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‘Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings’ by Shirley Jackson ****

I am an enormous fan of Shirley Jackson’s work, and have been eager to read Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings since its publication in 2015.  For various reasons, I hadn’t managed to pick it up, but finally requested a copy from my local library.  The volume, which contains a great deal of unseen work of Jackson’s, from early stories to pieces of observation, has been edited by her son and daughter, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt.  The foreword to the book has been written by Jackson’s biographer, Ruth Franklin.

The blurb explains that Let Me Tell You ‘brings together a treasure trove of short stories – 81nzbak1holeach a miniature masterpiece of unease – with candid, fascinating essays, lectures, articles and drawings.’  In each of these pieces, ‘strange encounters occur, unwanted visitors arrive, places and objects take on lives of their own.’  They shift between the ‘ordinary and the uncanny, the comic and the horrific.’  Many of the stories collected here are from Jackson’s earliest writing period; they were written in a time of ‘impressive productivity as well as inspiring persistence.’

In her introduction, Franklin talks at length about the importance of Jackson’s posthumous collection.  She writes that the real highlight in Let Me Tell You is ‘especially for aspiring writers’, as Jackson shares ‘succinct, specific advice about creating fiction’ in both essays and transcripts of lectures which she gave.

Let Me Tell You has been split into several sections, which are often thematic.  Due to the emphasis which Jackson placed on writing about her family and her own life, many of the sections which are not purely made up of her short stories have overlapping content.

Let Me Tell You further demonstrates just how marvellous Jackson was at writing, and how she could so deftly create atmosphere and foreboding.  She had an innate ability to know just where to end a story, when all of the reader’s senses are heightened, and the tension which she is built is almost unbearable.  Jackson was also wonderful at suggestion, and of making her readers question often quite ordinary things.  As with her better known work, her stories contain clever and surprising twists.  At first, the situations which she crafts, and the lives which she lets us glimpse, appear ordinary; however, her stories are anything but. Even the shortest of her stories has been meticulously plotted, and strikes just the right balance.  A mixture of narrative perspectives has been used throughout, the characters are varied, and there is an unsettling quality to each.

Many of Jackson’s stories are steeped in the domestic, and the everyday: for instance, Mrs Spencer in ‘Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons’, who sets about preparing a party with no help whatsoever from her indifferent husband; and the wife of a professor talking to two of his young female students in ‘Still Life and Students’, one of whom has been having an affair with him.  We meet a man who walks around a park fabricating stories to tell to everyone he meets, and a woman who returns to her hometown after many years, and finds that nothing at all is the same, or is as she expected.  In this last story, ‘The Lie’, Jackson writes: ‘She felt wary of going too close to her old house, although she had been anxious to see it again; perhaps if she came within its reach it would capture her again, and never let her go this time.  Or perhaps it was only because she was embarrassed about being seen by people looking out their windows and telling one another, “There’s Joyce Richards come back.  Thought she was doing so well in the city?”‘

The accompanying illustrations, of which there are surprisingly few, are whimsical, and her essays witty and amusing.  Throughout, there is a sharpness to Jackson’s writing, perhaps more apparent in her short stories than her non-fiction pieces.  She was an extremely perceptive and intelligent author.

For a Jackson fan, Let Me Tell You is a real treat.  To those unfamiliar with her work, it could act as a great introduction to both her stories and style.  Jackson is quite unlike any other author I have ever come across, and it feels like a real privilege to be able to read these previously unpublished and forgotten pieces.  They are polished, written with the hand of a very talented author who already seems at the height of her craft.

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Penguin Moderns: Fernando Pessoa, Shirley Jackson, and Gazdanov and Others

I Have More Souls Than One by Fernando Pessoa **** (#19) 9780241339602
Collected in the nineteenth Penguin Modern, Fernando Pessoa’s I Have More Souls Than One, are a series of poems which were written by Fernando Pessoa under four separate names, or ‘souls’: his own, Alberto Caiero, Ricardo Reis, and Alvaro de Campos.  They were first translated to English from their original Portuguese in 1974.  The blurb calls the collection ‘strange and mesmeric’, and details that they ‘express a maelstrom of conflicted thoughts and feelings’.

