Six Degrees of Separation – From Donoghue 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 Room by Emma Donoghue. I haven’t read it but the blurb tells me…

Jack lives with his Ma in Room. Room has a single locked door and a skylight, and it measures ten feet by ten feet. Jack loves watching TV but he knows that nothing he sees on the screen is truly real – only him, Ma and the things in Room. Until the day Ma admits there is a world outside.

This one has never appealed to me, despite the zillions of glowing reviews. The idea of spending a book inside the head of a five year old is my idea of hell, I fear. But the being held captive by a maniac theme reminds me of…

Koethi Zan’s The Never List, a dark and disturbing psychological thriller. When Sarah and her best friend Jennifer were growing up, they made a list of all the things they should never do if they wanted to stay safe in a world that they had already discovered could turn dangerous in an instant. But one night they forgot the most basic never of all – never get in the car

“There were four of us down there for the first thirty-two months and eleven days of our captivity. And then, very suddenly and without warning, there were three. Even though the fourth person hadn’t made any noise at all in several months, the room got very quiet when she was gone.”

This was a début that immediately put the author on my must-read list. Which happened again when I read another début…

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rendell. It’s Prohibition Era in America and the police in Brooklyn have been tasked with closing down the speakeasies that have sprung up around the district. To help with the extra workload a new typist is hired, the charming and beautiful Odalie. At first, Rose, the narrator, is a little jealous of the attention Odalie receives from all quarters, but when Odalie decides to befriend her, Rose quickly falls under her spell. Even as she realises that Odalie might have some dark secrets, Rose can’t resist the new and exciting lifestyle to which Odalie has introduced her. But Rose herself may have secrets too – or else why would she be narrating the story from an institution…?

Keira Knightley has bought the films rights to The Other Typist apparently – I think she’d make a great Odalie…or maybe Rose!

Rendell brings the Prohibiton era to life and admits in her prologue that she took inspiration from her favourite book – a favourite of mine too…

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald. Set in the summer of 1922, the book portrays the brittleness of a society still quivering from the aftershocks of WW1 and looking fearfully towards an uncertain future. The hedonism and dazzling decadence of the “Roaring Twenties” is exposed as a thin veneer over a society riven by class division, old wealth and new, and showing the first signs of a breakdown in the old social order. And then, of course, there’s the stunning, evocative writing…

But I didn’t call to him for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone – he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.


I thought Mia Farrow made the perfect Daisy, a picture of vulnerability but with an unbreakable core. She played a similar character, Jackie, in another film adaptation, though of a very different kind of book…

Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. I haven’t reviewed this one on the blog which tells me it’s well overdue for a re-read, since it’s one of Christie’s finest. The rich and beautiful Linnet Ridgeway is on honeymoon with her new husband Simon, cruising the Nile. But their idyll is about to be destroyed when Simon’s jealous ex-lover Jackie shows up. Jackie is the obvious suspect when Linnet is murdered, but she couldn’t have done it. It’s up to fellow holidaymaker Hercule Poirot to find out who did…

One of the major themes of Death on the Nile is betrayal, which made me think of…

Exposure by Helen Dunmore. When fading Communist spy Giles Holloway falls drunkenly down his stairs and breaks his leg, he must somehow get the Top Secret file he has “borrowed” back to the Admiralty before anyone notices it’s missing. So he turns to his old friend and colleague Simon Callington for help. The brilliance of this story about spies and traitors rests largely on its excellent charcaterisations and authentic setting. But what really makes this book stand out from the crowd is the inclusion of Simon’s wife and family. It’s also a highly intelligent twist on The Railway Children, where we see the story from the adults’ side.

While Giles is the name of a person in Exposure, it’s part of the name of a place in another great novel – Kingston St Giles, the setting for…

Sebastian Faulks’ Jeeves and the Wedding Bells. Modern follow-on novels notoriously usually make me spit and curse. But Faulks has got the overall tone completely right and the dialogue, especially between Bertie and Jeeves, is wonderful! Scarcely a false note, throughout. The plot is suitably convoluted, we meet some old friends and the special sunshine of Wodehouse’s world is back to warm us all again.

