Six Degrees of Separation – From Funder 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…

Stasiland by Anna Funder. I haven’t read this non-fiction book, but here’s what Goodreads tells me…

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell; shortly afterwards the two Germanies reunited, and East Germany ceased to exist. In a country where the headquarters of the secret police can become a museum literally overnight, and one in 50 East Germans were informing on their countrymen and women, there are a thousand stories just waiting to get out. Anna Funder tells extraordinary tales from the underbelly of the former East Germany…

Sounds rather good and has a zillion glowing reviews. Hmm, one for the wishlist, I think!

East Germany of course was communist before the fall of the Wall, and that leads me to my first book…

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth. The story of Ira Ringold, a Jewish-American radio star who, at the height of his stardom marries Eve Frame, once a Hollywood starlet and now also a radio star. The marriage is disastrous and, when Ira finally leaves her, Eve publishes a memoir in which she claims he is a communist taking orders from the Kremlin and betraying America. In the McCarthy era, this accusation alone is enough to destroy Ira’s career. The second book of Roth’s wonderful American Trilogy.

America’s not too keen on communism, but the country in my next book would claim to have made communism work…

Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong. The first in the long-running Inspector Chen series, this tells of the murder of a young woman who was a model worker under the Communist regime. The author’s depiction of Shanghai and the lives of the people there in the 1990s is fascinating and detailed, describing food, clothing, customs and the rapidly changing face of Chinese life at a point where capitalism was beginning to be encouraged after years of strict communism, but where the state still had a stranglehold on every aspect of life.

China can’t claim to be the first communist state, though – that honour belongs to the country in my next book…

The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus. A book that takes us from one death-bed – Tolstoy’s – to another – Lenin’s, and along the way tells us of the early development of the propaganda methods used by Lenin and Stalin. Told with all of Kalfus’ sparkling storytelling skills, this has a great mix of light and shade – the underlying darkness leavened by occasional humour and some mild but deliciously macabre horror around the death-bed and embalming scenes.

Communism may have failed fairly spectacularly in Russia but that doesn’t stop revolutionaries attempting to impose it in other countries from time to time, like the country in my next book…

Springtime in a Broken Mirror by Mario Benedetti. Santiago is a political prisoner in Montevideo, Uruguay, in the 1970s, following the failed revolution there. His family and friends are scattered, exiled from the country they call home. This is a beautifully written book and profoundly moving. Although it’s based around the revolutions of South America, it is not about politics as such; rather, it is about the impact that political upheaval has on the individuals caught up in it. It’s about home and exile, loneliness, longing, belonging. It’s about loyalty and love, and hope, and sometimes despair.

The communists may not have been able to hang on to power in Uruguay, but unfortunately they have a stranglehold in the country in my next book…

The Accusation by Bandi. This is a collection of seven short stories written between 1989 and 1995 under the regimes of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in North Korea, and smuggled out of the country to be published in the West. The stories are strongly polemical, as would be expected under the circumstances, and highly critical of the dehumanisation under the regime, where every aspect of people’s lives and even thoughts are dictated and controlled through fear, and truth is manipulated in true Orwellian fashion.

One day, hopefully, the 38th Parallel will no longer form a divide between North and South, and Korea will be united again as one free democratic state. Which brings me back to Berlin…

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré. The classic that changed the tone of spy thrillers – a bleak, cold portrayal of the work of spies far removed from the glamour of James Bond and his like, as world weary British spymaster Leamas takes on his East German counterparts. Le Carré shows a moral equivalence between the agents on both sides of the wall rather than the good Brits/evil enemies portrayal that was more standard in fiction before his time. Both sides are shown as using methods that are murky at best and the question that underpins it is the old one of whether the ends justify the means.

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So from Funder to le Carré via communism, communism, communism, communism, communism and communism!

Hope you enjoyed the journey! 😀

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth

Downfall…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the story of Ira Ringold, a Jew from Newark who becomes a big star on radio and then is destroyed in the period of the McCarthy witch-hunts. This is the story of a failed marriage; of toxic family relationships; of male adolescence and male role models and masculinity; of morality and its lack; of ageing; of literature; of anti-Semitism; of politics; of fanaticism; of hypocrisy; of betrayal. This is the story of a particular America in a particular time and place; a story that presages the America of today.

