A Warning to the Curious

Christmas is approaching so it’s time for….ghosts?? 

Perhaps ghosts are something people relate more to Halloween, but traditionally, in the UK at least, ghost stories are told at Christmastime too. There is of course Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with his famous ghosts, but I thought I’d take the time to talk a little bit about some of my favourite ghost stories. 

In my mind there is no greater teller of ghost stories than M.R. James. If you’ve read any collection of ghost stories, then it is inevitable that you have read some of his work. I have a battered old Penguin edition of his ghost stories that has survived at least eight house moves and still moves me to delight when I come across it unexpectedly.  

JamesMcBrydeilustraciónMontagueRhodes
Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad

The first story I ever read of his was Rats which was in a children’s collection of scary stories that I borrowed from my Primary school library. What on earth that story was doing in a children’s book I have no idea, but it chilled me to the bone and continues to do so. Having read it countless times since, I can still vividly imagine the inn and the events of the story. That sense of mystery, the peeking through the mysterious room, the link to some archaeological mystery (a common theme in James’ stories)…all spooky stuff. Other favourites of mine include Lost Hearts, The Mezzotint and of course Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad. I’ve often thought that Lost Hearts would make a great stop motion animation and I still get creeped out when I’m in a bathroom in an old house that has a small window above the door.  

6b1652fda8ae91d8855b8c5e248c85d1
Lost Hearts by Les Edwards

So, what makes his ghost stories so enthralling? Many of the stories either involve a rather stuffy academic type and take place in settings such as private schools, churches, manor houses and lonely seaside inns. This rather genteel, very Edwardian/Victorian atmosphere is classic ghost story territory and indeed coined their own term – ‘Jamesian’ to describe ghost stories of this type. The stories masterfully build up to the main event and have an otherworldly, uncanny atmosphere and genuine creepiness. There is an imaginative variety of ghouls and ghosts and a common theme is around the dangers of curiosity – A Warning for the Curious perhaps, as indeed one of the stories is titled. 

In my most recent catalogue from The Folio Society there is a gorgeous edition of M.R. James ghost stories that I’ve been lusting after. Perhaps I’ll treat myself in the new year (although it might feel like cheating on my trusty old copy). If you are interested, James’ work is out of copyright now so should be easy to find online. Worth having a paper copy to read in a darkened room of a windy night though. Preferably by candlelight in an old country inn.

mezzotint Rich Johnson
The Mezzotint by Rich Johnson

Sticking to the Supernatural theme, on my To Read list I’ve got some more supernaturally inclined books to work my way through including: 

Melmoth by Sarah Perry
The Loney & Devil’s Day  by Andrew Michael Hurley
The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements

Which all appear to have rather crappy Goodreads scores. I’ve noticed whether it’s books or film, people tend to judge scary stories more harshly than other genres. I sometimes feel people expect far more from these genres than they do others but hey, their loss.

Progress Update – December 3rd 2018

I DID IT. 

I finished Anna Karenina. 

0b236af1-b3e7-4f27-9084-c1e67e050b8a.gif

After interminable hours slogging through it, I have decided that I am going to be more mercenary about ditching books I am not enjoying. Up till now I’ve always slogged through to the end no matter what, but I have so many books to get through and so many I want to read in future why should I continue to read something I don’t enjoy? I don’t do it with any other form of media so why books? Saying all that, I was determined to finish Anna Karenina. Why? So, I could say with all good conscience that I gave it a chance. That and I have a great excuse now to never even attempt to read War and Peace. My future advice re: Anna Karenina for anyone reading it who feels for some reason they MUST read it – just watch a film adaptation. I really am a fan of the classics in general but I borderline hated this book. Next time I find myself slogging through 800 pages of poorly veiled woman hating I’ll try and remember this post. 

In other news I’ve been reading some absolutely fantastic ARCs from Netgalley. I went a little wild last week and started requesting lots of books despite having a huge pile of library books to get through. There were three I was desperate to get from Canongate which I was successfully able to get which made my day. One in particular, Salt on Your Tongue: Women and the Sea by Charlotte Runcie has a Scottish focus so for obvious reasons appeals to me. At the moment I’m reading The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea which is wonderful so far. It’s a mystery set in 1600s Iceland and reminds me a little of a mix of Bluebeard with hints of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Long story short, it’s fantastic so far.  

This weekend I also read The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason which was an enjoyable short read. Some of the stories were better than others which is always the case with these things, but I always enjoy a riff on the Classics, and it’s helped me like Odysseus a bit more. After reading Circe by Madeline Miller and The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker I wasn’t feeling particularly well disposed towards him, but I think we’re taking steps to mend our relationship. He really is still an awful git though.  

I also received my first Illumicrate last week. I try not to buy into fripperies but this seems really good so far and it came with two books which is a bonus. One is a Japanese themed YA novel which sounds quite promising so i’m looking forward to making a start on that. I also treated myself to the upcoming Grisha box which comes with a special edition of King of Scars. How could I resist? Leigh Bardugo can basically do no wrong in my mind so it’s definitely worth it. The only downside will be waiting a few days after release to read the book!

Anna Karenina – the saga continues

What I expected:

What I got:

This excerpt says it all:

No. More. Farming. PLEASE.

If they released an edit of this book without Levin, his brothers or Kitty, nothing of value would be lost.

Levin has just received a letter from Marya, his brother Nikolai’s mistress, to say that Nikolai is dying. Kitty wishes to accompany Levin but “the fact alone that his wife, his Kitty, would be in the same room with a slut already made him shudder with revulsion and horror.”

This is the same character who openly admits to happily shagging around Russia before finding his perfect, virginal Kitty. I read recently that Levin was basically written as a foil for Tolstoy. In that case he must have been an odious prick.

I’m beginning to feel like I’m never going to finish this novel. I’ve been reading employee development related publications for work and they are downright scintillating in comparison. What am I missing? I’m too stubborn not to finish it at this point but it’s truly tortuous, especially up against some of the great books I’m reading concurrently.

Progress update!

Well I’ve made some more progress and i’m now about 70% of the way through Anna Karenina. Levin finally managed to snag Kitty (HOW? That poor woman) and Anna and Vronsky are currently gallivanting around Italy being generally awful. I’m still trying to find Anna’s personality in between the lines but thus far my search has been fruitless, if you come across it, please let me know.  I’ve been reading some essays about how this book is supposed to be a work of sublime genius but I’m just not feeling it. I know male authors of the 19th century seemed to relish writing about  ‘pure’ women being knocked off their pedestals (Thomas Hardy, I’m looking at you) but perhaps it’s just too depressingly true even now for me to read without judging. I’m still rooting for poor Alexei, can someone just give him a hug please? It’s interesting how he has been portrayed unsympathetically in past film and television adaptations (with the exception of Jude Law’s portrayal in the Joe Wright version) as he seems an all-round good guy to me.

I also had a quick read of The Lost Sisters by Holly Black, a short novella from Taryn’s (Boooo) point of view. I enjoyed The Cruel Prince but felt it was a just a smidge overrated and the characters felt a little too familiar to anyone who has read their fair share of YA novels e.g. feisty female main character who loves swords and hates dresses and an awful dickhead Prince who will inevitably end up having a heart of gold. Perhaps I was suffering from Fae overload when I read it earlier in the year as I know it’s much beloved in YA circles. Despite all that I am very much looking forward to The Wicked King when it comes out next year. I’m giving it 100 pages before Jude and Cardan bang.

I’m also still slogging through The Rise of Athens by Anthony Everitt. I think I’m onto my third library renewal now for this one which says it all really. I don’t know how the history of one of the world’s most fascinating cities can be so crushingly dull. Xerxes is just about to invade so that might spice things up.

Overall feeling a bit meh about my current reading list although I know I’ve got some great looking books on my To Read list. Next year is shaping up to look pretty great too, particularly looking forward to King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo and Return of the Thief by Megan Whalen Turner so roll on 2019!

Anna Karenina

So, i’ve spent quite a lot of time recently reading and reviewing advanced reading copies from NetGalley which has been a fantastic experience. I openly admit that i’m not much of a writer, but I hope by continuing to read and review books and updating this blog that my writing skills might improve a little.  Sometimes I write a review and re-read it a few days later and find myself cringing at the way it reads so here’s hoping I will feel this less and less as time goes on.

One of the reasons I decided to write this blog was to start to tackle the many (so many…) unread books currently weighing down my bookshelves. This has inspired the very name of this blog (Tsundoku is explained in more detail here). I have this rather weird habit of buying an interesting book and then not reading it because….why?  I struggle to answer this question to be honest. I know the book will be good, I know I will probably love it, it’s almost as if reading it will break some kind of spell. I want to delay the reading of the book so that it won’t be over? How something can be over if I never even start it? This is a contradiction I know. I also have a weakness for beautiful editions of hardback books or vintage hardbacks which can be an issue when it comes to portability. I read a lot on the go and like to have multiple books on my reading list concurrently, so my Kindle inevitably takes precedence when out and about. Excuses, excuses…

So, this is really a long-winded way of saying that it’s time to make a start on reading some of these forgotten treasures. I decided to start with a book that has been on my “To Read” list for literally years – Anna Karenina.

I have seen a least three film and television versions of Anna Karenina, so the story is familiar to me. I haven’t read any Tolstoy before, but I tend to love books set in Russia and those set in a mythical interpretation of Russia e.g. Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse. I’m also interested in Russian History and Folklore so all that considered, this should be a good read.

At this point I’m approximately a quarter of the way through. I did find it slightly ominous that around page 250 (out of approximately 900…) Vronsky’s horse race occurred. Recalling the screen adaptations, I seem to recall this was something that happened further towards the end so i’m not quite sure how the next 650 pages will play out. I’m more than slightly concerned that it will be filled with Levin’s ruminations on farming and muzhiks. I die a little inside every time I realise it’s going to be another series of Levin chapters as he is such a miserable, unlikeable git. It reminds me of the same feeling I had reading the Game of Thrones series when it was time for a Daenerys chapter.

Thus far I’m finding most of the characters to be completely unsympathetic, particularly Levin and Vronsky. I sometimes find my eyes rolling when someone says they don’t like a book because the characters are unlikeable, especially when their unlikeability is a deliberate decision on the part of the author. I’ve noticed this expressed in regards to Wuthering Heights for example. People seem to completely miss the point that Heathcliff and Cathy are not supposed to be likeable. Their passion for one another is unhealthy, destructive and twisted, that said, they are interesting and compelling characters. Thus far I am not finding Vronsky and Anna to be comparable. I don’t feel like I am really getting a feel for who Anna is. She seems to be a manipulated doll, so far, the events are happening to her rather than her driving them and she seems altogether rather passive. I read somewhere that Tolstoy fell in love with Anna while he was writing her. At this point I’m not quite sure why.