I’ve enjoyed my second year participating in the Readers Imbibing Peril challenge. The highlights from my spooky October of reading were the classic ghost stories from my first installment and the Shirley Jackson novel below.
As this goes live I’m preparing to catch a train to York for the New Networks for Nature conference. Ever since the year I did my Master’s at Leeds, York is a place I’ve often contrived to be in late October or early November. What with ghost tours and fireworks for Bonfire Night, its cobbled streets are an atmospheric place to spend chilly evenings.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
The only thing I’d read by Jackson before is “The Lottery,” which I studied in a high school English class. I’d long meant to read one of her full-length books, so I snapped this up when it came into the free bookshop where I volunteer.
Dr. Montague, an anthropologist, assembles a small team to live at Hill House one summer and record any evidence that it is indeed haunted. Joining him are Luke Sanderson, the flippant heir to the house; Theodora (“Theo”), rumoured to have psychic abilities; and Eleanor Vance, a diffident 32-year-old who experienced an unexplained event when she was a child and now, after the recent death of the mother for whom she was a nurse for years, determines to have an adventure all of her own. As the four become familiar with the house’s history of tragedies and feuds, their attempts to explore the house and grounds leave them feeling disoriented and, later, terrified.
Things really heat up at about the halfway point. There’s a feeling that the house has power –
“the evil is the house itself, I think … it is a place of contained ill will” (Dr. Montague)
“It’s the house. I think it’s biding its time.” (Eleanor)
– what could it make them all do? I don’t often read from the suspense or horror genre, but I did find this gripping and frightening, and I never saw the ending coming. Hard to believe the book is 60 years old.
(I wondered if Claire Fuller could have taken this as partial inspiration for Bitter Orange, in which a thirtysomething woman who was her mother’s carer for many years until the older woman’s death undertakes a summer of study at a dilapidated house.)
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
As with The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I attempted in 2017, I think the problem here was that the story was too culturally familiar to me. Everyone knows the basics of Jekyll & Hyde: a respectable doctor occasionally transforms into a snarling boor and commits acts of violence. The only thing that was murky for me was exactly how this happens. (Jekyll has been experimenting with drugs that will provoke mystical experiences and a taste of the dark side of humanity; to become Hyde he takes a potion of his own devising. At first the metamorphosis is something he can control, but eventually he starts becoming Hyde without any warning, until it seems there’s no returning to his normal life.)
The novella is mostly from the point of view of Mr. Utterson, Jekyll’s lawyer friend, who drew up his will leaving everything to Hyde. Utterson has always been uncomfortable with the terms of the will, but even more so as he hears of Hyde knocking over a young girl and beating a gentleman to death in the street. The third-person narrative is interspersed with documents including letters and confessions, a bit like in Dracula. For its first readers this must have been a thrilling read full of shocking revelations, but I found my mind wandering. I’ve tried a few Stevenson books now; I think this was probably my last.
(Available as a free download from Project Gutenberg.)
The topic of this shortlisted book didn’t particularly appeal to me, so I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy it. Transhumanism is about using technology to help us overcome human limitations and radically extend our lifespan. Many of the strategies O’Connell, a Dublin-based freelance writer with a literature background, profiles are on the verge of science fiction. Are we looking at liberation from the rules of biology, or enslavement to technology? His travels take him to the heart of this very American, and very male, movement.
Cryogenic freezing: The first person was cryogenically frozen in 1966. Max More’s Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona offers whole-body or head-only (“neuro”) options for $200,000 or $80,000. More argues that the residents of Alcor are somewhere between living and dead. These entities are held in suspension in the belief that technology will one day allow us to upload the contents of the mind into a new vessel.
- This approach seems to conceive of the human mind/consciousness as pure information to be computed.
Cyborgs: Grindhouse Wetware, near Pittsburgh, aims to turn people into literal cyborgs. Tim Cannon had a Circadia device the size of a deck of cards implanted in his arm for three months to take biometric measurements. Other colleagues have implanted RFID chips. He intends to have his arms amputated and replaced by superior prostheses as soon as the technology is available.
- That may seem extreme, but think how bound people already are to machines: O’Connell calls his smartphone a “mnemonic prosthesis” during his research travels.
Mortality as the enemy: Many transhumanists O’Connell meets speak of aging and death as an affront to human dignity. We mustn’t be complacent, they argue, but must oppose these processes with all we’re worth. One of the key people involved in that fight is Aubrey de Grey of SENS (“Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence”), and Google has also gotten in on it with their “Calico” project.
- O’Connell recounts explaining aging and death to his three-year-old son; his wife chipped in that – according to “Dada’s book” – perhaps by the time the boy is grown up death will no longer be a problem.
