Monday, 15 October 2018

Monday Musing - 14/10/18

I've officially been 30 years old for three weeks! For the amount of build-up that inevitably accompanies those milestone birthdays, it's been a relatively uneventful few weeks since the big day. Similar to the profound sense of change that is always a part of New Year celebrations, I had a feeling that everything would be different once I entered my new decade and officially departed the uncertainty that characterised my twenties. I think we all have a tendency to believe that we require the most dramatic, remarkable, or rare events in order to spark and justify change in ourselves. I've had a difficult couple of years with an incredible number of changes in my life, so I've often embraced any 'excuse' to adopt new resolutions or perspectives. The difficulty with this is that waiting for the rarity of a new year or a milestone birthday means we spend most of our life in a state of anticipation.

What I've realised as I've grappled with unexpected events, difficult choices, and mental health challenges, is the importance of change in the everyday. We don't need to wait for something extraordinary in order to start over. Every day, moment, breath is an opportunity to get up and start again. Not only does this attitude afford us far more opportunities to adjust our course and choose something better for ourselves, it also gives us even more reasons to recognise our own courage. Change and adaptation are difficult. But it's only through experience and redirection that we'll find where we truly want to be.


Friday, 12 October 2018

Review: 'Kitchen' by Banana Yoshimoto

"The place I like best in this world is the kitchen. No matter where it is, no matter what kind, if it's a kitchen, if it's a place where they make food, it's fine with me. Ideally it should be well broken in. Lots of tea towels, dry and immaculate. White tile catching the light (ting! ting!)."

If you have known what it is to feel displaced or lonely, it's very likely that you'll also understand the significance of place as something that can ground you and offer comfort. Since I turned 16, I haven't lived in one place for more than two years. 14 years on, I am still adjusting to the sense of permanency that has accompanied my recent move to the US. For the first time since I was a teenager, my feet are firmly planted in one country. While, for many, this thought might be a reassuring one, I've found myself engulfed by a truly bone-clenching sadness. I had become used to the constant moving, the feeling of 'not my home' that would be at least temporarily resolved by another relocation. Since I was 16, I have split my life - and, in many sense, my identity - between the UK and the US. It's a lonely feeling and one to which not many can relate. What I've come to realise, however, is that the shadow of loneliness I'd previously felt only took on a fully-realised form once I'd chosen permanent displacement. There will be no more shifting back and forth between countries. And so I've left part of myself behind permanently, in a place that will remain eternally static in my mind.

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto picks up on a number of these themes. It follows the first-person narrative of Mikage Sakurai, a young adult living in Japan. Following the death of her only living relative, her elderly grandmother, Mikage is displaced. Drifting through the world with a profound sense of her own disconnection from those around her. Fortunately, she is taken in by Yuichi Tanabe - a young man who worked in her grandmother's favourite flower shop - and Yucihi's transgender mother, Eriko. This short novella (the story itself stands at just 105 pages) follows Mikage as she attempts to find a place for herself in a world to which she is no longer tied in any concrete sense. 

"Usually, the first time I go to a house, face to face with people I barely know, I feel an immense loneliness. I saw myself reflected in the glass of the large terrace window while black gloom spread over the rain-hounded night panorama. I was tied by blood to no creature in this world. I could go anywhere, do anything. It was dizzying. Suddenly, to see that the world was so large, the cosmos so black. The unbounded fascination of it, the unbounded loneliness...For the first time, these days, I was touching it with these hands, these eyes. I've been looking at the world half-blind, I thought."

Kitchen is a truly disarming work. Banana Yoshimoto writes with a sincerity and simplicity that makes the depth of her insights all the more translatable into the world of the reader. Although this is a novel that centres around the experience of grief, one feels the weight of the story just as heavily in the uncertainty and fear that accompanies loss. I have yet to experience the type of grief that follows the loss of a loved one, yet the emotions brought into such vivid reality via the experiences of the characters in Kitchen are ones to which I can directly relate. The wrenching of my identity that I have experienced through the shifts of recent years, the sense of permanency as intrinsically tied to that soul-deep sadness, those are things that I understand. While there have been numerous criticisms made of the translation of Kitchen (the fact that some meaning has been lost is inevitable to the process of translating a pictographic language, such as kanji, into English), the simplicity and understated sensuality of Yoshimoto's writing is key to the reader's sense of being engaged in a universal experience. Were the prose over-saturated with imagery or metaphor, I can't help feeling that I would have had a much harder time reading my own experiences into the novella. And my experience of reading the book would have been one that moved me significantly less than it did.

