Six Degrees of Separation – From Martin to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before…

This month’s starting book is Shopgirl by Steve Martin, a book I’ve not only not read, but have never heard of before! The blurb tells me…

Lonely, depressed, Vermont transplant Mirabelle Buttersfield, who sells expensive evening gloves nobody ever buys at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills and spends her evenings watching television with her two cats. She attempts to forge a relationship with middle-aged, womanizing, Seattle millionaire Ray Porter while being pursued by socially inept and unambitious slacker Jeremy.

Hmm… not for me, I think, though it sounds quite amusing. But any mention of evening gloves inevitably makes me think of the wonderful…

American Pastoral. Roth’s brilliant novel tells the story of Seymour “Swede” Levov and the collapse of the 1950s American Dream. Swede owns a factory where skilled craftspeople lovingly create luxury gloves for the fashionable, but his daughter is of a different generation – the Vietnam generation that blew the old certainties apart as surely as Swede’s daughter blew up the local Post Office…

“Those assumptions you live with. You’re still in your old man’s dream-world, Seymour, still up there with Lou Levov in glove heaven. A household tyrannized by gloves, bludgeoned by gloves, the only thing in life – ladies’ gloves! Does he still tell the great one about the woman who sells the gloves washing her hands in a sink between each color? Oh where oh where is that outmoded America, that decorous America where a woman had twenty-five pairs of gloves? Your kid blows your norms to kingdom come, Seymour, and you still think you know what life is!”

As part of my GAN Quest, American Pastoral was the first book to which I awarded the title of The Great American Novel. Only one other novel shares that honour so far…

Toni Morrison’s wonderful Beloved. This story of one woman’s escape from slavery to liberty and the sacrifices she makes along the way is full of anger and sorrow, and some of the most savagely beautiful writing I have read.

They sang of bosses and masters and misses; of mules and dogs and the shamelessness of life. They sang lovingly of graveyards and sisters long gone. Of pork in the woods; meal in the pan; fish on the line; cane, rain and rocking chairs.

And they beat. The women for having known them and no more, no more; the children for having been them but never again. They killed a boss so often and so completely they had to bring him back to life to pulp him one more time. Tasting hot mealcake among pine trees, they beat it away. Singing love songs to Mr Death, they smashed his head. More than the rest, they killed the flirt who folks called Life for leading them on. Making them think the next sunrise would be worth it; that another stroke of time would do it at last.

Oprah Winfrey as Sethe revealing the “tree” on her back

Much though we sometimes like to pretend, slavery isn’t a thing of the past though its forms may be a little different today. Which made me think of…

The Night Ferry by Michael Robotham. The plot of this one is hard-hitting, involving illegal immigration, sex trafficking and forced commercial surrogacy. The trail takes police detective Alisha Barba to the sleaziest parts of Amsterdam, where she’s soon in trouble not just with the bad guys but with her superior officers back home. But she’s become too involved to pull back – too many lives are dependent on her, some of them very vulnerable. Robotham doesn’t hold back in the picture he gives of the exploitation of women trafficked as sex slaves from some of the war-torn places of the world and he has clearly done his research as thoroughly as always.

The book stars with Alisha attending a school reunion. Which made me think of another book that begins that way…

John Gaspard’s The Bullet Catch, the second in his excellent Eli Marks series. This is a series of murder mysteries with the hugely likeable stage magician Eli taking on the role of detective. A little too gritty to be cosy, these are nonetheless on the lighter side of crime fiction, filled with warmth and humour. Each book is named after a magic trick and Gaspard is brilliant at making the tricks come to life on the page while respecting the magicians’ code not to reveal how they’re done…

Another series set in the world of stage magic began with…

The Zig-Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths, book 1 in her great Stephens and Mephisto series. Edgar Stephens and Max Mephisto worked together during WW2 in a top-secret army unit dubbed the Magic Men, with the aim of misleading the enemy. Now, shortly after the war, Max has gone back to his old role of stage magician while Edgar has become a policeman in Brighton. When the various body parts of a beautiful young woman turn up in three boxes, it makes Edgar think of an old magic trick so he turns to his friend Max for help in solving the crime…

(The Zig-Zag Girl trick…)

Griffiths brings the post-war Brighton setting brilliantly to life. My last book is also set there…

Erin Kelly’s The Ties That Bind marries together two periods in the life of this ever-changing town – the ’50s and ’60s, when it was home to some seriously violent gangsters (the location, of course, for Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock), and today, when it has a brighter reputation as the UK’s gay capital and as the place where weary Londoners go to relax, soak up a little sea air, and party. Kelly shows that the town still hides a murky underbelly beneath the surface glitter though, in this well-written thriller with elements of redemption and revenge.

