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Archive for the ‘Barry’s Picks’ Category

hughesHaving taken Latin all through high school, I was a bit familiar with Ovid, at least with the less steamy pieces of writing (Sister Lawrence never had us translating the Ars Amatoria), including some of the stories from Metamorphoses. These tales, drawn from mythology, all tell stories of strange transformations that result from an excess of passion. Ted Hughes, who was poet laureate of England from 1984 until his death in  1998, presents his versions of 24 of these stories in Tales from Ovid.

Hughes is a superb poet, with a clear voice, who was early in his writing career much influenced by the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Like Hopkins, Hughes frequently writes about the natural world, but his poems are often darker than those of Hopkins. He also frequently writes about passion, and how it shapes our lives for better or for worse. Throughout his writings, Hughes often made use of images and themes from mythologies ranging from Classic to Celtic. The Tales from Ovid seem a natural progression from his previous works, since Ovid’s poems explore the transformative nature of passion.

There are some familiar stories here, at least for folks who have read some Roman mythology: the tragic tale of Actaeon, the sad tale of Arachne the weaver, and the mournful Pyramus and Thisbe (in fact none of these stories ends well for the participants). Hughes does not give a straight translation, slavishly trying to capture the Latin stresses and rhythms. Rather, he uses the original as a starting point for telling the story in clear, vibrant English. Here is a sample from “Echo and Narcissus”

The moment Echo saw Narcissus
She was in love.  She followed him
Like a starving wolf
Following a stag too strong to be tackled.
And like a cat in winter at a fire
She could not edge close enough
To what singed her, and would burn her.

So, drawing on my memory of Latin class, now almost 35 years ago, I can only say “Tolle, lege.”

Check the WRL catalog for Tales from Ovid

 

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kooserTed Kooser was Poet Laureate of the U.S. from 2004-2006, and is one of my favorite writers of short verse. He has often been compared to Robert Frost and Edgar Lee Masters for his ability to take the day-to-day events of rural and small town life and use those to explore the breadth of the human condition.

One of the things that I like the best about these poems is that they are always understandable. Kooser never resorts to obscure language or strange combinations of words. The titles of his poems give you a sense of Kooser’s topics: “The Red Wing Church,” “Furnace,” “A Frozen Stream,” “In an Old Apple Orchard.” And he writes about these things in clear language. But, Kooser then takes these familiar themes and all of a sudden opens up a new way of looking at the world. It is these flashes of insight that make any poem, and particularly Kooser’s, worth reading.

Here is one favorite, “The Grandfather Cap”

Sometimes I think that as he aged,
this cap, with the stain in its brim
like a range of dark mountains,
became the horizon to him.
He never felt right with it off.

Check the WRL catalog for Flying at Night

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poemsGetting back into reading poetry can be daunting. You go to the shelves in the 811 section of the library and there are all these thin books by people you have never heard of. How do you know who is going to be interesting rather than tedious? One great way to get started is to try a poetry anthology. There are lots of books of collected poems in the WRL collection. Some focus on specific types of poetry, e.g. The 100 best love poems of all time, An anthology of modern Irish poetry, or The Oxford book of war poetry. Others are broader collections that cover centuries of poetry. Often, these are arranged chronologically to give the reader a sense of the sweep of poetry through the ages (the best of these is Oscar Williams’s anthology Immortal poems of the English language, a tattered, 35-year-old copy of which sits on my nightstand, thank you Sister Anna Jean!).

William Harmon takes a different approach in The classic hundred. Here, Harmon gathers together the 100 most-anthologized poems in English. The idea being that these are the poems that “have achieved the greatest success for the longest time with the largest number of readers.” These are, for the most part, shorter poems (though Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is included), and they offer readers new to poetry or those trying to rekindle an interest in poems some excellent choices. From William Blakes “The Tyger” to Yeats’s “When You are Old,” these are poems that avoid any hint of intentional obscurity or condescension. In these pieces, Harmon has put together a firm foundation for any further poetry reading.

