#6Degrees of Separation, September 2019

Literature is the only thing lighting up our lives at the moment (and music and art etc.), so of course I am here, even though a little bit late, for that fun monthly meme of Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, which I haven’t read but which sounds very interesting, about a Russian count placed under house arrest for seditious beliefs.

Another book about someone under arrest is I Will Never See the World Again by Ahmet Altan, one of the many Turkish writers imprisoned by Erdogan’s oppressive regime. I gather the book was smuggled out of his prison cell, as were his notes to the translators of his historical family saga novel series, of which I’ve read the first Like a Sword Wound.

One book with the word sword in the title that we all read at school in my childhood was The Silver Sword by Ian Seraillier, about a family separated by war and involving a dramatic escape across Europe from Poland into Switzerland.

Switzerland is the common thread linking to the next book by someone I met while I lived in Geneva (but whose book I’d been using long before I met him for intercultural training) Diccon Bewes: Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Honey. Revealing, and often very funny.

The same principle applies to Watching the English by Kate Fox, except that Kate is an anthropologist rather than a journalist, so she tries to analyse certain patterns via surveys and fieldwork rather than just through analysis of media, history and personal observation.

My last link is to another author named Kate, namely Kate Atkinson. My favourite book by her (not that I’ve read them all) is her first: Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

So we had a super-fast tour of Moscow, Turkey, Poland, Switzerland, England and Yorkshire (which sometimes feels like a different country). Where will your links take you this month?

Six Degrees of Separation: August Wild Card

I only take part intermittently in the Six Degrees of Separation meme, but it’s one of my favourite monthly reading challenges. This month the starting point for the logical chain of six books is the last book you posted in the July chain. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to take part in the July chain, although I loved, loved, loved reading Where the Wild Things Are to my children (complete with singing, howling and dancing for the wild rumpus). So I will start instead with the last one in June, which was I, Claudius by Robert Graves.

Robert Graves was great friends (and possibly more) with Siegfried Sassoon, when they were both officers in the same regiment during the First World War. So for my first link I picked Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, which I read and hugely enjoyed in my youth, when I was craving to come to England to study and dreamt that I would be riding all day (thanks, pony books) and sailing (thanks, Swallow and Amazons), while visiting friends in amazing country piles (yep, Brideshead Revisited). Of course, the real England was nothing like that when I did move over here, but I can completely see the nostalgia element and appeal in Sassoon’s work (a bit like Le Grand Meaulnes).

The fantastic Quentin Blake illustrating Roald Dahl

Of course, fox-hunting is horrible, so my next pick is a fox that gets its revenge on humans: Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl. Dahl himself was a difficult man, but I loved his books when I was a child, he certainly got my own children reading and we all loved visiting his house at Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire.

Another Buckinghamshire literary light was John Milton, who lived in Chalfont St Giles for a short while (trying to escape the plague in London) and completed Paradise Lost there. I’ve tried and tried to read Milton, but have never been able to struggle through the whole of his paradises.

Another book I’ve never been able to read all the way through, although I hugely enjoyed parts of it, is Don Quixote by Cervantes. Yes, I know, it’s a damning confession to make. I do like the ballet choreographed by Marius Petipa, though, if that counts.

Petipa also, more famously, choreographed (or helped Lev Ivanov to do so) The Nutcracker, which is based on a short story by ETA Hoffmann. Although the ballet is regularly performed as a feel-good Christmas special, in Hoffmann’s hands it was much darker (like all of his ambiguous stories).

Finally, as we all know, Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is a sad tale of a woman being betrayed by a man and yet sacrificing herself for him. Far removed indeed from the Disney version – and I have the feeling the upcoming live action remake is not going to touch these darker aspects either.

So this month we’ve undertaken a journey from Ancient Rome to Buckinghamshire, from paradise to Spain, Russia (or thereabouts) to Denmark. A great pleasure, as always, to take part in this. Where will your 6 connections take you?

#6Degrees of Separation: June 2019

It is always a pleasure to participate in the Six Degrees monthly link-up organised by Kate. The starting point this month is a book I haven’t read but which recently won the Wellcome Book Prize, Murmur by Will Eaves. I am interested in the subject matter but need to work up my courage to read this one, since it is a reimagining of the strain and suffering that Alan Turing must have gone through in the last few years of his life.

The title of the book, however, made me initially think it was about a heart murmur, perhaps a heart transplant. The best book (or perhaps the only book) I’ve read on that topic is Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living (published as The Heart in the US).

This book won the Prix Orange in France back in 2014. Another winner of the same prize (in 2018) is Haitian author Louis-Philippe Dalembert’s Avant que les ombres s’effacent (Before the Shadows Fade). A novel based on the real fact (that I was not at all aware of) that the Haitian state passed a decree in 1939 granting Jewish refugees passports and safe passage to Haiti.

