Six Degrees of Separation

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