BOOK REVIEWS

Schoolhouse Gothic by Sherry R. Truffin

Schoolhouse Gothic, Sherry R. Truffin’s first monograph, is one of the first studies to address the role of the educational system in twentieth-century Gothic fiction. The work reveals Truffin’s in-depth understanding of the Gothic genre, its origins, methodologies and implications, focussing in particular on a branch of Gothic she terms ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’.
In Schoolhouse Gothic, Truffin examines late-twentieth-century American literature by authors such as Stephen King, Toni Morrison, and Joyce Carol Oates taking the form of Gothic narratives where the stones of age-old monasteries and castles are replaced by the concrete of school buildings and where classrooms and gyms function as prisons. Truffin focuses on those texts that express and exacerbate the increasingly uneasy relationship that Americans have with the academy and with the educational system as a whole. According to Truffin, ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ depicts the educational system through a Gothic lens with schools reifying old – and often outdated – traditions, and teachers and professors perpetuating an ‘epistemic violence’ that is ‘violence exerted against or through knowledge’ (26). Schools, within this strand of Gothic, provide the setting for race, gender and class inequities, which often result in physical and mental violence against students. Since Gothic is a genre that tends to explore subversive themes, often providing a conflicting view of our culture, it seems almost inevitable that it would turn its gaze to the country’s faltering educational system where high-schools and colleges form the backdrop to gun violence, economic inequalities, and racial and gender discriminations.
Woven throughout Truffin’s narrative are a diverse set of theories, for example, a view of institutional buildings as places designed to control and entrap individuals that echoes Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’ and a concept of ‘epistemic violence’ stems from Michel Foucault’s notion of ‘Power/Knowledge’ in which power is simultaneously generated by and generator of knowledge). She calls upon eminent contemporary literary theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu and James A. Berlin to support her assertions about educational institutions, and references recent Gothic scholars such as Chris Baldick and David Punter when defining Gothic. Although her erudition emerges quite clearly, her arguments often seem convoluted and there is almost an excess of critical theories, which are sometimes not developed in full.
Truffin repeatedly refers to the ‘academic objectivity’ that ‘blinds scholars and educators to their own prejudices’ and stresses that academy’s ‘prerogative of definition’ is extremely damaging – above all to the students who are its primary victims: are we to assume that she considers herself exempt?
Her opening chapter begins with a personal account set during Truffin’s senior year of high school, when she first heard Pink Floyd’s ‘grim narrative’(2) in ‘Another Brick in the Wall’. Truffin credits this song with inspiring her to embark on her inquiry into the nature and representations of ‘shadowy educators; nightmarish schools; and traumatized students’ (2), that is, the schools and teachers that she associated with that particular song. She goes goes on to explore the ‘forbidding schools and menacing teachers’ (3) within the Gothic canon.
In this introductory chapter she provides a brief definition of Gothic as a counter-Enlightenment discourse that serves as the basis of her inquiry into what she defines as ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’, which is not a genre per se but rather ‘a set of representations that articulates or embodies […] “a structure of feeling”’ (5). One of the defining characteristics of the Gothic is that it is a genre preeminently concerned with the past, yet ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ depicts the contemporary Western education system, albeit using traditional Gothic motifs and conventions to do so. Daunting family mansions and old monasteries are replaced by school buildings and college campuses. Within ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ standardized education is a means of control and indoctrination, schools are the backdrop to power inequalities, a place where students are entrapped, oppressed, and transformed into ‘psychopaths, zombies, and machines’ (5).
Truffin considers the teachers, students, and academic institutions within the ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ as correspondents to the Gothic tropes such as the monster, the curse, and the trap. The paranoia, violence and mental disintegration that takes place in ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ is such that students and teachers alike emerge from their school experience ‘so distorted as to become a kind monster […] no one remains unchanged by school, and no one changes for the better’ (27). Truffin uses the remainder of her introduction to establish the structure of her monograph, the texts she will analyse that focus on literature where the school is ‘the loci of the Gothic experiences’ (26), and the way in which she will approach these texts.
