Monday, November 25, 2013

*Messiah, by Gore Vidal; *Survivor, by Chuck Palahniuk



We're finally moved in upstairs again since the remodel (yay!), so  I can find everything once more and now I actually have time to get back to the books about fictional cults I've set aside to read this month. I think I'll be carrying the list into December, because there are quite a few more I want to get to.  For now, here are two incredible novels that I most highly recommend.

Up first: Gore Vidal's Messiah.


9780141180397
Penguin, 1998
originally published 1954
256 pp

paperback

"If this thing spreads it will become organized. If it becomes organized, secondary considerations will obscure the point."

 If ever there was a reason to take a break  from reading what's on the New York Times bestseller list or  from current fiction, this book is it.  Going onto the favorites list for 2013, this novel is simply amazing.  Considering it was first published in 1954, it's surprisingly current and definitely way ahead of its time.  In this book, a new religion is born, and a simple message offered by a charismatic young man becomes organized, publicized, bureaucratized and ultimately bastardized before it encompasses the entire non-Islamic world.  It's highly satirical, funny in a dark humor sort of way, and makes you appreciate how perceptive this author must have been, considering all of the events coming out of  messianic cults over the last few decades.

Eugene Luther (which is actually Gore Vidal's real name) has been living in Egypt for the last fifty years under an assumed name.  He is working on an account of "that original crisis" that sent him there, which began when he was introduced to a former embalmer by the name of John Cave ("a pair of initials calculated to amaze the innocent").   Luther meets him through Iris Mortimer, a woman to whom he was introduced by another character, Clarissa.  On a visit to California,  he first hears Cave speak at a small gathering, and somewhat "against his will" Luther realizes that he was totally absorbed.  As Iris notes, "There's something in oneself which stirs and comes alive at his touch, through his agency."   Cave's message is relatively simple: "it is good to die."  This was the sole vision of John Cave, at first anyway; everything changes when Cave is put in the hands of  publicist Paul Himmell and his erstwhile partner, Jungian analyst Dr. Stokharin, and Cavite Inc. is born. It's Iris who notes that
"a society which knows what we know, which believes in Cave and what he says, will be a pleasanter place in which to live, less anxious, more tolerant." 
Himmell puts Cave on television and his popularity soars -- but to Himmell and his investors, Cave has become a product. While Luther has misgivings about the whole religion phenomena, telling the Cavite Board of Directors that they will
 "... do more harm than good by attempting to supplant old dogmas and customs with new dogmas. It will be the same in the end, except that the old is less  militant, less dangerous than a new order imposed by enthusiasts,"  

he readily accepts being drafted to supply background on Cave, to give him a "respectful ancestry," and soon he is also drafting dialogues, supposedly containing doctrine that becomes the basis of "Cavesword," the new religion. Millions of people are enticed by Cave's TV presence, and Cavesword spreads like wildfire, despite threats posed by leaders of Christianity, and despite Luther's growing misgivings.

But Cave sells -- and  becomes even more popular when Cave, a natural recluse,  is kept away from crowds allowing a mystique and mythology to grow.  It isn't long before Cavesword spawns centers in all major cities run by Residents and Communicators; nonconformists are "swayed" toward Cavesword in these places; eventually they become centers where practitioners can commit suicide.  As the story gets closer to why Luther is living in Egypt under an assumed name, it also starts taking on even more frightening tones.

This is, of course, a barebones outline of plot; this is another one you really can't get a feel for without reading it, but Messiah is simply put, an outstanding novel.  It seems to parallels the rise of Christianity, including the dissenters, the overlaying of old traditions to make new ones, the schisms, and mythologies that grew out of historical reality.  It examines the relationship between postwar American anxieties and the need for some kind of larger-than-life solution to offer people beyond the old, superstition-based religions.  It also looks at television's ability as the ultimate medium of persuasion -- considering that this book was written in 1954, that's an incredibly farsighted vision on Vidal's part.  But really, the best thing about this book is the realization that comes to Luther as he comes to understand his real role vis-a-vis  John Cave; sadly it's at the end so I can't really spill it.  It is however, a revelation that had me thinking about this novel long after I'd finished it -- in fact, the same is true of the entire book.  There is so much more to discuss, but if I wrote all I really wanted to, it would be more like a paper rather than a review.  Messiah is also first book I've ever read by Gore Vidal, and I absolutely love the way he wrote -- so much so that I've already picked up two more of his books.  It's as good or better than much of the fiction coming out currently, so if you're into great writing, excellent plotting and a story that causes you to sit and mull over what you've just read, you really can't make a much better choice than this one.  It shouldn't be pooh-poohed just because it's nearly 60 years old ... you'd think after reading it that the author somehow had access to news of the future.  Superlative. That's my final word.


Next:  Survivor, by Chuck Palahniuk


 9780385498722
Anchor Books, 2000
(originally published 1999)
289 pp

paperback

"You're going up and up and up and not getting anywhere. It's the illusion of progress. What you want to think about is your salvation." 

Going from Vidal's sublime Messiah to Palahniuk's ridiculously sublime Survivor isn't such a great leap, really.  There are a few shared ideas between the two books, for example, the importance of television as a medium for publicity and maximum exposure, the "messiah" as commodity in the hands of publicists and agents, and the reimagining of historical fact into a mythology designed for public consumption.  At the same time, only Chuck Palahniuk can write like Chuck Palahniuk, throwing in some very pointed barbs at American lifestyles.  As I noted somewhere, this book has some very disturbing scenes, but god help me, I couldn't help but laugh.

If you haven't yet read this novel, you might get a little confused like I did when I opened the first page. I thought my book had been screwed up in the binding process -- it starts on page 289, with chapter 47.  It's gimmicky, but it really does work.  Survivor is the story of Tender Branson, who, when we first meet him, is on an airplane minus passengers and pilot, the former having been deplaned shortly after takeoff and the latter having parachuted after giving tips to Branson about how to keep the plane in the air after the pilot jumps, the amount of time before all four engines flame out, etc.  Branson is the sole occupant of the plane, and is now telling his true life story to the airplane's black box which will survive the inevitable plane crash.  He wants to get it clear right away that he is no murderer; getting from the beginning to the end when he finally reveals the reasons behind clearing his name is the journey the reader makes through the novel.

