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Six Degrees from Ali Smith to Susan Hill

 

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation begins with a book that has divided opinion ever since it was published in 2014.

Howtobe bothHow to Be Both by Ali Smith contains two stories. One story features the Italian renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa, a real-life figure who produced a series of frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy.  The other story, relates to a teenage girl called George whose mother has just died and who is left struggling to make sense of her death with her younger brother and her emotionally disconnected father.

The book was published in such a way that readers might either begin with Francesco or with George. My copy opened with the Italian artist and I was immediately captivated. (see my review here ). But I know quite a number of bloggers whose opinion I value didn’t rate the book at all.

How to Be Both was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize but the prize went instead to the Australian author Richard Flanagan with The Narrow Road to the Deep North. 

The Narrow Road

This was such a superb book that I’ve struggled to write a review that would do it justice. It’s one of the few Booker prize winners that I want to re-read.

This is a novel set in the context of one of the most infamous episodes in World War 2: the construction of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway. At the heart of Flanagan’s novel is an Australian surgeon, Dorrigo Evans, who to his astonishment becomes something of a legend for his wartime courage at a Japanese POW camp on the Death Railway. The novel ends with an encounter between Evans and one of those captors.

A similar encounter takes place in  The Railway Man  by Eric Lomax.

The Railway Man

This is an autobiography in which  Lomax relates his experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II during which he was forced to work on construction of the help Thai-Burma Railway.  The book won the NCR Book Award (until it closed in 1997 it was the major UK award for non-fiction) and became a film starring Colin Firth.

A later winner of the prize was another of my all-time favourites – Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang.

Wild Swans

This is a family history spans more than a century of China’s history told through the  lives of three female generations of Chang’s family.   Chang’s mother was a member of Mao’s Red Army while Chang herself willingly joined Red Guards though she recoiled from some of their brutal actions.

As time progresses, life under Mao and his Cultural Revolution became more difficult and dangerous, causing immense suffering.  Parts of the book are heart-wrenching as we learn of citizens rallying to a call for metal so it could be turned into weapons, giving up their cooking pots and pans to avoid being denounced by the regime.

My fourth book also recounts times of hardship for the peasants of China.

thegoodearth

 

The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck (my review is here ) is a tale of the fluctuating fortunes of two families: the peasant farmer Wang Lung and his wife O-lan and the rich, wealthy House of Hwang headed by The Old Lord and the Old Mistress. His land is the essence of Lung’s being. When the harvests fail and his family have no more grain or rice to eat, they move to the city  where they are reduced to living in a makeshift hut . But Lung always dreams of returning to his land.

The novel won Buck the Pulitzer Prize and was a key factor in her award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938 “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces. 

That accolade of “biographical masterpiece” from the members of the Swedish Academy could equally apply to my next choice: Samuel Pepys – The Unequaled Self by Claire Tomalin. 

Pepys

Pepys’ story is an extraordinary one: his origins were humble (he was a tailor’s son) but he became one of the most wealthy and powerful government figures in England in the seventeenth century. He’s most famed of course for his diaries in which he described his daily domestic routine and gave us an account of landmark events such as the Great Fire of London.

Tomalin does a superb job of bringing the man to life, weaving extracts from his diary into details from contemporary letters and official court documents. I read this seven years ago and still remember some of the episodes she relates. (my review is here)

Pepys loved hearing gossip. He also loved to collect books. In his will, made shortly before his death in 1708, he bequeathed his vast library to Magdalene College, Oxford. It remains there to this day.

Not on the same scale as Pepys but the final book in my chain was written by another avid ‘collector’.

Howards End

The author Susan Hill lives in an old and rambling farmhouse full of cosy fireside nooks and aged beams. It’s also full of bookcases overflowing with books. Howards End is on the Landing ( see my review here)recounts the year she decided to ‘repossess’ these books.  For a year she read only those books already occupying a space in her shelves (or on the floor), foregoing the purchase of anything new.

Would that I were disciplined not to buy new books until I had read the old. But my experiment with restraint lasted only a few months.


