Shirley Jackson Reading Week

Shirley-Jackson-Reading-WeekIt’s Shirley Jackson Reading Week – hosted by Simon, Jenny and Ana. I had been planning just to scan the posts as my pile of books I must read (e.g. Anthony Powell) is rather large, but what hey! Why not read a book too? It’s not as if I didn’t have a Shirley Jackson novel ready and waiting on my shelves thanks to Simon who reviewed several of hers for the first issue of Shiny New Books.

I’m not entirely new to Shirley Jackson, having read and loved We Have Always Lived in the Castle – which I read pre-blog in 2008. I have consulted back to my master spreadsheet to see what notes I made about it then…

MerricatA creepy tale of a big house where the two Blackwood sisters, Constance and Merricat, live with their old uncle. The local villagers treat them with suspicion and hate, after six of the Blackwood family died one night from poisoning. Constance was tried and found innocent. The sisters and Uncle Julian try to live quietly in their mausoleum; Constance tends the garden, Uncle Julian sees to his papers, and the beloved Merricat patrols and protects the estate with ritual and amulets. However, one day cousin Charles arrives – and life will never be the same after that.

This short novel is an excellent exercise in paranoia, the whole ‘did she didn’t she’ question over the poisoning, the villagers’ suspicion (and jealousy, for the Blackwoods are not short of a penny, although they don’t flaunt it at all), and then the catalyst that arrives to upset everything. A very intense read and beautifully crafted tale. (10/10)

I read it in a Penguin Deluxe paperback produced for the USA. Love that cover.

But which did I choose to read this time?

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

sundial-195x300In one sentence The Sundial is a comedy about an upper class family who all hate each other thrust into a, to quote Private Fraser from Dad’s Army “We’re doomed!”, situation with Armageddon coming at the end of August. After the paranoia of WHALITC above, I hadn’t quite expected The Sundial, which preceded it by a few years to be so funny – it was absolutely hilarious!

It starts off with the Halloran family returning from Lionel’s funeral. The huge house they live in having reverted to Lionel’s parents. Even in the first paragraphs, the extent of there being no love lost between the Old Mrs Halloran and the Young Mrs Halloran, her daughter Fancy and the others is clear:

Young Mrs Halloran, looking after her mother-in-law, said without hope, “Maybe she will drop dead on the doorstep. Fancy, dear, would you like to see Granny drop dead on the doorstep?”  […]

“I am going to pray for it as long as I live,” said young Mrs Halloran, folding her hands together devoutly.
“Shall I push her?” Fancy asked. “Like she pushed my daddy?”

As for Mrs Halloran herself, when asked by her invalid husband Richard:

“Did you marry me for my father’s money?”

“Well, that, and the house.”

Over the next few pages we are also introduced to Aunt Fanny (Richard’s spinster sister); Essex – the house librarian and Miss Ogilvie – Fancy’s governess, and the scene is set for constant bickering between the lot of them. Now that she is in charge of the house again, Mrs Halloran decides to let Essex and Miss Ogilvie go, and tells them so. However, an event happens (and we’re still in the first chapter), that will change everything…

Fancy and Aunt Fanny are walking in the further reaches of the garden. Fancy runs off and Aunt Fanny is temporarily lost and panics, but eventually finds her way to the huge sundial – in the middle of the front lawn and inscribed with the words “WHAT IS THIS WORLD?” – only to be faced with an apparition of her own long-dead father who tells her that the end of the world is coming and that only those in the house will survive. She makes it back inside and faints.

“The experiment with humanity is at an end,” Aunt Fanny said.
“Splendid,” Mrs Halloran said. “I was getting very tired of all of them.”
“The imbalance of the universe is being corrected. Dislocations have been adjusted. Harmony is to be restored, inperfections erased.”

The strangest thing is that Mrs Halloran decides to take Aunt Fanny’s ramblings seriously. She senses the opportunity for a real powerplay with herself as Queen Bee.

