Category Archives: Six Degrees

Six degrees of separation: from Rules of Civility to…..

First Saturday of first month in a New Year: it must be Six Degrees of Separation day. To see how this works, head over to https://booksaremyfavouriteandbest.com/6-degrees-of-separation-meme/ Essentially it’s a free association game where you link a given title, in this case Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility with other books that you have read.

As usual, I have not read the starting book but I have just finished Towles’ wonderful A Gentleman in Moscow. But as I haven’t blogged it yet, I’ll take a different tack, looking at the ideas of rules and civility in their different forms.

A book with a similar injunction on behaviour is How to Live or A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer by Sarah Bakewell. Actually, it’s not Bakewell telling you how to live, but Michel de Montaigne, the prototype blogger, who doodled around philosophical questions in his ‘Essays’ in the sixteenth century.

This book, How to Live, is a biography in the quirky and digressive spirit of Montaigne too.  It, like Montaigne, takes the question “how to live?” and distills twenty answers that Montaigne might have given, as prisms onto Montaigne the man and his work. (See my review here)

Writers are quite fond of telling us how to live and what to do, and the wonderful Elizabeth von Arnim was no exception. Elizabeth von Arnim’s work was my discovery of 2021 and I really enjoyed Gabrielle Carey’s Only Happiness Here: In Search of Elizabeth von Arnim. The author, who was going through a rather rough patch in her life, decided to seek out von Arnim’s advice about happiness because so many of the characters in her books revelled in it.

So, the book is a search for Elizabeth von Arnim’s Principles for Happiness, which she nicely presents as a single page certificate at the end of the book. She finds nine: freedom, privacy, detachment, nature and gardens, physical exercise, a kindred spirit, sunlight, leisure and creativity. Each of these is discussed in turn throughout the book, appearing as a subheading in a book without chapters. This is not just a one-way distillation of wisdom from on high. Carey brings her own life to the search, particularly with the concept of ‘privacy’ which recent events prior to embarking on the book had brought to the front of her own consciousness. (My review here)

The injunction to Come On Shore and We Will Kill You and Eat You All: An Unlikely Love Story is a fairly clear directive on how to live, or at least how to not die. You might not guess it from the title, but it is a combination of memoir and a discussion of border-crossings in colonialism and personal life when an American academic marries Seven, a Maori man, and has three children with him.

She is an American academic, based in Melbourne to write her doctoral thesis, and when she meets and marries Seven, she finds herself enmeshed in Maori family and community obligations that she both observes and critiques as a border-crosser. She is quite open about the fact that there are values and responses that she does not share, or even completely understand, and she feels conflicted about the historical trajectory that has seen her New England family amass wealth and status over another disenfranchised people, the American native. She can see the parallels in her own story, and that of the history of Seven’s family and culture. (My review here)

Not quite so graphic is the concept of ‘good’ behaviour as a marker of ‘civilization’ as spelled out in Penny Russell’s Savage or Civilized: Manners in Colonial Australia. She’s not talking about ‘politeness’ as described in the etiquette manuals that flooded the British Empire, but how manners played out in the everyday lives of individuals, in the way that we acknowledge and respect the humanity of others (or not).

Not everybody cared about manners, but this book concentrates on those who did. It explores what she calls four ‘contexts’: the pastoral frontier; convict society; the domestic world and the new public space that opened up in the the latter part of the nineteenth century. The book is not necessarily chronological, as these ‘contexts’ were continuous throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth century time period, but there is nonetheless a chronological trajectory in the narrative. (My review here)

We can see the concept of ‘rules for civility’ being played out in the life of Anna Murray Powell, the wife of the Chief Justice of the Kings Bench in Upper Canada (i.e. Toronto) in the early 19th century in Katherine McKenna’s A Life of Propriety: Anna Murray Powell and her family 1744-1849. Despite her insistence on ‘propriety’ the good judge and his wife had a series of dud children including her young daughter who became caught up in a highly-scandalous infatuation with an eminent lawyer.

