Monday, January 25, 2010

Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories

Lately, I have been completely obsessed by short stories.  I can't explain it (and I hope it doesn't mean that my attention span is getting even shorter in this day and age of instant information).  Basically it started shortly before The Classics Circuit tour of Edith Wharton.  I couldn't decide which of her books to read and whilst perusing my library's catalog, I found that their collection included a delightful CD version of four of Wharton's short stories from Selected Shorts, the excellent NPR radio program.  By far, my favorite was Christina Pickles' brilliant reading of Xingu.  (You wouldn't think it, but Wharton's ironic streak is sometimes hilarious.  She completely knocks the stuffing out of society matrons in this story.) Roman Fever is pretty wonderful too.

But I digress. Because of my obsession with Wharton, I discovered Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories, as it includes a one of her short stories -- yes, Edith Wharton, the queen of New York society novels, also wrote ghost stories.  Good ones.  Some of them are included in her collections, but they're also available in a single volume, which is worth looking for.

 Roald Dahl is himself one of my favorite short story writers.  If you have only read his delightful children's books, please go directly to your bookstore or library, or start googling the shorts and READ THEM NOW, because they're brilliant.  He has a marvelously wicked sense of humor, and most of his stories end with jaw-dropping plot twists.  He personally selected this collection, after an ill-fated attempt in the 1960s to create a weekly television anthology of ghost stories (rather like the Twilight Zone).  Dahl researched and read hundreds of ghost stories in preparation, and apparently, most of them were lousy.  He found 24 that were worth filming for the series, and fourteen of those are included in this anthology.

The stories range in time period over 100 years, from The Ghost of a Hand, a classic by the gothic writer J. Sherdian Le Fanu, to the 1950s and 1960s.  All of the stories except one seem to be British -- a Danish story called Elias and the Draug, which is my least favorite of the collection.  Dahl himself admits in the introduction that it's much scarier in the original Danish, but since I'm limited to English I'll have to take his word for it.  My favorite was Harry by Rosemary Timperley, in which a woman begins to fear that her adopted daughter's imaginary playmate isn't so imaginary.  It still makes me shiver a little when I think about it.  Edith Wharton's Afterward is also good, though it starts off a little slowly (typical of Wharton) but the payoff is excellent.  And the final story, The Upper Berth, would make me think twice about crossing the Atlantic by ship if I actually had the means to do so.  The collection also includes tales by British writers E. F. Benson, who wrote the Mapp & Lucia series (still on my to-read list) and L. P. Hartley.

Roald Dahl didn't write any of the stories in the anthology.  Though his work is sometimes macabre, his short works aren't actually ghost stories.  Howeve, he did write the introduction, which is great -- he writes about the nature of ghost stories, female writers versus male (lots of great ghost stories by women, surprisingly), and about the writing of children's fiction.  It's worth reading or even buying the book just for the introduction.

And now that I'm all into the short stories, I've decided to sign up for a challenge -- one that I may actually be able to achieve! Yes! It's The Short Story Challenge.  I'm going to try and read at least five short story collections this year -- I don't think I'll count Dahl's collection, since I read it before I signed up (that smacks of cheating) -- but there are lots of other authors I haven't read with great short works.  On my to-read bookshelf I've already got collections by Chekhov, Hemingway, Garcia Marquez (which is turning brown since I've owned it so long) and Haruki Murakami.  Here are some of my favorite short stories, in no particular order.  I've added links when available if you can't wait and want to read them immediately.
 I'm always looking for suggestions -- any favorites in the blogosphere? Please let me know in the comments section.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Old New York by Edith Wharton

Write what you know.  Okay, it's a cliche, but Edith Wharton honestly did, and once again, I can see fragments of her personal life in her collection of novellas, Old New York. (Most of you know a bit about Wharton's background; if not, click here.) For such a prolific writer -- more than 20 novels, plus novellas, nonfiction, and more than 80 short stories --  Wharton manages to include elements of her own history in nearly every one of her works.   Frequently, it's the high-society setting around the turn of the century, but even in a book like Ethan Frome, with a setting in rural Massachusetts, her themes reflect her own life story. I keep seeing three themes, over and over:

1. People trapped by their own circumstances, with no forseeable escape.  They can be rich or poor, male or female, but they're usually females with limited resources. Frequently, they're trapped by their station in the rigid society of the time.

