Six Degrees of Separation: from the Kelly Gang to Harriet Harman

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

I fully intended to read the book beginning this month’s chain, Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang.  It had been sitting unread on my shelves for years.  It still is.  Oh dear. I gather it’s an exploration of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly and his gang as they attempt to evade authorities during the 1870s.

So for my first link, I’ll stay in Australia, in a similar period of history:  Hannah Kent’s Devotion.  It started so well – Hannah Kent can write.  A simple, isolated Lutheran community in Prussia is the setting, and the plan for it to move wholesale to Australia in a six month voyage is mooted and executed during the first half of the book. This early part of the story also details the deep friendship developing between the narrator Hanne, and Thea, a relative newcomer to the village. So far so good, so evocative and well told. In the second half, the book relies on magical realism, and I’ll avoid spoilers, and simply say – it wasn’t for me.

Migrants looking for a better life? A very different story is told in Patricia Engel’s Infinite Country. This story is about one family’s struggle as illegal immigrants from Colombia to America. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a web of different stories, different experiences, as the family struggles with their unsatisfactory status, aiming to secure jobs, accommodation, peace of mind, It’s evocatively told, painting a picture of the discomfort and deprivation that accompanies this family, whether in urban-warfare torn Colombia, or at the margins of American society. A damning indictment of the way in which migrants, more or less wherever they end up, are often treated.

Sadly, the life of a migrant is frequently one of poverty.  Life sentences, by Billy O’Callaghan, details three such impoverished lives. This is an involving, compassionate and evocative story set in Ireland at various points in the twentieth century. It’s the story of Nancy, born into extreme poverty: her son Jer, born in the workhouse, and Nellie, his daughter, also raised in straitened circumstances. It tells of Nancy, who fell in love with a man who avoided his responsibilities when she fell pregnant – twice – by him. Well, she was the one who got pregnant, wasn’t she? Jer was a soldier who found civilian life more difficult than his war-time experiences, while Nellie had to cope with the death of her first-born. There IS a lot of death in this book . This book piercingly shows what unenviable choices real poverty thrusts upon those who survive it. And yet this book is lyrical, tender, and immersive, conjuring up lives and times none of us would wish to share.

Sue Gee’s Earth and Heaven also details the life of a family battling not the extreme poverty of O’Callaghan;s book, but severe money problems all the same.  This is a book which will stay with me. Walter Cox, brought up in Kent in the early years of the 20the century, is – against the odds – a painter. We follow him from his home in Kent to the Slade School of Art and back to Kent with new wife Sarah, a wood engraver, and their friend, sculptor Euan as they struggle to make names for themselves. This beautifully observed book gravely details their lives, loves, losses and longings in a slow-moving story which beautifully conjures up the lives and landscape of the main protagonists. A book to savour.

I’m going to slam straight into a contrasting world where money shortages are really not a problem.  Read this book, and you will enter a privileged 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. Annie Garthwaite‘s book will dispel any notion you might have had that a high-born woman’s lot was to spend the day at her 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.

From one woman with her finger on the pulse of power to another: the autobiography of Harriet Harman MP:  A Woman’s Work.  This is a compelling account of the women’s movement, of life in parliament over the last 40 years, and of Harriet Harman’s struggle to use her role as MP to change the lives of women and families: in many ways successfully while her party was in power, but frustratingly and impotently slowly when they were not. Harriet Harman kept no diaries, so this book is free of obsessive day-to-day minutiae. But it’s a lively and compelling account of a woman struggling to prosper professionally, and to change the lives of women in that most macho of environments, the House of Commons. Even if you don’t share her political views, read this book for an overview of social reform campaigning over the last half century. You may even find yourself grateful to her, and to women like her, for taking on the battles she has fought and often won.

We’ve visited three continents and four different centuries, and explored both extreme poverty and great wealth. I wonder where your chain would take you?

This post is scheduled to appear today, but, away from home just now, I will neither respond to your comments, nor read everyone’s chains. But I will – before too long.

