Six Degrees of Separation – From Wolf 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 The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. I haven’t read it but the blurb tells me…

The bestselling classic that redefined our view of the relationship between beauty and female identity. In today’s world, women have more power, legal recognition, and professional success than ever before. Alongside the evident progress of the women’s movement, however, writer and journalist Naomi Wolf is troubled by a different kind of social control, which, she argues, may prove just as restrictive as the traditional image of homemaker and wife. It’s the beauty myth, an obsession with physical perfection that traps the modern woman in an endless spiral of hope, self-consciousness, and self-hatred as she tries to fulfil society’s impossible definition of “the flawless beauty.”

Hmm – since I think this sounds like utter tosh that’s selling the mythical ‘myth’ about which it’s pretending to protest, I think it’s safe to say the book’s not my kind of thing. Which reminds me of another book that’s not my kind of thing, but which I loved anyway…

In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson. Normally I avoid vampire books but this one turned out to be so much more than that. Part examination of the hard-scrabble life of rural Texans and part-metaphor for the lasting shockwaves of the traumas visited on America, and its young men in particular, by the Vietnam war, it’s right up there with the best of American fiction writing. And will almost certainly make it onto my best of the year list.

He watched her go, thinking of the children they had been when they were married. He eighteen, she seventeen. She a half-breed, he a white Texan boy, theirs a romance, Reader had always thought, befitting the romance of the land itself, the wide open spaces and faraway horizons, where the hearts of the young were as big and green as the vast sweep of the eastern grasslands, and the land and the courses of the lives lived on it moved and rolled in ways no man could ever predict, as though the breath of giants were easing over them, shaping them, turning them.

Some reviewers have compared it in terms of subject matter to Cormac McCarthy, which makes me think of…

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. As dystopian novels go, they don’t get much bleaker than this. All plant-life and most animal-life has been destroyed, and the implication is that the earth itself has been so badly damaged that nothing can grow in it. We follow two characters, known only as the man and the boy, as they journey through the devastated land. I was unsure how I felt about this at the time, but it is undoubtedly thought-provoking and full of imagery that has stayed with me – images both of horror and the ugliness of mankind, and of goodness, truth and a stark kind of beauty.

The most recent dystopian novel I’ve read is…

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. Written in 1920, this book gives a prescient look at the potential outcome of the Marxist-style regime that was then coming into existence in Revolutionary Russia. A totalitarian “utopia” where almost all individuality is stripped away and people become nothing more than cogs in a massive machine, and just as dispensable. It’s easy to see its influence on some of the great dystopian novels of the early and mid-twentieth century, like Orwell’s 1984.

I haven’t reviewed 1984 on the blog, but I have reviewed…

Animal Farm by George Orwell. This allegorical fable of the Russian Revolution didn’t work as well for me now as it had done when I first read it in school. But it’s still a great book for younger readers who might not be quite ready for the likes of 1984, and the story of poor Boxer the horse is still just as moving…

Talking of boxers reminded me of…

The End of the Web by George Sims, the hero of which is an ex-boxer. (Yeah, I know that link is pretty strrrrrretched, but work with me, people… 😉 ) From 1976, this starts off as a fairly conventional thriller – ordinary man caught up in extraordinary events – but suddenly veers off in a different direction half-way through, giving it a feeling of originality. Well written and giving a great sense of the London of the time, I thoroughly enjoyed it

The author was apparently connected to the code-breaking facility at Bletchley Park during WW2, which made me think of…

Robert Harris’ Enigma. A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, this story is set amid the codebreakers of Bletchley Park during WW2. A great depiction of the almost intolerable pressure placed on the shoulders of these mainly young men at a time when the course of the whole war depended on their success.

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So Wolf to Harris, via not my kind of thing, Cormac McCarthy, dystopian novels, George Orwell, boxers and Bletchley Park!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

The problem with happiness…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Our narrator, D-503, is a cipher in the utopian One State. He is the Chief Builder of the Integral, a rocket ship that is to be sent out into the universe, bringing uniformity and happiness to all alien species who may be out there still messily living with free will. All ciphers have been encouraged to prepare something for inclusion on the mission – poems of praise to the Benefactor who serves as a replacement for God in this society. D-503 decides to keep a journal of his daily life – this journal that we are reading – as his contribution. But D-503 is about to meet a woman – I-330 – who will disrupt his contented existence and lead him to reconsider just how utopian life in the One State really is…

First a word on translations. I started with the Momentum publication of this which as far as I can see doesn’t credit the translator by name. It’s dreadful – so bad I found it almost unreadable and was about to abandon the book completely at the 30% mark. However, I then changed to the Vintage Classics edition translated by Natasha Randall, which is excellent – like reading a different book. So if you decide to read this, make sure you check the translation first.