Whilst I preferred the poetry of some of these personas to others, I found each to be intelligent and insightful.  Pessoa was clearly a very talented poet in the diversity of forms and subjects which he addresses and explores.  This quite wonderful collection surprised and startled me in its clarity, and I definitely want to read the rest of Pessoa’s oeuvre in future.
9780241339282The Missing Girl by Shirley Jackson ***** (#20)
Shirley Jackson is one of my absolute favourite authors, despite having a couple of her novels still outstanding, and not yet having made a dent in her short stories.  In The Missing Girl, says the blurb, ‘Malice, deception and creeping dread lie beneath the surface of ordinary American life in these miniature masterworks.’  Each of these stories – ‘The Missing Girl’, ‘Journey with a Lady’, and ‘Nightmare’ – appeared in a posthumous 1997 collection entitled Just an Ordinary Day.

Jackson is a veritable master at building tension, as anyone who has read a single one of her novels will recognise.  Each of these tales is wonderfully unsettling for one reason or another, and I have never read a story like ‘Nightmare’ before; it is so unusual, and the heights of tension make one feel almost claustrophobic when reading.  I absolutely loved this collection, and am so looking forward to reading more of Jackson’s work soon.
Four Russian Short Stories by Gazdanov and Others **** (#21) 9780241339763
Each of the four authors collected together in the twenty-first Penguin Modern, Four Russian Short Stories, were exiles of Revolutionary Russia.  Galina Kuznetsova, Yury Felsen, Nina Berberova, and Gaito Gazdanov each ‘explore deaths in a world in which old certainties have crumbled’ in ‘Kunak’ (1930), ‘A Miracle’ (1934), ‘The Murder of Valkovsky’ (1934), and ‘Requiem’ (1960) respectively.

I was very excited to get to this volume, as I adore Russian literature, and had not read anything by any of these authors before.  The content of these tales is varied and far-reaching, as one might expect; the first is about a horse, the second about hospital patients and addiction, the third deals with a married woman’s infatuation with another man, and the fourth, which takes place in wartime Paris, focuses upon the emergence of the black market and artwork.  Four Russian Short Stories is fascinating to read, and a real treat for fans of Eastern European literature.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Road Through the Wall’ by Shirley Jackson *****

‘In… an attractive suburban neighbourhood filled with bullies and egotistical bigots, the feelings of the inhabitants are shallow and selfish: What can a neighbour gain from another neighbour, what may be won from a friend? One child stands alone in her goodness: little Caroline Desmond, kind, sweet and gentle, and the pride of her family. But the malice and self-absorption of the people of Pepper Street lead to a terrible event that will destroy the community of which they are so proud. Exposing the murderous cruelty of children, and the blindness and selfishness of adults, Shirley Jackson reveals the ugly truth behind a ‘perfect’ world.’ 9780141392004

The Road Through the Wall is Queen of Creepy Shirley Jackson’s first novel.  In the foreword to the Penguin edition which I borrowed from the library, Ruth Franklin writes: ‘Compared to The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson’s masterful late novels, The Road Through the Wall is a slighter work.  But it is marvellously written, with the careful attention to structure, the precision of detail, and the brilliant bite of irony that would always define her style’.

The novel was published in 1948 to a ‘largely unappreciative audience’; its critics were ‘put off by the book’s unpleasant characters, its grim tone, and its violent conclusion’. The Road Through the Wall is a prelude of sorts to ‘The Lottery’, which was published the following year.  It takes place in 1936, on Pepper Street in small town California.  Instead of a familial saga, it is rather more of a neighbourhood affair, although the familial relations are nothing less than fascinating throughout.  We meet several families resident on the street, and come to know them intimately thanks to Jackson’s wonderful, measured prose.  Every single character has differing traits, and one of Jackson’s real strengths here (and there are many) lies in demonstrating the imagination and power of children.

The Road Through the Wall is not my favourite of Jackson’s works, but it is taut, surprising and compelling, and certainly an accomplished debut.  It took a final direction which I wasn’t expecting, but which made an awful lot of sense in retrospect.  The ending is marvellously and creepily crafted, and I very much liked the way in which Jackson left some of the most pressing questions unanswered.

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Highly Anticipated Releases

As I do around this time every year, I thought that I would make a list of ten highly anticipated book releases which are coming out (and will hopefully be on my shelves) within the next few months.

1. Winter by Ali Smith (02/11/2017; Hamish Hamilton) cover-jpg-rendition-460-707
‘The dazzling second novel in Ali Smith’s essential Seasonal Quartet — from the Baileys Prize-winning, Man Booker-shortlisted author of Autumn and How to be both.  Winter? Bleak. Frosty wind, earth as iron, water as stone, so the old song goes. The shortest days, the longest nights. The trees are bare and shivering. The summer’s leaves? Dead litter.  The world shrinks; the sap sinks.  But winter makes things visible. And if there’s ice, there’ll be fire.  In Ali Smith’s Winter, lifeforce matches up to the toughest of the seasons. In this second novel in her acclaimed Seasonal cycle, the follow-up to her sensational Autumn, Smith’s shape-shifting quartet of novels casts a merry eye over a bleak post-truth era with a story rooted in history, memory and warmth, its taproot deep in the evergreens: art, love, laughter.  It’s the season that teaches us survival.   Here comes Winter.’

