Monday, January 28, 2019

Sounds: "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" by Shirley Jackson

Sounds: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, 1962, downloaded from Wisconsin Digital Library.

Lizzie Borden meets Grey Gardens.

My only previous experience with Jackson's work is a school reading of The Lottery. After a few recent online praises of Jackson's work over the years I figured to give this a try. My verdict: Meh. The story never really revved up for me. There was just a narration by the mentally ill narrator, Merricat. Spoilers await.

The story is Southern Gothic with a big, remote, and neglected house populated by a family of weirdos.  18-year-old Merricat, her older sister Constance, and elderly and disabled Uncle Julian live in the house. Everyone else in the family - both parents, a brother, and Julian's wife - died in a mass dinner  poisoning eight years ago.

Constance went on trial for the family's murder-by-arsenic and was acquitted. But, we all know Merricat did the deed before Jackson reveals the fact to us. Merricat is the only one to leave the house and she does so about once a week to venture into town for food and other supplies. Constance is agoraphobic and has not left the house or garden in years. Uncle Julian ate a non-fatal dose of the dinner arsenic and is now confined to a wheelchair and has dementia.

A cousin shows up one day, moves into the house, charms Constance, angers Merricat, and starts asking about the safe full of cash the family lives off of. Not much happens. The girls still have a few people from town who visit them. Merricate schemes to frighten away Cousin with magic words and rituals. Uncle Julian loves to talk about his dead brother, his dead wife, and the night of the deaths.

There is little action until the house partially burns down from a lit candle and a mob from town shows up with the fire department. The house still remains standing but Uncle Julian dies, Cousin leaves, and some neighbors start leaving food for the women. The women never leave the house again.

I suppose with psychological suspense you don't have to have much action. With Jackson still having a strong following 50 years after she died I figured to check with an expert and searched Crider's blog for his thoughts. Crider linked to a paperback collector who lists Merricat as "a practicing witch" and Uncle Julian as "deranged." Well...

First let's look at Merricat. Merricat tried to murder her family when she was 10-years-old. Motive is never discussed and I was left thinking she is murderously insane. Constance may have been intentionally spared - Constance skipped dinner after a row and was in her room that evening - but I'm not certain. Constance still acts like a ten-year-old. Her behavior of repeating certain words as a charm or laying out belongings in Cousin's room to ward him away are more the work of a superstitious child than a witch. She is overly attached to her older sister and hides out in forts along the river and the woods.

Secondly, Uncle Julian is losing his mind. That ongoing loss seems to be both dementia and PTSD. To me the word "deranged" makes him sound like a mad scientist.

I suppose there are plenty of PhD theses about Jackson and/or this novel. Go read those for deeper insights because I don't much care.

Leftover Comments:
1. Oh, hey, dig it. There is a 2018 film version. Crispin Glover is in the cast. How incredibly fitting.
2. Is there a straight line from Southern Gothic to B-movie horror flicks with a similar set-up? Or is it just Gothic to Southern Gothic to Hammer Films?

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Listened: Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Heard: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, 1908. I'm sure what year this audio version dates to seems to be 1996, Terry Jones directed an odd-looking adaptation that also released in 1996.

My father read this to my brother and I when I was in Kindergarten or first grade. I do not recall much about the story. I mainly remember sitting on the couch and my father smelling the new-ish book and commenting on it. He was wrong that book smelled weird and did for years afterward.

I enjoyed this story quite a bit. Anthropomorphic animals are almost always fun.

Mole is doing some spring cleaning in his subterranean home. He gets a sudden urge to leave. He digs his way out and excitedly starts trundling his way through the woods. At one point a a rabbit tries to stop Mole, demanding that Mole pay a road toll. Mole bustles past crying out, "Onion-sauce! Onion-sauce!"

After a short time Mole meets Rat. Rat is a water rat and very friendly. Rat invites Mole over to his place and Mole ends just staying there. Mole and Rat have some adventures. We meet the the feather-brained and self-important Toad who falls in love with dangerous motor cars. Somewhat grouchy Badger comes in and plays host to a lost More and Rat and later works to straighten out the misbehaving Toad.

