Six Degrees of Separation – From Ellis 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 Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis. I haven’t read it but the blurb tells me…

Set in Los Angeles in the early 1980’s, this coolly mesmerizing novel is a raw, powerful portrait of a lost generation who have experienced sex, drugs, and disaffection at too early an age, in a world shaped by casual nihilism, passivity, and too much money– a place devoid of feeling or hope.

…which sounds remarkably like the only one of his books I have read…

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. The blackest black comedy I have ever read, the author lays bare the shallow and self-obsessed world of ’80s yuppie culture and does so superbly. The violence is indeed graphic and gets progressively more extreme as the book goes on. However, given the theme of excess in all things that runs through the book, I felt it stayed in context. In fact, it eventually became so outrageous that, for me, it passed from being shocking to being, in a strange way, part of the humour of the book.

The office Halloween party was at the Royalton last week and I went as a mass murderer, complete with a sign painted on my back that read MASS MURDERER (which was decidedly lighter than the sandwich board I had constructed earlier that day that read DRILLER KILLER), and beneath those two words I had written in blood Yep, that’s me and the suit was also covered with blood, some of it fake, most of it real. In one fist I clenched a hank of Victoria Bell’s hair, and pinned next to my boutonniere (a small white rose) was a finger bone I’d boiled the flesh off of. As elaborate as my costume was, Craig McDermott still managed to win first place in the competition.

Less humour and less graphic gore, but just as much violence and horror for my next link to…

Psycho by Robert Bloch. When Mary Crane, driving through a downpour with the $40,000 she has just stolen, takes a wrong turning and finds herself lost, she makes a big mistake by deciding to spend the night at the Bates Motel. Norman Bates is pretty creepy, but not nearly as creepy as his mother… 😱The film is scarier, but the book has more psychological depth making it more substantial than a mere shocker. But all the famous scenes are still there…

The film of the book was of course directed by Hitchcock, which reminded me of…

The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes – another terrifying tale that Hitch turned into an equally great film even if he changed the story pretty dramatically. When Mr and Mrs Bunting take in a new lodger, he seems a kindly, quiet gentleman, if a little eccentric. Meantime, London is agog over a series of horrific murders, all of drunken women. Gradually the Buntings begin to wonder if their lodger could possibly be the murderer, but with no proof, what should they do? What if they go to the police, and it turns out he’s innocent? He’ll leave, of course, and they desperately need the money he pays for rent. But what if he’s guilty and they do nothing – does that make them guilty too? It really is brilliantly done – great characterisation and totally credible psychologically. And in the film, Ivor Novello might be scary, but he’s also yummy…

Lucky June Tripp as Daisy Bunting. He can’t be a murderer! Can he??

The Lodger is set in turn of the century London, and Marie Belloc Lowndes makes great use of the notorious London fogs, which leads me to my next book…

London Fog by Christine L Corton. Corton sets out to tell the two stories of the fog – the actual one of what caused it and how it was eventually defeated, and the artistic one, of how it was used atmospherically and metaphorically in the literature and art of the period. While I found the tale of trying to get Parliament to act to clean up the air somewhat tedious, I loved all the stuff about how writers and artists had used the fog. Of course, Dickens was one of the greatest writers to use it…

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds…

… And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Bleak House, Charles Dickens

And Monet one of the greatest artists…

Waterloo Bridge Sunlight Effect No. 4 by Claude Monet

One of the fascinating factlets in the book is that the term “pea-souper” to describe the thick London fog was coined by none other than the author of my old adversary…

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. Our narrator (call him Ishmael) signs up for a voyage aboard the whaling ship Pequod, only to find that the Captain, Ahab, is pursuing a personal vendetta against the whale which caused him to lose his leg – Moby-Dick. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Proving conclusively that more is required to make a good book than an intriguing blurb. The book may have been tedious, but the film is great…

…and provides two links to my final book. Firstly, one of the ships the Pequod meets with on its journey is called the Rosebud, and secondly, Orson Welles appears in a cameo role as the preacher. All of which made me think of…

Citizen Kane by Harlan Lebo. Lebo takes the reader through the entire process of the making of Kane in painstaking and pretty geeky detail. But geeky in a good way – written so that even I, who wouldn’t recognise a movie camera if I tripped over it, was able to easily understand. No detail is too small, no aspect too obscure to be included here, from budgeting, casting, direction, production, even what days particular scenes were filmed on. Sounds dreadful, huh? And yet, I found it increasingly fascinating…

Lebo explains how the newspapers were produced and translated into various languages, with ‘real’ stories even though they mostly can’t be read except in stills…

 * * * * *

So Ellis to Lebo, via Bret Easton Ellis, psychos, Hitchcock, fog, pea-soupers and Orson Welles!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

London Fog by Christine L Corton

london fog coverThe story of The Smoke…

😀 😀 😀 😀

From the early 19th to the mid 20th century, London spent large parts of the winter months shrouded under dense and dirty fogs, so thick that people quite literally could walk into the Thames without seeing it. Corton sets out to tell the two stories of the fog – the actual one of what caused it and how it was eventually defeated, and the artistic one, of how it was used atmospherically and metaphorically in the literature and art of the period.