Of course, the most fundamental anchoring point for the story is an appreciation for kitchens. The reader is introduced to this theme immediately and it is carried through the story as Mikage's primary means of grounding herself to the world. In one of the novella's most moving passages, it is the sound of people in a kitchen that brings Mikage back from the brink of despair and to a world replete with potential for a future full of happiness:

"Jammed between my own bags, stooped over, I sobbed. I had never cried this way in my life. As the hot tears poured out, I remembered that I had never had a proper cry over my grandmother's death. I had a feeling that I wasn't crying over one sad thing, but rather for many. Looking up, I saw white steam rising, in the dark, out of a brightly lit window overhead. I listened. From inside came the sound of happy voices at work, soup boiling, knives and pots and pans clanging. It was a kitchen. I was puzzled, smiling about how I had just gone from the darkest despair to feeling wonderful. I stood up, smoothed down my skirt, and started back for the Tanabes'. I implored the gods: Please, let me live."

I had the good fortune of discussing this book with my tiny book club, composed of myself and two friends from high school in Florida. We all come from incredibly diverse backgrounds and we are all living in different places, doing different things. Yet, each of us was able to relate to this feeling of connection to place in some way. For one friend, it resounded directly with her memories of her grandparents' house and their kitchen. For my other friend, she felt this connection through the kitchens and houses of others, as well as in coffee shops. For me, it's a well-broken in living room. Kitchens and dining areas are a site of grounding and 'home' for many people. They are perhaps most visibly imprinted with our use and habits -  a place of dirty dishes and crumbs on worktops (or is that just me?). When you walk into a kitchen, there is often an immediate sense of connection. It is a site of communal activity and togetherness, steeped in memories of chatter, cut fingers, and good food. The feeling of connection and comfort rendered by a place - even if that place is seemingly inconsequential to others - is priceless in a world where the experience of 'leaving things behind' and 'being left behind' is universal.

I didn't realise how desperately I needed this book until I read it. Kitchen is simultaneously heart-breaking and utterly reassuring. I was left feeling not only the profound gravity of the losses that I have experienced but also the incredible potential for further connection that a life - even one full of loss - holds. 2018 marks 30 years since Kitchen was first published. It is also the year of my 30th birthday, so it certainly feels as though fate or some kind of divine intervention was working in my favour. Finding out that the book was first published in 1988 astounded me for many reasons. The novella is impressively progressive for its time. Although it struggles in places with an apparent confusion (or perhaps simply a lack of adequate distinction) of transgender versus drag, it positions a transgender woman as perhaps its most enlightened and positive character. Eriko is a role-model to Mikage and an example of the possibilities for growth opened through loss. Kitchen has aged incredibly well. Nothing about the prose or the plot feels dated. The characters and their experiences retain their relatability to an astonishing degree and Yoshimoto's beautiful, nostalgic prose has, I think, got everything to do with the timelessness that her work has achieved.

"As I grow older, much older, I will experience many things, and I will hit rock bottom again and again. Again and again I will suffer; again and again I will get back on my feet. I will not be defeated. I won't let my spirit be destroyed."

It was incredibly appropriate that Kitchen wandered into my life when it did. Struggling with homesickness and disconnection, I have spent the past year and a half grieving for the part of myself that has been left behind. We will all encounter this feeling, one way or another. Where Kitchen exposes these emotions in all of their raw and earth-shattering reality, it also reassures us that something wonderful can grow in the space occupied by loss. Perhaps it is the embrace of one's true self, as embodied by Eriko, or maybe it's in the connections forged with those who have gone through similar trials. The key is in realising that no experience - however profoundly devastating - truly leaves us with nothing. Even if all we have left is memories, let them be the seed that spurs us on to making new ones.


