6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Ethan Frome’ to ‘Constellations’

It’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation (check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate). I don’t generally participate in memes (they always feel like “filler” content to me), but I do like this one because it lets me explore my archive and share reviews of books that have been hidden away for a long time.

As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘Ethan Frome’ by Edith Wharton (1911)

I read this one back in the day I worked in the Myer Melbourne Bookstore (1990-94), then the biggest bookstore in the Southern Hemisphere (or so we were told at the time), hence there’s no review on this blog. It was around the time the Martin Scorcese film adaptation of The Age of Innocence came out (all the staff went to a preview screening so that we could then push sales of the book). I read the book and enjoyed it so much I thought I would try something else by Edith Wharton and so that’s how I came to read Ethan Frome, which I loved. It’s a heartbreaking read about a man with a limp and how he came to acquire it under bittersweet circumstances.

‘Of Human Bondage’ by W. Somerset Maugham (1915)

In this semi-autobiographical novel, the narrator, Philip Carey, has a limp because he was born with a club foot. The story charts his life from the age of 9 when his mother dies and he is sent away to be raised by his aunt and uncle in a vicarage in the countryside. This, too, is another heartbreaking read, because Philip spends so much of his adult life struggling to just get by despite being sensitive and intelligent. I adored this book and found it so affecting I never wrote a review of it, but the thing that stuck in my head so much was how brutal life was for those in poverty when there was no welfare state to offer assistance of any kind.

‘This Mournable Body’ by Tsitsi Dangarenmbga (2021)

A story about a woman fallen on hard times, this is another deeply affecting read that shows what happens when someone falls into poverty but is unable to rise above it despite having a university education and a lot of potential. I read this one last year and still occasionally think about it. There are two more novels in the trilogy which I plan on reading at some point…

Soviet Milk

‘Soviet Milk’ by Nora Ikstena (2018)

Another story about thwarted potential, this novella is set in Latvia when it is under Soviet rule. It shows the impact of an oppressive political regime on an individual’s ability to fulfil their potential and their intellectual freedom. The story also looks at the long-lasting repercussions on mothers and daughters when the bond between them is damaged.

‘A Woman’s Story’ by Annie Ernaux (1988)

Damaged mother-daughter bonds are explored in this brutally honest memoir, which became a bestseller in France upon publication in 1988.  Ernaux not only examines the fraught relationship she had with her mother, but she also charts her mother’s life from her poor upbringing in a small Normandy town to her marriage and success as a shopkeeper; from her retirement to her death in a geriatric hospital in Paris where she had been suffering from Alzheimer’s.

‘Minor Monuments’ by Ian Maleney (2019)

This collection of 12 essays explore the ways in which an entire family can be impacted when a loved one has Alzheimer’s — in this case, it was the author’s paternal grandfather. There are common themes throughout the essays — memory, sound, loss, the meaning of “home” and our connections to place — which lends the volume a strong coherence, but it is the recurring mentions of his grandfather, John Joe, a presence that looms large in almost every essay in this collection, which provides a cumulative power that is deeply affecting.

Constellations book cover

‘Constellations’ by Sinéad Gleeson (2019)

This is another essay collection revolving around a personal response to illness. It includes highly personal accounts of issues and events the author has experienced, including adolescent arthritis, leukaemia, hip replacement, motherhood, love, grief — and the disdain of male doctors. It’s a hugely readable collection themed around the body, illness and how the relationship between the two shapes our identity.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a story about a tragic accident that leaves a man with a lifelong disability to an essay collection about illness, via stories about poverty, thwarted potential and Alzheimer’s disease.

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note, you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

20 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Ethan Frome’ to ‘Constellations’”

    1. I have no way to check if it was actually the biggest store but we were always told it was. It used to take up half the floor of Lonsdale Street building. I can’t remember what floor it was on, but it was right next to the restaurant. I worked there part-time in the last year of uni and then the couple of years afterwards when I was looking for a “proper” job but couldn’t find one. Then I moved to Brisbane to do my Masters at UQ.

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      1. Ah yes, #BrainCellsStirring I remember now. It probably was the biggest one back then.
        My first job when I left home was at Myer, in the menswear office and they would have had a book department there then too.
        Myer is seared into my memory from my experience when we first came to Australia. I had been to the eye specialist with my mother on our very first trip into the city, and before we went home, just on closing time, she left me at the Bourke St entrance with strict instructions not to move, not to talk to strangers etc, and dashed in to buy something. But when she left, not knowing the layout of the store, she came out of the Lonsdale St entrance. And of course I wasn’t there. And they wouldn’t let her go back inside to get to the other entrance. I was ten, too old to get panicky, but it was a bit alarming to be stuck there for so long, when I didn’t even know my address or phone number because it was too new. And she was hysterical by the time we were reunited…

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  1. I didn’t realise Mournable Body is part of a trilogy. I requested the book from the library but it arrived at a time when I had too many other books to read so it had to go back. I shall try again.

    I hear you re the use of memes. I do them very very occasionally when the mood takes me but I’ve seen some blogs that are predominantly memes and it’s always the least interesting content,

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    1. It’s the final part of the trilogy but it didn’t seem to matter that I hadn’t read the others first. It certainly worked as a standalone for me, but it did make me want to read the others in the series. These seemed to be unavailable at the time I read Mournable Body but it seems the publishers have sorted it out now and reissued the first two.

      I don’t follow blogs that have endless streams of memes or have them as their entire output. They just hold no interest for me. I tend to like blogs that focus on original content and good, solid reviews.

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    1. Oops, sorry about that! I read Of Human Bondage a few years ago now on a Greek island holiday. It was just a brilliantly powerful read in so many ways and I really wish I’d reviewed it at the time because I’d love to be able to point to it and show them why they should give it a whirl.

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    1. I went through a phase of reading essay collections in 2019. I find they’re good to read if you want a single essay to read each day (during a lunch break, for instance, or before going to bed).

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  2. Soviet Milk appeals to me. I’m doing a literary tour of Europe at the moment, to knock some books off my To Read pile, so I’ve read a few books set in former-Soviet Eastern Bloc countries recently. I hadn’t come across Nora Ikstena, so I’ve made a note. Thanks!

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