“She murdered her entire family!”

5180ubrqqzlBooks on Tap read  We Have Always Lived in the Castle   by Shirley Jackson at  Champion Brewery on January 5. Starting at the ending, most attendees didn’t care for the novella. A few had read Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” but the majority had not read any of her works, especially her memoirs of raising her family. The revelation of the murderer at the end was not a surprise to half the readers and the other half agreed that it was obvious upon a re-read. A few readers were enthusiastic about the spooky tone while others failed to find a moral in the story. However, after learning more about Jackson’s own agoraphobia and ostracization, many readers appreciated the symbolism more.

And symbolism abounds. Taking her source material from a real-life crime in England, Jackson transposed the setting to her small-town Vermont and based the the sister protagonists on her own daughters’ characters. Indeed, the fictional sisters read like two sides of the same person. Child-like 18-year-old Mericat, her older sister Constance and their uncle Julian live isolated in a grand house outside of town. Dogged by rumors that Constance poisoned her parents, brother and Julian’s wife, the trio seldom receive visitors and Mericat is the only one to leave the grounds. Variously teased and shunned by the townsfolk, she resorts to  magical thinking and rituals to defend her property. Uncle Julian is supposedly working on a family history but repeatedly asks Constance if his memories are true. Along comes cousin Charles, whom the reader and Uncle Julian know is bad news, upending Mericats rituals and routines  and thawing Constance. Mericat’s reaction to Charles tightens the underlying tension until the house burns down (debatably Mericat’s fault) and the fire chief implicitly gives the gathered townspeople permission to ransack the once forbidden house. While the townspeople then react by bringing food and other gifts to the sisters, Mericat manifests their psychological barriers by enclosing them in the kitchen and blacking out the windows. The futility of their hiding and rituals is exposed by rain pouring into the kitchen and neighbors, formerly kept at bay, pouring onto the footpath along the house. One reader pointed out that this was Mericat’s use of the feminine power available to her, versus the masculine power of Charles. Another thought the towns’ reaction was analogous to society’s fear of young women’s potential and the impulse to cage them. We all discussed the fine line Mericat rode between insanity and eccentricity, the distancing her peculiarities forced on the narrative and  how much better the story would have been as a Young Adult movie franchise.

Finally, we wish founding member Emily best of luck in the new Vermont chapter of her life!

More Information:
About the author
Author biography
Other works
Joyce Carol Oates on Jackson in the New York Review of Books
Upcoming film adaptation
Previous stage adaptations

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“I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

xmasBooks on Tap read  “A Christmas Memory”  by Truman Capote at  Champion Brewery on December 1. The highly autobiographical short story was first published in Mademoiselle when Capote was 32. In it, the narrator recalls the excitement of preparing and distributing Christmas fruitcakes with an elderly relative when he was about six in Monroeville, Alabama (the setting of To Kill A Mockingbird, where Capote grew up with Harper Lee). Young Buddy and cognitively-impaired Sook form a bond in opposition to the other, “responsible” members of the family and only make the fruitcakes for their friends, strangers all. From the couple with the broken-down car to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, these friends form a chosen family, all of whom have shown more kindness to the pair than the family with whom they live. These friends see Buddy and Sook as capable. The two screw up their courage to ask intimidating bar owner Haha Jones to sell them a bottle of liquor. Touched by their vulnerability (or reluctant to count out the many pennies the pair earned by squashing files), Jones gives them the liquor in exchange for the promise of a fruitcake. While we never learn how the other recipients feel about their fruitcakes, we do know that Buddy and Sook are fiercely disappointed in all family gifts, except the kites they make for each other. They didn’t want prosaic underwear, they wanted the glamor of the Baptist windows and the rarity of satsumas (oranges, but translated as plums in a Japanese edition). Earlier, we read The Strange Library by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, who likes “A Christmas Memory” so much he translated it himself. At the end, the narrator describes the lasting effect his relationship with Sook had on him and the rootlessness her death caused him to feel. Many readers found the ending sad, but others thought it was the natural course of a full life and not tragic. All agreed that the ending saved the story from full-on sentimentality.