And what a story it is.  Prior to sitting in the cockpit, Branson's adult life was one as a "full-time drudge," and part-time god."  His day job was slaving away at housecleaning for wealthy employers, guided by a day planner, so that at any given hour of his workday, he and his employers know what he's doing. He's interrupted periodically by calls from his boss, who asks him questions about such topics as how to eat lobster correctly at an upcoming dinner, which forks to use, that sort of thing.  Tender Branson is a whiz at home economics; he spent his life being schooled in running the perfect home.  He is also, as we discover shortly after meeting him, a member of the federal Survivor Retention Program, which affords him a caseworker with whom he meets each week, a tiny apartment with a shared hallway bathroom, free government cheese and a bus pass.  Branson grew up in the Nebraska church district colony of the Creedish; at age 17 he was baptized and sent out as a labor missionary.  This was the common practice of the Creedish; all boys but the first-born sons (all named Adam)  went out into the world to work and shared the name of Tender. The girls who were not chosen as wives for the first-born sons went out to work as well, sharing the name of Biddy.   Back home, the Adams and their wives had children, children and more children, and the children spent their lives learning a particular trade.  There were rules for living on the outside, though -- no dancing, no listening to broadcast media, and the biggest one of all was this one:
 "If the members of the church district colony felt summoned by God, rejoice. When the apocalypse was imminent, celebrate, and all Creedish must deliver themselves unto God, amen."
While Tender Branson is cleaning grout and getting bloodstains out of leather, the word comes that the Creedish in Nebraska have been delivered; he is taken into the Survival Retention program so that he doesn't off himself.  There are rashes of suicides among the survivors, and at some point, Tender becomes the only surviving member of the cult (well, as far as the authorities know), and thanks to a savvy agent whose job it is to make cult suicide look "fresh and exciting every time around,"   is turned into a new messiah for the people.

As Tender's lifestory is recorded for posterity, the author takes potshots at different facets of American culture that blend into Tender's experience.  For example, while being refitted as a "new guru" for people who need to "make sense of their risk-free boredom of a lifestyle,"  he climbs the "stairmaster to heaven," and is wardrobed, told what to say, and pumped full of botox, steroids, drugs etc in order to make him media perfect. As his agent tells him,
"Nobody wants to worship you if you have the same problems, the same bad breath and messy hair and hangnails as a regular person." 
Sitting in the cockpit, Branson reflects that "Reality means you live until you die...The real truth is nobody wants reality."

There are also riffs on diagnosing yourself via the DSM with the disorders of the day, things people pray for here combined into his "Book of Very Common Prayer,"  people being so busy with working and making money that they don't have time to enjoy their gardens, but one of the biggest ideas that comes out of this story is based on how to find salvation in the face of  boredom that comes from sameness  and having no control over your own life.

As I said earlier, it's not all funny, because there are some pretty tragic things described in here, but I defy anyone not to laugh while reading this book.  Fantastic novel -- if you haven't read it, go and get yourself a copy soon.  I love Chuck Palahniuk because he's such a great satirist, expressing questions about life in terms everyone can understand and recognize.  Another one not to be missed. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

book discussion: At Night We Walk in Circles, by Daniel Alarcón

9781594631719
Riverhead, 2013
384 pp


arc - my thanks to the publisher and to LibraryThing's early reviewers program

"...the play is different every time."


Some time ago I read this author's Lost City Radio, and loved it. Absolutely. Now he's back with At Night We Walk in Circles, and I loved this one even more. The blurb describing what's on the inside doesn't even come close to describing what actually happens in this character-based novel, which I would say focuses largely on identity, how past events come to be re-imagined, and the effects of blurring the thin line between reality and artificiality.

Set in a South American country somewhere (likely Peru based on a number of clues in the story),   the novel opens with the story of Diciembre, a theatrical group formed by a group of "radical students" at the city's Conservatory during the war. Their slogan was "Theater for the People," and they often went out into the "conflict zone," where'd they perform plays.  It was risky, but then again, being in the city also had its hazards: Henry Nuñez, the lead actor and author of the play The Idiot President, was arrested and sent to prison. His crime was one of "incitement," and he remained there from April through November, 1986, incarcerated as a terrorist.  From his prison cell, he made a radio broadcast, a "jailhouse interview" heard by many people, but by one person in particular who at 8 years old, was so impressed that Henry became his hero.  This is Nelson, who became intrigued about the occupation of "playwright," and who already had been making up his own dialogues about a girl with whom he was secretly in love, sometimes acting them out for his brother.  His brother explains that a playwright is someone who makes up conversations and calls them scripts, much like what Nelson had already been doing. It was then that Nelson decided that he wanted to do that as well -- it became his dream to become a playwright.

As the wartime curfews continued, Diciembre staged all-night shows such featuring such entertainments as "pop reworkings of Garcia Lorca," "stentorian readings of Brazilian soap opera scripts," and "anything that kept audiences awake and laughing through what might have otherwise been the long, lonely hours of curfew." As the 80s closed, and into the 90s, the troupe was a shadow of what it used to be. Things were changing in the country as well -- the capital had been "reimagined" in such a way that made it seem that no "unpleasant history" had ever happened there.   In  2000, the anniversary of Diciembre's founding prompted some of its "veterans" to mark the event somehow, and they decided it might be fitting to take The Idiot President on tour out in the countryside.  Henry was brought in from his now-quieter life to participate, "but only if a new actor could be found to join." His friend Patalarga is on board, and enter Nelson, now a theater student at the Conservatory, who ultimately gets the third part.  The timing is perfect and Nelson needs an escape, especially since  the woman he loves has set up house with someone else, and since the death of his father, he can't leave mother for his long-awaited trip to the US.  As the men wait at the bus station before they are taken away, Henry tells Nelson that they're "entering the world of the play now...its constructed  universe," and that he should "give in to it." As the narrator tells us, the beginning of the tour is  "when the trouble began." 

We learn all of this background and more  from a first-person narrator, who has only appeared some 13 pages into the book (well, in my ARC copy anyway).  His very presence signifies that something is not right -- that something has gone wrong with Nelson. Later, we also discover that he is trying to "decipher the mystery" around a "brief encounter" between himself and Nelson, by interviewing
 "his confidantes, his lovers, his classmates, people who'd seen fit to trust me, as if by sharing their various recollections, we could together accomplish something on his behalf. Re-create him. Reanimate him. Bring him back into the world." 
Using these interviews and words from Nelson's journals, he tries to piece together the chain of events that started with Nelson going on a tour for a play with two other actors, because he feels some kind of bond with Nelson.   The thing is though, that each person he interviews knows Nelson from a different vantage point, from  different situations in which Nelson has played different parts, so that eventually we find that there are  a number of different Nelsons.  How then is it possible to know the true Nelson? Is it possible at all?  Even he is aware of himself as an actor -- at the last drink he had with his brother he came to the realization that everyone, including himself, is always acting. When all is said and done, and as you come to the end of the story, you start to wonder if even Nelson really knows who he is any longer.   What I find striking about this book is that it is built around actors, their roles, performances, scripts and improvisations -- all tools used to create  illusion.

Re the title:  As Henry asks earlier, when he talks to the narrator about walking in circles while in prison,  "how do you set a play in a world that denies your characters any agency?"  I'm not exactly sure, but I think this statement may provide some clue.