Each poem receives a brief, but useful, introduction from the editor, placing the poem, and the poet, in their historic, literary, and cultural context. There is also a Notes section that has definitions of words and place names and sometimes a bit more information on the poetic form. All in all, this is an excellent place to start if you are looking for poems to read or to memorize. Here is one to start on,  “Ozymandias,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Check the WRL catalog for The Classic Hundred

 

Ozymandias

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

- See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15691#sthash.6t7rQQf3.dpuf

Ozymandias

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

- See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15691#sthash.6t7rQQf3.dpuf

 

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committedApril is poetry month, so turning from Grant and the Civil War, the rest of this week’s posts will look at poetry and poets. As I have written about before, there are lots of reasons to memorize poems. The act of memorization is good for the brain, and I think that memorizing poetry is also good for the spirit. Poems are meant to be recited more than just read. One of the delights of poetry is hearing, not just in the mind’s ear but in your actual ear, the roll and flow of the words and rhythms. And there is nothing better than being able to recite a poem from memory.

So if you are looking to expand your poetry repertoire, Hollander’s book gives ample choices. Compiled by Hollander and a distinguished advisory board that included poets Eavan Boland, Robert Pinsky, Anthony Hecht, and Mona Van Duyn among others, the poems here are arranged to some extent by type. The book starts with Sonnets, and includes some classics like Shelley’s “Ozymandius” and several of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Songs are next, followed by Counsels, Tales, and Meditations. In each of these sections, there is a thoughtfully chosen mix of older and newer poets. All of the poems here are formalist in style. As the editor notes, free verse is by its nature hard to memorize. That is an appeal for me, as I am a fan of poems that have some elements of structure to them.

So, for April, find a poem and memorize it, and then recite it for someone you know. It will strengthen your brain, no doubt, but it will also strengthen your spirit. Hollander’s collection is a great place to start looking for options.

Here’s is a short poem to get started on, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn.”

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set today a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.

Check the WRL catalog for Committed to Memory

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grantEvery so often, I feel the need to revisit older books that have been sitting on the shelves for a while unread. When my mother was doing some cleaning up at her house, she offered me a box of books that she was going to get rid of, and among them were several of Bruce Catton’s magisterial works on the American Civil War. A few years ago, I read Terrible Swift Sword (first published in 1969), part of Catton’s Centennial History of the Civil War. This past week, I picked up Grant Takes Command, the third book in the Ulysses S. Grant trilogy, started by Lloyd Lewis and completed by Catton.

Grant Takes Command follows the career of General Ulysses S. Grant from the Battle of Chattanooga in November of 1863 through the end of the war and Lincoln’s assassination. Over the course of the book, we see Grant revealed as both a superb, and often lucky, commander as well as a family man, who wrote regularly to his wife, and had her with him at various points of the campaign. Catton does not shy away from pointing out Grant’s failures as well, but compared with the rest of the Union generals, it seems clear that it was Grant’s confidence and tenacity that brought the war to a close. Grant appears to be one of the few generals on the Union side who managed to walk the treacherous line between politics and the war. The close relationship between Lincoln and Grant comes through here; Grant was the only commanding general who Lincoln seems to have completely trusted, and Grant clearly respected Lincoln.

Catton does an excellent job of portraying both the macro- and the micro- aspects of wartime for soldiers and commanders alike. He makes use of diary accounts and of the voluminous correspondence surviving from the war, not only official communiques but letters from officers, enlisted men, politicians, and civilians. These vignettes help us see beyond the maps showing sweeping troop movements, illuminating the daily lives of those at war.

I think that a particular interest here for me is that when Grant became commander of all the union forces he moved his headquarters to the Army of the Potomac, fighting Lee in Virginia. The last two thirds of Grant Takes Command are, as a result, set in Virginia, and knowing the places that Catton writes about, and in some cases having walked the ground, added an additional dimension to the story.

Catton is an able historian, and better yet, is an excellent writer of narrative. You may know how the story ends, but the journey from Chattanooga to Appomattox with Catton as your guide is one not to be missed.

Check the WRL catalog for Grant Takes Command

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fidelityI started off the week with Nick Hornby’s collected essays about books, so it seems appropriate to end the week with one of Hornby’s novels. High Fidelty is my favorite, and I recently reread it in ebook form.

As can be seen in his essays in Songbook, Hornby not only loves music, but he can write about songs, performers, and listening to music with affection and understanding. High Fidelity recounts the story of record store owner and occasional DJ, and inveterate list-maker, Rob Fleming. When the story opens, Fleming is making a list of his “desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split ups,” which he then shares with the reader. Sadly, or not perhaps, his current breakup does not make the top five list. But it is his relationship with Laura, the current breakup, that drives the story.