 

9781594634901_29a7f2. Awayland: Short Stories by Ramona Ausubel (06/03/2018; Riverhead Books)
An inventive story collection that spans the globe as it explores love, childhood, and parenthood with an electric mix of humor and emotion.  Acclaimed for the grace, wit, and magic of her novels, Ramona Ausubel introduces us to a geography both fantastic and familiar in eleven new stories, some of them previously published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. Elegantly structured, these stories span the globe and beyond, from small-town America and sunny Caribbean islands to the Arctic Ocean and the very gates of Heaven itself. And though some of the stories are steeped in mythology, they remain grounded in universal experiences: loss of identity, leaving home, parenthood, joy, and longing.  Crisscrossing the pages of Awayland are travelers and expats, shadows and ghosts. A girl watches as her homesick mother slowly dissolves into literal mist. The mayor of a small Midwestern town offers a strange prize, for stranger reasons, to the parents of any baby born on Lenin’s birthday. A chef bound for Mars begins an even more treacherous journey much closer to home. And a lonely heart searches for love online—never mind that he’s a Cyclops.  With her signature tenderness, Ramona Ausubel applies a mapmaker’s eye to landscapes both real and imagined, all the while providing a keen guide to the wild, uncharted terrain of the human heart.’

 

3. Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (23/01/2018; Penguin Books) 9780143128793_af956
From the rubble-strewn streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, Hadi—a scavenger and an oddball fixture at the local cafe—collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognize the parts as people and to give them proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, and reports stream in of horrendous-looking criminals who, though shot, cannot be killed.  Hadi soon realizes he’s created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive—first from the guilty, and then from anyone in its path. As the violence builds and Hadi’s acquaintances—a journalist, a government worker, a lonely older woman—become involved, the Whatsitsname and the havoc it wreaks assume a magnitude far greater than anyone could have imagined. An extraordinary achievement, at once horrific and blackly humorous, Frankenstein in Baghdad captures the surreal reality of contemporary Baghdad.

 

9780143132004_c2ca34. Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson (10/10/2017; Penguin Classics)
For the first time in one volume, a collection of Shirley Jackson’s scariest stories.  There’s something nasty in suburbia. In these deliciously dark tales, the daily commute turns into a nightmarish game of hide and seek, the loving wife hides homicidal thoughts and the concerned citizen might just be an infamous serial  killer. In the haunting world of Shirley Jackson, nothing is as it seems and nowhere is safe, from the city streets to the crumbling country pile, and from the small-town apartment to the dark, dark woods…

 

5. I Was Anastasia: A Novel by Ariel Lawhon (20/03/2018; Doubleday) 9780385541695_eae33
Ariel Lawhon, a rising star in historical suspense, unravels the extraordinary twists and turns in Anna Anderson’s 50-year battle to be recognized as Anastasia Romanov. Is she the Russian Grand Duchess, a beloved daughter and revered icon, or is she an imposter, the thief of another woman’s legacy?  Russia, July 17, 1918: Under direct orders from Vladimir Lenin, Bolshevik secret police force Anastasia Romanov, along with the entire imperial family, into a damp basement in Siberia where they face a merciless firing squad. None survive. At least that is what the executioners have always claimed.   Germany, February 17, 1920: A young woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Anastasia Romanov is pulled shivering and senseless from a canal. Refusing to explain her presence in the freezing water, she is taken to the hospital where an examination reveals that her body is riddled with countless, horrific scars. When she finally does speak, this frightened, mysterious woman claims to be the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia.  Her detractors, convinced that the young woman is only after the immense Romanov fortune, insist on calling her by a different name: Anna Anderson.
As rumors begin to circulate through European society that the youngest Romanov daughter has survived the massacre, old enemies and new threats are awakened. With a brilliantly crafted dual narrative structure, Lawhon wades into the most psychologically complex and emotionally compelling territory: the nature of identity itself.
The question of who Anna Anderson is and what actually happened to Anastasia Romanov creates a saga that spans fifty years and touches three continents. This thrilling story is every bit as moving and momentous as it is harrowing and twisted.

 

9781524732776_a1ec76. Aetherial Worlds: Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya (20/03/2018; Knopf)
Ordinary realities and yearnings to transcend them lead to miraculous other worlds in this dazzling collection of stories. A woman’s deceased father appears in her dreams with clues about the afterlife; a Russian professor in a small American town constructs elaborate fantasies during her cigarette break; a man falls in love with a marble statue as his marriage falls apart; a child glimpses heaven through a stained-glass window. With the emotional insight of Chekhov, the surreal satire of Gogol, and a unique blend of humor and poetry all her own, Tolstaya transmutes the quotidian into aetherial alternatives. These tales, about politics, identity, love, and loss, cut to the core of the Russian psyche, even as they lay bare human universals. Tolstaya’s characters—seekers all—are daydreaming children, lonely adults, dislocated foreigners in unfamiliar lands. Whether contemplating the strategic complexities of delivering telegrams in Leningrad or the meditative melancholy of holiday aspic, vibrant inner lives and the grim elements of existence are registered in equally sharp detail in a starkly bleak but sympathetic vision of life on earth.  A unique collection from one of the first women in years to rank among Russia’s most important writers.

 

7. Macbeth by Jo Nesbo (10/04/2018; Hogarth Press) 9780553419054_66497
Set in the 1970s in a run-down, rainy industrial town with low employment and high crime, Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth centers around a police force struggling to shed the incessant drug problem. Duncan, chief of police, is idealistic and visionary, a dream to the townspeople but a nightmare for the criminals. The drug trade is ruled by Hekate, whose illegal cultivation of substances, known as “the brew,” is overseen by her crew, “the sisters.” A master of manipulation, Hekate has connections with the highest in power, and she plans to use them to get her way.  Hekate contacts Inspector Macbeth, popular head of the Emergency Response Group, to tell him that one day he’ll be the chief of police if he cooperates with her. When Macbeth’s love interest, a casino owner named Lady, hears of Hekate’s prophesy, she calculates who lies between Macbeth and the top job: Duncan and the assistant chief, Malcolm. Under Lady’s pressure, Macbeth does what he believes needs to be done, making sure the blame is pointed at his best friend and colleague, Duff. What follows is an unputdownable story of love and guilt, political ambition, and greed for more, exploring the darkest corners of human nature, the aspirations of the criminal mind, and whether or not free will even matters. In his retelling of Macbeth, Jo Nesbø brings the gritty, powerful procedural gusto that made him an international New York Times bestseller to William Shakespeare’s most timeless tragedy.

 

9780062685711_622b88. The Vanishing Princess: Stories by Jenny Diski (05/12/2017; Ecco)
‘Jenny Diski’s prose is as sharp and steely as her imagination is wild and wondrous. When she died of cancer in April 2016, after chronicling her illness in strikingly honest essays in the London Review of Books, readers, admirers, and critics around the world mourned the loss. In a cool and unflinching tone that came to define her singular voice, she explored the subjects of sex, power, domesticity, femininity, hysteria, and loneliness with humor and honesty.  The stories in The Vanishing Princess showcase a rarely seen side of this beloved writer, channeling both the piercing social examination of her nonfiction and the vivid, dreamlike landscapes of her novels. In a Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale turned on its head, a miller’s daughter rises to power and wealth to rule over her kingdom and outwit the title villain. “Bathtime” tells the story of a woman’s life through her attempts to build the perfect bathtub, chasing an elusive moment of peace. In “Short Curcuit,” the author mines her own bouts in and out of mental institutions outside London to question whether those we think are mad are really the sanest among us.’

 

9. The Twelve-Mile Straight: A Novel by Eleanor Henderson (12/09/2017; Ecco) 9780062422088_01d24
‘Cotton County, Georgia, 1930: in a house full of secrets, two babies-one light-skinned, the other dark-are born to Elma Jesup, a white sharecropper’s daughter. Accused of her rape, field hand Genus Jackson is lynched and dragged behind a truck down the Twelve-Mile Straight, the road to the nearby town. In the aftermath, the farm’s inhabitants are forced to contend with their complicity in a series of events that left a man dead and a family irrevocably fractured.  Despite the prying eyes and curious whispers of the townspeople, Elma begins to raise her babies as best as she can, under the roof of her mercurial father, Juke, and with the help of Nan, the young black housekeeper who is as close to Elma as a sister. But soon it becomes clear that the ties that bind all of them together are more intricate than any could have ever imagined. As startling revelations mount, a web of lies begins to collapse around the family, destabilizing their precarious world and forcing all to reckon with the painful truth.  Acclaimed author Eleanor Henderson has returned with a novel that combines the intimacy of a family drama with the staggering presence of a great Southern saga. Tackling themes of racialized violence, social division, and financial crisis, The Twelve-Mile Straight is a startlingly timely, emotionally resonant, and magnificent tour de force.’