As the Industrial Revolution got underway, factories began belching their coal smoke into the air of a city that was already at the heart of a great Empire and, for its time, huge – a mass of people, living cheek by jowl, often in intolerable conditions of poverty. And in winter, these people would huddle round their coal fires adding to the polluted atmosphere. As the population grew, so did the smoke. The location of London meant that it was already prone to mists and with the addition of all this coal smoke, the mists became fogs – fogs that worsened throughout the 19th century, reaching their peak in the 1880s and 90s, but remaining significant for several decades after that, until finally legislation and health concerns abated the worst of the pollution.

The Thames above Waterloo Bridge by JMW Turner 1835
The Thames above Waterloo Bridge by JMW Turner 1835

Corton tells us that Herman Melville coined the expression “pea-soup” to describe the thick consistency and colour of the London fog – yellow, as pea-soup was commonly made from yellow peas at that time. But it was Dickens who first made use of the fog in literature, descriptively at first but later, as he developed as a writer and as fogs worsened, as a metaphor for the corruption and social degeneracy of the city.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds…

… And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Bleak House, Charles Dickens

Gradually the fog became such an all-pervasive feature of London life that other writers began to use it in similar ways. Corton gives many examples, from writers famous or forgotten, showing the different ways they used fog in their work. Sometimes it would be used as a cloak for hideous crimes, sometimes as a tool to show the poverty, not just physical but also a poverty of aspiration, in society. Some writers used it as metaphor for the restrictions placed on women, while others allowed their female characters a freedom they could only have when shielded by the anonymity that the fog gave. And as the fogs worsened, a sub-genre developed of apocalyptic fiction – the fog shown as finally sucking the life from the inhabitants, or as a cause for moral corruption so severe that it and the inevitable destruction of the city that followed took on almost Biblical proportions.

Cartoon from the magazine Punch showing how fog could make even an innocent scene seem frightening
Cartoon from the magazine Punch showing how fog could make even an innocent scene seem frightening

Artists, too, became increasingly fascinated by the fog – the colours in it depending on the type of pollution and the invisible sun above. And not just local artists – famous artists travelled from Europe, America and even the Orient to try to capture this phenomenon. (I guess once they managed to pollute their own cities enough, they were able to stay home!) The book is wonderfully illustrated with examples of this art – I read it on my Kindle Fire which is good for colour illustrations, but I wished I’d been reading the hardback.

Alongside this, Corton tells the story of how the fog impacted on people in real life and of the long fight by reformers to have the use of coal smoke regulated and reduced. The story of the beginnings of the fog and the various theories that were propounded as to its cause fascinated me, as did the descriptions given in journals and newspapers of how it actually felt trying to get around during a fog. Corton shoes how real-life criminals could use its cover for their activities, including the linklighters – the boys who carried torches to light people as they travelled – who were notorious for their criminality. The dangers for women in particular are emphasised, with a feeling that they were unsafe in the fog without the protection of a man.

Ivor Novello in Hitchcock's The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog 1927
Ivor Novello in Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog 1927

At first, I also found the tale of the political fighting to do something about the fog interesting but, after a while, I began to find the telling of it too detailed, especially the Parliamentary side of it, and it began to drag. I found I was increasingly glad to get back to the literary and artistic sections. The problem of the fog decreased gradually over the 20th century, but wasn’t finally resolved until the 1950s. As a result, Corton continues her story of how it was used in literature and art well beyond the Victorian era, but as the fog faded, so did its usefulness as a metaphor. Corton makes the point that writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though writing well into the 20th century, often based their stories back in the 1880s and 90s so that they could use the fog to its fullest effect.

