Category: new books

April Is For Poetry

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Doesn’t this attractive young lady look like she’s having fun, sunbathing on her fluffy white cloud while strewing flowers of inspiration on the world below?  She’s the Muse of Poetry, as depicted by French artist Henri LeRolle (1848-1949) and April is her very special month!

Well, hello again, dear readers!  After many months of silence, or near silence, I’m finally taking a stab at inserting (or, should I say “inflicting”) a new post on my almost moribund blog.  It’s requiring a bit more of an effort than usual, given the enormous and frightening changes in the world since my last post in January.  Then I had two major preoccupations, one being the very pleasant task of choosing my books for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate, the other the not-very-enjoyable labor of planning and executing a long-distance move (a task that proved almost, but not quite, too much for Janakay!).  In those halcyon, pre-pandemic days, Covid-19 was barely a shadow on the horizon.  Now it appears to dominate my life.  When I’m not washing my hands or sanitizing hard surfaces with whatever disinfectant’s at hand, or enjoying those very entertaining bird videos with the cats (Birds of Australia is a particular favorite at our house), I spend far too much time reading news accounts and statistics relating to this terrible disease.  Covid-19, dear readers, has given Janakay some (very) minor and unwelcome insights into life during those medieval plague years that were the subject of several of her college history courses.  Except, of course, medieval plague sufferers lacked both Purell and the internet (how would we all survive without both?)

And yet, however imperfectly, life goes on in this year of the plague.  Because it is “insufficient,” however, merely to survive (if, like me, you adore Emily St. John Mandel’s work, you’ll recognize that I’m lifting this line from her great Station Eleven, which in turn borrowed the idea from a Star Trek episode!) literature and art accrue even more value amidst the horrors of our chaotic times.  To survive in any meaningful sense of the word in these difficult days one must read!  Although I’ve not been sharing my thoughts online, I have been reading steadily, in the time between packing boxes and moving furniture; my reward has been discovering a number of remarkable classic and contemporary novels.  Hopefully I’ll be giving you at least some general reactions shortly but only after I finish unpacking the dishes!

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I’m absolutely positive those kitchen dishes are in there somewhere!  Maxi knows where, but is too sleepy to bother telling!

If you’ve visited my blog in the past, you are aware that I love novels, which are almost always the subject when I write about bookish things.  As I’ve posted before, I’m a little ambivalent about poetry (short stories, too, but for different reasons).  Although poetry was very important to me at one time in my life, it’s a difficult and demanding art form that requires time, attention and insight, which for many years were in short supply for anything other than Janakay’s job (kitty kibble is expensive and hungry cats can be positively savage!).  Although I don’t focus on poetry these days, I honor the art and do still attempt to save a little time for reading it.  I also attempt, in a mild sort of way, to venture beyond my youthful favorites, which included lots of poems about Corinnas and Lucastas gathering rosebuds and knights riding to many-towered Camelot and so on (Janakay obviously adored Cavalier Poets and the Victorians.  How could you not?  Their stuff all rhymed and was usually easy to understand.  “Ah, youth,” as one of my old fav poets might have sighed).  My efforts these days don’t amount to much; I read a poem now and then, usually something in a traditional mode and, occasionally, check out The Guardian’s weekly poetry column (for me it’s a great resource for finding unfamiliar work.  A bonus feature is Carol Rumens’ commentary, which always accompanies her weekly selection).  

My biggest gesture of support for my former love usually comes in April, designated “National Poetry Month” by these squabbling, competing and currently very disunited States of America.  Every April I make a point of actually buying a book of poetry; while I don’t have any rules about what I select, I do try to make it a work of a contemporary poet, or at least a poet who’s unfamiliar to me (this includes almost everyone writing poetry after 1900 or so).  My choice this year was Nina Maclaughlin’s Wake, Siren 

 

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Honestly, isn’t this the greatest cover ever?  The critters surrounding the siren’s face represent the fate of the book’s various heroines.

in which Maclaughlin reimagines the stories of several mythical heroines taken from 

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Metamorphoses, the great narrative poem written by the Latin poet Ovid in the first century CE.  Any lovers of Ovid out there, or just anyone who likes good stories?  As the name indicates, Ovid describes an unstable universe in which the world and its creatures constantly shift and transform from one shape or substance into another.   Chaos morphs into an orderly universe of form and matter; a golden age transforms into one of silver or bronze; male shifts to female and vice versa; humans transform into animals or plants or constellations  — well, you get the drift.  Many of Ovid’s stories involve human women or nymphs (lesser female divinities associated with nature) who happen to catch a god’s attention, almost always with disasterous results.  The women in Ovid don’t get many happy endings, unless you count being changed into a bear, a spider or a laurel tree as such.