 

9780062676139_129e310. Census by Jesse Ball (06/03/2018; Ecco)
‘When a widower receives notice from a doctor that he doesn’t have long left to live, he is struck by the question of who will care for his adult son—a son whom he fiercely loves, a boy with Down syndrome. With no recourse in mind, and with a desire to see the country on one last trip, the man signs up as a census taker for a mysterious governmental bureau and leaves town with his son.  Traveling into the country, through towns named only by ascending letters of the alphabet, the man and his son encounter a wide range of human experience. While some townspeople welcome them into their homes, others who bear the physical brand of past censuses on their ribs are wary of their presence. When they press toward the edges of civilization, the landscape grows wilder, and the towns grow farther apart and more blighted by industrial decay. As they approach “Z,” the man must confront a series of questions: What is the purpose of the census? Is he complicit in its mission? And just how will he learn to say good-bye to his son?  Mysterious and evocative, Census is a novel about free will, grief, the power of memory, and the ferocity of parental love, from one of our most captivating young writers.’

 

Have you been lucky enough to read any of these already?  Which are your most anticipated forthcoming titles?

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One From the Archive: ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson *****

The Haunting of Hill House was my second Halloween read of 2013, and is certainly one of my favourite books of 2013.  I have wanted to read it for years; more so after very much enjoying Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  I hoped that this novel would be just as good, and I was overjoyed to find that it was both better and creepier.

In The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson begins the story by telling the story of Dr John Montague, who goes to live in Hill House when he finds out that it is purported to be haunted.  He invites a few select people along to Hill House in rural America to stay there with him, whom he feels are interested enough in hauntings to warrant a place in the experiment of sorts which he is conducting.  One of the characters who accepts the invitation is Eleanor Vance, a spinster of sorts, who becomes the one whom Jackson places the most focus upon.

One of the primary things which I love about Jackson’s fiction is the way in which she makes the houses in which her protagonists live characters in themselves.  I love the way in which Jackson introduces her characters too – for example, ‘Luke Sanderson was a liar’.  I admire how matter-of-fact she can be, but how she also leaves many elements up to the imagination of the reader, and the way in which she weaves in loose ends at times in which they are not expected.  The entirety of The Haunting of Hill House is beautifully written, and the prose works marvellously with regard to her unfolding of the plot.  Some of the passages which Jackson crafts truly made me swoon.  For example, when describing Eleanor’s journey to Hill House, she writes:

‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson (Penguin)

She nearly stopped forever just outside Ashton, because she came to a tiny cottage buried in a garden.  I could live there all alone, she thought, slowing the car to look down the winding garden path to the small blue front door with, perfectly, a white cat on the step.  No one would ever find me there, either, behind all those roses, and just to make sure I would plant oleanders by the road.  I will light a fire in the cool evenings and toast apples at my own hearth.  I will raise white cats and sew white curtains for the windows and sometimes come out of my door to go to the store to buy cinnamon and tea and thread.  People will come to me to have their fortunes told, and I will brew love potions for sad maidens; I will have a robin…

The novel, as it gains momentum, is marvellously creepy.  The atmosphere which Jackson builds is powerful and rather oppressive.  Her pace is perfect, and the conversation between characters is fabulous.  Jackson never lingers into the field of mundanity, but is instead original in all that she writes and crafts.  The relationship which she builds between Eleanor and another of those who has accepted the invitation to stay at Hill House, Theodora, is believable and so well structured.  I read this novella almost in one go, as I struggled to tear myself away from it.

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‘The Road Through the Wall’ by Shirley Jackson ****

‘In… an attractive suburban neighbourhood filled with bullies and egotistical bigots, the feelings of the inhabitants are shallow and selfish: What can a neighbour gain from another neighbour, what may be won from a friend? One child stands alone in her goodness: little Caroline Desmond, kind, sweet and gentle, and the pride of her family. But the malice and self-absorption of the people of Pepper Street lead to a terrible event that will destroy the community of which they are so proud. Exposing the murderous cruelty of children, and the blindness and selfishness of adults, Shirley Jackson reveals the ugly truth behind a ‘perfect’ world.’ 9780141392004

The Road Through the Wall is Queen of Creepy Shirley Jackson’s first novel.  In the foreword to the Penguin edition which I borrowed from the library, Ruth Franklin writes: ‘Compared to The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson’s masterful late novels, The Road Through the Wall is a slighter work.  But it is marvellously written, with the careful attention to structure, the precision of detail, and the brilliant bite of irony that would always define her style’.