Wednesday, 10 October 2018

A 'Beginning of Fall' Book Haul


Is anyone else unreasonably excited by the fact that autumn is now officially here? I've spent the whole of summer ready for this seasonal change, not least because the autumnal equinox coincides with my birthday (so double the reason to celebrate)! As I mentioned in one of my most recent posts (8 Books to Conjure that Cosy Autumn Feeling), autumn is always super significant with regards to my reading habits. As soon as the weather changes, so too do my bookish cravings. This year has been no different and my to-read pile is stacked with various unread novels that lend themselves to dark evenings and big cups of tea (or, more likely, hot chocolate). 

Similar to bears preparing themselves for hibernation, my nesting habits involve an unreasonable amount of book buying. I can't enter the autumn without a good stack of books ready to assist my complete rejection of the outside world. Autumn and winter are the seasons of many important things but my favourite feature is undoubtedly the fact that I no longer need an excuse to choose evenings-in as my preferred way of spending time. To ready myself, I've spent the past few weeks making trips to different bookshops and building a collection of novels ready to accompany me through the rest of the year. I think that today's post is the perfect opportunity to usher in the season, with an overview of my September 'ready for autumn' book haul!

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens: Autumn, for me, is the season of Dickens. My birthday almost always generates a pretty immediate impulse to pull out one of his books. I'm sure that this is a combination of his atmospheric descriptions and my exclusive association of winter with The Muppet Christmas Carol. I picked up David Copperfield at one of my local independent bookshops (since moving to St. Louis, I've been really surprised to find that there are a lot of great independent bookshops around - I'm sure that I'll post more on this in the future). David Copperfield is one of the few Dickens novels that I haven't already read. In fact, it's largely his most reputed and famous works that are still on my to-read list. I figured that this autumn would be a great opportunity to tick off some more of his incredible novels.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens: Anyone who is familiar with The Book Habit from back in the day will probably be shocked by the fact that I've yet to read Great Expectations. It's a novel that has eluded me over the years. Somewhat surprisingly, I never actually read any Dickens at school. Everything of his that I've read has been very much a solo endeavour. So, while most of you will likely be acquainted with Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities from your school days, these are two that I've yet to read. However, I could truly talk for days about Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House, so maybe this just means that my reading habits are edgily off-trend.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: One of my favourite occupations is going out at 9pm to our nearest Barnes and Noble and spending the later part of my evening trawling the shelves. Don't get me wrong, I do my best to support independent bookshops as much as possible - and I generally balance my book-buying accordingly. However, nothing beats a late night visit to one of the few shops to be open into the evening. Going to Barnes and Noble without any particular intentions is always my favourite way to shop for books. I've discovered so many incredible novels this way (this is an experience that Amazon absolutely cannot replicate). I saw Pachinko on a few separate trips but, for whatever reason, skirted past it. Eventually, something must have grabbed my eye and, after a read of the first few pages, I was hooked. This story of Korean immigrants in Japan is one that I'm incredibly excited to read.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: Another product of a late-night trip to Barnes and Noble. I've seen Lincoln in the Bardo hailed as one of the best books in recent years (it was originally published in 2017). It has won the Man Booker Prize and secured a position on the '2017 100 Notable Books' list from the New York Times. One of the ways that I'm coping with being an immigrant in a country currently experiencing such incredible political turmoil is by trying to immerse myself in its history as far as possible. During times of particular social division, it can be difficult to recall a period when political disagreement looked different from the violence and vitriol that currently seems to exist everywhere. Lincoln in the Bardo is a novel about President Lincoln, following the death of his son. The New York Times Book review called this novel "a luminous feat of generosity and humanism." Since these are two things of which we are deeply in need, I'm hoping this novel will help to clear my head a little.

The Illustrated Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (illustrated by Dame Darcy): Can anyone ever really have enough copies of their favourite book? Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are two novels of which I own multiple copies. They didn't even get lost in the great book cull of 2017 (in which I was sadly forced to part with roughly 80% of my book collection - overseas shipping costs are no joke). When I saw this illustrated version of Jane Eyre, I couldn't resist. The fact that I got it in a book sale at one of my favourite local bookshops only helped to hurry the transaction. Although I have minor fears of impacting my reputation as a *serious* reader, I have to admit that I absolutely love illustrated versions of classic novels. Not only am I convinced that cool and quirky illustrations make classics accessible to people who wouldn't otherwise attempt to tackle them, they're also just aesthetically pleasing. Unsurprisingly, I'm obsessed with this very gothic copy of Jane Eyre.

