Där vinden vilar

Out of all the books I’ve read in my life, in all the places, Samar Yazbek‘s Där vinden vilar was the first to have me so engrossed that I missed my stop on the subway. Maybe that’s really the only review I need to write.

A young soldier in the Syrian civil war has been grievously injured by friendly fire. Ali’s struggle to reach the shelter of a nearby tree is interspersed with flashbacks to important people and moments of his short life. The lyrical translation from Marie Anell paints a vivid picture of a dreamy and mystical young man with a deep reverence for nature, completely ill-suited for the battlefield. Yazbek also uses this limited perspective to depict dictatorships from a grassroots, ground-up perspective.

If there’s any criticism to be made, you could argue that Ali is deliberately crafted to have the maximal emotional impact; to be the perfect war casualty. He is just too kind, too innocent to be anything but deeply sympathetic. The comparison to Frère d’âme is a natural one to make here, given their similar topics and structures. In Frère, however, it seems like Diop makes at least some effort to present unsavory or off-putting aspects of Alfa’s character alongside his more admirable traits. As a result he ends up as a perhaps more realistic, or at least more typical, teenage boy.

But I think if Yazbek had taken the same approach, it would have landed very differently, potentially undermining the point of the book. In a way, Ali is less of a character and more of a symbol, a way to link the anonymous violence of the battlefield to the people and the communities it devastates. He’s the best parts of everyone’s lost son, the physical embodiment of the collective hope a village or town has for their young people, the perfect angel doting parents see in their children. Alfa’s story is about himself; Ali’s story is about the people around him.

Singulariteten

Balsam Karam is my most recent Baader-Meinhof phenomenon: I first heard of her when an Internet associate announced that he had been invited to host a panel discussion called “Read the World,” with Karam as one of the guests, at the Fold literary festival. Not long after that, a précis by Karam about Brazilian author Jeferson Tonorio was featured in the issue of Karavan I was reading at the time. Then when skimming the events for Litteraturmässan I saw that she would holding a talk with Peter Englund about the role and potential of libraries. Three points make a line and all of that.

I looked up Karam as soon as I learned she wrote in Swedish, always trying to fight the inertia to read books in English by default. If the timestamps in Discord conversations are anything to go by, then, I’ve been working on Singulariteten since February 20. I have Händelsehorisonten on deck, too, but Singulariteten was just so much that I might admit defeat with Händelsehorisonten for the moment and save it for later.

Singulariteten is a tale told backwards, starting at the end of two stories, two lives. The paths of two nameless women cross, briefly, along a trendy corniche in the tourist district of an unnamed country recently emerged from (or perhaps still intermittently engaged in) sectarian violence. One of the women is a mother in search of her missing daughter; the other is a pregnant tourist who witnesses the first woman’s suicide. Later, back home, she has a miscarriage. Out of this intersection unfolds lifetimes of loss and trauma, as the rest of the book looks back to tell each story in its entirety. The whole thing is so grim and heavy that I was surprised when the living, breathing Karam in the discussion on stage was light, breezy, quick to laugh and quick to make jokes. Serious emotional whiplash.

Which is not to say that Singulariteten was so dour and joyless that I didn’t enjoy it; I came out the other end with a sense of satisfaction and catharsis (Aristotle would be pleased). This was due in part to the dense, complex language that forced me to read passages multiple times and to construct little sentence diagrams in my head, so all credit to English translator Saskia Vogel for excellent work. This isn’t Karam’s first novel, but thanks to Vogel it’s the first available in English.

The topic matter does prompt reflection over the kinds of novels we expect from certain kinds of authors. I want to say that there’s a James Baldwin essay, perhaps his own commentary on Giovanni’s Room, on the limitations of being expected on certain topics (in Baldwin’s case, racial discourse) simply by virtue of a facet of one’s identity (race), but maybe that essay doesn’t exist. Maybe I’m thinking of (and misremembering) “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Unsure. But there is a tension for me because I can’t help wondering: for a Kurdish author like Karam, do publishers, reviewers, readers expect a certain kind of book? If Karam had instead written an easy read feel-good romance, would it still have been published? (I have every confidence that it still would have been good.) Or do themes of being marginalized, racialized, and elsewise Othered have a demonstrably limited appeal to a mainstream audience that mean they get scrubbed down and sanitized? (Thinking again of Giovanni’s Room, which Baldwin was advised to burn lest it alienate his audience.)

