Looking back on the books of 2016

This is another overdue blog post, but one that I’ve really been looking forward to writing. I read 31 books in 2016, of varying quality, but overall it was a good reading year. I tried to branch out, accepting a total of eight review copies from publishers – which is a lot for me these days. Of these the highlights for me were (links go to my reviews):

The last of these is not out until May 2017, so my review will come a little closer to the time. It was offered to me by Georgina Moore at Tinder Press and I am very glad I accepted. It is a wonderful blend of crime fiction and historical fiction based on real events, coupled with multiple narrators (all unreliable) and some really beautiful writing. In case you didn’t know, it’s about Lizzie Borden, and I loved it. You can read more here. And just look at that beautiful cover!

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(image via goodreads.com)

I read a lot of history books in 2016, both fiction and non-fiction. One other historical novel I must highlight is The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. I’d been intimidated by its length (over 900 pages) but finally gave it a go earlier in the year – and I was not disappointed. It is a fictional autobiography of a former Nazi officer which the author spent five years researching, and it is one of the best novels I have ever read. Not only is it brilliantly written but it is deeply philosophical and challenging, and I greatly admire Littell for somehow managing to write it.

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I read a handful of other books about the Second World War and three of the best were written by and about women, real women of the War who faced huge challenges and trials but who remained strong and determined throughout. The first of these was Gone to Ground by Marie Jalowicz Simon. The book is a compilation of her stories (recorded on tape and put together by her son) from her time living in Berlin during the War as a Jewish woman. She lived ‘underground’, in hiding, using an alias and constantly moving. It is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read. Similarly, I also read A Woman in Berlin. It is an anonymous account of the last few months of the War by a German woman living in Berlin. She is not persecuted as Jalowicz Simon was, but her whole life is destroyed and she suffers immensely. It is a harrowing but necessary book and shows the cost of the War on ordinary German people that often gets overlooked. I read these two books close together and wrote about them in one blog post (linked above) and they have really stuck with me. I think they are vital reading for anyone considering the experience of women in Europe during the Second World War.

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Another book that fits into that category is If This is a Woman by Sarah Helm. It’s a massive book so I waited until it was out in paperback before I read it, the delay making my expectations quite high – and they were all met. It is the first book dedicated to the story of Ravensbrück, the only Nazi concentration camp built specifically for women, and it was one of the most incredible books I have ever come across. I had read If This is a Man by Primo Levi so I had some idea of what to expect; but of course each story is unique, and these women all had incredible stories. Sarah Helm is to be hugely admired and respected for telling these stories, for doing the research and making sure each name is mentioned, each life is honoured in some way. I will not soon forget this book. I should note that in America the title is simply Ravensbrück.

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Towards the end of the year I wanted to branch out from history, and so I read The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson, which was just brilliant. I was already a fan of Jackson’s writing but I’d never actually read any of her short stories. Some of these are still quite fresh in my mind (least of all the title story) and I am desperate to read more. Luckily I was given two more volumes of her short stories for Christmas, so I have those to look forward to. These were Let Me Tell You and Dark Tales.

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The other highlights of my reading year, which I don’t have space to write more about here, were:

I have enjoyed reading other ‘best of 2016’ posts – it was a good year for books – and I look forward to a great 2017 filled with marvellous things to read. I am on my second book of the year at the moment and frankly I am dying to get back to it, so I shall finish here. Happy 2017!

 

Overdue update on Christmas and birthday books

As I said in my last post, life has rather gotten in the way of blogging over the last month or so (probably more than that), so I am only just getting around to organising posts I meant to write and publish a while ago…

First I must ask you to cast your mind back to the excitement of getting presents at Christmas, and then double it, because my birthday is just after Christmas and so I get lots of presents around that time. Not too bad.

I actually received fewer books than I expected to, seeing as I asked for quite a few, but I am so pleased with the ones I did get. And aren’t they pretty!thumb_img_9248_1024

These were all on my wish list apart from The Prose Factory, which was a pleasant surprise from my fiancé’s mother.  I’d never even heard of it but it looks fascinating so I’m looking forward to getting into it at some point.

I’ve just finished reading the book about Katherine Howard and have a blog post in the works. It has made me really want to read more about the women of the Tudor period, particularly Henry VIII’s other wives, as well as Elizabeth I and Mary. I am particularly keen on reading about my namesake as she has always held a certain mysterious magic for me and I would love to understand more about her life and reign, and her character.

I also asked for every Shirley Jackson book that I haven’t already got, and I am very pleased to now have Let Me Tell You and Dark Tales, especially as the latter is a very nice little hardback with a bright green back cover. I can’t wait to get back into more of Jackson’s eerie and wonderful short stories.

