#6Degrees of Separation: February 2023

Hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, this is your chance to make free associations (or weird and wonderful ones) between books: we all start in the same place but usually end miles/continents apart. This month we start with Trust by Hernan Diaz.

I haven’t read it but it features wealthy families in the 1920s, which instantly makes me think of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. One of my favourite books, as my older son never ceases to remind me – luckily, he thought it was pretty good too, even though he did not do English Literature for his A Levels (or maybe because of that).

Next link is a book (ok, a play) that I did study for my university entrance exam and therefore did not like as much as I might have done otherwise: Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. I suppose in Communist times it was regarded as an indictment of the American Dream and therefore Capitalism – and so it should be! Incidentally, this is a further link with The Great Gatsby, since that book also shows the feet of clay of the American Dream.

Willy Loman is the disappointed salesman in Miller’s play, so my next jump is to another character called Willy, namely Willy Wonka from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. I loved this story as a child, and my children enjoyed it too, although it turns out that the author was not that nice as a person. I think we can catch glimpses of that in his work too – but then, children are often not very nice either, so they chortle at naughtiness and evil deeds in their fiction.

Chocolate forms my next link to Chocolat by Joanne Harris. I saw the film quite a while back but never read the book until a few years ago and… no, it’s not my kind of book, but I do like its description of small-minded, small-town France (although it could describe small-town mentalities anywhere, but just with better food and weather).

It is tempting to use France as the lynchpin for my next book, especially since I am doing a #FrenchFebruary reading challenge, but instead I will turn to a writer from neighbouring Switzerland who is a master at describing the rural villages of the Vaud canton on Lake Geneva: C.F Ramuz: Beauty on Earth, which I have read and reviewed a while ago (and, which appropriately enough was translated into English by the very friend in whose house I was staying last week).

A tenuous final link: for the longest time, I got Ramuz confused with Frédéric Mistral, born and built in Provence, who wrote in Occitan and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905. [Ramuz partly overlapped with Mistral but wrote in French/Suisse romande and did not win the Nobel Prize. As you can see from their portrait photos below, they don’t look that alike either, although they both seem to appreciate a hat.] Mireille/ Mireio is considered Mistral’s most important work, a long narrative poem, a sort of Romeo and Juliet for the region. I don’t know how many people still read him today, outside his native region?

Ramuz

So my literary travels have taken me from America to England, from France to Switzerland and back again. Can’t wait to see where the others went with their literary links!

Mistral

#6Degrees of Separation January 2023: From Beach Read to…

A very summery starting point to the monthly Six Degrees of Separation reading meme, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. We start with the same book, add six linked ones and see where we end up!

January’s starting point is Beach Read by Emily Henry – which features writers struggling to complete their novels (a theme I usually cannot resist), but also romance (which I am less keen to read). I haven’t read this book, and I tend to read quite heavy-going books on the beach anyway, so am struggling to find a first link. Iin the end I thought I would go with other genres that I tend to bypass nowadays, although I loved them as a teenager. This is not because of any snobbery, but simply that I enjoy these kinds of books less or feel I have less time to read things outside my favourite genres. So, the other genre you will seldom see on my list of books and practically never on my shelves is horror. However, The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham is a classic of the genre which I really enjoyed reading (and which properly creeped me out) when I was a teen. The spooky telepathic child villains are the stuff of nightmares.

A similar theme is explored in The Uninvited by Liz Jensen, but this time there is a global epidemic of child violence. I had the pleasure of meeting Liz at a Geneva Writers’ Group conference and she was very warm and kind, but a consummate storyteller and fascinated by ‘what ifs’.

The third book is also by an author I met at the Geneva Writers’ Conference: Laura Kasischke’s Be Mine. This precedes the recent Vladimir by Julia May Jonas by well over a decade, but is likewise a story about a middle-aged academic embarking upon a love affair with a younger man. It is not as satirical about academic pretensions, but a good deal more menacing and disquieting.

A huge leap to a very different kind of ‘mine’ in the next book in my chain, The Mine by Antti Tuomainen, transl. David Hackston. You may know Tuomainen as the writer of black crime comedies, but previously he wrote some quite dark books, and this might be called an ecological thriller, as an investigative reporter tries to uncover the truth about a mining company’s illegal activities.

The publication year 2016 is the common thread between The Mine and my next choice, Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, was one of my favourite books published that year, weaving personal experience with biographical details of famous artists in their New York solitude.

