The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson was originally published in 1959 before being being turned into two movies and (soon) a Netflix series. After terrorizing students for years with her short story, “The Lottery,” I became intrigued by this novel when a friend read it for a book club. A year later, I’m happy to say that I finished the novel, and in two readings nonetheless. The night I started it, I stopped reading it when I was about 80 pages in because I could tell something terrifying was about to happen, and I didn’t want to be up all night either reading it or worrying about ghosts.

The novel has a relatively small cast of characters: Dr. John Montague, a paranormal scientist; Eleanor Vance (Nell) a shy woman of 32 who has taken care of her mother for the last 11 years; Theodora (Theo) who seems to possess some sort of telepathic or psychic abilities; and Luke Sanderson who is the heir to the house, a charming rake, and whose aunt seems to want to get rid of him. If four people from diverse backgrounds staying overnight in a haunted mansion where terrible events took place seems trite, don’t blame Jackson: she invented these tropes. As much as I hate horror movies, I absolutely love terror in books, and Jackson’s novel is a slow, atmospheric build. Once events start happening you know that it’s already out of control, and many questions remain unanswered at the end of the novel.

The Question of Eleanor and Theodora

One of the main questions that I ended the novel with is about Eleanor and Theodora; are they in love? I talked about “lesbian disruptions” in my The Return of the Soldier writeup, but this is something more. Eleanor is the shy mousy girl in the story, she’s living with her sister, Carrie, and her brother-in-law three months after her mother, who she was forced to take care of, died. She hated her mother, and kind of slept through her mother’s demand for medicine, which may have been what killed her. Oops! At 32 years old we get the impression that she’s never had a boyfriend or relationship of any kind, and that she sees herself as essentially unwanted. She has a wild, immersive imagination that fills the beginning sections of the novel, and she covers up the banality of her own life with pieces of these early daydreams. It’s only at the end of the novel that she reveals that she truly has no place to go home to, and it’s crushing.

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Herland and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

File this post under blasts from the past(s). As my 10 years blogiversary approaches, I was feeling nostalgic about my old, hand-coded website, so of course I looked it up on the Wayback Machine. I was braced for something really amazing, and instead I found a website with roughly ten book reviews and three recipes on it. Despite its failure to live up to my memory of it, there were some good things there, and below are reviews of Herland and “The Yellow Wallpaper,” both by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, that I wrote way back in 2003.

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I first heard about Herland in my Introduction to Women’s Studies class in Fall 2000, but I didn’t get around to reading it for almost three years. I bought a collected works of Gilman, and I’m incredibly happy with it, though it’s important to say right off the bat that this book is not for everyone. People with absolutely no interest in women’s studies, philosophy, anthropology or even cultural studies aren’t going to get much out of it, though I would still strongly recommend her short stories (particularly “The Yellow Wallpaper”).

Herland is the story of three men, all of whom are explorers, during their stay in the eponymous Herland. They stumble upon this all-female society quite by accident and attempt to learn about their culture while shielding the women of Herland from the truths about their own. They fail miserably, but are accepted into the society, and all three eventually marry. The men in the book are very much stereotypes; there is the southern gentleman who worships the women of Herland, the womanizer who goes near-insane and leaves loathing the women, and the balanced down-to-earth guy who takes his better half back to his (our) society so that she may be able to send a report back home. The women are less stereotypes, but more homogenized, they are all extremely similar and all of the women of Herland embody all of the basic values of our society, both male and female. For example: independence, intelligence, athleticism, temperance, kindness, and self-awareness to name a few.

The real strength of this book is as a work of philosophy, using fiction as an illustrative tool that serves to show how bizarre sex and gender divides really are in society and how their maintenance is out of habit more than practicality. I don’t want to judge this as a work of fiction alone because I really think it’s an amazing piece of fictional philosophy. In short: I liked this book but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone not interested in the fields it directly pertains to.

