#6Degrees July: From Tales of the City…

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. I had to take part in this month’s chain, because it starts with one of the formative books of my student days.

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City is about a group of people living on Barbary Lane in San Francisco, and features a mix of gay and straight characters. Revolutionary for the time and decidedly too hot to handle for Romanian censorship. Who would want to read about those decadent, vice-riddled Imperialist swine? Well, of course, all my classmates and me! So we read bootlegged versions of it in 1988 or so, long after the first book in the series was first published, and after AIDS had started decimating the gay community.

Another banned book in 1980s Romania was Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, presumably because it had been embarrassing for the Soviet Union when Pasternak had been awarded the Nobel Prize for a manuscript which had been smuggled out the country. Yet everyone I knew had read this book, translated into French or English or by some other means.

 

 

The second book in the link is The Accusation, a short story collection written by an anonymous North Korean writer known only as Bandi, because this manuscript was also smuggled out of that secretive country. I haven’t read it yet, and I don’t think it will contain many surprises for anyone who has lived in a dictatorship, and I have heard conflicting reports about its literary qualities. So perhaps more of a book to bear witness than one that creates great literature. Equally important, though, in this case.

My third book has also been pooh-poohed regarding its literary merits, namely The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Its popularity is so huge, that I’m sure the author couldn’t care less if people think she is not entirely original or extremely sophisticated. I’ve tried to read it, but possibly came across it too late to enjoy it, plus I read too many YA novels with a similar premise (well, not too many, it’s a genre that I don’t read that much, but as many as I can take).

One YA book which I recently read and was very much moved by was Sarah Crossan’s Moonrise. Written as a prose-poem, it’s the story of Joe, whose brother is on death row and the summer they get to spend ‘together’ once the date of execution has been announced. It is a searing condemnation of the death penalty, as well as a poignant story of sibling love. Not gimmicky at all, just believable emotions and characters to which you’ll get really attached.

I tried to get my children to read Moonrise as well, but they never pay the slightest attention to my recommendations. Even reverse psychology doesn’t work. Back in the days when they were younger and listened more to me, we read together for bedtime stories the whole Moomin series by Tove Jannson, and they still like revisiting some of those stories now, and saying things like ‘Bless my tail!’ or pointing out that certain mushrooms look like Hattifatteners and so on. The first story we ever read together was Finn Family Moomintroll with the Hobgoblin’s sinister hat.

The final link also features hats and is actually a Spanish children’s title which has not been translated into English yet, as far as I’m aware. 7 hombres con bombin (7 Men in Bowler Hats) by Alex Nogués (illustrated by Silvia Cabestany) was published in 2015. I haven’t read it but the blurb sounds intriguing and it was part of the UK panel’s choice of books for Spanish books to be recommended to publishers for translation in 2017:

‘In my city there were seven men who wore bowler hats. They always went about together. They were serious, stuffy, wore only black and twirled their moustaches. Until one day the wind swept one of the hats far, far away and showed them something new.’ Seven Men in Bowler Hats is a story to make us think, laugh and reflect. It takes us to that place where all of us should go from time to time: to the unknown…

San Francisco, Russia, North Korea, Dystopia, Texas, Finland and Spain – what a journey we’ve been on this month! Where will your links take you?

Advertisements

#6Degrees of Separation: March 2018

It’s time for #6degrees over on Kate’s blog. Start at the same place as other wonderful readers, add six books, and see where you end up! This month’s starting point is Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, which I read a few years after it came out (while doing my anthropology course). I remember it made me furious at the time – because I saw so much that I knew to be true in it, and it seems to continue to hold true, even after all the balooney about airbrushing and expensive creams have been exposed.

Another book which makes me angry, because I realise how little has changed since it was written is James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native SonI was also fascinated by the differences he notices in the treatment of black people (and how they perceive themselves) in America and in France. There is also a rather sinister chapter set in a remote Swiss mountain village – which I suspect might play out almost identically today. Unless you are rich and throw money around as you go to the spa in Leukerbad, in which case they don’t notice your colour!

The book that spells Switzerland for pretty much all of us who grew up in Europe or saw the animated TV series back in the 1980s(?) is of course Heidi by Johanna Spyri. Full of nostalgia for childhood and for the healthy mountain air and simple life – despite the fact that back then goat herds were probably very poor indeed. It seems to have the opposite thesis to Baldwin’s account: that villagers and simple Alpine folk are much more generous and kind. But Switzerland is full of such contradictions: very rich people who try to appear casual and understated; welcoming to refugees yet very reluctant to integrate them.

