Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, by M.R. James

I decided to kick off the spooky season with a century-old collection from M.R. James, a medievalist and archaeologist who did a bit of writing on the side. I’ve heard James’s name tossed around with that of other old masters of scary like Algernon Blackwood and others, so I was hoping for some classic chills with Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (Wikipedia entry, with additional links to free copies of the collection). These stories gave me a window into what readers found scary 117 years ago—and showed me that writers have really raised the stakes since this book hit the shelves.

Many of the stories follow a similar arc. They’re framed as tales retold by our unnamed narrator by his various friend and colleagues. These friends (most with connections to Cambridge University) travel to various places around Europe to look at collections of rare documents, obscure cathedrals, and poking into stories that might have a grain of truth. They might get a warning from someone local who knows better, but maybe not. Either way, when the sun goes down, something terrible happens in the night that nearly frightens the life out of the friend. As soon as the light comes back, the friend heads for the hills.

Although the stories in this collection are not as terrifying as what contemporary writers (especially horror movie writers) are coming up with these days. But this doesn’t mean that I didn’t like Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. I appreciated the way that James builds up tension by putting us into crypts and lonely tavern rooms alongside all those scholars who messed with things that were hidden, bricked up, or buried for centuries. These stories are the kind you tell around the campfire, slowly, so that the audience slowly freaks out until the end of the story delivers a cathartic moment of escape. Some of the standouts in this collection are “Number 13,” “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” and “Lost Hearts.”

Readers who like little jolts of scary—especially when it comes along with a side of academic curiosity—will like Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Readers who need something stronger to get their hearts racing might need to stick with horror written in this century rather than the last.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

The Captain’s Daughter: Essential Stories, by Alexander Pushkin

Why did no one tell me Alexander Pushkin was funny? Before I read this collection, The Captain’s Daughter: Essential Stories (solidly translated by Anthony Briggs), my only knowledge of Pushkin was that he wrote the epic tragic poem Eugene Onegin and that he died at a young age in a duel. The Captain’s Daughter revealed to me that Pushkin also had a fine eye for satire. All three of the stories in this collection—”The Captain’s Daughter,” “The Queen of Spades,” and “The Postmaster”—all have moments of tragedy or near-tragedy, but it’s all balanced with light touches of absurdity and satire.

“The Captain’s Daughter” is the longest story in the collection. Its plot is so compressed that it could easily have been turned into a picaresque novel. This novella opens with some Tristram Shandy-like phrases: “Mama was still pregnant with me when I was enrolled as a sergeant in the Semyonovsky Regiment,” (ARC Kindle edition). Pyotr Andreyvich’s father is very disappointed with his spoiled son and has him transferred from his St. Petersburg regiment to one out in the wild east of Russia to toughen him up. The plan works a little bit better intended when Yamelyan Pugachov launches his rebellion against Catherine the Great. Pyotr has a knack for being kind to people who later feel beholden to him, including Pugachov. This bare summary doesn’t capture Pytor’s madcap adventures on the front. Nor does it capture Pushkin’s pointed digs at pompous officers who don’t know how to fight a war, at weasel-y officers who switch sides at the drop of a hat, and aristocrats who spend money like water. I really enjoyed this satirical slice-of-life look at life where high society crosses with serfs and rebels.

The next two stories are shorter, but also skewer high society and the ways that the high abuse the low. In “The Queen of Spades,” we see into the world of wild gambling, in which aristocrats gamble away estates or win millions of rubles at the turn of a card. The Queen of Spades is an old countess who claims to have a secret to always win. Unfortunately, it’s a secret that ultimately causes her death when another aristocrat with a lot of debt hounds her to give it up. The last story, “The Postmaster,” begins with a lament to the ways that couriers and travelers abuse the postmaster for never having horses ready, not having comfortable enough waiting places, and so on. But the narrator urges us to try and put ourselves in the postmaster’s shoes before launching into the most tragic tale of the three. In this story, the postmaster’s kind, lovely daughter is kidnapped by an aristocrat. In the end, she chooses a life of luxury instead of coming home to her poor, harried father.

