This month’s Six Degrees begins with a book whose title suggests it falls into the self-help category. Since I’m invariably disappointed by the superficiality of most of those books I haven’t given much thought to How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell.
But reading the descriptions have got me far more interested. Odell is an artist is a writer and a Stanford professor who has become increasingly disturbed about the effects of our “always on” world. She argues that reacting instantly to every ping of a new text message, constantly checking Twitter feeds and Instagram stories is possibly torching our ability to live meaningful lives, and preventing us from noticing what matters.
A similar concern formed the basis of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. If you’ve not read it, this is a thought-provoking, and disturbing account of research that shows how the Internet is re-wiring our brains so they become more accustomed to only superficial understanding. We don’t read what’s on our screens, we simply scan with a profound consequence for how we retain and recall information and learn.
Carr’s book was based on the distraction problem caused by content stuffed with hyperlinks, every one of which was calling for your attention. If he was writing it now, he’d be commenting on the added distraction caused by all the marketing messages that bombard us every time we fire up a website or a social media platform. They’re there for one reason, and one reason only: to persuade us to buy.
The same year I read The Shallows I read The Undercover Economist in which Tim Harford delved into the world of coffee shop marketing. He explains in non-technical terms how Starbucks and other coffee chains price their coffee and drinks to try and get us to trade up.
The economic principles are quite straightforward. Your entry level Americano doesn’t offer much of a profit margin. But add in frothy milk, and call it a latte or a cappuccino and the profit looks more healthy. The ingredient costs don’t go up that significantly but your customers think they’re buying into a life style so they’re willing to pay higher prices. Persuade those same customers they really need (deserve?) a flavoured syrup, a squirt of cream or a sprinkle of marshmallows ( heaven help us, some people want all three) and those profit margins rocket.
I guarantee, when you’ve read Harford’s chapters on Who Pays For Your Coffee and What Supermarkets Don’t Want You To Know, you will never look at a coffee menu in the same way.
Marketing is much older than maybe some of us realise. Émile Zola had his finger on the button in 1883 when he set one of his Rougon-Macquet novels in a Parisienne shop.
In The Ladies’ Paradise the store owner Octave Mouret has grand ambitions to become more than just a modest size operation. He sets about creating a huge department store, killing off his competitors with his big advertising spend, ‘no questions asked’ returns policy, rapid home delivery and seasonal sales. Mouret uses the mechanisms of seduction, transforming everything for sale into an object of desire, enticing women to lose their heads and buy far more than they need or can afford.
Into this den of consumerism steps Denise Baudu, a young orphaned provincial girl who takes a job in the store because she has to provide for her two younger brothers. She’s taught to smile and agree with customers even when they’re being completely disagreeable, arrogant and rude.
There are similar scenes in Brooklyn by Colm Toibin which transplants the young Eilis Lacey from her small village life in Ireland, to the bustle of Brooklyn. Ellis, accustomed to the sales technique of the harridan who ran the village shop (customers who want cleaning products on the Sabbath re given short shrift), is nervous as hell when she begins her job in an American department store. Here she’s told, the customer is always right and its Ellis’ job to serve their every need.
Brooklyn is a love story but also a story about the experience of people who leave their homes in search of what they believe will be a better life.
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo picks up this theme through the story of Darling, a young teenager who manages to escape the poverty, hunger and despair of Zimbabwe to live with her aunt in “Destroyedmichygen” (Detroit, Michigan).
At first she is surprised by the astonishing variety and plenitude of food, by the wealth of everyday choices. She adopts the new lifestyle, the clothes and habits of her new friends. But then she begins to feel alienated from her motherland and her new life; missing all the traditions and beliefs she grew up with, and at the same time detached from the hectic life of easy gratification in America.
It’s a book that reminded me strongly of sections in Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which a brilliant exploration of modern attitudes to race and identity, loss and loneliness.
Her female protagonist Ifemulu, having achieved her dream of a place at an American university struggles to find her identity. Ultimately this girl triumphs when she decides not to conform to expectations about her ethnic origins and colour. The moment she stops hiding her Nigerian accent beneath an American one and refuses to straighten her hair she feels truly free and true to her roots.
And with that we reach the end of this month’s Six Degrees chain. We’ve travelled from France, Nigeria and Zimbabwe to the USA, pausing to pick up a coffee and get our hair done. I hope you’ve enjoyed my meanderings.
