Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Summer of Houses: White is for Witching

 


My second read for my summer of houses reading project is Helen Oyeyemi’s White is For Witching. As I mentioned in my previous post, Oyeyemi’s writing has been compared to Shirley Jackson’s, and for the gothic tone and the way she builds an eerie sense of uneasiness and foreboding, I would agree. Yet this novel is less straightforward than The Haunting of Hill House; it’s circular in structure and at times it’s difficult to gain footing in the narrative. The writing is trancelike, lulling the reader in, and our guides are unreliable on many levels. But where Hill House follows a linear trajectory that repeats wording from the beginning at the finish, and draws to close with the characters firmly ending their association with that house, White is for Witching feels like it leaves off where it starts, with each character tied by tangible or intangible tethers to the place where the trouble began—or at least, the space within four walls where they experienced it.

Oyeyemi’s novel tells the story of the Silver family house in Dover, England, and the four generations of women who have lived there. Our main character is Miranda, or Miri, who has moved to the house her mother, Lily, inherited, when her father decides the family should return to live there and turn it into a bed and breakfast. Miri and her twin brother, Eliot, are ten, and their first glimpse of the house is innocuous:

“Our new house had two big brown grids of windows with a row of brick in between each grid. No windows for the attic. From the outside the windows didn’t look as if they could be opened, they didn’t look as if they were there to let air or light in, they were funny square eyes, friendly, tired.”

Sounds nice! But soon, reader is told of the steps leading up to the house, which “bulged with fist-sized lumps of grey-white flint, each piece a knife to cut your knee should you slip.” Out in the garden, there is an Andersen shelter for air raids, and another shelter under a trapdoor in the floor of the sitting room. As they tour their new home, Eliot calls it a “wicked house,” and Miri thinks it’s “magic;” from that moment, we know their ensuing experiences will dramatically diverge.

“Miri’s room was darker than mine, even before she took to keeping her curtains drawn at all times and Lily started calling her room ‘the psychomantium.’”


Now, if you’re like me and can tell this isn’t a good sign but have to look up things like “Andersen shelter” and “psychomantium,” I give you this: “A psychomanteum is a room set aside with a chair, dim lighting, and an angled mirror, for communication with those who have died.”

So it’s Miri who is most affected by the house. She, and her mother before her, and her mother, Jennifer, and her mother, Miranda’s great-grandmother, Anna. And the house tells the reader much of the history of the previous generations. Those four POVs I mentioned? One is the house itself, and it speaks in an authoritative but often meandering way. From the start, the Silver house claims a sense of power over the proceedings within. And like the other POVs in the novel—Miri’s, Eliot’s, and Miri’s lover, Ore—we often don’t know how much to trust anyone (or thing).

Especially Miri, and her perspective. When the present action of the story begins, she has just been discharged from a “clinic.” She is dangerously thin and has a condition called pica, which I’d wager appears much more in novels than it does in real life, but which certainly does lend a creepy aura. Miri struggles with eating and her condition means that she eats things that aren’t food, like plastic and chalk.

“Miranda had been admitted to the clinic because one morning Eliot had found her wordless and thoughtful. It had been a long night, a perfect full moon tugging the sky around it into clumsy wrinkles. Miranda had been bleeding slightly from the scalp and her wrists were bound together with extreme dexterity and thin braids of her own hair.”

We’re aware of the presence of something, someone, in the house, in addition to the immediate Silver family. How would Miri have bound her own wrists? Are the visions she sees real, or part of the reason for her visit to the clinic?

