Saturday, November 21, 2009

And the winner is ...

Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith. We will discuss the book beginning on January 31st. I hope you enjoy it!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Time to choose again!

It's my turn to choose a book for the Slaves of Golconda readng group. As I was thinking about what to put on the list of choices, I remembered reading about a course called "Transatlantic Women Modernists" that Fernham is teaching and finding myself jotting down a bunch of books to add to my TBR list. So I thought perhaps others would find the list interesting too. My choices are drawn from that syllabus or this list.

So please vote on which book you would like to read by Friday, November 20th, and I'll tally the results. I thought it might make sense to delay our discussion until the end of January, instead of the end of December, so the discussion will begin on Sunday, January 31st.

  1. Nella Larson's Passing. From Amazon: "The tale is simple on the surface--a few adventures in Chicago and New York's high life, with lots of real people and race-mixing events described ... But underneath, it seethes with rage, guilt, sex, and complex deceptions. Irene fears losing her black husband to Clare, who seems increasingly predatory. Or is this all in Irene's mind? And is everyone wearing a mask? Larsen's book is a scary hall of mirrors, a murder mystery that can't resolve itself. It sticks with you."
  2. Stevie Smith's Novel on Yellow Paper. From Wikipedia: "Stevie Smith's first novel is structured as the random typings of a bored secretary, Pompey. She plays word games, retells stories from classical and popular culture, remembers events from her childhood, gossips about her friends and describes her family, particularly her beloved Aunt."
  3. Jessie Fauset's There is Confusion. From Amazon: "Jessie Redmon Fauset's first novel shows a prescient awareness of the black middle class's quest for social equality in the early twentieth century and of the limited vocational choices confronting both black and white American women in that era. Set in Philadelphia some 60 years ago, There Is Confusion traces the lives of Joanna Mitchell and Peter Bye, whose families must come to terms with an inheritance of prejudice and discrimination as they struggle for legitimacy and respect."
  4. Sylvia Townsend Warner's Summer Will Show. Here's the beginning of Amazon's description: "Sophia Willoughby, a young Englishwoman from an aristocratic family and a person of strong opinions and even stronger will, has packed her cheating husband off to Paris. He can have his tawdry mistress. She intends to devote herself to the serious business of raising her two children in proper Tory fashion. Then tragedy strikes: the children die, and Sophia, in despair, finds her way to Paris, arriving just in time for the revolution of 1848."

I hope something here strikes your interest! Everyone is welcome to join us. Leave your email in the comments if you would like to join the group.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


On Halloween, it’s interesting to wonder what exactly it is that makes things scary. The Slaves of Golconda have read The Woman in Black this month and it is a classic ghost story that combines all the usual elements – a lonely, isolated house linked to the mainland by a causeway over marshes that flood, local villagers who refuse to speak of the place, tragedies of the past recounted in a bundle of letters, and a ghostly figure in black with a ravaged, wasted face who is out to seek evil revenge. It’s well known territory but sometimes even the most reliable of literary codes and conventions can fail. My son saw the West End production of The Woman in Black on a school trip and I asked him how it was. ‘It was good, and quite scary in parts,’ he said. ‘But there was one moment when the characters were supposed to be saving a dog from quicksand, and there were only these two actors on stage, and no real dog, so watching them trying to pull an invisible dog to safety was quite funny really.’ It’s a terrible bit in the book, one that has real dramatic tension, but I could quite see how it would take some acting skills to express the peril of a drowning dog on a London stage with no dog in sight. Fear, like pain, relies enormously on the power of the imagination to anticipate consequences. But unlike pain, which is best evoked by the instrument that will inflict it, fear needs a dose of the unknown to be effective. We have to not know what will happen next, to be radically uncertain, before fear can really take hold.

Having read so many other wonderful reviews of the book (and just click over to the site if you want to see them), I felt I should do something different and think about what it is that lies beneath the figure of the ghost in literature. The word ‘ghost’ itself originates in the German Geist, which is defined as a spirit, an inspiring principle. To be human is to have a spirit or a soul, and the difficulty of confronting our mortality often leads to the belief that what must remain after death is this very spirit. But ghosts in stories show themselves to be more than just any old human spirit, hanging around still once the party is over. Ghosts are always in limbo, and they induce anxiety or they set tasks for those still living. Literary criticism borrows the mathematical term ‘the indivisible remainder’ to talk about them – it means the bit that gets left over, the small, niggling element that remains when every other part of the equation is finished, after all the other numbers have neatly folded in on themselves and disappeared. Ghosts represent the indivisible remainder of life; problems unresolved, and emotions of fear, rage, horror, distress, that are too big for the grave to swallow them up. The neat and tidy borderline between life and death becomes blurred by the appearance of the ghost, as does the boundary between what is real and what is fantastic. They are there to trouble what ought to be most certain to human life by suggesting that something will always elude cooption into the clear-cut or the fenced-in. It’s one reason why ghost stories so often begin with a scene of exquisite comfort – roaring fires, a happy, assembled company, houses locked up tight against the winter chill. Even, maybe especially, in the most secure environment, fear and horror and grief can find its way in, seeping through the cracks and chinks in the best domestic armour.

But the appearance of the ghost is not always understood as an intrusive threat to mental and emotional serenity. The experience of being haunted is usually described as being indistinguishable from the experience of mental anguish, and associated with melancholia, alienation and anxiety. (Arthur Kipps in The Woman in Black has to be on his own, in the dark and cold, cut off from the possibility of rescue and invaded by a sense of despair for the black fear to really descend on him). But this is often only as an imperative to action. Many ghosts come to awaken an ethical imperative in the haunted, to ensure justice for the future as well as appeasement for the past. Whatever has been left undone, whatever cannot be subsumed into family or social history, becomes the burden of the next generation. The Gothic genre is particularly keen on this ambivalence between horror and justice. The vindictive, chain-rattling ghosts of its tales haunt family homes in order to indicate the presence of a terrible secret, usually one that threatens the legitimate transfer of an inheritance. If there’s one thing the Victorians were really afraid of, it’s that the family bloodline would be corrupted, the money diverted and the house passed on to the undeserving.

So most ghost stories, of whatever kind, press for resolution and closure. For uncovering secrets, healing old wounds and tidying up the essential human boundaries. And they derive their fear factor from the great nebulous unknown that surrounds human anguish and the unexplained pull of the past. What we don’t know DOES hurt us, often in surprising ways.

the woman in black by susan hill

Malevolence. Something grand about the word, and the way it flows off the tongue. I think of Maleficent in Disney's Sleeping Beauty, the evil fairy who seeks to take the life of Princess Aurora on her sixteenth birthday in vengeance for not being invited to a party. Yes, a little over the top but that is the appeal. A villain who is powerful beyond the constraints of mere mortal existence, who has an appeal outside of the conventionally acceptable. Someone who indulges our desire for the fun of a good fright at a removed and safe distance from actual peril. The word malevolence is on my mind today not just because of Halloween, but because I just finished Susan Hill's classic ghost story, The Woman in Black, a book where the word malevolence serves as a literal refrain in the prose.

The Woman in Black is a quick and compelling ghost story that should be read in one sitting if at all possible. The book begins in the safety and happiness of a family at Christmas sharing ghost stories beneath the lit Christmas tree. However, the father in this family refuses to offer a story, not seeing the fun in such an exchange. It is soon revealed that he has real ghosts to exorcise from his past. He vows to do just this by writing the entire story down rather than burdening his family with these disturbing truths from his youth.

As a young solicitor, Arthur Kipps is given the task of visiting the remote Eel Marsh House to attend the funeral of a longtime firm client and settle her estate. At the funeral, he glimpses a woman he assumes to be a fellow mourner, but is set ill at ease by her sickly appearance and the dated clothes she wears. He feels compassion for her but does not yet suspect the reality of her presence. He feels a mild sense of foreboding as the town's people refuse to discuss the house or the circumstances that bring him to Crythin Gifford. The next day, after he is left at the remotely located house of the deceased client, he begins to realize the eeriness of his present circumstances when he spies the woman in black again, this time on the estate's old burial grounds.

