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 with Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow which I was looking forward to very much having loved Rules of Civility but I’m afraid I gave it up although not before I’d worked out that it was about an aristocrat under house arrest at Moscow’s Hotel Metropol in 1922.
Sebastian Barry’s A Temporary Gentleman is about an Irishman from the other end of the class spectrum whose commission with the British army elevates his status for a time.
Sebastian Faulks’ Human Traces is about two psychiatrists and their attempts to understand the human mind which takes them all over the world. This was my last Faulks. The story barely stood up under the weight of his research.
I felt much the same about E. Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes. Somewhere in there was a great story about migrants to America told through their music, buried beneath a mound of accordion lore.
Howard Norman’s The Bird Artist was published around the same time as Proulx’s bestselling The Shipping News here in the UK, both set in Newfoundland. One dominated the bestselling lists for months, the other sank without trace. I preferred the Norman.
I’d not heard of Len Howard before I read Eva Meijer’s delightful fictionalisation of her life, Bird Cottage, earlier this year. Aged forty, Howard threw up her life as a violinist in London and took herself off to Sussex to research the bird habits. In her time Howard’s books – Birds as Individuals and Living with Birds – were very well known and translated into many languages
Which takes me to another fictionalised life, and back to Russia, with Colm McCann’s Dancer, the story of celebrated ballet dancer Rudolf Nuryev who famously defected to the West.
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a count under house arrest in 1920s Moscow to the fictionalised life of a celebrated Russian ballet dancer. 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.
Rather like April, May’s paperback publishing schedules are chock full of potential delights, some of which I’ve read but most not. I’ll begin with one I haven’t: Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman which constantly popped up in my neck of the Twitter woods in the latter part of last year, lauded by all manner of people many of them readers whose opinions I trust. It’s about thirty-six-year-old Keiko who’s never had a boyfriend and who’s been working in the same store for half her life. Others may wonder why she doesn’t find someone to settle down with but Keiko’s happy with what she has.
Given Keiko’s apparent contentment with her single, childless lot she may not have troubled herself with the question of whether to have children or not, the subject of Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. Heti’s narrator struggles to make a decision while everyone else has something to say on the matter. ‘Motherhood raises radical and essential questions about womanhood, parenthood, and how – and for whom – to live’ says the publisher in a blurb that gets straight to the point and is all the better for it. I’ve seen mixed reviews of this one but I’m keen to read it.
Eva Meijer’s Bird Cottage sounds most unusual. It’s based on the life of Len Howard who was forty years old when she decided to turn her back on her life in London and move to a cottage in Sussex to pursue her passion for birds. The result was two bestselling books based on her observations of the birds that lived nearby, some of which became so used to her they would perch on her shoulder as she typed, apparently. ‘This moving novel imagines the story of this remarkable woman’s decision to defy society’s expectations, and the joy she drew from her extraordinary relationship with the natural world’ say the publishers which sounds lovely.
Based on the early life of Madame Tussaud, Edward Carey’s Little takes its readers from eighteenth-century Switzerland to Revolutionary France before arriving at its destination in Baker Street. When six-year-old Anne Marie Grosholtz is orphaned, she attaches herself to the otherworldly Dr Curtius who make his living from modelling wax busts. Fleeing the bailiffs, these two take themselves off to France where they become embroiled in the French Revolution. Grudges are borne, scores settled in the worst of ways and when it’s all over Marie is alone. Sharp and resourceful as ever, she finds her own pragmatic way. Marie is an engaging narrator whose story is made all the more enjoyable by Carey’s line drawings. One of my 2018 books of the year.
It’s the gorgeously written Moonstone that’s whetting my appetite for the multi-talented Sjón’s Codex 1962 in which a character is fashioned out of clay carried in a hatbox by his Jewish fugitive father in WW2 Germany. The woman his father meets in a smalltown guesthouse nurses him back to health and together they mould the clay into the shape of a baby. It’s not until 1962 that Joseph enters the world, growing up with a rare disease which will attract the attention of an Icelandic geneticist fifty-three years later. ‘At once playful and profoundly serious, this remarkable novel melds multiple genres into a unique whole: a mind-bending read and a biting, timely attack on nationalism’ say the publishers promisingly.
I enjoyed Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room, so much so that we visited the eponymous building in Brno on out first central European railway jaunt a few years back. I’m hoping for something similar from Prague Spring which sees two English students, Elli and James, hitching across Europe and into Czechoslovakia in 1968 when the world’s eyes are on Alexander Dubcek’s ‘socialism with a human face’. A British diplomat in Prague is engaging in his own explorations of this new idealism but the Kremlin has other ideas. ‘How will the looming disaster affect those fragile lives caught up in the invasion?’ asks the publisher although I think we know the answer.
Quite some time ago, having spent several holidays in the Four Corners area of the US, I went through a phase of reading Native American fiction which is what attracts me to Tommy Orange’s There There. It revolves around the Big Oakland Powwow, following several celebrants not all of whose intentions are good. Described as ‘a propulsive, groundbreaking novel, polyphonic and multigenerational, weaving together an array of contemporary Native American voices into a singularly dynamic and original meta-narrative about violence and recovery, about family and loss, about identity and power’ it sounds both ambitious and enticing. Rebecca over at Bookish Beck counts it among the three best books she’s read this year.
Over five years since I reviewed it on this blog, Cristina Henríquez’s brilliantly named The Book of Unknown Americans is being published in paperback. It explores the immigrant experience through one family who have left their beloved Mexico for the US in the hope of helping their young daughter Maribel, brain-damaged in an accident. Narrated by Maribel’s parents, the novel is punctuated by the testimonies of their fellow tenants in the Delaware apartment block where they live, some of whom have fled unrest and persecution while others are hoping to escape poverty, seeking a better life for themselves and their children. Filled with warmth as well as sorrow, it’s a sad story humanely told.
That’s it for the first batch of May’s paperbacks. As ever a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis or to my review for Little and The Book of Unknown Americans. If you’d like to catch up with May’s new titles they’re here and here. More soon but not until next week when I’m back from a short break in Genoa about which no doubt I will be posting.