Slade House, by David Mitchell

creepy stairs

Slade House is David Mitchell’s follow-up to the very successful The Bone Clocks (also reviewed on daeandwrite). I read Slade House in conjunction with fellow blogger “Run Bob, Run” (http://bobparksjohnson.blogspot.com). Bob has guest-blogged here on daeandwrite before; this time, I envisioned a point – counterpoint kind of thing but we may agree too much for that. Following, you’ll find Bob’s commentary in bold, mine in normal font.

“People are masks, with masks under those masks, and masks under those, and down you go.”  vintage mask

 This little insight from Sally Timms, an overweight, under-loved co-ed unaffectionately known to her mean-girl classmates as “Oink-oink” is as good a summary as any for this haunting little novel from David Mitchell. Slade House is not what it appears to be but in Mitchell’s world, nothing is. There isn’t much a fan of supernatural horror won’t recognize. There’s an old dark house, exotically connected twins, a mysterious seductress, a mischievous younger brother, even a long winding staircase with ghostly portraits hanging on the walls. There’s an old family curse that recurs periodically of course, and an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil whose resolution is never really sewed up. Mitchell’s story did not strike me as particularly ground breaking.  The engine that keeps these 237 pages turning is not the plot, but the characters who drift into Slade House. (I would say “drift in and out,” but nobody ever drifts back out.) 

Mitchell is the author of Cloud Atlas as well as The Bone Clocks and was recognized by Time magazine in 2007 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. From the three works with which I am familiar, the author is drawn to mystical treatments of reincarnation, whether in the Hindu sense of rebirth or the Bram Stokerish vampirism. He’s a mean yarn spinner. And while Slade House may not be particularly ground-breaking, the addition of Mitchell’s extension of life theme raises the level of writing.

I was immediately drawn in by Nathan, the autistic child whose social-climbing Mum is trying to juggle her ambitions as a classical pianist with the challenges of single parenthood in the ruthlessly classist society of London in 1979. Mitchell lets us see the world as Nathan sees it. Our attention leaps from one distracting detail to another. A flight of magpies. A yapping dog. A dead cat in an alley. Mum struggles to teach her boy the rainbow spectrum of polite conversation when he can only perceive black and white, good and bad, lying and telling the truth. Nathan is a compelling rendering of a child with Aspergers, and his all too brief appearance made me wish the author had allowed me to linger a little longer with him.

It is through Nathan’s eyes, and description, that we first see Slade House and its environs.

Slade Alley’s the narrowest alley I’ve ever seen, It slices between tow houses, then vanishes left after thirty paces or so. I can imagine a tramp living there in a cardboard box, but not a lord and lady.

“No doubt there’ll be a proper entrance on the far side,” says Mum. “Slade House is only the Grayers’ town residence. Their proper home’s in Cambridge.”

If I had 50p for every time Mum’s told me that, I’d now have 3.50. It’s cold and clammy in the alley like White Scar Cave in the Yorkshire Dales. Dad took me when I was ten. I find a dead cat lying on the ground at the first corner. It’s gray like dust on the moon. I know it’s dead because it’s a still as a dropped bag, and because big flies are drinking from its eyes. . . . It goes straight into the Top Five of the Most Beautiful Things I’ve Ever Seen.

Nathan was probably my favorite of the narrators also.

Gordon Edmonds, on the other hand, is a recently divorced, slightly balding police inspector with a bad attitude, a racist streak, and a barely restrained libido that leads him straight into the  bed of a beautiful young widow whose motives are infinitely less pure than his own.

slade houseIt is through Inspector Edmonds’ eyes that we get to experience more of the sensual experience of Slade House. He is served some divine meals by his hostess, Chloe Chetwynd, before he himself becomes dinner.

