What connects a true story about women’s sex lives in the 21st century with a novel about friendship in Japan?
No that’s not a trick question.
It’s my feeble attempt to signal the latest episode of Six Degrees of Separation, a sort of literary version of a word association game.
This month we begin with Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, a book which has made it to the top of the New York Times best seller list. I’ve not read it or in fact even heard about it but apparently its an in-depth look at the sex drive of American women.
Women and sex. An easy choice for book number one in my chain.
In Women In Love , D H Lawrence focused on the loves and lives of two women: Gudrun Brangwen (a painter) and her schoolteacher sister Ursula.
Its high sexual content and the intensity of the relationship between these women and their lovers caused controversy when the book came out in 1920. One critic described it as “dirt in heaps—festering, putrid heaps which smell to high Heaven.”
Lawrence is one of those authors who has been in and out of favour. At the time of his death in 1930 he was viewed as a man who had wasted his talents on producing pornography. But he had huge fans in E M Forster and F R Leavis. It was heir view of Lawrence as a great imaginative talent that prevailed so much that in the 60s and 70s Lawrence was a stalwart of university reading lists.
But now? You barely hear his name and I doubt he’s required reading for any literature students.
The fickle world of literary criticism might have put paid to D H Lawrence but it was the making of Kate Chopin.
Her novella The Awakening was reviled when it was published in 1899 – “essentially vulgar” was one contemporary’s description. But the growth of modern feminist literary criticism since the 1960s brought a re-evaluation of Chopin’s work. The Awakening is now considered a landmark in feminist literature for its portrayal of a woman whose emotional and sexual awakening led her to walk out on her husband and children.
The protagonist of All Passion Spent, the book I’ve just finished reading, didn’t walk out on her husband but his death was the catalyst for her decision to forge a new path in life.
At 88 years old Lady Slane’s children think they know what’s best for her and how she should live out the rest of her life. But this is one woman who’s done suppressing her own desires while being the dutiful wife of a great man. Now its time for her to strike out on her own, finding new friendships and re-discovering one from her past. .
Lady S put me in mind of the widow in Elizabeth Taylor’s wonderful novel Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.
Mrs P is not as wealthy but she shares a similar distaste for spending her twilight years in her daughter’s home. The Claremont Hotel introduces her to a mixed bag of similarly displaced guests who have developed their own strategies for dealing with the loneliness of old age and its financial challenges.
Talking of hotels brings me to A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles which focuses on Count Alexander Rostov, a charming aristocrat who falls foul of the new Communist ruling party. They sentence him to imprisonment in a tiny attic room in Moscow’s swanky Hotel Metropol.
Not an easy feat to fashion an engaging tale from a character whose is limited to the walls of the hotel. But Towles gets around the problem by having the world come to the Count. The result is a novel rich in atmosphere and human drama that celebrates dignity, loyalty and friendship.
Friendship is central to the plot of my final book in this month’s chain: Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto. The setting is not as grand as the Hotel Metropole however because it takes place in a small seaside inn in Japan. Two girls who were once close friends reunite at the inn for one last summer before the place is closed. Like most of the Japanese novels I’ve read this was beautifully atmospheric.
And there I think it’s time to bring this chain to an end. We’ve travelled from America to England, from Russia to Japan. Touched on sex, old age, feminism and friendship. Where would your six degree of separation take you? Play along by visiting the host Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best)
Time for another Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate in Kew and for once we are starting with a book I know.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden was the first novel I read which gave me an insight into Japanese culture. I don’t remember anything about the plot, I just recall that the book described extensively how geishas are trained to act as entertainers and hostesses. As part of their role they are expected to demonstrate great skill in Japanese classical music and traditional dance as well as witty conversation.
Conversation of a very different kind is at the heart of The Housekeeper and the Professor by the Japanese author Yoko Ogawa. It’s a novella set in modern day Japan about the relationship between a Professor who was a brilliant mathematician until he was injured in a road accident and the woman who becomes his 10th housekeeper (all the previous holders of that job found him too strange). They bond over prime numbers and number sequences.
