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.

Love my Library? Of course I do!

Books and reading

Bookish Beck is encouraging us to share why we Love our Libraries, and perhaps share some stories to show why. I’m a volunteer at our local library, though I dropped off for a while during the pandemic. This means that I have a constant supply of books which I end up bringing home to read rather than putting them back on the right shelf. And why not? I probably can’t plough through the number of books that I bring back – there aren’t enough hours in the day – but I can sample things I might not usually have considered. Some I win, some I lose, but it keeps the borrowing figures up, and that’s important when libraries battle with every council service for a share of the limited money-pot.

My post is just squeezed in for the October deadline.

Currently Reading

Melissa Harrison: The Stubborn Light of Things. I really have only just started this, but it’s promising. This is a selection of Harrison’s Nature Diaries for The Times from the last few years . She’s living in London in the section of the book I’m reading now, and discovering that Nature can thrive in the most unpromising of circumstances.


What did I bring home this last month?

Alistair McIntosh: Poacher’s Pilgrimage – An Island Journey.⭐⭐⭐⭐ A powerful exploration of a sense of place. McIntosh returns to the Outer Hebrides of his youth, and undertakes a 12 day walk – a pilgrimage – from Harris to the Butt of Lewis. Not a place I know, but which I’d now like to explore, for its harshness, its Celtic roots, its community deeply rooted in its landscape and traditions. The book is part travelogue, part exploration of the island’s religious past, part exploration of ideas round war and pacifism. It’s a bit of a slow burn, but ultimately rewarding as an exploration both of a place, and one man’s mind.

The Decameron Project: 29 New Stories from the Pandemic.⭐⭐⭐⭐ In a world overwhelmed by a global pandemic, The New York Times approached authors to contribute a short story encompassing their take on this discomfiting period. It brings Lockdown galloping back into my mind, even though few stories tackle this directly. The strangeness of the world at that time is brought into focus by a visit to a Barcelona dog owner with John Wray, or Colm Toibin bicycling in Los Angeles. Not every story is a success. I wasn’t a fan of Margaret Atwood’s Impatient Griselda. But as a memorial to a moment in history, with fine writing as standard, this collection is unbeatable.

Nadifa Mohamed: The Fortune Men. ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Mini review forthcoming in November’s Six Degrees of Separation

 Yrsa Sigurðardóttir: Gallows Rock. ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐Mini review forthcoming.

Francis Spufford: Light Perpetual.⭐⭐⭐⭐ Mini review forthcoming.

Alice Zeniter: The Art of Losing: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐Mini review forthcoming.

Barbara Demick: Nothing to Envy. ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐A readable and illuminating account of the famine years of the early 20th century in North Korea, as seen through the eyes of six escapees. Not all of these people had long been critical of the repressive, totalitarian regime under which they had been brought up. They accepted unquestioningly that there was nothing to envy beyond the country’s borders, despite the fact that education, career ambitions, love and home life were under constant surveillance and minor ‘offences’ could result in lifelong unpalatable consequences for themselves and their families. An eye opening look at a largely unknown world.

Peace Adzo Medie: His Only Wife. ⭐⭐⭐ Afi is a young seamstress from a not-at-all-well-off family. The chance of marriage to a wealthy man from Accra whose family disapprove of the woman who is the mother of his child changes all that. Her marriage takes place without the groom being present , and though he installs her in a luxury flat in Accra and makes sure she wants for nothing, it’s a while till she even meets him. When she does, she falls in love. But will that be enough to win him back from his other life with that other woman? I was only partly engaged in this tale. As someone who doesn’t know Africa at all, it seems to paint a believable picture of both bustling big city and small town life. But Afi seemed to me to achieve career success unbelievably easily, and I didn’t quite believe in her apparently deep love for Eli. I enjoyed the family relationships described, but on the whole, this was a book I was never fully committed to though I read it willingly enough.

Returned Unfinished

Ian Stephen: A Book of Death and Fish: I haven’t anything like finished this book. But I can tell that it celebrates language, and the telling of a good tale. I’m not in the market for a long immersive read at the moment, but I know I will come back to this book.

