Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

11161779Blurb:

Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods – until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp.

Review:

Typical Shirley Jackson, upending narrative conventions and beginning a story with a dynamite paragraph:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle’s genre is nebulous. How to classify this weird, weird little book? Unlike Jackson’s other famous novel The Haunting of Hill House, Castle is not a haunted house story, but the genesis of a haunted house story. Houses aren’t built haunted; they become haunted. The Blackwood House once stood tall above a village occupied by generations of the well-to-do Blackwood family until one day they are all murdered around the dinner table, killed by arsenic laced in a bowl of sugar, leaving only the surviving sisters Constance and Mary Katherine, fondly called “Merricat,” to live there.

Like all good haunted house stories, between the fall of Blackwood House from respected family manor to a burnt and boarded “castle,” there are plenty of narrative gaps; doors opened only a crack, big black spaces scarcely illuminated by a sliver of light. The history of the Blackwood House and its family is mysterious. Who put the arsenic in the sugar bowl? Why does Constance refuse to leave the house? Why is Merricat forbidden to cook dinner? Gaps in knowledge mean Blackwood House is the perfect target for imaginative village storytellers trying to solve those mysteries. Only instead of seeking true answers for the Blackwoods’ decline, they choose to populate the house with ghosts and witches and cannibalistic old maids.

Underneath its ostentatiously bizarre façade, Castle retreads the same old Shirley Jackson ideas. Conflict is mostly internal, dealing with the choice between being an individual and fitting in with society. Those who choose society fall victim to mob mentality, unable to properly decide what is right versus what everyone else is doing. Here everything is topsy-turvy. Villains can be heroes as long as they have strength of conviction. What is important is not if your actions are right or wrong, but whether these actions are motivated by your own decision-making. Happiness is not other people; horror lurks in a friendly neighborhood too. And happiness can be found inside a castle, inside a rotted old haunted house, because you are alone, isolated, and safe; nobody else can enter.

4 out of 5 stars

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Review: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

46168Blurb:

The Sun Also Rises was Ernest Hemingway’s first big novel, and immediately established Hemingway as one of the great prose stylists, and one of the preeminent writers of his time. It is also the book that encapsulates the angst of the post-World War I generation, known as the Lost Generation. This poignantly beautiful story of a group of American and English expatriates in Paris on an excursion to Pamplona represents a dramatic step forward for Hemingway’s evolving style. Featuring Left Bank Paris in the 1920s and brutally realistic descriptions of bullfighting in Spain, the story is about the flamboyant Lady Brett Ashley and the hapless Jake Barnes. In an age of moral bankruptcy, spiritual dissolution, unrealized love, and vanishing illusions, this is the Lost Generation.

Review:

The Sun Also Rises: further evidence that you can hate a book’s plot, characters, and prose but still somehow like the book.

I was bored nearly every moment of reading this. Hemingway’s (in?)famous writing style is partially to blame. His sparse, almost juvenile prose is hollow, devoid of feeling or meaning. It’s irksome but also revelatory. Because you, the reader, become a partner in the creation of this story. You decide, using Hemingway’s elusive clues, why a character behaves a certain way. It’s quite empowering. Of course every book is an act of interpretation and creation on the part of the reader, but Hemingway does it better. He gives us so little that we are entirely at the reins of what this story means.

The writing style helps build the novel’s aimless narrative. Entire pages are devoted to traveling up one street, turning down another street, then another, stopping at a café, drinking, getting back in the car, going down one street, turning right, turning right again, then following that street to another café and another drink. But the aimlessness is truly finely planned. It captures the listlessness of the Lost Generation lifestyle while also showing that although meandering is the manner of transport, the people of this generation are going somewhere, it’s just not very clear where.

Finally there are some fantastic scenes in Pamplona, Spain at the annual San Fermin festival with the running of the bulls. Bullfighting and the fiestas are described very vividly, so much that you can see the beauty of them even if you disagree with them. Bullfighting is one of the novel’s best symbols. It’s this dangerous, even deadly activity that people do simply for fun. It seems ridiculous, downright idiotic but then you think of the wealthyish expat characters at the center of the novel. These people get drunk and have sex with each other and then ruin each other’s lives and for what? Fun, purportedly. Getting gored by a bull in the pursuit of fun is not so different from getting your heart broken while drinking copiously with your lover and her fiancée.

Apparently The Sun Also Rises is one of the first modernist works, one of the defining missives from the Lost Generation, and of course, it is Nobel Prize Winner Hemingway’s first novel, so there are three reasons to read it. But reasons schmeasons. I’d suggest you read it simply to be amazed at how much you can love it while simultaneously kinda hating it.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

46133Blurb:

Orlando has always been an outsider … His longing for passion, adventure and fulfilment takes him out of his own time.

Chasing a dream through the centuries, he bounds from Elizabethan England amd imperial Turkey to the modern world. Will he find happiness with the exotic Russian Princess Sasha?

Or is the dashing explorer Shelmerdine the ideal man? And what form will Orlando take on the journey – a nobleman, traveller, writer?

Man or … woman?

