A clever parody or a triumph of style over substance?

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Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

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A couple of weeks ago, I got inordinately excited when this book I’d ordered arrived.

For all its faults, IKEA is the booklover’s friend. Affordable shelving, in practical and/or posher versions, is what the bibliomane needs (I’m speaking as a 10x Billy owner here – I can construct those boys at speed!). I’m an IKEA fan – but only if I pick the right time, i.e. when the least number of people are likely to be there – say opening time on a Tuesday term-time morning. I can happily spend the morning browsing and filling my trolley to the brim with crocks, lamps, picture frames, throws, cushions, wine glasses and all the things those clever marketers put in my way in the circuitous you-must-see-everything route to the checkout.

The front cover of Horrorstör is stunning!  At first you don’t notice the faces in the pictures, or register that the title has the word ‘Horror’ in it – you just giggle at the umlaut and you want to get inside the book and see more of the IKEA parody. Horrorstör, like the giant it is parodying, is a clever piece of design – there are floormaps, furniture descriptions, order forms, and more. Each chapter is named after (complete with umlauts as needed), and preceded by an illustration, of a particular piece of furniture. My favourite was the Hügga office chair – available in Night Leather.

The novel starts well:

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It was dawn, and the zombies were stumbling through the parking lot, streaming towards the massive beige box at the far end. Later they’d be resurrected by megadoses of Starbucks, but for now they were the barely living dead. Their causes of death differed: hangovers, nightmares, strung out from epic online gaming sessions, circadian rhythms broken by late-night TV, children who couldn’t stop crying, neighbours partying until 4 a.m., broken hearts, unpaid bills, roads not taken, sick dogs, deployed daughters, ailing parents, midnight ice cream binges.
But every morning, five days a week (seven during the holidays), they dragged themselves here, to the one thing in their lives that never changed, the one thing they could count on come rain, or shine, or dead pets, or divorce: work.

And that’s just the employees. They work for Orsk – an IKEA-copycat furniture superstore, at the Cuyahoga, Ohio branch. There’s Amy, who’s too clever to be just a floor saleswoman but is stuck in a rut, Basil the deputy manager – a real jobsworth, Ruth-Anne a gentle soul who always thinks well of people, Trinity – a Goth who believes in the supernatural and her boyfriend Matt who doesn’t.

As the story opens, the staff have arrived to find that furniture has been moved and soiled – a Brooka sofa to be exact, not the first item to be vandalised in the past days. Basil, who knows that a management inspection is imminent, persuades (with the lure of double time) Amy and Ruth-Anne to stay in the store with him overnight to seek out the perpetrator and get rid of them – he suspects a tramp has got in somewhere. Trinity and Matt say it’s ghosts – the Orsk site has history apparently. Trinity has visions of moving on from Orsk to hosting her own TV show about haunting, and she and Matt sneak back into the store after work with detectors to look for the spectres.

That’s all I can tell you about the plot, suffice to say that – surprise! It’s not a tramp that’s trashing the store. It all gets nastier and nastier in the early hours of the morning. Will any of them get out alive?

As a ghost story, once we find out about what happened back in history, the plot was entirely predictable. We’ve all read that kind of horror story before, but I did really enjoy it. The author has taken a classic haunted house trope and relocated it in a commercial world where management-speak rules and work is the treadmill you get on every day. That extends to the customers too – as Matt explains: ‘Orsk is all about scripted disorientation. The store wants you to surrender to a programmed shopping experience.’

There are some genuinely creepy moments – this will make you shudder with recognition…

She took one last glance around the room and noticed that the sign on the wall had changed. Its message used to be “The hard work makes Orsk your family, and the hard work is free.” But the running water had worn away many of the letters. Now it simply read: “Work makes you free.”