The Singularity: Posited by Ray Kurzweil, the Singularity is the future point at which artificial intelligence will surpass humanity. O’Connell likens it to the Christian idea of the Rapture, itself a moment of transcendence. At a conference on transhumanism and religion in Piedmont, California, he encounters Terasem, a religion founded recently by a transhumanist and transgender person.
- To my surprise, To Be a Machine makes frequent reference to religious ideas: O’Connell thinks of transhumanism as an attempt to reverse the Fall and become godlike, and he often describes the people he meets as zealots or saints, driven by the extremity of their beliefs. Both religion and transhumanism could be seen as a way of combating nihilism and insisting on the meaning of human life.
O’Connell’s outsider position helped me to engage with the science; he’s at least as interested, if not more so, in the deeper philosophical questions that transhumanism raises. I would caution that a grounding in religion and philosophy could be useful, as the points of reference used here range from the Gnostic gospels and St. Augustine to materialism and Nietzsche. But anyone who’s preoccupied with human nature should find the book intriguing.
You could also enjoy this purely as a zany travelogue along the lines of Elif Batuman’s The Possessed and Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck. The slapstick antics of the robots at the DARPA Robotics Challenge and the road trip in Zoltan Istvan’s presidential campaign Immortality Bus are particularly amusing. O’Connell’s Dickensian/Wildean delight in language is evident, and I also appreciated his passing references to William Butler Yeats.
It could be argued, however, that O’Connell was not the ideal author of this book. He is not naturally sympathetic to transhumanism; he’s pessimistic and skeptical, often wondering whether the proponents he meets are literally insane (e.g., to think that they are in imminent danger of being killed by robots). Most of the relevant research, even when conducted by Europeans, is going on in the USA, particularly in the Bay Area. So why would an Irish literary critic choose transhumanism as the subject for his debut? It’s a question I asked myself more than once, though it never stopped me from enjoying the book.
The title (from an Andy Warhol quote) may reference machines, but really this is about what it means to be human. O’Connell even ends with a few pages on his own cancer scare, a reminder that our bodies are flawed machines. I encourage you to give this a try even if you think you have no particular interest in technology or science fiction. It could also give a book club a lot to discuss.
“We exist, we humans, in the wreckage of an imagined splendor. It was not supposed to be this way: we weren’t supposed to be weak, to be ashamed, to suffer, to die. We have always had higher notions of ourselves. … The frailty is the thing, the vulnerability. This infirmity, this doubtful convalescence we refer to, for want of a better term, as the human condition.”
See what the rest of the shadow panel has to say about this book:
Annabel’s review: “I loved this book from the front cover to the back, starting with its title. … He writes with empathy and a good deal of humour which makes the text always readable and entertaining, while provoking his readers to think deeply about their own beliefs.”
Clare’s review: “O’Connell’s prose style is wordy and ironic. He is pleasingly sceptical about many aspects of transhumanism. … It is an entertaining book which provides a lot of food for thought for a layperson like myself.”
Laura’s review: “Often, I found that his description of his own internal questions would mirror mine. This is a really fantastic book, and for me, a clear front runner for the Wellcome Book Prize.”
Paul’s review: “An interesting book that hopefully will provoke further discussion as we embrace technology and it envelops us.”
My gut feeling: Though they highlight opposite approaches to death – transcending it versus accepting it – this and Kathryn Mannix’s With the End in Mind seem to me the two shortlisted books of the most pressing importance. I’d be happy to see either of them win. To Be a Machine is an awful lot of fun to read, and it seems like a current favorite for our panel.
- I’m coming close to the end of my skim of The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman.
- I’m still awaiting a review copy of Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing, which I’ll be featuring as part of the official Wellcome Book Prize shortlist blog tour.
A female Doctor Who, a proposed all-woman The Lord of the Flies – you can sense a cultural movement toward giving traditionally male roles to women. On Friday my husband and I saw an all-female production of Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), at the lovely nearby Watermill Theatre. Adapted by Phoebe Eclair-Powell and directed by Owen Horsley, this is a brisk 67-minute performance by three young actresses.
With no intermission and no drastic scene changes, there was never the need for any of the players to leave the stage. Two of the actresses, Eva Feiler and Emily Stott, shared narration duties and rotated through all the supporting roles: mostly Dorian’s friends Lord Henry Wotton (Emily) and Basil Hallward (Eva), but also Sibyl Vane, the actress he falls for, her mother and brother, and so on – signifying their character changes through a simple prop like a flat cap, cane or ruffled cape. On the other hand, Emma McDonald, the Black British woman who played Dorian, had only that one part.