Brighton’s iconic West Pier

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So Martin to Kelly, via gloves, Great American Novels, slavery, school reunions, stage magicians and Brighton!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

GAN Quest: American Pastoral by Philip Roth

american pastoralRude awakening…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov has it all. A star athlete in his college days, owner of a successful glove-making factory, married to a former Miss New Jersey, and living in the big country house he always dreamed of, he is the embodiment of the 1950s American Dream. And specifically, the immigrant dream – Swede is third generation Jewish-American, each generation having become a little more successful, a little less Jewish, better educated, more assimilated, more American. And why shouldn’t that progression continue with the fourth generation, Swede’s daughter Merry? Born to every advantage, cosseted and loved, what causes this girl to become involved with the anti-Vietnam War movement and, aged 16, bomb the village store and, in passing, kill a local doctor? This is the question that torments Swede during all the long years that Merry is on the run.

This is called a polishing machine and that is called a stretcher and you are called honey and I am called Daddy and this is called living and the other is called dying and this is called madness and this is called mourning and this is called hell, pure hell, and you have to have strong ties to be able to stick it out, this is called trying-to-go-on-as-though-nothing-has-happened and this is called paying-the-full-price-but-in-God’s-name-for-what, this is called wanting-to-be-dead-and-wanting-to-find-her-and-to-kill-her-and-to-save-her-from-whatever-she-is-going-through-wherever-on-earth-she-may-be-at-this-moment, this unbridled outpouring is called blotting-out-everything and it does not work

The story is told by Roth’s alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who appears in several of his novels. In this one, Zuckerman was at school in Roth’s old hunting grounds of Newark with the Swede’s younger brother at the time when the Swede was winning glory on the football and baseball fields. To the young Nathan, he was a hero whose sporting skills lifted the morale of the community in the final years of WW2, and who was living proof that success was attainable for anyone from any background in the great meritocracy of the US. It’s only after the Swede’s death in the present day (late 1990s) that Zuckerman hears the story of Merry and the bombing. So the reader knows from the beginning that the story Zuckerman tells is not in fact ‘true’, except for the barest of bones, but instead Zuckerman’s imagining of it. The struggle to make sense of it all is in fact Zuckerman’s rather than the Swede’s. As a result, neither Swede nor Merry are fully real, not even in the fictional sense of that word. They are representations – Swede of the ’50s and Merry of the ’60s. Though that in itself is too simplistic, since Merry actually represents the most extreme aspects of the ’60s – the ones that leave Swede (i.e. Zuckerman) baffled and horrified.

Newark race riots
Newark race riots

Zuckerman talks of the Swede as ‘bland’, an ‘incognito’, a ‘human platitude’. He is stuck in his ’50s rut, a man so pleased with his life that he can’t see beyond its boundaries. His reaction to the race riots in Newark is one of incomprehension – it has never occurred to him to try to see the world through other people’s eyes, or to consider that the path to success might not be as easy for others as for him. He assumes his values are right and therefore shared by everyone. When Merry plants her bomb, she doesn’t just destroy the village post office, she smashes the smug certainties of Swede’s world and, by extension, destroys the ’50s American Dream he epitomises.

Merry exists not as herself, but only as Swede’s idea of her, and as a result her motivations are as incomprehensible to the reader as to her father. At first she appears as the idealised child he adores and later as the object of his anguish and bewilderment. She comes to represent everything Swede doesn’t understand about this new generation: who look outwards rather than in, who are contemptuous of the values of their parents, who get enraged about things that don’t directly affect them, who think the political system has failed them, and some of whom resort to violence to achieve their political aims. As she grows into adolescence and then adulthood, she turns into a monster, almost feral in her rage against everything Swede holds dear – especially the America that he loves. And when Swede finally finds her again, many years later, she has transformed into something so disgusting in his eyes that she appears barely human. And his tragedy is that still he loves her.

He stood over her, facing her, his power pinned to the wall, rocking almost imperceptibly back on the heels of his shoes, as though in this way he might manage to take leave of her through the wall, then rocking forward onto his toes, as though at any moment to grab her, to whisk her up into his arms and out.

