“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

American movie adaptation of The Dinner by Herman Koch

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“Is this reality, the final reality, or just a new deceptive dream?”

kingqueenVladimir Nabokov’s King, Queen, Knave was our Brown Baggers choice for September. It features, not surprisingly, three main characters – head of household Dreyer, bitter wife Martha, and impressionable youth Franz. Readers agreed that not a single one of these characters was sympathetic. They are extremely superficial and had a significant lack of moral bearing. Both Dreyer and Martha engage in affairs (Martha’s being with Franz), perhaps because it’s expected of them –  one of the many accepted activities in their social class. Martha and Franz spend much of the book plotting Dreyer’s murder. Dreyer has a myopic, some considered jovial, view of the world that doesn’t lead him to heavily involve himself in the life of others, including his wife. Manipulation and greed were par for the course, and readers suggested the drive to murder and cheat might be a result of the characters’ staid lives and a need for more excitement. While the mystery of would they or won’t they kept the pages turning, most readers were just glad to reach an ending and didn’t have strong feelings as to what became of these characters, especially as the ending was not entirely fair to some of the characters.

Aside from the characters, Nabokov’s writing, especially his description and language, were praised. Readers were also entranced by his ability to paint a fever dream of surreality, notably when Franz experiences Berlin without his glasses, and later when he starts to come unhinged from the pressure to commit murder from Martha. Nabokov also employs seamless transitions between one character’s story line and actions and another which was impressive. The author relied heavily on metaphor – including a whole automannequin (robot) sequence that emphasized the robotic nature and actions of the main characters, especially Franz doing whatever Martha told him, and also served to symbolize the growing Nazi following in Germany at that time. Another metaphor was the repeated mentions of the film King, Queen, Knave which readers took as a metaphor for the dramatic and theatrical lives the characters were leading.

Those who had read Nabokov’s other works, like Lolita, and other noted Russian authors, found this book to be less intense and introspective than those. The internal lives and extended internal dialog of characters was not found here.

More Information:
Author who inspired Nabokov – H.G. Wells
A few of the authors inspired by Nabokov – Thomas Pynchon, Jhumpa Lahiri, John Banville
Paris Review interview with Nabokov (1967)
Excerpt from James Mossman interview with Nabokov (1969)


Similar Books:
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink – This former Brown Baggers choice about an older woman-teen boy affair came to mind when reading the Martha-Franz relationship.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters – This former Brown Baggers choice about a death and the subsequent cover up matched the intrigue of this book.

The next Brown Baggers meeting will be October 20. We’ll be reading Gray Mountain by John Grisham.