Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.
This month we’re starting, appropriately enough, with Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol which is about generosity of spirit. I’m all for that but I’m still a bit bah humbug about Christmas after so many years in bookselling which left me a wee bit cynical about the whole thing.
Patricia Highsmith’s Carol was first published with the title The Price of Salt and renamed for the film starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. It’s the semi-autobiographical story of a tragic love affair. I’ve yet to read the book but the film was superb.
Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer is an homage to Highsmith, a brilliant piece of literary fan fiction. She takes the writer’s time at Bridge Cottage in Suffolk and weaves it into a story which constantly pulls the rug from under her readers’ feet.
Dawson often tells the stories of real people in her fiction. Sean Michaels takes the same tack in Us, Conductors, his fictionalised story of the inventor of the theremin, a weird and wonderful musical instrument. If you want to hear it, pop over to YouTube where you’ll find a demonstration by Leon Theremin the subject of Michaels’ book.
Much to my surprise I read another novel about the theremin, shortly after Us, Conductors. Tracy Farr’sThe Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt tells the story of a fictional virtuoso theremin player and has a cameo from its inventor.
Continuing the musical instrument theme, Annie Proulx’ Accordion Crimes tells the story of immigration through the accordion, an instrument dear to many nations’ hearts so it seems. I like the idea of this very much but learned – and have since forgotten – far more about accordions than I ever wanted to know.
Annie Proulx’ The Shipping News is set on Newfoundland as is Howard Norman’s The Bird Artist which was published around the same time as Proulx’ bestseller in the UK. I enjoyed The Shipping News but much preferred Howard’s lyrical, poetic novel, stuffed full of eccentric characters
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a nineteenth-century tale of Christmas cheer (eventually) set in London to a tale of betrayal and revenge in Newfoundland. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.
Truth be told, Barkskins is only here out of nostalgia. Like so many readers, I was a huge fan of The Shipping News with its cast of eccentric, affectionately portrayed characters and its depiction of the wilds of Newfoundland. I also became a fan of Proulx’s short stories – Close Range had some wonderful, occasionally shocking and often funny pieces in it. I went off the boil with Accordion Crimes which told me far too much about accordions and not enough about the many cultures in which they’re played. Too much research which may well be an accusation levelled at Barkskins, weighing in at a doorstopping 730+ pages. Beginning in the seventeenth century, it follows Rene Sel and Charles Duquet who arrive in New France, penniless and willing to exchange their freedom for land for three years. Rene is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman but Duquet makes a name for himself, first as a fur trader then setting up a timber business. Proulx’s novel follows these two and their descendants across three hundred years, travelling across North America to Europe, China and New Zealand in what the publishers describe as ‘stunningly brutal conditions’. I wish I could say I was thrilled at the prospect but, in truth, my heart sinks…
I’m feeling much more enthusiastic about The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry’s second novel, set in an Essex village in the 1890s. Rich widow Cora Seabourne moves to Aldwinter where she and the local vicar are soon at odds over the Essex Serpent said to be rampaging through the marshes, taking lives as it does so. At a time when the newly emerging theories about the natural world clash cataclysmically with the Church and all it stands for, Cora, an enthusiastic naturalist, and Will find themselves embroiled in passionate debate. ‘Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different guises it can take’ say the publishers.After Me Comes the Flood, Perry’s first novel, went down a storm so expectations for The Essex Serpent are high.
Back to the twentieth-first century for the rest of June’s titles, several of which herald the holiday reading season beginning with one that I’ve spotted on Twitter and particularly like the look of. Alice Adams’ Invincible Summeruses an irresistible structure following four young people, inseparable at university, and now facing the realities of life as young adults: Eva’s off to the City; Benedict decides to pursue a PhD; siblings Sylvie and Lucien indulge themselves in a life of art, travel and adventure. Summer reunions bring them back together but recreating the intimate bonds of student friendship isn’t always easy. ‘Invincible Summer is a dazzling depiction of the highs and lows of adulthood and the greater forces that shape us‘ say the publishers. I’m hoping for a nice slice of self-indulgent entertainment although nothing too sickly. This kind of novel needs a little bit of a bite to work for me.
Dean Bakopoulos’sSummerLong is aimed fairly and squarely at readers wanting to immerse themselves in an engrossing piece of entertainment by the look of it. Its main attraction for me is its small-town American setting. Realtor Don Lowry is busy hiding the fact that the marital home is in foreclosure while his wife Claire spends her time lusting after Charles, the failed actor who has come home to put his father’s affairs in order. As the temperature rises, inhibitions fall by the wayside setting the scene nicely for a bit of domestic drama. ‘Summerlong is a deft and hilarious exploration of the simmering tensions beneath the surface of a contented marriage that explode in the bedrooms and backyards of a small town over the course of a long, hot summer’ according to the publishers. Sounds like a winner.
