Six Degrees of Separation – From Rooney 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…

Normal People by Sally Rooney. I haven’t read it, but the very long blurb on Goodreads (which I therefore won’t quote) tells me this is about two young people who spiral into some form of mutually-destructive relationship. Think I’ll give it a miss!

It’s apparently largely set in Trinity College, Dublin. Darryl Jones, who has edited several horror and science fiction books for Oxford World’s Classics, is the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Trinity College, and has been one of my chief guides to these genres. He edited my first choice…

The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells. The story of Prendick. a man shipwrecked on a small island inhabited by the titular Dr Moreau. It’s about mad science, vivisection and evolution, and it contains some truly terrifying imagery. Read purely as an adventure, this is a dark and terrifying story indeed, from the first pages when Prendick and his fellow survivors are afloat on an open sea with no food and running out of fresh water, to the scenes on the island when Dr Moreau’s experiments go horrifically wrong. But it’s what the book says about Wells’ society that lifts it to the status of a true classic.

Another island provides my next stop…

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Undoubtedly one of the best adventure stories ever written, full of characters who’ve become such a part of our national psyche they almost feel historical rather than fictional – Long John Silver, Blind Pew, Ben Gunn, Jim Hawkins (arr, Jim, lad!), et al. I adored this full-cast performance from Audible – they all act their socks off! Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight! Marooned, I tell ‘ee! Marooooned!

The hero of my next choice was also marooned…

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. When Lord Greystoke and his wife are marooned by mutineers on the coast of Africa, they die, and their baby son is adopted by a tribe of apes. However, when he discovers the hut his parents built and all their belongings, he realises he is different from the other apes. And then more white people are marooned in the same place by another bunch of mutineers, and he sees the lovely Jane… While many aspects of the story are a bit ridiculous if you stop to analyse them too deeply, it’s so full of thrills, excitement, high love and general drama that it swept me along on a tsunami-sized wave of fun.

Johnny Weissmuller played the role many times…

The apes in Tarzan aren’t really apes – they’re a kind of proto-human. So are the first characters we meet in my next selection…

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke. A tribe of man-apes is visited by aliens who use a strange artefact to stimulate their minds, thus setting them on a course to become fully human and develop the intelligence that will eventually allow them to dominate their world. Millennia later, mankind has reached the moon, only to find hidden another similar artefact, one that this time will send them on a journey to the furthest reaches of the solar system and perhaps beyond. Arising from Clarke’s partnership with Stanley Kubrick, both film and book enhance each other superbly so that, together, they become something uniquely wonderful. Blew my mind, man – psychedelic!

When doing my occasional Film of the Book comparisons, the book nearly always wins, and the film occasionally does. 2001 is one of only two pairings where I declared it a draw. The other is my next choice…

4:50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie. When Elspeth McGillicuddy glances out of the window of her train carriage, she can see straight into another train that is running parallel to her own. As a blind flies up on the carriage opposite her, she is horrified to see a woman being strangled by a tall, dark man. However, no body is found on the train, and there the matter would probably have rested, but for the fact that Mrs McGillicuddy was on her way to St Mary Mead to visit her old friend, Jane Marple… The book is one of Christie’s best and the film based on it, Murder, She Said, starring the wonderful Margaret Rutherford, may take wild liberties with the plot and the character of Miss Marple, but is nevertheless a joyous treat in its own right.

My last pick begins during another train journey (and coincidentally is another that’s been made into a great film)…

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith. Guy Haines is on a train to Texas, hoping that his estranged wife Miriam will finally give him the divorce he needs so that he can marry his new love, Anne. Another passenger, Charles Bruno, begins to chat to him. Bruno has a difficult relationship with his rich father who controls the purse strings. He suggests to Guy that they swap murders – that Bruno will murder the inconvenient Miriam if in return Guy will murder Bruno’s father. An early example of a psychological thriller, and still a true classic of the genre.

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So from Rooney to Highsmith via Trinity College Dublin, islands, maroonings, man-apes, Films of the Books, and trains.

Hope you enjoyed the journey! 😀

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

The weak and the mad…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Guy Haines is on a train to Texas, hoping that his estranged wife Miriam will finally give him the divorce he needs so that he can marry his new love, Anne. When another passenger, Charles Bruno, begins to chat to him, Guy little thinks that this is the beginning of an odd relationship which will eventually spiral into murder…

First published in 1950, this is one of the early examples of what we’d now call “psychological thrillers”. Bruno has a difficult relationship with his rich father who controls the purse strings. He suggests to Guy that they swap murders – that Bruno will murder the inconvenient Miriam if in return Guy will murder Bruno’s father. Guy tries to brush him off, but Bruno goes ahead with his part of the scheme. The thrust of the book is Bruno pressuring Guy to hold up his side of the bargain – a bargain Guy never agreed to, although he didn’t explicitly refuse it either. We see the psychological effect on Guy and eventually on Bruno too, as the plot plays out.