Everything is in good fun with adventure and humor. According to the Internet Box Grahame retired from his job at ended up writing the stories he told his son years ago. I suppose these are the same as any other parent stories: you tell a somewhat silly tale and figure to throw in some talk about proper behavior.

Grahame either coined or popularized the phrase "there is nothing—absolute nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." I recall hearing another phrase that is still in use, but alas, I have forgotten it. 

--Oh! I just found it "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" I'm not sure if that originated with Grahame though. Look it up yourself.

1. When in grad school I had to do a research paper in my History of Children's Literature class. I chose artist and illustrator Arthur Rackham whose work and style are still unique and immediately recognizable after 100 years. Rackham was a perfectionist and was literally on his deathbed when he finished an illustration for Wind in the Willows by adding in the oarlocks on Rat's boat that Rackham forgot to draw on his first draft. Or, maybe it was the oars. 
2. I've not seen the Terry Jones film adaptation but the two minute trailer I saw online shows it to be fairly awful. I'll have to see if I can watch it through a streaming service.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Long: "Secret History" by Donna Tartt

Long: Secret History by Donna Tartt, 1992, Wisconsin Digital Library. Narrated by Tartt.

A loooong novel. 28 audio sections at approximately .75 hour each. The first Tartt novel I have read or heard and this one came out back in 1992. Tartt must have been a wunderkind when this appeared. She was about 29-years-old at the time.

The year of the setting is a bit vague. Many references made me think 1984 but late in the novel is a reference to Salman Rushdie. The fatwa for Rushdie's head was not until February, 1989. So, since this took place over a school year let's just say 1988-1989.

That school year takes place at Hampden College in New Hampshire (Vermont?). Hampden seems to be widely presumed as a stand-in for Bennington College in Vermont (New Hampshire?) where Tartt graduated. I don't know if Tartt has ever confirmed this. More importantly, it does not fucking matter. It's a novel. But, Tartt does pull in some actual history of Bennington into the story.

What is important is that small town California kid Richard liked the college's brochure, wanted to escape his family, and transfers his two years of community college credit into the land of preppy. Hampden College is well regarded for academics but is also a drop-off for the underachieving and intoxicated legacies of wealthy alumni. I was listening to this and couldn't help but think of Lisa Birnbach and Bret Easton Ellis.

Richard ends up joining a group of five Classics majors who study almost exclusively with the Classics Department's sole instructor, Julian. In fact, Richard has trouble getting Julian to admit Richard into Julian's classes. Richard studied Greek and Latin (maybe just Greek) at his previous school and was very, very keen on continuing. Richard succeeds in joining the program and slowly joins the very tight knit group.

Julian himself is loved by his few students. He has a somewhat mysterious background as a bon vivant among the jet set of Paris and other cities. Julian is also independently wealthy and the College does not have to pay him. This monetary advantage and Julian's popular reputation means Julian can run the Classics department almost independently of the College's administration.

The Classics students themselves - Richard, Charles, Henry, Francis, Bunny, Camilla - are the focus of the story. They have few courses outside Classics - Richard's only other class is French. They are mostly an insular group and don't socialize too much outside their circle. Henry and Francis have wealthy families and healthy monthly allowances. Charles and Camilla are fraternal twins and are not rich but certainly not poor. Richard fakes wealth with vague, fabricated stories of Hollywood connected parents. Bunny is a gregarious and oblivious dope whose wealthy family gives him zero bucks. Bunny's lack of cash drives him to his own death.

Beware of spoilers: the five core students have been keeping secrets from Richard. Although the six have together lazed away weekends at the country estate of Francis's wealthy relation.  But, over the past couple months the five others have had late night attempts at bacchanal. Maybe bacchanal means to you what it means to me: intoxication, sex, drugs, and throwing aside all morals and mores. To these devoted students of Ancient Greece bacchanal means a intoxicated ceremony to call Dionysus into human form. Ok. That's some intense devotion there, fellas. What's more, all the students but Bunny firmly believe in this ongoing project.