Six Degrees of Separation from Armfield to Banville

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 have only just succeeded in borrowing Julia Armfield’s Our Wives under the Sea from the library, so I’ve barely started reading it. But this seems to be a summary to work with:  It’s a story of falling in love, loss, grief, and what life there is in the deep deep sea.

Where to start then?

Perhaps with Donal Ryan’s Strange Flowers. This is a tender, lyrical novel, largely based in a rural Ireland, whose modest, gentle landscape encompasses the entire book. At the heart of the novel is Paddy, postman and herdsman, his wife Kit, and their daughter Molly who as the book begins, has disappeared – just gone off early one morning, suitcase in hand. I can mention nothing more of the plot without giving too much away. Yet this is a novel full of secrets, many of which reveal themselves as the novel draws to a close. We meet the characters in this book at a distance, and they retain their privacy, may not always be rounded out. But it scarcely matters. This is an intriguing, poetic book which fully absorbed me.

Thinking of how rural Ireland is almost a character in the book put me in mind of Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands.  This is a marvellous moment of armchair travelling. Schalansky was brought up in East Berlin, at the time of The Wall, where poring over the atlas provided her only means of distant travel. Beautifully mapped, her book takes us to fifty of the smallest and most remote islands in the world. Some are inhabited, some are the domain of academics visiting for months ar a time, some are uninhabited. All have a story to tell. It might be their geology, or a tale of how they were discovered. Or folklore, or a moment or two of history. This book will transport you into regions you never knew about, and like Schalansky, will never visit … except in your mind.

Some of these islands feature in Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland: How Imperialism has shaped Modern Britain.This book is essential reading – for Brits at least. Sanghera presents a wealth of material, examining the history of the British Empire and how it was acquired. Many of us were brought up to regard the Empire and what Britain brought to the countries it had dominion over as something of a triumph, something which all subjects should be grateful for. We were brought up glossing over what slavery means to all involved, whether as slave-owner or slave. The Windrush generation, racism, the continuing legacy of our attitudes to Empire all form part of Sanghera’s narrative. This book is carefully researched, and attempts to be fair. It gives much to think about, and much material to form the basis for thoughtful on-going discussion.  Tough stuff, but also highly readable.

Let’s find a book set – at least partly – in one of those Commonwealth – formerly Empire – countries. The Last Hunt, by Deon Meyer. This is the first book I’ve read by Meyer, and I suspect it won’t be the last. Two parallel stories – the first involving South African cops Benny Griessel and Vaughn Cupido, given the thankless task of solving a cold case: the second introducing Daniel Darret, an African who after a chequered life has settled in Bordeaux. It’s only at the end these apparently unrelated threads come together. The characters, and the areas and worlds they frequent are well-painted and vivid, and the story, involving corruption in high places seems unsettlingly topical. Only the last chapter of all failed to convince me: and while this was disappointing, it didn’t stop me from feeling I’d had an involving and exciting journey along with the protagonists.

My next book isn’t really a crime story.  Or is it?  You’ll have to read Darke Matter: A Novel, by Rick Gekoski for yourself to find out. James Darke, retired schoolmaster and professional curmudgeon, narrates his story. His much-loved wife Suzy has recently died, wracked by pain in her last months. He lives alone, disapproving of everybody and everything, even his daughter and her husband – though he makes an exception for his grandson Rudy. His distress at watching his wife die encourages him to help her on her way to death through overdosing her, as he admits to his horrified daughter, though she comes to understand and agree.   No spoilers alert here, though you might well wish to refresh your knowledge of Gulliver’s Travels, a book Darke re-fashions for his grandson’s entertainment. A perceptive, witty and moving evocation of love, grief, loss, and the fall-out from assisted dying.

Another whodunnit, which, being set in Ireland, links back to the first book in my chain, though not to this month’s starter.  Snow by John Banville. This paints a richly evocative picture of 1950s Co. Wexford in Ireland. A miserably cold snowy winter; a country house peopled with a decaying family of Protestant gentry; a pub-come-shop; a cast of splendidly eccentric characters. This is Cluedo brought to life. Though so much richer. Here is a picture of a narrow and barren society, subservient to the authority of the Catholic church, and with strong memories of their not-so-distant battle for independence. The motives for the murder we learn about on the first page are more important than finding out who committed it. A rewarding read, being a whydunnit rather than a whodunnit.