In ‘“I’m out of your filing cabinet now”: Adolescent Angst in the Schoolhouse Gothic of Stephen King’ Truffin focuses on four narratives by Stephen King: Carrie, The Shining, Apt Pupil and Rage. Truffin identifies and addresses the similar themes explored within these stories noting that within King’s ‘rather extensive boy of Schoolhouse Gothic’ schools and their teachers are compared to ‘everything from bad parenting to rape, capitalist brainwashing, and monster-making’ (34). The schools and teachers starring in these stories are sources of ‘paranoia, violence and monstrosity’ (34). What emerges from Truffin’s approach to these texts is that the rage experienced by the students in King’s narratives is a reaction to the way that they have been abused, labelled, and misunderstood by their educators. These unequal power relationships will have deadly consequences – as revealed in Truffin’s close-analysis of these stories – as the victimized students turn against their tormentors.
When discussing Toni Morrison’s Beloved Truffin makes readers aware that the novel is ‘neither set in a school building nor centrally concerned with the victimizations of students at the hands of their teachers’ arguing however that ‘all of the elements of Schoolhouse Gothic find their way into the novel’ (82). While King ‘explores the effects of subjugation and entrapment on students’, Morrison’s novel considers the ‘subjugating effects of conceptualizing human beings as subject matters’ (82). Truffin details the way in which the character of Sethe, a freed slave, is viewed as ‘less than human–as in fact, an object of study’ (82). Truffin’s analysis centers on the way in which racism and slavery are ‘legitimated and perpetuated–given a (pseudo) scientific sanction’ within Beloved. Truffin views the schoolteacher – who is the primary discipliner of the slaves – as the embodiment of post-Enlightenment scientific racism. Truffin argues that his desire to study the ‘animal’ qualities of his slaves, such as when he measures Sethe’s head, instructing his pupils list her human and animal characteristics, is an ‘epistemic violation of his slaves’. His lectures and writings are accountable for the actions of his students who assault Sethe. Sethe herself is haunted by the schoolteacher’s practices. In this chapter Truffin grimly demonstrates that Beloved’s ‘critique of the history racist oppression in America’ revolves around ‘the horrible power of the academic’ (100) where students are programmed to dissect and discard human subject matter.
In her next chapter Truffin jumps from a 19th-century slave plantation to a college campus in New England during the mid-1970s. Truffin examines Joyce Carol Oates’s Beasts using the same rationale as her previous chapters, referring to the ‘monster, curse and trap’ that constitute her definition of ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’. Beasts follows Gillian, a student attending a women’s college, who is seduced by her Creative Writing professor Mr Harrow. Mr Harrow pressures Gillian into entering a sexual relationship with himself and his wife, Dorcas. Truffin describes Gillian as being enslaved by this relationship, and alongside her classmates, also implied to be fellow victims of Mr Harrow, becomes increasingly ‘jealous, paranoid, dehumanized and monstrous’ to the point of resembling ‘zombies, cadavers, dogs and […] beasts’ (107). Mr Harrow in turn exploits, humiliates and abuses his victims. Truffin observes the way in which Gillian’s college experience leads her to indulge in self-mutilation and self-flagellation and finally pushes her to kill the professor and his wife, that is, those who made her into a ‘beast’. Truffin highlights the themes and arguments she has touched upon in previous chapters, illustrating the way in which Schoolhouse Gothic narratives expose the inevitable monstrous transformation that students can experience at the hands of their teachers, who are either physically abusive or exercise ‘epistemic violence’ – wielding knowledge as a weapon – against those who are in their care.
Although many sections of Schoolhouse Gothic are highly accessible, to the point of being conversational in style, there are other passages that seem unnecessarily abstruse and fall back on awkward metaphors. The volume would have also benefited from attentive editing since the index contains several errors: the entry for ‘New Criticism’, for example, directs readers to nonexistent pages. Another serious shortcoming in my opinion is the author’s failure to address her role as a scholar and academic in her critique of the academy. Early on she briefly acknowledges the positive effects that the educational system can have but in examining those texts she identifies as being ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’, she often seems critical of the academy and educational system themselves rather than critical of the way in which they are within the texts. And while her ‘monster, curse and trap’ allegory gives consistency to her analysis of ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ literature this formula can be limiting since it melds together different readings and stories.
Nevertheless Truffin’s Schoolhouse Gothic proposes an interesting study, and her definition of ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ gives expression to an overlooked strand of the Gothic.


