Six Degrees of Separation: from No One is Talking About This to The Liar’s Dictionary

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 didn’t get on with this month’s starting book for the chain: No One is Talking About This, by Patricia Lockwood.  In fact I got nowhere near finishing it, so my chain will go off immediately at a wrong tangent, as I understand the second half is very different from the first.  I thought one reason I failed to engage with this book is that its protagonist is an extreme consumer of social media.  And I don’t ‘do’ social media.

I decided, therefore that I would choose a hero who hasn’t even heard of social media, Hilary Byrd, of Carys DaviesMission House. Byrd, a slightly washed out, failed Englishman of middle years, is in India trying to escape from his pale and disappointing life. He finds himself in a town which is clearly Ooty, that haven for the English in Time of Empire. And it’s here that he meets The Padre, who offers him accommodation: and Jamshed, who becomes his driver. And Priscilla, the Padre’s adopted daughter. And Ravi, would be Country and Western singer, Jamshed’s nephew. This is the story of how their lives – all disappointing lives in many ways – come to intertwine. Beautifully written in short, sometimes apparently unrelated chapters, this is a book which had me immersed in the life and times of every character. 

Byrd is not exactly a mainstream character.  Neither is Charlie Gilmour, who tells his own story in Featherhood.  This is an astonishingly readable book, which combines a tale of caring and raising a magpie fallen from its nest with a parallel account of Gilmour’s absent father. He too once raised a corvid, a jackdaw, but he was a far less reliable and responsible carer for his son – and several other children whom he fathered, while taking on few of the responsibilities of fatherhood. Charlie’s father, Heathcote suffered debilitating mental breakdowns and it becomes apparent to Charlie himself that he risks following the same trajectory: his late adolescence and early adulthood is peppered with difficulties which involve a spell in prison. This potentially weighty tale is leavened by accounts of the joy and mayhem which Benzene the magpie introduces to the lives of his whole family. As Charlie himself points out, Do Not Try This at Home. But his having done so has produced a delight of a book with a serious undertone.

The next book is fiction, told as autobiography, and it’s another chronicle of a life in crisis.  Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story.  This is not a bed time story. Instead, it is a slow burn, of the kind the French seem so good at. Written in the first person, the narrator is a successful and respected author. She’s suffering from burnout, and this is the moment in which she makes a new friend – a friend who makes herself indispensable: a friend who begins to make her doubt herself: a friend who takes away any kind of belief in herself, slowly, skilfully and insidiously. It’s a deliberately uncomfortable read, and maybe perhaps just a little too long. On balance though, it was tautly constructed and I’ll read more from Delphine de Vigan.

We’ll stay in France, and meet a character who has difficulties of a completely different kind.  It feels like an autobiography, and I sense that in large part, it may be.  Fear, by Gabriel Chevallier.  Over the years, I’ve read a lot of accounts of the common soldiers’ lot in WWI, and been both horrified and angry at the suffering and the waste endured. But this novel of French poilu Jean Dartemond is perhaps the most shocking I have read, and would have seemed especially so when it was published in 1930, when memories of those surviving, and their relatives, were still relatively fresh. No wonder publication was suspended during WWII. The day to day suffering, boredom and indignities, the all-too frequent horrors of witnessing disembowelled bodies, skin, bloated cadavers are described with a freshness that makes the horror very present. Towards the end, he describes how, when officers weren’t around, some German and French troops made tentative sallies of friendship across the divide, as they recognised how much more they had in common with each other than with their commanding officers, often remote and somewhat protected. This book, as so many others of its kind, is a true indictment of the horror and futility of war.  

From WWII  to the Cold War and its aftermath.  The Spy and the Traitor by Ben MacIntyre. This is a thoroughly gripping and shocking book: the story of Oleg Gordievsky, KGB agent turned British spy. The picture painted of Russian society in pre-Gorbachev days, and of the day to day life of a spy, whose life must necessarily be cloaked in such secrecy that not even those you love the most – your wife, your parents – can in any way be privy to your true beliefs and loyalties is a deeply unsettling one. This is a fine and edge-of-seat story. Only it’s not a story. The life of a spy, the machinations of MI6 and the KGB among others, the story of the Cold War and the period after are all true, all recent history, and Ben MacIntyre explains it all well, and places it all in context. I was exhausted after finishing this book. But greatly illuminated by what I’d learnt too.