In a very clever metamorphosis of her own, Nina Maclaughlin transforms the traditional stories recounted by Ovid by taking thirty of Ovid’s female characters and transposing them to a modern setting.  Maclaughlin’s women wear jeans, do yoga, go to music festivals and talk to their therapists using language familiar to Janakay from her days as a seaman apprentice (the narrator in “Agave,” for instances, tells her visitor that “there’s some beer in the fridge” and describes — sanitized version — King Pentheus of Thebes as “this asshole jock, this clean-cut rapey beef-brained” guy).  Most importantly, they tell their own stories in a series of monologues of varying length, speaking not in verse but in a type of flowing prose-poetry.  Maclaughlin’s approach adds depth and richness to Ovid’s tales and while you may not always agree with her take on the characters (who knows? Maybe Pentheus has some fans out there!) it frequently makes you rethink what’s going on in the stories.  Considering that these tales have been retold in verse, prose and music for over two millenia, this is a considerable accomplishment.

Maclaughlin’s format (like Ovid’s) is very conducive to reading in small dips and nibbles, which is very congenial to my currently fractured span of attention (so difficult to concentrate, don’t you find, with all this constant hand washing and disinfecting?).  It also has the advantage of letting you skip around, from short monologue (Nyctimene, two pages) to long (Tiresias, twelve pages), from happy (Pomona) to sad (Callisto).  My favorite piece so far (I’ve been dipping in and out for several days now) is Maclaughlin’s retelling of the Orpheus myth, the ancient and popular story of a divine musician who descends to Hades, charms the very dead with his song and almost, but not quite, retrieves his beloved wife, killed by a serpent’s bite on their wedding day.  In Maclaughlin’s version, Eurydice is the neglected daughter of a rock legend with music in her blood and a great deal of talent of her own.  After several unsuccessful and demeaning relationships that reinforce her low self-esteem, she hooks up with “O.,” a world famous singer who adds physical to psychological abuse in his attempts to silence her own song.  Realizing on her wedding day that she can’t go through with it, Eurydice flees to the Cobra Club, a raunchy honky-tonk located in a basement and run by HayDaze and his relunctant wife Penny, who goes away every summer on tour (the club’s sign features a red snake, naturally, and Eurydice and her friends joke when they go there that they’ve been “bitten by the serpent.”)  O. follows and, using his music to charm and bewitch, almost leads Eurydice to the top of the stairs and out of the club.  One final act of cruelty, however,  gives Eurydice the impetus to free herself from his spell and, with relief, return to her refuge, the club where everyone goes eventually and which always has room for one more (even at the sold-out shows).  Rather than being gimmicky, Maclaughlin’s clever inversion of the myth’s plot and visual elements makes the ancient story as relevant to us as it was to Ovid’s original readers.  It also makes for a lively, amusing and horrifying piece of work.  (For another great take on the Orpheus myth, try Carol Ann Duffy’s “Eurydice,” from her wonderful poetry collection The World’s Wife.)

So, do I recommend Wake, Siren?  Oh yes but . . . with a few teeny caveats.  Although Janakay adores giving a new spin to old material and is very fond of a feminist slant, she is aware that not every reader shares her taste for this sort of thing.  If, unlike her, you prefer your mythology straight, Maclaughlin’s book is obviously not for you (in that case, you might check out the edition of Ovid pictured above.  Stanley Lombardo’s translation is great, there’s a wonderful introductory essay discussing the themes underlying Ovid’s work and some helpful additional features, such as a glossary of names and a table grouping the myths into various categories).  There’s also the question of language, which is very uninhibited.  Again, this is fine with Janakay (any naughty word she didn’t hear in the navy turned up when her college Latin class translated Petronius’ Satyricon) but if it’s an issue for you, well, there are plenty of other sources to choose from. Oh — before I forget — it isn’t necessary to know the traditional form of the myth to enjoy Maclaughlin’s version, but it’s fun if you have the time and energy to read the two in tandem.

Well, that’s it for tonight, dear readers.  Stay healthy, keep washing those hands and if you’ve time to honor the muse in her special month by reading a poem or two, share any particular treasures you may find!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Midweek Miscellany: Percy Murdered My Library (apologies to Linda Grant!)

Have you found, dear reader, that there has come a time in your life when you’re forced to cull your beloved treasures?  Have you ever realized that it’s time to say “adieu” to your yellowing edition of Catcher in the Rye, once read so eagerly but untouched since age fifteen, or your grubby copy of Catch 22, replete with (traumatic) memories of boot camp and bearing an almost illegible name tag and serial number?  That perhaps you don’t need all three copies of Wings of the Dove, acquired because each has a different cover illustation, or that your ten Georgette Heyer novels are now available (and easier to read) on kindle and no longer need shelf room?

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Here’s Percy, caught red-pawed in the act of novelicide (actually, I’m being a bit unfair. His role was more that of an extremely willing accomplice!)

Propelled by the possibility of a long-distance move, Janakay is now in that time of reevaluation and has spent a harrowing few weeks deciding who (so to speak) lives and dies in her book collection.  Fortunately, as you can see from my photo, I have not been without assistance!

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Percy supervising Pooh Bear in box assembly.
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Maxine at work on the upstairs trove.  Percy isn’t the only cat in the house who doesn’t see the point of all these things on the shelves.

 

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More work for Maxine . . .
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and more . . .

 

 

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… and yet more … Maxine’s going to be a busy cat!

 

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Back to downstairs and Percy’s domain . . . he’s a particularly dedicated ornithologist, so many of these birding books are right up his alley!

 

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Not sure who should handle art books, Henry James and Mr. Janakay’s military history . . . this might be a job for Pooh Bear, who by nature is a very serious cat  . . .
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Speaking of serious, who best to tackle all these non-fiction books, including Runciman’s History of the Crusades and a three-volume history of Byzantium?  Do any of the cats speak Greek?
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Who best to tackle (more) art books and museum guides?
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Short stories, bibliographies and memoirs (to the right) and poetry (to the left) . . . hmmm . . .  who’s the most poetical cat?

 

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(Yet) more art books, Persephone editions and literary criticism.  Someone’s been investigating these areas, to judge by the cat toy on the top of the book case (it’s the little yellow striped thing to the left of the towering pile).

 

If you’ve visited my blog in the past, when I did occasionally manage to stay somewhat current, I’m sure by now you understand why I haven’t been posting for  — my goodness,  gracious me —  can it be almost five weeks now?  No posts since Halloween?  Of course, I haven’t been sorting books for the entire last five weeks — there were some minor academic matters to wrap up, some lovely light reading to do (Louis Auchincloss is always good for this) and movies to see (if you’re a Scorsese fan you can’t miss “The Irishman;” “Parasite” is great and “Knives Out” isn’t bad but I’d advise you to skip “The Lighthouse”).  Also, after I decided to at least consider a move, I fell into a period of near-catatonia, triggered by the very notion of discarding any of my beloved book collection (at the risk of sounding heartless, I can say that I’ve  experienced the death of blood relations — well, some of them anyway — with less emotion!)

But amusements and psychological trauma aside, the past month or so has seen a great deal of bookish exertion on my part, with rivers of books (so to speak) flowing up and down my house’s too many stairs.  I did (briefly) consider keeping everything, but quickly discarded that notion —  there are just too many multiple copies and books that I no longer need (do those twenty odd books on Vermeer, Rubens and van Dyck deserve shelf room, now that I’ve finished my class work on Baroque art?); that I’ve read and enjoyed but don’t plan on revisiting (Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, for example, a fabulous novel but not one on my re-read list ) or that I’ve outgrown along with the hobby or activity that prompted their acquisition.

It’s been an emotional process, no doubt about it, saying good-bye to certain old friends, many of which are associated with very specific periods in my life (yes, I did read that copy of Catch 22 when I was not otherwise occupied in surviving boot camp and that battered old copy of Alice in Wonderland is still sticky with the adhesive tape a nine-year-old me used to repair it).  There’s also the angst involved in acknowledging that most of my unread books will stay unread, at least by me, and facing up to the lost opportunities for pleasure and enrichment those books represent, of accepting that one is a finite creature who will spend her allotted time to read with other companions.   And, of course, there’s always a certain chagrin in facing one’s mistakes . . . the “why did I buy that book” combined with the “why ever haven’t I gotten rid of it before now” moments!  Have any of you ever faced such moments of truth or had to confront such bookish vulnerabilities?  If so, how did you handle it?

Janakay, however, doesn’t want to be a weepy rain cloud here and mire us all in gloom, doom and desolation.  Honesty compels me to admit that the sorting out process does have a positive aspect.  In the broadest sense, I had to answer some very basic questions concerning why I read, as well as why I’d bother to have my very own personal library.  What purpose does it serve?  Home decor?  Self-improvement?  Laziness?  (It’s easier to let the books breed in corners than adopt them out to good homes.)  The desire to impress the neighbors with my two different translations of Rembrance of Things Past?  None of the above?