Jonah and Norah Grayer are the heirs and residents of Slade House, and they entertain plenty of other visitors: the psychiatrist with a secret, the team of collegiate ghost hunters, the weird little old man with an unbelievable story to tell, and Maggs, the forbidding landlady behind the bar of the Fox and Hounds pub who warns the nosey reporter not to stir up ancient history. It all has the creepy familiarity of a Hammer Films production from the 1960’s. There are perfect roles for Christopher Lee or Barbara Steele. Vincent Price might be a stretch, but Diana Rigg would be perfect as the willowy villain who keeps the slightly rusty gears of the plot turning.  

What is it about twins that make a horror tale more horrific? These two — who must feed off the souls of an “Engifted” human once every nine years — are particularly revolting, self-involved, and co-dependent. In Norah’s words:

Now I think of it, the Cote d’Azur could be the right sanctuary for Jonah to spend a few weeks after nine static years in his wounded body. The Riviera has no lack of privileged hosts whose hair Jonah could let down, and I would enjoy the sunshine on a host’s skin after five days of this absurd English weather. A moon-gray cat appears at Bombadil’s feet, meowing for food. “You’re not as hungry as we are,” I assure it. The wind slams down Slade Alley, flurrying sleet and leaves in its roiling coil. I . . . think of sandstorms at the Sayyid’s house in the Atlas Mountains. How the twentieth century hurtled away.

I wasn’t crazy about Slade House, but I’m not prepared to call it a lousy book. It’s just a familiar and vaguely predictable ghost story with interesting characters and a cliff hanger of an ending that promises more of the same from a future volume. It might be a nice diversion for your October Book Club meetings.

I thought it was a quick, interesting character study read. Spooky yes. But more serious themes are there: what are we making of this life? What is the point of it? How would you use unlimited time? Given the medical breakthroughs on the horizon, all of these issues may become more pressing.

FOOD

The menu? Well, a roast beef appears at one point, and there is a mysterious herb called banjax that only the most impolite of hosts would place on the buffet. A generous plate of hash brownies plays an important role. And if it isn’t giving away too much, the specialty of the house involves the careful preparation and consumption of souls. I’m not sure how Martha Stewart would translate any of this into finger food.

HA!! My menu would be taken from a dinner Chloe Chetwynd serves Inspector Edmonds.

Roast beef with “red wine, rosemary, mint, nutmeg, cinnamon, soy.”

Roasted vegetables including parsnips, potatoes, carrots, cubes of pumpkin.

Rioja

Tiramisu

Picture shows TV Presenter Charlie Luxton

Picture shows TV Presenter Charlie Luxton

Given the setting and tone of the novel I suggest consulting Gordon Ramsay’s recipe box. A nice Beef Wellington seems like an appropriately costumed entree, with honey glazed parsnips and carrots on the side for a come-hither touch of earthiness. There needs to be lots of booze, of course, Slade House is not the place to stay sober. Dry Sherry before, Burgundy during, a nice port after. A slightly cloying and  intriguingly complex trifle would finish off the meal perfectly. In the den, with candles burning around the cracking fireplace, Moroccan coffee with a wittily ironic drop of Fra Angelico to intrigue the weary tastebuds and arouse the curious guests. 

MUSIC

Music? Anything with a theremin. Or if you want to go Longhair, slip Mussorgsky onto the phonograph. Pictures at an Exhibition might seem a bit grand by the light of day, but once your guests have enough beef and liquor in them, they’ll fall right into your trap.

Also mentioned in Slade House: Philip Glass’ soundtrack for The Truman Show, “Novocaine for the Soul” by Eels, “Caught by the Fuzz” by Supergrass, “Hyperballad” by Bjork, “Safe from Harm” by Massive Attack. The films Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Exorcist make brief appearances and their scores would add the perfect creepy touch as well.

Thanks to Bob for reading and writing along with me!

Happy reading!

 

If you enjoy this post, please “like” and share it.

 

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The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

bertha and jane

Bertha and Jane by Monro S. Orr

There’s just something about a married man who keeps his mad wife in an attic that is so … alluring. Since Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre in 1847, it has become the unlikely favorite book of so many generations of young women.

“A new adaptation of Jane Eyre came out every year, and every year it was exactly the same. An unknown actress would play Jane, and she was usually prettier than she should have been. A very handsome, very brooding, very ‘ooh-la-la’ man would play Rochester, and Judi Dench would play everyone else.”

from The Madwoman Upstairs.

Capitalizing on that fascination, in The Madwoman Upstairs Catherine Lowell presents Samantha Whipple, “the last Bronte,” whose famous-novelist-father has left her the Bronte inheritance, the “Warnings of Experience.” Samantha, however, must be able to find her legacy. And as a student in love with her professor at the Old College at Oxford University, it’s hard to find time to hunt for the fusty old things, organize her social life, and survive the dreary tower in which she’s, mysteriously, been assigned to live much less the unknown “Warnings of Experience.”

Anne Bronte, author of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights), Charlotte, and brother Branwell, all come in for examination in The Madwoman Upstairs as do their literary works.

Rochester

Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester

Despite an undergraduate degree in English Literature, I found myself surprised by the amount of information I did not know contained in The Madwoman Upstairs. Not only Bronte trivia, but literary criticism, theory, debate, history. I suspect Ms. Lowell of having a Bronte dissertation hiding in her past. But the novel  is not all Bronte. There is an original mystery here and Samantha Whipple sets out to solve it, whether her hot (think Fassbender as Rochester) professor, James Timothy Orville, wants her to or not.

Lowell’s novel supposes that much of the inspiration for Anne, Charlotte and Emily Bronte’s novel came from real incidents in their own life. She postulates that brother Branwell may have fought a fire similar to the scene in Jane Eyre.

“Was that Grace Poole? and is she possessed with a devil?” thought I.  Impossible now to remain longer by myself: I must go to Mrs. Fairfax.  I hurried on my frock and a shawl; I withdrew the bolt and opened the door with a trembling hand.  There was a candle burning just outside, and on the matting in the gallery.  I was surprised at this circumstance: but still more was I amazed to perceive the air quite dim, as if filled with smoke; and, while looking to the right hand and left, to find whence these blue wreaths issued, I became further aware of a strong smell of burning.

Something creaked: it was a door ajar; and that door was Mr. Rochester’s, and the smoke rushed in a cloud from thence.  I thought no more of Mrs. Fairfax; I thought no more of Grace Poole, or the laugh: in an instant, I was within the chamber.  Tongues of flame darted round the bed: the curtains were on fire.  In the midst of blaze and vapour, Mr. Rochester lay stretched motionless, in deep sleep.

“Wake! wake!” I cried.  I shook him, but he only murmured and turned: the smoke had stupefied him.  Not a moment could be lost: the very sheets were kindling, I rushed to his basin and ewer; fortunately, one was wide and the other deep, and both were filled with water.  I heaved them up, deluged the bed and its occupant, flew back to my own room, brought my own water-jug, baptized the couch afresh, and, by God’s aid, succeeded in extinguishing the flames which were devouring it.

The hiss of the quenched element, the breakage of a pitcher which I flung from my hand when I had emptied it, and, above all, the splash of the shower-bath I had liberally bestowed, roused Mr. Rochester at last.  Though it was now dark, I knew he was awake; because I heard him fulminating strange anathemas at finding himself lying in a pool of water.

In the end, Lowell’s story is Samantha Whipple’s search for her own ending, through the lives of her ancestors. And quite a lovely one it is. Lots of good discussion points, both about The Madwoman Upstairs and the Bronte books. I highly recommend.

I’ve previously provided a bookclub blueprint for Jane Eyre which contains some additional information and recipes: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/08/24/plain-jane-jane-eyre-by-charlotte-bronte/. And also for The Wide Sargasso Sea, an imagined retelling of Bertha Mason’s story from her own viewpoint, also with music and recipes: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/mrs-rochesters-room-of-her-own-wide-sargasso-sea-by-jean-rhys/.

