Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 6, 2016

Six degrees of separation, from Year of Wonders to….

I don’t always have time to contribute to Six Degrees of Separation, but inspired by Jenny (The Secret Son) Ackland and Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best, here goes:

We start with Geraldine Brooks’ best-selling debut that is still her best work IMO, Year of Wonders. As I’m sure many readers know, it was the story of how a small village coped with the arrival of the plague in the 17th century.

Quite different in style and preoccupations is The Plague by Albert Camus.  No, I haven’t reviewed it here at ANZ LitLovers, but I can certainly recommend it as a brilliant (and painless) introduction to French existentialism.

Also a painless example of French existentialism is Sartre’s The Age of Reason, which sounds heavy, but isn’t.  It’s the story of a rather hopeless bloke’s efforts to help his girl organise an abortion. He doesn’t have any money, so it’s a bit tricky for him, but no, The Modern Woman is unlikely to feel much sympathy for him.

On the subject of blokes The Modern Woman feels little sympathy for, I am still exercised by the narrator of In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar.  Maybe I expect too much of people living under totalitarian regimes, maybe I want to naively believe in the essential goodness of man, but I was deeply depressed by the cruelty of this narrator, child and adult.

That brings me to another book that’s a warning against totalitarianism: Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman.  I read it before I went to Russia and it made me understand why Russians were so proud of their hero cities.

A different kind of Russian heroism was on display in Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. It took courage just to write it because it shows how ordinary middle-class people were impacted by the Russian Revolution.

And that brings me to my final book, which I’m reading now.  It’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by the 2015 Nobel prize winner Svetlana Alexievich.  It’s grim reading, depicting the harrowing years of the dissolution of the USSR from multiple points of view…

PS (later the same night) I have just realised that this is an #EpicFail for #WIT Women in Translation Month.  All but one of my five books are coincidentally translations, but only one is by a woman.  (And #duckingforcover she is the only woman author out of the lot!)



  1. Thanks for joining in! I agree, Year of Wonders is her best, although I read March a year or two ago and thought it was very, very good and such an interesting idea (needless to say, I won’t look at Little Women in the same way again!).

    I haven’t read any of the others in your chain – do I have the strength for In the Country of Men? I’m always intrigued by books that make big impressions.


    • Yes, I agree about March, that was a very fine book too, and LOL a nice antidote to any saccharine memories we might have…
      Yes, please, I want you to read In The Country of Men. I’d love to know your reaction.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh my you hit a bunch there, Lisa! Yes, I’ve read all of Brooks’ novels and one of her works of non-fiction – Year of Wonders, the book I read first, is still the best – the others ranged between pretty good and disappointing.

    The Plague is linked and classic! Haven’t read Age of Reason but others by Sartre. I haven’t read In the Country of Men either and I doubt I will (it sounds out of my league with violence).

    I’ve read and reread Doctor Zhivago – (the movie is so puke). Also read Secondhand Time by Alexievich not too long ago. Brilliant although I thought her first book, Chernobyl, was better.

    How can I continue? –


    I’ll start with 1 Chernoby (linked to Secondhand Time (from Lisa’s list) which is an expose on the disaster and its effects on the population and entire country. I can easily go from there to Moscow and Amor Towles’ ….

    2 A Gentleman in Moscow – great stuff about a wonderful man under house arrest in a splendid hotel, but for a couple decades from the Revolution to ?? – then we go to –

    3 I Hotel by Karen Yamashita which concerns different people all of whom live in a hotel in San Francisco, a very real hotel. The fictional people tend to be from the lower classes but politically involved in such things as the Black Power movement at UCSF, the Communist revolution, the Farm Workers Union, etc. This connects to

    4 The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka in which immigrant Japanese women arrive in San Francisco in the early 20th century and are married to men already in the US who are waiting for them. These women often work in the fields until they are taken to internment camps of WWII. One interesting thing about this novel is that it is written in second person plural – “we” – from the point of view of the women as a group. And that brings me to

    5 Agaat by Marlene van Neikerk which is about a dying woman in apartheid South Africa who owns a farm with many laborers (connection 1) Her maid/nurse has been with her for over 40 years and as Milla dies she remembers her past as well as Agaat’s . This is due in large part due to her old diaries. The point of view is usually or often singular second person – “you.” (connection 2). And the huge connection there is

    6 Between the World and Me by Te-Nahisi Coates – non-fiction, a letter to black men (literary device is his son) – about the anger and fear felt by Coates due to US racism which allows “people who think they are white” to violate black bodies with impunity.


    • I know I have one of Marlene van Neikerk’s novels on the shelf but can I find it to check if it’s this one!!! it’s disappeared. I’d never heard of her but on a holiday in S Africa I went into a bookshop and asked for recommendations of local authors and here’s was the name they gave me


      • Marlene van Neikerk’s only other novel is Triomf which was a huge success – 1994, translated in 2005 and still sells. I’ll bet that was it.


  3. Gadzooks, Bec, I love ‘hotel novels’ and you have given me two!
    Agaat was already on my radar from reading your review just recently, it sounds like such a powerful novel…


  4. I really liked March too, and would probably put it equal to YoW.

    I’m often tempted to do these Six degrees, but don’t usually find the time to sit down and think them through. I would though have done exactly what you’ve done and gone from Year to The plague. But from there I’d probably go to something about altruism or people taking risks to help others, perhaps Schindler’s ark? Then I guess I’d go to war experience … But I’m not doing it so I’ll stop here!


  5. I usually struggle to get past the first one or two, but this one seemed to work for me.
    But yes, I am careful about how much time I invest in memes and quests and challenges….


    • Just had my first go at this. Not at all easy! Yours felt seamless where mine I think was a bit of a forced connection or sometimes a bit obvious


  6. I did it on my blog – following from Lisa’s Second Hand Time through Between the World and Me by Te-Nehisi Coates.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You have such sophisticated titles in your chain! I’ve read Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman, but not the title in your chain. And I struggled through Doctor Zhivago when I was a teenager and the movie was current.

    I love reading these chains and I’m glad you joined us this time. :-)


    • Hello Debbie, thanks for your comment:)
      I think I would have struggled with Zhivago as a teenager too: I saw the film then and interpreted it as a romance, which was rather awkward because I was not at all keen on the young man who took me to see the film!
      I didn’t read the novel until I was planning my recent trip to Russia, and I’m sure I got much more out of it then. Everything Flows is on my TBR, I just love Grossman’s writing:)
      I’ll do my best to join in another time:)


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: