Monday, September 6, 2021

Summer of Houses: The Yellow House

 


“To be remembered is next to being loved” –Emily Dickinson

Often, we'll call books in a range of genres “love letters” to a place. Whether it’s memoir, poetry, fiction, or even travel writing, this term is used to describe writing that pays homage, fondly, to a specific point on the globe. 

And what is the best expression of love, if not being remembered, as so aptly expressed by perhaps one of our most sentimental poets, Ms. Dickinson. Places from our past can leave indelible impressions, especially when they were shared with the people and events that have shaped us. I wrote about my grandmother’s house once, and how—if I close my eyes—I can picture every detail of her house as if I was there last week. The proportions of the rooms, many of the details of things like carpet and cupboards and lamps, the quiet and fragrant stillness.

If remembering was a sport, perhaps Sarah M. Broom would be an Olympian. The Yellow House is her detailed, comprehensive love letter to the home where she spent her childhood. She remembers and remembers and remembers—every hiding place in the house, the “medium-size hole in the floorboard (of a bathroom) that will eventually become a large hole letting in more sound and outside creatures,” the smells, the holiday decorations: “gold garland around the door trim; shiny red paper on the front door, which served the dual purpose of keeping the draft out and hiding its ugly tan color.” We see the house through Broom’s eyes as she grows from childhood to adulthood, the magic along with the state of disrepair stemming from Hurricane Betsy, which made landfall forty years before Katrina.

“The plumbing was never right. We had buckets underneath the kitchen sink catching dishwater. The kitchen cabinets had big holes that led to the outside. Mom plugged those holes with foil after hearing somewhere that rates couldn’t chew through. And still they did.”

So the house is the thing, and in the introduction, she lets the reader know the significance of those four walls.

“Before it was the Yellow House, the only house I knew, it was a green house, the house my eleven siblings knew. The facts of the world before me inform, give shape and context to my own life. The Yellow House was witness to our lives. When it fell down, something in me burst.”

But Broom’s remembering isn’t confined to this building and its details. She remembers all who lived in it. She describes each of her siblings and their manner of speaking and dress. Throughout the memoir, she reaches for understanding and recollections of her father, who died when she was a baby. Often, she shares family photographs and describes what they are reflecting—things we can see, and things we can’t. She remembers events outside the walls of the Yellow House; this family history spans back one hundred years and takes into account the changes afoot in New Orleans, America, the world. As I said, it’s very comprehensive and at times, this avalanche of details feels heavy for the reader. But there's a lulling reverence to it as well, a power. In an interview for The Atlantic, Broom talked about the difficulties she had with publishers, because of this inclusiveness of topics and the breadth of memories:

“’The main complaint was that I needed to choose,’ … ‘that I was either going to write a book about New Orleans or a book about my family, but not both—which was so confounding to me that I couldn’t even process it.’" 

Broom’s memories start with the house, and everything is tied to it. How do we order memory, or separate, cleanly, one thing from another? For the author, place and people and events intertwine and stay that way. 

“I thought then and still think now: when a person dies in a place they become the place and nothing is ever the same again.”

Of course, Hurricane Katrina was for Broom’s family—as it was for many—a seismic, devastating event. The Yellow House is destroyed, and the family spreads out. Just as Broom’s mother, Ivory Mae, scraped and fought to keep “the only house I ever knew,” the author returns after Katrina and tries to get some reimbursement for the house, the ruins of which were hauled away without notice by the city.

My Summer of Houses reading project concludes with this gorgeous and accomplished memoir, which deserves every bit of the National Book Award it received. It’s a book that certainly presents a memorable and notable house, one that looms at the center of this author's story. The Yellow House is a a touching expression of love, an examination of the ways places can reach our very depths, clinging like vines on a wall, and surrounding everything.

