An Evening In: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

I have just finished the tantalisingly mysterious, deliciously Gothic slice of New England oddity that is We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Jackson is not an author I have come across before, but the dearly beloved Mr Neil Gaiman mentioned her in an Instagram post last week and I was intrigued by the hail of approval the post met with.

What a grand slice of darkness it is, to be sure. From the opening premise, a dead family and a sister acquitted of their murder, the story is revealed slowly, layers peeling away as you come to know the family of the Blackwoods, the public details of the tragic murder of most of the family (arsenic in the sugar bowl), the house they live in and the strange attitudes of Merricat and Constance Blackwood to the rest of the world. While the big reveal is not particularly shocking – it’s not a murder mystery, after all – it is so nicely done with such elegant hints and characterisation that it’s more a relief than a surprise when it’s said out loud. 

It is a great moment in an avid readers life when you find a book that feels new and different. Shirley Jackson’s work doesn’t feel precisely unique; creepy towns in New England are a staple of American horror, a family poisoned with arsenic is a fairly classic murder and the uncanny feel of something not quite right in the household is a touch of atmosphere to be found in many novels. But I think Shirley Jackson may have the distinction of being a founding father in these tropes. Certainly in her lifetime her writing was considered shocking, though her first short story The Lottery (yearly ritual sacrifice in creepy village decided by lottery) represents an idea as familiar as a fairy-tale to modern audiences.

And Shirley Jackson’s ability to craft a story is entirely her own. Building the complexities of family, sanity, responsibility and community around the voice of Merricat herself, in a narrative interwoven with home-grown magic, food and the minutiae of a deeply enclosed life in a house that has become a museum to the Blackwood family, the result is an oddly bright story, eerie with the alternating naivety and shrewdness of the narrator. Having read this, I suddenly see shades of Jackson in Gaiman, Donna Tartt, Sarah Waters, the list goes on. I am thrilled to have found a writer who provides a backbone to so many others, and of whom I was so entirely ignorant.

And so to the beverage. Food is so very important to the nature of this beast that I am inclined to a cocktail, something with a recipe. Taking as our starting point then a grand American bourbon I had a flutter through the pages of the trusty 1977 Booth’s Handbook of Cocktails and Mixed Drinks. IMG_20160418_154843784This learned tome has many suggestions, but I proffer a Bourbon sour, a drink that is, like the book, classic with a kick. Plus the sugar is a nice nod to the vector for the arsenic in the Blackwood house.

Booth’s has it thusly: 1 oz. Bourbon to 1/2 oz. lemon juice, with a teaspoon of powdered sugar. Shake and strain.

Book: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

Pair with: A Bourbon Sour

An Evening In: The Pirates!

Now I like a good long read as much as the next girl. I like to read an epic each summer, something like The Far Pavilions, A Suitable Boy or Gone With the Wind (all of which, yes), but what with this hectic schedule and whimsical nature of mine, I sometimes need something a little briefer and punchier. Something that will make me laugh and feel benevolent towards the world, and will also only take me an afternoon to read. It is this side of my literary tastes that has resulted in me owning the entire Pirates! oeuvre.

Now, I’m aware there’s a film. I haven’t seen it; I can’t comment. The books are excellent. Firmly rooted in absurdity, smothered in piraticisms and with plenty of ham, Gideon Defoe has provided a delightful series of voyages into the delirious heart of piracy. The Pirates! can be found in adventures with scientists, whaling, communists, Napoleon and the Romantics. The plot for all of these goes thusly: the Pirate Captain gets his Pirate crew into some sort of beard- or money-based pickle. The scarf-wearing pirate is sensible and wise, the sassy pirate is a bit sexy, the pirate in green, the albino pirate, the pirate who likes kittens and sunsets and all the other pirates enter enthusiastically into a Scheme or Plot, Jennifer is Victorian and Black Bellamy attempts to thwart them. At the end, all of the pirates sing shanties and eat ham.

It’s genius. The naivety of the Pirate Captain leads the plot but is beautifully offset by the more knowing crew and the sidesteps in and out of reality, alongside wild adjectives, extraneous chapter titles and unexpected cameos by famous figures of fiction and fact. It’s the sort of book that you could (and I fully plan to) read to small children and amuse everybody at once.

I would of course suggest grog with this book, if you happen to know what it is, but there are other options. A hearty, cheerful piratey drink is needed, something warming and pleasant. Let’s say, cider. As a cider drinker, I favour Orchards, widely available and not too sweet, but if you are lucky enough to have a local cider brand that stands up, have a pint and good luck to you. The book is suitable for children, the drink is not.

Image result for glazed ham
Pictured: Success

Book: The Pirates! In an Adventure with…, by Gideon Defoe

Pair with: a hearty, apple cider

An Evening In: Snow Country

Ah Japan – land of haiku, of dispossessed samurai, of cherry blossom and of melancholy. Or of robots and manga and tentacle monsters, depends what you’re into.

Japan

I was feeling the need for some pristine writing, some neat phrases and sharp syntax, so I have just finished reading Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata. I recommend a foray into Japanese literature as it is clearly distinct from Western literature in the style and the feel of the books. Many novels , including this one, do consider the themes of Westernization and modernization in Japan, which was very consciously part of Japanese culture from the 1860s on (I studied Japanese history at University, hands up who feels sad for Okinawa). Yasunari Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, but this is the first of his books I had read, and it delivered.

…also Japan. And yes, those are giant stretching testes. Because Tanuki.

I read Japanese writing when I am feeling vaguely melancholy, in a gazing-into-the-middle-distance, Grandmother Willow sort of way, and in Snow Country I found the right notes of doom and a sort of helplessness before fate that I have met before in Japanese literature. A nice hopeless romance, and if the characters can find time to stand on mountain sides and consider nature before someone dies tragically that is a strong plus.

Snow Country is set in a rural Japanese mountain village, famous for its hot springs. The main character, Shimamura, is a married man from Tokyo and he nicely catches the image of the Westernised city dweller; he is an expert in Western ballet, but he is fascinated by the traditional methods of bleaching cloth in the mountains, by the remote, rural world of the village, and by one particular geisha, Komako, with whom he has a fairly open affair in the little village.

That the relationship can never go anywhere is clear from the start, and to modern eyes at least Shimamura is not a deeply sympathetic character. Often he barely seems to like poor Komako, who is frequently drunk, working at parties and then sneaking into Shimamura’s room afterwards, and he is fascinated by another girl whose enigmatic presence book-ends the story. He first sees Yoko on the train to the village, and she is the star of the last scene.

There is something deeply compelling in the lingering descriptions of the snowy scenes, of the hotel it is largely set in and of the characters. For a Western audience there is a particular interest in the descriptions of the most basic items of furniture and clothing or of the geisha lifestyle. It is a lovingly crafted, elegant short work, and it is the fresh mountain air of the mind to eyes that have read ever so many job descriptions of late. It is not an action-packed thrill ride, but rather a slow study in inevitability.

If you are luxuriating in Snow Country it might seem like a warming, heartening red wine would be the way to go, but I personally recommend a different route, one of a subtle sympathy with snow and bare-edged mountains. I suggest a riesling, a crisp, fresh white wine (a trip to google also tells me it is a good pairing with fish and Japanese food, so my choice seems vindicated), with a bite that will keep you awake and floating through the snow country with Shimamura, even if it’s raining and grey outside. Kanpai!

Book: Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

Pair with: Riesling