The Madwoman Upstairs’ publisher, Simon & Schuster, provides a book discussion group guide with questions should you be so inclined: http://books.simonandschuster.com/The-Madwoman-Upstairs/Catherine-Lowell/9781501124211/reading_group_guide#rgg

MENU

There isn’t a whole lot of food mentioned in The Woman Upstairs, leaving ample room for creativity. There’s a scene where Hot Teacher makes breakfast for Samantha but my book club would want a bit more. So my menu would be British pub food followed by a tribute to Jane Eyre.

Fish and Chips. Here’s a recipe from British chef Jamie Oliver: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/jamie-oliver/fish-and-chips-recipe.html

Shepherd’s Pie. One of my favorites. http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/easy_shepherds_pie/

And for dessert, what could be more appropriate than a bit of a flaming dish. Just be sure not to light the bed curtains on fire. Here’s a recipe for Bananas Foster, with video demonstration: http://foodwishes.blogspot.com/2014/11/bananas-foster-americas-favorite.html

Update: My long-time book club met last night and our lovely hostess served Shepherd’s Pie, roast chicken and a wonderful ice box cake — inspired by the cake Orville pulled out of the freezer to feed Samantha. She found the recipe on line and it was so good, I wanted to share it with you: http://www.completelydelicious.com/2014/06/smores-no-bake-icebox-cake.html

MUSIC

There are soundtracks available on Amazon and iTunes for multiple movie renditions of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and a BBC-production of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I previewed The Tenant music and that’s what I would use. It’s haunting, wild, passionate in places, and since much of The Madwoman Upstairs focuses on Anne Bronte, seems most appropriate.

The_Brontë_Sisters_by_Patrick_Branwell_Brontë_restored

The Bronte Sisters by Patrick Branwell Bronte

Our book club also had some fun discussions about movie casting. The biggest problem we had in casting was Orville. Maybe Andrew Garfield? My suggestion of Benedict Cumberbatch met with resounding “nooooooos.”

Samantha – we didn’t actually discuss Samantha. But I think Hailee Steinfeld would be perfect.

Rebecca – the suggestion of Julianne Moore was made. I saw her more as Charlotte Rampling.

Sir John Booker – Ian McKellen.

Samantha’s mom – I don’t know why, but I see Helena Bonham-Carter

Samantha’s dad – Again, I’m not sure why, but when I read I was picturing Kenneth Branagh.

Happy Reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Are Family: Reunion by Hannah Pittard

brother and sis

No one knows how to punch a button better than a sibling. Whether it’s referring to the younger sister as “Pooh,” her hated childhood nickname, or reminding the know-it-all older brother how he failed Calculus thirty years ago, siblings have a knack being a best friend, sometimes an only friend, and worst enemy. In Hannah Pittard’s second novel Reunion, the Pulaski siblings are alternately all of these and more to one another.

Kate Pulaski is flying home, stranded on the tarmac waiting for a storm to pass so she can get home to her estranged husband. She’s trying to figure out if her affair was a cause or a result of problems in her marriage and what exactly she does and does not want to do about it. She gets a message telling her that her father has died. The message, a voice mail, happens to be on speaker phone and Kate as well as all those in hearing distance hear older brother Elliott Pulaski tell his sister that their father has walked onto his porch in Atlanta and shot himself in the head. Then, he orders her to come home.

Delta Airlines vintage advertisement

Delta Airlines vintage advertisement

Home . . . in Atlanta . . . Kate, Elliott and Nell, the three siblings of Frank Pulaski and his first wife, must confront the succeeding four wives and each of their progeny. It’s failing screenwriter Kate’s worst nightmare: she hates all of the wives, is keeping the secrets of her impending divorce and financial crisis secret from her full siblings and would rather never see again any of the half siblings all while confronting her emotions about her father’s death . . . and life.

Reunion ups the ante on your normal holiday get-togethers by adding death and an inordinate number of spouses and siblings. But Hannah Pittard pinpoints with heartbreaking specificity the underlying crucible of drama, superiority, inferiority, love, hate, judgment, forgiveness and understanding — those elements which underlie both the smallest family holiday and the circus of Reunion.

I had the pleasure of participating in a two-day workshop led by Hannah, a professor at the University of Kentucky, during the Kentucky Women Writers’ Conference last month and thoroughly enjoyed her class, the women writers I met in it, and Hannah herself. That’s not why I read Reunion though. Hannah’s first novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way, was one of the most compelling novels I read last summer. https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2015/06/26/shes-gone-the-fates-will-find-their-way-by-hannah-pittard-and-everything-i-never-told-you-by-celeste-ng/ And I look forward to reading Listen to Me and Atlanta, 1962 which should be coming out soon.

Reunion was named a Millions‘ Most Anticipated Book, a Chicago Tribune Editor’s Choice, a BuzzFeed Top-5 Great Book, a Best New Book by People Magazine, a Top-10 Read by Bustle Magazine and LibraryReads, a Must-Read by TimeOut Chicago, and a Hot New Novel by Good Housekeeping.  Kirkus Reviews called it “well-written, with a clear narrative voice.” https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/hannah-pittard/reunion-pittard/

Anyone who has ever wanted to use a sibling as a dart board will love it.

MENU

There are several scenes of cooking. Southern family and funeral, food is inevitable. I asked Hannah what she would suggest and here’s her answer:

Hannah Pittard

Hannah Pittard

I imagine the meal the characters are cooking the second night in Atlanta (when Nell’s in the tank top and jean shorts) to be some sort of tomato-y Italian deliciousness. Eggplant parmesan? Lasagne? Something filling and family-style. You know? My husband is the chef in this house, otherwise I’d provide a recipe!

What I can give you is the recipe for a super stiff, super fresh, super dry margarita, which is my go-to drink while writing or when watching my husband cook us dinner.
Per drink, here’s the recipe. Super simple:
2 ounces tequila (I love Milagro silver)
1 ounce fresh lime
just shy one half ounce Pierre Ferrande Dry Curacao
Fill a shaker with the above ingredients and tons of ice; shake the sh*t out of it; serve over ice with a fresh lime. Don’t bother cleaning anything because you’ll be making seconds before you know it!

Whenever there was a death in my family, a casserole or two would fill the bill.

MUSIC

Hannah provided me with her playlist created for the LargeHearted Boy music blog: lhbhttp://www.largeheartedboy.com/blog/archive/2014/10/book_notes_hann_3.html

What I love about this exercise is that it asks me to do what I’m almost always doing in my head at any given moment of the day. As I kid, I was such a romantic. I desperately wanted to live my life inside a John Hughes movie. I didn’t just want the happy ending. I wanted the heartache that led up to the happy ending. The closest I could come to living inside a movie was through music. Even when it wasn’t playing, I pretended it was. And often — this is embarrassing, but… — often I’d even pretend there was a camera on me. So while my parents might have been minding their own business – sitting in the front seat on a drive across town to eat Chinese, say – I was probably in the back seat, imagining what I looked like on screen to all of my viewers and imagining also what mournful (always mournful) song they might be listening to as I went on with my listless life. In many ways, I’ve been waiting to be asked for this playlist since the day I hit puberty.

“The Only Living Boy in New York” – Simon & Garfunkel

This might seem like an obvious pick because the song is about a plane ride, and my book begins on a plane, but it’s also the perfect opener 1) because of the tone (a magical combination of hope and despair) and 2) because it’s the song I’ve listened to the most number of times in my life, on planes and off them. It’s a song that feels both like the beginning and the end. And because http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0989360466/ref=nosim/largeheartedb-20″>Reunion is my most autobiographical novel (side note: I have never cheated on my husband, but I have been in epic credit card debt), I am giving this song to Kate, my narrator, who, as the novel begins, is sitting on an airplane with news that her father has just committed suicide.

“Common People” – Pulp

Kate’s a mess. She’s also in debt. She and her husband have a wicked fight early on in the novel. “Common People” is my go-to song when I need to run a 7-minute mile. Kate doesn’t need to run a 7-minute mile, but after the argument, she’s filled with a similar sort of energetic rage. Since she and her husband are in public (at the airport) when the fight goes down, Kate can’t scream. But I can totally see her finding a bathroom stall, putting in her earphones, and dancing the shit out of this song afterwards.

“The Nights Too Long” – Lucinda Williams 

I’m a Lucinda Williams nut, but somehow I only recently discovered this song and, as a result, it’s been on heavy rotation in my home. It’s the story of Sylvia, who says, “I’m moving away, I’m gonna get what I want… I won’t be needing these silly dresses and nylon hose ‘cause when I get to where I’m going, I’m going to buy me all new clothes.” Sylvia is both optimistic and doleful. She is aching for life, for experience, for something bigger and better than what she has. So is Kate. (So are we all? Sometimes? Most of the time?)

“On Saturday Night” – Lyle Lovett

It’s a song about getting high with your family, which happens – in life and in this book.

“Rewrite” – Paul Simon

This song is playing as Kate drunkenly sets the table for dinner. It’s apt since she’s a failed screenwriter who might very soon be looking for work at a carwash.

“Corpus Christi Bay” – Robert Earle Keen 

This is a lugubrious, earnest snapshot of brotherhood and drunkenness. If it’s a love story, it’s a love story between two brothers: “We were bad for one another, but we were good at having fun.” http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0989360466/ref=nosim/largeheartedb-20″>Reunion is, in its way, a love story between siblings. But what makes this song so perfect is that Kate, the narrator, is pining for a time that no longer exists. Her siblings have moved on; they’ve grown up. But there’s also a clarity towards the end of the novel that Kate is moving towards. Alcohol is the least of her troubles (maybe not least?), but this song certainly hints at her nearing epiphany: “If I could live my life all over, it wouldn’t matter anyway because I never could stay sober…”

“Most of the Time” – Bob Dylan 

It’s morning, the day of the funeral, and Kate gets a phone call from her husband that she’s been both expecting and dreading. The sound of the song fits the mood of the moment beautifully, but so do the lyrics. “Most of the time she ain’t even in my mind… I don’t pretend. I don’t even care if I ever see her again. Most of the time.” Kate’s a liar who’s been trying to come clean about her feelings, but that’s a hard thing to do when you disagree with your own heart.

“Keep Me in Your Heart” – Warren Zevon

This is non-negotiable. This is the song you should play as you read the final chapter. It’s a song I can’t listen to without crying. It’s a song I can barely think of without crying. I think first – because you have to – of Warren Zevon himself. It’s his song and it’s his plea: “I’m running out of breath. Keep me in your hearts for while. If I leave you, it doesn’t mean I love you any less…” It’s so sincere, so simple, so honest. So the words are his, yes, but they’re also the words of anyone who has ever been left or who’s ever leaving or about to leave. This song captures everything Kate can’t articulate.

“Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” – Arcade Fire

Finally, because this is a book about childhood and about family and, most of all, siblings, the song that you should listen to after you finish and – if I’ve done my job – while you’re still imagining Kate, imagining those next few minutes and maybe those next few hours, especially if you stay with the idea of her long enough to envision her on the flight home, this is the song. This is definitely the song that’s playing as the plane takes off.

MOVIE CASTING

Kate — Charlize Theron

Nell — Liv Tyler

Elliott — John Corbett

Peter — Jason Seagal

reunion

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