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.


Age 20: Future Noir and British Repression

51mDiCUSHFLSerena: I’ve heard this book described in a lot of ways (hard sci fi, thriller, cyberpunk, postcyberpunk), but I think the most accurate one comes from the author himself, who calls it “future noir.” And that’s exactly what it is, complete with a wonderfully knotty whodunit, a classic gumshoe antihero, and a city whose seedy underbelly has pretty much consumed it. All that, and a world where consciousness is digitized and stored at the base of your skull. Imagine the possibilities.

I discovered Altered Carbon my sophomore year of college, and since then I’ve read every piece of Richard Morgan’s writing I can get my hands on. His gritty, tactile, tightly evocative prose ensnared me immediately, and I became so fascinated with his characters and the world he’d put them in that two years later I actually wrote about the book for my senior thesis on masculinity in cyberpunk.

I remember being afraid that studying Altered Carbon so closely would somehow disillusion me and I’d come out the other side hating it. A reasonable worry, maybe, but if anything, I loved the book even more after having thought about it for so long. I could see the flaws, sure, but they just gave me more to think about. Which is exactly what the best books do. They make you want to read them all the time, and then they make you want to think about them all the time.

9780679731726_custom-e2991b4e5f5e023cc9595645b92b67221229f944-s6-c30Dana: The Remains of the Day is the first and (spoiler alert!) only grownup book on my list of five favorites. It’s not my only favorite grownup book, but it represents what I like (angst! Britishness! repression!) pretty well. Like, my other option for this spot was Persuasion, so.

Stevens is a butler in a fancy British house called Darlington Hall–think Carson from Downton Abbey, but lonelier and more socially awkward. The house was Once Great, a place where important men met to make important decisions about the way the world should work. Now, in the 1950s, Lord Darlington is gone and the house is owned by an American named Mr. Farraday, who is perfectly respectable but insists on bantering constantly. Mr. Farraday insists that Stevens take a trip, so Stevens obliges: he drives across the country to see the former Miss Kenton, the housekeeper from Darlington Hall’s pre-war glory days. As he drives, Stevens relives the time when he and Miss Kenton ran the house together; perhaps if he can bring her back, he can make everything good again.

The book is completely internal: almost everything happens in Stevens’s mind and memory, but he refuses to admit anything to himself. The truth is pretty obvious to the reader—you love Miss Kenton, you idiot, and your boss was a Nazi sympathizer—but the way Stevens tells himself stories about himself is even more true. It’s the best character portrait and the best piece of first-person narration I have ever read.