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Six degrees from the tipping point

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.

Tipping pointThe 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.

Long walk

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 CallerThe 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.

God - of-small-thingsThe 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.

Midwitch Cuckoos

Still from the Village of the Damned

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.

womaninblackWyndham’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.

woman in whiteFor 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.

The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins

thedeadsecretWilkie Collins was a pioneer of the sensation novel, the genre often considered a precursor to detective and suspense fiction. I’ve long been a fan of his work, particularly The Woman in White and The Moonstone though I also enjoyed No Name and Armadale. I’m less familiar with the other 20 or so novels and novellas he wrote from the mid 1850s until his death in 1889  so I decided to delve into his earlier work. But it’s clear from reading one of those,  The Dead Secret, that even this maestro had his off days.

The Dead Secret was the fourth of his novels to be published, unveiled in 1857 to Victorian readers in serial format in Household Words, the magazine edited by his friend Charles Dickens. It was the first full length novel that Collins  wrote specifically for serialisation. According to his introduction to the book format published later in the year, he wrote it to show ‘the influence of a heavy responsibility on a naturally timid woman, whose mind was neither strong enough to bear it, nor bold enough to drop it altogether.’

The plot centres on a deathbed confession written as a letter by Mrs Treverton, a former actress, to her husband Captain Treverton.  She makes her servant Sarah Leeson swear an oath to deliver it to the Captain. But Sarah disobeys her dying mistresses’ wishes.  Instead she hides the letter in a disused room at the Treverton home at Porthgenna  in Cornwall.  And then she disappears.

Fifteen years or so pass during which time Mrs Treverton’s only daughter Rosamund gets married. By one of those coincidences that happens only in novels, Sarah Leeson (under an assumed name) obtains a post as servant to Rosamund and conveys to her the cryptic warning “when you go to Porthgenna, keep out of the Myrtle Room”. Rosamund, being the headstrong girl she is, immediately upon hearing that warning resolves that she absolutely must go to Porthgenna. And must of course, find that room and discover the secret.

To explain any more about the story would spoil the mystery. There are plenty of really big clues dropped by Collins however so it doesn’t take any ace detective skills to work out the nature of the secret well before the end.  Along the way we get plenty of sensational episodes. The novel opens with a wonderfully gothic death bed scene; later on we find the servants tremoulousy making their way through the disused rooms of Porthgenna, fearful that at any minute they will meet a ghost. The cast of characters tremble, faint and declaim whenever they are not engaged in hand-wringing or tears that is.

Most of the characters are not particularly memorable. The few exceptions are really in the minor parts. I would have been delighted for example to spend more time in the company of the hilariously hypochondric Mr Phippen.

Wherever Mr. Phippen went, the woes of Mr. Phippen’s stomach went with him. He dieted himself publicly, and physicked himself publicly. He was so intensely occupied with himself and his maladies, that he would let a chance acquaintance into the secret of the condition of his tongue at five minutes’ notice; being just as perpetually ready to discuss the state of his digestion as people in general are to discuss the state of the weather.

With his aversion to anything that might disturb his constitution and equanimity, this ‘A Martyr to Dyspepsia’ was clearly a prototype for Frederick Fairlie in A Woman in White.  Equally engaging was the devious servant Mr Shrowl, a man with an eye always open for the chance to get one up on his employer.  I’ll pass discreetly over Rosamund, one of the most irritating characters I’ve encountered in a novel for many years, to talk about Sarah, the servant whose actions drive the plot and whose behaviour, though bizarre at times, does at least compel our sympathy..

Collins creates a mystery about her from the first time we encounter her, making much of her  distinctive appearance. Though she has the face of a young woman, her hair is prematurely grey. This is a woman we’re told who has experienced suffering.

Much in her manner, and more in her face, said plainly and sadly: I am the wreck of something that you might once have liked to see; a wreck that can never be repaired—that must drift on through life unnoticed, unguided, unpitied—drift till the fatal shore is touched, and the waves of Time have swallowed up these broken relics of me forever.

Only much later do we discover the traumatic event responsible for her looks and why she is drawn to the grave of a young man killed in a mining accident. By the time she meets up with the Treverton family again, Leeson feels she is a haunted woman, fighting to keep her emotions in check so the truth of the past and her part in it, is not revealed.

As interesting as some of these characters are, this is a novel that is overlong, has a shaky plot and a secret that is far too obvious to justify the reader’s sustained interest. Contemporary critics were not over enthused by it, The Athenaeum published a lengthy review but judged it only moderately successful, with “too much made of too little mystery.”

Given these flaws it’s astonishing that in just over a year, Collins could rectify these defects and produce The Woman in White, one of the great mystery thrillers of the nineteenth century. Its intricate plot and superb characterisation (who can possibly forget the incomparable Count Fosco and his adversary Marian Halcombe) make The Dead Secret pale into insignificance.


Snapshot December 2015

Another 1st of the month today and once again I forgot to mark the occasion with the traditional saying “pinch, punch, first of the month”. This custom seems centuries old, coming from a time when there was a strong belief in the existence of witches. It was thought that salt would make a witch weak, so the pinch part is pinching of the salt, and the punch part was to banish the witch. The witch would be weak from the salt so the punch was to banish her.

I have my own little tradition to mark today however which is to capture what I’m reading, listening to and watching.


The englishpatientI’ve been riding the Booker Prize wave recently. Last week I finished The Sea The Sea by Iris Murdoch which was so much more enjoyable than I ever expected. Now I’m half way through The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje which was the joint winner of the prize in 1992 (only the second time in the history of the prize that it was split between two novels.)  Set in 1945, it features four damaged people who take refuge in a damaged villa north of Florence as Europe emerges from the war. In an upstairs room lies a horrifically burned man. His name is unknown but his memory is intact and it takes him back to the North African desert and the woman he loved. Every page of this novel is a delightful experience of witnessing a masterful writer at his best. One to savour slowly….


My journey to work has been in the company of a couple of trembling, over excited women over the past few weeks.  Throw in a ruined mansion, an overbearing servant, a blind man and the result is a sensation novel which turns on a secret involving illegitimacy.   Dead Secret was the fourth published novel from the pen of Wilkie Collins. It’s the novel that immediately preceded his acclaimed Woman in White and what a difference between the two works. Where Woman in White is meticulously constructed and has some memorable characters (including the magnificent Count Fosco), Dead Secret is considerably over-written and the secret is very obvious to readers even if the characters themselves are not quick on the uptake. The only enjoyable aspects are the characters of the vicar’s friend (a man so feeble a slight breeze gives him palpitations) and a villainous male servant.


The energetic figure of Simon Scharma is bouncing across the screen in the BookerTalk household as we re-visit his superb series A History of Britain. Schama wrote and presented the episodes himself. His jocular style and very mobile facial expressions don’t appeal to everyone but I enjoy his story-telling, thematic approach. Much more engaging than dusty professors in tweed jackets that used to front BBC programs in decades past or the celeb presenters who turn up frequently now (reading everything to camera since they have no clue about the subject personally).

Classics Club – ringing the changes

classicsclub3Hooray, the Classics Club has reinstated its monthly question after a gap of many, many months. Although sometimes they were a bit tough to answer, they did make me pause and think about what I was reading from my list and why.

The latest question is:

“Have you made changes to your list since you first created it? If you added any new titles or removed some, why did you make those changes?”

The simple answer is that I seem to be constantly tempted to fiddle and tweak my Classics Club list to fill in gaps in my reading experience (often the result of  a reference in another blog). I’ve also removed a few that were, on reflection, titles that felt more like work than pleasure

This year I’ve made two revisions, adding far more than I removed. Added to the list were:

  • Basil by Wilkie Collins ( I liked most of Collins’ work but have never come across this before)
  • All Passion Spent – Vita Sackville West . One of her most popular works
  • New Grub Street – George Gissing. One of the Guardian’s top 100 novels
  • Frost in May by Antonia White. The first novel issued by Virago Books I believe. A re-read from many years ago.
  • Clayhanger by Arnold Bennett. A coming-of-age story set in the Midlands of Victorian England, this is the first in a series written between 1910 and 1918. Bennett is an interesting author because in his lifetime he wasn’t rated by contemporaries like Virginia Woolf but he underwent a bit of a revival in the 1990s.

I deleted from the list The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov after hearing details of this book in Andy Miller’s A Year of Reading DangerouslyI’m not a great fan of the kind of magical elements found in that book.

I may well make further changes before August 2017 which is the date by which I’m meant to have read 50 of the titles.

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