Six Degrees of Separation in April

Blogging challenges, Books and reading

It’s time to play Six Degrees of Separation again. Those of us who join this challenge start with the book for the month, and see what books suggest themselves to us as links in a chain leading away from the original. You can bet that not one single participant will have made the same choices as you. That’s what makes it so interesting.

The starting point this month is Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain. This compelling and uncomfortable book, set in a Glasgow brought low by Thatcherism in the 1980s is the story of a single family.  More particularly it’s the story of Agnes Bain and one of her sons Shuggie.  It’s the story of living in inferior housing, surrounded by inadequate or non-existent facilities and schooling. It’s the story of one woman’s descent into alcoholism, and the profound effects this has on her own life and that of her family.  I was fully involved in this book, unable to leave it unread.  At the same time, it left me feeling depressed and impotent, and I think it’s a testimony to the quality of the writing that it involved and affected me so deeply.

Delia OwensWhere the Crawdads Sing is about another young inadequately parented loner. The perfect novel? Perhaps. It’s got something for everyone: a coming-of-age story about a young friendless girl, Kya, abandoned by her family and siblings, who has to make her own way in the world as ‘Marsh girl’, living in a shack on the shoreline. It’s a mystery story. Though this element unfolds slowly, once it developed, it had me gripped until the very last page. It’s beautifully evocative nature writing too, informed yet lyrical, capturing the soul of a North Carolina marshland shoreline rich in bird and other wildlife.

Carolina coastline: Omar Roque, Unsplash

Another loner. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin is set in small town Mississippi. Larry, who’s white, and Silas, who’s black become friends against the odds in a community where such relationships are not so much frowned upon as simply not even thought of. The relationship sours, the boys become teenagers, and misfit Larry, again against the odds, gets a date. He takes the girl out, and she is never seen again. Nothing is ever proved against Larry, but from this moment, this loner becomes quite simply ostracised, and lives a life of complete solitude, taking comfort from his compulsive reading habit. Silas becomes a police officer, and the years pass. What happens next? You’ll have to read it to find out.  This is a convincing read, and one with an unerring ear for dialogue.  I loved it.

Eagle Lake, Mississippi: Justin Wilkens, Unplash

Living a life under suspicion leads me to The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead, a tautly-written account of one black boy’s experience of reform school in segregated 1960s America. Bright, studious Elwood Curtis finds himself there, having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Its cruelties and injustices, the differences between the experiences of black boys and white boys incarcerated at the Nickel Academy are always understated, never dwelt on. A few characters apart from Elwood’s are developed, but the strength of the story derives from its understating the horrors of the system it describes. The central premise is that racism was so endemic it wasn’t even recognised as such. It’s all very well resolving to be good, keep your head down and play the system, but nobody can work out how to do this.  A thoughtful book, with an impact that remains long after the last page has been turned. 

Dormitory at the Dozier School, on which the Nickel Academy was based: Photo courtesy of CBS News

There’s law enforcement of a different kind in The Line Becomes a River. Francisco Cantú was a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Arizona and Texas for four years. He stalked, captured and processed those Mexican citizens seeking a new life in the US.  A few were criminal.  Most weren’t.  Cantú was good at his job, but it stressed him beyond measure. Eventually he quit to return to an academic life. It was then, funding himself by his job as a barista that he met an illegal immigrant, José Martínez, a diligent, God-fearing family man who had been with his family in the US for decades:. This man returned to Mexico to see his dying mother. And could not get back. Cantú and many others fought unceasingly to have him released to his family in America. For Cantú the battle was a way of seeking absolution, as he now saw it, for his four year career in inhumanity. Stuck in Mexico, unable to see or communicate with his wife and three sons, Martinez tries repeatedly to cross the border in attempts which he knows may result in his losing his life. By the end of the book, he has not succeeded.

Border fence: Greg Bulla, Unsplash

It’s an obvious leap from Cantú’s book to American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins.  This is a compellingly readable account of how even a comfortably middle-class family from Acapulco – journalist husband, bookshop-owning wife Lydia, eight year old Luca – can have their lives thrown into complete disarray. Lydia and Luca become migrants seeking safety in the United States after their entire extended family is murdered. And in their flight, they discover that their education, their money brings no extra privileges. Their day to day struggles to reach el norte are as real as those of the least privileged migrant. I understand that the book has raised controversy in the Latino community: that many feel the characters are stereotypes, the plot little better than disaster porn. I’m not qualified to judge. But it did open my eyes to the difficulties faced by those who make the dangerous journey despite the odds stacked against them, and this vividly told story has engaged my interest in a way that more serious and informed journalism might not have done. I’m more likely now to want to know more.

Acapulco – Four Loco, Unsplash

Let’s finish with a book I’ve just this week finished, as it too deals with a pair at real risk of being dispossessed of what they thought they had:  Claire Fuller‘s Unsettled Ground.  51 year old twins Jennie and Julius Seeder have always lived with their mother, largely self-sufficient and in some seclusion at the edge of a village. Then their mother dies, and their lives slowly fall apart. Their poverty, their unworldliness and reluctance to fit in with an ordinary 21st century existence leaves them exposed to the fragility of their way of life. Only their talent for, and love of music links them to moments of being carefree, and to a wider world.  Here is a book about family secrets, about threats which seem overwhelming to such an unworldly pair; about poverty so constricting that impossible choices have to be made at the village shop; about friendships old and new and about the limitations imposed by lack of education and unworldliness. An involving and satisfying narrative.

Markus Spiske, Unsplash

I don’t seem to have made a cheerful chain for this Easter weekend. Every one of these books is well-worth reading. Just … not one after the other.

Six Degrees of Separation

72 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation in April

  1. No happy books out there, are there? 🙂 🙂 Just joking, because they all do sound like worthwhile reads. Injustice is everywhere and you can’t trust the newspapers. Pick up a book! You do this so well, Margaret. I hardly dare say, happy Easter!

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    1. Where the Crawdads Sing is not an unhappy read, nor is, ultimately, my last choice. But yes, it’s not my most cheerful list. Happy Easter to you too Jo!

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      1. Definitely a great recommendation, I heartily second that. I have learned that I prefer sad reads over good reads. They teach us more.

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    1. I’ve read and enjoyed your post Marianne, but been forced to comment using my Google account, so you may not realise it’s me!

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      1. Thanks, Margaret. I get that with a few blogsites, they don’t want to recognize each other. ☹️ However, if I click on your name, it leads me to your page, eventually.

        Will answer you there, of course. Have a good weekend.

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  2. A very bought provoking collection, Margaret…as someone else has said,you are very good at this. I will read ‘Where the Crawdads sing’ as it has been on my list or ages, I seems. But no more. I need light or Feel Good at present…..

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  3. I just started to read Unsettled Ground. So far I am enjoying it, but as you say, it isn’t exactly cheerful. Where the Crawdads Sing is one of these popular books, which just doesn’t appeal evenafter having read many raving reviews. I do wonder, if I am mistaken, but don’t think it would be my kind of book at all.

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    1. I approached the book with no enthusiasm because of those reviews, AND the blurb which was so off-putting. But it was our book club choice, so needs must. And we all loved it, which is unusual in our group, as we tend to be very chalk and cheese. So if you find yourself with Crawdads in your hands, maybe give it a go?

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    1. Oh, these aren’t all recent reads. But after a difficult reading year last year, I’m up to speed again with several books a week (I don’t sleep much 😉 ) I agree. I thought I’d hate Crawdads, and I loved it.

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  4. Excellent chain, and one which illustrates that those who write fiction off as escapism haven’t read enough! I finally got around to Where the Crawdads Sing a few weeks ago and found it wonderfully atmospheric. I’m glad you enjoyed Unsettled Ground. Claire Fuller seems to surpass herself with each new novel.