I asked for The Devil in the White City as it’s something I’ve been meaning to read for quite a while. The book is set in 1893 and “tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the [Chicago World’s] Fair’s construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor.” (quote from GoodReads). I think both these men have interesting stories, and it just sounds like a fascinating time. It also doesn’t hurt that H.H. Holmes was the inspiration for the character of J.P. March in American Horror Story: Hotel – and for the hotel itself.

My fiancé’s amazing brother and sister also got a set of Vintage Classics editions of Virginia Woolf, which was a lovely surprise.

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I’ve some of these but not all, and I’m very glad I get to read them in such lovely editions! I plan to start with A Room of One’s Own as I’ve never actually gotten around to reading it…

So there you go – lots of amazing reading to be getting on with. I did also get vouchers for Foyles so there may even more books soon, what a surprise!

Happy reading!

The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

I’ve read three of Shirley Jackson’s novels, so it only felt right to try some of her short stories; and after all, The Lottery is heralded as one of the most brilliant (and controversial) in the genre.

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2009 PMC edition

At first, some of these stories reminded me Truman Capote’s with their edge of uncertainty and fear underlying the safe environment of the home – I particularly thought of his story Miriam, with its creeping unease. But as this collection goes on the stories become more and more unsettling, until the story of the title is reached at the very end and the reader is left bewildered and amazed.

I already knew that Jackson was a wonderful novelist, but now I know that she is also a master of the short story. Her ability to create not only tension and uncertainty but also vivid characters and settings with so few words really is impressive. She also makes liberal use of ambiguous endings to leave the reader wondering if they really understood what they just read, or if she misled them the whole time. It’s like the bewilderment at the end of her novel Hangsaman repeated over and over.

Like most of her work that I’ve read so far, these stories of Jackson’s are often concerned with the fragility of the positions, statuses, and environments that women have created for themselves in society. Housewives are under threat from forces trying to disrupt their marriage or their neighbourhood; an executive is threatened by the presence of a new receptionist and the confusion over her relationship with her boss; and several female characters are pushed to the edge of their sanity. There is much to fear in the apparently safe worlds of home and work. Even the husbands and boyfriends can pose some sort of underlying threat.

Most interesting to me was Jackson’s repeated use of the name James Harris for male characters; this name first appears in the story The Daemon Lover. This is also the name of a Scottish ballad – that is also known as ‘James Harris’. Jackson’s story features a young woman waiting for her fiancé on their wedding day, who happens to be called James Harris. This name appears again and again various forms (sometimes ‘Mr Harris’ or simply ‘Jim’) and the reader wonders if he is a symbol for the harm that men can do to women through their attitudes and treatment. Jackson’s James Harris is the man your mother warned you about, the stranger who stares at you, the boyfriend you’re not quite sure about. It is a potent symbol of the threat to women’s rights and happiness in society and the home.

This collection was first published in the late 1940s, and we must remember that this was a time when women were expected to return to their subservient pre-war roles, and the men were returning to the work force. Jackson’s women yearn for more than their small domestic lives – or they guard them fiercely. There is a sense that the world one has created could so easily be destroyed by one person or one decision, and women are particularly vulnerable to this. These underlying issues make these stories even more brilliant than they are on the surface, and made me realise how sharp and intelligent Jackson’s writing is, and how wonderful it is to read.

I’m now on a mission to read everything she has ever written!

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Originally published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux in 1949. I read the 2009 Penguin Modern Classics edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

2015 PMC paperback (image: penguin.co.uk)
2015 PMC paperback (image: penguin.co.uk)

I had been wanting to read this for a while and finally got round to it last week… and it was just so brilliant. So weird. So good. Suffice to say, I gave it five stars on GoodReads.

Even before reading I loved the premise, what I knew of it, and as with The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson’s masterful opening paragraph drew me right in:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

It’s a pretty bold first paragraph. In many ways it sums up our narrator Mary Katherine, AKA Merricat, and gives you a palpable sense of dread mixed with curiosity.

I found Merricat to be a very sympathetic narrator. I have heard her referred to as an unreliable narrator, but I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. As you read more it quickly becomes clear that Merricat has some kind of psychological disorder, and just isn’t like everyone else. So she sees the world differently to the other characters, even her sister Constance; but that doesn’t necessarily make her an unreliable narrator. She describes events pretty much literally; the only ‘unreliable’ thing is when she says her cat is talking to her, and in the context that just sounds quite sweet. The cat, Jonas, is like another person to Merricat, and is obviously very loyal and attached to her. I liked their moments of closeness.

Now, the dead family. That’s quite important. At the time of events in the book it has been only six years since the family died, but without knowing that you’d think it was a lot longer. Merricat and Constance are very comfortable in their routine and rarely speak of their deceased relatives; when they do, it is usually because their senile (possibly brain-damaged) old uncle Julian has dedicated his life to remembering and documenting the lives of the family, and especially the day they died. He speaks almost exclusively about that day, and the family. Constance nods along and answers his questions, but Merricat stays out of it. They have a peaceful if slightly odd little life, despite being hated by the people in the village, who scorn Merricat when she goes into town to go food shopping.

The sisters are ostracised from the village, and treated as social pariahs. This is partly because their family, the Blackwoods, have always ‘kept to themselves’ and disliked mixing with the rest of the village; but it is mostly because Constance was accused of murdering the family and was even tried, but eventually acquitted. Now, she does not leave the house except to tend to her kitchen garden. Merricat only leaves to do the shopping, and clearly hates it. While only Constance could be described as actually agoraphobic, none of the family like leaving the house and land. I have read that Shirley Jackson was in ill health and possibly agoraphobic when she wrote the novel, and the sense of safety and isolation within the home is very vivid. The house protects the vulnerable sisters from the outside world, but it also imprisons them. When their cousin Charles comes to visit and disrupts their routines, you can see how desperately they need to maintain their life and order. When he interferes, everything goes wrong.

It’s hard to talk about this book without spoilers, so I won’t go into any more of the plot. What I will say is that it is very much worth buying the new PMC edition as it has a fantastic afterword by Joyce Carol Oates, in which she analyses both story and characters. It made me think about the book in a lot more detail. She suggests that Merricat might have a form of paranoid schizophrenia, and also connects her and Constance’s behaviour to traditional stories of witches. Merricat certainly has a connection to nature, and she believes that by burying things in the land around the house, as well as nailing objects to trees, she can protect herself and her sister (plus there’s the cat). Having been immersed in the story it is almost jarring to hear Merricat given a clinical diagnosis – when you’re with her in the book, you can see that she is not ‘normal’, and that her behaviour can be destructive or malicious, but as I said she is essentially a sympathetic character, and you are on her side. It is really quite upsetting to read about the villagers’ hatred for the sisters, and the cruel way they are treated by Charles. They are so fragile that you just want them to be safe, and left alone. Joyce Carol Oates also points out that Merricat just could not survive in the outside world, and this is probably true. She needs the safety of their little world more than Constance, and she does whatever she can to protect it. In some ways Constance’s life is controlled by Merricat, who is much more willful and determined.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a gothic tale, but it is also a story about mental illness and the ways in which we cope with it – and the ways in which it is stigmatised and not understood by others. I felt desperately sad for Merricat and Constance and what they suffer. But they are able to find a lot of happiness in each other, and often talk about how happy they are. They have an almost symbiotic relationship, and rely on each other a lot, least of all emotionally and psychologically.

There is a lot more I could talk about here, but for now I’ll leave it at that. I would really recommend the Joyce Carol Oates afterword for some excellent discussion and analysis. I would also love to hear others’ views on the book – did you find Merricat a sympathetic and likeable character? What about Constance?

I have been wondering about what would happen after the end of the book. The sisters are still very young, so they have a potentially long life to live out together. What will become of them? Frankly I’m still thinking about them, and hoping they are safe and happy. Even the weird deserve that.

*

First published in the US in 1962. I read the 2015 Penguin Modern Classics edition.

Purchase from Foyles

In Praise Of: Horror!

Yes, horror. As in the genre, not the feeling in real life.

When I think of the horror genre, I think first of movies. I have always been a bit a scaredy-cat with them and let them get into my head, and find it hard to sleep after watching them. But this has begun to change recently, mostly because my boyfriend Dan is a massive fan of the genre. I used to refuse to watch horror films with him for fear of being too ‘bothered’ by them; but over time I have compromised and agreed to watch a few milder ones about possession or something. And I can now say that I am happy to watch horror films – though I still have a limit. I happily watched The Babadook, but I refuse to watch any of the Saw films, as they just seem to be gore on top of gore. Not my thing.

I have always loved The Others, the Nicole Kidman movie about a very haunted house, famously made with minimal special effects. It is really bloody scary, but I love it because I find it interesting. And as I have watched more horror films with Dan, and we have talked about them, and he has explained why he loves them, I have come to understand them more and realise what it is that makes them interesting. I think some people watch them for the thrill of the fear, but I think I watch them because not only are they interesting psychologically, they are also exciting, in a similar way to a gritty crime novel – what will happen next? What is the truth? As with Saw I don’t want to watch anything gory – that doesn’t appeal to me. I’d rather something psychological with a mystery, and a few good scares along the way. I’ve always liked gothic themes and imagery, and this is a huge part of the horror genre.

Now, Dan loves horror movies, but he also like books that fit into the genre in some way, from ghost stories to strange fiction like H. P. Lovecraft and Robert Aickman. I’ve tried reading Aickman and just couldn’t get along with it; but then Dan brought a copy of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House with him on our recent holiday. He was reading The Amityville Horror, and I’d just finished Cheerful Weather for the Wedding and had nothing else to read, so I picked up the Jackson.

