Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 6, 2019

Six Degrees of Separation: From How to be Both by Ali Smith, to …

Here we go again with another #6Degrees…

This month’s starter book is How to Be Both by Ali Smith, an award winning book that some readers liken to Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending Orlando. Though it’s been on my wishlist ever since it won the UK Women’s Prize for Fiction (a.k.a. Orange Prize, a.k.a. Baileys Prize a.k.a. the Prize for Changing its Name All the Time), I haven’t read it yet. No, ‘fess up, Lisa, I tried and failed to read it. Ali Smith is a bit of a hit-and-miss author for me.

I read her Hotel World ages ago and wasn’t very excited about it, but I liked her post-Brexit novella Autumn (see my review) enough to buy the second in the series, Winter.  I haven’t read it yet because I go through phases with Brexitannia.  Sometimes I slavishly read everything the Guardian has to say about it, and other times I bury my head in the sand and pretend that I don’t have a British bone in my body.  (Well, actually, if it comes to bloodlines, I have more Welsh, Irish  and French than proper Anglo-Saxon, but I am still very cross that my British passport will be useless for flitting around Europe, once the deed is done.)

Another post-Brexit novel I’ve read is Middle England by Philip Henshaw.  It’s much less melancholy than Autumn and it is more interested in portraying the kind of attitudes that’s brought Britain to this current mess.  It uses an extended family to explore different political and social views and how that causes conflict, even an almost-divorce when the spouses’ opinions don’t align.

Britain hasn’t come to civil war over Brexit, but Syria is being torn apart by political conflict.  Death is Hard Work by Khalid Khalifa (transl. by Leri Price, see my review) uses three siblings tasked with burying their father in his home town to symbolise the way civil wars wreak havoc on societal structures like the family.  What is most impressive about this book is that it doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war but still manages to lighten the mood with wry humour.  I admire authors who can do that.

A book which uses laugh-out-loud humour to explore serious issues is Gerald Murnane’s A Season on Earth. I’m about half way through it now, and (I know you’ll have trouble believing this because Murnane is not known as a comic novelist) I haven’t laughed so much since I saw the last episode of the BBC’s W1A. (This TV series has been lurking within ABC iView, probably hidden there because they don’t want us to notice the likenesses with their own shenanigans.  I do hope Ita Buttrose has seen it.  Do yourself a favour and watch the series, and then you too can raise a wry eyebrow at the Director of Better or the Head of Values.) Anyway, I will do my best to review A Season on Earth in due course, but in the meantime, trust me, it is hilarious and you should get your hands on it if you can.

Another book which mines overly fervent religious practice for its themes is The Atheist by Achdiat Mihardja, (transl. by R J Maguire).  Mihardja was an Indonesian author, writing at the time that Indonesia’s Constitution was under consideration because their hard-fought independence was on the horizon.  Indonesia would be a very different place and not the world’s largest Islamic democracy, had they not chosen the Separation of Powers as a key element in their governance.  This week we have seen Brunei adopt appalling Sharia Laws to oppress their LGBTIQ citizens, (and travellers need to know that these harsh laws apply even on Brunei’s airline).  While not anti-religion, Mihardja’s book exposes Sharia Law as inimical to an inclusive society, and it also shows how strict adherence to religion can cause conflict within families.

I read The Atheist with my Indonesian book group, but the book I’m reading for our June meeting is completely different.  We don’t just read Indonesian authors, we also read about Indonesia, and The Spice Islands Voyage, in Search of Wallace by Tim Severin is a travel book retracing the voyage of Alfred Russel Wallace whose publication of his 19th century travels in Indonesia famously prompted Darwin to get on with it and publish his Origin of the Species.  I’ll review it when I’ve finished it…

So that’s my #6Degrees: from a gender-bending choose-your-own plot kind of novel, to a voyage in the Indonesian archipelago!

Thanks to Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best for hosting:)


  1. I’m like you when it comes to Brexit (although there’s no British passport at stake for me) – I still can’t believe the vote went the way it did… And that it’s been so long since the vote… And that there’s novels about it… And that resolution still seems so far off…


    • LOL I’m going to resurrect an Irish citizenship… which I didn’t know I had until the citizenship sagas of the 44th parliament made me go exploring to see what I was eligible for!


      • Though I think if you are only travelling (and not planning to live) our Aussie passports work pretty well for most of Europe don’t they? These days I’ve had no problems visiting European countries for holiday type durations? If you go Irish, we’ll have to dust off all our Irish jokes!!

        Seriously though, I remember really liking Hotel World – it is the one that started with the lift accident isn’t it? I loved the voice – ti felt fresh and different. And, I love the sound of Murnane making you laugh out loud. Is this the one that’s the second half of that early book that he had to cut in half?


        • You’re right that Aussie passports ‘work’ in the sense that you can get in and out of anywhere (though the Ruskies don’t see too many Australian travellers and they whisked our passports off to a back room for an alarmingly long time to verify that they were real)… the issue is the queue. Just as Aussies waltz through the ‘local’ queue at passport control when they come back home, people with a EU passport in Europe don’t have to stand in a long queue for the non-nationals.
          I can’t really remember why I abandoned Hotel World, and I’ve left it on my wishlist so that I’ll give it another try if it ever turns up at the library. But really, so many other books to read…
          And yes, that’s the Murnane. I’ve just finished Part 2 this morning, and … well, I can’t go into detail on a ‘family friendly’ blog, but his adventures with a girl at the pictures and an …um… an excitable irrepressible organ when she allows him to tentatively touch his hand … think Catholic Portnoy and you might be on the right track!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Ah the queues. Yes that makes sense. When Son Gums was going we could that in the USA on his passport.

            As for the Murnane, yes that’s the one I heard him interviewed about. Sounded great.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Jealous that you’re already into A Season on Earth. Saw it mentioned on RN-facebook


    • Thanks, Bill, I’ll make a note of that and listen to it after I’ve finished reading:)


  3. None of the books are familiar to me, but there are some interesting links.


    • Yes, they’re all a bit exotic this month, I know!


  4. Lisa, I saw on another website that in the comments you were always interested in a French book…accessible for beginners or somebody who wants to brush up on French skills. I would highly recommend Charlotte by David Foenkinos. It won Prix Renaudot 2014. It is a wonderful and moving book.
    It will pluck heartstrings, I’m sure. Another author is the Canadian Kim Thúy. Her books Ru (2009) won 2010 Governor General’s Award and her third book is Mãn (2013) I’ ve read both of them….highly recommenced!


    • Thanks Nancy, how nice of you to visit here to let me know! I’ll check them out:)


      • PS I’ve found (and ordered) a French copy of Charlotte, but not so much luck with Thuy yet. (I’ve already got Ru in English). I’ll keep looking, the websites all offer translations, of course, so it involves a bit of digging around.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I hope you will like Charlotte
          The structure of the story is unique…almost poetic.
          I”m reading Le Lambeau….but is nerve rattling as I follow the labyrinth in a PTSS victim’s mind.
          Phillippe Laçon survived Charlie Hebdo attack 2015

          Liked by 1 person

  5. This is why I love this challenge, there are a endless directions to take it. I wouldn’t rush to read books with political links, and would have a hard time reading some of the others here, but I’ve still found one that does interest me.

    The Spice Island Voyage sounds good.

    I think I manage to find at least one book on everyone’s challenges that I want to read. Great list.


    • My goodness, if you find just one from everyone’s each month, your TBR will be groaning!


  6. what was it that you didn’t like with the Ali Smith? I suspect i loved it because my edition began with the painter not with the contemporary politically correct, right on mother….


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