Six Degrees of Separation from No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

I’ve had a short break from this meme, but I enjoy it so much that I have to join in again this January. Especially since it starts with the first book in a series which I initially enjoyed a lot. The premise is simple: create a book chain starting with a book set every month by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, and see where it takes you in six quick rolls of the dice.

This month we start with Alexander McCall Smith‘s gentle detective fiction set in Botswana, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective AgencyI loved Mma Precious Ramotswe, with her womanly figure and straight-laced charm, her kindness and thoughtfulness, but also relentless pursuit of criminals. Besides, it was delightful to read about Africa in a more positive light for a change. After 4-5 books, however, I abandoned the series: it started to be a bit too similar and unchallenging for my taste.

Another series set in Botswana is much more to my taste. Michael Stanley‘s Detective Kubu series also features a cuddly, larger-than-life detective, with enormous empathy and family feeling. The view of Botswana is much darker, however, and the crimes are much more tragic: political corruption, illegal organ transplants, the dark side of traditional medicine, oppression of Bushmen and so much more. I have Dying to Live still patiently waiting for me on my TBR pile and I always look forward to a new one in the series.

If books dealing with political corruption are your thing, there is one above all others which perfectly captures the Cold War paranoia (and is, perhaps, once more topical): Richard Condon’s The Manchurian CandidateA sleeper agent controlled by the Russians is about to assassinate political figures one by one. This frightening concept has been given the movie treatment twice, in 1962 (starring Laurence Harvey and Frank Sinatra) and in 2004 (with Liev Schreiber and Denzel Washington), and has given rise to a political term describing a candidate running for office who publicly supports one group to win election, but once elected uses executive or legislative powers to assist an opposing group. I could say something at this point about Theresa May and Brexit, but I will desist!

Manchuria is a region in China that was invaded by the Japanese in the 1930s with horrific brutality. There aren’t many Japanese books depicting this gruesome period in their history, but Abe Kobo‘s harrowing (and possibly semi-autobiographical) novel Beasts Head for Home shows a Japanese man returning after the end of the war to this region where he grew up, witnessing the consequences of those atrocities and questioning what it means to be one nationality or another, and what one might call home, in a period of fluid borders.

Abe Kobo is best known for his enigmatic novel The Woman in the Dunes, which has also been adapted into a film directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara. I remember both the book and film as been hugely suffocating, like being buried alive in that relentless onslaught of sand.

 

 

Another enigmatic book which also makes me think of endless sand and of being buried alive is Albert Camus’ L’ÉtrangerThe main protagonist Meursault’s act of violence on the beach in relentless sunshine and his complete lack of remorse hurt me profoundly as a teenager, but each time I reread it, I found different nuances and depths to this story. It’s one of the defining books of the 20th century and explains human indifference and passivity.

 

But before we get too bleak, let’s end on a more cheerful note, as befits Mma Ramotswe. Another outsider and free spirit is the joyous Huckleberry Finn (Adventures of…) by Mark Twain. He resists all attempts to be ‘sivilised’ or kidnapped or restrained, and has amazing adventures in the process. Although we could and should argue that it is escaped slave Jim who is the true outsider in this story and Twain is not shy about pointing out the hypocrisy of a system that treats Huck and Jim so differently.

So from Botswana to the Mississippi, via Manchuria, Japan and Algeria. Where will your book chain take you?

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6 Degrees of Separation – September 2017

Kate has a talent for picking interesting books as a starting point for her Six Degrees of Separation meme and this month it’s Wild Swans by Jung Chang. I loved that book when I read it, as I’ve always been fascinated by Chinese culture and history.

 

 

So for my first link I will stay with China but move to crime fiction, with Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong, featuring the very likeable Chief Inspector Chen, a poet who has to navigate his way through the political shenanigans of 1990s Shanghai.

 

 

Another poet/policeman is of course PD James’ Adam Dalgliesh and in one of the books of the long-running series Original Sin he investigates the death of the managing director of one of London’s oldest publishing houses, the fictional Peverell Press.

 

 

Another book describing life in the publishing industry, with slightly less murder but considerably more satire, is Muriel Spark’s delightfully outrageous, darkly tongue-in-cheek A Far Cry from Kensington, where the sensible Mrs Hawkins can suddenly no longer bear the frightful prose and arrogant air of one of their authors.

 

 

I always associate Muriel Spark with Barbara Pym, especially with the latter’s novel Less Than Angels, which is equally merciless and satirical about anthropologists as Spark is about publishers. Perhaps I have a soft spot for this novel (which is not necessarily Pym’s best, although it is perhaps her most light-hearted one) because it reminds me of tea-time in the common room at the Anthropology Department in Cambridge and all the characters you might meet there.

 

Speaking of anthropologists, one of the founding mothers of anthropology was Margaret Mead and her memoir Blackberry Winter was one of the books which ignited my life-long love for the subject. Some of her findings have since been contested – which is as it should be, research (and our respect and understanding for other cultures) should progress constantly.

 

 

Another remarkable woman who has inspired me all my life is Marie Curie. I haven’t yet read the biography written by her daughter Ève Curie, but it would be interesting to see what this younger daughter, an artistic cuckoo in a nest of scientists, has to say about her driven mother. Apparently, she used to joke that she was the disappointment of the family: ‘There were five Nobel Prizes in my family, two for my mother, one for my father, one for [my] sister and brother-in-law and one for my husband. Only I was not successful…’

So from China to the UK, Samoa and Papua New Guinea to Poland and France, this has been a meandering sort of literary link… Where will your associations take you?