2009 PMC paperback edition (image: penguinclassics.co.uk)
2009 PMC paperback edition (image: penguinclassics.co.uk)

I loved her novel Hangsaman and already wanted to read something more by her. I loved The Haunting of Hill House from the start; the opening paragraph was enough to make me keep reading:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

I mean, that is just fantastic. The last few words also made me think of Satan walking on the sphere of the Earth in Paradise Lost, which was a nice little bonus. And so ominous!

The novel tells the story of a professor who invites a group of people to stay with him in Hill House, and see if they can find any evidence of it being haunted. One, Theodora, has some sort of psychic ability; then there is Eleanor, our central character, who has experienced supernatural ‘activity’; and lastly Luke, who is the heir to the house. The professor’s wife also turns up later on and causes a lot of problems. Anyway. It is a classic haunted house story, with funny noises, inexplicable cold drafts, loud bangs, and lots of weird occurrences.

But the most gripping part of it for me was the strange effect that staying in the house seems to have on Eleanor. She begins to feel that it wants her there, that it is trying to talk to her… suffice to say as the novel goes on, it gets more and more intense, and stranger things start to happen. The pace is beautifully measured, and the reader isn’t sure whether or not to believe Eleanor, or to believe if there are ghosts in house or not. As I have realised Jackson’s work to be, it is engaging and beguiling, surreal and beautiful.

The Haunting of Hill House, as a book, is creepy rather than outright scary. The first film adaptation, released in 1963 is often called the scariest film ever made. I’ve yet to see it, but am eager to see the transition of the story to the screen – I can easily imagine that it would be much more frightening as a film than as a book. There was another film adaptation, released in 1999 and staring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones, called simply The Haunting, which frankly looks a bit silly, but could still be good. I shall be watching both to compare!

So what do you think of horror?

Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

I had never read anything by Shirley Jackson before this, and I don’t know what it was specifically that made me choose this book, Hangsaman, over her others. Possibly because it was just not the one that everyone has been talking about recently (that would be We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which honestly looks brilliant). Also I liked the PMC cover. Anyway, I chose Hangsaman as my first Shirley Jackson, and I am glad I did. You should read it too. Let me tell you why…

2013 PMC edition (image: goodreads.com)
2013 PMC edition (image: goodreads.com)

Firstly, Hangsaman is really quite odd and I really quite liked that. The first section especially is quite surreal and almost dreamy, and I have to admit it took a while to get into. But I still liked it, even though I wasn’t sure I got it yet, so I kept reading. I liked Natalie, our main character, who is young and awkward and weird, and just trying to understand the mess of life that surrounds her. That is probably how I would summarise the book, other than saying that most of the story takes place once Natalie has left home for college. Hangsaman was first published in 1951, and that appears to be the era in which it is set. Natalie attends a women’s college and moves into a house (what we would now call Halls) with her own room, which she loves, and she is surrounded by ALL THESE OTHER GIRLS. Jackson’s description of teenage girls, especially en masse or in cliques, is just spot on. Having gone to an all-girls school for fourteen years, I know how this bullshit works, and Jackson knows too. There is a particularly brilliant passage in which she describes the girls on their first night, gathered in the living/common room and trying to get to know each other. It is too long to quote in full, but it begins:

They sat around the living room of the house, the girls who were to live in it, eyeing one another, each one wondering, perhaps which of the others was to be her particular friend, sought out hereafter at such meetings, joined in the terrible sacred friendship of these years. Each one wondering, perhaps, who it was just and right to be afraid of in the room…

That ellipsis is mine, as it goes on from there. Natalie has to navigate this minefield and try to find someone to befriend and trust, two things that do not necessarily go hand in hand in this situation. Because other people are unknowable. And in a way, Natalie is unknowable, to either herself of the reader. The back cover of this PMC edition states that Natalie’s “identity gradually crumbles.” From the start she doesn’t know who she is, and her college experiences only confound this. There is a lot of wonderful free indirect speech within which we get glimpses of Natalie’s lack of surety and confidence in herself, including some wonderful moments musing on whether or not she is really Natalie at all.

But Natalie does make friends, for better or worse, and in the last third of the book meets “the girl Tony”, a mysterious figure who appears almost like a nymph or a fairy… or something darker. The reader is not quite sure, and neither is Natalie.The middle of the book is mostly concerned with college life, and Natalie starting to move from girl to young woman, and towards the end of the book, with Tony, Natalie seems to retreat more and more into her own mind. The weirdness gets weirder, and though this could have made the whole thing fall apart, Jackson manages to have enough control that there is still a coherent thread throughout. The last section of the book is the oddest of all, and we wonder which parts of it are real and which parts are in Natalie’s head. Mostly I was left wondering about the connection with the line on the back of the book, that says Hangsaman was “inspired by the unsolved disappearance of a female college student near Shirley Jackson’s home”. I’m still thinking about how that applies to the story, and I think there are multiple layers here that I will only manage to uncover over time, as I think about the book more and it sinks in a little. It is quite an intense book, and you’ve got to get comfortable with it, and used to it, to really get it I think.