At this point, Jackson injects some new characters into the narrative. Mrs Willow and her two daughters, ‘friends’ of Mrs Halloran. Then Gloria, the daughter of a cousin turns up unexpectedly. With all this upheaval Essex and Miss Ogilvie are given a reprieve, (for of course Essex will have to be one of the sires of the new race after the apocalypse).

More new characters appear – amongst them we meet the Misses Devonshire who run a shop in the village; Edna’s True Believers who believe that aliens will be landing at the end of August, and the household acquires another male ‘the captain’, who is obviously not, but plays along with everything. Aunt Fanny sets about provisioning the house, meaning that the library has to be converted to a storeroom – and they burn the books – criminal! They discover that Gloria can see ‘visions’ in an oiled mirror and these confirm what is to happen…

You all know the story of Chicken Licken who believed the sky was going to fall on his head? It’s a much-loved tale that Disney had adapted in 1943 in an animated short made for the purpose of discrediting Nazism, his version having the moral of don’t believe everything you read. Jackson may well have been influenced by that with Aunt Fanny as Chicken Licken and Mrs Halloran the unscrupulous and manipulative fox. But, in the late 1950s the Cold War was really ramping up. In the timeline of the Cold War, in 1957 the US strategic air command was put on 24/7 alert against pre-emptive strike from Soviet ICBMs (not stood down until 1991!), and in November that year a report urged Eisenhower to review defense capabilities and build fallout shelters for US citizens. Aunt Fanny’s bunker mentality is well to the fore here.

Jackson takes all these elements of Gothic melodrama and puts them in a pressure cooker which will eventually explode in a brilliantly conceived ending. The humour, as we’ve seen, is often wickedly dark and the old Mrs Halloran is positively Machiavellian in her plans – I don’t think I’ve ever read such a funny apocalyptic novel.

My only quibble is that during the first third or so, I found it hard to keep up with who was who. Apart from some periods of extended description of the house and garden, the novel is almost all dialogue, and you have to keep your wits about you to know who said what, especially as Jackson is free and easy toggling between the formal names and Christian names of most of the characters or leaving the dialogue unfettered by not noting who said it. This confusion only increased whenever new ones were introduced, but the pace of the drama keeps you going.

Ultimately I preferred WHALITC, but The Sundial is also mighty fine (9.5/10) and, if the world were to end at the end of August, I’ll have had a good time that weekend at Jamie Oliver’s and Alex James’s Big Feastival so can go out on a high!!!

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Source: Own copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Penguin Modern Classics), paperback, 176 pages.
The Sundial (Penguin Modern Classics), paperback, 240 pages.

British Writing is Not All Grey

fiction uncovered logo

You’ll have seen this popping up around the blogosphere, originating from a call by Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize Director Sophie Rochester to celebrate contemporary British writing. People have been using it as a hashtag #britishwritingisnotallGrey on Twitter etc; Naomi blogged about it here and Susan here. So I’ve decided to join in and add my list of contemporary/living British writers I particularly enjoy and have blogged about into the mix – here they are, with links to my posts featuring them:

….. and these are only a selection of those I’ve blogged about!

Little Big Readalong update

Little Big by John Crowley

little big pbkI had such good intentions back here joining in with the Little Big readalong, but already I’ve got seriously waylaid by Shiny New Books and other things, not the least of which is that I’m now behind on Anthony Powell because I started my Annabel’s Shelves project. I once did one of those personality tests and came out as a Creator-Innovator – which means that I’m bad on following through… Yup! That’s me.

This is my excuse for saying that I’m putting re-reading Little Big on hold having made it only to page 75. The key reason for this is that I’m struggling to get into it. There is just so much description – it’s like Donna Tartt with added parentheses. It’s not that the language or style is difficult, it isn’t, but it is leisurely and I’m less time-tolerant of this quality in a text these days. Mea culpa.

