Halloween Bingo 2019 PreParty — Question for 08/03 (Day 3): Favorite Ghostly Tales?

     

As I said in my first pre-party post, I’m not much of a horror reader, and the ghost stories I like almost all either feature a ghost who is the author’s messenger for some larger point, or they’re chiefly characters who have had such an impact on another character’s life, or on a given place, that their “ghostly” presence is in effect like a lasting shadow of their living presence.  Or, of course, we’re really just talking fairy tale — or satire / parody.

It goes without saying that this definition includes Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, The Chimes and The Signalman; as well as the likes of:

* Aladdin from 1001 Nights (the genie is at least a kind of ghost, right?)
* A.S. Byatt: The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye
* Wilkie Collins: Mrs. Zant and the Ghost
* Henry James: The Turn of the Screw
* Naguib Mahfouz: Voices from the Other World: Ancient Egyptian Tales
* Toni Morrison: Beloved
* Terry Pratchett: Wyrd Sisters
* Otfried Preußler: The Little Ghost (a wonderful children’s story about not fearing “the other”)
* Anne Rice: Violin (the last book by her that I read before she turned BBA)
* Theodor Storm: Der Schimmelreiter (The Dykemaster)
* The ghost stories of Edith Wharton (wonderfully atmospheric)

… and of course …

* Oscar Wilde: The Canterville Ghost

 

 

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Halloween Bingo 2019 PreParty — Question for 08/01 (Day 1): Mystery or Horror?

 

Mystery, definitely.

For one thing, I’m a total chicken — I can’t look at blood (not even, or rather, especially not my own, e.g. in medical procedures); and anything shocking, spooky, or otherwise unnaturally unsettling just has me running for the rafters.  That’s particularly true at night — which is when I’m doing a good deal of my reading — but basically, it applies 24/7.  So that not only rules out slashers and other forms of gory horror, but pretty much any and all forms of psychological horror as well.  The only stories typically classified as “horror” that I can go near are classics where I essentially know what’s going to happen from the word “go” (e.g., Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), or ghost stories (mostly classics as well) where the appearance of the ghost(s) is (1) in itself not overly unsettling, at least not in the way in which it is presented to the reader, and / or (2) tied to a larger point that the author is trying to make.  (E.g.  most of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories, Charles Dickens’s The Signalman and — of course — A Christmas Carol and The Chimes, and Oscar Wilde’s hilarious send-up of the genre, The Canterville Ghost.)  Edgar Allan Poe is a special case … I do love some of his writing (e.g., The Masque of the Red Death and The Raven), but The Tell-Tale Heart creeped the hell out of me way back in high school, and that cat story (which shall remain unnamed in this post) … well, let’s just say once was once too often.

And then — well, I became a mystery reader all the way back in elementary school, and that was probably the most formative reading experience of my entire life.  It started with a series of books specifically targeting elementary school kids, whose (idiomatic) title went straight to my little smarta$$ jugular, challenging me to demonstrate I had what it took to solve them.  From there, it was practically guaranteed I’d move on to and love the Three Investigators series — by which time my mom had caught on once and for all, too, and in short order presented me with my first Agatha Christie — After the Funeral, which for that reason alone will always be one of my personal favorites.  And the rest, as they say, is history!

I’ve long stopped looking “just” for clever puzzles in mysteries, although that is still at least one of the things I want to see — it takes a lot of other things in a book to work well for me if I’ve solved the mystery early on and still end up liking the book.  But on the other hand, I’ll be just as unhappy if I can’t connect, on some level or other, with the main character (or if not them, at least an important supporting character) — or if I’m presented with shallowly drawn, cardboard or just flat out boring characters, or if the plot just ties one trope onto the next or is otherwise devoid of originality.  In other words, a mystery that works for me will always be more than merely the hunt for a killer (or other criminal, as the case may be) — it will be a complex blend of well-drawn, individual characters and an intelligent plot, and ideally the characters will also have some other (e.g., personal) challenges to deal with on their journey to the mystery’s solution.

Since I also love historical fiction (and nonfiction), historical mysteries are a particular favorite — provided they’re well-researched, such as Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael series (a long-time favorite) and C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series (my most recent “must-read” series) –, but I’ve never lost my love for the Golden Age classics — next to Christie, in particular Sherlock Holmes and everything Dorothy L. Sayers, as probably everybody here knows — and am thrilled to also see Golden Age crime fiction above and beyond the eternal great ones making such a huge comeback in recent years.  Martin Edwards, the current president (and chief archivist) of both the Detection Club and the Crime Writers’ Association, may not be everybody’s cup of tea personally, but there’s no denying that his lobbying for the revival of Golden and Silver Age crime fiction has a lot to do with this, and I think he deserves huge plaudits on those grounds alone.  That said, P.D. James’s writing (and her Inspector Dalgliesh) also has had a special place in my heart for longer than I can remember … and I’m inordinately happy to have discovered many more great women crime writers and women detectives in recent years; most recently, Joy Ellis’s Jackman and Evans series (*waves to Jennifer*).

Oh, and for the record, the “I can’t look at blood” thing applies to mysteries as well, of course — which is one of the reasons why as a rule I don’t read serial killer books; nor any other mysteries where I know, going in, that the corpse or the crime scene will be described in gratuitously graphic terms.   [She said, side-eying J.K. Rowling for the second Cormoran Strike book, which definitely should come with a warning label attached.]  However, I am not at all opposed to grit and grime in a mystery’s setting — in fact, I particularly enjoy both classic noir crime fiction (with Raymond Chandler a particular favorite) and modern crime fiction that takes a look at the state of society, such as Michael Connelly’s and Ian Rankin’s books.

 

 

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Crowdsourced: More Books with a Difference — Fiction

You asked, Moonlight Reader?  To quote from one of my additional entries below:  “As you wish …”

Without any further ado:

Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies
When Lillelara added A Place of Greater Safety to her list, I could have kicked myself —  because Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books were definitely among the most impressive books I’ve read in the past couple of years.  (A Place of Greater Safety as well, but the Cromwell duology even more so.)  They’ve changed my perception of Cromwell from that of a ruthless schemer to an incredibly complex and astute person (and politician): perhaps still not somebody I’d have wanted to be around all the time, but definitely someone for whom I’m caring from afar and back across several centuries.  And I’m both looking forward to and dreading the release of book 3 (now apparently scheduled for 2020).

Ben Jonson: The Alchemist
Speaking of scheming, the best evidence (if such a thing was needed) that get-rich-quick schemes are not the invention of the likes of Ponzi, P.T. Barnum, Madoff et al. — they’ve always been around.  A ribald, laugh-out-loud satire that’s best experienced on the stage rather than on the page … Philosopher’s stone, anybody?

Ellis Peters: Brother Cadfael series
MbD has already listed this series’s first book, A Morbid Taste for Bones, but really, the whole series is absolutely canon for me.  Peters condenses the complexities of the first English Civil War down to installments of roughly 200 pages, and she does so not only with great knowledge and insight but also with great empathy, through the eyes of one of literary history’s most engaging and worldly-wise characters.

Dorothy L. Sayers: Gaudy Night
And it’s the exact reverse here: I’ll be the first to get behind anybody’s adding all of Sayers’s writing to the list by way of a blanket reference, but the simple fact is that you haven’t really read Sayers until you’ve read Gaudy Night.  It’s the crowning achievement not only of her Lord Peter Wimsey series (and Wimsey / Vane subseries) but of all of her writing, not only until then — no wonder she was essentially done writing mysteries after this one.  MR rightly asked yesterday how come nobody has added Gaudy Night by name to the list, yet … it shall be so no longer!

Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express, Murder at the Vicarage, Crooked House, Witness for the Prosecution, and The Mousetrap
We already have “all of Christie” (minus Passenger to Frankfurt) and several individual titles on the list, and I swear I’ve tried to really keep a lid on things, but … look, I just don’t think I want to look at a crowdsourced BL list that doesn’t at least contain the above-named books as well.

Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451
My personal tetralogy of must-read dystopias consists of George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  Orwell’s and Atwood’s books are already on the list.  I’d (very grudgingly) be willing to live without  Huxley (even though the opening chapter alone should send a chill down everybody’s spine, particularly in light of the recent advances in genetic engineering).  But Fahrenheit 451 just has to be included — it’s never been more relevant than today, and it completely blows my mind that it was written in the 1950s.

Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger
I was initially going to include this in my first list, but took it off again after seeing that it was on the infamous published “1001 books” list.  Given that we’ve since clarified that this is not necessarily an exclusionary criterium, I’m happily listing it again: This is one of the funniest, most acidly satiric tough-love letters to one’s own country (packaged as a letter to a visiting foreign potentate) that you’ll ever come across.  Your laughter may be sticking in your throat a couple of times when you realize that you’ve just exposed your vocal chords to a razor blade hovering a nano-inch right above them, but even that won’t keep you from laughing out loud again and again on the very next occasion.

Louis de Bernières: Birds Without Wings
As book lists go, an exercise in contrasts vis-à-vis The White Tiger:  Just as panoramic in scope, just as searing to your various and assorted body parts, though in this instance, your guts (individually and collectively): a foray into early 20th century Turkish history as showcased in one particular community and by the friendship of two boys; Turkish-Greek (Muslim-Christian Orthodox) relations, Galllipoli, women’s roles, displacement, diaspora and all.  As gorgeously written as utterly devastating.  (Some of the characters, I’m told, resurface in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin — which I’ve yet to read, though.)

T.C. Boyle: The Tortilla Curtain
Like Adiga’s, Boyle’s sword is satire first and foremost, but there is a good deal of anger here, too:  Upper middle class gated community meets illegal Mexican immigrants — the quintessential Southern Californian culture clash.  This book, too, has never felt more relevant than today.

Edna O’Brien: In the Forest and Down by the River
O’Brien caused a stir and got herself onto her country’s censorship index with her Country Girls trilogy (and given 1960s’ morals, at least in  Ireland, that sort of figures), but it’s these two books by her that have left an indelible impression on me; on account of their topics (the prohibition of abortion — even in cases of incestual rape — in Down by the River, and a serial killing spree in In the Forest) and even more so because I’ve never before or since seen topics like these discussed in prose like O’Brien’s, with a brutal and yet lyrical immediacy that grabs you by the throat and never lets you go.

Bernard MacLaverty: Cal
If you only ever read one book on the (Northern) Irish “Troubles”, make it this one — simple as that.  Short and profoundly heartbreaking, and if afterwards you still don’t have a sense of what’s (been) going on there, you never will.

Heinrich Böll: Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum) and Irish Journal
Böll’s two sides: One, an angry polemic on one woman’s loss of privacy, employment, security, and pretty much everything else as a result of a vicious tabloid campaign following on the heels of her being falsely accused of being a member of a gang of terrorists; the other, a humorous, upbeat and downright serene account of his life in Ireland (or at least, some of its episodes).  Böll at his best in both instances, and taken together they showcase both the breadth and the depth of his writing.

Bertolt Brecht: Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui)
Brecht is best known for The Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage and, perhaps, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, but I’m not aware of any play that satirizes a demagogue’s rise to absolute power as trenchantly as this one, set in Chicago and written after Brecht had emigrated to the U.S. (There is no question that Arturo Ui is meant to be Hitler.)  Like all plays, obviously best experienced on the stage; and I swear Ian McKellen took more than a page out of Brecht’s book when transposing Richard III to a fascist version of 1930s Britain in his 1995 movie — characterization, set decorations and all.

Su Tong: Raise the Red Lantern (aka Wives and Concubines)
The first narrative actually by a Chinese author set in the world that I had previously only known through Pearl S. Buck’s novels; and it completely broke my heart.  (So did the movie starring Gong Li.)  It’s not easy being a rich man’s young minor concubine … in fact, it may clean drive you insane.

Amy Tan: The Kitchen God’s Wife
The Joy Luck Club is a good book, but it’s here, in her second novel, that Tan really gets up, close and uncomfortably personal with married life in early 20th century China.  Like most of her writing, partially informed by her own family’s experience, which adds ever so much more immediacy to the storytelling.

Colleen McCullough: The Thorn Birds
People may have watched the TV series for the romance (and, um, for Richard Chamberlain), but I’ll take any bets you like that you will read the book for the history, the sweeping canvas of Australia, and all of the characters — though there is, of course, only one Mary Carson, and that’s probably a good thing, too.

Margaret Mitchell: Gone with the Wind
Speaking of romance tearjerkers, though … Look, I know, it’s racist to the core and Ashley is the wettest of wet towels (even if he’s played by Leslie Howard in the movie).  But Scarlett is a complete and utter badass, and that alone means she has every right to be on a list bearing that very word in its title; Rhett and Scarlett have more memorable lines of dialogue between the two of them than a whole other library’s worth of romance novels, and Mellie almost certainly is one of literary history’s most underappreciated characters.  (Also, Rhett Butler will of course always be Clark Gable.)

Elizabeth von Arnim: The Solitary Summer
MbD listed this book’s prequel, Elizabeth and her German Garden, but I think the two should be read together; and though I haven’t read everything by von Arnim yet I’ve read enough to know that her books are absolutely part of my personal canon.  Charming, witty, here also frequently contemplative — and way ahead of her time in terms of her insights on society.  (Also, there’s an obvious reason why she nicknamed her husband The Man of Wrath.)

John Mortimer: Rumpole of the Bailey
This has to be one of very few examples of storylines first developed for a TV series later being turned into book form and making their central character an icon both on the page and on screen.  Rumpole will always look like Leo McKern to me (it’s no coincidence that some of the book covers are cartoons mimicking him in the role, either); and I’ve learned more about common law criminal trials and about the differences between British and American criminal procedure than from many a textbook.  Also, the manifold ways in which Mortimer kept Rumpole from actually “taking silk” (i.e., becoming a QC — queen’s counsel — in his own right and allowed to first-chair trials), and thus keeping him safely in the disdain of his wife Hilda, aka “she who must be obeyed”, never cease to astound me.

Peter May: The Blackhouse
I’m fairly late to May’s books and, based on what I’ve read to date, I’d have no hesitation in blindly recommending the entire Lewis Trilogy and everything else he’s written that is set on the Hebrides as well.  As it is, I’m going to content me with one of the two books I actually have read so far, the first installment of the Lewis Trilogy.  (The other book by him I’ve read is The Coffin Road, which is every bit as good.)  Darkly atmospheric, gripping; just all around phantastic writing.

James D. Doss: White Shell Woman and Grandmother Spider / Tony Hillerman: Leaphorn & Chee series
Two  series focusing on Native American cops and making the most of their Southwestern U.S. setting and the culture and mythology of the Native people at their core: Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries, I’ve been aware of for a long time (though not quite from the time of its actual beginning), but Doss’s Ute tribal investigator Charlie Moon, his best buddy sheriff Scott Paris and his shaman aunt Daisy Perika are fairly new to me, and boy am I glad I finally discovered them!  I’ve read all of Hillerman’s mysteries — those by him, not the sequels by his daughter, that is — and love (or at least like) most of them well enough to recommend the entire series; my favorites are probably some of the first books after Leaphorn and Chee were first lumped together (after having initially worked alone in three books each): Skinwalkers, A Thief of Time, Coyote Waits, and Sacred Clowns, as well as the final book written by Tony Hillerman himself, Skeleton Man. — By contrast, I still have quite a bit of catching up yet to do with Mr. Doss, but he’s definitely a new favorite already, and I’m very much looking forward to the rest of my journey through his catalogue.  Of the books I’ve read so far, Grandmother Spider and White Shell Woman are far and away the best.

