We start this month’s Six Degrees Of Separation with a novel that’s a cult classic.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a disturbingly dark post-apocalyptic novel in which a father and son walk alone through a landscape ravaged by a catastrophe. It’s a novel I read but didn’t enjoy at all – I found it repetitive and jerky.
The unnamed duo were heading south on their journey but for my first link I’m heading in the opposite direction.
Richard Flanagan won the Booker Prize in 2014 with The Narrow Road To The Deep North. It’s one of my absolute favourite Booker winners
The “road’ in the title is actually a railroad – the infamous Thailand-Burma Death Railway of World War 2. The novel shows how the lives of the prisoners forced to work on the railroad and the Japanese soldiers who guard them, are impacted long after the end of the war. In the novel Flanagan asks questions about reconciliation and atonement.
The experience of Japanese prisoners of war feature prominently in a Town Like Alice by Neville Shute. He was inspired to write the novel after meeting a woman who was part of a group of women and children captured by Japanese forces. In Shute’s version, the group is forced to march from camp to camp for two and a half years.
After the war, Shute’s protagonist travels to Australia to track down a soldier who had stolen food and medicines for the women on their march. Eventually she finds him in the Queensland outback.
An author very familiar with Australia’s isolated bush regions was Miles Franklin. It’s the setting for her first novel, My Brilliant Career, a coming of age tale of a headstrong girl in whom ambition blazes. Franklin gives her heroine Sybylla Melvyna belief that she is destined for a life more fulfilling than rearing cattle and sheep or being “shackled” in marriage.
Sybylla reminds me so much of the eponymous character in My Ántonia by Willa Cather. That too is set in a wild landscape (Nebraska) among farmers and settlers who battle against nature to make a living. Appropriately for this month’s chain, it opens with a train journey during which two passengers reminisce about Antonia – a spirited girl they once knew. Cather’s novel celebrates the beauty of the Nebraskan plains yet it doesn’t sentimentalise the harshness of the climate.
There is no hint of sentimentality either in my fifth novel, A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale. Set in the remote plains of Saskatchewan, Canada, Gale shows his central character, Harry Cane, arrive as a homesteader with barely an idea of what to expect. He’s never farmed, never done any manual work and in his first winter, has no shelter except a tent in which to ride out sub zero temperatures.
Harry is an exile, escaping from a comfortable life in England to avoid discovery of a homosexual relationship that would, if made public, have ruined him.
Let’s continue with this idea of travel as a form of escape and pick a novel in which the character goes even further north to evade capture.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan sees a young slave boy travel take flight from a cotton plantation in 19th-century Barbados, ending up in the Arctic circle. He does travel by road and rail occasionally but the most remarkable journey in the novel is the one he takes by hot air balloon. As a plot device that takes some beating!
So that’s my #6Degrees; moving from a dystopian novel to stories set in harsh landscapes and ending with a journey to the end of the earth. We’ve travelled by foot, train and balloon (doesn’t quite have the same ring as planes, trains and automobiles but I tried my best)…
Next month we start with a book that it seems impossible to escape right now – Normal People by Sally Rooney.
Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six others to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the titles on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation begins with a book that has divided opinion ever since it was published in 2014.
How 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.
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.
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.
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.
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’ 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’.
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.
Today sees me with a touch of the blues. Instead of revelling in the blue of a summer sky I’m staring out of the conservatory windows at wall to wall grey sky and heavy rain. So frustrating to be able to look out onto the garden and see all the jobs that need to be done and not be able to get out and do them. My lovely rose bushes look very sad and forlorn after the thunderstorm on Friday. The sweet peas need a bit of propping up so they can climb up the trellis and there are some new perennials I bought last week to fill in gaps in the borders that are still sitting in tubs awaiting planning. Sigh. Sigh and triple Sigh. I really hope this isn’t going to be another one of those wash out summers which are a specialty of dear old Blighty. That never happens in books does it? There, the summer is always perfect. Girls get to wear floaty dresses and sandals, everyone goes off for picnics by the river (such idyllic scene marred only by the discovery of the odd body or two) or linger late into the evening on their patio/terrace/lawn amidst the remnants of the barbecue.
You know, I think those people campaigning for the UK to leave the EU have missed a trick in showing the link between our membership of the EU and the crap summers of recent years. They’ve blamed every other woe to befall UK on our membership so why not rubbish summers? I bet if they were to promise warmer, sunnier times if we voted for an exit, they’d do a roaring trade.
Amid all this doom and gloom I did have one reason to be cheerful this week. Earlier in the month Kim at Reading Matters hosted a giveaway of Richard Flanagan’s back catalogue to mark the fact Vintage Publishing has just repackaged his works for UK readers. Her timing was perfect because I had only recently read his Booker prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North which bowled me over and left me wanting to read more of his work. Amazingly I won. So yesterday morning bright and early the postman greeted with this delightful package of five of his novels: Death of a River Guide, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish, The Unknown Terrorist and Wanting.
The delivery didn’t include the plant by the way – just the books I should emphasise. I tried taking my own picture of the collection but it wasn’t anywhere as good as the one Kim did on her post. My only dilemma now is to decide which of these titles to read first. I’m leaning towards The Sound of One Hand Clapping which Goodreads describes as “A sweeping novel of world war, migration, and the search for new beginnings in a new land…. The Sound of One Hand Clapping is about the barbarism of an old world left behind, about the harshness of a new country, and the destiny of those in a land beyond hope who seek to redeem themselves through love.”
Doesn’t that just get your heart fluttering with anticipation?
Maybe instead of just staring at the rain I should cover my windows with pictures of these books. That should deal with the fit of the blues shouldn’t it?
I’m back home in the comfort of my own bed after three weeks on the other side of the Atlantic. I’d thought I would have plenty of time while away to catch up on all the blogs I follow as well as make a dent in my review backlog. It was not to be.
By the time I got back to my hotel at the end of the day all I felt capable of doing was watching series one of Call the Midwife and some rather uninspiring episodes of Poirot with David Suchet in the lead role. I didn’t even read as much as I expected: Richard Flanagan’s Booker winning A Narrow Road to the Deep North (superb); Denis Thierault’s The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman (quirky) and half of The Daughters of Mars, Thomas Keneally’s epic of Australian nurses in World War One.
Despite the feelings of exhaustion I did it seem have enough reserves of energy to go book shopping. In an outlet store I picked up three bargains – all works by Penelope Lively to add to my collection (don’t ask me what they were because I forgot to note them before I shipped them back home). On a second expedition I bought André Brink’s classic novel, A Dry White Season, which is a hard hitting book about racial intolerance and Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I’ve seen the film adaptation a few times but only recently heard a podcast discussion which suggested the book has more of an edge than the movie.
I’d thought to buy a lot more but the price of books appears to have shot up in America in recent years. It seemed ridiculous to pay sixteen dollars (minus tax) for a fairly slim paperback that I could get for around three quarters of that price back home. Anyone know why the American editions are so much more expensive?
So now I’m back and having caught up on some sleep am ready to catch up on the hundreds of blog posts I missed… Stand by for lots of commenting.