Mrs William Dummer Powell,
Toronto Public Library

The most fascinating chapter was that concerning the ‘unnatural’ daughter, Anne Murray Powell Junior. It is a very nineteenth-century take on the difficulties with parenting a wilful and troubled adolescent daughter. The story of Anne Jnr.’s infatuation with John Beverley Robinson, the future attorney-general, has been told by other historians, but I suspect not with the sensitivity that McKenna brings to the situation. It all ends tragically, and although the expectations and language of these unyielding 19th ‘pillars of society’ 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).

But it’s not only 19th century figures who tell us how to live. Jumping right into our current day is Yuval Noah Harari in his 21 Lessons for the 21st century. Actually the 21 lessons are just chapter headings in a book of five parts: (1)The Technological Challenge; (2) The Political Challenge; (3) Despair and Hope; (4) Truth; (5) Resilience.

This book felt like a series of essays, a bit like a chocolate ripple cake concertinaed together with an introduction and bridging paragraph launching you off into the next essay. I thought that the first two parts of the book were much stronger than the other sections. Even though I am open to deepening my spirituality, his promotion of meditation just felt ‘off’ in this book.

One very sobering thought, though. My grandchild, due in late 2019/2020 has every chance of living into the 22nd century. I really fear for him/her. I don’t think that we’ll learn the 21 lessons here well enough to offer a world better than what we have now. (My review here)

And now that we have passed the first 21 years of the 21st century – Happy New Year full of reading delights!

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).

Six degrees of separation: from ‘What are you going through?’ by Sigrid Nunez to….

First Saturday. Six Degrees of Separation Day. This meme, hosted by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest involves Kate choosing a book title, then you linking the details and your reviews of six books which spring to mind. It is a rare month when I have read her starting book and this month is no exception. She chose What are you going through by Sigrid Nunez, which apparently deals with two friends and an assisted death.


Well, I haven’t read this book by Sigrid Nunez but I have read another of hers, which sounds remarkably similar in theme to Kate’s starting book. I then embark on a succession of books about suicide and death, so it’s a gloomy string of titles this time. You may not be in the mood for such unrelieved sadness.

Sigrid Nunez’s earlier book The Friend (2018) is constructed as a series of short paragraphs, addressed to an unnamed male friend who had recently committed suicide. These paragraphs have been written by a similarly unnamed female narrator who teaches creative writing at a university. The paragraphs to her friend are spoken in the second person “you”.

Another suicide is announced in the opening pages of historian Donna Merwick’s Death of a Notary (1999), the story of 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. The book is written in two halves, the first a conversational present-tense narrative of Janse’s life and death, and the second an extended form of footnotes which I described as “the historian with her hard-hat on”.

Johanna Adorjan’s An Exclusive Love (2010) tells us from the first pages that the author’s grandparents committed suicide together in 1991. The book examines their last day in detail, interspersed with a family history drawn together from the accounts of relatives and her grandparents’ surviving friends.

A Good Day to Die (1998) by Lisa Birnie is about death too, but involves a series of cases and interviews from McCulloch House, a palliative care centre attached to Monash Medical Centre, where Birnie was writer-in-residence. In a way, this does sound a little like Nunez’s What are you going through, but as I haven’t read it, I’m not sure. Written some 20 years before assisted dying legislation was passed in different states in Australia, I wonder how she would feel now.

A young writer, who died too soon is Georgia Blain and her amazing book The Museum of Words (2017). Dying with brain cancer, with a glioblastoma the size of a golf ball, she writes of the experience of her illness, threaded by perverse coincidence with the illnesses of her mentor, friend and human rights activist Rosie Scott, who was dying with exactly the same condition, and her mother who was dying with Alzheimers. This book is in many ways a love letter to all three of these women, to the act of writing, and in her final paragraph, an assertion of gratitude for life itself.

