It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation where the idea is to create a chain of book connections. This month we begin with a non-fiction title from 1990: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf.
There is in a clue in the subtitle “How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women” about the primary message of this book. Wolf argues that as the social power and prominence of women have increased, the pressure to conform to unrealistic social standards of physical beauty has also grown stronger because of commercial influences on the mass media. Amongst her evidence she cites a rise in cases of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia and the rapid growth of plastic surgery.
The Beauty Myth became a best seller and generated considerable debate. I remember thinking when I read it that, though interesting and thought-provoking, it wasn’t anywhere near as convincing as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. I’ll give Wolf a lot of credit however for bringing the topic out into the open. Sadly, we see evidence regularly that the issues she saw then haven’t gone away.
Let’s stay with myth and beauty for my first link: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, is a play about a professor who trains a poor, uneducated girl to act and speak like a lady. The title comes from the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor unable to find any real woman who fitted his idea of the perfect female. He carves a statue out of ivory that is so beautiful and so perfect that he falls in love with it and wants to give it life.
Pygmalion is of course a story about transformation and change; a theme which is central to my next book; also by an Irish writer. In Nora Webster Colm Toibin gives us a deep and penetrating portrayal of a middle-aged widow struggling to remake her life after the premature death of her husband. She returns to the office work she thought she had left behind forever, begins listening to the classical music her husband never liked and starts making new friends. One of the most significant signs that she is moving on comes when she visits the hairdresser and emerges with a radical new style.
I could link to another work about transformation, Educating Rita by Willy Russel, in which a young uneducated hairdresser enrols for an Open University degree course because she wants more from life. I’ve seen the stage version and watched the film multiple times (it’s one of my all time favourites) but I can’t really use it for this chain since it would mean breaking my rule that I select only texts I’ve read.
So let’s go down a different path and to another book which uses hair styles as part of a theme about identity. The main character in Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie only begins to feel truly free and true to her Nigerian roots when she decides she will no longer spend hours and vast sums of money on having her hair ‘relaxed’. Hair, she comes to realise, is a political issue in America with black women expected to relax their natural curls with strong chemicals in order to conform to comfortable white norms. Before she makes her first return home to the Nigeria she left 15 years earlier, she visits a salon to have her hair braided.
I’m sticking with the issue of identity for my next book. A Portrait of a Lady is one of Henry James’ most respected novels. It wasn’t one I enjoyed at first reading – I found it incredibly slow (page after page where nothing much happens except someone opens an umbrella)… I must admit I skimmed many passages. It wasn’t until I re-read the book that I began to fully appreciate this tale of a young American woman who insists that she must be free to write her own plot and then to live with the unfortunate consequences of her decisions. Still not sure I understand the ending however….
Consequences takes me to India and to a novel that won the Booker Prize in 1997. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy has two captivating characters in the form of Rahel Kochamma and her brother Esth. They’re used to being the centre of attention so when their new cousin arrives to spend Christmas at the family home, their noses are put out of joint. Their jealousy has tragic repercussions that don’t become apparent until the final chapters of the novel. Until then we’re treated to some tremendous comic scenes involving these effervescent twins.
The family rivalries depicted in Arundhati Roy’s novel remind me of Neel Mukherjee’s novel The Lives of Others which is set in India during the second half of the 1960s. In it we meet three generations of the large and relatively wealthy Ghosh family who live together in one house, their rooms allocated on a strictly hierarchical basis. The patriarchal Prafullanath and his wife Charubala live on the top floor., the widow of their youngest son is relegated to a storage room on the ground floor of the house. Inevitably there are tensions over saris and wedding jewellery.
And with that I’ve reached the end of a chain which has moved from notions of beauty through female identity to familial disputes. If you’re interested in how other bloggers created their chains, take a look at booksaremyfavouriteandbest and also find out how to join the meme hosted by Kate.
My performance with challenges has proved less than stellar over the years but I’m doing much better with the TBR Triple Dog Dare sponsored by James at James Reads Books. The Dare asks participants to read only books that they already have during January, February and March. With only a couple of more weeks to go I’m feeling rather elated about how well I stuck to this plan. The magic key to why this one works and all other TBR challenges I’ve tried have not, is that I can still buy as many books as I want. I just can’t read them yet.