"March Against Death" - November 1969 "Two, four, six, eight - now it's time to smash the state!" (Photo: DC Public Library Washington Star Collection)
“March Against Death” – November 1969
“Two, four, six, eight – now it’s time to smash the state!”
(Photo: DC Public Library Washington Star Collection)

The writing is superb – Roth at the very top of his game. Scalpel-like as he performs his dissection of this man, but filled with emotional power as he describes the Swede’s feelings of grief and despair. Beyond the two I’ve concentrated on, there is a whole cast of characters, each one carefully crafted to fill out Swede’s world. Dawn, his wife, desperate not to be forever pigeon-holed as a former beauty queen, but finding in the end that her beauty is a shield she can hide behind when her world collapses. Swede’s father, venting his anger and frustration at the world that made his grand-daughter into a monster. And the ambiguous Rita Cohen, the revolutionary friend of Merry who tortures and taunts the Swede, playing on the vulnerability of his desperate love for his daughter, using sex as an ugly weapon in her desire to humiliate.

The descriptive writing is just as strong. Swede’s pride in his business is shown through the lovingly detailed descriptions of every aspect of the glove-making process, from selection of the skins through the stretching and cutting to sewing and fitting. This is a place where craftspeople reverently produce items of beauty and quality for a world in which women still keep a glove drawer, with different shades and lengths to match each outfit – a ’50s style that also faded as the ’60s progressed, with Jackie Kennedy being perhaps the last great glove-wearing icon.

jackie-kennedy-gloves

“I love you,” he was telling Merry, “you know I would look for you. You are my child. But how could I find you in a million years, wearing that mask and weighing eighty-eight pounds and living the way you live? How could anyone have found you, even here? Where were you?” he cried, as angry as the angriest father ever betrayed by a daughter or a son, so angry he feared that his head was about to spew out his brains just as Kennedy’s did when he was shot. “Where have you been? Answer me!”

Philip Roth (Photo: Jenny Anderson/Getty Images)
Philip Roth
(Photo: Jenny Anderson/Getty Images)

This is an astounding book, well worthy of the Pulitzer it won in 1998. There’s enough realism in it to read it simply as a powerful and often deeply moving story of parental love and despair, but it’s true power is in Roth’s depiction of the massive culture shift that happened somewhere in the sixties, the rebellion of child against parent, youth against authority, citizen against state. And, fairly uniquely, we’re seeing it not from the perspective of the young looking back either with indulgence or anger at the past, but from the point of view of that past, that portion of society who saw the future unfold in ways they couldn’t understand, their values rejected by the children they had nurtured, their dreams crashing around them.

* * * * * * *

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagWritten in 1997, the book is set in the recent past. I reckon the ’60s and their cultural upheaval were still reverberating strongly in the ’90s, and there’s no doubt that the Vietnam war was still at the forefront of the American consciousness, and influencing policy. So – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagWhile both the failure of the American Dream of the ’50s and the upheaval of the ’60s have been written about many times, what makes this one feel innovative to me is that we see it happening from the point of view of the past looking forwards, while knowing that it’s actually being written from the present looking back. Also, the device of Zuckerman imagining the story from the few facts he knows gives Roth the freedom to present his characters as representations without them feeling like stereotypes or puppets. This triple layering – Swede/Zuckerman/Roth – is crucial to the success of the book. So – achieved.

Must be superbly written.

us flagI don’t always find Roth’s writing superb, but in this one he moves me, horrifies me, enrages me, disgusts me, and frequently leaves me breathless with the sheer power of his prose. Achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

us flagD’you know, for the first time I’m strongly tempted? Although the book is set in a very specific part of the culture – the Jewish immigrant community in Newark – the themes transcend the setting. The smashing of the ’50s dream, the generational shift, the diminishing of the relevance of tradition, the rise in direct action political protest, the growing participation of women in the political and intellectual arenas (not to mention their sexual liberalisation), the loss of respect for authority, the race riots, the impact of Vietnam – these are the things that define the ’60s for all of America, surely? In the same way as Swede is a representation of the ’50s, his small society is a microcosm of all America. I’m going to tentatively say – achieved! (Though I may change my mind after hearing what you have to say…)

* * * * * * * * *

So, (despite the fact that I still prefer both Gatsby and Revolutionary Road), for achieving 5 stars and 5 GAN flags, I hereby declare this book not just to be a great novel and A Great American Novel, but to be my first…

The Great American Novel

American Pastoral

Philip Roth

 

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Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 34…

Episode 34

 

I’ve decided the problem is not so much the length of my TBR as my attitude to it. So instead of wailing and gnashing my teeth, this week I’d like to invite you to…

 

CELEBRATE THE TBR!