Finally, I feel I need a book with a more uplifting title at least. Dymphna Cusack’s Say No to Death (1951) is set in post-WWII Australia where a young woman, Jan, is diagnosed with tuberculosis, then an incurable disease. This is in the time before Medibank/Medicare, when much of the health spending was being directed towards returned soldiers, and when the discrepancy between private and public health treatment was stark. The book is dated, and is best read as social history, but I must say that it has stayed with me long after I read it.

What a depressing chain. What’s next month’s starting book? Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. I just read the Wikipedia summary: it sounds similarly gloomy. I’ll have to work hard to think of more uplifting links.

Six Degrees of Separation: from ‘The Lottery’ to…

First Saturday of the month, and so it’s Six Degrees of Separation day. To find out how it works, please check out Booksaremyfavouriteandbest where Kate hosts this meme. Basically, Kate chooses a starting book, then you think of other books that lead off from it. This month, it was not a starting ‘book’ but instead a short story: ‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson. As usual, I haven’t read it, so I’m riffing off the idea of a lottery.

A rather attractive montage of book covers don’t you think?

Well, life is a bit of a lottery I suppose, full of ‘what ifs’ and sliding door moments. Francis Spufford’s Light Perpetual takes the historical fact of fifteen children who died when a Woolworths store was bombed in a V-2 attack in London during November 1944. But instead of killing them off in the opening pages, he fictionalizes five of these children and lets them live- in fact, they weren’t even in the store- then follows them throughout their very ordinary lives. It’s a bit like the Seven-Up series but instead of dealing with real people, it’s all imagination. (My review here).

Well they didn’t really die in that book, but in Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, Ursula dies multiple times, each death marked by the appearance of snow before darkness falls. She is strangled by her umbilical cord at birth: or she is not. She catches Spanish influenza: or she does not. She is beaten to death by a brutal husband: or she is not. She is killed in an air-raid attack during the Blitz: or she is not. All a bit of a lottery, really. (My review here)

Elizabeth Marsh, an otherwise completely anonymous but real-life woman, had just the one life but lived it as part of a family that lived in the Caribbean, the Americans, Britain, France, Spain Italy, Brussels, Hamburg, Menorca and Madiera, India, New South Wales, Marrakech, Tunis, Cairo, Sierra Leone and the west coast of Africa. The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh, written by noted historian Linda Colley, is history in its own right, with much to say about mobility, networks, sea-consciousness and the British navy, trade and the intersection of the domestic and intimate with the commercial. (My review here)

But then we have the photographer Amory Clay in William Boyd’s Sweet Caress who is completely imaginary. I must confess that the first thing I did after finishing this book was to jump onto Google to see if there ever was a female photographer called Amory Clay. That’s how convincing this book was, with its mixture of real characters and events. I couldn’t tell whether I had just read a fictionalized biography or whether the whole thing was Boyd’s creation. (My review here)

So how about someone who is real and imaginary? Step forward, Elizabeth Cook, wife of explorer James Cook in Marele Day’s Mrs Cook: The Real and Imagined Life of the Captain’s Wife. The book is organized around a fairly large collection of existing Cook artefacts which, from the the notes at the back of the book, are located in various museums, libraries, churches and parks across the world. Some of them are documentary, but several of them are domestic objects like drinking glasses, teapots, fans. She uses these real-life objects as the tethering posts to which she attaches her fictional narrative, complete with conversation and internal speech. The narrative unfolds chronologically, with each chapter named for the object which appears somewhere in that chapter. (My review, not completely laudatory, here)

And why not finish with a fictionalized history of a real place- my own much-loved Melbourne, known instead by an earlier suggested name Bareheep, complete with walk-on appearances by John Fawkner, John Batman, and Aboriginal Protector Mr Le Soeuf, as well as a slew of fictional characters. In best Voss-meets- Monty-Python tradition, Bright Planet by Peter Mews is an irreverent romp through a young, bawdy town on the edge of the unknown. It’s not true but it’s very carefully researched and, in its way is a critique of colonialism and imperial masculinity. But don’t let that put you off: dammit- it’s just downright good fun. (My review here)

The appeal of lotteries is ‘what if’ and ‘if only’. In my meandering way, I’ve chosen books that play with the idea of chance and circumstance, fact and imagination.

