Tag Archives: Penguin

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson

A “10 sentences or less” busting piece.

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Before I was 10 we moved to a place on the Mediterranean into a huge house that came with my Dad’s job at the time.  Until then my younger sister and I had always shared a bedroom, but this new place was large enough for us to have our own rooms at the top of the house in the attic space where there was also a bathroom, another spare bedroom and access to our 2 roof terraces.  Not long after we moved in, my sister complained of not being happy in her room.  Then she talked of waking in the night with someone holding her hand, but there was never anyone there.  This freaked us both out enough for us to move back downstairs and share a room next to our brother.  Neither of us liked going back up there after that.  I was recently reminded of this episode in my childhood when reading Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.  A similar late night hand-holding experience affects one of the main characters when she is feeling particularly vulnerable.

Generally speaking I don’t read creepy books, I’m too easily spooked and I’ll be honest, this story made me feel uneasy at times.  The titular house is unpleasant and designed to confuse, the characters are susceptible to suggestion and disturbance of mind creating an shared experience where both character and reader live through the nightly hauntings and horrors served up by this place.  It’s this psychological element that makes the tale of Dr. Montague and his guests at Hill House, gathered there to investigate and make sense of the other-worldly goings on, all the more disturbing and chilling.  What Jackson achieves with her writing is a feeling of suspense built on the fear and unease her characters sense from the house.  Fragile Theodora seems particularly prone to these perceptions of something ghostly.  The eventual suspicion and distrust that builds between the characters adds to the tension.

This story is similar in feel and sentiment to books by Susan Hill.  Both women are masters at writing about the supernatural in an unsettling, non-violent, non-gory way, leaving the reader to wonder and marvel at how the power of suggestion can unhinge the mind to such an extent.  Reading this book has finally made me realise, the hand of my sister’s experience was probably a figment of her dreams…or was it??

 

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Room at the Top – John Braine

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John Braine was an Angry Young Man.  One of a group of primarily working class writers emerging in the 1950s and using their art to voice disillusionment with the post-war class constraints of British society.  His début Room at the Top is a passionate story of a man seeking his destiny whilst covering themes this group of writers was exploring at the time; oddly it doesn’t feel out of place today as some of the issues are not dissimilar to inequalities still present in our society now.

Joe Lampton yearns for a better life away from the industrial town of his birth.  With new accountancy qualifications under his belt he finds the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side; life decisions are difficult and heartbreaking wherever you live and whichever class you belong to, but the cars are nicer and parties more exclusive if you have money.  Room at the Top asks questions about class and what it means to fit in, which sacrifices need to be made to gain acceptance and whether ultimately those sacrifices are worth it if they make you miserable.  Joe gives up a passionate life with the married older woman he adores to marry up and gain the status he craves.  It doesn’t end well.  Joe is not a character you can warm to because he has a selfish and manipulative nature, neither of which Braine glamourises or makes apology for.  Like Lynne Reid Banks’ The L-Shaped Room this book offers a fascinating insight into that difficult post war period, where almost everyone questioned the status quo and wanted more for themselves…cracking stuff.

P.S

There’s a great black and white adaptation of Room at the Top available to watch on YouTube, or look out for the more recent BBC adaptation with the wonderful Maxine Peake

I’m the King of the Castle – Susan Hill

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If you are a budding writer of thriller, crime or horror fiction then Susan Hill is where you should go for tutorials on how to build menace.   I’m the King of the Castle is a story which induces fear of immense proportion, totally outweighing the size of its slim volume.  As the chapters progress we witness ever more cringeworthy episodes of the persecution and exploitation of a boy powerless to resist the bullying, underhand tactics of his almost-step-brother; these eventually push him to extremes and the saddest of ends.  Hill does her usual expert best at building the psychological intimidation dished out by the persecutor and the escalating anxiety felt by the persecuted.  It is heart-rending to witness the parental indifference, the vulnerability of the helpless boy and the pure evil of the cruel bully.   This book is short, but says so much about power and powerlessness in society and as you may expect, it does not have a happy ending.  Just when you think the young victim has found a means of escape, his way out is blocked again leaving him with few options. I urge you to read this book and marvel at a masterful example of a violence-free psychological thriller, made that much more moving by it’s tragic pre-teen central characters.

