pausing a while in Tokyo, Paris, southern France, Auschwitz, and Paris a couple more times
My reading choices are usually heavily influenced by my forthcoming travels. I always try to dig out some fiction written by authors from the places I’ll be visiting, or books set in those places. It’s a great way to get a feel for the culture and geography of my destination.
At the moment, sadly, I haven’t got any travel plans to influence my page turning. Needless to say, I do have plenty of time to devote to reading, so my massive to-read list, and piles of books that are still waiting to be opened, are now getting my attention.
Thanks to Margaret, I’ve also found an interesting way to pick something different, and to make the “what next” decision. She introduced me to a monthly challenge called Six Degrees of Separation, run by Kate, who sets a starter book from which everyone is invited to build a chain of 6 other books that bear some form of connection to the one before them; be it author, theme, style, location, era, language, …..
I thought I’d give it a go this month, and the starter book is Anne Tyler’s Redhead By the Side of the Road.
What better way to start the month’s reading, than with one from the Booker Prize 2020 longlist. I hadn’t read an Anne Tyler for many years (now how did that happen?) and I was very happy to be back in her beloved Baltimore. Here, I got to meet Micah, a man who felt somewhat distanced from the rest of the world, relying on his routines to keep him content. Some unusual, by his standards, events come his way and we join him as he battles their challenge to his routine. It was a joy to share his life with the help of Tyler, who has the incredible talent of turning ordinary life into an unordinary read.
My first link in the book chain takes us to Tokyo to meet Keiko, the Convenience Store Woman. I this top-selling novel by Sayaka Murata, we meet another leading character who relies on precise routine for happiness and stability. Keiko has spent her whole life struggling to feel part of the world around her. Her friends and family have spent their time trying to make her normal, but Keiko is resilient to their attempts. She has found her reason for living in her job as a shop assistant in a convenience store. Her whole life is geared around devoted attention to that job, feeling that it tuns her into a vital cog in the world. She can relax in the knowledge that the staff accept her “as a well-functioning part of the store”. The people she works with are the people that she copies, absorbing their tone of voice, using their phrases, shopping in the same stores. This precise imitation is the only way she feels able to communicate with others around her. This apparently simple story holds some profound messages beneath it, prompting the reader to consider the rules and expectations that society places on people. Should we be seeking normality or avoiding it?
For our next reading stop, we hop from a convenience store to a bookstore, and from Tokyo to Paris, where we discover The Little Paris Bookshop. This little gem is a literary pharmacy floating on the Seine. The initial chapters will whisk you around the streets of Paris, to meet the sad and lost Jean Perdu. I was absorbed by the place and the books, and by Perdu’s ability to prescribe books to help people overcome a wide range of problems. Resolving his own issues is not so easy, though, and soon we sail off with him to the beautiful south of France, partly to escape and partly to make amends. Here we meet some interesting characters, eat delicious food, and even discover the art and sensuality of the Argentine tango. Slowly, we learn more about love, death, romance, fear, forgiveness, hope and books. I thoroughly enjoyed this read.
Now, we move from Perdu’s literary pharmacy to another example of the power of books. The Librarian of Auschwitz is based on the true story of teenager, Dita Kraus, imprisoned in Auschwitz with her parents. At great risk to herself, she becomes the librarian in charge of a tiny library of just eight real books, plus some virtual books in the shape of people that can share knowledge. This seemingly small collection delivers great strength to the prisoners. It is a heartbreaking story but one that delivers hope. A true page turner.
Now we move from library to the publishing industry, and back to Paris, to meet with the staff in the Readers’ Room. The love of books is a strong power that dominates the start of this book, and gradually some hallucinations, snatches of missing memories and bits of history, lead us into a fascinating mystery. Everyone is hunting the author of a novel recently published and that has now been shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt. As the search progresses, the crimes detailed in the novel come true in real life. We are treated to some delicious storytelling, and Antoine Laurain is an author that is now on my must-read-more list.
Our next step in the chain keeps us in Paris, but we move from publishing to destroying books. The Reader on the 6:27 is Guylain Vignolles, a young man who feels himself to be an outsider. He lives a lonely, almost hermit life, working a job that he hates. This man who loves books, works in a paper pulping factory. His only joy in life is rescuing random pages of books from the guts of the pulping machine, and then reading them out loud on the commuter train to work the following morning. On one journey, he discovers the diary of Julie, a woman who adjusts her behaviour and appearance to match what is expected of someone in her type of work. Guylain is fascinated by her, a woman so similar to himself in many ways, and his journey now stretches beyond the 6:27 as he hunts for Julie.
Over to you to read this book to discover where his search takes him.
Now for the final link in the chain, and it’s time to find a train back to Baltimore. Well maybe not just one train. Somewhere between 1 and 80 should do the job. In Around the world in 80 trains Monisha Rajesh and her husband travel 45000 miles by train from London. We can join the author’s journey in Paris and rattle our way across Europe, Asia and Canada before reaching the United States. We could easily get addicted to train travel. After a massive portion of Rajesh’s journey, we get to hop on a train on page 145 (of they Bloomsbury paperback) for what she considers a boring train journey to Washington. But we’ll leave the journey here: while she reads her Eric Newby book, we’ll get off at Brooklyn’s Penn Station and shout goodbye Rajesh. Had she been an Anne Tyler fan she would have got off with us and come to meet Barnaby Gaitlin and Sophia Maynard from A Patchwork Planet, Delia Grinstead from Ladder of Years, Muriel Pritchett from The Accidental Tourist, the Whitshank family from A Spool of Blue Thread. And this is where I’ll leave you to reunite with Micah from Redhead By the Side of the Road.
Our reading chain is complete.
Copyright Debbie Smyth, 6 February 2021
Posted as part of Six Degrees