It would be too easy to find a book with the word ‘City’ in its title as the final link in the chain, so I will make it more difficult for myself by choosing one such book written by another author whose name was Olivia, namely Olivia Manning’s The Spoilt City, the second in her Balkan Trilogy, describing an increasingly fraught marriage and city of Bucharest in 1940. High time I reread both of her trilogies.

So my travels this January have taken me from a small English village to a global phenomenon, a small university town in the States to a mine in the north of Finland, the bright lights of New York City and the war-dimmed lights of Bucharest. Where will your literary links take you this month?

#6Degrees December 2022

A very appropriate starting point for our Six Degrees of Separation game this month, hosted as always by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. A wintry book set in Alaska, entitled The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, based upon the Russian folk tale Snegurochka. I’m ashamed to say that, although it is probably one of the first books I ever got on the Kindle after receiving the device as a birthday present way back in 2012, I still haven’t read it.

So my logical starting point will be another book that has been the longest on my Kindle – this time a Netgalley download. Not quite as long as The Snow Child, but The Cartel by Don Winslow has been waiting patiently since June 2015. I’ve heard very good things about it, perhaps I was waiting for the appropriate happier time when the hardcore drug wars on the Mexican/American border wouldn’t feel too depressing… and those happier times just never seemed to come!

From the oldest to the most recent Netgalley download: Haruki Murakami’s essay collection Novelist as a Vocation. I enjoyed his book about running (and writing) very much at a time when I was doing both, so let’s see if this inspires me to start writing more regularly.

My next link is to a book about a novelist that I have just read recently: Yellowface by R. F. Kuang – except that in that novel the novelist is less concerned about craft, and more about fame – and will do anything to achieve it, including stealing someone else’s work and pretending to be of Chinese heritage.

A very simple link next, another title with the word ‘yellow’ in it: Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley, his debut novel in fact and a satire of the 1920s English society and country house lifestyle. With the exception of Brave New World, Huxley seems to have fallen out of fashion recently, but I have always enjoyed this novel which is very much based upon several real-life characters who also intersected with the Bloomsbury Group (Lady Ottoline Morrell, Bertrand Russell, Dora Carrington and so on).

Another person who was on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Group (and supposedly the only living writer that Virginia Woolf was jealous of) was Katherine Mansfield. Perhaps her best-known short story collection is The Garden Party, but my favourite one (and the one I am linking to here) is Bliss and Other Stories. One of the stories in that collection, Je ne parle pas français, a strange little cross-cultural love triangle with homoerotic undertones, links to my final book today.

David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day is a collection of essays and memoir pieces, not all of them equally appealing to me, but I do want to put a good word in for the title one, which is about the author taking French classes in Paris and the way he and his fellow classmates struggle with the language. As an expat in France, and someone who is currently murdering the Italian language with my classmates on Zoom, I find that particular story very relatable and funny.

So my six degrees have taken me from Alaska to the Mexican border, Japan to Washington DC, England and Paris. Where will your literary travels take you this month?

#6Degrees of Separation November 2022

This month our fun linking of books, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, starts with a cookbook, so I have to admit I was a bit stumped. Not that I don’t like cooking, but for me they are entirely separate books from the ones I read. I keep them in the kitchen rather than on normal bookshelves, for example.

I don’t think I ever used the book The Naked Chef by Jamie Oliver but I did quite enjoy the TV programme when it first came out, although his cheeky chappy persona did get a bit annoying after a while. Nevertheless, he did a good job warning people about the rubbish children are given in school meals. Unfortunately, it seems that even those rubbish meals have become unaffordable for most families.

For the first book in the chain I will pick one that sounds like a cookery book that might have been written by Jamie Oliver, and includes the word ‘naked’ in the title: Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. It is, however, anything but healthy, describing various scenes from the life of a drug addict in various places around the world. A book best taken in moderation, in small bites.

Another book that I feel I can only handle by diving in occasionally and reading short passages is Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick. A series of memories and personal stories polished until they become fiction, no clear chronology or story arc, yet full of sparkling gems on nearly every page.

‘Night’ provides the link to the next book, one I haven’t read yet but which sounds a bit like The Books of Jacob. It hasn’t been translated into English, but its title would be St Andrew’s Night by Moldavian writer Ion Vicol. St Andrew preached in Scythia and along the Black Sea Coast, in what is now Romania, Moldova and Ukraine, before heading south to Greece, and, in this novel at least, the author portrays him as playing a not insignificant part in the battles between the Romans and the Dacians.