I Married a Communist is the second volume of what is known as Roth’s American Trilogy, preceded by American Pastoral, which I declared to be The Great American Novel, and followed by The Human Stain. They are not a trilogy in the sense that the word tends to be used today – each of these stands complete on its own, connected only in the sense that the three together are Roth’s attempt to make sense of America at the end of the 20th century by looking back over the decades of the mid-century. In each the story is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, a barely disguised alter-ego of Roth himself.

When Murray Ringold, once Nathan’s English teacher and later friend, and now an old man, attends a summer school at the university where Zuckerman, himself now a man in his 60s, teaches, they spend the evenings together, and over the course of the week Murray tells Zuckerman the story of his younger brother, Ira. Nathan knew Ira too once, when Nathan was young and impressionable and Ira was at his peak as a star and as a man. Ira was a formative influence on the young boy, a second father figure, and for a time he was the most important person in Nathan’s life. But as Nathan grew up he grew away from Ira, so although he knew in broad outline what had happened to him, this is the first time he has heard Ira’s later story in detail. As Murray fills in the gaps of Ira’s earlier and later life, Zuckerman also tells the reader of the man he knew, looking back with the eyes of age and experience and reassessing his youthful judgement of the man.

The story is simple and we are told near the beginning how Ira’s downfall came about. At the height of his stardom he married Eve Frame, once a Hollywood starlet and now also a radio star. The marriage was disastrous, for which Ira placed the blame squarely on Eve’s grown-up daughter Sylphid and on Eve’s weakness in letting Sylphid domineer over her. Eve may have felt that Ira’s penchant for infidelity had something to do with it, though. When Ira leaves her, Eve publishes a memoir of their marriage in which she claims he is a communist taking orders from the Kremlin and betraying America. In the McCarthy era, this accusation alone is enough to destroy Ira’s career. Part of what Murray will tell Nathan is how Ira reacted to his downfall and how the rest of his life played out.

But the story is to a large extent a vehicle for Zuckerman/Roth to dissect the various characters and the wider society. The question is not whether Ira was a communist – we know that he was – but why. He too, as Nathan with him, was influenced by an older man that he loved as a friend and mentor. But there’s a feeling that to him being a communist was an ego thing – something that separated him from the common herd, that allowed him to feel superior. Yes, he cared about those in society who were disadvantaged, but he also enjoyed the luxury and celebrity that came with his marriage to Eve even as he ranted against her and her friends. Nathan’s outgrowing of him is beautifully observed – as Nathan matures and goes off to college where he spends time with really educated and intelligent men, Ira diminishes in his eyes. Perhaps Ira’s tragedy is that he never outgrew his own mentor.

It has been claimed that Ira’s marriage to Eve is based on Roth’s own failed marriage to Claire Bloom, and that the book is a vicious response to Bloom’s memoirs in which she painted an unflattering picture of Roth. This may be so, but I don’t think it matters – it works at a literary level and in truth the reader – this reader, anyway – sympathises slightly more with Eve than with Ira, although both are weak and selfish. Through Eve, Roth goes into the question of Jewish self-hate – anti-Semitism practised by Jews themselves. I found this aspect fascinating – it was something I’d never considered before. Roth shows how this is a response to society’s anti-Semitism, where some Jews find it easier to try to hide their identity and join in rather than spend a lifetime battling prejudice. It made me think of African Americans “passing”, which in fact is the subject of The Human Stain.

Philip Roth
(Photo: Nancy Crampton)

Overall, this book doesn’t have quite the power or broad scope of American Pastoral. In some ways it feels more personal, as if it reflects Roth’s own life more intimately. The depiction of Nathan’s journey through adolescence feels lived – some at least of these reflections surely arise from Roth’s experiences as much as his alter-ego’s. Although Ira is the main focus, Zuckerman is very much central too, which isn’t really the case in American Pastoral. The young Nathan is an aspiring writer, allowing Roth to digress into his formative literary experiences, while the older Zuckerman is rather reclusive – an enigma left unsolved. It’s always dangerous to make direct links between fictional characters and their creators, but I think it’s probably safe to assume that the literary aspects of Nathan’s development at least are drawn from Roth’s own, and they are full of interest and insight. I came away from it wishing that Murray Ringold, or Zuckerman, or Roth, had been my English teacher.