The Haitian state was born out of slave rebellion and its hero was the beautifully named Toussaint Louverture, born a slave but, as he declared himself, ‘nature gave me the soul of a free man’. Much has been written about him, especially in French, but I have an English language biography and reassessment of his legacy written by Charles Forsdick and Christian Hogsbjerg on my bookshelves, which I have yet to read.

Since we are talking about revolutions, and with the Paris Commune on my mind quite a bit this past month, let’s turn to another book, a novel set during a very tricky revolutionary time: The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov, one of my favourite Russian writers. It’s the story of a family in Kiev (somewhat similar to Bulgakov’s own) having to live through the consequences of the Russian Revolution, and all the warring factions of the Ukrainian War of Independence – the Whites, the Reds, the Imperial German Army, and Ukrainian nationalists. Although this book was banned for decades, the stage version of the book was apparently one of Stalin’s favourite ways to relax.

Many plays were banned, of course, in Communist times in Romania. One play that censorship consistently fought over with the theatre directors (and censorship usually won) was Caligula by Albert Camus. I’m not quite sure why it was seen as so inappropriate that even the filming of the performance was stopped (and the film destroyed), except that it perhaps shows the descent of a hitherto kindly despot into absolute mad tyranny.

And so we end with one of the classics of historical novels: I, Claudius, written by Robert Graves in first person, as if it were the memoir of Emperor Claudius, who was despised and marginalised by his family because of his stutter… and therefore managds to survive to become emperor and tell the tale.

From Turing to France to Haiti to the Ukraine, with a short stopover of sorts in Romania, and a slightly lengthier stint in the Roman Empire. It’s been quite a journey in time and space this month. Where will your links take you?

#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?



Six Degrees of Separation Jan 2019

It’s time for #6degrees  Well, it was time at the weekend, but I left it a bit late. Start with the same book as other wonderful readers, add six books, and see where you end up! With thanks as always to Kate from Books Are My Favourite and My Best for hosting.

The starting point this month is The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. Although it came out in 1969, it was hugely popular two decades later with my colleagues studying English at university. We had only just discovered postmodernism and were vying with each other who could come up with the strangest reads. I personally was never a huge fan of Fowles and felt maybe I was somehow deficient compared to my classmates.

Another historical metafiction type of book that I did enjoy at about that time was A.S. Byatt’s Possession. I’m not sure if it will bear rereading, but at the time the dual narrative and obsession with both research and love fitted my lifestyle extremely well!

A book about literal possession, by demons, is The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. The film is of course now far more famous than the book, but I was forbidden to watch the film as a child, so I read this instead (in a cheap version with a still from the film as a cover, I seem to remember).

Cheap nasty editions abounded in my childhood, since I got a lot of my books at bring and buy sales at school or at my father’s workplace. Another book that I read in a particularly flimsy edition, with almost transparent pages, was The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It made a profound impression on my youthful mind as to how unfair and hypocritical society was back then. Little did I know…

One author I keep confusing with Hawthorne is Washington Irving, so I had to double check to see which one of them wrote the rather lovely Tales of the Alhambra, which I bought at the Alhambra in Granada when I was visiting there with my parents at the age of 10.

Staying in Spain for the moment, and that memorable road trip with my parents, I haven’t read the next book, but it looks fascinating: an account of that brief period of collaboration between the three major monotheistic religions on Spanish soil. Bit of a mouthful of a title, but it says it all really: The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by Maria Rosa Menocal.

Another road trip that I undertook with my then adventurous parents was to Germany, weaving easily between East and West (relatively speaking, because my father had a diplomatic Romanian passport). I was completely bowled over by Sanssouci, Frederick the Great’s extravaganza and beloved palace, even more so than by Versailles. A writer associated with both the Prussian and the French kings was of course Voltaire (and he ended up in disgrace with both). Depressed after discovering that Frederick the Great was not so great after all, Voltaire wrote his famous Candide, a cynic’s cry against the world of mindless optimism. Where is Voltaire to write about Brexit now?

So a bit of a nostalgia fest this month, delving into my childhood and youth, from Lyme Regis to the London Library, the United States to Spain and Germany by way of France. Where will your random mental connections take you?

No book cover, but just an image from Sanssouci.

#SixDegrees December: A Christmas Carol, Of Course!

It’s time for #6degrees, as featured on Kate’s blog Books are my Favourite and My Best (in fact, it’s a bit over-time, as I never get a chance to do it at the weekend). Start at the same place as other wonderful readers, add six books, and see where you end up! A seasonal starting point today with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

It would be far too easy to take the Christmas route here, but I prefer the snow association. Snow makes me think of skiing, what else, and there are far too few books which feature skiing. One crime novel which is all about the skiing is Dead Men Don’t Ski by Patricia Moyes, set in an Alpine resort, with someone dead on arrival in a chairlift (and no, it wasn’t the cold that killed him off). Witty and very Golden Agey, although written considerably later.