For an alternative model of a housekeeper let’s turn to one of Daphne du Maurier’s best known novels, Rebecca. In it we encounter Mrs Danvers, head housekeeper at Manderley, the grand mansion in Cornwall belonging to Maxim de Winter and his dead wife Rebecca. Mrs D (we never learn her first name) is a fearsome looking character with a “skull’s face” of high cheekbones and sunken eyes. Not exactly the kind of person to make Maxim’s new wife, a young and naive girl, feel comfortable in her new home, especially when, at every stage, Mrs D is ready to point out how poorly she compares to the glamorous Rebecca.
Maxim met his new wife while on holiday in the French Riviera. It’s during a holiday in that part of the Mediterranean that one of the characters in my next book, meets her future husband. Amy March is the youngest of the four sisters in Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women. She’s vain and self-centered, the daughter least likely to sacrifice her own pleasures for the good of others. But on holiday she matures and reaches a decision about her artistic ambitions and her future. Her reward is to be courted and hitched to Laurie, a rich and handsome boy who lived next door to the March family.
The original readers of Little Women were of course left in no doubt that this is a book designed not just to entertain but to instruct them about how to be better women, ones who put domestic duties and family above self interest. To help them in their journey they have the wisdom and good sense of their mother and a copy of John Buynan’s Pilgrims’ Progress.
Bunyan’s work, published in 1678, has been described as the first novel in English. It’s a claim that’s been disputed — there are at least nine other novels which have been similarly described. Ian Watt, a leading literary academic, argued in favour of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, published more than forty years later.
The lecturers on my English degree course disagreed and put their weight behind Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded by the printer Samuel Richardson. I don’t know if you’ve ever read this tale of the trials and tribulations of a beautiful 15-year-old maidservant called Pamela Andrews. Her master is a country landowner who pesters her, kidnaps her and tries to seduce and rape her multiple times. Eventually he rewards this robust defence of virtue by marrying her and introducing her into high society.
The story sounds interesting and it was entertaining for a time but I remember struggling to get through it because it felt so repetitive and became rather dull. One of reasons I didn’t care for this book may have been that the version I read is substantially different from the one Richardson wrote. Apparently this novel went through revision after revision because Richardson was extremely sensitive to criticism (of which there was a lot, usually on the grounds of morality or manners) so kept making tweaks. In an article marking a new Oxford edition in 2000 more closely based on that original, John Mullen showed how these changes robbed the book of a lot of its vitality.
For readers in the eighteenth century, however, this book was certainly different to anything else they had ever written. Most notably its ‘heroine’ was a low-bred creature, a mere servant girl, when they were accustomed more to reading about courtly ladies and women of virtue. Some of them were scandalised at the idea that mere servants could become part of a higher class. Who was this upstart some of them questioned?
Pamela may have been one of the first characters in fiction to be shown moving well beyond her station in life and adopting manners felt more suited to her betters. But she was not the last, which brings me another maid servant and my final link in the chain. Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring puts the young girl Griet into the home of the painter Johannes Vermier. Griet is an intelligent girl who shows she has an eye for art. But Vermeer’s wife suspects the girl is up to more than mixing paints when she is alone with the painter in his attic studio. Chevalier could simply have written a story about an illicit affair but she made the novel far more interesting by focusing on the restraint between master and servant. And in the end, Griet does get her reward….
And so we reach the end of a chain which has followed a trail from Japan to America, France and England and ended up in the Netherlands. I never expected this chain to take this route but that’s half the fun of the Six Degrees meme, you never know where it’s going or where it will end.
It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation where the idea is to create a chain of book connections. This month we begin with a non-fiction title from 1990: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf.