A close-up of the cover. These illustrations are incredible!

The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman: Reading the His Dark Materials trilogy was one of the highlights of my young life. Meeting Philip Pullman and having him sign my copy of The Amber Spyglass was the definitive highlight. I have to confess that I haven't really kept up with Pullman's work post-His Dark Materials. I did try to read a couple of the books that he put out but, for various reasons, they didn't manage to grip me or create any lasting impressions. That said, I was incredibly excited to get a copy of The Book of Dust for my birthday, from my lovely grandma. This book is essentially a renewal of his famous trilogy, albeit following a new main character - Malcolm Polstead. I'm so excited to return to the world of His Dark Materials and indulge the part of myself that still very much believes it's the late '90s.

So there we have it! All of my most recent acquisitions. Don't be fooled into thinking that these will carry me through the year, however. This week has seen a couple of important new releases that I'm already working to secure for my to-read pile! One of these releases also coincides with an amazing author event that I'm attending on Saturday and which I'll give you the scoop on next week. So stay tuned for that. 

If you have any of your own recent reads or purchases to recommend, let me know in the comments! I'm always looking for any excuse to keep rebuilding my demolished collection.

Friday, 28 September 2018

Review: 'There There' by Tommy Orange

"We are the memories we don't remember, which live in us, which we feel, which make us sing and dance and pray the way we do, feelings from memories that flare and bloom unexpectedly in our lives like blood through a blanket from a wound made by a bullet fired by a man shooting us in the back of our hair, for our heads, for a bounty, or just to get rid of us."

When I get asked (which I often do) why I consider literature so important, my answer is always the same: "empathy, compassion, and understanding." It is well documented that reading provides a type of sentimental education in which we learn, from an early age, to understand the multifaceted nature of human experience - the joy, pain, and suffering. With the political chaos currently enveloping much of the world, lessons in empathy are more necessary than ever. All books provide us with an opportunity to educate ourselves on human perspectives and experiences. It is rare, however, to find a novel that delivers this type of education with the timeliness and power of Tommy Orange's debut work, There There.

There There details the journeys of its 12 narrators, connected through a variety of familial relationships and, more abstractly, a shared exploration of the meaning of belonging within the context of contemporary Native American communities. From the outset, it is clear that the novel's central plot line - the upcoming Oakland Powwow and the various ways in which the characters are connected to the event - is secondary to the manner in which this tradition-centred meeting provokes a reflection on identity. Each of the characters struggles with the notion of what it means to be Native American in a society that is, for them, a product of violence, displacement, and loss. Displacement is central to the identities of the characters - some are adopted out of troubled families, others grapple with the tension of being mixed race and unsure of what it means to be Native American in this context. As Thomas Frank, a character who is both Native and white, reflects: "You're from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You were both and neither." The pain of this contradiction resounds throughout the novel.

"The wound that was made when white people came and took all that they took has never healed. An unattended wound gets infected. Becomes a new kind of wound like the history of what actually happened became a new kind of history. All these stories that we haven't been telling all this time, that we haven't been listening to, are just part of what we need to heal. Not that we're broken. And don't make the mistake of calling us resilient. To not have been destroyed, to not have given up, to have survived, is no badge of honor. Would you call an attempted murder victim resilient?"

Following instances of mass atrocity, story-telling often plays a vital role in attempts to capture and reconstitute both shared and individual identity. There There centralises the importance of stories in learning to account for the ruptures that exist in the contemporary experiences of its characters. Ruptures are everywhere in this novel. They are present in the juxtaposition of Native American traditions against a contemporary backdrop. They are deep and painful in the characters attempting to unite seemingly incompatible parts of their heritage. And they are most dramatically and poignantly presented in the physical and systemic violence perpetrated against this community by history's 'victors'. These ruptures make There There a difficult read for anyone who is able to live with the privilege of easily accessible ignorance. This is an ignorance that Tommy Orange tackles head on in one of the novel's most timely and powerful moments: "If you were fortunate enough to be born into a family whose ancestors benefited directly from genocide and/or slavery, maybe you think the more you don't know, the more innocent you can stay, which is a good incentive to not find out, to not look too deep, to walk carefully around the sleeping tiger. Look no further than your last name. Follow it back and you might find your line paved with gold, or beset with traps." 

