Monday, October 27, 2014

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle / Shirley Jackson
New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1991, c1962.
214 p.

This is one I just had to read, especially at this time of year. It's a spooky and wonderful story -- a tale of two sisters in a relationship that is first just a bit off... then a lot off.

Sisters Mary Katherine (Merricat) and Constance Blackwood live in a big old house on the outskirts of a small, Steven-King-like village of hostile inhabitants. The residents don't like Constance, or Merricat for that matter -- there's a rhyme that the children repeat:

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no,said Merricat, you'll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

This kind of taunting and hostility comes from fear of these Blackwood sisters: six years previously, the rest of the Blackwood family was murdered, with arsenic in the sugar bowl. Constance was charged with the crime, but not convicted, for lack of evidence. This hasn't stopped anyone from believing her guilty, however. The only two who escaped death were Merricat, 12 at the time, who had been sent to bed without supper (again), and Uncle Julian, who was disabled but not killed by the poisoning. He still lives with Constance and Merricat in the old Blackwood home.

Into this fragile balance comes Cousin Charles, who is convinced that there is a fortune to be had in the house. His cruel streak and his smarmy courting of Constance, trying to turn her against Uncle Julian and Merricat, both made me feel as if he was the true evil in this story. He is one nasty piece of work. But Merricat responds with equal vehemence to his behaviour.

This is a classic of New England gothic fiction. It is creepy, with mysteries and strangenesses embedded in the story. There are frightening outsiders, and violence. But it also has strong relationships and sisterly love, and an original vision, mostly based on Merricat's narration. 

I won't say too much about it, since reading it "fresh" is its own pleasure. I enjoyed this one -- it's short, and I read it all in one swoop during the recent Readathon. Reading it all at once it recommended; you can sink into this strange story and really get the feel for the characters and the ominous setting. Jackson had a particular ability to write stories like this, which are Gothic yet also maintain a sense of reality and of lightness. 

While I still prefer The Haunting of Hill House just a little bit more, I am glad I've also read this novel now, and one or the other would always be a great choice at this time of the year.

Further Reading

The Sister by Poppy Adams (published as The Behaviour of Moths in the UK) is similarly set in a creaky old family home, and features the relationship between two (older) sisters. The facts of the story only come together slowly, and so there's as much uncertainty about the true story of their past as there is in Jackson's story.

Ki Longfellow's Houdini Heart is a spooky, chilling read with a narrator whose edge of madness colours her perceptions... She tells her story from her current vantage point, alone in a room in an aging Vermont hotel, slowly filling in the truths of her tragic past. The reader will not want to put this book down until they figure out just what the heck is going on.

Monday, October 20, 2014

One Foolish Heart

One Foolish Heart / June Wilson
London: Hodder & Stoughton, c1948.
316 p.

I've had this one on the shelf forever, so decided to read it for the Readathon this year; it's also part of my Century of Books challenge. I knew I wanted to read it both because it's midcentury -- somehow I find reading from the late 40's to the 60's very odd and intriguing -- and because it covers the whole of a woman's life. I like stories that follow one character from youth to old age; sometimes they are great, sometimes not so much, but I am always interested in how it's done.

Plus, here is the first line of this novel:

It was in the autumn of 1863 that Selina was born; to be more precise, it was October 15th at three o'clock in the afternoon.

Since I dipped into it pre-Readathon to check it out, and it happened to be October 15 when I did so, I knew it was a good choice!

Anyhow, on to the book. Selina Campion is born, her mother dies, and she's brought up by a loving father, and a nursemaid, the same one who'd brought up her mother and will eventually bring up Selina's children as well. They are an English country family, and when Selina is nearly six they visit her grandfather in his home, Monksfield. For Selina, it's love at first sight -- not for her cranky grandfather but for Monksfield. And when she's 9, her grandfather dies and her father inherits. Selina moves to Monksfield and never leaves it afterward.

In order to stay at Monksfield, the one true love of her life, she has to make some hard decisions, and give up other things that she may have wanted. But her decision, once made at age 17, is never altered. The book then carries us through the remainder of Selina's life -- her marriage, her children, her distance from world events, her decisions on how to maintain and pass on Monksfield, and so forth. The book is about Monksfield and its past (and future) as much as it is about Selina herself.