2. Women without choices.  Over and over, Wharton writes about women who are have basically no choice in their future.   They're completely limited by the morals and standards of the day, and by the amount of  education that their station in society allows or doesn't allow; by their need to find husbands to support them; and by their lack of employment opportunities.  Sometimes these women have to use their wits to survive by manipulation. 

3. Dramatic, ironic endings, usually tragic.  Quite simply, Wharton was the queen of dramatic irony.

Frequently I've seen a combination of these elements, sometimes all three.  Old New York is comprised of four novellas in one volume (it's also the original title of her Pulitzer-prize winning novel, The Age of Innocence).  Each of the novellas is set in a different decade in the 19th century: the forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies, though some of them are written in retrospect, or from the view of an outsider, as in Ethan Frome, wherin the tragic tale is told by an unknown narrator.  Two of the protagonists are male, two are female.  The first, False Dawn, is the story of a wealthy young man struggling to assert himself despite his overbearing, domineering father; the second, and best known, is The Old Maid, the story of an adopted child and two women who are her surrogate mothers; The Spark, about a young man whose life is changed by an encounter by a famous writer; and the last, New Year's Day, is a tragic tale about a young woman suspected of adultery.   None of them are particularly long, between about 60 to 120 pages, so it's a good introduction to Wharton. 

I really liked this book.  Again, I saw the same themes repeated, but Wharton is able to keep these stories and novels fresh and interesting, despite the repetition.  And even though they're mostly heartbreakingly tragic, I find I can't stop reading them.  The plots and characters from these four novellas were so well written and the developed I could imagine all of them as full-length novels.  I'll admit, sometimes her prose is a bit dense and flowery, and it sometimes seems to take Wharton some time to get to the point, a bit like Henry James, her dear friend, but to a much lesser degree. A couple of times during this reading (especially in The Old Maid, the longest of the novellas) I really just wished she'd get going and make her point, but when she does, it's powerful.

Some people complain that they can't relate to the high society subjects of Wharton's novels.  I've read quite a bit of British literature, and I've always found the social constraints of the rigid class system and aristocracy so foreign.  When I read Wharton, I'm reminded that it does exist in the U.S. as well -- maybe it's a bit more subtle, and it's a heck of a lot less relevant in this day and age,  but I'm sure it still exists in the stately homes of Boston, New York, and Newport.  And I thank my lucky stars that, first of all, I am hopelessly middle-class, (I have no desire to experience a "high society" life -- heck, I never even joined a sorority in college!); and second; that I was born in the second half of the 20th century.  It's still tough for women, but thank God we have choices and opportunities, and the possibility of an education.   Reading Wharton always reminds me how much better it is now than in the Good Old Days.

For more about Wharton, please see the Classics Circuit home page, with links to more insightful reviews of her life and work, all month long.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck

Wow, what a great start to the year. 

The Winter of Our Discontent is probably one of the less popular Steinbeck works, and I think that's a shame.  I discovered how much I love Steinbeck's work the a couple of years ago, but I just could not get back to reading him -- he's been pushed aside lately by those pesky British writers, particularly the Victorians.  This book probably would have remained far, far down on my to-read list, but at a recent book group meeting, one of our members mentioned how much this book meant to her -- even after multiple readings, she still got something different out of it every time she read it.  She was so passionate about it, we were intrigued, so it was our group's January selection. Quite simply, it's brilliant.

Without spoilers, I'll give a quick setup of the plot, and get down to why this book is so great.  Set sometime after WWII, this book is the story of Ethan Allen Hawley, who lives in a small fishing town somewhere in New England.  He comes from a long line of patriots and shipmen (hence, the name), but past generations have not done so well.  They've lost all their fortune and land, and after the war, Ethan came back to run the family grocery store, but he failed at business and now he's working for an Italian immigrant as a clerk in what was once his own family's business.  His wife and teenaged children are embarrassed by his lack of ambition, but Ethan seems to be a good, moral, upstanding member of the community.  However, one spring day (not in the winter) his moral resolution seems to waver, and begins to consider some immoral acts.  This book made me think about human nature, greed, ambition, right and wrong.  This book is so interesting on so many different levels. 

Francis Bacon once said that "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested."  That's how I felt about this book.  I could have read it pretty quickly, since I didn't find it to be a difficult read; however, I found it necessary to stop every thirty pages or so and put the book aside so I could absorb it.  I was completely transfixed by the story, and I found this character to be fascinating -- would commit an immoral act, and if so, which one?