 

114

 

114 lovely books, all sitting there waiting…just for me!

 

Big books, little books, crime books, thrillers, classics, fiction, factual! Mine, all mine!

HahahahahaHA!

Thousands of pages! HUNDREDS of thousands of words! Millions – nay! ZILLIONS of letters all beautifully sorted just for me!

HahahahahaHAHAHA!

* * * * *

(Oh dear, must get a move on before they come round with the medication again…)

Here’s just a few of the soon-to-be-reads…

* * * * *

Crime

 

treachery in bordeauxCourtesy of NetGalley, this is the first in a series of mysteries set in the wine industry in France. I have already read a later one, Grand Cru Heist, and enjoyed it so hoping this will be good too…

The Blurb saysIn modern-day Bordeaux, there are few wine estates still within the city limits. The prestigious grand cru Moniales Haut-Brion is one of them. When some barrels turn, world-renowned winemaker turned gentleman detective Benjamin Cooker starts asking questions. Is it negligence or sabotage? Who would want to target this esteemed vintner? Cooker and his assistant Virgile Lanssien search the city and the vineyards for answers, giving readers an inside view of this famous wine region.

* * * * *

 

life or deathAgain courtesy of NetGalley, the newest thriller from Michael Robotham, due out next week in the UK. This isn’t part of his Joe O’Loughlin series apparently – it’s a standalone…

The Blurb saysWhy would a man escape from prison the day before he’s due to be released?

Audie Palmer has spent a decade in prison for an armed robbery in which four people died, including two of his gang. Five million dollars has never been recovered and everybody believes that Audie knows where the money is. For ten years he has been beaten, stabbed, throttled and threatened almost daily by fellow inmates and prison guards, who all want to answer this same question, but suddenly Audie vanishes, the day before he’s due to be released.

Everybody wants to find Audie, but he’s not running. Instead he’s trying to save a life . . . and not just his own.

* * * * *

Fiction

american pastoralThe next one for the Great American Novel Quest, this will be a re-read for me. I have a love/hate relationship with Roth, but I seem to recall loving this one. There is a description in it of how to make leather gloves that is so beautifully written I still think of it every time I see a woman wearing them…

The Blurb saysGood-looking, prosperous Swede, who has inherited his father’s glove factory in Newark, N.J., and married a former beauty queen, is not stupid, merely fulfilled. Is it this that gives him insufficient means to comprehend the Newark riots of 1967 or the transformation of his beloved daughter into a venomous teenage radical, a child capable of cold-blooded terrorism? Roth’s own means are more than sufficient. A writer who is unafraid to linger in the minds of furious men, he leads us fearlessly through this man’s grief, bewilderment and rage.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

 

Great American Novel Quest

Let the Quest begin…

 

Last year I somewhat presumptuously declared in my review that Patrick Flanery’s Fallen Land should be on the shortlist for the title of Great American Novel. One of the reviewers I often chat to on Amazon US asked me which other books I would shortlist. After some humming and hawing, I had to admit that my knowledge of American literature was so woeful that I couldn’t come up with anything other than The Great Gatsby and Roth’s American Pastoral. This led to a series of conversations, both on Amazon and here, about which books were deserving of the title. So now it’s time for me to get better acquainted with some of these books…let the Great American Novel Quest begin!

Great American Novel Quest

Over the next year and probably beyond that, I propose to read a contender once a month or so. Of course, life might intervene as it has a habit of doing, so this will be a fairly flexible target. During various conversations, I’ve built up a little list of recommendations (see below). I’m hoping blog readers will join in by adding to the list of contenders or telling me why the books already on the list shouldn’t be on it after all.

But the first question is – What qualities must a book possess to make it a Great American Novel?

Wikipedia says:

The “Great American Novel” is the concept of a novel that is distinguished in both craft and theme as being the most accurate representation of the spirit of the age in the United States at the time of its writing or in the time it is set. It is presumed to be written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen. The author uses the literary work to identify and exhibit the language used by the American people of the time and to capture the unique American experience, especially as it is perceived for the time. In historical terms, it is sometimes equated as being the American response to the national epic.

Hmm! I like some of that – the representative theme, the American author – but dislike some. I wouldn’t want to restrict it to exclude books written in standard American English, or even in British English for that matter. And I don’t feel it should necessarily be epic in scope. Also, America is such a huge concept with so many different parts that I feel that to ask one book to capture the ‘American experience’ might be too much.