Even given the much better experience of the good translation, I’m afraid I can’t bring myself to be as fulsome in praise of this as I’d like. D-503 is a mathematician, so his narration is full of mathematical metaphors and everything is described in vaguely mathematical terms. It’s well enough done, but I found it tedious. Zamyatin also has a technique of leaving sentences unfinished and uses ellipses even more than I do… This gives a sensation of the speed of events, of the increasing confusion D-503 is feeling, but again I found it got pretty tiresome after a bit.

Book 18 0f 90

It also has an issue that I think may be really more my problem than the book’s, an issue I’ve found with other early dystopian fiction: namely, that I think the societies they describe sound considerably more attractive than the savage societies they hold up as the better alternative. What exactly is so wrong with being happy? I get it – I really do – that they achieve their happiness at the expense of free will, that their lives are unexciting because everything is decided for them, that art and literature have no real place in such societies; and no, I don’t aspire to that kind of society. But the flaw, if it is one, is that the characters are happy in their lives until they discover how much better it is to be miserable, chewed up by desire and jealousy, living lives that are nasty, brutish and short. In We, the savage society has reverted almost to chimp lifestyle – I don’t aspire to that either! Current dystopian fiction is much more likely to have the characters be fundamentally unhappy in their regimented societies, to be aware of how restricted and unfulfilling their lives are, and to have something more appealing to aim for. This works so much better for me. I had exactly the same issue with Huxley’s Brave New World when I read it at school – the characters liked their lives and were happy, until savagery burst in to make them realise what they’d been missing – unregimented sex, mainly, which is pretty much what sets D-503 off too…

This book, written in post-revolutionary Russia in 1920, has an eerie familiarity about it. This is because it has basically the same story as both Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984, both of which have borrowed so heavily from it it feels close to theft. Personally, I’m a bit baffled by the timing – I wouldn’t have thought Bolshevik Russia had reached anything close to this kind of society as early as 1920, while the civil war was still being fought. Zamyatin was either very prescient or he was writing as much about the general philosophical zeitgeist of the time as about the realities of his society – I suspect probably a bit of both. Marxism was on the rise, some authors were presenting utopian societies as a good thing, and Zamyatin references Taylorism more than once – something I wasn’t familiar with but which seems to have been an extreme form of regimentation within the workplace; what in my youth we called ‘time and motion studies’ – the desire of management to turn workers into unthinking, exhausted drones or human robots. (That’s not necessarily how management would have described it, but I was a worker bee back then… 😉 )

Yevgeny Zamyatin

The book therefore feels as if it’s arguing against philosophical ideas about utopias rather than reality, as does Brave New World from what I remember. 1984, on the other hand, while using the same basic story, is very specifically arguing against the actual rise of totalitarian regimes in the mid-20th century, and Orwell’s characters give no impression of being in any way “happy”. This makes it by far the more powerful book of the three from my perspective and it’s also much better written (though obviously Zamyatin is at a disadvantage with me on that score because I have to rely on translators). In fact, We feels to me much more like North Korean style totalitarianism than the Soviet version – both may have been aiming for the same, but possibly North Korea’s smaller size and more uniform population has enabled the Kim clan to more fully achieve and sustain a completely regimented society entirely dependent on the whim of its God-like “benefactor”. And I doubt anyone thinks the North Koreans are actually happy, however much they’re forced to appear to be.

Had I read this first, the ideas in it would have felt more original, as indeed they were when it was written. So although I didn’t find it the most pleasurable reading experience, I still highly recommend it as a classic that has helped to shape so much later literature. Maybe the secret is to read all the world’s literature in strict chronological order. Now isn’t that a nice dystopian thought to end on?

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 139…

Episode 139…

I think the whole idea of trying to reduce the TBR is silly, really. I don’t know why you all obsess about it so much. I mean, in the great global scheme of things, does it really matter whether the TBR goes up or down? Does it? Of course not!

OK, OK! It’s gone up! By 3 – to 219! But I’m sure it’s just a temporary blip – I’ve got loads of time to meet my New Year’s Resolution to get it down to 150 by the end of the year. Stop laughing. STOP LAUGHING!!!

Here’s are a few more I should get to soonish…

Fiction

For the Classics Club. I don’t know why I haven’t read more Robert Louis Stevenson than I have, but it’s time to do something about that…

The Blurb says: Set in 18th-century Scotland, this brooding historical romance unfolds amid the Jacobite Rebellion. A struggle between good and evil begins in the old Scottish castle of Durrisdeer — the ancestral home of the Durie clan — where James Durie, Master of Ballantrae, persists in his lifelong rivalry with his younger brother as well as his relentless quest for the family fortune.