I enjoyed reading this collection and would definitely recommend it, not just to fans of Russian literature, but to anyone who likes stories that can transport them to an era. Pushkin very much captures his time and place, and he does it with an unexpected sense of humor. This is one of the best republished classics I’ve read yet.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by George Orwell

George Comstock is one of the most infuriating characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction (and I’ve read A Confederacy of Dunces). The protagonist of George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying has been on the run from “money-culture” for two years. His “war on money” means that he quit a good job, took a poorly paid position in a book store, and spends most of his time counting up the change in his pockets and raging against aspidistras. The common houseplant symbolizes all the evils of selling out and making a living wage.

George’s war on money comes to a crisis in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. He’s been muddling along at four pounds a week (about $1,400 a month in 2019, as far as I can tell). He can afford a room, cheap meals, and a few extras. Still, George constantly fulminates against the pressures of making money and respectability to his friend Ravelston (a rich man slumming as a socialist) and girlfriend Rosemary (who makes less than George but doesn’t complain). When he was a child, George saw his widowed mother and older sister slaving away at teashops to afford his school fees. The plan is that George will someday make good and their money troubles will vanish. Instead, George’s response to the plan is to run as far as he can in the opposite direction, like an angrier version of Bartleby the Scrivener.

After a windfall turns into a disaster that costs George his job and his room, he falls as far as possible without actually ending up in the workhouse. He works at an even worse bookshop/lending library and lives in a room infested with bugs and dirt, eating food so lacking in nutrition that he’s in danger of scurvy or pellagra. Only a surprising revelation near the end of Keep the Aspidistra Flying halts George’s deliberate downward trajectory.

Obligatory photo of an aspidistra (Image via Wikicommons)

I’ve seen quotes from Keep the Aspidistra Flying here and there. Its witticisms were what kept me going through George’s constant kvetching. I honestly don’t understand why Ravelston and Rosemary stick around. Ravelston’s motivation is tied up in his guilt at being rich while there is so much poverty in the world. He runs a literary magazine that seems to exist solely to funnel money to poor poets. Ravelston’s guilt is apparently strong enough to put up with George. Every time they get together, George and Ravelston do a delicate dance around who pays for the pints so that everyone saves face. The pints fuel George’s circular rants about the rat race and how he refuses to participate. Rosemary is amused by George, failing to realize that George isn’t kidding when he complains about, well, everything.

Curiously enough, I ended up enjoying Keep the Aspidistra Flying even though I loathed George and his bizarre codes of conduct. I knew that, eventually, George would have to wise up and realize that “money” has no idea that he’s waging war against it. The only thing he’s hurting is himself and Rosemary. No one gives a shit about George’s principled stance; he’s just being an idiot. The conclusion definitely makes up for everything that came before.

Malice Aforethought, by Francis Iles

One of my favorite classic movies is Kind Hearts & Coronets (1949), which is still one of the most blackly funny movies I’ve ever seen. I immediately thought of this movie as I read Malice Aforethought, by Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox), originally published in 1931. I also thought of Knives Out (2019), which I recently saw and loved so much I can’t wait until it goes on sale so that I can watch it on a loop. Without giving too much away, all of these stories share a trope that I can’t get enough of: a murderer who is so clever they outsmart themselves. It also helps that these stories are packed full of satirical commentary on characters who think breeding can take the place of a good personality, money-grubbers, curtain-twitchers, and other types that need to be taken down a peg or two. Weirdly enough, the reading list in Eight Perfect Murders got me to pick up Malice Aforethought. I daresay sharing his favorite books with other readers was Peter Swanson’s ulterior motive.

