Six Degrees of Separation … in January

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

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles begins this month’s chain. I plunged into this novel full of hope for a delicious escapist read in the F. Scott Fitzgerald mode: and at first I wasn’t disappointed. Our narrator is Katy Kontent, and she’s full of witty and clever descriptions of the New York world she inhabits and its cast-list. I was happy to involve myself in her life, and that of her friend Eve, as they negotiated their working lives as secretaries, and their social lives, mainly spent in up-and-coming jazz clubs. Where, one evening, they meet rich, winsome Tinker Grey. And it’s at this point I began to lose a little interest. The characters didn’t develop, least of all that of Katy herself, who alludes to her humble origins but never explores them. The plot itself introduced a range of characters who didn’t move the story along, and generally conspired to lose me, though I read to the end willingly enough, hoping that the warm feelings with which I’d begun this novel would return. They didn’t. This was an amiable read with the makings of a great one, and I’m not against giving Amor Towles another go.

Where next? I struggled a bit, then came up with not so much a chain as the spokes of a wheel radiating from Towles’ book.

All my books this month have a female protagonist, and my first link features a woman, Rósa, who might have had things in common with Katy if their circumstances hadn’t been so very different. In The Glass Woman, by Caroline Lea, we’re in 17th century Iceland, and can feel its chill, its landscape, its folk and religious history in the pages of the story. Young Rósa rather precipitately marries Jón, the leader in a distant village, to ensure her ailing widowed mother some security. Here she is deliberately isolated by her controlling husband, who is a widower. No spoiler alerts here, but tensions rise as her isolation increases, and as her childhood sweetheart appears on the scene. A cleverly written novel, in which Rósa’s unease, and her increasing inability to keep a grasp on what is real, and what the product of a fevered and frightened imagination keeps the reader guessing.

My next heroine also labours under a – in her case misplaced – sense of duty. Oyinkan Braithwaite‘s My Sister, the Serial Killer was a quick read, an easy read, and at no point did I think of not finishing reading this story. But – and perhaps I’m not entering into the spirit of things here – a story in which the writer’s sister gets into a routine of killing her boyfriends, while the writer colludes with her deception just left me cold. The short sharp chapters, and the action which jumped hither and thither kept my interest, as did the back story of a controlling, brutal father. But in the end, it was a slightly distasteful read as far as I was concerned. I don’t think I get dark humour … 

And so to Madame Bovary of the Suburbs, by Sophie Divry. Definitely no high drama in this one – not even an unexplained death or two. Born to loving parents in the French provinces, our heroine does well at school, university, marries a kind man, has an affair which comes to an end, and she gets through the rest of her working and retired life looking for something to engage her. In many ways a wry portrait of twentieth century middle class life, it’s also somewhat depressing. Which seems to be the point. Life is absurd, why bother? seems to be the message. Not for nothing was this Madame Bovary descended from Flaubert’s original.

From provincial France in the decades preceding this one to present day provincial England, and Carys Bray‘s When the Lights Go Out. Though very readable, this didn’t equal Bray’s The Museum of You for me. The subjects: eco-aware Emma versus eco-warrior husband Chris feel rather overdone now. Chris learnt to be a warrior during his now-rejected fundamentalist Christian childhood, and his warriorship consists in being a prophet of doom, rather than in action. We’re meant to find him tedious, and we do. We’re meant to like busy, community-minded Emma, and we do. We’re meant to feel wry sympathy with the Emma and Chris as they parent their teenage children, and deal with Chris’s interfering-in-a-humble-way mother. So it’s an engaging enough read, but one in which I didn’t fully involve myself.