The life of a spy is, of necessity, the life of a liar.  So let’s come full circle, and mention the Liar’s Dictionary by Eley  Williams.  Dictionaries are scarcely social media, but even now, they enjoy a long reach.  I thought this book would be a sure-fire hit with me, as I’m an inveterate dictionary bowser. I tried this book once, and abandoned it after twenty pages. I tried it again, and grudgingly admired Williams’ pure enjoyment of, and fun with words, but on the whole it left me cold. This is the story of a dictionary, long in the making: and, in alternating chapters, the personal struggles of 19th century Winceworth, and 20th century Mallorie’s and their tussles with mountweazels – fake entries planted in works of reference to identify plagiarists.  For a fuller account and more positive review, read here.

The book to start next month’s chain will be Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. I haven’t read that in years. I’d better find a copy.

65 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation: from No One is Talking About This to The Liar’s Dictionary

    1. I’ve added your first two to my library wishlist. I’m intrigued by The Spy and the Traitor, too. Fear sounds the sort of book I’d enjoy, so that’s gone onto a list to explore later. I’ve read Eley Williams’ Atrrib. collection, and I understand what you mean about her writing being admirable but lacking in warmth. I’m undecided about whether to try The Liar’s Dictionary. I get a whiff of Emperor’s New Clothes about the adoration she receives on indie book social media. Which isn’t fair on her, of course.

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      1. The Emperor’s New Clothes is an interesting comment. I felt she was more than a little self-conscious in her Way With Words, which irritated me. What could have been stimulating came across to me as Clever Clogs. There was a good book trying to wrestle its way out, I felt.

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      2. I agree about the self-consciousness in her writing, which is almost self-confidence but not quite, somehow. There’s a Zadie Smith-ness about her – not in the subjects she writes about, but in that schooled air that seems to be flicking the Vs at the world but is actually asking for approval. I shall carry on pondering whether to read more by her.

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  1. I haven’t read any of these, but I did read Gabriel Chevallier’s ‘Clochemerle’ many, many years ago. ‘Fear’ sounds interesting.

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  2. Wow, pretty much all of these books sound fascinating! I am sorry The Liar’s Dictionary didn’t live up to your expectations. It sounded like a great premise. I think I’ll stay away from Fear. I am sure it’s an honest portrait of war, but it isn’t what I’m in the mood for at the moment.

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    1. I completely understand that. But at the right time, it’s an absorbing read. I might try The Liar’s Dictionary again. Maybe. My book group was thoroughly divided, but our end-of-meeting vote gave it a mere 5/10.

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      1. Yes. I like our book group, which is very focussed on discussing the book. But having had our in-depth discussion, we give it our personal score out of 10, based simply on how much we’ve enjoyed it. I, with a couple of others, rated it 3. Another couple rated it as high as 8, but the average was 5, and most people (we were a group of 20 on Zoom) were scoring 4 or 5.

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  3. I’ve read four from your chain and enjoyed all of them, including the de Vigan which is the best of hers I’ve read. Sorry to hear that The Liar’s Dictionary didn’t hit the spot for you. One of my 2021 favourites.

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  4. The Liar’s Dictionary sounds fascinating, so I’m sorry to hear it wasn’t a success with you. Fear interests me too, although I think I would need to be in the right mood for a book like that. Great chain, Margaret.

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    1. I think ‘the right mood’ applies to both of these in different ways. I may try the Liar’s Dictionary again, though I’d quite like her to consider an extensive re-write too!