Along the same lines, I necessarily had to formulate some standards (much harder to do than you might suppose) in order to decide what to keep or to discard.  Should I, for example, toss classics by great writers such as Dostoevsky and Dickens (neither are big favorites of mine) to leave space for beloved fun reads by Georgette Heyer or Joe Abercrombie?  (If you haven’t met Logan Nine-Fingers, you should.  He’s one of the great anti-heroes of fantasy literature.)  Should I keep a book I might read at some unspecified time if it means discarding something I’ve read and loved, but which is now out of print or otherwise unavailable?  Is it better to keep an author’s “best” novel that I’ve read or her most obscure, which I haven’t?

Yes, dear reader, I’ve had a month of heavy thinking about basic aspects of reading and retaining books, activities that have occupied most of my energy since I first grasped that those little black squiggles on white paper actually meant something.  On a lighter note, it’s been a lot of fun to read or skim big chunks of things I hadn’t thought about in years and to research authors as I’ve made my decisions (electronic availability for discards was an important factor).  And, shameful though it is to admit, there’s also a Christmas morning element to the process, as I discovered some great stuff that I had totally forgotten about (that light green blob at the back of a shelf turned out to be a(n unopened) box set of Penguin Modern novellas!)

So how does Linda Grant, a British writer I admire more than I’ve read (some of her books were rather difficult “keep or toss” decisions) come into all this?  In the middle of my winnowing process I was lucky enough to stumble across her essay, “I Murdered My Library,” published as a kindle single and worth every penny of its $2.99 (U.S.) price.  Around 2013 Grant was forced to downsize her huge personal library (the product of a lifetime of reading) when she moved into a relatively small flat.  All my emotions and thoughts — the grief, the guilt, the difficulty of choosing, the (yes) relief at imposing some type of order on an overwhelming number of physical objects — are there, expressed far, far more eloquently that I ever could.  These are interspaced with Grant’s love of literature and reading, her thoughts on independent book stores and the effect of e-books on conventional print, and a great deal of humor and wry acceptance of the fact that we, as readers, are as finite as the texts that we love.  Grant’s essay is a treasure for anyone who likes to read about books; if you’re downsizing or reevaluating your own book stash, it’s a necessity.  I was so impressed by it, in short, I immediately moved two of Grant’s unread novels from my “discard” to my “keep” pile! (and, yes, I am aware of the irony of my action!).

After recounting her “crime” of book homicide, Grant ends her essay with the cry of “What have I done?”  Since it’s time for me to sign off, I’ll end my little tale by showing you a visual of my very recent response to my own act of murder  . . . . .

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My latest acquisitions! A newly published read (Evaristo’s Booker co-winner); a vintage find (Pamela Frankau, an interesting mid-century writer) and a haul of nine new books from an NYRB Classics  flash sale that I couldn’t be expected to pass up (the books were HALF-PRICE, with FREE shipping!). There’s also a wonderful Pushkin Press translation of Isolde (it’s all Kaggsy’s fault for recommending it so highly) and I have a vintage Sackville-West that I haven’t yet read on its way and . . . . . . .

What’s that old saw, about the “more things change, the more they remain the same?”

Halloween Miscellany! Scary Reads and Pop Culture!

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Isn’t this print wonderfully creepy and compelling? I’m a big fan of Gustave Doré; this is one of his illustrators for Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.”

Greetings to all you denizens of the internet, on this dark and ghastly time of year!  Do you celebrate the Day, complete with your “sexy witch” costume or Freddy Kruger mask, lawn bestrown with cobwebs, plastic skeletons and those huge truly yucky fake spiders that are so unfortunately popular with Janakay’s neighbors?

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Janakay is severely arachnophobic and doesn’t like walking past certain houses in her neighborhood during Halloween week! Needless to say, these folks did NOT consult HER about their Halloween decorations . . .

In my neck of the woods (North American, mid-Atlantic suburban) Halloween decorations have become increasingly common.  They range from folks who clearly regard Halloween as a very, very important milestone in their shopping and celebratory life . . .

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In dawn’s early light, those giant spiders are rather unpleasantly realistic!

to those of a minimalist bent who nevertheless want to mark the occasion . . . .

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The pumpkin face didn’t come out well in this photo — it’s actually pretty sinister, even if the “ghost” hanging on the porch is a bit laid back!

to the oh so tasteful, who actually changed the permanent outdoor light fixtures (on the left of the gate and the right of the porch) to match their purple Halloween lights!

