This week I only finished one book, but it was dense and epic (in length and scope) and worth delving into for five days.
The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oates is set at Princeton at the turn of the twentieth century. There is unrest in the country, the book begins with the report of a double lynching in Camden, but within Princeton, everyone lives in a happy little privileged bubble. Except, of course, they don’t. Things begin to turn south when Woodrow Wilson (yes, that Woodrow Wilson), president of the University, begins feuding with the head of the graduate department and the community is taking sides. Grover Cleveland (yes, that Grover Cleveland) sees the ghost of his daughter trying to lure him out a second story window and has to be restrained by force. Then Annabel Slade, granddaughter of the pillar of the community Winslow Slade , encounters a devilish man in the garden; a man who entices her away from the altar (literally) on the day of her wedding, and she disappears completely. Her brother begins a quest to find her, and he and the other Slade grandchildren are pulled into “the Curse”. Townspeople begin to be visited by ghosts, or spirits, or demons- no one is really sure which. Girls keep disappearing, husbands begin suspecting their wives of infidelity, parents suspect that their children are possessed. Everyone knows that something terrible is happening, but no one knows what, exactly, it is. Add into this various “unspeakable” situations rumored to be happening (rape, homosexuality, lynching, etc.) but that no one is actually talking about, because, of course, they’re unspeakable, and you’ve got a very tangled web to unweave.
If there was a word to describe the multiple stories intertwining throughout this book, it would be DRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMA. But not in a bad way. Much of what happens is very real, human life- post partum depression, grief, infidelity, obsession, neglect, mental illness, jealousy- that when read in the context of the possibility of an evil influence becomes tinged with the supernatural. It’s an interesting look at what we humans can do to ourselves and each other without any “demonic” help. And that’s part of the question- who are “the accursed”, and why? Winslow Slade has an answer (one that I personally find utterly revolting), but I don’t know that it’s Oates’ actual answer.
Famous people rotate through the book, Woodrow Wilson, Grover Cleveland and his young wife, Upton Sinclair, Jack London. The book is very firmly set in its historical context, and while there are ghosts and demons of a kind, it’s not a fantasy book. It’s presented as a historical document, compiling reports from various sources; some of which are included in the book- personal diaries and letters- so we get to hear many different voices. (Which, I just realized, is interesting because the accursed characters also hear voices… ooooh!) The “author” admits at multiple times through the book that there is not enough information about certain things to completely reconstruct everything that happened. So a lot is left to the reader to piece together from what is said, or not said.
Anyway, it’s a great book, very absorbing.
I also read Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines by Samantha Hahn, though I’m not counting it toward the total because it’s a picture book. But what a picture book. I got the Kindle version for my iPad, but I’m going to have to get a hard copy, because it’s just so stunningly beautiful. Each two page spread is dedicated to a painting and a quote from a fictional heroine, and they are just gorgeous.
Sorry these pictures aren’t bigger. This one is Clarissa Dalloway and the quote says, “What a morning- fresh as if issued to children on a beach.”
This is Daisy Buchanan (are my choices any surprise?) and says, “All right, I’m glad its a girl and I hope she’ll be a fool- that’s the best thing a gilr can be in this world. A beautiful little fool.”
If she made prints I would plaster my walls with them. I realize I’m repeating myself, but THEY’RE JUST SO VERY PRETTY. If you need a present for a book lover in your life, this would be an easy go-to. She’s got everyone from Wendy Darling to Anna Karenina to Blanche Dubois to Antigone, and each picture captures the spirit and context of the character. I was flipping through the book on the haunted Kindle (so in black and white) before I looked at it on the iPad in color, and I could identify most of the characters even without their quotes. Trust me, if you love books, and you love art, you need this book.
The girls and I also finished Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman, which they loved. If you’re looking for a way to ease into Norse mythology, this is the way to go. Now we’re reading The Children of Odin:The Book of Northern Myths by Padric Colum, which is a more straightforward telling of the major myths.
Next up for me is Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places by Bill Streever. I need a break before I jump into a new fictional world, and, well, it’s cold.
What are you reading this week?