Much of There There's power is its fearlessness in presenting a brutally realistic portrait of "Urban Indians." In an industry still struggling to represent the diversity of voices that it so desperately needs, this novel serves as an education in why contemporary literature must not remain parched of non-white authors. There There subverts dominant narratives of what it means to be Native American. In its powerful prelude (which, on its own, would make the novel worth reading), we are immediately forced to confront the reality of a nation's history built on violence and genocide. Tommy Orange devotes these initial pages to the symbolism of the "Indian Head" - "Our heads are on flags, jerseys, and coins. Our heads were on the penny first, of course, the Indian cent, and then on the buffalo nickel, both before we could even vote as a people - which, like the truth of what happened in history all over the world, and like all that spilled blood from the slaughter, are now out of circulation." Native American history has been fetishised by a society that is determined to misremember its own culpability. This is the privilege of victory. 

"They took everything and ground it down to dust as fine as gunpowder, they fired their guns into the air in victory and the strays flew out into the nothingness of histories written wrong and meant to be forgotten. Stray bullets and consequences are landing on our unsuspecting bodies even now."

Stylistically, Tommy Orange has chosen the perfect method to convey the realities of experience as a contemporary Native American. Telling the story through 12 narrators, with diverse voices and struggles, perfectly captures the contradiction that Orange wants to level against society's retelling of history and the Native American's modern experience. As Orange has himself described in interview, "There's a monolithic version of what a Native is supposed to look like. If we all have to be historical, with a headdress, looking off into the distance, that's hopeless as far as building a proper, complex, human identity." I did find that, with so many narrators, the pace of the novel suffered in some sections. This was in part to do with my own struggles attempting to keep track of the various relationships and connections - which, at times, distracted from the plot - but was also a product of some characters simply having a stronger presence. However, There There achieves so much in its 290 pages that any confusion regarding character relationships feels almost purposeful. These characters are, after all, attempting to configure and understand their own identities against a backdrop of shared history and trauma. It feels appropriate that the reader should have a part in this process.

To say that There There is one of the most important books of 2018 would, I think, be dramatically underselling its power. I have spent over a decade studying and working in human rights, with a specific emphasis on genocide and mass atrocity. I wasn't drawn to Tommy Orange's debut work for that reason, but rather as an attempt to educate myself more fully on a community about which I have so little knowledge. I'm not an American and I have the privilege of viewing America's history with its indigenous population as an outsider. However, I am also keenly aware of a global movement that looks toward ignorance and innocence, in the place of admission and reconciliation. These are big words with big meanings, but the first step is simple - education. Education on difference, commonality, objective history and experience are prerequisites to building the kind of shared understanding necessary to move forward. Novels such as There There are integral to this process, asking us to confront uncomfortable truths and provide space for the stories that were never ours to tell.

"Something about it will all make sense. The bullets have been coming from miles. Years. Their sound will break the water in our bodies, tear sound itself, rip our lives in half. The tragedy of it all will be unspeakable, the fact we've been fighting for decades to be recognized as a present-tense people, modern and relevant, alive, only to die in the grass wearing feathers."


Monday, 3 September 2018

Monday Musing - 03/09/18

For the amount of time that I do and have spent writing, I struggle with words. Perhaps it's the 'stiff upper lip' philosophy that, whilst not often acknowledged, seems to seep its way into the lives of so many Brits. Or maybe it's just something particular to my personality. Where I can usually find the words to talk about tangible and concrete subjects - people, events, books etc. - discussing emotions and feelings is something with which I have always struggled.

