Six Degrees from Lincoln in the Bardo to Iris

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month the chain begins with Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, a book I haven’t read.

Lincoln in the Bardo

It’s about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War. Willie finds himself trapped in a transitional realm – called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo – and as ghosts mingle, squabble, gripe and commiserate, and stony tendrils creep towards the boy, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Moving from a fictional and highly original book by the looks of it my chain goes next to a biographical account of Lincoln:

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, a biography of Abraham Lincoln and others, by  Doris Kearns Goodwin, a book I bought after watching the film, Lincoln, which is loosely based on this book covering the final four months of Lincoln’s life. Goodwin examines his relationships with three men he selected for his cabinet, all of whom were opponents for the Republican nomination in 1860: William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates.

Body Parts: Essays on Life-Writing

Writing biography is the subject of Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing by Hermione Lee, a collection of essays on Shelley,  T S Eliot, J M Coetzee, Jane Austen, Eudora Welty  and Virginia Woolf, to name but a few. Lee explores the relation of biography to fiction and history and of the connection of writers’ lives to their works.

So my next link is a collection of essays by Virginia Woolf –

The Death of the Moth and Other Essays

The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, originally published in 1942 by Leonard Woolf. Virginia had been getting together essays, which she proposed to publish in the autumn of 1941, or the spring of 1942. She had left behind her many essays, sketches and short stories, some of which had been previously published in newspapers, which he decided were worth republishing and in this book he also included some of those previously unpublished.

The title essay is a meditation on the nature of life and death seen through the perspective of a moth. It flies by day, fluttering from side to side of a window pane. As the day progresses the moth tires and falls on his back. He struggles vainly to raise himself. Woolf watches, realising that it is useless to try to do anything to help and ponders the power of death over life.

Moths provide the next link  – to a novel, The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams.

Behavior Of Moths

This is the story of two sisters, Ginny and Vivi. Vivi, the younger sister left the family mansion 47 years earlier and returns unexpectedly one weekend. Ginny, a reclusive moth expert has rarely left the house in all that time.  What happens when they meet again is shocking to both of them. It’s a story full of mystery and suspense as it is revealed that the two have very different memories of their childhood and the events of the past. Two events in particular affected their lives. One was when Vivi, aged 8, fell from the bell tower and nearly died. The story alternates between the past and the present as Ginny recalls their lives.

Bell‘ is the next link in my chain – to Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell, a book with an impending sense of evil and menace. It looks at the angst and self-denial of the relationship between religion and sex.

The Bell

A lay community lives next to an enclosed order of nuns, a new bell is being installed and then the old bell, a legendary symbol of religion and magic  is retrieved from the bottom of the lake. The legend of the bell is that it fell into the lake after a 14th century Bishop had cursed the Abbey when a nun was discovered to have a lover and had drowned herself.

And my final link is to a book about the author of The Bell, Iris Murdoch – Iris: A Memoir by John Bayley.

Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch

I first read this in 2003. It’s a very loving and touching account. Iris died in February 1999 after suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. Bayley explained how he had coped emotionally and practically with the illness that beset the woman he loved and cherished.

Writing this post as disrupted my reading because I got Bayley’s book off the shelves and began reading it again. He writes in such a warm and affectionate way that I’ve decided to read it right away.

For once there is no crime fiction in my chain! It contains books pondering the nature of life and death, beginning with a meditation on the death of Willie Lincoln and ending with a memoir of the life of Iris Murdoch.

Next month (March 3, 2018), the chain begins with a controversial book that Kate reports had everyone talking in the nineties – The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. Everyone that is, apart from me – I don’t know anything (yet) about this book.

11 thoughts on “Six Degrees from Lincoln in the Bardo to Iris

  1. Wow, this is a very different line of thought to what others have done for this meme. I’m struggling to get past book 3 in my chain this month….. Bayley’s book is superb isn’t it? I loved the way he used their visits to the river to swim as a way of showing how her mental state was changing.

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    1. I struggled to get started with this meme, but once I’d got the first link the rest just flowed along without much effort. 🙂 I’m pleased that I remembered Bayley’s book – as you say, it really is superb!


  2. What an interesting chain – completely different to mine! I’m sure I’ve read the Poppy Adams book, but can’t remember much about it. Iris was wonderful though.

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  3. This was great, Margaret! I’m loving seeing what directions others take their chains. Mine, I suspect, will always veer toward crime fiction. It’s what I know best. I am interested in reading Iris. As you know, stories about Alzheimer’s always touch my heart and I’m drawn to them. I’ll watch for that one as you recommend it.

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  4. What interesting choices! This is very different from my chain and I don’t think I’ve read any of those books apart from Lincoln in the Bardo. The John Bayley book sounds lovely.

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  5. You’ve done an excellent job with this one, Margaret, I would struggle to find a link with the first book I think. Of the books you’ve included the one that most appeals to me is Body Parts. I do like books of essays.

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  6. Terrific choices Margaret – I haven’t read any of them but I you’ve made me want to (particularly the last few books in your chain which sound fascinating).

    I’m hoping The Beauty Myth isn’t too tricky as a starting point – we haven’t had much non-fiction to begin a chain so will be interested to see where it takes people.

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  7. Bayley’s book is very moving – the film was quite good too. But I have a personal connection to that, as the mother of one of my best friends at school was the translator of Iris Murdoch into Romanian and knew her personally. So she was telling us about how sad it was to see such a fiercely intellectual woman decline.

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  8. I’ve waited to read your chain until I’d finished my own (it will be published this evening). Yours is entirely different to mine; I love how different everyone’s chains are! You have some great books here, Margaret. I had forgotten about the Hermione Lee book – I’ve wanted to read that for a long time. Iris is also a book I’d like to read; I imagine it will be very moving. The film Iris was wonderful.


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