John Le Carré: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes — who will spy on a spy; who’ll guard the guardians?  The eternal question, ever since rulers first figured out that it might be worthwhile keeping tabs on their friends and enemies, abroad as well as at home (and also keep tabs on the people keeping those tabs); and nobody before or since nailed it the way Le Carré does here.  The Spy Who Came in from the Cold may have been his breakout success (and for a reason), but to me, in setting, characters, story arc and everything else, Le Carré’s writing will always come down to this one book.  Even Stella Rimington (former head of MI 5) grudgingly acknowledged that he gets it right … and even if he had written no other book at all, his would still be one of the most important contributions to the genre — and to a wider understanding how secret services operate –, for this one book alone.

Edgar Allan Poe: The Masque of the Red Death
Heaven knows I’m no horror fan, and Poe creeped the heck out of me when we read The Tell-Tale Heart way back when in high school.  While I acknowledge his mad genius, I admire some, but not all of his writing (The Black Cat is not a story I ever want to go near again in my life, and the Dupin Tales, though of course groundbreaking in terms of genre, leave me somewhat unimpressed from a storytelling perspective); but you’ll have to look long and hard to find another as spine-chilling portrayal, in the brief span of a short story at that, of a society literally partying itself to death in complete oblivion of the peril it has conjured right into its midst.

Stephen King: Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption
Even more than Poe, Stephen King is able to creep me out like nobody’s business, but even if you’re not into horror, if there’s one piece of fiction writing by him that I think everybody should read it is this one, for its middle finger salute to adverse fate if nothing else.  (Also, Edmond Dantès has nothing on Andy Dufresne.  And I’m saying this as a big fan of The Count of Monte Cristo.)

James Goldman: The Lion in Winter
Modern TV has discovered the Tudors as soap opera material (and there’s a point to that, obviously), but if there’s one family in the centuries-long history of the (immediately preceding) Plantagenet dynasty, it’s Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and their sons, not coincidentally known as “the devil’s brood”.  If you don’t believe me, watch this play … or the movie based on it.  It gives a whole new meaning to the term “family feud” — and this all actually happened!

William Goldman: The Princess Bride
This, on the other hand, is a fairy tale.  (Or is it?)  Well, at least the best bits are; “S. Morgenstern” my foot.  This one is of course worth it for the one-liners alone (as is, again and even more so, the movie — the Goldman brothers really had a run in Hollywood).  And seriously, how can we possibly have a “favorite 500” crowdsourced list without this book on it?

Jules Verne: Mich(a)el Strogoff (aka The Tsar’s Courier)
One of the first adventure novels I was seriously hooked on; a ripping great yarn set in Tsarist Russia.  It helped that there was a TV adaptation when I was in my most impressionable years in terms of hero worship, but who hasn’t ever wanted to be chosen to carry a secret message from the Tsar’s Moscow court all the way to Irkutsk in Siberia, fight bandits and Tartars on the way and have all sorts of other adventures (romantic, with a killer partner, included)?

Robert Louis Stevenson: Kidnapped
Before there was Michael Strogoff (for me), there was David Balfour.  Replace Russia by Scotland, and you had me at “adventure”:  Jekyll and Hyde came later, but neither it nor The Treasure Island has ever occupied even remotely the place in my heart that is firmly reserved for the adventures of David Balfour.  Als, note to Mr. Dickens: See, I really like your larger than life characters, but this little book is proof positive that you can deliver this sort of story in the space of a little less than 300 pages and even include a sea voyage and some nifty swashbuckling.  It doesn’t have to be a 950-page brick like Nicholas Nickleby

Giovanni Guareschi: The Little World of Don Camillo
Another book that I discovered via its TV adaptation, starring French comedian Fernandel as Don Camillo: The daily feuds of the local Catholic priest and his friend and rival, communist mayor Peppone, in small-town post-WW II Italy.  Cheeky, funny and an all-around feel-good book — and always with an upbeat, hands-on solution to whatever problem has arisen in the course of the narrative (even if occasionally a somewhat … unusual one).  If only all politics would work like that, village setting or not!

Francis Hodgson Burnett: Little Lord Fauntleroy
Yes, it’s sentimental (then again, so are The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, which tend to get somewhat more play when it comes to “must read” lists), and I know it’s not even a Christmas novel as written — it was only tweaked that way in the TV adaptation starring Alec Guinness and Ricky Schroder –, but it’s been one of my feel-good go-to books, around Christmas especially, since practically time immemorial.

T.S. Eliot: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats
Most people know it because it’s provided all except one of the song lyrics and feline characters for the musical Cats, but seriously, people — whether or not you are a cat person yourself, just read it, laugh and enjoy.  Eliot wrote this for his godchildren, and he obviously had a ball.  He also knew cats really, really well.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Letters from Father Christmas
Tolkien’s letters to his children, responding to their letters and wish lists to Santa Claus (Father Christmas) — do yourselves a favor and get the hardcover edition, which is illustrated with Tolkien’s own drawings.  This is where The Hobbit came from … and probably parts of Lord of the Rings as well.

Otfried Preußler: Die kleine Hexe (The Little Witch)
Otfried Preußler, in Germany, is sort of Frank L. Baum, Dr. Seuss and Lewis Carroll rolled into one — he is, or used to be, one of the most popular children’s authors for decades.  Many of his stories were inspired by the myths and legends of his native Sudeten region (today: chiefly in Poland and the Czech Republic); including this one, which has always been my absolute favorite.  Talk about a middle finger to adversity ending … —  Preußler was also the first author to whom I ever wrote a fan letter … in first grade, when I had barely learned to read and write!

Bill Watterson: The Complete Calvin & Hobbes / René Goscinny & Albert Uderzo: Asterix the Gaul
Hobbes forever. — And you couldn’t grow up in Europe when I was a kid without knowing about (and loving) Asterix and his village of crazy Gauls.

 

And since books that are on “those lists” are no longer absolutely taboo, I’m hereby also offering the following additions from the “I know they’re on all of ‘those lists’, but they’re canon to me and there’s nothing to be done about that” department:

Jane Austen: Mansfield Park and Persuasion
All of Austen, really, but if I have to pick individual books, it’s always going to be Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park.  Since Moonlight Reader has already added P&P, I’m obviously going to go with the other two.  Of course you can’t help but love Lizzy Bennet (and Colin Firth is Mr. Darcy, period), but I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Austen’s quieter heroines; not least because they’re having so much more of a hard time sticking to their guns and they persevere nevertheless.

Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre
Not the only badass among the Brontë sisters’ heroines, but however much I may like The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Jane still takes the cake.  We first met when I was barely a teenager — I guess that kind of lengthy acquaintanceship is just a bit too long to upend, even by charracters from the pen of another member of the same family of writers.

Elizabeth Gaskell: Cranford and North & South
It’s not hard to see how Gaskell and the Brontës (especially Charlotte) were friends.  But where CB kept things essentially to a personal level, Gaskell took it to a wider scope (also, I can’t read North and South without seeing Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton).  Her greatest jewel, though, is Cranford and the microcosm of its village life — nowhere else does Gaskell’s wit and insight into human nature sparkle as much as there.  Besides, how can you resist a book about a village where men are merely tolerated and nobody really dare dispute that women are the infinitely superior sex?

William Shakespeare: Macbeth, Richard III, Hamlet
For obvious reasons I’m tempted to list half his catalogue, but even if you’re not into Elizabethan theatre at all, the three plays by the Bard that you absolutely ought to see are Macbeth, Richard III, and Much Ado About Nothing.  Since Tea, Stitch, Read thankfully already listed Much Ado, I’m going to stick with the other two — plus my personal favorite (after many meanderings), Hamlet.  Nobody does the ruin of a human being — and his complete entourage — as the consequence of a single destructive character flaw like Shakespeare, and these three plays are among his very best.

