Six Degrees of Separation – From Hustvedt 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…

What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt. I haven’t read it but the blurb tells me…

This is the story of two men who first become friends in 1970s New York, of the women in their lives, of their sons, born the same year, and of how relations between the two families become strained, first by tragedy, then by a monstrous duplicity which comes slowly and corrosively to the surface.

Sounds rather good! Nothing like a bit of monstrous duplicity to get a plot going!

My first pick is to another book set in New York…

Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell. It’s 1958, and in the hipster scene of Greenwich Village we meet the three characters who take turns to narrate their own stories. Eden, a young woman determined to make it in the male-dominated world of publishing. Rich boy Cliff who thinks he can write and is pretty sure he just needs a break to make it big. And Miles, a black man just about to graduate from Columbia, and working part-time as a messenger-boy for one of the publishing houses. When their lives intersect, a chain of events is started that will change the courses of their lives. Great writing from one of my favourite young authors.

Looking back on it now, I see that New York in the ’50s made for a unique scene. If you lived in Manhattan during that time you experienced the uniqueness in the colors and flavors of the city that were more defined and more distinct from one another than they were in other cities or other times. If you ask me, I think it was the war that had made things this way. All the energy of the war effort was now poured into the manufacture of neon signs, shiny chrome bumpers, bright plastic things, and that meant all of a sudden there was a violent shade of Formica to match every desire. All of it was for sale and people had lots of dough to spend and to top it off the atom bomb was constantly hovering in the back of all our minds, its bright white flash and the shadow of its mushroom cloud casting a kind of imaginary yet urgent light over everything that surrounded us.

An entirely different kind of meal in my next choice…

The Dinner by Herman Koch. Paul and Claire meet for dinner with Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette quite often but, on this occasion, things are more tense than usual because the two families need to talk about an incident involving their children. When it becomes obvious they’re not going to agree on how to handle the situation, the tension begins to grow and the conventions of polite behaviour begin to fall apart. The question the book asks is – how far would you go to protect your children? Disturbing, morally twisted and darkly funny.

Now that we’re at dinner, it’s time to pick the meal…

Braised Pork by An Yu. One morning, Jia Jia finds her husband dead in the bathtub in an odd position that leaves it unclear as to whether his death was accidental or suicide. Beside him is a piece of paper on which he has drawn a strange picture of a fish with a man’s head. As she tries to come to terms with the sudden change to her life and her expected future, Jia Jia finds herself thinking more and more about this fish-man, and decides to retrace her husband’s last trip to Tibet to try to find out its significance. Gradually she finds herself drifting into a place where the lines between reality and dreams become blurred. An excellent debut!

Even vegetarians would admit that the pigs in my next selection deserve to become pork…

Animal Farm by George Orwell. Inspired by a dream, the animals of Manor Farm rebel against their human master and throw him off the land. They agree to work the farm for their own mutual benefit, sharing the work and the produce fairly, each according to his ability and need. Being the most intelligent animals, the pigs take over the planning, both of how to maximise the farm’s yield and of how to protect themselves from outside hostility. But, as we all know, power corrupts…

This allegorical fable didn’t work quite as well for mature FF as it did long ago for young FF. But on both readings it was the story of Boxer the horse who caused the most sniffling. There’s another Boxer in my next choice…

The Cricket on the Hearth by Charles Dickens. We meet little Mrs. Peerybingle, Dot as she is known affectionately to her husband John, as she waits for said husband to return home from his work as a carrier. Dot is a young thing, very young indeed, and John is well into middle-age, but despite this disparity they seem an idyllically happy couple, especially now they have their own little Baby to make their lives complete. The little house is blessed by having a resident Cricket which lives on the hearth and chirps merrily when all is well. But this contented little household is about to be shaken to its core. A stranger arrives who seems to disturb Dot’s usually cheerful state of mind…

Boxer is Mr Peerybingle’s lovely dog, who adds much fun to the proceedings…

He had business elsewhere; going down all the turnings, looking into all the wells, bolting in and out of all the cottages, dashing into the midst of all the Dame Schools, fluttering all the pigeons, magnifying the tails of all the cats, and trotting into the public-houses like a regular customer. Wherever he went, somebody or other might have been heard to cry, “Halloa! here’s Boxer!”