As I mentioned to start with, I rather like the 2013 PMC cover – it is sparse and cold, but I think it works very well. Luckily GoodReads have their ‘Other Editions’ option that shows you previous covers. And Hangsaman has had some weird ones, which I will leave you with here…

1951 Ace Books edition, though I'm not sure if this is the FIRST edition. Looks like a dodgy horror novel.
1951 Ace Books edition, though I’m not sure if this is the FIRST edition. Looks like a dodgy horror novel.

 

FSG edition, also from 1951. The first? This is a bit odd but I quite like it.
FSG edition, also from 1951. The first? This is a bit odd but I quite like it.

 

1970 Ace Books ediiton. Moody. Looks really depressing.
1970 Ace Books ediiton. Moody. Looks really depressing.

 

1976 Popular Library edition - what is going on here?!
1976 Popular Library edition – what is going on here?!

 

A previous PMC edition, from 2013. Nope.
A previous PMC edition, from 2013. Nope.

 

The newest edition is certainly the best!
The newest edition is certainly the best!

All cover images from GoodReads.com, by the way. Also I’m not sure if there were any new editions between 1976 and 2013 – there must have been. Research needed.

Who else has read Hangsaman? Thoughts?

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Originally published in 1951 by …. and reprinted many times.

 

Sweet Francoise 

I don’t remember the impetus behind my finally buying a copy of Bonjour Tristesse, but I’m glad I did. Honestly it sat on my shelf for a long time – there are too many new books! – but deciding to do TBR20 made me pick it up again. I have a beautiful PMC edition whose cover promises romance, mystery, and lots of French sexiness.

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Gorgeous, isn’t it? I love these new editions with the white band at the top and bottom. This photo is also a really excellent choice for Bonjour Tristesse – a young woman and a (possibly older) man, sheltering her. Youth is so important to this story, in all its forms. Anyway. It’s a lovely book throughout, and Sagan’s language is simultaneously easy to read and elegant, charming, particularly when our narrator Cecile muses on herself:

I do believe that most of the things I took pleasure in during that period [in Paris with her father] simply came down to money – the pleasure of fast driving, of having a new dress, of enjoying those shallow pleasures, and anyway I only call them shallow because I’ve heard people say they are.  It would come more naturally to me to regret or disown any distress or fits of mysticism I may have had. My love of pleasure and happiness constitutes the only consistent aspect of my character. Perhaps I haven’t read enough.

In passages like this Cecile seems remarkably self-aware for a seventeen-year-old (though she may be a little older when writing her reflections, but not by much). It’s moments like this that really made me fond of Cecile, and made me marvel at the duality of simple/complicated in this book. If you recount the plot, it is simple, but there are a million small, human, moments that perfectly demonstrate how difficult it can be to be young, to be jealous, to have desires. I was fascinated by Cecile’s relationship with her father and their dependence on each other. They are sort of like a platonic husband and wife, living life firmly together, and tolerating each other’s relationships whilst still wanting each other to be happy. The lack of Cecile’s mother is vital. It means that she takes that position of her father’s companion, and wants him for herself, and yet still craves a mother figure. For me this is what fuels her complex, contrary feelings towards her father’s fiancée Anne.

I wish I had read Bonjour Tristesse when I was in my late teens, and I would recommend it to anyone of that age, girl or boy. It is the perfect antidote to most ‘teen fiction’ and yet it perfectly captures the feelings you have at that age. Cecile’s experience is an extreme example, but it is wonderful to know that feeling like that isn’t wrong or strange. It is part of life, part of becoming an adult. I personally remember having about a thousand different feelings at once, and constantly changing my mind and opinions about people and things. It’s totally normal and reading about it in such a classic, revered, French book like Bonjour Tristesse makes it all feel valid. Thank you Francoise!

Francoise. (image: the100.ru)
Francoise. (image: the100.ru)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (Part of the Capote Readathon)

(image: penguin.co.nz)
(image: penguin.co.nz)

Like most people, I think, I saw the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s before I read the book. The film itself is so famous, so remembered for the iconic images of Audrey Hepburn with her pearls, and her sunglasses, and her cigarette in its holder, that I think sometimes the details of the story are overlooked. Yet if you sit and study the film, (most of) those details are there – the loneliness and hidden darkness of Holly and Paul’s lives, the strangeness of her story, and her desperation for a better life. The story goes that Capote thought Marilyn Monroe would have been a better fit to play Holly, which does not come as a surprise when you know how much he adored her – but also when you read the novella and you see the complexities of Holly’s character. She is beautiful and perfect, and yet utterly tragic and desperate underneath, much like Monroe. Hepburn is wonderful in the role, but a little too safe. When I read the book, I try to picture someone more like Marilyn.

