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.
* * * * *
So from Funder to le Carré via communism, communism, communism, communism, communism and communism!
I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!
(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)
For the runners-up!
* * * * * * * * *
So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in
I’ve been so busy this year trying to catch up with my Classics Club list and various other challenges that I’ve read far fewer new releases than usual, but being a bit choosier means that I’ve enjoyed most of those I have read. As a result, the shortlisting has been extremely tough. In the end, I’ve decided not to include classics or any of the fiction I read as part of my Russian challenge since I’ve already posted about them in previous challenge summaries. All of which very neatly leaves me with five excellent contenders, so here goes…
Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd
As Hope Clearwater sits on the beach outside her home in the Republic of the Congo, she looks back over the circumstances of her life that have brought her here: her marriage to mathematician John Clearwater, and her later work at Grosso Arvore, a chimpanzee research project run by the world-famous primate expert, Eugene Mallabar. The two stories, though separate, have the common theme of the pursuit of scientific fame and the toll that can take on those who fail. There are other themes too – the war that rumbles on in the Congo, the evolutionary and genetic links between human and chimp – and a third story, of Hope’s love affair with Usman Shoukry, an Egyptian mercenary pilot fighting on the pro-government side in the war
This is Boyd at his best and the narration by Harriet Walter does it full justice. The book sprawls across time and geographic location, bringing each to life and never allowing the reader to become lost. Each separate strand is interesting and engrossing and they are well enough linked that they feel like a satisfying whole. The writing and storytelling are of course excellent – when is Boyd ever anything less? It feels perfectly balanced, a story about chimps that has much to say about humanity, and says it beautifully.
When a PI tracks Tommaso down in London to give him the news that he has been left a large legacy, Tommaso tells him he doesn’t want it. To make the PI understand why his anonymity is so important to him, Tommaso agrees to tell him the story of why he left Italy – the story of his last summer in Puglia. That was the summer, long ago, when Tommaso met and fell in love with Anna. We know from the beginning that their relationship ended with some kind of tragedy that led Tommaso to cut all ties with home and take on a new identity in London. But it’s only after we follow Tommaso through the events of the summer that we find out what happened…
On the face of it, this is a straightforward account of a love affair, but the quality of the writing, the great pacing and, most of all, the superb sense of place make it so much more than that. It’s an intense character study of Tommaso, and it’s wonderfully evocative of the culture of Puglia, in the heel of Italy, in the 1980s – still strictly conservative in outlook, still largely in thrall to Catholicism, and with strong family expectations that children will follow the paths determined for them by their parents. A first-class début.
Earl Shaw takes two small planes barnstorming round Depression-era California, tempting customers to go up for a scenic flight. One day, the pilots take up two young men, Louis Thorn and Harry Yamada. Daredevil Harry decides he will walk along the wing, and Louis, feeling challenged and a little humiliated, follows suit. Earl offers them both jobs as aerial stuntmen and so the act of Eagle & Crane is born – Eagle to represent the good ol’ US of A, and Crane to represent the villainous and untrustworthy Japs of Harry’s heritage. But the war is about to begin, and suddenly white America will begin to see its Japanese-heritage fellow citizens as more than a comic-book threat. And Harry and Louis will find their friendship altered and strained…
While the book has some elements of the thriller, it definitely falls far more into the category of literary fiction for me. Rindell’s research is skilfully fed to us through the development of her characters and her story, so that we gradually get a real feel for rural Californian life and attitudes in this period, and an in-depth look at the impact of the internment of Japanese-Americans. This third book cements her place as one of my favourite authors.
Santiago is a political prisoner in Montevideo, Uruguay, in the 1970s. His family and friends are scattered, exiled from the country they call home. As Santiago sits in jail not knowing when – if – he’ll be released, he writes letters full of love to his wife, Graciela. For him, life is static, his memories of their love the thing that has sustained him through the torture and now the sheer stultification of his imprisonment. But for Graciela, life is a moving thing – she is still young, in a new city, with a job and a growing child, and for her the present is more vivid than the past. She finds herself increasingly attracted to Ronaldo, but knows that Santiago needs her love and loyalty. The crux of the story is deceptively simple – what will Graciela decide to do?
This is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read in a long time, and credit must go to the translator, Nick Caistor, who has done a marvellous job. 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. It’s profoundly moving – full of emotional truth. Wonderful!
