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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.

Where writers write

G. B Shaw's writing hut. Photo credit:

G. B Shaw’s writing hut. Photo credit:

Where do you write? Its one of the most popular questions posed whenever a bunch of aspiring authors get to meet the real thing. The answers quickly dispel any romantic ideas that the forging of a masterpiece requires a sparsely furnished garret or purpose built shed in some enchanted corner of the garden.

The writing shed at Laugharne, where Under Milk Wood was created

The writing shed at Laugharne, where Under Milk Wood was created

Sheds do have their uses it seems. George Bernard Shaw built one as a special writing hut in the garden of his home in Hertfordshire, England. The hut was built on a revolving mechanism which enabled him to follow the sun throughout the day as he wrote.  In a case of literary one-upmanship, Michael Morpugo built what he calls “a storyteller’s house.” Designed by his wife based on an Anglo-Saxon chapel in Essex, it boasts a Devon thatched roof, a Japanese garden and an uninterrupted view of the countryside, looking towards Dartmoor. Virginia Woolf had a converted toolshed but found it so impossibly cold in the winter she couldn’t hold her pen. My fellow national Dylan Thomas also had a writing shed. It’s absolutely nothing special to look at from the outside but from the rear window underneath which Thomas had his desk, he could look out onto the wide expanse of Cardigan Bay and watch the light playing on the water as the tide swept in.

Other writers prefer the humdrum normality of domesticity when creating the “room of one’s own”. Penelope Lively simply sits in an armchair with an “ancient electronic typewriter” on her lap; Ray Bradbury used the living room and bedrooms of his parent’s house in his early years.  Jane Austen carved out a small space near the seldom-used front door as a secret writing corner.  A creaking swing door gave her warning when anyone was coming, and she refused to have the creak remedied. Michael Morpugo apparently writes in bed though this is a rather special contraption

That oddity apart, there are a whole host of writers whose creative juices are unleashed far away from the domestic sphere. Bradbury presumably found his parents’ home too restrictive since he took himself off the the UCLA library to write Fahrenheit 451. Libraries too were the locations of choice for George Eliot, Virginia Woolf and G.B Shaw (all of whom were regular users of the Reading Roomat the British Museum in London).  For Herman Melville and Willa Cather the New York Society Library was one of their favourite haunts.  Maya Angelou used to escape from her home to a hotel on days when she wanted to write. In a  2013 interview with The Daily Beast, she explained how she kept a hotel room in her hometown and paid for it by the month.

I go around 6:30 in the morning. I have a bedroom, with a bed, a table, and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible. Usually a deck of cards and some crossword puzzles.

Angelou had all the paintings and any decoration taken out of the room and banned all the hotel staff from entering it “just in case I’ve thrown a piece of paper on the floor, I don’t want it discarded”.

Edinburgh Cafe, The Elephant House: The birthplace of Harry Potter

Edinburgh Cafe, The Elephant House: The birthplace of Harry Potter

By now of course we all know the story of how J.K Rowling produced the phenomenally successful Harry Potter series while sitting in an Edinburgh cafe. Although Rowling has said the idea of the boy wizard was conceived on a train journey, much of the writing was done in the back room of the Elephant House cafe overlooking the castle. It’s now one of the spots in the city that tourists love to visit. (Nearby Nicholson’s cafe where she also wrote is now a Chinese restaurant). For Rowling, a single mother struggling to make ends meet on state benefits, it was cheaper to buy a few coffees in these cafes than to heat her apartment.

It seems she’s not the only writer to find a stint in a cafe more productive than a few hours in their own home no matter how comfortable their study/workshop/writer’s den.  In the Literary Hub just recently crime fiction supremo Jo Nesbø revealed that he although he has what he calls “the perfect writing room” constructed in the attic of his apartment and with a view of the hills of Oslo, he actually prefers to write in the corridor of a coffee shop. He goes there early each day to try and make sure to snaffle one of the two tables in the corridor since those are the only ones he finds conducive to writing. He will share a table if necessary but much prefers it if his companion moves off when they finish their coffee rather than engaging him in conversation.

