Sunday, September 25, 2011

Shirley Jackson/THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE

Eleanor Vance, 32, lost eleven years of her life to caring for an invalid, mentally unstable mother. As a result, she is lonely and shy and completely without friends. When she receives an invitation to work as an assistant to Dr. Montague (an academic whose "real" work is the study of the paranormal), she jumps at it.

Dr. Montague is looking for evidence of a true haunting, and in Hill House, he appears to have found it. If buildings have psychologies, Hill House is one of complete insanity. The house has a terrible reputation among the town's locals, so much so that they are hostile to anyone asking for directions to it. But along with two other assistants, Eleanor helps the good doctor collect evidence of paranormal activity.

This novel qualifies as a horror novel (in fact, it's considered one of the very best in the genre)—though there's no gore. The horror is all psychological, and Jackson is so skilled as a writer, all she needed to do was paint us a picture of Eleanor's loneliness to show how easily the house could play on it. The others have their moments, too, but it's clear that among them, Eleanor is the easiest target.

No matter how cliché the haunted house trope may be, I've not read anyone who's done it better than Shirley Jackson (nor anyone who does a better job of painting someone who is lost emotionally and psychologically). She's one of those writers who achieved being both a good storyteller and a good writer. Her writing is a study in economy on par with Hemingway's. And I think that's one of the reasons this novel is considered more "respectable" than most others in the horror genre. You really can't fault the writing, even if it's not your style. It's really too bad she didn't publish more before her death. Makes her work all that more a treasure. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Joseph Mitchell/UP IN THE OLD HOTEL

Some books come along in a person's life and becomes a friend that gets her through hard times. This book has been one such friend to me. My copy is bound with Scotch tape, I've read it so many times. If I were ever a victim of a fire, I think I would mourn losing this book. Sure, I could buy another copy, but it wouldn't be the same. 


Joseph Mitchell wrote for the New Yorker. Up In the Old Hotel is an omnibus of his four previous books, plus never-before-gathered profiles he did in the magazine. Mitchell had a real talent for picking out truly original characters to profile, but for the most part he writes with such empathy no one comes off as a character at all. These are not caricatures.


Mitchell's nonfiction reads like good fiction, and his profiles of the bums, outcasts, and miscreants of New York are poignant and heartbreaking and sometimes exalting. Ironically, his attempts at fiction fall short of his profiles, but they still retain the same graveyard humor. There are profiles I go back to reading over and over and over again. (The profiles about the gypsy women and the plague scare are two of my favorites.) 


I've read this book many times over. In fact, it's in the list of my top ten all-time favorite books. It just never gets old—even though the New York that Mitchell explored is, for the most part, gone. It takes a writer of real skill to make a reader miss the bygone qualities of a city she's never visited. I don't think I'll ever tire of this book. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Orson Scott Card/ENDER'S GAME

Two and a half years ago, when I put together my Fill-in-the-Gaps list, this was one of the first books. For the sci-fi-fantasy community (on whose fringes I skulk) it's a staple; not to have read it is embarrassing. Plus, my dad, who has always greatly informed my reading list, read it a couple years ago and kept nagging me to get to it. I'm very glad to have read it, because I feel like it's become a cultural touchstone and now at least I can be part of the dialogue.

Premise: in a near-ish future Earth, the most promising of child-geniuses are sent to train in the Battle School, where they learn to fly fighter spacecraft in preparation for a coming war with the Buggers, an insectoid alien race who nearly destroyed the earth 80 years ago. Ender Wiggins, a six-year-old boy, has been identified by government agents as special--a genius with the capability to become commander of the fighting fleet when the war comes. He leaves his family forever (no contact at all until a family visit that's allowed once the kids turn 12) to face the rigorous, often merciless training at fight school, where he is stalked and monitored and presented with challenges the other students are not.

Themes: The book's biggest questions have to do with the nature of humanity (do the aliens have less right to life?), goodness (is Ender a bad person, because he's been hardened by his teachers into taking life opportunistically? is his brother Peter a "bad seed" type?), and education (is it right to design children through such rigorous training? what about if that's the only way to save the world?).

My personal reaction: like I said, I'm really glad I read this book, because not I can be part of the conversations that include it. I hear it referred to pretty frequently. I can't say I loved it, although I enjoyed the story and found myself caught up in it. Certain elements feel dated. For example, outside of the Bugger-Earth conflict, humans are divided in violent political factions that probably felt more plausible during the height of the Cold War than they do now. I also liked Card's writing of the battle training sequences and student interactions better than I liked the more allegorical and discursive parts of the story (long "telling" passages about his sister back home and her clandestine political campaigns, or the highly metaphorical and, in my opinion, not always interesting video games Ender plays to decompress). I also wish the story hadn't been so forcefully gendered. The reader only meets one female student in the Battle School, and she ends up cracking under pressure at one point. The narrative blithely explains that women have evolved differently and aren't as likely to be suited to the Battle Academy way of life. I find that to be another element of the story that seems falsely anachronistic (like the Iron Curtain feeling). But anyway.

Overall take-home: glad I can say I've read it. Didn't love it. Would like to talk more about it.