#6Degrees of Separation July 2020

Book memes come and go, but there’s one that I always find irresistible. So it’s a great pleasure to participate once more in the monthly Six Degrees of Separation, where we all start from the same book and end up in very different places, a reading meme hosted by the lovely Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best

This month we are starting with the highly-recommended What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, which I have on my shelves but which I haven’t read yet. I do know it’s about male friendship and also about art, but is it too obvious to go for those links? Should I try to be cleverer than that?

Clearly not, because, in the end, the link is ‘books that I bought very eagerly and really look forward to reading but because I’m so sure I’ll enjoy them, I just have them sitting on my shelves for far too long.’ Another book that fits into this category is Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, although I will finally get around to it this August for #WomeninTranslation Month.

Tokarczuk’s title is famously taken from a poem by William Blake and so is my next book, a little-known and rather strange volume by Aldous Huxley The Doors of Perception that I found in the rather old-fashioned British Council library in Bucharest (before I was banned from going there anymore). Huxley describes with great honesty and detail his own personal experiment with the hallucinogenic drug mescalin. In a way, it was his response to an increasingly troubled world (not the eve of the Second World War, but the Cold War and the fear that the word would descend into chaos once more) and he was a great believer in seeking a personal route to enlightenment.

Another writer who was fascinated by experimentation with drugs to induce a shamanistic trance was Carlos Castaneda, who was hugely popular in the 1960s-70s with his supposedly ethnographic accounts of his apprenticeship to a Yaqui Indian shaman from North Mexico in the so-called Teachings of Don Juan series. Anthropologists got a bit suspicious about the accuracy of the cultural practices he described and I believe the stories have now been mostly debunked as fiction.

Another anthropologist who wrote vividly and beautifully, but not always extremely truthfully was Claude Levi-Strauss. His Tristes Tropiques describing his own fieldwork in the Amazon remains a masterclass in ethnographic description, and was also the starting point for the structuralist school of anthropology. Above all, however, it is a blend of autobiography, travel literature, fiction, anthropology and social criticism which would perhaps fit better with the novels of today. At the time it was published however in 1955, the Prix Goncourt judges regretfully had to turn it down for the prize because it was considered non-fiction.

I’ll remain in the Amazon rainforest for my next book, which is by Brazilian writer Milton Hatoum and entitled Ashes of the Amazon, although the book itself describes a difficult period in the history of Brazil, while the rebellious but ultimately defeated heroes Lavo and Mundo move from the city of Manaus in the Amazon to Rio and then further afield to Europe.

I will stay in Brazil, but move to Belo Horizonte, the capital of the Minas Gerais region, where in the early 1970s the most famous Milton of Brazil, namely singer/songwriter Milton Nascimento, recorded an album entitled The Corner Club and gave rise to a musical and political community of the same name. Jonathon Grasse is a musician and professor of music who wrote about this movement in his book entitled The Corner Club.

This month I’ve travelled from Poland to Britain to Mexico and Brazil via my six links. Where will your links take you?

Incoming! Books Added to TBR

I was going to start a self-imposed book buying ban, but am postponing it to the New Year. So I am making the most of these last few weeks before it kicks in! So what have I acquired this week?

Orenda Books very kindly sent me Beton Rouge by Simone Buchholz to review. I somehow missed out on reading this German author’s first book translated by Rachel Ward, but dived straightaway into this second one. I was instantly smitten. It is to crime thriller what jazz music is to classical music. An unconventional, refreshing voice, one that I haven’t heard in German crime fiction since Arjouni, and I don’t mind at all crime taking second place in this novel. Full review coming up on Crime Fiction Lover, but I can’t resist sharing one of those little throwaway sarcasms which litter the book:

It always strikes me that tourists in Hamburg look completely different from tourists in Munich or Berlin… Perhaps they think Hamburg is already on the North Sea, although that’s a good thirty to fifty years off yet.

The next two are books I purchased following some Twitter and blogging discussions. Several of the bookbloggers I admire mentioned that Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved was one of their favourite reads, so I found a second-hand copy of it to see what all the fuss was about. 

Karen, from Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings, is already extremely knowledgeable about the Russian Revolution, but she asked for some reading recommendations to get up to speed about French revolutions (they had several, although we are mostly familiar with the 1789 one). My personal favourite revolution – can one have such a thing? (other than the one I lived through in 1989, about which I am conflicted anyway)- is the 1870 Paris Commune. So I starting reminiscing about what I had read on the topic and ended up ordering two books, one of which has already arrived. Donny Gluckstein’s The Paris Commune: A Revolution in Democracy is the Marxist interpretation of it, but, after years of indoctrination, I like to think that I know how to read beyond the ideology to the actual history. The book which is still on its way is Paris Babylon by Rupert Christiansen, which looks much more about the conditions which led to the Franco-Prussian war and the decadence and poverty which led to the Paris Commune.

Can’t resist an archive photo from the Commune de Paris, the barricade at Rue de Castiglione in one of the poshest central locations in Paris.

While waiting for my friend to show up to go to the RADA show on Friday, I popped into Waterstones in Gower Street and couldn’t resist two of those tiny Penguin Modern Classics. Fernando Pessoa’s poetry in I Have More Souls Than One, which led to a discussion with the bookseller if he should embark upon Pessoa (my answer: ‘Absolutely, but dip in and out rather than read it all in one go.’) and four short pieces by Anais Nin in The Veiled Woman.

The final book was an impulse buy from the Vintage Penguins which are strategically placed just opposite the cheap and cheerful Modern Classics. The title comes of course from Alice in Wonderland, the Mock Turtle’s song, and is used as an epigraph for the book:

“‘ Will you walk a little faster?’ said a whiting to a snail,

‘There’s a porpoise close behnd us, and he’s treading on my tail.'”

It’s a broad comedy about London theatrical life and trying to navigate your way through it. I’ve never heard of Noel Langley, but it appears he had several plays produced in the West End in the 1930s and later moved to the US, where he wrote screenplays, most notably for The Wizard of Oz. He moved from South Africa to England in the mid 1930s and I can’t help wondering if his experience as an ‘outsider peeking in and trying to fit in’ informed this book about two young and innocent drama students let loose in the big bad theatre world of the time. A light read for dark days!

Friday Fun: Writer’s Rooms

So busy writing at the moment, that all I can think about are the most comfortable writing rooms or sheds possible, anything that will add to your ability to stick that bum on the chair and keep those fingers or pens moving (or that brain thinking).

First up, two American beauties:

Siri Hustvedt's desk, from The Guardian.
Siri Hustvedt’s desk, from The Guardian.

Laura Silverman's writing terrace, from An Afternoon With.
Laura Silverman’s writing terrace, from An Afternoon With.

The British contingent prefers history and a lived-in look:

Ian Rankin's study, from The Guardian.
Ian Rankin’s study, from The Guardian. I like the handcuffs!

You can keep any mess far away from the house, of course, with a shed. Luxury version first.

HIgh spec garden shed, from Garden Room Studio.
HIgh spec garden shed, from Garden Room Studio.

And the version that might actually fit into your garden:

More modest version, also from Garden Room Studio.
More modest version, also from Garden Room Studio.

And, finally, below is one that I came across on a walk through the forest yesterday. Adorable caravan conversion, wouldn’t you agree?

P1030283

For more peeks into writers’ rooms, I can recommend the website http://www.whereiwrite.tv. I try not to indulge too frequently, but writers I’ve ‘stalked’ there include: Joanne Harris, Jenny Eclaire, Val McDermid, Clare Mackintosh, Jodi Picault, Linwood Barclay, Mark Billingham and – yes – Ian Rankin again.