Overall, I found this great in parts and rather dull in other parts. The effect of reading for review is that I have a tendency not to like to skip, otherwise I would fairly early on have been jumping the sections relating to the various politicians and reformers. The sections on writers and artists were of much more interest, to me at least, although here I did feel that sometimes Corton was stretching too far, and drawing conclusions about fog as metaphor that aren’t always justified by the reading of the books. But then this is a fault I routinely find in literary criticism. Despite that, one that I am sure will be enjoyed by anyone interested in either crime or literary fiction of the period. And it occurred to me it would be great as a research tool for any writer out there wanting to set their book in the London of that period…

Waterloo Bridge Sunlight Effect No. 4 by Claude Monet
Waterloo Bridge Sunlight Effect No. 4 by Claude Monet

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harvard University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 67…

Episode 67

 

Well, I’ve been on my very best behaviour this week, so could someone kindly explain how the TBR seems to have gone up again? Hmm? To 152 – and if that’s you I hear laughing at the back, there’s going to be big trouble…

Still, it’ll only take a bit of willpower to make a huge dent in it before the end of the year, won’t it? So here are some that I shall be getting to soon…

Factual

 

london fog coverFrom Harvard University Press via NetGalley. I’m hoping this won’t be too academic in tone, and am a bit sorry I have the Kindle version since it claims to be generously illustrated. But if it’s written accessibly, it should be fascinating…

The Blurb says In popular imagination, London is a city of fog. The classic London fogs, the thick yellow “pea-soupers,” were born in the industrial age of the early nineteenth century. The first globally notorious instance of air pollution, they remained a constant feature of cold, windless winter days until clean air legislation in the 1960s brought about their demise. Christine L. Corton tells the story of these epic London fogs, their dangers and beauty, and their lasting effects on our culture and imagination.

As the city grew, smoke from millions of domestic fires, combined with industrial emissions and naturally occurring mists, seeped into homes, shops, and public buildings in dark yellow clouds of water droplets, soot, and sulphur dioxide. The fogs were sometimes so thick that people could not see their own feet. By the time London’s fogs lifted in the second half of the twentieth century, they had changed urban life. Fogs had created worlds of anonymity that shaped social relations, providing a cover for crime, and blurring moral and social boundaries. They had been a gift to writers, appearing famously in the works of Charles Dickens, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad, and T. S. Eliot. Whistler and Monet painted London fogs with a fascination other artists reserved for the clear light of the Mediterranean.

Corton combines historical and literary sensitivity with an eye for visual drama—generously illustrated here—to reveal London fog as one of the great urban spectacles of the industrial age.

 * * * * *

Fiction

 

lolita 2Next up for the GAN Quest! A book I have been meaning to read for years…

The Blurb says Humbert Humbert – scholar, aesthete and romantic – has fallen completely and utterly in love with Lolita Haze, his landlady’s gum-snapping, silky skinned twelve-year-old daughter. Reluctantly agreeing to marry Mrs Haze just to be close to Lolita, Humbert suffers greatly in the pursuit of romance; but when Lo herself starts looking for attention elsewhere, he will carry her off on a desperate cross-country misadventure, all in the name of Love. Hilarious, flamboyant, heart-breaking and full of ingenious word play, Lolita is an immaculate, unforgettable masterpiece of obsession, delusion and lust.

* * * * *

Crime

 

death on demandVia NetGalley again. An author I know nothing about, but the book is published by Severn House and they’ve introduced me to a few crime authors I’ve enjoyed, so here’s hoping…

The Blurb says This is the stunning new Shaw & Valentine mystery. When the newspapers turn up to cover Ruby Bright’s 100th birthday, they find her seaside care home is a murder scene. Someone spirited Ruby away by wheelchair down to the water’s edge on the idyllic north Norfolk coast, and strangled her. But why kill a harmless centurion? As Detective Inspector Shaw and Detective Sergeant Valentine investigate, it’s clear Ruby wasn’t the first victim, and nor is she the last. All trails seem to lead back to the old Parkwood Springs estate, close to the docklands. There’s only one way in and one way out of the estate – through the derelict Lister Tunnel. But what is the secret within…?

* * * * *

boxes

Pascal Garnier is everywhere right now, including all over NetGalley, so time to get introduced! And if it’s not good, there are so, so many bloggers I’ll be able to blame! The blurb is pretty uninformative but I’m led to believe this is a grim, dark, twisty tale…

The Blurb says “He was the sole survivor of the natural disaster that at one time or another strikes us all, known as ‘moving house’.

Brice and Emma had bought their new home in the countryside together. And then Emma disappeared. Now, as he awaits her return, Brice busies himself with DIY and walks around the village.

He gradually comes to know his new neighbours including Blanche, an enigmatic woman in white, who has lived on her own in the big house by the graveyard since the death of her father, to whom Brice bears a curious resemblance…” 

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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