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.

Six Degrees of Separation in January

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 meme

I included the starting point in this month’s chain, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell in my own, the very first time I participated in Six Degrees, back in August last year.

This time I’ll link it with Nicola Upson’s Stanley and Elsie.  Like O’Farrell, Upson re-imagines lives:  those of the celebrated English painter Stanley Spencer and his family, and their live-in maid Elsie.  Though this is a work of fiction, she sticks more closely to the known facts than O’Farrell. This story of love, obsession, the thought processes of a painter, the English countryside is written in a way that demands to be read, compulsively.

Stanley Spencer: Soldiers washing. http://www.wikiart.org

Another life – this time entirely fictional, entirely believable. Andrew Miller’s The Crossing has Maud at its heart. This unusual woman, very likely with Asperger’s syndrome, nevertheless has an ordinary enough life till tragedy strikes.  Then it takes a different path, when Maud goes to sea … This exquisitely written book, and Maud herself,  may haunt you, as they did me.

The North Sea – a view Maud might have seen.

A big leap now to two fictional lives. Soldiers from Senegal often provided the French front line throughout the First World War. Alfa and Mademba are two of them.  When Alfa watches his lifelong friend Madeba die in agony, unable and unwilling to kill him to end his suffering, his slow descent into madness begins.  David Diop’s At Night All Blood is Black is both hypnotic and heartbreaking.

Not a Senegalese tirailleur, but a British Tommy in WWI, plodding through the outskirts of Ripon.

I can’t face anything else that’s dark at the moment, but I’ll remain with a West African subject, this time a Nigerian.  The Girl with the Louding Voice, by Abi Daré is written in the voice of fourteen year old Adunni who is married against her will to a much older man. Written in pidgin this lively, involving and often humorous story highlights the difficulties and limitations imposed on many women in Nigeria, particularly those of limited means: forced marriage, domestic slavery. This story, however, has a positive and happy ending.

Possibly acting the part of Big Madam, Adunni’s ’employer’? (Pexels)

Which leads me to another book where the prospect of a forced marriage changes the main protagonist’s life: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, by Elif Shafak. This is the life of Tequila Leila, sex-worker, and her five very special friends, recalled in flashback just as Leila dies, and told in a vibrant, moving and engaging way.  The second half puts her friends centre stage as they attempt a decent burial for their friend, and for me was less satisfactory.  Read it and decide for yourself.

The streets of Istanbul ( Unsplash-Randy Tarampi)

Let’s end with another woman’s life, an autobiography this time: Tara Westover’s Educated. I approached this book with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. But once started, I couldn’t put it down. Tara Westover comes from a large dysfunctional Mormon family. Home educated, her upbringing was tough, Her journey from a rough country childhood to the world of academia  is well-told, as well as giving me some insight into the Mormons. A thought-provoking read.

House in a rural Mormon community ( Jaron Nix, Unsplash)

With the pandemic still raging, I’m in need of uplifting reads: and with the exception of the David Diop, my choices provide positivity in varying degrees.  I haven’t read next month’s starting-point-book, Ann Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road.  It’s very short: that’s the upside when my TBR list is so very long.

Always up for reading, and recommending good reads to others, this post is also my offering for Square Up today. But please visit the Six Degrees link to see what other readers have chosen.

Six Degrees of Separation

Six degrees of separation in December

Books and reading

It’s Six Degrees of Separation time again, and this month, we all begin with Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. I read Daughter Number One’s copy of this thirty years ago, and then twenty years ago read it all over again when it was Daughter Number Two’s turn.  Judy Blume was every tweenage girl’s author of choice.  An issue-led author, talking about puberty, boys, periods, while at the same time telling an involving story – how could this ground-breaking author fail to be popular among young people – and their mothers?

It was so different from the books I enjoyed at roughly the same part of my childhood.  And yet one I remember was also ground-breaking, in a different way.   Eve Garnett’s The Family from One End Street told stories from the happy lives of the Ruggles children.  But this family was exceptional at the time – they were working class!  Their father was a dustman!  Yet this book was first published in 1938, and has rarely been out of print since then.

My children didn’t read about the Ruggles family.  But a book I, and each of them, loved for years was Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories.  Where would long car journeys have been without endless replayings of Johnny Morris reading The Elephant’s Child or How the Rhinoceros got his Skin?

What about more modern books we all shared together?  One that stands out is Quentin Blake’s Mr.  Magnolia. All of us know every word of it, and will still cheerfully chant …

Mr Magnolia has only one boot. 

He has an old trumpet that goes rooty-toot –

And two lovely sisters who play on the flute –

But Mr Magnolia has only one boot.

… at the least provocation, even though it’s maybe nearly thirty years ago that we last curled up in bed together to read it with my younger daughter. Well, it’s the grandchildren’s turn now.

And we depend upon the grandchildren to keep us up with newer children’s books.  Our lives would definitely be the poorer without Kes Gray and Jim Field’s Oi Frog! (and Oi Cat! Oi Dog! and all the rest …) From which we learn that …

Cats sit on mats, hares sit on chairs, mules sit on stools and gophers sit on sofas.

Tiny children, big children and adults alike can all indulge in a bit of silly word play from time to time.

Which leads me back to an old favourite, another one from my own childhood and which my children, and now five year old William is now enjoying in his turn: the Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster.  This adventure leads bored Milo to discover the power of words, and of numbers in the cities of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis as he meets characters such as King Azad the Unabridged, and Tock the Watchdog, while discovering that eating subtraction stew just makes you hungrier, and that while it’s very easy to jump to the island called Conclusions, it’s hard to escape.

And so to my final link, one that encompasses all these books and many more;  Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: a Memoir of Childhood Reading.  She’s younger than me, but she too was a bookish child.  Her reading choices were my reading choices, and this book brings back memories of much loved favourites, some of which I’d forgotten about.  All British bookworms should have this on their Christmas list.

