Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction by Malcolm Gaskill is the fourth book in the series that I’ve read and the 228th published in the series overall. The series is massive, so I feel like there’s a never-ending stream of interesting books flowing my way. Witchcraft is a particular favorite, and I liked it even more than my most recent read, Slang. The older illustrations that were selected are especially entertaining because they show the way that witches were imagined in the 16th and 17th centuries. Oddly one illustration, Hendy Fuseli’s The Nightmare, is captioned as having a “wild-eyed horse,” but the horse is clearly a ghost. At least to me, but I’m not seeing a second interpretation possible there. Along with illustrations and paintings are photographs, too, including one of a witches’ bottle from 2004 and a really funny one of a medium from 1930 ‘channeling’ a spirit into what looks to be a trash bag with a face drawn on it by a child.
The ‘witch-bottle’ that’s discussed is particularly interesting to me because it was buried upside-down and included nails, pins, hair, fingernail clippings, urine, and a pierced leather heart. The author continues “whether it was intended as protection against witchcraft or the means to reverse a spell, we’ll never know” (34). Why would they never know? Maybe ask a modern witch, you know, one that’s alive. I don’t mean to alarm any muggles out there, but witch bottles are still super common. That it was buried upside down may or may not have been intentional. Pins and nails are common protection items that would be universal to tons of witch bottles in existence today, not just historically, specifically ones to protect a home or person. Further, the nails, hair, and urine obviously belong to a person; it’s likely to belong to one person, and equally likely to belong to the person who created the bottle. Finally, the leather heart is pierced by presumably a pin or nail (why Gaskill doesn’t specify I don’t know, and I wish he had) seems to indicate heartbreak or pain. I posit that the witch bottle discovered was made to protect the creator from the pain of heartbreak, or to break the influence of heartbreak on that person. I suppose it could be to inflict heartbreak on someone else, or give them a heart attack, but they would need to DNA test the bottle. Whose DNA is on it, and is it all the same person? Because that’s actually really important. I don’t know a non-awkward way to explain this so I’ll just say it: I know all this stuff because I’m a witch. A practicing modern witch who picks up rusty nails when she sees them to make, you guessed it, witch bottles.
Slang: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathon Green was the third book I’ve read from the AVS series. It was my ‘purse book’ for the better part of three months, which I read piece meal in waiting rooms and the like. This book, like the whole VSI series, is very academic in style, and is written for academics. Having left grad school around a year and a half ago, it took me a few chapters to warm up, but then it was fine. However, it definitely will not make for good reading if you aren’t used to that style.
The book traces slang throughout time, complete with ye olde illustrations, but at points it feels a little dry (considering the subject matter). Some parts are extremely interesting, however, and I enjoyed reading it on the whole. The author is basically forced to deal with Urban Dictionary, but refuses to acknowledge its validity (at least in part, since it is ‘peer reviewed’ with the up/down voting). Even though the author won’t say it’s valid, he also won’t leave it out of the book, so it felt awkward. Near the end he makes points about regional and family slang that are very interesting, and it got me thinking about slang that’s used inside my family unit. It’s something that I’d never really thought about before. The chapters and sections are not broken up in a way that it can be used easily in a college classroom (in my opinion, anyway, and that way my original reason for picking it up), but it’s a good read nonetheless.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson was originally published in 1959 before being being turned into two movies and (soon) a Netflix series. After terrorizing students for years with her short story, “The Lottery,” I became intrigued by this novel when a friend read it for a book club. A year later, I’m happy to say that I finished the novel, and in two readings nonetheless. The night I started it, I stopped reading it when I was about 80 pages in because I could tell something terrifying was about to happen, and I didn’t want to be up all night either reading it or worrying about ghosts.
The novel has a relatively small cast of characters: Dr. John Montague, a paranormal scientist; Eleanor Vance (Nell) a shy woman of 32 who has taken care of her mother for the last 11 years; Theodora (Theo) who seems to possess some sort of telepathic or psychic abilities; and Luke Sanderson who is the heir to the house, a charming rake, and whose aunt seems to want to get rid of him. If four people from diverse backgrounds staying overnight in a haunted mansion where terrible events took place seems trite, don’t blame Jackson: she invented these tropes. As much as I hate horror movies, I absolutely love terror in books, and Jackson’s novel is a slow, atmospheric build. Once events start happening you know that it’s already out of control, and many questions remain unanswered at the end of the novel.
The Question of Eleanor and Theodora
One of the main questions that I ended the novel with is about Eleanor and Theodora; are they in love? I talked about “lesbian disruptions” in my The Return of the Soldier writeup, but this is something more. Eleanor is the shy mousy girl in the story, she’s living with her sister, Carrie, and her brother-in-law three months after her mother, who she was forced to take care of, died. She hated her mother, and kind of slept through her mother’s demand for medicine, which may have been what killed her. Oops! At 32 years old we get the impression that she’s never had a boyfriend or relationship of any kind, and that she sees herself as essentially unwanted. She has a wild, immersive imagination that fills the beginning sections of the novel, and she covers up the banality of her own life with pieces of these early daydreams. It’s only at the end of the novel that she reveals that she truly has no place to go home to, and it’s crushing.
File this post under blasts from the past(s). As my 10 years blogiversary approaches, I was feeling nostalgic about my old, hand-coded website, so of course I looked it up on the Wayback Machine. I was braced for something really amazing, and instead I found a website with roughly ten book reviews and three recipes on it. Despite its failure to live up to my memory of it, there were some good things there, and below are reviews of Herland and “The Yellow Wallpaper,” both by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, that I wrote way back in 2003.
Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I first heard about Herland in my Introduction to Women’s Studies class in Fall 2000, but I didn’t get around to reading it for almost three years. I bought a collected works of Gilman, and I’m incredibly happy with it, though it’s important to say right off the bat that this book is not for everyone. People with absolutely no interest in women’s studies, philosophy, anthropology or even cultural studies aren’t going to get much out of it, though I would still strongly recommend her short stories (particularly “The Yellow Wallpaper”).
Herland is the story of three men, all of whom are explorers, during their stay in the eponymous Herland. They stumble upon this all-female society quite by accident and attempt to learn about their culture while shielding the women of Herland from the truths about their own. They fail miserably, but are accepted into the society, and all three eventually marry. The men in the book are very much stereotypes; there is the southern gentleman who worships the women of Herland, the womanizer who goes near-insane and leaves loathing the women, and the balanced down-to-earth guy who takes his better half back to his (our) society so that she may be able to send a report back home. The women are less stereotypes, but more homogenized, they are all extremely similar and all of the women of Herland embody all of the basic values of our society, both male and female. For example: independence, intelligence, athleticism, temperance, kindness, and self-awareness to name a few.
The real strength of this book is as a work of philosophy, using fiction as an illustrative tool that serves to show how bizarre sex and gender divides really are in society and how their maintenance is out of habit more than practicality. I don’t want to judge this as a work of fiction alone because I really think it’s an amazing piece of fictional philosophy. In short: I liked this book but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone not interested in the fields it directly pertains to.