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From drugs to racism in six steps

It’s time for another  Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate of Books Are My Favourite and Best where we start with one book and link to six other books to form a chain. My rule is to link only to books that I’ve read, even if it was decades ago.

This month, once again, we are starting with a book that I’ve never read and, I will admit, not even heard of until now: Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis.  The blurb description says:

Set in Los Angeles in the early 1980’s, this coolly mesmerizing novel is a raw, powerful portrait of a lost generation who have experienced sex, drugs, and disaffection at too early an age, in a world shaped by casual nihilism, passivity, and too much money– a place devoid of feeling or hope.

Apparently Less than Zero was published as his debut novel in 1985 when he was just 21 years old, and rapidly gained attention for its portrayal of a hedonistic lifestyle. It became a cult novel.

 

The drug culture also figures large in another novel that came out in 1966 and was also set partially in Los Angeles. My first link is to Valley of the Dolls by the American writer Jacqueline Susann. Its more low brow than Ellis’ novel; Time magazine called it  the “Dirty Book of the Month” ; but it became the biggest selling novel of its year. It relates the troubled lives of three young women who become fast friends in the turbulent post-war worlds of Broadway and Hollywood and  grow increasingly dependent on “dolls” (amphetamines and barbiturates).  They help take the edge off their anxieties for a time but the women become increasingly dependent.  Over the course of 20 years,  each woman strives to achieve her dreams only to find herself back in the valley of the dolls. I’m embarrassed now to think that I ever read this book but it was ‘required’ reading for teenagers who craved excitement even if it was only vicariously.

Dolls of a different kind provide the theme for my second link. In A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, the playwright uses the idea of a doll to symbolise the predicament of married women in Denmark in the late nineteenth century. The doll in this play is Nora Helmer, a mother of three who seemingly lives an ideal existence as the wife of a bank manager. But she feels trapped and frustrated b y the lack of opportunities  for self-fulfillment in a male dominated world. The ending of the play Nora Helmer – wife of Torvald, mother of three, is living out the ideal of the 19th-century wife aroused a great sensation and outrage when the play was first performed.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin similarly provoked a strong reaction when it was first published in 1899 because it featured a woman who sets herself at odds with the prevailing social attitudes of the turn-of-the-century American South.  Set in New Orleans and on the Louisiana Gulf coast it shows Edna Pontellier, a wife and mother, who, just like Nora in Ibsen’s play,  develops unorthodox views on femininity and motherhood with the prevailing social attitudes of the turn-of-the-century American South.  Critics found the behaviour of Edna Pontelier so‘ sickening’ and ‘selfish’ that one reviewer said it ‘should be labelled poison’ but over the century, Chopin’s novella has come to be viewed as a landmark work of early feminism and thus a feature of many university literature modules.

Oppression and freedom from patriarchal control provide my fourth link in the form of The Colour Purple  by Alice Walker. This is an epistolary novel, set mainly in rural Georgia, that reflects on lives of African-American women in the southern United States in the 1930s, addressing numerous issues including their exceedingly low position in American social culture. The protagonist is Celie is a poor, uneducated, 14-year-old girl who writes letters to God because her father, Alphonso, beats her harshly and rapes her continuously. The novel won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction yet has been the frequent target of censors. It appears on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000–2009 because of it sometimes explicit content.

Four my fifth link I’m staying in the US with another book that has been frequently challenged and banned in some school districts because of its unflinching depiction of childhood rape and racism.  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by  Maya Angelou is the first part of a seven-volume series that shows how she rose from a poor and troubled childhood to become a world renowned author and poet, overcoming racism and hostility through strength of character and a love of literature. 

Racism and strength of character  take me to another coming of age novel for my sixth and final link. Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry  by Mildred Taylor is set in southern Mississippi during the years of the Great Depression. Its narrator  is nine-year-old Cassie Logan, a strong-willed girl with a fiery temper whose family fights to hold onto the land that rightfully belongs to them. Once again this is a novel whose content has generated concerns – it was one of the most frequently challenged books of 2002 on the basis that it contained offensive language and portrayed racism.

And with that we are at the end of the chain having stayed mainly in USA but with a little side trip to Norway. One of the things I enjoy about the Six Degrees meme is that it takes you into unexpected places. If you’re wondering about connections other bloggers made, check out the links at Kate’s blog.

Armchair BEA: Novellas and short stories

book heart armchairbeaDay 3 of Armchair Book Expo America (BEA) and the attention turns today to novellas and short stories. 

I don’t read that many works of fiction that are short. This year was the first time I’d ever read any Alice Munro for example and that was only because it was the book club selection for that month.

It isn’t that I have a specific aversion to short stories, or that i think they are the poorer cousin of the novel because I don’t. Having tried a bit of fiction writing myself I can appreciate that it is often harder to create a convincing picture of the world and a convincing set of characters when you have less than 5,000 words in which to do so than in a novel  where the word count could reach as much as 100,000.

i think my issue is that if the author is particularly successful at creating this believable fictitious world then I feel cheated when it comes to an end too soon. It’s a bit like when you were young and you were packed off to bed just when the interesting programs came on the TV.  It’s simply not fair!

For me the outstanding short story I’ve read in recent years is Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Written right at the end of the nineteenth century this was a work that stunned readers because of the way it challenged the idea that marriage and motherhood gave women all the fulfilment they needed in life.  It’s a story of Edna Pontellier, a woman in Louisiana who rejects the domestic role and instead embarks on a quest for freedom, with the huge personal sacrifice that entails.

Chopin herself paid a hefty price for having published this story. Faced with criticism that it would encourage young people to have ‘unholy imaginations and unclean desires’ she printed an apology for her heroine’s behaviour. Then the story simply disappeared. It wasn’t rediscovered until the 1960s as a result of the women’s movement which saw it as an example of early feminist writing. Critical opinion now considers Chopin to be a writer whose work can be compared with Gustav Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant.

What I loved about this story was the psychological complexity of Edna’s character and the enigmatic nature of the narrative (Chopin uses many metaphors drawn from nature in this book). It’s so enigmatic that there is a question mark about the nature of the ending. I shall say no more in case I spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it.

 

 

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