The bacchanal attempts were not successful and part of this the blame of Bunny The Oblivious Jackass and Nitwit. Bunny stops taking the attempts seriously so the rest of the group ditch him. When they try on their own one November evening the remaining four people succeed in entering a trance, running through the woods, and witnessing something following along with them. All this is fine and great and they're having a early A.M. pseudo-religious experience and running barefoot through the forest. Too bad that Henry had a little bit of a wig-out and bashed in the brain's of a farmer they stumbled upon. Oops.

Richard is let in on this secret by Henry as the second semester begins. Bunny quickly figures out by the behavior of Richard and a news article of the farmer's death that the four of them killed the farmer. Bunny is a talker and the four are worried. Bunny is also constantly broke and mooching and takes advantage of this by bleeding Henry of money. New clothing, dinners, booze, and a holiday trip to Italy paid off of Henry's trust allowance.

More things happen as the five conspire to murder the one. A drunken Bunny is pushed off a cliff. The five worry about police. The five worry about Julian finding out. The five tolerate a funeral with Bunny's asshole family.

Enough plot summary bullshit. Here are my thoughts.

1. Tartt takes forever to write her novels and the text is thick but very readable. Richard narrates with exact language. We get a description of Henry inscribing a line in the dirt with the ferrule of his umbrella. He wasn't just drawing in the dirt with an umbrella tip. What's more he was walking around with a fucking umbrella in February in Vermont. Which brings me to...
2. 1980s Preppy Central. Rich kids and wanna be kids from the East Coast practicing for elite adulthood.  They wear ties every day, never wear jeans, speak in a drawl, look down on others. They lounge at a country estate (literally an estate: big house, surrounding acres, a caretaker). Wealthy people with a trust fund allowance. A 1984 Bret Easton Ellis/Lisa Birnbach feel. (Which then brings unpleasant thoughts of Judge Kavanaugh.)
3. Goddamn. Tartt and Easton Ellis both attended Bennington College.
4. Double goddamn, Tartt actually dated Easton Ellis. Tartt was steeped in the middle of a preppie teapot.
5. There is a bit of slapstick humor in some of this. When everyone travels to see Bunny's family in Connecticut (or something) there is a humorous scene of furtive pot smoking at the house with mom Bunny's mother unaware.
6. I likely never would have tried one of Tartt's novels except she narrated True Grit. Tartt narrated this as well. The narration is kinda monotone and doll but I took that as a reflection of Richard.
7. The ending is a let down. A few more people end up dead by the end but the kicker is how Julian learns of the murders of the farmer and Bunny and just leaves the college and city. Julian refuses all contacts with the students. When Julian takes off his absence leaves a void for the students. The students are left adrift and missing their academic god. But, Tartt wrote this long story without putting much of Julian the Teacher in there.  Julian is written as more mystery than man. The mass of the plot was focused on the group of students much more than Julian and the classes. Julian's departure meant bupkis to me, the reader and internet blatherer.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Quit: "My Antonia" by Willa Cather

Quit: My Antonia by Willa Cather, 1918, Paper edition from 1977, 0395083567.

I read half this book and nothing happens. Nothing of interest anyway. 10-year-old-ish boy is orphaned and moves from Viriginia to his grandparents in Nebraska. Grandparents are nice and run a successful farm. Boy becomes friends with older Bohemian girl, Antonia, on neighboring farm. And then nothing else happens.

Even the suicide of the Bohemian father is kinda lame. The blizzard is lame. The new pony is lame. Selling the farm and moving into town is lame. It's all lame.The only bright spot is Cather's many descriptions of the terrain, the sky, the weather, the crops. But, unless you are a Nebraskan True Believer in the Church of Cather you're bored fucking solid.

You're bored but unwilling to quit the book because maybe - Maybe - something will happen. You've already dedicated the leisure time after all. But, the book is so boring you keep putting off doing any reading and are barely able to force yourself to open the book. Since you don't much like Nebraska anyway why are you even reading this? You're reminded off all those assholes and their Nebraska Football Will Never Be Beaten, Ever! gloating back in 1999.

The delicious schadenfreude of Nebraska's recent failures are not enough to overcome the lack of substance in this novel.

1. Garber's Honda-Kawasaki looks to still be in business. I took my 1980 Honda CB750C there for service a couple times. They had a 1976 or 1977 CB750F Super Sport there. That would have been a neat bike.