Well, that and music. For Rob–and Dick and Barry, his two employees at the record store–everything comes back to music. They are forever creating and critiquing lists of songs such as “best side one, track ones of all time.” Rob’s list is “Janie Jones” (The Clash), “Thunder Road” (Bruce Springsteen), “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana), “Let’s Get it On” (Marvin Gaye), and “Return of the Grievous Angel” (Gram Parsons) in case you wondered. These lists and the myriad other musical references provide a sound track to the novel that carries the story along.

Hornby understands how people talk about their interests, music in this case, and how those interests can sometimes slide into obsessions. In Rob’s case, his musical obsessions seem to keep pulling him away from making commitments. It is easy to just keep going back to the shop everyday and not worrying about your relationships.

Like a great song, High Fidelity pulls you in to the flow of the story, has its crescendos and decrescendos, offers some great solos, and finishes with a satisfying cadence. What more could one ask?

Check the WRL catalog for High Fidelity
or try the ebook version

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brysonWe have reviewed a lot of Bill Bryson’s books here at BFGB. For good reason: Bryson is one of the wittiest writers currently publishing. Whether he is writing about travel, literature, or hiking the Appalachian Trail, Bryson always has the right turn of phrase, and often it is one that leaves you laughing out loud.

But there is often a more serious side to Bryson’s writing; it is not just about the jokes. That is the side that comes out in his thoughtful and intriguing look at America in the summer of 1927. It was a busy summer, and Bryson pulls a lot of threads together as he examines what was capturing the public imagination. Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight was in May, Babe Ruth was breaking home run records while leading the Yankees to victory in the World Series, the Mississippi was flooding, and Al Capone was taking over Chicago. These are just a few of the stories that Bryson weaves into his narrative.

What makes the book more than just a dry history lesson is Bryson’s seemingly effortless ability to move from these big events back to the individual. He always can find the personal in the global, and it is the stories of these smaller lives that make One Summer: America, 1927 come alive. Part of the book’s poignancy is knowing that the Great Depression was just around the corner, and that many of the people that you are reading about will face hard times. There is an elegiac tone to the whole book.

Reading history often can tell us as much about where we are now as where we have been, and as we come out of the most recent recession, with our own big events playing out on the global and national stages, it is fascinating to compare the similarities as well as the differences between 1927 and 2014. Bryson is an astute observer and an able guide on this journey.

Check the WRL catalog for One Summer: America, 1927

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hardyIn Ten Years in the Tub Nick Hornby mentioned a number of books that sounded like ones that I would like. First on that list was Claire Tomalin’s biography of Thomas Hardy. WRL had a copy, so I took it home and dove in. While Hardy is known to most readers as a great novelist, I am more partial to his poems. In either case, readers will come away from Tomalin’s superb book with a better understanding of Hardy’s life and writing.

It is always interesting to see how much a writer’s personal life is evidenced in his or her fiction. Tomalin does an excellent job of pointing out both how Hardy’s relationships with his family, his friends, and his geographic circumstances not only informed his writing, but sometimes appeared directly in the stories and poems. It is often the case when reading a biography of an artist whose work you enjoy that you run the risk of disappointment in their personal life. Does it really matter to your enjoyment of his writing that Hardy and his wife had a difficult relationship, and that he was hardly blameless for their problems? I think that the further away in time that you get from the person the easier it is to separate out the personal and the artistic lives. So for me, the revelations about Hardy’s prickly personality set the poems and novels in a new context, but did not reduce my pleasure in them.

Thomas Hardy’s life and his creative work were both shaped by the Dorset countryside that he loved. Tomalin is an excellent biographer of place as well as of person and she leaves the reader with a clear picture of the villages, farms, and wild places that Hardy enjoyed. She also easily kept my attention from wandering throughout a long (Hardy lived from 1840 to 1928) and character-filled story. Anyone who loves Hardy’s novels or poetry, or who is interested in the writing life, will find a great deal to enjoy in this delightful biography. As a sample, here is how Tomalin ends her book:

[Hardy's poems] remind us that he was a fiddler’s son, with music in his blood and bone, who danced to his father’s playing before he learnt to write. This is how I like to think of him, a boy dancing on the stone cottage floor, outside time, oblivious, ecstatic, with his future greatness as unimaginable as the sorrows that came with it.