My next link is somewhat tenuous – the author’s name is Heidi Julavits: The Folded Clock. It is a fascinating sweep through a woman’s mind, her past and future, her attempts at creativity – it is a strange sort of diary, quite hypnotic. I am fascinated by these recent non-fiction, dream-like, almost poetic sequences, although I don’t quite know what to call them. The cover is just beautiful, and I kept underlining passages of it, even though it didn’t quite hang together for me. A book for dipping into.

A very different diary is featured in the hilarious series by Sue Townsend which began with The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4. Fun though The Diary of a Wimpy Kid is, I believe this English series to be the original and the best. I read them later, when I was quite a bit older than Adrian himself, but I adored his rage against Thatcher and his adolescent pretentiousness (so similar to mine at that age). I haven’t read the last two, but am tempted to look them all up again in the library.

The book was adapted for TV in 1985 and more recently so has the Outlander series based on the books by Diana Gabaldon. Described as historical fiction meets sci-fi meets fantasy meets romance, it is not necessarily my type of book at all, but I have a vague recollection of reading a couple of them in the 1990s and being unable to put them down. I only remember something about the Scottish Highlands and clan wars now.

Books which are definitely my kind of thing and which I cannot put down are crime novels and the most recent one of this type which I’ve read (and which also contains some fantasy elements) is The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. I’ll be reviewing it shortly on Crime Fiction Lover, but it’s interesting to note that in the US Evelyn will be granted an additional half-death, as the title there will be The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Bizarre!

There you go, I’ve tried to include other genres and something for all tastes in my links this month! Look forward to seeing what you’ve come up with.

 

 

 

From Lincoln in the Bardo #6degrees

Kate has another challenge for us in linking books starting from Lincoln in the Bardo this month in Six Degrees of Separation. I haven’t read the book by George Saunders yet, but I do have it lined up somewhere in the cloud waiting for my new Kindle to arrive. (Yes, I can’t find my previous one, so had to give in and order a new one)

The book famously deals with American president Abraham Lincoln and his grief at losing his son. Another American almost-president who lost a son is Alexander Hamilton and I’ve been relishing the book about the making of the stage show Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda. (Congratulations, Lin-Manuel on the birth of your second child a couple of days ago!)

The degree to which Hamilton is viewed with envy by Aaron Burr and the way the story is narrated reminded me very much of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, where Salieri also grumbles and can’t quite believe that God wasted all his gifts on such an unworthy recipient (to his mind), yet finally realises his own mediocrity.

There are plenty of books with musical connections, but one which particularly stuck with me in recent years was The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes, showing three key moments in the life of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, his fear of the Soviet regime and his giving in to it (but forever haunted by that).

Of course, the book about censorship and destruction of culture is Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which terrified me when I first read it as a child. Perhaps because I was living in conditions which reminded me a bit of those extremes. Ah, those photocopied forbidden books, and badly dubbed bootlegged copies of forbidden films!

Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer also has a number in its title and is a tense thriller set in one of my favourite places on earth, Cape Town, and one of my favourite scruffy but reliable detectives, Benny Griessel. Not perhaps a glowing advertisement for visiting South Africa (as a young American tourist is hunted through the streets of the city), but a great sense of atmosphere.

For my final link, I will stick to another South African writer who I think deserves to be far, far better known, but whose downfall is perhaps that she writes across all genres. Lauren Beukes is one of the most creative minds in modern fiction and has achieved some recognition for The Shining Girls about a time-travelling serial killer (now that I’ve read Hawksmoor, it reminds me a little of that). But I would like to link here an earlier book of hers, Moxyland, a political thriller about race, discrimination and being controlled by technology.

So from 19th and 18th century America to Vienna to the Soviet Union and South Africa, as well as a couple of dystopian unnamed societies. Where will your bookish travels take you this month?

#6Degrees from Less than Zero to…

1987 film poster

It is my absolute pleasure to participate once again in the Six Degrees monthly link-up organised by Kate. The starting point this month is a book I haven’t read by that once shining light of the 1980s literary Brat Pack Bret Easton Ellis: Less than Zero. If I didn’t read it at the time, when I was closer in age to the hedonistic youth portrayed in its pages, I don’t think I am likely to read it now (middle-aged sniff of disapproval!).

 

Another book which describes decadent youth is Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh. I have to admit that I wanted to be a flapper of the 1920s when I was growing up, although, like with Mozart’s music, you are always aware in Waugh’s novels of a darker desperation underlying the frenetically cheery and madcap surface.

The other writer associated with the Roaring Twenties is of course F. Scott Fitzgerald and he also captures the sadness underlying the apparent prosperity and carelessness of that period. My favourite of his books was for a long time Tender Is the Night, which also describes a rather madcap party.