Janice Galloway: The Trick Is To Keep Breathing. Goodness knows, I’ve tried to finish this book. I can’t. It’s just too painful. Claustrophobic, disturbing, this is a story about a woman’s inner collapse on the death of her lover. As the ‘other woman’, she can neither be acknowledged nor supported. I’ve only once had depression, of the post-natal variety, and I was well supported, unlike isolated Joy. But the contact with this unwelcome world where everything is just too damn’ difficult and exhausting was more than I could bear. I don’t even know if there is any kind of happy ending to this suffocating tale.

Afia Atakora: Conjure Women. I didn’t finished this book, but abandoned it at about page 50. I found the narrative hard to follow, and wasn’t invested in it sufficiently to try. Reading the reviews, I’ve missed out. Note to self. Try again later.

Borrowed, and waiting their turn

Ann Morgan: Reading the World.

Lana del Rey: Violet Bent Backwards over the Grass.

Eavan Boland: The Historians.

Lucy Newlyn: The Craft of Poetry.

Six Degrees of Separation in October

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

The Lottery, a short story by Shirley Jackson begins our chain this month. If you haven’t read it yet, you can find it here. If you haven’t read it yet, every single one of my choices will be a Spoiler Alert.

I’ve been accused, perhaps rightly, of making some dark choices for Six Degrees. And my first choice, linked to that short story, involves death, because it is a murder mystery. But I don’t read Donna Leon‘s books because I’m all that interested in the crime perpetrated. I’m more than a little in love with Our Hero, Commissario Brunetti. I’m more than a little in love with the back streets of the city he calls home, Venice: and with his wife Paola, and his adolescent children: the meals that they eat and the family occasions they share. There’s the endlessly clever Signorina Elettra at the Questura too, and a backdrop of Brunetti’s opposition to corruption and back-handers. Against these riches, the murder mystery is just a bit-part in the story. None of Donna Leon’s books disappoint, so let’s take the first one I ever read to stand in for them all: Death at La Fenice.

We’ll stay in Italy to meet Commissario Montalbano. Maybe you know Andrea Camilleri‘s detective from the series on BBC 4? I met him in print some years ago, and he’s older and less handsome than his TV alter ego. But still as personable. He’s keen on a good meal, keen on swimming in the sea that laps the beach near his home, and can be funny as well as insightful. I’ve just finished Game of Mirrors: an intrigue involving his neighbour, a bombed warehouse, and a trail of false clues.

Another detective now, Joe Faraday. He lived, as I did once, in Portsmouth. He’s real enough too. His wife is dead. He has a profoundly deaf adult son, with whom he bonded in his early years of widowerhood by their shared love of birdwatching. Working with gritty crimes involves juggling paperwork and bureaucracy besides solving the conundrum of the offence, and it’s this rounded picture of Faraday’s life that I find so appealing. The first Faraday novel by Graham Hurley that I read was Turnstone. You might like to try it too.

DI Charlie Priest lived and worked in Yorkshire. His creator, Stuart Pawson was my friend and colleague when we both worked as mediators for the Probation Service: sadly he died a few years ago. Priest loved to pound the moors and fells of Yorkshire, as I do. His life involved too much work and too little play , but like the previous two detectives, he’s a rounded and believable individual. I’m choosing The Judas Sheep, because he dedicated this book to me.

Jason Webster is an English writer living in Spain. He’s fairly recently turned his hand to detective fiction, and his hero is Max Cámara. I was interested in A Death in Valencia since this is a city I thought I knew quite well. As ever, it turned out not to be those parts of the city that I’d visited, but a much seamier place, with corruption at the heart of local government a commonplace. Add a murdered paella chef, and even the pope to the mix for another thoroughly readable story.

My last choice isn’t a murder mystery. But deaths occur, and the whole thing, like the short story we began with almost feels like a pact with the devil. Alix Nathan, in The Warlow Experiment tells us the story of gentleman scientist Charles Powyss, who in the eighteenth century sets up an experiment to study the effects on humans of total isolation. Uneducated labourer Warlow is that isolated man. Offered every comfort, decent food, books (he can barely read), all he needs – apart from human company – it all goes horribly, desperately wrong.

I began with a few murder mysteries. And I end with a death or so too. Unnecessary, bleak, as was the death with which our chain began. Next month’s choice promises to be a harrowing one. I’ll have to see whether I’m up to dealing with reading it: Sigrid NunezWhat Are You Going Through.