Alexandre Dumas (père): The Three Musketeers
We already have The Count of Monte Cristo on the list, and I totally agree with that of course, but I met M. Dantès at around the same time as D’Artagnan and his friends, and they’ve been an item in my mind ever since.  Besides, Artos, Portos and Aramis totally rule at wisecracking while swashbuckling.  So onto the list they go!

John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath
Steinbeck wasn’t on my high school curriculum, and that was perhaps fortunate, as no teacher had the opportunity to ruin him for me and I could discover him all by myself and in my own time.  My two “must read” entries by him are East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath; since we already have East of Eden, obviously I’m going to go with his pull-no-punches, kick-in-the-gut Depression Era masterpiece.

Tennessee Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Williams named his fictional world “Dragon Country” and described it as an uninhabitable place of pain that is nevertheless inhabited — that’s really all you need to know about his plays.  These two hit me the hardest by far.

Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence
Wharton won the Pulitzer for this novel, and even if perhaps she’d already deserved one a lot earlier, there’s no question that it’s justified here.  Social conventions were never so stifling, scheming never so vicious — and all hidden under a perfect, completely scratch-proof, shining veneer.  In equal parts chilling and heartbreaking.

Virginia Woolf: Orlando and A Room of One’s Own
The first of these, Woolf’s tongue in cheek but heartfelt love letter to Vita Sackville-West (also one of the most approachable among her novels), the other one her feminist manifesto.  It’s hard, indeed, not to recognize both Sackville-West and her beloved Knole in Orlando‘s title character and key setting, and this is one of the few books where both time travel and a gender swap really work for me.  A Room of One’s Own, on the other hand, contains the famous “anonymous poet(ess)” quote, but it shouldn’t be reduced to that — it’s really quite a trenchant analysis of the history of women’s literature, and much of it still rings very true today.

Aristophanes: Lysistrata
A sex strike to prevent a war … maybe we should revive that idea, what do you think?

Sophocles / Jean Anouilh: Antigone
Antigone has been one of my heroines ever since I first came across her story, and not even a French teacher who almost managed to ruin Camus for me (whom, in turn, I had to rediscover on my own after having graduated from high school) could muddy those particular waters.  In fact, in a way I’ve even come to love Anouilh’s version of the play just a tiny bit more than Sophocles’s original.

Jean-Paul Sartre: Huis Clos (No Exit)
L’enfer, c’est les autres — hell is other people.  I didn’t have to see this play to form that particular conviction, but Sartre really nails it — and all he needs is three characters and a stage set with three chairs and a locked door.

George Orwell: Animal Farm
Yes, it’s manipulative to the nth degree, yet, “all pigs are equal but some pigs are more equal than others” and “four legs good, two legs bad” are far and away no longer applicable to the communist dictatorships that Orwell aimed this at.  A worthy companion to his masterpiece 1984 (which is already on our list anyway).

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go
Ishiguro’s big theme is the unreliability of memory — and indeed, nobody does unreliable narrators like him.  He deserved the Lit Nobel for these two novels alone.

Thomas Mann: Doktor Faustus, as well as Mario und der Zauberer (Mario and the Magician) / Klaus Mann: Mephisto / Heinrich Mann: Der Untertan (Man of Straw, aka The Loyal Subject)
The Mann family’s individual and collective takedown of the Nazi regime and the society that made the Nazis’ rise to power possible.  Thomas Mann’s seducer (in the novel) and magician (in the short story; in both instances, an obvious parable for Hitler — with the novel’s Faustus standing in for the German people), aided and abetted by charismatic opportunists like Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, who mesmerized a people conditioned for centuries to obey and even slavishly adore authority without question, like the eponymous protagonist of Heinrich Mann’s novel.

E.M. Remarque: Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front)
In a sense, the prequel to the above-mentioned Mann family’s writings: the story of the lost generation bamboozled into joyfully rushing into the slaughter that would be WW I.  This will make you angry, and it will also break your heart (several times).

And with that, I’ll leave it for the time being … nonfiction additions (if we still have space for them) to follow tomorrow!

 

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1906574/crowdsourced-more-books-with-a-difference-fiction

2018 Halloween Bingo: The Books So Far

… in the order in which they’re appearing on my card (not the order in which they’ve read them).

Soooo … in this year’s twist on RL doing its best trying to throw a spanner in the works of Halloween Bingo fun, I’ve been spending the better part of the month either sitting around in conference rooms or glued to some piece of writing on my computer screen (or both).  Fortunately this has so far involved a fair amount of driving, too, so I’ve largely been able to shift my bingo reads to audiobooks … without, however, also having a whole lot of time to write reviews.  Looks like right now is one of those moments where I might have a shot at catching up — so let’s give this a try, shall we?

In other words: Halloween Bingo 2018: the (mostly) audiobook version.

 


Georgette Heyer: Penhallow

On the face of it, your classic country house mystery, country estate and horse farm in Cornwall and all; but Heyer wrote this as a contract breaker, and boy, does it ever show.  Neither seekers after romance and after knights in shiny armour nor seekers of a genteel country house atmosphere need apply here, and what might be termed “a somewhat crotchety original” in any other book (including but not limited to Heyer’s own), here is styled as a crass, meanspirited old family tyrant who likes nothing better than bullying each and every member of his vast and long-suffering family into submission and downright terror.  With the exception of two creations by Agatha Christie (Simeon Lee in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and Mrs. Boynton in Appointment with Death), I can’t think of any character in another mystery, Golden Age or not, who is so totally devoid of redeeming qualities.  However, while both of Christie’s two infamous bullies — who clearly come from he same mold as old Penhallow — meet their ends fairly early on in the respective books and thus relieve both the reader and their families of their continued presence, we (and Penhallow’s harassed household) have to suffer until almost the 65% mark of this book until someone’s nerves finally snap once and for all.  We actually get to witness the murder, so there’s no great mystery as to whodunnit — although I admit that for the longest time I kept hoping for a Christie-esque twist, but that was not to be.

(Also, though this is a far cry from George R.R. Martin, be careful which of the other characters you invest your sympathies in … though God knows, few enough of them deserve any empathy to begin with; but then, with old man Penhallow around, it’s hard to see how any of them could have grown both a spine and halfway decent manners at all.)

There’s some ambivalence as to the book’s two LGBT characters — one son of Penhallow’s who is obviously modeled on Oscar Wilde and who, apart from a few witticisms, comes across rather negatively and as checking off pretty much every anti-gay cliché in the book, and a daughter who, apart from being a bit “bossy”, is one of the few members of the younger generation endowed with a brain, a healthy dose of common sense, and the gumption to stand up to her father (albeit helped, no doubt, by the fact that she is also one of the few family members not financially dependent on the old man).

All in all, a far cry from your typical Heyer (or at least, from her mysteries — can’t speak to her Regency romances) — I’m not sorry I read it, but as far as grumpy old patriarchs and bickering families go, I vastly prefer one of her Inspector Hemingway mysteries, Envious Casca (republished as A Christmas Party).

Reading Progress Update: 120 of 833 Minutes

 


Patricia McKillip: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

My first book by McKillip; a short(ish) fantasy tale substantially in the traditional mold with a strong female heroine — a sorceress living on a mountainside high above the fighting human empires down in the plain; alone but for the company of a number of magical beasts.  At the risk of sounding jaded, the basic plotline (and the type of ending) is pretty much telegraphed from the very beginning; still, the characters are emphatically drawn, there are enough twists and turns over the course of the story to always ensure that the book held my attention, and I’m definitely interested in reading more books by McKillip in the future.

 


Mary Roberts Rinehart: Locked Doors

The second of Rinehart’s “Nurse Hilda Adams” stories; in terms of setup, of the “woman in peril” kind of tale that Rinehart specialized in — and which I’m usually not a fan of, but I’ll gladly make an exception here.  Nurse Hilda is the epitome of what is called a “feisty” young woman in certain types of fiction: especially taking into account that this story was written shortly after the turn of the last century (published in 1914), she is independent (and independently-minded) and able to take care of herself to an extraordinary degree, and thus makes for an admirable protagonist.