Nell Irvin Painter to the rescue, with this essay for LitHub that I got in my inbox this morning but that is not yet available on their website.

I asked: who can I and we write about when I and we are Black authors? Those accomplished authors I mentioned [Imani Perry, Honorée Fanon Jeffers, and Zora Neale Hurston] wrote about Black people, and Black people and race in America are the subjects of virtually every book by a Black author of fiction, of nonfiction, and of journalism. I’m tempted to conclude that literary convention limits Black authors to a limited range of subject matter. Yes, there’s infinite variety within the realm of Blackness. Yet still, Black people only.

Painter is describing an English-language publishing industry with an American audience, but I think there are parallels to be made with Sweden. In the end I suppose I just have to trust in the fact that Singulariteten demonstrably exists, and take the book as proof of the fact that Karam wanted to write a story, any story at all, and accept that speculation about how that story may or may not have been crafted according to particular expectations from her publishers as unknowable and therefore irrelevant.

Homeboy

I summarized my “acute TBR” a few weeks ago thusly:

the English translation of Frère d’âme, Homeboy (borrowed from a bookish friend), Händelsehorisonten and Singulariteten (ahead of another bookish acquaintance’s panel moderation with author Balsam Karam in May), and a pair of niche but mercifully brief Swedish reference books before a test in October (and ideally before a third English reference book arrives sometime next month).

Since then I have finished Frère d’âmeone of those Swedish reference books, and that third English reference book. And now Seth Morgan’s Homeboy! Will I wrap up the acute TBR before my trip to the US rolls around in May? Who knows!

This particular entry on the acute TBR was more acute than I realized at the time. By the time this post goes up, the book’s owner will be en route back to the UK, unlikely to return to Sweden again. I could have returned it to him unfinished, of course, and eventually procured my own copy. Or I could have held on to it and returned it on a future visit—a bold move on my part, but I know I would have followed through. Nothing wrong with either of those!

But Homeboy wasn’t just any recommendation—it was one that came up in a conversation about what I term “bagel books,” books that you like so much you simultaneously want to tear through them as quickly as possible and never want to keep reading because you don’t want them to be over. A bagel book is a very particular, almost hallowed kind of recommendation. Being able to spend a friend’s farewell party talking to him about one of his own bagel books was therefore an appropriate and meaningful send-off.

Personal circumstances aside, Homeboy is also an interesting work from a historical? biographical? perspective, the only novel from the man who was Janis Joplin’s fiancé at the time of her death. That’s the other reason I was keen to get into the book, even though by all accounts Morgan and Joplin had a really dysfunctional relationship. You could make an argument that Morgan was a contributing factor in her overdose, even, but that’s neither here nor there. This isn’t about my weirdly in-depth knowledge of Janis Joplin’s biography, it’s a book review!

In my farewell party extemporaneous analysis, I described Homeboy as a mash-up of Elmore Leonard and Jack Kerouac, though my friend didn’t entirely agree, so take that with a grain of salt. The plot centers around the theft of a rare diamond, the Blue Jager Moon, from pimp Baby Jewels Moses by protagonist Joe Speaker, and everyone’s subsequent attempts to recover it. Joe wants to eventually move it and get clean; Moses wants it for blackmail material over a judge on the California State Supreme Court; Officer Tarzon needs it as evidence to put Moses away and complete his own private revenge.

There’s a lot more than that going on, but reading it in summary isn’t the same thing as reading the book itself. Homeboy has an ensemble cast of street life characters who all have assorted arcs, rises and downfalls interwoven with the main Blue Jager Moon narrative. Morgan also has a knack for the right kind of details that make even one-off side characters instantly distinctive, like dealer Rigo La Barba:

Rigo La Barba slumped on the nod in the crushedvelvet front seat of his ’62 Impala lowrider at the corner of Sixth and Mission. He was called La Barba, the Beard, after his carefully groomed goatee.

