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