There is in a clue in the subtitle “How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women” about the primary message of this book. Wolf argues that as the social power and prominence of women have increased, the pressure to conform to unrealistic social standards of physical beauty has also grown stronger because of commercial influences on the mass media. Amongst her evidence she cites a rise in cases of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia and the rapid growth of plastic surgery.
The Beauty Myth became a best seller and generated considerable debate. I remember thinking when I read it that, though interesting and thought-provoking, it wasn’t anywhere near as convincing as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. I’ll give Wolf a lot of credit however for bringing the topic out into the open. Sadly, we see evidence regularly that the issues she saw then haven’t gone away.
Let’s stay with myth and beauty for my first link: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, is a play about a professor who trains a poor, uneducated girl to act and speak like a lady. The title comes from the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor unable to find any real woman who fitted his idea of the perfect female. He carves a statue out of ivory that is so beautiful and so perfect that he falls in love with it and wants to give it life.
Pygmalion is of course a story about transformation and change; a theme which is central to my next book; also by an Irish writer. In Nora Webster Colm Toibin gives us a deep and penetrating portrayal of a middle-aged widow struggling to remake her life after the premature death of her husband. She returns to the office work she thought she had left behind forever, begins listening to the classical music her husband never liked and starts making new friends. One of the most significant signs that she is moving on comes when she visits the hairdresser and emerges with a radical new style.
I could link to another work about transformation, Educating Rita by Willy Russel, in which a young uneducated hairdresser enrols for an Open University degree course because she wants more from life. I’ve seen the stage version and watched the film multiple times (it’s one of my all time favourites) but I can’t really use it for this chain since it would mean breaking my rule that I select only texts I’ve read.
So let’s go down a different path and to another book which uses hair styles as part of a theme about identity. The main character in Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie only begins to feel truly free and true to her Nigerian roots when she decides she will no longer spend hours and vast sums of money on having her hair ‘relaxed’. Hair, she comes to realise, is a political issue in America with black women expected to relax their natural curls with strong chemicals in order to conform to comfortable white norms. Before she makes her first return home to the Nigeria she left 15 years earlier, she visits a salon to have her hair braided.
I’m sticking with the issue of identity for my next book. A Portrait of a Lady is one of Henry James’ most respected novels. It wasn’t one I enjoyed at first reading – I found it incredibly slow (page after page where nothing much happens except someone opens an umbrella)… I must admit I skimmed many passages. It wasn’t until I re-read the book that I began to fully appreciate this tale of a young American woman who insists that she must be free to write her own plot and then to live with the unfortunate consequences of her decisions. Still not sure I understand the ending however….
Consequences takes me to India and to a novel that won the Booker Prize in 1997. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy has two captivating characters in the form of Rahel Kochamma and her brother Esth. They’re used to being the centre of attention so when their new cousin arrives to spend Christmas at the family home, their noses are put out of joint. Their jealousy has tragic repercussions that don’t become apparent until the final chapters of the novel. Until then we’re treated to some tremendous comic scenes involving these effervescent twins.
The family rivalries depicted in Arundhati Roy’s novel remind me of Neel Mukherjee’s novel The Lives of Others which is set in India during the second half of the 1960s. In it we meet three generations of the large and relatively wealthy Ghosh family who live together in one house, their rooms allocated on a strictly hierarchical basis. The patriarchal Prafullanath and his wife Charubala live on the top floor., the widow of their youngest son is relegated to a storage room on the ground floor of the house. Inevitably there are tensions over saris and wedding jewellery.
And with that I’ve reached the end of a chain which has moved from notions of beauty through female identity to familial disputes. If you’re interested in how other bloggers created their chains, take a look at booksaremyfavouriteandbest and also find out how to join the meme hosted by Kate.
It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation. This month we begin in Botswana and the colourful detective Mma Precious Ramotswe (isn’t that a delicious name?) created by Alexander McCall Smith for his No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series. I did enjoy the book but never went on to read any of the later titles, nor watch the TV adaptation.