Six Degrees of Separation: from ‘Second Place’ to…

The first Saturday of each month -and its attendant Six Degrees of Separation- seems to come round so quickly! The instructions for this meme can be found on Kate’s Books are My Favourite and Best blog, but essentially Kate chooses the starting title, and then you link six books that you associate with that title. As usual, I haven’t read the starting book Rachel Cusk’s Second Place and I know nothing about it. So going purely on the title, my reviews are of books with a number in the title.

I recently re-read Helen Garner’s The First Stone which has been reissued to mark its 25th Anniversary. Garner’s defence of the Master of Ormond College is uncomfortable today and in that regard, the book has dated badly. But the questions of proportionality, agency/victimhood, generational change, the law, class and feminism are just as pertinent – if not more pertinent- today.

I absolutely love Robyn Annear’s podcast, drawn from articles found in the NLA’s wonderful Trove newspaper database. (You can find it at Nothing on TV) But she has a recent book out as well, called Nothing New: A History of Second Hand. It takes a historical look at second-hand clothing, going right up through opportunity shops and the current Third World clothing trade.

I read Jared Diamond’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee before I started my blog. This was the first of his “big” points, and he picked up on many of the ideas he raised here in his later Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse. He shows his humour here more than in his other books, and he certainly is a man of broad learning and experience.

Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers is only a small book at 155 pages. It is set in the Russian Civil War with four soldiers – Benia, Pavel, Kyabine and Sifra- who are turned out from their regiment to fend for themselves until the weather improves and the fighting commences again. They establish a camp near a lake. Here they live day-by-day, a quiet self-contained peaceful existence in the midst of war, with the prospect of returning to battle hanging over them.

Gail Jones’ Five Bells is set on one summer Saturday, around Circular Quay as four people converge there from somewhere else, and the narrative swings from one character to another, in a sequence, not unlike the chiming of bells. It is very carefully written with almost every phrase and image carefully burnished.

I can’t find one for ‘six’ so I’ll jump ahead to Susan Johnson’s Life in Seven Mistakes. There are two intertwined narratives in the book. The first, written in the present tense, is told from the perspective of Elizabeth, a middle-aged ceramicist on the verge of her first international exhibition. The other narrative strand takes Elizabeth’s parents as they meet in the 1950s, begin courting, marry, have children, become increasingly affluent. Both narrative threads were strong and well-made, and I didn’t find myself regretting when I turned the page to find that the narrative was about to switch again. The dialogue was particularly good, and the author obviously has a sharp, observant eye. The ending had an emotional authenticity, at least for this middle-aged reader.

So there you have it- six books that some how added up to the number ‘seven’. I never was good with figures.

Six degrees of separation: from “Postcards from the Edge” to…

First Saturday. Six Degrees of Separation Day. This meme is hosted by Kate at BooksAreMyFavouriteandBest and it involves drawing links from the book that Kate chooses – in this case, Carrie Fisher’s Postcards from the Edge – and nominating six other books that you mentally link with the starting book.

I don’t remember reading Postcards from the Edge, but I do know who Carrie Fisher the actress was. But another “Miss Fisher” who is far more familiar to me is Kerry Greenwood’s creation Miss Phryne Fisher. I’m not really into mystery novels, but I did read a Phyrne Fisher years ago. I had no idea how to pronounce her name then, but the television series has taken care of that. To be honest, I can’t remember which one I read, but let’s go with Murder on the Ballarat Train because that leads me to….

