This month’s Six Degrees of Separation kicks off with Jane Harper’s The Dry which I haven’t yet read but has come highly recommended by a friend who knows more about Australian authors than I do. It’s a crime thriller set in a parched Australian farming community.
The Australian outback was the stamping ground of the legendary Ned Kelly. Whether you view him as a working class hero or an out and out villain, his exploits have proved to be rich material for writers. Peter Carey, another Australian, won the Man Booker Prize with his True History of the Kelly Gang, an is an imaginative reconstruction of Kelly’s life story in his own words. It’s quite a remarkable novel of a man who was in trouble with the law from the age of thirteen, descending from petty crime to robbery and murder. Kelly met his death in 1880 in a shootout despite having fashioned himself a protective iron helmet.
Frank Baum went considerably further than just an iron helmet – he fashioned a character created entirely from metal. The TinMan appeared first in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz but made several appearances in many of the subsequent books in the Oz series. Apparently there was a trend in late nineteenth-century America for advertising and political cartoons to feature male figures made out of various tin pieces. Baum, who was editing a magazine on decorating shop windows when he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was reportedly inspired to invent his Tin Man character after he made a similar figure for a shop display.
Baum’s novel was an immediate success but gained even greater popularity once it was made into a film in 1939. I’ll hazard a guess that a large proportion of the millions of people who have watched this film, have no knowledge of the book upon it was based. Still less that this novel, described by the Library of Congress as “America’s greatest and best-loved homegrown fairytale” has been interpreted as an allegory or metaphor for the political, economic, and social events of America in the 1890s. One historian theorised that the Tin Man represented the industrial workers, especially those in the steel industry. Others have claimed the cyclone which sweeps Dorothy to Oz was a metaphor for a political revolution that would transform the drab America into a land of colour and unlimited prosperity.
Since we’re talking political allegory the obvious choice for my next link would be George Orwell’s Animal Farm. But that’s a bit too obvious. I’m going to play instead with the idea that Baum was writing what’s loosely termed a “state of the nation” novel.
Authors have long used the literary form to examine contemporary society so I’m spoiled for choice. I’m plumping for a novel that was very much a product of the Thatcher years in the UK.
Capital by John Lanchester takes into the heart of London in 2008. It’s a city of conspicuous consumption and financial whizz-kids with million pound bonuses in their sights. But behind the gleaming office buildings lies an underbelly of political refugees and embryonic terrorists. In the eyes of the narrator “Britain had become a country of winners and losers.”
Lanchester was not alone in taking a pop at the money men. Anthony Trollope covered similar ground in The Way We Live Now which was inspired by the financial scandals of the early 1870s. Trollope, who had been living in Australia for 18 months, had returned to London in 1872, to find a society (as he saw it) mired in corruption. He satirised this society in the shape of Augustus Melmotte, a “horrid, big, rich scoundrel… a bloated swindler… a vile city ruffian”. His arrogance, ruthlessness and depth of corruption are traits we’ve sadly witnessed too many times in the decades since Trollope’s time.
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien is a reminder that these corrupt leaders don’t always get away with their actions; occasionally they are called to account. O’Brien’s novel takes its title from a tableau of 11,000 empty chairs created in Sarajevo to commemorate victims of the siege by Bosnian Serbs in early 1990s. Her main character – a fugitive war criminal discovered hiding in a backwater village on the west coast of Ireland – is modelled on the real life war crime fugitive Radovan Karadzic.
Just like the people of Sarajevo, the people of Gaza know what it’s like to live in constant fear of attack. The Book of Gaza is a collection of stories by writers from the territory and published by Comma Press. Reading this anthology you can’t help but admire the resilience shown by the people who inhabit a piece of land 26 miles long and 3 miles wide that has been the subject of hostilities for decades.
And so we reach the end of another round of Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we’ve travelled from a drought-stricken small Australian town to a besieged nation on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. As always all the books I mention are ones I have read, though not necessarily reviewed. Creating these chains can be challenging some months but the fun lies in seeing unexpected paths they take, and discovering how other bloggers have gone down vastly different routes. You can follow these on Twitter by searching for the hashtag #6Degrees, or checking out the links at Kate’s blog.
I’ve never tried my hand at the Six Degrees of Separation but the latest chain resulted in some creative linking by a number of bloggers. It got me thinking what connections I could find.
The chain starts with Year of Wonders, a novel that was an international best seller for Geraldine Brooks. Year of Wonders is based on a true-life story of the small Peak District village of the village of Eyam that put itself in quarantine to prevent the spread of the dreaded bubonic plague. If you don’t know this book, I hope my review will persuade you to beg/borrow/buy it soon.
The plague also makes its appearance in an audio book I just finished – Rembrandt’s Mirror by Kim Deveraux – which features a young servant who goes to work in the painter’s house in Amsterdam and ends up becoming his muse and model. I won’t reveal exactly how the plague fits in because that would reveal too much of the plot but I can recommend this book if you enjoy historical fiction set in the seventeenth century.
If you’re thinking the servant/painter’s house/Netherlands combination sounds familiar, you wouldn’t be far wrong because this is also the premise of Girl with a Pearl Earring the best-selling novel by Tracy Chevalier set in the Delft studios of the painter Vermeer.Chevalier said she was inspired to write the book having seen the Vermeer painting at the Mauritshuis art museum in The Hague (you can hear her Ted talk on this here).