I will admit, I struggled with the novel at first. These shifting perspectives, in which you are doubting veracity, timeframe, the intrusion of sinister, non-human forces, and sanity itself—well, it could be hard to follow what was happening sometimes. And I suppose what I’m about to say makes a certain sense… but the house doesn’t always communicate clearly. Here’s a passage from the house POV:

“But Anna Good couldn’t hear me. When she closed me up again it was only because she was too cold. Most nights she went with the moon, and when it was round she stayed in my biggest bedroom and wouldn’t answer the

thing that asked her to let it out

(let you out from where?

let me out from the small, the hot, the take me out of the fire i am ready i am hard like the stones you ate, bitter like those husks)”

I grew to like the sections from the house’s perspective; key information was relayed, albeit in this often ambiguous way. When Miri leaves for Cambridge at the close of Part One, I was worried about the loss of this POV. But this is when Ore’s perspective crystallizes, in Part Two, titled “And Curiouser.” And this is, in fact, when I feel the novel reached its peak pace and heightened interest. To this point, we have always doubted Miri’s thoughts, but this is when the story of her and her family seems to fade under the presence of bigger, dark forces. Just what/who is Ore? What is the nature of her relationship with Miri, and how does this new connection factor into the story of the Silver family? And who, exactly, is stabbing people at Cambridge? One concentric pattern emerges when Ore comes back to see Miri at the house.

“I took the stairs—Miranda had told me that it was only a flight up to hers and Eliot’s rooms. It seemed more like four. But in an unfamiliar house, when you’re uncertain where you’re going, every movement is prolonged by the sense that you’re going to try the wrong door or get in someone’s way.”

Through Ore’s perspective, we, too, recenter and reassess the situation with the Silver family in that old house. I wish I could say that everything becomes clear at this point, but White is for Witching is the type of book you’d probably do well to pick up right when you finish and give it a second go. It’s a moody, scintillating and, at times—challenging read. Oyeyemi’s novel fully fills my criteria for my summer reading project, because the Silver house-turned-bed-and-breakfast is a force to be reckoned with in this unique, startlingly written novel.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Summer of Houses: The Haunting of Hill House

 


Reading a book that scores of people rave about always comes with a sense of anticipation. At least, it does for me, because I’m of the mind that scores of people usually aren’t entirely wrong. Even if I don’t end up raving about the book myself, I usually find some reasons for the mass appeal.

In the case of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, I find myself among the ravers. What Jackson does with characterization, with point of view, with mood—is simply masterful.

Four strangers arrive at an old, creepy house, one at a time. Three have been enlisted by Dr. Montague, an occult scholar, to help identify evidence of the supernatural in Hill House, which has a tragic past and has been the subject of rumors amongst the townspeople for decades. From the moment the house comes into view, it becomes a character with a sense of agency:

“This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity.” 

Throughout the story, the house continues to have a life and intent of its own. Noises rise from nowhere; doors close on their own accord. Part of its disregard for humanity lies in the construction itself. Dimensions are wrong (“the walls seemed always in one direction a fraction longer than the eye could endure”) and the floorplan is like a maze. Once our four protagonists are inside, they have a hard time finding their way around in this “masterpiece of architectural misdirection,” as Dr. Montague calls it. They constantly feel disoriented. These descriptions of the house, along with the convoluted things the characters think and say, keep the reader feeling as they do: confused and claustrophobic. How Jackson achieves this consistent mood, the lack of equilibrium the reader experiences—I have no idea. 

As for characterization, each of the four instantly inspire our interest and curiosity. Did I mention the wit and dry humor in this novel? Here is how two characters are introduced:

“Luke Sanderson was a liar. He was also a thief. His aunt, who was the owner of Hill House, was fond of pointing out that her nephew had the best education, the best clothes, the best taste, and the worst companions of anyone she had ever known.”

And

“Eleanor Vance was thirty-two years old when she came to Hill House. The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister. She disliked her brother-in-law and her five-year-old niece, and she had no friends.” 

