Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Category: Authors H (page 1 of 19)

“I am a wolf man, who despises the striving of common men”

Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse

steppenwolfWe often like to read something classic over Christmas for book group, but were a little uninspired when picking back in November. We resorted to reading a list of nobel prize-winners and Herman Hesse came up – we discounted Siddhartha as too mystical and The Glass Bead Game as too long, which led us to Steppenwolf – cue chorus of ‘Born to be Wild‘.  Published in 1927, and in first English translation two years later, what an odd book it is…

It begins with an ‘Editor’s Preface’ in which an unnamed narrator introduces the surviving notebooks of Harry Haller, a man nearing fifty years old who takes rooms in the house owned by the narrator’s aunt.  He tells us how Haller styles himself as ‘an old Steppenwolf’ (wolf of the Steppes), and even though the aunt and her house is rather bourgeois, he is won over as soon as he enters, ‘My, it does smell good here.’ The narrator carries on to tell us the little he had found out about Haller, and having read his papers entices us by saying:

I had no possible means of checking how far the experiences recounted by Haller in this manuscript corresponded to reality. That they are for the most part imaginative fictions, I don’t doubt, but not in the sense of stories arbitrarily invented. (p21)

Where Haller’s notebooks are concerned, these bizarre, partly pathological, partly beautiful fantasies rich in ideas, I’m bound to say that if they had chanced to come into my possession without my knowing their author, I would certainly have thrown them away in indignation. (p22)

We move on to read Haller’s notebooks which are prefaced with the title ‘For mad people only’. Within a few pages, whilst out walking he has discovered a building with a sign saying ‘Magic Theatre Admission Not For Everyone’, but the door is shut.  It will take around a hundred pages of intense navel-gazing before we get to see inside.  During that time, I considered giving up reading the book several times, especially when we got to an inserted section comprising the text of a tract – a mysterious booklet given to Haller – which is all about him!  It explores the perceived duality of his personality, a mirror in which to see himself.  The band Hawkwind wrote a song about Steppenwolf, (I also used its lyrics in this post’s title – see in full here) which sums it up neatly thus:

I am a man-wolf, the man in me would kill the wolf
I am a wolf man, the wolf in me would eat the man
I am a wolf man, who despises the striving of common men

By Dave Brock and Robert Newton Calvert (1976)

Haller resolves to commit suicide when he reaches fifty. He meets an old friend, now a professor, but they fall out – the academic critises Harry’s writing, Harry is disappointed at his friend’s new nationalism and picks fault with a romantic portrait of Goethe beloved by the academic’s wife. Leaving, he is so scared of going home and ending up killing himself early, he ends up in a dance hall – where everything changes when he meets Hermione, who says she is going to give him orders which he’ll carry out and in doing that she’ll make him fall in love with her.

When you are in love with me I shall give you my final order, and you’ll obey, which will be a good thing for you and for me. (p119)

Harry is drawn into Hermione’s world, ordered to learn how to dance, something he previously considered beneath him, but soon finds enabling. Her friends Pablo (who is reminiscent of the MC in Cabaret) and Marie, whom she instructs Haller to go out with, are always around and Hermione herself remains tantalisingly beyond reach – at one stage, appearing dressed up as a man. The final act will (at last) result in a visit to the Magical Theatre – where an opiated Haller will go on a really wild trip and find out Hermione’s final order. This last section was truly mad, deserving of the promise dangled back at the beginning of the book, and you can see why Timothy Leary et al made it a trippy cult classic in the 1960s.

I read the recent 2012 translation by David Horrocks, which has a superb afterword by the translator which explores some of the major themes in the book. Written when Hesse himself was approaching fifty and in the grip of a severe mid-life crisis, it’s clearly autobiographical – they share initials, and Horrocks tells us that Hesse had even taken some dancing lessons too.

What was also fascinating was to discover that Hesse intended Steppenwolf’s structure to resemble a sonata or fugue. Although never substantiated in detail, music does come into the narrative in various forms all the way through so this is a nice conceit, and you could say that some of the rather philosophical and repetitive themes in the first half in particular are like the subjects of a fugue which return again throughout the piece!

I imagine that anyone who knows more than me about Germany in the 1920s, the aftermath of WWI, the Weimar republic and the stirrings of new nationalism that led eventually to WWII, will find more implied criticisms of these times in Hesse’s writing, not to mention his general for and against attitude towards what you could call the discrete charm of the Bourgeoisie (I nicked that from Bunuel’s film).

None of our book group enjoyed the book as such – one even read it in German – but we did find much to discuss, and those of us who did read to the end felt a bit smug that we finally found the action and were rewarded for getting that far! This novel is interesting / tedious / downright mad / frustrating / schizophrenic / repetitive / insert word here – all of these and more. (6/10)

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Source: Own Copy.

Herman Hesse, Steppenwolf (Penguin Modern Classics, 2012), paperback, 272 pages.

Shiny Linkiness

I reviewed loads of new fiction titles for Issue 7 of Shiny New Books, so I think it’s time to give some of them a plug. Do pop over to read the full reviews – we’d appreciate it, and love it when you leave comments too (same goes for here of course).

Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

two_years_eight_month_and_twentyeight_nights_0I haven’t read any Rushdie for a while, so had my fingers crossed with this book. No need, I enjoyed it a lot, although it turned to be more a philosophical fantasy than I was expecting.  Entering the world of the jinn was fascinating, and Rushdie’s modern take on the 1001 nights was fun although the little digressions keep you on your toes to re-find the main story sometimes.

Rushdie at his most playful, and restrained in length too. Definitely a thinking person’s fairy tale.

Read the full review here: My Shiny Review

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Not on Fire, but Burning by Greg Hrbek

hrbekHrbek has written one other novel, The Hindenburg Crashes Nightly, which I had to order once I’d read this book.

Set around twenty years into the future, Not on Fire, but Burning starts with a stunning visual prologue in which the Golden Gate Bridge is destroyed, and San Francisco is irradiated – (we’re never sure by whom or what). It then settles into a disturbing story in which the USA is segregating Muslims and one brave old army veteran decides to adopt a Muslim kid from one of the camps – to do his bit for liberalism and making amends. He doesn’t realise that the twelve-year-old boy, Karim, who comes to live with him is already radicalised.  When a fight is engineered between white kid Dorian next door and Karim, it starts off a whole chain reaction of events.

This was a really thought-provoking novel that imagines possible futures that we hope will never happen.

Read the full review here: My Shiny Review

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Kauthar by Meike Ziervogel

kauthar-195x300 (1)Meike’s third novel Kauthar is another tale of radicalisation. It is about a white British girl who converts to Islam, marries and Iraqi doctor, following him out there after 9/11 only to find that life there has a different set of rules and expectations that will try her devoutness. In emotional turmoil, she turns to God, but the distorted answers she finds set her on an extreme path.

Full of strong imagery, we flip between Lydia as a child, who is desperate to be a gymnast and the devout Kauthar she becomes. Told in the present tense, it is very immediate and we are really taken into Kauthar’s mind. As in Meike’s first novel Magda we are helped to understand, without condoning her behaviour.

Read the full review here: My Shiny Review

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The Reflection by Hugo Wilcken

wilckenIt’s the late 1940s, or early 1950s. A psychiatrist takes a phone call to be told his ex-wife has died. A while later, he’s called on as a police surgeon to section a man in custody in a seedy apartment. Not thinking straight he does as asked, but later regrets this and sets out to find out more about the man.

The Reflection has all the hallmarks of a classic noir novel: a narrator in crisis, a psychological drama, a femme fatale (or two), a whole string of coincidences that are anything but and a sense that everything is being stage-managed to turn the protagonist into one of his patients, which he must resist, whatever the cost. The main character was a little boring but, The Reflection is an interesting exercise in which nothing is actually in black and white, less noir, more grey.

Read the full review here: My Shiny Review

More from the pre-blog archives…

For a wet bank holiday Monday, I’m revisiting my archives of the capsule book reviews I wrote for myself pre-blog. (For more of these see here.)

Having concentrated on 10/10 books in previous posts, I chose some books that I found more challenging this time. I picked the first because I spotted it reviewed on someone’s blog recently – but I can’t remember whose – sorry, I’d link if I could…

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From A to X by John Berger

a to xI loved this book, the writing was exquisite, but I needed so much more from it that ultimately it disappointed a little.

A’ida and Xavier are lovers, but X is imprisoned on terrorist charges. Their story is teased out through some of A’s letters to X in jail which were found in his cell when the new prison was built. He never replies, but sometimes writes on the back of the letters.

They live in an unnamed country where A’ida is a pharmacist. She writes about everyday life, her friends, neighbours and customers, and there are always hints of troubles and oppression in the background and it is implied that she is also an activist. She is desperate to be married to X, but the authorities won’t allow it so visiting X in prison is an unattainable goal for her – she eventually has to be content with fantasising about him. Xavier’s writing is not about A, but is often thoughts about the authorities in the outside world that he is prisoner in.