 At Night We Walk in Circles is definitely not easygoing as far as the reading.  This book could be the easily be included in  a literary  or  history course, one that spends most of the semester analyzing it. All the same, I love this writer's work and this one I can only describe as hypnotic and haunting, mixed with a touch of very dark humor at times.  Highly recommended -- take it very slow, though.  It's not a book you want to rush through.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

9780385351393
Knopf/McSweeney's Books, 2013
491 pp

hardcover

"...any information that eludes us, anything that's not accessible, prevents us from being perfect."
                                                  -- 287

Let me start here with how I felt about this book when I turned the last page and closed the cover. The words "holy sh*t" came out of my mouth, and I was tempted to go disconnect myself from every social media site I'm on. As far as the book itself, I didn't think it was perfect; in fact, it is a bit contrived, but still a very timely read, one that gave me a case of the willies.

The story focuses on Mae Holland, who when we meet her, is working in a dead-end job until recruited by her best friend Annie, who works at a tech company called The Circle, and is in the upper echelons known as the Gang of 40, "privy to its most secret plans and data." One of the founders designed the Circle's "Unified Operating System," which
"combined everything online that had heretofore been separate and sloppy -- users' social media profiles, their payment systems, their various passwords, their email accounts, user names, preferences, every last tool and manifestation of their interests."
He also invented TruYou, "one account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person," where you had to use your real name, which "tied to your credit cards, your bank," and your personal identity, basically did away with online anonymity. TruYou is presented as a system beneficial to the customer, since he/she wouldn't have to remember multiple user names, multiple passwords, etc. In fact, everything that the company does is "beneficial" in some way, for example, microchips embedded in bone to prevent kidnappings or to easily locate missing children, other measures designed to prevent crimes, and technologies to make everyone and everything accountable via transparency provided by built-in cameras. And all the while, The Circle monitors everything that's going on, boosting the slogan "All that happens must be known." Its point of view is that privacy begets secrets, secrets beget lies, lies beget impropriety, and that the only answer is to be completely open about everything. In short, "If you aren't transparent, what are you hiding?"

As Mae gets into her job, and gets sucked into the community aspect of the company, she not only gets swept up in all of The Circle's potential, but also develops her own unflinching desire for success, doing all that she can to make herself well known. Soon enough she quickly becomes a rising star with designs on getting into the top ranks.  Now, if this book were only about Mae and her ambition, well, that story's been done already, but The Circle offers a look at how promises of utopia can easily turn into a nightmare. The company has designs on making things so that eventually "all government and all life" would be "channeled through one network," with no escape from being "tracked, cradle to grave." In the world of The Circle, there will be no protection -- the by-then transparent politicians who "owe their reputations" to this company could be easily ruined by getting involved against it.

While I don't think this book is so great on character development or prose, it made me stop several times while reading to think about what I'd just read. I spent a lot more time thinking about it when I was finished, mainly about what the repercussions could be if technology induces us to give over all of our private information to one single entity that controls and monitors all information flow and all of our personal activities, vs the benefits that the technologies might offer. Yes, this book is didactic, and yes, there's zero subtlety here in terms of the message that is meant to come across, but it is definitely a thought provoker.

This book has gotten incredibly mixed reviews, so it is one that should be judged not by other-reader opinion, but by your own reading of it. I've seen everything from "this book is utter crap" to someone calling it essential reading, so the range of reader response is huge. In my opinion, it's a very timely book to be reading right now, and if it gives you a case of the willies, it's because the future described in here should scare the crap out of you.

ps/ after reading this book, I bought a brand-new copy of Orwell's 1984. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Bellman and Black, by Diane Setterfield

9781476711959
Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2013
336 pp

arc (a big thank you to the publishers!)

To put it rather bluntly, this book is not very popular among fans of Diane Setterfield's previous novel, The Thirteenth Tale, who I suppose wanted something more along the same lines in her new novel,  Bellman and Black and didn't get it.  I sort of feel like one of the lone holdouts -- I actually liked this book.  Then again, I went into it without any expectations:  even though I also liked The Thirteenth Tale,  I wasn't expecting this one to be a carbon copy.  I still don't understand why people come unglued when a particular favorite author goes off in a different way than in previous books -- as I've said so many times, it's very unfair and limiting to the writer when readers tend to expect the same thing over and over again. 

Set in the Victorian era, as a boy of ten, William Bellman, his cousin Charles and their friend Luke were hanging out on a summer day, and Will tells the others he can hit a bird that was in a tree "half a field away." He had fashioned a perfect slingshot, picked the perfect stone, and launched it, hitting a black bird against all odds. The other boys were impressed; Will was "sick at heart, proud, abashed, guilty."  On his way home he glances back to where the bird had fallen and notices a congregation of rooks, all looking in his direction, and he also thinks he sees a boy dressed all in black. He's obviously haunted by what he's done, and while he spends a half week in bed with a fever,  he starts to apply what the author calls "his ten year old genius and power" to "forgetting." William's adult life starts out promising -- he is helping his uncle at the family's textile mill and comes up with a number of measures to make the mill more productive and lucrative.  He falls in love, marries just the right woman, and has beautiful children -- the perfect life, one others are either envious or proud of.  Yet, it's not long until he is faced with several deaths, and at each funeral, he thinks he sees a man all dressed in black. William throws himself into his work rather than deal with his grief; when tragedy strikes and he loses of all of his family members but one, he makes a "deal" with the man in black for the recovery of his dying daughter.  William then moves to London and branches out into a new career with death as its centerpiece, and again applies his magical touch, throwing himself body and soul into his work,  making it a successful enterprise.  And all along he's waiting for "Mr. Black" to return and collect what he's owed.


If you look at the title of this book on Goodreads it is Bellman and Black: A Ghost Story (which is btw, NOT  the title on the hardcover copy I bought) and somehow word has gotten out that it is just that, a ghost story. If you read it very carefully, though (and without wrecking the story for others who might wish to read it), you have to make up your own mind  -- in some ways, it reminded me very much of Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger, which also requires that the reader really examine the "supernatural" events that occur.  What I see here is a study of a man who has excelled in forgetting, keeping his grief buried, and who has tried to carry on while unable or unwilling to mourn the tragedies of his life just to function.  Seen in that light, this very much character-based story really works for me, explaining a lot of the ambiguities that follow throughout the novel. I will say that while the book is highly atmospheric, William's character may seem to some readers to come off as flat.  He is anything but -- his drive, his inner thoughts and his actions all point to a man in a great amount of pain.  It's all in how you read it.

Lots of readers have commented on "lack of plot," but again, this is a character-driven novel so the interest lies in trying to fathom what's going on inside of William.  I really don't get why people are so negative in their comments about this novel -- I found it highly unsettling and mysterious, haunting, but at the same time the horror here is completely on the subtle side until right at the end when all is made known.  Frankly, I couldn't put it down.  So what I didn't exactly care about were the rooks-eye scenes; while I get why they were there, they were often a little distracting. Otherwise, it's one I can definitely recommend, and one I'm definitely going to revisit. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

US readers: today's book on the giveaway pile: Bellman and Black, by Diane Setterfield (ARC)

I've finished reading Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield, and bought a hardcover copy for a second read. That means I have an advanced reader copy available if anyone would like it. I'll pay postage.


please give my book a home!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

US readers: 2 more books needing homes

I'm toiling away on getting these book boxes unpacked so I'm finding books I was planning to give away. First we have Colum McCann's TransAtlantic


published this year and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize; next there's Paris, by Edward Rutherford, also published this year which I mistakenly ordered from an online book club and probably won't find time to read in the near future. 