If you’re interested in taking part in Six Degrees yourself, take a look at the information provided by our host Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best.
I’m not a big reader of series so it’s been a challenge to reach the magical 10 for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic: Authors I’ve Read the Most Books By.
Maybe I made it too difficult by setting a threshold where in order to make the list, I decided I would limit myself to authors I read as an adult. Plus I had to have read at least five of the author’s works. I ended up with just eight names.
They are a mix of contemporary authors and those from the literary canon of past centuries. Some are authors whose full body of work I would love to read. Others are favourites from past years that have not lasted the course because my reading tastes have changed. I wonder whether this list will change again in the future. Maybe I should repeat the exercise five or ten years from now .
One important thing to mention however. This list is simply a record of authors I’ve read most often, not the authors I consider my favourites. There’s no George Eliot for example. Putting the list together I realised I still have three of her novels to read: Daniel Deronda, Felix Holt and Romola. I sense a little reading project might be in the offing.
By the time I came across Louise Penny’s crime fiction she had already published eight titles in her series set in Quebec. Her setting in the tiny village of Three Pines won me over, as did her protagonist, Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. She’s published a total of 15 books in the series – 16th is due out later this year – of which I’ve read eight. My favourite? That’s a hard one. I think I’m going to go for How The Light Gets In.
My first experience of Atkinson was via her debut novel Behind The Scenes at the Museum which chronicled the lives of six generations of women. I’ve since gone on to read six more of the the 10 books she’s had published. Some of these were not to my taste (I couldn’t finish Life after Life and really disliked Transcription) but when she’s on form, she’s highly enjoyable. Her Jackson Brodie series of detective novels (adapted into the BBC series Case Histories) is first class and like her many other fans I was delighted when she returned to this series in 2019 after a 11 year gap, with Blue Sky.
There was a time when I lapped up everything written by McEwan. But in recent years my interest has waned significantly. The turning point was Saturday published in 2005 which I found tedious and pretentious. I’ve read seven of his novels. From his early years, I enjoyed Black Dogs and The Innocent. Of his more recent works, my all time favourite is Atonement.
Another author I no longer enjoy as much as I did. I’ve read six of his novels. The best of those from the twentieth century is I think Brazzaville Beach which tells the story of a woman who is in Africa researching chimpanzees. This century, the outstanding novel has been Any Human Heart, a tremendous story of one man’s life; his attempts at a literary career, several marriages and meetings with a host of famous people. Nothing Boyd has published since has come anywhere close to the quality of that novel and the most recent one I read, Love is Blind, was just awful.
If you’d asked me in the 1980s whether Graham Greene was one of my favourite authors, you’d have been met with an unequivocal answer in the negative. He’d been on the syllabus for my final English literature module at university and I had unwelcome memories of having to rush through his books. But time has moved on and I’ve come to more deeply appreciate his work, particularly those labelled his “Catholic novels.” My favourite is The Heart of The Matter which portrays a fundamentally decent man taken down the path to a crisis of conscience and despair.
I’ve barely touched the surface with Zola’s work. I’ve read seven of his novels; Thérèse Raquin, a dark novel of murder and adultery and six of the 20 titles in his Rougon-Macquart cycle. I’ve yet to read one that hasn’t impressed me with its multi-faceted portrayal French society and life in the nineteenth century and its undercurrents of passion and ambition. My favourite is the novel I read first, Germinal, but L’Assommoir, the story of a working class woman in Paris, is a close second.
Like so many readers I was introduced to Dickens at an early age via Oliver Twist. It took me a few decades to warm to him. Yes he can be frustrating (he does so like to digress) and yes his plots are highly dependent on coincidences, but boy can he tell a good yarn. I’ve failed to finish two: Bleak House (I’ll return to it one day) and A Tale of Two Cities). Of the eight novels by him that I have finished, my favourites are Great Expectations (the first encounter by Magwitch and young Pip is unforgettable) and Dombey and Son (especially for its breathtaking scene involving a train).
When I read Jane Austen as a teenager I was puzzled by descriptions of her as a supremely ‘witty’ author. I couldn’t see anything approaching wit in what I was reading. It wasn’t until I read her as an adult that the penny dropped and I fell in love with her writing. I’ve read all her novels bar one, Lady Susan. Last year I read one of her unfinished works, Sanditon, when a new Oxford World Classics edition was published to coincide with a TV adaptation. She’s an author I feel I can return to again and again and still find something new to enjoy. My favourite? I never tire of Pride and Prejudice but the quieter, more thoughtful Persuasion, has the edge.
