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.

 

 

Most Anticipated Upcoming Books

I try to read a mixture of old and new books, and often find myself reading ‘new’ books some time after they come out, purely because I always have so many books I want to read that I rarely get to read things when they are really new. Often I just get to look at other reviews and wish I didn’t have so many books to read! There are several books that I am really excited about reading in the next few months – some new and some not-so-new. Here are the ones I’m most looking forward to…

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
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Sept 2016 Picador edition (image: goodreads.com)

I loved Room but somehow didn’t feel the need to pick up Frog Music; but now Emma Donoghue’s new novel The Wonder really appeals to me. I know from reading Room that she is a wonderful  writer, and this story is not like anything I have read before. Kim Forrester wrote a brilliant review of it here. Fingers crossed I’ll get to read it before Christmas!

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
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May 2017 Tinder Press edition (image: goodreads.com)

This is coming out in May 2017 from Tinder Press, and I am really looking forward to it. It is a fictional take on the story of Lizzie Borden and the murder of her father and stepmother. She was acquitted of their murder but of course suspicion remains, and the story is fascinating. This looks like a really interesting and modern interpretation of the story, and I cannot wait to read it.

Labyrinths: Emma Jung, Her Marriage to Carl, and the Early Years of Psychoanalysis by Catrine Clay
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Nov 2016 Harper edition (image: goodreads.com)

I’ve always had a vague interest in psychology and psychoanalysis and the fact that this book focuses on Emma rather than Carl Jung really appeals to me. It just seems like another way of looking at a familiar story, and I hope it’ll be as interesting as it looks! It’s always a pleasure to read about wonderful women from history.

The Good People by Hannah Kent
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Feb 2017 Pan Macmillan edition (image: goodreads.com)

Like many other readers, I loved Hannah Kent’s first novel Burial Rites. It really stuck with me and as soon as I heard she had written a second novel I knew I had to read it. The premise really interests me and I think it will be a great multi-layered book.

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
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Sept 2016 Liveright/Norton edition (image: goodreads.com)

I have read three of Jackson’s novels and have The Lottery and Other Stories on my shelf waiting to be read, so I just have to read this new biography of her. New PMC editions mean that Shirley Jackson is again popular, and I am so glad she is – her writing is some of the most beautiful and beguiling I have read in years. Luckily she also seems to have been a brilliant and intriguing person, so I’m really looking forward to this one.

I’d love to hear about books that you are looking forward to – there are always too many to read!

The best books of 2015

My apologies for the mixture of photos in this post – I have lent out some of the books featured so wasn’t able to take a nice photo of them and had to find images of the covers online. Not ideal, but there you go…

 

Somehow 2015 is over, and I have naturally been thinking about all the books I’ve read this year, and which was the best, and the worst, and which ones were in between. According to GoodReads I red 34 books in 2015 (one off my target of 35!), which is less than I usually read – I blame the new, busier job I started half way through the year!

I read a couple of super dupers early in the year, namely Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan, and Tracks by Robyn Davidson. Two very different books, but I loved them both. Bonjour Tristesse is sort of a coming-of-age tale, but it’s also about love and relationships and jealousy, and it is beautifully crafted. Tracks could also be seen as a coming-of-age tale, though it is about the author finding herself in the desert, which is a bit different to a posh holiday by the sea. It is fascinating, engaging, emotional, and just brilliant. It also proves why dogs are better than people.

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One of my very favourite books this year was The Blue Tattoo by Margot Mifflin. It was a random book I heard about on Twitter, but it was just wonderful to read. It is the story of the life of Olive Oatman, who was captured by Native Americans in the 1800s and lived with them for a few years before being ‘returned’ to ‘her people’. There are many other stories like Olive’s but this is a good place to start with this genre.

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The next amazing book I read was The Mighty Dead by Adam Nicolson. I was umming and ahhing about this one, but then Carolyn’s amazing post convinced me I must read it. And it was wonderful! Even thinking about it now fills me with hope and wonder. It celebrates everything about Homer and demonstrates why The Odyssey and The Iliad are so integral to the development of Western literature, and why we should all appreciate them more.

(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)

Since then I’ve mostly liked the books I’ve read (with one notable exception), so I’m just going to pick out a few…

I adored Forgotten Fatherland by Ben McIntyre. It popped up in my GoodReads recommendations, and it is one of the weirdest and most brilliant books I have ever read. It tells the story of Elisabeth Nietszche (sister of the philosopher) and the Aryan colony she set up in Paraguay with her husband. They were essentially early versions of Nazis, and in later life, when she returned to Germany, Elisabeth was a friend of Hitler and his party. He even came to her funeral. It has to be read to be believed.

(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)

I also very much enjoyed the three Shirley Jackson books I have read this year: Hangsaman, The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. They are all weird and strange and brilliant, and I loved all of them a lot. I am now on a mission to read everything Shirley Jackson ever wrote, and she has set a lot of wheels in motion in my head with my own writing. If I could be a modern-day version of her as a writer, I’d be happy. More Shirley in 2016!

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I must recommend the two books about mental health that I read this year: The Last Asylum by Barbara Taylor and Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. The former is quite dark and a bit bleak, though with a hopeful ending, and was really fascinating. I preferred reading Girl, Interrupted as it was less matter-of-fact and more about a very personal experience. These two books work in different ways, but both are illuminating, moving, and very well-written.

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And lastly I want to mention the book I recently posted about, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. It is the first book of Atwood’s I have read, and I think it was a good place for me to start. This is more my kind of thing than her science fiction/fantasy novels, and I will definitely read more of her work – just not all of it. I loved Alias Grace for a lot of reasons – I loved the setting and the atmosphere, the descriptions of daily life in Victorian Canada (and learning about that country’s history), and I loved the ambiguity and nuance of Grace and her story. Read more in my recent post here.

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So there you have it! The best books I have read this year. I am looking forward to many more fantastic reads in 2016.

What have been your best books of 2015?

 

 

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.

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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?

Quick update

Just a quick update to let you all know I am a bit behind on blogging as I have just returned from a week away in France. But luckily I finished three books and started a fourth while I was away, so there will be plenty of blog posts coming up! The books I finished were: Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen; Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey; and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. I also started to read The Undergorund Man by Mick Jackson, but I haven’t read enough yet to decide what I really think of it…

Anyway, my point is that there will be some more blog posts over the coming week, so fret not.

In the meantime here’s a lovely picture I took of the Roman amphitheatre in Arles in the south of France, which I visited last week:

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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.