Six Degrees of Separation: From Stasiland to The End of the Point

It’s my third time participating in Kate’s Six Degrees of Separation meme (see her introductory post). The challenge starts with Stasiland (2003) by Anna Funder, which I also happened to read recently. While working part-time for an overseas television service in what was once West Berlin, Funder started gathering stories of how ordinary people were put under surveillance and psychologically terrorized by the Stasi, the East German secret police. She molds her travels and her interviewees’ testimonies into riveting stories – though this won the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction in 2004, it’s as character-driven as any novel.

 

#1 My interest in Stasiland was piqued by reading Sophie Hardach’s Costa Prize-shortlisted novel Confession with Blue Horses (2019). When Ella’s parents, East German art historians under Stasi surveillance, were caught trying to defect during a ‘vacation’ to Hungary in 1987, their three children were taken from them and only two were returned. Ella is determined to find her brother, whom they’ve had no word of since, via a correspondence with the Stasi archive. It’s an emotionally involving story of one ordinary family’s losses and reconstruction.

#2 Blue Horses (2014) is one of Mary Oliver’s lesser poetry collections. I found it to be a desperately earnest and somewhat overbaked set of nature observations and pat spiritual realizations. There are a few poems worth reading (e.g., “After Reading Lucretius, I Go to the Pond” and Part 3 of “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac”), and lines here and there fit for saving, but overall this is so weak that I’d direct readers to Oliver’s landmark 1980s work instead.

 

#3 Oliver’s poetry, especially “Wild Geese” and “The Summer Day,” gets quoted everywhere. The latter’s most famous lines, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” appears in Dear Life by Rachel Clarke, my book of 2020 so far. Clarke specializes in palliative medicine and alternates her patients’ stories with her own in a completely natural way. A major theme is her relationship with her late father, also a doctor, and his lessons of empathy and dedication. A passionate yet practical book, this aims to get people talking about end-of-life issues.

#4 I have meant to read Dear Life by Alice Munro (2012) since before she won the Nobel Prize. I was sent a free paperback copy for a Nudge review, but as the site already had a review of the book up, I let it slip and never followed through. More than once I’ve put this short story collection onto a reading stack, but I have never quite gotten past the first page or two. At some point this must be rectified.

 

#5 Alice Munro is one of the authors featured in Writers & Co. by Eleanor Wachtel (1993), a terrific collection of interviews from Wachtel’s weekly Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program. Whether I’d read anything by these authors (or even heard of them) or not, I found each Q&A chock-full of priceless nuggets of wisdom about creativity, mothers and daughters, drawing on autobiographical material, the writing process, and much more.

#6 My first-ever author Q&A, for Bookkaholic in 2013, was related to The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver. (Alas that the site is now defunct, so the interview only exists as a file on my computer.) In an astonishing historical sweep, from Massachusetts’s first colonial settlers through the cultural upheavals of the twentieth century, Graver’s family saga with a difference questions parent‒child ties, environmental responsibility, and the dictates of wealth and class. Her complex, elegiac tale, reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Liza Klaussmann’s Tigers in Red Weather, offers multiple points of view in a sympathetic gaze at a vanishing way of life – but an enduring sense of place.

 

Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already!

 

Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?

18 responses

  1. Interesting that the Hardach has popped up in several chains I’ve seen I have it on my TBR and I’m looking forward to reading it.

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    1. That first link was a no-brainer for me as those are literally the only two books I’ve read on East Germany and both were read within the past few months! Confession is a book I never would have heard of were it not for the Costa shortlist — an example of book prizes doing their best work.

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      1. I’ve always liked the Costa (Whitbread).

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    2. I don’t think I’d ever twigged that they used to be the Whitbread Awards — thanks for that piece of literary trivia! I don’t tend to like the winners as much, but many of the shortlisted books have been real gems.

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      1. They have. Kate Atkinson won the first novel category around 25 years ago when it was the Whitbread.

        I have a head full of literary trivia. Please enjoy it! I’m not sure how much use it is otherwise.

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  2. Somehow, Stasiland has been on my shelf for years (how? Dunno) unread. It’s going off the shelf and onto the pile, now.

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    1. It was a lucky find at the free bookshop where I volunteer. I hope you’ll find, like I did, that it’s as gripping as any novel.

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  3. Great chain Rebecca – as someone else pointed out, we’re getting a lot of recommendations for books set in East Germany!

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  4. So glad you’re joining in on this tag, I’ve not read any of your choices. Is the Rachel Clarke different enough to other ones on palliative care (Mannix?)

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    1. It’s fairly similar to the Mannix in that it’s story-based, but I found it less formulaic and didactic. My current favourite for next year’s Wellcome Prize, presuming it comes back!

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  5. Lovely chain. And with all due respect to Munroe, I have to admit that I read a retrospective of her short stories and well… they don’t age very well. I mean, they’re written very nicely, and I get why they were loved when they were published, but… they fell short for someone reading them today. But maybe that’s just me.

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    1. Hello! Thanks for stopping by. I believe you’re a fellow BookBrowse reviewer? I have only read one Munro book, Lives of Girls and Women, which I’d understood to be her only novel. But even it is more like short stories joined together in a loose narrative. I can’t say I cared for it very much, which is part of what’s put me off trying her proper short stories for so long. Still, everyone lauds her to the skies, so I know I need to read at least one of her collections. As it’s a fairly recent one that I own, I hope I won’t find it dated.

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      1. Well, I used to review for BookBrowse, but it was such a struggle for them to get me the ARCs because I live in Israel, so I haven’t written for them for a long while now. As for Munro… matter of taste. You might like them. I thought they were well written, even if they felt dated.

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    2. I live in the UK, so I review NetGalley and Edelweiss downloads for them. If I happen to be back in the States visiting family, I can request a print ARC and consider it a treat 🙂

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      1. NetGalley has been slowly edging me out of requesting ARCs from them, I can only “wish” for them, and my wishes never come true. Edelweiss is much better, and now most of my ARCs come from them.

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  6. Literary Feline | Reply

    I love that you included a book of poetry in your chain. I read my first Mary Oliver collection this month (Dog Songs) and really enjoyed it. Confession with Blue Horses has been a popular choice for this month’s chain, I’ve noticed. It’s not one I have read, but perhaps someday. Thank you for sharing!

    If interested, here is a link to my chain: https://www.literaryfeline.com/2020/04/six-degrees-of-separation-stasiland-to.html

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    1. Hi, thanks for stopping by! Confession with Blue Horses felt like a super unoriginal choice, but as it was literally the only other book I’d read with a connection to East Germany it was a no-brainer! I love how varied your chain is, ranging between historical fiction and a graphic memoir. My favorite Oliver collection is Dream Work if you’re interested in trying more of her poetry.

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  7. […] Books of Summer, #16) Ever since I read The End of the Point (which featured in one of my Six Degrees posts), I’ve meant to try more by Graver. This was her second novel, a mother-and-daughter story that […]

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