Take one or both, I don't care. All you have to do is to be the first to comment with which book(s) you want, then email me at oakesn@gmail.com with an address. 

Please! These books really need a new home! I pay postage.

US readers: anyone want an ARC of Dan Simmons' The Abominable? It's free and I pay postage!


I have an ARC of The Abominable by Dan Simmons available to anyone in the US who wants it.  If you do, all you have to do is be the first one to make a comment on this post, then send an email with an address.  I'll  even pay postage!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

this month's book group read: The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, by Denise Kiernan


9781451617528
Touchstone, 2013
371 pp

hardcover


If you are at all interested in women's history or in the history of America's nuclear program, The Girls of Atomic City should be one of those books that gets added on to and then moved up to the top of your tbr pile.  It is one of the most thought-provoking nonfiction books I've read in a long time.

Pretty much everyone knows the iconic figure of Rosie the Riveter, who symbolized the women helping out the war effort during World War II.  When the men went overseas, many of the women left behind were called on to do jobs previously done by men, and their work amped up production lines to keep the war going.   The Girls of Atomic City explores some of the women who also kept things going in a project located  in a facility in what is now Oak Ridge, Tennessee, one that was geared toward putting an end to the war.



 The women were trained to do only very specific tasks without understanding the overall project that their labors helped to create.  They were not allowed to talk about their work, nor were they allowed to question anything, and they never knew who might report them if they did.  The project was so secret that wives couldn't talk to husbands about their work, dating couples couldn't discuss their jobs, workers couldn't talk to families or friends on the outside, and  violations of that rule often ended up with people simply disappearing, never to be heard from or seen ever again.    The women, along with the majority of men working at Oak Ridge, had no clue at all that everything they did helped to contribute to the production of the atomic bomb that was used first in Hiroshima, and then Nagasaki.  It was only when the bombs were dropped that the news was released, and people finally realized what it was they'd been working on, with very mixed reactions.  In The Girls of Atomic City, the author examines the personal and professional lives of some of the women who called Oak Ridge home for the duration.  The book is definitely thought provoking and also provides a look inside the America of the WWII years.   


You can read about it here, on my nonfiction page, if you're at all interested.  Personally, I felt that it was sometimes flawed in the telling, but overall, it is an incredibly eye-opening and very fine work about something I'd never heard of before.  It most definitely sparked an excellent discussion with the group. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

November: fictional cults


November is going to be Nancy's mental health month -- meaning that I'm not doing jack until Thanksgiving.  It's been a rough couple of months here at mi casa, starting with a redo of our entire top floor, which meant packing, stashing, throwing crap away, -- it's amazing how much one accumulates over seven years of living in the same house. Add in a trip to Seattle, leaving all of the mess to wait until I got back, then a gigantic Halloween party that I'd planned that required my pre-party attention for three solid days in a row. Aarrgh! Stress has been the norm around here, but I'm counteracting it all with a month (until the holiday) of doing absolutely nada. Nothing. Rien. 

So this month, as I'm reading through Eleanor Catton's  weighty tome The Luminaries, I'll also be reading novels that feature some sort of cult action. I got the idea after finishing Dave Eggers' The Circle. Even though it's not about cults, one thing it reveals is how people can get caught up in things well beyond their control.  Here's a sample of what I've dug up already in my library: 

Messiah, by Gore Vidal
The Dain Curse, by Dashiel Hammett
The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover
The Possibility of an Island, by Michele Houellebecq
Oyster, by Janette Turner Hospital

I'll also be reading Daniel Alarcon's new book At Night We Walk in Circles, Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield, and I'll also be posting a discussion of The Circle by Dave Eggers this week.  

I finally have time to just read, so I'm pretty happy! Yay!  



Monday, October 28, 2013

October Reading Roundup


While the month isn't quite over yet, the next few days will be some of the busiest ever for me, so I'll go ahead and get this end-of-the-month recap done now.  I'm in Seattle (my second home),  have been now for a while, visiting family and having a great time, but I go back to FL tomorrow, reading Jo Nesbo's The Police on the plane, and if I finish that, well, I have Dave Eggers' The Circle as backup.  Those books will go into November, but for now, I'll stick to what I accomplished in October.

October was my month for reading all things supernatural and spooky, and I did get in a few before having to stop and deal with a complete upstairs remodel.  Four newly-done bedrooms and a hallway later, most of my books are still in boxes waiting for me to come home to, but I managed to keep a few out to read. Here's how things look for this month:

This House is Haunted by John Boyne started things off in the realm of the supernatural, followed by
The Year of the Ladybird, by Graham Joyce,
The Shining and Doctor Sleep by Stephen King,
The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf, and
To Charles Fort With Love, by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which I haven't yet discussed (moving into November)  but may most likely be the most literary book of horror I've ever read.

The not at all supernatural is also represented in this month, with
Strange Shores, by Arnaldur Indridason (crime), and
The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles and Their Secret War (nonfiction), about which I also haven't had time to get a discussion written, also coming in November.

That makes for a total of eight, very slow month, but it's understandable with all of the upheaval and a trip planned in the middle of the upheaval .

Now, the usual book stuff:

1) Books I'm giving away this month -- for US readers only.    --  This is going to have to wait until I get home and see what's available since everything, including my giveaway books, are still in boxes or in towering stacks in rooms they don't belong in

 2) Added to the  wishlist this month: 

 crime fiction:
All of the books in the Havana Quartet, by Leonardo Padura 

 general fiction/literature:
The Daylight Gate, by Jeanette Winterson
The Investigation, by Phillipe Claudel
Back Street, by Fannie Hurst (Vintage Movie Classics edition, 2014)


the weird, the strange, supernatural etc:
Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror, ed. Ellen Datlow

nonfiction

A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia, by Edmund Levin

  
 3) Books bought this month:
  • Doctor No, by Ian Fleming (spy fiction)
  • Uncanny Stories,  by May Sinclair (weird/supernatural)
  • The Whisperer and Other Voices, by Brian Lumley (weird/supernatural)
  • Hild, by Nicola Griffith (historical fiction)
  •  The Night Guest, by Fiona McFarlane (fiction/literature)
  • Murder in the Dark, by Dan Turrell (crime fiction)
  • Shantytown, by Cesar Aira (fiction/literature)
  • La Vida Doble, by Arturo Fontaine (fiction/literature
  • The Corpse Washer, by Sinan Antoon (fiction/literature)
  • The Investigator: Fifty Years of Uncovering the Truth, by Terry Lenzner (nonfiction)
  • The Master of the Macabre, by Russell Thorndike (weird/supernatural)

4The book group is reading  The Girls of Atomic City, by Denise Kiernan on November 5; they were kind enough to wait until I get back from Seattle to have the meeting. 




and I have an ARC from Simon and Schuster of Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield waiting for me when I get home, so I'm uber excited!