MY RATING: 2 of 5 stars

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Notes on a Silencing: A Memoir by Lacy Crawford

“The teachers, rectors, lawyers, and priests of St. Paul’s School lied to preserve their legacy. It would take decades to learn not to hate the girl they disparaged, and to give her the words she deserved.”

Notes on a Silencing is a profoundly poignant memoir and a deeply moving account of a young girl’s sexual assault and its aftermath. With clarity and precision, Crawford describes her time at St. Paul’s School, an elite boarding school in New Hampshire, where, at the age of fifteen, she was sexually assaulted by two older students, both of whom went unpunished and were able to graduate with awards. The physical violence of the assault is followed by a different kind of violence when the school, more concerned with its own reputation than pursuing the matter, silences her.
Crawford revisits the assault, the months that led up to it and what followed. She recreates the atmosphere and toxic culture of St. Paul’s, a place predominantly attended by the children of WASP families. Although Crawford’s vision of this rarefied world is far from idealistic, she also writes about the friendships she formed at St. Paul’s. Yet, after her assault rumours begin spreading and Crawford is labelled a ‘slut’ and ostracised by her friend and fellow students. Crawford exposes the double standards applied to male and female sexuality that enables victim blaming.
With the pace and tension of a psychological thriller, Crawford revisits these events both through the eyes of the fifteen-year-old and with new adult insight. She details the mental and physical anguish of the assault and its traumatic aftereffects. By showing St. Paul’s as a microcosm of society, Crawford reveals the underlining mechanisms that permit systemic abuse of power.
Notes on a Silencing is a gripping and powerful memoir, one that will stay with you long after you finish reading it.

A few quotes:

“The simplest way I can tell the story of my assault is to describe how the boys made me feel I was no longer a person. The first violation was erasure.”

“In bearing witness, we’re trying to correct a theft of power via a story. But power and stories, while deeply interconnected, are not the same things. One is rock, the other is water. Over time, long periods of time, water always wins.”

“If one of the great sources of misery for all high schoolers is the illusion that high school will never end, the reach of power implied (and wielded) by the alumni and trustees of St. Paul’s School threatened that in our particular case, that nightmare was real.”

“We were people on this earth. This life was all we had. It was all we fucking had, and life, my life, could not be determined by cruelty like this. It could not be allowed to stand.”

“If the first violation of the boys who assaulted me was the way they made me feel erased, it was exactly this injury that the school repeated, and magnified, when it created its own story of the assault. This time the erasure was committed by men whose power over me was socially conferred rather than physically wielded, by men who—some of them—had never ever been in a room with me. They still never have.”

“I did not want to write it because it should not matter, but of course it does, because a girl who is attacked will so often assume the fault lies with her. There is no escaping a primal culpability.”

“When the boys did what they did to me, they denied the third person on that bed. I had no humanity. The impact of this violation only sharpened with time. My careful distinctions of injury and responsibility—the difference I imagined between what they did and rape, between terrible things you should put behind you and truly hellish things no one would expect you to bear—allowed me, for many years, to restore that third person in the room in my mind.”

“I recognized the school’s act, of course. Its precise cruelty, the fanged transformation of private pain into public shame, turned a key in me.”

“Why now?’”A typically defensive question, and I could dismiss it for its insinuation that I had some underhanded motive whose tell was my delay in availing myself of the criminal justice system. I’m not sure what motive that would have been—I wasn’t suing, wasn’t pressing charges. But that wasn’t the point of the question. The question tries to portray the victim as the predator, the one with a clever plan. It aims to throw the whole circumstance on its head.”

“The work of telling is essential, and it is not enough. There is always the danger that the energy of the injustice will exhaust itself in the revelation—that we will be horrified but remain unchanged. The reason for this, I suspect, is that these are stories we all already know. A girl was assaulted. A boy was molested. The producer, the judge, the bishop, the boss. To hear these stories spoken aloud is jarring, but not because it causes us to reconsider who we are and how we are organized. It is only when power is threatened that power responds.”

“It’s so simple, what happened at St. Paul’s. It happens all the time.
First, they refused to believe me. Then they shamed me. Then they silenced me. On balance, if this is a girl’s trajectory from dignity to disappearance, I say it is better to be a slut than to be silent. I believe, in fact, that the slur slut carries within it, Trojan-horse style, silence as its true intent. That the opposite of slut is not virtue but voice.”