Next month, the chain will begin with Peter Carey‘s True History of the Kelly Gang, a book which has unaccountably sat unread on my shelves for ages. Its moment has come!

Six Degrees of Separation in March: from The End of the Affair to The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

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 struggled to construct my chain this month, but … here goes.

We start with The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene, A book about a man, a woman, God, and several other secondary characters. Our hero, Bendrix finds it easy to get in touch with hatred and bitterness, and it’s quite hard to reconcile this with the love he feels for Sarah, the woman he had an intense affair with over several years, while maintaining friendly relationship with her civil servant husband. Apart from Sarah’s relationship with God, much of the reason for the End of this Affair comes down to poor communication.

Which leads to my first link: Slaughter, by Rosanna Hildyard. The three stories which make up this slim volume are set in the northern Yorkshire Pennines. Here, life is bleak, tough. Characters who inhabit such a landscape are tough too, and get through life by doing, by surviving. Communication, one with another, is not their strong suit. In the first, set at the time of Foot and Mouth Disease, a young townie tries to get to grips with her dyed-in-the-wool country farmer partner, wondering the while if the epidemic is a punishment for farming in the first place. Outside are the dogs features another mismatched couple. If only they could communicate! But they can’t. Not even the dog can help. The final story, Cull yaw is shocking, involving a would-be-ethical farmer and his vegetarian partner. This couple too communicate in silences, and attack their difficulties with desperation. This is not a comfortable read – especially in this time of Covid. It illustrates well the possible consequences of failing to talk meaningfully. It paints a powerfully bleak picture of the landscape and surroundings in this part of England, whilst pointing up its raw beauty too. This is, I think, a book which will stay with me. 

A different kind of mis-communication comes next, where the expectations of the young people who journeyed from the Caribbean on the Windrush in 1948 to begin a new life in the Promised Land come up against the blank uncomprehending prejudices of the existing population. This Lovely City, by Louise Hare is above all the story of 19 year old Lawrie, and Evie, his young mixed race neighbour. It’s a story of racism, both casual and unthinking, and hate-fuelled. It’s a crime mystery too. It refers to many issues connected with the attitudes of the time towards ‘coloureds’ and women, but despite this it’s in many ways an easy, engaging read. I found the ending just a little too neat and this was disappointing, but Hare has written an involving book and I’ll be glad to read anything she writes in future.

Blonde Roots, by Bernadine Evaristo turns this world 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 truble (sic) 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 (sic) women to achieve the curly Aphro (sic) 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.

A different kind of underdog – a man with dwarfism – features in The Smallest Man, by Francis Quinn. This story is based on – though is in no sense a biography of – Jeffrey Hudson, dwarf in the court of Charles 1. This is a charming tale, telling the rags-to-riches story of Nat Davy, who avoids being sold as a fairground attraction when his father, who wants rid of him, gets a better offer. Intelligent, witty and a quick thinker, Nat becomes the unhappy queen’s confidante. But Stuart England is a hotbed of political and religious discontent, and Nat is soon at the heart of the action, and doesn’t always make the best choices. An enjoyable, immersive and-despite the weighty matters of the period – ultimately quite a light and easy to read book. An impressive debut from Frances Quinn.


From one curiosity – a dwarf- to another – a monkey. The Hartlepool Monkey, by Sean Longley. I’m a bit in two minds about this book. Largely, I enjoyed this retelling of the true story of the monkey who was hanged as a spy in Hartlepool during the Napoleonic Wars. The book had three narrators: the doctor who ‘adopted’ the monkey; the courtesan whom the doctor loved; and Warren, the one guinea brief who defended Jacques the monkey in court. It was full of charming and idiosyncratic detail. But this led to the book being longer than perhaps was justified. The monkey also learnt to talk, and this improbable detail let the story down for me, quite considerably. Nevertheless, this was an enjoyable and readable book.

