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

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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

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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

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

tgg*This post contains spoilers, so if you are one of the few who have not read this classic, skip this post. 🙂

The Great Gatsby, published in 1925 by F. Scott Fitzgerald, was my fourth read for the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge sponsored by Adam over at Roof Beam Reader. I had never read this selection, not even in high school. I really had no idea what to expect. Fitzgerald’s writing – the language … the words …the sentences –  were fabulous, but I found the story, the plot, to be a little lacking for some reason. The action starts slow and ends with a bang, but perhaps I found it too predictable. Perhaps I was having a hard time trusting the narrator, Nick Carraway after he says: “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”

But, isn’t it Gatsby we aren’t supposed to trust? Jay Gatsby … the ultimate American self-made man, right down to his name. I adored him. Something about the mystery, sadness, and darkness that surrounded him really appealed to me. Then there is Daisy. I don’t think I have disliked a character the way I disliked her in a long time. Fitzgerald says: “Her voice is full of money.” So shallow … there was nothing to her, like she was a wisp that could just blow away with the slightest wind. Choosing wealth, security, the easy thing at every turn. What did Gatsby see in her? Why would he have gone to such lengths to bring her back to him? And for her to not even acknowledge his death … his blood that was ultimately on her hands … I could not fathom. It was so sad that no one came to his funeral, but I should not have been surprised. None of those “friends” ever really knew him. They were just fascinated with the idea of him, with what he represented, with what he could provide them. Fitzgerald’s words about Daisy and Tom not only describe them, but most of the people who had surrounded Gatsby in West Egg: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

f. scottFavorite quotes:

* “Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.”

* “And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”

* “There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired.”

* “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Early on, Fitzgerald foreshadows how things will end for Nick and Gatsby’s friendship: “When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.” Much like Gatsby was “borne back ceaselessly into {his} past” with Daisy, I assume it may have been the same for Nick with Gatsby … that he was haunted by him. Although the story may have been lacking for me somehow, I find that I am still thinking about this little novel, days later. Perhaps I am also haunted just a little bit by Jay Gatsby.

This is certainly a cautionary tale about the carelessness that seems to be a fixture of the Jazz Age. The 20s have never been one of my favorite periods in history, maybe because I do not know a lot about this period. It is growing on me though, as I begin to explore the writers and literature of this age.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

 * This post may contain spoilers.*

Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, was actually a re-read for me. We read this in my AP English class senior year of high school … almost 20 years ago. I remembered nothing about the book other than I thought I remembered liking it. This time around I have to be honest and say I really wasn’t impressed. The story was rather predictable and frankly I was a bit bored. I am learning that I have to stop making assumptions about a work before I read it. I assumed I would like Emily’s Wuthering Heights. I assumed I wouldn’t like Charlotte’s Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre ended up being a much better novel in my opinion. I am anxious to try Anne next with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Random Thoughts:

* Considering Emily named the novel after the house, I thought perhaps Wuthering Heights would have become more of a character in its own right … sort of like Manderley in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, but I did not find this to be true. It was a sad place, sure, but it didn’t seem to have a presence.

* Emily Bronte’s choice of Ellen Dean, housekeeper, as narrator was interesting. Although I am aware that English servants during the 19th century often had very intimate knowledge of the family for whom they were employed, the narration is still unreliable. I found myself wondering if we, the reader, really knew the characters. Could Heathcliff have really been that much of a monster? Perhaps he was more/less cruel and vengeful than described by Dean. In any event, it is likely that Heathcliff was a shocking character for readers in 1847, but he pales in comparison to the cruel, violent realities paraded before us on the cable news networks today.

* One thing is for sure, this really isn’t a love story. I felt that Heathcliff and Catherine were not so much in love as they were the same soul somehow mistakenly divided into two different bodies. And so, when Catherine passes away her soul cannot be at peace until it becomes whole again through Heathcliff’s death: “He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” – Catherine Earnshaw. An interesting premise, but one that didn’t seem as fully developed as it could have been.

* Speaking of Catherine’s death, I am always fascinated by 19th century diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions, or lack there of. I sometimes like to make my own contemporary diagnosis. Did Catherine have rheumatic fever that weakened her heart causing pregnancy and childbirth to be too much of a strain?

1818 – 1848

Favorite Quotes:

“I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.” – Catherine Earnshaw … this has happened to me!

“You are one of those things that are ever found when least wanted, and when you are wanted, never!” – Catherine Earnshaw to her husband Edgar Linton

“And I pray one prayer – I repeat it till my tongue stiffens – Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you – haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!” – Heathcliff after Catherine’s death … hmm, be careful what you wish for, Heathcliff!

