#6Degrees: Starting from The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Well, well, who’d have thought that this bleak novel would feel oddly appropriate for the times we are living through? McCarthy’s tale of a father and son trekking through a post-apocalyptic landscape is the starting point for this month’s Six Degrees of Separation, a reading meme hosted by Kate and one that I always look forward to. We all start with the same book but our thought processes and associations are so different, we all have hugely divergent and entertaining journeys!

Despite the dark, dark story and patient accumulation of sordid details, I found The Road ultimately uplifting. Another book which perks me up even though everyone else seems to find it truly bleak is The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. We read it in our English class in Romania in Communist times and interpreted it as a condemnation of colonialism, so it felt strange to me to see it being condemned as a racist book. Yes, he tends to see ‘the natives’ as an indistinguishable but much-oppressed mass, but that just shows (whether he was doing it deliberately or not) the imperialist attitude of the past and present.

Conrad of course, famously, was not writing in his native language – although, goodness knows, he certainly made English his own! Another author who writes in his second language, but so fluently that he had to pretend at first that he was being translated from his Rusian mothertongue, is Andrei Makine. His best known work Dreams of My Russian Summers explores this relationship with bilingualism and biculturalism, and draws on autobiographical elements. It’s the story of a young boy who grows up in the Soviet Union with a French grandmother and tells the story of the grandmother’s life as well.

Summers with grandmothers are the main feature of one of my favourite books The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. The perfect little book, an understated expression of the love between a granddaughter and grandmother, the grief of losing a mother and daughter, as well as the freedom they both experience in a remote place in the middle of nature.

It would be far too easy to continue the rich vein of summer stories for the next link. Instead, I will focus on remote locations and the book that instantly springs to mind is Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, her memoir of finding salvation in wild nature and isolation in the Orkneys.

While I had some reservations about that book and the urge to find the perfect isolated spot with good Wifi, I have no reservations about recommending the nature writing and immaculately detailed and thoughtful observations of Kathleen Jamie in Sightlines. One of the most unforgettable essays in that book is The Hvalsalen, set in the whale museum of Bergen, so whales provide the link to my next and last book.

I’ll steer clear of the obvious choice, Moby Dick or Pinocchio, and instead opt for a book I haven’t read but which sounds both fascinating and emotional: The Lost Whale by Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm. It is based on a true story from 2004 about a young Orca whale who lost his pod and tried to strike up a friendship with humans. Publishers Weekly deemed that it ‘brings a thorny dilemma to the table–what should humanity’s role toward nature be?–and the book does a surprisingly good job of showing the range of emotions behind that question.’

So a thread which travelled from the US to the Congo to Russia to Finland to Scotland to Norway and finally Vancouver Island. Doing my best to travel while staying indoors! Where will your 6 links take you this month?

 

September Reads

As I had feared, my August output of reading and writing was completely unsustainable. September brought a marked drop in all of the following:

 

  • temperature
  • time for writing
  • ability to post anything coherent on this blog
  • finishing any books

So here are the six I did manage to read, with links if they have been reviewed in greater detail elsewhere.

 

Crack in the Wall1) Claudia Piñeiro: A Crack in the Wall.

Is it possible to write a compelling book about a real crack in a concrete wall? This is exactly what Argentinian writer Claudia Piñeiro sets out to do in this unconventional crime novel, brimming with corruption, life, passion and disappointment. Of course, the cracks will prove to be metaphorical ones too: in business partnerships, marriages, personal life and in Buenos Aires society just before the economic crisis.

 

2) Zoë  Sharp: The Blood Whisperer

Teaching newbie thriller writers a thing or two about plotting and feisty females, this is a new venture for author Zoë Sharp: a standalone thriller about forensics expert Kelly Jacks, who has been wrongly convicted of manslaughter, served her prison sentence and is now working as a crime scene cleaner.  Her past threatens to catch up with her, however, when she suspects foul play at the latest crime scene.

 

3) Bernard Besson: The Greenland Breach

Join me on the 4th of November, when I will be reviewing this book as part of a blog tour, and also offering one reader the chance to win an e-book. An ecological thriller, is all I am going to say at this moment in time!

 

English: Håkan Nesser på Bokmässan i Göteborg 2011
English: Håkan Nesser på Bokmässan i Göteborg 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4) Håkan Nesser: The Mind’s Eye

I had read later novels featuring Van Veeteren, but I had somehow missed this first one, so it was a delight to see how the grumpy cynicism of the Chief Inspector is evident from the start. I have always situated Maardam in the Netherlands (must be that Dutch-sounding Van name, too), but of course the country itself remains nameless and generic. Interesting also to see that arm’s length quality already present even in this early book: there is something deliberately neutral, almost cold about Nesser, very different from the emotionally wrenching novels of Karin Fossum, for instance.

 

5) Cormac McCarthy: The Road

I’d deliberately avoided reading this book, because it seemed to be such a bleak, uncompromising subject matter. But when I finally succumbed to it, I found it quite different from what I expected. Sure, the ash-strewn landscape of the apocalypse features heavily here and there is very little joy in the book. In fact, nothing much happens at all in the book – it is all about what has happened, what may happen or what is about to happen. Humans are stripped bare of all humanity, there is a patient piling on of horrible detail after horrible detail… and yet, ultimately, I found it uplifting, how the strong bond of love between father and son can keep both of them safe and whole, at least spiritually, if not always physically. It is the triumph of the spirit in the face of calamity.

 

Cover of "A Circle of Quiet"
Cover of A Circle of Quiet

6) Madeleine L’Engle: A Circle of Quiet

 

A book to dip into now and then, whenever you find your writerly soul in need of inspiration or gentle understanding. She describes the challenges of combining family life and writing perfectly. One to treasure for a long time.