The reader is left to fill in the gaps which gives great poignancy to the texts, but I was left hungry to find out what happened to them, what X was imprisoned for, what A’s role was in their struggle and other questions. Just a few answers would have satisfied, but with the exception of a brief scene-setting introduction, the author is deliberate in his intention of letting these letters speak for themselves. (August 2008, 7/10)

NOW: I’ve not read any more of Berger’s work since, but am open to suggestion…

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Beowulf trans Seamus Heaney

beowulfThis was my first encounter with Beowulf – I haven’t seen the film either. I chose the bilingual edition to see what the Old English looked like and although I could barely recognise a word, it did help to see the shape, metre and style of the original. Heaney’s translation is easy to read, very straight-forward in language, and the accompanying essay helps you see how much work goes into preserving some of the form of the original in the modern translation.

With the original and Heaney’s version printed side by side, it affected the way I read it. I tended to read it aloud to myself (but in my head), trying to see the translation’s cadence resonating with the original’s two parts to each line. This was novel for me and enjoyable for one who doesn’t normally do poetry!

As a story, you can see why it survives, but there is too much pontificating on the glories of war, fighting and serving the king and not enough action; Beowulf’s dispatching of Grendel seemed to be little more than arm-wrestling and was over in a couple of pages.

I’m glad I read it and am sure I will refer to it again, but now I’m waiting for the DVD of the film. (Jan 2008, 7/10)

NOW: I’d probably score this differently now – with ratings for the story and a higher one for Heaney separately perhaps.  Still not seen the film in full. Instead, see below…

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Grendel by John Gardner

grendelHaving recently read Beowulf for the first time, I was looking forward to this slim novel, told from Grendel’s point of view.

Poor Grendel, although we never find out exactly how he was created, he does realise that he has a bit of man in him somewhere, and he agonises over this as he lurks around watching men and occasionally getting the urge to kill one – always to eat at this stage. It is his encounter with the arrogant Unferth, that starts to really turn him and this is sped on by the dragon’s wisdom until he becomes the killing machine we know from the original text.

The very dense and literary style with much philosophising will not suit all, but it has great insight and goes very well with Beowulf indeed. A difficult but rewarding read. (Feb 2008, 8/10)

NOW: I’d love to re-read this book.

The one who survived…

Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin

Black eyed susans The ARC I was sent of this stylish psychological thriller came bound in black ribbon with a silk flower of the title.

I was expecting the book, but wasn’t expecting a daisy – it turns out that what is known as Black eyed Susan in the US is Rudbeckia hirta – of the aster family. It is the state flower of Maryland and grows all over North America.  If you look up Black eyed Susan in UK catalogues however, you’re more likely to find a totally unrelated herbaceous perennial, Thunbergia alata, which emanates from Eastern Africa originally.

black-eyed-susan-vine-thunbergia-alata1Thunbergia is a scrambling vine with heart-shaped leaves which I used to grow up a trellis as an annual (it’s rather tender to frost). The simple five-petaled flowers can vary from creamy white to deep orange. I wasn’t going to let myself be sidetracked by these botanical considerations though, so I mentally rebooted and started reading.

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When she was 16, Tessa became famous for being the one who survived.  A group of girls were abducted and their bodies dumped in a patch of Black-Eyed Susans, except Tessie, as she was known then, wasn’t quite dead.

This happened twenty years ago, and Tessa has moved on and got a life as an artist and single mum to Charlie, her teenaged daughter.  Life is good when she can stop thinking about the past, but it is all opened up again when a patch of the yellow daisies appears under her window. They must have been planted there, but by whom? Is the man on Death Row for the murders not the killer? Scared again for her own life and that of her daughter, Tessa agrees to work with the lawyers who believe that the man who is locked up and due for execution is innocent.  Cans of worms are opened, almost literally, for the other victims’ bodies are exhumed. Forensic science has progressed far in the intervening years and experts in mitochondrial DNA are brought in to find new evidence.

Tessa’s present day story alternates with that of Tessie, now 17, in the past. Having survived such a terrible ordeal, Tessie is traumatised and is under the treatment of a therapist as she is prepared for the trial of Terrell Goodman, the man they have put in prison. He is convicted on her evidence, despite the huge gaps in her memory.  Her best friend Lydia is a huge support to her through all the build up to the trial.  The conviction doesn’t make it right though and after the trial, Tessie becomes mute for a long time.

It is clear that she buried things back then and more since, unable to comprehend how they fitted into the picture. Throughout the novel, this information will be teased out in both past and present, with evidence leading one way then another until a startling conclusion is reached. I loved the way that the dual time-frame added to the complexity of what you think was happening at any time, vs what she said had happened then, what she remembered happening then now and what really happened, then and now. This deliberate confusion did diffuse the tension at times but certainly keeps the intrigue going.

Heaberlin has done her research well and blended it into the novel without the details intruding too much – the DNA forensics was fascinating and well presented for example. The other area of her research was into Death Row and the work of attorneys like David Dow (see his Ted talk here) and Brit Clive Stafford Smith (I will never forget his TV documentary from 1987, Fourteen Days in May).  Heaberlin’s young lawyer Bill who took charge of the case when the veteran defense lawyer passed away has his job cut out, but proves a sympathetic character and a good balance to Tessa.

I would have reviewed this novel for Shiny New Books, but it’s one of those books that is best recommended without going into much detail. I didn’t want to write a lengthy review, but believe me, I really enjoyed it. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin. Penguin: Michael Joseph. August 2015, hardback, 368 pages.

It's a break-up novel…

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

10798418Daniel Handler, best-known as the author of the Lemony Snicket series of books for children has also written several novels for adults; I reviewed one of them – Adverbs here. Like Lemony Snicket, Adverbs was quirky and full of off-beat humour. Why We Broke Up is a little different in style. It’s still quirky, but its humour is more ironic and very bittersweet – it is, after all, a break-up story.

It sits firmly in crossover territory – being published in the UK under Egmont’s YA imprint, Electric Monkey, but is actually a sophisticated tale that teens and adults can enjoy alike. Each chapter is prefixed by a colour illustration by Maira Kalman and these are equally quirky and fit the novel’s style perfectly. One last bonus is that on the inside cover – instead of publicity puffs from other authors and celebs, there are short paragraph teenaged break-up stories from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Brian Selznick, David Levithan and Holly Black – some of the cream of current YA writers – a neat touch. This is backed up by a Tumblr blog where readers can share their own break-up stories.

Why We Broke Up is the story of the short-lived relationship between Min Green and Ed Slaterton, as told by Min. It starts:

Dear Ed,
In a sec you’ll hear a thunk. At your front door, the one nobody uses. […]
The thunk is the box, Ed. This is what I am leaving you. […] Every last souvenir of the love we had, the prizes and the debris of this relationship, like the glitter in the gutter when the parade has passed, all the everything and whatnot kicked to the curb. I’m dumping the whole box back into your life, Ed, every item of you and me. I’m dumping this box on your porch, Ed, but it is you, Ed, who is getting dumped.

She’s not bitter at all then?!  They meet at a party, not the usual type of one Ed goes to. He’s a jock, one of the stars of the basketball team – he only goes to non-jock parties when they lose.

– and then you asked me my name. I told you it was Min, short for Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom, because my dad was getting his master’s when I was born, and that, don’t even ask, no you couldn’t, only my grandmother could call me Minnie because, she told me and I imitated her voice, she loved me the best of anyone.

You said your name was Ed. Like I might not know that. I asked you how you lost.

“Don’t,” you said. “If I have to tell you how we lost, it will hurt all of my feelings.”

I liked that, all of my feelings. “Every last one?” I asked. “Really?”

“Well,” you said, and took a sip, “I might have one or two left. I might still have a feeling.”

I had a feeling too. Of course you told me anyway, Ed, because you’re a boy, how you lost the game.

We then go on to work our way through the box with Min explaining each item’s significance chronologically. The first item is a movie ticket from their first date. Min is an arts student and an aficionado of old movies. She and Ed go to see Greta in the Wild, which stars the beautiful, young Lottie Carson. As first dates go it’s a success and Ed is amazed by this quirky ‘different’ girl who persuades him that an old black and white film is the business! He indulges Min who is convinced that an old lady who goes to see all these vintage films is Lottie Carson herself – and this becomes a bit of an obsession for Min which escalates throughout the novel.

Romance blossoms for Min and Ed, despite Min’s BF Al and Ed’s older sister Joan knowing it’ll never work. Geeks and Jocks just aren’t really made for each other – they’re too ‘different’. Min has a go at watching basketball practice along with all the other jock’s girlfriends who seem happy to be bored out of their brains on the benches – it’s so obviously not her and naturally, Al feels ignored missing their after-school chats.

It works for a while though…

I loved this novel. Its monologue style reminded me of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (review here). They may share a High School setting, but Why We Broke Up is a good old-fashioned romance, it’s not issue-led like TPOBAW, although that is one of my favourite novels of this type. The added mystery over Lottie Carson gives Why We Broke Up all the side-plot it needs although that was rather over-extended. It was, however, a relief to read compared with all the dark Issue lit on the YA shelves these days. It’ll make a great movie …

Sophisticated, tender, bittersweet, quirky, funny – this is a YA/Crossover novel to savour and enjoy. (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler (2012), illus Maira Kalman. Paperback (Jun 2015) Electric Monkey, 368 pages.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, paperback.

From one dystopia to another …

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

The shipI’m on a watery/eco-thriller/dystopian reading binge at the moment, set off by picking up this novel – I couldn’t resist the colourful cover with its silhouette of a broken London landscape and a nod to the film Titanic.

It’s the near-future; the world as we know it is broken. Five hundred specially selected people escape the hell of the dystopian society left on land to live on ‘The Ship’ and the alternative nightmare of being on an everlasting cruise.

Apart from having poor sea-legs, the idea of living aboard one of those huge cruise-liners fills me with utter dread – yet people already do! However, you can get off for an excursion … this isn’t the case for The Ship‘s 500.

Fowey 024 (2) (800x417)

‘The World’ moored at Fowey, Cornwall, summer 2010. Gorgeous tiny town with a deep-water harbour that can fit this behemoth!

The story is narrated by Lalage ‘Lalla’ Paul*, who is just turning sixteen. She lives in an apartment in London with her mother and father, although he is often not there. They live entirely within the law of the military government, obeying all the rules imposed on them, but they manage to continue to live well by the standards of others. Lalla’s life is sheltered, totally unlike those of the tent-dwellers in Regent’s Park, or the gangs in the underground. Being outside in London is a dangerous place, the nearby British Museum – whose treasures are a shadow of their former glories, is their only cultural retreat. Lalla tells us about the beginning:

I was seven when the collapse hit Britain. Banks crashed, the power failed, flood defences gave way, and my father paced the flat, strangely elated in the face of my mother’s fear. I was right, he said, over and over again. Wasn’t I right? Weren’t we lucky that we owed nothing to anyone? That we relied on no one beyond our little trio? That we had stores, and bottled water? Oh, the government would regret not listening to him now. … and for months we did not leave the flat.

Lalla’s father, Michael, has been planning his big escape ever since. He bought a cruise-ship, he’s been stocking it with everything needed for at least a generation’s life aboard. He’s been recruiting 500 deserving people with essential skills to take with him and they are waiting in the Holding Centre for the word from him that they’re ready to depart. But’s what’s stopping them from going today? It’s Lalla’s mother who is not sure. When Michael comes home for Lalla’s birthday celebration, he and her mother bicker:

‘How much worse do you want things to get?’
‘If you loved me, you’d stop pushing.’
‘If you loved me, we’ve have gone already.’
‘I love you Michael. I just don’t think you’re right.’
I stood in the doorway, forgetting I wasn’t meant to be listening. … ‘I want to go,’ I said. ‘If the ship is real, I want to go on it.’

They bat Lalla back and forth between them in their argument, but the decision is made when, as her mother moves in front of the window, a sniper shoots her. The ship has a doctor and surgery – it’s time to go.

Poor Lalla, her mother will not survive and she begins her life onboard in a state of profound grief, while her father has 500 disciples to lead. Will Lalla be able to overcome her depression at the death of her mother, will she be able to assimilate into life on the ship, make friends, have a useful life, and, dare I say it – help make the next generation?

The Ship is really a two-hander – an on-going battle between Lalla and Michael. All the other characters, even Tom, a young man Lalla is attracted to, are just props and aren’t really developed more than peripherally. Lalla, however, is irritating, selfish and angry, yet loveable, in the way that only teenagers can be and, although Michael is nominally benevolent and peace-loving, we somehow have to suspect his motives. With Lalla as our narrator, we gain no real sense of his long-term plans.

The biblical imagery abounds – apart from the myriad of obvious references to the book of Genesis – you can pick any prophet and see Michael in him. There are are some neat parallels in the military government enacting the Nazareth Act for instance, and could the 500 have been 5000 to feed? I may be a non-believer, but do love a good bible-story, so I enjoyed spotting all these. The questions remain: Is Lalla the new Eve? Will life ever be bearable for her on board this ark?

The Ship was a hugely enjoyable novel, a scarily prescient vision of the kind of future we could have if it all goes wrong. After the riots of a couple of years ago, somehow, I can imagine Oxford Street burning for three weeks as happens here. The combination of coming of age story with a dystopia and this fascinating setting was a winner for me. Highly recommended. (8.5/10)

* I also couldn’t help wondering, especially as I’ve recently read The Bees (review here), if Lalla was named for The Bees author Laline Paull? She does contribute a cover quote…  (P.S. Antonia told me via twitter that ‘Lalla is named for the baby at end of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and St Paul, rescued from the waves’).

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below (affiliate link):
The Shipby Antonia Honeywell, pub W&N, Feb 2015. Hardback, 320 pages.

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