Next to the highgrade chiva he dealt, La Barba was proudest of  his lowrider. It had jeweled vanity mirrors attached to the sun visors, a miniature crystal chandelier in place of the dome light, a goldplated chain steering wheel, and, next to the ivory Virgin atop the minklined dash, a keyboard on which he could play “Besame Mucho,” “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” or, more to the point, “Chinga Tu Madre,” according to his cholofied caprice. Over twentyeight handrubbed coats of topaxflake lacquer, sequined rococo script announced La Barba’s philosophy on one rear fender: Low ‘n’ Slow; and on the other he christened his chrome galleon Crystal Blue Persuasion.

Joe hits up La Barba once for some heroin and that’s it. We never meet La Barba again.

The whole thing is great fun and imbued with a surprising amount of pathos; I’m honestly surprised it hasn’t been turned into a movie yet, given the break-neck pace and the visuals, both comic and gory. Speaking of which, there is a fair amount of casual gore, and in fact a fare amount of casual just-about-everything. A good chunk of the story is set in prison, and when we’re not in prison we’re following the progress of pimps, hired goons, or sex workers, so it’s a lot. The two things worth mentioning are:

  1. Someone could probably write an essay on Baby Jewels Moses and anti-Semitic tropes. Is it so cartoonish and over the top that it circles back to become lampshade and subversion? Is it just Problematic? I’m not equipped to answer these questions.
  2. Someone could a probably write another essay on gender and sexuality in prison culture as depicted in Homeboy. The “queens” in the prison are central characters to some of the later events and fellow prisoners are mostly untroubled by their gender presentation. The AIDS epidemic also looms large in portions of the novel, with sympathetic rather than terrified undertones.

A fun, meaty book. A bagel book, even.

Frère d’âme

I added David Diop’s Frère d’âme to my TBR by way of a review in the Karavan literary magazine, and to be honest I was a bit leery of it going in. The review was positive, but it gave the impression that the book was a gritty, grim, hyper-realistic portrayal of war, which is not a thing I’m usually into. I approached the book the same way I might approach eating a strange new vegetable: accepting that it might not be an enjoyable experience, but that it would at least be good for my (reading) health.

Frère d’âme is a wartime bildungsroman centered on the young Alfa Ndiaye, a Senegalese soldier in the French trenches of WWI. The book opens with the gruesome death of his best friend, adoptive brother, and “plus que frère” Modemba Diop in the battlefield, and from there on we follow Ndiaye through grief, trauma and regret.

That’s an incredibly pretentious way to describe the story but it’s the best I can do, I suppose.

Let’s get the content warning stuff out of the way first: there is plenty of frank description of gruesome wartime (and otherwise) acts. People are disemboweled, heads are blown off, and as a narrator Ndiaye doesn’t hesitate to describe all of this in detail, often repeating or lingering on the images.

But somehow the book is more dreamlike (if sometimes nightmarish) than gritty realism. The first-person narration keeps the reader in Ndiaye’s head rather than out in the action, and Ndiaye himself is so apparently unbothered by it that his descriptions of violence and gore become more surreal than anything else. Ndiaye’s language is also highly repetitive, not in a way to suggest that he lacks ideas or words but rather in a way that creates rhythm, like all of those iterations of “rosy-fingered Dawn” in The Odyssey. That rhythm also made it easy for me and my mediocre French to immediately get lost in Diop’s writing. There’s a certain musicality to it that draws you in. I bet the audiobook is a work of art.

I say “apparently” unbothered because the subtext is of course that Ndiaye is deeply traumatized by the death of his friend and by the brutality of war in general. The conversant tone in his language, along with the repetition and verbal tics (“je sais, j’ai compris” and variations thereof; “par la vérité de Dieu”), create speech patterns you might expect from someone talking to themselves; the deliberate attempt to shift the mind’s focus away from something painful.

I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that I’m of two minds about it. I’m not thrilled with the choice Diop made for the actual events, but I deeply appreciate the ambiguity he allows the reader for interpreting them. Are we watching Ndiaye have a mental breakdown, or is he genuinely possessed by the spirit of his dead friend? Why can’t it be both?

As with most of the French books I read, once I finished Frère d’âme I immediately picked up the Swedish translation (Om natten är allt blod svart). So far I’ve been pretty well satisfied with them, but this time around less so. Om natten isn’t a hatchet job on par with Stick or anything, but the rhythm is still…different. Here are the first three sentences:

“…je sais, j’ai compris, je n’aurais pas dû. Moi, Alfa Ndiaye, fils du très vieil homme, j’ai compris, je n’aurais pas dû. Par la vérité de Dieu, maintenant je sais.”