Six Degrees of Separation in November.

Books and reading

Last month, I ended my chain of books for Six Degrees of Separation with Mudlarking, Lara Maiklem’s engaging account of uncovering London’s history through those artefacts she discovers lurking under the silt of the Thames. This month, I thought I’d go dredging too, and try to remember books I’d enjoyed several years ago.  What had stuck in my mind?

Maiklem has her own personal museum collection, I’m sure.  Twelve year old Clover Quinn is making a museum, in Carys Bray’s The Museum of You. She’s a sweet child, but a bit isolated from her peers. She likes her dad’s allotment, and museums. In fact she secretly decides to make her own museum in memory of her mum, who died when Clover was six weeks old. Gradually her story unfolds. Her dad Darren’s story unfolds, and her mum Becky’s story unfolds.  A skilfully constructed tale.

Mary Lennox is a solitary child too. Surely, as children, most of us read about this orphaned girl who’s moved from India to England, and about the children she learns to think of as friends? We read about how their lives become fundamentally changed in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, set somewhere in deepest Yorkshire.

My next choice involves another isolated individual, and in Yorkshire too. SanctuaryRobert Edric re-imagines the tragic and self-destructive life of Branwell, brother of the more famous and successful Brontë sisters in a book I haven’t forgotten since I read it maybe five years ago. Branwell is the ‘author’ of this book, and paints a sorry picture of his stumbling path, in the final year of his young life, towards illness, addiction and death.

Another life cut short: Simon Lambeau dies in a surfing accident, and his parents have to decide whether to allow his heart to give someone else the chance of life.  The journey of Simon’s transplant organ explores the metaphysical zone between life and death, and remains one of the most breathtakingly engaging and unusual books I have ever read.  Mend the Living, by Meylis de Karangal.  Just … read it.

None of these is a light read.  Let’s stay with a sea-related theme: The Penguin Lessons, by Tom Mitchell. I didn’t expect to like this book.  The story of how Mitchell keeps a penguin during his days as a school teacher in Argentina promised to be a fey, sentimental read, I thought. But it wasn’t. Though light in tone and amusing, it highlighted the real challenges faced, and life-lessons learnt from caring for a wild beast in a thoroughly domestic setting. A somewhat thought- provoking and satisfying holiday read.

From a penguin in captivity to a fish in captivity: Fishbowl, by Bradley Somer.  A goldfish falls from his usual home on the 27th floor of an apartment block (where he’s sort of looked after by over-sexed Connor) downwards to the pavement beneath. On his way he passes apartments in which small dramas are being acted out, lives becoming changed.  A quirky read.

We seem to have travelled a long way from the Thames in London: to Yorkshire, to France, to Argentina and America.  And I’ve rediscovered the pleasure I had from some books I first read quite some time ago.

Six Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation in October

Blogging challenges, Books and reading

Our starting point for this month’s Six Degrees of Separation Challenge is The Turn of the Screw by  Henry James. Our job as participants is to show how one book leads to another, each link taking us further and further from the original (maybe).

I’m linking Turn of the Screw with a detective story set in present-day Venice.  Bear with me.  I’m a big fan of Commissario Brunetti  who lives there with his family.  Enjoying the moments that Brunetti spends at home or ranging round the city he loves for all its faults are a real reason for reading Donna Leon’s books.  Brunetti’s wife Paola teaches at the university, and she’s a big fan of Henry James’ writing.  I’ll put Trace Elements into the mix, as it’s the last Donna Leon I read.

Brunetti’s Venice: often seen from a Police launch while speeding to the scene of crime (Gabriele Diwald, Unsplash)

I like Leon’s writing because she summons up Venice and day-to-day life there so vividly.  Graham Hurley has a similar talent.  His detective, Joe Faraday, lives in Portsmouth, as I once did. Faraday’s life is one of juggling crime, endless paperwork, a bitty personal life, and birdwatching.  It feels very real. Turnstone is the first, but by no means the only one of his books that I’ve read.

Gulls seen from a cross-channel ferry – probably Faraday spotted them too.

Birdwatching had me remembering A Shadow Above. The author, Joe Shute loves ravens. 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.

One of the tame ravens often to be seen near Knaresborough Castle, North Yorkshire.

And so to another author who’s immersed in the natural world – Melissa Harrison. The first book of hers that I read was a novel: At Hawthorn Time.  Even more than the involving story following the lives of a couple with a dissolving marriage newly arrived at the village; a near-vagrant and a disaffected young man, I relished her descriptions of the countryside, whether observations of plant and bird life or a litter strewn roadside edge. Her characters rang true, as well as her clear-eyed descriptions of village life.

What else but hawthorn blossom?

This reminded me of a non-fiction book, a real good read: A Buzz in the Meadow: the Natural History of a French Farm, by Dave Goulson. This is a delight.  The catalyst for writing it is his 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.

This praying mantis was spotted not in France, but in Spain, during a family holiday in Catalonia.

Goulson knows his home patch intimately.  Lara Maiklem knows the London Thames intimately.  She’s a mudlarker, who scours the banks of the river looking for its hidden history whenever she can.  World War weaponry, Victorian toys, Georgian clay pipes, Tudor buttons, Roman pottery, even Neolithic flints are all there, waiting to be found.  In Mudlarking, Maiklem writes  an entertaining account of her finds and adventures, stitching them into a readable history of London itself: the growth of the city and its changing fortunes. 

Mudlarking territory along the Thames shoreline.

So there we have it.  Six books following no kind of theme.  But they’re the kinds of book I’ve liked and have enjoyed over the last year or so.

 

Six Degrees of Separation

October Squares: #Kinda Square

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