Saturday, August 30, 2014

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Coffee shop reading (notice a previous blog post topic,
Code Name Verity,  in the background)
Author: Shirley Jackson

Category: This is the first time I’ve read this novel. I selected it because I wanted something short to read.

My thoughts: We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a creepy little story. I wanted to read this because it was short and a little different than some other books I have read lately. Back in college, I read the Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which was so unsettling to me that I had trouble sleeping the night I finished reading it. We Have Always Lived in the Castle isn’t quite as unsettling as The Haunting of Hill House, but it’s still pretty creepy.

The novel is narrated by 18-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood, who lives with her older sister Constance and infirm Uncle Julian. Six years prior, Mary Katherine and Constance’s parents, brother and aunt (Uncle Julian’s wife) died as a result of arsenic poisoning—the arsenic was in the sugar that the family sprinkled on their berries at dinner. Constance was tried for and acquitted of their deaths. Constance herself wasn’t poisoned because she didn’t ingest the sugar, Uncle Julian had very little sugar (which spared his life but rendered him handicapped), and young Mary Katherine wasn’t at the dinner table at all. The three of them live a very secluded existence in the house where the deaths happened and are the subject of a lot of speculation by the townspeople. Then their cousin Charles arrives and things get stranger for the Blackwoods.

The setup, if you will, of the family’s deaths, reminds me of the beginning of an episode of Law & Order. The children in the village have a crude little rhyme that they taunt Mary Katherine with when she enters the village, which is reminiscent of the one about Lizzie Borden. Like I said, the book is creepy. We eventually find out who put the arsenic in the sugar, and the answer is disturbing and…well, creepy. I’m not sure if I’ll read this book again. But I may try to read another Shirley Jackson novel at some point. She was a fine writer.

Great passage: 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 could have been 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.

Up next: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Off topic: Birmingham

At the end of July, I went to Birmingham (or B-ham, as the locals say) to visit my BFF. I hadn’t been to the state of Alabama in about 20 years (since the obligatory sixth grade trip to the space center in Huntsville), but I had never been to B-ham. And, to be honest, I had a some stereotypes about the city because of its brutal history. However, the city seems to be trying to atone for past atrocities. 

We went to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four young girls were killed in a bombing in 1963. The sweet folks at the church gave a small tour and showed a film to the groups who came to visit.

Across the street from the church is Kelly Ingram Park, which is has turned into a memorial of sorts to the people who were attacked during protests in 1963.

Vulcan Park and Museum was really cool. Fun fact: this statue was built in only seven months back in 1904.

Also, we ate really good food. This is from a lovely place called Taco Mama. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014


Author: Jane Austen

Category: I was inspired to read this after I saw The Jane Austen Book Club

My thoughts: First, I’ll say that the reason for the long amount of time between posts is that your humble blogger has been really busy lately. So sorry. Now, about Persuasion…
Perhaps another reason for the long amount of time between posts is the fact that Persuasion isn’t a quick read. At least it wasn't for me. Reading this book was like reading The Portrait of a Lady . I liked it, and Persuasion has that sly Jane Austen humor in ample supply, but it was a slow process.

The main character of Persuasion is Anne Elliot, a young woman in her late 20s. Several years prior, Anne was in love with a man named Frederick Wentworth. But her friend Lady Russell convinced her to end the relationship. During the time the story is set, we find Anne Elliot still single, surrounded by horrible family members. Then Frederick Wentworth comes back into her orbit. But he’s now Captain Wentworth—and wealthy (those Napoleonic Wars created a lot of heroes and millionaires). And a newly acquired title and cash are like catnip to the ladies in Anne’s social circle. Anne realizes that she still has feelings for him. But he’s not so keen on her, for obvious reasons.

Relationships and the circumstances that bring them to fruition are a funny thing. This novel highlights the complexities of relationships, romantic and otherwise. Lady Russell gives Anne bad advice with the best of intentions. This reminds me a little of Washington SquareThat advice resulted in heartbreak, but Lady Russell obviously cares about Anne more than members of Anne’s own family. Anne’s father and sisters, Sir Walter Elliot, Elizabeth, and Mary, are all half crazy.

Now, one thing I noticed about Persuasion is that it doesn’t seem to get a lot of love. I went to the library to check it out, and I believe there are only two copies at the main branch of the library. That’s just wrong. There are more copies of Northanger Abbey than of Persuasion, which I thought was peculiar because I have always heard that Northanger Abbey was the least popular Austen novel (it’s one that I didn’t finish reading when I was in college).

Great passage: Mr. Elliot was rational, discreet, polished, −but he was not open. There was never any burst of feeling, and warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others. This, to Anne, was decided imperfection. Her early impressions were incurable. She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others. Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still. She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped.

Up next: Respect Yourself 

Off topic: Walking in Memphis

I'm pretty smitten with my hometown. And I really love old buildings. Here are some interesting ones I've seen lately. 
The Chisca Hotel
The Chisca Hotel was in danger of being torn down, but is now going to be renovated. It's a beautiful old building.