Library Checkout

Books and reading

I have always enjoyed Bookish Beck’s monthly Library Checkout, but it had never occurred to me to join in. Partly, I’ve been outfaced by the sheer number of volumes she manages to devour. But I’ve had a busy-for-me reading month, as well as a higher number than usual of ‘Nah, not for me’, so let’s get started.


Adam Nicolson: The Sea is not Made of Water. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ A study of what – apart from water – fills the seas. At tides, at geology, at social history and philosophy. Frequently fascinating, informative and thought provoking, but for me, the whole thing didn’t quite hang together

Frances Quinn: The Smallest Man⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ The rags-to-riches story of Nat Davy, dwarf, who avoids being sold as a fairground attraction when his father, who wants rid of him, gets a better offer for him to be the plaything to Queen Charlotte in the court of Charles I. Nat is soon at the heart of the action in the hotbed of political and religious discontent which is Stuart England. An enjoyable and easy to race through account.

Jason Webb: The Anarchist Detective. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ Mini-review forthcoming in October’s Six Degrees of Separation.

Roy Jacobsen: Eyes of the Rigel. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ I chose this from the library on a whim, unaware that this was the last of a series of three. It didn’t matter. Ingrid, inhabitant of a small Norwegian island sets off to find her Russian lover and father of her child in the aftermath of WWII. A discomfiting but highly readable story about the aftermath of war, about collaboration, guilt.

Joe Shute: Forecast. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ A clear-sighted and readable account of how our seasons are no longer the four seasons we’ve traditionally recognised over the centuries, but are rapidly involving into something new, and difficult for wildlife and ourselves to adjust to. Shute has travelled the kingdom, delved into literature, folklore, plant and animal life, traditional industries, personal reminiscences, and even noted how language has changed in describing the weather. In among, he reflects upon the difficulties he and his wife have in conceiving a child: which might sound gratuitous, but isn’t, at all.

Alix Nathan: The Warlow Experiment. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ Mini-review forthcoming in October’s Six Degrees of Separation.

John Green: The Anthropocene Reviewed. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ I intended to dip in and out of these musings, developed from a podcast series about many different aspects of life on our planet. Instead, I read it from cover to cover, almost at a sitting. Green considers anything from the QWERTY keyboard to the Lascaux cave paintings, sunsets to teddy bears with his personal thoughts, anecdote, research, in a way which is at once engaging and amusing, as well as thought provoking.

Returned Unfinished

Garry Disher: Bitterwash Road. This is the gritty and well-told story of Hirsch, police whistle blower, demoted because of his actions and now the constable in a one-horse town in the Australian outback. The dialogue is slick and believable, the descriptions of characters, town life and the countryside evocative, the plot fast moving. This is a book that has everything. But after a few chapters, I’d had enough. Didn’t finish it.

Anne Griffin: Listening Still. I’d loved When all was Said, reviewed here. But a cosy two generation family with an undertaking business, two of whom can talk to the dead briefly, before they totally expire? Just …. nah.

Eugenia Rico: El Otoño Aleman: I seriously overestimated my reading stamina and abilities in Spanish. Back to basics!

Borrowed, and waiting their turn.

Alastair McIntosh: An Island Journey

Janice Galloway: The Trick is to Keep Breathing.

Ian Stephen: A Book of Death and Fish.

The Decameron Project: 29 New Stories from the Pandemic

Is this a typical month? Maybe not. There’s a higher proportion of non-fiction here than usual. Have you read anything from my pile? Tempted by anything?

It’s time for Six Degrees of Separation … in September…

Blogging challenges, 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, the chain begins with Rachel Cusk’s Second Place. The narrator is M, living out in a remote country landscape with her second husband Tony, invites celebrated painter L to stay in the second cottage they own: she is powerfully attracted to his work. We’re witness to M’s inner monologues, as she worries about her relationship with her daughter, her husband and L’s antipathy towards her, manifesting itself in calculated rudeness. Cusk acknowledges the book as a re-write of Mieko Kawakami’s memoir of DH Lawrence, Lorenzo in Taos, but I haven’t read this. M could be thought obsessive, over-analytical, though much of what she thinks is beautifully expressed.  Insightful?  Pretentious?  Only you can decide.

