We Have Always Lived in the Castle…Shirley Jackson

WHALITC3*This post may contain spoilers.*

“The last time I glanced at the library books on the kitchen shelf they were more than five months overdue, and I wondered whether I would have chosen differently if I had known that these were the last books, the ones which would stand forever on our kitchen shelf.”

Mary Katherine Blackwood. The ultimate in unreliable narrators … making the other main characters, like her older sister Constance and uncle Julian, seem just as crazy as she is. Of course, maybe they are … maybe mental health issues just run in the family. In the beginning she didn’t seem crazy exactly, just sort of eccentric … especially for an 18-year-old girl. Perhaps losing most of one’s family in a freak poisoning, having one’s sister accused and acquitted of said crime, and becoming the town’s lepers might make anyone a touch eccentric and unstable. It has to be damaging to hear the town’s children singing: “Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea? Oh no said Merricat, you’ll poison me.” Perhaps my favorite scene is when Helen Clarke brings Mrs. Wright to tea and uncle Julian recreates that infamous dinner for her upon request: “‘The dining room…?’ Mrs. Wright said timidly. ‘Just a glance?’” There is some delightful humor in uncle Julian’s character and he ends up being my favorite.

But then cousin Charles arrives (granted to swindle their money) and “Merricat” quickly spirals beyond eccentric. The real issue for Mary Katherine goes beyond the intrusion of Charles; it is the thought that Constance is slowly making her way back to the real world after a terrible ordeal … as if she is awaking after a long sleep.  She can’t have a “normal” Constance taking charge because Merricat simply doesn’t do normal well.

“I thought that he had to be asked politely just once; perhaps the idea of going away had just not come into his mind yet and it was necessary to put it there. I decided that asking Charles to go away was the next thing to do, before he was everywhere in the house and could never be eradicated.” Unfortunately, just asking is not enough to make Charles leave and what transpires at the hands of Mary Katherine seems tragic to the reader, but living in complete isolation with Constance is a dream come true for Merricat. “‘We are on the moon at last,’ I told her, and she smiled. ‘I thought I dreamed it all’, she said.” The fact that Constance retreats so easily  back into the world Mary Katherine has created for them speaks volumes about her own sanity.

At 146 pages, this is one powerful little book. We Have Always Lived in the Castle was published in 1962, three years before Shirley Jackson’s death in 1965. It was her last novel. Although it is not necessarily as famous as The Haunting of Hill House and her short story The Lottery, some consider We Have Always Lived in the Castle to be her real masterpiece. Outside of The Lottery in high school, this was my first time reading Jackson. Her writing is beautifully descriptive, complex and yet concise. There is just something about her style that really appealed to me. This book is calling out to me to be re-read to catch some of the more subtle aspects of Jackson’s writing now that I have a clear understanding of the plot.

Favorite Quote: “You will be wearing the skins of Uncle Julian; I prefer my tablecloth.” – Mary Katherine to Constance

Start 2014 Write

2014startwritebuttonThe Estella Society has rolled out a letter writing exchange for 2014. I love to read collections of famous letters/correspondence and often feel sad that our generation will most likely not be leaving this type of treasure behind for future readers. It seems that letter writing is a dying art form in our current days of social media and texting. In third grade, everyone in our NY classroom received a pen pal from a classroom in Wyoming. I continued to correspond with my pen pal until we graduated from high school. So, naturally I think this letter exchange is a really cool idea. You have until January 20th to sign up and then the entire month of February to write your letters … letters should be mailed by February 28. You may send letters to one or three or five participants and can expect that number of letters in return. Participation is open to international folks which I think is all the more exciting and fun! I encourage you to sign up for this event and to pick up a collection of letters to read for inspiration. I enjoyed As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto by Joan Reardon, Anne Sexton: A Self Portrait in Letters and I recently purchased Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home as well as Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald.

A Glance at 2013…

I managed to read 22 books this year … over 7,700 pages. This might not seem like a very respectable number to some of you, but considering I am in the midst of raising toddler twins and a teenager, I consider it a win. I didn’t accomplish much as far as my “classics” and related projects are concerned, but I feel like I stepped outside of my box as a reader and that was just as valuable an experience. Some highlights:

1. I discovered that although I love to make reading plans and lists, I cannot stick to them because I am too often drawn to a book not on my list. And so, I only read 5 of the 12 books on my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge List (hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader). I seem to be more suited for the random read along rather than the more structured challenges.

2. I read and enjoyed my first graphic novel … The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.

3. I read some great YA titles like Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell and The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. Perks was so good I actually read it twice this year!

4. I dipped into the “Jazz Age” with books like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night along with Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck and Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler. I discovered I am fascinated by Zelda Fitzgerald. Tender is the Night comes in as my least favorite book of 2013, but The Great Gatsby was a different story. Although I wasn’t necessarily blown away at first, I still find myself thinking about that novel … it sort of haunts me. It becomes greater and greater in my mind as time goes on and I will probably re-read it at some point.

5. I re-read A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving. And this, my friends, is of course my favorite book of 2013. If you haven’t read it, you must. It can be slow in places, but it is so, so worth it in the end. There is no other character in literature like OWEN MEANY! He will get into your head. He will make you feel things that you weren’t expecting. He will stay with you for weeks and months to come.

6. I started Rowling’s Harry Potter series for the first time. I understand I may be the only book nerd left on earth who has not read this series, but I had some sort of unexplainable aversion to these books for as long as I can remember. And then, after all these years, they called to me for some reason and I am really enjoying it so far. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban will be seeing me into the new year.

Cheers to 2014!

Halloween Ninja Book Swap!

More Halloween Clip Art Illustrations at http://www.ClipartOf.comThis Halloween, Bex at An Armchair By the Sea and Hanna at Booking in Heels sponsored a Ninja Book Swap. I signed up for the first time to send and receive a surprise bookish package. Mine arrived well before today, Halloween, from Australia! Kaleigh at Nylon Admiral sent me a copy of Coraline from my wish list and some awesome book marks and bookish buttons. It was so cool to receive something in the mail that wasn’t bills and especially something from Australia! If you get a chance to participate in the next swap I highly encourage you to do so. HAPPY HALLOWEEN, ALL!ninja3

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

TTOTS*This post contains spoilers.*

This novella was on my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge list, an event sponsored by Adam over at Roof Beam Reader, and it seemed like a good next choice to read as I have been craving “creepy” for the fall season. This was my first experience with Henry James and unfortunately I wasn’t impressed. Much of the turn off was the undecipherable “wordiness” of the writing.  For example: “That reminder had as little effect on my practical certitude as I was conscious – still even without looking – of its having upon the character and attitude of our visitor. Nothing was more natural than that these things should be the other things that they absolutely were not.”
Henry James, what are you saying??? There were sections where James wrote in a much clearer style, but he would constantly veer back to “long-winded” ground. Perhaps this would have worked better as a short, short-story rather than a novella.

The “wordiness” issue might have been worth it if the story itself had been spectacular, but it was just so-so for me. Although an excellent example of an unreliable narrator, I could not stand the governess. Here is a lady who thinks she sees an intruder in a tower at the house and initially tells NO ONE and does not even investigate the house herself. Come on. Of course, come to find out later she is the only adult in the house who can see this guy: “It was the dead silence of our long gaze at such close quarters that gave the whole horror, huge as it was, its only note of the unnatural. If I had met a murderer in such a place and at such an hour, we still at least would have spoken. Something would have passed, in life, between us; if nothing had passed, one of us would have moved. The moment was so prolonged that it would have taken but little more to make me doubt if even I were in life.”
I get that this is a psychological thriller. I understand that James wanted to leave the reader wondering if the governess was just crazy or if the ghosts were real and they had possessed the children. But here’s the thing, the ending was completely unrealistic no matter which of these was the case. Although I didn’t see that end coming, it was still a bit of a let down somehow.