Here she takes a position in a stately home where, as she soon finds out, bedroom doors are locked at night, beloved pets go missing, all the servants have recently left or been let go, and there seems to be a strange, slithering presence on the stairway at night and a mystery madwoman (or invalid) in, you guessed it, the attic — but before you cry “Gothic cliché”, beware … just like Nurse Hilda, Rinehart actually had her feet planted firmly on the ground, and was also very much up to date with the state of medical knowledge and research, which in an unexpected way made this story an enjoyable companion read / listen to Jennifer Wright’s decidedly less enjoyable Get Well Soon.

I guess at some point I should also read Rinehart’s Circular Staircase, which I’m still not entirely sold on however, but I’ll definitely read more of her Nurse Hilda stories.

 


Joy Ellis: Their Lost Daughters

Why, oh why did anybody think that this book’s title (!!) needed an appendage such as “a gripping crime thriller with a huge twist” on Amazon (and likely thus also on every other site that draws its feed from Amazon and where there aren’t any librarians to do away with this sort of nonsense) in order to generate proper sales?!  That sort of hype is, ordinarily, a sure fire turn-off for me, and it almost would have been here, too, had Their Lost Daughters not been reviewed favorably by friends whose opinions I trust (and, cough, I admit the fact that the audio version is narrated by Richard Armitage helped as well).  As a result, I’d almost have missed out on one of the best books I read all year … and that makes me even madder at whoever was the eejit that came up with that super-hypey tag line.

Beyond the fact that this begins as a “missing girls” investigation, there is little I can say in terms of plot description that wouldn’t be a huge spoiler, so let’s just stick with the fact that Ellis draws the sombre, downright oppressing Fenlands setting very, very astutely and expressively, and her team of detectives (led by DI Rowan Jackman and DS Marie Evans) are among the most likeable, rounded, and overall believable investigators that have appeared on the mystery scene in recent years — and I also very much like Marie’s (Welsh) mother, who I hope is going to be a continued presence in the series, too.  That all said, and much as it pains me to admit it, the “huge twist” thing from Amazon’s abominable tagline is actually true: even if you think you sort of see part of the solution coming, you don’t clue into how it all hangs together until it’s unraveled right under your very nose.  (And lest anyone say the solution is too outlandish to be true, there are several real life cases published in the past couple of years that featured decidedly more gruesome facts, and which may easily have inspired this book’s solution; or at least, certain parts of it.)

 


Angela Carter: The Bloody Chamber

Reviewed separately HERE.

 


Anthony Berkeley: The Wychford Poisoning Case

The fifth time, this year alone, that I’ve found myself running into a fictional incarnation of the (in)famous real life case of Florence Maybrick, the American-born Liverpool housewife convicted, in 1889, of having murdered her husband by administering to him a dose of arsenic obtained by soaking flypaper in water — allegedly in aid of concocting a beauty cream.  Mrs. Maybrick’s method, if indeed this was how her husband found his premature end, may have engendered several real-life copycats (including, most famously, just after the turn of the 20th century, Frederick Seddon and Herbert Rowse Armstrong … if the medical evidence given at their respective trials is to be believed, that is), and British mystery writers have downright flocked to her footsteps ever since in fiction as well.  Agatha Christie used a variation of the Maybrick case as a basis for Crooked House; Anthony Rolls based Family Matters on pretty much every salient detail of the Maybrick story except for the flypaper bit; which in turn, however, makes a starring appearance in P.D. James’s short story Great Aunt Ally’s Flypaper (later republished as The Boxdale Inheritance), which features a very young Sergeant (Inspector-to-be) Dalgliesh and is included in my very first read of this year, the P.D. James short story collection The Mistletoe Murder (as the title indicates, a “holdover” from my 2017 Christmas reads), as well as in the Detection Club anthology Verdict of 13, which I read for this year’s Halloween Bingo (see mini-review below).  Finally, also in that latter anthology, Christianna Brand has the real-life Mrs. Maybrick meet two other alleged, famous 19th century women poisoners in a story aptly entitled Cloud Nine.

No wonder, then, that Anthony Berkeley, like his fellow Detection Club members acutely aware of the criminal causes celèbres of his own and of bygone eras, would also seek inspiration in Mrs. Maybrick’s legacy.  Martin Edwards makes the case, in The Golden Age of Murder, that Berkeley’s books offer clues — perhaps more so than the books of his fellow Golden Age mystery novelists — to his own personality, experience, and outlook on life.  I haven’t read enough books by Berkeley yet to make up my mind how much I think there is to this theory, but if The Wychford Poisoning Case is any indication indeed, Mr. Berkeley (despite his reportedly boisterous persona) was, deep down, a very reticent and private man … and supremely uncomfortable around women, who are either “high” or “low”, either vamp, stupid chicken, naughty girl, mother, MissMarpleSilverBradleyVane incarnate, or grand dame, and only in the last-mentioned cases accorded a halfway rounded, three-dimensional, individual personality (with some allowances made in favor of girls from a decent background, who have the makings of turning either into true ladies / grand dames, or into women detectives or fiction writers, or even into all of the above, later in life).  There are passages in this book that are redolent with blatant misogyny, and yet, I hesitate to append this label wholesale … more than anything, it seems to me that Berkeley very much wanted to, but simply didn’t “get” women and, consequently finding himself rejected and dissatisfied (none of his several marriages were happy), resorted to the stereotype prevalent in his era anyway; essentially, the “sinner or saint” dichotomy.

That all being said, the mystery itself is cleverly constructed, and notably this is not the only book where Berkeley’s series detective, Roger Sheringham, comes into the case on the side of the accused woman and with the express intention to exonerate her from what he considers a rash and unjustified charge.  And while the true facts of the Maybrick case will almost certainly never be unraveled, it is just conceivable that Berkeley did, in fact, hit on the one solution that was closest to the historic truth.

 


Jennifer Wright: Get Well Soon

Reviewed separately HERE.  Also a Flat Book Society read.

 


The Detection Club: Verdict of 13

An anthology published by the 1970s’ incarnation of the Detection Club, edited by its then-president Julian Symons, featuring 13 short stories all premised, in a very loose sense, on the concept of a jury (even if it’s only a jury of one).  Contributors include — in addition to Symons — P.D. James and Christianna Brand (see above and The Wychford Poisoning Case / comments re: Florence Maybrick), Gwendoline Butler, Dick Francis, Michael Gilbert, Michael Innes, Patricia Highsmith, Celia Fremlin, H.R.F. Keating, Michael Underwood, Ngaio Marsh, and Peter Dickinson.

The stand-out stories, to me, are P.D. James’s Florence Maybrick-inspired look at an early moment in Inspector (then-Sergeant) Dalgliesh’s career (see comments above) and Michael Gilbert’s Verdict of Three, a cleverly constructed public-school-morphing-into-public-service combined update of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Adventure of the Second Stain, The Naval Treaty, and The Bruce-Partington Plans, told from the perspective of the person who, in a Sherlock Holmes story, would be Holmes’s client (except that Holmes, here, has contrived to be part of the jury).  “Place” and “show” honors go jointly and equally to Ngaio Marsh’s Morpork (which I’d also read before, but long ago; a story set in the wilds of her native New Zealand); as well as Dick Francis’s  Twenty-One Good Men and True (involving race track betting), Gwendoline Butler’s The Rogue’s Twist (in which dogs are, depending how you look at it, either part of the jury or part of the prosecution), and Michael Underwood’s Murder at St. Oswald’s (as the title indicates, another story set in a public school; here, involving a bullying teacher).