Meeting my husband threw this particular challenge into sharp focus. When you're getting to know someone, especially over a long distance (which we were for near enough the first year of our relationship), communication and honesty are essential. I had to teach myself how discuss feelings in a way that didn't provoke extreme anxiety or fear, and I did this through books. I was lucky enough to meet someone with whom I share an intense love for reading, so he didn't find it strange (I don't think, but we may need confirmation from him on this!) that I talked or wrote in book quotes. If it was hard for me to say, I let books do the talking. And we've never fallen out of this habit. Our wedding was replete with quotes from Pride and Prejudice (unoriginal maybe, but meaningful all the same) and our marriage is a pretty continuous citation of our favourite literature.

Since this week marks our 5th first date anniversary, I thought I would feature one of my favourite quotes on love from my favourite book - Jane Eyre. Whether you're still looking or have already found it, this quote summarises what I spent a long time imagining didn't really exist. I'm beyond lucky that I stumbled upon it and can understand that this quote isn't aspirational, it's what we all deserve to find.


Friday, 31 August 2018

8 Books To Conjure That Cosy Autumn Feeling


I couldn't be more excited for the autumn. It has always been my favourite season and no less so now that I live in the US. If anything, enduring five months of 40C weather has made me even more enamoured with the prospect of turning leaves, wooly scarves, and steaming bowls of soups. To me, autumn is the most evocative season. The memories and emotions that it provokes are only more important now that I'm so far away from home.

Of course, books play an integral role to my autumnal experiences. In fact, those books that I associate with specific seasons tend to be the ones that I am able to recall with the most clarity. Just as rainy weather demands that I throw myself on the sofa with a copy of Harry Potter and a big cup of tea, autumn's cool air and falling leaves bring certain novels immediately to mind. This post recommends my five favourite autumn reads - those books that evoke a sense of cosiness and intimacy that feel intrinsically linked to the season. Of course, if you have any your own autumn recommendations to add, feel free to comment down below!

1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt's novels are a recent discovery of mine, after I had the opportunity to read the first few pages of The Goldfinch and became immediately enthralled. Although the literary merits of that particular novel have been extensively debated, I think Tartt is eminently skilled at writing truly believable characters, albeit placed in relatively unbelievable situations. It is this particular ability that makes her first published novel, The Secret History, such an incredible work.

The Secret History is the story of Richard Papen, a student at Hampden College in Vermont. His passion for the study of classics - particularly Ancient Greek - leads him to join the highly selective class of the university's Classics Professor, Julian Morrow. As Richard gets to know his five fellow students, it becomes clear that there are several mysteries surrounding the group and their activities. It's no spoiler to say that this novel serves as something of an unconventional murder mystery - a why rather than whodunit. The identities of our murderers are revealed in the books opening pages but what The Secret History offers is an unravelling of the choices and relationships that lead individuals to the commission of such a heinous act.

If you're looking for an autumn read that perfectly captures the hazy coolness of the season, the setting of The Secret History is beautifully appropriate. Despite its plot line - and oftentimes in service of it - the novel evokes a sense of unrivalled cosiness, largely due to its New England setting and the perspective of its Californian narrator. This is one of the few books I've read that I desperately did not want to end, and I can imagine no better way to pass some lazy autumn days than with this novel for company.

2. Mapp and Lucia by E.F. Benson

If you've worked your way through the archives of The Book Habit, you'll know that I have a particular soft spot for stories in the mould of anything written by P.G. Wodehouse. One of my favourite books to review over the three years that I ran this blog consistently was Jerome K. Jerome's incredibly funny novel Three Men in a Boat. Any comedic book written by a British author in the first half of the 20th century is, to me, always worth a read.

I was lucky to stumble upon an omnibus of E.F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia stories whilst still living in the UK. It was at a particularly difficult time - my now-husband (then-fiance) had returned to the US and I was in England waiting for my visa to come through so that I could follow him. I'd left my PhD programme (for various reasons) and was feeling generally aimless and very low. To say that Mapp and Lucia was a blessing is to put it mildly. Rarely has a book happened into my life with such perfect timing.