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  5. More than the books, I loved your thought-provoking descriptions of the books. I have read Crooked Letter, and agree that it was a wonderful mystery with a lot of accurate social commentary at that. And Nickel Boys looks like a truly harrowing tale, but with a powerful and haunting message.
    ~Lex

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  6. Interesting that we had such different experiences of Shuggie and Crawdads. Like you, I was completely immersed in Shuggie – I loved every word and didn’t want to leave him. In contrast, I found Crawdads predictable and plain – but fairly sure I’ve missed something in this book because it seems to be so loved by other readers. I heard it is going to be made into a film – it will be a terrific movie and I’ll look forward to the landscape scenes.

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    1. You’re the first Crawdads-refuser I’ve met so far! It was the evocation of the natural world I really liked. And yes, in the right hands, it should be a fantastic film.

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  7. Such a great chain! You have convinced me I really need to read Shuggie Bain. It has been sitting on my bedside table since last September! I love the sound of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter and will see if my library has it, it really sounds like my kind of book. The books about immigration / border crossings remind me of Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World… do you know that novella, about a young Mexican woman, who illegally crosses the border into the United States in search of her brother.

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    1. No I don’t. But on your advice, I’ll make an effort to source it. It’s a long time since I read Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, but I remember enjoying it very much. And Shuggie Bane is a great book, but you’ll need to be kind to yourself while reading it.

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  8. You are good at this. I’m afraid I haven’t heard of any of these books, but I enjoyed your summaries. In these times I need something more uplifting to read, so I shall stick with my fiction and Monty Don xx

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    1. Oh, every one of mine is fiction! And with your love of the natural world, you might give Crawdads a try. It’s really not depressing, despite the unusual heroine. xx

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  9. Like Jude, I enjoyed reading your descriptions, but haven’t been tempted this month. I’m reading The Order Of Time by Carlo Rovelli about how time is not how we imagine it. When I started to read it, the idea of there being no time made me feel so scared, I wondered if my hand holding the book was going to start shaking. Fortunately, I can’t really understand it, so I never got to that point.

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    1. That’s always a tough one. But I’m currently romping through the delightfully written The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar. Historical fiction at its best,

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  10. Well you did warn me it was a dark chain and my goodness you’re not wrong! So far I’ve read two others from this month’s selection of chains and am now fully convinced, if I wasn’t already, that I’m a total lightweight! I’m just going to join hands with Eric and skip off singing “give me sunshine….” Great chain though!

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    1. You certainly are not a lightweight, but I do think we have different ‘go-to’ books. I haven’t properly read your post yet. I like to give proper attention to most of the Six Degrees posts – certainly yours – as I know how much thought goes into them.

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  11. I like your chain.

    I have read such mixed opinions on Where the Crawdads Sing – many people love it, but some seem to find it dull. I’m not sure I can cope with sad books at the moment, but I do, despite this, like the sound of Unsettled Ground – I suppose the premise of unworldly adult children makes me think of some of Barbara Pym’s characters, though I can see that Jennie and Julius must be quite different from Mildred Lathbury or Dulcie Mainwearing!

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    1. They are indeed another kind of unworldly. Pym would not have recognised them! Crawdads is not, I think, an unhappy book. I read it before The Pandemic, but it’s one I could have coped with at the moment.

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  12. I have received more than one ‘hint’ from my Audible account about Shuggie Bain and now you’ve tipped the balance and I will get it with my next credit. I have popped it on my wish list. Also I see it’s read by one of my favourite Scottish narrators.

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  13. A very interesting chain although I am not sure I am strong enough for reading them. I was interested in what you had to say about the Delia Owens book. I know of her from reading the book she co-authored with her then husband Mark, ‘Cry of the Kalahari’, when they were working in Deception Valley in the central Kalahari in Botswana, prior to moving to Zambia. I expect you have read of the controversies surrounding their time in both Botswana and Zambia?

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      1. I found it interesting that some of what happened in Zambia may have informed the novel. The plot thickens … (I have not read the novel yet, but after reading your post will look out for the book. Thanks.)

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