Afraid of no Ghosts?

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Brown_ladyHow do you like your ghost stories?

Myself, I like them before sunset, thank you very much…

Ludicrous, you think? Maybe – but I’ve had a few sleep-killing experiences, including the short story collection I read while staying in my Fifteenth Century college’s guest-rooms. Considering that no one else slept there at the moment, considering the long, dark and deserted stairways corridors I had to walk to get there, considering the gloomy November nights… well yes, perhaps ghost-reading after dark was not the smartest of ideas.

Anyway, let’s do something seasonal, shall we? I found these interesting book recommendations over at The Reading Room: The Woman in Black has been on my Kindle for years now – and some bright summer day I’m going to tackle it – and quite a few of the others sound very promising.

And, while we are there, why not try a few classic M.R. James stories, courtesy of the Project Gutenberg?

After dark, read at your own peril.

Brontë Factions

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Brontë_sistersI consider myself very much a Brontë fan – a love sparked both by the sisters’ novels and by Juliet Barker‘s fine, huge, rich, incredibly detailed biography of the whole family. By and about these three extraordinary sisters and they wayward brother, I’ve read all I could lay my hands on – including all the Angria&Gondal juvenilia published so far – and I’ve written a monologue in poor brother Branwell‘s voice…

So yes, I consider myself a far gone Brontëite.

All the same, I had never realised, before reading this article by Imogen Russel Williams*, that one has to be either a Jane Eyre person, or a Wuthering Heights person. To say that one can’t be both may sound a tad extreme – but think of it.

Think of yourself: chances are that, if you like Jane’s independent streak and (mostly) quiet rebellion against convention, you cannot stand Cathy and Heathcliff’s over-the-top – not to mention deadly – histrionics. On the other hand, if you love wild Cathy and brooding Heathcliff, and their stormy love, you are likely to find poor Jane more than a little insipid.

This came as something of a revelation to me, and had me chuckling as I recalled to mind a good number of bookish conversations… Just think of anyone you’ve ever talked Brontë with: there must have been the moment when someone waxed lyrical on either JE or WH – and someone else pointed out that yes, yes, but there is no comparison to the other sister’s work.

And Anne? Poor Anne – nobody ever seems to care much about Anne. It is a little hard to imagine rabid readers at each other’s throat over Agnes Grey, or even The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – although, back in the day, the latter caused a good deal of scandal, and was labeled as extremely coarse and vulgar. Little, quiet Anne had a trick of tackling highly unpleasant themes in a singularly unromanticized way that shocked a little even her sisters. She seems to have been a gutsier and more mature writer than both her sisters – and yet, how many Wildfell Hall persons do you know?

Instead, according to Imogen Russel Williams, you are likely to know quite a few Wuthering Heights fans, and a handful of Eyreites: it would seem that wild lovers in windswept moors carry more force than plain and stubborn little governesses. I cannot say I’m dreadfully surprised.

Myself, I side with Charlotte – and while I rather prefer her later works (with a predilection for Shirley – so sue me), I’ll take Jane over her sister’s Cathy&Heathcliff any day of the week. Much as I love the notion of Emily still playing make-believe in her late twenties, I cannot help myself: I find all of her characters, especially her leads, extremely unpleasant. If I must have any sympathy for anyone at all, it is for poor Edgar Linton – and I’m sure that wasn’t Emily’s intention…

And how about you, o Readers? The world being thus divided, whose side do you take?

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* And isn’t this a lovely, novel-worthy name!

 

Weekly (Radio)Drama

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old_radiobwAh, the good old Beeb!

Look under Podcasts and Downloads, and you find this page, where you can download or listen to a new radiodrama every week, to “exercise your imagination with some of the best writers and actors on radio.” A new episode is uploaded every Friday, and is available for seven days.

While I’m at it, I’ll repost another link. Dr. Dee, from Karavansara, pointed me to Dieselpunk Industries, some time ago. Here you can find a lot of US vintage radio shows. There is lots more on the site, to explore when you’ve had your fill of old-fashioned adventures.

Dead And Living Ned

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DeadNedbwI came across John Masefield in what I suspect is the usual way: through his Salt-Water Ballads.

It was by sheer serendipity that I happened to read Sea-Fever just as I was researching my Ink and Salt Water play… The contrast between the yearning in the poem and the unsuccessful sea career in the biographical notes earned Masefield a place in the play, together with Conrad and Salgari.

That he also was Poet Laureate of England, and a remarkably prolific author in a variety of genres had no immediate bearing on my choice, but was interesting enough, and since then I have read more of his works. I don’t remember quite how I found out about Dead Ned and its sequel Live and Kicking Ned, but I bought both books as promising summer reads. In the end, for several reasons, it took me ages to read the two small Puffin paperbacks – some five hundred odd pages between them, “slightly abridged”… Let us say it was a prolonged pleasure.

