On the Road – Jack Kerouac

I am a late-comer to On the Road by Jack Kerouac.  It is the kind of book that people read in their late teens/early twenties as a classic road trip book that should offer enlightenment as to the meaning of life, as a catalyst to leading a more fulfilled and meaningful existence.  I need to admit, had I read this book during that time of my life, I am pretty certain I would not have understood or appreciated it.

Having now read the book, I feel that to fully understand it and to appreciate the impact it made when published, it shouldn’t be read in isolation.  It is one of those rare books that requires a bit of extra reading around the edges.  You need to be prepared to do some research and background checking to get a feel for the historical context and the intellectual movement that Jack Kerouac and his contemporaries started.

Some time ago during a visit to San Francisco that included a road trip down Big Sur, highway 1, I became familiar with the term “Beat”.  I had heard it before, but never knew really what it meant.  The guidebooks were full of references to Beat Poets and the Beat Generation.  Jack Kerouac was the first in his group of intellectual friends to coin the phrase Beat Generation, incorporating themes such as being downtrodden, dead tired, beatific (in the religious sense of euphoria), or the beat of music especially improvised jazz.  It was a term intended to capture the feelings of a post-depression, post-war generation who felt disenfranchised and restless to find more meaning in life than the conformity and social acceptability of middle-class America.  The group was mainly made up of intellectuals; poets, writers and philosophers who congregated around Columbia University.

On the Road is a semi autobiographical story based on events that took place during the late 40s.  It chronicles the travels and adventures of Sal Paradise, a young writer (based on Jack Kerouac) and his friend Dean Moriarty (based on Jack’s friend Neal Cassidy).  Sal and Dean meet through a mutual friend when Dean decides he wants to learn to become a writer.  Sal soon falls under Dean’s charms and is intrigued by his craziness.  He calls Dean “the holy con-man”  which describes Dean’s character pretty accurately as he can rarely do wrong in Sal’s eyes and yet plays the trickster, serial womaniser and all round live-wire.  Sal realises early on that at some point Dean will let him down and disappoint him.   There is a real poignancy to this realisation.  I didn’t like Dean as a character.  He is unreliable, rude and behaves abysmally towards the women in his life and some of his male friends.  However, I felt incredible sympathy for him.  We hear about his background; Dean is constantly looking for his drunk father who was in and out of prison and abandoned him early on;  We hear of a cousin who issues Dean with paperwork formally cutting ties with his extended family;  We meet a childhood friend who looks at Dean with distrust and doesn’t want him to come back and visit again.   It’s all very sad and goes some way to explain his behaviour.  His whole life Dean was disappointed and let down by everyone around and yet Sal knows that eventually Dean will copy this behaviour.

When Dean travels back west after his visit to New York, Sal promises to visit him later in the year.  The first part of the book follows Sal on his solo journey across America and back again. He hitchhikes west, meeting vagrants and travellers en-route.  He meets up with his old friends and Dean in Denver before heading on the San Francisco, Bakersfield and, once Autumn draws in, back home to New York.    The rest of the book follows Sal and Dean on 3 further trips back and forth across America and south into Mexico.  On each journey they tell stories and discuss life, they are look for “it”, but never really know what “it” is, they just know that the road is straightforward, pure, uncomplicated and allows them to live in the present.  It seems that only when they are on the road can they put their disappointments behind them.  When commenting on some of the car-share kids travelling with them on one leg of a journey, Dean hits on the crux of their philosophy.  He rages about how they worry about their bourgeois, materialistic lives, they worry about things they have no influence over.  To him these worries are not just a waste of time, they are a betrayal of time.

Throughout their travels there are episodes where they meet up with old friends, visit jazz clubs, go to parties and each outing serves as a reminder of their chaotic, frenetic lives and the lives of their friends and contemporaries.  As Sal and Dean are based on real people, so are some of the other characters in the book.  The poet Allan Ginsberg makes an appearance as Carlo Marx and William Boroughs becomes Old Bull Lee.

On the Road is a book driven by its characters, so if you prefer plot driven stories, this may not be for you.  The first person narrative can also be somewhat off-putting as huge passages become a stream of consciousness unfolding of thoughts rather than structured paragraphs.   I didn’t love this book, but I do think it is a remarkable book in terms of its themes and principles.  I had to keep reminding myself that this was not a book written in the 60’s when hedonism and frivolity were commonplace.  I couldn’t think of its British equivalent – I think in those post-war years we were too shell-shocked to have produced something as progressive (but please prove me wrong!).  I’m very glad I’ve finally read it and feel more rewarded two weeks after finishing it and having let it sink in.


