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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Six Degrees of Separation in September

Blogging challenges, Books and reading

When I first joined Six Degrees of Separation last month, I was quite delighted at how far my chain of books stretched from the original.  This time, I’ve gone on a changed journey.  Each of my books links together.  And yet they are all so different.  Have a look.

I haven’t yet read Rodham.  I’m a huge fan of Sittenfeld’s writing, but the reviews for this latest book, featuring Hillary Clinton, are very mixed.  Kate, who hosts Six Degrees wasn’t all that keen.  This book is a re-imagining of a life, that of a known individual,  so  that’s my starting point.

Here’s another re-imagining, this time from Greek mythology:  Circe, by  Madeline Miller. Immortal Circe tells her story through the hundreds of years of her life. She’s known Prometheus; Daedalus and Icarus; Ariadne and the Minotaur; Jason of Golden Fleece fame, and most importantly, Odysseus, and has stories about all of them.  Over the years – the centuries – she develops her skills as a witch, We witness her growing independence; her satisfactions as she develops her spells; her joys and loneliness. She takes lovers as they come her way, but never abandons herself to them:  until Odysseus .. and Telemachus …

Might Circe have thought this view familiar? Skala Eressos, Lesvos, Greece, Image from Unsplash (Tania Mousinho)

Next is another strong, independent woman:  A real one, telling her own story:  Stories of the Sahara.  The writer Sanmao was a Chinese/Taiwanese woman married to a Spaniard, who realised her obsession to live in the Sahara desert.  She was feisty, opinionated, driven, and made it her business to get to know the locals and understand their lives in a way no tourist can.

Sand, but not Saharan sand. This is the beach at Alnmouth, Northumberland UK.

It dawned on me that there’s a theme developing here.  These are all stories of women, by women.  So let’s stick with it, and look at another independent woman’s story:  Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path.  It’s the account of a long distance walk undertaken by Ray and her husband when everything that possibly could go wrong in their lives had gone wrong. They’d lost their home, their livelihoods,  and in her husband’s case, his health.  In one sense they walked away from their problems, spending a year living rough and walking England’s South West Coastal Path. It became their journey towards a new life.

This isn’t Cornwall, but Pembrokeshire. However, it is a coastal path with many similarities to that pounded along by Raynor and her husband.

More strong women, more sea, more difficult times:  the diving fisherwomen – haenyo – of Jeju Island, South Korea.  The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See  tells an involving story following the story of two women whose lives develop through their membership of the haenyo culture, as they live through a twentieth century defined in Korea by occupation, internal conflict, deprivation and rapid change.

This isn’t Jeju Island, but it is South Korea: Igidae, near Busan, and a similar coastline.

Over to Russia.  Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina.  This story, with a young uneducated Tatar woman at its heart, does much to bring to life the gulags and their unhappy part in Soviet history. Zuleikha is the young wife of a prosperous young farmer.  After his murder she’s taken prisoner and survives an apparently endless train journey and real physical, emotional and economic hardship, into a previously unpopulated part of Siberia where against the odds, she builds a life.

On our way home from South Korea, we flew over Siberia, still an astonishingly unpopulated region.

Gina’s life is very different.  She’s  a spoiled, headstrong, privileged 14 year old Hungarian who for her own protection during WWII is sent away to a puritanical isolated boarding school where she has some hard lessons to learn.  But what has Abigail, a classical statue in the school’s grounds, and who will receive messages from the pupils got to teach her? Read Abigail by Magda Szabó to find out.

The church at Arkod, the town where Gina’s boarding school is situated (Wikimedia Commons).

We’ve been to three continents and six countries, gone back in time and remained in the present.  We’ve met rich women, poor women, privileged women, and those who often feel without hope. Here’s a chain with six strong links.

 

Six Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation

Blogging challenges, Books and reading

It was Sandra who got me into this.  I love her blog A Corner of Cornwall. She’s a big reader, and often joins in Six Degrees of Separation.

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.

Books are my favourite and best.

I’m a big reader too – less so during Lockdown, for some reason I can’t explain – but rarely blog about my reading choices.  It got me thinking…

The given starting point this month is the only book I haven’t read:  Jenny Odell’s How to do Nothing.  I will read it, because according to the summary, it shows us a new way to connect with our environment and reveals all that we’ve been too distracted to see about our selves and our world.

It made me think of the first book I read when Lockdown began:  Katherine May’s Wintering. This book, part memoir, part researched observation shows how winter can bring strength, and inspiration as we bring different ways of coping to this most demanding of seasons. May looks at the animal world (bees for instance), at different cultures who know a lot about winter (the Finns for example), and at her own experiences to show that winter can be far from negative. Instead, it can be one of healing, renewal, acceptance and a source of strength.

Near Pendle in Lancashire.

From wintering to winter.  Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho takes us to South Korea, to the dreary life of a young woman living in a dreary seaside town on the border with North Korea.  She meets a French comic book illustrator, a guest at the hotel where she works.  We never get under the skin of the characters in this story. But this distance, this cold, this feeling of the characters being trapped in their self-appointed roles, these vivid descriptions of an unwelcoming chilly town, overshadowed by its proximity to North Korea is what gives this book its power.