The novel was published in 1948 to a ‘largely unappreciative audience’; its critics were ‘put off by the book’s unpleasant characters, its grim tone, and its violent conclusion’. The Road Through the Wall is a prelude of sorts to ‘The Lottery’, which was published the following year.  It takes place in 1936, on Pepper Street in small town California.  Instead of a familial saga, it is rather more of a neighbourhood affair, although the familial relations are nothing less than fascinating throughout.  We meet several families resident on the street, and come to know them intimately thanks to Jackson’s wonderful, measured prose.  Every single character has differing traits, and one of Jackson’s real strengths here (and there are many) lies in demonstrating the imagination and power of children.

The Road Through the Wall is not my favourite of Jackson’s works, but it is taut, surprising and compelling, and certainly an accomplished debut.  It took a final direction which I wasn’t expecting, but which made an awful lot of sense in retrospect.  The ending is marvellously and creepily crafted, and I very much liked the way in which Jackson left some of the most pressing questions unanswered.

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The Book Trail: From Beryl to Renata

We shall begin with an intense psychological character study which I read back in September, and work our way through some wonderfully weird sounding, and important, tomes.

1. Harriet Said… by Beryl Bainbridge 9781844088607
‘Beryl Bainbridge’s evocation of childhood in a rundown northern holiday resort.  A girl returns from boarding school to her sleepy Merseyside hometown and waits to be reunited with her childhood friend, Harriet, chief architect of all their past mischief. She roams listlessly along the shoreline and the woods still pitted with wartime trenches, and encounters ‘the Tsar’ – almost old, unhappily married, both dangerously fascinating and repulsive.  Pretty, malevolent Harriet finally arrives – and over the course of the long holidays draws her friend into a scheme to beguile then humiliate the Tsar, with disastrous, shocking consequences. A gripping portrayal of adolescent transgression, Beryl Bainbridge’s classic first novel remains as subversive today as when it was written.’

 

2. The Phantom Carriage by Selma Lagerlof
‘Written in 1912, Selma Lagerlof’s The Phantom Carriage is a powerful combination of ghost story and social realism, partly played out among the slums and partly in the transitional sphere between life and death. The vengeful and alcoholic David Holm is led to atonement and salvation by the love of a dying Salvation Army slum sister under the guidance of the driver of the death-cart that gathers in the souls of the dying poor. Inspired by Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, The Phantom Carriage remained one of Lagerlof’s own favourites, and Victor Sjostrom’s 1921 film version of the story is one of the greatest achievements of the Swedish silent cinema.’

 

97800609355593. One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner by Jay Parini
‘William Faulkner was a literary genius, and one of America’s most important and influential writers. Drawing on previously unavailable sources — including letters, memoirs, and interviews with Faulkner’s daughter and lovers — Jay Parini has crafted a biography that delves into the mystery of this gifted and troubled writer. His Faulkner is an extremely talented, obsessive artist plagued by alcoholism and a bad marriage who somehow transcends his limitations. Parini weaves the tragedies and triumphs of Faulkner’s life in with his novels, serving up a biography that’s as engaging as it is insightful.’

 

4. Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World by Claudia Roth Pierpont
‘With a masterful ability to connect their social contexts to well-chosen and telling details of their personal lives, Claudia Roth Pierpont gives us portraits of twelve amazingly diverse and influential literary women of the twentieth century, women who remade themselves and the world through their art.   Gertrude Stein, Mae West, Margaret Mitchell, Eudora Welty, Ayn Rand, Doris Lessing, Anais Nin, Zora Neale Hurston, Marina Tsvetaeva, Hannah Arendt and Mary Mccarthy, and Olive Schreiner: Pierpont is clear-eyed in her examination of each member of this varied group, connectng her subjects firmly to the issues of sexual freedom, race, and politics that bound them to their times, even as she exposes the roots of their uniqueness’

 

5. Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson 9780143128045
‘In a hilariously charming domestic memoir, America s celebrated master of terror turns to a different kind of fright: raising children In her celebrated fiction, Shirley Jackson explored the darkness lurking beneath the surface of small-town America. But in Life Among the Savages, she takes on the lighter side of small-town life. In this witty and warm memoir of her family s life in rural Vermont, she delightfully exposes a domestic side in cheerful contrast to her quietly terrifying fiction. With a novelist s gift for character, an unfailing maternal instinct, and her signature humor, Jackson turns everyday family experiences into brilliant adventures.’

