Friday, 30 November 2012

Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Shirley Jackson

This is going to be one of those novels that stays with me for some time. Even as I was reading it spread out over a few sittings I could not stop thinking about it and trying to work out what it was that made me feel so uncomfortable. The novel tells the story of Constance and Merricat Blackwood, two sisters whose entire family (except their Uncle Julian) had been poisoned. Constance, the eldest, was acquitted for their murder but the scandal has completely cut them off from the village.

If anything, the novel is about routine, the delicacy of routine and the difficulty of maintaining routine in the face of significant change. It is aspects of this routine that make the novel so uncanny. Everyday activities, such as cooking, become something more. The relationship between the sisters, Constance the elder and Merricat the younger, resembles a basic sister relationship. Even the rules they live by, for example Merricat is not allowed to prepare food or handle knives, point to not much more than an over-protective sibling relationship. But there is always something there, more or less unsaid throughout, that unsettled me as I read it.

Merricat's narration is perhaps my favourite element of the novel. She twists everything whilst still consistently reporting on events and unabashedly explaining her feelings (she imagines walking on the bodies of the villagers).  She tends to repeat certain phrases and ideas. For example, she frequently comments 'I was chilled', usually as a response to her sister's actions. Although this is a relatively harmless phrase, I must admit I found this one of the most unsettling, mostly because it is so frequently repeated. Retrospectively (without giving any spoilers), the fact that Merricat was 'chilled' is even more chilling! I cannot see how anyone would not be caught under the spell of Merricat from the very first lines:

'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 our family is dead.'

Chilling, right?

Ultimately it is a twisted fairy tale with an equally twisted 'happy' ending as, after a violent climax which demonstrates to Constance the dangers of the outside world, Merricat gets exactly what she wants, that is, to live 'on the moon' with her sister.

In this Modern Classics edition there is a brilliant afterward by Joyce Carol Oates with some interesting facts about Jackson. It is certainly worth a read if you have this edition.

In a nutshell, this book is brilliant and I think would appeal to any reader, so, go read it. Meanwhile, off I trot to the bookshop to buy up all of Jackson's work. Any particular recommendations?


Literary Subscriptions

I'm the sort of person that likes to know what is going on in the world. By 'world' I don't mean the big wide world but more the literary world. To do this I spent a considerable amount of time on the guardian books website and reading various bookish magazines. On my kindle I have a subscription to the London Review of Books. I would much prefer to read it in actual magazine format but it is not the easiest to get hold of in deepest darkest Somerset. Plus, the kindle subscription is very handy. There is quite a range of articles, letters and poetry in this magazine and though some of the articles don't interest me at all, there is usually something that tickles my fancy (I particularly like their reviews of art exhibitions and opinion pieces). Whenever I pick up my kindle to read the London Review of Books I know I will always put it down having learnt something new.

My favorite literary magazine is the Literary Review, a monthly magazine that does exactly what it says on the tin. I love that it has a good selection of fiction and non-fiction reviews. Although, for someone like me who will buy anything anyone says is good, this magazine can be dangerous. I have book lists on my phone, in my diary and in various notebooks which invariably grow whenever I sit down to read the Review. I also wish it was longer or published more frequently because I get through it far too quickly. The reviews themselves are well written, insightful and engaging, unsuprisingly when you read the credentials of the contributors. Most reviews feel like a double whamy review and lesson (in a good way) as they are not basic 'buy this book/don't buy this book' pieces. Instead the writers talk around the subject whilst they subtly give their opinion.

I know for a fact that my parents have bought me a subscription to the Literary Review for Christmas as it arrived on my doorstep at the beginning of November. Such well organised parents.

Another kindle subscription I have that is dedicated to fiction instead of reviews is The First Line magazine. I love the concept of this: each issue is made up of stories which all use the same first line. Genius. It is wonderful to see the different directions each author takes, though I'm sure comparing their narrative choices would be an exercise in psychoanalysis. There is also usually a very entertaining essay from a contributor discussing their favourite first lines. None of this 'it was the best of times, it was the worst of times' cop-out rubbish, these contributors have really thought about what makes a brilliant and engaging first line. The First Line is released quarterly and costs 99p per month from amazon.

Moving away from the magazine subscriptions, I would adore a Persephone subscription (are you sensing a trend?) - a book a month for 6 or 12 months. Pure heaven.


Friday favourite #2

This week I have been loving...late night reading sessions

At the risk of sounding ridiculous, the last ten days have been some of the most stressful this year. Yes, even more stressful than the week before my dissertation deadline. Anyone who lives in England, particularly the South West, will know exactly what I am talking about: floods, really bad floods. My house is entirely surrounded by water; there are several large ponds and a stream running the perimeter. Usually this is pretty cool as it makes me feel like I'm on an island and as kids it was ideal for swimming opportunities. But now I am practically counting down the hours until I can up sticks and move to London. Ah wet-and-rainy-but-never-underwater-London. I spent the end of last week and the beginning of this one up to my knees in flood water that was streaming over the drive, the road, and the garden. Filling sandbags, building makeshift walls and completing the half-hourly 'flood-watch' have dominated my life in recent days. Although this has pretty much sucked for the most part, I have secretly been revelling in the chance to stay up late reading, happy in the knowledge that I have no choice but to stay awake reading until it stops raining (which has frequently been the early hours).

I first became obsessed with reading when I was in about year 7 and struggling with horrendous insomnia. Instead of lying there freaking myself out with my own imagination, I used to read. On bad nights for sleep but good nights for reading I could get through a couple of average sized teen reads. I read a lot of books. This last week has reminded me of how much I actually enjoy staying up late just reading a good book.

