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.

Author, Book review, essays, Ian Maleney, Ireland, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Tramp Press

‘Minor Monuments’ by Ian Maleney

Non-fiction – paperback; Tramp Press; 237 pages; 2019.

Minor Monuments is a collection of 12 elegantly written, highly personal essays by Ian Maleney, a journalist based in Dublin.

These thoughtful pieces are largely focused on the Irish Midlands, where Maleney grew up in an isolated rural farming community, and the ways in which his paternal grandfather’s Alzheimer’s disease impacted his family.

There are common themes throughout — 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.

Interestingly, Maleny studied sound engineering at university, so there is a continual focus on recording every day sounds — people talking, urban noise, crackling fires — and discovering “aural landscapes” in places where people are absent. He is interested in the idea that what we might hear isn’t necessarily what is picked up on a sound recording. Likewise, he believes it is the voice that brings a person “back to life” after they have died, perhaps because it is true and “honest”, not images of them in photographs.

I have always been more comfortable recording someone than taking their photo. To record someone’s voice, with or without permission, doesn’t really feel like stealing — it doesn’t feel like I’m taking anything from anyone, or putting anyone in a compromising position. If they know I’m doing it, I feel like they don’t act all that different, and neither do I.

Occasionally, the essays, such as “Machine learning”, about Hungarian professor John van Neumann’s research into mathematics, game theory, geometry and quantum mechanics (among other subjects), which then led him to collaborating with British mathematician Alan Turing on the philosophy of artificial intelligence, seems hugely out of place. But Maleney cleverly shows how this work is aligned with memory and the human brain, drawing links to Alzheimer’s and dementia.

I think he’s best, though, when writing about his own lived experiences, whether that be attending Seamus Heaney’s funeral (“A kind of closing cadence”) or his own grandfather’s wake (“See ye in church”). There are other essays about his grandmother succumbing to the flu (“pneumonia”), his first summer as an undergrad (“Season of migration”) and the love he has for his grandparent’s modest farm house (“Below”).

I like the way threads of an idea may reappear in later essays, giving the collection the feeling of unity and logic. Regardless, it’s clear that Maleney is a deep thinker, yet the prose, free from clutter, polished and simple, belies a mind hard at work. Yet it’s not heavy going: it feels almost effortlessly light — and there’s plenty of self-deprecating humour to soften the often sad subjects discussed here.

In essence, there’s nothing minor about Minor Monuments. I really loved it.