#6Degrees of Separation July 2020

Book memes come and go, but there’s one that I always find irresistible. So it’s a great pleasure to participate once more in the monthly Six Degrees of Separation, where we all start from the same book and end up in very different places, a reading meme hosted by the lovely Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best

This month we are starting with the highly-recommended What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, which I have on my shelves but which I haven’t read yet. I do know it’s about male friendship and also about art, but is it too obvious to go for those links? Should I try to be cleverer than that?

Clearly not, because, in the end, the link is ‘books that I bought very eagerly and really look forward to reading but because I’m so sure I’ll enjoy them, I just have them sitting on my shelves for far too long.’ Another book that fits into this category is Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, although I will finally get around to it this August for #WomeninTranslation Month.

Tokarczuk’s title is famously taken from a poem by William Blake and so is my next book, a little-known and rather strange volume by Aldous Huxley The Doors of Perception that I found in the rather old-fashioned British Council library in Bucharest (before I was banned from going there anymore). Huxley describes with great honesty and detail his own personal experiment with the hallucinogenic drug mescalin. In a way, it was his response to an increasingly troubled world (not the eve of the Second World War, but the Cold War and the fear that the word would descend into chaos once more) and he was a great believer in seeking a personal route to enlightenment.

Another writer who was fascinated by experimentation with drugs to induce a shamanistic trance was Carlos Castaneda, who was hugely popular in the 1960s-70s with his supposedly ethnographic accounts of his apprenticeship to a Yaqui Indian shaman from North Mexico in the so-called Teachings of Don Juan series. Anthropologists got a bit suspicious about the accuracy of the cultural practices he described and I believe the stories have now been mostly debunked as fiction.

Another anthropologist who wrote vividly and beautifully, but not always extremely truthfully was Claude Levi-Strauss. His Tristes Tropiques describing his own fieldwork in the Amazon remains a masterclass in ethnographic description, and was also the starting point for the structuralist school of anthropology. Above all, however, it is a blend of autobiography, travel literature, fiction, anthropology and social criticism which would perhaps fit better with the novels of today. At the time it was published however in 1955, the Prix Goncourt judges regretfully had to turn it down for the prize because it was considered non-fiction.

I’ll remain in the Amazon rainforest for my next book, which is by Brazilian writer Milton Hatoum and entitled Ashes of the Amazon, although the book itself describes a difficult period in the history of Brazil, while the rebellious but ultimately defeated heroes Lavo and Mundo move from the city of Manaus in the Amazon to Rio and then further afield to Europe.

I will stay in Brazil, but move to Belo Horizonte, the capital of the Minas Gerais region, where in the early 1970s the most famous Milton of Brazil, namely singer/songwriter Milton Nascimento, recorded an album entitled The Corner Club and gave rise to a musical and political community of the same name. Jonathon Grasse is a musician and professor of music who wrote about this movement in his book entitled The Corner Club.

This month I’ve travelled from Poland to Britain to Mexico and Brazil via my six links. Where will your links take you?

21 thoughts on “#6Degrees of Separation July 2020”

  1. What an interesting chain. My partner was a bookseller long before I was and sold what we call in the trade shedloads of Castenada in the ’80s! Also Ouspensky.

    1. Yes, I guess they were the Dan Brown or Fifty Shades of Grey of their time… I only read one of the books (with my anthropology hat on) but it felt far too vivid and self-centred to be factual anthropology.

    1. I’d only ever read Chrome Yellow and Brave New World by him, but this one somehow cropped up. I can’t claim to remember much… it certainly didn’t make me want to start experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs.

  2. Oh, I remember the Carlos Castenada series! I haven’t thought about those books in years. I wonder what you’ll think of that one – certainly not your ‘typical’ (if there is such a thing) story. And thank you for mentioning Milton Nascimento. I love his music, and remember first listening to it when I was in Brazil many years ago. Still think it’s great. And you’ve got a very clever way to link your book choices today.

    1. I enjoyed the (first) Castaneda book as a sort of novel with anthropological tinges, but couldn’t quite take it seriously as anthropology. It was far too self-centred for that. Although there was a big debate when I studied anthropology in the mid 1990s about whether the ‘neutral participant observer’ stance was authentic, and that we should recognise when we are influencing the people we are observing through our very presence, in his case it was really more a journey of self-discovery.

    1. He really was the big name of his day and very influential – I suppose like Paulo Coelho for a later generation. I have read very little of either, so I can’t really comment much.

  3. I’m glad I’m not the only one who buys books that I can’t wait to read and then leaves them sitting on the shelves for ages – or these days download them on my Kindle and then forget about them!! I’d forgotten about Carlos Castaneda’s books – enjoyed them so much years ago.

    What a fascinating post!

    1. Oh, don’t remind me about the Kindle books – I download like a madwoman from Netgalley and then forget to read them (because I do prefer paper copies). It’s a terrible affliction.

  4. Ha! I love your first link – bet you had plenty to choose from! An interesting journey, especially the teaser about you being banned from the British Council library in Bucharest… I’m intrigued…

    1. Don’t expect tales of my scandalous behaviour of dancing on the tables and throwing books around in wild abandon… it wasn’t the British Council that banned me. Rather, it was the Romanian state who decided that any of us who had previously had any contacts with foreigners (i.e. living abroad) would not be allowed to go to foreign embassies and cultural centres (except for East German one, the Schiller Institut was OK, but not the Goethe Institut, which was the West German one).

      1. It’s odd – in some ways all the Iron Curtain stuff seems so long ago and yet at the same time it feels so dangerously close again. Maybe we should dance on those tables while we can…

  5. Like you, there are many books that I was busting to get my hands on and that I’ve still not read! Great way to start your chain 🙂

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