Our heroine’s mother worked in the fish market. Perhaps she looks like this woman, taken at Busan’s Jagalchi fish market.

And still in South Korea, we go from Sokcho to Busan, a city my daughter was lucky enough to call home for a year, and which we were lucky enough to visit. Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee is a family saga which takes us from early 20th century southern Korea, in a fishing village not far from Busan, to Japan in the late 1980s. This is a troubled period of Korean history, dominated by its difficult relationship with Japan. The book begins with the story of Sunja, who comes near to bringing shame on her family by becoming pregnant to a rich wheeler-dealer before marriage.  It’s about resilience and emotional conflict passing down through the generations. It’s about well-drawn characters making their way in the world, sometimes with great success, but rarely able to escape from the shadow of their past. It’s a real page turner, from which I learnt much about this period of Korea’s history.

This is the coastal area of Busan. Now, as it probably was then when the story began.

From one family saga to another.  Laura Cumming’s On Chapel Sands isn’t so much a family saga as a family mystery. Laura’s mother Betty was adopted, was briefly kidnapped, and set Laura sleuthing to uncover the whole story, never taking bald facts at their face value.

I’ve never been to Chapel Sands. But this stretch of Yorkshire coast isn’t so very far away from there.

Another mother takes centre stage in Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet.  O’Farrell imagines the story of Shakespeare’s marriage to Agnes, and the devastating death of their eleven year old son Hamnet. Reading this book during the time of Covid 19 gives this story of love and loss a very particular immediacy.

I think Shakespeare would have appreciated this production of Romeo and Juliet: in the open air in Wensleydale, just four players, all women, riding from venue to venue on a bicycle: the Handlebards.

We remain in a similar period for my last link: The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel. There is a denseness to this 875 page book, with its enormous cast of characters, some of whom merely have walk-on parts which gives this tale its richness. We all know the story. We all know what happens to Henry’s queens. We all know what happens to Thomas Cromwell. And still we want to turn the page.

Thomas Cromwell still had Henry VIII’s favour when Fountains Abbey was dissolved in 1539: its roof destroyed for the valuable lead, and to prevent the monks continuing to live and work there.

I’m looking forward to seeing where all the other chains lead – from the single starting point.

Six Degrees of Separation

Three Books. Three Good Reads

Blogging challenges, Books and reading

Considering that reading is such an important part of my life, it’s perhaps strange that I rarely blog about books.  Thanks to Sandra, writing from A Corner of Cornwall, I’m going to put that right this week.  She in her turn responds to Sam, at Taking on a World of Words.  Every week, she poses this question:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

I can answer that.

I’m reading Benjamin Myers’ The Offing.  I first met this writer  Under the Rock, his poetically written book about his home patch in Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, and which simply defies categorisation – autobiography, geology, true crime, edgelands, poetry … it’s all here.

The setting for ‘The Offing’: the coast near Robin Hood’s Bay.

The Offing though, is fiction.  It tells the story of Robert, the sixteen year old son of a Durham coal miner, on the cusp of adulthood, as he foot-slogs slowly southwards just after the Second World War.  His simple hand-to-mouth existence changes when he meets Dulcie, who’s older, eccentric, from a very different world, and who opens her home to him. I won’t tell you more, because you may like to join the long queue of would-be-borrowers at your local library.  Here you will find an involving story, lyrically told, by an author who’s immersed in the sights, scents and images of the northern countryside he knows and loves, and who paints his characters well.

It follows on well from the book I’ve not long finished:  Julian Hoffman’s Irreplaceable.  I was led to this book by Bookish Beck.  It’s her book of the year.  It may be mine too.  Its subject matter is urgent:  the destruction of our planet.  Hoffman visits marshland in Kent that’s been under frequent threat of becoming another London airport.  He visits Indonesian islands whose unique coral habitats have been partially destroyed through mining.  He visits allotments outside London; a Macedonian National Park; Kansas prairie land … and so many more.  Such variety, and all so threatened in different ways.  Some of these stories end well, others badly, and yet others … who knows?  This is though, a call to arms. Hoffman makes it clear that our future lies not only in the hands of ‘experts’, but in indefatigable ordinary people battling for their own communities, their own treasured landscape.  And it’s not simply a battle between Progress and Tradition.  Life is more nuanced than that.  Sometimes, compromises may be needed.  But what kind of compromises?

Now. Why have I chosen a photo of a toucan to accompany my thoughts on Irreplaceable? You’ll have to read the book to find out. (Photo from Nick Karvounis , Unsplash)

Though a fairly long book, this is an accessible one.  The prose is evocative and to be lingered over and savoured.  It’s an excellent, beautiful read as well as an important one.

And the next one to read?  This time, that’s easy.  Book Group is coming up: best get this month’s choice under my belt.  An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones.  If Barak Obama describes it as ‘moving’, one of his favourite summer reads of 2018, that’s good enough for me.  I wonder what Donald Trump’s favourite book is?

Barak Obama – street art in Montmartre (Lubo Minar: Unsplash)