Tag Archives: George Saunders

Six Degrees of Separation – from Lincoln in the Bardo to Villette #6Degrees

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 the 2017 Man Booker-winning Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders set against the backdrop of the America Civil War with the president grief stricken by the loss of his son. I still haven’t got around to reading it.

The titular bardo is a Buddhist term for the transitional state between death and rebirth.  Siddartha, the title of Herman Hesse’s retelling of the Buddha’s story, is often pronounced ‘Sid Arthur’ which provided a challenge in my very early days as a bookseller. I’ve also hear The Glass Bead Game referred to as The Glass Bidet, but that’s another story.

The eponymous Arthur in Julian Barnes’ novel Arthur and George is Arthur Conan Doyle whose path crossed with George Edjali’s, a Birmingham solicitor convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Conan Doyle became determined to clear Edjali’s name and ensure that the true culprit was brought to justice.

Which brings me to Sherlock Holmes by my old friend and colleague Nick Rennison who took on the challenge of writing the biography of one of his favourite fictional characters cleverly blending fact with fiction at great risk to himself given the many Holmes fans with very strong views about their hero.

Colm Tóibin’s The Master also blends fact with fiction in a fictionalised account of a period in Henry James’ life. In the final years of the nineteenth-century James retreated to Rye, crushed by the humiliation of his failure as a playwright and his inability to embrace intimacy. Tóibin’s novel explores the writer’s mental turmoil.

James’ gothic novella, Turn of the Screw, is one of the most polished ghost stories I’ve read. It’s about a governess who becomes determined to save the two children in her charge from their apparent possession. Renamed The Innocents, it was made into a terrifying film starring Deborah Kerr.

Charlotte Brontë’s Villette is about another governess who finds herself in trouble. Lucy Snowe travels to Belgium where she struggles to control her pupils and becomes embroiled in her feelings for a dictatorial teacher. Brontë drew on her own difficult experience as a governess in Brussels for this novel which was an A Level text for me, more years ago than I care to remember. I have to admit that I haven’t read it since

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a bereaved American president to a troubled governess in a Belgian city but kept me, mostly, in the nineteenth-century. 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.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in February 2018: Part Two

Cover imageI’ve yet to get around to reading George Saunders’ Man Booker Prize winning Lincoln in the Bardo. which examines the effects of the death of the President’s eleven-year-old son on his father. Lincoln was rumoured to have frequently visited his son’s grave despite the ravaging of his country by the American Civil War. ‘From this seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of realism, entering a thrilling, supernatural domain both hilarious and terrifying’ according to the publisher. I’m not entirely sure what to make of that but it’s the novel’s central question – ‘how do we live and love when we know that everything we hold dear must end?’ – together with Saunders’ reputation that makes this one attractive for me rather than its Man Booker prize.

My second choice was shortlisted for the Sunday Times/Peters, Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award whose judges handed the prize to Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. The shadow panel begged to differ, loving Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky Ones so much they picked it as their winner. Pachico’s short story collection is set in Colombia and New York, bringing together ‘the fates of guerrilla soldiers, rich kids, rabbits, hostages, bourgeois expats, and drug dealers. Exploring what makes a victim and what makes a perpetrator, these stories show lives fatefully entwined, despite deep cultural divides’ which sounds fascinating enough as it is but Annabel, Elle and Rebecca’s reviews are even more persuasive.

I’m particularly fond of the idea of an apartment block portrayed as a microcosm of a city – Alaa Cover imageAl Aswany did it beautifully in The Yacoubian Building as did Manil Suri in The Death of Vishnu but my favourite has to be Georges Perec’s Life, a User’s Manual. Fran Cooper’s debut, These Dividing Walls, is also set in a Parisian building whose inhabitants live their separate lives, barely aware of their neighbours’ existence. Enter Edward who seems to be about to change all that. ‘As the feverish metropolis is brought to boiling point, secrets will rise and walls will crumble both within and without Number 37…’ say the publishers somewhat melodramatically. Maybe I’ve set the bar too high having Perec in mind but it sounds worth investigating.

Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley comes billed by Ann Patchett as ‘one part Quentin Tarantino, one part Scheherazade’. Samuel has spent years on the run but has moved to his late wife’s hometown with his teenage daughter who is increasingly curious about what happened to her mother not to mention the twelve scars on Samuel’s body, each from a bullet. ‘Both a coming of age novel and a literary thriller, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley explores what it means to be a hero, and the price we pay to protect the people we love most’ say the publishers whose synopsis suggests the makings of a rollicking good bit of storytelling

Rick Gekoski’s Darke  looks like it picks up the existential angst theme with which this post began. It sees the eponymous character consumed by his ‘coming of old age’ journal, seeking consolation in books but finding little until his grandchildren distract him. ‘With scalding prose, ruthless intelligence and an unforgettably vivid protagonist, Darke confronts some of humanity’s greatest and most uncomfortable questions about how we choose to live, and to die’ promise the publishers. You may wonder why I’ve plumped for such a gloomy sounding subject in the middle of winter but I’ve enjoyed Gekoski’s memoirs of life as a rare book dealer very much.

Cover imageThanks are due to Heavenali for reminding me last week that the paperback edition of Rachel Malik’s Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is due in February. Based on the author’s family history, it’s about two women who meet when Rene is a Land Girl and Elsie is running the family farm alone. These two become inseparable, facing adversity together until a dramatic event forces them apart. I’ll be posting a review of Malik’s tender, engrossing novel sometime in the next few weeks after being tempted to read it by Ali’s post.

That’s it for February’s paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested, and if you’d like to catch up with the first part of the preview it’s here. New titles are here and here.

Books to Look Out for in March 2017: Part One

Cover imageThere’s a timeline flowing neatly through this first batch of March titles, beginning with Helen Dunmore’s Birdcage Walk set in 1792 in her home town of Bristol with the French Revolution still playing out across the Channel. Recently married, Lizzie comes from a Radical background but her husband is a property developer whose future prosperity relies on stability rather than the prospect of war and social unrest. John believes not only that Lizzie is too independent and questioning but that she belongs to him by law and must live according to his wishes. A new Dunmore is always a joy and the scene seems set nicely here for an exploration of political and domestic tensions.

Over half a century later, the beginning of the American Civil War is the setting for George Saunders’ first novel Lincoln in the Bardo. The basis of Saunders’ story is the death of Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son and its effects on his father, rumoured to have frequently visited his son’s grave despite the war ravaging his country. ‘From this seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of realism, entering a thrilling, supernatural domain both hilarious and terrifying’ according to the publisher. I’m not entirely sure what to make of that but it’s the novel’s central question – ‘how do we live and love when we know that everything we hold dear must end?’ – together with Saunders’ reputation that makes this one attractive.

Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots moves us on to the 1930s where Florence is desperate to escape her Brooklyn family. A new job and relationship take her to Moscow but she later finds she has no way back. Florence’s actions have repercussions that reverberate down through the generations as her son will find when his own work forces him to investigate his mother’s past. ‘Epic in sweep and intimate in detail, The Patriots is both a compelling portrait of the entangled relationship between America and Russia, and a beautifully crafted story of three generations of one family caught between the forces of history and the consequences of past choices’ says the publisher which sounds much more interesting than your average family saga.Cover image

Ayòbámi Adébáyò‘s Stay with Me takes us to Nigeria in the turbulent 1980s where Yejide is desperate for a child. She’s tried everything she knows, from medical consultations to pilgrimage, with no success until finally her in-laws insist on a new wife for their son. ‘Stay with Me sings with the voices, colours, joys and fears of its surroundings. Ayòbámi Adébáyò weaves a devastating story of the fragility of married love, the undoing of family, the wretchedness of grief, and the all-consuming bonds of motherhood’ says the publisher which sounds almost too heartrending to bear. I spotted Naomi over at The Writes of Women raving about this on Twitter last December and so my hopes are high.

That’s it for the first tranche of March goodies. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Part two follows shortly…