Category Archives: Six Degrees

Six degrees of separation: from Friendaholic to…

It’s first Saturday of the month, which means that it’s Six Degrees of Separation day. This is a meme hosted by Kate at her BooksAreMyFavouriteandBest website. Here’s how Kate describes it:

On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book. Books can be linked in obvious ways – for example, books by the same authors, from the same era or genre, or books with similar themes or settings. Or, you may choose to link them in more personal ways…

Kate’s starting book this month is Friendaholic by Elizabeth Day which, true to form, I have not read. I’m taking the ‘similar theme’ route, revolving around the rather predictable theme of friends and friendship.

Of course, thinking about friendship immediately brings to mind My Brilliant Friend, the first book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet about the friendship between Elena and Lina, two young girls growing up in a poverty-stricken section of Naples in the 1950s. Lina marries young, becomes financially successful, while Elena undertakes an academic and writing career. Told from Elena’s point of view, Lina is always smarter and more street-smart and, along with Elena, you’re never really sure whether you trust her or not. Like all long term relationships, there are periods of closeness and distance, and their fortunes ebb and flow, both emotionally and financially. (See my review of the Quartet here).

Friendships are often rooted in (and perhaps contribute to) a shared world view, and when the commonality breaks down, so does the friendship. Historian and academic Anne Applebaum talks about this in Twilight of Democracy: the Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends. In this book, which is a mixture of memoir and political argument, Applebaum talks about her falling out with her friends, most of whom would fit into that American Enterprise Institute, Thatcheritish, conservative-leaning (but not Trumpian) Republican world of intellectuals and diplomats. They have found themselves on different sides of a political divide that runs through the right in Poland, Hungary, Spain, France Italy, and with some differences, the British right and the American right. This political divide has ruptured their personal friendships as well. (See my review here).

Helen Garner’s thinly disguised memoir The Spare Room explores the demands and limits of friendship when she is asked to host a friend from Sydney who is seeking alternative therapy for advanced cancer. Nicola’s death is not really the core of this story: instead the drama of the book is Helen’s rage and inadequacy in the face the demands of friendship, and her frustration at her friend’s relentless faith in a “cure” that Helen feels is quackery. (Short review here).

Sigrid Nunez’s book The Friend is quite short, and it left me wondering whether I understood it properly. It is addressed to an unnamed, dead friend in the second person “you” throughout, and it is a series of short paragraphs, separated by time and asterisks. The unnamed narrator is a female writer, teaching creative writing at a university as many writers tend to do. Her friend, to whom the book is addressed, was her mentor, a fellow teacher and also a writer and he had committed suicide. (Short review here).

Friendship is particularly painful in adolescence, and most coming-of-age books explore it, or its absence, as part of growing up. In Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, the main character, August, was motherless when her father shifted her from SweetGrove Tennessee to live with her younger brother in Brooklyn. Forbidden by their father from going down into the streets to play with the other children, August watches three other girls, Sylvia, Angela and Gigi as they amble the neighbourhood streets. As she and her brother gradually achieve more independence, August comes to know the three girls and is embraced into their friendship group. Over time each of the girls has to find her own way from parental demands, expectations and inadequacies. (See my review here).

And then there is a absence of any friendship whatsoever. The eponymous main character in Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a lonely thirty-year old woman. Just not ‘self-contained’ or without friends, she is bone-achingly lonely. Eleanor is gradually brought into a circle of other kind people – not saints, but just ordinary people acting with everyday kindness. (Review here).

So, no great leaps of creativity or imagination in putting together my chain, but rather a linking of books which all throw their own perspective on the phenomenon of friendship.

Six degrees of separation: From ‘Hydra’ to…

First Saturday, so that means Six Degrees of Separation Day. This is a meme hosted by Kate at BooksAreMyFavouriteandBest, where she chooses a starting title, and you link six other books that are related in whatever way you choose. You can read the instructions for the meme here. It is a truth universally acknowledged that I have never read the starting book, and I haven’t this month either. It is Hydra by Adriane Howell, which was shortlisted for the Stella Prize in 2023.

So….. Hydra. There’s Hydra the island, and hydra the freshwater organism, but there’s also Hydra of the Greek myth, the monster with nine heads. I’ll go with the latter, which made me think of David Malouf’s Ransom, where Malouf takes a couple of lines from the Iliad, where King Priam travels to recover the body of his son Hector, which is being dragged behind a chariot by the crazed Achilles.

Thinking of Greece, I jump to Gillian Bouras’ A Stranger Here. Back in the 1980s Gillian Bouras used to write columns in the Age about her life in a Greek village, where she emigrated with her husband. A Stranger Here is a novel, but I suspect that it has strong autobiographical elements, where an older woman has experienced divorce and the chains of love for her son that keep her in Europe.

With an older woman as narrator, both chastened and emboldened by experience, it reminded me of Susan Johnson’s My Hundred Lovers (I bet that you thought I would go for Johnson’s biography of Charmian Clift instead).It is written as one hundred chapters, each very short consisting rarely of more than four pages, and sometimes as little as a paragraph. The hundred lovers here (such a daunting number!) are the spark between sensuousness and embodiment (in the sense of being in the body) and the whole range of a woman’s experiences.

A book with a similar title is Steven Lang’s 88 Lines about 44 Women, but the title does not refer to a countdown of lovers, but instead references a song by The Nails which I’d never heard of. There’s not 44 women it, either, just three and the main character is a washed-up rock singer, now living in a cold and isolated farmhouse in the Scottish Highlands.

Rock singers don’t come much bigger than Jimmy Barnes, although he grew up in Glasgow rather than the Scottish Highlands, before emigrating with his poor, violent family to Elizabeth in South Australia. I read Working Class Boy but I don’t seem to have blogged it, although I did see the documentary. They are both excellent.

Another boy from Scotland with a difficult childhood is in Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, although his life took on a very different trajectory than that of rock star. It’s set in Thatcher’s United Kingdom – later than Jimmy Barnes’ book- and much of it is about his relationship with his alcoholic mother and his own conflicts about his sexuality.

So, I seem to have rattled around between Greece and Scotland, between blinding sunlight and cold, dank Scotland. Next month we start with Friendaholic. Guess what: I haven’t read that either.

Six degrees of separation: from ‘Born to Run’ to…

It’s the first of April, first Saturday and so it’s Six Degrees of Separation day. This is a meme conducted through Kate’s BooksAreMyFavouriteandBest website, where she chooses the starting title, then you link six other titles that spring to mind.

The starting book for April is Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography Born to Run. Of course, I haven’t read it – but that’s not unusual: I have rarely read the book that Kate chooses!

Bruce Springsteen is a singer, but I must confess to neither liking nor disliking him. But one group that I really did like was The Beatles (I’m showing my age) and I’m a sucker for anything Beatle-related. Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time takes a chronological approach, from the earliest days of playing together and goes through to their last performance on the roof of the building in London. It is written as a series of short chapters – 150 of them – some a few pages in length, some only taking up a page. It’s a very long book at over 600 pages, and the chapters range from facts, personal reminiscence, counterfactual and events that were only tangentially related. In fact, when I finished I wondered if it was even worth it. You can read my review here.

Someone who could count a bit further than four is Grace Lisa Vandenburg, the main character in Toni Jordan’s Addition. Grace counts things obsessively and incessantly, as a way of trying to control her world and all around her. Into this ordered and tense life comes Seamus, who is attracted to her humour and quickness, and steers her towards therapy and medication as a way of overcoming her obsessiveness. We lose our perky, wisecracking, passionate and controlled narrator as the medication submerges her into a slow, passive inertia. Will she lose the medication or lose her man? Or both? And what is the line between eccentricity and madness? It’s a feel-good romantic fiction book- not my usual fare, but certainly good for reading situations when you want something light. My review is here.

A far more searing and uncomfortable approach to ‘madness’ can be found in Kate Richards’ memoir of that name Madness: A Memoir. Kate is a qualified doctor, but years of mental illness have made this career path untenable for her. There is this chaotic, obsessive, hyper-sensitive existence inside her head that somehow co-exists falteringly with the semblance of a ‘normal’ life: a job in medical research, friends, parents, a flat. This is such a brave book. It is simply written, but it is hard to read. I reviewed it here.

A woman being manipulated into thinking that she was mad is a popular trope, but one of the early writers to explore it was Wilkie Collins in The Woman in White. This door-stopper of a book at over 600 pages has all the usual Victorian tropes: grand houses, fortune hunters, madness, swapped identities, secrets, dastardly deeds, swirling fog and graveyards. It uses a favourite Victorian technique of doubles: two sisters; two houses; two villains. But what is really striking about this book is how modern it is in its use of multiple narrators, who handball the narrative between them, and a real sense of tension that mounts through the book. You might not think it, but this 600 page book is almost unputdownable! You can read my review here.