Some weeks on from reading Second Place, my lasting impression is of a lonely setting, and of characters who are ultimately alone.  So the first link in my chain is Jane Harper’s The Lost Man.   This story is set in the Australian outback, and for me the central character in the novel. Understanding the vastness, the harshness, the loneliness and unforgiving nature of this landscape was what I took from this book. It’s the story of a family, of three brothers who live next door to one another (by which you need to understand that they each live at least three hours drive from each other), and what happens after Nathan finds Cameron dead one day, by the grave of a long-dead stockman, in upsetting circumstances.  The wider family unravels, then ravels again in a satisfyingly realised story, in which the ending was possibly just a little too neat.  But it’s a great story, well told and visualised.

Loneliness of a different kind is at the heart of Javier Marías’ Berta Isla. Berta and Tomás fall in love while still at school together. Anglo-Spanish, Tomás goes to university in Oxford, to further his extraordinary gift for languages, while Berta studies in Madrid. At Oxford, Tomás makes a mistake which obliges him to make his choice of career to work for the British secret service. It changes his and Berta’s relationship for ever. This is the story of a marriage in which the husband is largely absent to his wife, to his children and to the world at large. It takes in – at a distance – the Irish Troubles, the Falklands War, and Franco’s dictatorship.

 At one point Berta herself quotes from Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities: ‘…every human creature is destined to be a profound secret and mystery to every other creature’. That’s what this book is about.  A thoughtful, discursive book which will remain with me for a long time.

Let’s look at loneliness of a different kind: Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flynn. This is a book about what man has done to various places on earth, and what happens when man ceases to interfere: when the mining stops; the botanical garden is left to its own devices; the fatally damaged nuclear reactor is fenced off; the WWI chemical weapons site locked and the farmland abandoned. Nature begins to take over once more. Maybe not quite in the form that it had previously, but insidiously, by adapting and making do. The wilderness revives.

This beautiful, even lyrically written book celebrates Nature’s power to recover, even when to the average aesthete the results are not conventionally pretty. It may be almost too late. There is much to be concerned, horrified and terrified about as man continues to despoil the planet. But Flyn finds hope in nature’s power to take back control. A book I am pleased to have read: and one which gave me plenty to think about, and plenty to appreciate in the quality of Flyn’s writing.

Back to fiction, to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the tale of a father and son trudging through post-Apocalypse America. This is a land where nothing grows, no small animals are there for the hunting: where communities and dwellings are deserted and long-since looted for anything that might sustain life a few more days: where other humans might prove peaceable, but might instead be evil and dangerous. This book is bleakly, sparely written. Conversations between father and son are clipped, necessary. No speech marks. Sometimes little punctuation. Every ounce of energy is needed for the business of staying alive. This book, in which nobody lives happily-ever-after will stay with me for a long time.

An apocalypse of a different kind is described in  John Lewis-Stempel’s Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War. I thought I was pretty clued up about the social history of World War I, but this book was a revelation. It describes the war, and life in the trenches and beyond from the point of view of the young subalterns who, in leading their men at the Front, had a life expectancy once there of six weeks. These young men, some no older than 17, had been equipped by their education in public schools to be team players, leaders, and military men through their membership of the OTC. They rose to the occasion, leading men often old enough to be their fathers, commanding their respect and even love. Some of these men became officers in their turn, because the public school men, frankly, were mainly all killed. Marlborough School, for example, lost 400 men in the Great War.  This is about their short lives, and the lives of the men they led.  Brilliant.

Oh goodness, this has been quite a dark month of book choices.  Let’s lighten the mood for my final choice, in a book about that moment in our lives when we’re all finally alone … death.  Waiting for the Last Bus by Richard Holloway. This is an excellent, thought provoking book written with a light, amusing touch. I’ve reached the stage in life where reflections on life and death seem appropriate, and this is a book I’ll read again. Holloway considers our fears of death, both for ourselves, and for those whom we love. He looks at what comes next, both for the deceased and for those left behind. A former monk, agnostic, and bishop, Holloway has written a book which is accessible to us all, not just Christians.  Highly recommended, and not at all depressing.

It’s time for Six Degrees of Separation … in August

Blogging challenges, 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 was pretty stumped by the book starting this chain: Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher.  The story of a Hollywood actor’s struggle with drugs didn’t appeal to me.

