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.
Time for another round of Six Degrees of Separation in which the idea is to form a chain of connections from a starting book. This month Kate who organises the meme, has chosen a non fiction work as the trigger book.
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell is one of the few business books I’ve read (rather than just bought and left on the bookshelf). Even more remarkable I enjoyed reading it and found it helpful in my own line of work. Gladwell defines the ‘tipping point‘, as the moment when an idea, a trend or a form of behaviour crosses the threshold, tip and spreads so extensively it becomes a noticeable phenomenon. His first example is about the sudden popularity of Hush Puppies shoes in the mid-1990s but he also goes on to talk about a battle between a director of the New York subway and the graffiti artists who are intent on spoiling the look of his trains.
Gladwell sees how the involvement of different types of people with particular sets of social gifts are essential for change to happen: some are “connectors” who know large numbers of people and who are in the habit of making introductions; “Mavens” are information specialists, the people who delight in gathering information and sharing it. Then there are the “salespeople”, the ones who are great at persuading others to a point of view or to a particular action.
It’s one of these “salespeople” that features in the first book in my chain.
Nelson Mandela was one of the most significant and influential political leaders of our time. His autobiography Long Walk to Freedom profiles his early life, his political awakening and the 27 years he spent in prison for acts of terrorism. But it also shows his ability to persuade people to a different point of view – most notably to the need for reconciliation and not recrimination in post apartheid South Africa. In the final chapters of the book, Mandela — now President of his country — looks to the future and his belief that the struggle against apartheid would continue.
It’s in a post apartheid South Africa that my next book is set.
The Whale Caller by Zakes Mda takes us to a town on the south coast of the Western Cape. It’s become famous as one of the best places from which to watch the migration of Southern Right Whales during the spring and winter. The Whale Caller develops a an affinity with these whales, calling to them using his kelp horn. Much of the book is about the relationship of man to nature but it also has a theme of betrayal. One of the ways this is played out is through a set of characters called The Bored Twins who start off as being playful but they take their games a step too far, with tragic consequences.
The twins in The Whale Caller are not anywhere as endearing as the pair in my next book: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. The Kochamma “two-egg twins” are a mischievous pair, loving nothing more than to indulge in word play, where they read backwards take words and phrases uttered by adults and twist and distort them into their own version. They’re also a jealous pair whose noses are decidedly put out of joint when another young girl comes to stay with the family.
All that talk of twins puts me in mind of a classic in the science fiction genre.
John Wyndham’s The Midwitch Cuckoo gives us more than one set of twins. We get a while village of identical children born within a few days of each other in the same small village. They all appear normal except they have unusual, golden eyes and pale, silvery skin. As they grow up it becomes increasingly clear they are far from humanThese children have none of the genetic characteristics of their parents. As they grow up, it becomes increasingly apparent that they are, at least in some respects, not human. This is one of the few science fiction novels I’ve enjoyed along with the film version called Village of the Damned.
Wyndham’s novel was creepy rather than shockingly scary. If it’s the thrill of the later you’re looking for, then Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black is more likely to suit. It’s written in the style of a traditional Gothic novel using the familiar device of a storywithin a story. This tale of a mysterious spectre that terrifies a small English town, because it heralds the death of children, proved to be a huge success when it transferred to the stage in 1987 becoming the second longest-running play in the history of the West End after The Mousetrap. I didn’t care for the book at all — I thought Hill’s prose was overblown (it’s so tedious when an author loads up the narrative with adjective upon adjective) but the stage play is superb. Daniel Radcliffe’s film version, felt to me like a very pale imitation.
For brilliance in the Gothic vein, we have to turn to a much earlier novel. For my last link I’m chosing a book with a similar title. The Woman in White was the fifth title published by Wilkie Collins and generally regarded as an early (if not the first) example of the sensation novel. Collins ingeniously hit on the idea of telling this story of an heiress caught up in a deadly conspiracy, through multiple narrators. The effect is akin to hearing witnesses in a legal trial with the reader given clues to help solve the case. The plot does stretch credulity but Collins is such a ace storyteller that you get swept along anyway. But the book wouldn’t be half as good without the character of Count Fosco, a larger than life villain who hides his menacing nature behind a mask of intelligence and urbanity. Early critics of the novel were uncomfortable about this character however, fearing it could corrupt susceptible women readers.
And with that we have reached the end of a chain which has gone from a book that caused a sensation when Gladwell published it in 2000 to one that caused a sensation in 1859. A bit of a strained connection maybe but I shall let you all judge.