Prepare to be petrified

Last night I paid good money to be frightened almost to the point of hysteria.  Against our scaredy-cat better judgement, a few of us went along to the local picture house to watch the recent Hammer adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. 

Quite honestly, the fact that the film was produced by Hammer should have been a clue to how we may react, and as women of a certain age having all recently read the book, frankly we should have known better!

There has been a lot of media surrounding this latest adaptation of Susan Hill’s unsettling tale of a vengeful spirit that wanders the halls of a spooky house, wreaking havoc in the local area.   Susan Hill has been talking very openly about her thoughts on Jane Goldman’s screenplay, she seems genuinely pleased about the outcome and delighted by the additions and the cast.  She has a very pragmatic approach to her novel being adapted – once she gave up the rights to the book, she relinquished the rights to have a say in how it should be presented in other media (how grown up!)  It seems to be her fans that have had the most to say about the way the book has been changed to fit cinema.  This is not a review of the book or the film, just my thoughts on how they compare and affected me. I have a caveat to add here:  I scare easily.  (Attention:  possible spoilers coming up)

In the book, the main character is an ageing solicitor, Arthur, looking back at an episode in his life that has affected him profoundly.  His visit as a young man to Eel Marsh House, a place cut off from the mainland by a causeway flooded by the tide, and his encounter with a ghost there had huge repercussions on his life.  He is at a stage where he needs to finally exorcise the demons conceived while working at the house on the paperwork and estate of a recently deceased client.  The story then works in flashback as Arthur regurgitates his tale on paper.  The encounter he has with the vengeful spirit at the house in the marshes brings his terror back to him, as he attempts to completely rid himself of the memories.

The structure of the film is very different.  I guess flashback in film rarely works well, so we see Arthur as a young solicitor, a grieving widower and father, struggling to hold down his job.  We experience the haunting with him first hand.  In cinema this structure works very well – you get a linear storyline, you know where you are.  There is however something quite unnerving about the way that in the book, Arthur’s memories of the original event terrorise him all over again as he tries to erase them.

Stillness, silence and noise create so much of the unsettling atmosphere of the book. Arthur hears noises in the marsh, noises in the house sandwiched between episodes of silence and stillness when, even as a reader you are listening for the next sound and can feel and hear your own heart beating against your ribs in anticipation for what is to come. The film, as you would expect is full of big noises.  Firstly there is the soundtrack; suitably spooky.   More terrifying are the periods where there is no sound, no music and even more effective, no dialogue.  You are lulled into a false sense of security, sucked into the visuals, your ears turn themselves off and then, wham!  a big sound, screaming, barking, birds cawing, clock-work toys starting up, doors slamming.  I’m not too proud to tell you that it terrified me.  The visuals in the film were spooky, but the sounds were very frightening.

There is an underlying theme in the book relating to how the characters and the reader feels about children.  This is set up early on in both the book and the film.  In the film you see Arthur with his son who despite being only 4 is clearly concerned about his father’s happiness.  In the book and film you witness a meeting between Arthur and his boss where they discuss the client whose papers Arthur is due to put in order.  Arthur asks whether there were any children.  His boss hesitates with his answer, which is different in the film to the book, but still gives you enough of a feeling that something is not quite right.

Whereas in the book the children of the village are alluded to and only seen on a few occasions, they are ever-present in the film.  Of course there is also the child that is the source of the ghost’s vengeful activities, always in the background.  There is something incredibly spooky about wholesome children in a horror film, if that is not enough to send you over the edge, the plethora of Victorian wind-up toys will send you diving under your cardigan as soon as a cymbal-clashing monkey enters the screen.  The dominance of children as a theme in the book and film, sets up the shocking ending very nicely – you can almost feel it coming.

I don’t want to spoil things too much for potential readers of the book or viewers of the film by revealing the endings.  They are completely different to each other.  My vote definitely goes to the ending of the book.  It is much more shocking.  Although you are expecting something awful to happen, I didn’t anticipate the events of the book’s final pages.  The film is slightly less satisfying.  We were left with a few questions as to what the end meant – but I guess chatter of that nature is much more pleasing to a film-maker than punters leaving the screening berating their work and wishing they hadn’t wasted their cash.

I don’t want to talk about the performances of the actors in the film in any great detail.  I thought they were all pretty decent actually.  Daniel Radcliffe was believable as Arthur – although I think he could do with a voice coach, there are times he sounds still very young.  However he admirably managed to convince me of his grief and fear throughout.

I am glad I spent my money being scared stupid last night.  There was quite a bit of giggling in the theatre and it was all down to either embarrassment at screaming in public during a film or through genuine hysteria brought on by fear!  Which ever way you come to experience The Woman in Black, book or film, it is a good old-fashioned, unsettling, fear-inducing ghost story.

Please check it out, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as long as you are prepared to be petrified!

Half a Million Books

Mr Fiction Habit and I visited “The Sunshine Coast” in January and while the 2 smaller Fiction Habits were at the panto with Granny (Robin Hood – is was apparently excellent) we happened upon Camilla’s Bookshop.

It was the piles of Penguin orange and green classics shelved outside that lured me in. The assortment at the front didn’t nearly prepare me for the stockpile inside – it has to be seen to be believed really.  Check out the short film made by a student documentary maker.

When we first went into the shop I thought they were having some sort of clear out, but it soon became evident that the piles of books were a permanent feature.  The vertiginous stacks were particularly precarious near the door.  There was a shopper with her small children browsing near the front of the shop telling them not to touch anything for fear of them being squashed by a tumbling heap!  I wondered how on earth anyone was supposed to find anything let alone how the owners knew where anything was.  Having now watched the film I realise that there really is a method in what looks like chaos.  The staff come from either bookselling or library stock, so they can probably lay their hands on any title quite easily.  Unfortunately we weren’t able to spend very long in the shop – I would have loved to peruse the shelves all afternoon, but we had to get back.

I found the place absolutely fascinating and wondered about who would own such a shop. It was heartening to see so many browsers in the place, especially at a time when new and second-hand books are easy and generally cheap to buy online and the number of e-readers is on the rise.  It is sadly pointed out in the film that Camilla’s is the last of 5 second-hand bookshops that were in the town at one time.

The owners and booksellers are clearly book people, this isn’t just a job to them.  Camilla mentions that she finds members of the public much more fascinating than some of her more famous customers because they show a passion for their particular area of bookish interest.  The best description of the sentimentality I sometimes feel about books was made by one of the booksellers; an old book has been a silent witness to 150 or 200 years of history.  The words are still there as they were when it was first printed.

…and that is the beauty of a book you love, whether old or new, it is a constant.  While the world frets away around us, days and weeks rush by, we get sucked into the treadmill that is modern life, the words in our favourite books will be the same on the 100th reading as they were on the 1st.

We need more Camilla’s Bookshops in our world.

Reading prep for Berlin

Mr Fiction Habit and I are celebrating special birthdays this year and as a gift and treat to ourselves we are heading to Berlin for a long weekend on our own (i.e. ohne Kinder) in May.  In preparation for this trip I have been scouring the big river site for books to inspire me ahead of our visit to the culturally blended, historically significant centre of Europe .  This city has so much history and hopefully, some Berlin-related literature will get me even more excited than I already am.

I have been to Berlin once before.  I was young, still a small girl.  The wall still dominated the city and the cold war was very much in full swing.   When I was younger I spent many years living in Germany, with my family and as a student.  I haven’t lived there for some time but continue to visit regularly.  I speak German fairly fluently and sometimes even force myself to read a novel in German, just to stop from getting too rusty.  I am in a bit of a vicious circle when it comes to reading in German; I don’t read enough, because I am too slow and I am too slow because I don’t read enough!!

There are a couple of “Berlin” books I already have under my belt:

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood is a semi autobiographical series of linked short stories relating to his time in Berlin during the inter-war years.  A strange time in Germany’s history.  The stories describe the decadence and lasciviousness of Berlin’s underbelly against the backdrop of Hitler’s rise to power.   There is an underlying feeling of loneliness to this book as the characters struggle to come to terms with how the country’s politics affects their lives.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada was one of the hit books of a couple of years ago.  It tells the heroic but sad story of an elderly couple who stand up to the Nazi regime in a quiet rebellion of postcard drops after their only son is killed during the war.  It is an incredibly moving tale of what grief can do to you.

During my research of other books I could read in preparation for my trip, I mostly came across stories set during the war or spy stories relating to Berlin’s time cut off from the rest of West Germany.  I haven’t really come across much about contemporary Berlin.  I also haven’t found much by German writers, which is a bit sad.  I am happy to read non-fiction aswell.