"In the greyness of the fading light, it had the sheen and pallor not of flesh so much as of bone itself. Earlier, when I had looked at her, although admittedly it had been scarcely more than a swift glance each time, I had not noticed any particular expression on her ravaged face, but then I had, after all, been entirely taken with the look of extreme illness. Now, however, as I stared at her, stared until my eyes ached in the sockets, stared in surprise and bewilderment at her presence, now I saw that her face did wear an expression. It was one of what I can only describe - and the words seem hopelessly inadequate to express what I saw - as a desperate, yearning malevolence; it was as though she were searching for something she wanted, needed -must have, more than life itself, and which had been taken from her. And, towards whoever had taken it she directed the purest evil and hatred and loathing, with all the force that was available to her."

I will stop there as who really wants spoilers with a story like this? The Woman in Black is not the best book I have ever read, but it is really good fun. The story is well-delivered in a manner that lightly mirrors both the language and the ghost-telling conventions of the time in which it was set. Hill does a wonderful job with the atmospherics (you will feel the threat of the very specifically described personified and menacing fog), and, if read at one sitting, you will feel the dread than terror of the protagonist yourself. Yes, you may see the ending coming 40 pages before it actually arrives. Yes, you may be frustrated at the young solicitor's stubborn determination to return and sleep over at the house he senses contains some undetermined evil. But that is all part of the fun isn't it? Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Woman in Black

33044525 I’ll admit I’m a newbie when it comes to ghost stories. I’ve read some, I’m sure, but it was a long, long time ago, and I don’t remember any details. So I don’t have much of a basis of comparison to work with here. What this book taught me, though, is that the circumstances in which one reads a ghost story matter a lot. Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black is only 150 pages long and probably should be read in as close to one sitting as possible. When I had the chance to sit down with this book for more than a few minutes at a time, I got caught up in the atmosphere and enjoyed myself. When I read only small pieces of it before putting it down again to go on to something else, I became too distanced from the story to feel much of the spookiness and suspense.

I did enjoy the illustrations in my edition of the book (the one pictured above); the black and white sketches helped create a sense of what the almost other-worldly landscape must have looked like. I enjoyed the atmosphere the book created more than the story itself; the story is fairly simple and straightforward and not so difficult to figure out, even for someone like me who is generally very bad at figuring things out. But Hill does atmosphere very well, and I liked the descriptions of the town where the people obviously have deep, dark secrets; the house separated from the town by a causeway that is under water when the tide is in; the absolutely unforthcoming driver who carries the main character back and forth; and the terrifyingly shifty and treacherous quicksand reminiscent of the shivering sands in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone.

The story is told by an older man, Arthur Kipps, who is surrounded by his happy family but haunted by memories. He decides to write his story down to try to make his ghostly memories disappear once and for all. The story he has to tell takes place when he was much younger, an innocent and confident young man, eager to make his way in the world. He receives an assignment to sort through the papers of a woman who has recently died, a Mrs. Drablow who lives on the coast and who, he discovers, no one in the town wants to discuss. While at Mrs. Drablow’s funeral, Arthur sees a woman who has seemingly come out of nowhere and who suffers from a some kind of a wasting disease. He asks about her later, but it turns out no one else has seen her, and no one will answer his questions about her. He brushes this aside and continues on with his work, but, of course, this is not the last he sees of the mysterious woman.

And then we are plunged into a familiar dynamic: Arthur knows he is getting himself into a very strange, very creepy situation, and the more time he spends at Mrs. Drablow’s house the more this feeling is confirmed, but he is determined to do his work well, no matter what the consequences. Why should he let a ghostly woman dressed in black keep him from completing his task? Why should he be afraid of spending the night in Mrs. Drablow’s house, even when he knows it is haunted?

Well, he learns why. I liked the fact that — and now I will get to some spoilers — the plot revolves around a mother who is forced to give up her child born out of wedlock. To separate a mother and child is to violate the natural order to such a horrific extent that a terrible revenge is sure to follow. Hill makes clear that the fate of women who have made “mistakes” in love may vary, but it is never good:

A girl from the servant class, living in a closely-bound community, might perhaps have fared better, sixty or so years before, than this daughter of genteel parentage, who had been so coldly rejected and whose feelings were so totally left out of the count. Yet servant girls in Victorian England had, I knew, often been driven to murder or abandon their misconceived children. At least Jennet had known that her son was alive and had been given a good home.

The community has a whole has had to pay a high price for this cruelty. Individual families might perpetrate the wrong on an immediate level, but it is a cultural sin and the culture pays.

On a lighter level, I also liked the role the dog Spider played. Spider was probably the character I cared about most, in fact. The scene where she almost gets lost in the quicksand is the most harrowing one in the book. One of the most frightening things I can think of is a dog who is thoroughly freaked out and frightened for reasons we can’t understand. Surely that dog knows something we don’t?

I didn’t think this was a great book, but I thought it was a competent one, and it makes me a little more curious than I was before about other ghost stories and about what else Susan Hill has written.

If you would like to read more posts on the book, check out the Slaves of Golconda blog and the discussion forums. I hope to see you there!


I had high expectations for The Woman in Black by Susan Hill because it seems so many blogging book people loved it. Well, I must say I was disappointed. There were three things that combined to make me not care for the book:

  1. There is so much foreshadowing and foreboding for the first half of the book without anything happening that I began to wonder how the actuality could meet the build up. I grew skeptical instead of anticipatory and the more hints of doom that were tossed out the more I doubted so that something really spectacular was going to have to happen in order for things to turn around for me. When the woman in black finally made an appearance my response was, that’s it? I tried to rescue it by thinking how I would feel if I saw something unexplainable like that, but I just couldn’t manage it.

  2. It also didn’t help that as soon as Arthur began reading Jennet’s letters I figured everything out except for one or two minor details. Thus any kind of surprise that could have been had in later revelations was nonexistent.

  3. I could not shake the feeling that I had read this book before even though I am 99% sure I have not. Nor have I seen the movie. This distracted me throughout the book because part of my brain was off trying to figure out why the book was so darn familiar.

So let’s leave my dislike of it behind and look instead on an essential feature of all scary stories: curiosity. There was plenty of curiosity on display in Arthur, our intrepid narrator. If he hadn’t been curious about why everyone was so tightlipped about the Drablow estate he had come to deal with there would not have been a story. And what about the noises coming from the locked room? If he wasn't curious we'd never know what was in there and the story would end. All horror stories need someone who is curious in order to move the plot ahead.

The curious, it seems to me, are generally the ones who are innocent, ignorant, or just plain stupid. In Arthur's case it was a combination of innocence and ignorance. The townspeople of Crythin Gifford were neither ignorant nor innocent because the town had been so affected by what happened at the Drablow house. It therefore took an outsider to tell the story.

You and I sitting and reading (or watching a movie) in a safe and cozy place have it easy. We can call the character who dares walk into the haunted room crazy because we have the luxury of the events not happening to us. But guaranteed, as much as we may protest and say "I'd never go in that room," if we ever found ourselves in a similar situation we very likely would find our curiosity overbalancing our fear. Because that's the thing about people, we may be utterly terrified but at the same time we want to know what is behind that door or out in the fog. Our curiosity gets the best of us. That and, perhaps, a bit of disbelief or skepticism regarding what is happening. It could not be real. Could it? Even Arthur questions if the things he saw and heard were "real" and that leads him to doubt reality altogether. Once we begin to doubt reality we are done for.

I may not have enjoyed the story of The Woman in Black but it did get me thinking a little on what makes scary work or not work. So in that sense, the book isn't a complete loss.