From Durrisdeer, the fast-paced adventure shifts to sea voyages and encounters with pirates, intrigue at the French court and in India, and an attempt to recover buried treasure in New York’s Adirondack Mountains — all leading to a shocking climax in the American wilderness. An engrossing tale played out against the backdrop of three continents, The Master of Ballantrae stands among the most vivid and exciting of Robert Louis Stevenson’s tales.

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Crime

For the Murder, Mystery, Mayhem Challenge. A Dr Thorndyke mystery, first published in 1911. I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of Thorndyke short stories, but this will be my first full-length novel…

The Blurb says: After the great success of his latest expedition, the brilliant archaeologist John Bellingham returns from the sandy tombs of Egypt with enough ancient treasures to fill a wing at the British Museum. He visits a friend for dinner and is told to wait in the study. When the friend arrives, he finds the study empty; Bellingham has vanished into thin air.

When Bellingham does not reappear, the police assume he has met with some fatal accident. Because his will cannot be discharged until the time and place of his death are known, Bellingham’s family calls on the eminent Dr. Thorndyke, whose mastery of the medical arts is second only to his brilliance for crime solving. As he searches for the true reason for Bellingham’s disappearance, Thorndyke discovers a mystery as deep as any pharaoh’s tomb.

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Sci-Fi

For the Classics Club, but I’m hoping this might also fit into the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge.

The Blurb says: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We is set in an urban glass city called OneState, regulated by spies and secret police. Citizens of the tyrannical OneState wear identical clothing and are distinguished only by the number assigned to them at birth. The story follows a man called D-503, who dangerously begins to veer from the ‘norms’ of society after meeting I-330, a woman who defies the rules. D-503 soon finds himself caught up in a secret plan to destroy OneState and liberate the city.

The failed utopia of We has been compared to the works of H.G. Wells, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley. It was the first novel banned by the Soviets in 1921, and was finally published in its home country over a half-century later.

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Horror on Audible

Courtesy of Audible via MidasPR. This is a special Hallowe’en package from Audible, bundling together three classics each with highly-rated narrators. I’m currently listening to a different (brilliant) version of Frankenstein, so will probably pick Greg Wise reading Dracula for my spooky delight… or maybe Richard Armitage reading Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde! Just to mention – when the blurb says “three for the price of one” they are talking about members who will get the collection for 1 credit. For non members, this is more pricey – three for the price of three, really.

The Blurb says: Audible presents a special edition of three Gothic tales for the price of one: a brand-new Audible Exclusive recording of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Bursting with intrigue, suspense and malice, they resurrect the deepest and darkest of all our fears: that a monster lurks, and it lurks within us.

Introduced by Dr Maria Mellins and Dr Peter Howell, Senior Lecturers in Gothic literature at the University of London, this collection offers additional insight into the three audiobooks, their authors and their legacies.

Starting with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, Richard Armitage tells the story of a conflicted man who seeks a remedy to free the monster inside him from the clutches of his conscience. Following his celebrated performances of David Copperfield and David Hewson’s Romeo and Juliet for Audible, Armitage delivers another powerhouse performance as the narrator of this Gothic tale.

Shilling shocker enthusiast Stevenson was celebrated throughout his life. In contrast to Mary Shelley, who was often overshadowed by her husband’s work, Stevenson lived comfortably by his pen.

It was only with the release of Frankenstein that Shelley finally distinguished herself. Frankenstein was groundbreaking in its ability to fuse passion and romance with gore and horror. Narrated by Dan Stevens, who rose to fame through Downton Abbey, Beauty and the Beast and Legion, the story of science student Victor Frankenstein has been artfully retold. Testing the limits of science, Frankenstein fashions a living being from the conjoined body parts of rotting cadavers. Horrified at the end result, he abandons his monster, leaving him to endure a life of isolation and loneliness. A poignant example of human weakness and our inability to take responsibility for our actions, Frankenstein is both moving and terrifying.

That leads us to the gruesome tale of Count Dracula, the bloodthirsty father of the undead. Narrated by Greg Wise, star of Effie Gray, The Crown and Sense and Sensibility; Greg depicts a young lawyer whose services are hired by a sinister Transylvanian count. Releasing Dracula 80 years after Frankenstein, Bram Stoker was greatly influenced by Shelley’s writing style and similarly propels the story along through diary entries, letters and newspaper cuttings. Possessed of grisly imagery and unexpected twists, it’s no wonder that Dracula still manages to shake us to our very core.

All that remains is to offer a note of caution: this collection is not for the fainthearted. Old as these tales may be, do not mistake the unsettling nature of their content.

Grab some popcorn, turn the speakers up and enjoy. Just don’t say we didn’t warn you.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible UK.

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(Goodness! I’ve just realised these are all ancient! I’ll try to include something from the 21st century next week… 😉 )

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

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