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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…..
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.
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.
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.