Six Degrees of Separation … in January

Books and reading

‘On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.

Six Degrees of Separation Kate W

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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