Friday, 13 June 2014

What I've been reading: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, To Kill a Mockingbird, Preacher: Until the End of the World

I finished Gone With the Wind this week. My review is that the last chapter had my hands involuntarily clenching into fists so often that my knuckles started to ache. Let's be done with it.

So, now I've finally driven an iron stake through the heart of that dreadful book (not literally - I what do you take me for?) I've been free to follow my own projects and catch up with some real reading. Yay!

And, you know, it's felt like the Gods of Literature have been rewarding my for my perseverance. I have just read three books (three!) which demanded that desperate, breathless haste, three books that demanded I surrender those so-called necessities of sleep, food and personal hygiene, three books that were pretty damned close to flawless. I honestly don't think I've had a streak this good before. Kind of frightened of breaking it.

So, these books:

These 'Penguin Modern Classics' covers are bit boring.
I have been meaning to read Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle for years. It's one of those books you hear whispers about, the sort of book that's mentioned in interviews by writers that you love, or tucked into book reviews as a standard against which someone fails or succeeds. Bookshops tend not to carry it, um and arr about it being in print. If you try to get a copy from the library you'll discover that there's only one in the county, and they'll take three months sending it to you.

Worth it. Oh, it is worth it.

Will you judge me if I say it's charming? Even if I assure you I'm not gushing or being sentimental? This book is like a spell, one that weaves itself about you, much as the narrator Merricat rings her house with protective amulets.

Yes, Merricat. At first, I didn't trust her, viewed her with the same aggressive curiosity, the same unease, that she gets from the villagers. As the novel unfurled (and it does unfurl, like something natural, like a leaf,) as it became clear that Merricat is not the kind of person one can trust, I began to do so. Caught in her hostile, lonely, beautiful world, captured by her strange, angry magics, I was captivated by her, began to like her, love her, trust her. Oh, Merricat may be a villain, but she is more faithful, more consistent than any of the other characters in the book. We see their grotesquenesses through her eyes. Her life of rejection, of isolation, of otherness we recognise; we know her intense wild joy from the shadow-versions of it that we have lived.

Or that was how I felt about it, anyway.

It is a book about food, how the way it is portioned out, created, corrupted, denied, the way it is analogous with love. It is a mythic book, one where the ineffectual, childlike rituals of our narrator slowly become a potent magic, one with a power to shape the world, to bind Merricat herself- the true 'terrible one' at the heart of the novel. I could write about this for hours. I should probably stop now.

On to another book about rural American life, another bood with a precocious, tomboyish narrator, another book I had been planning to read for a while. Although, I suspect the comparisons should stop here because the novel is Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

I'd always been a bit dubious about reading this. You need to understand that, in my mother's view, Atticus Finch was basically the perfect man. When it came down to it, Atticus Finch played be Gregory Peck was the equivalent of... I don't know... probably Henry Tilney played by Paul McGann. From the comparison, you can probably guess that my mother and I have values regarding these things.

Well, I shouldn't have waited so long. The book is as good as the hype, better maybe. I could scarcely go two pages without finding a sentence, a paragraph, an exchange, that I wanted to read aloud to whatever long suffering person was in the room with me.

As to Atticus Finch? No, I would not leave home for Atticus Finch. I can understand why someone would, though. His attitudes to gender and race are not modern, but are about as progressive as is possible for the time the novel is set. He also shows a remarkably accurate (albeit slightly paternalist) understanding of the very modern concept of privilege. A wonderful, beautiful, powerful book. I'd recommend it to anyone, but particularly as an antidote to the poison that was Gone With the Wind.

Last, but by no means least, we reach Preacher: Until the End of the World. Whereas this week's other books are tender, melancholy and poetic, while they focus on isolation, outsider statues, the effects of hatred and human compassion, Preacher is gleefully, viciously aggressive. While its main theme is a careful, moral exploration of religion and power, if it has an overall message, that message is that violence solves things. I won't pretend it isn't dark and nasty, that it doesn't splash itself across our minds with glorious, visceral impact. That is kinda the point.

Okay, it is not the book to read if you are triggered by... well, anything. It is bloodthirsty,it is vicious, it gives you a world that will kick you when you are down, one that will only back off it you kick back harder than you can imagine. In terms of the series, it's far better than the first instalment. I adored this book, but it's one of those when, on the brink of recommending it, I realise that it would not be everyone's cup of tea.

Steve Dillon's art is, of course, wonderful. There is a power and clarity to his lines that suits Garth Ennis' script perfectly. There are very few comic book artists who draw faces so expressively. There are even fewer who can make someone being shot in the head look so beautiful. Ennis' work - which didn't entirely convince me in Gone to Texas - is far stronger here, working with a wit, confidence and subtlety which drew me in from the very start.

Used for review purposes
I had real trouble finding an image that was neither too horrific, or too spoilerific. Still, lovely stuff.

Unashamedly violent, this book is not without tenderness, not, indeed, without a guiding morality. The scenes between Jesse and Tulip are painful in their sweetness, the balancing of moral relativity and moral absolute careful. There is some questionable content, sure - some jokes made that perhaps would not be made today, that perhaps should not have been made then. Some assumptions that aspects of the plot imply gave me pause. I can see this book being problematic, if not outright hurtful. But it is pervaded by a sense of joyous and perverse irresponsibility, a glee in showing the nightmares of the conservative mind that I personally did not find it offensive. Even if I did, I might forgive it: moving, harrowing, and wonderfully crafted, it also manages to be great fun, and that's better than you're going to get nine times out of ten.

Approach with caution,  but if it's your kind of thing? Hell, let's tall about books.

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