The few I have found and am considering buying are:

If anyone has any experience of these books and could recommend a couple, that would be great – or maybe you have some better ideas?

We all need a little romance…

Indeed we do!  I know there is always a bit of backlash against Valentine’s Day; what of all the single people out there, it’s become so commercial, if we really love someone there shouldn’t need to be one day a year where we express it…blah blah.  But come on, who, hand on heart, doesn’t enjoy a little romance every now and again.  Whether that be a real life romance or experienced vicariously through a good book or film.  I know I do.  I normally get my love story fix over the Christmas period, but hey, anytime will do.  Now, I love a trashy rom-com as much as the next girl, but there is nothing like a beautifully described love story that has you turning the page, willing the protagonists to get together, knowing they are right for each other even if they don’t, gulping at every misjudged word or deed, cursing every mistake they make along their journey to discovering each other and (hopefully) finally being together.

So, if you fancy a little bookish romance in your life, you may like to try one of these:

  • Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
  • Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
  • Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
  • Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami
  • One Day – David Nicholls
  • Far from the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
  • Brokeback Mountain – Annie Prouix (strictly speaking, a short story, but who cares)
  • Trumpet – Jackie Kay

P.S. The list is not exhaustive!!


I don’t normally read graphic novels, this isn’t a conscious decision, they are not really on my radar.  As I mentioned in a earlier post, I have read a couple, they have tended to be high-profile ones though; Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and I enjoyed them both.  I do know there is a lot of snobbery in the comic book world and among comic book lovers so I am not sure what sort of reception Craig Thompson’s newest offering, Habibi, has had among hard-core graphic novel aficionados.  I also don’t know a great deal about him other than it has been some time since he had a book published.  His last book, Blankets, came out some time ago.  I understand that Habibi took him something like 8 years to research, write, draw and perfect.  It is not surprising really, it is a monster of a book running to 672 pages.  But you don’t need to be a comic book geek to appreciate the gorgeousness of this book, the story and the artwork.

At its core, this is a love story, set in an unnamed, timeless desert state.  It focuses on 2 child slaves, Dodola and Zam.  Dodola is sold into marriage by her illiterate parents as a young girl.  She is taught how to read and write by her husband but this is also the beginning of her life in sexual bondage, but he is soon murdered by robbers and Dodola is handed over to slave traders.  While waiting to be sold on she encounters Zam, who is still a baby.  They escape the traders to live together and grow up in a desert hideout.  Dodola teaches Zam to read and write but mostly tells him stories.  They lose each other when Zam reaches puberty and both enter into a period of grim enslavement, she in a sultan’s harem and he with a rag-tag band of eunuchs.  They find each other in later life and try to make some sense of what has happened to them and start to put their horrific past behind them.  The narrative jumps backwards and forwards through their adventures, and tells the story through both their experiences.  At first this was a little confusing, but the lack of linear story telling makes it feel more like a myth or fairy tale.

That is a seriously simplified version of the story.  The real allure of this book is its visual loveliness.  Suffocatingly crowded market scenes, dreamlike giant angels and demons, rivers and deserts overflowing with rubbish and recurring pictorial themes of rain, fumes, liquid, numbers and arabic script.  Some motifs above doorways, on rugs and clothing occur over and over linking scenes, characters and the time periods of the narrative.  Craig Thompson clearly spent a lot of time studying arabic script and his use of it in Habibi allowed me to appreciate its beauty and versatility.

There are some ideological themes apparent in Habibi also.  The stories re-told, mainly by Dodola, serve to demonstrate the shared heritage or Christianity and Islam.  Familiar bible stories and their koran versions sit side by side reminding us of our common story-telling traditions and morality tales.  There are also questions regarding consumerism, over exploitation of natural resources and what we are doing to our planet by allowing ourselves to drown in our own waste.

It is an enormous book, with so much to look at, ponder over and maybe research at a later date.  But first and foremost it is a feast for the eyes.  Even if you are not a fan of graphic novels, you should check it out for its exquisiteness alone.

Habibi – Faber and Faber.  ISBN 978-0571241323

My Bedside Table 2

Back to the bedside table…

The pile of books at the back of the table is made up of the next books to be read or books I dip in and out of as and when I fancy it.

