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.
Wintering by Katherine May is this month’s Starter-for-Six book. It also happens to be a book which I included in my first ever contribution to Six Degrees of Separation, back in August 2020. Here’s what I said then: ‘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.’
Let’s find another book where winter is star of the show: Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan Slaght. This is an extraordinary book, detailing an extraordinary piece of research. Fish owls are the largest owls on the planet, and they’re endangered, as much as anything by loss of habitat. One of the areas they frequent is the extreme eastern edge of Russia, and it’s here that PhD student from Minnesota, Jonathan Slaght conducts his research, winter after frozen winter, with a changing team of Russian characters with whom he shares cramped cars, freezing tents and the hospitality of forest-dwelling loners. They battle the dangers and difficulties of non-existent roads, early spring melts, and the necessity of spending evenings drinking 95% ethanol – refusing to join in is not an option. So this is a good yarn. But underneath is serious, difficult research, pinning down sites where this elusive owl lives, and eventually trapping specimens to place recorders on them: all of that can and does go wrong. He’s done a good job of detailing the conditions these elusive birds require in order to survive, and now the next stage of encouraging a conservation strategy goes on. This non-scientist was entirely fascinated.
We’ll stay in Russia now. Russia and Ukraine – I read Kate Quinn‘s The Diamond Eye before the current war. It’s a book which begins when Hitler was invading Russia and Ukraine. Mila Pavlichenko, bookish student, and a young mother already estranged from her husband volunteers for the Army, and becomes a deadly sniper: though because she’s a woman, it takes a while for her special skills to be recognised. Quinn paints a graphic picture of the battlefields that are Pavichenko’s new home: the blood and wounds, danger and downright exhaustion are unremitting, day after day. It’s here that profound relationships are forged with colleagues. At a time when she’s exhausted and devastated by loss she’s sent as a delegate on a goodwill mission appealing for support, to America. She makes an unlikely but real friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. And finds that in the war-free land of plenty that is America, there’s even more danger from foes old and new than there was on the battlefield. A thrilling tale, based on the real life that was Mila Pavlichenko’s: mother, student and soldier who played her part in changing the face of modern history.
A strong woman in time of conflict. That’s Annie Garthwaite‘s Cecily. Read this book, and you will enter into a different world. A fifteenth century world. One in which bloodline counts. One in which it matters what alliances you make, which families you choose to link with yours as you marry off your sons and daughters. You will enter the world inhabited by Cecily, wife of Richard Duke of York. Garthwaite’s book will dispel any notion you might have had that high-born women’s lot was to spend the day at their needlework. On the contrary, women like Cecily were politically engaged, working with their husbands to secure status and power, both for themselves and their children. Women like Cecily inevitably bore many children: twelve in her case, of whom five died in infancy, while husbands inevitably went off in battle, changing alliances and allegiances as the political wind changed. This absorbing book, given immediacy by its use of the present tense shows us Cecily fiercely promoting her family’s interests, while she brings child after child into the world. We are present in 15th Century England.
More conflict in Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This is a richly evocative book telling the story of the creation, rise and fall of Biafra, through the eyes of three separate yet connected groups of people. There’s Ugwu, from a traditional village, houseboy to Odenigbo, an Igbo academic. There are Olanna, Odenigbo’s partner and her twin sister Kainene, and her English partner Richard. Their structured lives fall apart as Nigeria itself does, as Biafra emerges as a nation and civil war threatens to destroy them. I’m ashamed at how little I knew of this conflict, remembering it only because of the famine caused by war. Now, an interplay of characters dealing with loyalties, often conflicting, moral responsibility, colonialism and its aftermath brings this piece of history vividly to life, the more so because the author’s family lived through this devastating time. A marvellous and involving read.
Back to conflict in Ancient Greece in Madeline Miller‘s Achilles. I’ve loved the Greek myths since my childhood, so this take on the Iliad was for me a fresh and vibrant re-imagining of the story. I was slightly disbelieving of the strength of the bond between Patroclus and Achilles portrayed by Miller – they were such very different characters – but on the other hand, appreciated the rounding out of these two individuals into fallible human beings. The legendary Achilles is something of a rock star, and he knows it, in the tale as told by Homer. Here, he’s simply a flawed human being who happens to be an excellent warrior. The book brought the ancient conflict to life, and will send me back to the Iliad to read it again.
My last book deals not with war, but with its aftermath: Harvest by Georgina Harding. This is a carefully painted picture of a family, a family accommodating to a tragedy which occurred some twenty years before – the brutal death of the father, a man who had clearly been deeply affected by WWII, though he never speaks of it. It’s set during the 1970s on the family farm in Norfolk, and its landscape and mores are built up, layering scenes from the present with scenes from the past. Younger son Jonathan, who’s been living for a couple of years in Japan invites his Japanese girlfriend Kumiko for an extended stay. She gets on well with his mother Claire, and is a bright and colourful presence. But somehow, her being there opens cracks. Untold secrets are slowly exposed, and are as out of the family’s control as is the harvest, dependent as it is entirely on the vagaries of the weather. This is a compassionate and sympathetic book, and examines the human heart and its dark and unwilling-to-be-exposed corners. It’s also the last in a trilogy. I was unaware of this as I started to read. And I don’t believe it mattered for my understanding of the story. But I’m now keen to read the two preceding volumes: The Gun Room & The Land of the Living.
I got from winter to Russia to war and more war. It’s all a bit of a stretch. But this time I can wholeheartedly recommend every book I mention, so I make no apologies.