My last pick involves a different kind of cricket…

Selection Day by Aravind Adiga. Two brothers are being groomed by their father to become the greatest cricketers in India. Radha, the elder, with his film-star looks and love of the game, is the better of the two, and it’s accepted that he will be the star. But as they grow up, Radha’s skill diminishes, just a little, but enough for him to be eclipsed by the younger Manju, whose attitude to the game is more ambivalent. This is a story of sibling rivalry, tied in with a wider picture of corruption in society shown through the corruption in cricket. Adiga’s writing is always pure pleasure to read, insightful and serious but always uplifted by delicious touches of humour…

“People thought I had a future as a writer, Manju. I wanted to write a great novel about Mumbai,” the principal said, playing with her glasses. “But then…then I began, and I could not write it. The only thing I could write about, in fact, was that I couldn’t write about the city.

“The sun, which I can’t describe like Homer, rises over Mumbai, which I can’t describe like Salman Rushdie, creating new moral dilemmas for all of us, which I won’t be able to describe like Amitav Ghosh.”

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So from Hustvedt to Adiga via New York, mealtimes, meals, pigs, Boxers, and cricket.

Hope you enjoyed the journey! 😀

Braised Pork by An Yu

Magic as metaphor…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

One morning, Jia Jia finds her husband dead in the bathtub in an odd position that leaves it unclear as to whether his death was accidental or suicide. Beside him is a piece of paper on which he has drawn a strange picture of a fish with a man’s head. As she tries to come to terms with the sudden change to her life and her expected future, Jia Jia finds herself thinking more and more about this fish-man, and decides to retrace her husband’s last trip to Tibet to try to find out its significance. Gradually she finds herself drifting into a place where the lines between reality and dreams become blurred…

This is an oddly compelling novel, beautifully written in a rather understated way. Jia Jia’s dream water world, where the fish-man exists, takes us into magical realist territory – never my favourite place – but again this is somewhat underplayed so that it never begins to feel too much like fantasy. While the “magical” aspects of it are presented as real, they can also be easily read as a metaphor for depression or despair, and the question is whether Jia Jia will become lost in this other world or find her way back to seeing a possible future for herself in this one. The water world is intriguingly ambiguous as a place that is both frightening and yet oddly comforting, where the deeper one goes the less there is, until nothingness becomes the main feature.

I’m not sure I fully got all the nuances of the water world metaphor – my mind is too resolutely rational to easily sink into fantastical symbolism. I wondered whether it arises from Chinese or Tibetan superstition or is wholly a creation of the author, and don’t know the answer to that. But it’s a tribute to how well and subtly it’s done that I was able to go along with it, and even to feel that it added to rather than detracting from the “real” story.

Jia Jia’s marriage was a rather cold one. She had never felt her husband had a passionate love for her – younger than him and beautiful, she was something of a trophy bride and suitable to be a mother for his children. On her side, he, as a settled, wealthy man, represented security, but there are signs also that she felt restricted in the marriage. She is an artist but although her husband was willing for her to continue to paint as a hobby, he did not feel it was appropriate for his wife to try to sell her work. There is a suggestion that he was emotionally controlling and that Jia Jia had reached a point where she was second guessing her own actions with a view to ensuring she met his expectations rather than her own. So his death, shocking as it is, plunges her into a state of uncertainty rather than deep grief – her secure future gone, the children she had anticipated having with him gone too. However, this new loss has taken her back to another, much greater grief – the death of her mother when she was a young girl. As she tries to discover the meaning of the fish-man, she will also learn more about her parents’ marriage and her mother’s life and death.

An Yu

This is a short book, and every word counts. It has an easy flow that makes it very readable – I read it in a couple of sessions and was fully absorbed all the way through. The magical aspects are introduced so gradually that they don’t become fully apparent until around halfway through, and seem to arise very naturally from what we have come to understand of Jia Jia’s state of mind. The rather muted imagery of the water world makes it easier to accept and yet the images linger once the last page is turned. Along the way we get some insight into the position of educated women in contemporary urban China, at a kind of halfway point where they have gained some social freedom but are still often judged within the conventions of more restrictive traditional codes of behaviour. Jia Jia is beautifully complex, with the minor flaws we all have, and her emotional journey is entirely credible. I found myself fully invested in hoping she could find a new path, perhaps even a more fulfilling one.