My next and last link is a bit of a stretch. It includes not one, but two animals in its title, but no further connection exists. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, by Joanna Cannon has been widely feted, but not by me. It took me at least 250 pages to begin to become remotely interested in the lives of the characters who inhabited The Avenue in that sweltering summer of 1976: one I remember well, as I was pregnant with my first child, and for once in my life didn’t relish the heat. I had difficulty remembering which character was which and I didn’t believe in the young heroines, Grace and Tilly, who seemed remarkably unworldly. I was an extremely unworldly 10 year old once, but even I wasn’t as credulous as them . Most of all, I resented Cannon’s polished little metaphors and similes. They were clever, but Cannon all but put them in italics to make sure we noticed them. The plot seemed pointless. Some parts stretched credulity. For example, virtually the entire neighbourhood turns out to look at some rust-stained drainpipe that apparently looks like Jesus. Really?

And how that links back to Graham Greene’s book is anybody’s guess.

Next month’s starter is Julia Armfield’s Our Wives Under the Sea, which is jostling for a place on the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.

Six Degrees of Separation: from No One is Talking About This to The Liar’s Dictionary

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 didn’t get on with this month’s starting book for the chain: No One is Talking About This, by Patricia Lockwood.  In fact I got nowhere near finishing it, so my chain will go off immediately at a wrong tangent, as I understand the second half is very different from the first.  I thought one reason I failed to engage with this book is that its protagonist is an extreme consumer of social media.  And I don’t ‘do’ social media.

I decided, therefore that I would choose a hero who hasn’t even heard of social media, Hilary Byrd, of Carys DaviesMission House. Byrd, a slightly washed out, failed Englishman of middle years, is in India trying to escape from his pale and disappointing life. He finds himself in a town which is clearly Ooty, that haven for the English in Time of Empire. And it’s here that he meets The Padre, who offers him accommodation: and Jamshed, who becomes his driver. And Priscilla, the Padre’s adopted daughter. And Ravi, would be Country and Western singer, Jamshed’s nephew. This is the story of how their lives – all disappointing lives in many ways – come to intertwine. Beautifully written in short, sometimes apparently unrelated chapters, this is a book which had me immersed in the life and times of every character. 

Byrd is not exactly a mainstream character.  Neither is Charlie Gilmour, who tells his own story in Featherhood.  This is an astonishingly readable book, which combines a tale of caring and raising a magpie fallen from its nest with a parallel account of Gilmour’s absent father. He too once raised a corvid, a jackdaw, but he was a far less reliable and responsible carer for his son – and several other children whom he fathered, while taking on few of the responsibilities of fatherhood. Charlie’s father, Heathcote suffered debilitating mental breakdowns and it becomes apparent to Charlie himself that he risks following the same trajectory: his late adolescence and early adulthood is peppered with difficulties which involve a spell in prison. This potentially weighty tale is leavened by accounts of the joy and mayhem which Benzene the magpie introduces to the lives of his whole family. As Charlie himself points out, Do Not Try This at Home. But his having done so has produced a delight of a book with a serious undertone.

The next book is fiction, told as autobiography, and it’s another chronicle of a life in crisis.  Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story.  This is not a bed time story. Instead, it is a slow burn, of the kind the French seem so good at. Written in the first person, the narrator is a successful and respected author. She’s suffering from burnout, and this is the moment in which she makes a new friend – a friend who makes herself indispensable: a friend who begins to make her doubt herself: a friend who takes away any kind of belief in herself, slowly, skilfully and insidiously. It’s a deliberately uncomfortable read, and maybe perhaps just a little too long. On balance though, it was tautly constructed and I’ll read more from Delphine de Vigan.