Dr. Bickleigh is a curious character. It’s rare that we see characters that we can simultaneously pity and be a bit repulsed by. On the one hand, his wife treats him more as a servant than a spouse. She also never lets him forget that he is of an inferior social class and that she granted him a favor by marrying him. On the other, he develops obsessions with the young unmarried women of the village, chases after them until he gets a kiss (or more), and then seems to immediately lose interest. The first half of the novel shows us the mental torment Bickleigh suffers as a way to explain why he decides to murder his wife. I have to give Bickleigh credit for originality. He definitely deserves a place on a list of perfect murders because of his choice of method and his ability to drop hints in just the right place to divert suspicion away from himself.

What really made this book for me—aside from the hilarious character development—is the way that things go completely off the rails in the second half of the book. Just when Bickleigh thinks he’s gotten away with murder, another character starts to ask awkward questions. Because Bickleigh has a very active imagination (Bickleigh could also be compared to the title character from another classic movie, Walter Mitty), he completely loses his cool. All of his calculations and manipulations and scientific skill get launched out of the proverbial window. I inhaled every page of Bickleigh’s fall from his village’s grace. I had no qualms about my schadenfreude this time; Bickleigh deserves his fate.

Malice Aforethought is now one of my favorite mystery classics. Thank you to Peter Swanson for the recommendation. I’m so happy that this book turned out to be real, and not invented to forward the plot of Eight Perfect Murders.

Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner

I’ve been hearing about Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, for a few years now. This curious proto-feminist book has been having a bit of a moment on the bookish internet. I was sold when I heard that the book contained witches. I just had to know what a book with witches would look like in 1926. I’m not sure what I was expecting. I’m not sure I got what I wasn’t expecting. If nothing else, I got a lot to think about what life might look like for a woman who realizes that she doesn’t fit into the mold of womanhood in her era and realizes that her only option is to make a pact with the devil.

Laura “Aunt Lolly” Willowes has always been a curious woman. Other people would say that her father—a well-off country brewer—indulged her by letting her read all of those books and not pushing her to get married for the first 27 years of her life. When her father dies, her older, London-based brother just assumes that his spinster sister will come live with him and his family. Lolly becomes a live-in, unpaid nanny, companion, and servant to her family. They can’t imagine that she would want anything else. Any time she speaks her mind to share her, admittedly odd, thoughts, they dismiss her individuality.

The first part of Lolly Willowes sees our protagonist’s life pass her by. To be fair, Lolly isn’t sure what she wants. All she knows is that life with her stolid, traditional family does not make her happy. The only things in her life that cheer her up are memories of her past, before her father’s death, when she would wander the woods and hills near the family home. She loved to commune with nature. Unlike so many other Victorians of her age, Lolly is not a self-taught scientist—although she does learn a lot about botany. Plants aren’t necessarily important to Lolly because of their medical or nutritional or economic value. They matter to her because she can be alone in nature, but not feel lonely.

It’s only towards the end of Lolly Willowes that things start to get weird. After a fit of inspiration, Lolly chucks off her stifling family and moves to Great Mop, in the English countryside. The Willowes are horrified. Lolly is ecstatic. I kept waiting for the witchy stuff to happen. I was kept waiting until I was worried that I had been misinformed about the witchy stuff. At last, in the final third-ish of the book, supernatural stuff started to happen. (Finally!) I won’t say too much about this part because I don’t entirely understand why Warner decided to end her book with Lolly wandering into a low-stakes version of Young Goodman Brown.” But I supposed, from the perspective of 1926, a writer might feel that it takes magic for a woman to find a life that doesn’t involve taking care of other people, breaking ground by becoming the first woman to do something, or being punished by interwar morality.

I’m glad I read Lolly Willowes. I was fascinated by its commentary on the lives of middle-class women and what it might take to break the bounds of propriety. This puzzling, lightly entertaining novel turned out to have surprising depths.

The Marquise of O—, by Heinrich von Kleist

Trigger warning for references to rape.