“ Consequences were not our concern. The school’s rules were not even called rules—they were formally known as expectations. Here the children of the elite were trained not in right or wrong but in projections of belief.”

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Ayoade on Top by Richard Ayoade — book review

Ayoade on Top is a hilariously strange book. Richard Ayoade’s critical analysis of ‘View from the Top’ (a 2003 romcom starring Gwyneth Paltrow) is a delight to read. Throughout the course of this short book Ayoade argues that this long-forgotten film is a modern masterpiece.
I found Ayoade’s dry wit and his clever observations regarding the film’s many ‘subtexts’ and his asides on Paltrow’s career to be ‘on point’. Ayoade’s humour may not be for everyone but I found Ayoade on Top to be a thoroughly diverting book.
You can watch him talk of this book here.
I would definitely recommend this to those who like in-depth takedowns of bad movies. Adroit, satirical, and whimsical, Ayoade on Top is a really entertaining read.

My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars

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The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature by Viv Groskop — book review

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“Russian literature deserves more love letters written by total idiots. For too long it has belonged to very clever people who want to keep it to themselves.”

Although The Anna Karenina Fix is certainly written in an engaging style, Viv Groskop’s humour, which mostly consists in her resorting to a forced comedic ‘light’ tone when discussing serious subjects, lessened my overall reading experience.
In her introduction Groskop writes that:

“But first, an important disclaimer. This is not an intellectual book. It is not a work of primary research. It is not an academic thesis on Russian literature. It’s not supposed to be the last word in interpreting Russian literature. […] Instead it’s a guide to surviving life using some of the clues left in these great classics. It’s an exploration of the answers these writers found to life’s questions, big and small. And it’s a love letter to some favourite books which at one point helped me to find my identity and buoyed me up when I lost it again.”

…which is fair enough. However I don’t entirely agree with her claim that when reading a book “However you get it, you’ve got it right”. Of course different people will have different opinions or impressions of a book’s subjects and themes but the way she phrases struck me as both vaguely patronising and equivocal.
Groskop interweaves her own personal experiences when discussing her chosen authors and their work. The parallels she draws between herself and these writers seemed for the most part fitting. She doesn’t paint herself as the hero or heroine of the anecdotes she writes of, and uses a self-deprecating sort of humour to make light of her struggles to reconcile herself with a culture that is not her own. By drawing on her time as a student in Russia and by examining her relationship to the Russian language, Russian traditions, and Russian people, Groskop does present us with an intimate and compelling depiction of this country.
Complementing her ‘outsider’ perspective of Russia are the biographies of various Russian authors. While she sprinkles quite a few fun anecdotes from their lives, she seems to focus on their individual relationships to Russian and the values that emerge from their works (which as she remarks can go at odds to their own way of life).
Readers who have only read a few of these Russian authors (for example I’ve only read Tolstoy, Bulgakov, and Dostoevsky) might find The Anna Karenina Fix more entertaining than those who are already well acquainted with these classics of the Russian literature. Had I been better versed in the works and lives of these writers I’m not sure I would have found The Anna Karenina Fix very informative or insightful. As it is, Groskop did spark my interest in the works of Gogol, Akhmatova, and Turgenev.
Part of me wishes that Groskop had not revolved her analysis/discussions of these books on these novel’s alleged ‘life lessons’. The ‘self-help’ aspect of The Anna Karenina Fix seemed a bit unnecessary. In a certain way Groskop seems to be moralising these books in a way that almost goes against her initial claims (that these books can be appreciated without attributing to them clever messages and such things).
The ‘life lessons’ themselves were rather obvious:
Anna Karenina = “life is, essentially, unknowable”
Eugene Onegin = “Avoid hubris. Stay humble. Keep an eye out for self-defeating behaviours. Don’t duel.”
From chapter six she also begins to talk in terms of hedgehogs and foxes (from Isaiah Berlin’s essay titled The Hedgehog and the Fox) which didn’t strike me as being an incredibly profound analogy and she returns to this hedgehog/fox problem time and again…
Groskop’s humour was very hit or miss. At times her digressions, which usually appeared in brackets, were spot on funny. For the most part however these asides seemed out of place and forced (“I am not saying that Tolstoy is Oprah Winfrey with a beard […] Well, I am saying that a bit. And in any case, it’s just fun to think of the two of them together.”). Also this happens to be the second self-proclaimed work of ‘light’ unpretentious criticism that mentions popular culture one too many times (I am so sick and tired of the Kardashians).
At times she seems to play into this role of ‘amateur’ critic when in actuality she happens to have two university degrees in Russian and can speak fluent Russian. Lastly her constant digs against Nabokov were childish. We get it, the man was punctilious and big headed…can we move on?
All in all I would recommend this only to those who are thinking of reading more Russian literature but have yet to read the classics as The Anna Karenina Fix makes for a readable and quick introduction to prominent Russian authors.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado — book review

