Six Degrees of Separation: From Murmur to Great House

It’s the first Saturday of the month which means it’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is that Kate chooses a book to use as a starting point and then we have to link it to six other books of our choice to form a chain. A book doesn’t have to be connected to all of the others on the list – only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we are starting with a book I haven’t read and know nothing about: Murmur by Will Eaves. Goodreads tells me that “taking its cue from the arrest and legally enforced chemical castration of the mathematician Alan Turing, Murmur is the account of a man who responds to intolerable physical and mental stress with love, honour and a rigorous, unsentimental curiosity about the ways in which we perceive ourselves and the world.”

I struggled to think of how to link this to another book, especially as I prefer to only use books in my chains that I’ve actually read and reviewed. I’ve never read anything else by Will Eaves or anything about Alan Turing and neither the book cover nor the word ‘murmur’ gave me any inspiration either. Eventually, I decided that, as Alan Turing was a mathematician, I would simply choose another novel I’ve read about a mathematician – The Words in My Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd.

The Words in My Hand tells the story of Helena Jans van der Strom, a Dutch woman who was in a relationship with the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes for more than a decade. The novel explores the significance of the roles they played in each other’s lives and the barriers of class and gender that meant their relationship could never be an equal one.

The story is set mainly in Amsterdam, which is where Helena is working as a maid at the time when Descartes comes to stay in the city. Another book set in 17th century Amsterdam is Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, a novel inspired by Petronella Oortman’s doll’s house which is on display in the Rijksmuseum.

In The Miniaturist, a young woman is given a special wedding present by her husband: a cabinet containing a doll’s house that resembles their own home. She writes to a ‘miniaturist’ asking for some tiny items and figures to put inside it, but when they begin to arrive she is surprised to find how closely they correspond to people and things from her own life. I enjoyed the book but was also disappointed by it because I felt that the mystery of the miniaturist was never fully resolved.

In 2014, The Miniaturist was voted Waterstones Book of the Year, a prize which has been running since 2012. Last year’s winner was Normal People by Sally Rooney, a book I haven’t read, but one that I have read and loved is Stoner by John Williams, which won the award in 2013.

Stoner, published in 1965, is the story of farmer’s son William Stoner who attends the University of Missouri to study agriculture but discovers a passion for literature instead and stays on at the university to teach for the next forty years. Stoner becomes a Professor of English Literature and that makes me think of Edmund Crispin’s detective Gervase Fen, who was Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University. Fen stars in a series of mystery novels, the first of which is The Case of the Gilded Fly.

In The Case of the Gilded Fly, Fen is investigating a locked room murder which takes place during rehearsals for the premiere of a new play. An Egyptian-style gilded ring is found on the dead woman’s finger. The word ‘gilded’ in the title leads me to Gilded Splendour by Rosalind Laker, a fictional account of the life of the 18th century cabinet-maker and furniture designer Thomas Chippendale.

Despite the cover, I didn’t find this a very romantic story, especially as I really disliked the hero and wished the heroine would just forget about him! However, I did love the descriptions of Chippendale’s work and the techniques he used to create his furniture. I particularly enjoyed reading about a doll’s house that he built and furnished in miniature – which of course links this book back to an earlier book in my chain, The Miniaturist!

I need one more link to finish the chain, though, and I have chosen another novel where an item of furniture plays an important part. Great House by Nicole Krauss consists of several stories set in different times and places which are all linked by a writing desk with a dramatic and complex history.

And that’s my chain for this month! My links have included mathematicians, Amsterdam, prize winners, English professors, the word ‘gilded’ and items of furniture. Have you read any of these books?

In July, we will be starting with the children’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

27 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation: From Murmur to Great House

    • Helen says:

      I really enjoyed Stoner, but I think Great House was a book that I admired rather than one that I loved. I’m glad you liked my reviews – I’ll come and read yours now. 🙂

  1. says:

    Oh, how I loved THE MINIATURIST! — both the book and the PBS Masterpiece Series. My connection to it would be Henrik Ibsen’s play, A DOLL’S HOUSE, wherein the husband controls the wife to the point that she feels like a doll in his make-believe world of preserving a preconceived sense of appearances instead of her allowing herself to be herself. Eventually, she runs away.

    Connected to Ibsen’s play is VERA, a novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, which I reviewed in a recent post on Vera is the first wife who is imprisoned by her husband by his unremitting control as though she were his doll, his play thing. She is all but chained to him. After 15 years of this trapped marriage, she escapes by committing suicide, “falling” out of an upper story sitting window onto the flagstone courtyard below. The suicide was ruled an “accident” to maintain appearances. In short order, the second wife feels imprisoned by the “ghost” of Vera, and then by her restrictive husband. The book ends without any real denouement, leaving the reader to wonder and ponder.