Eleanor becomes our guide; it is through her point of view that we experience the unusual events of Hill House. But from the beginning, the reader can’t be sure about Eleanor. She is socially awkward and emotional. Constantly in her own head, Eleanor reprimands herself, makes up stories and recites maxims and lines from songs to herself. Another dimension arises with the appearance of the fourth main character, Theodora. With their alliterative names and similar ages, the two young women are meant to be presented in comparison to each other. Unlike Eleanora, who saw the invitation to Hill House as an escape from her life, Theodora arrives after a rash decision, with little thought. Or does she? The women establish a banter from the start, and their uneasy friendship leaves us wondering—as we wonder about the house—which way is up.

The characters settle in and being to explore the house and follow the strict dining routine set up by the housekeeper, another eccentric and eerie character, Mrs. Dudley. And as expected, strange things begin to happen. We aren’t sure of anything, especially the characters themselves, and the book escalates to a thrilling conclusion that seems completely expected and yet, I hadn’t fully seen it coming.

So, I’d say the raves are justified. It’s a great read, a book I finished in a few sittings and enjoyed from the first page to the last. The Haunting of Hill House requires a second reading, and perhaps a third, because Jackson has woven such an alluring and layered web. It is the perfect start to my Summer of Houses reading project, as it features what is perhaps one of the most famous literary houses, one that certainly demands attention in the story: 

“Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.”

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Summer Reading Project, 2021

 



Recently, I moved to a new home. Throughout my life, I have lived in close to two dozen dwellings; this latest is notable for being the first home purchased on my own. Houses matter quite a bit to some people, don’t they? Our sense of success and achievement, our identity, even a sense of inner peace—all can be influenced by the particular four walls we find ourselves within. To me, moving isn’t the dramatic affair it is for many. As I get older, the mechanics of it certainly have become more arduous but I’ve always enjoyed a new perspective, new surroundings. Having lived in so many homes, I find that some stand out and others fade from memory, and this isn’t always connected to the length of time spent in the place. Some homes have an unforgettable quality that plants them firmly in the consciousness, some are more beloved because of the events that occurred while living there, and some take on a dark hue for the same reason.

 

For some fiction writers, a story begins with setting, and houses often become a starting point. In creative writing, houses can be an important element, rising up to assert their presence alongside other, human characters. Perhaps you’re already thinking of a book that features a house as an ominous, reassuring, steadfast, or other type of entity. Here are some I won’t be reading this summer, either because I’ve already read them, or because I chose otherwise:

 

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Room by Emma Donoghue

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

The Past by Tessa Hadley

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

The Door by Magda Szabo

 

Yes, I know there are many more! These are some that were mentioned or occurred to me. Please do comment with your favorite books that feature a notable house. My first novel would certainly fall into this category, that story about a young couple sorting through the belongings inside an old, country house. And certainly my next novel, Starling (coming soon!), has much to say about homes and how they can comfort and confine.

 

What is my purpose for ruminating about houses in books? Faithful readers of this blog know that over the summer months, I become happily obsessed with a theme. Two years ago, I read books all about trees and last summer while we were shut down, I read books connected to France in some way. For 2021, my reading project will be Summer of Houses, books that feature a house as a key element. I have chosen four, which I’ll read in the order shown. As always, I welcome readers who would like to join in! My choices are:

 


The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

It could be said that my entire summer theme started here, with this well-known book I’ve never read! You may know it from the 2018 Netflix series, but if you don’t know the novel, join me in reading this classic written by a force of nature, Shirley Jackson. Published in 1959, it’s the story of four protagonists who arrive at Hill House, seeking evidence of its haunted nature. They get that, and much more.

 

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

The house in question in this 2009 novel is Silver House, a family home now converted to a bed-and-breakfast in Dover, England. The house has always been occupied by generations of Silver women like Miranda, who begins to suffer strange ailments after the death of her mother. The book is hailed as “boldly original, terrifying, and elegant,” and its author is often compared to Shirley Jackson so it’s the perfect follow-up to my first choice.