Melrose School

The old Melrose building is in the Orange Mound neighborhood of Memphis. Apparently there's an awesome staircase inside. 
The Pontotoc Hotel
This may not look like much, but I bet a lot of interesting things went on here. I heard that people who performed at the nearby Orpheum Theatre used to stay here. 
Damn Right
Ok, this isn't an old building--it is, however, a supercool mural in Memphis' Soulsville neighborhood.

Happy Sunday!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Code Name Verity

Books and chocolate=Phenomenal duo.
Author: Elizabeth Wein

Category: I saw this book lying around my teenage cousin’s room for weeks. It looked intriguing, so I asked her if I could borrow it (I feel as though I made her become a reader, so it’s fitting that now I’m borrowing books from her).

My thoughts: Oh my goodness. What a great read! This book was marketed to teens, but it’s one of those books that I feel like should be marketed to adults. And it made me cry. And not just a single tear—I actually sobbed (at the time, I was in the safety of my own apartment, and not in public, thankfully). So, dear reader, do not expect a happy experience with this book. But it is well worth picking up.

Code Name Verity begins with a confession. During World War II, in occupied France, a British spy for the Special Operations Executive has been caught by the Gestapo and is imprisoned in a former hotel that they are using as their headquarters. The officer in charge of the “interrogations” (perhaps I should call it what it is—torture) Captain von Linden, gives her paper on which to write her story, including details of the British war effort. And thus we get the story of the strong friendship between our imprisoned spy, nicknamed Queenie, and Maddie Brodatt, a young female pilot. It was Maddie who flew Queenie to France in the first place.

As I said before, this novel involves some torture. And the torture scenes are quite graphic. These moments were difficult to read, but I feel as though they are necessary. You can’t have a book about a World War II prison without the ugly aspects, and such things happened to real people. Like The Book Thief, I love that Code Name Verity highlights the bravery of those who resisted the Nazis. People like Queenie (we eventually get her real name, but why spoil the surprise) and the French Resistance fighters rebelled against Nazi occupation—even though it could, at the very least, cost them their lives. They remind me of the civil rights workers in Coming of Age in Mississippi—other young people who decided to fight against unjust systems (some of whom died in the process). But Code Name Verity also highlights the fact that so many people got caught up in the whole Nazi machine, and this led them to do despicable, horrid things.

There are several references to Peter Pan and Macbeth (Queenie, as she reminds everyone, is a Scot, and woe betide anyone who calls her English). Also, there’s a reference to Admiral Horatio Nelson’s last words (“Kiss me, Hardy”). I have to admit, as an American, I’m only vaguely familiar with Admiral Nelson. Also, the friendship in this book reminds me the one in my first magical reading experience, the book that made me really fall in love with reading—Charlotte’s Web. That book depicted a strong friendship between two characters from different backgrounds. I don’t want to give too much of the plot of Code Name Verity away, because it takes some interesting turns. I kept having to turn back to previous pages and reread passages that were clues I’d missed the first time (I didn’t even know they were clues). Just read the book, and you’ll see what I mean.

Great passage: You know, I envied her. I envied her the simplicity of her work, the spiritual cleanness of it—Fly the plane, Maddie. That was all she had to do. There was no guilt, no moral dilemma, no argument or anguish—danger, yes, but she always knew what she was facing. And I envied that she had chosen her work herself and was doing what she wanted to do. I don’t suppose I had any idea what I “wanted” and so I was chosen, not choosing. There’s glory and honor in being chosen. But not much room for free will.

Up next: Persuasion—because I need to read something slightly cheerful. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Book Thief

There's nothing like a good book.
Author: Markus Zusak

Category: Last December, I saw the movie version of this book. I thought it was pretty good, so I decided to read the book—because, as a general rule, the book is always better than the movie.

My thoughts: The book is definitely better than the movie! This was a really good book. In fact, the ending of The Book Thief almost made me cry (the only thing that prevented me from actually crying was the fact that I was in public when I finished reading it). The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, and is narrated by Death. And during the time period during which the book is set, World War II Germany, Death was very busy. The book begins with the journey of Liesel, her mother, and her brother by train. Her mother is forced by circumstances of the time to send her children to be cared for by another family. On the way to meet the family, the Hubermans, Liesel’s brother dies. When they bury him, Liesel commits her first act of book theft—The Gravedigger’s Handbook. There’s a problem, though—Liesel can’t read.

Liesel comes to live with the Hubermans—kind accordion player Hans and stern Rose—in Molching, Germany. With the help of Hans Huberman, Liesel learns to read and comes to love words. But things are changing in Germany. There are book burnings, and Liesel and her friend Rudy Steiner are forced to join the Hilter Youth and its female equivalent (the former for Rudy, the latter for Liesel). Then the Hubermans decide to hide a Jew, fist fighter Max Vandenburg, whose father fought in World War I with Hans, in their basement. This understandably brings some tense moments in the novel. A word, however, about Rudy: he was known in Molching for the “Jesse Owens incident,” in which he darkened his skin with charcoal and pretended to race like the track star, whom he idolized. There are several lovable figures in The Book Thief, but I liked Rudy the best.