And I came away from the book wishing that Roth were here today to make sense for us of what has happened to bring America to its current state. This book goes some way to that, showing already the faultlines that have now become a gaping chasm into which the moderate centre seems to have fallen. A great writer, and an excellent book. It may not be The Great American Novel, but it’s certainly a great American novel.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 225…

Episode 225

Oh, dear! Oh, dear, oh, dear, oh, dear!! The postman arrived, NetGalley trapped me AND I visited the local charity shops since I last reported. The result is a massive increase in the TBR – up SIX to 212. I’m so ashamed…

Here are a few that have nearly reached the top of the heap…

History

The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor

First up for my brand new Spanish Civil War challenge. It seems to make sense to get an understanding of the history before embarking on the fictional accounts…

The Blurb says: To mark the 70th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War’s outbreak, Antony Beevor has written a completely updated and revised account of one of the most bitter and hard-fought wars of the twentieth century. With new material gleaned from the Russian archives and numerous other sources, this brisk and accessible book (Spain’s #1 bestseller for twelve weeks), provides a balanced and penetrating perspective, explaining the tensions that led to this terrible overture to World War II and affording new insights into the war – its causes, course, and consequences.

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Fiction

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth

A re-read of the second book in what is known as Roth’s American Trilogy. I tried to listen to this as an audiobook last year but didn’t get along with the narrator’s accent, so am reverting to the paper copy. I remember enjoying this but not being as blown away by it as I was by American Pastoral first time round, but it has undoubtedly lingered in my mind – always the sign of a great (or terrible!) book… 

The Blurb says: I Married a Communist charts the rise and fall of Ira Ringold, an American roughneck who begins life as a ditchdigger in 1930s New Jersey, becoming a big-time radio hotshot in the 1940s. In his heyday as a star – and as a zealous, bullying supporter of ‘progressive’ political causes – Ira marries Hollywood’s beloved leading lady, Eve Frame. Their glamorous honeymoon is short-lived, however, and it is the publication of Eve’s scandalous bestselling expose that identifies Ira as ‘an American taking his orders from Moscow’.

In this story of cruelty, betrayal, and savage revenge, anti-Communist fever pollutes national politics and infects the relationships of ordinary Americans; friends become deadly enemies, parents and children tragically estranged, lovers blacklisted and felled from vertiginous heights.

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Fiction

The Leopard by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

My brother, ForeignFilmFan, recommended this and the film of it to me long ago. There’s also a novel about the writing of this book, called Lampedusa, which my Canadian bloggie friends have been talking about recently, some loving it, some hating it, and it’s due out over here next month, so I’d like to read this first and then see if it inspires me to read that one. Plus, it will take me to Sicily for my Around the World challenge…

The Blurb says: The Leopard is a modern classic which tells the spellbinding story of a decadent, dying Sicilian aristocracy threatened by the approaching forces of democracy and revolution.

In the spring of 1860, Fabrizio, the charismatic Prince of Salina, still rules over thousands of acres and hundreds of people, including his own numerous family, in mingled splendour and squalor. Then comes Garibaldi’s landing in Sicily and the Prince must decide whether to resist the forces of change or come to terms with them.

‘Every once in a while, like certain golden moments of happiness, infinitely memorable, one stumbles on a book or a writer, and the impact is like an indelible mark. Lampedusa’s The Leopard, his only novel, and a masterpiece, is such a work.’ Independent

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Fiction

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

Courtesy of Faber & Faber via NetGalley. I requested this based purely on the blurb, and it’s getting great reviews. However I have a feeling from those reviews it will “trigger” me – it sounds as if it might be another of these tedious liberal identity politics tub-thumpers that America has been churning out during the Trump years. I sympathise, I really do, but I’m also bored. I’ve been forced to be “woke” for so long that I seriously need a nap now. However, maybe it will surprise me…

The Blurb says: Grace Park and Shawn Mathews share a city – Los Angeles – but seemingly little else. Coming from different generations and very different communities, their paths wouldn’t normally cross at all. As Grace battles confusion over her elder sister’s estrangement from their Korean-immigrant parents, Shawn tries to help his cousin Ray readjust to city life after years spent in prison.

But something in their past links these two families. As the city around them threatens to erupt into violence, echoing the worst days of the early 1990s, the lives of Grace and Shawn are set to collide in ways which will change them all forever.

Beautifully written, and marked by its aching humanity as much as its growing sense of dread, Your House Will Pay is a powerful and urgent novel for today.

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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?