I settled on Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn. Here is a cast list of utterly blemished characters, with the narrator, Camille Preaker, as the lead. Fresh from psychiatric hospital, this Chicago-based reporter is sent to her long-left home town to comment on a couple of nasty and unsolved murders. We meet her damaged mother, her unreliable sister, and a host of others. This is an engrossing but troubling story which in the end rather exhausted me.  I was glad to turn the last page, feeling that both characters and the town in which the book is set are caricatures, rather than living entities. 

Wind Gap, the town on which the story is centred, was based on Barnesville , Georgia- here’s its City Hall ( Wikimedia Commons, Michael Rivera)

Now to an autobiography of someone who could have been damaged beyond repair, but isn’t. My Name is Why. Lemn Sissay: Chancellor of Manchester University: official poet to the London Olympics: broadcaster and advocate for the rights of children in care. A successful life.  It was not always so. His Ethiopian mother, briefly in England to study, gave birth to him in a home for unmarried mothers and was forced to give him up.  Initially fostered, he became estranged from his foster family. and aged twelve, began a distressing journey through several children’s homes. His descent from bright, happy and popular child to uncooperative social misfit is shown in a series of dry reports from social workers and officials with whom he had contact. The book is an indictment of the care system. That he survived such a system and has since prospered is no thanks to it.

Lemn Sissay (Philosphy Football via Wikimedia Commons)

And so to Blonde Roots by Bernadine Evaristo. Here is a world turned upside down. Black people are in charge, whites are their slaves. Feudal Britain, eighteenth and nineteenth century worlds, the modern age and a dystopian future all combine in this world of toil and trouble in which Doris, kidnapped from her home into slavery, finds herself.  There’s much to enjoy and admire in this early novel from Evaristo: the playful place names such as Londolo: details such as the efforts of whyte women to achieve the curly Aphro looks of their former masters. The speech patterns of the slaves, rooted in those of their black masters didn’t work for me, and overall, this was an only partially successful attempt to demonstrate that tyranny rules when we begin to regard others as inferior to ourselves.

Evaristo plays with the idea of a world in which history is up-ended (Unsplash: Ivana Cajina)

There are two contrasting worlds in my next book:  The Communist’s Daughter, by Aroa Moreno Durán, Katia, the daughter of Spanish refugees from the Civil War was raised in East Berlin with all its difficulties and privations. She saw the wall go up, experienced the limitations of the life they were obliged to leave. And she left, with all the difficulties and dangers her leaving represented. But what had she gained? And what might her family have lost? A sparely written, thought provoking and unsettling book.

The Berlin Wall: but not as Katia knew it

From one social outcast to another very different one: Diary of a Somebody by Brian Bilston. This is a quirky read, to be enjoyed for the oddball poems which are at its heart.  Nobody could take the fictional Bilston seriously.  He’s hopeless at his job, socially inept, useless at time and money management.  But he writes off-beat verses, using anything from great literature or the day’s puzzle page in a newspaper as his catalyst.  A book to read when the New Normal is getting you down.

Brian Bilston ( Smithsonian Magazine: no copyright infringement is intended)

One unexpected character leads to another.  Meet Dr. Yvonne Carmichael in Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard. However did she, a respected  and happily married academic, end up on trial for a murder she didn’t commit? And how is it that her co-accused is a man about whom she knows so very little, despite their having been lovers for months? In this book, we dodge between courtroom and back-story, learning how Yvonne allows herself to tumble into assignations with a man whose name we are told only late on in the narrative. I’m not sure I totally believed in Yvonne Carmichael, or in the beginnings of her affair. But I was sucked into the drama, had no idea how the book would end (slightly disappointingly actually, in my opinion), but it certainly fulfilled its can’t-put-it-down hype.

Westminster: a central character in Apple Tree Yard.

I’d like to end with a character who, though fictional, I totally believed in, encountered in Anne Griffin’s When All is Said.  Maurice Hanigan, now widowed, and aged 84, sits in a bar and raises a toast, one by one, to the most influential people he’s met.  We learn about his life, from his spectacularly unsuccessful school career, to his spectacularly successful career as an entrepreneur.  We grow to hear about his complicated relationship with the family that first employed him while he was still at school, the Dollards.  And his complicated relationship with a unique Edward VIII sovereign, which belonged to the Dollards, and which Maurice – er – found.  It has a legacy, and bears a curse.  This is an engaging, compassionate man, who’s well aware of his failings and of the stereotypes he lives up to.  Each toast, each story is a stand-alone which weaves together into a narrative of the life of a man both wily and mean, loving and grudging for whom in the end, I felt a great deal of understanding. Best of all, you can’t help but read this story in a strong Irish accent.

