotting that…); both had page-turning plots with more twists and turns than you’d encounter driving along the Big Sur and both stories were relayed by a narrator whose reliability came in at around level 2 on the credibility scale. There I think the similarity ends. The Girl on the Train had a murder plot that turned on the ingenious device of memory loss by a narrator drinking excessively to deal with a broken marriage.  Without giving any of the plot away all I can say is that this was a highly entertaining read.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Doerr won the National Book Award with this novel set in France and Germany before and during the German occupation of France. It’s told through the eyes of two children; one is a blind girl living in Paris with her beloved Papa, a locksmith and creator of intricate puzzles; the other is an orphan with a remarkable gift for radio technology and transmitters.  He can fix anything. On opposite sides of the war, their stories gradually come together as war rages over St Malo. I couldn’t warm to this book despite some clearly well researched details. The narrative seemed overly drawn out and the first 100 pages were very dull in fact. It wasn’t so bad that I felt I wanted to give up but it was really only the last quarter that was particularly interesting.

The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

This was chosen by my Book Club much to my dismay. I hadn’t long finished reading the excellent Elisabeth is Missing by Emma Healey and the thought of another novel on the topic of mental illness wasn’t  appealing. But I’m so glad I didn’t skip Filer’s debut novel. He created a completely engaging narrator in the form of Matt Homes, a 19-year-old schizophrenic who was sectioned because he couldn’t cope in the community. With the aid of an old typewriter he tries to convey feelings of guilt about something that happened to his brother (the nature of which we don’t discover until close to the end of the novel). Letters, doodles and sketches are mingled within his text. Matt knows however that there are limits to his memory and his ability to be honest about painful moments in his life. Filer brilliantly invests Matt with a caustic sense of humour which he deploys towards the condescension and jargon he experiences in psychiatric treatment. Quite simply this was such a superb novel I read it in one day.

 

Snapshot October 2015

Autumn leavesOctober 1 saw me on a business trip to Germany. Here’s a snapshot of what I was doing on that day.

Reading

Unusually for me I had three novels on the go on this date. Reading two simultaneously is something I can manage if they are very different genres/styles but I’ve never before had three in progress.

After a run of novels with rather dark subjects I was in need of some lighter fare. Since I don’t tend to enjoy comedy in novels, “lighter fare” for me usually means crime fiction. I had Silence of the Sea by the Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardottiron my TBR from Christmas last year which I thought I’d better read before this year’s festive event (otherwise I’ll get challenged why I want more books as gifts when I haven’t read the ones I got last time etc etc). It’s not as good as the review in the Sunday Times suggested it would be but it fitted the need at the time. More than half way through the novel, I realised that my library edition of the Booker shortlisted title The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma couldn’t be renewed so I switched to that one. But then at short notice I was asked to take this trip to Germany and didn’t want to lug a hard cover book with me. Which is how I ended up taking my Kindle and reading The Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra, an advance copy via NetGalley and publication date is coming up fast.

Listening

I finished All the Light we Cannot See last week eventually. It only really perked up for me in the last quarter. I haven’t started anything new yet, just catching up on some podcasts. For my next audiobook I’m torn between Can you Forgive Her by Anthony Trollope and The Human Factor by Graham Greene. I’m a Greene fan and this is one I’ve not come across before. On the other hand I also like Trollope… Hm too many decisions.

Watching

Knowing I’d be restricted in the choice of English language TV challenges I armed myself for my trip with a DVD from Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads series. No matter how many times I’ve seen these dramatised monologues I still love them. This time I indulged in one of my favourites: A Cream Cracker Under the Settee in which Thora Bird turns in a stunning performance as the 79-year-old Dora who falls while trying to do a spot of dusting. Alone and injured she worries that the only place left for her is a care home which she considers abhorrent. She decides she would rather die on her own in pain than live in a place where everyone is expected to sing “I’m H.A.P.P.Y. I’m H.A.P.P.Y”. Simply sublime.

Snapshot September 2015

I’m rather late this month but this is what I was up to on the first day of September. It was day six of our holiday and we were in Dresden, Germany.

Dresden – after the 1945 bombing raids

Reading

I had two novels on the go on September 1, 2015.  As holiday reading companions I had two paperbacks plus of course a fully loaded e-reader. My plan was to begin with The Quest for Christa T by the East German author Christa Wolf which I though appropriate since our first port of call would be East Berlin followed by Dresden and Leipzig (all of which

Dresden - 2015. A city restored to former glory

Dresden – 2015. A city restored to former glory

are mentioned in the novel). But I found it hard to get into, so switched instead to my e-copy of A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara. Not the kind of book if you’re one of those people who like cosy novels as holiday companions but I found it difficult to put down.

Of course I couldn’t resist the temptation to browse in a few bookshops in Berlin and Dresden. The selection of books available in English was rather limited – the usual crime fiction and best sellers, a few of last year’s Booker shortlisted titles plus four different editions of  All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. But not a single English translation of a German fiction classic. I’d been hoping for a Thomas Mann at least but drew a complete blank.

Listening

Talking of All the Light we Cannot See, this was on my iPod during my trip. Shortly after starting it, I learned that President Obama had also selected it as one of his holiday reads. Presumably he chose it (or had it chosen for him?) because of its status as a Pulitzer prize-winner and winner of the Carnegie Medal for Fiction. What the leader of the free world made of this novel set in World War 2 I haven’t been able to discover. For me it’s rather slow going. I keep thinking sometime soon something will happen ….

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