 

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

This book is a less obvious choice for my theme, but one that jumped out to me when scouring lists. Marya Morevna watches from the window of her upper middle-class home in Saint Petersburg as suitors arrive for her sisters. But the suitors are first birds who transform before her eyes into men. This 2011 novel combines the Russian fairy tale, "The Death of Koschei the Deathless," with the events and aftermath of the Russian Revolution, in what the publisher calls “a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death.” I’m very excited about this read.

 

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom

This memoir, winner of the 2019 National Book Award in Nonfiction, is ambitious in its scope: it spans one hundred years of the author’s family history and relationship to their home in New Orleans. The Yellow House magnifies a segment of the city unseen in tourist guides “to demonstrate how enduring drives of clan, pride, and familial love resist and defy erasure” through natural disasters, class inequality, and other challenges.

 

As always, I’ll be posting to report on my progress. In the meantime, enjoy your summer, your own reading choices for the warmer months, and the comfort of your current dwelling.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Stories and Memories, Flashes and Forms

 


When I wrote my second novel, Bellflower, I was thinking about the end of a life, making sense of events and memories. I had seen loved ones lose their sense of time and place. At the end of my grandmother's life, she sometimes thought my mother was her sister; once, she asked about a place she hadn’t been for decades. I was contemplating that phrase—"her life flashed before her eyes"—and imagining the flashes of memory that might be playing on the screen of my grandmother’s mind during those last weeks of her life.


Bellflower is a “novel-in-moments,” the story of three families told in interconnecting flashes from their lives. The method is not unlike a novel-in-stories, books like Olive Kitteridge and The Things They Carried, and a novel that was one of the fundamentals for me as a youngish undergraduate: Winesburg, Ohio. 


If life is but a series of moments we’ll remember in flashes near our end, why shouldn’t memoir take a variety of inconsistent forms? Reader, it does! And for the past several years, I’ve been seeking out both novels and memoirs that experiment with methods of storytelling. Often, the line between genres is blurry, or filtered through a questionable lens. As memory itself is. There are novels that seem to be hardly veiled autobiography, memoirs so considered in their creative approach that they seem only partially true. Writers attempting to make some sense of their own life (or to distill and express some of what they’ve experienced into a fictional story) stretch, process, and create, and the myriad of forms for memoirs (and novels) continues to expand like the colorful feathers of a peacock’s tail.

A few such books made my list of Favorite Reads, 2020—things like Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl, a memoir that imbues the natural world into Renkl’s mediations on life, love, and grief, and Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill, a novel that reads like a series of journal entries (basically, a memoir). But you can read about those at the link.


Here are some recent reads.


Constellations, by Sinead Gleason, is a study of the female body in general and specifically, it’s about Gleason’s body—illnesses, losses, and other physical changes and experiences. By telling the story of her corporeal self, she explores the intangibles of her "self."  The topics in this collection of essays  vary as much as the methods Gleason employs writing them. She writes about things like pregnancy and breastfeeding, leukemia and blood transfusions, hair and loss. Despite a lifetime of bodily trials, an appreciation for the body—with all of its imperfections—emerges.


Wife / Daughter / Self: A Memoir in Essays, by Beth Kephart, is bold where form is concerned, a read that feels very accurately like being dropped directly into someone’s consciousness. In sections that consider her relation to her husband and her widowed father, Kephart contemplates how these relationships have contributed to her life and development. Often, the result is unflinching. Uncomfortable questions are posed; self-doubt and questions remain as much as answers are found. There is little continuity in form from one section to the next and often, following the thread of Kephart’s thoughts requires a fair amount of effort. There are whole sections told in dialogue, lyrical passages brimming with visceral details, short, pointed revelations that sometimes feel apropos of nothing. As I said, it reads, perhaps, similar to how the mind functions: circuitry firing away, colors and light, flashes of a life.

 

The Suicide Index, by Joan Wickersham, is a memoir centered around the suicide committed by the author’s father. She recounts memories and attempts to make some sense of this incomprehensible loss. This searing look at a particular brand of grief is touching, contemplative, and strikes universal chords about love and loss.