The Feast of St Andrew on 30th November is also the National Day for Scotland, so I will turn to a Scottish writer and a piece of Scottish history for my next link, namely Denise Mina’s Rizzio, a fictional retelling of the brutal murder of Mary Queen of Scots’ Italian secretary in 1566.

Friedrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart looks at the final days of the imprisoned queen and features a dramatic meeting between the two queens, Mary and Elizabeth, that in reality never took place.

My final book is actually a play about a meeting that did take place, but which has remained somewhat mysterious to historians, namely Copenhagen by Michael Frayn. It is based on the meeting in September 1941 in that city between German physicist Heisenberg and Danish physicist Niels Bohr, a highly charged discussion of the use of nuclear weapons and the personal responsibility of scientists.

As usual, quite a wander through geography and history in this latest instalment of Six Degrees: from America, Mexico, Tangier and most of Europe, to Scythia, Scotland and England (Fotheringay Castle), and finally Copenhagen. Where will your literary meanders take you?

#6Degrees of Separation October 2022

Always a little late to the party, i.e. first Monday rather than first Saturday of the month, but always a pleasure to take part in the Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. We all start with the same book and then link it, one by one, to six other books to form a chain. There are no limits to our imagination as we use the links!

This month the starting point is Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. There was quite a buzz about this book when it first came out and it was filmed as well, although I haven’t seen the adaptation. Originally a little sceptical about the book (the blurb did not do it any favours), I was actually impressed after reading it: the unreliable narrator is done so unobtrusively well. It is set in a school and I’ve decided that this month I will stick to books set in schools or universities, because I always enjoy them (having been both a teacher and a university lecturer at various points in my life).

The first book in the chain is very similar in premise: an angry schoolteacher narrator who feels invisible, undervalued, frustrated – and is beguiled by the parents of one her pupils – by their lifestyle, their artistic freedom, their background. The book is The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud and I kept wanting to quote whole chunks from it (there is something about artistic frustration there, which is not so much present in Notes on a Scandal).

Speaking of unfilfilled teachers who nevertheless believe themselves to be always right, god-like and create their own set of favourites, the best example of that is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, set in pre-WW2 Edinburgh.

Very similar premise again, this time with a male teacher wanting to ‘open the eyes, ears and hearts’ of his students, this time through poetry, is the play Dead Poets’ Society by Tom Schulman, based on the very successful film starring Robin Williams as the charismatic teacher, for which Schulman had written wrote the original script (which won an Oscar).

Literature nerd though I am, I thought the premise of the film was overblown and elitist, and that is how I feel about The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which so many people love but which I found annoying, pretentious and almost unreadable.

Despite its age (more than 150 years old) and its moralising tone, Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes is an excellent (and sadly not at all outdated) description of elite public schools in England (in this case, Rugby), with its brutal bullying, opaque rituals and privileged idiots.

A far more appealing private school is the Chalet School (which starts off in the 1920s and relocates from Austria to the Channel Islands to Wales and finally Switzerland over the course of many decades). The series numbered 59 books in total, but my favourite is perhaps the first one I ever read (not the first in the series) The Princess of the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. Perhaps because I thought Princess Elisaveta of Belsornia could have come from a small country somewhere in the Balkans that I could relate to?

No books in translation this time – which is a bit of a shame. I think the school (especially boarding school) genre is more popular in the UK than elsewhere (a legacy of all those colonialists sending their offspring to be educated back in the good old motherland, perhaps?), but there are some good school stories from other countries too, so perhaps I will dedicate my next post to that.

In the meantime, we have gone from London to Cambridge, Mass., Edinburgh to Vermont (twice!), Rugby and Tyrol. Where will your six degrees of literary links take you this month?

#6Degrees of Separation September: Wildcard Pick

I missed last month’s Six Degrees of Separation meme, since I was away on holiday, but it is one of my favourites and a good way to ease myself back into blogging after quite a hiatus. Here’s how it works: hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best, each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six others to form a chain. No need to have an overarching theme, although some do, or connect the book to all of the titles on the list, just let your mind have a wander and see where it take you.

This month is Wildcard month, no set starting point, but Kate suggests we start with the last in the chain that we last completed or else with the last book we read. Well, the last chain I completed in July ended with the rather depressing Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter and I’ve had enough of illness and death, so I will opt for the second version.

The last book I read was Jennie by Paul Gallico, a children’s story about an eight-year-old boy, feeling rather lonely and unloved by his upper-class ‘colonial style’ parents, who suddenly turns into a cat. It was the only book I could read during the last few days with my beloved Zoe, and it is clearly written by someone who loved and completely understood cats. Full of adventures but also gentle moments, not at all preachy, simply a beautiful tribute to friendship and love.

Another book written by a cat connoisseur is Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot, which shows that the very cerebral and earnest poet also had a humorous and tender side. Famously turned into a musical (and a rather horrid film). I love this edition illustrated by Axel Scheffler.

I don’t think T. S. Eliot’s book is necessarily aimed at children, but it relies heavily on wordplay and subverting expectations, which is certainly the MO for Dr Seuss and his famous (or should that be infamous) Cat in the Hat. I certainly could have done with a cat or other pet to blame (I was an only child) when there was mess in the house after one of my ‘pretend’ games.

I will stick to the cat theme and move to Japan, where of course cats are much loved and often feature in their literature, art, anime and manga. The classic book is Soseki Natsume’s I Am a Cat, which is most certainly NOT aimed at children, but a satire about a rapidly changing Japanese society during the Meiji and Taisho period (turn of the 19th to 20th century), seen from the no-nonsense point of view of a cat.

Another Japanese novel where the cat is a pretext for the examination of adult themes, in this case a relationship turned sour, is Tanizaki Junichiro’s A Cat, a Man and Two Women, which once again is all about loneliness, tenderness and love in the most unexpected places.

When it comes to love triangles, of course the French could teach the world a thing or two, even when one of the corners of the triangle is a cat. My go-to book in that respect is Colette’s La Chatte (The Female Cat), about a marriage founded on jealousy of a cat, and although it features some deliberate cruelty towards the cat, you know that Colette would never allow a beautiful Chartreux to die (she herself had a succession of them, who followed her around everywhere).

My final cat-themed link is to that most formidable, shape-shifting, ill-mannered, incorrigible and evil cat of them all, Behemoth, the Devil’s sidekick, from The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov. Who can resist the immortal line, which always makes me burst into laughter, as the troublesome duo try to enter the literary club:

“You’re not Dostoevsky,” said the citizeness, who was getting muddled by Koroviev.
“Well, who knows, who knows,” he replied.
“Dostoevsky’s dead,” said the citizeness, but somehow not very confidently.
“I protest!” Behemoth exclaimed hotly. “Dostoevsky is immortal!”

I have a T-shirt with Behemoth looming above the city (see picture), which I love to bits.

So my cat-shaped travels have taken us to London and Glasgow, the United States, Japan, Paris and Moscow. Let me know where your Six Degrees take you!

#6Degrees June 2022

Always happy to add in an extra blog post for this fun monthly meme: you start with the same book as all the other readers and then let your imagination run wild over the course of six links. For more explanations and an example of how it’s done, see the host of this meme, Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best.

The starting point this month is a book that has had quite a bit of a buzz, Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason. It’s the story of a woman who thinks there might be something wrong with her, but her husband keeps telling her everything’s fine, until the moment when he leaves her. I haven’t read it yet, but (for obvious reasons) it resonates with me and I intend to read it… after the buzz has quietened down.

I will start with another book about women’s mental health and husbands who fail to understand or sympathise (to put it mildly) – The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s creepy and terrifying, with no humour or happy ending (which I gather Sorrow and Bliss does have), which makes it all the more unsuitable for the marketing treatment below.

who’s gonna tell them pic.twitter.com/zrCJ7cdLYT— Meaghan O’Connell (@meaghano) June 1, 2022

 

This (and the responses in the thread) made me laugh nearly all of Thursday, and the next link is to another misinterpreted book, namely The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. We recently rewatched the Disney adaptation and I was struck once more by how much it simplifies and whitewashes characters, while Hugo intended it to be more of a social and cultural critique. Quasimodo is a complex character (who wouldn’t be, given the circumstances of his birth, physical body and upbringing?), certainly not as innocent and childish as in the cartoon, but at least Hugo shows that people with disabilities can be more loving and noble than attractive people like Phoebus.

The book Wonder by R.J. Palacio was ubiquitous when my children were in primary school, as an example of a book designed to reassure children that facial disfigurement does not a lesser person make. My sons were somewhat bemused by the simplistic message, since they had already encountered plenty of classmates who did not ‘fit the norm’ already, but not everyone has those experiences, and I always appreciate books which broaden our horizons.

Very simple link comes next: the word ‘wonder’ in the title. This is a book I’ve been meaning to read for ages, hopefully I will be able to find it at the university library: The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, and the subtitle says it all, really:  The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science.

The next choice is a play about the beauty and terror of science, more specifically physics. Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists is a classic written at the height of the Cold War in 1962, after the Second World War had shown the incredible and destructive power of the atom, and how politicians are unlikely to use such power for good purposes.

In addition to being a playwright, Dürrenmatt also wrote crime fiction, first as potboilers, but then increasingly subverting the genre and introducing his own brand of philosophy about guilt and punishment and social responsibility. Another writer who is better known for his literary works, but also wrote crime novels (under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake), is Cecil Day-Lewis and I will pick his most famous novel The Beast Must Die, which has been adapted at least twice for cinema, including by Claude Chabrol (see the film poster).

A thread heavy on men and/or English language this month, I notice, but that’s where my subconscious took me. I don’t overthink these things, let whim guide me. Where will your whim take you?

#6Degrees of Separation: May 2022

What a pleasure it is to let the mind wander this weekend to form bookish associations in the monthly Six Degrees of Separation meme, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with an Australian classic (has it really been that long?): True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. I read it when it first came out and I remember I found it pretty hard going (the vernacular, the lack of punctuation, the toxic masculinity and violence), but it would be too easy to make my first link another novel I struggled with (there are too many!). So instead, I will refer to the fact that it took a long time – nearly twenty years – for the book to be adapted for film (I haven’t watched the film yet but hear it’s quite impressive). So what other book took ages before it was adapted?

Well, there is a notorious one, which is still under development and seems to have been for the past 2-3 years, although it is labelled a TV mini-series: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, which was published in the same year as Peter Carey’s novel above. So twenty-two years and counting…

A simple connection for the next one – the word ‘clay’ in the title – and the long-awaited novel Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak. After the huge international success of his Book Thief, everyone was waiting with bated breath for his next move… and it took him nearly 12 years to complete it. In an interview, he said something like: ‘I’m a completely different person than the person who wrote The Book Thief but also a different person to the one who started Bridge of Clay 8-9 years ago … If I don’t get it done soon, I’ll probably have to set it aside.’ Wise words of advice to me as a budding novelist, I think!

Bridge of Clay features five brothers in Australia, but the most famous ‘band of brothers’ are the Dostoevsky’s Karamazovs in Tsarist Russia. Pleasure and duty, rationality and faith, free will versus fate, everything is up for discussion in this story of family ties gone very wrong. It also features a lengthy trial scene, and this is the link to my next book.

In L’Étranger by Albert Camus we have a courtroom scene where the accused Meursault refuses to conform to expectations, justify his actions or show remorse. A cold, clinical look at crime and punishment which is in marked contrast to Dostoevsky – Meursault is a man alienated from society and from himself.

Of course, I cannot mention the Camus novel without thinking of the very powerful response to it, the much more recent Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (translated by John Cullen in 2015), a retelling of the story from the point of view of the brother of the Arab victim who didn’t even have a name in the Camus novel.

This retelling of a famous story from the point of view of what one might call a ‘secondary character’ is what brings me to the final link in this chain: the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard is probably one of my favourite examples of witty, sophisticated and successful retellings of a classic (in this case, Hamlet). I don’t think I’ve ever read the script, but I’ve seen it performed several times and always come away with something new to marvel at.

I’ve just realised that my chain has been all male writers this month – and I wonder if my subconscious reverted to this because of the outlaw and masculinity issues arising from the starting point book. Next month the starting point is another Australian writer, but a woman, Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss, which sounds much more like my kind of thing and which I might even read by June.

#6Degrees of Separation February 2022

I’m always a few days late to the monthly Six Degrees of Separation meme hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and My Best – it’s the fun bookish linking game, and this month we are starting with Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, an exploration of life lived in the social media age. I don’t think I’d be very interested in reading this, but I remember it came out at roughly the same time as another book written by a young American author on the same topic, Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, which I haven’t read either. That’s perhaps why I struggle to tell them apart, so Oyler’s book was the obvious first choice in my set of links.

‘Fake’ is what connects this to my next book, Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Under Ground. It is the second in her riveting anti-hero Ripley series, and this time Ripley is involved in an art fraud rather than identity theft. Of course, he is perfectly to commit a few murders along the way to keep his involvement in the fraud a secret and his hard-won reputation safe.

From a book by Patricia Highsmith, to a book in which she plays the starring role, namely Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer. This is a work of fiction rather than a biography, but the author has done meticulous research and ends up producing an affectionate, but disturbing portrait of the famous writer.

Jill Dawson was originally a poet before she ventured into novel-writing, and there seems to be quite a trend for crime writers to also have a poetic sideline (or at least to have started out in poetry). Another famous example of that is Sophie Hannah and I am picking her most recent book in which she continues the Hercule Poirot legacy, The Killings at Kingfisher Hill.

With his monocle, hat, gloves and impeccable moustache, Hercule Poirot reminds me of Arsène Lupin by Maurice Leblanc, although I am sure the Belgian detective would shudder to be compared to the French gentleman thief and master of disguises.

Although Emile Gaboriau is generally credited as being the first French crime writer, Maurice Leblanc is certainly among the first wave and achieved huge success with his literary creation. I was trying to find an equivalent in Romanian literature, but the early writers were either merely imitating imported models, or else considered themselves writers of literary fiction who used murders to make psychological or social and political points. Liviu Rebreanu in the early part of the 20th century was the author most preoccupied with crime, guilt and punishment, and his late novel Both of Them, about a double murder in the provincial town of Pitesti, is the one that most closely resembles detective fiction, featuring an ambitious young prosecutor investigating the case.

US, England, France and Romania – not quite as frenetic a travel schedule this month as some we have seen in the past. It has also been a rather unintentionally criminal chain! Where will your six links take you?

#SixDegrees of Separation: January 2022

You know the drill by now: start with the same book and end up wherever you like in just six jumps! One of my favourite bookish links, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility – and it’s always a problem when I’ve read neither the book nor anything else by that author.

However, I do think his name is rather strange (sounds like ‘Someone who loves towels’, right?), and it appears to be his real name rather than a pseudonym. So I will start with another American author with a strange name, although this one is decidedly a pseudonym. I discovered Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events when I was looking to buy something funny and a bit different for the daughter of a friend about 18-20 years ago. The books were a big hit with her (and she has recently qualified as a doctor, not that I believe this was as a direct consequence of my thoughtful present). I read them later on with my children as well, and we loved them, shame that any TV/film adaptations haven’t quite lived up to them.

The second link is rather obvious: from the Baudelaire orphans to Charles Baudelaire, but not his most famous work The Flowers of Evil. Instead, I opt to go for another cranky later work, Paris Spleen, a collection of prose poems which are little vignettes of daily life in Paris, foreshadowing so much modern writing, including flash fiction, micro-memoirs and more.

This volume was published posthumously, so for my next link I chose another posthumously published novel. I could have gone for the obvious, Kafka, or the most famous, A Confederacy of Dunces, but instead I will go for E. M. Forster’s Maurice, a gay love story that he could not publish during his lifetime because homosexuality was illegal at the time.

A simple jump via the name Maurice, straight into the imaginative world of Maurice B. Sendak: Where the Wild Things Are, which was another firm favourite of my own childhood and that of my children. I even recreated a wild song and dance when reading it out loud. The best children’s books transcend generations, don’t they?

My favourite illustration from the book.

The hero of Sendak’s book is called Max, and for a while that was going to be my younger son’s second name. So once again, somewhat unimaginatively, I choose an author called Max. Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was one of the first books I read when I embarked upon my anthropology studies and I still agree with many of the points he raised.

I will finish this series with another Max that I had to study, but earlier, in school, namely Max Frisch and his play Biedermann und die Brandstifter (translated into English as either Firebugs or The Fire Raisers). This play was written as a response to those saying that they would never have been taken in by the Nazis or the Communists, but it remains topical to this day, showing how ‘normal’ citizens can be taken in by evil and contribute to their own downfall.

Theatre poster for Biedermann und die Brandstifter.

So my literary travels at the start of this New Year took me from America to Paris, from Cambridge to the Land of the Wild Things, from a founding father of sociology to a Swiss playwright and novelist. I hope to travel even further this year, at least via books. Where will you be travelling?