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A bit blurry (Halloween night here is appropriately rainy and stormy) but you get the idea  . . .

And — the neighborhood’s pièce de résistance!

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To paraphrase that eminent stylist, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Halloween here is “a dark and stormy night!”  Great for ghostly atmosphere but lousy for photos! Still, squint hard and you can see the red thing on the right is a dragon!  With movable wings!  What will they think of next?

Just as Halloween decorations are becoming more common and elaborate, Halloween costumes have taken a giant leap forward from the cardboard witches’ hats and superman masks of my childhood!  Now we have the adorably traditional:

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Grandma is really rocking this one!

The “traditional with a twist”:

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Jon Snow White!

And — the Topical:

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This company also offers a “Miss Impeachment” costume (includes a tiara, beauty queen sash and a whistle blower necklace) as well as a sexy “Beyond Burger” getup, complete with a headband bearing the label “Plant Based!”

Well, it’s all certainly very interesting, isn’t it?  Do you follow the lead of these festive folks or do you (like Janakay on a bad year) pretend the day just isn’t happening, as you close the blinds, turn on the TV and ignore the trick or treaters ringing your door bell so you can eat all the best candy yourself in blessed solitude?  Do you have your very own Halloween rituals involving none of the above or do you perhaps hail from a country or follow a tradition that doesn’t acknowledge Halloween?  This space is all about sharing, so — please share with the rest of us how, or even if, you mark the day!

PART SECOND: SCARY READS IN GENERAL.  THOUGHTS, ANYONE?

I bet you never thought I’d get around to the books, did you?  Ha!  Tricked you!  With Jankay, it’s always about the books; no matter how meandering the path, it always comes back to the books; books underlie everything!  And there are such wonderful books associated with this time of year, aren’t there?  And don’t we all have our favorite reads? My own preferred brand of horror tends towards the classic, away from gore and slasher (so very, very unsubtle, don’t you think?) towards the “oh my god, something moved in the corner of my eye” variety.  In other words, away from the Freddy Kruger/Texas Chainsaw Massacre and more towards the Shirley Jackson, Haunting of Hill House end of the horror scale.   In fact, isn’t the whole horror phenomenon fascinating?  Why is it that we humans love so much to scare ourselves and isn’t it interesting how we all vary in what we regard as particularly horrifying?  I was actually settling in to spend some happy hours researching this topic when I realized that I’d be posting this on Christmas if I didn’t wrap it up (speaking of which, have you seen Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas?  If not, stop reading this instance and go watch!)  Without further ado, here’s a few selections from my short list of creepy reads; these are just things I thought of, fairly quickly and are listed in no particular order:

Bram Stoker’s Dracula: All the ornate Victorian prose can’t obscure one of the scariest stories every written.  I re-read it every now and then and it scares me almost as much as it did when I was fifteen years old, alone for the weekend and very unwisely deciding to try this old 19th century thing.

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House.  Some houses are indeed born evil and some writers were born to tell us about them.  Truly one of the most terrifying tales ever conceived, written by an author of breathtaking talent working at the height of her powers.  It would be a shame not to read the book but if you’re in a visual mood Netflix did a recent series that’s sort of o.k.  Far better IMO is the 1963 black and white movie, starring Claire Bloom and Julie Harris.

Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire.  Anne Rice has built up such a fan base and churned out so much over-written drivel over her long career (my apologies to any fans out there, but we are sharing our honest opinions aren’t we?) that it’s easy to forget just how very good she can be.  This is my favorite Anne Rice novel, an incredibly atmospheric take on the vampire mythos, set in French colonial New Orleans and 19th century Paris.  Erotic, baroque, stomach churning and beautiful, it isn’t easy to forget (the Theatre des Vampires, where vampires feed on victims for the audience’s amusement, is as horrifying as anything I’ve ever read).  Rice’s The Witching Hour, a tale of two centuries of the Mayfair Witch family and its attendant demon Lasher, ranging from its origin in medieval Scotland to its dark doings in contemporary San Francisco & New Orleans, is also pretty good.  Word of advice: avoid the numerous sequels and spinoffs of both novels.