(image: bedsidetablebooks.wordpress.com
(image: bedsidetablebooks.wordpress.com

Once you compare the film and the book it makes sense that Paul is our narrator in the latter. The story is all about Holly, but even in the film we don’t really see things as she sees them; we rarely get to hear how she’s actually feeling. She is made up of glamour and facade, eyelashes, and a cigarette – but underneath there is a real person, one that is sometimes hard to understand. Capote has her enter Paul’s life before they have even met. He hears about her from his barman, as if she is a myth, a legend, something that has to be seen to be believed. And though Capote succeeds beautifully in constructing Holly as a three-dimensional character, she is in many ways his ‘beautiful tragic girl’, the archetype of all his New York stories (Summer Crossing included). But for me she is the One, the best one, the ultimate one, of all these girls.

The relationship between Paul and Holly is one of the most enjoyable elements of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. As in the film they have natural chemistry. The weeks before Holly plans to elope with her Brazilian millionaire are “blurred in memory” for Paul:

perhaps because our understanding of each other had reached that sweet depth where two people communicate more often in silence than in words: an affectionate quietness replaces the tensions, the unrelaxed chatter and chasing about that produce a friendship’s more showy, more, in the surface sense, dramatic moments.

They are really, truly, friends, and this is crucial to Holly’s happiness and her ability to leave him and go and live in Brazil (which she does, unlike the film). In Paul she finds the kindness and appreciation that she needs and craves – but for Holly, it is not that simple. She cannot just have a nice friend and live a nice life – she needs more than that. She needs the glamour, the dream, the impossible happiness. Her postcard at the end of the novella sums this up perfectly:

Brazil was beastly but Buenos Aires best. Not Tiffany’s, but almost. Am joined at the hip with duhvine $enor. Love? Think so. Anyhoo am looking for somewhere to live ($enor has wife, 7 brats) and will let you know address when I know it myself. Mille tendresse.

But, as Paul says, the address was never sent. He wants to write and tell her about his life – and that he saw her lost cat sitting in a window “of a warm looking room”, evidently his new home. “He’d arrived somewhere he belonged. African hut or whatever, I hope Holly has, too.”

(image: girlvsbookshelf.blogspot.com)
(image: girlvsbookshelf.blogspot.com)

You can see Kirsty’s review here.

Originally published in 1958 by Random House. My edition is part of A Capote Reader, published in 2002 by Penguin Modern Classics.

The Grass Harp by Truman Capote (Part of the Capote Readathon)

This post is part of the Summer Capote Readathon with The Literary Sisters. Feel free to join in!

 

I first read this novella in 2008 when I was in the midst of an obsession with Capote and his writing. I tore through his books and declared him to be one of my favourite writers. And now, six years later, I am consciously revisiting his work with the help of my fellow blogger Kirsty. I am so happy that we decided to do a ‘readathon’ of some of his work this summer as otherwise I think I would have just left him on the shelf for much longer than was fair to do so – there are always more unread books.

 

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The Grass Harp is a novella, fewer than a hundred pages, and tells the story of one summer in the life of sixteen-year-old Collin. Like Joel in Other Voices, Other Rooms, Collin’s mother has died and he is sent to live with relatives – his aunts Verena and Dolly. His descriptions of his being foisted on them are simply marvellous. While Verena is cold and business-like, coming to collect him from his father’s (a useless man), Dolly is somewhat afraid of this new, young, male, person who comes to live in her house. Collin says he falls in love with Dolly once he sees her, and there is a particularly beautiful paragraph in which he explains that he understands why he was so alarming to her when he first arrived.

Imagine what it must have been for her when I first came to the house, a loud and prying boy of eleven. She skittered at the sound of my footsteps or, if there was no avoiding me, folded like the petals of a shy-lady fern. She was one of those people who can disguise themselves as an object in the room, a shadow in the corner, whose presence is a delicate happening. She wore the quietest shoes, plain virginal dresses with hems that touched her ankles. Though older than her sister, she seemed like someone who, like myself, Verena had adopted. Pulled and guided by the gravity of Verena’s planet, we rotated separately in the outer spaces of the house.