 

6. A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx by Elaine Showalter
A Jury of Her Peers is an unprecedented literary landmark: the first comprehensive history of American women writers from 1650 to 2000.  In a narrative of immense scope and fascination—brimming with Elaine Showalter’s characteristic wit and incisive opinions—we are introduced to more than 250 female writers. These include not only famous and expected names (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Willa Cather, Dorothy Parker, Flannery O’Connor, Gwendolyn Brooks, Grace Paley, Toni Morrison, and Jodi Picoult among them), but also many who were once successful and acclaimed yet now are little known, from the early American best-selling novelist Catherine Sedgwick to the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Susan Glaspell. Showalter shows how these writers—both the enduring stars and the ones left behind by the canon—were connected to one another and to their times. She believes it is high time to fully integrate the contributions of women into our American literary heritage, and she undertakes the task with brilliance and flair, making the case for the unfairly overlooked and putting the overrated firmly in their place.  Whether or not readers agree with the book’s roster of writers, A Jury of Her Peers is an irresistible invitation to join the debate, to discover long-lost great writers, and to return to familiar titles with a deeper appreciation. It is a monumental work that will greatly enrich our understanding of American literary history and culture.’

 

78217. Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature by Elizabeth Hardwick
‘The novelist and essayist Elizabeth Hardwick is one of contemporary America’s most brilliant writers, and Seduction and Betrayal, in which she considers the careers of women writers as well as the larger question of the presence of women in literature, is her most passionate and concentrated work of criticism. A gallery of unforgettable portraits – of Virginia Woolf and Zelda Fitzgerald, Dorothy Wordsworth and Jane Carlyle – as well as a provocative reading of such works as Wuthering Heights, Hedda Gabler, and the poems of Sylvia Plath, Seduction and Betrayal is a virtuoso performance, a major writer’s reckoning with the relations between men and women, women and writing, writing and life.’

 

8. Pitch Dark by Renata Adler
Pitch Dark is the story of the end of a love affair—a story that, in Renata Adler’s brilliant telling, becomes a richly diffracted, illuminating, investigation of an exceptional woman. After a nine-year affair with Jake, a married man, Kate Ennis decides to escape. She takes off, looking for something beautiful and quiet by the sea, but finds herself in a pitch dark and driving rain on a lonely Irish road. It is only months later that she learns that she may have committed a crime, but by then she is home, once more negotiating with Jake for time, for attention, and for love.’

 

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One From the Archive: ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson *****

The Haunting of Hill House was my second Halloween read of 2013, and is certainly one of my favourite books of 2013.  I have wanted to read it for years; more so after very much enjoying Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  I hoped that this novel would be just as good, and I was overjoyed to find that it was both better and creepier.

In The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson begins the story by telling the story of Dr John Montague, who goes to live in Hill House when he finds out that it is purported to be haunted.  He invites a few select people along to Hill House in rural America to stay there with him, whom he feels are interested enough in hauntings to warrant a place in the experiment of sorts which he is conducting.  One of the characters who accepts the invitation is Eleanor Vance, a spinster of sorts, who becomes the one whom Jackson places the most focus upon.

One of the primary things which I love about Jackson’s fiction is the way in which she makes the houses in which her protagonists live characters in themselves.  I love the way in which Jackson introduces her characters too – for example, ‘Luke Sanderson was a liar’.  I admire how matter-of-fact she can be, but how she also leaves many elements up to the imagination of the reader, and the way in which she weaves in loose ends at times in which they are not expected.  The entirety of The Haunting of Hill House is beautifully written, and the prose works marvellously with regard to her unfolding of the plot.  Some of the passages which Jackson crafts truly made me swoon.  For example, when describing Eleanor’s journey to Hill House, she writes:

‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson (Penguin)

She nearly stopped forever just outside Ashton, because she came to a tiny cottage buried in a garden.  I could live there all alone, she thought, slowing the car to look down the winding garden path to the small blue front door with, perfectly, a white cat on the step.  No one would ever find me there, either, behind all those roses, and just to make sure I would plant oleanders by the road.  I will light a fire in the cool evenings and toast apples at my own hearth.  I will raise white cats and sew white curtains for the windows and sometimes come out of my door to go to the store to buy cinnamon and tea and thread.  People will come to me to have their fortunes told, and I will brew love potions for sad maidens; I will have a robin…

The novel, as it gains momentum, is marvellously creepy.  The atmosphere which Jackson builds is powerful and rather oppressive.  Her pace is perfect, and the conversation between characters is fabulous.  Jackson never lingers into the field of mundanity, but is instead original in all that she writes and crafts.  The relationship which she builds between Eleanor and another of those who has accepted the invitation to stay at Hill House, Theodora, is believable and so well structured.  I read this novella almost in one go, as I struggled to tear myself away from it.