One thing that I liked about the narrative was how the narrator was omniscient, looking back at this story from a current perspective. A chapter would begin with a list of what was happening in the world, but then narrow in on the individual, Selina, who was unaware of the undercurrents of world events that are so obvious to the present-day reader. It might have become a hokey effect, but it actually turned out to be quite charming overall. Selina's not always a charming person herself, but she is real, and she is definitely of her time. Her husband Paul is not so great; he has a few moments in the book in which he is shown to be a man of his times as well -- telling Selina what she can and can not do, insisting that he is the one that makes the decisions in this family, etc. It fits with the story, both in the time period in which it is set, and in the date that it was written. But as a reader today, I was irritated by Paul. Other characters, however, despite their quirks, didn't annoy me so much.

It's a sweeping story, across 80 years of a woman's life. It looks like a small, constrained life -- Selina doesn't do very much in the world but she is passionately connected to Monksfield and lets that passion shape her life. Yet in that small life, how much emotion, how much concern (and how much needlework -- Selina seems to be picking up her embroidery every five minutes in this book!) To Selina though, it is just life. As the author has one of the characters think near the end of the book:

I suppose it's like that -- you can never get far enough outside your own life to see it as a story, something that is romantic or tragic or strange. It goes along with you all the time and you don't know the pattern of it any more than you know the sound of your own voice.

This was a gentle read, a fairly straightforward one, with some nice elements; a touch of social history, some engaging characters, a beautiful Cotswolds setting, and enough dysfunction to keep it interesting! It's a light read but one that still kept me til the end, with enough quotable writing to satisfy me.

Further Reading:

For another English story focused on a motherless only child who becomes fascinated with a house, and that has elements of the war included, try Tryst by Elswyth Thane. It has the same quiet. omniscient style as this book, but with a bit more unexpected content...

If you're looking for another strong-willed child-to-girl-to-woman who is irrevocably linked to her house, read L.M. Montgomery's Pat of Silver Bush and its sequel Mistress Pat. Pat's decisions and choices in life as as controlled by Silver Bush as Selina's are by Monksfield. They are written within decades of one another, so still have some of the same tone in the telling as well.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Readathon: After Thoughts

So, I did The Readathon yesterday. And I had a great time. Honestly, it didn't feel that much different than a normal weekend, except that it went on a lot longer! I usually spend my Saturday with breakfast and tea and a few hours of reading. Then some more reading in the evening. So this was just a more sustained effort. And I was very pleasantly surprised than I was able to read until the wee hours, and made it to Hour 19.

This is how I did --

Finished 5 books!

  • Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf
  • One Foolish Heart by June Wilson
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  • Three-Legged Horse by Ann Hood
  • After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

And started 2 more that I want to finish right away:

  • Faith Fox by Jane Gardam
  • Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

And then I ate quite healthily too, with premade good food for breakfast and lunch, lots of tea, some healthy daytime snacks....then I crashed with pizza for dinner, and chocolate with more tea throughout the evening! It was very enjoyable though.

I was also pleased that I could blog and tweet along, and both discover and rediscover other bloggers and readers. Definitely worth giving this event a try even once, so if you're on the fence about the idea of reading for 24 hours, try this sometime -- it runs both in April and October so there are regular intervals to be thinking about it. I had a great time, and got some great books in. And isn't that what it is all about!

Readathon: Packing It In Update, Hour 19

Well, kids, it's been a great Readathon. Just like previous attempts, it seems that Hour 19 is where I hit the wall. I'm too cross-eyed to keep reading, but I must say that I've really loved my hyper-focus on reading for the past 19 hours. No guilt about neglecting everything else! My husband even got in on the act this afternoon with a few hours of reading alongside me, finishing up a Pynchon novel he's been working on.

I've had fun with the reading and with all of the online updates and postings that have been going on the whole time too. What a smoothly oiled machine this 24 Hour Readathon is -- thanks to all the organizers for the massive work you've all put into it.

Here is my final update, that makes me wish I could power through another few hours even while I give in...

Title of book(s) read since last update:

After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie by Jean Rhys -- completed
Faith Fox by Jane Gardam -- halfway done
Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym -- just begun

Number of books read since you started:

5 completed; 4 dipped into

Pages read since last update:

121 p.