Another Susan Hill book

Arthur Conan Doyle: 3 Novellas

I’ve neglected my little feature called Reading Around My Area.  So I thought I should put this first outing to bed and think about who to write about next.  Realistically I probably won’t get around to writing the next installment until next year – which gives me the Autumn to do the research.

To round off the first author featured in Reading Around My Area, Arthur Conan-Doyle, I thought I’d write a little summary of the other 3 Sherlock Holmes novellas to go with The Hound of the Baskervilles.  I would love to write about the short stories, but there are 56 of them so you have to content yourselves with the following!

If you are new to Sherlock Holmes and you want to start at the beginning, then A Study in Scarlet is the one.  I read this a long time before my most recent fascination with the super sleuth and was engrossed.  The book is in two parts.  In the first part we learn how Holmes and Watson first meet and come to share the flat at 221B Baker street.  Watson tags along as Holmes attends the murder scene of a body found at an empty house.  Holmes unravels the mystery with his signature ease.  In part 2 we learn the back story of the murderer and victims.  The story flashes back to the USA and focuses on a Mormon community in Salt Lake City.  The whole thing is completely fascinating and an amazing feat in storytelling.  As this is the first Holmes story we also meet well-known characters such as Mrs Hudson, Lestrade and the Baker Street Irregulars.

The Sign of (the) Four is the second of the novellas.  It has a complex plot, with lots of characters and twists and turns.  Miss Morstan goes to Holmes for help with an unusual case relating to the disappearance of her father 6 years previously.  The story involves stolen treasure, and man with a wooden leg, exotic locations and people.  Like in A Study in Scarlet the back story is told in flashback and anecdote by the characters involved, some of it taking place in India and the Andaman Islands.  The other notable point in this story is Dr Watson’s romance with Miss Morstan, who eventually becomes his wife.  We also witness Holmes taking cocaine at the beginning of this book, which apparently stimulates and clarifies his mind.

After The Sign of Four came The Hound of the Baskervilles.  Conan-Doyle concentrated on other things for some years and then came The Valley of Fear.  Similar to A Study in Scarlet this is a book in two parts with the mystery in part 1 and the back story in part 2.  In part 1, Holmes has to decipher a coded message leading him to a country house and a dead body.  The dead man has a brand on his arm.  But is the man who everyone thinks he is? In part 2 the story shifts to the USA and a coal/iron ore mining region.  There we learn of a secret order bringing fear to the community.  The story is complex again and makes you wonder at Conan Doyle’s ability to create intricate tales.

There you go then; short summaries to whet your appetite for Sherlock Holmes and his creator Arthur Conan Doyle.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this feature.  But now to my next author.  Who should I choose next?  I look forward to hearing your preferences.  The options are:

  • Aldous Huxley
  • HG Wells
  • Jane Austen
  • Flora Thompson
  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson
  • Lewis Carroll
  • Edward Thomas

PS Don’t you love the covers on these Penguin Pocket Classics?  So kitsch and dramatic, but very effective.

The Wall Jumper – Peter Schneider trans. Leigh Hafrey

Next weekend Mr Fictionhabit and I are heading to Berlin for our special birthday treat and thanks to Englishman in Berlin we have lots of tips of what to do while we are there. Unfortunately, I haven’t done as much reading prep as I’d have liked, but I did read The Wall Jumper by Peter Schneider, a book set before the fall of the wall.

Berlin has long been a historically significant city, even now years after the fall of the wall it remains geo-politically important, albeit in a different sense than when this book was set.  Between 1988-90 I was studying  for my German A Level.  It couldn’t have been a more exciting time to follow the political and social development of that nation.  I remember being incredibly moved and emotional watching the events unfold during the autumn of 1989, culminating in that night in November when thousands of East Germans flowed through the crossing points into West Berlin to be greeted with hugs and cheers from their West German neighbours.  Of course the story didn’t end there, as the following year saw “die Wiedervereinigung”/reunification and the start of tearing down the social walls built up over the 28 years of a divided Germany.