Farmland in Ireland ( Unsplash: Elisabeth Arnold)

So there we have it. Six Books. Six characters, all shaped and perhaps damaged by the environment in which they grew up.

Six Degrees of Separation in June

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’.

Bass Rock by Evie Wyld is the starting point this month. And, despite all the rave reviews, I’ve abandoned it for the time being – though not for ever, I hope. It’s about sisterhood, about survival. But it’s also about how women’s lives can be circumscribed, in ways big and small, by the men who seek to control them. And this is the link I chose to begin my chain.

Jill Dawson‘s The Language of Birds is a fictionalised account of a family nanny, murdered by Lord Lucan, a story that ignited the British press for months in 1974. Fictionalised, apparently, to protect the many characters in this story who are still alive. This book is a page turner. Mandy the nanny comes across as a warm, likeable person, despite the very difficult circumstances of her childhood, teenage years and young adulthood. Her friend Rosemary, who plays the part of slightly unreliable narrator for part of the story is the vehicle for recurring imagery about birds and the freedom they seem to enjoy.

There’s much to savour here about the portrayal of 1970s England, about class, about mental illness and domestic violence. It’s worth reading for this alone.

The next link is not a murder, it’s a massacre. And it’s a true story: The Patient Assassin, by Anita Anand. This book has as its core the shocking 1919 Amritsar Massacre, which saw hundreds of innocent Indian families shot at and killed or injured at the behest of Sir Michael O’Dwyer. Twenty years later, in a shooting that had been all those years in the planning, he himself was shot and killed by Udham Singh.

This is the story of that massacre, and of these two men. It’s meticulously researched and involvingly told, and gives a vivid and unappealing picture of the British occupation of India, as well as of the lives of Indians who had gone to America, and specifically England, in search of a better life. This book does much to explain the wider history of the period, and it’s one I’m glad to have read.

We’ll stick with death, but lighten the mood. Mrs. Death misses Death by Salena Godden. An allegory, a story, an anthology of poems – this book is all those things. Mrs Death is an unnoticed (of course unnoticed!) black woman, by turns a bag lady or a charismatic starlet. Wolf is also black, a lad who lost his mum in a Grenfell Tower- like fire. This young man is the person to whom Mrs. Death transmits her stories of heroes, historical figures, ordinary people, whole swathes damaged by war and famine. But death has to happen so life can go on. Lyrical, poetic, sometimes funny, this is a book impossible to categorise, but it’s life affirming too, and ultimately optimistic.

And – oh dear, death again, but this book is like the last, ultimately uplifting. Laura Imai Messina‘s The Phone Box at the Edge of the World. Here, in a garden in a remote spot in Japan, a disconnected phone allows the grief-stricken to send their voices into the wind as they talk to those they have lost. Yui lost her mother and daughter in the 2011 tsunami. Tasheki’s wife is also dead. Slowly, gently, these two forge a relationship, and begin their journey of healing together. Each chapter is interspersed with random fragmented memories, which enrich the story and ground it in reality, giving just a little grit to a tale that might otherwise be just a little too other-worldly. And apparently, this phone box really does exist.

That’s enough of death. But we could stay in Japan perhaps? Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa. Meet Sentaro, a bit of a loser who has a humdrum existence making and selling sweet bean dorayaki for his snack-shack. They’re not the best – he cuts corners. Then along comes Tokue, a spectacularly ugly old woman who begs him for a job, and finally he gives in. She introduces him to her highly superior sweet bean paste, and business looks up. He learns that she had been incarcerated in a leper colony for much of her life- hence her deformities – though she is no longer infectious. This is their story – one of confronting prejudice and your own demons, and in which they come to learn that being a useful member of society is not the be-all and end-all. A charming and lyrically written story, if perhaps a little sentimental for hard-bitten English sensibilities.