From the Mauritshuis it’s but a short step to the United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. This is a key location in Edna O’Brien’s most recent novel The Little Red Chairs in which a war criminal known in his country as the Beast of Bosnia is found hiding in a remote Irish village. He is captured and taken to the Hague to stand trial for genocide just as Radovan Karadžić was and sentenced earlier this year to 40 years’ imprisonment for atrocities and war crimes.
Violence and crime committed during war also feature large in the novel I’ve just finished reading – Moskva by Jack Grimwood. It’s a page turner of a thriller that begins with the discovery of a young boy’s body at the foot of the Kremlin and the disappearance of the British Ambassador’s daughter. The year is 1985 and Gorbachev is the man who has just taken the hot seat as leader of the Soviet Union with the intent of rescuing the crumbling economic and political system. The plot takes us back to 1945 and the Russian advance on Berlin. What happened then is something the KGB and the Politburo would prefer remain a secret but they have a determined adversary in the form of Major Tom Fox, a man used to going undercover in some of the world’s hottest spots.
Moscow. Snow. KGB. Bodies. It wouldn’t be a thriller set in Russia without these features and they don’t get much better than Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith, published in 1981. The story follows Arkady Renko, a chief investigator for the Militsiya, (the civil police) who is assigned to a case involving three corpses found in Gorky Park, an amusement park in Moscow, who have had their faces and fingertips cut off by the murderer to prevent identification. So realistic a picture did it depict of everyday life in pre-Glasnost era, that the book was immediately banned in the USSR. It’s still one of the best thrillers I’ve read set in Russia.
So in six smallish journeys we’ve gone from plague to political intrigue and from a small village in England to a Dutch city in its golden years and from painters to men determined to get to the truth.
It took me years to get to the Hay Literary Festival but the wait was definitely worth it. There was always a risk that my expectations were too high but my day proved better than anything I could have imagined.
Of course the sunshine helped enormously. Hay on Wye is a delightful town at the best of times but under an almost cloudless blue sky and bedecked with banners, it fizzed with festive spirit. Everywhere you looked there was something happening – a craft fair in the market square, pop up food stalls and music in the castle grounds and some earnest discussions in the parallel philosophy festival.
This sign caught my eye… you can understand the sentiment in a town which thrives on people buying real books.
On the festival site itself, the grassy areas were packed with picnic groups and families or people lounging and reading (not a Kindle in sight!) in one of the special deck chairs; a welcome break from all that queuing at the book shop to get a personally signed copy.
But the real highlights for me were the four sessions I attended. Not a dud among them though they were vastly different in topic and style. I ‘d never expected the audiences to be so big – 700 people for Edna O’Brien; about 500 for a discussion on the experience of women in Lebanon and Egypt. Every event was a sell out apparently.
I loved the low key conversational tone of the interview with John Banville who came on stage clutching a glass of wine rather than the pint of Guinness you’d have expected from a true born Irishman. Edna O’Brien was in superb form, one moment teasing her editor who was conducting the interview; tantalising us with stories of parties involving copious amounts of champagne and film stars and the next, revealing the dark experience of her LSD therapy. And the discussion hosted by Dame Joan Bakewell introduced me to two truly remarkable women authors— Joanna Haddad from the Lebanon and Sereen El Feiki from Egypt who have both fought to be heard and to express the unthinkable in societies which place enormous pressures to conform on its women citizens.
I’ll be posting about these events separately since each speaker had so many interesting insights that I couldn’t possibly do justice to them in a general article.
Will I go back to Hay? Absolutely – and if you can’t get to this event, don’t feel too disappointed. The festival has spread its wings enormously since its first year in 1988 when it was a few people gathering in a local bookshop and a local school. Now it has events in places as far afield as Segovia, Mexico; Turkey, Bangladesh and Kenya. There’s sure to be one not too far away from you…..so get booking.
Posting this early so I can set off in good time for my first ever visit to the Hay Literary Festival. A day talking about books in a town which boasts more second hand book stores than anywhere else in the world. It’s in an idyllic spot too – on the banks of the Wye River in the heart of the Golden Valley, one of the most glorious parts of Wales. Luckily the forecast is for sunny skies which will make the drive through the valley even more delightful.
There are so many sessions it’s been really tough making a choice but in the end I plumped for four,
Sex and the Citadel: Joanna Haddad and Sereen El Feiki in conversation with Joan Bakewell.
These two authors have both published novels which look at how patriarchal attitudes are entwined in all aspects of life in the Middle East. I chose this one as part of my quest to read more world literature. And also because I am a fan of Joan Bakewell who was a superb interviewer and host of some flagship cultural programs on the BBC for many years.
John Banville : the 2005 Booker Prize winner discusses obsessive young love and the power of grief as portrayed in his novels. We get to see some early clips from the forthcoming film of The Sea (his winning novel).
Edna O’Brien : the Irish-born novelist, playright and poet talks about her autobiography. She’s seen plenty of drama in her life . Her first novel The Country Girls, is often credited with breaking silence on sexual matters and social issues during a repressive period in Ireland following World War 2. The book was banned, burned and denounced from the pulpit, causing O’Brien to leave her native land.
Google Debate: The Future of News: in a digital world of instant information, what and who is the future of news. This is a debate between senior editors from BBC World and the Daily Telegraph, an expert on China and some Google executives.
It will be a packed day but I may just be able to squeeze in some time to buy a few books….