Six Degrees of Separation … in November

Books and reading

‘On the first Saturday of every month, 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.

Six Degrees of Separation: Kate W

I haven’t read What are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez, so I’ll rely on Kimbofo’s summary in her blog post on this book: ‘This is a story about stories — the stories we hear, the stories we write, the stories we tell ourselves… It’s about truth and fiction, confronting our fears, searching for hope to sustain us and caring for others. Most importantly, it’s about life and death, and asks pertinent questions about what makes a good life — and what makes a good death.’ 

My link to this is Alice Zeniter‘s The Art of Losing, a story told through the eyes of Naïma, a third generation French-Algerian. I was engaged in this book from start to finish. It’s the 70 year story of a family, and begins in a village in Algeria, where Ali has made good and become a figure of some importance in his family and community. The Algerian War of Independence changes all that, and forced to flee to France, they become harkis (French Algerians), despised alike by the French whom they live among and Algerians who remained in the home country. A life of camps and sub-standard accommodation and work awaits them. It falls to university-educated Naïma, Ali’s granddaughter, finally to visit Algeria again and make some sense of what she finds. This is a story about colonisation, immigration, and how to carry on in the face of the loss of your country and cultural identity, and is both a powerful history lesson and a meditation on the difficult questions posed by the cultural upheaval of being forced to leave your home country.

This leads me to Doria, a French-Moroccan teenager living with her mum in one of the soulless housing projects that encircle Paris, and whose story is told by Faïza Guène in Kiffe Kiffe Demain. We were living in France when I read this – oh, maybe ten or more years ago. But it’s stayed with me as a touching, funny and furious story of a sparky young woman prepared to make a go of things when her education, her family circumstances, her address, and a dose of casual racism stacks everything against her.

Another story of an immigrant, and like The Art of Losing, based on fact. The Fortune Men, by Nadifa Mohamed is a re-imagining of the life of a Somali seaman, Mahmood Mattan, wrongfully convicted of the murder of a Cardiff shopkeeper, Violet Volacki. At first the book swings between telling Mattan’s story and that of the victim, and her family. As the story unfold, Mahmood blossoms as a character. He’s a chancer, a thief, an adventurer, a lover and a doting father of three little boys. But he’s not a murderer. He’s the victim of racism, both from different elements of the multi-ethnic community in Cardiff where he then lived, and institutional racism at the hands of the Police, false testimony, and fabricated evidence. The most involving part of the narrative describes Mattan’s incarceration, when he evolves and shape-shifts as a character: tough, vulnerable, a risk taker, a believer in British justice. A moving, nuanced and compassionate re-imagining.

The same period of history, but we’re moving to London for Frances Spufford‘s Light Perpetual. I liked this book. I had high expectations, having thoroughly enjoyed Golden Hill and Red Plenty, and while this didn’t quite measure up, reading this book was time well spent. Several children died in South London during WWII when a Woolworth store took a direct hit. What if they’d lived? This is what Spufford explores, dropping in on 5 lives at 15 year intervals. The writing is good – that goes without saying. My only reservations are that the five characters he choses live lives which are all late 20th century issue-driven: the woman married to a National Front thug; the music lover who makes good in the 1960’s popular music scene; the sufferer from inner demons, addicted to his prescribed drugs; the Sahf London wide boy, and the print-worker whose career is swallowed away by the computer revolution. Accepting all this, the book is well done and realised and carried me along to its conclusion, a re-working of Psalm 150, which was a staple of my London C of E grammar school days at exactly this period.

Children died in my next choice too. The Green Hollow by Owen Sheers. I was 19 when disaster struck Aberfan, just doing an afternoon shift in the lending library where I worked. No internet then, no social media. It was rare for news items to reach us during the working day. But this did. And it touched us, horrified us even before we understood the full extent of the tragedy, though we didn’t talk about it together. It was too shocking. Owen Sheers put me back in touch with those feelings. He paints a scene of ordinary families getting ready for the day, ordinary children chattering their way to school, an ordinary teacher taking the register. A series of letters explain why the Coal Board is taking no action about the slag heaps, despite the concerns of the council. And then …. a rumble, a roar develops. That is all. Then we switch immediately to the rescue. To the young medical student who finds himself unwittingly part of the rescue operation, to the miners, parents, journalists. To the street where every single house has the curtains drawn. Death has touched them. Now the town is different. Life goes on. It has to. Children yearn to appear on ‘Strictly’ while every year commemorating what happened all that time go. Scars exist alongside hope.