Mapp and Lucia is a collection of stories published by E.F. Benson over the course of the 1920s and '30s. It follows two snobbish upper-middle-class women as they vie for social control over their respective communities. Although many of the individual stories are told about the women in their separate lives, they are eventually brought together in a truly hilarious and incident-ridden fashion when Lucia (Mrs Emmeline Lucas) moves to Elizabeth Mapp's seaside hometown of Tilling. The intimacy of the communities depicted and the personal relationships on which the plot and humour rely is, to me, intrinsically linked with the cosiness I'm looking for in the autumn. It's reassuringly familiar and always comforting. If you're a fan of P.G. Wodehouse or looking for a cosy and light-hearted autumnal read, this is definitely one for you.

3. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

I adore just about anything by Oscar Wilde. One of my favourite high school experiences was writing a comparative research paper about The Importance of Being Ernest and An Ideal Husband. From there, I devoured every one of his plays. Perhaps surprisingly, it took me a further decade to get around to reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde's only novel. For those of us who come to Wilde's work through his famous plays, it is perhaps difficult to imagine forgoing the humour and wit for a much darker kind of storytelling. However, I'm sorry that I didn't come to the novel sooner because it's a truly remarkable work.

The Picture of Dorian Gray follows the story of Dorian Gray, a beautiful young man who has his beauty immortalised by the painter Basil Hallword. Into the plot steps Lord Henry Wotton, a hedonist who expresses to the painter and his muse his view that beauty is the only thing of worth. As a result, Dorian wishes that he can remain young and beautiful forever, with the version of himself captured in the painting ageing in his stead. This wish comes true and we watch as Dorian falls into a life of carelessness and depravity, all the while his painting turning increasingly grotesque and unrecognisable.

This novel is one that I associate with those stormy and rainy autumn days. The novel is a gothic masterpiece, sinister in both plot and setting. As with most gothic literature, The Picture of Dorian Gray requires a suspension of disbelief regarding the various supernatural happenings. If, however, you're looking for a short and beautifully written novel to carry you through a dreary November weekend, this is a perfect recommendation.

4. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

On a similar vein to my recommendation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Rebecca is a riveting and eerie piece of work that will help you capture cosiness on those 'not so perfect' autumn days. It remains one of my favourite novels (I've reviewed it previously on this blog) and is a regular re-read as the days get darker and the weather colder. 

Published in 1938, Rebecca is narrated by the nameless second wife of Maximilian (Maxim) de Winter. Maxim is the owner of the enormous and beautiful Cornwall estate of Manderley. When the newly married couple return to Manderley after their honeymoon, the narrator become acquainted with the estate's housekeeper, Mrs Danvers - truly one of the most sinister characters I've ever encountered in fiction. Mrs Danvers was unnaturally devoted to the Maxim's first wife, Rebecca, who died in a boating accident roughly a year before the start of the novel's plot. Rebecca's shadow haunts the new Mrs. de Winter as she attempts to adapt to life at Manderley and as Mrs Danvers does her utmost to sabotage the new lady of the house. When the narrator confronts her husband in an attempt to understand Rebecca's continuing influence over Manderley, he reveals a truth that places the couple on a dangerous and life-altering path.

Rebecca is a novel that is replete with unease. Although never truly 'horrifying', the reader works through this book with a constant sense of something lurking - a direct reflection of the narrator's relentless haunting by Rebecca's presence. Much as with works like Wuthering Heights, however, this is a novel that is also incredibly well written. The setting is powerfully beautiful and impressive, described in mind-capturing detail. For centralising such an extreme character in Mrs. Danvers, the characterisation is also unexpectedly three dimensional and engaging. For those darker days and early nights, I can think of no novel more appropriate than Daphne du Maurier's masterpiece.

5. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

If you're a returning reader of my posts on The Book Habit, you'll be unsurprised to see The House of the Spirits mentioned here. It is one of my favourite novels (second only to Jane Eyre) and a book that I have previously reviewed on the site. I'll give a (much abbreviated) version of that review here - although you can click the link to see my detailed thoughts!