While I definitely admire Carmen Maria Machado for having not only the strength to tackle such a difficult subject matter but to do so by sharing her own personal experience91zeicdP-gL.jpg with her readers, and part of me also can’t help but to recognise that In the Dream House: A Memoir is one of the most innovative memoir I have ever read, I would be lying if I said (or wrote) that it was flawlessly executed. I’m definitely glad to see that many other reviewers are praising it and or have clearly found it to be an emotional and striking read…nevertheless I will try to momentarily resist peer pressure and express my honest opinion instead, which is that In the Dream House: A Memoir struck me as a rather disjointed amalgamation.
On the one hand we have pages and pages chock-full of quotations from secondary sources discussing the way in which American society tends to dismiss or not acknowledge that sexual, emotional, and physical abuse within the queer community is possible. These sections seemed to adopt an essayist’s language. However, while these sections used certain academic terms (possibly not accessible to a wide readership) and were structured like essays of sorts they didn’t really develop Machado’s initial argument (that abusive queer or LGBTQ relationships are often called in to question since many consider the idea of a woman abusing another woman unbelievable). I didn’t agree with some of her readings of certain queer films nor did I find her own brand of queer criticism all that compelling.
The other segments in this memoir draw from Machado’s personal history with an abusive relationship. Her partner (a woman) emotionally and psychologically abused her throughout the entirety of their relationship. Machado deviates from the usual recognisably ‘memoir’ way of presenting one’s own story offering us instead with fragments of her time in this abusive relationship. She addresses this past ‘self’ in the secondary person, so there are a lot of ‘you’ this and ‘you’ that, and her abuser as ‘the woman in the Dream House’. Here her language becomes even more flowery and the imagery and metaphors were rather abstract. These sections seemed snapshots more than anything else. The ‘poetic’ style seemed to take on more importance than Machado’s own story.
I also wasn’t all that keen on the way she traces past conversations and incidents back to folklore. She seems a bit too ready to connect every single moment of this awful relationship back to Jungian archetypes. It was weird and it made some aspects of memoir seem a bit artificial.
Also while I get that sometimes including graphic or deeply personal moments is horrifyingly necessary when discussing abuse (such as Isabelle Aubry does in her memoir where she talks in detail about the horrific sexual abuse her father inflicted upon her) here we had these random sex scenes which seemed to be included merely to be subversive.
Overall I just couldn’t look past my dislike for Machado writing style. Still, I’m definitely in the minority on this one so I recommend you check this one out and see for yourself whether you are interested in reading this.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Jane Austen at Home: A Biography by Lucy Worsley — review

9781473632523.jpgAlthough I did—for the most part—find Lucy Worsley’s prose to be compelling, I thought that many of her arguments were unconvincing and biased.
Of course historians have their biases, but shouldn’t they at least try to distance themselves from their subject?
The problem I have with this biography props up in the author’s introduction:

“While I’ll try to put Jane back into her social class and time, I must admit that I also write as a signed up ‘Janeite’, a devotee and worshipper. I too have searched for my own Jane, and naturally I have found her to be simply a far, far better version of myself: clever, kind, funny, but also angry at the restrictions of her life, someone tirelessly searching for ways to be free and creative. I know who I want Jane Austen to be, and I put my cards on the table. This is, unashamedly, the story of my Jane, every word of it written with love.”

