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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.

Oh dear Oh dear….

After months of restraint the floodgates of book acquisition opened wide this week: five purchases, a review copy and two library books.

The library books are in aid of the #1968Club hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen at kaggsysbookishramblings which starts on Monday, October 30. If you’re not familiar with the club, you can find an explanation here.  Despite having more than 200 unread books on my shelves I didn’t have even one that was published in 1968. A quick trip the library and problem solved however. I’m reading Agatha Christie’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs which was the third of her novels to feature Tommy and Tuppence Beresford in the role of amateur detectives. I’ve also taken the unusual (for me) path of reading a work of science fiction. Chocky is a short novel by John Wyndham whose novels I loved when I was much younger. This one features a 12 year old boy who suddenly begins holding conversations with an invisible companion. It turns out not to be a benign imaginary friend but  an alien consciousness sent from its home planet to locate other planets that can be colonised.

New-purchases-2017Now that my broken arm has mended to the point where I can drive again, I’ve been re-acquainted with retail outlets which of course includes bookshops. I haven’t been in one for about 3 months so must have been feeling rather deprived because when I did cross the threshold of a little independent bookseller last week, I was so dazzled I could easily have walked away with half the shop.  They had a wonderful display of the books shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year Award, an accolade which is given annually to works of poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction in Welsh and English. The winners will be announced on November 11 and I’ll be going to the event so I thought I should be at least familiar with the three shortlisted fiction titles.

  • Pigeon by Alys Conran: A coming of age novel that turns into something of a murder mystery. Set in North Wales it undercuts ideas of the countryside as a childhood idyll
  • Cove by Cynan Jones: Jones’ fifth novel opens with a kayaker struck by lightening during a sudden storm. Injured and adrift, his memory is shattered. He has to rely on his instincts to get back to shore.
  • Ritual, 1969 by Jo Mazelis: A short-story collection that has a dark, gothic atmosphere

 

I also got tempted by two other novels: The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa , an author I’ve not come across before. This is a novel about a family who flee Nazi-occupied Germany  only to discover that the overseas asylum they had been promised is an illusion. I also picked up Notes From An Exhibition by Patrick Gale. 

Continuing on the theme of fiction by writers in Wales, the wonderful team at Honno Press have sent me Snow Sisters, the latest novel by Carol Lovekin. Two sisters discover a dusty sewing box in the attic of their secluded home on the edge of the sea. Once opened the box sets free the ghost of a Victorian child who is desperate to tell her secret.

If I’m not careful all the good work I’ve put in during the year to reduce my collection of unread books will be wiped out. So I just need to believe that there are no new books being published in the next few months. That’s true isn’t it?

Sunday afternoon blues

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 GuideThe Sound of One Hand ClappingGould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve FishThe 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?

 

 

 

 

Snapshot May 2016

morris dancersI could pretend that I was up at dawn to greet the first of May in the time honoured way, followed by a bit of a caper around the village maypole. I did neither of these. Nor did I go and watch any Morris Men in action or take part in a May Queen parade. No doubt these things were going on somewhere in the UK today though I suspect there were more people heading to the shopping malls than the village green.

So what was I doing on the first of this month??

Just Finished

I finally got around today to finishing Devoted Ladies by M.J Farrell (otherwise known as Molly Keane), a novel which shocked readers at the time because it featured a lesbian relationship. I’d read about two thirds of it by the time I took off for my long trip to USA but it hadn’t grabbed my interest so I left it behind. Today when I picked it up I found it a lot more interesting and I could see why Keane has such a strong following. I still feel the book sagged in the middle and I wanted a lot more about the tense relationship and battle of wills between Jane and Jessica and less about two cousins Piggy and Hester who live in a run down country house in Ireland. I’m glad however I didn’t give up on it if only because of the way in the final pages Keane showed even a faintly ridiculous figure like Piggy could not forever tolerate being the butt of everyone’s jokes. If this is an indication of  Keane’s ability to create deep and complex characters, I’ll be keen to look for more of her work.

On the Horizon

I’m toying with opening The Gathering by Anne Enright, which won the 2007 Booker Prize. It was her fourth novel and somewhat of a surprise winner – although the unanimous choice of the judges it had been considered an outsider.  This is a novel in which the Hegarty siblings gather in Dublin for the wake of their brother Liam, an alcoholic who killed himself. His sister Veronica uses the opportunity to look through her family’s history to try and make sense of his death. I’ve read the first few pages just to get a feeling for the book and have fallen in love with the immediacy of Enright’s style.

My other option is another Booker prize winner, Life & Times of Michael K by J. M Coetzee which was the 1983 winner. It’s a short work which traces a journey made by Michael K, a poor man with a cleft lip, from Cape Town where he works as a gardener to his mother’s rural birthplace.  Along the way he encounters hardship and hostility. I’ve read only one other book by Coetzee (Disgrace which also won the Booker prize) and loved his style so am hoping Michael K will prove just as rewarding.