Wilkie Collins was a good friend of Charles Dickens, and their books (most of which came out in serialized form) are long, intricate and a damned good read. I could have gone for any one of Dickens’ books, or a biography of Dickens but instead, I’ll plump for some social history with What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool. The book is a cradle-to-grave, upstairs-to-downstairs explanation of the domestic and social world of the characters one might find in Victorian literature. It explains clothes, food, business practices, social manners and expectations etc in a rather whimsical fashion. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and you don’t really need to have read particularly widely to enjoy it. It is divided into two parts- the first is organized thematically, while the second part is a glossary of particular terms and phrases that you’re likely to encounter in reading Victorian novels. The book is intended as a bit of a hoot, and in that way it probably fulfils the promise of its catchy title perfectly. I reviewed it here.

So, I bet you think I’m going to finish up with a Jane Austen. Not quite. Instead I’ll finish with P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley which is a mash-up of Austen’s characters in Pride and Prejudice with a crime fiction novel. The scenario is this: Darcy and Elizabeth have been happily ensconced at Pemberley for the past six years where Elizabeth has duly delivered two Darcy heirs. It is the eve of the traditional Pemberley ball instituted by Darcy’s mother Lady Anne. Sweet Jane and Bingley have arrived early, Darcy’s sister Georgiana is fending off two suitors in Colonel Fitzwilliam and the young lawyer Mr Alveston, the silver is being polished and the house is crackling with anticipation. Suddenly the preparations are disrupted by Elizabeth’s younger sister Lydia Wickham, arriving unannounced and hysterical, shrieking that Wickham has been murdered in the nearby wood. He hasn’t , but his friend Captain Denny has. I shall go no further… but here’s my review.

Can I possibly link Bruce Springsteen with Pemberley? Maybe I can. Apparently Bruce Springsteen used to live in a mansion too, albeit in Monmouth County, New Jersey. Not Pemberley, perhaps but not too shabby….

Six degrees of separation: from ‘Passages’ to.. a swamp

First Saturday of the Month, so Six Degrees of Separation day again. This meme is hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best where she chooses a starting book and then you link six titles to her starting book. You can find further details here. As usual, I hadn’t read the starting book which this month is Gail Sheehy’s Passages (in fact, I had never heard of it). From a quick Google, it seems that it is about the various chronological stages of adult life, and their challenges. Twenties, thirties, forties, fifties….

The idea of stages of life brought to mind Georgia Blain’s Births Deaths Marriages: True Tales. This memoir is crafted as a series of autobiographical essays, many of which had been published in literary journals.

We all move through life, but what if you got stuck, dying over and over? This is the conceit behind Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. I’m a sucker for time-travel books even though they do my head in, and I usually love Kate Atkinson’s work, but I was a bit disappointed in this one.

But what if you didn’t die when you really did? In Light Perpetual, Francis Spufford takes the real-life death of 168 people who died in the New Cross Road branch of Woolworths in November 1944 in a V-2 attack on a Saturday lunchtime, with the shop crowded with shoppers. Fifteen of those 168 were aged under 11. He drops the bomb in the first pages, then jumps forward as if the five children were not killed. In fact, they were not even in the store. Instead, they lived lives untouched by that November 1944 attack.

Or what if you couldn’t die? In Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife Henry travels back and forth through time, and his love for Clare, who would become his wife. The structure is confusing at first, with the chronology jumping back and forward, with Henry at varying ages as Clare plods through her allotted life span as Henry appears, disappears and reappears again. Actually, I didn’t think much of this book, either the first or second time I read it.

The mention of ‘time’ took me to Julia Blackburn’s beautifully written Time Song. It’s about Dogger Bank, the last remnant hint of Doggerland, which existed in the North Sea and English Channel 18,000 years ago, making what we now know as the United Kingdom a contiguous part of Europe. It was submerged by the rising North Sea as part of the climatic changes over time.

The opposite of an island being submerged is a lake being filled in, and this is what has happened with Dave Sornig’s Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp. What had been a swamp covered in blue flowers became a wetland and then a windswept no-mans-land which still exists despite the construction of quays and high-rises. It’s an area that seems to resist taming.

So, somehow or other I have gone through the passages of an adult life through to a swamp. I’m sure that has a deeper meaning somewhere.

Six Degrees of Separation: from ‘Trust’ to….

One sure sign that time is elapsing faster than I realize is the way that the Six Degrees meme on the first Sunday of the month comes round so quickly! I missed the January one, but here I am for February. It is hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, and the idea is that she chooses a starting book – in this case Trust by Hernan Diaz. I haven’t read it, of course (I almost never have read the books she chooses to start off the Six Degrees) but I gather that it’s about a wealthy 1920’s New York power couple.

