We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I won’t go into too much detail of the plot, see a pic of the paperback below I will show you that much, I will however, write about some of the characters you will meet. I will say I loved this book and I could have written so much more about it, I don’t want to spoil anything for you…. Read the book.

In the beginning we are introduced to our narrator Mary Katherine Blackwood otherwise known as Merricat. She a little bit about herself like you would to a group of people you have met for the first time. We learn that she is an an unreliable narrator though we do get to learn so much more about her.

Merricat for her eighteen years of age appears somewhat childish at first but as we get to know her we realise she is actually quite intelligent and can read people quite well. Merricat knows the history of her respected family, is fully aware of what of the villagers and rival rich families in the local area along with her own family and the scandal that had tarnished them through the eyes of the locals.

As we learn about Merricat we also learn of her older sister Constance and of how at her core is a good person who is the only authority figure Merricat has. She looks after old Uncle Julian and is the defacto head of Blackwood family. The incident years prior has clearly affected her.

Uncle Julian when we are introduced to him tells of the murder of the rest of the family to some guests (one of which was uninvited to the annoyance of Merricat) and reminds them that Constance was acquitted and we later learn his mind is not as focused as it once was.

Paperback of my Penguin Edition with a picture of Shirley Jackson.

Mental health is an underlying issue in this story. Merricat creates her own little world (or rather moon) in her head and has her own unique way of thinking, her older sister Constance, appears to have agoraphobia (a New England Woman who won’t leave the house and liked gardening reminding me of Emily Dickinson) aft er the incident and Uncle Julian who despite being an intelligent man himself, gets easily confused and thinks people around him are who they are not as well as having an obsession with his memoirs and what happened ‘that day’.

We learn more of each character with respect to how they view Cousin Charles. He just suddenly shows up with suspected ulterior motives. Constance sees the good in people and likes Cousin Charles at first, Merricat is distrustful (quite rightly) and goes as far as damaging things in the room he stays in. Uncle Julian despite being confused is also suspicious.

The personality of each character is well displayed in this book especially when you consider that we are seeing this world through Merricat’s eyes only. For its 146 pages, you just get enough information to know what is going on and you want to know more about the story. For example, what was the motive for the murder of the family? Why did Constance not tell us of what she knew back then?

Despite Merricat’s formal introduction we at the end are assured of her love for her sister and her somewhat peculiar way of thinking and that Constance is the true heroine in this story (for me personally at the least).

I liked the way it ended with the conversation between Constance and Merricat which in conclusion defines who they are. Merricat with her dark way of thinking and Constance with her domestic housewife like response to her. Ultimately you are reassured of the love they have for each other.

[Penguin Classics first published 2009 / First Published by Viking Press in 1962 USA]

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

The basis for any story has some key ingredients, there’s some sort of struggle, conflict, reflection, message. The Pale King is a little different to that. Written by David Foster Wallace but published posthumously and unfinished this work of fiction tells us about a number of people working for the American Inland Revenue Service although most of them are interlinked each chapter of varying length can pretty much stand on their own.

The Pale King looks at a number of these tax auditors, why they do the job they do and how they combat the monotony of their work. We have the character of Claude Sylvanshine who through looking at other people’s taxes and minor details, knows so much about people but has no context for it. We we have Leonard Steyck who went so far to be nice to people when he was younger that people hated him for it and we see how he reacted to this. David Wallace himself appears as a character and he tells you to read the small print of the book and we have the peculiar character who is harshly nicknamed the Iranian Crisis (this chapter made me chuckle, you’ll be doing a lot of that). My favourite character of the book is Irrelevant Chris Fogle. We get to read about what made him want to do the job that he now does. His story for me felt really personal and real.

The Pale King by Wallace

The Pale King is about getting things done by people who have to do it. Unlike the behemoth that is Infinite Jest with its look at people obsessed with distractions and satisfying their own addictions, this book is more about the people who do not wish to have such distractions, who acknowledge that they have a task to do. There’s a story for example about a worker who passes away on the job but nobody notices because they are too focused on their work. There is a little bit of us in both Infinite Jest and the Pale King and Wallace looks at both of these extremes.