The costumes were all a variation on black and white, with Dorian in a form-fitting black dress with feathery epaulettes and the other two in more androgynous shirt and trouser combinations. A large white door frame was the only major item on stage: it served as the titular portrait’s frame and as the stage-within-the-stage for Sibyl’s performances, as well as the site for all comings and goings. Beyond that, the only stage furniture was a couple of chairs and a table with a wine bottle and some glasses on it.
I’ve never read The Picture of Dorian Gray, but it’s one of those story lines you’re probably familiar with whether or not you’ve encountered the original and/or an adaptation. Dorian, led to believe that youth and beauty are the only things that matter in life, makes a devilish pact by which he transmits his soul to the portrait Basil painted of him: the painting will age and reflect the true state of Dorian’s character, while his body remains perfect. So as he goes his merry way through life, breaking the hearts of men and women alike and pursuing pleasure everywhere from London’s opium dens to China and Mexico, his face never changes.
I thought it was particularly meaningful to examine cultural ideals of age and attractiveness with female players. However, there was an odd disconnect for me here: the original names were retained, along with male pronouns throughout. Why wasn’t it “Dora Gray”, her hard-partying friend “Henrietta”, and so on? The contrast was especially striking in moments where the characters pause to refresh their lipstick.
Well, the director answered that query – or, rather, sidestepped it – during the question and answer session that followed this short production. Horsley mentioned that Eclair-Powell only wanted to work with the play if she could have an all-female cast, and that she didn’t want to try to feminize the story in any way. She just wanted to put it out there, the same way Shakespeare might have – as with his cases of men playing woman playing men – and let audiences decide what they thought.
After a week at the Watermill, the production is moving on to a several-week tour of local schools, where it will be aimed at teenage audiences. I reckon it will be more effective in that context: the themes of vanity and selfishness should ring true for young people, and they will probably appreciate the comic flashes (e.g. when the narrators joke about who’s going to play which part, with what accent) more than I did, as well as the slightly melodramatic moments when Dorian is standing in front of the painting and telling us what ‘he’ sees.
In any case, I think I’ll make Dorian Gray one of my spooky pre-Halloween reads. I’ve downloaded it from Project Gutenberg.
Do you think you would have enjoyed this production, or found it off-putting?
We heard that The Bookshop Band would be playing at a free seasonal concert on Saturday night, so on something of a whim we planned a daytrip to Bath. Even though it wasn’t exactly on the way (my husband’s regular, feeble refrain), I take any opportunity of being in the Bath/Bristol area to make a pilgrimage to Bookbarn International. This was a delightful surprise since I’d been in late July and never thought I’d get to go again this year.
This turned out to be our best trip yet. We were unrushed for once, so had plenty of time for browsing. I had particularly good luck in the orange-spined all-Penguins section, and even found three books I wanted from the “Unsorted” shelves, which was something of a miracle. We finally tried out their newish café and got a darned good cup of coffee and a cake each.
All told, we came away with a better haul than on any previous visit: 13 books for me, 10 nature books plus a River Café cookbook for my husband, and eight books to give away as presents. And for all that (books + refreshments), less than £40. Add on a couple of books from a charity shop in Bath and I got some real steals – no book more than £1.
I’m particularly pleased with:
- Richard Ellmann’s biography of Oscar Wilde
- Writers & Company, a collection of Canadian radio interviews with authors
- A signed copy of Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World
- An Actual Life by Abigail Thomas – I love her memoirs so have been looking forward to trying her fiction.
This was my fifth trip to Bath, which was looking lovely and golden in the wintry afternoon light but was certainly bustling, to put it politely. More accurately, you could barely move through the main streets, particularly around the Christmas market. At one point we weren’t sure we were going to get any hot food for dinner – it had never occurred to us to book ahead, and the brasserie and pub we tried were both full. Luckily the Real Italian Pizza Co. had a table for two, and I enjoyed a gloriously doughy calzone before we headed up to St Swithin’s Church for a holiday concert featuring Songways Choir and The Bookshop Band.
St Swithin’s has had a church on site since the tenth century, a sort of age we Americans can barely get our heads round. Jane Austen’s parents married here; so did William Wilberforce. It was something of a bittersweet occasion because the couple who make up The Bookshop Band are moving to Wigtown, Scotland’s town of books, in January and expecting their first booklet in May. So this was most likely my last chance to see them for quite a while. They only played a mini-set of five songs after the choir performance. Most of these I’d heard before, but “Wagons and Wheels,” based on Carol Birch’s Orphans of the Carnival (which I have on my Kindle and have been meaning to read), was new to me and a highlight.