How to proceed? I was tempted to go with titles of one word, linked to an emotion or state but instead opted to go for the (more predictable?) route of New York books. Of which there are many.

I’m really enjoying Amor Towles’ work and I just loved Rules of Civility (my review here), set in New York in 1937, and evocative of all those black-and-white films with the Empire State Building in the background and imbued with New York glamour.

For me Edith Wharton exemplifies Gilded Age New York. But which to choose? I could go with The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence, but perhaps I’m settle on The Custom of the Country with the deliciously named Undine Spragg, who arrives in New York craving money and social celebrity, and moves through multiple marriages to get it.

We visit New York twice in Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise (my review here), once in 1893 and again in 2093 with an interlude in Hawaii in between. It’s a big book, with recurring characters in different guises, and I loved it.

You’ll never find a copy, but when I read Donna Merwick’s Death of A Notary (my sort-of review here), I’d never read history written like this before. The first part is a conversational, present tense, rather speculative narrative that pieces together the small documentary fragments that refer to Janse, the Dutch-speaking notary in Albany, who commits suicide in the late 17th century, a number of years after the English have taken possession of New Amsterdam (which they renamed New York). The second part is an extended footnotes section, where every ‘invention’ in the first part is sourced and validated; every assumption is justified, and every source is credited- it’s watching the historian at work.

Another book that I read prior to blogging but which has stayed with me is Colum McCann’s This Side of Brightness. It starts in 1919 with the tunneling under the Hudson River, then pendulums forward to 1991 with Treefrog, a psychotic derelict living in the tunnel. There’s a real symmetry in this book- the narrative moves forward and back until the two characters become one.

It’s odd to add a biography here – Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy by Anna Sebba (my review here). But both Ethel and Julius Rosenberg grew up on the Lower East Side (why is it ‘on’ and not ‘in’ the Lower East Side?) and in many ways, they had a very ‘New York’ upbringing. In my mind, they are inextricably linked with New York.

So, I might have stayed in New York, but I’ve travelled from the late 17th century to 2093, with socialites, notaries, tunnel diggers and spies.

Six Degrees of Separation: from the Snow Child to….

As usual, I haven’t read the starting book that Kate has chosen for the Six Degrees of Separation at her Books Are My Favourite and Best blog. This meme involves Kate choosing the starting book (in this case The Snow Child by Eowin Ivey) and then you associating book titles by whatever obscure link you want: by title, time read, theme….whatever.

I haven’t read The Snow Child but I have read Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country. In it, a disillusioned and cynical writer returns to a hot spring resort in the off-season, where he meets a geisha. She falls in love with him but he never reciprocates: instead he observes her and her decline quite dispassionately. The setting is very evocative with huge snow drifts making the resort seem quite isolated and her frenetic workload,with several parties in one night, contrasts with his ennui and rootlessness.

Speaking of snow, there’s also Palden Gyatso’s Fire Under the Snow but the two books are very different. This is the book that aroused my commitment to Amnesty International, as it tells the story of a Tibetan monk who was imprisoned for 33 years by the Chinese authorities. As the son of a landowner, he was particularly targeted and moved from prison to prison, where he was tortured and subjected to many beatings by his cell-mates as a form of institutionalized humiliation. If anything, he became even more radical during his second period of imprisonment and when he was finally released, he became aware of the strength of resistance within Tibet generally. It is gently told, without rancour, and it made me realize the importance for political prisoners to know that people ‘outside’ are aware of their plight and that they will not die without trace.

Still more snow and another Japanese writer. Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow is the first in his Sea of Fertility tetraology. A controversial right wing figure, the author ended up committing suicide after an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1970. I don’t think I knew that when I started reading the book. Set in 1912, the main character Kiyoaki Matsugae’s family is part of the provincial elite which needs to tie itself in with the aristocracy, and as such his family encourages him to develop his gentility through the neighbours, the Ayakuras, who have adopted Western Ways. Kiyoaki is at first dismissive of the flirtations of Satoko, but when she becomes engaged to an Imperial Price, he becomes infatuated and embarks on an affair with her.