“…jag vet, jag förstår att jag inte borde ha gjort det. Jag, Alfa Ndiaye, son till den gamle, gamle mannen, förstår att jag inte borde ha gjort det. Vid Guds sanning vet jag det nu.”

I have my own opinions about how I would translate the French into Swedish, but I’m not about to pop off here and potentially make a fool of myself. I couldn’t grab a hold of the English translation before sitting down to write this post, so I have no idea how that fared, either (except to note that it won the International Booker Prize). Hopefully at some point an ebook version will appear in one of my US library apps.

Overall, Frère d’âme is a great example of why I think the checklist approach of my reading goals is at least a good start. It’s not a book I would have encountered if I weren’t making a deliberate effort to seek out different things, and my bookish life is that much richer for having read it.

Kris

My last-minute scramble to read more Swedish before the end of the year led me to revisit Karin Boye’s Kris, a book I first read in 2017. I even wrote about it here! Ah, how embarrassing to keep any kind of public record of one’s life, but oh well. It would be dishonest to pretend otherwise.

In 2017, I felt like I had pretty much conquered Swedish and that the world was my oyster. Yet reading Kris was a struggle. Yes, I was reading several books at the time, but that’s a convenient excuse. The honest truth that I didn’t want to fess up to publicly was that Kris was just really, really hard. If anything, that’s probably why I was reading so many books at once: I needed something to reach for that wasn’t Kris. Each reading session included frequent breaks to count how many pages were left in this chapter, in the whole book. I stubbornly refused to look up new words because there were so many in any given section that any sense of flow would have been ruined. Nor did I have the patience to, for example, note all the words I didn’t know, look them up afterwards, and then read the chapter again. All of this should have clued me in to my immense hubris with respect to my actual functional level of Swedish, but it did not. Instead, I contented myself with declaring the book “difficult literature” and prided myself on having a brain big enough to finish the book at all.

This time around I finished the book in less than a week. Finally, I’m actually a genius at Swedish! (I can’t wait to revisit this blog post in another six years and flinch at the hubris.)

Since the actual reading experience was much easier, I had more brain left over to actually take in everything else in the book: the depression, the anxiety, the theology. Or, more humbly, maybe it wasn’t leveling up in Swedish that made all the difference. Maybe it was also the result of reading such an intense book in the depths of Swedish winter instead during the height of Swedish summer, or fresh war in Europe, or changes in my own personal circumstances. At any rate, it hit different this time around. More personal.

The first (as far as I can tell) English translation of Kris came out after my initial reading attempt in 2017: Crisis. Which means that this post won’t be my last about the book.

Döden till mötes

I rescued this book from a “free to take” box along the sidewalk after a run sometime in summer 2020? 2021? What is time? Along with Miss Marples sista fall, because I can never say no to a free book, especially if it’s Agatha Christie.

There’s a Rian Johnson Tweet somewhere about how Christie’s novels are anything but formulaic and how she used the mystery novel as a front for experimenting in all kinds of other genres:

Something I love about Agatha Christie is how she never tread water creatively. I think there’s a misperception that her books use the same formula over and over, but fans know the opposite is true. It wasn’t just settings or murder methods, she was constantly stretching the genre conceptually. Under the umbrella of the whodunnit she wrote spy thrillers, proto-slasher horrors, serial killer hunts, gothic romances, psychological character studies, glam travelogues.

This element of Christie’s writing eluded me in my middle school whodunnit phase, but I think you can forgive a 12-year-old for not considering the finer points of genres like spy thrillers.

This quote came to mind as I was reading Döden till mötes (Appointment With Death), as did the fact that Christie rather famously couldn’t abide her fan-favorite protagonist. Appointment With Death came out in 1938, so there were still other Poirot books and stories to come, but already you can see Christie sidelining the Belgian detective as much as possible in order to tell another story.