This was an extremely difficult decision and I swayed back and forwards between Tombland and Springtime in a Broken Mirror several times, but in the end my love for the wonderful Matthew Shardlake won out…
It’s 1549, and young King Edward VI is on the throne. Since he is still a child, his guardians have appointed a Protector to rule in his stead, his uncle Edward Seymour. There is great poverty in the towns and cities while, in the farming lands of the north and west, landlords are enclosing common land for their own sheep, fermenting unrest amongst the smallholders and tenant farmers who relied on that land to eke out their own precarious living. Throw in the usual religious turmoil and an unpopular and unwinnable war against those pesky Scots, and the time is ripe for rebellion. It’s at this moment that Shardlake is summoned by Princess Elizabeth to investigate a murder of which one of her distant Boleyn relatives stands accused. And so he must head for Norwich, a city that will soon be at the heart of the East Anglian rebellion, led by the charismatic Robert Kett…
This is another completely satisfying addition to the series, confirming again my belief that Sansom is the best historical fiction writer certainly today and perhaps ever. He tells his story in a straightforward linear way, creating a great historical setting founded on in-depth research, a strong plot, and a group of brilliantly depicted characters who have all the complexity of real, flawed humanity. Shardlake himself continues to be one of the most appealing characters in fiction – irascible, often lonely, occasionally a little self-pitying, but intelligent, determined, dedicated, charitable and wholeheartedly loyal to those he takes into his generous heart. Superb!
Five excellent contenders, but no hesitation in my mind as which deserves to win. This is a straightforward, factual telling of the story of Ernest Shackleton and his crew, and their failed 1914 bid to cross the Antarctic on foot from west to east. It’s also one of the most stirring and emotionally turbulent books I’ve ever read.
Then, at just about two o’clock, they saw where they were. A quirk of wind tore the clouds apart, and two wicked peaks loomed above a line of cliffs and the perpendicular faces of glaciers that dropped sheer into the sea. The coastline looked to be about a mile away, perhaps a little more. But vastly more important, in that single glimpse, they saw to their terror that they were only a short distance outside the line of breakers, the point at which the seas ceased to behave like swells and became combers instead, rushing faster and faster towards their own destruction against the land. As each swell passed under them, they could feel it tugging momentarily at the boat, trying to get hold of her and hurl her toward the beach. It seemed now that everything, the wind, the current and even the sea itself, were united in a single determined purpose, once and for all to annihilate this tiny boat which thus far had defied all their efforts to destroy it.
A wonderfully emotive journey that shows the human spirit at its very best. First published in 1959, this fully earns its reputation as a classic of non-fiction writing.
Santiago is a political prisoner in Montevideo, Uruguay, in the 1970s. His family and friends are scattered, exiled from the country they call home. The book begins with Santiago writing to his wife, Graciela, who is living in Buenos Aires with their young daughter, Beatriz. In Buenos Aires, too, is Santiago’s father and Ronaldo, his friend and former fellow revolutionary. Interspersed by some sections where we hear from the author in his own voice, relating some of his own experiences as a political exile, the book rotates among these characters, letting us see each through their own eyes, and through the eyes of the other characters.
This is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read in a long time, and credit must go to the translator, Nick Caistor, who has done a marvellous job. 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. It’s profoundly moving – full of emotional truth.
As Santiago sits in jail not knowing when – if – he’ll be released, he writes letters full of love to Graciela. For him, life is static, his memories of their love the thing that has sustained him through the torture and now the sheer stultification of his imprisonment. But for Graciela, life is a moving thing – she is still young, in a new city, with a job and a growing child, and for her the present is more vivid than the past. She finds herself increasingly attracted to Ronaldo, but knows that Santiago needs her love and loyalty. Graciela is the only character in the book who doesn’t speak for herself, so that the reader must try to understand her through what the other characters say. She is in a different kind of prison to Santiago, but one which has just as effectively halted her life. The crux of the story is deceptively simple – what will Graciela decide to do?
Rafael, Santiago’s father, is an old man now, exiled because of Santiago’s actions. He muses on the meaning of “home”, feeling homesick more than the other characters, perhaps because for him there is less chance of ever returning. Through him, Benedetti gives a heartbreaking depiction of the kind of homesickness that comes when a person is unwillingly forced to live elsewhere. He captures it beautifully – the odd things one misses, the clinging to people who have come from the same place, who understand one’s own culture, and the eventual almost unnoticeable putting down of fragile new roots, the settling and acceptance, and even the beginnings of a new feeling of “home”.
It soothes you, gives you peace of mind to know what’s coming next, to know what’s round every corner, after every streetlamp, every newspaper kiosk. Here, on the other hand, when I first set out walking, everything took me by surprise. And all that surprise made me weary. And then, when I turned back, I didn’t head home, I just went to the room. I was tired of being surprised. Maybe that’s why I started using the stick. To stop being thrown off balance. Or perhaps so that any fellow countrymen I met would say: “But Don Rafael, back there you never used a cane”, and I could reply: “Well, you didn’t wear those guayabera shirts either”.