Leaving the snow behind, let’s launch into another season -in this case, autumn- with Gabriel Garciá Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch. Actually, I didn’t really enjoy this book, and I found it very difficult to read, made even worse because my e-reader kept crashing as I bought it as part of an omnibus edition of GGM’s works. The story is about an unnamed dictator in an unnamed Caribbean island, who just does not die. Well – he does, ostensibly, in the first chapter where he engages a double to deflect any assassination attempts, and the double dies as a result. But in the succeeding chapters, his death is foreshadowed, but he just doesn’t die. In a decrepit palace that is invaded with creepy-crawlies during the night, the Patriarch wanders from room to room, locking up the house, playing dominoes with other old dictators that he has imprisoned, raping the young women in the women’s quarters until he finally falls asleep on the floor, his arms cradling his head, only to wake up again the next morning and do it all again. You can read my bad-tempered review here.

There’s definitely a killing in Kate Holden’s The Winter Road and the victim certainly does die. This non-fiction book tells the story of the murder of Glen Turner, a ranger employed by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage by Ian Turnbull, a landholder at Croppa Creek who felt that his rights were being infringed by government regulations against landclearing. The author shuttles between reportage and reflection on a real-life crime which extends beyond a cold dirt road in Croppa Creek to a broader meditation on land, legacy and its meaning not just for Ian Turnbull and Glen Turner, but for both black and white Australians more generally. It’s excellent. Read my review here

Now, I must say that the UK is not the first place that I think of when I say the word “heatwave”, although as recent summers have shown us, they are becoming more common that we could ever have imagined. Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave is set against the 1976 heatwave that roasted London with sixteen consecutive days over 30 degrees. English houses are not built for heat, and water restrictions were imposed. On a hot July morning in 1976, recently retired Robert Riordan gets up from the breakfast table and announces that he’ll pop out to get the newspaper. He doesn’t come back. His wife of 40 years, Gretta waits a little while, then calls her children. All three children come home to help find their father, trailing their disappointments, anxieties, tensions and resentments behind them. Just as oppressive as the heat was the venom of their family arguments and the burden of secrets and pain that family brings. (My review here

So my six degrees has crunched around in the snow before launching into a sequence of books related to the different seasons of the year. I’ve been to Japan, Tibet, the Caribbean, outback NSW and London. All without leaving my desk.

Six degrees of separation: from The Naked Chef to….

Good grief- what am I going to do with Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef as the starting book? I don’t even really like cook books much. The Six Degrees of Separation meme on the first Saturday of each month is hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, starting with the book that Kate has selected – in this case, The Naked Chef . You then associate it with six other books you have read, making the links between titles in any way you like.

But The Naked Chef? Perhaps all those years of Sunday School paid off because the only thing that I could think of was from the Bible. (Not a book that I’m in the habit of quoting).

For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you visited Me.

Matthew 25: 35-36

Okay- “naked and you clothed Me”. The Women in Black by Madeleine St John is set in the Ladies Cocktail Dress department of F.G. Goode in Sydney- a thinly disguised David Jones.  The main character is Leslie, who has adopted the more sophisticated name ‘Lisa’, and she works as a young casual alongside the older permanent women as one of the “women in black”, changing from their street clothes into the black uniform of F. G. Goode before starting work. She just works the one Christmas/New Year period, then she moves on. I think that St John has captured the early 1960s well here: the wariness and yet curiosity about ‘New Australians’ who seem cultured and exotic with their strange food, coffee and wine; the stifling embarrassment about sexuality even among married couples, and the world of promise opening up with universities that is stretching the expectations of women for their lives. It is an intellectual coming-of-age book too, in a way, as Lisa finds herself feeling embarrassed about her home-made clothes and dipping her toes into adult social life. (My review here).

“I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat”. I’ve read several books about famine, but one that stays with me is Hungry: The Great Irish Famine. A History in Four Lives by Enda Delaney. The four lives that Enda Delaney has chosen, because of the limitation of the sources, are not the victims. Instead, they were at the other end of the famine. There is John MacHale, the Catholic Archbishop of Tuam, who at first saw the famine as God’s punishment on his flock for their sins. Over time, he became increasingly critical of the British Government response. There is the radical nationalist John Mitchel, a leading member of the Young Ireland and Irish Confederation “movements, who ended up in Van Diemen’s Land for his seditious activities. There is Charles Trevelyn, the assistant secretary to the Treasury, who has often been depicted as the Main Villain because of the policies implemented by the British Government. Finally, there is Elisabeth Smith, the Scottish-born wife of a Wicklow landlord, whose sympathies for the Irish peasantry became increasingly rigid. The power of this book is seeing these politics of ideology, and the politics of resistance being expressed in the words of individuals, and watching their positions harden as the crisis continued. If you’re looking for ‘getting to know’ these individuals at an emotional or moral level, this is not the book for you. The book does work, however, at the level of personalizing the political. (My review here)

“I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink.” They were thirsty on the Western Australian goldfields, and C.Y. O’Connor’s ill-fated project was to bring water from Mundarring Dam to Kalgoorlie. Robert Drewe’s book, The Drowner fictionalizes this endeavour, with his main character William Dance employed as a water engineer on O’Connor’s scheme. I enjoyed the book, but found it very disjointed, and I wondered how someone who did not know about O’Connor would make sense of it. No review- it was before I started blogging.

“I was a stranger and you took Me in”. Well, there’s a stranger in Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, but I don’t think it’s the sort of stranger Jesus might have been thinking about. Instead, it’s a ghost. It is a gentle, slow tale told by the local doctor, Dr Faraday, who becomes enmeshed in the distress of the local gentry Ayres family, whose house harbours a ghost. Their home, Hundreds Hall is falling into disrepair with tangled gardens, vermin, leaking roofs and windows and the family- the vague, aristocratic Mrs Ayres, her son Roderick who has returned from the war with a leg injury and ‘nerves’, and the practical, plain daughter Caroline- cling futilely to a vanishing world of servants, farm labourers and estates. (My review here).

“I was sick and you looked after Me”. In Helen Garner’s brutally honest The Spare Room Helen offers to look after her friend Nicola who is coming to Melbourne to seek an alternative therapy for advanced cancer. Nicola’s death is not really the core of this story: instead the drama of the book is Helen’s rage and inadequacy in the face the demands of friendship, and her frustration at her friend’s relentless faith in a “cure” that Helen feels is quackery. (My review here).

“I was in prison and you visited Me”. Well, not visited but certainly wrote letters. The full title of this book is Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag. In this book historian Orlando Figes brings his deep knowledge of Russian history and society to contextualize the archive of almost 1300 letters that were written between Lev Mischenko and his partner Svetlana Ivanova while he was imprisoned in the gulag, working in the wood-combine generator that powered the timber works in the frozen forests at Pechora Labour camp. But the real, real strength of this book is Lev and Sveta’s story, and the beautiful, nuanced, tender letters that they shared over this time. They met at university and went out together for three years. When war was declared, Lev rushed to enlist but was soon taken captive by the Germans. He was able to speak German, and as a prisoner-of-war, used his linguistic skills to translate camp orders. When the prisoner-of-war camp was liberated, he was arrested almost immediately and falsely accused as a ‘fascist collaborator’. The trial was a farce, he was tricked into a confession, and sentenced to ten years at Pechora. For the first few years, he struggled silently to survive in the cold and deprivation. It was only then that he dared to write to an aunt and asked, almost in passing, whether Svetlana and her family had survived the war. Svetlana, who had thought that he was missing in action, wrote immediately on learning that he was still alive. And so the correspondence began. My review here.

Well- I’ve travelled quite a distance from Jamie Oliver. Who would have thought?

Six degrees of separation: from ‘Notes on a Scandal’ to…

For the first time in ages, I have actually read the starting book in the Six Degrees of Separation meme. To see more about this meme, check out Kate’s Books Are My Favourite and Best but, in summary, she thinks of the starting book and then you think of six other titles related in some way- no matter how tangential- to the starting book.

The starting book this month is Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. Actually, I think that the version I read was under its alternative title What Was She Thinking, but I’ll go with Notes on a Scandal because that was the name for the film based on the book. Besides, ‘scandal’ takes you to more places…

First stop is Kirsten McKenzie’s A Swindler’s Progress. This book looks at the putative Viscount Lascelles – in reality, the implausibly but actually named John Dow- a convict who served out his time in Van Diemen’s land after being transported for swindling using yet another false identity. On the expiry of his sentence, he traversed the NSW interior, claiming that he had been commissioned by the Secretary of State to inquire into the proper treatment of assigned convicts. He claimed that he was the eldest son of the second Earl of Harewood- a claim haughtily denied by the Earl back in England whose eldest son, in fact had been disinherited after making a series of disastrous liaisons. The book emphasizes the ease by which people could slip into new identities by travelling to various parts of the empire. She is a master storyteller who uses the human to enliven the theoretical, and the insights of the scholar enrich her narrative of lives lived with contingency, imperfection and incomplete endings. (see my review here)