Six Degrees of Separation  #6Degrees is a monthly meme hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to begin with one book title, and then make a chain of six other books.  I’ve made one rule for myself – all the books in the chains I create are ones I have read though not necessarily reviewed. I never cease to be astonished at the level of variety across all the bloggers who take part in this meme.

The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck

goodearth-collageMy path to The Good Earth by the Nobel prize winner Pearl S Buck was one I almost did not take. I had asked two colleagues in Korea to suggest local authors. Their first choice sounded appealing –  it was a best seller called Please Look After Mom (click on the title to see my review).  I was less enthused by their second recommendation – The Good Earth – because it was set in China not Korea and was written by an American author.  My preference is to read native authors wherever possible but I was heartened subsequently to learn that Pearl S Buck was in fact very familiar with China’s rural life and traditions having spent much of her early life there as the daughter of missionaries.

My reservations about The Good Earth didn’t last for long. Right from chapter one I was hooked by this novel about the rising/falling fortunes of two families: the peasant farmer Wang Lung and his wife O-lan and the rich, wealthy House of Hwang headed by The Old Lord and the Old Mistress.

The book opens on Wang Lung’s wedding day and then charts their progress through successive years during which time their family grows, they enjoy plentiful harvests and manage to become landowners only to see it all disappear -and then astonishingly they get it back many times over.  Meanwhile the rich Hwangs, for whom O-lan once worked as a house servant, go through a reverse experience because of the Old Lord’s penchant for multiple concubines and his wife’s addiction to opium. Their fortunes dwindle to the point they can no longer remain in their large house with its lavish furnishings. Wang Lung seizes the opportunity to make his mark on local society and becomes the new owner.
It’s a story that has so many twists and turns it feels like a soap opera at times. What sustained my interest was Pearl Buck’s portrait of Wang Lung and his deeply rooted believe in the beneficial power of the earth.

He took his life from this earth; drop by drop by his sweat he wrung food from it and from the food, silver.

He enjoys the wealth his toil brings not simply because it brings peace of mind because he can now feed and sustain his family but as time goes on it brings him a new status in his community. “… everyone knew now that Wang Lung owned this land and in his village there was talk of making him the head.”

china-peasantBut of course such pride makes his fall even more acutely felt. When the harvests fail, when every grain of rice and wheat has been eaten and the ox killed for food and when he has used every coin he possesses, there is no other path open than to go south. Either he has to see his family die or he has to give up the land and find work and food in a more wealthy province.  to the city to try and find a new life.  There they are reduced to living in a makeshift hut while Wang Lung pulls a rickshaw, earning barely enough to buy rice for the next day. He gets a break and obtains enough money to take his family back to their native land where he begins to rebuild his life, so successfully he becomes one of the wealthiest men in the locality.

At times Wang Lung seems to feel the earth has mystical powers – early on in his married life in fact he erects two crude figures on his plot of land to which he regularly pays homage. Throughout the novel, the land is the “good earth”; providing Wang Lung, with physical, emotional and spiritual nourishment. He is at his happiest when he works in the fields, knowing he is following in the footsteps of many generations of his family. Whenever he is troubled, physical labor on the land restores him. Whenever he is away from it, he feels out of his element. Even when he is wealthy old man who is too weak to get behind the plough, the pull of the earth sustains him:

… of his land he thought no more what harvest it would bring or what seed would be planted or of anything except of the land itself, and he stooped sometimes and gathered some of the earth up in his hand and he sat thus and held it in his hand, and it seemed full of life between his fingers. And he was content, holding it thus, and he thought of it fitfully and of his good coffin that was there; and the kind earth waited without haste until he came to it.

I’m glad I laid my initial reservations about this book to one side because The Good Earth proved a fascinating insight into the culture of China in the years spanning the end of the nineteenth century and the outbreak of World War 1.

Footnotes

The Book: The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck was published in 1931. Its commercial and critical success was considered an influential factor in her award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. The Good Earth is the first book in a trilogy.

The Author:  Pearl S Buck was taken to China when she was five months old and lived there for much of her life as the daughter and then the wife of a missionary. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. After returning to the United States in 1935, she continued to write and became a prominent advocate of the rights of women and minority groups, and wrote widely on Asian cultures,

My edition: e-book

Why I read this: As part of my project to read more books by authors outside of the traditional western canon.

 

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