As usual, I haven’t read the starting book for Six Degrees of Separation for February. This is a meme hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best where she chooses the starting book, and then you link six other books that trigger an association in some way and see where you end up. The starting book is Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This.
I haven’t read it, but I do know that it’s about communication over the internet, which made me think of Susan Johnston’s recent epistolary novel From Where I Fell (my review here). Two women, one in America and the other in Australia, begin communicating via email when an email is mis-addressed. The book is written entirely in email exchanges. The younger Australian correspondent is voluble and often heedless, whereas the older American is abrupt, snippy and just as heedless in her own way.
In fact, the older woman reminded me of Elizabeth Strout’s wonderful Olive Kitteridge. Set in Maine, this is a series of linked short stories and Olive appears in each one of them- sometimes as the main character, sometimes just as a walk-on figure in the background. Olive is a large, acerbic, retired teacher who has lived in her small town for many years and taught mathematics to every young person in town. She’s brusque and clumsy, and you can see why her son has distanced himself from her and why people don’t really like her very much. (My review here). Really- the book cover is so inappropriate for this book.
Olive is an unusual name, and it’s even more unusual teamed with ‘Pink’. Olive Pink, as Julie Marcus shows us through in her biography The Indomitable Miss Pink, was both an anthropologist and a Northern Territory-based eccentric, although the latter has tended to overshadow the former in popular memory. She died in 1975. She is spoken of as a tall, erect woman, dressed in white, with a long skirt and parasol. Neighbours and little children remembered her derelict hut with its idiosyncratic ‘museum’ and a straggly garden where she grew flowers for sale. Pastoralists saw her, and her activities, as a threat to their leases. Arrernte and Warlpiri had their own stories of Olive Pink from the time that she lived amongst them in the 1930s and 1940s, learning their language and customs. This is a terrific biography, although it’s probably hard to track down. (My review here)
Another elderly ‘Miss’ is Judith Kratz, the main character in Andrea Bobotis’ The Last List of Miss Judith Kratz. Miss Kratz an elderly spinster, has been living in her family home all her life. It is 1989 and the quiet, if cluttered, domesticity of Judith and her African-American companion Olva is disturbed when Judith’s younger sister Rosemarie suddenly turns up. She had run away sixty years ago at the age of thirteen in 1929, just after her older brother Quincy, had been murdered. As the remaining matriarch of the Kratt family, Judith decides to compile an inventory of the objects within the family home, and these items trigger off memories from the past. Each chapter closes with an ever-growing list of objects, which have enhanced resonance for the reader after travelling with Judith back to the 1920s. (See my review here)
Miss Judith Kratz lived in South Carolina and the book is steeped in the culture and history of the American South. For me, the South is synonymous with Mississippi and so I follow comedian John Safran over there in Murder in Mississippi. As part of his documentary program Race Relations he cultivated a friendship with white supremacist, Richard Barrett, and found himself surprised that he actually liked him more than he thought he would. Safran’s nose for a good story twitched when he learned that Richard Barrett had been murdered by a young Afro-American teenager. And,so he took himself off to Mississippi to chase the story. The book reads rather like a podcast, and it was awarded the Ned Kelly Award for Best True Crime in 2014. (My review here).
Another murder, but this time in Georgia, is found in Nathan Harris’ The Sweetness of Water. Set immediately after the Civil War, Old Ox is a small town in Georgia, staunchly Confederate during the war, and resentful and broken afterwards. Emancipation has seen formerly enslaved people suddenly free, but without resources, money or plans. Many of them stay in Old Ox, some still living and working for their former owners, others building shanties under the eaves and in the alley-ways of the buildings in the town. Formerly enslaved, but now emancipated, Landry and Prentiss are hiding out in the woods where they are discovered by George Walker, a small-scale white farmer. They agree to work on George’s farm, planting peanuts, in return for shelter in the barn, food and a wage. They had been enslaved on a nearby plantation, and the cruelty of the owner, Ted Morton, had stripped Landry of speech. The brothers dream of finding their mother, who had been sold, and now that they can earn some money, they have a chance of doing so. This is a beautifully told book. It has a slightly formal, 19th century lilt to the language and it captures well this liminal time, when the gaping newness of Emancipation had not yet solidified into inevitability of Reconstruction. (My review here)
I started off with an American book and I ended up with an American book. And how fitting that I should start and finish with two books that were nominated for the Booker Prize in 2021.