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Six degrees of separation, FROM Stasiland TO …

April 4, 2020

It’s April and finally the first starting book for 2020’s Six Degrees of Separation that I’ve read. If you are new to blogging and don’t know this meme and how it works, please check out meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

Anna Funder's Stasiland bookcoverNow to April’s starting book, the critically acclaimed, multi-translated, award-winning nonfiction book by Australia’s Anna Funder Stasiland (my review). Have you read it? If you haven’t do consider it because it’s not the sort of book to go out of date.

Janette Turner Hospital, Orpheus lostStasiland tells the stories of Stasi officers and collaborators and of those who suffered at the hands of the Stasi in the then East Germany. Largely because of this book, Mr Gums and I made a point of going to Leipzig in 2013 and visiting the Stasi’s Runde Ecke headquarters there. Anyhow, in announcing this book, Kate described it as a “classic on tyranny and resistance”. There are so many books that can link from that, so I’ll be interested to see what my co-meme-players do. I’ve decided to choose a related aspect, surveillance, which was fundamental to the Stasi’s tyrannical practices, and link to Janette Turner Hospital’s Orpheus lost (my review).Book cover

From here, I could take a cheery turn and link on, music, say, or the classics, but I’m going to stick with serious themes. Orpheus lost is partly about how terrorism leads to fear, surveillance and the loss of freedoms. Hospital was interested, she said, in the trading of civil liberties for safety in the post-9/11 world. However, I don’t want to spend all this post on this issue, so I’m making a cheeky jump to David Brooks’ The grass library (my review). It’s an animal rights focused memoir in which one of the main “characters” is Orpheus the lamb!

Bidda Jones and Julian Davies, BacklashFrom here it’s a very simple jump to another animal rights book, this one about the live export business, Bidda Jones and Julian Davies’ Backlash: Australia’s conflict of values over live exports (my review). I remember that when he sent the book to me, co-author and publisher Julian Davies described it as the most important book they’d published.

Book coverSo, I’m going to stick now with Julian Davies, or, at least, with his publishing company Finlay Lloyd, and link to the latest book of theirs published, John Clanchy’s In whom we trust (my review). One of the commenters on my post – someone who knows the author – described it as “an origin story” for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It is about child abuse, but is also about, as commenter David wrote, “the institutional tension between the Brother’s and Clergy power structure within the Church”. It’s a powerful, but deeply human read.

Rebecca Skloot, The immortal life of Henrietta LacksTrust, as Clanchy shows, is in short supply between powerful institutions and those who have no power and who, by rights, should be able to trust those who are not only able to but who morally should protect and support them. Rebecca Skloot had to work very hard to gain the trust of African-American Henrietta Lacks’ poverty-stricken family to write her scientific biography The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks (my review). This book is both a fascinating story of scientific discovery and a horrifying story of the abuse of people’s trust and, in fact, their rights.

Elliot Perlman, The street sweeperI am going to stay in America for last book, albeit the author is Australian, Elliot Perlman. The street sweeper (my review) is about many things, but the titular character is street sweeper Lamont Williams, an African-American, who has just started work as a janitor at a cancer hospital in a pilot program for ex-convicts. He is innocent of the crime that put him in jail but his colour and poverty meant he didn’t have a chance. This book which links the Holocaust to Civil Rights in America is fundamentally about moral responsibility – which, of course, is not what the Stasi practised at all!

I have stuck with politically charged books this month – and why not given the important role writers play in keeping us honest. So, I am going to conclude with Orwell from his essay, “Why I write”:

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience.

PS I wrote and scheduled this before COVID-19 restrictions took hold internationally. I decided not to rethink my post in the light of that but to leave you with what initially inspired me! However, I’ll add that I wonder what writers will make of COVID-19. When will the first COVID-19 novel appear? From where and from whom will it come, and what will be the take?

Anyhow, now the usual: Have you read Stasiland? And, regardless, what would you link to? 

43 Comments leave one →
  1. April 4, 2020 10:21

    This is a terrific chain. I did not write mine before Covid-19 and hence stuck with living in a post WWII communist regime:

    • April 4, 2020 10:29

      Thanks Theresa. I was just so inspired by this one, and had great fun writing it pretty much off the top of my head. Had I written it in the last week or so, post-COVID-19 restrictions I may have gone for cheerier connections!