We’ll stay in France, and meet a character who has difficulties of a completely different kind.  It feels like an autobiography, and I sense that in large part, it may be.  Fear, by Gabriel Chevallier.  Over the years, I’ve read a lot of accounts of the common soldiers’ lot in WWI, and been both horrified and angry at the suffering and the waste endured. But this novel of French poilu Jean Dartemond is perhaps the most shocking I have read, and would have seemed especially so when it was published in 1930, when memories of those surviving, and their relatives, were still relatively fresh. No wonder publication was suspended during WWII. The day to day suffering, boredom and indignities, the all-too frequent horrors of witnessing disembowelled bodies, skin, bloated cadavers are described with a freshness that makes the horror very present. Towards the end, he describes how, when officers weren’t around, some German and French troops made tentative sallies of friendship across the divide, as they recognised how much more they had in common with each other than with their commanding officers, often remote and somewhat protected. This book, as so many others of its kind, is a true indictment of the horror and futility of war.  

From WWII  to the Cold War and its aftermath.  The Spy and the Traitor by Ben MacIntyre. This is a thoroughly gripping and shocking book: the story of Oleg Gordievsky, KGB agent turned British spy. The picture painted of Russian society in pre-Gorbachev days, and of the day to day life of a spy, whose life must necessarily be cloaked in such secrecy that not even those you love the most – your wife, your parents – can in any way be privy to your true beliefs and loyalties is a deeply unsettling one. This is a fine and edge-of-seat story. Only it’s not a story. The life of a spy, the machinations of MI6 and the KGB among others, the story of the Cold War and the period after are all true, all recent history, and Ben MacIntyre explains it all well, and places it all in context. I was exhausted after finishing this book. But greatly illuminated by what I’d learnt too.

The life of a spy is, of necessity, the life of a liar.  So let’s come full circle, and mention the Liar’s Dictionary by Eley  Williams.  Dictionaries are scarcely social media, but even now, they enjoy a long reach.  I thought this book would be a sure-fire hit with me, as I’m an inveterate dictionary bowser. I tried this book once, and abandoned it after twenty pages. I tried it again, and grudgingly admired Williams’ pure enjoyment of, and fun with words, but on the whole it left me cold. This is the story of a dictionary, long in the making: and, in alternating chapters, the personal struggles of 19th century Winceworth, and 20th century Mallorie’s and their tussles with mountweazels – fake entries planted in works of reference to identify plagiarists.  For a fuller account and more positive review, read here.

The book to start next month’s chain will be Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. I haven’t read that in years. I’d better find a copy.

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 December

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’s chain began with Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, which I’m so glad to have read. Bookish Beck has written a wonderful review of it, which I can’t improve on. Read it here.

Here is a man, Ethan Frome, whose life has not gone according to plan. Javier Cercas, in Lord of All the Dead tells us about another such life, that of Manuel Mena. If you’re a left-leaning writer it’s a bit of an embarrassment to discover, as Javier Cercas did, that your ancestor died fighting for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. And yet, unless he follows the story through soon, he realises that the few remaining people who knew Manuel Mena would be dead. And he uncovers a history in which a boy from a backward and poor village in Extremadura, through hard work and determination seems ready to reinvent himself and prosper because of his brains and his schooling. Then he decides to fight for Franco. Cercas discovers, in this account of a brutal civil war that all is not as black and white as it at first appeared, that Mena isn’t necessarily someone for whom he can continue to feel moral superiority. An uncomfortable and thought-provoking read.

Spanish Republican POW’s interned in Le Vernet, France. You can read about our visit here

From one war to another. Not combat this time, but life as a POW in WWII. Midge Gillies‘s Barbed Wire University: the Real Lives of Prisoners of War in the Second World War. This was a fascinating read, and Gillies’ own father was a POW, so she’s able to describe his own experiences too. This is an account of the lives of the prisoners, mainly from Germany, Italy and the Far East, and from the officer classes. These men had more leisure time (aka stretches of boredom, without the resources in some cases to do much to relieve it) and therefore left more in the ways of letters and diaries than those working POWs in the ranks. The horrifying differences between the experiences of those incarcerated in Europe, compared with their fellow combatants in the Far East is fully explored. This is a lively account, relying on the diaries, reminiscences and letters of those who spent their war years largely locked up. The skills the men developed which informed their – often highly successful – later careers are quite astonishing in their breadth and depth. The book rightly concentrates on the humdrum daily life of the majority. This is not the book in which to find accounts of daring escapes or would-be escapes. I was left impressed by the resilience, ingenuity and dogged persistence of the POWs whose war time years must have been in different ways as difficult as that of many combatants.