A far more brutal contemporary look at murder in skiing country is Black Run by Antonio Manzini. Deputy Police Chief Rocco Schiavone, with a passion for marijuana and a very personal concept of legality and justice, has transferred away from Rome to the freezing Aosta Valley, where he attempts to learn who is responsible for killing a man and burying the body beneath a ski slope. I haven’t read it yet, but it comes recommended by Italian crime writer Sandrone Dazieri, so I’m planning to read this at some point.

One of the classic books about taking drugs is Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, written in 1821. A contemporary and friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge, he was the ultimate drop-out and vagabond, struggling to make ends meet, although he did finally more or less manage to shake off his addiction.

Pina Bausch Tanstheater Wuppertal

I  understand the recent film Suspiria is at least partially based on De Quincey’s book (or on its sequel, Suspiria De Profundis). A far more obvious influence on that film is the choreography of Pina Bausch. There is a recent biography by Marion Meyer about this most influential of 20th century choreographers and founder of the Tanztheater Wuppertal. I haven’t read this but would be quite interested if I can get my hands on it.

From biography to an autobiography (composed of diaries and letters) that I absolutely adored, namely Barbara Pym, A Very Private Eye. As her friend and champion Philip Larkin said, she had an uncanny ‘eye and ear for the small poignancies of everyday life’.

From one Barbara to another: Barbara Kingsolver has just published a new novel Unsheltered. Although her books have been a bit hit or miss with me, I will probably want to seek this one out and see if it is a return to form.

So an unusual chain for me this month, with three books that I haven’t read (yet), and journeys taking me through Victorian London, South Tyrol, the Aosta Valley, two more Londons at different moments in time, the industrial Ruhr/Dusseldorf/Wuppertal region in Germany and last but not least Vineland, New Jersey.

Where will your free associations take you?

 

#SixDegrees October: Starting with Vanity Fair

‘There is far too much to do around the house!’ I wailed. ‘And who is going to fill up that empty fridge and prepare things for school? There are also many, many blog posts to read, books to review and events to plan…’

And yet, when I heard about Vanity Fair, I had to join in this month’s Six Degrees of Separation meme. Hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best, it works as follows: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and you need to link to six other books to form a chain, each one linking to the next in the chain but not necessarily to the initial book. Vanity Fair was this month’s starting point and it was one of my favourite books as a teenager – all of us women need to be a bit more like Becky Sharp!

The fairground theme is the link to my next book, which has a small but significant scene set in the Prater, Vienna’s fairground and amusement park that was very similar to the Vauxhall Gardens featured in Vanity Fair. I am talking, of course, of The Third Man by Graham Greene, which became one of the most iconic noir films of all time.

Taking the option of Vienna for my next link would be all to easy, as I am such a fool about that city, so instead I will use the link of noir film adaptations. Another book that was beautifully adapted (probably surpassing the original) was The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. The external third person narrative feels a little too cold and impenetrable to me, and I like his Nora and Nick Charles characters far more than Sam Spade.

Another title containing the word ‘falcon‘ is Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a travelogue by Rebecca West, giving a rather chilling picture of Yugoslavia on the brink of invasion by the Fascists in 1937. Interestingly, though, she was as staunchly anti-communist as she was anti-fascist, which meant that she was more of a supporter of the Chetniks (which later led to the revival of Serbian nationalism which led to the Yugoslav War in the 1990s) than of Tito’s partisans during the Second World War.

Speaking of partisans and anti-fascist resistance, I’ve not yet read but am fascinated by this book about Primo Levi exploring the reasons why he got sent to a concentration camp in 1943. Primo Levi’s Resistance: Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy by Sergio Luzzato (transl. Frederika Randall) examines a lesser-known part of Italian history.

It would be too easy to turn to another Primo Levi book as the next chain in the link, so instead I will look at another period in Italian history. A family that fascinated me as a child, the Borgias are the apogee of ambition and ruthlessness, although I feel that poor Lucrezia Borgia was often a pawn in the machinations of her father and brother. Sarah Dunant’s Blood and Beauty: The Borgias tries to sort out fact from fiction.

Sarah Dunant has also written a novel Sacred Hearts about a young woman being sent away to the convent against her will in 16th century Italy, and it’s nuns forming the final link in the chain. Muriel Spark features the most manipulative and ruthless Mother Superior in literature in The Abbess of Crewe, while constantly portraying herself as a good Catholic. A parody of either Watergate or McCarthyanism – or both. 

So my links this month have taken me from Vienna to the US to Yugoslavia, Italy and England. Where will your associations take you?