 


Mavis Doriel Hay: Murder Underground

Hay’s first of the only three mysteries she ever wrote, but the last one I read.  Of the three, I’d rate it the middle entry — it’s not anywhere near as enjoyable as The Santa Klaus Murder (Hay’s final book and one of the highlights of my 2017 Christmas reads), but I liked it quite a bit better than Death on the Cherwell.  Oddly, the titular murder is completely taken as a fait accompli here: we’re not even in on the discovery of the body, never mind meeting the victim-to-be in the flesh and seeing her interact with the suspects-to-be (all of them, residents of the same North London longterm-accommodation hotel as herself; two, in addition, young relatives of hers and her presumptive heirs).

As a result, I needed quite a bit of time to find my way into the story and connect with the characters, only few of whom I ultimately ended up liking (though I will say it was refreshing to see a male TSTL character for a change).  Still, even though I had a suspicion as to the murderer early on, which turned out to be correct, it was a fun, light, if somewhat chatty read.  Hay could write, and she’d definitely found her stride by the time she got to The Santa Klaus Murder — it’s a shame she stopped just when she’d gotten going for good.

 


Sharyn McCrumb: The Ballad of Frankie Silver

Holy hell St. Maloney, what a book.  Part of McCrumb’s Ballad series set in the Appalachian Mountains, this is the story of two executions — and the convicts sentenced to death in each case, as well as their (purported) crimes and the lawmen called upon to witness their executions.  In modern times, Sheriff Spencer Arrowood (one of the Ballad series’s central characters) is called upon to witness the execution of a man whom he himself had helped convict of murder when he was young and comparatively inexperienced, but all the more cocksure to make up for his lack of experience.  Recuperating from an injury sustained on the job and thus with some spare time on his hands, he decides to take a fresh look at the case … and comes away dismayed and disillusioned.  He also sees parallels to the (real life) case of Frankie Silver, an 18 year old girl hanged for the murder of her husband in Burke County, NC, in 1833; probably the first white woman to be executed in that county.

Frankie’s story makes up the bulk of the book: we’re learning it chiefly from the (fictional) diary of the 1832 Clerk of the Court, Burgess Gaither, who witnessed both her trial and the execution of her death sentence; interspersed with some passages in Frankie’s own voice.  Her story stayed alive and became a local legend on account of the girl’s ethereal beauty and meak, yet diginfied persona, as much as on account of the fact that she was very likely innocent of the crime of which she was convicted and went to her death in order to protect the real culprit; all of which also contributed to (alas, futile) efforts by prominent citizens of the community to obtain a gubernatorial pardon.  This is not an easy book to digest — it does not flinch from a close-up view of all aspects of the death penalty, as administered both then and now; and it asks hard questions about justice, equality, and the judicial process.  Yet, precisely for this gut-punch quality, and for Sharyn McCrumb’s spellbinding writing, it makes for an absolutely unforgettable experience.

One additional word on the audio version, which is narrated by McCrumb herself: Though by far not all authors excel at reading their own books, Sharyn McCrumb is one of the truly happy exceptions, and listening to the story read in her own voice greatly contributed to the lasting impression of this particular audiobook experience.  Even among the many excellent narrations I’ve had the pleasure of listening to this month so far, Sharyn McCrumb’s performance is a stand-out experience … singing of the titular Ballad of Frankie Silver included as the icing on the cake!

 


Alan Bradley: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Sigh.  There is a lot to like in this book: the writing, the setting and the atmosphere, the underlying historic research (including appropriate pop culture references as much as a sensitive treatment of post-war PTSD), the opening nod to Jane Eyre, the bickering sisters, the fact that Flavia has given her bike a name and treats it as if it were a horse, and, well, the mystery as such.  Unfortunately, the one character I’m having a problem with is Flavia herself.  Oh, I get it — she’s intelligent and beyond precocious, she loves books, and she spends a lot of time alone and she has decided to turn vice into virtue (“if nobody else loves me, I have to love myself” — remarkable insight to be expressed by an 11-year-old in pretty much these terms).

But that’s exactly where my issues begin … despite the odd age-appropriate behavior towards others, by and large both her mental processes and many of her emotional responses come across as way too adult.  I’ll even grant her love of chemistry — Graham Young was obsessed with chemistry from an early age, too, and knew enough about poisons to murder his stepmother, after almost having succeeded in killing his sister, at the tender age of 15 — and nearly get away with it, too.  But leaving aside that going from age 11 to age 15 is still a virtual quantum leap in the development of a child: (1) knowledge of chemistry doesn’t equal medical knowledge, and Flavia seems to dispose of an unreasonable amount of highly specific medical knowledge along with her knowledge of chemistry, including certain rare medical conditions (and don’t get me started on how she could (not) have read about all of that in Gray’s Anatomy); (2) book knowledge doesn’t equal experience, and more often than not Flavia’s analysis, actions and responses are not explicable by book knowledge, but only by the insight and reflections generated by a life experience far above and beyond even the most precocious 11-year-old child (this is particularly true in the final scene — actually that whole scene is ridiculously implausible on pretty much every single level, but Flavia’s age-inappropriate responses had started to bother me right at the beginning, with her discovery of the dying man); and (3) similarly (and on a related point), the grown ups’ treatment of Flavia is way too “eye level” to be believable.  Kudos to her dad for taking her seriously and trusting her with the full, tragic back story of the events, but for anybody else, let alone a policeman, to take an 11-year-old girl entirely seriously and communicate with her essentially like they would with an adult is just simply not realistic.

Maybe I’ve simply outgrown “child investigator” books — I used to love the Three Investigators series and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Baker Street Irregulars” make me smile to this very day.  But even the “Irregulars”, for however streetsmart they are, don’t display any age-inappropriate behavior or reasoning; ACD knew as well as Enid Blyton and the Three Investigators authors that adults tend not to take children seriously, and even more importantly, they all understood that even fictional children get to outfox the police only if the policemen in question are just plain too dumb to solve the case on their own.  But Inspector Hewitt doesn’t strike me like that at all.

So, sorry for spoiling everybody else’s party; I know I’m the odd one out here.  Don’t mind me — just go on enjoying Flavia’s adventures.  I simply won’t be along for the ride.

 


Angela Carter: Nights at the Circus

You know that scene in Amadeus where the Austrian emperor comments on Mozart’s music that it contains “too many notes”?  That’s how I began to feel after a while about the individual episodes, destinies, and narrative detours making up the sum total of this book — they simply started to run into each other.  Adjoa Andoh, who reads the audio version, said in an Audible interview about Nights at the Circus that Angela Carter is “generous” with her use of words (and towards her characters) … which I don’t necessarily mind; in fact, I’ve been known to downright revel in exuberant prose, but I confess that Carter has tested even my limits here.

Based on a simple premise — journalist interviews “human swan” trapeze artist in the attempt to show her up as a fraud, instead falls in love with her, and ends up joining her circus as a clown so as to follow her to Russia –, this is an exploration of the world of Victorian carneys, circuses, and freak shows, of the divisions of class and culture(s), and of the exploitation of women and of the disabled (especially those perceived as freaks).  If, going in, you have any misconceptions about the nature of Nights at the Circus based on its title and setting, or based on the fact that it is frequently described as “magic realism”, at least in the audio version Adjoa Andoh’s earthy reading will disabuse you of any such notions literally from the first word on: there is no question that Fevvers, the book’s protagonist, is cockney to the bone; and more generally speaking, between them Carter and Andoh leave no doubt about the fact there is (or was) nothing remotely glorious or magical about the behind-the-scenes world of Victorian carneys — nor about the previous lives of most carney artists, or the destiny awaiting them once they were too old to be able to perform.  While pulling off enough of the veil for the reader / spectator to understand that much of what (s)he sees is an illusion, the lines are occasionally blurred, and not all is revealed to the naked eye — and even where Carter applies her exuberance to the plainly ridiculous, never once does she lose an ounce of respect for her characters (nor, for that matter, does Andoh’s narration).  Yet, this is one book where I’ll likely want to revisit the printed version at some point in the future, because Andoh’s performance, splendid as it is, is so dominant that I couldn’t help wondering sometimes if the characters — first and foremost Fevvers herself, but others as well — would have sounded exactly the same in my head without anybody else’s intervening interpretation.