Cross posted at So Many Books

The Woman in Black - Susan Hill

The stage adaptation of ‘The Woman in Black’ is probably one of the scariest things I’ve ever been to see. Screams came from the stalls whenever the woman in black appeared on stage. During the final scene in the haunted house, there was an inward hiss of breath, as the people sitting close to the stage tried to brace themselves for the appearance of the woman in black, who would surely violently attack Arthur Kipps as he surveyed the devastated nursery. But she never appeared, Arthur creeps around the room in silence, then flees the house and somehow that was more terrifying than anything else that has happened during the performance. Our tension was denied a release and we all kept our guard up until the end of the performance, which just meant that our nerves were more easily tweaked by the shocking finale.

This restraint and simplicity is exactly what makes the original novel so terrifying. Simple, everyday sounds and sights are perverted by the malevolent ghost who haunts the house Arthur is sent to, after his solicitor’s firm is told that a client of theirs has died. A row of small children, the sound of a pony and trap, a noise from Arthur’s childhood, all these things take on sinister associations as the mysterious lady in black uses them to show Arthur her power. These are tiny things, by themselves, but as they are repeated throughout the novel the reader learns to equate them with fear and evil, filling them with a horrifying significance and potency.

The images and sounds that Hill chooses to repeat, in order to create this building effect of horror are sparse and simple, for example the clip clop of a pony’s hooves is a crisp, ringing sound. It’s hard to describe why this particular simplicity of sound or image conjures such fear, without unpicking the years of cultural baggage that each reader loads them with, but my best attempt would be that they are pared back to the absolute core of a sound, or image and that the pure, undecorated reality of them strikes the emotional nucleus of the reader. Arthur’s narrative, which is generally full of energetic delight in nature and the surrounding landscapes, is descriptive, but sharply so, conjuring exact images that are easy to visualize, for example ‘I saw a blackbird on a hollybush a few feet away and heard him open his mouth to pour out a sparkling fountain of song in the November sunlight’. He also describes his observation of the ghostly apparitions with similar clear, piercing detail that does not over or under explain what he sees. This creates sobering moments of sinister simplicity, almost anxious tranquillity if that’s even possible, for example:

‘Lined up along the iron railings that surrounded the small asphalt yard of the school were twenty or so children, one to a gap. They presented a row of solemn faces with great, rounded eyes, that had watched who knew how much of the mournful proceedings, and their little hands held the railings tight, and they were all of them quite silent, quite motionless.'

This style of description, measured and methodical, but also evocative and precise forces the reader to fully absorb the details of the scene and crystallises the pictures in the reader’s mind, transmitting the full horror of a particular scene.

Can there be more great stuff in such a short book? Well yes, there’s the narrator Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor sent to the sleepy market town of Crythin Gifford, to venture across the marshes and sort through the paper’s of Mrs Drablow, his firm’s recently deceased client. At heart Arthur is an energetic, sensible man keen on nature and bicycling, with no time for dark hints and superstitious tales. Yet, more and more he feels the hypnotic quality of the landscape around Mr Drablow’s house, the ‘glittering, beckoning, silver marshes’ and the sadness that lingers in the house.

What struck me most about Arthur is that while initially he believes himself too sophisticated to be influenced by tales and strange occurrences, he is sensible enough to trust the evidence of his own senses and to know that there’s no point in being courageous around spirits. That’s something that sets him apart from the narrator of ‘The Mist in the Mirror’ (which I read a month ago) who is so stubborn and prideful that he alienates the fearful reader, who would quite happily run away from ghosts. Arthur is a hero the reader can identify with and feel proud to spend time with, even as he flees the ghostly woman.

Last night, thoroughly freaked and happy that Spider the dog has made it out alive I shoved this book between the heaviest two volumes I could find. At the start of the RIP challenge I said I wanted to be gloriously scared and ‘The Woman in Black’ has accomplished that. If I was Joey I’d be keeping this book in the freezer.

The Woman In Black

It's been a rough October. Could someone please open the discussion, and I'll jump in in a day or two. Many thanks, Slaves!

Susan Hill's Woman in Black

They had chided me with being a spoil-sport, tried to encourage me to tell them the one ghost story I must surely, like any other man, have it in me to tell. And they were right. Yes, I had a story, a true story, a story of haunting and evil, fear and confusion. But it was not a story told for casual entertainment, around a fireside upon Christmas Eve.

Susan Hill's The Woman in Black opens on Christmas Eve, a holiday when death, darkness, and the grotesque are furthest from the mind. (I'm not familiar with British Christmas rituals but telling ghosts stories seemed very odd. Maybe I'm just being Americentric?) The time of year for that stuff is October and the celebration of Halloween, which I remember one of my English professors discussing in a lecture analyzing Euripedes's The Bacchae. Many cultures, he said, have a holiday set aside as a time for release and liberation, when people can behave in ways they usually don't. (Another example would be Mardi Gras.) Christmas, by contrast, is a season for giving and politeness, when the dark or unsavory side of things comes up only as a problem to be solved through kindness and generosity. Something evil or frightening that appears in December is an intrusion, like the encroachment of the dead into the world of the living.

The Woman in Black is the story of one such a disturbance, not only between ghosts and humans, past and present, but also between fiction and reality. Arthur Kipp, who narrates the tale retroactively in old age, is a brash, young attorney who has been sent by his firm to organize the estate of the late Alice Drablow, a widow who had lived alone in Eel Marsh House, isolated out on a swampy causeway. The place is rumored to be haunted by a "woman in black," whose appearance always foretells the death of one of the town children. Kipp believes none of this, naturally. I had "the Londoner's sense of superiority in those days," he admits, further confessing to viewing the townsfolk as simple bumpkins who had unfairly demonized Mrs. Drablow.
Doubtless, in a place such as this, with its eerie marshes, sudden fogs, moaning winds and lonely houses, any poor old woman might be looked at askance; once upon a time, after all, she might have been branded as a witch and local legends and tales were still abroad and some extravagant folklore still half-believed in.
It actually sounds too good to be true: ghosts in this place? Huh, who would've guessed?

At first glance, Susan Hill seems remarkably unoriginal, but that was probably the point. The Woman in Black is a self-conscious ghost story (beginning with the title), akin to how Scream was metafictional satire. Arthur Kipps, in his attempts to understand the mystery of "the woman with the wasted face" and Eel Marsh House, constantly refers back to the fictional genre of the ghost story and, to a lesser extent, Gothic/romantic suspense. He notices, for example, how the wraithlike "woman in black" does and does not exhibit features typically associated with ghosts (she wears old-fashioned clothing but appears solid). He recognizes the abandoned graveyard and monastic ruins next to Eel Marsh House as having a clichéd Romantic ambiance and being precisely the kind of place where some Edgar Allen Poe type would enjoy sitting and composing "cloying sad verse." There is even a nod to "the madwoman in the attic," a timeworn Gothic trope used most famously in Jane Eyre.

Like Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Angel's Game, Susan Hill's The Woman in Black functions on two levels: as an entertaining story and as a play on genre. I wonder if years of ghost/Gothic/horror novels and films have severely dampened our ability to come out with a ghost/Gothic/horror story that takes itself seriously and doesn't seem too much like fiction come to life. But I think the familiar elements of the genre have true staying power, and The Woman in Black is a great example of a tale that's been told yet still has the potential to thrill and delight.

The weirdest thing happened while I was reading this book. I got it from the library and it looks like the last time it was checked out was May 19, 1992. Anyway, a perfectly preserved maple leaf just fell out from between the pages! It actually freaked me out! Wonder where it came from? Was it put there deliberately?

This Book and I Could Be Friends

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Envelope, please...

And the winner is (by a hair) The Woman in Black by Susan Hill.  Happy reading.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


I've been asked to select some titles for the next Slaves of Golconda. At first I hadn't the ghost of an idea. I mean, it really was murder coming up with a theme. It was a devil of an assignment that haunted me. I think you now get the drift.

