Book rec // ‘The House on the Strand’ by Daphne du Maurier

Hey all! Today I’m reviewing a new favorite book of mine, by a longtime favorite author, Daphne du Maurier, of Rebecca fame. I remember Rebecca as one of those books everyone actually liked to read in middle/high school, and of course she’s the author of the story-turned-Hitchcock-film The Birds (which, incidentally, is ten times more terrifying in print form). I bought a few of her books secondhand a few months ago, and decided to read The House on the Strand.

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Favorite author of the moment // Daphne du Maurier

daphne du maurierMy love for Daphne du Maurier has been a slow burn. In high school, like approximately 97% of us, I read Rebecca and utterly loved it. Then we read “The Birds” in class and I loved that, too. Last year, I read her other short stories in a collection, and those horror-infused short stories still haunt me to this day. Then later on in 2015, I visited a secondhand bookstore in the city and bought three of her novels: Frenchman’s Creek, Jamaica Inn, and The House on the Strand. I absolutely adored Frenchman’s Creek, her romance novel with themes of female freedom, and now I am looking forward to reading the highly-esteemed Jamaica Inn. Daphne du Maurier is my favorite author of the moment, and here’s why you should definitely put her books on your TBR.
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‘Frenchman’s Creek,’ a romance novel by Daphne du Maurier

If you’re like me, then you know Daphne du Maurier from two things: her story “The Birds” and Rebecca, that freaky book you had to read in high school. But recently, I came across her romance novel!!!! in a secondhand bookstore in the city, and I had to have it. It’s called Frenchman’s Creek, and it will give you feels. I have to say, this has automatically become one of my favorite works of literature; it has almost everything I look for in a great story. Read more about this recommendation!

frenchman's creekWhat it’s about: Frenchman’s Creek is about a noblewoman named Dona St. Columb (a perfect romance-novel name, IMO), who feels stifled in her life in London. It takes place in Restoration England, and the entire narrative is a kind of flashback through the eyes of a modern-day yachtsman visiting the place in Cornwall where Dona flees to when she can’t take her life anymore. The framed narrative creates a spooky atmosphere that is definitely characteristic of du Maurier’s other works.

When Dona arrives in Cornwall at her house called Navron, with her two children in tow (but not her husband), she is consumed by a feeling of freedom she’s been craving all her life. Eventually, she meets and has an affair with a philosopher turned pirate named Jean-Benoit Aubéry, who teaches her that even though she craves escape, it’s almost impossible for a woman to have the same freedom as a man does. Their relationship becomes a metaphor for societal expectations placed on women, and the whole metaphor is couched in the language of a high romance novel with plenty of passion. Oh, and the writing is utterly breathtaking, so you don’t have to feel bad about reading romance!

Through her experiences with the pirate, she tests her strength, her courage, and finds herself outside of her constructed “proper” persona. She becomes her own person, someone whole and fulfilled in both life and love. She finds freedom and happiness.
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Book thrifting ‘haul’ at Westsider Books

A few weeks ago I hit up one of my favorite bookstores in the city, Westsider Books on the Upper West Side. It’s very old and creaky, with two floors (top floor is rare books), ladders that you can climb to get to the tippy-top shelves (a la Belle), and books that are stacked two rows deep. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, then it’s probably behind that first row of books on the shelf.

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This is my favorite bookstore in the city because its atmosphere is perfect for slowing down, taking a moment to relax, and of course, because it lets you find books you didn’t know you wanted. They’re all used, and so they have that used-book character that I like. But if you come in here with a specific title in mind, you may not find it. Instead, something else jumps out at you, and you’ll take it home.

I came here with my best friend, and we found some great titles that I wouldn’t have put on my list otherwise:

Lucrezia Floriani, by George Sand; Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe; The House on the Strand and Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier; and The Letters of Charles Lamb: Volume One. 

I’ve read Rebecca and Daphne du Maurier’s short story collection, but none others by her, and of course, Things Fall Apart is a classic story I’ve been meaning to read for a while. The edition I picked up was a cheap reprinting for a college class in the 80s, and the book of Charles Lamb letters was printed in 1911. I love that. Oh, and these all smell fantastic.

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Fashion: Fairy-World

My favorite colors! Black, red, and gold, with a bit of brown thrown in for good measure. I wore this out to a dinner date last week. These knit tights from American Apparel are so lovely and warm, but they rip so easily! I find myself having to constantly darn them (I’m going to refrain from making a “darn it” joke right here, but I am that cheesy). I’ve had these Adrienne Vittadini boots for a couple years now. I got them absurdly cheap from Marshall’s.

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boots (Adrienne Vittadini) from Marshall’s, tights from American Apparel, skirt from Forever 21, necklace from Aldo

“Looking from the window at the fantastic light and colour of my glittering fairy-world of fact that holds no tenderness, no quietude, I long suddenly for peace, for understanding.”
― Daphne du Maurier, The Birds & Other Stories

"The Frangipani Hotel," Vietnamese ghost stories

The Vietnam War is an undeniable part of American history. It’s painful, true, and it’s there. It always will be. It’s like a ghost, always hovering on the fringes, never forgotten. In The Frangipani Hotel, young author Violet Kupersmith addresses the ghostly nature of the Vietnam War and combines that theme with her interpretation of traditional Vietnamese ghost stories. These stories, a mix of old and new, vividly capture the ghost of the Vietnam War and the effect it had on that generation of Vietnamese and the generations that followed, whether in the motherland or in America.