Most of the book happens without Poirot present and, as Johnson’s observation above suggests, is a combination of gothic romance (the mysterious and alluring Raymond Boynton trapped by a domineering stepmother and protagonist Sarah King’s determination to rescue him) and glam travelogue (Christie’s eye for character is also turned to the landscapes of Jerusalem and Petra). And as far as that story goes, it’s…fine but dated. Anything set in Jerusalem these days is just going to come across as oof, to use a technical term. Even without the “aged like milk” setting, there’s a lot of surface-level psychoanalysis from the French psychologist Dr. Gerard that is meant to be narratively sound, and maybe even came across as reasonable and plausible in 1938, but today reads like pompous buffoonery.

On the other hand, Christie has a few conversations and observations that are still timely 80-odd years later. I don’t remember her roasting women quite so thoroughly in other books, but it’s been a while since I’ve read any so who can say. We have the tyrannical murder victim, Mrs. Boynton, who is quickly established as a vile and hideous creature through and through (the book never lets us forget that she’s fat!)*; we have the tiresome but accomplished Lady Westholme who is constantly the butt of everyone’s jokes, both for her domineering personality as well as her unattractive looks (powerful Hillary Clinton energy); and scatter-brained Miss Pierce is more or less dismissed by everyone. The golden mean of all three of these seems to be protagonist Sarah King, who can neither abide the airheaded Miss Pierce but who also finds Lady Westholme too much. As a result, King feels like a mouthpiece for Christie’s own opinions about women’s place in the world.

As for the whodunnit itself, it’s clever (to be expected!) but not as satisfying as other Christie novels. Some bits I untangled right away; other asides are dropped in that sound like they’re set up for a big reveal, but ultimately they just fizzle and go nowhere.

The Swedish translation is a job well done, though perhaps it’s easier to convey Agatha Christie in Swedish than Elmore Leonard. Regardless, Einar Thermaenius succeeded where Einar Heckscher failed; while my copy was fairly old, even new Swedish editions of Agatha Christie today are often still Thermaenius’s translation (his translation of The ABC Murders from 1938 saw an eleventh printing in 2015). Even “new translations” of Thermaenius (and others) are more often new edits of old translations rather than entirely new translations. Why mess with perfection?

*And a weird postscript to that. The English book covers all have covers that feature the landscape, elements of the plot, or spooky murder imagery unrelated to the actual story. It took a fair bit of scrolling to find one older example of a cover featuring Mrs. Boynton herself, and then rendered fairly neutrally:

The cover of "Appointment With Death" featuring an illustration of an overweight old woman in a pink dress in profile against a desert backdrop.

It took me zero seconds and zero scrolling to find much less flattering Swedish portrayals of Mrs. Boynton:

Cover of Swedish version of "Appointment With Death" featuring a caricature portrait of an overweight old woman with yellow cat eyes looking directly at the viewer. Another Swedish edition of Appointment With Death. There is once again an illustrated rendition of an overweight old woman sitting on a chair, but it only takes up a fraction of the cover space and she's not immediately menacing.

Are…are you OK, Sweden? Who hurt you?

Dix heures et demie du soir en été

This is the year of me obsessively reading Marguerite Duras (in French), for mostly circumstantial reasons.

  1. She has plenty of relatively short novels.
  2. They are available from the Stockholm library, along with Swedish translations.
  3. Did I mention they’re short?

Compared to Moderato cantabile or Les petits chevaux de Tarquinia, there’s a lot that actually happens in Dix heures et demie.

Maria and her husband Pierre, along with their (mutual?) friend Claire and their daughter Judith, are a French couple on vacation in Spain. Inclement weather forces them to stay at a small village, where their lives quickly become entwined with that of a man who has just murdered his nineteen-year-old wife and her lover. At the same time, the sexual tension between Pierre and Claire ratchets up to eleven—all while Maria seems just as drawn to Claire as her husband is.

Like Les petits chevaux, I read the French original in parallel with the Swedish translation (one section in French, then in Swedish, then in French again). There appears to be only one Swedish translation, the one from Ingmar Forsström. (A different translator than Les petits chevaux, Suzanne Palme, but equally skilled.) There’s not much to find online about him except that Wikipedia entry, not even a paywalled obituary. Dead at 40 years old, a stone’s throw from where I currently live. Memento mori, etc.

Do I even like Duras? She has an eye for landscape and weather, and weaves them deftly into the plot to lend tension to what is otherwise just brooding, unhappy people who drink like fish. The fact that she can instill such a sense of foreboding in the reader when so little actually happens in any given story is remarkable. I respect that. But her brooding, unhappy characters are also seen at such a distance that they’re hard to really distinguish. These aren’t books I viscerally enjoy, in the sense that I find the characters interesting or relatable or very complexly sketched. But for mood and for technical skill (and for language practice) you could do a lot, lot worse.

Translation State

Ann Leckie’s Translation State was the only book I finished in October. Good thing I read enough during my trip to the US to balance that out!

Translation State is…fine? It’s hard for me to be fair in my evaluation because I recognize that I read it in A Mood, and I also went in with incredibly high expectations because Ancillary Justice was one of the top tier Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club picks not only of the year, but of all time.

In short: everyman Reet Hluid learns that he isn’t entirely human, but actually the offspring of a wayward member of a terrifying and vaguely cannibalistic alien race, the Presger  (or rather, their test tube baby science experiment race, Presger Translators, humanoids cooked up to help the ineffable Presger interface with humans). This entirely accidental revelation of his ancestry rips Hluid from his otherwise unremarkable life to be matched with Qven, another Presger Translator who is on the outs with their society.

What do I mean with that nebulous word “matched”? I mean something akin to “set up with.” Presger Translators are casually cannibalistic, or at least sadistic—we learn from Qven that dismemberments and eviscerations are standard fare schoolyard games among Presger Translator children—but then when adulthood hits, this turns from cannibalism into a merging that no matter how much Qven insists isn’t “doing the sex” still reads as “sex,” where the two parties consume each other? physically merge with each other? and then become some kind of new entity split across two bodies that are now a kind of average of both of them.

Hluid and Qven bond over a cheesy space opera, only to get called up before a tribunal to discuss their legal status under the prevailing galactic treaty drawn up between the Presger and the other races within the galaxy (are they human or not?). Violence erupts and chaos ensues, and we learn a little bit more about what the Presger (or Presger Translators?) can do: muck around with spacetime. Hluid and Qven, after nearly an entire book of misunderstanding-through-an-abundance-of-caution, merge and become a more fully realized Presger Translator Adult in order to save the day. You can’t be mad about that being a spoiler, either, because what we’re reading is essentially an alien romance with neopronouns and political intrigue slapped on for good measure; the happily ever after is a given.

The fact that it’s a romance that snuck in through the back door to a more straightforward and high-concept space opera series like Ancillary Justice is maybe why I don’t like it. I don’t enjoy romance. I don’t watch a lot of TV, trashy or otherwise, so I don’t find it qUiRkY aNd sO rELaTabLe when sci-fi characters do. (Love you, Murderbot, but you’re also guilty of this sin.) And despite the neopronouns and the antagonizing, on both ends, about consent and BUT THEY PROBABLY DON’T WANT TO MATCH WITH ME ANYWAY, the relationship between Hluid and Qven still feels pretty normal and straight, and also not particularly believable. Whatever important conversations they have where they bare their souls to each other seem to mostly happen off-screen, while their on-screen (on-page?) courtship seems to consist exclusively of watching TV together.

The comparison didn’t occur to me while I was reading it, but in summarizing the book just now Translation State has pretty strong echoes of The Gods Themselves, at least in terms of Presger biology. Leckie, at least, has a better handle on gender than Asimov.

If you’re thirsty for more Imperial Raadch adjacent content, Translation State scratches that itch. But I wouldn’t hand it off to anyone as an introduction to the Imperial Raadch books or to Leckie generally. Save it for later.

Berries Goodman

Like Emil and the Detectives, Emily Cheney Neville’s Berries Goodman was another parental library inheritance that was always just around the house, never fully absorbed either into my books or my brothers’. It made for a nice break from dusting bookshelves, as it turned out.

We start off in a conversation between teenage Bertrand “Berries” Goodman and his childhood friend Sidney Fine, who Berries hasn’t seen since he moved out of the fictional suburbs of Olcott Corners to New York City. Sidney is playing truant and heading off to New Jersey for the day, for reasons unknown, and has called on Berries in New York for help and to catch up.