Autumn is here at last. The nights are growing cooler and soon leaves will turn their most brilliant hues - their last hurrah before...Death. Why do we love to be frightened? In what was my most recurrent nightmare, I was being chased by a frightful, demonic figure. As I tried to flee, my feet became leaden and I slogged forward knowing that right behind me breathed a beast. I was always just outside his reach. And then one night I discovered that I could run as fast as the wind with one...big...catch. I had to turn around and run backwards, thereby forcing myself to face the creature that roared and raged, ready to devour me. The nightmare never returned after that night. I had learned to face my fear, and by facing it I had defeated it. Perhaps that is why stories of mystery and suspense, of ghosties and ghoulies and monsters under the bed hold a certain goose-pimply charm for us. So, in honor of Halloween (my favorite holiday) I thought a little mystery, murder, mayhem or "things that go bump in the night" might be in order. Follow!


First published in 1926, and considered to be one of Christie's most controversial mysteries, the Murder of Roger Ackroyd breaks all the rules of traditional mystery writing. A widow's suicide has stirred rumors of blackmail, and of a secret lover named Roger Ackroyd, who was found stabbed to death in his study. The case is so unconventional that not even renowned detective Hercule Poirot has a clue how to solve it. For many Agatha Christie fans, this was her masterpiece.

THE MALTESE FALCON by Dasheill Hammett

The Maltese Falcon is a detective novel - one of the best ever written. It is also a brilliant literary work, as well as a thriller, a love story, and a dark, dry comedy.

It involves a treasure worth killing for, Sam Spade - a private eye with his own solitary code of ethics, a perfumed grafter named Joel Cairo, a fat man named Gutman, and Brigid O'Shaughnessy, a beautiful and treacherous woman whose loyalties shift at the drop of a dime. These are the ingredients of Dashiell Hammet's coolly glittering gem of detective fiction, a novel that has haunted three generations of readers. (from Google books).


Published in 1886, this is one of the best known of Stevenson's novels. It concerns the way in which an individual is made up of contrary emotions and desires: some good and some evil. Through the curiousity of Utterson, a lawyer, we learn of the ugly and violent Mr. Hyde and his odd connection to the respectable Dr. Jekyll. A brutal murder is committed. The victim is one of Utterson's clients, and the murder weapon a cane which Utterson had given to Dr. Jeykill. And so, the lawyer becomes entangled in the strange world of the physician who has created a drug that separates the good in human nature from the evil - and the despicable Mr. Hyde.


Set on the English moor, on an isolated cause-way, at a mansion in the bleak, flat wetlands - with no neighbors in sight, the story stars an up-and-coming young solicitor who sets out to settle the estate of Mrs. Drablow. Routine affiars quickly give way to a tumble of events and secrets more sinister than any nightmare.
Often compared to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, the book starts peacefully and builds to a frightening crescendo that, according to one reviewer on Amazon, "will haunt" you."
Are you game to take a sojourn (perhaps foolishly) into Eel Marsh House? What awaits you there? If you do, will you ever be the same? (I'm getting all spine-tingly just thinking about it.)
Happy Halloween! Oh, I haven't learned how to link yet - but you can always Google.  Shall we try for October 29th to begin the discussion rather than Halloween?  After all, we might want to dabble in spirits of another sort on the 31st!!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Small Town Dreaming


'It was amazing about girls, how lofty and complacent they became when they got out in public with a man – any man – while a fellow shrank and felt ridiculous and prayed for the ordeal to end. It was amazing about women anyway, Grace over there, snickering behind her hand and Jen, stony-faced, remote, and Nettie, bending over his knes to pick up a handkerchief, fussing around in her seat, brushing her ankles against his and then hastily drawing them back, pressing her plump arms against him, then moving primly away.... God, how he hated the whole lot of them, Morry thought, the way they knew how to make a man squirm from old Mrs Delaney on down to the littlest girl. It was their function in life, making men feel clumsy and stupid, that was all they ever wanted to accomplish....'

Dawn Powell's novel, Dance Night, is concerned with various forms of rancour. Set in Ohio, in a small town sprung up around the dominant factory, it assembles a cast of naturally disadvantaged folk, adolescents, orphans, neglected wives, desperate young women and a whole lot of men who are obliged to live with the death or gradual decline of their ambitions. Everyone would get out if they could, if they had the money, or the education or the courage to do so. The railway bisects the town and the continuous thunder of the carriages is a temptation and a taunt that ultimately dies away into distant dreams. And so the inhabitants of Lamptown carry on with their diminished hopes and unruly desires, trying to squeeze what life they can out of small town claustrophobia. Smoking, drinking and doomed relationships take centre stage, with all excitement focused on the Thursday nights at the casino, where the dance master, Mr Fischer, offers classes and acts as master of ceremonies.

This is fundamentally the story of Morry Abbot, the most awkward, ungainly and emotionally disadvantaged of them all. He's a young man from a dysfunctional family in a novel that doesn't know of any other kind. His mother, the milliner of the Bon Ton hat shop, he loves, and Elsinore, in her absent, empty way is fond of him, too. But her hands-off care is no counterbalance to his father's ugly scorn. Charles Abbot is no good, a travelling salesman with a woman in every town, he returns to his family ever few months to exercise his demonic power over them. He sends a message in advance 'The Candy Man will visit you', as a threat rather than a promise. Elsinore loathes her husband and has fallen into a deep and all-consuming fantasy about Mr Fischer that keeps her locked inside her own head for most of the time. Nettie is the vicious young woman who also works in the store, and who acts like the worst kind of younger sibling to Morry, telling tales on him, ruthlessly pointing out his faults, demanding his punishment from his parents. Small wonder, then, that Morry wants out. He has a head full of romantic ambitions about becoming rich and famous and a disquieting yet compelling relationship with the young orphan girl, Jen St. Clair, who lives over the way. He's attracted to Jen because of her native courage and determination. And the worshipful audience she pays him makes him believe that one day he might amount to something.

If there's a dominant theme of the novel it's the quest for love in a strata of society depicted as being emotionally crippled. It begs the question of whether love is directly influenced by freedom, optimism, hope, potential. In the absence of these things, when self-love isn't a viable goal for many of the novel's inhabitants, love becomes something else altogether; competitiveness, lust, the engagement of fascinated hatred. There's a curious quirk that emerges time and again in Powell's characters, whose behaviour becomes a negative blueprint for the thing they think they want. In this way the extravagance of Morry's dreams match the intolerable constraint he suffers under, just as Nettie's endless carping is an expression of her desire for Morry, and Elsinore's fantasies about Fischer are there to balance out her horror of her husband. The drive for life repeatedly implodes in the protagonists of Dance Night, mutating into some dark, twisted alternative.

Whilst this may sound a sad or unappealing tale, it isn't like that at all. Powell writes exquisitely, and the ruinous landscape of Lamptown is transformed in her hands into constant action and vitality and a rich, evocative sensuality. Those nights at the dance hall are glittering jewels strung across the narrative, with the taut thrum of desire acting as the wire that holds them together. The novel shows how even under the most reduced circumstances, people find ways to thrive and to flourish, how even prisons of the soul provide security and stability and dependable company. And besides, if the inhabitants of Lamptown were free to act as they wish, they wouldn't have their dreams; if there's one thing this story insists upon, it's the power of dreams to keep us motivated, patient and hopeful.

I very much enjoyed this book, but was intrigued to find, yet again, another episodic narrative. Not a great deal happens in the novel, even though there's a death, several couplings and friendships broken and made. It's strange, the sensation of stasis that dominates, but perhaps it's a consequence of Lamptown being itself the most important character in the story. Lamptown may grow and even become prosperous, but there's no sense that it will change or develop; it won't be anything more than a one dimensional working class town that invites its inhabitants to dream and desire, to graft and to wish, and to never grow up. I was going to write a whole lot more about episodic narratives, as I've been thinking about this a lot, but I've run out of space here. So I'll devote the next post to it. In any case, I'll be seeking out more of Dawn Powell's work. Apparently her later novels are satires, and I can imagine her darkly amused voice working well in that context. Thanks to the Slaves (where you'll find several more reviews of this novel) for bringing another fine author to my attention.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Dance Night

Dawn Powell's 1930 novel Dance Night has me thinking about what it would be like to live in a small town with very little education, very few job opportunities, and only vague ideas about what life is like in other places. The characters in the novel go to the movies regularly, but other than that, the chief source of information they have about the world outside their town comes from traveling salespeople and a dancing master, and the reach of these people is very small. The people who travel the farthest and would therefore have the most information are also the book's most despicable characters. So everyone else is left with vague dreams and a strong pull to stay right where they are, doing the things their parents did.