Check the WRL catalog for Thomas Hardy

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dickens-1Each winter I try to read something from the 19th century that I have not read before. These sprawling, character-laden stories seem to be just the thing for reading the winter blues away. I had intended to get started on something over the Christmas holidays, but circumstances prevented me, so in January, on the recommendation of a colleague  ~ thanks, Penelope ~ I dove into Our Mutual Friend.

Dickens’ last finished novel is, in some ways, a recapitulation of many of his earlier themes; poverty, social climbing, unscrupulous lawyers, and loving families all make appearances. It is also typical Dickens in its many plot lines that run in parallel for so long that you cannot see where they are ever going to intersect or even resolve. And, to be honest, they do not always resolve cleanly; some plots just seem to drift away and are never heard from again. Nonetheless, the story is a fascinating one, and it is worth the time to read through it.

Like Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend concerns an inheritance, in this case, one gone oddly wrong. Young John Harmon, on his way back from abroad to take up the profitable “dust” business left to him by his estranged father, is thought to have been murdered by a local boatman, and a body found floating in the river confirms that suspicion. The will stipulates that John only inherits if he marries Bella Wilfer. Needless to say, the body in the river is not John, and the story, or one of the stories, revolves around Harmon’s efforts to prove the boatman innocent of his murder, to woo the girl that his father’s will would have forced him to marry, and to come to his rightful inheritance. I told you things got complicated.

There are a lot of other tales here too: the pursuit of Lizzy Hexam, whose father supposedly killed John Harmon, by a lawyer and a schoolmaster; the trials and tribulations of the Veneerings, who are seeking to rise up in society; and the ups and downs of the delightful Mr. and Mrs. Boffin. Written in serial form, abrupt shifts of scenery, plot, and cliffhangers abound. But Dickens manages to wrap everything up at the end, pulling together the various strands of the story in sometimes surprising ways. I was delighted to meet several new characters here who will stay with me–Jenny Wren, Noddy Boffin, Mr. Riah, and Reginald (R.W.) Wilfer among them. They can join company with any of Dickens’ better-known creations.  Our Mutual Friend is an excellent novel to start with if you are new to Dickens, and if you enjoyed others, you will find much to like here too.

Check the WRL catalog for Our Mutual Friend

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hornbyI am feeling very meta-…, writing about a book that is about writing about books, some of which are about writing. I have a great affection for essays and my library at home has lots of examples from Montaigne to Abbey to McPhee to the Whites (E.B and Katherine) and many more. When I came across this collection of Nick Hornby’s essays on books he has read, written originally for The Believer magazine, on the new book cart, I checked it out, immediately realized I needed to own it, and went to the bookstore and bought a copy.  Hornby’s column, “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” has been running more or less monthly since 2003 and covers just that–books that Hornby has read in the past month. Each essay begins with a list of books purchased that month and then a second list of books read. Hornby then proceeds to discuss those two lists and anything else that comes into his agile, inventive, and always entertaining mind.

There are two ways to read books like this. First, you can look at the lists the author offers, and count how many titles you have read, or at least heard of, reveling in your superior literary tastes. This is the competitive, ego-driven option. Or, you can step back, read the essays, and start making your own lists of titles mentioned that you ought to go right out and get and read. This is, of course, the more mature way to read the book. OK, I did both.

Hornby is a font of great ideas for books to read as his interests, his own protests to the contrary, go beyond football (by which he means soccer) and rock-and-roll. From all types of fiction to a fascinating array of nonfiction, Hornby’s descriptions of his monthly reading are filled with titles I want to read right now. As The Believer‘s “About” page indicates: “We will focus on writers and books we like. We will give people and books the benefit of the doubt.” So the reviews here are generally positive, and that is great. I would much rather hear about why I should be interested in a particular book or writer than why I shouldn’t.

This is also a book about what it is to be a reader, and Hornby captures all the ups and downs of the reading life–those times when you just cannot get through a book and the times when you start a book and the next thing you know it is 3 a.m. and you are still reading. Hornby understands and conveys with humor the times when life gets in the way of reading. Spouses, children, deadlines, one’s own work, and, yes, the Arsenal vs. Manchester United match, all have a way of derailing our reading time. That being the case, it is great to have a guide as thoughtful, eloquent, and passionate as Nick Hornby to offer some possible titles to get you back on the road to reading.