TBR Thursday 201…

Episode 201

Oh, dear! After all those weeks of it going down, the TBR has suddenly soared again! Up another 2 to 224…

Here are a few more that will reach the summit soon…

Classic Crime

One from my Classics Club list and also one of my 20 Books of Summer. I’ve never read this but have watched the film several times and loved it, so this is one where the book will have to try hard to compete with the movie…

The Blurb says: ‘They call me Mr Tibbs!’

A small southern town in the 1960s. A musician found dead on the highway. It’s no surprise when white detectives arrest a black man for the murder. What is a surprise is that the black man – Virgil Tibbs – is himself a skilled homicide detective from California, whom inexperienced Chief Gillespie reluctantly recruits to help with the case. Faced with mounting local hostility and a police force that seems determined to see him fail, it isn’t long before Tibbs – trained in karate and aikido – will have to fight not just for justice, but also for his own safety.

The inspiration for the Academy Award-winning film starring Sidney Poitier, this iconic crime novel is a psychologically astute examination of racial prejudice, an atmospheric depiction of the American South in the sixties, and a brilliant, suspense-filled read set in the sultry heat of the night.

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Fiction on Audio

One for my Five times Five challenge, this is the second book in Roth’s American Trilogy, narrated by Ron Silver. The first, American Pastoral, achieved The Great American Novel status in my occasional GAN Quest challenge. I’ve read this one before many years ago, and from memory I thought it was great but not quite as great as American Pastoral. However, I feel I know more about the subject matter now than I did back then, so it will be interesting to see if my opinion changes…

The Blurb says: Iron Rinn, born Ira Ringold, is a Newark roughneck, a radio actor, an idealistic Communist, and an educated ditchdigger turned popular performer. A six-foot, six-inch Abe Lincoln lookalike, he emerges from serving in World War II passionately committed to making the world a better place and instead winds up blacklisted, unemployable, and ruined by a brutal personal secret from which he is perpetually in flight. His life is in ruins.

On his way to political catastrophe, he marries the nation’s reigning radio actress and beloved silent film star, Eve Frame (born Chava Fromkin). Their marriage evolves from glamorous, romantic idyll to a disparaging soap opera of tears and treachery when Eve’s dramatic revelation to gossip columnist Bryden Grant of her husband’s life of espionage with the Soviet Union soon twists the couple’s private drama into a national scandal.

I Married a Communist is an American tragedy as only Philip Roth can conceive…fierce and comical, eloquently rendered, and definitely accurate.

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Crime

Courtesy of Harvill Secker via NetGalley. Another of my 20 Books of Summer, and I have high hopes for it after loving Mina’s last book, The Long Drop

The Blurb says: It’s just a normal morning for Anna McDonald. Gym kits, packed lunches, getting everyone up and ready. Until she opens the front door to her best friend, Estelle. Anna turns to see her own husband at the top of the stairs, suitcase in hand. They’re leaving together and they’re taking Anna’s two daughters with them.

Left alone in the big, dark house, Anna can’t think, she can’t take it in. With her safe, predictable world shattered, she distracts herself with a story: a true-crime podcast. There’s a sunken yacht in the Mediterranean, multiple murders and a hint of power and corruption. Then Anna realises she knew one of the victims in another life. She is convinced she knows what happened. Her past, so carefully hidden until now, will no longer stay silent.

This is a murder she can’t ignore, and she throws herself into investigating the case. But little does she know, her past and present lives are about to collide, sending everything she has worked so hard to achieve into freefall.

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Vintage Science Fiction

Courtesy of the British Library. As an addict of the BL’s Crime Classics, I’m thrilled that they’re now expanding their range into vintage sci-fi and horror. This collection of stories is billed as sci-fi, but I suspect that stories about machines will have more than an edge of horror to at least some of them…

The Blurb says: ‘“It’s a hazardous experiment,” they all said, “putting in new and untried machinery.”’

Caution – beware the menace of the machine: a man is murdered by an automaton built for playing chess; a computer system designed to arbitrate justice develops a taste for iron-fisted, fatal rulings; an AI wreaks havoc on society after removing all censorship from an early form of the internet.

Assembled with pieces by SF giants such as Murray Leinster and Brian W Aldiss as well as the less familiar but no less influential input of earlier science fiction pioneers, this new collection of classic tales contains telling lessons for humankind’s gradual march towards life alongside the thinking machine.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

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