In their anxiety about ‘respectability’, colonies could be even more stifling than Mother England. A Life of Propriety by Katherine M.J. McKenna is an academic history of Anna Murray Powell, one of the matriarchs of Upper Canada society in the late 18th century. I very much doubt that you’ll be able to find this book anywhere. She was the wife of Chief Justice William Dummer Powell, of the Kings Bench Upper Canada. It has stuck in my memory because her daughter became very publicly infatuated with John Beverley Robinson, the future attorney-general, much to the mortification of her family. It showed that parent/child (and particularly mother/daughter) relationships could be just as fraught two hundred years ago. Although the expectations and language of her parents in their treatment of their daughter might not sit well with us today, the experience of parenting, loving, and losing transcends these differences. (My review here)

Another real-life story that reads like fiction is Wendy Moore’s Wedlock. If you’ve seen the movie ‘Barry Lyndon’ or read the book, you will have come across this story which Thackeray based on the real life kidnapping of Mary Eleanor Bowes-Lyon, the wealthiest heiress in England. If that name sounds familiar, there is a family link with the Queen Mother. This is rattling good narrative history, all the better for being a true story. (My review here)

The heiress kidnapping has become a bit of a narrative trope, but I don’t think that anyone could trump Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. It’s very long but absolutely gripping. It is a type of epistolary novel, with various characters handing the narrative on to the next character- a very modern technique for a book written in 1859-60. It has been described as a melodrama, but I prefer to think of it as a thriller, with mounting suspense and a sense of dread, ratcheted-up as the story proceeds. There’s nothing hard-boiled about it at all: instead, it is intricate, verbose, lush, formal – and a damned good read. Even at over 600 pages. (See my review here)

Wilkie Collins was a good friend of Charles Dickens, who had scandals of his own. The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Tiernan and Charles Dickens is written by one of my favourite literary biographers, Claire Tomalin. Operating with rather sparse sources, she divides her book into three sections: first, Nelly Tiernan’s childhood and upbringing as part of a theatrical family; second, her hidden affair with Charles Dickens; and finally, her re-creation and rehabilitation of herself as a respectable school-teacher’s wife. Tomalin has written this biography with the bones showing – as she does with all her biographies- but in this case, the paucity of sources makes it hard to breathe life into this shadowy figure.

Writers seem to have made rather a habit of treating their wives badly, and biographers often struggle to bring their subjects out from the notoriety of their husbands. With Franny Moyle’s Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde, she deals with the most notorious of husbands- Oscar Wilde- and his relationship with his wife Constance. When she married Oscar, they formed what we would now call a celebrity couple, noted for their radical aesthetic tastes and pre-Raphaelite sensibilities. Constance was a striking beauty. She too wrote stories, and she was well-known for her adherence to the principles of the bohemian Rational Dress Society. Moyle’s sympathies are very much with Constance, who despite changing her own and her children’s surname to “Holland” continued to love Oscar after his conviction, visited him in jail, and was equivocal about divorcing him although she gained a judicial separation from him eventually. (My review here)

So, here we are at the end. Even though Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal is set in the present day, I see to have been wading around in the 18th and 19th centuries (my favourite stamping ground, I must confess). And I’m always attracted to a scandal….

Six degrees of separation: from Flame Trees of Thika to…

It’s the first Saturday of the month, and so it’s Six Degrees of Separation Day. Kate, who hosts this meme at her blog Books Are My Favourite and Best has taken a different approach this month. Instead of her choosing the book, this month you start off with the book that you finished with last time and then link six other books that you associate together in some way.

Well, in August my last book in the chain was Elspeth Huxley’s memoir The Flame Trees of Thika. I read it a long time ago, and intended re-reading it on one of my several trips to Kenya to see my son, who was living in Nairobi at the time. So, my Six Degrees this month all revolve around Africa in one way or another.

David Anderson’s History of the Hanged (2005) is a history of the Mau-Mau Rebellion which took place in Kenya between 1952 and 1960. He starts by contextualizing the rebellion in terms of colonization and de-colonization, then shifts to a more individual approach through his use of court reports, both from the Supreme Court and the Special Emergency Assize Courts. (My review here)

Another more recent troubled period in Kenya’s history occurred after the 2007 elections. The Honey Guide (2013) is set at that time. It’s actually a detective story, featuring Mollel, a Massai policeman amongst a police force notorious for its corruption made up of Kikuyus and Luos who clashed during this post-election violence. Mollel’s wife had died several years earlier in the 1998 bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi, leaving him to bring up their son. I’m not usually a fan of detective fiction, but I loved the real-life setting of this book.

