#SixDegrees April 2019: From How to Be Both

I’m still on a bit of a blogging hiatus, but I could not resist joining in this month’s Six Degrees of Separation a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked from one book to the next to form a total of six. The reason why I particularly wanted to take part this month is because Ali Smith’s How to Be Both is the starting point and it’s a book that I’ve been really curious about (I like outrageously experimental ideas) but somehow still haven’t read.

I have read one other book that relies on a dual narrative, however, and is very experimental (although not in the publishing format) and that is Michèle Roberts’ Flesh and Blood, which makes the reader work to piece together the two halves of the story of a broken relationship between mother and child, like doing up a zip.

From here it’s just a small step to Michèle Roberts’ memoirs Paper Houses, which I greatly enjoyed, and not just because I had the good fortune to meet the author and attend one of her workshops. This has everything that I ever dreamt of in my teens: living, working and loving in London in the 1970s, being part of the Spare Rib collective, marching and protesting, being an ardent feminist and also a lover of men, a thoughtful, introverted writer and also a sociable global nomad.

Political protests form the link to my next book. One that I’ve not read but am very interested in, if only I could find it in a library: The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton, set in Cairo in 2011. The government is crumbling; the people are in open revolt; and two members of the political underground, Mariam and Khalil, are determined to change the world as the meaning of revolution evolves in front of them.

Another revolution, another city links to my next choice: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, which was the blight of my Year 7 English. It wasn’t so much the story itself that annoyed me but having to analyse it to death in a class that couldn’t care less about the whole matter.

One book that we also had to read at school in Year 8 or 9 was The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, which definitely appealed more to all of us. A science fiction/horror classic. Now that I look back on the reading choices at our English school (Lord of the Flies was another), I can see that they were quite conservative and very UK-centred, although we were supposedly an international school.

My final choice, however, is a bit more international and was the book we read in our French class: Vipère au poing, that ‘cheery’ family drama by Hervé Bazin. Good choice from our French teacher, because it’s a vivid, shocking, often funny book of teenage rebellion. The evil mother Folcoche made such a strong impression on me that I’ve never quite forgotten her or the book.

So my literary association journey this month was mainly based around London and Paris, Britain and France, with a stopover in Cairo. Also, a predominance of the colours red and green in terms of covers. Where will your literary chain take you?



30 thoughts on “#SixDegrees April 2019: From How to Be Both”

  1. I wasn’t keen on A Tale of Two Cities, either, but I still remember two of the lines which are emininently quotable: the opening ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ and ‘It is a far far better thing that I do, than I have ever done’. so something stuck.

    1. Did you have to read it at school too? Maybe it was the National Curriculum back in our day and although the Vienna International School was ostensibly international and doing the International Baccalaureate etc., it had morphed into this from the English School just a few years previously.

      1. No, I read it for *pleasure*! My A Level Dickens was Bleak House which I came to appeciate more later. Your literature curriculum does sound English rather than international.

        1. This was for Year 7-9, so before we even did GCSEs! I never got to do A Levels, but the English literature I studied for my university entrance exams (this was in Romania) included Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Miller, Walt Whitman, Keats, Bleak House, Huckleberry Finn, Hemingway, Henry James, Conrad’s Typhoon and The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. So slightly more diverse, and I rather liked all of them.

        2. That’s quite young to have a full length Dickens thrown at you. Not much in the way of cheeriness either. Such an extensive reading list. I’m glad you enjoyed them.

  2. I did A Tale of Two Cities in school, too. I found I liked it much better later as an older reader. I suppose that happens with a lot of books… At any rate, a clever chain as always, Marina Sofia. And a bit globe-trotting, too, which adds to its appeal.

  3. I read A Tale of Two Cities a few years ago and loved it – it’s actually my favourite Dickens novel, but I think I’m probably in the minority there! I enjoyed The Day of the Triffids too, though not as much as some of John Wyndham’s other books.

    1. My boys read an abridged version of it and really liked it when they were 8 or so, and I’m actually quite fascinated by books about revolutions, so I can only think that it was the atmosphere in class that put me off it.

    1. Well, we were 13-14 year olds with only 2-3 years of French and we coped with it (albeit with the teacher helping us out in class a bit), so yes, I think it’s an ideal book for learners of French. I also find Simenon great for reading in the original: crystal clear and uncomplicated.

    1. I came across the book when moving and realised that I probably haven’t read Bazin since I was in my teens, so yes, a bit of nostalgia there for me too. And I do recommend Flesh and Blood – Michele Roberts, by the way, is half-French and I really think it shows in her style.

  4. As always I enjoyed reading your chain!

    I read A Tale of Two Cities at school too and despite the dreary analysis business I enjoyed it. I re-read it a few years ago and loved it. Lord of the Flies was another one we read for school – I wasn’t so keen on that one. I’ve read two of Michèle Roberts’ books – but not the ones in your chain – and The Day of the Triffids (not at school) and enjoyed those books too.

  5. I had to read A Tale of Two Cities in school, but I was older than you were when you read it. It was “meh,” to me. I wasn’t thrilled with it. Paper Houses sounds good.
    When you write your book about a revoluiton, is it possible that not everyone end up dead or in jail? The Arab Spring was wonderful, but the repression afterwards in Egypt and other countries, was awful. I actually would like the people to succeed, even in fiction.

  6. Yes, you did have to read quite a few “old, dead, white guys” as some of my young friends would say. I’m glad British fiction is written by a much more diverse group of writers these days. There is always backsliding but when I look at book prize nomination lists, I see changes going on. I like to see Zadie Smith, Kid de Waal, and Exit West, Home Fires, Americanah and so many more books from outside the Empire and the U.S.

    1. Yes, it is rather male-dominated, isn’t it? To be honest, I was just happy that there were some readable books on that list, since it could have been just Communist texts (this was during the Communist period in Romania). The German texts I had to study for the university entrance exam were much more skewed towards East Germany, of course.

  7. Did your courses read books by the old, dead, Russian white guys? I’m curious about that.
    Anyway, I enjoy now reading book nomination lists for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Man Booker Prize, Irish Library Prize, etc. that represent so much more diversity among writers. It’s so long overdue.

    1. Yes, of course it did, but not as much as my parents had to in the 1950s and 60s. From 1968 onwards, when Romania was the only East Bloc country to oppose the Soviet quelling of the Prague Spring, Ceausescu was proud to be considered the ‘rebel’ of Eastern Europe. Of course, he was a terrible dictator in his own right, but it did at least mean that we didn’t have to swallow too much Soviet propaganda. It also meant that perestroika didn’t touch us immediately – in fact, the 1980s (which I do remember clearly) was the worst decade.

  8. I meant the old Russian writers like Tolstoy, Chekhov, etc. Also, when you say the 1980s were the worst do you mean the most repressive or the worst economically? There are so many discussions about that period in Eastern Europe, but I admit to not knowing much about Romania, except what I could read in the NY Times, which was not much or if it told anything, it was not about how average working families lived. I don’t know. What I know I’ve mostly read here.

    1. The 1980s were the worst economically and in terms of repression – well, I suppose the late 1940s/ early 1950s until the death of Stalin were worse, but even my parents were too young to remember that properly. And no, surprisingly, we didn’t read the Russian classics much. I mean, they were all translated, but we never looked at them at school. There was a very anti-Russian sentiment in our country at the time.

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