Part of the Fitzgerald novel is set on the French Riviera, which is also the setting for Françoise Sagan’s amazing debut novel Bonjour Tristesse, written when she was only 18 and perfectly describing the stubborn, gauche, misguided teenager who tries to act older than her age.

 

There are plenty of books about disaffected youth and the difficulties of being a teenager, especially nowadays, but for my next choice I go back to an old classic The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, who was herself a teenager when she wrote it. This sad tale of gang life and pointless violence reveals how hard it is for teenagers to figure out right from wrong and how powerless they often are to do anything about it.

Speaking of gangs, there is a little-known book by Ernst Haffner called Jugend auf der Landstrasse Berlin (Blood Brothers, transl. by Michael Hoffman) about Weimar-era teenagers trying to scrape together an existence via the welfare office, pickpocketing and other petty crime.

Berlin is also the setting of a more modern novel Tomorrow Berlin by Oscar Coop-Phane, about the post-1989 youth culture there. A generation full of promiscuity, rave culture and drink, drugs and toilet sex which brings us right back to Brett Easton Ellis subject matter, but perhaps described with more French elegance and nonchalance.

So I have stuck pretty much to youth culture in my little foray through literary links, but tried to keep it international. What links will you be making?

Six Degrees of Separation October 2017

Hosted each month by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, the Six Degrees of Separation meme picks a starting book for participants to go wherever it takes them in six more steps.

This month’s starting point is the Mexican author Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate. I must be one of the few people who never saw the film adaptation of it, but I heard about it and was curious to read the book. I enjoyed its combination of recipes and home-spun wisdom, but I never quite understood the bestseller status of it.

 

 

Valeria Luiselli is another Mexican writer that I have started to really appreciate. So far I have only read some of her essays and interviews, and really enjoyed her fragmented, unusual yet very evocative novel Faces in the Crowd. But I definitely want to read more.

 

Another author I keep meaning to read more of is Sarah Moss. The novel Night Waking is the next one of hers that I have on my bookshelf, sitting nice and pretty and hoping I will pick it up.

 

Another novel with Night in the title is of course Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the most excoriating portraits of a marriage and expat society that I can imagine.

 

Speaking of expats, an example of expats behaving badly (or the extreme loneliness of expat life, if you are feeling kindly disposed) is Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau. While I was intrigued by the depiction of a woman going amok in neat and ordered Zürich, it was not as enjoyable and innovative as Essbaum’s poetry, for which she is better known.

There are plenty of poets turned novelists but the one who never ceases to fascinate me is Rainer Maria Rilke’s one and only novel (a sort of semi-autobiographical journal-meditation) The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Just mentioning it here makes me want to read it again – it is such a rich source of wonder and inspiration, made to be read again and again.

My final choice also refers to notebooks: Anna Wulf’s famous coloured notebooks (black for the writer, red for political activism, yellow for her memoirs, blue for a diary) in The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. A seminal work of feminist literature, which had a profound impact on me when I was in my teens.

So my journey this month takes me from cooking in Mexico to political demos in 1960s London, via New York, the Hebrides, the Cote d’Azure, Zürich and Paris. As always, I like to travel! You can follow this meme on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees or create your own blog post. Where will your 6 degrees of separation journey take you?

6 Degrees of Separation – August 2017

Well, how could I resist when the link this month starts with Pride and Prejudice? This is a lovely bookish idea of free-associating books based upon one common initial link, as featured here by Kate. She even has board games based on Jane Austen characters – I am SO envious!

 

  1. I’m a huge Jane Austen fan, and in my 20s used to reread all of her novels every year. My favourite, however, is Persuasion, which I reread recently and which did not disappoint me
  2. Rupert Penry Jones played Captain Wentworth in the TV adaptation of Persuasion (which I haven’t watched), but I have watched him playing Richard Hannay in a new TV film version of The 39 Steps by John Buchan. This is the only book by Buchan that I have read, although apparently he was a very popular spy thriller writer back in the 1920s/30s, as well as a politician. So I can’t help wondering how much of his intimate knowledge of political manoeuvring found its way into his books!