Check the WLR catalog for Ten Years in the Tub

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glauserThe 1930s crime fiction of Friedrich Glauser seems to me to be the dark bedrock from which the immensely popular body of Scandinavian crime fiction springs. In four years, Glauser, a depressive, morphine-addicted writer, who was once committed to an insane asylum, and who died at the age of forty two, published five detective novels featuring the Swiss Sergeant Studer.

Now being published for the first time in English by Bitter Lemon Press, Glauser’s novels will appeal to a wide range of crime fiction readers. Glauser is often referred to as the “Swiss Simenon,” and like Simenon, his novels focus more on the psychology of both the detective and the criminal than on fast-paced action. There is a lot of talking here, and the Austrian-born Swiss Glauser seems to share an interest in psychology with his compatriots, Freud and Jung. It is through conversation that Sgt. Studer most frequently comes to the solution of the crime. Glauser’s novels explore the dark side of human nature as it is played out in families, schools, and in one case, an asylum.

Glauser also shares with Simenon an interest in food, and there is a lot of eating and drinking going on in these stories. Sgt. Studer is a fascinating character. Once a promising detective, Studer was somehow compromised in a bank investigation, and his career was derailed. He now finds himself a pariah to most of his colleagues and supervisors, and he is the man who is sent out on hopeless cases. While Studer is not always quick to see connections, his relentlessness and his commitment to the truth eventually lead him to the solution.

Fans of Simenon should find these novels interesting, but they will also appeal to readers who enjoy more contemporary Scandinavian crime fiction. Thumbprint is a good starting point for exploring this forgotten master of police fiction.

Check the WRL catalog for Thumbprint.

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spencerSometimes, you just need a good book. Not a great one or one that will move your soul, but just a well-plotted, interestingly written story with characters who will keep your attention. I found myself in that state the other night, and rather than browsing my shelves for something to re-read, I got out my iPad and took a look at the mysteries in the library’s ebook collection. There were lots of titles there to choose from, and I decided to take a chance on Sally Spencer. I had never heard of her books before, but a British police procedural set in the post-WWII period sounded interesting. I was delighted with the choice.

Spencer’s main character, Inspector “Cloggin’ It” Charlie Woodend, is a great addition to the fictional police forces. Like some of my favorite other police inspectors, Adamsberg, Colbeck, and Dalziel, Woodend is often a thorn in the side of his superiors, and his sometimes unorthodox investigating style does not always endear him to his colleagues.

These are slow-paced stories, with more thinking, walking, and talking than cinematic thrills and chases. Like Simenon’s Maigret, Charlie Woodend lets the “why” lead to the “how” of the crime rather than vice versa. This first story in the series also introduces Sergeant Bob Rutter, who is assigned to Woodend to investigate a series of killings in a small town in Cheshire. Woodend has a reputation for running through sergeants pretty quickly, but Rutter turns out to be a match, and the interplay between the two builds as the series progresses.

Spencer does an excellent job of bringing in details of the personal lives of the policemen as well as cultural events of the period in which the books are set (moving forward from the 1950s). In particular, Spencer captures the disruption caused by the war and its aftermath to small town life. In the later stories, Spencer explores the difficult entry of women on to the force, and eventually develops a new series around one of her female detectives.

So while these books may not be the be all and end all of crime writing, they are solid examples of some of the best crime fiction I have read lately, and a welcome addition to my growing list of police procedurals.

Check the WRL catalog for The Salton Killings.

Also available as an ebook.

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moserAs I wrote about last year at this time, many readers first come to stories of the uncanny in their youth. In browsing the catalog for a collection of ghost stories for younger readers, I came across this delightful anthology compiled by Barry Moser. Moser is an noted artist, especially at printmaking and woodcuts, and his work graces the pages here. He also clearly has an ear for a good ghost story.

This collection starts with the chilling classic “The Monkey’s Paw.” I remember reading this story as a child and it still sends a shiver up my spine now just thinking on it. Be careful what you wish for is the theme here. Moser includes stories from classic writers, among them, Arthur Conan Doyle’s, “How it Happened,” the story of a car accident and its aftermath and the old, ghostly ballad of Polly Vaughn, retold by Moser himself. But there are more contemporary tales as well. Madeline L’Engle’s “Poor Little Saturday” is an excellent story of how a lonely boy finds some surcease of sorrow as he explores a haunted mansion. Joyce Carol Oates, known for her dark adult fiction, contributes a story here, “The Others,” that in its lack of resolution is a great addition to the ghost story canon. Also of note, and both related to music, are “Samantha and the Ghost,” by Philippa Pearce, where a young girl frees her grandparents’ cottage from a ghostly visitor and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann.”