There are other moments that will make you squirm with laughter and disgust – the thought that lazy parents will change an infant’s nappy on a display sofa and stuff it down the back rather than retrace their steps the half-mile to the toilets is the ickiest thing in the whole book! (sad but probably true too…)

So – was this book a clever parody or a triumph of style over substance? My answer is both! Every aspect of the design of this book is well done inside and out – even the sizing – no prizes for guessing whose catalogue it matches. The line drawings, fonts, all the little details are so well done and the design team get their credits on the inside back French flap. The substance of the plot may not be terribly original – a debt to Stephen King is in order, plus a nod to Mark Z Danielewski’s ground-breaking House of Leaves (I must re-read that!), but the sheer comedy in the spoofing of management goobledegook and rigid work practices is spot on and raises the text above an average ghost story.

Hendrix cleverly makes Orsk a cut-price IKEA, putting them on a pedestal in a ‘We’re not worthy’ way. While IKEA can’t officially approve of this book, I bet they love it as much, or even more, than I did. (9/10)

P.S. An ideal Christmas present for Billy bookcase fans…

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Horrorstorby Grady Hendrix. Pub October 2014 by Quirk Books. Softback, 256 pages.
House Of Leavesby Mark Z Danielewski

“This ain’t no upwardly mobile freeway … This is the road to hell”

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The A26 by Pascal Garnier

the-a26 Quite a few bloggers (notably Stu and recently Guy) have already discovered and loved the novels of Pascal Garnier, the French author of some decidedly bleak, black comedies of the purest noir! Having acquired a couple of them, I picked his short novel The A26 to begin my own exploration.

Set in the 1990s, this is the story of an ageing pair – brother and sister – Bernard and Yolande. Bernard works for SNCF, the French railways, and has terminal cancer. He has now finished work:

As for his boss and his colleagues, he knew he wouldn’t be seeing them again. It was no sadder than casting off an old pair of slippers. In taking leave, he had married death – that was why life had so often made him suffer. Now he would say ‘yes’ to everything, good and bad, sunshine and grey skies alike; this November afternoon it was the latter.

It’s that decision to say ‘yes’ to everything that is driving Bernard now – and for his remaining days, in doing that he will get his own back on the cards that life had dealt him. Bernard never married, he lost his love to another long ago when he had to look after Yolande.

Yolande never leaves the house. They live in gloom, for in the entire house there is only one opening on the outside world – ‘a hole made specially’ in the shutter. Yolande has never been the same since she was dragged from the house in 1945 to have her head shaved, accused of a liaison with a German. She’s a hoarder, never throwing anything away, obsessively cooking or watching the world through her pinhole…

Yolande could have been anywhere from twenty to seventy. She had the blurry texture and outlines of an old photograph. As if she were covered in a fine dust. Inside this wreck of an old woman there was a young girl.

The whole area has been blighted by the building of a new motorway, the A26, driving a swathe of mud and concrete through the land; life isn’t the same and when Bernard’s thoughts turn murderous, it provides the ideal place to dispose of things… (one is reminded of the Vogon Constructor Fleet’s mission to drive an intergalactic highway through Earth in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

What Bernard does may be very nasty, but Garnier elicits some pathos in us for him, in the same way that John Wayne as the terminally ill gunslinger in the film The Shootist seeks to regain his dignity in death.

The A26 is just 100 pages long and we learn all we need to from Bernard and Yolande, of their lives and loves all lost. There’s no wastage in this slim volume. It’s a very black story indeed but with touches of comedy that always surprise you and a plot that keeps you guessing until the end. Translator Melanie Florence has done a splendid job to maintain the French feel.

The A26 connects Calais and Troyes to the southwest of Paris.  It is known as L’Autoroute des Anglais and I’m glad Garnier’s books have made it over the channel to us thanks to Gallic Books –  I’ve yet to read a volume from them that hasn’t delivered.  Deliciously dark, funny and complex, I’m going to have to read a lot more by Pascal Garnier. (9/10)

P.S. Title quote from ‘The Road to Hell’ by Chris Rea.

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The A26by Pascal Garnier, trans Melanie Florence. Gallic Books 2013. Paperback, 100 pages.

Looking for ‘Chap Last’

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Thinkless by Sophie McCook

Thinkless_CarouselIt’s not often that I respond to a direct request from an author to review their book, but Sophie McCook wrote me a lovely note and she and her book sounded worth investigating. Thinkless comes from small publisher Limehouse Books in London, and Sophie who is based in Scotland has written for radio, TV and a wide range of other media and productions.