Beatriz’s voice brings a touch of lightness to the story, preventing the tone from becoming too bleak. Life isn’t always easy for her, either – she gets into fights at school over people saying nasty things about her dad being in prison. She defends him on the grounds that he’s a political prisoner, even though she doesn’t really know what that means – but she knows it means he’s a good man, not a criminal. She’s spent half her life in Buenos Aires, and questions in her childish way whether she is Uruguayan or Argentinian. For the children, if a time comes when they can go home, will it feel like home? Or will it be, for them, another kind of exile? But although Benedetti makes Beatriz’s sections as thought-provoking as the rest of the book, her voice is convincingly childish. She loves words, and when she learns a new one, she shoehorns it in at every available opportunity, providing some much-needed humour. At one point, her favourite word is abound…
….On Sundays the streets are almost empty and I wonder where all the millions I saw on Friday can have got to. My Grandpa Rafael says that on Sundays people stay at home to rest. To rest means to sleep. ….There’s a lot of sleep in this country. Especially on Sundays, because there are many millions asleep. If each sleeping person snores nine times an hour (my mum snores fourteen times) that means each million inhabitants snore nine million times an hour. In other words, snores abound.
Ronaldo’s voice is more detached, giving us some of the background to what led to Santiago’s imprisonment. But he also talks of exile, giving us a rather more positive view of the possibilities and joys of sharing cultures. There is a feeling throughout the book of South America as one entity, with exiles and refugees from the various revolutions in different countries drifting from place to place depending on where sanctuary can be found. It also takes an interesting view of Cuba as the one country whose revolution has been successful, looked at from the perspective of the communists in other South American countries. Benedetti’s own sections tell of exiles trying to get to Cuba to make a new life, at the same time as some Cubans were trying to leave to get to the US for the same reason.
….How can we forget that these young people, separated from their surroundings, families, friends, their classrooms, have been denied their basic human right, to rebel as youngsters, to fight as youngsters? The only right they’ve been left with is to die as youngsters. ….Sometimes these young people demonstrate bullet-proof courage, and yet their minds are not disappointment-proof. If only I and other veterans could convince them that their duty is to stay young. Not to grow old out of nostalgia, boredom or rancour, but to stay young, so that when the time comes to go back they do so as young people and not as the relics of past rebelliousness. As youngsters – that is – as life.
This is a short book, but has more to say than many lengthier tomes. I have no idea about the political situation in South America in that, or any other, era, but didn’t find this got in the way of my understanding of the book. Fundamentally, it’s about people, and especially people who have been forced out of their homelands – the reasons for the exile are secondary to its impact. And, in the end, it holds out hope: that the human spirit has the resilience to find new ways of living when the old ones are taken away. A wonderful book – highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Classics, via Amazon Vine.
….The magnate turned the frame around, revealing the image of a radiant blonde with green eyes who could have passed for a European actress. Though the pale, bottomless pools of her eyes and the glint of mischief behind them caught his attention first, Treviño’s gaze quickly wandered to the waves of hair that framed the perfect oval of her face like a crown. Her nose was perfectly sculpted, and it was hard not to want to stare for a long while at the remarkable curves of her full, sensual lips. This girl was born to eat the world alive. Like anyone seeing Cristina for the first time, Treviño was floored. ….“She’s sixteen,” said her father. ….“About to be seventeen,” her mother corrected.
* * * * * * * * *
….“You feeling better?” ….“I’m all right.” ….“Sometimes just some little thing will do it. Like a change of water, something like that.” ….“Probably too much lunch.” ….“What’s that?” ….Somebody was out front, rattling the door. “Sounds like somebody trying to get in.” ….“Is the door locked, Frank?” ….“I must have locked it.” ….She looked at me, and got pale. She went to the swinging door, and peeped through. Then she went into the lunchroom, but in a minute she was back. ….“They went away.” ….“I don’t know why I locked it.” ….“I forgot to unlock it.” ….She started for the lunchroom again, but I stopped her. “Let’s – leave it locked.” ….“Nobody can get in if it’s locked. I got some cooking to do. I’ll wash up this plate.” ….I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers. . . . ….“Bite me! Bite me!” ….I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.
* * * * * * * * *
….He conducted her about the lawns, and flower-beds, and conservatories; and thence to the fruit-garden and greenhouses, where he asked her if she liked strawberries. ….“Yes,” said Tess, “when they come.” ….“They are already here.” D’Urberville began gathering specimens of the fruit for her, handing them back to her as he stooped; and, presently, selecting a specially fine product of the “British Queen” variety, he stood up and held it by the stem to her mouth. ….“No – no!” she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand and her lips. “I would rather take it in my own hand.” ….“Nonsense!” he insisted; and in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in. ….They had spent some time wandering desultorily thus, Tess eating in a half-pleased, half-reluctant state whatever d’Urberville offered her. When she could consume no more of the strawberries he filled her little basket with them; and then the two passed round to the rose trees, whence he gathered blossoms and gave her to put in her bosom. She obeyed like one in a dream, and when she could affix no more he himself tucked a bud or two into her hat, and heaped her basket with others in the prodigality of his bounty.
