Daily Archives: December 4, 2021

Six degrees of separation: from Ethan Frome to…

It’s the first Saturday of the month again, and so it’s time for Six Degrees of Separation, a meme hosted by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest. She chooses the starting book- in this case, Edith Wharton’s Etham Frome – and you think of six books linked in some way in your own mind: by the title, by the content, by theme, place of publication – whatever you want. It is a rare month when I have read the starting book and this month is no different: I have heard of it, but have not read it. But I do gather that it’s about a man called Ethan Frome, and so I’ll search through my reviews for fiction books with a man’s name as the title. I’ll stick to fiction, because biographies would be too easy.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart won the Booker Prize in 2020. The book is a thinly disguised autobiography. Shuggie Bain is the youngest of three children, always fastidious and conscious of appearance. The woman whose appearance meant most to him was his mother, Agnes, whose attention to her dress, hair and makeup masked increasingly futile attempts to disguise her alcoholism. The book is set in a Glasgow ravaged by Thatcher’s economic policies. It tells a narrative well, its use of dialogue is good, the emotional tenor of Shuggie’s bond with his mother is nuanced, and Stuart imagines himself sensitively into Agnes’ befuddled mind. It is all of these things, but for me it didn’t have the literary heft that I would want a Booker Prize winner to have. (My review here).

It’s not really likely that you have heard of Bogle Corbet, written by land and emigration entrepreneur John Galt in 1833. It is a product of its time and taste, and rather forgettable. It comes as a three-volume edition, available through the Internet Archive and, dear me, if ever a format encouraged verbosity it must have been the three-volume novel. It is a thinly-disguised immigrant tract, aimed at the gentleman settler market encouraging them to emigrate to Canada, and although the fictional young Bogle travelled far from his Scottish origins- London, West Indies, back to Scotland, then Canada- not much seems to happen in this book. I had a particular academic reason for reading it, but unless you do too, it is probably best left languishing on the Internet Archive. (My review is here)

Mister Pip is actually the Pip of Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ in Lloyd Jones’ book. (Come to think of it, Charles Dickens was rather fond of the male-name title- David Copperfield, Martin Chuzzlewit etc) The character of Pip was rather incongruously brought to a village in Bougainville by Mr Watts, (nicknamed Pop-eye), the last remaining white man on Bougainville after the implementation of the blockade by Papua New Guinea in 1990 and the descent into civil war between the ‘rambos’ (village boys who joined the rebel insurgency) and the ‘redskins’ (PNG soldiers). Mr Watts was always an outsider. He was quite frankly eccentric, pushing his demented village wife around the village in a shopping trolley. But somehow he managed to interweave the experience of Pip and his great expectations into the shared knowledge of this small Pacific village. (My review is here)

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey is set in 1965 Charlie Bucktin, the bookish, nerdy, teacher’s son is startled by a knock at the louvres of his sleep-out when Jasper Jones, the town ‘bad boy’, calls him out into the backyard. Somehow or other Jasper Jones cajoles him into assisting with the disposal of the body of a young school acquaintance that Jasper found hanging from a tree in his special place in the bush. This young girl was Jasper’s secret girlfriend and Jasper is terrified that he will be blamed for her murder. Even though this book has garnered much praise, and found its way onto myriad secondary school reading lists, I wasn’t that impressed. There is a self-indulgence in lengthy digressions and internal dialogues, and an indulgence too in the number of themes the author crams into the book: first love, friendship, bullying, police brutality, racial prejudice, marriage breakup, incest, youth suicide, social exclusion. But perhaps you love it? Many people do… (My snarky review here)

The title of Amanda Lohrey’s A Short History of Richard Kline is a bit longer than just the name, but I’ll count it anyway. The blurb on the back of this book describes it as “a pilgrim’s progress for the here and now”. I can see the likenesses: Pilgrim’s Progress has Christian, its everyman character not unlike the eponymous Richard Kline in this book; Christian and Richard are both on a spiritual journey and quite frankly, just as with Bunyan’s book, not everyone is going to want to go along the path with Richard Kline either. I wasn’t enthusiastic about this book either and you can find yet another of my snarky reviews here.

Oh dear, there’s a lot of books here that I didn’t care much for, and I’m coming over as a bit of a moaner. I’d better close with a book that I did enjoy whole-heartedly. I really enjoyed Washington Black by Esi Edugyan where a young enslaved boy from the canefields of Barbados end up in places as diverse as the Arctic, Nova Scotia, England and Morocco. This book works on a big canvas, reminding me oddly of a Dickens novel in its scope. It crosses the globe, and it has big characters. It is at heart a quest novel, although shot through with yearning, injustice and beautiful description. (My very positive review is here).