      • April 4, 2020 10:32

        Ah well! If I’d written mine earlier I probably still would have gone with the same books but I might have provided more depth to each choice rather than just a list. This week was all about ‘less is more’, as you know.

  2. Meg permalink
    April 4, 2020 10:36

    Hi Sue, I think your choices are fantastic, really good ones. I have read Stasiland and my links were obvious ones.1984 by George Orwell; Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; Anna Frank’s Diary by Anna Frank; Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally; The ZookKeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman: and Maus by Art Spiegelman.

    • April 4, 2020 11:41

      Thanks Meg. I’m so glad you like them. Your obvious ones are good too. I should read Maus one day.

  3. April 4, 2020 11:10

    No, and no.
    This is because I am a total escapist (much like my teeny mog); and I find that regimes’ surveillance techniques are about as vile as mankind can get.
    Sorry: personkind.

  4. April 4, 2020 14:06

    Leipzig is on my travel bucket list – how quickly international travel seems like a dream…

    I finished Henrietta Lacks last week – it’s a fascinating story but I wasn’t blown away by the writing. I suspect I have been a little spoilt this year after reading Patrick Radden’s Say Nothing which is without doubt the best example of narrative nonfiction I have read in a decade – everything else is pale in comparison.

    Loved The Street Sweeper, and particularly how he tied the different plot threads together without it feeling contrived.

    • April 4, 2020 14:11

      We’d go back to Leipzig Kate, and Weimar, wonderful places.

      I thought Skloot’s writing was fine – not particularly exatng like Garner for example – but it’s the story that is just so powerful.

  5. April 4, 2020 16:13

    Fantastic chain here! And that Orwell quote is perfect. I think that Kate’s choice for next month’s starting point – The Road by Cormac McCarthy – was impacted by COVID-19. As for novels about this time… not sure I want to read those!!!

    • April 4, 2020 16:20

      Ha ha Davida, thanks, but are you another escapist like M-R? I’ll be very interested to read what novelists have to say!

      • April 4, 2020 16:26

        An escapist? Maybe a bit… but not totally. I certainly wouldn’t want to read a book about this time too soon – meaning one written too close to the events. Writers should probably give it 10-15 years before they start to fictionalize what happened.

        • April 4, 2020 16:46

          I understand your point Davida, as I think the distance of time is worthwhile in when looking at historical events. However, I never think in terms of “should” for creators, really. Novels about WW2 for example started coming out DURING the war. It’s probably interesting to compare what is written close to an event and what is written with the perspective of time?

        • April 4, 2020 19:44

          Yes, it would be interesting to compare. For example, All Quiet on the Western Front was written in 1929, and the Primo Levi books were written soon after WWII. I’d have to re-read them to compare them to books I read more recently about both those wars, to make the comparison.

        • April 4, 2020 20:14

          Grahame Greene, not quite the same class as Levi, but still worth reading, wrote a novel about bombing in London in 1943 I think – while the war was still on. It would be interesting to make the comparison between stories written at or near the time and those written later, I agree.

        • April 4, 2020 20:28

          Ah… never read Greene. Thanks!

        • April 4, 2020 21:29

          I’ve only read a little of Greene, but he is worth reading I think.

  6. April 4, 2020 16:49

    My post was written pre COVID 19 too. I agree it will be interesting to see what novelists make of this, not to mention how the world changes. It will be historical fiction fodder in years to come.

  7. April 4, 2020 17:42

    Oh, Orpheus Lost! It is ages since I read that… or any other JTH, which is stupid of me because I love her stuff:)

    Here’s my chain:

    • April 4, 2020 18:04

      Me too Lisa. I have her latest short story collection, Outer Barcoo or something, but haven’t read it, along with, you know, a couple of other books!! I’ll check your link later tonight.

  8. April 4, 2020 18:49

    Oh, I love that quote by Orwell. Thanks for sharing. 💙

    I am adding Backlash: Australia’s conflict of values over live exports to my wishlist. I live 200 metres from Fremantle port and when those live sheep carriers come in, if the wind is blowing a certain way, the smell is horrendous. I don’t really understand the arguments for exporting sheep this way other than the recipient countries must also share some of the responsibility. Hopefully this book may enlighten me. I will have yo read your review.