Dance Night tells the story of Morry Abbott, a young man who is trying to figure out what he wants to make of his life. He lives with his mother behind the millinery shop she owns where he feels increasingly uncomfortable with the overwhelming femininity of the place. He is trying to find his way into the masculine worlds of the factory and the bar, but his youth and inexperience leave him uncertain and embarrassed. The novel also tells the story of Jen, a 14-year-old who has been abandoned by her mother and taken in by a local family. She feels isolated and alone and misses her younger sister, left behind in an orphanage. She turns to Morry for some companionship, and he is drawn to her, attracted by her hero-worship, but also repelled by her obvious neediness.

What has stayed with me about the book is all the unhappiness and the longing and the misunderstandings that haunt just about every character. Morry doesn't know what to make of the young women who surround him who make fun of him but also, very confusingly, flirt with him. Morry's mother is married to a man who is hardly ever home, but who makes her life miserable when he is. She is also desperately in love with the dancing master, who is hardly aware of her presence. The mother's friend is having an affair. Her assistant torments Morry but also wants to be seen with him. The most important man about town, the one with all the money and property, moves through a series of superficial relationships. No one, it seems, is content, and nobody has much of an idea of what to do about it.

The townspeople do have one outlet -- their weekly dance night, which begins with a dancing lesson, followed by the dance itself. Everyone, from old to young, looks forward to these evenings as a time to bring some lightness into their lives, but enjoyable as they are, they are also scenes of sexual competition and jealousy.

And there is also the problem of work. Morry gets a job in the factory and feels proud of himself for a while, but before too long he sees how builders are developing the town, has his own ideas of what kind of houses the town needs, and joins forces with a local architect to try to make his dream houses a reality. He becomes a big man about town himself, making plans and talking them up to the townspeople, shuttling about from person to person trying to make things happen. All this is immensely satisfying for a while, but it's also precarious and uncertain, and for all Morry knows, it could collapse on him.

Morry senses that his world is changing and that there are opportunities out there -- opportunities that could transform his life, if only he could get a proper hold on them. It's a place where hard work and industry and vision can take him places, but he just can't quite seem to make things work for him. His friend Jen is also full of dreams; she wants to sing and dance on stage and to live a busy and exciting life in some big city. But the problem, again, is how to make it happen. How can these people escape?

The picture Powell paints of a small town in changing and uncertain times is a grim one, but the portrait seems so real and the characters are so compelling that the book is a fascinating read. It makes me very glad I'm fortunate enough to live in an entirely place and time. Of course, we have our own uncertain times to deal with, but I think for a lot of people, it's become easier to imagine a way out of claustrophic small towns.

Dance Night by Dawn Powell

I have a picture in my mind of what Depression era America must have been like, no doubt aided by Dorothea Lange's famous documentary photographs of the period. Dusty dry towns awash in shades of brown, people with little money and few opportunities. If Dorothea Lange has given me the visuals, then Dawn Powell has given me the words. Dance Night's Lamptown, Ohio is as drab and dreary as any town that Lange may have photographed, and Powell has captured the small town claustrophobia of it in the days just before the Depression.

"But Lamptown! All railroad tracks and factory warehouses and for a
park nothing but clover fields with big signs every few yards."

"Rows of gray frame factory boarding houses on dusty roads in the east
and to the west the narrow noisy Market Street--choose your home between these
two sections."

Lamptown isn't so much a place to settle down in as a place to get out of, and most of the characters in Dance Night dream of bigger and more exciting lives elsewhere (elsewhere usually being NYC) but are caught in their tiny, oppressive lives with little chance of anything more than dreams. Dance Night centers around Morry Abbott, a young man on the cusp of adulthood who lives with his mother, Elsinore, above the Bon Ton Hat Shop that she owns. Morry's father Charles is mostly absent, which is actually a blessing in disguise as he's resentful of his son and jealous of perceived indiscretions of Elsinore. If thoughts are sins, she might be guilty, but he's mostly off the mark. He spends most of the year on the road as a traveling candy salesman, which is an ironic job for a man as disagreeable as he is. Postcards with the message "the candy man will visit you on..." mark his impending visits and are dreaded by both mother and son.

Morry spends much of his time alone in his room reading adventure stories or across the way with Jen St. Clair, an orphan, who's been adopted by the Delaneys, less for altruistic reasons than as an extra pair of hands to help with the housework. Mrs. Delaney's son runs the local bar and billiard room. Several years younger than Morry, Jen looks up to and admires him and eventually will fall in love with him. Time and again, however, Morry is run off by Mrs. Delaney who thinks of him as a good for nothing only out to ruin a nice, young girl, which in turn makes Morry angry with Jen. It's Jen's optimism and their mutual wish to escape that always brings him back. Her plans are always grand and she seems set to achieve them, the first being to get her younger sister out of the same orphanage from which she was adopted.

Morry is a senstive youth who feels a closeness to his mother that isn't always reciprocated. Elsinore has her own problems that she's always wrapped up in and will often gaze past her son as if he's not even there. He's not like other young men in Lamptown and often his intentions are misunderstood. He has ambitions, but it's always through the impetus of others that he's spurred in to action--from getting a job at one of the local factories to romantic liaisons. His dreams are always bigger and more accessible when they can be bounced off Jen, who always murmurs appreciation for them. He becomes more significant in not only her eyes but his own. Their romantic fumblings come to little yet he's unhappy when other men show her attention. They have a complicated relationship, but their lives are intertwined almost without each realizing how much.

Dance night refers to the weekly Thursday night dances held at the Casino Dance Hall complete with orchestra and handsome dance instructor who goes from town to town leading the dancers and giving lessons. It's the week's highlight for the town's residents who have little else in the way of entertainment. Things are beginning to boom for the little town of Lamptown, a town built around the railroad and filled with factories that employ most of the population. As outsiders come in to invest in the factories and in real estate, Morry becomes involved with a local architect. His grand plan involves building luxury homes for the wealthy who will settle in Lamptown and turn it into a first class town, but outside investors seem content to put up cheap, slapdash housing each one like the next, because 'that's what people want'. When the architect sells out to the outside investors, Morry is crushed and realizes finally it's time to move on.

Dawn Powell's story is gritty and doleful yet never totally despairing, and it ends on what I felt was a note of optimism. The story is told in a series of vignettes, but it still progresses in a brisk pace with fully fleshed out characters who aren't in the least perfect, and full of foibles, at times annoying, yet are complex in their makeup and in their interactions with each other. Even the secondary characters are rounded and interesting--Nettie, who works in the Bon Ton Hat Shop and is meddlesome and nosy but always prim and proper otherwise. Or Mrs. Pepper the corsetiere who's involved in a clandestine affair with the dance instructor, a married man, whom she can't live without. Each character has their dreams and desires but you doubt they will ever make much of them.

I think Dawn Powell was a talented writer, and some of my favorite passages are filled with wonderful imagery of the trains passing through to more appealing destinations fueling Morry and Jen's desires to get out.

"Morry and Jen looked quickly at each other--this was the thing that always
bound them--trains hunting out unknown cities, convincing proof of
adventure far off, of destiny somewhere waiting, of things beyond

Dawn Powell got out of Ohio and found adventure elsewhere. I like to think Morry and Jen did, too.

Cross posted at A Work in Progress

Friday, August 28, 2009

Reading Reminder!

Just a little reminder that the Slaves will be discussing Dawn Powell's Dance Night on Monday August 31. Feel free to post your thoughts here. I've already set up a new topic at the forum. Please join in the discussion whenever you have a chance.

If you are interested in joining the Slaves please leave a message in the comment area along with your email address. If you already have left a message and did not receive an email--I'm unable to see the email addresses in Blogger--you will need to leave it in the actual comment. I will send out an invite so you can post here, and you can easily register for the EditBoard forum--it just takes a few minutes. Thanks!

Friday, June 19, 2009

August Read: Dance Music

Dawn Powell's Dance Night it is. Discussion of the book will begin Monday August 31. Anyone is welcome to join in the discussion. If you're not currently part of the group but would like to join, please leave a note in the comment area (with your email address please) and an invite to post here on the Slaves Blog will be sent. Thanks!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Time again for a new book!

Iliana has asked me to select a few book choices to read next. I've been wanting to read more American authors this year, and I'm hoping these titles will be of interest to the Slaves as well. I had a hard time deciding--I wanted to choose books everyone would have access to and that were still in print. I also wanted to stick with early twentieth century women authors. I believe all these authors are respected but not much read these days. I had other authors in mind as well, but unfortunately some titles were out of print (or their books were simply too pricey). So I ended up with four choices:

Dorothy Canfield's The Home Maker

"Although this novel first appeared in 1924, it deals in an amazingly contemporary manner with the problems of a family in which both husband and wife are oppressed and frustrated by the roles that they are expected to play. Evangeline Knapp is the perfect, compulsive housekeeper, while her husband, Lester, is a poet and a dreamer. Suddenly, through a nearly fatal accident, their roles are reversed: Lester is confined to home in a wheelchair and his wife must work to support the family. The changes that take place between husband and wife, parents and children, are both fascinating and poignant. The characters are brought to life in a vivid, compelling way in a powerful novel more relevant now than when it was first published. The Home-Maker is one of those 'time lost' novels whose recovery will entertain and intrigue whole new generations of readers." Persephone Books has reissued this title, but there is also an inexpensive American edition available as well.

Edna Ferber's So Big

"Winner of the 1924 Pulitzer Prize, So Big is widely regarded as Edna Ferber's crowning achievement.A rollicking panorama of Chicago's high and low life, this stunning novel follows the travails of gambler's daughter Selina Peake DeJong as she struggles to maintain her dignity, her family, and her sanity in the face of monumental challenges."

This was made into a movie three different times.

Anita Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes & But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes began as a series of short sketches published in Harper's Bazaar. Known as the 'Lorelei' stories, they were satires on the state of sexual relations that only vaguely alluded to sexual intimacy; the magazine's circulation quadrupled overnight. The heroine of the stories, Lorelei Lee, was a bold, ambitious flapper, who was much more concerned with collecting expensive baubles from her conquests than any marriage licenses, as well as being a shrewd woman of loose morals and high self-esteem. She was a practical young woman who had internalized the materialism of the United States in the 1920s and therefore equated culture with cold cash and tangible assets. The success of the short stories had the public clamoring for them in book form." It was a runaway bestseller. Even Edith Wharton called it 'the great American novel."

Dawn Powell's Dance Night

"Dance Night portrays working-class Lamptown, Ohio, at the turn of the century. It's a hardscrabble place, filled with bitter factory girls whose dreams are unattainable. Every Thursday is dance night at the Casino Dance Hall, where residents escape their workaday lives, if only for fleeting moments."

Powell's novels had been out of print, but she was championed by the likes of Gore Vidal and Tim Page. Vidal wrote that Powell was a "comic writer as good as Evelyn Waugh and better than Clemens." Powell considered Dance Night her best work. It is one of her earlier novels based on her childhood and adolescence in small town Ohio and is a coming of age tale. Her later novels set in Greenwich Village are more satirical. I had a hard time deciding which group to choose from.

I'll count votes on Friday June 19. If there are no objections, would it be okay to move discussion back to the end of the summer? Would August 31st work for everyone? None of the novels are more than 350 (most far fewer) pages. This would give everyone time to get the book and read it in a nice leisurely manner.

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Slaves of Solitude

Cross-posted at Of Books and Bicycles.

I think I may be a new Patrick Hamilton fan. I found his novel The Slaves of Solitude (which is the latest Slaves of Golconda pick) really dark and sad, but in a satisfying kind of way, the kind of satisfaction you feel when you've faced something difficult head-on, without flinching. The picture the novel paints of life generally, but especially life during war-time, is of isolation, irritation, boredom, misunderstanding, and deprivation.

The novel tells the story of Miss Roach -- we learn in the middle of the novel that her name is Enid but the narrator never calls her this -- who is 39 and single and has moved from London to the outer reaches of the suburbs to escape the bombings of World War II. She lives in the Rosamund Tea Rooms, a boarding house, and commutes to her secretarial job in the city. The atmosphere in the Rosamund Tea Rooms is depressingly claustrophic, and most of the novel is set here, or, when the scene changes, it's to take us to a nearby pub where people drink to escape or to take us out on the streets where Miss Roach walks, again, in order to escape.

What she's escaping, besides the general claustrophia, are her fellow boarders, one of whom, Mr. Thwaites, is an absolutely horrible person. He terrorizes Miss Roach and intimidates everybody else. Here's how the narrator describes him:

In his large, flat, moustached face ... in his lethargic yet watchful brown eyes, in his way of walking and his way of talking, there could be discerned the steady, self-absorbed, dreamy, almost somnambulistic quality of the lifelong trampler through the emotions of others, of what Miss Roach would call "the bully." That steady look with which as a child he would have torn off a butterfly's wing, with which as a boy he would have twisted another boy's wrist, with which as a man he would have humiliated a servant or inferior, was upon him as he now looked at Miss Roach; it never entirely left him.

Miss Roach hates Mr. Thwaites, but it never does her any good; he can always win any argument they have and can always get a reaction out of her and force her to answer his questions even when it's the last thing she wants. He's a nightmare -- the kind of person you wouldn't mind strangling, and who knows you feel that way and enjoys it.

Into this situation come two new people who offer a chance for some diversion and change, and possibly even improvement. Given the darkness of the initial scenes, though, we should be suspicious. One of these is Vicki, a young woman born in Germany who has lived in England for many years now, but who is still under suspicion because of her accent and her origin. Miss Roach stands up for her and befriends her, and then brings her into the boarding house, thinking that not only can she help Vicki, but Vicki might help her by changing the atmosphere in the the Tea Rooms.

The other is an American soldier who flirts with Miss Roach and soon enough becomes "her" soldier, implying that he wants her to return to America with him and help him run his laundromat business. Miss Roach is uncertain what she thinks of all this, but so little has happened to her of any interest at all, that she goes along with it in a bemused kind of way, just to see.

But her hopes are dashed as she figures out what kind of people Vicki and her American soldier really are. The rest of the novel charts just how bad these relationships can get.

What I particularly loved about this book is the way Miss Roach is such a careful observer of the people around her and the way the narrator takes time to describe the characters' words and emotions so closely. It's a story told through small scenes and little conversations, the kind of novel where tone of voice and word choice and facial expressions carry most of the plot. It's a novel about war, but not about battles and armies; in fact, Miss Roach avoids hearing war news whenever she can. Rather, it's about how war infects everything, right down to the words people use in everyday conversation and to the words on street signs:

To the endless snubbing and nagging of war, its lecturing and admonitions, Miss Roach was subjected from the moment she left the Rosamund Tea Rooms in the morning to the moment she returned at night, and these things were at last telling upon her nerves and general attitude.

Immediately she stepped forth into Thames Lockdon ... the snubbing began with:

No Cigarettes


in the window of the tobacconist opposite.

And such was Miss Roach's mood nowadays that she regarded this less as a sorrowful admission than as a sly piece of spite. The "sorry", she felt certain, had not been thrown in for the sake of politeness or pity. It was a sarcastic, nasty, rude "sorry". It sneered, as a common woman might, as if to say "Sorry, I'm sure", or "Sorry, but there you are", or "Sorry, but what do you expect nowadays?"

This passage indicates the book's sensitivity to language, which is another thing I loved about it. Miss Roach is always thinking about the language other people use and how that language tells her something about who they are. This is especially true of Vicki, who irritates Miss Roach horribly by using out of date slang in an effort to keep from sounding too German. And Miss Roach is very sensitive about the language people use to describe her, hating it when people imply she is an "English Miss," too prim and proper and uptight to have any fun. And she can't stand it when people make fun of her name. One of the book's worst moments is when Mr. Thwaites says,

"Enter Dame Roach! ... Dame Roach -- the English Miss! Miss Prim. Dame Roach -- the Prude ... the jealous Miss Roach."

The thought that Vicki might have overheard this horrible string of words is enough to make her sick.

So, no, this is not a happy book, but it captures the hardships of wartime, and also of loneliness and sadness and solitude, beautifully, brilliantly well.


I'd like to say ditto to everything Stefanie said. I, too, found Slaves of Solitude a little difficult to get into, but once into it I found it to be a very engaging character study and a good read. Hamilton spent a lot of time developing his characters and was obviously very masterful at it. He wanted us to relate to and empathise with Ms. Roach, which I did, and despise the self-absorbed Vicki and the school yard bully, Thwaites, which I also did. As for Lieutenant Pike, I feel certain he was destined to return to America and open that laundry, but I'd be willing to bet money that the future Mrs. Pike (if there was to be one) would soon sadly discover that she was saddled with a boozy womanizer, and so become yet another Slave of Solitude. As often happens, one can be quite alone even when surrounded by people.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Muffled, Blundering and Muttering

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton is about one of those really nice people who tend to get pushed around or find themselves in uncomfortable situations because they rarely stand up for themselves and who also find themselves rather alone because they also tend to be bland in the personality department. Miss Roach is such a nice person. She is thirty-nine, single, mousy but not completely unattractive, believes in propriety and manners and doing the right thing. She wants to think the best of people and so gives them the benefit of the doubt when behavior, manners, or words are rude or mean.

Miss Roach began her career-life as a schoolmistress, fresh from university and full of passion, energy and ideas. She was not prepared for reality. When faced with it, she quickly abandoned all her idealism. As a schoolmistress she was liked but not very good and eventually she ended up working for a publishing firm in London. As the book opens it is the tail-end of 1943 and Miss Roach is living in a boardinghouse in a small town outside of London because she is terrified of the bombs. She takes the train into London for work and returns to the boardinghouse at night and generally tries to avoid thinking and reading about the war as much as possible.

The boardinghouse, known as the Rosamund Tea Rooms, presents a certain kind of hell for someone like Miss Roach. Ruled over by the petty tyrant Mr. Thwaites who has chosen Miss Roach as his special victim, it is a dreary and dull place that drags a person down. The other boarders try to provide support to Miss Roach as Mr. Thwaites pokes and prods and takes verbal swipes at Miss Roach during meals and tea, but they are all ineffective. Why Mr. Thwaites has chosen Miss Roach to bully is a mystery. We can only surmise that it is because he knows he can. Miss Roach cannot or will not defend herself, get angry, talk back, ignore, or counterattack. She is too nice.

Into Miss Roach's dull life comes the American, Lieutenant Pike, stationed in town while the Allies build up their forces for a second front in the war. Lt. Pike drinks too much but takes a shine to Miss Roach who neither likes nor dislikes him but goes along because it is better than not going along and because it is something that breaks the monotony of her days. But Lt. Pike is nothing compared to what's about to come along.

Miss Roach, being the nice person she is, made friends with a German woman, Vicki Kugelmann, when she defended the woman from anti-German attacks from some people in the town. Vicki had lived in Britain long before the war started and was a British citizen. Miss Roach felt it her obligation to defend the woman who seemed like she was unable to defend herself, and who Miss Roach imagined, could use a friend. So they met for coffee on Saturday mornings and sometimes for the occasional dinner. Miss Roach, thinking she was helping Vicki, suggested that Vicki come live at the Rosamund Tea Rooms. But when a room comes open and Vicki moves in, she turns out not to be the shy, needy person Miss Roach had imagined and Vicki had played up. Instead, Vicki turns out to be a bitch.

Miss Roach doesn't know what to think at first so she tries to overlook all the evidence that Vicki is not like she supposed. One thing leads to another and finally Miss Roach is pushed into a corner and has to fight back or lose every last shred of self-worth. What happens? What does Miss Roach do? Does Vicki get her comeuppance? And what about Mr. Thwaites? I won't say. You have to read the book to find out.

Overall I enjoyed the book. It's not exactly a page turner and took awhile before I felt engaged by it, but it was worth the time. It's a quiet book which is surprising for something set in the middle of World War II. But books set during a big war don't have to be about fighting and death and depravation. Certainly the war affected the lives of the characters, but the events of the war are not central to the book. There might be bombers flying overhead but people are people and life goes on. The bullies and bitches do their thing and the nice people do theirs.

Given the book's title, I could go on about how the characters are "slaves of solitude," and it would be true. Each of them are wrapped up and separate from each other. An image from early in the book sums it up nicely. Miss Roach is on her way home from the train station at the end of the day. People carry flashlights to find their way around in the dark because of the enforced blackout conditions. As Miss Roach makes her way along the river to the boardinghouse she observes,
She heard a couple of frozen people muttering and blundering behind her, and another couple muttering and blundering ahead of her. A solitary firefly-holder came blundering by her. The earth was muffled from the stars; the river and the pretty eighteenth-century bridge were muffled from the people; the people were muffled from each other.

Muffled, blundering, and muttering pretty much describes all the characters in the book in one way or another. It sounds pretty depressing, and it could be, but Hamilton offers something bigger than a firefly glimmer at the end of the book, a purification of sorts that allows a couple of the characters redemption from boardinghouse hell, a brief respite before the hell of war is let loose over London, on the beaches of Normandy and in the sky over Japan.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Next Book For Discussion...

It looks like our next book will be The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton.

Let's begin posting our reviews and discussing on Sunday, May 31. If you aren't currently a member of the group but would like to participate, please let us know in comments--we'll send you an invitation so that you'll be able to post on the blog.

Thanks for voting and looking forward to the discussion!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Time to Choose A New Book

For our next book selection I turned to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and Classics for Pleasure to get some ideas. So a bit of a mix with a classic, a short story collection, book in translation, etc. I hope you'll find something here you like. Here are the choices:

If On A Winter's Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino (259 pages). This is a novel about the urgency, desire, and frustration bound up in the practice of reading novels. The novel, which is nonlinear, begins with a man discovering that the copy of a novel he has recently purchased is defective, a Polish novel having been bound within its pages. He returns to the bookshop the following day and meets a young woman who is on an identical mission. They both profess a preference for the Polish novel. Interposed between the chapters in which the two strangers attempt to authenticate their texts are 10 excerpts that parody genres of contemporary world fiction, such as the Latin-American novel and the political novel of eastern Europe.

Life Like by Lorrie Moore (192 pages). In these eight exquisite stories characters stumble through their daily existence. These men and women, unsettled and adrift and often frightened, can’t quite understand how they arrived at their present situations. Harry has been reworking a play for years in his apartment near Times Square in New York. Jane is biding her time at a cheese shop in a Midwest mall. Dennis, unhappily divorced, buries himself in self-help books about healthful food and healthy relationships. One prefers to speak on the phone rather than face his friends, another lets the answering machine do all the talking. But whether rejected, afraid to commit, bored, disillusioned or just misunderstood, even the most hard-bitten are not without some abiding trust in love.