Now we’re off to Spain, and Mercè Rodoreda‘s In Diamond Square. It must be me. This book regularly appears in lists of ‘must read’ Spanish books, and it failed to engage me.  I nearly gave up at the half way point, but persisted. This is the story of a young woman living in Barcelona who marries her husband after a short courtship. It’s the story of his domination of her, of the birth of their two children, of his going off to fight in the Civil War, and of the years after the conflict is over. Although Natalia, the heroine, writes little about her feelings, these are at the core of this story. What she experiences about the pigeons that her husband introduces into their attic. What she notices about the employers for whom she cleans. What she notices in the grocer’s shop. The smells – of the streets, of the pigeons, of death. I’ve a feeling that my experience of reading this book may change over time and that this is a book I may consider re-reading. Just now, I rather wanted to get it over with.

I’ll end with a book I read over a year ago, and one that’s not a novel – Emily MaitlisAirhead. Not a memoir, not a biography, but a series of bite-sized vignettes about the life of this successful newscaster and interviewer. One who prepares carefully, but flies by the seat of her pants. One who researches, but seizes the moment. One who knows what she wants from an interview, but who will allow happenstance to take control. This is a real insight, wittily written, into the high-octane life of a political journalist. It’s fairly exhausting reading, so what it’s like to be part of her family, I can’t imagine – we learn only a certain amount from reading between the lines of this book. An interesting, well and amusingly written book. Recommended to those of us who keep up with current affairs. 

So there we have it. A series of women whose abilities to make life choices are constrained in most cases by those closest to them. We’ll make an exception for both Katy Kontent and Emily Maitlis, both of whom play by different rules. And did you notice? Emily Maitlis likes the Carys Bray more than I did 😉

Next month? One of last year’s must-read books, which I haven’t yet read: No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood.

My Year in Walking … and in Books

Books and reading, Walking

We’re almost at the end of 2021. Christmas has come, but not yet gone (the Twelve Days of Christmas), though Team Spain departed yesterday, leaving a big hole in the lives of two very debilitated grandparents who had long forgotten how exhausting a delightfully energetic eleven month old could be.

It’s time to review the year- two bits of it anyway.

I kept my resolution to walk every single day, whatever the weather – a promise that will not impress the dog owners among you, who have no choice in the matter. I reached one target, then another, and have finished the year with more than 1536 miles (2473 km) under my belt and still one walking day to go. I’m quite pleased.

I walked, sometimes in company…

… or alone …

This isn’t me. I don’t do selfies.

… at times accompanied by a Virtual Dog ..

… or other curious onlookers …

Back at home, I kept my promise to myself not to let Lockdown Lassitude interfere with my reading, as it had in 2020. I didn’t precisely set goals, but I aimed to read far more literature in translation, and more non-fiction that wasn’t Nature related. I managed that too. Here are the 101 books I read, as recorded in Goodreads

https://www.goodreads.com/user/year_in_books/2021?ref=yyib21_strip

My top reads of the year?

Cal Flyn: Islands of Abandonment; Nadifa Mohamed: The Fortune Men; Javier Marias: Berta Isla; Ingrid Persaud: Love after Love; Douglas Stuart: Shuggie Bain

My header photo illustrates walking and reading combined: a stroll along the Regents Canal, where you’ll find a floating bookstore with, if you’re very lucky, a musical interlude as well. This isn’t a photo from 2021. Perhaps such treats with be part of my life again in 2022.

Despite everything …

Festivals




Two of my three children and their families are down with Covid and their Christmas plans are in disarray. Our third child’s partner is newly arrived from Spain with some horrible lurgie that’s not Covid. The car is hors de combat in a public-transport-lite village. In some ways, this Christmas is more taxing than last. But on the bright side, each branch of the family is together with their own part of the clan, and on the way up from their illnesses: the car – unexpectedly -comes back today: and we’ve had so much practical and unasked for help from thoughtful friends. We’re all going to hunker down and jolly well enjoy ourselves anyway.

And I hope you can too, whether you’re having the Christmas you’d planned for or not. Thank you, all of you, for taking the time to read my posts, and for so often commenting. You are what makes blogging an enjoyable part of my daily round.