 

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Summer of Houses: Deathless

 


      You enter here, in helmet and greatcoat,
Chasing after her, without a mask.
You, Ivanushka of the old tales,
What ails you today?
So much bitterness in your every word
So much darkness in your love
And why does this stream of blood
Disturb the petal of your cheek?
                        -          Anna Akhmatova

Throughout her novel, Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente sprinkles excerpts from poems by the great Russan poet, Anna Akhmatova. One of the best known and most prolific of Russian writers, Akhmatova lived from 1889 to 1966, experiencing both prerevolutionary and Soviet Russia. She writes here about a stock character in Russian folklore, Ivanushka. A simpleminded but lucky young man, Ivanushka is described as amiable, with blue eyes. The details of his family and station vary from tale to tale, but he is always portrayed as someone who leads with his heart over his head. He’s naïve but kind, sometimes considered a fool but often misjudged by those around him. He’s not always what he seems to be. 

I said in an earlier post that this novel is perhaps the biggest stretch for my summer reading theme: houses. Yes, there’s a house, and it makes somewhat of an impression. Deathless opens with this:

“In a city by the sea which was once called St. Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, then, much later, St. Petersburg again, there stood a long, thin house on a long, thin street. By the long, thin window, a child in a pale blue dress and pale green slippers waited for a bird to marry her.”

Well, actually, the novel begins with a short scene in which a young boy is questioned and then released by a pair of military officers. He’s only eleven, but he’s accused of desertion. Three “skinny, molting creatures” (birds) watch from a nearby branch. This scene is followed by the first of the Akhmatova quotes, a poem about a faceless visitor, a riddle, and a wanderer in darkness. My point is, from the start, the stage is set for everything this remarkable novel aims to do: say something about the history of Russia, particularly throughout the twentieth century, recycle certain characters, tropes and stories from the vast landscape of Russian folklore, and tell a lyrically moody, visceral and exciting tale. And like the folk staple Ivanushka, things are not always what they seem. 

The novel focuses on Marya Morevna, the girl in the pale blue dress. For years, she has watched as her sisters were claimed for marriage by men who arrive as birds but transform into handsome young men before whisking away their brides. And so, she waits for her bird. When he comes, he’s handsome, all right, but his name is Koschei the Deathless, another figure from Russian folklore whose main characteristic is his inability to be killed.

And the house? The one Marya has been living in, before leaving with Koschei, has a tendency to expand and there are little domovoi, or house-goblins, about. And once she escapes with her bird-suitor to the Isle of Buyan, there are other strange features in the new world she inhabits, other strange, house phenomena:

“The main thing was the ruin of her house, like film laid on top of other film, so that she could look at a wall and see not only the wall but Svetlana Tikhonovna and her mother arguing over laundry in front of it, and Zemlehyed pawing at it, and the skin of a Buyan wall, so far from her. Everywhere her vision doubled and trebled, and her head sagged with the weight of it. Everything kept occurring all at once, each thing on top of the last.”

This novel draws from Russian folklore, with its dark imagery and themes. It’s not a book for children. I will admit that from time to time, the book was a riddle, as promised by Valente in that early Akhmatova poem. I had some trouble following certain relationships and twists of plot. It felt like things were happening, all at once, each thing on top of the last. And although the novel is strong in folkloric roots and fantastical elements, Valente draws complex characters; the development of Marya’s character was probably my favorite aspect. She changes from an innocent girl to Koschei’s frightened concubine and eventually, his wife. A major part of the story here is the sexy and ultimately, tragic love affair between them. The book has been compared to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and at the time of its release in 2011, the AV Club said “Deathless does for Russia what Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell does for England.” I can see where the book fits somewhere between these two, and yet, is something entirely different and unique, too.

As we run out of summer days, one book remains for my Summer of Houses reading project. I’ll be diving into Sarah M. Broom’s memoir, The Yellow House, next. I do love a book with a map at the start, and Broom starts hers with an outline of New Orleans, where the notable house she writes about lives.

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.

"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