Although in this instance Worsley is being upfront of her lack of objectivity, her biography on Austen seems quick to dismiss and criticise other historians’ vision of Austen. She is critical of their attempts to romanticise Austen, both her personality and life. Yet she falls for the very same trap, as the Austen that emerges from this longwinded biography is very much a heroine, one that could easily feature in Austen’s own novels.
Worsley’s cleverly implements certain sections of Austen’s own letters to corroborate with her image of this author. At times her suppositions and speculations regarding Austen’s character and motivation are made to seem as facts. Unlike other historians and biographers, who often misconstrued Austen’s personality and life, Worsley seems to imply at a personal connection to her subject, one that makes her into one few capable to discerning the truth about Austen. Curiously enough Worsley reveals that: “I was once a pupil at the Abbey School myself, and Jane Austen was our most famous ex-student”.
And often Worsley used this BBC-type of tone that sounded both patronising and childish. Her attempts to engage the reader seemed a bit cheesy.

“What a treat. And just up the road from the cottage, at Chawton Great House, lived one of Jane’s favourite girls in the whole family, Fanny Austen.”

There were lots of surelys and no wonders, and a lot of rhetorical questions, which yeah, didn’t really work. If anything they reminded of her presence.

“But if you follow me this far in the idea that Jane was undermining the very moment where you’d expect marriage to be most praised, there could be an explanation. Remember that ‘double-voiced’ nature of Jane’s letters? The same applies to her novels. At first reading, these are stories about love and marriage and the conventional heterosexual happily-ever-after. Only at the second does a sneaky doubt perhaps creep in to suggest that maybe marriage is not the best thing that could ever happen to these women.”

Worsley’s biography on Austen isn’t as poignant or as revolutionary as its biographer seems to think. She treats her subject with too much familiarity, and her interjections had an almost jarring effect (there were a lot of “I think” and “I wonder”).

“I hope that he hadn’t told Jane what he was doing, so that she did not have to face the instant rejection.”

Worse still is that Worsley bases many of her arguments regarding Austen’s personality and actions on the author’s own novels. While I’m sure that when writing her novels Austen will have drawn inspiration from some of her own experiences, to solely link her life to those of her fictional characters makes for a rather skewed account of the author herself. These comparisons were thin at best, and most of the time plainly misleading.

“It has been suggested that with these clever layers of meaning, Jane was perhaps even more subversive than we give her credit for.”

Worsley tries to elevate herself, suggesting time and again that only she views the true Austen (going against her very own words since she initially stated that her Austen was very much hers). Yet, to me, the Worsley’s Austen is an unconvincing and unabashedly fictionalised version of the real author.
This is a less a biography than a fictionalised take on Austen, one from a self-confessed ‘Janeite’ who is quick to knock down other historians accounts and readings of Austen’s life and letters
The biography also had this weird insertions that seemed adverts of some sort:

“While Jane did not forget Lyme, the town did not forget her, either. You can still eat at Jane’s Cafe, walk in Jane Austen’s Garden, and buy souvenirs in the Persuasion gift shop today.”

Still, I did find that when Worsley was merely writing about the Georgian era (the lifestyle and traditions of those of Austen’s class). There were some interesting tidbits abut their customs and daily routines.
Overall however I don’t recommend reading this if you are looking for to read some informative, or credible, material about Austen. Worsley’s constant snubs at her ‘competitors’ were tiring, especially considering that she seems to do exactly the same thing.
Just because she is a fan doesn’t make her opinion of Austen more valid or true. Yes, while everyone can certainly believe that they have a certain connection to an author or historical figure, to use this ‘connection’ to validate one’s interpretation of this person is ill-advised. Excusing your partiality by saying that it was done ‘with love’ is a bit of a cheap trick.

“I like to think that this last, insubstantial image of Jane running through the Hampshire grass in fact shows her running away from all the eager hungry biographers keen to get their teeth into her.”

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars

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Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

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“Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, arid underneath our sofa, and on. top of our refrigerator), they became chapters in it themselves. How could it be otherwise?”

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader is a delightful and uplifting ode to bibliophiles.
Anne Fadiman’s collection of charmingly written essays examine the way in which much of her life was (and is still) shaped by books.
Fadiman pays attention to the physical spaces they occupy. For example, in her first essay,“Marrying Libraries”, she tells us of how she and her husband became truly married when they almost reluctantly ‘merged’ their collections). In “Never Do That to a Book” she presents us with the many ways books are and can be handled (there are those who *ahem* like me *ahem* are somewhat strict about the ‘correct’ handling of their books….and there are the scribblers and benders of spines, such as Fadiman’s brother and father, who will happily leave their books laying open or facedown). Fadiman also details the seemingly invisible ways in which books can influence us, our worldview, our sense of self, and the relationships we have with other people (books play a dominant role in Fadiman’s marriage and family) becoming something akin to a language or a means of communication.

