Book Voyeurism

I love knowing what other people are reading. If I see someone sitting in a break room or in a park with a book, I’m so nosy. I want to know what book it is. Is it good? Is it awful? Should I read it?

With the advent of the Internet, it’s much easier now to spy on people’s reading. Sites like Library Thing, Shelfari, anobii, and even Visual Bookshelf on Facebook mean that I can find people with similar reading interests – or even just friends with completely opposite taste – and see what novel they’re into.

So, if you like reading Book Sherpa, head on over to anobii.com (it’s my preferred book tracking site) and set yourself up an account and friend or neighbor me. I’d love to know what you’re reading. You can find my “shelf” at http://www.anobii.com/moogle/books.

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The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

Haunting of Hill House

I’ve begun my annual reading of the scary stories, which is something I like to do every year during the Halloween season. The first book I pulled off the shelf was The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson, which I’d picked up at the used bookstore recently. I was all set for a spooky, creepy haunted house story. What I got…was something a little more extraordinary.

You see, The Haunting of Hill House doesn’t really wear its scares on its sleeve. Instead, Jackson builds suspense and tension slowly, leaving only unanswered questions instead of providing answers. She does this through masterful character development and deliberate pacing. Jackson even manages to subvert my expectations a bit, as she introduces a couple of characters toward the end of the book, and I expected certain things to happen to them. She takes things in a completely unexpected direction instead.

The story begins when Dr. Montague, Eleanor, Luke and Theodora arrive to stay at the house for a period where they’ll investigate its reported freaky occurrences. Dr. Montague has arranged the gathering, and recruited Eleanor and Theodora for events that have occurred in their past that might make them more open to paranormal phenomena. Luke is present as a member of the family that owns Hill House, which was built 80 years previously by a man named Hugh Crain.

Strange things happen, like writing appearing on the walls and terrifying noises in the night as things seem to be trying to get into their rooms. The group basically agrees that they will always stick together, especially at night, because they seem to be particularly vulnerable when separated.

It’s never really clear, though, what causes the manifestations of evil. The house itself is a character, with a wicked design that makes it impossible to find one’s way around and exerting a malevolent influence of its own. There are intimations that Eleanor might be responsible for some of the writings, and if she’s not, it’s pretty clear that something has latched onto her.

All of the horror in the book is psychological, so any reader looking for blood and guts is bound to be disappointed. But if you like a carefully crafted, ambiguous tale that leaves you yearning for just a bit more, The Haunting of Hill House is a perfectly nasty little read.

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2009 National Book Awards Finalists

Fiction
American Salvage – Bonnie Jo Campbell
Let the Great World Spin – Colum McCann
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders – Daniyal Mueenuddin
Lark and Termite – Jayne Anne Phillips
Far North – Marcel Theroux

Nonfiction
Following the Water: A Hydromancer’s Notebook – David M. Carroll
Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species – Sean B. Carroll
Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City – Greg Grandin
The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy – Adrienne Mayor
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt – T.J. Stiles

Poetry
Versed – Rae Armantrout
Or to Begin Again – Ann Lauterbach
Speak Low – Carl Phillips
Open Interval – Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon
Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy – Keith Waldrop

Young People’s Literature
Charles and Emma: The Darwin’s Leap of Faith – Deborah Heiligman
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice – Phillip Hoose
Stiches – David Small
Lips Touch: Three Times – Laini Taylor
Jumped – Rita Williams-Garcia

Find out more at the National Book Foundation site.

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Juliet Naked, by Nick Hornby

Juliet, Naked

Juliet, Naked has a number of themes at its center. Like so much of Hornby’s work, it explores music. He takes things a step further than his music store obsessives in High Fidelity and has a character who is singularly consumed with the discography and life of a single performer. Although Hornby does gently poke some fun at this fellow, it’s not (totally) mean-spirited. Clearly, Hornby can understand how and why someone can want to know all of the tiny details about an artist, even if it all seems a bit silly in the end.

While it seemed early on as if this would be the book’s primary focus, things take a bit of a shift as Hornby moves away from pondering the things that make us so obsessed about certain artists (or things) and more toward intimations on mortality, unconventional middle-age romance (it’s better than it sounds, I swear), celebrity and art. Perhaps a reader needs to be a certain age (I realize with dismay that I am that certain age) to fully enjoy the novel, but I do think that anyone can relate to knowing someone who is so completely obsessed with a certain musician, television show, movie, actor or comic book to the point that it gets a little bit ooky.