In the meantime, though, give me Fellini’s La Strada (and The Clowns) any day of the week …

 


Daphne du Maurier: Frenchman’s Creek

If it weren’t for du Maurier’s indisputable gifts as a writer, and for the splendid things that are Rebecca and The Birds, my most recent reads of hers, between them, would have seriously made me doubt if she is for me at all, had these been my only introduction to her writing.  While Jamaica Inn at least excels in terms of creating a truly oppressive and spooky atmosphere (and since I read it primarily for that, I was willing to give du Maurier considerable slack in terms of the plotline … until I got to the beyond-eyeroll-worthy ending, that is), Frenchman’s Creek lost me even before it really had started to get going and never recaptured my attention.

That being said, it’s the sort of totally implausible, romantic pirate adventure that would have riveted me in my early teens.  Problem is, I’m not a teenager anymore, I expect people (both fictional and in real life) to act with at least a minimal amount of rationality — and book characters to be at least substantially self-consistent (and consistent with their station in life) –, and I no longer believe in insta-love.  So I’m just going to say thank you to Ms. du Maurier for once more taking me to 19th century Cornwall, which comes across as decidedly more lovely here than it does in Jamaica Inn (but then it would, this being a romance at heart), and thank you to John Nettles for giving his utmost to make this a captivating audiobook experience.  But for once, I was glad to have contented myself with an abbreviated version … and I don’t think anything will tempt me to revisit this novel anytime soon (even though here, too, I actually own a print edition as well).

 


Edith Wharton: Ghosts: Edith Wharton’s Gothic Tales

As the title says, a selection of audio narrations taken from Edith Wharton’s collection of ghost stories: big on atmosphere and on Wharton’s lovely, insightful, empathetic writing; negligible to nonexistent on blood and gore.  This is how I like my gothic fiction!  As in her novels, Wharton relies entirely on subtle means of psychology; on our innate fear of the unknown, on our need to empathize, on uncertainties — about the right way, about another person, or the accuracy of ancient writings and legends, or how far to trust our own senses; on changes of light, visions barred, sounds more devined than actually heard, and ethereal smells wafting by but impossible to source.  There is room for delicate humor here as well as for compassion; my favorite stories being, probably, Mr. Jones and Kerfol (warning, however: the dog dies.  Or rather, the dogs die — several of them in short succession.  But they get their revenge in the end) … though, really, it’s difficult for me to pick any clear favorites at all.

 


Terry Pratchett: The Colour of Magic

“The discworld offers sights far more impressive than those found in universes built by Creators with less imagination but more mechanical aptitude.”

Aaah … Sir Terry.  What would Halloween Bingo possibly be without you?  Especially this year, what with Wyrd Sisters being the official bingo group readand having inspired Booklikes’s very own Discworld group, which very properly decided to read all the books in the order of publication.  So, another Halloween Bingo with no less than two Pratchett books — yey!

Before I started to explore the Discworld universe, people told me to just dive in anywhere, it didn’t matter with which book I started; and that’s just what I did.  But after going a-roving here and there, it’s been pure joy to come back to the very beginning and see where it all started.  The Colour of Magic is a hilarious romp through 1980s fantasy (and to a lesser extent, science fiction) conventions; Big Bang turtle theory, imagine-dragons, magic sword, hero lore, staffless wizard (Rincewind), naive tourist and all.  The tourist (Twoflower: an inn-sewer-ants agent by trade with a reckless disregard for his own and Rincewind’s personal safety) has even brought a precursor of the glorious Hex, as it were; an iconograph (“device for taking pictures quickly”) with a demon inside who will sketch a perfect likeness of you in anywhere from 30 seconds upwards.  And then, of course, there is The Luggage … can there possibly be a more apt application of the “Relics and Curiosities” bingo square?  All the essentials of what makes Discworld — well — Discworld are in place here already, even if Pratchett may have further fine-tuned his style in the subsequent books (many of which, as a result, are even funnier).  I was glued to my speakers from the first second of Nigel Planer’s hilarious, spot-on narration, and I also have to say that I liked The Colour of Magic quite a bit better than Equal Rights, the first Witches book (and overall, Discworld #3).

“This tourist is a thing that is out of place.  After acceding to his master’s wishes Nine Turning Mirrors would, I am quite sure, make his own arrangements with a view to ensuring that one wanderer would not be allowed to return home bringing, perhaps, the disease of dissatisfaction.  The Empire likes people to stay where it puts them.”

 

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1793155/2018-halloween-bingo-the-books-so-far

Ghosts: Edith Wharton’s Gothic Tales


As the title says, a selection of audio narrations taken from Edith Wharton’s collection of ghost stories: big on atmosphere and on Wharton’s lovely, insightful, empathetic writing; negligible to nonexistent on blood and gore.  This is how I like my gothic fiction!  As in her novels, Wharton relies entirely on subtle means of psychology; on our innate fear of the unknown, on our need to empathize, on uncertainties — about the right way, about another person, or the accuracy of ancient writings and legends, or how far to trust our own senses; on changes of light, visions barred, sounds more devined than actually heard, and ethereal smells wafting by but impossible to source.  There is room for delicate humor here as well as for compassion; my favorite stories being, probably, Mr. Jones and Kerfol (warning, however: the dog dies.  Or rather, the dogs die — several of them in short succession.  But they get their revenge in the end) … though, really, it’s difficult for me to pick any clear favorites at all.

THE AGE OF INNOCENCE

Love, Loneliness and the Strictures of Society.

Imagine living in a world where life is governed by intricate rituals; a world “balanced so precariously that its harmony [can] be shattered by a whisper” (Wharton); a world ruled by self-declared experts on form, propriety and family history – read: scandal –; where everything is labeled and yet, people are not; where in order not to disturb society’s smooth surface nothing is ever expressed or even thought of directly, and where communication occurs almost exclusively by way of symbols, which are unknown to the outsider and, like any secret code, by their very encryption guarantee his or her permanent exclusion.

Such, in faithful imitation of Victorian England, was the society of late 19th century upper class New York. Into this society returns, after having grown up and lived all her adult life in Europe, American-born Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), after leaving a cruel and uncaring husband. She already causes scandal by the mere manner of her return; but not knowing the secret rituals of the society she has entered, she quickly brings herself further into disrepute by receiving an unmarried man, by being seen in the company of a man only tolerated by virtue of his financial success and his marriage to the daughter of one of this society’s most respected families, by arriving late to a dinner in which she has expressly been included to rectify a prior general snub, by leaving a drawing room conversation to instead join a gentleman sitting by himself – and worst of all, by openly contemplating divorce, which will most certainly open up a whole Pandora’s box of “oddities” and “unpleasantness”: the strongest terms ever used to express moral disapproval in this particular social context. Soon Ellen, who hasn’t seen such façades even in her husband’s household, finds herself isolated and, wondering whether noone is ever interested in the truth, complains bitterly that “[t]he real loneliness here is living among all these kind people who only ask you to pretend.”

Ellen finds a kindred soul in attorney Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), her cousin May Welland’s (Winona Ryder’s) fiancé, who secretly toys with a more liberal stance, while outwardly endorsing the value system of the society he lives in. Newland and Ellen fall in love – although not before he has advised her, on his employer’s and May and Ellen’s family’s mandate, not to pursue her plans of divorce. As a result, Ellen becomes unreachable to him, and he flees into accelerating his wedding plans with May, who before he met Ellen in his eyes stood for everything that was good and noble about their society, whereas now he begins to see her as a shell whose interior he is reluctant to explore for fear of finding merely a kind of serene emptiness there; a woman whose seemingly dull, passive innocence grinds down every bit of roughness he wants to maintain about himself and who, as he realizes even before marrying her, will likely bury him alive under his own future. Then his passion for Ellen is rekindled by a meeting a year and a half after his wedding, and an emotional conflict they could hardly bear when he was not yet married escalates even further. And only when it is too late for all three of them he finds out that his wife had far more insight (and almost ruthless cleverness) than he had ever credited her with.

Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize and the first work of fiction written by a woman to be awarded that distinction, “The Age of Innocence” is one of Edith Wharton‘s most enduringly popular novels; the crown jewel among her subtly satirical descriptions of New York upper class society. Martin Scorsese reportedly lobbied hard to bring the novel to the screen under his direction; and what at first looks like an odd match for the director of “Goodfellas,” “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” turns out to be a masterpiece of understanding of the intricate workings of this world; a visual feast splendidly realized by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and production and costume designers Dante Ferretti and (Oscar-winning) Gabriella Pescucci; reminiscent of a period tableau, where a dinner table’s immaculate symmetry expresses society’s outwardly perfect façade, a person’s character is mirrored in the paintings they own, their house’s interior decoration, the way they dress and the flowers they receive, and where, like in the novel, the protagonists’ relationships are choreographed to coincide with the pivotal moments of the stage performances they attend, such as Charles Gounod’s opera “Faust” and Dion Boucicault’s play “The Shaughraun;” a rare feat of psychological insight into the novel’s every character, from the three flawlessly portrayed principals (of whom only Winona Ryder won a Golden Globe and a National Board of Review Award, although all three of them would have been equally deserving) to the just as critical supporting roles, played by an all-star cast including Miriam Margolyes, who earned a BAFTA Award for her portrayal of unconventional society matriarch (nay, dowager-empress) Mrs. Manson Mingott, Richard E. Grant (“form” expert Larry Lefferts), Alec McCowen (scandalmonger Sillerton Jackson), Stuart Wilson and Mary Beth Hurt (disreputable financier Julius Beaufort and his wife Regina), Geraldine Chaplin (May’s mother), Siân Phillips (Newland’s mother), Michael Gough and Alexis Smith (society doyens Henry and Louisa van der Luyden), Robert Sean Leonard (Newland and May’s son Ted), Jonathan Pryce (Olenski’s secretary Riviere) and Norman Lloyd (Newland’s senior law partner Letterblair).

Scorsese’s movie is sometimes criticized for its use of a narrator (Joanne Woodward). But Woodward’s voiceovers not only capture Wharton’s subtly ironic tone to absolute perfection; her narration also provides a gentle frame to a story which could easily become fractured otherwise; or in the alternative, would have to include countless scenes merely to establish a certain atmosphere and social context without significantly advancing the storyline. On the whole, this is an all-around exceptional production, remarkably faithful to the literary original, and absolutely on par with the best of Scorsese’s other works.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Columbia Pictures (1993)
  • Director: Martin Scorsese
  • Producers: Barbara De Fina / Bruce S. Pustin / Joseph Reidy
  • Screenplay: Jay Cocks & Martin Scorsese
  • Based on a novel by: Edith Wharton
  • Music: Elmer Bernstein
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Michael Ballhaus
  • Production Design: Dante Ferretti
  • Costume Design: Gabriella Pescucci
Cast
  • Daniel Day-Lewis: Newland Archer
  • Michelle Pfeiffer: Ellen Olenska
  • Winona Ryder: May Welland
  • Richard E. Grant: Larry Lefferts
  • Alec McCowen: Sillerton Jackson
  • Geraldine Chaplin: Mrs. Welland
  • Mary Beth Hurt: Regina Beaufort
  • Stuart Wilson: Julius Beaufort
  • Miriam Margolyes: Mrs. Mingott
  • Siân Phillips: Mrs. Archer
  • Michael Gough: Henry van der Luyden
  • Alexis Smith: Louisa van der Luyden
  • Norman Lloyd: Mr. Letterblair
  • Jonathan Pryce: Rivière
  • Robert Sean Leonard: Ted Archer
  • Joanne Woodward: Narrator (voice)

 

Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1994)
  • Best Costume Design: Gabriella Pescucci
Golden Globes (1994)
  • Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture: Winona Ryder
National Board of Review Awards (1993)
  • Best Director: Martin Scorsese
  • Best Supporting Actress: Winona Ryder
BAFTA Awards (1994)
  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Miriam Margolyes
Venice Film Festival (1993)
  • Elvira Notari Prize

 

Links

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Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence - Edith Wharton, Maureen HowardLove, Loneliness, and the Strictures of Society

Imagine living in a world where life is governed by intricate rituals; a world “balanced so precariously that its harmony [can] be shattered by a whisper” (Wharton); a world ruled by self-declared experts on form, propriety and family history – read: scandal –; where everything is labeled and yet, people are not; where in order not to disturb society’s smooth surface nothing is ever expressed or even thought of directly, and where communication occurs almost exclusively by way of symbols, which are unknown to the outsider and, like any secret code, by their very encryption guarantee his or her permanent exclusion.

Such, in faithful imitation of Victorian England, was the society of late 19th century upper class New York. Into this society returns, after having grown up and lived all her adult life in Europe, American-born Countess Ellen Olenska, after leaving a cruel and uncaring husband. She already causes scandal by the mere manner of her return; but not knowing the secret rituals of the society she has entered, she quickly brings herself further into disrepute by receiving an unmarried man, by being seen in the company of a man only tolerated by virtue of his financial success and his marriage to the daughter of one of this society’s most respected families, by arriving late to a dinner in which she has expressly been included to rectify a prior general snub, by leaving a drawing room conversation to instead join a gentleman sitting by himself – and worst of all, by openly contemplating divorce, which will most certainly open up a whole Pandora’s box of “oddities” and “unpleasantness:” the strongest terms ever used to express moral disapproval in this particular social context. Soon Ellen, who hasn’t seen such façades even in her husband’s household, finds herself isolated and, wondering whether noone is ever interested in the truth, complains bitterly that “[t]he real loneliness here is living among all these kind people who only ask you to pretend.”

Ellen finds a kindred soul in attorney Newland Archer, her cousin May Welland’s fiancé, who secretly toys with a more liberal stance, while outwardly endorsing the value system of the society he lives in. Newland and Ellen fall in love – although not before he has advised her, on his employer’s and May and Ellen’s family’s mandate, not to pursue her plans of divorce. As a result, Ellen becomes unreachable to him, and he flees into accelerating his wedding plans with May, who before he met Ellen in his eyes stood for everything that was good and noble about their society, whereas now he begins to see her as a shell whose interior he is reluctant to explore for fear of finding merely a kind of serene emptiness there; a woman whose seemingly dull, passive innocence grinds down every bit of roughness he wants to maintain about himself and who, as he realizes even before marrying her, will likely bury him alive under his own future. Then his passion for Ellen is rekindled by a meeting a year and a half after his wedding, and an emotional conflict they could hardly bear when he was not yet married escalates even further. And only when it is too late for all three of them he finds out that his wife had far more insight (and almost ruthless cleverness) than he had ever credited her with.

Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize and the first work of fiction written by a woman to be awarded that distinction, “The Age of Innocence” is one of Edith Wharton’s most enduringly popular novels; the crown jewel among her subtly satirical descriptions of New York upper class society. By far not as overtly condemning and cynical as the earlier “House of Mirth” (for which Wharton reportedly even saw this later work as a sort of apology), “The Age of Innocence” is a masterpiece of characterization and social study alike: an intricate canvas painted by a master storyteller who knew the society which she described inside out, and who, even though she had moved to France (where she would continue living for the rest of her life) almost a decade earlier, was able to delineate late 19th century New York society’s every nuance in pitch-perfect detail, while at the same time – seemingly without any effort at all – also blending together all these minute details into an impeccably composed ensemble that will stay with the reader long after he has turned the last page.

 

Favorite Quote:

“The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!”

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