That's it for October. happy halloween !



The Abominable, by Dan Simmons -- an old-fashioned, rollicking good yarn

9780316198837
Little, Brown and Company, 2013
663 pp

ARC - thanks!

The Abominable ends my month of spooky Halloween reads, but this one fooled me.  I'm not quite sure where I got the idea that  The Abominable was going to be a horror novel, because as it turns out, it's much more of an old-fashioned adventure tale. The basic story is pretty good when all is said and done in that escape-fiction sort of way, complete with a group of climbers who find their way to Mt. Everest, a missing man last seen on the mountain, a beautiful young heroine, and a secret that someone is willing to kill to keep buried.  My only real issue with this book is that there is so much detail here that I felt like I had to put on my slogging boots to wade through it,  but more on this a little later.

The Abominable begins as Dan Simmons, in a nice metafictional twist,  finds himself in 1991 having to come up with a "new package" of novels for his publisher.  He really wants to do something on Antarctica, and as it happens, a friend of his wife's knows someone who went there with Byrd in the 1930s.  Simmons journeys to an assisted-living home to talk to the man, Jacob Perry, who is dying of cancer.  While he interviews him, Perry tells Simmons that there's a story he's always wanted to write -- not necessarily for publication -- just so someone will read it.  Leaving Perry with a Moleskin notebook, in 1992, Simmons gets word that 90 year-old Perry is dead, and is surprised to hear that Perry left nothing for him.  Flash forward to 2011, and Simmons receives a box of notebooks in the mail;  after having gone through them, he decides to publish Perry's manuscript, a "strange and oddly beautiful testament."

The story moves from 1924, where we meet the three main male characters on top of the Matterhorn, through 1925 where our erstwhile heroes find themselves climbing Mount Everest. It is while they are atop the Matterhorn in 1924 when the three, Jacob (Jake) Perry, Richard Deacon and Jean-Claude Clairoux, learn about Mallory's death on Everest.  As they are making their descent, Deacon asks them if they would like to accompany him on a "fully-funded expedition" to climb Everest in 1925, an expedition consisting of only the three of them.  They agree to go, then realize that the funding will be coming from Lady Elizabeth Marion Bromley, whose sons, Charles and Lord Percival (Percy) were once playmates of Deacon's when they were children.  It seems that Lord Percival had himself disappeared on Everest in 1924, although he was not a member of the Mallory expedition, and he had made no attempt to climb or camp with them.    A witness had reported that Bromley and an Austrian man, Karl Meyer,  were swept up in an avalanche, but Lady Bromley is just not certain that Percy is really dead.  Although she knows that it's highly unlikely he's still alive, she will  give them the funds and logistical help they need to find out why he was in Tibet to begin with, why he was on Everest, and why was he with Meyer when he died.  There's only one condition: she wants a family member, Cousin Reggie, to go along, and to keep track of all of the money.   If Percy's dead, she wants proof; if he's alive she wants him home.   Perry, Deacon and Clairoux eventually find themselves in Darjeeling, home of Cousin Reggie, where they begin what will be the climb of their lives.  But needless to say, there are a few twists along the way that none of them had bargained on.



While I was reading this book, I kept thinking what a cool movie this book would be based totally on plot and characters.  It's very much reminiscent of old-fashioned adventure stories á la Indiana Jones (not the same plotlines but in that same vein), the kind where you just have to let that suspension of belief slip into play.  The characters may come off a bit stereotypical and even larger than life, but you know, this book is just a lot of fun, and should really be read not in comparison to the author's other works, but as a stand alone kind of rollicking good yarn.  Truth be told, I had trouble putting it down when I had to, that's how much I enjoyed it. But sometimes my fun was interrupted by the constant descriptions of ice climbing, mountain climbing, and the equipment necessary for both, as well as the numerous and lengthy passages describing the ice-covered cwms in Wales, the Tibetan landscape and pretty much each camp-to-camp ascent on Mt. Everest itself.  I think it could have benefited from some more judicious editing, but if I stack the sheer reading fun against the bog and slog, the fun comes out on top, even though I kind of figured out part of the plot way ahead of time.  I do think the Amazon reviewers who gave this book one star because it wasn't at all like  Mr. Simmons' past works aren't being quite fair, and while everyone's entitled to his/her opinion, they're being extremely harsh in this case.

If you're ever in the mood for an old-fashioned adventure yarn, you'll definitely find it here.  I try really hard not to judge one work of an author's on the rest, and to take each one individually on its own merits, and in this case, I found myself really liking the core story in  this one despite its flaws.  It's not a great work of literature, just fun, a story for a rainy day or two.   It won't be for everyone, but then again, which book is?

a special thanks to Em.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

if a green huntsman offers to help you, take a pass: *The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf

9781590176689
NYRB Classics, 2013
original title: Die Schwarz Spinne, 1842
translated by Susan Bernofsky 
108 pp

paper

I opened the pages of this little novella not knowing what to expect, and right away found myself embedded in a beautiful arcadian setting in the Emmental region of Switzerland.  Under the sun, shining in "limpid majesty," in a "dell filled with fertile, sheltered farmland," lies a splendid farmhouse near an orchard. Churchbells can be heard in the distance on this "blessed day of celebration," colts are frolicking in the fields, and an entire family has gathered to celebrate a christening.  A huge feast has been laid, the godmother spares no effort in her "intricate preparations" to make herself lovely, and the baby is taken to church for the ceremony.  The scene is one of pastoral perfection, abundance, and peace,


so naturally, I started to get really curious about the book's cover art and why a blurb on the back notes that "The Black Spider was a horror story of its day."  Then the "gotcha": as the post-christening festivities commence, a question about a "rough black window post" built into the newly-built home leads the grandfather to tell a story about events that had occurred  in the area hundreds of years ago, one passed on through the generations.  And oh, what a story it is.

