Six Degrees of Separation: Wild Swans to A Dark-Adapted Eye

Six Degrees of Separation is 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 Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang,

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

a family memoir – the story of three generations of woman in Jung Chang’s family – her grandmother, mother and herself, telling of their lives in China up to and during the years of the violent Cultural Revolution. Her family suffered atrociously, her father and grandmother both dying painful deaths and both her mother and father were imprisoned and tortured.

Falling Leaves Return To Their RootsThe first book in my chain is also about a Chinese daughter. It’s Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter  by Adeline Yen Mah. She grew up during the Communist Revolution, was blamed for her mother’s death, ignored by her millionaire father and unwanted by her Eurasian step mother. A moving story set during extraordinary political events in China and Hong Kong.

The Buttonmaker's Daughter by [Allingham, Merryn]

My next book is about a fictional daughter: The Buttonmaker’s Daughter by Merryn Allingham, historical fiction set in Sussex in the summer of 1914 just before the start of the First World War. It covers just a few months, but those few months contain so much tension and heartbreak as the feud in the Summers family comes to a climax over the question of who Elizabeth Summer should marry and war on the continent becomes inevitable.

The Tiger in the Smoke (Albert Campion Mystery #14)

This leads on to a book by another author named Allingham. It’s The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham in which Jack Havoc is on the loose in post-war London, resulting in murder, mystery and mayhem. Meg’s marriage to self-made millionaire Geoffrey Levett should have been happy, until she began receiving photos of her late husband Martin, presumed dead in WWII. She calls on old friend Albert Campion to get to the bottom of things. For Campion, the case was cut and dry – until a brutal triple murder. I was immediately struck by the imagery – the fog pervades everything.

Our Mutual Friend

And the next book is also set in foggy London – Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens,

… the fog was heavy and dark. Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking,  wheezing, and choking: inanimate London was a sooty spectre … (page 242)

This book has multiple plots, centred on John Harmon who returns to England as his father’s heir. It begins as a boatman, Gaffer Hexham and his daughter, Lizzie, find a corpse in the Thames.

A Dark and Twisted Tide (Lacey Flint #4)

A body found in the Thames provides the next link in my chain to a modern crime fiction novel, A Dark and Twisted Tide by Sharon Bolton.  This is such a terrifying novel, particularly if like me, you have a fear of drowning. Police Constable Lacey Flint thinks she’s safe. Living on the river, she’s never been happier. Until she finds a body floating on the surface, as she wild-swims in the Thames.

This leads to the last book in my chain, another book with the word ‘dark‘ in the title:

A Dark-Adapted Eye

A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine. This is psychological crime fiction, you know right from the beginning who the murderer is, but not why or how the murder was committed.

The narrator Faith has spent her life avoiding thinking, talking or reading about the events that led up to her aunt’s hanging for murder. She only develops a “dark-adapted eye” very slowly when asked by a crime writer for her memories.

For once I have read all the books in my chain and they are all books I thoroughly enjoyed, a variety of genres – autobiography, historical fiction, classics and crime fiction. It begins in China and travels to Sussex to London through time from the nineteenth century to the present day.

When I begin a chain I never know where it will end. What about you, where does yours go and where does it end?

Next month (October 7, 2017), the chain begins with a book that I haven’t read (or heard about) – Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.

Night Falls on Ardnamurchan by Alasdair Maclean

Notes on Night Falls on Ardnamurchan: the Twilight of a Crofting Family by Alasdair Maclean (1926 – 1994).

Alasdair Maclean was a Scottish poet, born in Glasgow. He left school at fourteen to work in the Clydeside shipyards. In his late thirties he read English at Edinburgh University, later returning to the family croft at Sanna in Ardnamurchan to write. His father had worked as Deputy Harbour Master in the Greater Glasgow docks until he retired in the 1950s and moved back to take over the croft from his father.

What their life was like on the croft is captured in detail in Maclean’s only book of prose Night Falls on Ardnamurchan: the Twilight of a Crofting Family.

The main section of the book is made up of extracts from his father’s journals forming a factual account of his daily life on the croft covering two years, a decade apart: 1960 and 1970, for the same three days at the beginning, middle and end of every month in those years, with explanatory comments where he thought necessary.

I  enjoyed this section together with the Prologue and two introductions – the first about his father and their relationship and the second, a brief history of Ardnamuchan – more that the section on Alasdair’s own journal of 1979 – 1980.