    Anthony Doerr’s ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE addresses the question of free-will and whether the characters are truly free to make decisions about their own lives, especially trapped in the confines of Nazi-occupied Europe in WWII. In one theme, the congenitally blind female protagonist’s father builds a miniature of the Brittany town where they hope to wait out the war. He trains and guides her memorization of the scale model and even sends her out on short errands in the actual town. If she should be left behind, she will still have his handiwork to guide her to safety. In effect, he teaches her to control her own destiny.

    Kristin Hannah’s THE NIGHTINGALE connects to Doerr’s novel via the setting, again, of WWII and survival in Nazi-occupied France. The protagonist becomes a Resistance spy, leading downed British parachutists over the Pyrenees — under cover of dark, moonless nights — into Spain where they can escape back to the British forces. Again, themes of navigating through “blindness” and war time danger in a once free state imprisoned by war and occupation capture the resilience of personal free will.

    THE LAST SEPTEMBER by Elizabeth Bowes, set in Ireland on the cusp of the first World War, and FASCISM: A WARNING by Madeline Albright, deal with loss of personal free will under impending, or threat of, national occupation by a dangerous military-industrial demagogue — perhaps a bit farfetched in this reading chain.

    • Davida Chazan says:

      Nothing is far fetched with these reading chains. Anything goes. That’s the beauty of it! Maybe next month you’ll join in? I’ve already written mine for next month when we start with “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak – which was one of the books I read to my kids ALL the time.

    • Helen says:

      Thank you for sharing your own chain here! I haven’t read any of those books, although all of them sound interesting. I’ve read a few other books by Elizabeth von Arnim and would like to try Vera – it sounds much darker than the others I’ve read. All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale are both books I’ve been interested in reading but haven’t found time for yet. I’m sure I would enjoy them as I love WWII books.

  2. Davida Chazan says:

    When you started with the first connection and Amsterdam, I thought you might go to the Miniaturist – loved that book. That you could get from there to Nicole Krauss’ Great House was fascinating, and what a great way to do it – from a furniture maker to the desk in her novel. I find Krauss’ writing to be innovative and fascinating. I loved Great House, and I think I’ve read almost all her books. Thanks. I love this monthly meme, and wish more people would take part.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, The Miniaturist was the obvious connection for a book set in Amsterdam! Great House is still the only Nicole Krauss book I’ve read, but I did like her writing so I should probably think about reading more of her work.

      • Davida Chazan says:

        While most people think that her “History of Love” is her masterpiece, may I suggest you start with her earlier book (that I haven’t reviewed) “Man Walks into a Room”. After that, “History” and then “Forest Dark”.

  3. Liz says:

    This is a super chain, Helen. I enjoyed The Words In My Hand, but found the Miniaturist a bit heavy going (theTV series helped in the end!). I have Stoner in my library pile at the moment, so looking forward to that. And Great House sounds, well, great!

  4. A Life in Books says:

    Great chain! I loved The Miniaturist, partly because Amsterdam is one of my favourite cities. One of my visits was after I’d read Buton’s novel and I made sure to visit the ‘doll’s house’ on which she’d based her novel. All that said, I do think you’re right about the unsatsfying ending.

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t been to Amsterdam since reading The Miniaturist, but I would like to see the doll’s house. I thought the ending of the book could have been better, but I did enjoy it overall. 🙂

  5. Diane says:

    Stoner has been on my shelves unread for some time. I really need to try that one as everyone who has read has seemed to enjoy it.

  6. Sandra says:

    So many books here that grab me, Helen. I’ve long wanted to read Stoner and Great House appeals because of it’s storyline although I was underwhelmed by History of Love. I’ve been ambivalent about The Miniaturist which almost certainly means I won’t read it despite not knowing what’s putting me off. Anyway, great chain! 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I don’t think you’re missing out on too much by not reading The Miniaturist. I thought it was quite enjoyable, but not really a must-read book. Stoner is great, though – I think you might like that one. 🙂

  7. Kate W says:

    Great chain! The Words in my Hand sounds very interesting (and as it happens I haven’t ticked off The Netherlands in my Around the World reading challenge, so it could be a good choice).

    Loved The Miniaturist. Did you know she has a new book coming out this year? It’s called The Confession – I’ve seen some sneak peeks of the cover on Twitter.

    • Helen says:

      I loved The Words in My Hand – it would be a perfect Netherlands book for your challenge. And no, I didn’t know there was a new Jessie Burton book coming out. I’ll have to investigate!

      • Kate W says:

        There’s very little about the new Jessie Burton – they’re doing a good job of keeping it under wraps. I spotted something on Twitter but when I checked Goodreads, nothing!

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