Here’s another book about a meeting between two people who ordinarily would never meet. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar. What a romp! I galloped through this story set in eighteenth century London, in which a decent-but-dull merchant – a widower, meets an indecent-but-colourful high-end courtesan. They’re connected by a ‘mermaid’, which was brought back on one of the merchant’s ships and is exciting the curiosity of Londoners. Gowar has done her homework, and the language, the scene-setting all ring true. This is a totally implausible narrative which I swallowed cheerfully and willingly. The perfect antidote to pandemic routine, despite shades of dark intruding towards the end.

I’ve just noticed another link in this chain. All the authors are women. No. That’s not true. Durian Sukegawa isn’t. But his translator is. Without Alison Watts’ efforts, I could never have read this book .

Six Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation in May

Books and reading

I think that my choice of books this month make not so much an ordered chain as an untidy, loosely related pile. Beverley Cleary‘s Beezus and Ramona is the starting point, and is about Beezus’ travails with her younger sister. Somehow, though my children read this book, I didn’t read this one along with them.

But we did share another book about an annoying small sister. Dorothy EdwardsMy Naughty Little Sister is charmingly dated and old fashioned in a Listen with Mother kind of way, but is an appealing set of stories for bridging the gap between reading full-on picture books aloud with your child to those with few illustrations . My children enjoyed these cosy domestic dramas so reminiscent of their own daily lives, as well as the occasional pictures by Shirley Hughes.

From a naughty little sister to a naughty and irrepressible young boy. Just William by Richmal Crompton has been around since the 1920s. My mother liked him when she was young. I liked him: so did all my children. Martin Jarvis reading yet another misadventure of William Brown and his gang enlivened many long car journeys when they were small.

These books all seem to be about boys. I wasn’t keen on boarding school stories for girls: Malory Towers and The Chalet School held no appeal for me. I was much keener on Anthony Buckeridge‘s decent ordered word of Linbury Court, the prep school where irrepressible Jennings and his nice-but-dim friend Darbishire were pupils, and responsible for a fair bit of amiable disorder. It was never a good idea to Leave it to Jennings.

I’m still with unruly pupils who go to prep school, this one going by the unlikely name of St. Custard’s. This was where Nigel Molesworth was educated, and he recorded his ‘thorts’ (sic) in Down with Skool! (assisted by the author, Geoffrey Willans and illustrated by Ronald Searle) on lessons (‘chiz chiz‘), the Head Boy Grabber, who was ‘winner of the Mrs. Joyful prize for raffia work’, and the ‘utterly wet‘ Fotherington-Thomas (‘Hello clouds, hello sky‘). His thoughts are clever, cynical, philosophical, yet optimistic, and he really can’t spell. To re-read them as an adult is to realise how much passes over the head of a child of a child of ten. Perhaps it’s best to think of the Molesworth books as being about childhood, but for adults.

Now I’m going to cheat. My next choice isn’t a book at all, but a defunct magazine, The Young Elizabethan. It was a magazine aimed at grammar school teenagers, and its heydays were the 1950s and 60s. It was about books, about history, world affairs, astronomy, nature, about the world at large, and attracted writers like James (now Jan) Morris, Geoffrey Trease, and Nigel Molesworth himself. I once won the runner-up prize in a story-writing competition, and got a certificate and a postal order for 10/- (fifty pence). Or was it half a crown – 2/6d (twelve and a half pence)? This magazine was unapologetically high-minded, but with writers of quality at its beck and call, I always read it from cover to cover.

I’m not quite sure where to go from here. Maybe a book I read at the time which has since reached a wider audience through having become a popular television series, which diverged wildly from the original as the series progressed. I got Gerald Durrell‘s My Family and Other Animals at Christmas when I was ten, and finished it before the day was out. Gerald certainly frequented no prep school, but rather the University of Life. His family decamped to Corfu when he was about the age I was then, and he had the chance to develop the obsession with the natural world which informed his entire adult career.

So that’s my Six Degrees of Separation this month. We’ve started with a popular children’s book, and meandered through some of the reading choices I and my children have made. If you want to know more, this is what Six Degrees is all about: ‘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’. You can read what other bloggers made of their chains here.

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

Six Degrees of Separation in March

Blogging challenges, Books and reading

I haven’t yet read the book which starts this month’s Six Degrees of Separation chain for the very good reason that it hasn’t been released in the UK yet.  However, Phosphorescence, by Julia Baird is apparently about finding grace and awe in the ordinary and in the world around us.