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary says:

any novel that is regarded as having successfully represented an important time in US history or one that tells a story that is typical of America.

Again hmm! That seems pretty broad to me…too broad.

An article by Kevin Hayes in the Huffington Post gives the background to the creation of the phrase as an advertising slogan. Hayes suggests that a GAN should be a ‘national epic in prose’ that would ‘encapsulate the nation’. Hayes adds another requirement:

The Great American Novel should not only be diverse in terms of its subject but also in terms of its aesthetics. A truly great novel requires daring. To write The Great American Novel an author faces a double challenge. He or she must not only tell a story that encapsulates the nation but also tell it in a new way, inventing a mode and method of storytelling different from what other novelists have done before. Novelists with the ambition, talent, and daring to accept this challenge come along only once or twice a century.

No hmm! this time. I entirely disagree with this statement. I find innovative storytelling methods usually lead to books that last for a season rather than eternity, and for me any novel that aspires to greatness must be both timeless and a pleasure to read. (Ulysses, for example, uses innovative language – but is also reputed to be the book that is most often abandoned unfinished.) Vernacular if appropriate, beauty in the use of language certainly, but otherwise stick to the tried and tested. Let the insight be the thing that takes precedence.

So here are the criteria I’ll be judging the books against – each one achieved will gain the book 1 GAN star:-

  1. Must be written by an American author or, since the US continues to be a hub of immigration, an author who has lived long enough in the country to have assimilated its culture.
  2. The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing – therefore, it might be set in a historical (or even futuristic) timeframe but must still say something about the contemporary American experience.
  3. It must be innovative and original in theme – difficult to define originality in words but I suspect we all know it when we come across it. No derivations, no ‘school of’, no banality.
  4. Must be superbly written – I don’t care how insightful it might be; if it’s dull or badly-written, it’s out.
  5. For the elusive fifth star, it must capture the entire ‘American experience’. That is to say, it must seek to include all the various very different aspects of culture that make up the American whole. I suspect this will be an almost impossible challenge, but I hope to be proved wrong.

 

What do you think? Do you agree or do you think I’m starting off on the wrong track? Are there criteria you would add – or remove?

Here are the books that are currently on my list. The first 4 I already own, so they’ll be being read first. After that, the list is subject to change – I’m hoping you’ll help by telling me which books you think should be added and which you think don’t deserve to be considered…

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald – starting off easily with a re-read of a book I already know and love. ‘A portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess, Gatsby captured the spirit of the author’s generation and earned itself a permanent place in American mythology.’

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates‘Like F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, this novel conveys, with brilliant erudition, the poverty at the soul of many wealthy Americans and the exacting cost of chasing the American Dream.’

The Road by Cormac McCarthy‘The Road is an unflinching exploration of human behavior – from ultimate destructiveness to extreme tenderness.’

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain‘All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn, It’s the best book we’ve had.’ –Ernest Hemingway

The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford‘In his third Frank Bascombe novel Richard Ford contemplates the human character with wry precision. Graceful, expansive, filled with pathos but irresistibly funny, The Lay of the Land is a modern American masterpiece.’

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon‘Complete with golems and magic and miraculous escapes and evil nemeses and even hand-to-hand Antarctic battle, it pursues the most important questions of love and war, dreams and art, across pages brimming with longing and hope.’

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson ‘In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames’s life, he begins a letter to his young son, a kind of last testament to his remarkable forebears.’

A Hemingway novel – any suggestions for which one, bearing in mind the American theme? Should Hemingway be included at all?

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck‘A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America.’

Empire Falls by Richard Russo‘In Empire Falls Richard Russo delves deep into the blue-collar heart of America in a work that overflows with hilarity, heartache, and grace.’

American Pastoral by Philip Roth – this will be another re-read. ‘In American Pastoral, Philip Roth gives us a novel of unqualified greatness that is an elegy for all the twentieth century’s promises of prosperity, civic order, and domestic bliss.’

(All blurb extracts are from Amazon.)

* * * * * * * * *

Thanks in particular to Roger Brunyate and Matt Geyer for most of these recommendations. Both Roger and Matt review on Amazon US and I always enjoy our bookie discussions there. (Matt also comments here occasionally, and is the author of his own book, Strays – you can see my review here and, before your quite natural cynicism kicks in, the review was written before Matt and I became online friends.)