 

Would you like more reading suggestions in this vein? Check out this recent Lithub post, "7 Autobiographies and Memoirs That Remind Us of the Messiness of Memory."


And watch this space for information about my summer reading project for 2021. Regular readers may recall that each summer, I choose a theme and build a reading list around it. Last summer, I read books tied together by association with France, and in 2019, I learned an awful lot about trees. Here's a hint about the focus of my reading for this summer, in the form of a quote from the first book I'll read:


"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are suppose, by some, to dream."


Monday, December 21, 2020

Favorite Reads, 2020

 

What can we say about 2020 that hasn’t been already said (and continues to be said, as we fight our way through the dregs of it)? Well, how about…I read more books this year! There’s one positive outcome. Through this endless expanse of homebound months, I read 44 books, up from 30 last year. In my finished pile this year: 29 novels, 4 short story collections, 5 memoirs, 3 poetry collections, and one autobiography. Last year, I said I wanted to read more biographies this year, which I did not do, and more young adult fiction, which—in part, thanks to my teaching job—I did. It should be noted that one of the books I read this year was a graphic novel, and I expect to have that as a new category in 2021, considering the eagerly anticipated stack on my shelf right now. I also expect to continue reading memoirs in the coming year, particularly those that experiment with form. From time to time, I work on my own strange-form memoir. And I’m beginning to formulate my summer reading project, which will have something to do with place as character—specifically, with houses. If you favor a book in which a house is one of the main characters, kindly send me your recommendation.

So many of the books I read in 2020 struck a deeply personal chord with me. Perhaps my antennae were open and receiving to emotionality during this unprecedented year; perhaps those were the type of reads that caught my eye and attention. In the end, it doesn’t matter. So many books were a balm for me this year. Of my ten favorite reads, most had some sort of autobiography or memoir element, whether it be direct, poetic, auto-fictional, or something else. As always, I enjoy reads that inspire contemplations about genre although in the end, it doesn’t really matter. Feeling in writing is what breaks through, at least for me. 

In no particular order, my favorite reads of the year:

 

 Glen Rock Book of the Dead by Marion Winik (2010)

After a discussion about writing memoir, my friend and colleague (thanks, Jessica!) said I would love this slim memoir, and I did. In chronological order throughout short chapters, Winik reminisces about people she has known who died. Each section is titled (i.e. The Eye Doctor, The Bon Vivant, The Graduate); some are people quite close to her and some are known through others. All left an imprint on her and as she writes about these losses, much more is revealed about Winik herself, life in general, and the times we live in. A unique, surprising—and ultimately, touching read.


Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill (2014)

This novel reads like a series of journal entries, short observations from the point of view of a mother, a wife. When the marriage falters due to an infidelity, she retraces the events of their relationship, trying to find a way forward. She talks about the isolation and fulfillment of motherhood, and about striving for a creative life amidst life’s demands. She notices patterns and brings up things she’s read and learned, all in a concentrated effort to make sense of life, her life. I loved this book. Like the best poetry, I often wanted to take my eyes from the page after reading a section and lean back, enjoying the ripples of association. Another unique, contemplative and beautiful read.


The Carrying by Ada Limón

How does one speak about poetry, about a collection that speaks to so many deep truths? In this stunning book of poems, Limon shows the range of human experience, the burdens and joys we carry from beginning to end. Maybe it’s best if I share my favorite.

After the Fire

You ever think you could cry so hard

that there’d be nothing left in you, like

how the wind shakes a tree in a storm

until every part of it is run through with

wind? I live in the low parts now, most

days a little hazy with fever and waiting

for the water to stop shivering out of the

body. Funny thing about grief, its hold

is so bright and determined like a flame,

like something almost worth living for.

