Wednesday 30 December 2020

2020 - Reading Through the Calamity: The Best and Worst (of Times)


My latest read - some fantasy!

As we all know, 2020 was a doozy, however I still managed to get a bit of reading done. I'll get right to it: reviewing the year I realise that I awarded no sublime ratings, it obviously just wasn't a year for the very best, however there were quite a few excellent ratings, the best of which was Vernor Vinge's novel A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), which simply burst with ideas and was written to a high standard. Damascus (2019) by Australian author Christos Tsiolkas was superb as well, uncompromising and compelling, it was also the best book club book I read all year, particularly as many book club choices were admirable at best. Querelle of Brest (1947) by Jean Genet was perhaps the most psychologically intense novel I read all year, and also one of the most unusual. It was also a good year for reading non-fiction, with six entering my brain via my book-shaped eyes, the best of which was Slavoj Zizek's The Courage of Hopelessness (2017), although he certainly is an intense man.

In some ways it was an odd year of reading, in which I reached for some books that I might have normally overlooked, such as Communion (1987) by Whitley Strieber, mostly to satisfy a curious reading itch I'd had since I was a teenager; the book was dubious, but I'm pleased that I finally read it. One of the worst books of the year was Space Ark (1981) by Thomas Huschman, which I read because I needed something light, which is was, but it was also far from the best science fiction you could read, unlike Revelation Space (2000) by Alastair Reynolds, which was superb. Two of the worst books were Before the Coffee Gets Cold (2019) by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, which was very stilted, and The Man Who Saw Everything (2019) by Deborah Levy, which was kind of pointless. Both were book club books and both came during a time when Perth was shut down during the beginning of the pandemic - they made for disappointing reads unfortunately. By far the worst book was Simon Goddard's Ziggyology (2013), which garnered a rare rating of reprehensible. I haven't changed my mind about that rating, so sorry to the person who commented, implying that it was all a bit harsh, I still feel just as harsh in fact. 

In any case, onwards toward another year of reading. I will not promise to read more books, as between working full time, a relationship and all the life admin things that have to be done it seems that I can never read more than about twenty four books in a year. Still, I might read more next year because I'll be spending less time reading about the reprehensibility of Trump in the media. I'd like to personally thank all 81 million + Americans who voted him out, you were on the right side of history.

Friday 25 December 2020

The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson (1959)


Rating: Excellent

I've long known about Shirley Jackson, but had never considered reading her until I found out about the movie Shirley (2020), with Elizabeth Moss portraying Jackson. I bought The Haunting of Hill House in preparation for watching the film and it turned out to be an interesting experience. Jackson's style is quite unlike any other authors I've read, although it is difficult to say exactly why. The best I can do is that it is slightly awkward, in that sometimes it seems to be brilliant prose and other times it seems to be, well, a bit contrived. Perhaps this is because one of the principle protagonists, Eleanor Vance, is certainly neurotic, disturbed even, and Jackson takes great pains to alert the reader to this fact. Eleanor is invited to Hill House, along with two others (Theodora and Luke) by the scientifically minded Dr Montague, who wishes to spend some time in the house to experience first hand its supposed supernatural activity. Jackson does set the scene well, with evocative descriptions of the house and the emotional effect it has on the protagonists, in particular Eleanor, who is both drawn and repulsed by its somber gothic architecture.

Elizabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson's version of a haunted house tale has been so influential, it is difficult to imagine what kind of an impact it had when it was originally published. The novel subverts the typical ghost narrative by strongly implying that the true horror lies within the characters psyches, in particular Eleanor, and any actual supernatural occurrences are either happening within Eleanor's head or she is indeed causing the manifestations with telekinetic abilities. I'm not giving anything away here, as such an approach is so common now. Jackson even has some fun satirising the whole idea of paranormal research when Dr Montague's wife and her ultra pragmatic assistant, Arthur, turn up to take charge of proceedings. Mrs Montague's approach is a source of satirical humour in a narrative that is otherwise uptight with neurotic tension. Although by the time I was half way through the novel I still couldn't make up my mind whether it was quality literature of above average pulp, I kept on being drawn back, as if I was Eleanor, both repulsed yet ever more attracted to Hill House's grim endgame. The Haunting of Hill House is a curious novel, at times it seems totally over the top, yet much of the action is implied and the reader has to do some work to make sense of what is actually happening. The novel left me wanting to read more of Shirley Jackson's work, particularly after viewing Shirley, which has now become one of my all time favourite films. Jackson herself was also a fascinating character and I advise reading up about her before you read any of her work or watch the above mentioned film.

Shirley Jackson as Shirley Jackson

Tuesday 22 December 2020

The Dictionary of Lost Words - Pip Williams (2020)


Rating: Admirable

The Dictionary of Lost Words is a charming and engaging novel which covers a fascinating period of history that includes the creation of the first Oxford English Dictionary (1879 to 1928). For bibliophiles and logophiles such a novel cannot help but be enticing, however it took me around eighty pages before my interest was piqued; it might be because I'm usually not that interested in novels' that begin with the main protagonists' childhood, but it wasn't just me, as quite a few people in my library book clubs also found the novel very slow at the beginning. The main protagonist in question, Esme Nicoll, enjoys a childhood that revolves around the 'Scriptorium', a glorified shed where her father, Harry Nicoll, toils at putting together the dictionary (the novel goes into quite a bit of detail about the process, which is fascinating) along with historical figures such as Sir James Murray, C.T. Onions and Rosfrith Murray. As Esme gets older she is invited to work within the Scriptorium and this is where the novel becomes much more interesting, as the reader becomes immersed in the amazing task of putting together the dictionary.

As the novel progresses Esme grows older and is confronted with adult life within Edwardian society, which includes dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, patriarchal attitudes and the kind of real life tragedies that make narratives compelling. There's the suffragettes, one of which becomes a close friend, and one of the best portrayals of the civilian impact of WWI I have ever read. During all of this Esme sets about gathering words that are not part of the OED, many of which she hears from women of all classes, such as her bondmaid (famously this word was accidentally left out of the OED), Lizzie, and a colourful former prostitute Esme meets down at the markets. These are the words that become part of her dictionary of lost words, including the C - word, which was definitely not part of the first OED! Esme is quite a character and I've always thought that if you start having emotional reactions about what is happening to characters then the author has written quite a fine novel; not only that but Williams has also produced a clever denouement that manages to tie up all of the narrative strands, of which there were many, and makes you think at the same time. If I rated books using a numerical system then The Dictionary of Lost Words would be given three and a half, however using my system I'm rounding down to admirable (rather than excellent) due to the very slow beginning, but if you can get through that then it is a quality debut novel.