A religious order of Teuton knights has returned from Poland and Prussia, having been sent there to "fight the heathen."  While there, they got caught up in the lifestyle, and on their return, continued to live, each "according to his own nature and pleasure." The worst of these was Hans van Stoffeln of Swabia, and he took a lot of pleasure in persecuting the peasants.  First, he took them away from their land for two years by ordering a huge castle on a hill.  When that was finished, and just as the peasants were rejoicing that they could get back to feeding their starving families and tending their livestock, von Stoffeln makes another demand -- they must now build a shaded walkway. He wants particular trees from a location that is hours away, and he wants everything done within a month or disastrous consequences will follow for the peasants and their families.  Thoroughly in despair, because this is an impossible task, the peasant men wonder how they're going to tell their loved ones.  At that moment a huntsman, dressed in all in green (hitherto referred to as the "green man" or the "green huntsman" ) appears, and offers them help -- and for payment, all he wants is an unbaptized child.  When the women are told what's going on, they believe they can help their men, but it becomes obvious that this is not working out.  One of the wives, Christine of Lindau,  takes up the green huntsman's offer, thinking that when a new baby is born, the people will find a way to deceive him, and they do manage to stave off the devil for a while. However, they hadn't reckoned on the black spider, a reminder that the huntsman "would not suffer himself to be duped without recompense."

So -- what to make of this little book?  Seriously, for such a small volume there's a stream of ideas put into play here, even aside from the obvious Christian message about not turning away from the Lord.   First and foremost,  I read it like this: once evil has made itself known, it can be controlled only if  a community agrees to act together  to keep it at bay. Then the author reveals exactly what sorts of temptations can lead people astray from the collective good. Briefly:

a)  women who, like Christine of Lindau, are "not the sort of woman ...  content to stay at home, quietly going about her duties with no other concern than household and children;" women who are "frightfully clever," "daring," and bold, who don't quite understand their place in the home and in society. There are also women who hold sway over the men in their lives, who become  true masters of their houses, leading sons and husbands to neglect their responsibilities,
b) the lack of  collective and individual responsibility, as in (a) above and other examples throughout the book, especially when actions by a one or a few lead to disregard for the lives of others,
c) people who are not happy enough with what they already  have -- as the people became jealous of the riches and high living of others, their desire for wealth and their "vainglorious grandeur" led them to be as hardhearted and ruthless toward their own servants as the knights once were toward the peasants,
d) and last but not least, when children do not  "follow their parents in their paths and thoughts,"  and disregard wisdom passed down through the ages. 

And what about the spider? Well, I'm not very well versed in Germanic mythologies or Swiss folklore regarding the symbolism of the spider, but I did look up "green huntsman" to see if there was something significant I could use relating to  this book and came across this photo of a green huntsman spider.


Coincidence? Maybe, but in Christian mythology, the spider is, of course,  associated with the Devil, and you've got the Green Huntsman of the story in that role as the source of  the spider, so it should be easy to figure out.  However, according to Terrence Rafferty of the New York Times, the spider also becomes a symbol of plague, and there are scenes in this book that support this idea as well.

Even if you're not so inclined toward the Christian messages (as in my case), you can still enjoy The Black Spider.  There are a number of scenes that are bound to produce that wonderful frisson of chills crawling up your spine, making it a perfect pre-Halloween read; it's also a peek into a specific society at a specific time and place making it a good story for historical fiction readers.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Two Kings and I'm the winner! *The Shining and *Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King

also posted at my oddly weird fiction page

The Shining, by Stephen King
Doubleday, 1977
447 pp

hardcover (first doubleday book club edition)

Continuing on in my month of spooky reads in honor of Halloween, I now come to two books written by the same author. The Shining is a classic horror read, while the latest book by Stephen King, Doctor Sleep,  hones in on the kid from The Shining, Danny Torrance, picking up his story again as a young man. I hadn't planned on reading The Shining again (it made for some freakishly-great entertainment years ago), but because Doctor Sleep builds on Danny's (now Dan) experiences at the Overlook,  I decided to reread The Shining before I started the new one.  To be frank, I liked both books; to be even more truthful, I fell in love with The Shining all over again and found Doctor Sleep to be fun and often suspenseful but not nearly as intense as its predecessor.  More on that later.

Before I try to offer up a synopsis here, let me say this: if you're considering reading Doctor Sleep, the references back to events in The Shining come from the original book -- which is not at all the same as the movie made by Stanley Kubrick.  So if your understanding of things comes from that film, you might be a little lost.

 Jack Torrance, his wife Wendy and their son Danny used to have a good life. He taught at a prep school, he made money from publishing some of his stories, and Wendy did typing part time -- all good enough to where the couple could put money away each month.  Jack is an alcoholic, but had managed to get himself together and keep it under control, but he has temper issues: an assault on one of his students put Jack out of a job and drove Jack and Wendy into financial crisis.  Luckily, one of his former drinking buddies has found him a job as the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel high in the mountains of Colorado.  Jack sees the job as a good opportunity to finish writing a play he's been working on, since the Torrance family will be the only inhabitants there.  The truth is, Jack and Wendy have no choice but to take the job due to extreme financial necessity -- as Jack notes sarcastically some time later in the novel, "A man with his sterling record of alcoholism, student-beating and ghost-chasing would undoubtedly be able to write his own ticket," ending up with a job "swamping out Greyhound buses," or "washing cars in a rubber suit," or even "washing dishes in a diner."  Danny, however, is not so sure -- his "imaginary" friend Tony has been showing him visions of the Overlook in his dreams, and what he sees frightens him. Meeting the hotel's chef, Dick Hallorann, gives Danny the chance to understand why he sees things or knows things that others don't: he has "the shine," an ability shared by the chef.  They both realize it in the other, but as Hallorann explains, Danny has the biggest shine he's ever encountered.   Danny levels with Hallorann that he's frightened, but Hallorann assures him that if he needs him, he only needs to send a mental message to him and he'll come back from his other job in Florida  to help him.  He also warns Danny that places can shine, and as the Torrance family is about to discover, the Overlook is one of those very places.   The hotel is a place where "all the hotel's eras" are together at once, an "inhuman place" that "makes human monsters."

 

The Shining has long been one of my all-time favorite horror novels, meriting the switch some time back from mass market paperback to 1st Doubleday hardcover book club edition.  It may not be filled with the kind of horrors seen in the Kubrick film (which I actually loved as well, but in a way not connected to King but to Kubrick's vision and genius here), but it is one of the most intensely cerebral novels of horror I've ever read.  The symbolism of the wasps, for example, is incredibly potent, a thread that runs completely throughout the story and absolutely necessary for understanding what's going on here.  Another point: in Kubrick's film Jack's character comes across as a raving lunatic, while here, it's much easier to see Jack as more of a victim of the hotel itself, allowing the reader to view his character more on the edge of sadness and empathy rather than as a person bent on self destruction and insanity.  If I had to make a top ten list of horror novels, this book would definitely be on it, although considering the horror novels being published today, it may seem relatively tame to modern  readers.  For me though, it is and always will be a classic.

*******

Moving on to Doctor Sleep, 

9781476727653
Scribner, 2013
544 pp

hardcover 

Where The Shining is brimming over with horrific intensity, Dr. Sleep is in part a coming-of-age novel as well as a novel about demons, both internal and external, a bit more relaxed in the telling and well, for me, not nearly as frightening, cerebral or haunting as its predecessor.  That is most definitely NOT to say it's not good; it's just very different.