The only good thing I can say about Heinrich von Kleist’s The Marquise of O— is that it’s short. Originally published in 1808, this book is very much a product of its time. Modern readers will, at best, describe this book as problematic and unfeminist. Others, like me, will call it rape apologia. I picked this book up because I had hoped it would tell me an unusual story of a woman taking charge of her circumstances. The ending of this story put paid to that hope by doubling down on shame and keeping up appearances.

Julietta, the eponymous Marquise, is a widow with two children, living with her brother and parents in M—. M— is attacked by a troop of Russians one day as part of what I’m pretty sure are the Napoleonic Wars. In the attack, Julietta is assaulted by Russians, then rescued by Count F—, who is described in heroic and dashing terms. Nothing is explicit in this section of the book, but we know what happened (even if Julietta does not) because the Marquise finds herself pregnant. When the pregnancy is confirmed by a doctor and a midwife, Julietta’s father throws her out of the house and tries to take her children away from her. All of this happens while Count F— is trying to get Julietta to marry him, claiming that he is passionately in love with her.

All of my sympathy in this book is with Julietta. Count F— throws up red flag after red flag while he pursues Julietta in spite of her many refusals. A little background reading in Wikipedia revealed that The Marquise of O— is an example of a genre trope that has rightly be abandoned to history: the forced seduction. I hoped and hoped that Julietta would be allowed to live independently, free of the social conventions that push her into marrying her rapist. Von Kleist, apparently, was not brave enough to break those social conventions even in fiction.

I do not recommend this book. Leave it to history’s bookshelf, way at the back, behind all the better books that don’t try to turn rape into a love story.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

A Sportsman’s Notebook, by Ivan Turgenev

A Sportsman’s Notebook (also called A Sportsman’s Sketches) contains short vignettes and stories by Ivan Turgenev, written in the 1850s and 1860s. Unlike many of the Russian classics we’re familiar with in English, this collection is not packed with Sturm und Drang. Rather, Turgenev’s narrator takes along on his travels around the Russian countryside, from forests to marshes to meadows, inviting us into his conversations with the strange people he meets while hunting.

The “stories” in A Sportsman’s Notebook are rarely complete stories in the way we’re used to. Most of them center on a conversation the narrator has with landowners and serfs. (The stories are all set before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861.) As the narrator rambles around the Orel Oblast in western Russia, he is frequently invited into the ramshackle manors of down-at-their-heel gentry. Sometimes darkness or bad weather lead him to seek shelter in sheds and offices with the lower classes and serfs. These are some of my favorites in the collection because the narrator often pretends to be asleep, so that he can listen in. My absolutely favorite story in the collection is one where the narrator “sleeps” under a bush near some teenaged serfs as they swap knowledge, half of which is folklore but treated as useful woodlore by the group.

While the narrator provides a bit of authorial distance, the introduction to this republished edition of Turgenev’s stories explains that they are based on the author’s own life at Spasskoye, where he lived with his tyrannical mother. It’s not surprising, then, that many of these stories show the bleakness of serfdom. Many of the serfs the narrator meets have been subject to bizarre acts of autocracy: sudden transfers, dictated clothing, refusals to allow them to marry, constant attempts to change how they work and farm with disastrous consequences. And yet, the narrator only finds one person who is willing to help right wrongs in the hinterlands—and he’s only willing to do so for a fee. Everyone else the narrator talks to falls into two camps. There are the ones who are, if not content, unwilling to change things. The others, thankfully more rare, take advantage of the stagnation and bewildering bureaucracy to make little kingdoms for themselves where they can skim off any profits. The system is so broken in rural Russia it was no surprise to me how fatalistic everyone was.