None of the stories here is overly scary (well, maybe “The Monkey’s Paw” is for me), and a couple of them are pretty mild as far as ghost stories go by modern standards. But they are fun stories to read, and perhaps to read aloud. Moser’s illustrations add an extra frisson to the general eeriness.

Check the WRL catalog for Great Ghost Stories

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nortonI have always enjoyed Brad Leithauser’s poetry. He is one of the “New Formalists,” who have advocated for the use of metrical form and structure in modern poetry, as opposed to those who favor free verse. So I thought it was interesting to come across an anthology of ghost stories edited by Leithauser.

One thing that makes this collection a bit different from the others I have written about this week is that Leithauser does not limit himself to the old masters of the genre. While Henry and M.R. James are both included, as is the delightfully named Oliver Onions, Leithauser also includes pieces from later 20th century writers, including V.S. Pritchett, A.S. Byatt, John Cheever, and Penelope Fitzgerald. In his introduction, Leithauser notes that there are two branches to the ghost story genre, and the two Jameses, conveniently, delineate each  branch. M.R is a master of what Leithauser calls the “plot ghost story” and Henry of the “psychological ghost story.” While I favor the former, Leithauser is more interested in the latter, and the collected stories here reflect that interest.

There are some deeply chilling tales here. Marghanita Laski’s “The Tower” finds a woman seeking to impress her somewhat distant husband by exploring an isolated tower in the Italian countryside, with ambiguous results. “The Axe,” by Penelope Fitzgerald starts off as a memo of a rather routine, if callous, office firing, and devolves into something much darker. Cheever’s “The Music Teacher” explores many of the same themes of Cheever’s novels, infidelity, lost love, and suburban life, but with a darkly supernatural twist.

As Leithauser says about fans of ghost stories at the end of his introduction, “In their bones they know that the universe is unsettling whether it is inhabited by spirits or whether we—lone walkers on a bitter night—are alone in the windy darkness.” These collected stories all capture that sense of unease, and keep you looking over your shoulder.

Check the WRL catalog for The Norton Book of Ghost Stories

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victorianHave I said how much I like Victorian era ghost stories? These atmospheric tales seem to me the perfect autumn reading. The Victorians, as the editors here point out, had a fascination with death, and that extended to their fascination with the afterlife. Think about Arthur Conan Doyle, who invented that exceptionally rational detective Sherlock Holmes, but who also believed in the power of mediums to connect with the dead. It comes as no surprise that some of the best ghost stories written come from this death-haunted period.

Oxford University Press is known for its exceptional anthologies, and Victorian Ghost Stories is an excellent example of their work. The collection brings together a superb assortment of authors telling chilling tales published between 1852 and 1908. Some of the well-known suspects are here, the Jameses, Henry and M.R., Wilkie Collins, and Elizabeth Gaskell among others, but there were also lots of new authors I had not encountered before. I particularly enjoyed “At Chrighton Abbey” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, where ghostly hunters presage a tragedy at Christmas-tide. Or there is Charlotte Riddell’s “The Open Door,” where a young man makes his fortune by risking his life in an ostensibly haunted manor house. All of these tales create an atmosphere of suspense without resorting to cheap tricks or gory details. The Victorians really were masters of the uncanny.

These would be great stories to read aloud by candle light, or better yet the light of just a fireplace. Let the shadows start to dance on the wall, listen to the creaking as the house settles and the tree branches scrape and scratch, or is that just what you think you are hearing?

Check the WRL catalog for Victorian Ghost Stories: An Oxford Anthology

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dahlMost readers know Roald Dahl for his wonderful, though often dark, children’s novels–Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, Witches, and many others. Dahl also wrote short fiction aimed at adults. In those stories, Dahl always “aims to disturb” the reader, and, skillful writer that he is, he generally achieves his goal. So when picking stories for this collection, and horror fiction almost always works best in the short story format to my mind, Dahl sought out writers of the uncanny who could tell a tale that would leave you ill at ease. I can attest that he succeeded, at least in my case.

