The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

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Once more life has been busy and I have been neglecting my poor book blog. However, a few weeks back I did read The Woman in Black by Susan Hill.

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Like Wolf Hall, this is another book that I was given in the past, but until now has sat on my bookshelves unloved and unread.

I’ve not got time to write much of a review today, but here are a few brief notes:

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The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon

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After the pleasant, entertaining and soothingly nostalgic experience of re-reading My Family and Other Animals, I thought I would go for a very different kind of book next. And boy! is The Crying of Lot 49 a very different kind of book!

In fact, I do not really know how to begin to describe it. Let me see… Well, in one sense it is a story about a lady called Oedipa Maas, who discovers that a wealthy ex-boyfriend has died and made her a co-executor of his estate. In order to fulfill this duty, Oedipa begins to look into the business affairs of the late man (Pierce Inverarity), and in doing so starts to unearth a trail of information that possibly points to there being an underground postal delivery service.

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

This quest leads Oedipa down some very strange paths. At one point she meets Manny di Presso, a lawyer who is suing the Inverarity estate on behalf of his client, who recovered and sold human bones to Inverarity but apparently never received proper payment. (The human bones, it transpires, were wanted to make charcoal for cigarette filters. Obviously.)

Oedipa also finds herself tangled up with a good-looking chap named Metzger, who is an ex-child television actor, and a Beatleseque group called The Paranoids, who are all mop-haired Americans, who sing with pronounced British accents. Then there is Oedipa’s psychiatrist, Dr. Hilarius; the great stamp expert, Genghis Cohen; and another chap named Mike Fallopian, who our protagonist meets in a bar, and who provides Oedipa with more information, such as about the existence of The Peter Pinguid Society.

Confused? I certainly was. But things begin to get really complicated when one of The Paranoids points out the strange similarity between these unfolding events and the plot of a 17th-century play called The Courier’s Tragedy.

This lurid Jacobean revenge play, when not showcasing gruesome torture scenes, seems to be somehow tied up with a centuries-old conflict between two mail distribution companies: Thurn and Taxis on the one hand, and Trystero on the other. As Oedipa digs further into this strange mystery, she begins to meet others who seem to be in some way connected with this unofficial mail service, and even discovers that it has a secret symbol (the muted post horn) and a network of disguised post boxes seemingly scattered throughout America.

There are plenty more characters and plot detours and details in this sprawling, loose text, but I shan’t mention much more. Well, I won’t mention much more other than the fact that almost everything may not be as it seems. That is, that Oedipa Mass herself at several points in the story questions the reality of all of these strange elements and, in turn, questions her own sanity.

Basically, this is the kind of postmodern text where pretty much everything is up for grabs and open to interpretation. I did enjoy reading this novella, although I am also quite looking forward to reading something slightly less convoluted for my next read.

Meaning of the title: the title refers of the sale at auction of the deceased man’s stamp collection (which happens to be lot 49). This collection may or may not hold the key to the whole Trystero mystery.

Trivia about the author: Thomas Pynchon is a famous recluse. He has not given any interviews for years and years and only a handful of photos of him are known to exist.

Standout quote: “Shall I project a world?”

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, which is not quite as off-the-wall, but does interweave various incongruous storylines and plays with multiple meanings. John Fowles’ great novel The Magus is also fantastic if you enjoy a gripping mystery.

Franny and Zooey – J. D. Salinger

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What makes great art great? Or, to narrow the scope slightly, what makes great literature great literature? Is there a formula one can compile and measure a piece of writing against? Or is our response to art always just a subjective matter?

Far greater minds than mine have grappled with such questions for centuries, and whilst there is a variety of opinions, it seems to me, that most people agree that there certainly is an objective aspect involved in the critique of art. For example, in the case of reading a piece of prose, one can ask: is the writing compelling, powerful, persuasive? Does the work entice, challenge, and make its readers think? However, at the same time, reading (and the appreciation of any other art form) is also undoubtedly a very personal thing.

And this, to my mind, is what makes it so fascinating. How one piece of art can be viewed / read / seen / etc. by a hundred different people and can elicit such a different response from each one.

Now, the reason I bring up such philosophical ponderings here is that I have just re-read a novella that I simply love: Franny and Zooey – and yet am not sure that I can clearly express why.

Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger

There are books that I absolutely love and which I would naturally expect almost anyone who read them to also love – e.g. The Great Gatsby, or Great Expectations, or To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I do genuinely find it hard to imagine that anyone who has the remotest fondness for fiction could read one of these and not agree that it is a truly great novel.

But then there are other novels that I personally love just as much, yet somehow imagine others might not be particularly taken with – novels such as The Good Soldier, The Go-Between, and Lolita. And I think that Franny and Zooey fits in to this latter camp.

It is a strange novella (if that’s even the right term?). It was originally published in The New Yorker magazine as two separate stories, and only later published together and released as one book. And what does it consist of? Well, not very much, in one sense. Franny and Zooey of the title are the two youngest siblings of the Glass family (whom Salinger wrote about elsewhere), and here we find young Franny in the midst of a kind of breakdown.

I’m sick of just liking people. I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect.

Born with a fantastic intellect, raised with the privileges of a fine education, and having a loving family and good looks to boot, Franny should be just about as happy as any American lass could be, and yet suddenly she finds she cannot escape the disappointment she feels for everything and everyone around her. Franny then stumbles across a small mystical little book entitled: The Way of a Pilgrim, which she reads, clings to and tries to imitate from there on out. Zooey, as her elder brother, is brought onto the scene by their mother to try and comfort his sister (albeit in a not very comforting manner) – and there you have it: the synopsis of this entire piece.