This love letter to books is written in a diverting prose. Fadiman’s style is amusingly anachronistic, and offers a wide range of humour that can swiftly switch from cheerful to ironic.
Fadiman’s witty observations combined with her knowledge and enthusiasm for her subjects (books, bibliophilia, grammar), make for a very interesting book on books, one that I would happily read again.

“This model of readers as consumers—one I have abetted in many a book review myself—neatly omits what I consider the heart of reading: not whether we wish to purchase a new book but how we maintain our connections with our old books, the ones we have lived with for years, the ones whose textures and colors and smells have become as familiar to us as our children’s skin.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

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Brave Face by Shaun David Hutchinson — review

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Brave Face was not an easy read given that it delves into some of the darkest moments of Shaun David Hutchinson’s life. The memoir focuses in particular over his teenage years where he struggled with reconciling himself with sexuality and with his own personality (who he is, how others perceive him, what others expect him to be…). We see how a lot of the popular culture of his time presented him with demeaning portrayals of his sexuality (which saw gay men as little more than jokes or as sick figures to be pitied). Hutchinson evokes with clarity the way these misconceptions influenced the way he felt about his sexuality, fuelling much of his self-hatred. It was painful to read of the way in which he closed himself from the world, and the way in which his bitterness, hatred, and loneliness seemed to spiral out of control dominating this period of his life.
Hutchinson also captures the awkwardness of being a teenager. The pressures of ‘fitting in’, or belonging, of finding the ‘right path’…he does so in a frank manner, and there were many instances where I felt embarrassed, sad, or frustrated on his behalf. His depression, self-harm, and anxiety are not easy to read of. Perhaps because I share some similar experiences with him, I felt particularly affected by his story.
Another thing that made this a powerful read is that it was realistic. There is no magical cure for depression, and sometimes we grow apart from the people we cared for. Or at times, we care for people who are rather horrible.
My only quibble is that the final chapter rams in too much of Hutchinson’s life. Compared with the slow progress of the rest of his memoir, the last chapter seemed to be trying to narrate the rest of his life, which was a tad overwhelming and definitely all-too rushed.
Still, this is a memoir that will definitely resonate with a lot readers and I fully recommend it.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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LET ME TELL YOU: BOOK REVIEW

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Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings by Shirley Jackson
★★★★✰ 4 of 5 stars

I thought I was insane, and would write about how the only sane people are the ones who are condemned as mad, and how the whole world is cruel and foolish and afraid of people who are different. That was when I was still in high school.

Shirley Jackson is such a fantastic writer and Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings showcases the wide range of her writing: from domestic —and relatively fictionalised— accounts of her daily life with her four children to unnerving short stories that are imbued with anxiety and paranoia.
Her sense of humour and her particular brand of surreality make their way in each one of her stories, regardless of the genre. Jackson handles ordinary occurrences in an extraordinary manner. It is often this fantastic mode that allows her to examine the darker side of human nature. Jackson exposes those vicious and malicious sentiments that hide beneath the surface of ‘respectability’; it is often those conservative and upright individuals that are capable of evil and violence. Jackson’s portrayal of violence is all the more disturbing because it often is so sedate: individuals can be ostracised and erased on the basis of a few whispered words or a look.
The short stories might not be Jackson’s best but they do explore those themes and images that appear in her full novels.
Jackson’s essays on writing are very insightful, especially when Jackson discusses certain techniques she uses in The Haunting of Hill House. Two of Jackson’s children provide a moving afterword.

My review of: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson 

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BOOK REVIEWS

THINGS I DON’T WANT TO KNOW : BOOK REVIEW

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Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing
by Deborah Levy
★★★✰✰ 3 of 5 stars

In Things I Don’t Want to Know Deborah Levy revists her childhood in South Africa in order to better understand her place in the present. She herself admits that her writing favours form > matter and so in this short book she focuses more on the sound of certain phrases rather than providing a more clear cut depiction of her personal life. Levy conveys the kind of thoughts that children have but her writing jumps too quickly between different subjects that I often lost the trail of her discussion or reflection.
Nothing groundbreaking or deeply affecting but in such a short format Levy had a ‘restricted’ space for all those topics she wanted to handle.

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