Manservant and Maidservant by Ivy Compton-Burnett (320 pages). At once the strangest and most marvelous of Ivy Compton-Burnett's fictions, Manservant and Maidservant has for its subject the domestic life of Horace Lamb, sadist, skinflint, and tyrant. But it is when Horace undergoes an altogether unforeseeable change of heart that the real difficulties begin. Is the repentant master a victim along with the former slave? And how can anyone endure the memory of the wrongs that have been done?"

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch (256 pages). Iris Murdoch’s first novel is a gem – set in a part of London where struggling writers rub shoulders with successful bookies, and film starlets with frantic philosophers. Its hero, Jake Donaghue, is a likable young man who makes a living out of translation work and sponging off his friends. A meeting with Anna, an old flame, leads him into a series of fantastic adventures. Beneath the surface of the narrative lies a wealth of philosophical questioning: Murdoch contests existential ideas of freedom; she asks what it means to be in love; and she rigorously questions what makes a good writer and what constitutes good art.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton (272 pages). England in the middle of World War II, a war that seems fated to go on forever, a war that has become a way of life. Heroic resistance is old hat. Everything is in short supply, and tempers are even shorter. Overwhelmed by the terrors and rigors of the Blitz, middle-aged Miss Roach has retreated to the relative safety and stupefying boredom of the suburban town of Thames Lockdon, where she rents a room in a boarding house run by Mrs. Payne. There the savvy, sensible, decent, but all-too-meek Miss Roach endures the dinner-table interrogations of Mr. Thwaites and seeks to relieve her solitude by going out drinking and necking with a wayward American lieutenant. Life is almost bearable until Vicki Kugelmann, a seeming friend, moves into the adjacent room. That's when Miss Roach's troubles really begin. Recounting an epic battle of wills in the claustrophobic confines of the boarding house, Patrick Hamilton's The Slaves of Solitude, with a delightfully improbable heroine, is one of the finest and funniest books ever written about the trials of a lonely heart.

Let's leave the voting open until Thursday (16th) and I'll let you know which book "won" on Friday, April 17. Our discussion will then start on May 31st.

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

I've cross posted my thoughts from dgr scribbles but am not used to the blogger site so my apologies if this is in the wrong font or you'd prefer not to have links back to my site, I'll quite understand and please could someone edit accordingly:-)
Many thanks

The arrival of a book by Stefan Zweig is always a time for celebration chez dovegrey ever since I first discovered his writing the day I decided to explore
some of the authors whose books had been banned in Nazi Germany. I think this in turn was a trail that had opened up after I had read Stones From the River by Ursula Hegi. It sounds like an odd reading trail to follow but I was intrigued, what had been so controversial about these books and their authors, I wanted to know.
I had unwittingly already read books by a few but I had never heard of Stefan Zweig and so began that little addiction and Pushkin Press to the rescue with The Royal Game, Twilight, Moonbeam Alley and Fantastic Night & other stories read in quick succession.
The Post Office Girl, translated by Joel Rotenberg, arrived from Sort Of Books, one chapter and I was instantly in it for the home run. The setting is perhaps classic Stefan Zweig, mittel Europe between the wars and Christina the Post Office girl of the title living a dull, miserable existence in rural Austria. Working in the Post Office by day and caring for her invalid mother the rest of the time Christina Hoflehner's life is a grey and joyless relentless grind until a letter from her mother's sister, who has fared altogether better in the marriage and wealth stakes, invites Christina to share a fortnight's holiday with them. Klara has suffered sudden onset pangs of guilt at her serial neglect of her sister over the years and this gesture towards her neice will surely make amends as she and gruff husband Anthony van Boolen travel from the US for a relaxing high society sojourn at a luxury hotel in the Swiss Alps.
Christina's is the generation in Europe that stood to lose the most from the Great War and the sense of resentment and dissatisfaction is profound in this book,

'Surrounded by this coarse and lustful postwar generation she feels ancient, tired, useless, and overwhelmed, unwilling and unable to compete...the war stole her decade of youth. She has no courage, no strength left even for happiness.'

By the age of twenty-six Christina has already prepared to hunker down and accept her lot, until of course she samples life at the glittering Palace Hotel. Exposed to the silken smooth world of money and luxury, where the furniture gleams and the carpet suspires Christina steps in to sample a way of life that she eventually realises will change her forever.
It was always going to be a moment of extreme cruelty when the clock struck midnight and this Cinderella is catapulted back into the harsh reality of life at home, the cramped, musty little box-like garret flat smelling of vinegar and a lifetime of the dull day job and caring for her dropsical mother with the bloated feet.
The happily ever after bit will surely rely on the entrance of a cheekily handsome prince on a white charger galloping in stage left, so when the only man on the horizon is Ferdinand, a thin, bitter and angry down-at-heel survivor of the Russian front, wearing not a gold encrusted doublet and a pair of natty hose but a worn-out inverness coat, you start to worry for poor Christina and wonder quite what the rescue plan might be.
Right that's it, no more plot, enough is plenty, not a word more.
Stefan Zweig was a great friend of Freud so expect plenty of 'who am I really' deliberations and some wonderful character development in Christina but I also came away with a very clear idea of the despair, blame, anger and hatred that fuelled and propelled a generation towards another war. The portents couldn't be outlined with more precision as Stefan Zweig focuses on the inequalities and injustices that pervaded people's lives. If you know anything about Stefan Zweig's personal life also be prepared to identify other more sinister portents about which I will say no more either.
This was the archetypal page-turner of a book, the best I have read by Stefan Zweig to date even, people I cared about and just had to know how they fared so highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Post-Office Girl

What stands out most to me about Stefan Zweig's novel from the 1930s, The Post-Office Girl, is rage. The novel starts off calmly and meticulously, however -- extremely so, with careful and precise descriptions of the Austrian post office where the main character Christine has worked for many years. Every item has its proper place and every item, down to every pencil and every sheet of paper, has been accounted for. The governmental bureaucracy knows everything about this place and controls everything. Stuck in the post office for the foreseeable future, Christine feels like an old woman with nothing to look forward to in her life. The tragedy is that she is only 28.

Into this stultifying atmosphere comes a surprise telegram, and it is one that will transform Christine beyond all recognition. It is from her aunt who wants Christine to join her at a posh Swiss hotel for a two-week vacation. Christine is initially reluctant -- what's the point? she thinks -- but she goes and what she sees there is a revelation. She has known she is poor -- she has spent her life barely scraping by trying to support herself and her sick mother -- but she realizes it now in a visceral way. She sees so much money so carelessly spent, and she realizes that just the tiniest fraction of the money swirling around her would have set herself and her mother up comfortably for the rest of their lives. Quickly, she's caught up in the social whirl, enjoying the attention brought by her youth and beauty, augmented by the fashionable clothes her aunt buys her.

She has become a new being, and it now seems impossible to return to the old life. But, of course, she has to return, and it's here that the anger starts to seep in. Why should Christine slave her life away? Why should some people have so much money and others so little, for no discernable reason except for luck? What's the point of working so hard, day after day, for nothing but the chance to keep doing it until the day she dies?

It's largely the war, World War I, that has caused Christine so much suffering. By the time we meet her in the novel, she has achieved a small amount of stability, but the path that led to this point was very rough. She has had to watch family members die as a direct result of war and has had to push herself to the breaking point just to survive. And now she looks around her and wonders just what the point of it all is.

The second half of the book takes us in new directions that I don't need to describe here, but it follows the ideas the first half introduces to their logical -- and chilling -- conclusions. One of the things I admire about the book is the way Zweig takes Christine through some remarkable transformations, and yet they all feel plausible and right. I was willing to believe everything that happened, even the startling conclusion.

The book asks some difficult questions -- about inequality, about struggle, and about whether the value we place on hard work and honesty really makes any sense in a world where those who deserve happiness often don't get it and those who enjoy wealth and comfort often haven't done anything to earn it. The book also describes the devastation war can bring to people who never wanted war in the first place and who had no say in the matter. There's a lot of anger here, but every bit of it seems justified.