I’m astonished he can concentrate enough to be creative. Most coffee shops I frequent these days are horribly noisy joints full of squawking infants (some places look more like a crèche than a cafe), and people from nearby offices trying to look terribly important when talking very loudly on their phones. Mix that in with the thumps as the barista tamps the coffee thingy on the counter to release the grounds before the next customer’s order; the hissing of the steam to create cappucchino foam, the pulverising of yet more beans and the grinding of ice for smoothies and you have one hell of a racket. I often can’t get out of the door fast enough but next time I’ll go looking in the darker recesses. I might just spot a writer in hot pursuit of a prize winning novel.




Discovering Maya Angelou

Another week in which I ‘discovered’ another new author. I say discovered because Maya Angelou has been around for decades.  I knew her name, the title of her most famous work (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) and the fact she was a leading figure in the African- American freedom cause. But that was it until this week when I  read Caged Bird and found a podcast on the BBC World Service where she read some of her poetry. Her career as an actor make her a powerful performer but it’s the message itself that is even more impactful. Now my appetite has been well and truly whetted and I have to find out more about this remarkable woman.

My review of Caged Bird is here. If you want a taste of her poetry, this is the poem she read at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton (she was first woman poet to do such a reading).

On the Pulse of Morning

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow,
I will give you no hiding place down here.

You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness
Have lain too long
Facedown in ignorance,
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.

The Rock cries out to us today,
You may stand upon me,
But do not hide your face.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

Raped at eight years old; pregnant at 17. Not that great a start in life, particularly for a black American female living in Arkansas decades before the Civil Rights movement. But Maya Angelou is nothing if not strong. And it’s that strength of mind and character that comes forcefully to life in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first part of her six volume autobiography.

It’s a coming of age book which traces her life from the age of three when she is sent with her brother Bailey to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas after the breakup of her parent’s marraige.  Living in the family general store, Angelou witnesses the realities of racial discrimination. One night she helps to hide a neighbour when alerted to possible Klan activity in the neighbourhood; another time she recounts the way a ‘powhitetrash’ girl taunts her grandmother, lifting up her skirts to insult her. Angelou herself is subjected to humiliation and racism. Working as a domestic servant to earn some pocket money, she is robbed of her name because Margurite (her birth name) isn’t considered by her white employer to be appropriate for one of her kind.  When she experiences the intense pain of  a rotten tooth and is taken to a dentist in the nearest town, he refuses to treat her because of her colour.

Set against this however is the way Angelou portrays the deeply held values of family, culture and faith in her community. And although much of what she relates is life at its most brutal, she is equally adept at describing its lighter moments whether its the uncontrollable laughter that bursts forth in the middle of a church sermon or the joy of discovering Charles Dickens, Shakespeare and James Weldon Johnson. It was through these authors and the careful nurturing of a family friend that helped facilitate her recovery from the traumatic effects of the sexual abuse and rape by her mother’s boyfriend. Angelou became mute for almost five years after that incident, convinced that somehow she was partly to blame.

I had sold myself to the Devil and there could be no escape. The only thing I could do was to stop talking to people….Just my breath carrying my words out, might poison people and they’d curl up and die like the black fat slugs that only pretended.

Much of the book is episodic, with events related in a non linear fashion, but the thread that holds them together is Maya’s growing sense of identity.  She progresses from being a victim of racism with an inferiority complex to a self-aware individual with a strong sense of who she is and who responds to racism by refusing to acknowledge its existence. As a sixteen year old she becomes determined to be “in control of her fate’ by getting a job as a conductor on a trolley car, eventually becoming the first black person to hold such a job.

But though she matures, she reflects that the journey is not yet over for though she has graduated from school has beaten the odds to get some financial independence, and has become a mother, there is still a part of her that is unsure of what her journey has really meant.

I had gone from being ignorant of being ignorant to being aware of being aware. And the worst part of my awareness was that I didn’t know what I was aware of.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has long been on my bookshelf . I included it in my Classics Club list as a way of motivating me into actually reading it. And I am so glad I did, but only sorry I didn’t read it earlier.

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