Yet despite its brevity and simplicity of plot, it is truly brilliant. The loose dialog that proceeds between the two siblings is both an intimate snapshot of a family and also a commentary on the broader world and its values.

When Salinger is writing at his best, I find his characters are so well captured, so incredibly vivid, and the writing here is a fine example. Even thought this is a pretty slender volume (my edition runs to a mere 157 pages), I come away feeling that I know his principle characters so well. I know what they are like – how they act, how they think, how they speak. I know their habits and their little idiosyncrasies. In short, the characters become fully alive to me.

‘Oh, it’s lovely to see you!’ Franny said as the cab moved off. ‘I’ve missed you.’ The words were no sooner out than she realized that she didn’t mean them at all. Again with guilt, she took Lane’s hand and tightly, warmly laced fingers with him.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: Salinger’s most famous work, The Catcher in the Rye.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Truman Capote

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I cannot remember where I picked up my copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but it has been sat perched on the bookshelf for some months, and it caught my eye as I was trying to decide what to read next.

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

I’ve seen the film version a couple of times in the past – and a good film it is too. However I’m always slightly apprehensive about reading books that I have already seen the film adaptation of. I guess the worry is that however good the book is – and the book is pretty much always better than the film, right – that in the back of my mind I’ll foolishly be comparing the two and expecting the book to be like the film. This is always a mistake; films and books are totally different and are not, I believe, comparable.

Anyway, in this particular case (as with The Remains of the Day, Howards End and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) although I had seen the film adaptation first, I found the book to be even better than I was expecting. It’s a real treat.

Even if the Audrey Hepburn film had never been made, Holly Golightly would still be an iconic character in twentieth century American literature. She is so vibrant and fresh and so unlike anything else. As the blurb on the back cover of my edition has it, “Holly is a fragile eyeful of tawny hair and turned-up nose, a heart-breaker, a perplexer, a traveller, a tease.”

It is this heady mix of unlikely characteristics that make her so intriguing. Most of the time she is absolutely brimming with self-confidence and verve, and yet at other times we observe her child-likeness, her gentleness and her vulnerability. Here is a snippet taken from when Holly sneaks through the narrator’s window in the middle of the night to escape a man in her own apartment below:

‘What is today?’

‘Thursday.’

Thursday.’ She stood up. ‘My God,’ she said, and sat down again with a moan. ‘It’s too gruesome.’

I was tired enough not to be curious. I lay down on the bed and closed my eyes. Still it was irresistible: ‘What’s gruesome about Thursday?’

‘Nothing. Except that I can never remember when it’s coming. You see, on Thursdays I have to catch the eight forty-five. They’re so particular about visiting hours, so if you’re there by ten that gives you an hour before the poor men eat lunch. Think of it: lunch at eleven. You can go at two, and I’d so much rather, but he likes me to come in the morning, he says it sets him up for the rest of the day. I’ve got to stay awake,’ she said, punching her cheeks until the roses came, ‘there isn’t time to sleep, I’d look consumptive, I’d sag like a tenement, and that wouldn’t be fair: a girl can’t go to Sing Sing with a green face.’

Holly and her tale are both somewhat more risqué here than depicted in the 1961 Holywood film, and the relationship between the narrator and Holly is very different indeed. I really like the narrator that Truman Capote has created in the novel and the interesting dynamic that exists between him and Holly. He is much more interesting than the good-looking, smarmy author depicted in the film. There is much more mystery in the novel; more questions and fewer answers, and the book is all the more compelling for this fact.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: The Catcher in the Rye or Franny and Zooey, both of which are by J. D. Salinger.

Miss Lonelyhearts – Nathanael West

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Let’s start from the beginning. A man is hired to give advice to the readers of a newspaper. The job is a circulation stunt and the whole staff considers it a joke. He welcomes the job, for it might lead to a gossip column, and anyway he’s tired of being a leg man. He too considers the job a joke, but after several months at it, the joke begins to escape him. He sees that the majority of the letters are profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice, that they are inarticulate expressions of genuine suffering. He also discovers that his correspondents take him seriously. For the first time in his life, he is forced to examine the values by which he lives. This examination shows him that he is the victim of the joke and not its perpetrator.

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

I first read this short work by Nathanael West when I was at university, but have just re-read it. The novel is based in Depression-era New York, where there is a heavy cloud of disillusionment overhanging the people. The male journalist employed to answer the letters sent in to the “Miss Lonelyhearts” column becomes deeply troubled by all of the evil and heartache that he sees all around him and desperately wants to offer some solution. At times he thinks he has some real truth to offer – that maybe his boss spoke truer than he meant when he mockingly suggested that “the Miss Lonelyhearts are the priests of twentieth-century America” – but then again, his attempts to help never seem to go as planned.

This is an interesting novella, exploring some key themes, such as the role of religion in modern society. I would definitely say that it is worth a read, however when the novella ended (after just eighty pages) I was left wishing that West had written more and also that he had added greater depth to the story, as everything is portrayed as a grotesque caricature, which I think loses some of its impact after a while.  A memorable read, none the less.

The Pearl – John Steinbeck

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The Pearl by John Steinbeck

It was some years ago (before I had started keeping this book blog) when I read John Steinbeck’s novella, The Pearl, hence there not being a proper review here.

However, as you have stumbled across my blog, do stop a moment or two to take a look around. The Home page will give you an idea of what I’ve been reading lately.

Enjoy!

Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

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