The style of the Pale King will be familiar to fans of David Foster Wallace and you can see the development of his quality of work from his earlier novel Broom of the System and his earlier short stories. I of course love the book, Wallace makes what should be the most boring thing interesting to read. What I will say however, as with Infinite Jest, try and get a physical copy of the book over the digital format. It is easier to navigate as you will be also going through Wallace’s end notes which reappear in this book as well. Try to avoid the audio book as well if you want to know what is said in the end notes.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 is one of them key works that appears on the syllabus in American schools and today still used as a topic of conversation with regards to how prescient it is.

The story of this book is partly about how media is consumed in a dystopian future. This is a future where illegal books are burned and destroyed, where low brow TV shows are embraced . Certain forms of literature and ways of thinking are shortened and simplified to appeal to people with short attention spans. The forms of media that is permitted is essentially things with no heart and no substance.

The main plot of 451 concerns a number of people who have to live in this world. The main protagonist is the character Montag. Montag is a fireman but not as how we would know firemen to be. The firemen cause the fires (burning the books) instead of fighting them. We follow Montag’s journey from being someone responsible for book burnings and censorship to questioning everything and reflecting what he does. We meet his wife who likes the images and shows she sees on TV and overdoses on sleeping pills. We meet Faber who was a former intellectual who has to put up with this world that he’s in.

An audio book version narrate by Tim Robbins who does a marvelous job in doing so.

This world Bradbury has given us is a dystopian future is partly created by ourselves, the people who inhabit it. A world that we created but where we can also change and learn from our mistakes. There are many internal and external threats in this world and what Fahrenheit 451 achieves in doing is make us self aware of the world we are in now and the dangers we could face in. The examples of self imposed censorship we can see today on social media, what we agree is not suitable is entirely dependent of the consumers of that period of time.

While Fahrenheit 451 has all what you expect from dystopian futures, with respect to censorship and the use of technology, the world is not as haunting as George Orwell’s in 1984. In that world there is no hope, the illusion of hope was created by the regime and everybody is looking over their shoulder. In 451, hope is still there, there are people who remember when things were different. The act of rebellion comes when you actually go out there to rebel as opposed to dropping your guard and not having the right thought.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

A good book for me is always one you think about months after reading it. I loved it.

One of the main stories is about a video cartridge of which when anyone plays it the contents will end up watching it repeatedly until they can’t do anything thing else. We also learn about the man who made it, his family, one of the cast members and everyone else who wants the cartridge for their own ends.

This book is well researched on the themes of addiction. It also looks at the pressures of competition, just trying to survive and mental health issues. We see the horrors of commercialisation and the things people will do to get what they want. There’s one character (Mr Pelumis) I was particularly interested in who plays a significant part of the Tennis Academy we see in the book but the last time we hear of him is in one of the footnotes.

Criticisms of the book (which are many) is that it’s a bit long with more than 1000 pages including footnotes and some of the sections of the book I did struggle to get through. Despite this however, it really does add to the world.

Despite the criticisms I found the book incredibly rewarding. This is probably my favourite of Wallace’s work. I liked some of the stories in The Girl With the Curious Hair and This Is Water but was not a big fan of Broom of the System, some of his other short stories and the Pale King although unfinished I found harder to get through than Infinite Jest despite some individually good chapters.

When reading a book I try to take the Roland Barthes approach of just taking the text as is. With this book however, I ended up obsessing over who this author was and what were his intentions.

A personality who had his moments there is no denying that Wallace was a very complex character with some fascinating stories before his tragic suicide in 2008. We know he had his own problems with mental health and his treatment of the poet Mary Karr is somewhat reprehensible but I found there to be a man who struggled with the world around him.

Overall I recommend this book on its own merits and it is a credit to the English language.

Get the ebook version if you do, easier to carry.