I’ve only just woken up to the fact that we’re a few days away from the end of a decade. It wasn’t until I saw Simon’s post on his favourite books of the decade that light began to dawn that soon we’ll be in the Twenty Twenties.
That got me thinking what I would include in my list of favourites.
I thought initially I’d choose one book for each year but that plan didn’t last long. Until I started this blog, I never kept track of what I was reading so there’s a black hole before 2012. There are a few books I’ve recorded in Goodreads for 2010 and 2011 but that’s probably guesswork on my part.
So instead I’m going to build a list of the 10 books I’ve enjoyed most from across all the years. Just one point to clarify though– they were not necessarily published this decade, just that I read them over the last ten years. My favourite book of 2019 may be in among the ten – but it might not be…..
I’ve gone for books that are not simply good, but outstanding. The principal test was whether it was a book I would want to re-read.
Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel
2012: Bring Up The Bodies is the sequel to Mantel’s terrific award-winning Wolf Hall, a book that breathed new life into the well-known story of King Henry VIII and his marital problems. It is the second part of her trilogy charting the rise and fall of the King’s right hand man Thomas Cromwell. I was blown away by Wolf Hall but Bring Up the Bodies is even more powerful. Now I’m counting down the weeks until the third episode The Mirror and The Light is published in March 2020
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
2013: For years I thought I wouldn’t like John Steinbeck. Cannery Row changed my mind. The mixture of humour, the warmth and affection for his characters and lightens what is a fairly bleak tale of a motley gang of down and outs. I know this is not typical Steinbeck but it’s still encouraged me to give his more famous novels a go.
Harvest by Jim Crace
Another novel I read in 2013, the year in which it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Harvest is an exquisitely written novel about the threat to a village and a way of life. Grace doesn’t sentimentalise the countryside but he does shine a light on the human consequences of a rupture in a traditional way of life resulting from a pursuit of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise”.
L’Assommoir by Emile Zola
No surprise to find my favourite novelist making an appearance on this best of the decade list. L’Assommoir is a dark story; stark and emotional; that traces a woman born into poverty and how she tries to find happiness. She succeeds but this being Zola, you know it can’t last. It has some tremendous set pieces set in the working class district of Paris.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
I read The English Patient in 2015 and it remains one of my favourite Booker Prize winners to date. Set in Italy during World War 2, it features four people who are scarred emotionally and physically by the war. They come together in a deserted villa, hoping there to find some peace. This is a novel to read slowly and to savour.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeline Thien
Canadian author Madeleine Thien takes us to China to show the effect of the Cultural Revolution on ordinary people, in this case three talented musicians. Thein covers a vast swathe of history but it never feels like she’s forcing the facts onto you. Do Not Say We Have Nothing ends with the horrific standoff between the state and its citizens in Tianenman Square. It makes a great companion read to Wild Swans, Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang,
The Cove by Cynan Jones
It’s hard to put into words just how special this book is. From the first page The Cove hypnotises you with an intense and closely observed tale of a kayaker struck by lightning. Injured and adrift all he wants is to get back to to land and to his pregnant girlfriend.
The Vegetarian by Hang Kang
This was the most memorable book I read in 2017. It’s a really disturbing novel set in South Korea focusing on a young wife who decides she will no longer eat meat. It’s a decision that will lead to her mental disintegration. The final section of The Vegetarian is unforgettable.
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
This is the only non fiction book to make it only my list. At the age of 50, Raynor Winn and her husband Moth lost their business and their home. Moth was diagnosed with a serious brain condition. With little money and no prospects they decided to embark on a 600 mile walk along a coastal path, sleeping under the stars. The Salt Path is a lovely blend of observations on nature and attitudes to homelessness but if the latter sounds bleak, rest assured that Raynor Winn has a great sense of humour.
All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West
Older people often get stereotyped in fiction so it was a delight to come across a novel that rejects the idea you lose your ability to know your own mind when you age. The main character of All Passion Spent is a recently widowed 88 year old who rejects all her children’s plans and sets her own course. It’s such a beautiful, elegant and thoughtful portrait I look forward to reading the novel all over again.