I quoted the opening of the book with an extract from page 56 in this earlier post. Here are a few more extracts to give a flavour of the book:

Due to Father’s complete lack of push, coupled with his unwillingness to flatter or connive, he was passed over for promotion on several occasions. In the early 1950s he retired, somewhat prematurely, and came back to Ardnamurchan to operate the family croft, which my grandparents were getting too old to look after. Poverty accompanied him north and this lasted till a state pension at sixty-five brought some slight ease. He died five months after my mother of a coronary, they said, but of being worn out and heartbroken, say I. (page 23)

Each journal entry begins with a description of the weather and its effects. This is a typical example:

November 15 1969

Moderate to fresh Southerly wind became strong in evening. Drizzle in early forenoon. Dry for an hour in the middle of the day. In the afternoon the sleety rain became torrential and continued into the night. Did a little more to a new house for Tilly. Gave cattle a little hay. Managed across river at Cnoc Brac peats.

Alasdair commented: Tilly was a pet sheep, the first of many orphans we hand-reared. She was a privileged character (I tell her story later) and no ageing butler, slopping sherry around the salver on his tottering passage between pantry and drawing room, could have been more conscious of possessing security of tenure or more determined to exploit it. The ‘house’ that was being built for her was but one indication of her status. Your ordinary sheep shivers it out on the hillside all night, having no roof but the low cloud of winter. (pages 84-85)

The state of the weather had great importance. To the crofter:

…  clinging by a mixture of instinct and experience to the remote fringes of these islands, the weather is a god. It is the difference not merely between a pleasant and an unpleasant life, but between success and failure, until the advent of the welfare state between – possibly – living and dying.  (page 52)

Winter is hard on Sanna:

Gales often blow for days on end, accompanied for much of the time by rain. The ground around house and outbuildings, with the constant to-ing and fro-ing of animals and people becomes a churned-up quagmire, a constant drag and hindrance to everything one tries to do.

… Even to enter or leave one’s house, if it lacks a back door – and most of the old cottages did – may be a hazardous operation in a gale and a door once opened may not be easy to shut again. I have seen old people in Sanna go from house to steading on hands and knees, being unable to proceed any other way. (page 52)

This is an unusual book describing not only life in a dying community but also revealing the relationship between children and parents, particularly in an isolated community. I was fascinated.

I was also interested to know what Ardnamurchan is like today. The Ardnamuchan website states it is on the most westerly peninsular of the British mainland, jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean and with views from every shore of islands, castles, lochs and wilderness, an amazing part of the West Coast of Scotland.

File:Sanna Bay - geograph.org.uk - 354282.jpg
Sanna Bay (The copyright on this image is owned by Stuart Wilding and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.)

Amazon UK –  only available from third-party sellers

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; New edition edition (22 Feb. 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140108122
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140108125
  • Source: I bought the book
  • Rating: 3.5 stars

My Friday Post: Night Falls on Ardnamurchan

Book Beginnings ButtonEvery Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City
Reader
 where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

One of the books I’m currently reading is Night Falls on Ardnamurchan: The Twilight of a Crofting Family by Alasdair Maclean.

Night Falls on Ardnamurchan: The Twilight of a Crofting Family

It begins:

Introduction 1: Father and Son

We hardly conceive of our parents as human. There are innumerable actions, there are whole areas of life and thought, that we do not care to see connected with them, that we scarcely allow ourselves, far less others, to connect with them.

From the back cover:

The Scottish poet Alasdair Maclean records the rise and fall of the remote crofting hamlet in the little-known area of Ardnamurchan where his family had its roots.

Perceptive, humorous and sharp he binds his own account of the crofter’s lifestyle and extracts from his father’s journal, a terser, more factual and down-to-earth vision of the day-to-day. It is an unusual and memorable story, one that not only describes life in a dying crofting community but also illuminates the shifting, often tortuous, relationship between children and their parents.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

Friday 56

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

The events on page 56 are concerned with winkle gathering, which provided an additional income to many of the crofters. The winkles were gathered and then stored where they could be refreshed by sea water until they were shipped to a merchant.

The reaction of a bag of thirsty winkles to a good splash of Mother Atlantic is delightful. For a few minutes all is creaks and squeaks and bubblings, as though a buzz of winkly conversation had broken out.

I found it was slow going at first, but now I’ve read half the book I’m really enjoying Maclean’s commentary on his father’s journal.