‘And what was his attitude towards Georgiana?’
Jeeves considered. One could almost hear the cogwheels of that great brain whirring as he selected the mot juste. It was a pity that, when it came, it was one with which I was unfamiliar.
‘I should say his attitude was complaisant, sir.’
‘Complacent, do you mean?’
‘I fancy either adjective might apply, sir.’
‘Hmm.’ While unsure of the difference, I was fairly certain neither was quite up to snuff.

My fave Jeeves and Wooster

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So Donoghue to Faulks, via captivity, débuts, the Prohibition era, Mia Farrow, betrayal and Giles!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

GAN Quest: The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

Boats against the current…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the great gatsby 2One of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, The Great Gatsby lays bare the casual recklessness and unthinking cruelty of the privileged rich in the pre-depression, prohibition era of America. Set in the summer of 1922, the book portrays the brittleness of a society still quivering from the aftershocks of WW1 and looking fearfully towards an uncertain future. The hedonism and dazzling decadence of the “Roaring Twenties” is exposed as a thin veneer over a society riven by class division, old wealth and new, and showing the first signs of a breakdown in the old social order.

The story is set in the fictitious areas of East and West Egg on Long Island. Facing each other across the bay that separates them are two mansions. The house on East Egg is the home of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, both born into wealth and privilege. On the other side lives Jay Gatsby, not just a self-made man, but self-invented. The narrator, Nick Carraway, is cousin to the Buchanans and neighbour to Gatsby, and finds himself rapidly becoming a conduit between them.

The wind had blown off, leaving a loud bright night with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life.

To claim perfection for a book might be too grandiloquent (though I’m tempted), but I confidently claim that the first chapter of Gatsby is the perfect first chapter. We get to know Nick, restless from the war, running from his comfortable mid-western home to escape the weight of family expectations. But Nick is no country bumpkin – he is assured and confident, sliding effortlessly into New York high society while still retaining some of the clear-sightedness of an outsider looking in. We meet Daisy, beautiful, privileged and outwardly vulnerable; but already we begin to see the hard shell of self-preservation that exists beneath her filmy, gauzy exterior. We are shown Tom, seeking a way to fill his empty life now that his days as a football star are over – through him we see the fraying of the certainties of the established order. And as the chapter closes, we catch our first glimpse of Gatsby, thinking himself unseen, revealing his desire and his vulnerability in one simple gesture. All this in a few beautifully written pages, and with room too to give the reader a feel for the setting of the novel to come, both physical and emotional.

But I didn’t call to him for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone – he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.

gatsby and daisy

Gatsby himself is one of the most unforgettable characters in fiction; a self-made man to whose lavish parties New York society flocks, exploiting his hospitality while gossiping shamelessly about his murky and mysterious background. But Gatsby doesn’t care what the world thinks of him – only Daisy, the representation of all of his dreams and aspirations. For Gatsby, Daisy is the American Dream – the beauty, the wealth, the class, the privilege. And it was the odd democratisation of war that had allowed the Gatsbys and Daisys of this world to mingle – the uniform of an officer providing the entrance ticket that Gatsby’s own background didn’t give. This is a beautiful and poignant love story, but the Daisy that Gatsby loves is the memory of a dream; his pursuit is not so much of Daisy herself as of the time he holds most dear – the time when Daisy and he were in love.

“She’s got an indiscreet voice,” I remarked. “It’s full of…”
I hesitated.
“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.
That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money – that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it…High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl…

F Scott Fitzgerald
F Scott Fitzgerald

Through the contrast of the Buchanans and Gatsby, Fitzgerald blasts away any idea of American society as being equal or even meritocratic and shows that, just as much as in the Old World, there is an aristocracy and upper-class who will defend at any price the privilege that their name and old wealth bestows. Gatsby’s name-change, his vagueness and lies about his background are partly to cover up the murky way he came by his wealth, but also to try to invent a background that will make him acceptable to this snobbish and exclusive elite. But he doesn’t quite pull it off – his ostentation and stilted use of what he sees as upper-class language give him away at every turn. And yet, despite his shadowy past, despite his occasional vulgarity, Gatsby shows himself to have an integrity and honesty wholly lacked by the society to which he so much wants to belong.

“They’re a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end. First he nodded politely, and then his face broke into that radiant and understanding smile, as if we’d been in ecstatic cahoots on that fact all the time.