After the recent interest in Birdsong due to the lovely BBC adaptation, one of my bookgroups chose Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks as our next book to read.  I have to confess that I’ve read a few of his and none lives up to Birdsong (although Engleby is brilliant in an unsettling way), so I am looking forward to reading this war romance to see how it measures up.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte is also a bookclub book.  Anne Bronte is probably the lesser known of the Bronte sisters, but don’t underestimate her…oh no, this lady packed a punch in her day.  This book caused uproar when it was published, as it concerns a woman, Helen, who leaves her husband because he mentally and physically abuses her and her son.  Such behaviour was unheard of in Anne Bronte’s day, but many women will have suffered like Helen.  It was a shocking novel at the time and was chosen by a fellow bookclubber for that reason, our theme being “books that caused a scandal when published”.  There are so many books that fall under this banner, but goodness, most of us have read them all.  It is refreshing to come across something that isn’t normally found on the classic newspaper lists.  I have to admit that I have cheated a little when it comes to this book, as Woman’s Hour serialised an adaptation just after we chose it and I was captivated from the first installment.  I cannot wait to get stuck into the book.

Susan Hill is a fascinating writer and reviewer.  She is one of those people who seems to know so much about books and writers.  I came across this book, Howards End Is On The Landing, here.  It is a memoir of her reading life.  She wanders the multitude of bookshelves in her house that bend and heave under the sheer weight of the books she owns, some of which she hasn’t read or forgot she even had in her collection.   She decided to spend a year re-reading and discovering books on her shelves rather than buying new ones.  This book is an account of her rediscovering well-loved titles and discussing the merits of one book over another, one author over another.  Her aim to find a definitive 40 titles that she could not bear to live without, but it has to be only 40.  Imagine how hard this would be…the discussion about Shakespeare is particularly amusing.  But there is more to this book than merely Susan talking about her favourite titles.  There are some beautiful anecdotal passages in which she describes her encounters with some literary heavyweights.  These private vignettes add a human angle to the books she writes about and reminds us that writers are just like the rest of us.  The great thing about Susan Hill’s book is that you don’t have to read it in one sitting.  I love just dipping in and out of it.

When I got married a couple of years ago, we themed our tables around the books and writers we loved.  I bought some old books with titles that had something to do with marriage from a lovely local charity bookshop.  I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the contents, only the titles.  We mixed these up with books by our favourite authors and decorated our tables with them.  The Old Wives Tale by Arnold Bennett was one of them.   I didn’t know anything about Arnold Bennett, and then coincidentally read about him in 2 different places in the same week.  The first was in Susan Hill’s aforementioned book.  She doesn’t say much about him other than he was a prolific writer of novels and diaries.  I then read an article about him in the Guardian and realised that I owned one of his books.  Hence it is now on my bedside table as I intend to pick it up at some point soon.  Strangely enough he also had an omelette named after him after he requested that the chefs at the Savoy make him something special.

I no longer recall why One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is on my bedside table.  I finished it a long time ago and absolutely adored it.  I suspect it is there because I want to read it again.  I’m not going to write more than that about Marquez right now as I suspect he may become a regular feature.

The saddest title on my bedside table is the next one; What Can I Do To Help by Deborah Hutton.  This book is on loan from a friend who knows that one of my close friends was diagnosed with a brain tumour last year and when I first found out, I struggled with how I could best be of practical help.  It was really useful at the start, but I think I can return it now as I have realised that, for me to be myself is all my friend needs.  I never really got on with self-help books.

I love getting a quick blast of wit from The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy.  These poems are so readable and a bit like the Guardian column “What I’m Really Thinking”.  They all have the same mocking tone of a wife, partner or sister of a notable man assessing their achievements and failures.  It’s just hilariously amusing.

The final 2 books are slightly linked.  A bit like the Susan Hill and Carol Ann Duffy books, there are times when nothing but a short story will do.  Raymond Carver is a master in this area and this book is a classic example of how books lead you to other books.  I was reading a book called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami.   In it, he talks about having stolen the idea for his title from the Raymond Carver collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  Now, I don’t own that book but we did have Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?  Mr Fiction Habit couldn’t believe I hadn’t already read it.  At about the same time I heard one of Carver’s stories, The Fat Man, read aloud on a podcast I subscribe to…it all led me to the book on my bedside table.  The other collection of short stories, I recently snaffled from the Guardian and I’m sure that some of the stories will lead me to yet more great writers…

on being addicted to books

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