Liverpool in Technicolor

England

A kaleidoscope of colour. That’s what Jude wants this month for her Life in Colour challenge. So we’ll go for a trip to Liverpool and see what we can find.

We’ll catch a bus first. It’s raining of course. Here’s the view from the window.

We pass the Cathedral of Christ the King: here are a couple of views of the interior, and one glancing out of one of the windows.

And, ooh look! Some street art.

We’re really heading for Albert Dock, however…

… where we go into Tate Liverpool, and find …

It’ll be dark soon – time to bid the Albert Dock ‘goodbye’.

And now night has fallen, and we’re in Chinatown. We’ll find somewhere to enjoy a Chinese meal together, as soon as we’ve walked under this arch.

Celebrations aren’t just for Christmas …

Ariège, Festivals, France, Pyrénées

We’re asked to celebrate celebrating this week, in the Lens-Artists Challenge. I’ve decided not to focus on Christmas, but instead take us to a small town in France, in the Pyrenees – to Seix – in June, where every year, like so many other mountain settlements, they celebrate Transhumance. Here’s what I wrote in June 2011:

CELEBRATING TRANSHUMANCE IN THE HAUT-SALAT

Transhumance.  It’s that time of year where here in the Pyrénées, the cattle and sheep are moved from their winter quarters down on their lowland(ish) farms up to the lush summer pastures in the mountains.  They’ll stay there till Autumn, and then be brought down again.  And each time, it’s the excuse for a party.

On Saturday, we joined in, and went over to Seix to meet friends who live there.  The Transhumance celebrations in Haut Salat last three days, but we made do with Saturday morning.  We nearly arrived late – very late – because we found ourselves behind a herd of cattle making their steady way along the road.  Overtaking’s not an option: the cows commandeered this route hundreds of years ago.  But we managed to zip down a side road and make a detour.  A whole hour later, after coffee with our friends, the herd reached the edge of Seix and passed their door….

…and finished their long walk into town.  We went too, and arrived just as the last flocks of sheep were arriving, to be corralled like the cattle, at the edge of the town square.  For a while, and probably much to their relief, they were no longer centre stage.

Instead it was jollity of the traditional kind. There were processions of large solemn plaster effigies, local bands.  Dancers from Gascony, the Basque country, the Landes made sure we all had fun, and Malcolm and I even joined in some Basque dancing.  Stars of the show for us were the shepherds from the Landes.  Theirs is flat, marshy country, and they used to keep their eyes on their roving flocks by ranging round on stilts.  But this was a day for dancing, and that’s just what they did, up high on those stilts.  Have a look at the photos.

We went off for lunch at the end of the morning.  But there was more celebrating, more meals to be shared, particularly by those farmers and country people who over the centuries have welcomed the fellowship of Transhumance as a break from the routines of an often lonely life.

Six Degrees of Separation … in December

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

This month’s chain began with Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, which I’m so glad to have read. Bookish Beck has written a wonderful review of it, which I can’t improve on. Read it here.

Here is a man, Ethan Frome, whose life has not gone according to plan. Javier Cercas, in Lord of All the Dead tells us about another such life, that of Manuel Mena. If you’re a left-leaning writer it’s a bit of an embarrassment to discover, as Javier Cercas did, that your ancestor died fighting for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. And yet, unless he follows the story through soon, he realises that the few remaining people who knew Manuel Mena would be dead. And he uncovers a history in which a boy from a backward and poor village in Extremadura, through hard work and determination seems ready to reinvent himself and prosper because of his brains and his schooling. Then he decides to fight for Franco. Cercas discovers, in this account of a brutal civil war that all is not as black and white as it at first appeared, that Mena isn’t necessarily someone for whom he can continue to feel moral superiority. An uncomfortable and thought-provoking read.