Of the 12 books I’ve read so far this year only two were not already on my TBR. That isn’t bad going for one who usually has the staying power of a mayfly. And there were good reasons for both misdemeanours.
The first slip from the straight and narrow path came in the form of A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale which was the book club read at the start of the year. I wish I could say that my stray from the path was worth it but this was a lacklustre read. You can see why in my review.
Happily my most recent lapse was all in a good cause. I requested My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout from the library last year. Finally it came through last week and I’m the first borrower. Ideally I would have liked to hold onto it until the end of the dare on March 31 but there are now so many people waiting for it that the library service is blocking any renewal options. So I had to read it. But it was absolutely no hardship. The book is a joy to read and of you havent got to it yet, dont hang around too long.
But it’s read and returned and I am back on track with the dare, reading Brooklyn by Colm Toibin as part of Reading Ireland Month. Another beautifully constructed novel which, after a similarly rewarding experience with Nora Webster, is making me want to read more of Toibin’s work. Anyone care to make a recommendation on which of his books to read next?
Emboldened by my success to date I might stretch it for another month.
Tomorrow sees the announcement of the Man Booker Prize longlist for 2015. I was hesitating from making some predictions of what we might see since a) my previous attempts at anticipating the winners and losers have not exactly been stellar and b) I’m struggling to think of 13 titles which is the traditional number on the longlist.
But having scratched my head for several hours I’ve come up with a few that meet the stipulation that only novels written originally in English and published in the UK (regardless of the author’s nationality) can enter. The book has to have been published between October 2014 and September 2015.
First up are two novels I hope don’t win. I know that sounds a bit mean and disrespectful to the author if either is truly considered the best of the last 12 months. But neither of these books interests me and if it wins I will have to read it as part of my Booker Prize project.
I do expect to see The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro on the longest, and probably on the shortlist, given his stature and the fact this is his first novel for 10 years. It’s attracted widespread acclaim. I had planned to read it and even to see the great man at the Hay Festival but then discovered that much of it was a fantasy and it contained non human creatures that talk (a bug bear of mine). My library reservation was cancelled.
Another prediction I hope doesn’t materialise is Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins. This is another book I’ve not read but since it’s a companion to her earlier novel Life after Life which I could not finish (I got completely bored with it ) I’m not keen to read this one. I may be lucky here since she hasn’t made it to the longlist in the past and she’s written far better novels.
And now to the books I would like to see at least long listed.
Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh. This is the third novel in the Ibis Trilogy which began with Sea of Poppies set against a background of the Opium Wars in China. His latest novel Flood of Fire returns to the outbreak of that time and follows a cast of characters through to China’s devastating defeat and Britain’s seizure of Hong Kong. Ghosh is someone who meticulously researches his novel and brings the historic period to life through some well-drawn characters. I’m relatively new to his novels but have enjoyed everything I’ve read so far.
The change in rules which came about last year means that American authors can now enter the Booker Prize. Which means we could see Toni Morrison, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature and 1998 Pulitzer Prize, enter the fray with God Help the Child. Robinson is known as an author of epic themes and for raising the American consciousness. In her latest novel she explores how the sufferings of childhood shape the life of the adult, about the nature of beauty and veneration of being black.
I’m saving my favourite for last….
Norah Webster by Colm Tóibín, a tremendous study of grief and the rebuilding of a life in 1960s Eire. Norah is recently widowed, left with four children, little money, no job and far too many people trying to tell her how best to organise her life from here on. It’s a story told in chronological order, following Norah’s consciousness as she shapes her new life inch by inch. Tóibín is no stranger to the Booker Prize – he’s been on the shortlist three times: in 1999 for The Blackwater Lightship, in 2004 for The Master’ and 2014 for The Testament of Mary. Could this be his lucky year??
If you don’t trust my predictions and would like some alternative crystal ball views take a look at:
- Shiny New Books Booker predictions
- Simon at Savidge Reads
- The Guardian Not the Booker Prize nominations (you can cast your vote on the nominations)