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: a Memoir by Chris Packham

Description

Chris Packham’s Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: a Memoir is indeed unlike any other memoir I’ve ever read. I loved it. It is deeply personal and honest about his childhood and early teenage years. It doesn’t follow any chronological time-line but moves to an event in 1975 when he was fourteen that touched him to his core. Some chapters are in the first person, giving an intense insight into his mind and some in the third person telling of events as though through on onlooker’s eyes. Some parts are told in the third person whilst he was talking to a therapist later in his life – these are raw and intensely moving. There are parts that are so sad and parts where his anger and indeed rage and the cruelty of others come through so very clearly.

They describe his isolation, his separation from other people and his acceptance and recognition that he was different, the ‘loops’ or obsessive thoughts that run repeatedly through your mind, and the stress he experienced because of all that.

I think it is beautifully written, richly descriptive – although if you don’t like adjectives you probably won’t agree with me. I do, and I can’t imagine the book without them, they paint such vivid and colourful images, especially in passages such as those where he describes his ‘sparkle jar‘ – simply wonderful. There is no way I can summarise that, other than to say it is dazzling and scintillating – you need to read the book.

There are many, many passages that will remain with me, such as those about his obsessions with a variety of things from dinosaurs, tadpoles, otters, and snakes, (his description of the enclosure for his snakes they built in the garden is most alarming – they escaped) for example, culminating in his love for the Kestrel he stole from its nest and then took home to rear and train.

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar is a very special book. In his acknowledgements Chris Packham explains the encouragement, patience, tolerance and help he had from his parents, and how he turned their house into a menagerie and the garden into a safari park.

Extract from Chris Packham’s  website

Extraordinarily creative and prolific, Chris Packham has led a remarkable life. He’s gained recognition as a naturalist, television presenter, writer, photographer, conservationist, campaigner and filmmaker.

As a broadcaster he is a presenter of BBC’s BAAFTA Award winning Springwatch, Autumnwatch and Winterwatch series. He presents notable natural history series such as Nature’s Weirdest Events, World’s Weirdest Events, World’s Sneakiest Animals, Cats V Dogs, The Burrowers, Inside the Animal Mind, Operation Iceberg and Secrets of our Living Planet. He was featured in The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon (NBC ‘“ US) where he introduced Jimmy to a Porcupine and baby spotted Hyena, and sent a Black Vulture flying to him as he stood in the audience.

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Ebury Press (6 April 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1785033506
  • ISBN-13: 978-1785033506

Many thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my copy of this book!

A Life Like Other People’s by Alan Bennett

A Life Like Other People's

Alan Bennett’s A Life Like Other People’s is a poignant family memoir offering a portrait of his parents’ marriage and recalling his Leeds childhood, Christmases with Grandma Peel, and the lives, loves and deaths of his unforgettable aunties Kathleen and Myra. Bennett’s powerful account of his mother’s descent into depression and later dementia comes hand in hand with the uncovering of a long-held tragic secret. A heartrending and at times irresistibly funny work of autobiography by one of the best-loved English writers alive today. (Amazon)

I really like Alan Bennett’s work and was pleased to find this little book in the mobile library recently. It’s a beautifully written book taken from his collection Untold Stories and illustrated with black and white photographs. There is drama in this memoir, but written with clarity and keen observation in quiet tones about lives that are anything but ordinary. It is a completely absorbing book as Bennett recalls his childhood. He writes about his family including his two aunties, Kathleen and Myra, two very different characters from their sister, his mother. They saw themselves as ‘dashing, adventuresome creatures, good sports and always on for what they see as a lark.‘ They wore scent and camiknickers, and had the occasional drink and smoked.

He writes of mother’s fears – ‘of being spied on, listened to, shamed and detected‘ of her dread of being ‘the centrepiece‘ especially at her wedding. His parents didn’t like ‘splother‘, his father’s word for ‘the preening and fuss invariably attendant on the presence of the aunties.‘ Then there are the sad facts about his mother’s depression and subsequent dementia as she descended into delusion, her stays in hospital and the effect that had on the family.

There are revelations of family secrets and many touching and sad (but never sentimental) episodes, for example the futile search for Aunty Kathleen, suffering from a condition similar to Alzheimer’s, after she just walked out of her hospital ward. She was found several days later in drenched undergrowth in a wood near the M6.

It is a sad book but also a heart-warming story – the love of his parents and family shines throughout the book.

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber; Main edition (3 Sept. 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571248128
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571248124
  • Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 2.3 x 17.5 cm
  • Source: Library

Books Read in May 2016

May was another good reading month for me. I read seven novels and one book of memoirs.

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf – a book I’ve owned for years. Virginia Woolf’s first novel about a young woman’s search for life, love and the world, an intriguing book.  Woolf explores the nature of Rachel’s mind, her obsessions and beliefs and through it her own thoughts about depression, suicide, death and the meaning of life. A sad book.