…Ballarat, and Clare Wright’s fantastic history of women in the goldfields in her Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. This book won the second-ever Stella Prize in 2014, highlighting that the Stella was for both fiction and non-fiction books. It is written in Clare’s trademark warm, bubbly voice but underpinned by serious academic research. It is based on the Eureka Stockade rebellion which took place on the Ballarat goldfields, which leads me to…

Another goldfield, but this time in New Zealand with Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Actually, when I look at my review, I didn’t seem to be particularly impressed with it, and rather disgrunted about its length even though it won the 2013 Booker Prize. As I remember it, much of the action took place on a boat, which leads me to….

Robert Drewe, who is drawn to writing about water. The True Colour of the Sea is a collection of short stories, several of which make reference to the sea. We’re taken to a Pacific Island and to Cuba, as well as more recognizable Australian oceans and beach-side settings. And as a good little Australian school child, I was well and truly drilled in the importance of Captain Cook, one of the greatest navigators of Empire which leads me to….

Mrs Cook: The Real and Imagined Life of the Captain’s Wife by Marele Day. As suggested by the title, this is not a straight biography, but nor is it pure fiction either. The book is organized around a fairly large collection of existing Cook artefacts which, from the the notes at the back of the book, are located in various museums, libraries, churches and parks across the world. She uses these real-life objects as the tethering posts to which she attaches her fictional narrative, complete with conversation and internal speech. I don’t seem to have been terribly impressed by this book either. But another book about the sea that I was impressed with is….

A very recent read, Kathryn Heyman’s Fury. You might think from the front cover and the opening chapter that it’s going to be about a woman clinging onto the boom of a fishing trawler in a howling storm, which is it. But it’s about far more than that. It’s about class, femaleness, sexuality, the power of story and the narratives we tell ourselves.

Thanks, Kate, for hosting this meme, even though I very rarely have read the book you start off with. September is Rachel Cusk’s Second Place, nominated for the 2021 Booker. I don’t like my chances of having read that one, either.

Six degrees of separation: From ‘Eats Shoots and Leaves’ to…..

It’s the first Saturday of the month, so it’s Six Degrees of Separation time. This meme, hosted by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest involves Kate choosing the starting book (in this case, Lynne Truss’ Eats Shoots and Leaves) and then linking six reviews to books that spring to mind.

I have actually read the starting book Eats Shoots and Leaves, but I read it before I started this blog. So off we go… the links will take you to my reviews.

Eats Shoots and Leaves is a tirade about the parlous lack of knowledge about punctuation amongst “people these days”. A similar book is Don Watson’s Death Sentence where he bemoans the managerial sludge which has taken over public life.

Don Watson just wanted to string ’em up for crimes against clarity, but a retribution of a far more serious kind is in David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged . This is a history of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya between 1952 and 1960, which he describes as “a story of atrocity and excess on both sides, a dirty war from which no one emerged with much pride, and certainly no glory.”

Thomas Cromwell wasn’t hanged, but he was beheaded in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy. I just loved all three books, and I marvelled at how well Mantel brought her project to such a skillful end in The Mirror and the Light.

I read M.L.Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans years after everyone else had read it- they even had time to make the movie by the time I got round to it! It is set in the 1920s on a lighthouse off the Western Australian coast, with a sort of Jodi-Piquoltesque moral dilemma.

A different Australian coastline, a hundred years earlier, is explored in Lynette Russell’s Roving Mariners, a history which explores the whaling and sealing industries of the Southern Oceans, an ethnically diverse industry with a strong representation of ‘coloured seamen’: African and Native Americans, Native Canadians, Pacific Islanders, Maori and Aborigines. She explores in particular the relationship between whalers and sealers, and the indigenous women who lived on the islands in the Bass Strait.

Those crashing waves take me to Elsbeth Hardie’s The Passage of the Damned which starts off as a journey of the convict-shpi, the Lady Shore, to New South Wales. Suffice to say, they never got there but ended up in a country far away. You’ll have to read the book to find out where.

I seem to have taken on some rather odd themes here in my links to four non-fiction and two fiction books. Death sentences, hangings, beheadings, damnation, – or more benignly, lots of ocean waves. Perhaps it’s because it’s winter and I’m missing the beach.