Let’s move away from violence in Kenya for a bit with Kirsten Drysdale’s memoir I Built No Schools in Kenya (2019). You may know her from ‘The Hungry Beast’ or ‘The Checkout’ on the ABC – come to think of it, I haven’t seen her for a while. In 2010, between shows, she shifted to Kenya for a year to care for an old man with dementia and became caught up in the family tensions. I found it laugh-out-loud funny at times, and I loved her descriptions of Nairobi. (My review here)

How about something going out of Africa (other than Karen Blixen)? Zafara by Michael Allin is the story of the giraffe donated to the King of France Charles X by Muhammed Ali, the Pasha of Egypt in the mid-1820s. In this book he traces Zafara’s journey from her original capture in Sudan, across to Khartoum strapped onto the back of a camel (I’m finding it quite hard to imagine this), then down (up?) the Nile to Alexandria, where she embarked a ship to Marseilles. On arrival at Marseilles, it was decided that after a winter lay-over, she would walk the 900 km to Paris. Her trip, which took 41 days, excited keen interest in the crowds that greeted her at each stop and indeed, the whole of France was convulsed with ‘giraffe-mania’. He tells the history of the fascination with ‘exotic’ animals, the effect of the Enlightenment and the fascination with Egyptology. It’s a real work of love. (My review here).

Or lets go the other way, into Africa. That’s where four young girls, Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth-May are taken by their rabidly evangelical father in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Told alternately by each of the four girls and their mother, it captures well the grip of mania as their father is oblivious to the irrelevance of his message, and the effect on his family as they live as outsiders in a Congo village in the jungle.

The Shadow King (2019) by Maaza Mengiste takes us to another African country – Ethiopia- during the Italian/Ethiopian war in 1935- something that I knew absolutely nothing about. There’s crazed violence in this book too, as Carlo Fucelli, the leader of those Italian troops, indulges in sadism, forcing a Jewish Italian photographer amongst his troops to photograph the atrocities that he commits. Meanwhile, The ‘Shadow King’ of the title is a peasant with an uncanny likeness to the now-exiled Emperor Haile Selassie. While Selassie frets in Bath UK, his ‘shadow’ appears, almost like a vision, before the Ethiopian troops to inspire them. This book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020 and was beaten (rather unjustly, I feel) by Shuggie Bain. (My review here).

So there we go – all in Africa – but moving from Kenya to Egypt, Congo and ending up in Ethiopia.

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘The Book of Form and Emptiness’ to…

First Saturday of the month (again), so it’s Six Degrees of Separation where Kate at BooksAreMyFavouriteandBest chooses a starting book title, then you link to six other books that are associated in your mind somehow. As usual, I haven’t read the starting book, which is Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness which apparently won the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of it.

But I did read Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats. I read it in 2000, before I started this blog, but I must have enjoyed it because I gave it a 9/10. It was about a documentary maker engaged to present a series of documentaries about the health-giving benefits of American beef. As she gradually becomes aware of the chemicals and antibiotics used in the beef industry, her documentaries become increasingly subversive.

If the thought of all these chemicals in your steak and the cruelty of the livestock industry turns you off, you could eat vegetables instead- peas anyone? The Pea Pickers by Eve Langley, written in 1942, has two sisters dressing up as men to join itinerant farm-workers down in Gippsland.

Don Watson takes us down to Gippsland, too, in his book Caledonia Australis (1984). It is the history of the clash between Scots Highlanders who emigrated to Port Phillip, and the Kurnai people of Gippsland. Even though there were similarities between the two groups (clan-based, with land as the basis of their identity, history and legend passed through song and dance, with a co-existent supernatural and natural world), the Highlanders dispossessed the Kurnai, just as they had been dispossessed themselves back in Scotland (review here)

Shuggie Bain grew up in Scotland too, but it was the grey Glasgow of post-Thatcher Britain. His unhappiness sprang not just from the economic gloom that engulfed Scotland, but also his love and powerlessness towards his alcohol-addicted mother (review here).

There was alcohol- lots of it- and deprivation in Jimmy Barnes’ Working Class Boy, which also started in Glasgow. Like Shuggie, he escaped, but ended up in Elizabeth in South Australia and went on to be one of Australia’s biggest rock stars in Cold Chisel, and even more so as a solo performer (especially during lockdown with his home-made videos in his fantastic house, with all the family singing along).

One of Cold Chisel’s famous songs (and one of my favourites) is Flame Trees, which evokes Elspeth Huxley’s The Flame Trees of Thika, her memoir of growing up in British East Africa before the outbreak of WWI. I must re-read it one of these days, now that I have visited Kenya.

So, maybe I didn’t read The Book of Form and Emptiness, but I’ve been to North America, Gippsland, Glasgow and Kenya and I’ve travelled around in the 1840s, 1910s, 1940s, 1960s and 1980s. Not bad.