Earlier in the evening we’d had a chance to stop by Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, the independent bookshop in Bath where the band got their start. It’s such a cozy and welcoming shop, and I added a goodly number of books to my wish list while I was there. It’s something of a shame that we never got to see them perform in situ (though I don’t know how more than 20 people could fit in the upstairs space!), but I’ve managed to see them live three times and by funding their 2016 recording project have had excellent music streaming to my computer the whole year.
Thanks to last night’s holiday concert and the university carol service we’ll be attending tomorrow evening, I should certainly be feeling in the Christmas spirit. Look out for my two posts on seasonal reading coming up this week.
Picked up any secondhand bargains recently?
Are you feeling the Christmas spirit?
Almost immediately after our trip to Manchester (see my write-up of the literary destinations), we left again for Dublin, where my husband was attending a Royal Entomological Society conference. Like we did last year when he presented a poster at a conference in Florence, I went along since we only had to pay for my flight and meals.
We stayed north of the Liffey at one of the branches of Jurys Inn. For some reason they put us in a disabled room, which meant the bathroom was a bit odd, but I can’t complain about the breakfast buffet, which included black pudding, soda bread, fruit scones, and particularly delicious porridge.
Across the street was the terrific Chapters bookstore, with extensive secondhand and new stock. I highly recommend the Lonely Planet guide to Dublin, which provided my maps and many of my ideas for the week; I even managed to do 8 of their 10 recommended activities.
On Wednesday I wandered just a few minutes down the road to the Dublin Writers’ Museum. An audio guide takes you through the chronological displays about minor figures as well as the big names like W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, and George Bernard Shaw. One caveat: only dead writers are considered; the museum is definitely missing a trick there – they could easily fill another room with living authors.
On the whole I found the place looking a bit shabby nowadays, but I passed a pleasant hour and a half here before popping a few doors down to the Dublin City Gallery, where they have multiple paintings by Jack B. Yeats (William Butler’s brother) as well as gems like a Monet and a Monet.
On Thursday I used the DK guide for a recommended walk through literary and Georgian Dublin. Along the way I discovered plaques to Yeats, Wilde (his home is now the headquarters of the American College and not open to the public, alas), ghost story writer Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, Bram Stoker, and Elizabeth Bowen, and a statue of poet Patrick Kavanagh by the canal. Fitzwilliam and Merrion Squares reminded me of London’s Bloomsbury Square (the latter houses a deliciously camp statue of Wilde), and St. Stephen’s Green would be a Hyde Park-type lovely spot for a sunny stroll – though it was drizzling and chilly as I walked through.
At the National Museum (Archaeology), I learned about Brian Boru, the national hero who kicked out the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf and united the country.
My husband’s conference was at Trinity College, so he had a special chance to look in at the Old Library and the Book of Kells for a discounted price, but I didn’t end up going. On Thursday night we did something quintessentially Irish: found a pub with live traditional Irish folk music. Although we paid through the teeth for a pint of Guinness and a bottle of cider, it was an experience we wouldn’t have missed.
On Friday, after finishing up some reviewing work in the morning and checking out of the hotel, I returned to the Lonely Planet for a guided walk through Viking and medieval Dublin. The route took in the two cathedrals plus various other churches, ending up at the Castle and the Chester Beatty Library. I skipped the former but enjoyed a brief look at the rare books and manuscripts of the latter (mostly relating to the Far East, with a special focus on Asian religions) before walking back to the National Gallery to see the permanent collection.
That afternoon we moved on to Howth, a Dublin suburb only about 20 minutes away on the DART commuter train, but that somehow feels a world away: it’s a pleasant seaside village with heather- and gorse-covered hills and a lighthouse. It felt good to get out of the city – which was extremely busy and seemed to be mostly full of fellow tourists and the homeless – even if just for a little while.
This was our first AirBnB experience and turned out well after some unfortunate communication difficulties. Before settling in to our B&B we found a cheap and filling meal of fish and chips. The next day we explored the cliffs and met some friendly hooded crows before heading back into Dublin for a look at the wonderfully musty Natural History Museum and an excellent dinner at The Woollen Mills (interesting American fusion food: I had pork belly mac & cheese, and our dessert platter included an Oreo peanut butter tart).
My overall feeling was that Dublin still isn’t making as much of its literary heritage as it might do. I was perhaps not as impressed as I’d hoped to be – it’s a lot like London, and not as quaint as I might have expected. Still, I’m glad I went. Next time, though, I suspect we’ll go to less inhabited and more picturesque areas in the south and west.
I hadn’t the courage to face Joyce’s Ulysses or some other monolith of Irish literature, but I did continue Anne Enright’s The Green Road while in Dublin. I was also working on My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff, Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham (my current doorstopper), and The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood.
Any comments about Ireland and its literary sites and/or heroes are most welcome!