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‘We Have Always Lived in The Castle’ by Shirley Jackson ****

We Have Always Lived in The Castle is a book I’ve been seeing around in bookish blogs and BookTube videos quite frequently and it had piqued my interest from the very beginning. Only recently, though, did I get the chance to acquire a copy of my own and finally read it. 26852229

The gothic and ominous atmosphere permeats the book and I have to admit that I felt perplexed whilst trying to figure out what is going on in the story and what kind of events led our characters to their current situation.

Mary Catherine Blackwood, or simply Merricat as her sister calls her, is the narrator of the story. She is the youngest daughter of the family and she is currently living with her sister, Constance, and uncle Julian, since the rest of their family have died due to food poisoning for which Constance was held accountable but was soon acquitted of the murder charges.

Even though Merricat merely wants to live a peaceful life with the remaining of her family, things do not seem to be all that favourable. The rest of the village is still scared of the Blackwood daughters and they avoid them as much as they can, they accuse them or they even make fun of them by concocting rhymes such as:

“Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?”
“Merricat, said Constance, would you like to go to sleep?”
“Oh, no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.”

As a result, Merricat appears to nurture feelings of hatred towards everyone outside her family and she does everything she can to protect this little sanctuary of hers. However, Cousin Charles makes an appearance to the Blackwood household and this peace and quiet seems to be about to vanish.

It is difficult to talk about this book without mentioning any spoilers, even more so since it’s a rather slim book of approximately 146 pages. The truth is that apart from a couple of truly important events, not much happens in the present of the story. There are some references to the murder of the family that happened in the past and some hints here and there about what might have truly happened, but since the narrator is Merricat and she doesn’t seem to be very stable all the time, it is hard to distinguish the truth. I would have liked some more closure, to be honest, and that is the reason why I didn’t give this book the 5 stars it would definitely deserve.

Shirley Jackson’s writing is superb and vivid and poetic and she manages to keep the reader’s interest piqued until the very last page. Merricat’s character is certainly the most interesting in the entire book and the most complex one as well. Even though it is a gruesome and sad story, I would recommend it not only to fans of gothic fiction but also to those who enjoy well-written prose and well thought out characters.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

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A (British) Book Haul

After spending approximately 10 days in the UK, visiting my uncle and his family in Peterborough and taking a flash trip to Edinburgh, I’m back home in scorching hot Greece. Needless to say that I managed to acquire some books during this trip of mine, which I intend to show you today.

Since my uncle’s house is located rather far away from the city centre, I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to browse through Peterborough’s bookshops. I did, however, purchase those three books from lovely Waterstones:

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  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  • A Faraway Smell of Lemon by Rachel Joyce

I’ve already read The Vegetarian and We Have Always Lived in the Castle and reviews for those two will be up soon.

Even though I travelled to Edinburgh with very little luggage and promised to myself not to buy more than two books, I left with six new ones in my bag. Oh, well.

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From Blackwell’s I got:

  • The Muse by Jessie Burton
  • The Gifts of Reading by Robert Macfarlane

From Oxfam I got:

  • A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton
  • Negotiating With the Dead by Margaret Atwood
  • The Monsters and the Critics by J.R.R. Tolkien

And last but certainly not least, from Barnardo’s I got:

  • 官僚を国民のために働かせる法 (Kanryou wo Kokumin no Tame ni Hatarakaseru Hou / The Way to Make Bureaucracy Work for the Citizens) by 古賀茂明 (Koga Shigeaki)

I never expected to find a Japanese book in a non-specialized bookshop, so I immediately grabbed it and brought it home with me. It’s a non-fiction book and I have to admit that its subject matter doesn’t particularly interest me, but it will certainly become great practice for my Japanese reading skills.

Upon arriving back home, I found a package waiting for me. It was from Kurodahan Press and it contained those wonderful books sent to me for review:

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  • Blue Bamboo by Dazai Osamu
  • Tokyo Decadence by Ryu Murakami
  • Long Belts and Thin Men by Kojima Nobuo

They are all short story collections and I am more than excited to delve into them as soon as possible.

So, these are all the books I acquired since the beginning of July and they all make me so very happy. Have you read any of these? What books have you acquired so far for this month? 🙂