From now on I am going to let myself be a bit more reckless in my reading habits. No more putting down my book at a time I think is 'suitable'. No more denying myself the pleasure of reading and reading until I finish a brilliant book. Instead, I'm going to remind myself what it feels like to not want to sleep because the book I am reading is just that good.

Do you love pulling a reading all nighter?


Wednesday, 28 November 2012

An alarming lack of restraint

I am failing miserably at maintaining my book buying ban. Today I bought two books and they are amazing. Now, there are a number of factors which make this minor setback even more minor. These are that 1. both books are second hand, 2. they were very inexpensive, and 3. one is a classic Penguin/Pelican and the other a Persephone. So, essentially, to not buy these books would have been neglectful of my duties as a lit nerd.
Aren't they beautiful? I'm so pleased to add another Persephone book to my collection. It is my aim to eventually own the entire Persephone catalogue (this takes me to 7), but that is the subject of another post.

Whilst I know I should have exercised restraint, the temptation of these two books was just too great for my currently extremely stressed out mind to handle. Stuff comfort eating, I'm all about the comfort book buying. Also, I blame the bookshop for displaying the books so invitingly. Excuses, excuses...


Monday, 26 November 2012

The problem with being a lit nerd

Yesterday I finished a book. I know, I know, hardly a massive feat, this is a book blog after all. The trouble is, this book I have just finished was really good (review to follow), so now I'm stuck with finding something to read that won't leave me disappointed. Part of the problem is that I now have too much choice. My 'to be read' shelf is rapidly expanding as a result of my 'buy now, think later' philosophy.


This is one of my bookshelves. The top shelf horizontal books are standard adult fiction and literary fiction novels waiting to be read. Horizontal books on the second shelf are non-fiction books waiting to be chosen (except the little pile on the right which are waiting to be alphabetised (yes, I alphabetise like a pro)). So this is where I struggle. Which piece of wordy goodness do I pick up next?

Anyway, I eventually decided on The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles. Fingers crossed it's a goodun. Does anyone else struggle to decide what to read next because of an ever-expanding pile of books still waiting to be read?


Friday, 23 November 2012

Friday Favourite #1

Forgive me for the slightly dodgy title of this post, I'm tired and my brain is failing to be creative. As a lover of alliteration I could not pass up the opportunity to make a weekly favourites feature on a Friday. Every Friday I will share what bookishness I have been loving that week. So, without further ado, let's get cracking.

This week I am loving...bookshop browsing.

As it is the run up to Christmas, money is inevitably a bit tight. I have somewhat cruelly, therefore, put myself on a book ban. I am not to buy any books for myself until 2013 (so near, yet, so far). You will note the 'for myself'; this means that I still may buy books for other people rather than going completely cold-turkey. Still, it is a considerable struggle. In order to avoid the physical and emotional pain and emptiness that is an inevitable consequence of a book ban, I am spending rather a lot of time in bookshops sighing over books and writing down titles into my notebook. The temptation is very great and I may have slipped once (or twice), but I have determination on my side. In my town we have a Waterstones, an independent bookshop and an Oxfam bookshop, all of which are perfect for browsing. In Oxfam, particularly, I can get away with having a cheeky sniff of a book as I pretend to read a couple of pages (please say someone else does that and I am not just a book-smelling weirdo).

Anyway, this week I have been enjoying the comfort of being surrounded by books without the added stress of wondering how I'll pay for petrol if I buy just this one...

Do you like spending time browsing bookshops without the intention of buying? And, most importantly, do you like to smell the occasional book?


Thursday, 22 November 2012

Seven deadly sins of reading

So this is a tag I have seen floating around the BookTube community. I particularly like the video WordsofaReader made in case you're interested. I think this tag is brilliant so I thought I'd blog it (mostly because you would not want to see me on camera).

Greed - what is your most expensive and inexpensive book?
Most of the books I had to read for uni I bought from the amazon marketplace for about 1p and then paid postage, but the most inexpensive book I own that was also an amazing book stall find is the Virago edition of Sylvia Townsend Warner's diaries. It was about £2 from an open-air stall in London: bargain.

I have an amazingly beautiful RSC edition of the Complete Works of Shakespeare which cost me an arm and a leg. To make matters worse I don't even read from it as I have all the plays in seperate editions. It does make my shelves look pretty though.

Wrath - which author do you have a love/hate relationship with?
Easy one: Virginia Woolf. She is an absolute babe and To The Lighthouse is arguably one of my favourite novels, but sometimes I just feel like shouting 'spit it out!'

Gluttony - which book have you devoured over and over?
My list of books still to be read is so long I don't generally allow myself to re-read books. Saying that, Old Magic by Marianne Curley is a book I have always found time for since my first reading of it when it came out (FYI this is a rare appearance of YA/teen fiction).

Sloth - which book have you neglected due to laziness?
Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth. Shamefully, considering my obsession with WW1 literature.

Pride - which book do you talk about to sound intellectual?
I don't often brag about things I've read. I will occasionally chuck Freud out there or mention my dissertation topic, however.

Lust - what attributes do you find attractive in characters?
Give me the dark, brooding, slightly moody type any day. Why, hello, Mr Rochester.

Envy - what book would you most like to receive as a gift?
I have a wish list as tall as me but I would positively kill for the entire Persephone catalogue.


Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Welcome to literary paradise

Welcome to my little slice of the Internet which I intend to transform into a literature lover's dream. Yes, I have high hopes. Potentially too high, but a girl can (and will) dream. This blog will include everything and anything of the bookish variety although occasionally I may venture into the territory of my other loves (travel, music, running, film) if they ever intersect with books.

I hope you will enjoy perusing my bookshelves on the interwebz and will join in and chat. I love a good chat.

Ta ta for now
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