The House of the Spirits (set in an unnamed country - but well recognised to be Chile) follows three generations of the Trueba family, opening with the story of the del Valles and their young daughters, Rosa and Clara. Clara is set-apart from the outset through her talent for clairvoyance and her prediction of the death of her sister, Rosa (who is also the fiancee of the central male character, Esteban Trueba). It is after the subsequent marriage of Esteban and Clara that the novel truly gains momentum, following the couple as they move to the remote hacienda, Tres Marias. At Tres Marias, in his capacity as the hacienda's patron, Esteban's cruelty is brought into sharp focus. The violence that emerges with Esteban commences a cycle of brutality that tails the Trueba family, as the reader follows them through the generations and into political events to which they will be inextricably connected.

This multigenerational saga is an impressive piece of fiction for many reasons. It features here, however, for the relationships that it depicts. As I mentioned above, one of the things that I look for in my autumn reads is a level of intimacy between characters. Perhaps it is the sense of isolation that starts to creep in as the days get shorter and colder, that makes us keen to find connection where we can. The House of the Spirits is all about relationships and, to me, evokes a strong feeling of closeness and comfort. Reading such a powerful insight into family dynamics - particularly with the extreme political context as a backdrop - is the perfect antidote to any loneliness that the closing of the year might bring. The element of magical realism might also makes this a very suitable supernatural read for Halloween, if that's what you're looking for.

Honourable Mentions:

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie will eternally serve as my go-to author when I need an injection of Englishness. Her books are so heavily associated with autumn for me, largely because I worked on the filming of Poirot during the last few months of the year. I also have fond memories of watching the series on darkening afternoons, feeling that soul-deep comfort that comes with something so familiar and, in many respects, idyllic. 

Of Agatha Christie's many books, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is perhaps my favourite. I've reviewed it previously on The Book Habit because, in my opinion, this book is truly a model of crime fiction. If you're looking for a book to accompany apple pie and cinnamon sticks, anything by Agatha Christie will surely serve the purpose.

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé

This book was an unexpected joy when I stumbled upon it, knowing nothing of the author or the title. It is a homage to good literature and, since autumn is all about using the extra hours of darkness to indulge in great books, it feels totally appropriate to place it on this list. The novel reads as a love letter to literature, a reminder of its vast and remarkable impact on our lives.

Beyond this, the plot is remarkably compelling. It centres on the French bookshop 'The Good Novel', created by its founders with a desire to sell only great literature. Initially embraced, the bookshop is eventually derided as a totalitarian concept and members of its committee begin suffering murder attempts. A Novel Bookstore is largely an unravelling of the mysteries behind these attacks, whilst simultaneously telling the story of the bookshop and celebrating the passion for literature that acts as its foundation.

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

For those gearing their reading habits to meet more mystical ends in the build up to Halloween, I highly recommend picking up Howl's Moving Castle. I didn't actually get around to reading this book until I had already become well acquainted with the animated film from Studio Ghibli (now one of my favourite films). It's always difficult to work in the reverse - reading the book after seeing the film - largely because watching characters and settings come to life in front of you basically robs your imagination of the chance to form its own, uninfluenced impression.

Howl's Moving Castle is sufficiently different from the film that it feels like working through two totally separate stories. Even with a version of the wizard Howl firmly imprinted on my mind, it was amazing how quickly an alternative impression formed as I read through the book. The book retains all of the film's magic and appeal. It is beautifully told, completely weird, and totally immersive. Whether you've seen the film or not, this is a leisurely read that will perfectly prepare you to whip up the perfect Halloween costume.






Monday, 27 August 2018

Monday Musing - 27/08/18

A return to The Book Habit obviously means a return to Monday Musing posts. Some things just don't change, despite a three year break! Even with a transatlantic move and a wedding under my belt, so much remains the same. I still look to my books for inspiration and comfort (despite an incredibly painful pruning of my book collection to reduce the truly enormous costs of shifting them all from England to the US). 

Working through homesickness and attempting to find my feet in a new country have made me very aware of the metaphorical anchors that I carry with me wherever I go. There are a handful of things that always bring me back to myself, even when I'm feeling lost and overwhelmed. Books - all so heavily associated with different places and times in my life - are some of the most important resources for helping me to stay grounded and brave when life gets challenging. 

So what better way to kick off the last week of August than with a bit of literary inspiration that reminds us of the feelings of homeliness and familiarity we experience with every turned page?