So I’ll start with Michael McCarthy’s Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy. How to describe this book? It’s part nature writing, part memoire, part polemic, and a powerful and affecting read. The book first got under my skin when defining ‘joy’, which McCarthy sums up as a moment of true happiness, with a spiritual, selfless, outward looking dimension. McCarthy’s first experience of joy was as a boy, learning to love the landscape and wildlife of the Dee Estuary.  His nature writing is richly observed, pictorial, highly sensory. He is angry at the galloping pace of destruction of so many species and habitats. He demands that we observe too, and experience joy in our own ways as we explore the natural world.

Not the Dee Estuary, but the view from Mutehill, Kirkkudbright.

Richard Smyth’s A Sweet Wild Note: What we Hear when the Birds Sing is a  delightful, idiosyncratic and fascinating book about the place of bird song in our lives. Smyth is a wry, self-deprecating writer who draws not only on his own experience, but on music – all kinds of music from every period, on literature, on social history, on science, on previous students and lovers of birds, on landscape, to develop this entertaining yet well-researched read.

A blackbird singing at West Tanfield one summer evening.

This leads me to my only nod to fiction this month:  Helen HumphreysThe Evening Chorus. I picked this book from the library shelf on a whim. What a gem. Inspired by, though not based on three true events, this lyrically told story sees the war and its aftermath from the perspective of three people, each intimately bound in each other’s lives, but ultimately dealing with what confronts them in their own way, alone. It begins with James in his German POW camp, finding solace in his intimate record of the lives of the birds, the redwings he can just about see from the camp confines. There is Rose, his wife in an English village; Enid, his sister, living and working in London. Constance, Rose’s difficult mother … and the POW camp’s Kommandant. All have their roles in this story in which the actual horrors of war have no place, but which illustrates vividly its power to alter lives, to constrain, and yet to offer hope too.

Redwing: Andreaa Treple, Wikimedia Commons.

From redwings to ravens: A Shadow Above: The Fall and Rise of the Raven, by Joe Shute. Shute loves ravens. I loved this book. Part natural history, part history, part an exploration of the many legends that this bird has fostered, part investigative journalism, part personal history, this is an engaging, immersive read that goes a long way towards explaining why ravens have a special place in our history, and that of many other nations – even giving many locations their place name. It’s beautifully, often poetically written (though it could have had a better proof-reader) as well as being informative. I finished this book with an increased respect for an intelligent, fascinating bird, besides understanding why it inspires fear and loathing in almost equal measure. 

A hand-reared raven guarding Knaresborough Castle in North Yorkshire.

And now from birds to bugs: A Buzz in the Meadow: The Natural History of a French Farm by Dave Goulson.  This book is a delight from beginning to end. The catalyst for writing it is Goulson’s home in the Charente, bought so he could provide home, in the form of an extensive meadow, to a huge variety of wildlife, specifically insects. This is no Aga saga of a Brit in France, but a mixture of reminiscence, hard scientific fact, vivid stories of his own experiments and research, and the work of others. It’s a page turner and a tale well told with humour, and an eye for the telling detail. I’m no scientist, but I was absorbed from start to finish.

A buzz in the garden at Beningborough Hall, North Yorkshire.

 My last book is Irreplaceable: the Fight to Save our Wild Places, by Julian Hoffman. An important book, lyrically written, about our disappearing habitats. Hoffman has travelled the world in search of such places. But whether it’s an Indonesian island with exotic flora and fauna, or a London allotment, the message is the same. Once the habitat has gone, it’s gone. He describes such losses eloquently and movingly. Ultimately though, there is hope. And this hope is vested in ordinary people who care about the piece of the planet that they live on, and who campaign, and simply roll their sleeves up and do whatever is practically necessary to ensure the continuing diversity and richness of the area they know and cherish so well. Some are educated scientists or campaigners, but more are simply citizens, doing what they can to ensure the continued future of the habitat they love. Read this book.

The quite-wild-enough landscape of Angram, North Yorkshire

I didn’t expect to produce a non-fiction bonanza about the natural world, but here we are.  If you never normally choose books like these, I urge you to give any one of these titles a try. They’re each as absorbing as any good work of fiction, and they all tell stories that are important for us, and for the planet.