While there are some familiar names in this collection,  including E.F. Benson, Edith Wharton, and Sheridan Le Fanu, most of the writers here were new to me. Dahl says he read “seven hundred and forty-nine ghost stories” in compiling the tales presented here, and he was “completely dazed by reading so much rubbish.” But the fourteen titles he chose are among the best ghost stories written.

From the opening story “W.S” in which a writer finds himself pursued by one of his characters to the final tale, “The Upper Berth,” involving the haunting of a cabin on board an ocean liner, these stories all will make you decidedly uncomfortable and likely to turn an extra light or two on around the house.

Dahl sought out stories that were neither violent nor graphic, but rather ones that seemed likely enough at the outset and then took a strange turn somewhere along the way. Empty rooms and loneliness seem to propel many of these tales. Often the protagonist finds him- or herself alone, perhaps at the holidays or in a new city. This alone-ness sets the stage for some supernatural encounter, though it is often only afterwards that the uncanny nature of things is revealed.

If you like M.R. James or Henry James for that matter you will find a lot to enjoy in these stories selected by a master of the macabre.

Check the WRL catalog for Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories

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dickensEach year about this time, I try to find a set of new horror titles to look at that are eerie without being gory. The sort of book to read when evening comes early and mist hangs on the fields. My favorite scary stories come from the late Victorian period or from those modern writers who carry on that tradition.

“One winter’s evening, about five o’clock, just as it began to grow dusk . . .”

What better start to a story for a blustery autumn evening?  I was delighted this year to come across a new collection of Charles Dickens’ tales of the supernatural. The quote above starts his tale “The Bagman’s Story.”

I love the way that Dickens conjures up characters. His novels are filled with memorable people, often with memorable names, and his short fiction displays the same skill. Here, we meet a range of fascinating people, from Tom Smart— who finds true love and a great pub with the help of a haunted Windsor chair— to Mr. Goodchild, who hears the confession of a ghostly murderer in “The Ghost in the Bride’s Chamber.” Many of the stories here resonate with themes that Dickens explored more fully in his novels: the miser whose lust for money poisons his life, the man who despises others’ joy and cheer until supernatural beings show him the error of his ways, and the young woman bilked of an inheritance by an cruel guardian.

More atmospheric than horrific, these stories can still bring a chill, and cause you to look over your shoulder as you climb the stairs or peer out the back door into the dark night.

Check the WRL catalog for Supernatural Short Stories

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hoegAlthough I most frequently read mysteries, fantasy, 19th century novels, and Southern fiction, something keeps bringing me back to Peter Høeg’s writing, though these stories in many ways fall outside my usual scope. While Smilla’s Sense of Snow was sort of a mystery, it was not particularly traditional, and Høeg’s The Quiet Girl is a peculiarly appealing blend of genres and styles. I think that it is the beauty of Høeg’s writing that keeps me on the lookout for his books on the new fiction shelves.

If you enjoy thoughtful, well-crafted sentences, along with occasional flashes of humor, you will find much to like in Høeg’s most recent novel, The Elephant Keeper’s Children. The novel follows the adventures and misadventures of Peter, the narrator, Tilte, and Hans, whose parents have disappeared off the fictional island of Finø, off the coast of Denmark. The children’s father is a church pastor, and as Peter tells it, his parents are not above manufacturing miraculous events to draw people to their church. With their parents gone, Peter and his sister Tilte set out to find out what they are up to this time, with help from their older brother Hans and a variety of unexpected acquaintances. As in any thriller, help appears when it is least expected, and shifting allegiances make the search even more challenging. Along the way, the pair encounters angry bishops, unstable teachers, a romantic pair of police officers, and terrorists aiming to explode a bomb at an ecumenical gathering. Høeg has an excellent feel for pacing a story, and his characters are all memorable.

But the book is not just a tour-de-force of fine writing. Høeg explores fundamentalism and belief, the power of love, and ultimately the nature of what it means to be human. With Peter as our guide, we come to see the world in a new way, to look for those “openings” that lead us to a better understanding of ourselves and each other, and that allow us to escape from the rooms that we put ourselves in. The title of the book is taken from an “old Indian saying”

In case you wish to befriend an elephant keeper,

make certain to have room for the elephant.

Check the catalog for The Elephant Keeper’s Children

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