The POWs ‘experiences were not those of the inmates of Auschwitz, where this image comes from. but the watch towers, the fencing would be familiar.

From one type of prison to another: a fictional women’s prison, allegedly situated some miles from my home in Ripon. A Murder Inside, by Frances Brody. We meet a committed new governor, a body in the grounds, a missing prisoner, and a cast obviously destined to appear again in subsequent books in the series..  An enjoyable enough read, but this doesn’t come high on my list of must-reads.

The countryside between Harrogate and Ripon, where this story is located.

A virtual prison this time: that of loneliness. Gail Honneyman‘s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I’m always wary of much-hyped books, and in this case, my wariness wasn’t misplaced. Socially awkward Eleanor is bright, in a job that demands too little of her, and she is totally without friends. Her story, and her back-story slowly come to light. And things start to get better for her, thanks to an unlikely friendship which precipitates a chain of events, such that she is in danger of living happily ever after by the end of the book. I didn’t believe in her, not really. I don’t believe she could have grown up in the circumstances life threw at her quite so unaware of the 21st century. Still, I read it easily enough, and it wasn’t a bad story. Read it on a train journey, maybe.

Office life for Eleanor? (Bernard Hermant, Unsplash)

And here’s another book in a similar vein. A Man called Ove by Frederik Backman. I took against this book in the first few pages. It was obvious that the story line was going to be ‘curmudgeonly old man, widely disliked, is revealed to have a heart of gold, and after about 250 pages, everyone lives happily ever after’. This is exactly what happened. I turned the pages readily enough, but was unconvinced by almost everyone but the cat. I didn’t believe in his friendly new neighbour, or his wife, or another neighbour, Rune. But most of all, I didn’t believe that Ove would turn from irritable and irritating to everyone’s favourite grandfather in the space of about three weeks. Read this one on the train too.

Ove? (GLady, Pixabay)

My last book links not so much to Ove, as to Ethan: but all three books have male heroes. The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer. Simon Scharma observes, on the cover of the edition I read ‘You don’t so much read it as live it’. It’s true. This is an immersive story, mainly set between about 1937 and 1945, about a Hungarian Jew, Andras, who spends time in Paris as a young architecture student, and meets the slightly older Hungarian widow who will become the love of his life. The story follows him as he returns home, and as Hungary becomes ever more implicated in the war. The story of the Jewish population in Hungary isn’t well known in the UK. It’s clear that while they were not on the whole sent to concentration camps, their conditions in the Labour Corps of the army – all that was open to Jewish men – were no better. I couldn’t leave this book till I had finished it. It’s well written, and beautifully researched, though Orringer wears her learning lightly. I’ll read more of her work.

Next month, our chain-beginner is another American writer, Amor Towles: Rules of Civility. I know neither the book, nor the author. Another discovery, courtesy of Six Degrees.

Six Degrees of Separation … in November

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 haven’t read What are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez, so I’ll rely on Kimbofo’s summary in her blog post on this book: ‘This is a story about stories — the stories we hear, the stories we write, the stories we tell ourselves… It’s about truth and fiction, confronting our fears, searching for hope to sustain us and caring for others. Most importantly, it’s about life and death, and asks pertinent questions about what makes a good life — and what makes a good death.’ 

My link to this is Alice Zeniter‘s The Art of Losing, a story told through the eyes of Naïma, a third generation French-Algerian. I was engaged in this book from start to finish. It’s the 70 year story of a family, and begins in a village in Algeria, where Ali has made good and become a figure of some importance in his family and community. The Algerian War of Independence changes all that, and forced to flee to France, they become harkis (French Algerians), despised alike by the French whom they live among and Algerians who remained in the home country. A life of camps and sub-standard accommodation and work awaits them. It falls to university-educated Naïma, Ali’s granddaughter, finally to visit Algeria again and make some sense of what she finds. This is a story about colonisation, immigration, and how to carry on in the face of the loss of your country and cultural identity, and is both a powerful history lesson and a meditation on the difficult questions posed by the cultural upheaval of being forced to leave your home country.