H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories:  H.P. has fallen out of favor these days because he is, let’s face it, a racist, a fact that’s painfully obvious when you start examining his work.  In this area and with this writer, I agree with Victor LaValle (an award winning African American horror writer) that you can reject Lovecraft’s views while still appreciating his work (if you’re new to Lovecraft, the NY Times’ recent review of his annotated works is pretty useful).  I think Lovecraft is at his best when writing short stories, which he mostly sets in a frightening cosmos in which humanity is largely irrelevant to the ancient and terrifying gods who are attempting to reenter the human dimensions.  My own personal favorites among Lovecraft’s stories are “Pickman’s Model;” “The Dunwich Horror;” “The Thing On the Door Step;” and “The Rats in the Walls.”

Additional “dark writings” I’ve enjoyed (and still periodically re-read), without experiencing quite the visceral feelings evoked by Jackson, Lovecraft and Stoker:

Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla:  another vampire tale (I’m particularly fond of vampires, obviously).  My immediate reaction after reading this for the first time was –“what’s the big deal?”  Then I had nightmares for a week.  A classic, whether you give it the psychological interpretation or not.

Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby:  devil worship for our era and a very shrewd commentary on a certain 20th century milieu.  I’ve never read the sequel — why tamper with perfection?

Edgar Allan Poe: anything, really.  If you go for his long poem “The Raven,” try to find Doré’s illustrations (I included one at the beginning of the post.  They’re all great).  For sheer horror, my pick is his short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Stephen King’s The Shining:  I’m ordinarily not a big Stephen King fan, but I’ve read this one twice.  Despite the re-read, however, this is one of the rare cases where I prefer the film (a Stanley Kubrick masterpiece) to its source material.  Although I didn’t much care for King’s sequel, Doctor Sleep, nothing will keep me away from seeing the film, which will be released November 8th.

William Blatty’s The Exorcist.  I loved it when I read it; a second re-read about twenty years ago left me a bit cold so it’s ripe for a third review.  About the movie there’s no doubt at all — it’s really, really scary.  In fact Mr. Janakay and I are having our own little Halloween celebration tonight (too bad for the trick or treaters who come by after 7 PM!) by watching the director’s cut at our nearby cinema art house!

Poppy Z. Brite’s 1990’s work (she later ventured into dark comedy):  have any of you read this very interesting writer?  She’s so, so southern Gothic and so off-beat; naturally enough she’s a resident of New Orleans!  I have to admit I literally couldn’t read Exquisite Corpse, a novel centering on a homosexual, necrophiliac, cannibalistic serial killer (even for something that could be interpreted as a political metaphor, I do set some limits), but I found her early novels, Lost Souls and Drawing Blood, atmospheric (she’s got the lost, southern hippy thing down pat) atmospheric and absorbing.  Poppy’s appeal is no doubt a bit limited, but if you’re into over the top, you may find her worth checking out.

Marisha Pessl’s Night Film.  This one barely made my cut, as it’s more of a mystery-thriller than a proper horror novel but still — it was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award.  The book begins with a suicide and continues with an investigation into the dark and violent work of a reclusive horror film director.  I’m a sucker for novels implying that our perceived “reality” rests on dark and unperceived secrets; I also found the interactive aspects of the story, which drive some readers nuts, wildly inventive and interesting.

My list, as I said at the beginning, is short and I’d love to expand it.  Do you have any dark reads you’d like to share?

PART THIRD:  MY 2019 HALLOWEEN READ(S)

My own little Halloween tradition (it actually relates more to autumn in general, than to Halloween per se) is to read something a little dark, a little eerie; something that reminds me that the universe encompasses more than we ordinarily see or perceive; that perhaps our “reality” isn’t the only reality out there.  A bit mystical, I know, but then rationality, while explaining much, doesn’t quite cover it all, does it?  It always seems appropriate to me, as the darkness literally closes in with the year’s waning, to read something a little dark.  What better time than Halloween?  It’s a time to forget the cute costumes and the fake spiders and remember that every culture I can think of had some ritual for celebrating the harvest, the time of bounty before nature’s (temporary) death.  I didn’t have a lot of time this year, but in my energetic and continuing effort to evade the art work of the Italian Renaissance I decided I absolutely was not going to forego my Halloween read!  The deciding factor here was a really odd compulsion to return to a novel I first read many years ago, The Night Country by the American writer Stewart O’Nan.