I’ve watched and read a lot of works lately where one of the central conceits is a character who has seen time pass them by to the point where they feel obsolete, and it’s oddly resonant (and a little heartbreaking) every single time. Juliet, Naked takes that conceit and shows three separate characters dealing with it in their own individual ways. It’s easy to empathize with Annie, Duncan and Tucker even when they’re doing things that are less than admirable. Truth is, we all have thoughts that are kind of ugly sometimes, and we’ve done things we’re not quite proud of. That doesn’t make us bad people, even though it’s part of who we are.

I’m guessing that Juliet, Naked will be my favorite book of 2009, and I’ll be fretting and worrying that someone will ruin it with a movie version (though the original Fever Pitch, High Fidelity and About a Boy are all fantastic). It definitely reads cinematically and conversationally, which is oddly a criticism some readers have of Hornby, but it works well with this particular story. I loved the characters for all their foibles and faults, and thought that I had worked out where Hornby would take them, but I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong. It’s one of those books that I was kind of sad to finish, because my journey with the characters had ended. I miss them already.

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Blurbism

Michael Chabon talks Manhood for Amateurs with The Globe and Mail.

Twitter an Audio Story with Neil Gaiman! Find out the details at the BBC Audiobooks America Blog.

Monty Python’s Terry Jones remembers Douglas Adams.

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Blurby

Time and Goodreads each talk to Audrey Niffenegger about her new novel Her Fearful Symmetry.

NPR’s All Things Considered explores William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch 50 years after publication.

I’m a big fan of the comic series Fables. Bill Willingham, creator of the series, has written a novel set in the universe called Peter & Max: A Fables Novel. io9 reviews the new book.

An anti-prostitution group in Mexico is seeking to halt production on the movie adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel Memories of My Melancholy Whores.

The New York Times profiles A.S. Byatt, whose newest novel The Children’s Book was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.

Margaret Atwood is interviewed by the LA Times’ Jacket Copy blog.

The Times Online unveils the best books of the past 60 years as named by their readers.

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Gormenghast, by Mervyn Peake

Gormenghast

The third in a trilogy of novels set in a bleak world that is isolated from all other society, Gormenghast is a deliberately-paced story with a Gothic sensibility. It’s frequently listed on lists of best English-language novels and inspired a BBC mini-series. After finding the first novel, Titus Groan to be slowly paced if intriguing, I saw things pick up in Gormenghast, and was surprised at Peake’s willingness to have his characters do the unexpected. It is indeed an engaging and original tale.

I often see Gormenghast described as a fantasy novel, and I continuously find myself wondering where it got that label. Certainly it has some fantastic, larger-than-life characters who would not really exist in the daily world, but nothing that happens is particularly unbelievable or extreme. I guess it doesn’t slot well into another genre, because it’s not really historical fiction, but rather a universe and mythology that springs completely from the author’s imagination. As a reader, you can believe that a place like Gormenghast might exist in another time or dimension.

It’s also possible, I suppose, to see Gormenghast as Titus’s coming-of-age story. In Titus Groan he is born, and we learn much about all of the people who surround him even as we don’t really know the child who will eventually become Earl of Gormenghast and leader of the land in the second book. Once we do come to book two, though, we learn much about the young man as he grows up, from early youth all the way to manhood (there are three or four cataclysmic events that pave the way for his transition from child to adult).

Really, though, Gormenghast is about a land with rules and strict notions of how to live on a daily basis. But agents of chaos are swirling in the background, trying to mold Gormenghast into something that follows their own whims and caprices. Titus might be included amongst these chaos-bringers except for the fact that he desperately yearns to break free of his duties and expectations.

Peake was a masterful writer, full of detail and displaying a real talent at evoking a mental image through his words. I had specific images of all the key players in my mind, as well as a certain feeling about how the castle and buildings surrounding it should look. His insistence on being descriptive might make the story unfold slowly enough that it would put let patient readers off, but there are great rewards for those who watch the story unfold to its sort-of cliffhanger ending.

Obligatory FTC note: I received no compensation from any publisher, author, or anyone else for my review of this book. In fact, it’s been sitting on my bookshelf looking lonely for a couple of years now, but given the amount of time I’ve spent with it over the last couple of weeks, it probably is feeling a little smothered and would like a moment to itself.

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