Several years ago, when I decided to atone for my poor knowledge of American literature, the thought of Steinbeck made me quake in my boots. I had visions of dust bowls, wrathful grapes, and the dreary Joad family. However, I had joined an online classic book group, and I was too determined to give up. Besides, the group's selection was Travels with Charley: a guy travels around the country with his dog. I like travel, and I love dogs, so I took the plunge. To my complete and utter astonishment, I loved it. I was a complete convert. This was soon followed by The Grapes of Wrath, which I could not put down, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, and The Pearl. Still waiting on my to-read shelf: East of Eden and A Russian Journal.  

Most people who haven't read Steinbeck don't realize that his work is really quite easy, and that it's not all doom and gloom. He has a wry sense of humor, and sometimes he's downright hilarious. (If you don't believe me, read Cannery Row. The chapter about the frog-catching expedition is one of the funniest things I've ever read). And the writing is really, really wonderful, and insightful. Steinbeck throws in these one liners that really make me stop and think. For example, Ethan is thinking about the books in his attic, and particularly about Hans Christian Andersen:

A man who tells secrets or stories must think of who is hearing or reading, for a story has as many versions as it has readers. Everyone takes what he wants or can from it, and thus changes it to his measure. Some pick out parts and reject the rest, some strain the story through their mesh of prejudice, some paint it with their own delight. A story must have some points of contact with the reader to make him feel at home in it. Only then can he accept wonders.

Great advice for any writer or reader. 

So how does everyone else feel about Steinbeck?  Does the very sound strike fear in your heart?  Do you have a favorite?  Please let me know since he's one of my must-read authors for 2010.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Books of the Decade

A lot of bloggers seem to be riffing on their top books of the decade.  Sadly, I lost track of all the books I'd read before I got on Goodreads, so I can only imagine how many books I read in the 2000s (what do we call that decade anyway?  The Zeroes? The Aughts? The Naughts?)

Anyway, I think the most significant changes I made to my reading habits were 1) starting library school -- I took three childrens/YA lit classes and got hooked on all the great authors writing for youth -- and 2) rediscovering the classics.  I've probably written before about how few classics I read in high school and college -- I'm really regretting not taking more lit classes (I sometimes fantasize about going back for another Master's!).  Anyhow, I'm really making up for lost time, and have discovered so many great classic authors and their works.  What really amazes me is how many classics I've read since I started on my quest -- my Goodreads list of "Classics Read" numbers 150; of those, I counted how many I'd read before 2000.  Only about 30, which means I've probably read One hundred and twenty classic books in the past ten years, most of them, really, since I got serious about it in 2005.  I've probably read more than 100 classics since 2005.  Wow.  I have another 150 classics on my to-read list, hopefully I'll make a pretty good dent in the list in the next ten years.  (Who am I kidding?  The list never gets smaller since I keep adding to it.  Oh, well, I suppose it's better than running out of books to read!)

These are the books first read this decade that I really think will stick with me. It was tough to choose, but I realize that all of these are books that I want to read over and over, so there you have it.  In alphabetical order by author, because I can't possibly rank them:

Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen -- I love them both so much, I can't choose one over the other.

West with the Night by Beryl Markham --  Nonfiction that's as good as fiction.  This book is so wonderful, I tried to read it slowly to make it last longer.  Get the illustrated version if you can.

Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier -- now I'm fascinated by Vermeer.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens -- the ultimate Victorian writer.  You can't beat the cliffhangers and brilliantly intertwining plots and characters.  (Also a brilliant TV adaptation by the BBC!)

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman -- Fat Charlie is the son of a god and learns to deal with it.  The audio adaptation by Lenny Henry is hands-down my favorite audiobook of all time.  I bow to my librarian friend Melissa for recommending it.  I am forever in her debt.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell -- like Jane Austen, but with more pages so it lasts longer!

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Heartbreaking and fascinating.

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones -- I seriously love this book as much as Harry Potter.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith --  Why did I wait so long to read this book.  Kicking myself! 

Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck -- completely converted me to Steinbeck.

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope -- I couldn't put it down, I've never read an 800 page book so fast.  And the timeliness of the financial scandals is pretty eerie.

The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.  Both beautiful and tragic, but I can't choose one over the other.

So -- a great look back a great decade of reading!  I'm already immersed in some great books for 2010.