Hello again

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.

Snapshot April 2016

hellospringThis has been a bumper year for daffodils. Usually most of the ones I plant have little to show beyond leaves. But this year there are bright spots of yellow everywhere I look in the garden. It’s a sign winter is over for another year. Hooray…..

So what’s happening on the first of this month??

I wish I could say that my run of superb books (Barbara Pym’s  Quartet in Autumn  and My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout) was continuing but sadly I’m not enjoying my current book Devoted Ladies by M.J Farrell (otherwise known as Molly Keane). I’d heard so much about her but had never read any of her books but this one was in a charity shop sale and the plot seemed good so I went for it. This is her fifth novel and shocked readers when it was published because it deals frankly with a relationship between a lesbian couple. This one is set in fashionable, chic London rather than her usual world in Ireland.  It shocked readers at the time because it dealt with a stormy relationship between a lesbian couple. I just wish she had stuck with that relationship but instead far too much of the book is devoted to another – and really rather tedious – couple who live in a run down estate house in Ireland. I think its meant to be funny but I’m yet to find much to even make me smile.  I might even give it up. There are plenty of other books that should be more rewarding. For my next read I’m thinking of The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan or The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally.

Our library system has just made it easier to download audiobooks. They’ve had this service for about five years now but the mechanism for uploading the files to ITunes was very cumbersome and didnt always work.  The new one does the file transfer in seconds. Bad news is that the range is limited and practically everything that appeals seems checked out by other users…. I did manage to get a copy of Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer. It’s an odd psychological thriller with a central character who suffers Asperger’s Syndroym. Patrick Fort is beginning his anatomy studies at university in Cardiff.  He’s not interested in becoming a doctor or in helping people to live; he just wants to find the answer to why people die. His determination to get to the cause of death of the cadaver he and his fellow students are asked to dissect, takes him down a path which might or might not lead to murder. In parallel there is a narrative of a middle-aged man who had been in a coma after a car accident, and is trying to recover the use of his body. He witnesses what he believes is the murder of a fellow patient but can’t get anyone to listen to him because the accident has robbed him of his speech. It’s a slow paced novel and at times frustrating – I don’t need need to hear the hospital patient practicing his vocal exercises in almost every episode  – but oddly compelling…

So that’s the early part of the month taken care of. Technically I have now finished with the Triple Dog TBR challenge but its worked so well I might give it another month. It’s fun to discover what’s at the back of the cupboard….

 

When do I get the sound of silence?

This seems to happen to me every Christmas. In the run up to the festivities I contemplate all those hours when, sans work pressures,  I’ll be able to indulge in nothing more demanding than picking up a book.  I even list in my head the books that will be my companions during this time.

Seven days into the holiday now and my bookish idyll has yet to materialise. I forget just how much preparation the two days of Christmas seem to require so instead of reading I found myself in a seemingly endless cycle of gift shopping, food shopping, gift wrapping and cooking. Followed by a few days when it felt as if I was either preparing a meal, eating it, or clearing away. The closest I got to a moment of silence was an hour on Boxing Day but even that was a bit of a guilty moment since when you’re staying with members of the family it seems rude to shut yourself off from the conversations.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that now the big day is over and the visitors have gone, I can get some more relaxation time. And particularly some time to get acquainted with the new additions to my book collection courtesy of generous relatives.

books2014The newcomers to my bookshelves are a mix of genres from authors originating from three continents.

From Europe comes Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton. This was recommended by a number of bloggers who read my recent review of Wives and Daughters so I shall look forward to this. I’m told its more akin to North and South which I preferred to Wives and Daughters.  A review by Stu of Winstondad’s blog   led me to request The Search Warrant by the Nobel Literature prize winner Patrick Modiano  which traces the author’s attempts to discover the fate of a young girl who vanished from a convent school during the Occupation of France in 1941. Thanks to a review by Guy at SwiftlyTiltingPlanet I became the owner of The Four Corners of Palermo by Giuseppe di Piazza which will take me to Sicily in the 1980s, an island plagued by drugs, death and – of course – the Mafia. My fourth book from the European continent is by the Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardottir whose novel The Silence of the Sea by which has been described as ‘a corker of a locked room mystery with one of the most dramatic twists in recent crime fiction.

The two remaining gifts are both going to be emotional reads I suspect because of their subject matter. From Australia I am welcoming Richard Flanagan and his 2014 Man Booker prize winning novel,  The Narrow Road to the Deep North which the publishers describe as ‘a savagely beautiful novel’ partly set in a Japanese POW camp on the Burma Death Railway. Death is also prevalent in my last acquisition, Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink. This is a true life account of the five days  at a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina. I remember reading an extract in a Sunday newspaper supplement and being moved to tears by her depiction of the ethical dilemmas encountered by the hospital staff who knew that they could not save all of those patients in their care.

Now my only dilemma is which of these tremendous books to read first. What would you choose?

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