An excellent début that has left me eager to see how An Yu develops as an author in what I expect to be a glittering future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harville Secker.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 223…

Episode 223

So the first TBR Thursday of the year and the first report since I set my annual target to reduce the TBR by 40. Hmm. Well, I’m rushing to do this before the postman arrives because I fear the situation is going to deteriorate badly when he does. At this precise moment it’s up by 1 to 206. Could be worse… let’s face it, WILL be worse…

Here are a few that are at the top of the heap…

Scottish Classic

Grey Granite by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

The winner of the last Classics Club Spin is this, the third volume of A Scots Quair trilogy. I loved the first one, Sunset Song, and found the second, Cloud Howe, disappointing, so anything could happen with this one… fingers crossed!

The Blurb says: Chris Guthrie and her son, Ewan, have come to the industrial town of Duncairn, where life is as hard as the granite of the buildings all around them. These are the Depression years of the 1930s, and Chris is far from the fields of her youth in Sunset Song. In a society of factory owners, shopkeepers, policemen, petty clerks and industrial labourers, “Chris Caledonia” must make her living as bets she can by working in Ma Cleghorn’s boarding house. Ewan finds employment in a steel foundry and tries to lead a peaceful strike against the manufacture of armaments. In the face of violence and police brutality, his socialist idealism is forged into something harder and fiercer as he becomes a communist activist ready to sacrifice himself, his girlfriend, and even the truth itself, for the cause. Grey Granite is the last and grimmest volume of the Scots Quair trilogy. Chris Guthrie is one of the great characters in Scottish Literature and no reader of Sunset Song and Cloud Howe should miss this last rich chapter in her tale.

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Vintage Crime

The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar

Courtesy of Pushkin Vertigo. I’ve seen Margaret Millar mentioned by various vintage crime fans around the blogosphere, so am looking forward to trying her for myself…

The Blurb says: Amy Kellogg is not having a pleasant vacation in Mexico. She’s been arguing nonstop with her friend and traveling companion, Wilma, and she wants nothing more than to go home to California. But their holiday takes a nightmarish turn when Wilma is found dead on the street below their room-an apparent suicide.

Rupert Kellogg has just returned from seeing his wife Amy through the difficulties surrounding the apparent suicide of her friend in Mexico. But Rupert is returning alone-which worries Amy’s brother. Amy was traumatized by the suicide, Rupert explains, and has taken a holiday in New York City to settle her nerves. But as gone girl Amy’s absence drags on for weeks and then months, the sense of unease among her family changes to suspicion and eventual allegations.

* * * * *

Fiction

Braised Pork by An Yu

Courtesy of Harville Secker via NetGalley. I know nothing about either book or author but I thought it sounded intriguingly strange…

The Blurb says: One morning in autumn, Jia Jia walks into the bathroom of her Beijing apartment to find her husband – with whom she had been breakfasting barely an hour before – dead in the bathtub. Next to him a piece of paper unfolds like the wings of a butterfly, and on it is an image that Jia Jia can’t forget.

Profoundly troubled by what she has seen, even while she is abruptly released from a marriage that had constrained her, Jia Jia embarks on a journey to discover the truth of the sketch. Starting at her neighbourhood bar, with its brandy and vinyl, and fuelled by anger, bewilderment, curiosity and love, Jia Jia travels deep into her past in order to arrive at her future.

Braised Pork is a cinematic, often dreamlike evocation of nocturnal Beijing and the high plains of Tibet, and an exploration of myth-making, loss, and a world beyond words, which ultimately sees a young woman find a new and deeper sense of herself.

* * * * *

Crime

Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin

This has been languishing on my TBR since September 2016, which is odd since I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the couple of books I’ve previously read from this author. This is the first in a quartet, of which I’ve already read the last one – yeah, must stop doing that! This will take me to one of my last Around the World destinations, I hope…

The Blurb says: ‘Can you ever come to terms with a missing child?’ Julia Davidsson has not. Her five-year-old son disappeared twenty years previously on the Swedish island of Oland. No trace of him has ever been found.

Until his shoe arrives in the post. It has been sent to Julia’s father, a retired sea-captain still living on the island. Soon he and Julia are piecing together fragments of the past: fragments that point inexorably to a local man called Nils Kant, known to delight in the pain of others. But Nils Kant died during the 1960s. So who is the stranger seen wandering across the fields as darkness falls?

It soon becomes clear that someone wants to stop Julia’s search for the truth. And that he’s much, much closer than she thinks…

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?