    • April 4, 2020 19:14

      Oh great kimbofo. I’d love to hear what you think. A few years ago we were horrified to see sheep in containers on the airport tarmac in Sydney. It was a hot day, we were horrified.

      • April 4, 2020 21:14

        I read your review… if I read the book I will come back and leave a comment. Animal welfare in UK has been “taken over” (for want of a better word) by animal rights activists, which are much more militant in their responses, so I’m always slightly cautious about the arguments made. Be interesting to read this book and see the positions outlined.

        • April 4, 2020 21:35

          I know what you mean Kimbofo. I’ll be interested in your reaction. Jones and Davies are passionate not militant. Militant animal rights people, like militant right-to-lifers are terrifying I think.

  9. George permalink
    April 5, 2020 00:25

    This time, I’ll go with theme. Start with I Will Bear Witness, the diaries of Werner Klemperer, who faced steadily more restrictions as Jew under the Nazi regime, starting immediately with the loss of his university position when the regime came to power. Next, War in Val d’Orcia by Iris Origo: life in rural Italy in 1943-1944. There are spies, partisans, etc. in the picture, as Mussolini’s regime falls apart, is revived by the Germans, and finally the 8th Army arrives. Origo was the granddaughter of an Irish peer, so the next book is Michael Collins by Tim Pat Coogan: Collins fought a brutal covert war against British intelligence agents in Ireland during the Troubles. Jumping to fiction, there is James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy, set in Westchester County, New York, during the American Revolution. (It is a hoot–it is meant to be dead serious, but reads like a Marx Brothers script.) Next, Kim by Rudyard Kipling, to let British intelligence come out ahead after the setbacks endured in the previous two books. Finally, Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje, set in Sri Lanka during the civil war there–kidnappings, death squads etc.

    • April 5, 2020 07:55

      Nice mix there George of troubles across the world! Love your reason for choosing Kim, I must read Cooper one day, but I’m pleased to say that I have read Anil’s Ghost. Thanks as always for joining in.

      • George permalink
        April 5, 2020 08:11

        WG: You’re welcome, and thank you for the good words.

        Cooper reads to me like bad Sir Walter Scott. I think that on the whole Mark Twain got him dead to rights with “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”; but also that Twain must have read Cooper with fascination when a boy. Still, a slow weekend is plenty to get through any of the Leatherstocking novels.

        D.H. Lawrence obviously read him closely, for he gave him some good pages in Studies in Classic American Literature.

        • April 5, 2020 08:18

          Sounds like I’ll have to wait for a slow weekend which I don’t see happening anytime soon!

  10. George permalink
    April 5, 2020 00:31

    Also: our book club read The Streetsweeper, and many of us agreed with the review in the New York Times: .

    • April 5, 2020 08:06

      Ah well, fair enough. It is all of that, but I didn’t mind its Dickensian “big baggy monsterness”. However, interestingly, contrary to my expectations in my review, which I reread when I did this post, it hasn’t stuck with me. The Perlman that has stuck with me is Three dollars, a much shorter tighter novel I think.

  11. April 6, 2020 01:44

    I am an escapist reader but your review (which I have now linked to for this book instead of Goodreads) makes me want to read it, which I had not come across until Kate chose it.

    • April 6, 2020 07:13

      Wow, thanks Constance. That’s high praise. I hope if you do read it, you are glad you did!

  12. Treble Clef permalink
    April 6, 2020 08:35

    Thanks WG for this engaging and refreshing ‘journey’ of your chosen ‘6 steps’!

  13. April 6, 2020 14:09

    Sue, (I found your first name on a comment somewhere). I am wanting to cite your page for an assignment as a secondary source, in an annotated bibliography on WWI literature. Could you please email me privately at with your full name. I would call your page whishpering gums and put a publication date of the whole page as 2020.
    Kind regards
    Dave McGettigan

  14. ruthie-hulme permalink
    April 7, 2020 00:19

    Thanks for the post I loved reading it. I’ll be checking out some of these books, as I definitely have more time at the moment!

    • April 7, 2020 08:16

      Thanks Ruthie. That’s great to hear … that you’ll be checking some out! It’s not great, really, that we have more time.

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