However, there were bits I loved – in particular Edgewood having a multiplicity of fronts to it:

“This used to be the front,” Daily Alice said. “Then they built the garden and the wall; so the back became the front. It was a font anyway. And now this is the back front.” She straddled the bench, and picked up a twig, at the same time drawing out with her pinkie a glittering hair that had blown between her lips. She scratched a quick five-pointed star in the dirt. Smoky looked at it, and at the tautness of her jeans. “That’s not really it,” she said, looking birdwise at her star, “but sort of. See, it’s a house all fronts. It was built to be a sample. My great=grandfather? Who I wrote you about? He built this house to be a sample, so people could come and look at it, from any side, and choose which kind of house they wanted; that’s why the inside is so crazy. It’s so many houses, sort of put inside each other or across each other, with their fronts sticking out.”

Pop -up books from Smithsonian Institution's Libraries Movable books collection

Pop -up books from Smithsonian Institution’s Libraries Movable books collection

That image is amazing, but rather than the sides of a star or polygon, it made me think of pop-up books… turn the page and a new structure pops up from the folds of the book.

I hope to find another time when I’ll have the patience to savour Little Big

The first Little bit of a Big novel…

Just to say I’m joining in the readalong  of the modern classic fantasy novel Little Big by John Crowley this May, hosted by Dolce Belezza, together with Helen of A Gallimaufry and Tom of Wuthering Expectations.

little big uk pbkI read this book back in the early 1980s when it first came out in paperback – I remember I was drawn to the cover (left) with those blues and violets like a magnet. It’s 25 years old this year, and it’s fair to say I’ve forgotten almost everything about the actual novel. I almost exclusively read fantasy and science fiction back in those days, devouring without remembering much of it.

little big pbk

The edition I currently own (rescued from a charity shop) has more of a Gothic feel to the cover with the sepia photograph and gives me the impression somehow of being an American version of Gormenghast (which wouldn’t be a bad thing?). We’ll see, but it begins thus:

On a certain day in June, 19–, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but had never visited. His name was Smoky Barnable, and he was going to Edgewood to get married; the fact that he walked and didn’t ride was one of the conditions placed on his coming there at all.

Given Little, Big‘s reputation as one of the best fantasy novels of the later 20th century, I’m very much looking forward to getting stuck into the world of Smoky Barnable and Daily Alice Drinkwater once more.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
Little, Big (FANTASY MASTERWORKS) by John Crowley, 1981. Gollancz paperback, 560 pages.

A new TBR project

Annabels Shelves

Dear Readers – I’ve been inspired!

Simon recently wrote a review of a book previously unknown to me called The Shelf by Phyllis Rose on the lovely new incarnation of his blog Stuck in a Book. In this book, the author reads a shelf of books in her local library – the good, the bad and the ugly, and uses them to discuss the joys of reading. I can’t resist books like this – especially as it’s subtitled An Adventure in Extreme Reading – I’ve ordered a copy!

Given my failure in sticking to the TBR dare this year and the never-decreasing size of my TBR piles, I thought I could adapt The Shelf‘s principles to my bookcases.

So my project – Annabel’s Shelves is born with its own page up top.

It’s very simple –

  • I will read my way through my big bookshelves as on my header from A-Z.
  • I will start by picking a book by an author or title beginning with A, and then move on to B etc.
  • I will read one book per month – or more if I feel like it but it must be from these TBR bookshelves.
  • I hope that when I get to Z – I’ll want to start again.

Those are the only rules, but I plan to concentrate on new to me authors and modern classics rather than some of the comfort reads that I know are up there.

I’m not asking anyone else to join in – I have no cast-iron schedule for this.  But, as I borrowed the basic premise from elsewhere, do feel free to whatever you like with the idea!

I’ll choose my first book from the shelves later – so here’s your chance to suggest some authors/titles to me beginning with

A-3

(Letter from Daily Drop Cap)

More fool me? …

tbr-dare-2014It’s April 1 – and the end of the TBR dare, so time for an update.

If you consider only the books I’ve reviewed for this blog, I only cheated fully once and partially twice!

The full cheat was the pair of Quick Reads titles I squeezed in on convenient train journeys.
The partial cheats were: The Helios Disaster by Linda Bostrum Knausgard – which I had originally planned to review for Shiny New Books, but found too weird and my thoughts too bitty to write a coherent full-length piece for Shiny, and Lurid & Cute by Adam Thirlwell – another Shiny read which I disliked so much I couldn’t finish it!

Including those above, I have read 34 books so far this year, of which 16 were on my TBR before Jan 1st and 14 are Shiny Reviews for issues 4 in January and issue 5 coming next week and were excluded from the TBR Dare accordingly.  I hope that James, TBR Dare host, will forgive me for my partial participation this year. As ever, my intentions were good – but I am fooling myself if I didn’t realise I had so many reviews to read/write for Shiny!

Needless to say, I have read some cracking books for Issue 5 of Shiny including several wonderful debuts, a couple of non-fiction titles, a much-loved re-read and that new novel by ‘Ish’…

Back to normal soon.

 

A Dance to the Music of Time 3: The Acceptance World

Dancing Powell

The Acceptance World

Dance 3 Acceptance World
We come to the third volume in Anthony Powell’s series – the last of the ‘Spring’ books. (If you’d like to catch up with volumes one and two, click accordingly.)

The Acceptance World begins with Nick Jenkins meeting his Uncle Giles at a hotel for tea. There he is introduced to Mrs Erdleigh who tells their fortunes, saying to Nick that she’ll meet him again in a year – strange company for his Uncle Giles!

At work, Jenkins is publishing a book on a noted painter of political portraits and businessmen and has approached St.John Clarke (apparently based upon John Galsworthy) to write the introduction. One of his old college contemporaries had been Clarke’s secretary, but Jenkins finds he has been replaced by on Quiggin – who has, it appears, steered Clarke in a different political direction.  Jenkins discusses Clarke’s situation being under the thumb of his new secretary with his friend Barnby:

‘I don’t think St.John Clark is interested in either sex,’ said Barnby. ‘He fell in love with himself at first sight and it is a passion to which he has always remained faithful.’

Some time later, Jenkins meets his old school-friend Peter Templer again and is invited to join them for a weekend.

That we had ceased to meet fairly regularly was due no doubt to some extent to Templer’s chronic inability – as our housemaster Le Bas would have said – to ‘keep up’ a friendship. He moved entirely within the orbit of events of the moment, looking neither forward nor backward. If we happened to run across each other, we arranged to do something together; not otherwise.

The particular excitement of this reuniting for Jenkins is that he finds out that Jean, Peter’s sister, appears to be separated from her husband DuPort. Jenkins had had a youthful passion for Jean, and this is reignited and they rekindle their affair.  In between all this there is a lot of complicated discussion about who’s seeing whom, who’s divorced whom and such shenanigans!

Jenkins is reunited with his old schoolfriends at his old housemaster’s dinner for old boys at the Ritz. Stringham is drunk and Widmerpool makes a very long and involved and very boring speech – during which Le Bas has a stroke! I shouldn’t cheer at other people’s misfortunes, but it was a great penultimate scene to bring Widmerpool back into play. He had been mentioned earlier, but hadn’t appeared until then.  It is Widmerpool who is moving from industry into the city and joining the ‘Acceptance World’.  I can hear you asking what that is – here is how Templer describes it to Nick:

‘If you have goods you want to sell to a firm in Bolivia, you probably do not touch your money in the ordinary way until the stuff arrives there. Certain houses, therefore, are prepared to ‘accept’ the debt. They will advance you the money on the strength of your reputation. It is all right when the going is good, but sooner or later you are tempted to plunge. Then there is an alteration in the value of the Bolivian exchange, or a revolution, or perhaps the firm just goes bust – and you find yourself stung. That is, if you guess wrong.’

Any clearer?  I assume they refer to the futures and/or bond markets…

There are other forms of acceptance at work in this novel too. Nick, who does have to work for a living, is becoming accepted in all the walks of society in which he moves. He seems more mature than most of his friends, and while not immune to love affairs, is not the type to swap partners that way most of the others seem to do with monotonous regularity.  For his capricious upper class  friends, marriage and divorce don’t seem to mean a lot.  Nick, as Widmerpool has too, has resisted marriage – how long can they last as bachelors?  What will happen to Peter and Jean?

Widmerpool’s appearance aside, volume three was a lot more serious than the first two, and I missed the comedy he brings with him. I know I have a Widmerpool-fest to come in the next novel – the first of the ‘Summer’ books.  I’m looking forward to April’s Powell episode. (7.5/10)

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Source: Own Copy.
To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
The Acceptance World: Vol 3 (Dance to the Music of Time 03) by Anthony Powell (1955), approx 224 pages.

A Dance to the Music of Time 2: A Buyer’s Market

Dancing Powell

A Buyer’s Market

So we come to the second volume of Anthony Powell’s sequence of twelve novels. If you’d like to catch up with my summary of the first part follow the link to A Question of Upbringing.

It’s now the late 1920s and Jenkins is living and working in London for a publisher of art books. As the novel begins he reminisces in his narration about Mr Deacon, an ageing artist of middling reputation he had met in Paris:

Mr Deacon was grown-up still: I myself, on the other hand, had changed. There was still distance to travel, but I was on the way to drawing level with Mr Deacon, as a fellow grown-up, himself no longer a figment of memory from childhood, but visible proof that life had existed in much the same way before I had begun to any extent to take part; and would, without doubt, continue to prevail long after he and I had ceased to participate.

powell 2
The ensuing story is inspired by Jenkins’ memory of seeing a painting (just as Vol 1 began), this time an indifferent picture by Deacon, hung inconspicuously in the house of the Walpole-Wilsons, Jenkins’ hosts for a house-party. Jenkins is always a little in love with someone – this time, it’s Barbara Walpole-Wilson – but hidebound as he is by the rules of society, she is probably unattainable whereas her sister Eleanor would be. Powell, however, in a rare example of only using a few words instead of a hundred, has Barbara mordently describe her thus :

Barbara used to say: ‘Eleanor should never have been removed from the country. It is cruelty to animals.’

I’m sure that in time Nick will find the right girl for him. Having concentrated upon the old boys’ network in the first novel and making useful contacts to get one’s career kick-started, volume two is largely concerned with establishing oneself in society and finding a mate. Nick sounds out one of his dinner companions, Lady Anne Stepney, about her sister Peggy, whom his old school-friend Stringham had had a thing for:

‘As a matter of fact, Peggy hasn’t spoken of Charles Stringham for ages,’ she said.
She did not actually toss her head – as girls are sometimes said to do in books – but that would have been the gesture appropriate to the tone in which she made this comment.

Jenkins is so easily distracted by the fairer sex!

One seeming obstacle to his progress is his continued association with Widmerpool, who crops up all over the place like an eternal gooseberry, often getting in the way and making Jenkins wonder how he comes to be invited to these dos, and:

It suddenly struck me that after all these years of knowing him I still had no idea of Widmerpool’s Christian name.

Widmerpool will be subjected to several humiliations throughout the novel and laughed at by his companions; Nick to his credit, although ever the observer, doesn’t join in. Widmerpool seems (at this stage anyway) doomed to fail in the romance stakes but we will find out that he is not without desires. He is, however, obviously useful in the business and government circles in which he works and is acquiring a solid reputation therein. Again, Widmerpool is the most intriguing character in the novel.

Many of the others from A Question of Upbringing pop in and out of the narrative from time to time. Sillery turns up at a decadent party; Uncle Giles gets a mention or two – including his abhorence of ‘champagne, beards and tiaras’, and Nick’s first love Jean will make an eventful reappearance – sparking in Nick a ‘sudden burst of sexual jealousy’.

In their twenties, life is one long social whirl for these Bright Young Things moving in the higher echelons of society – it really is a buyer’s market. Just imagine if the Tinder app had been around for this lot!