Have any of you read or reviewed O’Nan’s novels?  O’Nan appears to be one of those writers who’s hard to classify because he seems able to write about very diverse subjects in an equally convincingly way and — he’s written a lot!  A quick trip to Wiki discloses that in 1996 O’Nan was named by Granta as one of “America’s Best Young Novelists” and he’s been very respectfully reviewed by such publications as the New York Times.  I’ve always meant to read O’Nan’s novels (I’ve a couple languishing now on the shelf) but, sad to say, the only one I’ve gotten around to is Night Country, which I first read shortly after it was published in 2004.  I was drawn to Night Country because — you guessed it — it’s a ghost story and I was looking for a dark read.  I both got, and didn’t get, what I was looking for.  Night Country is a ghost story, but it’s a haunting without the chains.  Along with its supernatural elements, it’s also a beautifully written (and occasionally very funny) tale of disappointment and regret; a realistic slice of life in a small town and of bad choices and bad luck.  The whole thing was a bit too subtle for me and very much not what I was looking for at the time, i.e., a second Shirley Jackson Haunting of Hill House type read.  And yet, it stayed with me, and this year just seemed to pop into my mind, along with the return of rain, falling leaves and the chill of dark mornings.

O’Nan sets his novel in the small Connecticut town of Avondale.  It is Halloween night and his three protagonists are the ghosts of three teenagers who died the previous Halloween, victims of a terrible car crash resulting from a high speed pursuit by a local traffic cop.  Two teenagers survived the crash — Tim who can’t forgive himself for having lived when his girlfriend and buddies did not, and Kyle, a once arrogant bad boy reduced by severe brain damage to a shell of his former self.  The three ghosts have their own agenda, which plays out in the course of the novel as we see the effect of the tragedy on the cop, Kyle’s Mother (her proper name is never given) and a community that is still coming to terms with its grief.

As one of its contemporary reviews noted, Night Country, despite its “goblin-like atmosphere,” is a chilling, rather than a scary, read.  It’s a wonderful depiction of a closely knit and prosperous community, where all appears safe.  Or, this disquieting novel asks, is it safe, really?  The woods surrounding Avondale are mighty dark and mysterious, its creeks and marshlands are dangerous and one chance act can affect the beautifully ordered rationality of many lives.  It was amazing how much I liked this book the second time around, how beautiful, subtle and — haunting —  I found the story.  If, like me in 2004, you’re looking for a purely traditional and scary read, best avoid Night Country, particularly as it’s a quiet book that requires patience and time.  If, on the other hand, you enjoy a Ray Bradbury type mix of the strange and the quotidian, Night Country just might be your next great autumn read.

If you’ve the patience, bear with me for one more paragraph and I’ll mention a very creepy book indeed, a fantastical (and fantastic) mixture of horror, fantasy and fairy tale called Follow Me To Ground, a debut novel by Sue Rainesford.  I found this one through a review in The Guardian, which described it far better than I can here.  It’s a dark, unnerving story of Ada and her father, non-humans who live and work their healing magic on nearby villagers, whom they refer to as “Cures.”  The Cures are grateful but wary (their perspective is given from time to time, in brief shifts away from Ada’s); the setting is realistic with overtones of myth (everyone, including Ada, is terrified of Sister Eel Lake, the home of carnivorous serpents) and the tale can be read on a number of levels.  All goes well, however, until Ada begins a sexual relationship with a human Cure of whom her father disapproves.  I know what you’re thinking but trust me — Romeo and Juliet this is not.  It’s a pretty brief novel (slightly less than 200 pages) and a perfect quick read for those dark autumn nights when the rain is beating against the window.

PART FOURTH: FUN LINKS

The Guardian’s List of Ten Books About Cemeteries (I may check out a couple of these!)

“I was so scared I took it back to the library: the books that scare horror authors” (amusing note: Anne Rice was too frightened to finish Dracula!)

“I didn’t sleep well for months:” the films that terrified The Guardian’s writers as kids

And, just to prove that I occasionally read something other than The Guardian’s take on books, “Globetrotting:” the New York Times sneak preview of books coming out in 2019 from around the world

 

 

 

The Handmaid’s Tale and Its Sequel: News and Reflections

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On the left is my treasured copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, yellow with age.  On the right is the “book card” (far less yellow) that the publisher added to certain of its  “special books” for jotting down thoughts about the novel.  Wasn’t it nice when publishers bothered with these little touches?

 

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My autographed copy (more about this, below)

If you’re a bookish  type (and if you aren’t, I’m surprised but very pleased that you’ve found my blog), you’re no doubt aware that we’re only days away from the September 10th publication of  Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, the long-awaited sequel to her iconic The Handmaid’s Tale.  The book’s publication must surely be the most hyped literary happening of the year.  In July, months before its publication, Testaments was already long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker prize (judges get advance copies) and only this week it made the award’s short list.  On the publication day itself, Atwood will speak at London’s National Theatre and her sold-out appearance will be live-broadcasted to over thirteen hundred cinemas from Canada to Malta.  Increasing the hype is the measures Atwood’s publisher has imposed to prevent any pre-publication leaks:  the Booker judges were bound by non-disclosure agreements and advance review copies (in some cases at least) were printed with a false title and author (perhaps to prevent them from falling into enemy hands? smiley face here!).  In short, Testaments‘ publication is a very big deal.