Memories of these years were brought to the fore recently.  My parents are moving house and despite having had several clear-outs over the years, the most recent revealing a box of letters I had saved, cheerfully bound with different ribbon for each friend, they still have a few items belonging to me.  A large manila envelope landed on my doormat the other week containing some of my A Level work and exam preparation.  My mum thought I might like to keep it, bless her.  The essay is entitled “Deutschland – Eine neue Supermacht?” (Germany – A new superpower?) and I clearly used an article written in the Sunday Telegraph on 12 Nov 1989 to help me.  I got an A- and my teacher, David Ladd wrote at the bottom “I hope you can repeat this – if necessary – in an exam” a comment revealing he suspected me of having some help with the essay from German relatives!  I went on to get an A in my A level so feel slightly vindicated!  With my memory piqued I decided to pick up Peter Schneider’s book to take me right back to that time.

The Wall Jumper is a short novel at under 150 pages, but a fascinating insight into a nation divided and a useful observation of Wall anecdotes for generations familiar with the Berlin Wall as historical fact rather than the manifestation of the cold war itself.   It is certainly an absorbing lesson on what it must have been like to be German and living in Berlin during this time.  Schneider describes the collective German thinking during the initial years of the Wall:

…Once the initial panic died, the massive structure faded increasingly to a metaphor in the West German consciousness.  What on the far side meant an end to freedom of movement, on the near side came to symbolise a detested social order.  The view East shrank to a view of the border complex and finally to a group-therapy absorption with the self: for Germans in the West the Wall became a mirror that told them day by day, who was the fairest one of all.  Whether there was life beyond the death strip soon mattered only to pigeons and cats…
 

Although it is a novel, The Wall Jumper reads like a journalistic report, but it is this reportage style bound closely with the interesting cast of characters and deftness of anecdotal description, clearly based on personal experiences, that makes this book so easy and lovely to read.  The narrator, based in West Berlin, is gathering Wall stories from friends and family on both sides of the Wall.  Schneider uses a quirky and amusing device to link all the stories and characters; every time he collects a story, he re-tells it to the next person he meets, Schneider finishes each of these sections with:

(Character) listens carefully, thinks a while, orders a second round of vodka and beer, and then asks, without wasting another word: “Do you know the story about…”
 

The stories the narrator collects are primarily about people who defy the Wall and continue to move freely from one side to the other.  These stories are interesting in themselves as they are not the same stories most of us have heard about the Wall.  But chiefly this book is about what it means to be German.  There are a couple of incredibly perceptive passages near the end of the book that seem to capture the essence of this question.

…If I respond to queries about my nationality by saying without hesitation that I’m German, I am clearly opting not for a state, but for a people that no longer has a state identity.  At the same time, however, I assert that my national identity does not depend on either of the German states.  The same thing applies to the expression: “I come from Germany.” Either it has no meaning, or I am speaking of a country that appears on no political map.  By Germany I am referring neither to the DDR (German Democratic Republic) nor to the BRD (Federal Republic of Germany) but to a country which exists only in my memory or my imagination.  If I were asked where it lies, I could only locate it in its history and in the language I speak…
 

and when referring to the constant comparisons between East and West and which is better he says:

…I only know that we will fail in our attempt to cure the madness of one state by referring to the madness of another…
 

Certainly a piece of wisdom which can be applied to any spat between nations.

Undoubtedly, this is a fascinating commentary on life in Berlin before 1989, but it is also a beautifully written piece of prose and a real pleasure to read.  Credit must go to the translation by Leigh Hafrey, too often I’ve read books with iffy translation, but he’s done a great job with Peter Schneider’s text.

I’m going to finish this post with the most poignant sentence in the book:

…It will take longer to tear down the Wall in our heads than any wrecking company will need for the Wall we can see…
 
 
 
 

PS If you are interested in finding out what life is like in Berlin today, please check out Englishman in Berlin

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.

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.