Again written in four long chapters echoing the seasons, A Buyer’s Market ends back with Mr Deacon bringing the year full circle, and finally – Jenkins finds out Widmerpool’s forename.

This time, knowing Powell’s style with it’s long convoluted sentences full of sub-clauses, I was able to jump into the text and enjoy it fully finding much more humour in particular. Having introduced us to the main characters at length in volume one, the narrative takes off launching us fully into their lives. I really enjoyed it – although the title of volume three, The Acceptance World, infers a seriousness to come – or is it just an initial settling down?  Back next month!  (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thank you):

A Question Of Upbringing (Dance to the Music of Time 01)
A Buyer’s Market: Vol 2 (Dance to the Music of Time 02)

 

A Dance to the Music of Time 1: A Question of Upbringing

Dancing Powell

A Question of Upbringing 

Looking out of his window at some workmen around a brazier, Nicholas Jenkins is reminded of the four seasons on Poussin’s celebrated painting (detail above), and the passing of time in his life.

The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving had in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the stesp of the dance. Classical associations made me think, too, or days at school, where so many forces, hiterto unfamiliar, had become in due course uncompromisingly clear.

Powell 1Immediately we are introduced to one of the key characters in the series – Kenneth Widmerpool, going for a run on a foggy winter’s day. Widmerpool is a bit of an enigma, he ‘himself had proved indigestible to the community.’ Outsider he may be, but even later in this first volume, we will come to see his strength of character, and sense that he will endure.

Our narrator Jenkins, now enters the school boarding house and we meet his slightly older roommates – Stringham and Templer. On first glance, Stringham seems a good sort and Templer more mischievous, but after Jenkins’s Uncle Giles comes to visit and nearly gets them expelled by lighting a cigarette, it is Stringham that plays a particularly evil practical joke on housemaster Le Bas after noticing his resemblance to a wanted criminal. Stringham gets away with it too.

It is the boys’ last year at school; Stringham leaves early to stay in Kenya for a while. Jenkins spends some time with Templer’s family in London, falling madly in love with his sister Jean and experiencing the Templer brand of practical joke on a poor chap residing with them called Sunny Farebrother. Then in the summer he goes off to an educational establishment in France where he falls in love with someone else – and encounters Widmerpool again before going up to university where he begins to see how the old boys network really works when he is adopted by one of the professors, (think Slughorn ‘collecting’ Harry Potter for an analogy).

These four sections of school, London, France and university form the four long chapters of the novel – its own seasons if you will.

We find out very little about Jenkins himself – he doesn’t give much away, just observes and absorbs rather than doing much himself. Is he just a hanger on? I guess we’ll see, but he certainly seemed like that in this first volume. In a way he reminded me of Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, another accepted outsider narrator.

Stringham and Templer and their well-heeled families were straight out of the bright young things of the 1920s. Uncle Giles however, who crops up several times, is a sort of failed Army officer who’s slightly on his uppers and needing a new opportunity in life – I hope we’ll hear more of him. The one character I long for more of though is Widmerpool – he is so intriguing, and seems bound to make something of himself despite what others may think.

Powell’s language is rich and dense and took some getting used to. I’m glad he started us off with Jenkins’s schooldays, as the scenario is familiar enough to give one time to get into the habit of reading his typically long sentences, which meant I was able to cope with this 70 word one by page 149!

The curious thing was that, although quite aware that a sentiment of attraction towards Suzette was merely part of an instinct that had occasioned Peter’s ‘unfortunate incident’ – towards which I was conscious of no sense of disapproval – my absorption in the emotional disturbance caused by Jean and Suzette seemed hardly at all connected with the taking of what had been, even in Templer’s case, a fairly violent decision.

So to summarise, volume one is really a scene-setting introduction – enjoyable in its way, but promising many more riches to come. I shall definitely proceed onto number two – A Buyer’s Market. (8/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Question Of Upbringing (Dance to the Music of Time 01) by Anthony Powell, Arrow paperback 240 pages. Other editions available.