"We Have Always Lived In The Castle"

We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson

What a creepy little book. It unsettles you slowly like dark, foreboding clouds moving in one by one on a sunny afternoon. It begins quietly, genteel in tone and set in a beautiful old home, then you find yourself thinking that what you just read was a bit odd, and then the oddness grows and just keeps coming till it's all out freaky. It's a slow and steady revealing of what's going on beneath the gentility. Really well done.

It's a small book that takes very little time to read, but I don't recommend going through it too quickly because you'll miss the slow build-up of bizarreness (I know it's not a word, but it describes this book so well). Don't be in a hurry; read it in a few sittings.

What attracted me was the title. I am a pushover for books about houses so "We Have Always Lived In The Castle" was like a drug to an addict. The house does play a large role in the story, even after.....well, I'll let you read the book. Do. Read the book. I don't usually enjoy creepiness, but this was really good.

"What The Psychic Told The Pilgrim"

What The Psychic Told The Pilgrim by Jane Christmas

This is the second "Camino" book I've read and it's the one I was looking for. It begins in France where the authour begins her pilgrimage and ends in Santiago de Compostela, where pilgrims finish their trek and pick up certificates confirming they've done it. This is the realistic story of life on the trail with all it's beauty and ugliness, the great people and the jerks, the thrill and the heartbreak. It's most assuredly the closest I'll ever get to actually experiencing the real thing.

What I love about this one is that the authour doesn't try to make anything look prettier than it really is. All her doubts and fears are laid out for everyone to see, including the frustration and desire to quit on her first day out. The movie "The Way", while good, left out the real human grit that would be an inevitable part of a pilgrimage like this. The first book I read did tell the pilgrim's story, but only in the first half of the book; after that the authour focused on the theology of pilgrimage. Good information, but not what I was looking for.

Jane Christmas gave herself the Camino as a fiftieth birthday gift. She said she craved something "spiritual, challenging, unstructured, nomadic, something that would quiet the mind, give me a little quality time with God, and let my gypsy spirit out on a run". I'm sure most women who pass the 50 mark can relate to some or all of that. For most of us, by that age life has become structured - it has to just to survive that long - and our "gypsy spirits" have been pushed down so far we don't even know they're still there. We all want something to "wake up my senses and astonish my jaded middle-aged eyes". Even reading about somebody else's adventure breathes refreshment into our lives and I think it pushes us that little bit closer to embarking on one our our own.

Faith is a big part of the authour's life and she's as straightforward about her struggles with that as she is about everything else. She says "...the Camino offered a safe haven for people like me - people who periodically question and doubt their faith but who stick with it anyway, people who want to express the spiritual side of themselves without being harassed or viewed as some quaint oddity of the modern age, people who pray and believe in god but who occasionally use profanity and listen to heavy metal". You gotta love that honesty. In our society it seems as soon as you say you believe in God, you're expected to be either perfect or a lunatic, so it's nice to hear about a real person, with a real faith and real struggles.

She comes to some very liberating conclusions on her journey - liberating for her and for any of her readers who are ready to claim those conclusions for themselves. Here's one thought whose time has come: "As women, we constantly set the bar higher and higher for ourselves and then we wonder why we get so exhausted, cranky and defeated. It is time to celebrate our blessed, yet ordinary lives, to boldly embrace mediocrity as a virtue".

About three quarters of the way through the book she says something that probably wasn't that big a deal to her, but it blew me away. She is talking to a fellow pilgrim, Brigitte, about taking a bus to the next stop, something frowned upon by purists who insist that every step must be walked. They are both exhausted and not looking forward to the next stretch which will take them along a busy highway. Brigitte says "we are pilgrims, not martyrs, right?". Then Jane writes: "She had a point. A pilgrimage is not about punishment, but about making an intentional decision to look at the world with fresh awareness and to consider your place in it. A pilgrim defines her own pilgrimage; maps are guidelines, not prison sentences. If I walked every step of the Camino's route, it would not make me a better pilgrim or a better person. It could make me a superhero, but I had already traveled that road and found it to be highly overrated."

What a profound realization. I wish I had back all the time I've spent trying to do things perfectly, making sure there was nothing anyone would find fault with, trying all the time to prevent any cause for future guilt. I think it's time to face the truth about superheroes: they can't ever relax, they are forever playing defense, and they exist...only. in. fiction.

Such are my thoughts on "What The Psychic Told The Pilgrim". I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it to anyone who is ready to let their "gypsy spirit" out for a run.

"The Ladies Auxiliary"

The Ladies Auxiliary by Tova Mirvis

Batsheva has just moved into an Orthodox Jewish community in Memphis, Tennessee with her little girl, Ayala. It's a close-knit community, steeped in tradition, where everybody knows everybody else, who they are, what they do and what to expect from them. Certain behaviours are acceptable and others are not; being different makes it hard to fit in.

Batsheva is different. She wasn't raised in their tradition but she is trying to live the "religious" life as best she can and she longs for her and her daughter to be a part of this grounded, family-like community.

My expectation was that this would be one of those light, happy novels you fit in between heavier books to give you some brain relief and so you don't forget how to read for fun. Sadly, I didn't  like it. I particularly didn't like the way it's written in the first person plural, though that does have some benefits. When she says "we" thought this or did that it gives you a sense of the bond between community members and a glimpse into their mindset. The down side is it keeps you from getting to know characters individually. And it wears a bit thin after a while.

Mostly I didn't like it simply because of the huge disconnect between what they say is their chosen lifestyle and how they treat people. They talk a lot about being religious, but they gossip unendingly and pass judgement quickly and harshly. I understand I'm seeing it as an outsider because I am not a part of that faith community, and I also understand that everyone is human and is going to mess up now and then, but surely if any group is going to call themselves religious, and set themselves apart as holding to a higher standard, then how they relate to the people around them is going to be a high priority. To these people making sure there is no dust in the corner of a room seems more important than how they treat people. Something is out of whack, and it stays out of whack with only the occasional twinge of conscience. I found it tedious to the point of wanting to stop reading it and I'm not really sure why I finished it, except just to finish it.

I found the story plodding, the writing unappealing, the spirituality confusing and the ending odd. I didn't enjoy it so I can't recommend it.