Sunday, October 31, 2010

I want to live here

...I am scared, but more than that, I am a person, I am human, I am walking reasoning humorous human being and I will take a lot from his lunatic filthy house but I will not go along with hurting a child, no, I will not; I will by God get my mouth to open right now and I will yell I will I will yell "STOP IT," she shouted, and the lights were on the way they had left them and Theodora was sitting up in bed, startled and disheveled.

"What?" Theodora was saying. "What, Nell? What?"

"God God," Eleanor said, flinging herself out of bed and across the room to stand shuddering in a corner, "God God -- whose hand was I holding?"

Well they don't make them haunted house ghost stories like they used to. Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House makes all other horror stories seem amateurish. (I won't even compare it to the movie of the same title. The movie's a joke, really.) If all horror novels were written the same way as Jackson's, I wouldn't have a good night's sleep for over a year.

The novel opens with a very atmospheric chapter, describing Hill House and its guests in vivid detail. Dr. Montague, a scholar who studies paranormal phenomena has invited 3 guests to stay in the now abandoned Hill House, a house with a very curious and dark past. Eleanor has been invited because of her experience with poltergeists when she was a child. Theodora, a beautiful and carefree woman, was invited because of her uncanny psychic abilities. And rounding up the guests is Luke, the heir to Hill House.
Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
The novel is of entirely Eleanor's. We never know whether the hauntings the group experiences in the house has been brought about by Eleanor's subconscious manifesting as paranormal events. Hill leaves it up to the reader to make that decision. And granted that people will have different opinions about these hauntings, what's undeniable is the novel's creepy and atmospheric feel. It's enough to give you shudders every now and then.

What struck me after reading the novel is the feeling that haunted houses, or stories about ghosts and haunted houses, are enveloped by sadness. You feel sad knowing the tragic fate of the original owners of Hill House. You feel sad after reading the reasons on how Eleanor has become the paranoid and insecure woman that she is. You're saddened by the fate of the characters, having the premonition that, by the end of the novel, these people are not the constants -- it is the house that will remain.

There are several scenes in The Haunting of Hill House that I keep thinking about. One involved Eleanor clutching the hands of Theodora when they hear a loud banging on the door in the middle of the night, only for Eleanor to discover that Theodora was at the far end of the bed when the lights came back on. And the chapters when we read about the voices that Eleanor hears as she walks the claustrophobic hallways of Hill House are so hair raising. These scenes are what makes the novel enduring. The Haunting of Hill House feels timeless in its shock value, even though it was written more than 50 years ago.

It was fortuitous that I found this copy during the Halloween weekend, as I have been on the hunt for this novel for the longest time. And what better time to find it that on Halloween. It's fate, no? And I finished it on the night of the 31st, perfect timing to give myself a reason to sleep under the covers.

We're all fascinated by old houses. We become curious about its history every time we step into one. But let me ask you, dear reader. Would you still spend a night in a big, old, and abandoned house after learning that its owners met a horrible fate? I know I would.

Read this book if:
  1. You're fascinated by haunted houses.
  2. You love Shirley Jackson.
  3. You don't feel like donning a costume this Halloween and just want to curl up in bed with a wonderfully written creepy read.
I was with a good friend in the children's section of a bookstore and I was telling him about Susan Hill's The Man in the Picture, another one of Hill's ghost stories. The novel is really hard to find, so imagine our shock when we found a single copy on top of a stack of children's books. Just that one misplaced copy. It's as if the book was calling out to us. I must admit that it kinda creeped me out.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Creeped out

It's that time of the year again when we all gather around with friends and share ghost stories. It's the season to watch again our favorite scary movies and reread our beloved creepy novels and short stories. And what better way for me to start this Halloween season than to read Susan Hill's frightening ghost story, The Small Hand.

Of course, my favorite ghost story of all time will still be Hill's The Woman in Black, but The Small Hand definitely comes close. It's also a short novel (a lot of people would thus call this a novella), but it is immensely satisfying.

In this story, we meet Adam Snow, a dealer in rare books, who stumbles across a long-forgotten house called the the White House after taking a wrong turn. For reasons he can't explain, he becomes drawn into the house and suddenly feels a small hand grasp his as he enters the gate. Soon after, he experiences panic attacks and apparent hauntings. And it doesn't help that the feel of the small hand becomes more and more frequent.

True to other ghost stories of Susan Hill, the phenomenon of the small hand is linked to Adam's family, more specifically to his brother, who have been confined to a mental institution during his younger years. I won't divulge the connection though, since the twist at the end is too good to reveal in this humble review.

The Small Hand is the kind of ghost story that we all long for -- with its gothic feel, its creepy atmosphere from page 1, and its pervasive feeling of thread. Fans of The Woman in Black will find common themes in this novel and, like me, will wish for Hill to come up with more ghost stories in the future.

I'm a big fan of ghost stories, and I must admit that I don't scare easily. But reading The Small Hand made me wish for a companion in the middle of the night. Yes, it is that good.