As does Stephanie Danler’s debut Sweetbitterwith its New York restaurant setting. Twenty-two-year-old Tess is determined to escape her provincial home and lands herself a job as a ‘backwaiter’ at a well-known restaurant where her colleagues are convinced that fame and fortune are just around the corner. It’s the restaurant setting – and of course, the young character making her way in New York – that attracts me perhaps in the hope of another Love Me Back, Merritt Tierce’s riveting debut which I read earlier in the year. Setting the bar far too high there, I’m sure, but you never know.
Much more sobering, Jung Yun’s Shelterseems to question the intergenerational debt when Kyung Cho, a struggling academic up to his eyes in money troubles, is faced with what to do when his prosperous parents’ lives are thrown into disarray by an act of violence. Kyung’s childhood was one of material privilege but emotional deprivation. When he decides to take his parents in, he begins to question his own qualities as a husband and father. ‘Shelter is a masterfully crafted debut novel that asks what it means to provide for one’s family and, in answer, delivers a story as riveting as it is profound’ say the publishers which sounds like something to get your teeth into after the fluff of Bittersweet and Invincible Summer.
Ending what’s become something of a mixed bag, Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s Everything I Don’t Rememberpicks up the life of Samuel, a young man who has died in a car crash, and tries to piece it together through conversations with friends, relatives and neighbours each of whom seems to have a different view of the young man they knew. It’s also the story of the writer who is re-assembling Samuel’s life ‘trying to grasp a universal truth – in the end, how do we account for the substance of a life?’ A very big question on which to end this second selection of June’s new novels. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more substantial synopsis. And if you’d like to catch up with the first batch, here it is.
First published in 1967 and now reissued as a rediscovered classic, Thomas Savage’s novel comes lauded to the skies by the likes of Nicholas Shakespeare, who claims it’s better than Stoner, and Annie Proulx, who rates it sufficiently to have written a lengthy afterword. It also came with a health warning from its publicist who told me I’d need a strong stomach for the opening paragraph – and that’s true – but given that I’d read The Son last year, perhaps the most gut-churning book I’ve ever read, I was more than well prepared. And it is only one paragraph – it would be a shame not to continue should you find it all a bit much. Set in 1924, Savage’s novel tells the story of the Burbank brothers, owners of one of Montana’s biggest ranches and rich beyond reckoning yet still sharing the same room they’ve slept in for all but the few years they were at university.
Almost forty, Phil still looks like a boy: not a line to be seen on his face although his hands are deeply scarred from hard work thanks to his refusal to wear the gloves he scorns. Sharp, educated and with a lively enquiring mind, Phil is in stark contrast to his younger brother George, a plodder who barely makes it through the local Saturday paper by the end of the week. These two are inseparable but where Phil despises everyone and everything, delighting in belittling others, George is kind and empathetic, quick to see the tiredness of the widowed owner of their nearest town’s restaurant which caters to the Burbanks’ ranch hands. Also a kind man, Rose’s husband liked a drink, holding forth to anyone who would listen at the town saloon until a cruel humiliation drove him to suicide. Their son Peter, quiet and bookish, knows all about that having suffered taunts and worse at the hands of the local schoolkids. When George brings Rose home as his wife, Phil sets about quietly undermining her until she no longer trusts her own judgement. Once winter is over, Peter comes to stay at the ranch and things take a different turn.
Savage unfolds his story in a straightforward unfussy narrative, occasionally and very effectively switching points of view throwing new light on a crucial event. His characterisation is sharp yet understated – Phil’s calculated cruelty contrasts with George’s open-hearted yet diffident kindness but Savage avoids the pitfall of making Phil a one-dimensional character, gradually uncovering his complexities. It’s left to the reader to infer what lies at the heart of his scornful contempt, although it’s clear to modern minds fairly early on. Rose’s disintegration is poignantly portrayed: ‘When she spoke of Phil her mouth grew dry, her tongue thickened. The thought of him scattered all pleasant and coherent thought and reduced her emotions to a child’s’. It’s a fine novel, entirely worthy of that Stoner comparison. Savage’s descriptions of the sweeping Montana landscape, gruelling winters and the daily business of ranching are all wonderfully cinematic. Given Annie Proulx’s afterword I couldn’t help thinking of Brokeback Mountain and hoping she might pass a copy of Savage’s novel to Ang Lee.