The Book Thief demonstrates that not every German citizen followed the Adolf Hitler/Joseph Goebbels propaganda machine blindly. But we, the reader, see what happens when a German citizen tries to help Jews—Hans Huberman is whipped for giving food to an elderly Jewish gentleman who is being marched with other Jews to Dachau concentration camp. I like The Book Thief because it stresses the importance of books, words, and reading. When Liesel first comes to live with the Hubermans, she cannot read. Hans patiently teaches her to read, and a whole new world is opened up to her. This is contrasted with the fact that words are used to manipulate almost an entire country to hate Jews and other non-Aryans. During stays in air-raid shelters, Liesel reads to her neighbors. This has a calming effect on everyone. Reading and words tend to bring the community together in this book. That happens in real life too—and it’s a beautiful thing.

Great passage: They’re strange, those wars.

Full of blood and violence—but also full of stories that are equally difficult to fathom. “It’s true,” people will mutter. “I don’t care if you don’t believe me. It was that fox who saved my life,” or, “They died on either side of me and I was left standing there, the only one without a bullet between my eyes. Why me? Why me and not them?”

Hans Huberman’s story was a little like that. When I found it within the book thief’s words, I realized that we passed each other once in a while during that period, though neither of us scheduled a meeting. Personally, I had a lot of work to do. As for Hans, I think he was doing his best to avoid me.

Up next: Code Name Verity

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Custom of the Country Revisited

I began to read The Best of Everything, but then I lost interest. And then I thought I’d revisit The Custom of the Country. I felt like I needed a little Undine Spragg in my life. And I wanted to write about The Custom of the Country again, because I feel as though I can express my love for this book better than when I first started my humble little blog.

I’m not sure that I even wrote what The Custom of the Country was about in my first post. Well, here goes: The novel is set, at the beginning, in post-Civil War New York. Young and beautiful (and extremely ambitious) Undine Spragg persuaded her parents to move there from Apex, Kansas, in order for her, Undine, to achieve social success. However, it’s not easy to break into the insular world of New York society. But Undine is nothing if not determined, and after some shrewd moves, she marries Ralph Marvell, a member of one of the old New York families. And that’s where things get interesting. Undine Spragg is the kind of person who has unrepentant ambition, and uses marriage as a substitute of business success that, because she is female, is off limits to her at the time. If Undine Spragg were around today, and actually able to use her mind in a public arena, she’d probably be like Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer or Sheryl Sandberg.

I like to think of The Custom of the Country, The Age of Innocence, and The House of Mirth as Wharton’s trifecta of perfect fiction. I mentioned before that Undine Spragg was a foil for Lily Bart from The House of Mirth. It’s true. Whereas Lily Bart was passive, Undine Spragg was very active. Undine Spragg didn’t let setbacks stand in the way of reaching her goals (and, without being too telling, this is why I needed a little Undine Spragg in my life). I think Lily Bart should have fought back against those who were out to get her. If only Lily Bart had Undine’s spunk…but then again, I must remember that these are fictional characters!

While rereading this book, I realized how the novel really ties together a lot of what I’ve read and seen since I started this blog. Eve Harrington from All About Eve is reminiscent of Undine Spragg. Eve elbows her way into the theater world in the same way that Undine Spragg fights her way into New York society. Both women are shrewd and calculating, although Eve is portrayed as more of a villain than Undine Spragg. I also mentioned in my original TCOTC post that Undine is a bit like Michael Corleone from The Godfather. Both are ruthless when it comes to getting what they want. There’s a line from The Godfather Part II, said to Michael by his wife, that I think also applies to Undine: “I suppose I always knew you were too smart to let any of them ever beat you.” Undine Spragg is also like Cleo Judson from The Living Is Easy. Both women are cunning and, though they are mothers, they are not very maternal. And they like to get shit done and don’t mind stepping on a few feelings to do it.

Also, I love how The Custom of the Country is pretty funny. I think it’s great how Edith Wharton, who was such a classy writer and a paragon of American literature, could be humorous. I believe that the subjects and themes Edith Wharton wrote about are universal, despite being set in a rarefied world. That is why I love her so much. And because she wrote a sentence like this: “Where had she seen before this grotesque saurian head, with eye-lids as thick as lips and lips as thick as ear-lobes?” Love it.

Great passage: Undine, hitherto, had found more benefits than drawbacks in her marriage but now the tie began to gall. It was hard to be criticized for every grasp at opportunity by a man so avowedly unable to do the reaching for her! Ralph had gone into business to make more money for her; but it was plain that the “more” would never be much, and that he would not achieve the quick rise to affluence which was man’s natural tribute to woman’s merits. Undine felt herself trapped, deceived; and it was intolerable that the agent of her disillusionment should presume to be the critic of her conduct.

Up next: The Book Thief