Read this book if:
  1. You loved The Woman in Black.
  2. You're a sucker for all things Halloween.
  3. You're a true blue ghost story addict.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The fuss about this comic

Scott Pilgrim is dating a high schooler!

And with this first line, the utterly hilarious saga of Scott Pilgrim begins. Yes, I've finally given in to all the brouhaha that this comic series brings. Was I satisfied with the first volume, Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life? Was it funny? Terribly so. Is it for everyone? Yes.

I haven't seen the movie though, but if the big screen adaptation is just half as good as the comic elements in this first volume, then it's still going to be enjoyable. It's hard to pin exactly what makes Scott Pilgrim so lovable:
  • Is it because he's 23, unemployed, and dating a 17-year old girl named Knives Chau?
  • Could it be that Scott is living the life that we didn't have when we were in that age -- carefree, clueless, and impressionable?
  • Or is it because he hangs out with the coolest people who seem to tolerate his idiosyncrasies and whims?
I don't know exactly. But I had a most enjoyable 45 minutes reading the first volume. You just have to read it to appreciate the plot in all its wonderful craziness: Even though Scott Pilgrim has been going steady with Knives, he falls for an Amazon delivery girl named Ramona Flowers. The only catch is, he has to defeat all seven of Ramona's crazy ex-boyfriends. In the first volume, we meet Matthew Patel, who Ramona had a relationship with when she was 11. The fight between Matthew and Scott is one for the books.

So, dear reader, if you're prepared to suspend your disbelief and get lost in a truly funny read for a few minutes, then you have to get this. In creating Scott Pilgrim, the author Bryan Lee O'Malley has come up with a very lovable icon.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

I was also born round

For many years, I was a human yo-yo. I had several fat phases and then relatively slim phases. Now, since I turned 30 more than 5 years ago, my body thinks that there's nowhere to go but up (and down and sideways). My current weight is the heaviest I've experienced. No worries though. I know I'm in good company. Frank Bruni, the ex-restaurant critic of The New York Times, also had the same problem.

In Born Round, Bruni's very readable memoir, the critic chronicles his life from his toddler years to the time that he had the best job in the world (i.e., dining in 5-star restaurants and then writing all about his gustatory experiences). Born Round is one enjoyable read. It doesn't come off as a memoir that takes itself too seriously. In fact, the breezy pacing of the book has the atmosphere of fiction.

Bruni states that he was born round, which is true, judging from the pictures in the book. You could see that, despite being the middle child, he appears to be the eldest because of his girth. One funny bit is when he mentions that he usually barfed food when he was still a toddler just to make room for more food. This particular period would foreshadow what would happen during his college years, a period when he was bulimic.

Bruni's Born Round is painfully honest. When he writes about how he gorges on buffets and family reunions, somehow I can relate to him. It's hard to say no when you're presented with so many options, yes? There's always the "just one more bite" mentality. And it didn't help that Bruni came from a family with Italian roots, a family that used food to display their wealth and show hospitality.

Born Round tells significant events that happen in each stage of Bruni's life. During middle school, Bruni became a champion swimmer, even though he didn't have a swimmer's body. He writes about his experiments with different kinds of diet, most of these under the guidance of his mom. The part when he and his mom were on Atkins is one of the most poignant in the book. In college, he was bulimic and tried different drugs just to keep his weight in check. After graduating from college, he took on several journalism jobs, which included being part of the press corps of President Bush and being nominated for a Pulitzer. Everything is captured in wonderful detail.

But the highlight of his career was when he joined The New York Times as a reporter. He didn't start as a restaurant critic though, far from it. His first major stint was when he was assigned as the Times correspondent in Rome, writing about affairs of the Vatican, which usually had no significant value. But it is in Rome that he was exposed to eating in different establishments and then earning a reputation of being someone who's in the know as to the best dining places in Italy.

So when the people at the Dining section of the Times called him up, he accepted and then moved to New York. I never knew that being a restaurant critic was hard work, but it is, almost terribly so. Bruni had to invent different names and then come up with disguises just so that he can dine anonymously and not be given preferential treatment in these restaurants. He writes that he often eats out 5 to 7 days a week and sometimes has 2 dinners in one night, just to make sure that he visits restaurants at least 3 times to write a good review.
For every visit to a restaurant I used a fake name and typically reserved a table for four. I needed three companions to order different dishes and help me cover as much of the restaurant's menu as possible. If I was making my first visit, I usually laid down only one rule for my tablemates: no duplicate orders. Four different appetizers. Four different entrees. Four different desserts. If I was making my second or third visit, I'd call our the dishes that had been previously tried and shouldn't be ordered this time around. [page 289]

His attempts at varied diets, his period of bulimia, his on-off discipline when it comes to working out, and his taking of drugs (e.g., speed) all contributed to his weight fluctuating until his late 30s. Unfortuntately, when he was offered the critic position, he was in his best of health: he was working out and thus had a leaner body, he was eating healthily, and he had a healthy romantic relationship with his partner. I understand the dilemma. Would you sacrifice all your hard work just to take on a job that would require you to eat for a living?

Born Round is one of the most touching memoirs that I've read. It offered me a glimpse of someone who had the same problems that I did. Except for his stint as a restaurant critic, one would be tempted to say that Bruni's life has been unremarkable up to that point. But I think not. Bruni's style of writing makes you live in the moment; I often pictured myself present in those family dinners that he writes about. When he describes his separation from a lover, I felt truly sad. And I reveled and cheered for him in his triumphs. Born Round, like the best memoirs, made me feel empathy.

My icons: Bruni and Martha Stewart

Read this book if:
  1. You've always dreamed of becoming a restaurant critic.
  2. You were, like Frank and me, born round.
  3. You've constantly struggled with your weight.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Oh no, they didn't!

So one of my all-time favorite ghost stories, The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, is now being made into a movie. Gasp! They better not mess up this wonderfully creepy read (never mind that it stars Daniel Radcliffe). Seriously, if you're looking for one novel to scare the bejesus out of you this coming Halloween, this short novel is it.

The Woman in Black is the kind of ghost story that creeps up on you. There are no monsters, no vampires, no ghastly apparitions. It's the kind of book that makes you look over your shoulder every now and then, as you read it through the night. And because it's short, you can read it in one sitting. And the ending just has to be one of the most chilling I've read in the past few years.

Incidentally, Hill has written a more recent ghost story, The Small Hand. And it's getting good reviews. I can't wait to get my hands on a copy.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

I was prepared to like you

First, you're supposed to be a good old-fashioned ghost story. Second, you promised to have a Southern gothic theme. Third, you've received praises for being fast-paced, creepy, and suspenseful. Even though you did have all of these three (at a bare minimum), somehow, you left me wanting. And that is where my problem lies.

So Cold the River is indeed a ghost story. The ghost in question is one Campbell Bradford, a businessman in the late 1800s who made a name for himself bottling water from a mineral spring in a Southern town. Yes, So Cold the River does have a Southern gothic theme. But this is far from Charlaine Harris territory. The Southern town where the novel is set does have a dubious past, but the author, Michael Koryta, does not delve on it further.

The main character in Koryta's novel is one Eric Shaw, a film maker. Shaw has made a name for himself making films shown during one's funeral, sort of a montage of the dead person's best years. He receives an assignment to chronicle the life of Campbell Bradford, who lies comatose, and his first step is to go to Bradford's hometown in the South called West Baden. In West Baden, Shaw checks in to the town's famous hotel and starts to get hallucinations after drinking Pluto Water, the brand of bottled water that made Bradford rich. He then comes to the conclusion that something in the water is causing these hallucinations. And these hallucinations have become so real that they now resemble hauntings.

So Cold the River is terribly disappointing. There are no characters to root for. What Koryta gave the reader are stereotypes. The town black sheep who becomes the villain when the spirit of Bradford possessed him. A token black guy who becomes a good friend of Shaw while finding out more about Bradford. The oldest lady in the town who knows everything there is to know about West Baden. Of course, this old lady dies in the end.

Oh, why did I buy you, So Cold the River, and at full hardcover price at that? Perhaps it's the blurbs at the back cover who promises the hotel at West Baden to be something like The Overlook in King's The Shining. Or maybe I was looking for a good read that will really scare the hell out of me. I haven't read one for the longest time.

The story isn't even that interesting, now that I think about it. Bottled mineral water that contains the ghost of some creepy millionaire? Please. You're better off drinking from the tap, dear reader.

Read this book if:
  1. It doesn't take a lot to scare you.
  2. You're a sucker for blurbs.
  3. You'll read anything set in the South.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Do you reread?

Besides myself, I only know one other person who doesn't reread. It turns out, besides our common love of books, I share one other trait with Gege, the moderator of the book club I belong to, and that is we never pick up a book that we've already finished.

Funny, I never asked Gege's reason for not rereading. I, however, have only one: I barely have enough time to go through the mountain of books I haven't read yet, so why would I spend these precious free hours reading something I've already read?

That's Gege during our book discussion of The Hunger Games trilogy last weekend.
And the one holding his tummy because of uncontrollable laughter is me.
I think we were discussing the possible actors who would be perfect for The Hunger Games movie.
How about you, dear reader? Do you reread? If you do, what motivates you to reread a particular book? I really want to know.

Monday, October 4, 2010

One day, I will read you

I haven't read any of Tolkien's work. So if there's one challenge that I have set out for myself this year, that is to read his trilogy. I've enjoyed the movies so much that I'm afraid the books might pale in comparison. (Oh, the blasphemy!)

One thing that always gets my goat is when the elves and hobbits actually start singing. Several of my friends actually told me to skip those parts. But since this is a challenge after all, I will read every single word of these three books, including all the text that rhymes and comes in stanzas.

Besides, my good friend R has given me a wonderful edition of the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring. So now I have a good motivation to read it.