Crime and Africa provide me with my first link. There’s even a direct connection to book 2 in the chain because on the back of my copy of Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartery is a comment from The Booklist that the novel will be relished by fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series.
Actually Quartery’s novel is much darker than McCall Smith’s because in order to solve the murder of a young female medical student, the investigating detective has to contend with a veil of secrecy about a practice which sees young girls offered as trokosi (or Wives of the Gods) to fetish priests. He finds important clues in the Adinkra symbols that are used to decorate the cloth worn as wraps. Never having heard of these symbols I spent an enjoyable hour searching the web for images to explain their symbolism.
The book in my next link also dealt with fashion accessories, but this time in the form of the jewellery worn by Indian brides. The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee blends family saga and political turbulence in India during the second half of the 1960s. For light relief we get the squabbling members of the Ghosh family and their petty jealousies over gifts of saris and wedding jewellery. Looking at some images of young brides dressed in jewel-encrusted saris and double their body weight in gold, I remembered a visit to the royal jewellery collection at the Kremlin. What the Tsarinas had to wear for their coronation was so phenomenally heavy I couldn’t imagine how they managed to stand let alone walk.
A gift of jewellery from India is the catalyst for the plot of the next book in my chain. The large diamond in Wilkie Collins’ novel The Moonstone was stolen by a British army officer and bequeathed to his niece Rachel Verinder on her eighteenth birthday. But on the night of her party it goes missing, believed stolen, an event which results in unhappiness, turmoil and ill fortune for her and the cousin who had hoped to be her husband.
Jewels+India+turmoil= The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott. This is the first part in his Raj Quartet collection about the dying days of the British in India and one of my favourite novels of all time. You can see why it has such a special place in my affection by reading the ‘Books that Built the Blogger’ post I wrote for Cathy at 746books.com (here’s the link if you’re interested.)
The link to book number 5 in my chain may be a bit obvious but I’m going there anyway. Katherine of Aragon by Alison Weir is the first in her series about the women who wore the crown of a Queen of England by virtue of their marriage to King Henry VIII. Some managed to hold onto it for a few years, others lost their head over it which just proves the validity of that line from Shakespeare’s Henry 1V part 2 ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown‘
In Alison Weir’s novel we first meet Katherine as a young and beautiful bride to be who has left Spain to marry the heir to the English throne, Prince Arthur. When he dies she marries his brother Henry and gets to be queen. Weir shows Katherine as more than a match for Henry’s intellect and energy but fate, and Henry’s roving eye, means she ends up divorced and a lonely figure banished to draughty manor houses well away from the court.
Katherine in her role as abandoned wife is a key figure in my final book. Hilary Mantel’s dazzling novel Wolf Hall vividly recreates the life of the man the former queen holds responsible for her demise: Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief advisor. Cromwell is usually depicted in fiction as a shrewd, manipulative and cold figure who will go to any lengths in his master’s service. Mantel turns the traditional portrait on its head and shows Cromwell also as a loving husband and caring father. It’s an extraordinary work of historical fiction; lyrical yet tightly written, bursting with scenes and images that linger in the mind. Quite simply, the most inventive and thrilling historical novel I’ve ever read (apart of course from Mantel’s follow up Bring Up the Bodies).
And so we’ve reached the end of this chain. We’ve travelled from Africa via India to England, from crime and sensational fiction to historical fiction. Is there a connection between our starting book and the one with which I ended? Maybe it’s stretching a point to call the way Katherine was treated as a crime, but she was certainly an innocent victim in a political game.
If you want to play along with Six Degrees of Separation head to Books Are My Favourite and Best where Kate sets us off with a new book each month. As always all the books I’ve included are ones I have read though not necessarily reviewed.
It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, a meme where a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.
This month’s chain begins with a book I have never heard of let alone read. It’s Like Water for Chocolate, a debut work by the Mexican author Laura Esquivel. Apparently the central character grows up to be a master chef, using cooking to express herself and sharing recipes with readers.