I really hadn’t planned on posting anything today (have I mentioned that I have a research paper due, so very, very shortly? Oh, I did!) but as Fortuna would have it (please forgive, but I’m still on a classical kick from my last post), when I clicked on The Guardian this morning I discovered that its book section contained an exclusive advance excerpt from Testaments.  I thought I’d share the wealth, so if you’re interested, click here.  If, like me, you enjoy reviews, you may want to check out what critics in the Washington Post  and the New York Times had to say (both have pay walls, so hopefully you haven’t used up all your clicks this month!)  And, late-breaking news, I’ve just discovered that Amazon goofed, broke security and in the U.S. prematurely mailed out several hundred copies of Testaments when it wasn’t supposed to!  Isn’t it all terribly exciting?

Hoopla aside, I have a substantive question to ask: how do you, dear reader, feel about Testaments’ impending publication?  Were you so unimpressed by Handmaid’s that you greeted the news of a sequel with a yawn and a “why is she bothering” thought?  Or did you pre-order your copy a year ago and make plans to be “sick” on September 11th to settle in and enjoy your exciting new acquisition?  (I don’t know about you, dear reader, but Janakay always reads in bed when she’s sick!  Janakay would have to be dying — very, very painfully so — to waste a perfectly good sick day by not reading!)  Or, if you’re more digitally minded, do you plan to have your finger suspended over your kindle, waiting to download the minute the clock strikes 12:01 on September the 10th?

In the interest of encouraging group candor in responses to my little question, I’ll share my reaction first.  I really wasn’t that interested in Testaments; in fact, I hadn’t planned on even reading it, at least not this year.  Have I embarrassed myself?  Are you so horrified you’ve relegated me to your list of bookish troglodytes, vowing never to read my blog again?  I certainly hope not!  I was a little puzzled myself at my lack of enthusiasm, especially given the fact that I adore Atwood’s work (I’ve read almost all of it, including some of her very good poetry) and regard her as one of the very greatest living novelists.  As for Handmaid’s itself, I loved it!  Aside from its narrative power, it’s one of those books that is very much bound up with my memories of a certain time and place, which increases its emotional impact for me.  (Don’t we all have a few of these?)  For me, Handmaid’s Tale is a cold, snowy day in early 1986 and apartment hunting in a new city with a (relatively) new Mr. Janakay, preparing for a demanding new job and a cross-country move (how can I possibly break the news to the cats?  They hate to travel.).  Just when I think my feet must surely be turning blue (my shoes are getting soaked), I spot one of those delightful small bookstores that doesn’t exist any more.  It’s in an old brownstone with a large bay window, which has a fetching display featuring shiny, newly published copies of Atwood’s latest.  I won’t say that I took my rent money, exactly, to buy it, but in those days newly published hardback books were not everyday occurrences in Janakay’s life!  Nor did I regret my purchase.  Atwood’s story was so gripping that I stayed up most of the night reading and couldn’t focus on much of anything else until I finished the novel a day or so later.

Given my intense reaction to Handmaid’s, why so little excitement now about its sequel?  Perhaps it’s precisely because Handmaid’s Tale did have such a powerful effect on me.  I found Handmaid’s so perfect and complete in itself I didn’t see any need to continue the story.  Its ambiguities didn’t trouble me; in fact, I thought the mystery surrounding Offred’s unknown fate actually increased the power of her fragmentary narrative.  On a less lofty level, perhaps Handmaid’s impact has simply faded over the years since I’ve read it, particularly since I haven’t watched the (so I hear) very powerful TV series.  Have any of you had a similar experience of closure, either with Handmaid’s Tale or another book?

When I was writing this post, I pulled down my (very) old copy of Handmaid’s Tale to check out a few details.  You can imagine my surprised delight (my heart actually started pounding) when I re-discovered the fact that I’d had my copy autographed by Atwood.  I very much remembered hearing her speak (in fact, I went to a good deal of trouble to attend) but I had forgotten the autograph, as I’m almost always too lazy to stand in line for them.  In this, however, as in all else, Atwood was so special I made the effort.

Maybe I’ll pre-order a copy of Testaments after all.