 

 

 

 

  1. Another politician turned writer was Benjamin Disraeli. He was that unusual combination, a Conservative who actually cared about the poor, and in his most famous novel Sybil or The Two Nations, he shows the plight of the working classes being exploited by greedy industrialists.
  2. A little later, in the States, John Dos Passos also worried about the direction that US economy and politics were taking in the 1930s. In the last volume of his USA trilogy, The Big Money, he shows how both the American Dream and the Communist ideal are false, that only the unscrupulous succeed, while most are destroyed and crushed by wild capitalism.
  3. Boris Pasternak also initially believed in the Communist ideals, but soon grew disenchanted. Although his poetry and translations were initially very popular under the new regime, he became a persona non grata and only narrowly escaped the Stalinist purges. His best-known work Doctor Zhivago was not published in Russia until after his death and he was forced to turn down the Nobel Literature Prize. The novel is first and foremost a love story against the backdrop of the October revolution and the ensuing civil war, so it is surprising to me that it was banned at all. But the depiction of the civil war did not follow the official party line, I suppose.
  4. A big skip in time and geography for my last book, which was also initially banned in the author’s own country (not for political reasons, but for its explicit sexual content). It’s The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien, about two convent-educated girls learning to make their way in life in the repressive 1950s Irish society.

 

My journey has taken me throughout England in the early and mid 19th century, as well as the early 20th century, to the United States, Ireland and Russia. Apologies, but somehow the light-hearted Pride and Prejudice took me to some very dark places and associations. I will try to be more light-hearted next time I take part!

 

Six Degrees of Separation: From Shopgirl to…

Hosted each month by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, the Six Degrees of Separation meme picks a starting book for participants to go wherever it takes them in six more steps. This month’s starting point was suggested by Annabel.

Shopgirl by Steve Martin. I had no idea that comedian Steve Martin wrote novels, but apparently this one is a bit of a satire about life in LA, as well as a love story.

Lonely, depressed Vermont transplant Mirabelle Buttersfield, who sells expensive evening gloves nobody ever buys at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills and spends her evenings watching television with her two cats. She attempts to forge a relationship with middle-aged, womanizing, Seattle millionaire Ray Porter while being pursued by socially inept and unambitious slacker Jeremy.

So my second pick is purely picked for the title which sounds fairly similar. 1) Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic. I haven’t read this one either and I can think of nothing less likely for me to pick up, as I hated that whole Bridget Jones, Ally McBeal and ditzy single shopaholic chick scene which seemed so prevalent when I first started working in London in the late 1990s.

 

The third book is a bit of a leap, but bear with me… I’ll be taking you to 18th century Geneva and Paris, via the 2) Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is an extraordinarily honest autobiography of one of the greatest minds – but also one of the greatest narcissists – of the Century of Lights. Here he lays out and examines, without too much artifice, his weaknesses and blind spots, his triumphs and mistakes, his way of life often contradicting his principles (abandoning his children when he wrote so eloquently about children’s better nature and the importance of education).

The next choice is obvious, because Rousseau’s greatest rival at the time was 3) Voltaire. The two men started off by admiring each other’s work, but then disagreed on fundamental philosophical and moral issues and became arch-enemies. The turning point was the horrendous earthquake of Lisbon in 1755, when more than 60,000 people died. Rousseau said it should not make us doubt God’s kindness and that people brought it upon themselves by settling in cities with such dense populations. Voltaire was stunned by such heartlessness and produced in return the remarkable story of Candidea young man whose naive optimism and belief in God is sorely tested by earthquakes, syphilis, the Inquisition, murder and banishment. Mindless optimism, Voltaire contends, is stupid, unsustainable, a crime almost.

The two geniuses also fought about establishing a theatre in Geneva (Voltaire was for it, Rousseau against), so my next link is theatrical, a play which is somewhat linked to Candide, in that it presents scenes of life which test our belief in optimism and love.

4) Arthur Schnitzler’s Reigen (aka Liebelei, aka La Ronde) made a profound impression on me at the age of 13, when I saw it performed on stage. It’s brief scenes of ten couples (one of the couple linking to the next, like a daisy chain) before, during and after love-making and it is incredibly revealing about class and lifestyle in decadent, pre-war Vienna.

Speaking of decadence and pre-war jitters, I’ve recently read 5) Christopher Isherwood’s Prater Violet, which also mentions Vienna, although it features the period before a different world war. This slim yet powerful work is brilliant at dissecting how world events are perceived by different people and cultures, depending on how safe you consider yourself to be. It is also a biting satire of the film industry and features a semi-fictional portrait of Isherwood as a hapless scriptwriter.

 

Clearly, my final link has to be the film industry and so we move to LA once more together with 6) Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde, a vivid, poignant, epic reimagining of the story of one of the most idolised yet summarily dismissed and underestimated women of the film world, Marilyn Monroe.

So my journey this month takes me from selling gloves in a department store in LA to becoming an iconic film star in the same city, via London, Geneva, Paris and Vienna. You can follow this meme on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees or create your own blog post. Where will your 6 degrees of separation journey take you?