This leads me to Doria, a French-Moroccan teenager living with her mum in one of the soulless housing projects that encircle Paris, and whose story is told by Faïza Guène in Kiffe Kiffe Demain. We were living in France when I read this – oh, maybe ten or more years ago. But it’s stayed with me as a touching, funny and furious story of a sparky young woman prepared to make a go of things when her education, her family circumstances, her address, and a dose of casual racism stacks everything against her.

Another story of an immigrant, and like The Art of Losing, based on fact. The Fortune Men, by Nadifa Mohamed is a re-imagining of the life of a Somali seaman, Mahmood Mattan, wrongfully convicted of the murder of a Cardiff shopkeeper, Violet Volacki. At first the book swings between telling Mattan’s story and that of the victim, and her family. As the story unfold, Mahmood blossoms as a character. He’s a chancer, a thief, an adventurer, a lover and a doting father of three little boys. But he’s not a murderer. He’s the victim of racism, both from different elements of the multi-ethnic community in Cardiff where he then lived, and institutional racism at the hands of the Police, false testimony, and fabricated evidence. The most involving part of the narrative describes Mattan’s incarceration, when he evolves and shape-shifts as a character: tough, vulnerable, a risk taker, a believer in British justice. A moving, nuanced and compassionate re-imagining.

The same period of history, but we’re moving to London for Frances Spufford‘s Light Perpetual. I liked this book. I had high expectations, having thoroughly enjoyed Golden Hill and Red Plenty, and while this didn’t quite measure up, reading this book was time well spent. Several children died in South London during WWII when a Woolworth store took a direct hit. What if they’d lived? This is what Spufford explores, dropping in on 5 lives at 15 year intervals. The writing is good – that goes without saying. My only reservations are that the five characters he choses live lives which are all late 20th century issue-driven: the woman married to a National Front thug; the music lover who makes good in the 1960’s popular music scene; the sufferer from inner demons, addicted to his prescribed drugs; the Sahf London wide boy, and the print-worker whose career is swallowed away by the computer revolution. Accepting all this, the book is well done and realised and carried me along to its conclusion, a re-working of Psalm 150, which was a staple of my London C of E grammar school days at exactly this period.

Children died in my next choice too. The Green Hollow by Owen Sheers. I was 19 when disaster struck Aberfan, just doing an afternoon shift in the lending library where I worked. No internet then, no social media. It was rare for news items to reach us during the working day. But this did. And it touched us, horrified us even before we understood the full extent of the tragedy, though we didn’t talk about it together. It was too shocking. Owen Sheers put me back in touch with those feelings. He paints a scene of ordinary families getting ready for the day, ordinary children chattering their way to school, an ordinary teacher taking the register. A series of letters explain why the Coal Board is taking no action about the slag heaps, despite the concerns of the council. And then …. a rumble, a roar develops. That is all. Then we switch immediately to the rescue. To the young medical student who finds himself unwittingly part of the rescue operation, to the miners, parents, journalists. To the street where every single house has the curtains drawn. Death has touched them. Now the town is different. Life goes on. It has to. Children yearn to appear on ‘Strictly’ while every year commemorating what happened all that time go. Scars exist alongside hope.

Goodness. I can’t leave things here. What can I do to lighten the mood? Well, it’s a bit of a stretch, but I have taken you round Europe and Africa, and maybe we went by ship. Deep Sea and Foreign Going: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Brings You 90% of Everything, by Rose George. Fascinating. The story of container shipping. How it gets from A to B. Why it gets from A to B and under what constraints. What it transports from A to B and then from B to A. How goods got from A to B prior to container shipping… and so on. There was me thinking that I was trying to be green, avoiding air freight where possible. It turns out that container ships are dirty, polluting, can employ crew in less than savoury conditions and for slave-wages, and which expose them, among other things, to piracy. Frankly, it sounds hell. And yet … the camaraderie and the draw of the sea encourages some to come back, contract after contract to a world they love. Beautifully written, absorbing and informative. A book I would never have chosen to read – but that’s what bookish friends are for. Thanks, Penny!