Actually once I saw the book’s cover on the Limehouse website, I was won over already. What you can’t see clearly in the small version to your left is, that amongst the tousled curls of the girl are words – see the detail below:

Thinkless_MainBook2 Capricious, Fickle, Undependable, Lovelorn, Naive and Mercenary are just some of these words – and they are all used to describe the main character – not usually all at once – but certainly in multiples! Miriam Short is in a real tangle (sorry!) – we’d better meet her …

I’m of no fixed salary, abode or career. I live in the moment, which I hear is very spiritual. The trouble is, the moments keep happening. I’m one long moment.
My ex-boyfriend maintains a holding pattern around my brain. Who knows when this obsession will end? Let’s call him Chap 1. All communication between us stopped. …
This black hole in my head is gradually growing. It’s sucking in the horizon and all the time, the city heat increases. I stuff Kleenex down my bra to stop the sweat river. I don’t have a fan. I have to get out of here.

Miriam is her father’s middle child. In her late twenties, she has an older sister and a younger brother – both by different mothers. Her father is currently with ‘Wife-to-be-Number-Four’. Having recently split up with her boyfriend, she’s reliant on her successful little brother to help her out by loaning her his flat while he’s off on business for she’s jobless and broke. It’s high summer though, London is sweltering, and the break-up with Chap 1 still hurts too much. When she sees an advert for a house/cat-sitter for three months, she sees a chance to escape.

So Miriam ends up in a hamlet called Toft Monks in Norfolk, cat-sitting for Marjory, who lives with her cats and many dogs in a tiny cottage full of blue things and dog-hair near Toft Hall, the local Manor. Luckily Marjory takes the dogs with her and leaves strict instructions about the Good Cats and the Bad Cat which can never be in the house at the same time.

To cut a long story short, it’s not long before Miriam meets the inhabitants of Toft Hall. There are two brothers: Kit, who’ll charm a woman into bed in moments it seems and Wym, who looks after the Hall and farm.  Then there’s Lord Hebbindon, known as Prop, their ageing father who is more than a little touched it seems and hates his wife the Marchese … As Kit is now Chap 2 (sic), Miriam asks him about their father…

‘But why is Prop Prop?’
‘Oh his name deserves a blue plaque. When he was seven, Prop and his father went hill-walking in North Wales with Lloyd George. Young Prop was the right height for the former Prime Minister to lean his elbow on, and he was leant on all the way up the mountain. From then on, he was a Prop.’
Aww.
I lie in his arms and shuffle through my brain index card and find this situation amazing. If sex were top-trumps, I feel I’ve scored well.
‘So in general, is it better being rich or being a Lord?’
Kit jumps on me.
‘You mercenary little cow!’

Miriam may project a laddette-ish attitude, but is she a gold-digger?  She would have you believe it’s much more complicated but, as the lost middle-child of a very dysfunctional family herself all she really needs is direction and to find that Chap Last – her true love.

Of course, this is a rom-com and things will get far more complicated before they can begin to detangle (to continue the hair analogies!), especially once Miriam’s sister turns up on the scene. Eventually we’ll get to see all the main characters for who they really are – there’s not so much of a difference between them and us in this novel as you may think. Of course we hope that all’s well that ends well too but we can have a chuckle along the way!

I thoroughly enjoyed Thinkless - it’s a comedy blend akin to Jilly Cooper meets The Archers with added London sassiness. Being a South Londoner myself and having survived living in Norfolk for two years at the start of my working career, I could strongly identify with Miriam’s fish out of water situation. Living there didn’t suit me – but maybe in this novel Miriam is ready?  Great fun. (7.5/10)

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Source: Author – Thank you and good luck with the book!
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

Thinkless by Sophie McCook. Pub Sept 2014 by Limehouse Books, trade paperback, 288 pages.

A Weekend Miscellany…

Traghetto by Juliet Gaskell, aged 6

Traghetto. © Juliet Gaskell, 2006

Apparently it is #ArchiveDay today.  I don’t know who has designated it such – but twitter is alive with tweets to good folks’ archives – so I shall highlight my three most viewed posts since starting this blog – and an odd collection they make too:

  1. ‘Fashion! Turn to the Left. Fashion! Turn to the Right.’which comes top of the list with nearly 6,000 pageviews. In it I look at the gorgeous DK book Fashion – Ultimate book of costume and style; from 2012.
  2. Book v Movie – Salmon Fishing in the Yemen with 3,700 views. Does what it says in the title really; from 2012.
  3. 5 Brilliant Books Set in Venice. This post from 2010 is notable for featuring a drawing by my daughter saved from when she was 6. (She’s now 14!!!)

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Next: Another new book I’m really excited about reading and must make time for – Discovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler.
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It’s a spoof 1970s tourist guide – decidedly Midwych Cuckoos meets the nuclear war leaflet Protect and Survive in one of those old Hamlyn books (see my old post here) style. My copy arrived a couple of days ago and it looks scarily well done.

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And finally – look what I got this morning at the Shippon Church book sale (open until 4pm today, on the Barrow Road between the end of Abingdon and Dalton Barracks).

A good haul for £15 don’t you think…

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784 pages – Was it worth taking the time to read…

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

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It’s very likely that had our bookgroup not picked this novel, that The Goldfinch would have stayed on my shelves, unread, (beside Wolf Hall and The Luminaries), for much longer.

I had to read it (well, I could have cribbed notes but didn’t), but I’m so glad I took the time to read its 784 pages in hardback, the weight of which is almost enough to give you a wrist injury propping up the book. (Shame about how they plastered the paperback cover with plaudits by the way.) So much has been written about the book that I won’t dwell on the plot, just jot some thoughts down…

Tartt is a descriptive writer – she tells you everything about a scene – she wants you to see her vision, not to have your own about what you’re reading. This leads to some very long sections – for instance: the bit where Theo is back in New York and bumps into Platt Barbour who tells him all about his father’s death; this took acres of print – much like some of the scenes in James Jones’ From Here to Eternity (which is even longer at 900+ pages) where one poker game in the latrines took over twenty pages of small type.

While Tartt’s descriptive writing is lovely and you could, if you wanted to, relish every word, it is at the expense of pace and the novel always takes a long time to get anywhere. I know a lot of you did love her long-windedness but I longed for an editor to help produce the five hundred page literary thriller that lurks underneath all those extra words. It almost feels like heresy to say it, but I felt the same way about The Secret History when I read it twenty years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I did I really enjoy reading The Goldfinch, but the middle does sag a bit plotwise and could have been tauter.

There were, however, two things about The Goldfinch that I adored – the first is Hobie.

He was six foot four or six five, at least: haggard, noble-jawed, heavy, something about him suggesting the antique photos of Irish poets and pugilists that hung in the midtown pub where my father liked to drink. His hair was mostly gray, and needed cutting, and his skin an unhealthy white, with such deep purple shadows around his eyes that it was almost as if his nose had been broken. Over his clothes, a rich paisley robe with satin lapels fell almost to his ankles and flowed massively around him, like something a leading man might wear in a 1930s movie: worn, but still impressive.

I won’t begrudge Tartt her description of Hobie for first impressions do matter! (Note she uses ‘gray’ rather than grey – very poetic.) I immediately identified Hobie as a gentle giant Ron Perlman type but with some of the growl of Tom Waits – and an ideal surrogate father for Theo. Hobie was a real gent and I loved him.

The second is Boris – an out and out scoundrel, but his heart is in the right place when he befriends Theo. They met at school in Las Vegas:

The dark-haired boy scowled and sank deeper into his seat. He reminded me of the homeless-looking kids who stood around passing cigarettes back and forth on St. Mark’s Place, comparing scars, begging for change – same torn-up clothes and scrawny white arms; same black leather bracelets tangled at the wrists. Their multi-layered complexity was a sign I couldn’t read, though the general import was clear enough: different tribe, forget about it, I’m way too cool for you, don’t even try to talk to me. Such was my mistaken first impression of the only friend I made when I was in Vegas, and – as it turned out – one of the great friends of my life.

Although nothing in this novel is ordinary, these two characters lift the narrative immensely. Theo is very much a blank canvas and these two paint his life and help him to unchain himself from the goldfinch’s perch he would otherwise end up on. (Sorry! Couldn’t resist that last sentence.)

No-one in our book group hated the novel although some, like me, wished it could have been shorter. We had extensive discussions – somewhat unusual in a book that everyone liked, but not surprising for a novel of this quality, there was universal agreement that Hobie and Boris were utterly brilliant characters.

In answer to my question at the top – was it worth taking the time to read? Emphatically, Yes! (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, pub Oct 2013 by Little Brown. Abacus paperback 880 pages.

5 Characters in Search of a Theme Song

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Love, Love Me Do by Mark Haysom

Love love me do

Looking at the title and cover of this book, I was expecting something light-hearted, a little bit sixties rock’n’roll, a bit Nick Hornby-ish if you will – and involving a caravan. Well the last bit was right, less so the others.

The title, that of the Beatles’ first hit single, is an anchor in time, and the book opens in 1963, Friday August the 2nd at 5.24am to be precise.

Young Baxter is dreading that later today he might have to go on a day-trip home to Brighton with his father. His mum, Christie, had said it’d be a good thing to have some time with his father, but Baxter doesn’t want to go – he wants to stay in the caravan, play in the grass and go and see Soldier in the woods.

A few hours later, Christie is again wondering why her husband Truman had sprung a surprise holiday on them – in a caravan on the edge of the Ashdown forest fifty miles inland from their home – and then abandoned them there without a car to go to work.

Not for the first time, Christie wondered whether she had ever truly loved him. …
And she had wanted him to love her. She was a little embarrassed to admit it, even now, even to herself; but more than being in love, what she had longed for then was the feeling of being loved by someone. …
But mostly what she felt now, she thought, as she knelt with her eyes still closed, trying to find just the right word for it, what she felt was that she had been overwhelmed by him. …
To begin with it had been excisitng to be with trumn, of course. To be wanted so much, to be pursued by a boy who was so tall and handsome; it was like nothing that had ever happened to her. …
…They had looked good together, people said. And, of course, there had been some defiance in it too. Because she had known her mother wouldn’t approve, it had made her all the more determined to go out with him in the first place.

It turns out that apart from be a charmer, Truman is a liar and a chancer, although Christie doesn’t know any of it. He’s a small-time con-man with an eye for the ladies and has a couple of mistresses on the go as well as Christie and their three children. He owes Mr Smith five grand – big money in those days. He had to do a disappearing act, hence the caravan, but he needs to go home – hence taking the boy with him for insurance. Mr Smith’s heavies can’t touch him with the boy…

What he doesn’t know is that Mr Smith has put Strachan on his trail. Strachan is a different class of heavy, older and looking to retire, well dressed – ‘You may not always be the best-looking man in the room,’ [his ma] she’d say to him, ‘but you can always be the man looking his best.’

The only character we’ve not really met yet is Soldier. He’s a tramp that lives in the woods, an ex-military man, obviously suffering from post traumatic stress even now although WWII ended 18 years ago. He talks to no-one, but Mrs. Chadney in the nearby farmhouse keeps an eye on him. 8-yr-old Baxter befriends him, and unbeknownst to Christie, Soldier is keeping an eye out for their safety too from the woods.

The story is told through the events of this single day, with lots of flashbacks to fill us in on the detail. We’ll find out about each of the five, their hopes and fears, their motivations, their searching for love – of whatever kind is on offer.

Christie, Baxter, Truman, Strachan and Soldier, each take turns in moving the story on through the day, each adding to the suspense. Will there be a showdown between Strachan and Truman at the end of the day? With the location setting, the build-up echoes Greene’s Brighton Rock a little – and we’ll get to find out a lot about Truman before the day is done.

This may be a debut novel, but Haysom is a newspaper man of long-standing and puts that to good use in an intriguing novel that is far more serious and far better than its cover would suggest. I really enjoyed it. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Love, Love Me Do by Mark Haysom, pub July 2014 by Piatkus, paperback original, 448 pages.

My new reviews at Shiny New Books

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The third issue of Shiny New Books came out on Monday. Now it’s time for me to highlight some of my reviews that appear therein and point you in their direction. As it ended up, I didn’t write as many reviews for this edition, but I shall still split them into a few posts in between others. Today it’s the turn of two novels of speculative fiction:

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Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

StationelevenUKHC

This novel by Canadian author Mandel has been one of the big hyped titles of the autumn – a timely vision of a post-pandemic world – not due to ebola though but a new flu strain which spreads like wildfire.

It ties in the lives of a travelling troupe of musicians and actors twenty years after, focusing on a handful of characters who all experienced touchstone moments in the past.

While it does include the usual post-disaster tropes of tribe formation and those seeking to take advantage, it is all done very elegantly and with a clear vision that seems true to how I would imagine things happening in this scary future.

I loved this book! (10/10)
Read my full review here.

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Desperate Games by Pierre Boulle

Desperate Games

This one is a reprint in a new translation by David Carter from Hesperus.

First published in 1971, this novel is a philosophical satire on science, politics and psychology of the masses, in which the scientists stage a peaceful coup to make a new world order and find that eliminating hunger and cancer etc doesn’t make its people happy. Their answer is what could be considered as the prototype of The Hunger Games.

Whilst not a work of great literature, this novel is BIG on ideas and a fascinating curiosity that makes it an essential addition to the dystopian canon!

Read my full review here. (7.5/10)

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Source: Publishers – Thank you to both.
To explore further on Amazon, please click below:

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, 2014, Picador, hardback, 336 pages.
Desperate Games by Pierre Boulle, (1971) – Hesperus, 2014, paperback, 206 pages.

Now it’s Sylvia’s turn

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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Bell jarYesterday I reviewed a new YA novel by Meg Wolitzer called Belzhar (here), in which a depressed young woman was helped back to good health by a special English class that studied Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar and then kept rather special personal journals. Reading this book made me pull my copy of The Bell Jar off the shelf and to finally read it straight after.

The Bell Jar has one of the most memorable novel openings ever:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sicl, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.

I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.

* * *The discussion below contains plot spoilers – you have been warned* * *

The Bell Jar is the story of Esther Greenwood, a young woman, an honours student in English who gets a summer internship at a glossy magazine in New York where she ‘was supposed to being having the time of my life.’ She begins to find the expectations of the kinds of life on offer to her at home or in the city as being underwhelming, constricting and stifling and she turns in on her self in her bell jar. We get flashbacks to her schooldays and her near engagement to Buddy Willard, we hear her mother’s hopes that she’ll learn shorthand so she has a fallback position as a secretary. Esther gets worse and badly treated by one doctor, attempts suicide, but was found in time and thanks to a benefactor given help in a good private psychiatric hospital. The book ends with her just about to re-enter life and return to college.

I knew the novel was very autobiographical, closely paralleling Plath’s own life – I didn’t know that she had used a psuedonym – Victoria Lucas. It wasn’t published under her own name until 1967, several years later and not in the USA until 1971.

Of course, I was aware of Plath’s suicide, but didn’t realise this happened just one month after the novel was published in 1963. Knowing this makes reading the novel with its hopeful ending even more sad. The same happened when I read the late Ned Vizzini’s novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story back in January of this year – it too has an upbeat finish showing that the black dog of depression can be beaten. It’s just so sad that these two authors, Plath just 30 and Vizzini 32, had so much life still to come. This book has left me wanting to read more about Plath and I will start with Mad Girl’s Love Song by Andrew Wilson (which Shiny co-ed Victoria reviewed here).

I do hope that Plath envisaged that Esther Greenwood would be able to re-engage with life and live it to the full – there is a hint in the novel, which I was grateful for, and I’m glad to have finally read this book. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, 1963. Faber & Faber paperback, 240 pages.
Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson.

 

 

 

A novel of fragile youth and Sylvia Plath…

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Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

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Meg Wolitzer is best known for her quirky feminist novels about gender politics. I admit I’ve not read any of them, although the comedy aspects of her novel The Position appeal, in which a couple’s children discover that their parents are the creators of a sex manual featuring themselves, this event having ramifications that last through the ensuing decades.