There are many classics that still hold their power in 2013, but perhaps this is just a case of one, published in 1898, that does not hold up as well. Or, maybe it was just me. Have you read The Turn of the Screw? What did you think of it?

Sassy Lady Writers Make Me Smile…

I am kind of obsessed with exploring the lives and writing of some really cool ladies. Sylvia Plath tops that list right now and I actually have an entire Plath reading list here on the blog. I lovingly refer to this as The Plath Project. However, there are other ladies that I think are cool as hell and really interest me: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Anne Sexton, Shirley Jackson, Doris Lessing, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Dorothy Parker. It is sort of odd that some of these are poets since I am not a huge poetry fan … mostly because I understand very little about poetry in general. Anyway, I am going to be reading a biography about each of these women along with some of their work. I think Dorothy Parker may pull ahead as a favorite due to her amazing wit. Are any of these ladies among your favorites?

AS1

Anne Sexton
1928 – 1974

Zelda (and Scott)Fitzgerald 1900-1948

Zelda (and Scott)Fitzgerald
1900-1948

Edna St. Vincent Millay 1892-1950

Edna St. Vincent Millay
1892-1950

Shirley Jackson 1916-1965

Shirley Jackson
1916-1965

Doris Lessing 1919

Doris Lessing
1919

Dorothy Parker 1893-1967

Dorothy Parker
1893-1967

DP3

Night Film…Marisha Pessl

night_film_cover-201x300I just finished Night Film by Marisha Pessl, a book that is a little outside of my usual box, but since it is fall it felt like the perfect time for something creepy. The novel delivered the creep along with suspense, but it was also a heart-felt tale of human nature and an interesting look at the sometimes blurred lines between reality and art. Marisha Pessl paid close attention to detail in her writing and the added “epistolary” elements of the book such as magazine articles, website pages, and police file notes heightened the reading experience. All in all it was a very engrossing, enjoyable read.

The book opens with a fictional excerpt from a 1977 Rolling Stone interview with the elusive cult horror film director, Stanislas Cordova:

“Mortal fear is as crucial a thing to our lives as love. It cuts to the core of our being and shows us what we are. Will you step back and cover your eyes? Or will you have the strength to walk to the precipice and look out? Do you want to know what is there or live in the dark delusion that this commercial world insists we remain sealed inside like blind caterpillars in an eternal cocoon? Will you curl up with your eyes closed and die? Or can you fight your way out and fly?”

The Cordova’s are a family that flies. Stanislas’ daughter Ashley has been taught to “live life way beyond the cusp of it, way out in the outer reaches where most people never have the guts to go, where you get hurt. Where there is unimaginable beauty and pain. She was always demanding of herself, Do I dare? Do I dare disturb the universe?” This is a philosophy born from the T.S. Eliot poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, but now Ashley is dead. Scott McGrath, investigative journalist, is sucked into the Cordova story, once again chasing their myth and their ghosts. He is forced to confront the subjectivity of life, reality, and art. I found myself wanting the Cordova’s to be real characters in American history. They were just so fascinating.

Here I must stop and say that in a few places the novel veered into territory that was a little unnecessarily weird for me. For example, I loved the sequence where McGrath is “trapped” in various Cordova film sets at The Peak, but his being trapped in all those hexagonal boxes? A little over the top for me. The story just didn’t need that in my opinion. Still, this is a “must add” for your TBR pile.

Other Favorite Quotes:

“I hate how the people who really get you are the ones you can never hold onto for very long. And the ones who don’t understand you at all stick around.” – Nora

“She seemed to already know what took me forty-three years to figure out, that even though adults were tall, what we knew about anything, including ourselves, was small.” – Scott

“Is she sad? she asked. No, honey. She’s lived in.” – Scott to his daughter

“I lost Marlowe.

What?

She slipped out of bed when I wasn’t looking.

But Harold said she needed a wheelchair to move.

Harold is mistaken. The woman moves like the Vietcong.” – Scott

“Darkness. I know it’s hard to fathom today, but a true artist needs darkness in order to create.” – Inez Gallo