Sunday, February 26, 2012

I Begin by Cheating: Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Was this whole idea a mistake?  Did I think it would be easy, chewing through all those books I didn’t want to read in the first place?  Smelling of ought-and-should hasn’t improved them.  They're not just leftovers anymore; they're last week's boiled sprouts!  Maybe there's nothing wrong with them, but no one who sniffs the open container is going to have anything to do with them.

Clearly I needed an appetizer.  But this week's reading experience was more like being eaten than eating.  When I found my errant copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle during last week's packing frenzy, I was easy meat.  It pounced on me from its hiding place under the bookshelf, waving its lurid cover in my face.  I knew it was forbidden! I'd already read it once, and besides, I was supposed to be working. But it was so small . . . so perfect . . . so strange . . .  On top of that, Jonathan Lethem’s sympathetic article in Salon had been teasing me for years.  Is it my fault that I was devoured whole?  I read the first third right then, in the basement, in secret, surrounded by unfilled boxes.  Fellow readers, surely you sympathize.

Now I’m bursting with things to say about it, but can’t, lest I spoil the big reveal.  I am sufficiently punished. 

Merricat Blackwood, her sister Constance, and their frail Uncle Julian have lived in splendid isolation at the family estate for the last several years. The Blackwoods were never popular, but the town’s hatred finds new focus when most of the family is found dead of poison.  Now the remnant (one of whom is probably guilty of murder) can’t venture out without drawing taunts and stares. Protected by woods, barbed wire, and possibly witchcraft, they live in a world of their own—until Cousin Charles shows up to shatter their fragile equilibrium. The murder is unsettling, but it’s the rest of the story that’ll keep you up nights . . .   

Damn, I wish I could talk about this book more fully! But I’ll restrict myself to a few leading questions:

Why were the Blackwoods poisoned? Why were they so hated? Why was the doctor too late to save them? And who’s really responsible for their deaths? 

I'm off to eat my brussels sprouts.  Before they eat me. 

Friday, September 9, 2011

Shelves Full of Goats

"'Yes, and what a number of books I have, haven't I?' said Sylvester affably, closing the door.  'No, I have not, I believe, read them all.'" —Georgette Heyer, Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle

You know how it is. You go to a bookstore in search of something new. You are full of good intentions.  You will not overspend; you will not head for the same old genre authors; no, you will find that holy grail of avid readers, the thing you want to read next. 

After a pleasant hour of hunting and gathering, you cull your stack to two or three.  You head for the cashier, full of a sense of virtue at your restraint in replacing all those other delightful possibilities on the shelves.  But then—alas for your good intentions!—your eye falls on the very next book in that mystery series you adore, the one you've been waiting to read for months and months . . .

At home you reason with yourself.  Of course, after all that waiting, it is only fair that you should be allowed to read the mystery right now. After that you will read the next book, the one you went out for.  And, most likely, you do. That's where it all starts.

Because the third book—the one that wasn't next and wasn't the mystery—has been passed over.   It is not of your flock. It has  acquired a stink.  It is, in short, a goat. “Not that one,” you think, wrinkling your nose as your hand floats past its spine, “not today.”  So there it sits, until you remember almost nothing about it except that it's one of those books you just don't ever seem to feel like reading. Not reading that book begins to feel deliberate and clever.  "Oh, you've got Angle of Repose," someone will say.  "Yeah," you'll respond, feeling superior, "Stegner's not really my thing.  Too, I dunno, authentically-Western or something."

Still, when the time comes to purge your collection—at the very moment you should be separating the sheep from the goats—you pass over that same damned book. “I can’t get rid of that one,” you say to yourself. “It was supposed to be pretty good.” Persist in this behavior for a couple of decades and you have a multi-shelf problem on your hands. Ask me how I know.

So this winter, I’m going to catch up with myself.  I will read those goats of books. I will tell you what I think of them. Then, if I don’t just absolutely need them, I will give (yes, give) them away to any reader who makes a donation (in any amount) to the Kaukauna Public Library Fund. Details to follow.