Goodness. I can’t leave things here. What can I do to lighten the mood? Well, it’s a bit of a stretch, but I have taken you round Europe and Africa, and maybe we went by ship. Deep Sea and Foreign Going: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Brings You 90% of Everything, by Rose George. Fascinating. The story of container shipping. How it gets from A to B. Why it gets from A to B and under what constraints. What it transports from A to B and then from B to A. How goods got from A to B prior to container shipping… and so on. There was me thinking that I was trying to be green, avoiding air freight where possible. It turns out that container ships are dirty, polluting, can employ crew in less than savoury conditions and for slave-wages, and which expose them, among other things, to piracy. Frankly, it sounds hell. And yet … the camaraderie and the draw of the sea encourages some to come back, contract after contract to a world they love. Beautifully written, absorbing and informative. A book I would never have chosen to read – but that’s what bookish friends are for. Thanks, Penny!

PS. In a recent post, I indicated that I would post a review of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir: Gallows Rock. It got edged out, but I’m sure its moment will come.

PPS. Frank’s Beach Walk Reflections are his thoughts as he enjoys a seaside walk. Today, he’s thinking about red, and he’s used some of my photos, as well as those of three fellow-bloggers. You might like to take a look.

55 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation … in November

  1. Wales gets a double mention – whoopee! The Fortune Men is one of my favourite reads this year. Nadifa Mohamed brings that part of Cardiff so vividly to life.
    I didn’t know about the Owen Shears book but it’s going on my to read list. I grew up in exactly the same kind of community overlooked by coal tips and Aberfan had a particular resonance for us.

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    1. I loved the Fortune Men. The Sheers was of course not easy, and will be even less so for you – but worth it I think. It’s ages since I read it, but I do remember it.

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      1. There’s a new book out which is a fictional account of an undertaker who volunteered to help in the aftermath of the tragedy. I have an ARC of it but need to get my nerve up to read it

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  2. ooh there are a few here I am going to try, and the last one about container ships sounds fabulous for MrB. Thanks Margaret 🙂 btw I am not going to make the 4pm chat, some friends have asked to meet up exactly at that time today.

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    1. That’s a shame Becky, I was looking forward to hearing your first impressions of being back. Chat soon I hope! Yes, Deep Sea and Foreign Going is a surprisingly good read.

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  3. Excellent chain! You’ve expanded my TBR list, although a couple were on it already. I was a child when the Aberfan tragedy happened. I remember finding my mother in tears in our kitchen the day the news broke.

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  4. Maybe we went by ship! That’s priceless Margaret. Love it.

    I’ve only heard of one of your books, Spufford’s, as it has been recommended for my reading group next year, but it sounds like you are more qualified in your recommendation than the person who recommended it.

    I also like the sound of Zeniter’s Art of losing as I do like migrant stories.

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  5. I always enjoy your Six Degrees, Margaret. You give such great and personal mini-reviews. The Fortune Men was hovering in or on my list – now added! And the last one sounds fascinating.

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    1. I think both of these have your name on, and I think you’d enjoy the Zeniter too. Just off to read your post – so glad you’ve joined in again.

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  6. What an interesting chain! I haven’t read any of those books, but am definitely interested in reading The Fortune Men. I loved Golden Hill by Francis Spufford, but for some reason haven’t been tempted by Light Perpetual yet!

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    1. Golden Hill was the better book in my opinion, but I’m not sorry to have read Light Perpetual. The Fortune Men is a really good, measured read.

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  7. I enjoy your book reviews, you read such very different genre to me, but I have just finished reading Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s book ‘The Doll’. I think I might have got her name from your post. I enjoyed it a lot and have others on order from the library.

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    1. I’ve just read my second by her – The Legacy – and was less impressed. It was really grisly, and there were too many coincidences. But I’ll give her another go later.