Spanish Republican POW’s interned in Le Vernet, France. You can read about our visit here

From one war to another. Not combat this time, but life as a POW in WWII. Midge Gillies‘s Barbed Wire University: the Real Lives of Prisoners of War in the Second World War. This was a fascinating read, and Gillies’ own father was a POW, so she’s able to describe his own experiences too. This is an account of the lives of the prisoners, mainly from Germany, Italy and the Far East, and from the officer classes. These men had more leisure time (aka stretches of boredom, without the resources in some cases to do much to relieve it) and therefore left more in the ways of letters and diaries than those working POWs in the ranks. The horrifying differences between the experiences of those incarcerated in Europe, compared with their fellow combatants in the Far East is fully explored. This is a lively account, relying on the diaries, reminiscences and letters of those who spent their war years largely locked up. The skills the men developed which informed their – often highly successful – later careers are quite astonishing in their breadth and depth. The book rightly concentrates on the humdrum daily life of the majority. This is not the book in which to find accounts of daring escapes or would-be escapes. I was left impressed by the resilience, ingenuity and dogged persistence of the POWs whose war time years must have been in different ways as difficult as that of many combatants.

The POWs ‘experiences were not those of the inmates of Auschwitz, where this image comes from. but the watch towers, the fencing would be familiar.

From one type of prison to another: a fictional women’s prison, allegedly situated some miles from my home in Ripon. A Murder Inside, by Frances Brody. We meet a committed new governor, a body in the grounds, a missing prisoner, and a cast obviously destined to appear again in subsequent books in the series..  An enjoyable enough read, but this doesn’t come high on my list of must-reads.

The countryside between Harrogate and Ripon, where this story is located.

A virtual prison this time: that of loneliness. Gail Honneyman‘s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I’m always wary of much-hyped books, and in this case, my wariness wasn’t misplaced. Socially awkward Eleanor is bright, in a job that demands too little of her, and she is totally without friends. Her story, and her back-story slowly come to light. And things start to get better for her, thanks to an unlikely friendship which precipitates a chain of events, such that she is in danger of living happily ever after by the end of the book. I didn’t believe in her, not really. I don’t believe she could have grown up in the circumstances life threw at her quite so unaware of the 21st century. Still, I read it easily enough, and it wasn’t a bad story. Read it on a train journey, maybe.

Office life for Eleanor? (Bernard Hermant, Unsplash)

And here’s another book in a similar vein. A Man called Ove by Frederik Backman. I took against this book in the first few pages. It was obvious that the story line was going to be ‘curmudgeonly old man, widely disliked, is revealed to have a heart of gold, and after about 250 pages, everyone lives happily ever after’. This is exactly what happened. I turned the pages readily enough, but was unconvinced by almost everyone but the cat. I didn’t believe in his friendly new neighbour, or his wife, or another neighbour, Rune. But most of all, I didn’t believe that Ove would turn from irritable and irritating to everyone’s favourite grandfather in the space of about three weeks. Read this one on the train too.

Ove? (GLady, Pixabay)

My last book links not so much to Ove, as to Ethan: but all three books have male heroes. The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer. Simon Scharma observes, on the cover of the edition I read ‘You don’t so much read it as live it’. It’s true. This is an immersive story, mainly set between about 1937 and 1945, about a Hungarian Jew, Andras, who spends time in Paris as a young architecture student, and meets the slightly older Hungarian widow who will become the love of his life. The story follows him as he returns home, and as Hungary becomes ever more implicated in the war. The story of the Jewish population in Hungary isn’t well known in the UK. It’s clear that while they were not on the whole sent to concentration camps, their conditions in the Labour Corps of the army – all that was open to Jewish men – were no better. I couldn’t leave this book till I had finished it. It’s well written, and beautifully researched, though Orringer wears her learning lightly. I’ll read more of her work.

Next month, our chain-beginner is another American writer, Amor Towles: Rules of Civility. I know neither the book, nor the author. Another discovery, courtesy of Six Degrees.