Six degrees of separation: from Bass Rock to….

First Saturday of the month, and so it’s Six Degrees of Separation day. To find out how it works, please check out Booksaremyfavouriteandbest where Kate hosts this meme. Basically, Kate chooses a starting book, then you think of other books that lead off from it.

This month Kate leads with Evie Wyld’s Bass Rock, which won the Stella Prize this year.

As usual, I haven’t read it, although I did read All the Birds, Singing which is set on a farm on a dour, dank, unnamed British island, and has the motif of birds running through it as the narrative switches between the island and outback Australia.

Another book with a bird theme running alongside another narrative is Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with Birds, which I enjoyed much more than Wyld’s book. It, too, is set on a farm but this time in Cohuna in the 1950s with a soundtrack of magpies and kookaburras accompanying a story about neighbours. I described it in my review as quirky and sly.

Another quirky and sly book based on a ‘nature’ motif is Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus, where an antipodean Scheherazade-like figure weaves stories from the landscape. Each story is named for one of the eucalyptus trees planted on a property. The first time I read it, I was underwhelmed: the second time I read it, I thought it was absolutely brilliant. Unfortunately, both reads took place before I started my blog.

Speaking of trees, there’s Sophie Cunningham’s collection of essays, City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest. Each of the essays, many of which have been published elsewhere previously, is prefaced by a pencil sketch of a particular tree- the Coast Live Oak in America, the Giant Sequoia, the Ginkgo, Eucalyptus, Moreton Bay Fig, Coolibah etc. Then follows a short piece of writing about the tree, sometimes interwoven with personal reflection or historical anecdote. A more substantial essay then ensues, not necessarily closely related to the shorter preface.

Sophie Cunningham wrote about trees, but the mother in Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree climbed a tree instead, and there she received enlightenment, just as her son Sohrab was hanged under the instructions of the Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini. Set in Iran, the book combines historical detail, magic realism and a family story.

Greengages are plums and that leads me to another even grimmer book, set this time in Ceausescu’s Romania. I found Herta Muller’s The Land of Green Plums oppressive and disturbing and rather unfortunately- very memorable, which is why it ended up on this list.

I seem to have alternated between darkness and light a bit here, and travelled from Scotland, the outback, Iran and Romania.

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Beezus and Ramona’ to ‘Another Brooklyn’

First of May; First Saturday in the month, and so Six Degrees of Separation Day. This meme, hosted on BooksaremyFavouriteandBest involves Kate choosing a book and then participants suggest other books that they have read that spring to mind. You can learn more about it and join in here.

As usual, I haven’t read the starting book which this month is Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary. Haven’t read it: haven’t even heard of it.

But I do know Beverly Cleary from her book Fifteen. When I was probably thirteen or fourteen myself, I borrowed this book again and again from the school library. This is the paperback edition that the school library held. I was surprised to see that it was published in 1956, and so the book itself would have been about 15 years old when I read it. It was a very American boy-meets-girl story, with cheer squads and soda fountains as I remember it. For the purposes of this Six Degrees, it set me off thinking about similar coming-of-age books about adolescent girls that I loved either at the time, or have come to love as an adult. So that’s the theme I’m going to follow

Another book that I loved and reborrowed continually was Dodie Smith´s I Capture the Castle. I really can´t work out why my parents didn´t actually buy the book, given that I had it on almost continual loan! I now have two copies of it, although I haven’t got round to re-reading it. There´s a young girl narrating this story, too, set in England in a decaying castle where she and her older sister become obsessed with the American family who move in next door. (That’s interesting- these were the front covers that I remember, and they’re both Peacock Books, the Penguin Young Adult imprint).

Another book- or rather, series of books – that I became obsessed with probably forty years later was the Neapolitan Quarter, by Elena Ferrante (my review here). I think that Ferrante captures so well the ambivalence of girl-on-girl friendship and the pain of infatuation. I’m not particularly obsessed with who the actual author is, but I really cannot believe that it would be anyone other than a woman. I’ve really enjoyed the television series as well.

Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry (my review here) was her first, highly autobiographical book, with many parallels with her later autobiography that was filmed by Jane Campion as ‘An Angel at My Table.’ This fictional account has an interesting narrative structure, starting off with a description of the Withers family’s straightened circumstances and the tragedy that defined them, then splitting off into three very different narrative threads tracing through the lives of the three children. I read it while I was over in New Zealand a few years back, when I visited Janet Frame’s home town Oamaru, which she fictionalized as Waimaru in this book.

A more recent coming-of-age book is Emily Bitto’s The Strays (my review here). It reminded me a bit of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between or Ian McEwan’s Atonement in that you have an adult narrator, looking back to their adolescence, when they became embroiled in adult betrayal that they didn’t understand at the time. In this case, young Lily, an only child of very quiet, middle class parents, is fascinated by her friend Eva’s artistic family, very reminiscent of the real-life Heide group of artists. I loved the exuberance of the Trentham family- their loudness and transgressiveness- and the mounting tension as you realized that things were not going to end well.

August, the African-American narrator of Another Brooklyn (my review here) has been taken to Brooklyn by her increasingly-religious father, after her mother’s death. At first she is forbidden to leave their flat, and she observes, and later joins, a group of girls. Each of the girls in this group of four friends has to negotiate her own way through parental demands and inadequacies and each has to find her way into adulthood.

So- all fiction this month, and each one of them a coming-of-age story from a young girl’s perspective.

Six degrees of separation: From ‘Shuggie Bain’ to….

This month I have actually read Shuggie Bain the book that starts off this month’s Six Degrees of Separation meme. Look at the ‘rules’ for Six Degrees of Separation on Kate’s Books are my Favourite and Best website but essentially, Kate chooses a starting book, then you link other titles that spring to mind.

I know that Shuggie Bain won the Booker Prize, but I found it reminding me a lot of Angela’s Ashes. I read Angela’s Ashes long before I started blogging and it was certainly a best-seller when it was published in 1996. It wasn’t eligible for the Booker Prize at the time because the author was American, and I don’t know if it would have won it if it were. However, it’s one of the few books that I have read twice, drawn in when flicking through the pages one day.

A similar book is Kevin Kearn’s Dublin Tenement Life: An Oral History. In my review, I likened it to ‘Angela’s Ashes: The Documentary’ because many of the same themes emerge. There are some introductory chapters that explain the rise of the tenement and a chapter that encapsulates many of the themes that are repeated in the oral histories that follow. The book was a bit repetitive, but it was interesting social history.

Another social history/memoir is Lynsey Hanley’s Estates: An intimate history, written by a woman who grew up in the Birmingham housing estate at Chelmsley Wood in the 1960s and 1970s. Even though It is mainly a historical approach, interwoven with her own experience, with closing chapters that bring us up to the present day.

A more frightening aspect of living in an apartment tower is found in Karina Sainz Borgo’s It Would Be Night in Caracas. Set in present-day Venezuela, a young journalist who has returned to Caracas after her mother dies, finds her apartment taken over by a female-led gang. It is poignant and frightening to see a formerly-wealthy country spiralling into collapse and lawlessness.

At least the people in The Death of Vishnu by Mani Suri could leave their apartment building in Mumbai. But in doing so, they had to encounter their aging, alcoholic houseboy who lay dying on the steps. We move from apartment to apartment as the residents bicker over what to do with the dying Vishnu.

Now, could you get further away from a Mumbai apartment building than a grand old English house? (Well, actually, possibly the grand old English house was purchased with money made in India, as William Dalrymples The Anarchy shows us). But it’s not the building, but the idea of an old servant, Stevens, that makes me mentally link these two books. The book won the Booker Prize in 1989 and was made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

I started with one Booker Prize winner, and finished with another. I’ve gone from Scotland to Ireland to England, to Caracas, to Mumbai, and back again to England. What an exhausting trip!