PS. In a recent post, I indicated that I would post a review of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir: Gallows Rock. It got edged out, but I’m sure its moment will come.

PPS. Frank’s Beach Walk Reflections are his thoughts as he enjoys a seaside walk. Today, he’s thinking about red, and he’s used some of my photos, as well as those of three fellow-bloggers. You might like to take a look.

Six Degrees of Separation in October

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

The Lottery, a short story by Shirley Jackson begins our chain this month. If you haven’t read it yet, you can find it here. If you haven’t read it yet, every single one of my choices will be a Spoiler Alert.

I’ve been accused, perhaps rightly, of making some dark choices for Six Degrees. And my first choice, linked to that short story, involves death, because it is a murder mystery. But I don’t read Donna Leon‘s books because I’m all that interested in the crime perpetrated. I’m more than a little in love with Our Hero, Commissario Brunetti. I’m more than a little in love with the back streets of the city he calls home, Venice: and with his wife Paola, and his adolescent children: the meals that they eat and the family occasions they share. There’s the endlessly clever Signorina Elettra at the Questura too, and a backdrop of Brunetti’s opposition to corruption and back-handers. Against these riches, the murder mystery is just a bit-part in the story. None of Donna Leon’s books disappoint, so let’s take the first one I ever read to stand in for them all: Death at La Fenice.

We’ll stay in Italy to meet Commissario Montalbano. Maybe you know Andrea Camilleri‘s detective from the series on BBC 4? I met him in print some years ago, and he’s older and less handsome than his TV alter ego. But still as personable. He’s keen on a good meal, keen on swimming in the sea that laps the beach near his home, and can be funny as well as insightful. I’ve just finished Game of Mirrors: an intrigue involving his neighbour, a bombed warehouse, and a trail of false clues.

Another detective now, Joe Faraday. He lived, as I did once, in Portsmouth. He’s real enough too. His wife is dead. He has a profoundly deaf adult son, with whom he bonded in his early years of widowerhood by their shared love of birdwatching. Working with gritty crimes involves juggling paperwork and bureaucracy besides solving the conundrum of the offence, and it’s this rounded picture of Faraday’s life that I find so appealing. The first Faraday novel by Graham Hurley that I read was Turnstone. You might like to try it too.

DI Charlie Priest lived and worked in Yorkshire. His creator, Stuart Pawson was my friend and colleague when we both worked as mediators for the Probation Service: sadly he died a few years ago. Priest loved to pound the moors and fells of Yorkshire, as I do. His life involved too much work and too little play , but like the previous two detectives, he’s a rounded and believable individual. I’m choosing The Judas Sheep, because he dedicated this book to me.

Jason Webster is an English writer living in Spain. He’s fairly recently turned his hand to detective fiction, and his hero is Max Cámara. I was interested in A Death in Valencia since this is a city I thought I knew quite well. As ever, it turned out not to be those parts of the city that I’d visited, but a much seamier place, with corruption at the heart of local government a commonplace. Add a murdered paella chef, and even the pope to the mix for another thoroughly readable story.

My last choice isn’t a murder mystery. But deaths occur, and the whole thing, like the short story we began with almost feels like a pact with the devil. Alix Nathan, in The Warlow Experiment tells us the story of gentleman scientist Charles Powyss, who in the eighteenth century sets up an experiment to study the effects on humans of total isolation. Uneducated labourer Warlow is that isolated man. Offered every comfort, decent food, books (he can barely read), all he needs – apart from human company – it all goes horribly, desperately wrong.

I began with a few murder mysteries. And I end with a death or so too. Unnecessary, bleak, as was the death with which our chain began. Next month’s choice promises to be a harrowing one. I’ll have to see whether I’m up to dealing with reading it: Sigrid NunezWhat Are You Going Through.

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.