The first time I read Gatsby, I was so enthralled that I read it in one glorious sitting, breathless and amazed. It’s a short novel, written with a wonderful economy that allows Fitzgerald to cast a laser beam at the divisions of this class-ridden society while still creating some of the most fully-realised characters in fiction; not to mention providing a well-plotted and deeply moving story too. A masterwork of fiction, this is a book I have read many times and expect to read many more with just as much pleasure.

gatsby glasses

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagFor the light it sheds on privilege and class in 1920s society…achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagAlways going to be subjective, since my reading in US literature isn’t wide enough to be definitive – but yes, I believe the theme meets the originality requirement so…achieved

Must be superbly written.

us flagMost definitely achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagHmm…this is always going to be well-nigh impossible. Gatsby does give a very clear picture not just of the rich but also of the contrast with the ordinary working people of New York. Through the contrast of Daisy and Jordan, it shows aspects of the changing status of women. Through Tom’s fears of the future, it hints at the problems of race that are going to scar so much of the twentieth century. Through Nick’s comment at the end (“I see now that this has been a story of the West after all…perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”), a contrast is shown between the values of ‘East’ and ‘West’. I’m tempted…but am going to say no, Gatsby doesn’t capture the entire American experience – this is very much about one specific part of it. But I’m willing to be persuaded to change my mind…

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So not The Great American Novel, sadly, but for achieving 4 GAN flags, I hereby declare The Great Gatsby to be A Great American Novel. And a truly great novel.

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Agree or disagree, I’d love to hear your opinion…

Great American Novel Quest

Let the Quest begin…


Last year I somewhat presumptuously declared in my review that Patrick Flanery’s Fallen Land should be on the shortlist for the title of Great American Novel. One of the reviewers I often chat to on Amazon US asked me which other books I would shortlist. After some humming and hawing, I had to admit that my knowledge of American literature was so woeful that I couldn’t come up with anything other than The Great Gatsby and Roth’s American Pastoral. This led to a series of conversations, both on Amazon and here, about which books were deserving of the title. So now it’s time for me to get better acquainted with some of these books…let the Great American Novel Quest begin!

Great American Novel Quest

Over the next year and probably beyond that, I propose to read a contender once a month or so. Of course, life might intervene as it has a habit of doing, so this will be a fairly flexible target. During various conversations, I’ve built up a little list of recommendations (see below). I’m hoping blog readers will join in by adding to the list of contenders or telling me why the books already on the list shouldn’t be on it after all.

But the first question is – What qualities must a book possess to make it a Great American Novel?

Wikipedia says:

The “Great American Novel” is the concept of a novel that is distinguished in both craft and theme as being the most accurate representation of the spirit of the age in the United States at the time of its writing or in the time it is set. It is presumed to be written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen. The author uses the literary work to identify and exhibit the language used by the American people of the time and to capture the unique American experience, especially as it is perceived for the time. In historical terms, it is sometimes equated as being the American response to the national epic.

Hmm! I like some of that – the representative theme, the American author – but dislike some. I wouldn’t want to restrict it to exclude books written in standard American English, or even in British English for that matter. And I don’t feel it should necessarily be epic in scope. Also, America is such a huge concept with so many different parts that I feel that to ask one book to capture the ‘American experience’ might be too much.

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary says:

any novel that is regarded as having successfully represented an important time in US history or one that tells a story that is typical of America.

Again hmm! That seems pretty broad to me…too broad.

An article by Kevin Hayes in the Huffington Post gives the background to the creation of the phrase as an advertising slogan. Hayes suggests that a GAN should be a ‘national epic in prose’ that would ‘encapsulate the nation’. Hayes adds another requirement:

The Great American Novel should not only be diverse in terms of its subject but also in terms of its aesthetics. A truly great novel requires daring. To write The Great American Novel an author faces a double challenge. He or she must not only tell a story that encapsulates the nation but also tell it in a new way, inventing a mode and method of storytelling different from what other novelists have done before. Novelists with the ambition, talent, and daring to accept this challenge come along only once or twice a century.

No hmm! this time. I entirely disagree with this statement. I find innovative storytelling methods usually lead to books that last for a season rather than eternity, and for me any novel that aspires to greatness must be both timeless and a pleasure to read. (Ulysses, for example, uses innovative language – but is also reputed to be the book that is most often abandoned unfinished.) Vernacular if appropriate, beauty in the use of language certainly, but otherwise stick to the tried and tested. Let the insight be the thing that takes precedence.

