Tag Archives: Michael Cunningham

Six Degrees of Separation – from Murmur to Johannesburg

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.

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We’re starting this month with Will Eaves Murmur, a slice of experimental fiction which explores Alan Turing’s life and ideas through dreams, correspondence and journal entries. Eaves’ extraordinary book won both the Republic of Consciousness Prize and this year’s Wellcome Prize.

The Wellcome Prize often has an interesting selection of books on its shortlist one of which was Sarah Moss’ Bodies of Light in 2015. It follows Ally in her struggles to become a doctor in nineteenth-century Britain.

Moss also wrote Names for the Sea,  an appealing account of her year in Iceland, which brings me to Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s very funny Butterflies in November in which a dead sheep is wrestled into a car’s passenger seat.

That sheep (and the style of Ólafsdóttir’s somewhat wacky novel) puts me in mind of Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase which sees a Sherlock Holmes-obsessed, chain-smoking advertising executive pursuing a sheep with a very particular birthmark. Funny, gripping and wonderfully odd.

Hiromi Kawakami is another favorite Japanese author of mine who also knows how turn her hand to the surreal but not in The Nakano Thrift Shop. The eponymous shop is staffed by an endearing set of awkward and idiosyncratic characters who become so close they’re like family to each other.

As do the characters in Michael Cunningham’s lovely, heart-wrenching Home at the End of the World in which Bobby, traumatised by the childhood death of his brother, finds a family with Jonathan and Clare.

Cunningham is better known for his novel The Hours (although I prefer Home and the End of the World) which was made into an award-winning film. It was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway as was Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg which follows a set of disparate characters through a single day as one of them prepares for a party on December 6th, 2013, the day after the death of Nelson Mandela.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from 1950s Britain and the reimagining of Alan Turing’s life to a tribute to Virginia Woolf, set in Johannesburg in 2013. 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 2015

Cover imageOne of my books of 2014 is out in paperback in February – cue fanfare of trumpets – that gorgeous American small town gem, Shotgun Lovesongs. I’ve raved about this book so often on this blog that you could be forgiven for thinking that Mr Butler is my long lost brother but it’s sublime, and that’s not a word I use often. Preferred the original jacket, though.

Keeping with the American theme, the first instalment of Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years Trilogy, Some Luck, is being published promptly in paperback in February – the hardback edition only appeared in the UK last November. The trilogy tells the story of an American century reflected and refracted through one family – the Langdons – beginning in 1920. Each chapter of this first instalment follows a year in their lives ending in 1953. The second instalment is due this May and I’m looking forward to it very much, particularly after Some Luck’s ending which left a large question mark over the family’s future.

Johanna Lane’s impressive first novel Black Lake is written in that pared back, elegant style which seems to be the mark of so much Irish writing. The past throws a dark shadow in Lane’s novel, the story of a family no longer able to maintain their nineteenth century Donegal estate, which reminded me a little of William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault. Praise indeed!

Sebastian Barry is another Irish writer who excels in spare, beautiful prose. His latest novel, The Temporary Gentleman, is about Jack McNulty, an Irishman whose Second World War commission with the British Army has never been made permanent, who tells his story from his lodgings in Accra in 1957. I’ve yet to read a Barry I haven’t admired.

Ellen Feldman’s Scottboro, her re-imagining of an infamous miscarriage of justice in 1930s Alabama, made quite an impression on me so I’m looking forward to The Unwitting, set against the backdrop of the Cold War, which explores the betrayal and the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination through Nell Benjamin whose world is shattered by a phone call. I see the publishers have kept the original cover which sports what seems to be one of the most popular jacket motifs of the last couple of years: a woman in a red dress walking away from the camera. Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed this?

I’ve been a fan of Michael Cunningham since I read A Home at the End of the World, a tender novel about what constitutes a family. His new novel The Snow Queen is about two brothers, one a struggling musician who turns to drugs to release his creativity, the other drawn to religion after experiencing a vision in Central Park. I’m a little doubtful about that premise but we’ll see.

Regular readers of this blog might be surprised to find that the last paperback on my Cover imageFebruary list is a thriller, not a genre that usually appeals but there’s something about Tom Rob Smith’s The Farm that snags my attention. Perhaps it’s the Scandi connection. Far from enjoying the blissful retirement on a Swedish farm that Daniel had assumed, his parents are on their way to London each with a different story about the other’s crimes and misdemeanours. Daniel must decide who’s lying and who’s not. Bit of a page-turner, apparently.

That’s it for February paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to a review on this blog  or to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis of those I haven’t reviewed. Click here if you’d like to find out which February hardbacks caught my eye.