 

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)

This National Book Award winner garnered many more accolades in the year it was released and it’s been on my shelf for some time. Written as a series of letters to his son that touch on the history of African Americans in this country, Coates describes his own life experiences within the framework of racial inequity. In describing what it’s been like for him to survive and make his way as a black man, he also he expresses his fears and hopes for his son. Toni Morrison called the book “required reading,” and CNN named it one of the most influential books of the decade. I only wish I had gotten to it sooner.

 

Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl (2019)

This captivating, introspective book marries grief with hope, and reminds us that humans exist within the folds of nature. Renkl has experienced many of the life changes we all experience: marriage, children, aging parents and loss. In chapters that alternate between memories of family stories, episodes of love and grief, and observations of the plant and animal life outside her back door, a narrative emerges: we are all part of the world, good and bad, bloom and decay, happiness and pain. For me, reading this book was akin to having your hand held. A wise, comforting, and beautifully written book.

 

Based on a True Story (2017) by Delphine de Vigan

The only end-of-year entry from my Summer of France reading (I wrote more about it here), this international bestseller is a surprising and wholly entertaining read. It’s fiction (or is it?), a suspenseful read that follows the friendship between Delphine (the character), who is a writer, and the mysterious woman who reemerges from her past (or has she?). The suspense lies, in part, in figuring out which parts are true, might be true, couldn’t be true. It’s a compelling read with a dark undercurrent. As I said, a great diversion for the elements of the story, but it managed to be an exploration of literature too, and how we determine what is true/real and what is fiction/imagined. And if you’ve been paying attention to the books on my 2020 list so far, you will know that this is a current exploration of mine as well.


The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (2018)

Another National Book Award winner (in this case, for Young People’s Literature), this novel-in-verse tells the story of Xiomara, an Afro-Latina teen who finds her voice through spoken word and poetry. Acevedo says she wrote the book to shed light on the experiences of girls who aren’t often the protagonists of novels. This coming-of-age story addresses religion, the first spark of sexuality, family pressures, and the powers of creative and self-expression. An engaging read, it’s beautifully crafted and packs much emotional resonance.

 

The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdoch (2018)

This middle grade novel takes place in the Middle Ages. Boy is a child who has survived the plague but lives in a village desiccated by not only disease, but generations of war as well. When a mysterious pilgrim arrives and chooses Boy to accompany him on a quest to collect the relics of St. Peter and return them to Rome, the adventure of his life begins. It’s a quest story, but so much more, because Boy has much to learn on this pilgrimage—about true spirituality and morality, about the bonds that join people, and about his own true nature. I loved this book for its unique setting, and for the surprising layers in this lovely story for young people.

 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2018)

The main character of this novel, Eleanor Oliphant, is somewhat of a misfit. Her social skills are questionable, she often says the wrong thing, and she doesn’t spend time with people all that much. When she meets Raymond, a similarly eccentric type, their relationship is the catalyst for her journey back into life and love. This book is funny and smart and full of unseen twists, introducing a character you will remember for a long time. It may seem strange for me to compare this book to the last one on my list—The Book of Boy—but it strikes me that they are similar in many ways. Both are about the redemption available when two unlikely hearts meet.

 

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (2019)

One of my most anticipated books in a long time, and now, one of my favorite reads of the year. Strout picks up the story of Olive Kitteridge, the character from her 2008 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel of the same name. When you love a book as much as I loved the first, you worry about a sequel living up to your expectations. In this case, I was not disappointed. Strout has a way of imbuing life’s ordinary events with gravitas—because, of course, it is exactly life’s most ordinary events that have the most impact. Like Eleanor Oliphant, Olive is a character who is as large as life, and Strout surrounds her with a cast who reveal themselves to be as people are: confounding and endlessly complicated but also, opportunities for warm connection.


Looking back over my list of the year, I would say that what all of these books—whether novel, memoir, or poetry—have in common are that they somehow, in some way, highlight the importance and redemption of human connection. Isn’t that what the best stories are about? I hope your year of reading sustained you somewhat through the challenges 2020 threw our way. As always, I’d love to hear about your favorite reads of the year!

 

 

"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka