Tuesday, December 13, 2011

R.I.P. Challenge Catch Up: The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories

Newton, Michael, ed. The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories: From Elizabeth Gaskell to Ambrose Pierce. London: Penguin Books, 2010.

(Yes, I know it's December, but I'm still catching up on writing about my R.I.P. challenge books. I've got two more to tell you about after this one. Oh well, the winter is as good a time as any to pick up a spine-tingling book, so maybe I'll inspire some good winter reading for you -- or titles to put on your list for next year's R.I.P. challenge).

Ahh, what could be better than to sit down on a rainy afternoon in Maine, large mug of tea at hand, and a collection of ghost stories? I read the majority of these stories while in Maine in October. They were a perfect complement to a volume of Victorian vampire stories I'd also brought with me to read.

I liked this collection because it included some of my all-time favorite ghost stories (W.W. Jacob's "The Monkey's Paw", M. R. James's "'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad'"), but it also introduced me to stories I didn't know, most written by authors I didn't know (Mary Elizabeth Braddon's "The Cold Embrace", Mary Austin's "The Readjustment"). Talk about a book that leads one to read more. I could probably spend 2012 doing nothing but reading books and story collections I've been inspired to read just from this book. Instead, as is typical, despite notes I've made in the book and titles I've put into the T.B.R. tome, this book will probably go on a shelf, and I'll read nothing more that I learned about from its pages until years from now when someone says to me, "Have you ever read this collection of Margaret Oliphant stories? You really must."

What makes this collection great is Michael Newton's Introduction and his Notes. The Notes are terrific. They provide biographical information about each author as well as information on when and where each story was first published. I hate cheap collections that give the reader absolutely nothing to help put stories into context. Occasionally, I came across what I consider classic "Penguinesque" endnotes, the sort that make me think, "I flipped all the way to the back of the book and nearly lost my place for that?" Here's a prime example for you:

He was made welcome at the Globe Inn, was safely installed in the large double-bedded room of which we have heard, and was able before retiring to rest to arrange his materials for work in apple-pie order upon a commodious table which occupied the outer end of the room, and was surrounded on three sides by windows looking seaward. (p. 264)*
This passage is followed by an endnote. Hmm. What might it be? Perhaps there's some information about superstitions surrounding windows that look seaward. Or maybe the fictitious Globe Inn is based on a real inn that still exists. Or possibly (one of my favorite types of end notes), we'll get some details about how this story connects to some other story, either by the author or one of the author's friends. But, no, flip to page 406, and here's what you'll find:

"apple-pie order: perfect neatness"


Luckily, as I noted above, most of the endnotes weren't of this sort, and Newton's Introduction is well worth reading. He explains why he's chosen the stories he has, and he gives descriptions of different kinds of ghost stories (useful to those of us who dabble in writing our own such stories). He follows his Introduction with a "Further Reading List" that is more enticing than most such lists. He's done a superb job, really, of putting together an anthology, taking care to include all the bits and pieces that are necessary to make an anthology complete. That's the editor in me speaking. Now, let's hear the reader in me give you brief commentaries on each story.

Elizabeth Gaskell: The Old Nurse's Story
This one effortlessly and effectively combines many classic elements of the genre into one story.

Fitz-James O'Brien: What Was It?"
If you like a little humor thrown in with your creepiness, this is a story for you. Thank goodness for the endnotes, though. O'Brien expected his readers to be literate way beyond what I am.

Edward Bulwer Lytton: The Haunted and the Haunters: or, The House and the Brain
The alternate title says it all: the irrational meets the rational. We all know I love a good irrational v. rational tale.

Elizabeth Bradden: The Cold Embrace
Oh, if only this sort of vengeance could be visited upon all such cads. I think I must read more Bradden.

Amelia B. Edwards: The North Mail
This one's a great twist on the sort of fears loving wives have experienced ever since the institution of marriage was created.

Charles Dickens: No. 1 Branch Line: The Signal-man
Dickens was a Master when it comes to describing the ghostly. This is a good one for those of us raised on urban legends of ghosts of train wrecks.

Sheridan Le Fanu: Green Tea
(Beware, those of you obsessed with drinking green tea for your health.) This story's a prime example of the moving away from the romantic to the scientific. Here, spirit possession is nothing a physician can't handle, given permission and the time to do so. Oh, and there's a monkey, so wonderfully evil, a touch I loved.

Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Ghost in the Cap'n Brown House
Bet you didn't know that Beecher Stowe wrote ghost stories. I love the way so many of our classic writers experimented with the genre. This is a fine example of how urban legends might start and spread. Each of the two women in the story is convinced that her version of it is the honest truth. And what fun everyone in town is having with both.

Robert Louis Stevenson: Thrawn Janet
Was ever a more Presbyterian tale written? I found it difficult to read because of all the Scottish dialect but well worth the trouble. The Scottish glossary in the back of the book, whose inclusion I initially questioned (silly me!) came in handy.

Margaret Oliphant: The Open Door
Here's a story to verify everything the medium James Van Praagh would have to tell you about ghosts. I loved it! Oliphant's writing style is sublime. She's already in the TBR tome (thanks to you, fellow bloggers), and I must read more.

Rudyard Kipling: The End of the Passage
I found it interesting from a historical perspective, but I really didn't understand what happened. And not in a "Was there or wasn't there a ghost?" way. I mean in a "Huh? What are these characters doing and why?" way, the sort of story that has be rereading pages and still not understanding, while my mind wanders (basically, the way I read every story I had to read for high school English classes).

Lafcadio Hearn: Nightmare Touch
This story's horrific in its own right and is made even more so by the treatment of the poor child -- whether his horror was real or not.

W. W. Jacobs: The Monkey's Paw
Okay, I take that back about the way I read every story for high school English classes. I loved this one when I read it for high school, and I still love it, even though I've read it God knows how many times since then. Is there a single ghost story anthology that doesn't include it?

Mary Wilkins Freeman: The Wind in the Rose-Bush
(I wonder when we stopped hyphenating rose bush.) This is a classic ghost story, sort of an imaginative take on your friend's friend's brother's tale about the young hitchhiker who left her sweater in his car and when he went to return it to her house, his parents informed him she'd been dead for several years.

M.R. James: "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad"
It's the epitome of an M.R. Jamesian tale (clever, intelligent, funny, and creepy with great twists) and one of my favorites, especially since if I happen to be traveling alone, staying in some b & b with two beds, I can spook myself if I think about it too much (most especially if I'm dumb enough to watch one of those ghost hunting programs on the TV that's also in the room).

Ambrose Bierce: The Moonlit Road
I loved this one because it's a brilliant merging of mystery and ghost story.

Henry James: The Jolly Corner
I'm surprised I'd never read this one till now. Very Henry Jamesian. That means it's very erudite in a way I shouldn't like, that should bore me to tears, but I loved it anyway, which has been my experience with everything I've ever read by James. (I wish my last name were James. It seems then I'd automatically be a great ghost story writer.)

Mary Austin: The Readjustment
This one's a marvelous exploration of how a couple can love one another and never be able to communicate that love to each other.

Edith Wharton: Afterward
(How clever to end a book with a story called "Afterward".) I barely remembered anything about this one from the first time I read it, but I love Wharton's ghost stories, so it was a pleasure to read it as though I were reading it for the first time. Like Edwards's story (and also like many of Wharton's other ghost stories) it's another one that preys nicely on wifely fears.

* Guess the author of that quote. I'll put all correct guesses in a hat and send a copy of this book to the name I pull.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch

Sankovitch, Nina. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, my life (as I recently emailed Friend-Not-Husband Bob), decided to do one of its periodic imitations of hell. We received a call from Bob's brother Peter telling us he was in the intensive care unit of the Stamford Hospital in Connecticut. We knew he had been bitten by a couple of ticks two weeks prior; that, not feeling well, he had gone to the doctor on Tuesday to be checked for lyme disease; and that she had immediately sent him to the emergency room when she saw his condition, mostly because he was very short of breath. We are, basically, Peter's only next of kin. Bob has no other siblings; both his parents are dead; and Peter never married or had any children; and he lives alone, in what was his parents' house. It was important for us to be there for him.

To make a long story short, Bob found someone to cover for his Thanksgiving Eve church service, and we raced up from Pennsylvania to Connecticut (as much as anyone can race, packing up, for an indefinite amount of time, two humans, two cats, and a dog and traveling the New Jersey Parking Lot Turnpike the day before Thanksgiving). By the time we got to the hospital, Peter had been intubated. Soon, thereafter, he suffered acute renal failure. He did not have lyme disease. He had ehrlichiosis, which is another tick-borne infection that systematically attacks all the muscles and all the organs in the body. It's supposedly extremely rare, although we've subsequently discovered that Peter's neighbors' dog had it. Also, it isn't always so severe. Peter's case was complicated by the fact that he lost his spleen when he was in a car accident back in his twenties, so his immune system is compromised. Typically, the infection is treated on an outpatient basis with antibiotics.

We got back to Peter's home Wednesday night completely exhausted. All I wanted to do was eat the takeout food we'd bought and then crawl into bed with a good book. I'd brought a couple of books with me, but somehow, nothing appealed, so I went searching through boxes of books that Peter, who works for a company that displays books for publishers at trade shows and gets many books free, had in what his parents called "the pool room." Most of these are thrillers and mysteries, which seemed like good fare for the circumstances, but then I realized that he also, inexplicably, because I can't imagine his ever reading it, had a copy of Nina Sankovitch's Tolstoy and the Purple Chair. I grabbed it, and a couple of mysteries, and headed up to bed.

I have to admit that I started with a mystery (Michael Malone's First Lady -- top notch!). Sankovitch's book had caught my attention. I'd read about it in the blogosphere and Goodreads.com (mixed reviews) and had come across it at my favorite bookstore in Maine, but I wasn't overly eager to read it. I knew the premise: Sankovitch used books as therapy to help her deal with her sister's untimely death, spending a year reading a book a day. She wrote about each one on her blog, which I've skimmed, but I'm not a faithful reader. Her year was something that sounded both extremely exhausting and extremely fun to me. The exhausting part was what made me a little hesitant. A slow reader like I am could never take on such an enterprise. Also, we all know how good I am at writing daily blog posts.

Despite my hesitancy, I took it along the next day to the hospital and was hooked from the moment I read the first paragraph. Her Prologue is about the day she made the decision to read one book every day for a year. She was on a weekend getaway with her husband, and she read Dracula -- one of my favorite books -- in a day. Her description of doing so was a real page-turner (complete with such things as missed dinner reservations), and I realized this was going to be a great book -- funny, poignant, real -- to get my mind off the horror going on around me.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is supposed to be a roundup of that year (after all, she's already written reviews of all the books), but it's actually much more than that, and little did I know what therapy it would actually be for me while I sat for hours at the hospital, listening to doctors and nurses and hoping and praying that Peter would be okay. Sankovitch's rich writing captures the way reading is such a part of the lives of those of us who have been obsessed with books since before we could even read. The book is like a memoir told through the books she's read since she was a child, what they have meant to her, what they have taught her. She focuses specifically on this particular year (Oct. 2008 - Oct. 2009) but expands details to encapsulate her whole life. As our stay in Stamford began to drag on (I'm still here), I said to Bob at one point, "One of the things I miss most is our books," which would be a silly thing to say to a non-reader. I mean, I had plenty of books to read, but Bob understood. My statement marked me as a perfect audience for Sankovitch's story: a reader who thinks of books as friends, just like Sankovitch does, and who gets great comfort from being surrounded by those friends, even if she isn't necessarily engaged with them. The books around me right now are virtual strangers, many of which I have no desire to get to know.

Another plus for this book is that Sankovitch happens to live in Westport, CT. I worked in Westport for 11 years. When she described the Westport Public Library, one of my favorite lunch-time haunts, I could envision it. She even, in her Acknowledgments, thanks one of the librarians who served on a library advisory board for me. She takes the train into NYC. I know that commuter train well. She talks about walks along the river that I used to walk along. All of this familiar turf was comforting. Not only could I relate to her relationship with books, but I could also relate to her setting. Finally, I could relate to the fact that she's a third daughter.

Peter is now well on his way to making a full recovery. At this point, I am dying to go home. As much as I love Connecticut and all my friends here, it is no longer home. I don't have a routine here. I don't have my kitchen here or my aforementioned book friends. I'm hoping he'll be out of rehab this weekend and able to care for himself, by which point I will have been here for over two weeks. Meanwhile, I've been both comforted and inspired by Sankovitch. No, I don't plan to read a book and write a blog post a day, while running a household in which she and her husband have four boys. It helps that she reads about 70 pages an hour, which is almost twice the speed at which I read. I wouldn't want to have to limit the books I choose to read to a certain number of pages. But I've definitely been inspired to stick to a new reading and writing schedule I've set for myself (it was meant to be a New Year's Resolution, but I started it on Dec. 1 instead of Jan. Always a good idea to get a head start). I'm very sad for her that she lost her sister at such a young age, but we are fortunate that she took that sorrow, took on this project, and turned it into such a delightful, thought-provoking book. If that's not inspiring, I truly don't know what is.