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  8. You never fail to come up with something extraordinary, Margaret; I’m so pleased you took the plunge with this meme 😊 Of course, there’s a price to pay – all those books you point me towards! This month you’ve confirmed that I want to read The Fortune Men, and The Art of Losing jumps onto the wishlist. Glad you were glad to have read Light Perpetual. I agree with your thoughts on it. I confess to having skipped passages here and there when I was reading it but the opening paragraphs were stupendous. What got me most excited in your chain though, was your mention of The Green Hollow. So powerful. I wrote a post about it a few years back and remember vividly the impact of Sheers’ work as I read it. Did you ever see the performance of the poem? It’s probably still available somewhere. (And to save you asking, my chain will be up tomorrow 😊 )

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    1. Sandra, you were instrumental in my joining in, and it’s probably my favourite bit of my blogging month – always a challenge to try to work out that pesky chain! So thank you. I must see if I can find the Sheers’ performance – it sounds quite something. Do read The Fortune Men and The Art of Losing when you get the chance. Both are powerfully written. And now I’m looking forward to your choices …

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  9. A wonderful collection of books and authors. Indeed, you have chosen very difficult subject matters. I have found that books I read become embedded in my personal story. have these books influenced your thoughts and your next books choices.

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    1. A lot of my choices are inspired by other book bloggers. And it’s these, and availability in the library that tends to govern my choices, as well as a wish to read broadly – I tend not to have one thing lead to another that covers some of the same ground. Time is the main issue – so much to read, so little time!

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  10. I’d like to read each of these–you wrote a very compelling commentary for your chain. I love it when people share how the book connects with their own life. By the way–the shipping book is very timely. I may have an interview related (distantly) to that topic. I lost my job a reduction in force on Thursday and the job opening popped up via a friend. So, thanks!

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    1. He does seem to turn his hand to different things, but I found Red Plenty unexpectedly interesting, and this latest held my attention too. But it’s necessary to find reasons to chuck things off the TBR list, isn’t it? 😉

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  11. I love reading your succinct book reviews, Margaret. I am tempted by a couple of your choices but I expect they will have to wait until I am less anxious. I cannot read anything too emotional/grim in times like this. I hadn’t realised that the Spufford book was about the Woolworths tragedy. My grandfather was one of the men who worked for hours and hours digging out all the bodies from underneath the rubble. He was terribly upset my mother tells me, especially as most of the bodies were of teenage girls just like my mother and her younger sister.

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    1. Well, why not? My own interest was sparked by the schooldays of those children, which so closely resembled my own. And that probably will not be the case for you. Which might, or might not be interesting for you.

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  12. Oh I liked your swift mood change to the shipping book. I think the general view is that shipping, especially international container shipping, needs to address their CO2 emissions, but not all container ships are dirty with a poorly treated crew. I follow Captain Thomas on Instagram, he’s captain of the Venta Maersk. He and his boat and crew are very impressive. They’re one of the big container ships that come into Felixstowe every now and then when it’s not all choked up with the Brexit lorry driver mess.
    I have a clear memory as a six year old when the whole of my primary school was called into a special assembly to be told about the Aberfan disaster. I’m not so sure that that would happen now.

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    1. Interesting on both counts, I didn’t have you down as a container ship groupie! Yes, Aberfan is one of those dreadful events when we all remember exactly what we were doing when we heard.

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  13. Another interesting chain. The street with the curtains drawn will be resonant for those who remember when the downstairs front room curtains were only ever drawn to mark a death.

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  14. I like your chain very much Margaret.

    Like everyone else, I remember Aberfan all too well. I was about 7 years old I think. At the end of the school day, our teacher got us all to stand and say special prayers for those little children. Wales seemed a very long way from South London – I doubt if any of us had ever seen a coal mine; I don’t think we could really imagine what had happened but we knew it was sad.

    More recently I heard a Radio 4 Archive Hour about the disaster. One of the fathers spoke of identifying his son by the threepenny bit he had in the pocket of his shorts. By then I had small children of my own, and the pain of those poor bereaved families was just as agonising after thirty plus years.

    The Art of Losing, Kiffe Kiffe Demain, and The Fortune Men are all going onto my TBR list – thank you for telling us about them.

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    1. Thank you Rosemary – I appreciate your thoughtful comments. And I’ve been surprised, in reading your observations, and those of others, at how deeply the Aberfan tragedy touched all of us. It was a truly sobering moment.

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