Two things combined to give me perhaps overly high expectations of this book. The first is its stellar reputation as a masterpiece of the form and as an influence on later generations of crime writers; the second is Hitchcock’s wonderful film adaptation, one of my favourite movies of all time. Having recently read quite a few of the books that Hitchcock adapted, I’ve realised that he often changed the plot almost out of all recognition, so I wasn’t surprised to find that that’s the case with this one too. While Hitch’s story is of a good man hounded by a crazy one, Highsmith’s version of Guy is of a weak and distinctly unlikeable character whose innate lack of moral strength is as much of an issue as Bruno’s possible insanity. Oddly, it reminded me far more of Hitch’s other great classic, Rope, in terms of the moral questions it poses.

Guy’s inability to deal with the moral dilemma and subsequent descent into a state of extreme anxiety is done brilliantly, and the psychology underpinning Bruno’s craziness is well and credibly developed. His unhealthy relationship with his mother in particular is portrayed with a good deal of subtlety – lots of showing rather than telling and, because we see it almost entirely through Bruno’s eyes, it’s handled with a good deal of ambiguity. However, the unlikeability of both characters made it hard for me to get up any kind of emotional investment in the outcome, especially as we don’t really get to know the potential second victim, Mr Bruno, Senior.

Challenge details:
Book: 95
Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic
Publication Year: 1950

Miriam is given more characterisation, but not much, and there’s a kind of suggestion that she brought her fate on herself by her sexual promiscuity. But she’s bumped off too quickly for the reader to develop any depth of feeling for her either way. Anne, Guy’s new love interest, is a cipher for most of the book – there merely to give Guy a motive for wishing to be rid of Miriam and, later, to give him something to lose. For the most part we see Anne solely through Guy’s eyes, as a kind of idealised opposite to Miriam, which makes her come over as rather passionless and insipid, and almost unbelievably trusting of this man that she clearly barely knows or comprehends (or she wouldn’t dream of marrying him). In the end stages, we do get to see things from her perspective briefly, but she never really comes to life as a distinct character in her own right.

Patricia Highsmith

The writing is very good, particularly when showing Guy’s increasing loss of grip on reality, but I found the pacing of the first half incredibly slow. Partly that may have been because I knew the story from the film, but the book seems to cover the same ground over and over again, with Guy angsting over his moral dilemma to the point where I didn’t care what he decided to do so long as he finally did something! However, the second half seems to flow much better and the tension ramps up, so that in the end I was glad I stuck with it.

As you’ll no doubt have realised by now, I’m not joining the legions of readers who have praised this unreservedly. For me, the unlikeability of the characters made it an intellectual rather an emotional read and, as I’ve said, the first half seemed to drag interminably. However, there’s plenty to enjoy in it, especially in the later stages when it picks up pace, and it definitely deserves its reputation as a classic for its originality at the time. So I certainly recommend it, both as a good read overall and because it’s always interesting to read a book that has been so influential on the genre.

Book 21 of 90

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Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm. It was having to stop at smaller and more frequent stations, where it would wait impatiently for a moment, then attack the prairie again. But progress was imperceptible. The prairie only undulated, like a vast, pink-tan blanket being casually shaken. The faster the train went, the more buoyant and taunting the undulations.
Guy took his eyes from the window and hitched himself back against the seat.
Miriam would delay the divorce at best, he thought. She might not even want a divorce, only money. Would there ever really be a divorce from her?
Hate had begun to paralyse his thinking, he realised, to make little blind alleys of the roads that logic had pointed out to him in New York. He could sense Miriam ahead of him, not much farther now, pink and tan-freckled, and radiating a kind of unhealthful heat, like the prairie out the window. Sullen and cruel.

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The Graduate appeared in movie houses just as we young Americans were discovering how badly we wanted to distance ourselves from the world of our parents. It was not that the film dealt directly with racial unrest, campus protests, or an overseas war. Benjamin Braddock’s story was never intended as an accurate picture of the late sixties. Its makers had casually imagined their tale as set in 1962, the year in which Charles Webb wrote his original novel. (That’s why Ben, lounging in his family backyard, has no fear of receiving that “Greetings” letter from his draft board.) Still, The Graduate‘s prescience about matters of grave concern to the Baby Boom generation gave it a life of its own. If we young Americans were anxious about parental pressure, or about sex (and our lack thereof), or about marriage, or about the temptations posed by plastics, it was all visible for us on the movie screen. Today The Graduate continues to serve as a touchstone of that pivotal moment just before some of us began morphing into angry war protesters and spaced-out hippies.

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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.

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Dear Mr Macfarlane

You call yourself a banker, you sad little man. Worse, you call yourself a ‘personal’ banker and yet you hide and cower behind the faceless law. As a banker you are meant to offer fiscal support – not withdraw it. And to send a writ, like that, with no warning . . . It defies belief. Or rather it doesn’t defy belief – a second’s thought makes one realize that it is the nasty little bureaucrats, the creepy apparatchiks of the financial state like yourself, who are the true enemies of people like me. People with ambitions, with dreams – artists, in other words. Someone, some worm like you, some vile money-lender in Renaissance Italy, would have closed da Vinci’s line of credit. I herewith terminate my account with your bank. I herewith counter-sue you for incompetence and negligence. I herewith warn you that I will write to every consumer website on the planet and inform them of –

From the story Unsent Letters

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From the Archives…

“…I did what the Color Master had asked, and went for blue, then black, and I was incredibly slow, but for one moment I felt something as I hovered over the bins of blue. Just a tug of guidance from the white of the dress that led my hand to the middle blue. It felt, for a second, like harmonizing in a choir, the moment when the voice sinks into the chord structure and the sound grows, becomes more layered and full than before. So that was the right choice.”

