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? 

Friday, 24 August 2018

Review: 'The Girls' by Emma Cline

"I waited to be told what was good about me [...] All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really jut a waiting room until someone noticed you - the boys had spent that time becoming themselves."

There's something about the approach to turning 30 that invites an element of reflection. Now that the countdown is in weeks rather than months, I'm finding myself increasingly preoccupied with an endless recounting of the 'coulds', 'shoulds', and 'woulds' of the past three decades. The list is long. I've always had a strange relationship with the idea of regret. I spent the last part of my teenage years and the beginning of my twenties absolutely determined to live without regret of any kind. The exhaustion that comes with this kind of life philosophy was bolstered by conventional wisdom, telling us all that regret and failure - failure to seek out opportunities, failure to have courage, failure to embrace change - go hand in hand. Some years on, however, I'm realising that regret is a necessary part of life. While it does perhaps point to some failure on our part, it is also a intrinsic part of living life surrounded by people, places, and opportunities whilst limited in time and space - as we all are.

Perhaps it is this reflection that prodded me in the direction of Emma Cline's The Girls and its perspective on choices, value, and memory. Part coming-of-age narrative, part social interrogation, The Girls is a brutal account of adolescence in the face of obsession and manipulation.

"They didn't have very far to fall - I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself. Feelings seemed completely unreliable, like faulty gibberish scraped from a Ouija board. My childhood visits to the family doctor were stressful events for that reason. He'd ask me gentle questions: How was I feeling? How would I describe the pain? Was it more sharp or more spread out? I'd just look at him with desperation. I needed to be told, that was the whole point of going to the doctor. To take a test, be put through a machine that would comb my insides with radiated precision and tell me what the truth was."

The narrative of The Girls is told from the perspective of its main character, Evie Boyd, in reflection from adulthood. The bulk of the story is, however, set in 1969 when Evie was just 14. From the beginning of the novel, it is clear that Evie is subject to the pressures and misconceptions that plague adolescent girls -  a search for acceptance and validation, but always through the value assigned by others. Yet Evie's experiences are given even starker account through her interactions with a Californian cult. Anyone who has even rudimentary familiarity with the Manson Family will understand that this novel offers a retelling of their history, albeit with details (including names and the specifics of the Family's crimes) changed. The reader follows Evie as she finds herself increasingly in thrall to the group and its female members, and as the plot heads to its inevitably violent climax...

The Girls is a truly remarkable novel. However, to anticipate a true crime account or a psychological study of the cult's leader is to misunderstand the purpose of the book. This is a coming-of-age tale that dissects the universality of the instincts and emotions that drive our choices as adolescents. Pointing most particularly to Cline's incredible insight into the teenage experience is her ability to evoke a sense of timelessness in the narrative. Despite the historically specific and socially extreme setting, the novel evokes a sense of true familiarity in the reader. Anyone who has had the experience of living as a teenage girl will recognise much of what is described in The Girls - the struggle for acceptance, the desire for meaning that would somehow make life more understandable.

"I thought that loving someone acted as a kind of protective measure, like they'd understand the scale and intensity of your feelings and act accordingly. That seemed fair to me, as if fairness were a measure that the universe cared anything about."

I came to this novel expecting more insight into the nature of cult dynamics. What I found was something better. For all the fixation on men and their position of power, male figures - even those as dominant as the cult leader, Russell - play a minimal role in the plot's focus. While they serve as a catalyst for events, it is the relationship between the girls that acts as the book's main preoccupation. The novel turns on the idea that "Girls are the only ones who can give each other close attention, the kind we equate with being loved. They noticed what we want noticed." It is with Suzanne, the cult's primary female figurehead and a girl of 19, that Evie becomes increasingly enamoured. And it is Evie's relationships with the girls that continues to draw her back to the cult. For all the undeniable charisma of the leader, it is the females and their dynamics that make this novel turn.

Beyond its plot, The Girls is a truly well-written piece of work. The first-person narrative is engaging and highly believable. I often struggle with first-person teenage perspectives written by adults, largely because they have a tendency to fall into the realm of caricature. Perhaps it is the fact that this novel is told in retrospective - presumably decades later, at the same time as the present-day narrative that intersperses the novel - that allows Cline to avoid this. It also permits Evie to reflect, with some level of objectivity, on the thoughts and motivations that lay behind her choices at the time. Cline's writing is so compelling, enough so that I finished The Girls over the course of one day (albeit with not much else going on!).

"Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little of them will ever get it. The treacled pop songs, the dresses described in the catalogs with words like 'sunset' and 'Paris'. Then the dreams are taken away with such violent force; the hand wrenching the buttons of the jeans, nobody looking at the man shouting at his girlfriend on the bus."

The Girls is an enthralling and challenging insight into the nature of female adolescence. The brutal backdrop of violence and manipulation only throws further light on the trap of external validation that we experience as a normal part of growing up. Whether this serves as a warning or simply a reflection of reality depends largely on your perspective. Either way, this novel surely serves as a reminder of the grey line that exists between choice and regret.