I know what I know, says the almanac.

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Elizabeth Bishop and a cat.

The sestina is an extremely structured, extremely demanding poetic form that relies heavily on the repetition of six carefully chosen words. As you might imagine, they’re really, really hard to write. And the task becomes even harder if you want to avoid sounding monotonous, trite, and sing-songy (please never, never ask to see my own extremely embarrassing attempts).

But all that aside, when done well—well, they can turn into something pretty incredible. Such as, say, Elizabeth Bishop’s brilliantly executed “Sestina,” which happens to be both one of my absolute favorite poems and one of my absolute favorite pieces of writing about a house. So now I’ll stop talking and let Elizabeth take over.

Sestina

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It’s time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

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Home is where the liver smell is.

9780307278357Remainder is a super weird book. And it’s not a book that immediately came to mind when we started talking about houses. But then I was staring at my bookshelf, feeling like I knew, just knew, that at some point I had read a book about the perfect house, a house where everything was just so, where everything was choreographed down to the moment… and then I remembered Remainder.

The nameless main character in Tom McCarthy’s novel has just won himself an enormous settlement—8 and a half million pounds—after some unidentified object fell out of the sky and onto his head. And when the book opens, this guy has no idea what to do with all that money. But then he finds himself at a party in a friend’s apartment, and he looks up at the wall, and he sees a large crack down the side. And he’s overcome with intense déjà vu and a web of connected sense memories: the smell of liver cooking, the sound of a piano. He realizes that this moment is familiar—that, in fact, it is the most familiar and Real moment of his life.

So the man pours his giant sum of cash into recreating that moment so that he can live it on an infinite loop. He builds an apartment building just so. He hires a woman to live in the downstairs apartment and cook liver. He hires a man to play the piano upstairs. He creates a house that lives up to the ideal in his mind—and then realizes that it isn’t enough, and things spin out of control.

Like I said, this is a super weird book. It’s explicitly philosophical, and sometimes that makes it feel distant and abstract. (I mean, the protagonist doesn’t have a name. Come on.) But the way it deals with the idea of creating a home and feeling connected to the world through a sense of place is fascinating and trippy, in a good way.

Castle, captured.

31122I suppose it might be a bit of a stretch to call the ramshackle English castle in this book a house, but for Cassandra Mortmain, our seventeen-year-old narrator, the castle is her house and she loves it, hates it, mocks it, and cherishes it in that familiar, frustrating relationship so many of us have with our homes.

And anyway, the castle in I Capture the Castle isn’t quite what you’d imagine. Sure, it has high stone walls and turrets and a gatehouse and a moat. But the Mortmain family is dirt-poor and so it’s also virtually unfurnished, frigid most all year round, and crumbling to pieces. Not a particularly easy or glamorous life, perhaps, but certainly one that provides some good material.

So, hoping to practice both her speed-writing and her narrative skills, Cassandra starts a journal in which she plans to “capture” her home and family through zealous scribbling. This ends up being a bit more complicated than she’d bargained for because life tends to resist being pinned down. On the bright side, however, the more challenging it is for her, the more interesting it is for us.

I Capture the Castle is a pretty old book (it was published in 1948) and very few of us can claim an adolescence anything like Cassandra’s, but it doesn’t feel dated or distant. On the contrary, her genuine and eloquent narration lend a charged immediacy to her surroundings that’s still palpable now, more than sixty years later.

Home, far away

9780544002197Anthony Shadid was a Lebanese-American Middle East correspondent (he died in 2012, about a month before House of Stone came out, of an asthma attack while he was covering the war in Syria). He was born and raised in Oklahoma, but even as a teenager he knew that he wanted to be a journalist with a focus on the Middle Eastpartly in order to better understand his own Lebanese identity. In August 2007, exhausted by his work as a wartime journalist and by his divorce, Shadid moved to Marjayoun, in southern Lebanon, to begin the project of restoring his family home.

In order to understand why a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist would retreat to his ancestral village to restore his great grandfather’s house, you have to understand the meaning of the word bayt as he describes it in the first lines of his book, House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East:

The Arabic language evolved slowly across the millennia, leaving little undefined, no nuance shaded. Bayt translates literally as house, but its connotations resonate beyond rooms and walls, summoning longings gathered about family and home. In the Middle East, bayt is sacred. Empires fall. Nations topple. Borders may shift or be realigned. Old loyalties may dissolve, or without warning, be altered. Home, whether it be structure or familiar ground, is, finally, the identity that does not fade.

The book revolves around the house’s pastits original building by Shadid’s great-grandfather, Isber Samara; its place in the community of Marjayoun; the history of the family who lived there and slowly leftand its present, in a once-bustling town with a dwindling but proud population, bearing the damage of war after war. But it focuses most acutely on the way restoring that house of stone helped Anthony Shadid find his own place in this community that, even after being gone for generations, his family can still call home.

As it turns out, construction can be very appealing.

housecoverThis book makes me want to build a house. Every time I see it, I can’t help but wonder what I’m doing spending my days here in this city when I could be measuring lumber or raising the frame in a remote field somewhere.

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Building Our House is the story of a family and the house they build together. It narrates everything from their arrival in a weedy field to the day they invite their friends and family to help them move in. In between, there’s concrete and lumber, a backhoe and a cement mixer. There’s hard work every day and in all weather. There are endless fetching and carrying jobs for the family truck, Willys. The children get older, the cat has kittens, a new baby is born. And a house slowly rises from the ground and becomes a home.

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It’s a true story, too. Before Jonathan Bean was born, his parents decided to build a timber-frame house from scratch. The project took them five years, during which Jonathan and two of his three sisters were born. Building Our House is told from the point of view of Jonathan’s older sister, who experienced it all from start to finish.

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Everything about this book makes me feel so warm and fuzzy inside. The illustrations (even the ones depicting snow and sleet and freezing rain) are cozy and inviting. The family is quirky and adorable. And the house, well, I wish the house were mine.

August 2014: Houses

My dad is really obsessed with houses. I’m pretty sure he missed his calling. Last week, I was at my parents’ house, and we were just sitting around watching some TV (you know, a Frasier marathon on Netflix, I regret nothing), and he was sketching out plans for a new house–a new house that he doesn’t actually plan on ever building or living in–on a pad of graph paper that he keeps around specifically for this purpose. He’s not an architect; this is just his way of daydreaming and doodling. I’ve always been a person who gets really invested in finding a sense of place, but in a bigger way–I spend a lot of time staring at maps and figuring out public transit systems or the best routes for biking around a city. But my dad makes me appreciate the smaller scale. A house has a personality that’s made up of the specific size of each bedroom, the placement of the doorways, the arrangement of the kitchen appliances. A house can tell the story of the people who live in it, or of the city it lives in.

So this month we’re going to look at setting on that small scale: houses in books. Here are some loving homes, some ruins, some houses of horror. All of these houses are characters themselves.

And we’ll be linking to the glorious Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, Colorado.