#6Degrees of Separation: October 2021 starts with one of my favourite writers

Not only is the monthly Six Degrees of Bookish Separation one of my favourite literary memes, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, but this month it starts with a famous short story by one of my very favourite writers! Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ starts out jauntily enough as the description of a traditional event in small-town America but gets more and more disturbing and sinister in every paragraph. When it was published in The New Yorker on June 26th, 1948, it received the highest volume of readers’ letters that the magazine has ever experienced.

Some were baffled, some were outraged, a few thoroughly enjoyed it… and my first link the chain features a controversial story that also appeared in The New Yorker and went viral. Except that this story was published in 2017 and therefore the uproar was mostly on social media rather than via readers’ letters. I am talking, of course, about ‘Cat Person’ by Kristen Roupenian. The other thing it has in common with Jackson’s notorious short story is that it starts off as the description of a mediocre/bad date such as we have all known, but becomes more and more disconcerting as you read it (and perhaps even more uncomfortable in retrospect).

How can I resist a cat as my second link? Which takes me to a masterpiece of observation of unreliable humans and a rapidly changing society through feline eyes, in Natsume Soseki’s I Am A Cat. Yes, it’s a chunky book – and you may be surprised to hear that Soseki intended it to be a short story at first, but was convinced to add more and more stories to it, as it appeared serialised in literary journal Hototogisu in 1905/06.

Rather a leap in my next link: Soseki studied for two years in England, at UCL, and was utterly miserable most of the time. So I thought I would turn to someone else’s more joyful (and satirical) journey around England, namely Karel Capek’s Letters from England, which convey a bemused, not entirely uncritical but on the whole admirative glance at England in the 1920s.

An unimaginative link next: Capek’s book was published in 1925 and so I looked for other books published that year. I ignored two firm favourites, The Great Gatsby and The Trial, and instead turned to Anita Loos and her best-known comic novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Nowadays the book is better known for its film adaptation starring Marilyn Monroe as the blonde and Jane Russell as the brunette. At the time of publication, however, Anita Loos was hugely popular as a scriptwriter, playwright, novelist and actress.

Who can ever forget this iconic scene of ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’

She provides the link to the next book, because she wrote the stage adaptation for Colette’s novella Gigi in 1951. It made a star of Audrey Hepburn, although in the screen version she was replaced by Leslie Caron.

For my final link, I use Audrey Hepburn again. In the film version of the musical My Fair Lady, she in turn replaced Julie Andrews, who starred in the stage version. The musical is of course based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, which is far more of an indictment on the English class system (and accents) than is apparent in the (admittedly, rather lovely) musical.

My little chain has perhaps been less well travelled this time, but it has included a short story, a novella, non-fiction and a play, so I tried to travel through genres this time. Where will your six links take you this month?

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!