I can understand the affection that this collection still has for readers, even more than a century. Unlike so many of those Russian classics that we know of without having read them, with their high drama and philosophy, A Sportsman’s Notebook is a slice of life in a vanished world. As I read it, I was charmed by the descriptions of the wild places the narrator visits. It’s clear that the narrator and Turgenev loved nature. I was less charmed by the people, who are rarely shown to their advantage, but I feel like I learned a lot about the conditions that lead to the terrible upheavals of the twentieth century. The men that the narrator meets are the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of revolutionaries. There’s so much more that can be said about A Sportsman’s Notebook, but I don’t want to blather. I’ll simply say, if you’re looking for something that will show you the real, vanished Russia of the Tsars, give this book a try.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Illustration by Peter Petrovich Sokolov for one of the stories in A Sportsman’s Notebook (Image via Wikicommons)

The Mysterious Affair at Styles, by Agatha Christie

After my not-so-good experience with Strong Poison* last week, I needed to go back to the master, to see how a classic detective novel should be. Even though The Mysterious Affair at Styles is Christie’s first Hercule Poirot novel it was just what the doctor (librarian) ordered. I grabbed a copy from Project Gutenberg and settled in yesterday, with a large pot of tea, to let Christie work her magic. Bliss.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is narrated by Arthur Hastings, who is on leave and taking a holiday near Styles, a country house, sometime before the end of World War I. Shortly after Hastings settles in with the fractious Inglethorp-Cavendish family, the matriarch of the clan is horrifically murdered by strychnine. Thankfully, Hercule Poirot is in the village nearby, with some other refugee Belgians. The little grey cells are soon on the case.

This novel ended up being a lot funnier than I expected—strychnine poisoning notwithstanding. Poirot spends most of the time exasperating Hastings as he rushes around on what appear to be wild hairs and tangents about extra tea cups and cocoa that wasn’t poisoned. There is a discussion early in the novel, in which Hastings admits that he has no knack for discerning which clues are important and which aren’t. Because of narrative irony, Hastings constantly focuses on the wrong things and believes that Poirot is losing his edge.

Sculpture of Poirot in his alleged hometown of Ellezelles, Belgium (Image via Wikicommons)

I also spent a lot of time focusing on the wrong things, too. Christie packed this book with twists and turns that had me believing first one thing and then another, then a third thing after that because she’s just so good about steering reader expectations. Hastings, who believes himself to be a reasonably intelligent man, is the perfect narrator; he and potential readers will have the same faith in themselves that we can solve the case. After all, Poirot assures us that we have all the information we need to arrive at the solution.

Although The Mysterious Affair at Styles is so out of fashion compared to modern mysteries, I was deeply satisfied by Poirot’s debut. I was thoroughly entertained and would definitely recommend this to others who are looking for a classic mystery novel.

* I promise to stop harping on this soon.

Strong Poison, by Dorothy L. Sayers

After two references on a podcast that I recently discovered and love, Shedunnit, and a reading lifetime of hearing Dorothy L. Sayers’ name paired with Agatha Christie’s as one of the best mystery writers of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, I finally picked up one of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries: Strong Poison. In this outing, Wimsey comes to the rescue of Harriet Vane, who will eventually become is wife, after she is accused of murdering her lover.

Strong Poison begins with the lengthy summary of the case by the judge. Every point in Harriet’s favor is balanced by some damning piece of evidence. Harriet and her lover had been living in sin…but she left him and refused his belated marriage proposals. There’s no evidence that she actually poisoned him…but she had been researching a new mystery potboiler about arsenic poisoning. And so it goes, for pages. Only towards the end of the judge’s instructions does the perspective pull back a little to reveal that gentleman-detective, Peter Wimsey, is in the audience. When the jury comes back, unable to reach a verdict, Wimsey springs into action to find out who really done it.

Strong Poison has the major hallmarks of classic detective fiction: bizarrely complicated murder method and an over-talented detective. Wimsey has flashes of insight that I recognize from reading Poirot, Holmes, and other stories. His insights are fueled by clues collected by almost an army of assistants. I loved the women from the “Cattery,” a Wimsey-funded typing agency that doubles as a pool of potential spies when Wimsey needs a woman in the inside. These talented ladies get very excited when they’re asked to take part in Wimsey’s cases. Not are these women wonderful moles, they’re also fantastic when it comes to taking the initiative to move the case forward. One of these women goes so far as to brilliantly stage a series of séances to find information. Wimsey is good at rewarding his allies, although he’s the one with the reputation for being a great detective.