The obvious choice for chocolate lovers like myself would be to the best selling novel Chocolat by Joanne Harris. But I think for my first link I’ll use the location where chefs work rather than the ingredients they use.
In 1929, an aspiring author by the name of Eric Blair arrived in Paris. Whether out of necessity because he had his money stolen, or because he wanted to gather material for a book, he began working as a dishwasher in some of the city’s restaurants. The result was Down and Out in Paris and London, the first full-length work by an author better known as George Orwell.
Paris of course likes to think of itself as the gourmet capital of the world. The recently-published Michelin guide lists 10 restaurants in the city awarded the coveted 3 stars (remarkably however this achievement is outdone by Tokyo with twelve 3-star restaurants). Gourmet restaurants attract gourmands which gives me my next book in the chain.
The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery features Pierre Arthens, the greatest food critic in France. In the final two days of his life he wants to track down the most delicious food he has ever eaten. It’s a flavour he recalls from the years before he was critic though he is not exactly sure if it came from his childhood or his adolescent years. As he digs into his memory, he remembers all the dishes he has relished over the years, like this ” Pan roasted breast of Peking duck rubbed with berbère; grapefruit crumble à la Jamaïque with shallot confit … ”
Before I stopped eating meat I was quite partial to duck though I don’t find the combination of fowl and grapefruit very appealing. But then I’m not a gourmand.
All those descriptions of food do however remind me of another character who thinks he has a refined palette. So for my next link let’s leave France behind and move to the English coast to catch up with Charles Arrowby, the central character in Iris Murdoch’s Booker-prize winning novel The Sea, The Sea. Charles, who considers he has had a highly successful career as a London stage director, retires to a bit of a tumbledown seaside cottage to write his memoirs. In between writing and swimming, he prepares his own meals, some of which sound frankly bizarre.
For lunch, I may say, I ate and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil i essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London)
I could manage the anchovy paste on toast quite easily but baked beans and kidney beans on the same plate would be a step too far. I’m beginning to think duck and grapefruit wouldn’t be so bad after all….
Charles thinks he is irresistable to women but the protagonist in the novel for my next link would certainly not be one happy to share his lunch table and it’s nothing to do with his after shave.
Marian McAlpin, the protagonist of The Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood, has a problem with food. Meat revolts her but so do eggs, carrots and even rice puddings. Soon she is existing on little other than salad leaves. Her revulsion with food is symbolic of her rejection of the kind of behaviour expected of her as a woman. On the eve of her marriage she struggles against the idea that her change of status will mean she can no longer be herself. Atwood’s first novel was considered a landmark when it was published in 1969 because of its themes about gender stereotyping and objectification of women.
Fast forward some forty years and we find in my next link another author using women’s relationship with food to tackle the same issue. The Vegetarian by Han Kang was one of the most extraordinary and disturbing books I’ve read in many years. Yeong-hye is a docile, obedient South Korean wife until the day she decides to stop eating meat. In the eyes of her husband and family this is an act of gross rebellion against their culture so they try to force her to eat. It doesn’t work. She stops eating all together in the belief she is a tree and hence needs sustenance only from the earth.
The starvation both Yeong-hye and Marian McAlpine experience is the product of mental disturbance but for the protagonist in my next, and final link, starvation is thrust upon her by a force over which she has no control.
White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen takes a real life event in his native Finland, a devastating famine in 1867 that resulted from a series of poor harvests. The food shortage co-incided with a particularly harsh winter. In desperation Marja, a peasant farmer’s wife from the north, abandons her dying husband and sets off on foot through waist-high snow with her two young children. They trudge from village to village, sometimes supported by strangers but just as often turned away and denied even a morsel of bread. It’s a bleak book, and not just because of the many descriptions of the barren, inhospitable landscape, but because of what it says about human nature when faced on the doorstep with suffering.
It’s a sombre note on which to end this chain …