The result is stunning, even more when you take into account that this collection is a debut by an author two years out of college. Yes, I am so jealous, but also overjoyed at her success. It gives me hope. This collection contains nine short stories, all penned when the author was in university, all with two things in common: a touch of the supernatural and the feeling of displacement that followed the destruction of the Vietnam War.

18167000In the first story, simply an opener, a Vietnamese-American girl begs her grandmother to tell her the story of “the boat trip:” how her ancestor escaped as a refugee in 1975, headed for America. The girl needs an “A” for a school project, and her grandmother chides her for taking her family and her history for granted. This short opening story sets the stage for the rest of the book, in which the characters deal with the past and the present, their identities and their culture. The characters’ lives have been changed forever by the War. It is a new Vietnam, and the characters must face it.

Some set in Vietnam, some in America, these stories are also retellings of traditional Vietnamese ghost stories, which I found incredibly moving. Reading these stories afforded me a glimpse into pre-war Vietnamese culture, which I had known very little about prior to this (they teach you about the War, after all, but not so much about Vietnam as a country). Kupersmith’s stories not only took me to a modern Vietnam, cramped side streets, pho stalls, and oppressive heat included, but also to a time before colonialism, and highlighted a rich, imaginative culture that often scared me to my very core.

These are ghost stories, and ghostly they are. There are animate corpses walking on water, their intestines ripped and bloody. There is a young, immortal girl preying on the men who fall under her love spell. An old man periodically transforms into a fourteen-foot python in modern Texas, seemingly spreading his disease. Alleycats with sharp talons. Nightmarish banh mi vendors. A dying, shriveled man who feeds on your stories and takes your face. Each story incorporates a legend or folktale, updating it with modern cultural themes and one eye trained on the Vietnam War.

The result is an ode to Vietnam, and to the author’s cultural history. It’s both American and Asian, old world and new. The writing is also deft and precise, impressive for someone only a couple years older than myself, in fact. Each story contains a fresh voice and interesting characters, and if the stories lack depth sometimes, I can forgive the author due to lack of experience and wait eagerly for her novel. I’m sure it will blow me away.

Kupersmith actually reminds me of a less exhausting Jhumpa Lahiri. Her characters are more resilient, to be sure, and the immigrant experience is described with less emphasis on self-pity, and more on new beginnings. With a reanimated corpse or two thrown in for good measure. Also, it just happened that I read this work right after I read Daphne du Maurier’s collection of stories, also touched with the supernatural and featuring suspenseful events, and this work reminded me of du Maurier’s careful plotting, the way she introduces a mystery in the beginning and leads the reader as if by a leash to a breathless climax, only to be left wishing for more. Four stars.

Note: I received this title from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This title will be released on April 1, 2014 by Spiegel & Grau, Random House. 

References

Kupersmith, V. The Frangipani Hotel. (2014) Random House.

"The Birds" and other terrifying things

Before the Whispernet gods delivered Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds and Other Stories to my oft-neglected Kindle, the only du Maurier I’d read was the beloved Rebecca. Now I know why Alfred Hitchcock loved her stories so much. I do have this to say: Hitchcock’s version is laughable compared to the original, and the title story is only the beginning.

This collection includes The Birds; Monte Verita; The Apple Tree; The Little Photographer; Kiss Me Again, Stranger and The Old Man. These six engrossing stories speak of the power of the natural world and how mankind perceives it, the calamities and consequences of war, as well as violence, revenge, and the search for truth. Infused in these stories are unexplained phenomena, the least of which is the apocalypse that ensued when birds attack all humans on earth.

daphne du maurier the birds reviewAll of these stories aren’t terrifying per se. Some, like Monte Verita and The Apple Tree, contain unexplained supernatural elements that also function as allegories or just simply as eerie plot points. In The Apple Tree, a widower’s deceased wife seems to have been reincarnated in an apple tree on the man’s estate, trying to kill him for his neglect during life. In Monte Verita, an ageless cult of women living on a mountain mysteriously disappear when the locals come to attack them. And, of course, there are the terrifying, murderous flocks of birds attacking people all over the world. You know–no big deal.

Woven within these stories is commentary on the psychological impact of war both on society and on the individual. The characters in The Birds are finally safe from the blitz, but the world has changed as a result of the second World War and nature has turned on mankind. The women of Monte Verita are searching for a truth they cannot find in the modern world, and they would rather die than return to their domestic, businesslike lives. And in Kiss Me Again, Stranger, one girl finds a fiendish way of reaping revenge on the members of the RAF whose defensive actions ended up killing her whole family during the London blitzkrieg. These stories, while eerie, frightening, suspenseful and sometimes horrifying, are also thoughtful stories containing social commentary and vividly drawn characters with voices, and they’re not afraid to speak. The result is mesmerizing. I didn’t put this book (Kindle) down for hours. (I carried it with me like a security blanket, cooking with one hand and answering questions with impatient “mmms.”)

Like I am wont to do lately, I immediately put Daphne du Maurier on my list of must-read authors for this year, and no later. She has enchanted me, as she did when I first picked up Rebecca as a teenager. It’s been years and I still think about that book all the time. I suspect the same has happened with du Maurier’s short stories. I am eager to enter her head again, and come under her spell. So that’s one thing Alfred Hitchcock and I have in common.

Note: I received this title from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

References

Du Maurier, D. The Birds and Other Stories. (2013). Little, Brown and Company. First published 1952.