Two things bothered me about Strong Poison. One of these is probably an artifact of the book’s time period. Harriet faces repeated proposals from men—including Wimsey, in several cringe-inducing scenes—who refuse to take “no” for an answer. Harriet is badgered so often that I was frequently angry on her behalf. Readers at the time no-doubt thought it was romantic that Wimsey kept proposing. Wimsey would have been a perfect white knight. Now, however, Wimsey looks like a man who uses his reputation as a good man to brow-beat a strong woman into capitulating. The other thing was more a matter of personal taste. The more Wimsey talked with his Balliol-educated literary references and calculating patter, the more I wished he would just be quiet. I can’t imagine how his chatter worked in the movie versions of his stories. He made me tired even though I was just reading his dialogue.

Once I finished the novel, I had to wonder why Sayers had such a reputation. Sure her detective is a genius and the solution was fiendishly complex, but Strong Poison just made me more aware of the flaws of classic detective fiction: sexism, implausibility, concealment of critical clues. I had to keep reminding myself that, although this book wouldn’t get published now, it was a pioneer at its publication in 1930. Elements might seem like clichés now, but they weren’t at the time. All that said, I don’t think I’ll read another book by Sayers. I’ll stick with Christie.

Miss Buncle’s Book, by D.E. Stevenson

I started listening to Backlisted this week, a British podcast featuring authors and scholars talking about books from the past. I was sold on D.E. Stevenson’s delightful novel, Miss Buncle’s Book, when the hosts laughingly read out sections of the book. The quote that really got me was this description of a scene from the eponymous book: “It was a passionate scene, and had either been written by somebody who knew very little about such matters or somebody who knew a great deal. It was either very innocent—or else it wasn’t” (p. 46)*. Who could resist? Not me, that’s for sure.

When her publisher asks Barbara Buncle why she wrote her book, she bluntly says that she needed the money. It being the early 1930s, her dividends aren’t coming in the way they used. As she doesn’t really have much of an imagination, Miss Buncle’s book is really a thinly veiled version of the village she lives in. Silverstream turned into Copperfield. Dr. Walker turned into Dr. Rider. Consequently, people who recognize themselves and are unhappy to have their flaws paraded about in fiction are ready to sue for libel in spite of Miss Buncle’s minuscule efforts to disguise their identities.

There is more plot to Miss Buncle’s Book than in Miss Buncle’s Disturber of the Peace. In the book inside the book, not much happens until a strange supernatural creature suddenly releases Copperfield’s pent up passions. When Disturber of the Peace comes out and the characters who hate it get riled, Miss Buncle has to keep her identity as the author a secret for fear of being ostracized and probably sued. Things get even worse for her when the unhappy villagers blame the very clever, very funny doctor’s wife for writing the book.

I laughed out loud more than once reading Miss Buncle’s Book. I love the idea of a book that works as both as satire a la Jane Austen and as a goodhearted portrait of village life with absolutely no malice in it. Miss Buncle is a bit of a paradox in this way. She’s a keen observer. Because she’s quiet and viewed as mousy by everyone else, people say things in front of her or otherwise reveal themselves. But she also admits, more than once, that she has no imagination. (The “character” names make that quite clear.) Her lack of imagination leads to a hilarious metafictional conclusion that made me love this book even more.

There are parts where I had to raise my eyebrows at the casual sexism, however; this book is very much a product of 1934. Readers who can look past this will find a fantastic book that works as satire-of-village-life and comfort read. I had a wonderful time reading it. So much so, that I want to thank the folks at Backlisted for featuring it. I’m so glad I didn’t miss out on this gem of a book.

Quote is from the 2012 Kindle edition.