#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?

Six Degrees of Separation: From the Outsiders…

Six Degrees of Separation is one of the few memes I join in on a regular basis, as it is always a joy to see how our minds work so differently… 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. 

This month we are starting with The Outsiders by SE Hinton. To my shame, I’ve not read it, but I know it’s a classic about teenage misfits rebelling. I used to watch films about teenagers more at that age than read books about them (I liked to pretend I was older than my years in my reading and that’s why I cannot understand the passion for YA literature nowadays.

One book about confused teenagerhood that I did read and hugely enjoyed was Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. As a matter of fact, everything by Judy Blume was relevant and daring to me in my early teens.

Another book about God that I read very seriously in my teens was St. Augustine’s Confessions. It is an incredible work for its time – describing with much gusto the sinfulness of his early years and how he converted to Christianity, including all of his doubts and lapses. 

From a real-life saint to a nickname in my third choice, namely Simon Templar, the Saint of the long-running series by Leslie Charteris. A James Bond like figure, halfway between a villain and a hero, he is described as a Robin Hood type of conman and avenger, hitting at the rich, venal and corrupt.

Speaking of Robin Hood, Sir Walter Scott was one of the authors who most contributed to popularising this hero in Ivanhoe. Another novel by Sir Walter Scott that I enjoyed a great deal was The Bride of Lammermoor, which famously provided the basis for Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor.

There have been quite a few books or stories turned into operas, and one of the most moving adaptations is Madama Butterfly by Puccini, partially based on Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthème. How much of it was autobiographical is unclear, but Loti was certainly a naval officer and travelled extensively throughout the world and wrote evocatively if somewhat voyeuristically about ‘exotic’ places.

My final choice is also set in Japan but not at all ‘exoticising’ matters. It is Fog Island Mountains by my friend and very talented writer Michelle Bailat-Jones. Set in a small town awaiting a typhoon in the Kirishima mountain range, which play an important part in Japanese mythology (and are the legendary birthplace of the Japanese Imperial lineage), it is an evocative, poetic story of marriage, grief, betrayal and anger.

So three continents and three languages in this month’s selection of links. Do join in and see where this free association might take you…

Six Degrees of Separation August 2018

Is it that time already? For August’s Six Degrees of Separation, a meme hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, the starting point is Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Ian McEwan: I have loved some of his books and not been overwhelmed by some of his others, so I have felt no compulsion to read all of them. Atonement is one of my less favoured ones – I like his earlier and darker ones better on the whole. But I also know that the author was accused of plagiarism, that a passage in Atonement closely resembled Lucilla Andrews’ autobiography as a nurse during WW2 (whom he acknowledges as a source of inspiration).

Another book which has been accused of plagiarism on several occasions is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I suppose the authors meant that their conspiracy theory ideas were stolen, rather than the style. Because if it were about the style, I would keep very shtum indeed if I were them. Dan Brown’s book ranks as one of the worst-written, most cliché-ridden piece of work that I’ve ever managed to read to the end (only just).

A much better book about conspiracy theories and historical mysteries and religion is Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. My teenage self simply thrilled at the tragic story of the Knights Templar – although my adult self knows that all the blather about world domination and deep secrets is frankly absurd.

The next hop is a very easy one: I rely on the name of Foucault and look at Michel Foucault, influential French thinker (I like that all-encompassing term, because he was a social historian, philosopher, literary theorist and so much more, even influencing social anthropology – but nothing whatsoever to do with the Pendulum). One of his major works is Discipline and Punish which looks at the history of prisons in the Western world, as well as the philosophy of crime and punishment.

I don’t much enjoy books about prisons, but I do admire Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago about his own experience of the harsh conditions in the Soviet gulags. This is more than just an abstract compassion for the horrors,. I have a personal connection, because it is quite likely that my grandfather died in one of those.

But on to something far more cheerful for the next link: archipelago makes me think of islands, of course, and Eva Ibbotson’s Island of the Aunts (aka Monster Mission) sounds like it might fit the bill. I haven’t actually read this one, but I’ve really enjoyed other books by this author. The premise does sound rather weird: When the kindly old aunts decide that they need help caring for creatures who live on their hidden island, they know that only children can be trusted to keep their secret, so they go ahead and kidnap them.

One of the best fictional aunts is Aunt Augusta in Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt. Mischievous, amoral, often illegal and slightly barmy, this formidable 70 year old certainly helps her nephew come out of his shell as he embarks upon his adventures with her, travelling around Europe and South America. This is possibly Greene’s cheeriest and funniest creation.

So from England on the verge of war to a whirlwind tour of European sights via the fierceness of Siberia and imaginary secret islands… what a journey we’ve been on this month!