Crystal Nights by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen, crime fiction that moves between events in Germany in 1938 to Kalum, a fictional village in Denmark, in the 1960s. a story of how evil touched so many lives with such terrible consequences and how by patience and perseverance the truth was revealed. I was carried away by the story.

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill – memories, thoughts and reflections on her life as she approaches her 100th year (she was born in 1917). Her love of life shines through this remarkable book. I loved it.

The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers (LB) – a beautiful book that I enjoyed immensely, beautifully written, with the character of Agnès Morel at its centre. There is a mystery about her origins and also about her life before she arrived in Chartres.

Inside of Me by Hazel McHaffie – an excellent book. Hazel McHaffie’s novels cover medical ethics issues and the issues in Inside of Me concern body image, in particular, but not exclusively, about anorexia; identity, and relationships. There is also a mystery concerning missing teenage girls.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley – a mixture of historical fact and fantasy set in Victorian times, both in London and Japan. Bombs, clockwork inventions, the London Underground, Gilbert and Sullivan and much more more make up this fantastical tale. I loved it both for its historical settings and for its ingenuity.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson – the story of Ruth and Lucille, orphans growing up in the small desolate town of Fingerbone in the vast northwest of America. I found this a melancholy tale about a dysfunctional family, a story of loneliness, loss, suicide, death, and transience. I liked it but it’s probably the least enjoyable book I read in May.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini – I loved this amazing book, not an easy read emotionally, but one that will live in my memory as one of the most devastating and heartbreaking stories I’ve read. Born a generation apart and with very different ideas about love and family, Mariam and Laila are two women brought jarringly together by war, by loss and by fate. As they endure the ever escalating dangers around them’”in their home as well as in the streets of Kabul’”they come to form a bond that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other, and that will ultimately alter the course not just of their own lives but of the next generation. (Goodreads summary)

My favourite books of the month are:

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini

Impossible to choose between them!

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill (published in 2015) contains memories, thoughts and reflections on her life as she approaches her 100th year (she was born in 1917). I quoted the opening paragraph of this book and a teaser paragraph in an earlier post, First Chapter, First Paragraph.

It’s only a short book (168 pages), but it covers a wide range of Diana Athill’s memories, many images of beautiful places, and the friends and lovers she has known. The chapters follow on chronologically but are unconnected except for the fact that they demonstrate her love of life.

She writes about her Great Grandfather’s garden at Ditchingham Hall in Norfolk, which she used to love visiting in the 1920s and 1930s, when her grandparents lived there. Her writing is so clear and precise, describing in detail its exact layout and expressing her delight in her memories of it.

In other chapters she describes post-war life and her visits to Florence, and in particular the Club Méditerranée in Corfu in the 1950s; her experiences in Trinidad and Tobago, where she was struck by the disparity between the local people and the tourists/incomers; and the miscarriage when she was in her early 40s, when she nearly died. It was heart breaking to read this remarkably candid account both about what happened and how she felt, her detachment, her resentment that she had lost the baby, even her relief, and finally her gratitude that she was still alive, and her love of life:

‘I AM ALIVE.’ 

It was enough.

It was everything. It was filling me to the brim with pure and absolute joy, a feeling more intense than any I had known before. (page 87)

It is this love of life that is evident in her writing that makes it such a remarkable book. She writes about her decision to move into a home, persuaded by a friend who lived there and about how much she enjoys living there. And her main luxury now is her wheelchair, which she finds has unexpected benefits, such as when she was at an art exhibition – the crowds fell away from her in her wheelchair and she was able to lounge in perfect comfort in front of Matisse’s red Dance.

Of course, she writes about death and dying, as ‘death is no longer something in the distance, but might well be encountered any time now.’ She doesn’t find this alarming, and remembers when she was close to death after her miscarriage that her feelings were of acceptance: ‘Oh well, if I die, I die‘. Death is not something she fears, although she has some degree of anxiety at the process of dying and recognises that whereas it’s ‘unwise to expect an easy death, it is not unreasonable to hope for one.

This book has given me much to think about, including this paragraph:

Looking at things is never time wasted. If your children want to stand and stare, let them. When I was marvelling at the beauty of a painting or enjoying a great view it did not occur to me that the experience, however intense, would be of value many years later. But there it has remained, tucked away in hidden bits of my mind, and now it comes out, shouldering aside even the most passionate love affairs and the most satisfying achievements, to make a very old woman’s idle days pleasant instead of boring. (pages 5 – 6)

I loved it.