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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It seems I have been operating under an illusion for the past few months. If you’d asked me one thing about my reading habit this year, I would have said that I read more of the current year’s new titles than ever before. I didn’t set out with a plan to read the new works but I do like to have at least a sense of what’s new in literature. But when I saw the recently-announced list of 80 finalists for the 2015 Folio Prize, I realised the reality was very different from my perception.
Of those 80 books published in 2014, I have read just two: The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee and How to Be Both by Ali Smith. I’m half way through a third title – All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu and have three more on reserve in the library but I doubt they will get to me before the year is over. I know the list represents only a fraction of what was actually published this year, this is meant to be the cream after all, so it was entirely conceivable that I had read some 2014 titles that just never made the cut. A quick look at my reading list reassured me a little – there were another six works of fiction that I’ve read. Panic over!
The experience did make me look more closely at what I’ve been reading this year. I was in for another surprise – I finished only four titles from my Classics Club list which is very slow progress. If I’m going to complete the 50 books in this project by the target date of August 2017, I’m really going to have to get a move on. I did considerably better with my world literature project fortunately (15 of the books I read fell into this category).
I wouldn’t have known any of this if I hadn’t started keeping a list of everything I’ve read. I never did that before I began blogging so if you’d asked me what I was reading 5 years ago let alone 10 or 15, I wouldn’t have had a clue. Lists it seems do have their purpose.
How has your reading year been – any surprises for you too?