This autumn she has published her first novel for a teenaged audience and it has the potential to have some crossover appeal. More on that below, although my title of this post does give it away.

Belzhar is narrated by a teenager known as Jam, who is having mental health problems. It begins…

I was sent here because of a boy. His name was Reeve Maxfield, and I loved him and then he died, and almost a year passed and no one knew what to do with me. Finally it was decided that the best thing would be to send me here. But if you ask anyone on the staff or faculty, they’ll insist I was sent here because of “the lingering effects of trauma.” Those are the words that my parents wrote on the application to get me into The Wooden Barn, which is described in the brochure as a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teenagers.

Jam knew Reeve for precisely forty-one days. He was a tenth-grade exchange student from London, spending a term at Jam’s school in New Jersey. He was very different to all the American boys, Jam describes him as looking “like a member of one of those British punk bands from the eighties that my dad still loves…” Jam fell for him hard and it seems he really liked her too, but we don’t find out until much later in the novel what happened between them and how he died.

The Wooden Barn is set deep in Vermont. It’s a really supportive community, a small school full of teenagers that need help to get their lives back to normal; no cell phones, no social media, the students are given time and space to heal.  Jam is assigned to share a room with DJ, who has eating issues and squirrels away food to binge on when stressed. The two girls seem to get on together, but DJ is a bit jealous that Jam, a newbie, has been picked to take the ‘Special Topics in English’ course.

In fact, it will be last time that Mrs. Quenell teaches this course, for she is retiring. Each term she selects just five students, from across the years. The course focuses on a single writer – a different one each time – and this final time, she has picked Sylvia Plath. She hands out copies of The Bell Jar, and despite feeling stunned, the five are almost itching to read it and to see how Plath’s autobiographical novel resounds with their own experiences.

The other thing Mrs Q. does is to give each student a journal – red leather-bound, old, well-made writing books:

“Once the spirit moves you,” says Mrs. Quenell, “you will write in the journal twice a week. And you will all hand your journals back to me at the end of the semester. I won’t read them, I never do, but I will collect them, and keep them. Like the writing itself, this is a requirement.” (p33)

The five will find that writing in their journals will transport them to a world they will call Belzhar, where they don’t have to be sad any more.

Jam, Sierra, Marc, Griffin and Casey, will become very close friends over the next weeks.  All will get the chance to tell their own stories of how they ended up at The Wooden Barn. It won’t be easy, there will be obstacles to overcome but, as you can imagine, it will make them stronger and able to accept themselves again.

Belzhar is aimed primarily at a YA audience, particularly those who enjoy John Green’s novels (another YA author I haven’t read yet), and Megan Abbott’s later novels for older teens.  However, the inclusion of The Bell Jar as a catalyst and the obvious comparisons between Mrs Q. and John Keating (Robin Williams, R.I.P.) in Dead Poet’s Society may interest other readers.

The Wooden Barn seems too good to be true. Of course, we only read about it through Jam’s eyes, so we get no real idea about the rest of the school or any real therapies to help its ‘fragile, highly intelligent’ pupils. Do such schools really exist? Mrs Q is well aware of the effects that her class and the journal writing have; she would have been fired long ago had the secrecy not been maintained. A certain amount of disbelief has to be suspended.

The book also tried rather too hard to be inclusive, one diversionary sub-plot felt rather shoe-horned in. There is no sex, bar a little teenage groping and occasional swearing – even though Jam is only fifteen it felt too safe at times.

I rattled through this novel, just about finishing it on a return train journey to and from London. My first reaction to it though was to pull The Bell Jar off my shelves the minute I got home to finally read this modern classic – which I did, and I’ve just started, (I’ve ordered a DVD of Dead Poet’s Society too). Both of these are good things and should be encouraged – whether you need to read Belzhar too is up for debate… (6/10)

* * * * *

Source: Publisher. Thank you.

To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer, pub 9th October by Simon & Schuster, UK paperback original, 272 pages.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Dead Poets Society [DVD] [1989]

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