October Bookshelf: Men, Women, and Normal People

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.”

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

What book lover doesn’t love Halloween? Either you’re a horror fiend (like I am) in which case you want nothing more than to be chilled by Shirley Jackson or MR James, or you’re timid to the holiday’s proclivities, in which case a book is the perfect distraction. What could be better than a book and a hot drink when the moon is full and witches are abroad? 

This year’s Halloween festivities were pretty special for this bookworm. I spent the entire last week of October reading spooky stories with small children. Absolute bliss. You don’t know Halloween joy until you’ve read Room on the Broom to a coven of excited five-year-olds. Of course, after the twelfth or thirteenth re-read I was ready to hex somebody. Still, beats a day in the office!

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I even rocked a kid-lit inspired costume!

Moving onto the decidedly not child friendly first book of the month:

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Naturally, I’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. It’s undoubtedly a masterpiece, but what surprised me about Stephen King’s source material was just how empathetic it was. While Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrence was a man over the edge almost looking for an excuse to lash out, the novel’s Jack is kind of a sap. He knows he has messed up and hurt the people he loves, and it eats him up. His story becomes a tragedy through King’s storytelling (apparently inspired by his own experiences with addiction and letting his family down). His muderous rage is terrifying not only because it puts Wendy and Danny in danger, but because it threatens his own salvation. It takes a hell of a writer to get you to empathise with a character like this, but the King of Horror pulls it off. Highly recommended, and different enough from the movie that you could be a superfan and get a totally different experience from it.

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Continuing on the horror theme, my library book of the month was Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. I actually got to see this in the West End of London in January (my husband & I scored box seats for £19!) and was blown away. The novel upon which the play is based is great, and very evocative of the fear I felt in London’s Fortune Theatre, but as far as shivers down the spine goes, the play just edges it. That said, this novel is a thrilling, speedy read that could probably be enjoyed in two firelit nights. I would certainly re-read this, which is not something I often do.

 

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Departing from horror, I also picked up Sally Rooney’s Normal People this month. I always leave the Booker shortlist well alone – that’s how Santa does his shopping – but once Normal People was eliminated I gave it a whirl. I’ll admit I was quite a bit cooler on Conversations with Friends than most people I know, finding it more than a little unlikeable. Normal People is, in my opinion, a far superior novel. Where Conversations with Friends made me feel like a voyeur, Normal People challenged me to identify with two people at their most vulnerable. I was particularly shaken by the book’s frank depiction of sex as having the potential to harm and force codependency, even in ostensibly healthy and consensual couplings. Rooney has the potential to be the great millennial novelist. I have had mixed responses to her work, but what has been consistent is how exciting I find her. So far, so good for this month’s reads.

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Oh dear. I knew it was too good to be true. The worst book I have read all year is Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling. What a vulgar, misanthropic, misogynistic, mean little text, not to mention florid and overwrought. Tallent’s metaphors are language wrestling with itself and his story – apparently about survival – is actually about brutality and the futility of resisting it. It seems to me that Tallent spent all of the time he should have been researching survivors of abuse on researching guns. I hated this.

 

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Thank God, then, for Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws, a text which has had a huge influence on me as a writer and researcher. I always tell my students to think of critical theory not as an influence on the writer they’re studying, but as a lens that they can use to read those writers, and Clover’s is perhaps the best book I’ve ever read for showing how it’s done. A worthwhile perennial re-read for this darkest of seasons….

 

Now as we move into my least favourite month, I’m picking up less taxing books – detective stories, re-reads of my favourite sci-fis, perhaps the odd short story collection. I’m ready for some escapism. Where to next?

 

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