Running total of pages read since you started:

1243 p.

Amount of time spent reading since last update:

1 h 45 min

Running total of time spent reading since you started

13 h 35 min


I'm really happy that I had the chance to join in with this massive reading project once again. I just can't make it for the whole 24 hours, but this was a pretty good run for me! Looking forward to checking in with everyone tomorrow for all the recaps. Good luck to anyone still going...

Readathon: Late Night Update

It's 1 a.m. here, making it Hour 17, I guess... the Readathon image above is just how I feel right now! I may finish off another book before I am through, but have certainly been enjoying whizzing through my reading list today. I've enjoyed what I've picked up, and have found some interesting connections between the books I've chosen -- lots of similar references even between books published in England in the 40's and American books from the 60's -- sisterly relationships, oddly similar marriages...many things that I'm sure I'll sort out once I'm done all of my reading for today.

But here's my current update.

Title of book(s) read since last update:

Three-Legged Horse by Ann Hood -- done
Faith Fox by Jane Gardam -- still working on

Number of books read since you started:

4 completed; 4 dipped into

Pages read since last update:

344 p.

Running total of pages read since you started:

1122 p.

Amount of time spent reading since last update:

3 h. 15 min.

Running total of time spent reading since you started

12 h. 50 min.


If you can find a book that really catches you so that you get really caught up in the storyline and don't watch the clock or jump online constantly, the time really flies! I've met some really interesting women so far today, and have a few more to follow up with. 

I've enjoyed feeling like I'm working away on a set list and "accomplishing" something, but fortunately I've also been entertained and amused by the good reading. On the other hand, I've read the first chapters of a couple of the books on my list and decided they weren't what I was looking for today. That's one reason I make such a huge stack of possible reading for an event like this. 

Just a while longer before I'll be too tired to go on. For now, a nice mug of hot chocolate and some Barbara Pym to finish things off!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Readathon: Mid-Event Update

Okay, it's already been 12 hours since this Readathon thing started...where did they go?? I spent the last four or five hours offline, lounging and reading with absolutely no distractions, except for the pizza that was brought to me to eat while reading... :) I had a great time with a few different books.

Title of book(s) read since last update:

One Foolish Heart by June Wilson (done)
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (done -- couldn't put it down!)
Bits of: Faith Fox by Jane Gardam & Three-Legged Horse by Ann Hood

Number of books read since you started:

3 completed; 3 dipped into

Pages read since last update:

442 p.

Running total of pages read since you started:

778 p.

Amount of time spent reading since last update:

5 h.

Running total of time spent reading since you started

9h 35 m.


This is a great day to read. Feel like I'm just getting started!

And here are my answers to the official
Mid-Event Survey

1. What are you reading right now?
Just starting Jane Gardam's Faith Fox and I really want to keep going. Great stuff.

2. How many books have you read so far?
Finished 3

3. What book are you most looking forward to for the second half of the Read-a-thon?
Hmm. Maybe my Barbara Pym that I have in reserve, since I know I'll love it

4. Have you had many interruptions? How did you deal with those?
Not really. But blogging/tweeting etc. turns into quite a lengthy interruption...but a fun one.. !

5. What surprises you most about the Read-a-thon, so far?
How FAST is is going!

Readathon: Hour 6 Update

Already the end of Hour 6? I just took a brief break to ingest some delicious soup & a bagel -- now back to the stacks to continue on with my reading...

Title of book(s) read since last update

Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf -- complete

One Foolish Heart by June Wilson -- half done
Leaving Mr. Mackenzie by Jean Rhys -- begun

Number of books read since you started

Finished 1
Started 2

Pages read since last update

166 p.

Running total of pages read since you started

336 p.

Amount of time spent reading since last update

2 h. 15 m.

Running total of time spent reading since you started

4 h. 35 m.


I've skipped between a few books in this last bout of reading, and am going to take a short break to refocus. I've been looking at the Readathon homepage and mini-challenges, and checking twitter, but I'll be offline for the next few hours as I settle in to read uninterruptedly -- my next update should have some larger numbers in it, I hope!

Since I'm having trouble commenting on any Wordpress blogs, I'm not leaving much evidence that I have visited -- but good luck to all my fellow Readathoners on WP, I have dropped by :)