Review:

Orlando; or, The World’s Most Interesting Premise Wasted

Virginia Woolf has a wild premise for Orlando: a boy living in Elizabethan England does not die and somewhere near the middle of his life turns into a woman!

What a spectacular starting point for an author not only wanting to provide a good story but also wanting to describe the effects of time and gender on a person. Maybe Virginia Woolf did that. Other readers certainly think she did. I do not, however. Orlando is the huge waste of a premise.

I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take from this reading experience. Its most salient point was the immutability of the human spirit regardless of sex. For although Orlando must change her outward behavior to align with societal attitudes concerning gender, he/she remains steady throughout the text, mainly through his/her devotion to writing. I suppose I don’t find this point really profound. It’s been said before and it’s been said better.

My main problem, though, is the writing. I’ve read some of Woolf’s essays and short stories before and was impressed by her prose. In Orlando her writing choices confused me. Her prose lacks any emotion. I read this entire book utterly dispassionate to what was unfolding on the pages before me. For me, it read cold and surgical. It lacked any life. This detachment is exacerbated by the character of Orlando who is very aloof. Who is Orlando? Why should I care about her? Even when events upset Orlando—when the Russian princess leaves, when the critic insults his poem, when her lands and title are stripped from her—he/she continues on like before. Woolf might say, “Orlando was devastated,” but not once did I feel any of Orlando’s feelings.

It reminded me of reading a lab report. “Observe closely as our specimen, Orlando, male and aged 16, sits beneath the oak tree. [Six paragraphs of description about his surrounding environment] Now watch as he goes to the Queen’s Court [Nine paragraphs of description about his surrounding environment]…Now observe as he transforms into a woman [Sixty two paragraphs about 17th Century London]” And on and on.

Obviously I’m an outlier here. Most people are moved by Woolf’s writing and challenged by Orlando’s metamorphosis. For me a favorite book 1. makes me think 2. features a gripping story. Usually but not always in that order.

If I finish a book that accomplishes none of the above, I will be very unhappy. I just finished Orlando and I’m feeling very unhappy.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

17728Blurb:

First published in 1905, The House of Mirth shocked the New York society it so deftly chronicles, portraying the moral, social, and economic restraints on a woman who dared to claim the privileges of marriage without assuming the responsibilities. Lily Bart, beautiful, witty, and sophisticated, is accepted by “old money” and courted by the growing tribe of nouveaux riches. But as she nears 30, her foothold becomes precarious; a poor girl with expensive tastes, she needs a husband to preserve her social standing and to maintain her life in the luxury she has come to expect. While many have sought her, something—fastidiousness or integrity—prevents her from making a “suitable” match.

 

Review:

Love? Or money? You’ve read this story approximately 3,472 times before. But I encourage you to read it again.

Lily Bart, a Manhattan socialite at the beginning of the 20th century, must choose between love and money. It’s a seemingly tired plot, though truly it is not. Because nowadays the question is not love or money? The question is both please? in extra large quantities if possible? Somehow in the past hundred years, love and money have been concatenated. Simply consider recent trends: the greatest romance of the 2000s was that of Edward Cullen and Bella Swan, a romance that convinced many women to fight for it all—a man that can both capture your heart and wallpaper his 20,000 square foot mansion with dollar bills. Love is money; money is love.

But for Lily Bart, that is not so. It is a choice, a crucial choice, and not as easy as any romantic would make you believe. The most interesting part of the love/money dichotomy has always been what these choices represent. Love is not just throbbing hearts and flushed cheeks; love is morality and goodness. And money is not just an estate on Long Island, a mansion in Newport, an apartment on Fifth Avenue, and a yacht harbored at Monte Carlo; money is corruption and superficiality.

So Lily is actually choosing who she wants to be. And for her, that’s incredible. The fact that this impulse to consider love in a marriage still remains is impressive since her parents tried to beat it from her brain with silk dresses and fifteen course luncheons galore. But Lily is a deeply frustrating character. Wharton thwarts her at every turn; whenever it seems that she might recover, that she might make a good decision, she is thrown back to the wolves, that is, the shallow and noxious New York socialites. Her struggle for love, faith, and freedom figures heavily on fascinating gender dynamics. As a woman, her choices are already constrained, but she admirably works as hard as she can against the opposing forces. She’s heroic but far from a hero.

Lily is brilliantly characterized, which is no surprise since Wharton’s greatest strengths seem to be characterization and writing. Her writing is dense, every word placed so carefully in order to complicate these characters (For instance, this description of a tertiary character: …Young Silverton, who had meant to live on proof-reading and write an epic, and who now lived on his friends and had become critical of truffles and later, in a delightful dispatch of depressed youth, Ned Silverton was probably smoking the cigarette of young despair in his bedroom.) It’s hilariously pithy, especially about money: “I know there’s one thing vulgar about money, and that’s the thinking about it; and my wife would never have to demean herself in that way.” Wharton’s words require some sifting through, but they are beautiful.

Depending on interpretation, The House of Mirth answers, somewhat answers, and doesn’t answer the question of love or money. It’s romantic while being completely unromantic. If you read it, do tell me what you think of the ending. I still can’t decide what I think about it.

4 out of 5 stars