* * * * * * * * *
Those are the days and nights when he misses what’s implicit, the shared assumptions, all the things that don’t need to be said. . . Days and nights when he has to explain everything and listen to everything. One of the modest pleasures of making love to someone from your own country is that if at some point (in that zero hour that always follows the urgency, the enthusiasm, the give and take, the up and down) you don’t feel like talking, you can say or hear just a brief monosyllable, and that little word becomes heavy with associations, implied meanings, shared symbols, a common past, who knows what else? There’s nothing to explain or be explained. There’s no need to pour your heart out. Your hands can do the talking: they’re wordless, but they can be extremely eloquent. Boy, can they be eloquent. Monosyllables, as well, but only when they bring with them their whole train of associations, implications. Amazing how many languages can fit into a single one, Rolando Asuero says and tells himself, contemplating his own reflection. Then he repeats, gloomily: Shit, those bags!
Woohoo! After the recent horrific rises in the TBR, a massive drop this week! Down FOUR to 221! (Three read, one abandoned, NONE added!) A definite dive!
Here are a few more that should fall off soon…
This has been on my TBR since January 2013, so it’s probably about time I got around to reading it! I don’t understand why I haven’t before now, because the blurb still appeals to me as much now as it did then…
The Blurb says: Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die. The enigmatic and powerful man known only as the Commodore has ordered it, and his henchmen, Eli and Charlie Sisters, will make sure of it. Though Eli doesn’t share his brother’s appetite for whiskey and killing, he’s never known anything else. But their prey isn’t an easy mark, and on the road from Oregon City to Warm’s gold-mining claim outside Sacramento, Eli begins to question what he does for a living – and whom he does it for.
With The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt pays homage to the classic Western, transforming it into an unforgettable comic tour de force. Filled with a remarkable cast of characters – losers, cheaters, and ne’er-do-wells from all stripes of life – and told by a complex and compelling narrator, it is a violent, lustful odyssey through the underworld of the 1850s frontier that beautifully captures the humor, melancholy, and grit of the Old West and two brothers bound by blood, violence, and love.
* * * * *
Courtesy of Penguin Classics via Amazon Vine. l’m not having a huge amount of success with the South American leg of my Around the World tour – I think it’s the style of writing that doesn’t work for me. However, again, this blurb sounds great, so fingers crossed this one might be a winner…
The Blurb says: Santiago is trapped. Taken political prisoner in Montevideo after a brutal military coup, he can do nothing but write letters to his family, and try to stay sane.
Far away, his nine-year-old daughter Beatrice wonders at the marvels of 1970s Buenos Aires, but her grandpa and mother – Santiago’s beautiful, careworn wife, Graciela – struggle to adjust to a life in exile. Graciela fights to retain the fiery passion that suffused her marriage, her politics, her whole life, as day by day Santiago edges closer to freedom. But Santiago’s rakish, reckless best friend is a constant, brooding presence in the exiles’ lives, and Graciela finds herself drawn irresistibly towards him.
A lucid, heart-wrenching saga of a family torn apart by the forces of history, Springtime in a Broken Mirror tells with tenderness and fury of the indelible imprint politics leaves on individual lives. Generous and unflinching, it asks whether the broken bonds of family and history can ever truly be mended.
* * * * *
Last year I embarked on a re-read of what is undoubtedly my favourite crime series of all time, Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe, and sprinted through the first three. And then I got side-tracked! Time to get back on track with no. 4…
The Blurb says: Superintendent Andy Dalziel’s holiday runs into trouble when he gets marooned by flood water. Rescued and taken to nearby Lake House, he discovers all is not well: the owner has just died tragically and the family fortunes are in decline. He also finds himself drawn to attractive widow, Bonnie Fielding.
But several more deaths are to follow. And by the time Pascoe gets involved, it looks like the normally hard-headed Dalziel might have compromised himself beyond redemption.
* * * * *
Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. This is one of those books I’m 99% sure I’ve read but have a seed of doubt that maybe I’ve just seen a million adaptations. Either way, I’m looking forward to it. It’s one of the ones from my Classics Club list…
The Blurb says:Adventurer Richard Hannay, just returned from South Africa, is thoroughly bored with London life – until he is accosted by a mysterious American, who warns him of an assassination plot that could completely destabalise the fragile political balance of Europe. Initially sceptical, Hannay nonetheless harbours the man – but one day returns home to find him murdered…
An obvious suspect, Hannay flees to his native Scotland, pursued by both the police and a cunning, ruthless enemy. His life and the security of Britain are in grave peril, and everything rests on the solution to a baffling enigma: what are the ‘thirty nine steps’?
* * * * *
NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.