Apologies for that quote being a little long, but it is just so beautiful. ‘…a delicate happening.’ – that is so perfect, isn’t it? This loving description of Dolly is so vivid, so real, and yet also so magical and mythical – like Dolly herself. Despite this shyness and timidity, and what seems like a fear of Collin, by the time he is sixteen she has come to love him as much as he loves her. She and her friend Catherine dote on Collin and act as mothers for him, feeling protective and affectionate towards him. But he is still motherless, and fatherless in a way, and this adds a sense of loneliness and solitude to his character. He barely speaks throughout the story and instead acts as our guide through the events of that summer.

The ‘drama’ begins when Verena brings her new business partner home for dinner, which completely appalls both Dolly and Catherine. Dolly takes to her bed and refuses to see him, despite his being there specifically to see her. He and Verena plan to invest in Dolly’s homemade herbal dropsy cure, which she makes in an old bathtub in the garden – Dolly sees this proposal as a way of taking something away from her, and as Verena trying to control her. Affronted and angry, she marches out of the house, followed by Catherine and Collin. They go to sit in the ‘tree house’ near where they gather the ingredients for Dolly’s potion. It is more or less a platform built into a large tree, but they manage to make it homely with quilts and pillows and plenty of food and drink, and end up spending several days there as they protest Verena’s treatment of them. In such a small town as theirs, news spreads fast and soon the authorities (and the busybodies) are standing around at the bottom of the tree and shouting that they need to come down.

As the situation slowly escalates and various parties get more and more angry, Collin allows the action to happen around him, and thinks to himself about all the relationships, and why these people are acting as they are (himself included). He narrates the story from a future position of hindsight, years after the event, and so perhaps this is why his telling has quite a philosophical edge. It’s clear that Verena and Dolly are no longer around at the time when he is telling the story, and this reminds us of one of the main themes of The Grass Harp – that time continues to pass no matter what, and though we die we live on through our friends and family, and the stories they tell. It’s a beautiful, universal, sentiment that makes this story hugely enjoyable – but the sheer beauty and skill of the writing also make it a delight to read. I adored getting swept away into the Southern heat and the slow pace of life. I was also very happy to be reminded what a wonderful writer Truman Capote is.

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Originally published as a single volume by Random House in 1951. My edition is included in A Capote Reader, published by Penguin Modern Classics in 2002.

You can read Kirsty’s review here.

Capote Readathon: Short Stories (Part One)

As part of the Capote Summer Readathon, Kirsty and I are reading the twelve short stories included in A Capote Reader. For July we have read the first six of these. They vary in length, style, and subject, and they are a joy to read. Which of these have or will you read?

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Miriam

I first read this some years ago, and luckily I had forgotten some of the details. It is very short, even for a short story, and the premise seems very simple but really when you spend more time with it you realise that it is not. The story opens with a description of Mrs Miller, a widow living alone with “no friends to speak of”.

Capote’s prose is calm and sparse, and seems to be just relaying facts whilst actually crafting an image of a life left unlived, of happiness left unfulfilled. Mrs Miller is alone in so many senses, though she seems content enough with her little life. Very quickly we have a very clear image of her current existence and the deep mundanity – and safety – of it.

She goes to the cinema one night, and a young girl, all alone, asks her to buy her a ticket. She introduces herself as Miriam, saying it as if Mrs Miller should already know, and Mrs Miller exclaims that that is her name too. After a stilted conversation Mrs Miller goes into the film, and then goes home. But Miriam soon appears at her door, demanding to be let in and asking for food. She arrives in the middle of the night and Mrs Miller is not only groggy with sleep but utterly confused as to why this child has come to her house (and how she got the address), alone and so late. Miriam is eventually persuaded to leave, but that doesn’t mean Mrs Miller won’t see her again… This is such a clever little story, and I’ve really enjoyed reading it and trying to work out what was going on and who Miriam was, and why she behaved as she did. Not one to read late at night!

 

My Side of the Matter

This is a funny little story. Our unnamed narrator tells us that an attempt has been made on his life and it’s only his word against theirs, and this story is, as the title suggests, his version of events. He is only sixteen and has recently married a girl named Marge after having known her for four days. Three months later they move in with her two aunts when they discover Margie is pregnant. One, Eunice, rules the roost, while the other, Olivia-Ann, is “a natural born half-wit and ought really to be kept in somebody’s attic.”

Eunice and Olivia-Ann take a strong dislike (putting it mildly) to our narrator the first time they see him and constantly insult him. Margie is pregnant and fretful, and does nothing to help her husband. The climax of the story comes when Eunice accuses him of stealing money from her and the situation becomes hysterical. Our narrator stays completely calm until the black maid joins in the argument, at which point he beats her over the head with an umbrella (the story is set in Alabama in 1945 – not that excuses it!). Eunice grabs her father’s Civil War sword and attacks him.