 The story catches up with Danny (now Dan) Torrance years after events at the Overlook.  He still has "the shine," although after years of alcohol abuse, it's been "tamped down" somewhat.  Dan has been unable to keep a job because of his drinking; at the same time the alcohol helps blot out the visions that continue to haunt him, for example, the "ghostie people" like the woman in room 217 at the Overlook.  He's also learned how to put these visions and his ethereal tormentors away in a mental lockbox, but at some point Dan just hits bottom.  Afterwards, he just wants to get away and make a new start -- after a bus ride into Frazier, New Hampshire, something inside of him realizes that this is where he needs to be.  He takes a job, and his boss ultimately gets him into AA, after which he starts work in a hospice center where he's nicknamed "Doctor Sleep" because of his ability to help the dying pass on while holding their hand.

As Dan is going through his bottoming out and taking steps to become human again, a girl named Abra is born, and as it turns out, she is also gifted with the shine.  With abilities much more powerful that Dan's ever were, she makes contact with him through her mind, and can even switch places via Spock-like mind melding.  But trouble is looming: a group of ancient beings known collectively as "the True Knot" also have powerful psychic abilities, and they actively seek out young people and children who like both Dan and Abra have "the shining," capture and torture them, and then use their psychic essence (which they call "steam")  to sustain themselves and keep themselves young -- psychic vampires, if you will.  The steam of one of their young victims, however, left some of the True Knot's members with a huge problem.  The group has also come across Abra and her potent abilities, which may be stronger than those of the True Knot's leader, Rose, who sends some of her "people" to pick her up, hoping that her "steam" will provide a much-needed solution to the group's problem as well as much-needed sustenance.  Abra reaches out to Dan for help, but he will need to revisit dark parts of his past in order to save her.

There's so much to like about this book which not only has a suspenseful horror story at its center, but also focuses in great detail about addiction. Personally, I enjoyed this facet of the book because it not only keeps in line with The Shining, but given Stephen King's own addiction background, he knows what he's talking about and it makes Dan's character much more credible.  But even if the addiction aspect fails to grab you,  the author has this incredible talent for incorporating the mundane into this story, disguising his dying-breed psychic vampire creatures as denizens of the world of  retired RV ramblers.  As he shifts to the story of the True Knot, he begins his chapter with how very annoying the traveling grannies and grandpas are on the roads in their big Winnebagos or other big vehicles,
"the RV People, elderly retirees and a few younger compatriots living their rootless lives on the turnpikes and blue highways, staying at campgrounds where they sit around in their Walmart lawnchairs and cook on their hibachis while they talk about investments and fishing tournaments and hotpot recipes and God knows what.  They're the ones who always stop at fleamarkets and yardsales, parking their damn dinosaurs nose-to-tail half on the shoulder and half on the road, so you have to slow to a crawl in order to creep by. They are the opposite of the motorcycle clubs you sometimes see on those same turnpikes and blue highways; the Mild Angels instead of the wild ones." 
Seriously, you know exactly who he's talking about because they're everywhere, and I have to admit that these few pages made me laugh out loud in recognition.  Try going down Highway 1 at Big Sur in California  behind a huge RV going 10 miles an hour listening to your otherwise calm husband bitch and moan,  and you'll know that he's described these people to a tee.  Mr. King also manages to toss in a nod to his son's NOS4A2, both in terms of a character mention and a bumper sticker on (where else?) the back of an RV.  Basically the only thing I really did NOT like about how he wrote this novel was that he throws in a major coincidence in the novel that I thought was a cop out (you'll know it when you see it) and made the whole set up kind of cheesy.  




One more thing.  In my very humble opinion, readers shouldn't judge this book as a true "sequel" to The Shining.  There are several reviewers who are saying they've been "let down" or have made other negative remarks while trying to compare the two.  My guess is that a) they haven't read The Shining in a while or are going off the Kubrick film as their source or that b) they're so fixated on the idea of this novel as a sequel that they're trying to draw parallels that aren't there.  There are large parts of the The Shining worked into this one, so it works that way, but Doctor Sleep is also a fun read on its own, though less intense and definitely less cerebral than the other.  My advice is to just sit back and read it, and enjoy it for what it is rather than complain about what it isn't.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Booker news, book news

The winner of this year's Man Booker Prize is Eleanor Catton, for her work The Luminaries.  I've read only the dustjacket so far, but I knew when I first got my copy earlier this summer that it was going to be good just from the blurb.  Now I must find time for 800+ pages of reading time, but it will definitely get read before Christmas.

****

In other book news, I got my Indiespensable package today which contained a signed copy of  J.M. Coetzee's The Childhood of Jesus:


And while this probably isn't any big deal to most people, it's my second favorite signed edition since Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son.   Not that I'd ever sell it, but I love J.M. Coetzee's work so this is meaningful.

that's it for now ... I am just finishing Stephen King's The Shining and I've already finished his Dr. Sleep in the spirit of reading scary stuff this month; since the two are connected, I'll be writing about them together.  

Anyway, congratulations to Eleanor Catton for her win.  She's only 28!



Thursday, October 10, 2013

the perfect iphone case for book lovers


I apologize for the blur, but the photo is from my old iphone.  The photo quality sucks, which is one reason I got the new iphone, but of course, my old case did not fit.  So when I went looking for a new one, I wanted something that screamed "me" all over it -- and found this one.  It's two stacks of books laying on their sides with spines out.

Maybe something to keep in mind for your book reader friends or relatives at holiday time?


* The Year of the Ladybird, by Graham Joyce

9780575115316
Gollancz/Orion, 2013
265 pp

hardcover (UK)

The Year of the Ladybird surprisingly has much the same feel as Stephen King's recent Joyland, both set in kitschy kind of amusement places that used to be everywhere but which now are found largely in memories.    They're also both coming-of-age-stories, both have a slight infusion of the supernatural, and both capture a snapshot of  a certain place at a certain time.  Both main heroes start out young and naive; by the end of the story they've learned something not only about themselves, but about the way the world really works.  Ghosts and fortunetellers play a role in both; King's excursion into the ethereal has much more to do with the plot of the story, while Joyce's foray into the phantasmal is much more limited to the psyche of the main character. To be really honest, while I enjoyed Mr. Joyce's writing here, the ghost story neither grabbed nor thrilled me; nor did it give me even the slightest outbreak of goosebumps.  I'm also not a huge fan of coming-of-age stories either, but what's really well done here is the time-capsule element.  He describes this small piece of yesteryear so nicely that it's almost like being there, and the wide variety of people around the main character really enliven what could have otherwise been a been there, read-that-dozens-of-times kind of book.