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The Princess Bride by William Goldman

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

The Princess Bride by William Goldman is one of those novels that I never though that I would read. To start with: I hated the movie. Just as unpopular a move as hating The Never Ending Story movie (which I do), but I could never get into the bland love story and murder of cute, giant rats. Fezzik and Inigo, of course, were always cool. I ended up picking the novel up to read this summer simply because the teacher who had my classroom before me used their Title 1 funds to buy a whole grip of them. Next year in Literature in the Media I am planning a unit on “classic movies (based on novels, read a book, darn it)” and I wanted to try a novel that the kids might actually, you know, like. They loved Harry Potter, but they also refused to read the book (not a huge loss as the movie is surprisingly close, though the book is subtly better). I know I want to teach Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but I needed some more novels. Time to expand my horizons! Enter William Goldman.

The most notable difference between the novel and the movie is that, in the novel, the frame narrative is much more depressing. It starts with the adult Goldman failing to have an affair because he’s so obsessed with getting a copy of The Princess Bride, a real novel in the novel’s meta premise, for his son. Goldman’s wife is frigid, his son is fat, he hates them for sucking, true, but his hating them also makes it a little hard for us to like him. He is supremely likable when he reminisces about his father, an immigrant, reading the book to him as a sick child, and editing it mercilessly. (That’s where Fred Savage and Colombo come in movie-wise.) Amazingly this frame narrative is completely fictional, which is a relief, because it’s a downer.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

It’s been a very long time since I’ve written on here, busy as I was (am) educating the youth of America (ie: trying to make them be quiet for forty-five minutes at a stretch and failing) so it seems fitting that this review would be for a book I first read over half my lifetime ago. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979) is a science fiction humor classic and I was lent the entire five book “trilogy” when I was deeply ill my Junior year in High School. Recently I contemplated teaching it to my Literature in the Media class, but there’s an issue: the book is too smart.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is, in it’s own words, “a wholly remarkable book” that manages to blend the driest British humor with a very large dash of Monty Python. The first book follows Arthur Dent the day his home is destroyed, first by a bulldozer, then by a large spaceship. He ends up homeless in many senses of the word and hitchhiking through space with his friend Ford Prefect, an alien. After the pair escape the Vogons (who bulldozed Earth) they join up with Zaphod Beeblebrox, President of the Galaxy; and Tricia McMillan aka Trillian, who Arthur once failed to pick up at a fancy dress party. Zaphod has stolen a very lovely space ship, the Heart of Gold, which is equipped with an Infinite Improbability Drive, which pretty much makes the most unlikely thing possible happen. All of this is done with a ton of self-referential tongue-in-cheek humor and I absolutely love it, though my boyfriend kept asking “Is this part supposed to be funny?” and then put it down, for good, after about one chapter.

There’s the rub. You have to find this specific type of humor hilarious to really get into the book, or else you won’t realize that it’s funny at all. It’s the silliness bordering almost on nonsense kind of humor, the They Might Be Giants type of fun (a band who he also doesn’t get). I don’t think my students, even my Seniors who are in an Honors English elective, are capable of really getting into the text because I think almost all of the jokes will go right over their heads. Still, I’m considering assigning it as homework reading next year, in part because my classroom came with a class set of novels so I can assign it with no expense on anyone’s part, aside from emotional, of course.

The other charm of the book is that I love the ideas in it: the Vogons are a race of aliens whose poetry is so bad that one of them was killed by his own intestines to save the universe from hearing it; the Babelfish (an online translation service now) which feeds off people’s brainwaves, poops out being able to understand anything said in any language, so you can (and should) keep one in your ear; that in the book mice are hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings who are experimenting on us to get “the ultimate question” whose answer is 42. These ideas are just so enjoyable to be immersed in that Hitchhikers is one of those books that I just sit back and drift though, delighted.

The ending drops off a bit of a cliff with them suddenly wanting dinner, but Adams had wanted it to be a multi-book story from the beginning. Sadly he died before the sixth and final book was completed, and it was written by someone else. I’m working my was back through the original five books now, so we’ll see how I feel as I go. For now I’m happy to have re-read book one, since it’s always nice when nostalgia holds up to reality.