Everyone who came to the meeting (which was held shortly after the anniversary of Capote’s Black and White Ball) enjoyed the story. Most people had not read Capote’s other works, aside from In Cold Blood, but some looked forward to his appearances on Johnny Carson’s The Late Show and one actually saw Capote on Fire Island. Our readers responded to the evocative first-person storytelling that celebrated real life, despite the economic  hardships of the Great Depression and the ire of other members of the household. Buddy and Sook work hard for months to accumulate the funds they need to bake and mail the fruitcakes, each dime and piece of tin foil taking on outsized importance. We debated the sentimentality of the story, whether it romanticized a difficult time, but others were able to overlook that because of the beauty of the relationship between Buddy and Sook. We all agreed that short stories require a different talent to celebrate “a lifetime in 20 pages.”

More Information:
A Christmas Memory movie starring Geraldine Page, narrated by Truman Capote (partial)
A Christmas Memory starring Patty Duke
“A Christmas Memory” read by Truman Capote
Two short stories also featuring Buddy and Miss Sook
Truman Capote and Nanny Rumbley “Sook” photo
Author biography
Capote on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (minute 45.52)
Other works

Recommendations:
American movie adaptation of The Dinner by Herman Koch

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“Takes longer to read than the events depicted.”

the20dinner20-20finalBooks on Tap read The Dinner by Herman Koch at Champion Brewery on November 4.  A suspenseful novel told over the course of one evening from a single perspective by an unreliable narrator, it examines racism, mental health, parental influence, politics, self-deception and the self-satisfaction of the bourgeoisie. Paul (former history teacher), along with his wife Claire, meet his brother Serge (a politician under consideration for prime minister) and wife Babette for dinner in Amsterdam. The couples each have a teenage son whose crime has been captured on a security camera and is now online, although neither teen has been identified. Both sets of parents must now decided on a public course of action.

Paul’s unreliability as a narrator launched our discussion of the likeability of characters. Some readers found it hard to care because this family was so off-putting. However, others thought that the issues raised rendered likeability irrelevant.  Writing the novel as satire, Koch pushed the characters and situations so far past plausibility and reality to force the readers to examine their culpability in the ethical quandaries. The food descriptions, instead of dull interruptions, are signifiers of the characters pretensions, which may have been more original when the book was published in 2009.

Paul’s mental state colors the reader’s perception of events and motive. Paul claims to have been diagnosed with a mental illness that could have been passed to his teenage son, but refuses to read the results, further turning his back on reality. Would that diagnosis matter as much as the amoral environment in which Paul and Claire have raised him? Would Paul have taught him to be a bully regardless? Claire is just as willing to rationalize his brutal behavior and it is unclear if she is a Lady Macbeth-figure or if events truly spiral out of her control. Teenage boys can do terrible things in small groups without considering the consequences – Serge’s son goes along with Paul’s despite not being raised by a psychopath. As far as we know: the entire story could be a figment of Paul’s delusions, Serge may not be the ethical politician who offers to step down, Claire may not have bashed a glass into Serge’s face.

Koch’s craft and skill as a writer was respected. The ambiguity builds tension for the slow reveals, which kept some readers engaged during otherwise boring descriptions of the meal. We wondered to whom the Paul is relating his account and if Koch believes that his readers share Paul’s delusions (albeit on a smaller scale). A few book club members read the book twice, appreciating it more the second time, especially on audio, where any boring bits passed by faster. In all, The Dinner was a taut tale of (self) deception and responsibility.

More Information:
Author biography
Author interview
Other works

Recommendations:
Defending Jacob by William Landay
We Need to Talk about Kevin by  Lionel Shriver
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
Siracusa by Delia Ephron
The God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza

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Upcoming titles:
December 1:  “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote (pdf version)