 It's 1976.  England is sweltering, the political right is in turmoil as fears of immigrant job takeovers loom large and people are starting to not only notice but to get angry.  A heat wave has enveloped large parts of the country, water usage has been restricted, and and large clouds of lady bugs (ladybirds) are everywhere. In that milieu, David, a young college student, has decided that rather than take up his stepdad's offer of employment in his construction business, he'll be working at a holiday camp in the seaside town of Skegness.  The story is told from his own first-person perspective, and as he notes, in 1976, the "heyday of the British holiday camps had slipped," because cheaper flights were allowing more people to take their vacations in exotic locations.  David had  gone there largely out of curiosity: earlier in his childhood,  he'd found a photo showing his real father and himself at age three with the word "Skegness" written on the back.  He doesn't remember it, of course, and his mom and stepdad are unhappy with his choice to work there, but he takes the job anyway.  He works as a "Greencoat," someone who does pretty much anything, helping with the entertainments for all ages -- calling bingo, supervising sand-castle building among the younger kids, doing show lighting etc., etc.  While he's there, he meets all manner of people who also work in the holiday camp, falls for the wrong woman before finding the right one,  is introduced to an ultra right-wing group called  "The Way Forward," and learns how things really work in the world. David is bothered throughout the story with a sense of dread as if something terrible's about to happen, and he also encounters two strange figures along the seaside whom no one else but he can see.  

Butlin's Skegness Holiday Camp, from bygonebutlins.com

If you've read Water for Elephants, you're familiar with how well the author described day-to-day life and the behind-the-scenes rivalries and relationships in the the depression-era circus; Mr. Joyce does the same here for the holiday camp. There's a great variety of characters that he brings to life so nicely: the tough-guy abusive husband who pays David to look after his wife and report back to him, the magician, the Italian singer, the fortuneteller, David's constantly intoxicated roommate, the dancer, as well as the people in charge and who work behind the scenes.  The tourists, of course, are a large part of the story, as well as the daily activities -- sandcastle building, dance contests, donkey rides for the overweight women, beauty contests, bingo -- all of which are rewarded with gala ceremonies and rock candy.  I'm not sure if there's an equivalent here in America since in summer it's mainly kids who go to camp, but it doesn't matter -- the camp is described so well that a clear picture will form in your mind as you read.  And all through the novel runs the metaphor of the ladybirds in flight. 

As I noted, the ghost story isn't frightening, and I think it's just here to illustrate a point and aid in David's arrival at self awareness.  Considering that I read this book hoping for even a mild frisson of fright, I was a bit disappointed; considering the entire book is about the progression of the main character as he comes into his own awareness of the world around him, the ghost story definitely plays second fiddle here.  What kept me reading were the holiday camp scenes, the descriptions of  growing political unrest and turmoil of the time, and the people in this book.  The ending may seem a little ambiguous, but as I always say, if authors always wrap things up nice and tidy without leaving any questions behind, what's to think about? 

If you're looking for an eerie, unearthly sort of read, this isn't the one.  If you're into the bildungsroman genre, then this one may interest you as well.  Even better, if  the appeal lies in picking up a book with a wide range of characters, or getting sucked into novel where the author paints a portrait of a particular place at a particular time, then definitely add this one to your tbr pile.   

Thursday, October 3, 2013

*This House is Haunted, by John Boyne

9781590516799
Other Press, 2013
304 pp

paperback
arc, thank you, Other Press!

[reposted at my oddly weird fiction page of this blog]

"... any story which concerns itself with the afterlife and with forces that the human mind cannot truly understand risks disquiet for the reader."

In the spirit of great timing, being released in the US this month is This House is Haunted,  a perfect Halloween read, especially for people who appreciate and enjoy a good ghostly yarn or for those who find happiness in spending a few hours immersed in the supernatural.  It incorporates a number of my favorite components, including a Victorian setting, a governess, an English country home, and of course, a ghost that has the run of the house and goes around scaring people half to death or worse.  As in many well-written ghostly tales, there's also a mystery underlying the source of the haunting.   Done before --  yes, for sure, but definitely not like John Boyne does it here, where he's put together an entertaining  ghost story by incorporating elements of various writers of the Victorian era, paying tribute to their works in his own.  And it all starts with Dickens.

In fact, Eliza Caine, 21,  the illustrious heroine of this novel, actually blames Charles Dickens for her father's death, and following that logic, he's probably also responsible for everything that happens afterward.   It's 1867, London, and Eliza has accompanied her sickly father, "an impassioned reader" to a reading by the author against her better judgment. They had an enjoyable time, but within a day or so her father is dead.  Eliza works as a teacher, but when her father's death leaves her unable the pay the rent on their house, she decides to apply to an advertisement for a governess she's seen in the paper. She is accepted right away and leaves London for the first time in her life, taking the train to Norfolk and Gaudlin Hall, her new home, only to find that there are no parents around, only two young children, Isabella and Eustace Westerley.  It isn't long until she realizes that there is something wrong there, and that she is the victim of a vengeful spirit who frequents the place and makes Eliza's life a living hell. When she appeals for information from the locals, she's met with a wall of silence, but her curiosity on one score leads to information that all of her predecessors have been frightened away or have met terrible ends.  Eliza knows she absolutely must get to the heart of the mystery before she becomes the spirit's next victim and the children are left alone once more.


Deborah Kerr, The Innocents
My guess is that the author had a great time while writing this book. It's a really good one -- a  tale probably best enjoyed on a stormy evening under a blanket with a hot cup of tea.   There are a number of  nods to Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, and Henry James in this novel as well as  a hint of the gothic.  While some parts come across as a bit tongue-in-cheek, making me think "parody",  the literary elements are very recognizable in terms of tropes, names, and style. Where this book shines  is in its characters, especially that of  Eliza, who is well beyond her timeframe in her thinking.  While she tends to be naive in the face of the supernatural at first, she is no hands-fluttering  standard Gothic or Victorian heroine who needs rescuing. She is extremely rational, independent, and courageous, but at the same time genuinely nurturing and caring toward her young charges. Taking no for an answer or being brushed off by the male characters (one Mr. Raisin comes to mind, oh! How Dickensian can you get!) who attempt to sweep her under the rug just isn't in her nature, although she is prone to the odd romantic reverie here and there in terms of the men she admires.

Perhaps the ghost story is not as frightening as others I've read, although the ending is downright chilling, but for me what makes a tale of the supernatural work best  is the aura of atmosphere that an author can produce and sustain throughout  his/her story. That's definitely part and parcel of this novel, as the author sets the level of "disquiet" on high with the villagers' silence,  the servants who appear and disappear quietly, the house and the untended children, creepy happenings and the procession of governesses to name only a few things. To his credit, he doesn't let the backstory out all at once either, allowing his readers to pick up a little bit at a time until the whole mystery behind the haunting is revealed. This House is Haunted is perfect for people who enjoy a good ghost story once in a while.  If you're thinking that you're going to get gore and splatter here, move along.  It's not that kind of book.  My advice -- go grab a copy, curl up in a blanket and prepare to have fun.  If there happens to be a thunderstorm brewing while you're reading it, even better!!

fiction from Ireland