Then we flash back to one year in Berries’ and Sidney’s elementary school lives, right after the Goodmans’ relocation to Olcott Corners from New York. Berries quickly befriends Sidney, while jokes and comments from the adults around him make it clear that there is a not-so-subtle strain of anti-Semitism in the neighborhood. When other children, like Berries’ neighbor and frenemy Sandy, repeat similar talking points, Berries reacts in anger and confusion: anger at the insult to his friends (and by now it’s no spoiler that this includes Sidney as well as his friends back in New York) and confusion over the fact that anyone would even believe such stupid things. Everything comes to a head when the trio go ice skating and the bossy but well-meaning Sandy dares Sidney into a stunt that leaves him hospitalized. Sidney’s mother fears that the latent anti-Semitic attitudes are going to start escalating and pulls him out of their school in favor of the school in the nearby Jewish neighborhood and forbids Sidney from playing with Berries. For a while the two meet in secret, but after their fathers catch them out, they’re separated for good.

Not long after, Mrs. Goodman decides she’s tired of the suburban life and the Goodmans move back to New York. Years later this is where we catch up with teenage Berries and Sidney, who is trying to get a bus out of the Port Authority. Berries goes with Sidney back to Olcott Corners and things are eventually smoothed out between the two families.

The condensed version sounds like an anvilicious after-school special because I left out all of the slice-of-life incidentals. Everything in the actual book unfolds more carefully and casually than that and is interspersed with nostalgic unsupervised kids in suburbia shenanigans, and rather clear-eyed observations and criticisms of middle class American standards and parenting.

There’s an interesting comparison to be made just by looking at the difference in covers between Berries Goodman and another one of Neville’s young adult novels, It’s Like This, Cat. There are essentially two different covers for Berries Goodman, neither of which have been updated at all.

Screen shot of a Google images search for Berries Goodman. Only two cover images dominate: one with abstract color bars and one with an illustration of a boy on a bicycle in front of a house.
Berries Goodman

Meanwhile, It’s Like This, Cat seems to have been continuously updated and repackaged for a new readership.

Screenshot of a Google images search for "It's Like This, Cat." It shows a variety of covers in different art styles, seven in all.
It’s Like This, Cat

It’s Like This, Cat was on reading lists in my school years. I saw it in the library. But the only time I’ve ever seen Berries Goodman is in my shelves at home. Of course, I haven’t read Cat so I can’t make the comparison or even begin to guess at why that one has remained so popular and Berries hasn’t. But if you happen to stumble across Berries Goodman, you should pick it up. It’s a fun read and Neville has a fantastic ear for dialogue, especially between kids.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Hands up who read “The Lottery” for English class at one point.

Yeah, me too.

And that’s about where all of my Shirley Jackson reading stopped off. The Sundial was a selection for the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club a while back and I didn’t really care for it. Even now I barely remember it (which is why I like to keep this little book blog going). But We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a title people mention all the time; moreover, it was esteemed enough a book to remain in one half of my Austin hosting couple’s library after several years of purging and downsizing. Based on that, I figured the odds (please insert your own joke about odds and lotteries here) were pretty good that I’d enjoy the book. If nothing else, reading it would allow me to partake of a very particular moment of a friend’s life and a specific facet of their personality, and that alone is worth it.

A Tweet from @lastpages_ that says "'I read this book you recommended' is a love language."
Verily it is.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle did not fail to deliver!

Following the death of their family from an unsolved case of arsenic poisoning, Mary Katherine (Merricat) and Constance Blackwood, sisters, have secluded themselves in the ancestral home together with their Uncle Julian. Constance no longer leaves the property beyond her garden, leaving Merricat in charge of going into the village—whose residents have long been hostile to the Blackwood family and who are all convinced of Constance’s guilt in the arsenic case—to fetch groceries and items as necessary. This comfortable norm is interrupted by the arrival of cousin Charles, who has decided to reach out to this estranged branch of the family after the death of his father (brother to Uncle Julian and to the late patriarch of the Blackwood family). Charles and Constance strike up a relationship while Merricat immediately dislikes this interloper and does everything she can to drive him away.

Now that I’ve finally read the book once, I’d love to read it again and chart exactly how Jackson manages to ratchet up the spooky and the tension. (How appropriate that this review is going up as we gear up to enter Spooky Season!) I think the two hardest things to write are comedy and horror, because what people find funny and what people find terrifying are pretty personal at the end of the day. When a book succeeds in one of those genres, I think it’s worth paying extra close attention to figuring out why.