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

“… and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Welcome to The Classic Circuit’s Steinbeck Tour! (Click on the button to the left to link to other blog posts discussing John Steinbeck’s work.) The book I chose for the tour was the 1939 Steinbeck classic The Grapes of Wrath which chronicles the lives of the Joad family as they are forced out of their home in Oklahoma, travel to California, and try to survive their new circumstances as migrant workers. They head to California with a dream of new land and new chances, but certainly not by choice.The Joads are sharecroppers who have been replaced by more efficient farm machinery because losses from the Depression, drought, crop failure, and foreclosure must be recouped at all costs.

When I was a kid, potatoes were the crop of choice in my small town and its surrounding areas. Toward the end of summer, migrant workers would travel up from the south to pick the potatoes. Suddenly, there would be strangers in the grocery store and laundromat. When school started, there would be new faces in our classroom that would be gone again before Halloween. They were a seasonal fixture for many years, but I never really gave these families much thought as a child. While reading The Grapes of Wrath, I began to wonder: where did these people stay while they were here, how much were they paid for their labor, were they made to feel like outcasts, foreigners in their own country?

“Okies” like the Joads sure were. The Californian owners purposely brought them to their towns. They passed out handbills back in Oklahoma advertising work knowing that if they could lure hundreds of desperate people to their orchards and fields they could procure the cheapest labor possible. If one man would not work for pennies there would be another hungry man standing behind him, with starving children at camp, who would. They brought them there, but then had the nerve to despise the burden they had created.

“They were hungry, and they were fierce. And they had hoped to find a home, and they found only hatred. Okies – the owners hated them because the owners knew they were soft and the Okies strong … and perhaps the owners had heard from their grandfathers how easy it is to steal land from a soft man if you are fierce and hungry and armed. The owners hated them. And in the towns, the storekeepers hated them because they had no money to spend … and the laboring people hated Okies because a hungry man must work, and if he must work he has to work, the wage payer automatically gives him less for his work; and then no one can get more.”

California turned out to be a nightmare. The Joads were discouraged, destitute, homeless, hungry, and work was scarce. And yet, where there is a community of survivors, there is hope. There were hundreds, thousands of people in this same situation. Perhaps the formation of unions could be the salvation for these laborers? Even more interesting, what would happen if all the strong matriarchs like Ma Joad were to unite? She was quite a woman!

“Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear suspect each other … the danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one … the two men squatting in the ditch, the little fire … the children listening with their souls to words they do not understand. The night draws down. The baby has a cold. Here, take this blanket. It’s wool. It was my mother’s blanket – take it for the baby … this is the beginning – from I to we.”

John Steinbeck 1902-1968

This novel made me think about many things. There was so much to wrap my head around, but perhaps I was most struck by the notion that despite all our technological advances in the last 70 years, we really haven’t come that far. Big business is still pushing out the little guy. Unemployment is a major issue facing Americans right now. Homes are in foreclosure. The Hoovervillles that the Joad’s encountered in California bear striking resemblance to the tent cities that sprung up in California due to the housing crisis.

My one criticism is that the ending was too abrupt. Steinbeck had lured me in. I was invested in this family. Oh Steinbeck, what happens next? You succeeded, the Joads are haunting me. As they should.

Favorite Quotes:

“I figgered, maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit – the human sperit – the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.” – Casy, the former preacher

“Use ta rip off a prayer an’ all the troubles’d stick to that prayer like flies on fly paper, an’the prayer’d go a-sailin’ off, a-taken them troubles along.” – Casy

The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma …

“That is the best part of all, after all; even better than holding, touching, smelling, and hugging new books is taking them home and reading them in your own bed, under your own covers, with your own lamp shining beside you until someone yells for you to turn it off and get some sleep.”

Usually, that someone would be my husband. Last night the book of choice was The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared which details the participation of James Brozina and his daughter Alice in The Streak: 3,218 days (almost 9 years) of reading together every single day, without fail. On one level, this is a humorous, but loving look at the quirky relationship between an eccentric, single father and his daughter while on another level this is a manifesto, of sorts, for the value of childhood reading … specifically reading aloud. As someone who has studied and worked in the education field, I appreciated the message Alice imparts regarding the importance of reading, but I think I was most captivated by story of this pair’s relationship. What I wouldn’t have given to have my father read to me on a Streak … well, at all, really. As a child, I saw my father a couple of times a year and have not seen him once since I was 21 … 14 years. James Brozina is quite a man: someone who can eulogize a fish like nobody’s business, someone who can deal with middle school phobias involving the dead body of JFK, someone who will show up at play practice at 11:45PM to read to his daughter in the parking lot to make sure The Streak is not broken, someone who will read picture books aloud to the elderly … someone who keeps a promise:

“I promise to tell everyone I know how reading calms me down, riles me up, makes me think, or helps me get to sleep at night. I promise to read, and read to someone, as long as human thought is still valued and there are still words to be shared. I promise to be there for books, because I know they will always be there for me.”

What is your reading promise?