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“As she unlaced her blouse, he touched fingertips to her trembling bare shoulders and explained in his low gravel that he only ate human beings he did not know. I know your name now, he murmured. I know your travels. You’re safe.”

(Click for full review)

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 144…

Episode 144…

All fired up and ready to smash the TBR! You’re going to be amazed by how dramatically it’s going to fall over the next few weeks! You do believe me, don’t you? Don’t you?? It’s currently standing at 214.

Here are a few I’ll be getting to very soon…

Crime

(Isn’t that the most dreadful cover ever produced? Since the title is well-nigh illegible, it’s Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith.) For the Classics Club and because I’m fed up with being the last person living who hasn’t read it…

The Blurb says: In Patricia Highsmith’s debut novel, we encounter Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno, passengers on the same train. But while Guy is a successful architect in the midst of a divorce, Bruno turns out to be a sadistic psychopath who manipulates Guy into swapping murders with him. As Bruno carries out his twisted plan, Guy is trapped in Highsmith’s perilous world – where, under the right circumstances, anybody is capable of murder.

The inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1951 film, Strangers on a Train launched Highsmith on a prolific career of noir fiction and proved her mastery of depicting the unsettling forces that tremble beneath the surface of everyday contemporary life.

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Vampire!

Courtesy of the publisher, Saraband. I was sent an unsolicited copy of this. Normally, I avoid vampire stories like the plague (Hmm! Is that a pun, I wonder?). But I’ve read a few Saraband publications recently, a couple of them well outside my comfort zone, and have thoroughly enjoyed them all, so will they be able to do it again? We’ll see…

The Blurb says: “A flint-hard, gorgeously written nightmare.” Laird Barron. One night in 1980, a man becomes a monster. Travis Stillwell spends his nights searching out women in honky-tonk bars on the back roads of Texas. What he does with them doesn’t make him proud – it just quiets the demons for a little while. But when he crosses paths with one particular mysterious pale-skinned girl, he wakes up weak and bloodied, with no memory of the night before. Finding refuge at a lonely motel, Travis develops feelings for the owner, Annabelle, but at night he fights a horrible transformation and his need to feed. A riveting new vampire story for fans of Cormac McCarthy, Joe Hill and Anne Rice.

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Fiction

For the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge. This sounds wonderful, so I really hope it lives up to my high expectations – fingers crossed!

The Blurb says: In The Man Who Loved Dogs, Leonardo Padura brings a noir sensibility to one of the most fascinating and complex political narratives of the past hundred years: the assassination of Leon Trotsky by Ramón Mercader.

The story revolves around Iván Cárdenas Maturell, who in his youth was the great hope of modern Cuban literature—until he dared to write a story that was deemed counterrevolutionary. When we meet him years later in Havana, Iván is a loser: a humbled and defeated man with a quiet, unremarkable life who earns his modest living as a proofreader at a veterinary magazine. One afternoon, he meets a mysterious foreigner in the company of two Russian wolfhounds. This is “the man who loved dogs,” and as the pair grow closer, Iván begins to understand that his new friend is hiding a terrible secret.

Moving seamlessly between Iván’s life in Cuba, Ramón’s early years in Spain and France, and Trotsky’s long years of exile, The Man Who Loved Dogs is Padura’s most ambitious and brilliantly executed novel yet. This is a story about political ideals tested and characters broken, a multilayered epic that effortlessly weaves together three different plot threads— Trotsky in exile, Ramón in pursuit, Iván in frustrated stasis—to bring emotional truth to historical fact.

A novel whose reach is matched only by its astonishing successes on the page, The Man Who Loved Dogs lays bare the human cost of abstract ideals and the insidious, corrosive effects of life under a repressive political regime.

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Factual on Audio

Off to Antarctica for the Around the World in 80 Books Challenge. What little I know about Shackleton comes from the old Channel 4 production starring Kenneth Branagh, and I seem to have forgotten everything about it! So this might read as much like an adventure story as a factual book to me – I’m hoping so, anyway…

The Blurb says: The astonishing saga of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s survival for over a year on the ice-bound Antarctic seas, as Time magazine put it, “defined heroism.” Alfred Lansing’s scrupulously researched and brilliantly narrated book — with over 200,000 copies sold — has long been acknowledged as the definitive account of the Endurance’s fateful trip. To write their authoritative story, Lansing consulted with ten of the surviving members and gained access to diaries and personal accounts by eight others. The resulting book has all the immediacy of a first-hand account.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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

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