The story ends with our narrator having barricaded himself into the room, with the others knocking on the door intermittently and begging him to come out. “Oh, yes, they’ve started singing a song of a very different colour. But as for me – I give them a tune on the piano every now and then to let them know I’m cheerful.” It one of the oddest little stories I’ve ever read and I’m still not quite sure what to think of it.

 

Tree of Night

Another funny little story, but to me this one has much more depth and mystery than My Side of the Matter, which is relatively straightforward. Tree of Night takes place on a train – already we are trapped and claustrophobic, suspended between destinations and speeding towards the unknown, all at the same time. A young woman takes the only seat in a busy and litter-strewn carriage, next to a woman and her silent male companion. The young woman is polite and replies to questions, by the older woman seems intent on talking to her and is easily offended. She and her companion do not quite seem normal, the more we look at them, and we fear for the young woman’s safety. She tries to be free of them more than once, even going to stand outside by the railing, but she is compelled back to them.

Though nothing bad happens outright, there is a distinct air of unease and threat throughout this entire story, and the image of the ‘tree of night’ is very vivid and unsettling. It is not a literal tree but rather a feeling of something growing and spreading in the darkness, towering over you. There is also the fact that a tree is planted in the ground, ancient and immovable, something that little old you couldn’t destroy. It is not just in the night but of the night, a part of the darkness and something that does not belong in the light of day… I wondered if the young woman was still haunted by it after her train journey.

 

Jug of Silver

I think this story is deceptively simple. The basic idea is that when a competing drugstore opens across the street, Mr Marshall wants to draw customers in the small town back to his store, the Valhalla. So he comes up with a gimmick – a huge glass jug filled with coins. Customers must try to guess how much is in the jug, and if they are correct they win the money – and they have to buy something in order to add their guess to the list. And of course it works. The whole town comes out to try and guess the amount, spending money at the Valhalla all the while.

One customer is a boy called Appleseed, obviously very poor, who turns up with his sister Middy. They need money for their family, but also because Middy needs to get her teeth fixed if she is to fulfill her dream of being in the movies. Appleseed is strange character, small and badly dressed, badly spoken, but determined to find out how much is in the jug. He announces that he will simply count the coins, though of course he can only see the ones on the outside and no one believes he can do it. He travels three miles every day on foot (there and back) to sit in the shop and work out how much is in the jar. He doesn’t buy anything until the last day, when his brother has earned a bit of money and he can afford to officially make his guess. And do you think he was right? The whole crowd gather in the shop to find out the amount, all eager to win, and of course Appleseed is there. The story ends quite neatly, with Appleseed becoming a town legend. I think perhaps Capote is trying to make a point about faith and redemption, and in the end the story does have quite an uplifting tone. Which is rare for Capote’s short stories!

 

The Headless Hawk

After I read this story, I sat thinking about it for a while  – and I think I get it. It is one of Capote’s most complex and surreal short stories, and centres around a man, Vincent, who forms a stilted relationship with a girl who will only identify herself as DJ. He sees her on the street and at the theatre, and she then comes to the gallery where he works to sell a painting she has made. She leaves before he can pay her, and he keeps the painting – which features the headless hawk of the title – for himself. They are obviously intrigued by each other and very quickly form a sexual relationship. She seems to have barely any possessions, or anywhere to live, and she stays with him for a while.

She doesn’t speak much, but when she does it is often about someone called Mr Destronelli. She says he killed her beloved music teacher, and that he is out to get her as well. Towards the end she explains that almost all the men she has known were him – whether she thinks this literally or not is unclear. She is clearly unbalanced in some way, and by the end you think she might really be crazy. But what about Vincent?

 

Shut a Final Door

Our protagonist this time is Walter, a young man who doesn’t seem to know what he wants. He gossips behind friends’ backs and doesn’t understand why they are upset, and even sleeps with the girlfriend of his best friend without thinking anything of it. All his relationships seem to fail, and to me he seems like a very selfish, quite heartless person – but he doesn’t necessarily know that about himself.

The frame of the story is Walter arriving at a hotel in New Orleans, having travelled from New York. We don’t really learn why he is there, only that he is afraid to leave the hotel in case he gets lost – “if he got lost, even a little, then he would be lost altogether” – and lies on the bed, tormented. He pores over his failed relationships and friendships, going over and over them, but not seeming to try to and work out what he did wrong. He is a man who has made himself suffer, but does not have the self-awareness to realise it. I have to say I didn’t enjoy this story that much, but I found it very interesting and wondered what prompted its writing.

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I must say my favourite of these stories has to be Miriam – though they are all brilliant, there is something about that story that really sticks in my mind, and that I thought about long after reading. I’m eager to read more!

You can read Kirsty’s post about these stories here.

We will be posting about The Grass Harp tomorrow (31st July), and in August we will review more short stories, as well as Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Summer Crossing, Capote’s early novel that was only discovered and published in 2005.