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  5. You read a very eclectic range of books. Not sure any of these appeal to me. Books about war are not my cup of tea, though I have recently read a couple of books about spies, another genre which doesn’t necessarily appeal to me. In view of the current Russia/Ukraine problem the first one was quite fascinating. (A Shadow Intelligence and Ascension by Oliver Harris) and one I know you would love (if you haven’t already read it) is Songbirds by Christi Lefteri which I found incredibly moving.

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    1. I could see you enjoying The Mission House. And thank you for your suggestions: Songbirds is only available as an eBook in our library, so I’ll have to look elsewhere. And A Shadow Intelligence – there are dozens of copies in our system, though none in Ripon, but I could order it. Ascension however, seems to be available.

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      1. You should read A Shadow Intelligence before Ascension. I order most of my reads from the library. I’ll have another look at The Mission House, thanks Margaret.

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  6. I was worried for a while and began to think I might find every book in your chain irresistible. I shall content myself with the first two choices. Marvellous chain as always, Margaret.

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      1. I shall be giving six degrees a miss for a while, Margaret. BUt it means I have more time to read and enjoy other people’s chains!

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  7. Hi Margaret! I’m sure I’ve said this before, but gosh – I love how you present your Six Degrees. So beautiful and insightful. I actually haven’t read any of your books and that is what I love about Six Degrees! Always new books to discover.

    Have a wonderful February!

    Elza Reads

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  8. A very interesting list, Margaret. I actually have Based on a True Story on my TBR shelf, so your description has improved its chances of getting picked up soon. And don’t worry–there are no “wrong tangents” in 6 Degrees!

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    1. I guess not – the first book sets us off o all sorts of tangents. I’ll guarantee you’ll read Based on a True Story in record time with your fingers in your ears so as not to hear what’s going on between the pages!

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    1. I know! That occurred to me too. But it feels (to me) different from the immediacy of say Facebook and Twitter et al. Featherhood is fascinating. The Liar’s Dictionary divides its readers right down the middle.

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      1. Actually, I agree, it feels different to me too! But I felt I should make the point, because I think we all need to realise when we talk about social media our blogs are part of it. They do seem easier to manage though, don’t they.

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      2. You’re quite right. But I’ll continue to blog, while avoiding the rest, I think. In many ways it seems a more protected community, with each blog having a much smaller readership than say, Twitter, from what I understand.

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      3. Yes, that’s why I think it feels different. I think it’s probably that blogs require more attention – people visiting us have to read a few paragraphs! – so we don’t attract the negative aspects of social media that the others do. We are a little niche. (There probably are blogs – political blogs? and blog by big names – where it might be different, but hopefully we can keep our corner friendly and respectful.)

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  9. Such a clever title, Featherhood, Margaret! I love the way you’ve included appropriate photos with these. I look forward to your book choices, though I rarely manage to follow in your footsteps. I won’t be reading Fear- sounds too much like Sebastian Faulks Birdsong. If I have to skip graphic bits or look away, no matter how beautiful the prose, I don’t want to go there… again. Mission House, yes – I’m good at disappointed, unfulfilled characters. And I occasionally do a good spy story. Wishing you a happy month of reading!

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  10. I always enjoy your Six Degrees, Margaret, and what a fascinating mix you’ve got this week. Though not the jolliest of reading. I’m tempted to give Fear a go, but not sure – maybe I’ll wait for more cheery summer days. And the Spy and Traitor sounds great – appeals to my Russian interests.
    I’m late with my post this month – actually, I’m always late as I just don’t spend enough time reading. I thought A few days in Edinburgh would be reading time, but it turned out to be walking time

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  11. Some great connections this month. Did you think after reading the Ben MacIntyre that our PM might by a spy? He certainly wouldn’t need to refer to the Liar’s Dictionary for hints to bolster his legend.

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  12. An excellent chain! And such a clever way to move on from the starter book – which I found totally impossible. I’m adding The Mission House and The Spy & the Traitor to my list.

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    1. Both good choices, I think. I hope you enjoy them. I enjoyed putting this chain together. Sometimes it works, and sometimes … it just doesn’t, does it?

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