So here are the criteria I’ll be judging the books against – each one achieved will gain the book 1 GAN star:-

  1. Must be written by an American author or, since the US continues to be a hub of immigration, an author who has lived long enough in the country to have assimilated its culture.
  2. The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing – therefore, it might be set in a historical (or even futuristic) timeframe but must still say something about the contemporary American experience.
  3. It must be innovative and original in theme – difficult to define originality in words but I suspect we all know it when we come across it. No derivations, no ‘school of’, no banality.
  4. Must be superbly written – I don’t care how insightful it might be; if it’s dull or badly-written, it’s out.
  5. For the elusive fifth star, it must capture the entire ‘American experience’. That is to say, it must seek to include all the various very different aspects of culture that make up the American whole. I suspect this will be an almost impossible challenge, but I hope to be proved wrong.


What do you think? Do you agree or do you think I’m starting off on the wrong track? Are there criteria you would add – or remove?

Here are the books that are currently on my list. The first 4 I already own, so they’ll be being read first. After that, the list is subject to change – I’m hoping you’ll help by telling me which books you think should be added and which you think don’t deserve to be considered…

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald – starting off easily with a re-read of a book I already know and love. ‘A portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess, Gatsby captured the spirit of the author’s generation and earned itself a permanent place in American mythology.’

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates‘Like F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, this novel conveys, with brilliant erudition, the poverty at the soul of many wealthy Americans and the exacting cost of chasing the American Dream.’

The Road by Cormac McCarthy‘The Road is an unflinching exploration of human behavior – from ultimate destructiveness to extreme tenderness.’

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain‘All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn, It’s the best book we’ve had.’ –Ernest Hemingway

The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford‘In his third Frank Bascombe novel Richard Ford contemplates the human character with wry precision. Graceful, expansive, filled with pathos but irresistibly funny, The Lay of the Land is a modern American masterpiece.’

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon‘Complete with golems and magic and miraculous escapes and evil nemeses and even hand-to-hand Antarctic battle, it pursues the most important questions of love and war, dreams and art, across pages brimming with longing and hope.’

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson ‘In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames’s life, he begins a letter to his young son, a kind of last testament to his remarkable forebears.’

A Hemingway novel – any suggestions for which one, bearing in mind the American theme? Should Hemingway be included at all?

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck‘A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America.’

Empire Falls by Richard Russo‘In Empire Falls Richard Russo delves deep into the blue-collar heart of America in a work that overflows with hilarity, heartache, and grace.’

American Pastoral by Philip Roth – this will be another re-read. ‘In American Pastoral, Philip Roth gives us a novel of unqualified greatness that is an elegy for all the twentieth century’s promises of prosperity, civic order, and domestic bliss.’

(All blurb extracts are from Amazon.)

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Thanks in particular to Roger Brunyate and Matt Geyer for most of these recommendations. Both Roger and Matt review on Amazon US and I always enjoy our bookie discussions there. (Matt also comments here occasionally, and is the author of his own book, Strays – you can see my review here and, before your quite natural cynicism kicks in, the review was written before Matt and I became online friends.)

Crime of Privilege by Walter Walker

crime of privilegePower corrupts…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Assistant DA George Becket is asked for help by the father of a murdered girl, he finds himself up against not only one of the most powerful families in the state but also his own guilt about an episode he helped cover up in his past.

This is a thoughtful legal thriller, more Turow than Grisham, and with some echoes of the world of The Great Gatsby – a parallel the author himself hints at; a world where the powerful use their position, patronage and wealth to protect themselves from the consequences of their actions; a world where corruption distorts every part of the system.

George is a flawed hero and knows it. As he finds more and more people whose silence has been bought to cover up a crime, he knows that he is no better than they are. And he knows that if he succeeds in finding evidence of guilt, he will be putting his own future, and perhaps even his life, at risk. But will his conscience allow him to make the same mistake he made once before? Or by finding the truth will he also find some form of personal redemption?

Walter Walker
Walter Walker

Written in the first person, we see the story through George’s eyes. His character is very well drawn as a fairly ordinary person struggling as much with his own weaknesses as with the corrupt world he inhabits, and struggling too to know whom he can trust. Well written and thought-provoking in its look at how power corrupts, the book also has plenty of action and humour to keep the story moving along. An enjoyable and interesting read and one that will encourage this reader to backtrack to the author’s previous work – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link