The story, set in XVIIIth Century, is that of the eponymous Ned, a young doctor falsely accused of murdering his benefactor, and sentenced to the gallows, rescued by his friends, and shipped off, literally, on a slaver bound for Africa and then America. Except, bad trading choices by the villainous first mate and then acting captain leave Ned stranded on the coast of Africa, where he is rescued and taken in by a mysterious white tribe. But the Kranois have trouble of their own, and our hero soon finds himself entangled in war, conspiracy and revolution… DeadNed2bw

There is everything and the kitchen sink in this story: coming of age, murder, trials, an eleventh… well, a thirteenth hour rescue, pirates, slave trade, Africa, seafaring, mysterious civilizations, social commentary, adventure, war, more adventure… It never becomes cramped or rushed, though, because Masefield knows how to tell and pace his tale. With its vivid and often lovely descriptions, its twists and turns, its varied settings, the story feels huge, and Ned himself is a likable, engaging first person narrator, a little naive, but smart, resourceful and good-hearted, occasionally reaching through the fourth wall to nudge the reader into sympathy.

I still think Ned’s story is a perfect summer read – the sunny, adventurous kind, with that make-believe feel that calls for long afternoons and a swing in the garden – with good writing and storytelling to booth.

Small Regrets

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Bridge_of_Sighs,_CambridgeBack in the day, when it came to my Erasmus year, I really meant to chose – and could have chosen – Cambridge.

Then I let my supervisor talk me into choosing Cardiff instead.

And mind, I was happy in Cardiff, and the scholarship there covered a full academic year instead of the six months I would have had in Cambridge, and there were all sorts academical and technical reasons why Cardiff was a good idea…

And yet, some twenty years later, I see things like this - and still regret it a little.

Oh well…

The other Birthday Boy

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Marlowe1A little Kit Marlowe, today.

First, Andrew Dickson’s nice article from The Guardian, tracing parallels with Shakespeare, and suggesting the What-if every Marlowe enthusiast worth the name must play at least once – and no, it has nothing to do with Kit and Will being one and the same.

Then a link to an overview of what the Cambridge Marlowe Dramatic Society is doing this year to celebrate.

Oh, and then there is Canterbury-based company Fourth Monkey: they are having a Marlowe 450 celebratory season – including a Massacre at Paris in the cathedral crypt, that can’t have been anything short of thrilling.

And let me add, as a finishing touch, novelist Elizabeth Bear’s thoughts on Kit in Cambridge and the Corpus Christi and Grafton portraits – posted on her blog as she did her field research for The Stratford Man.

Because, you know, it isn’t just about Shakespeare, after all.

 

 

Other People’s Books

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reading 2bOnce upon a time, years ago, I sat in a railway waiting room in Nantes, France,  reading a life of Henri de la Rochejaquelein as I waited for my train. I was so absorbed in my book, in fact, that it took me a while to notice someone crouched right before me, busy rummaging through one of those large duffel bags. And rummaging. And rummaging. And rummaging…

I did notice in the end, and stole a glance over the book’s rim – and there was this bespectacled boy about my age, pretending fascination with the contents of his bag, and desperately trying to get a peep at what sort of story held my attention so thoroughly.

So I gave him a smile, and tilted the book to show him the cover. Caught in the act, the boy jumped a mile, blushed furiously, grabbed his bag, and fled – but not before stealing a glance at the title, much to the amusement of two of three rows of fellow travelers.And yet, you know, the French boy had no need whatsoever to blush and flee: I am just the same. I cannot see a reader without itching to know. On a train, at the airport, at the vet’s… I just can’t help myself. I turn as nonchalantly as I can, I pretend to retie a boot, I risk dislocating my eyeballs, I blush to interesting hues when I get caught. I do it all the time.

Curiosity? Yes and no. It’s hard to resist the temptation to decipher someone based on what they read… And I know that one single book means little – and even less when traveling. One reads strange things, when traveling: gifts bought for someone else, or the one decent title found at the duty free, or the small  volume that fits in the hand-luggage, or a fellow traveler’s loan… Or not. It’s hard to tell, it can mean very little. And yet, we all do it. Or at least, I do – and like to draw conclusions.

Which is why, when I catch someone peeking at my books, I understand it very well, and always tilt the book to show them the cover. Sometimes I do inobtrusively, sometime I exchange a grin with the peeker. After all, we belong to the same tribe, don’t we -just like that boy in France, once upon a time. Those Who Peek At Other People’s Books.

 

Writing Out of the Box

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WUYou know those writing sites, the ones that are so pretty to look at, filled with interestingly titled articles, offering advice on every step of the writing process… and then you start to read, and all you find is clichéd, repetitive blandness, about as helpful and interesting as cold porridge porridge – and usually pestering you to buy some pricey course or workshop or retreat?

Well, Writer Unboxed is not one of them.

In fact, WU is chock-full of good content: articles, interviews, reviews, practical advice on everything – from craft to marketing to research… It’s thoughtful, but never dull. Whimsical on occasion, but never silly. Always interesting, often thought-provoking.

Well worth checking out.

Moving Rivers

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This post about movin’ the river put me in mind of another, rather different story.

Keep AwayOne of my first editing jobs, back in the day, was for an amateur historian of the Retired Teacher variety.

A music teacher, too, so I don’t quite know why he turned to history of all things – but so he did. He started doing his own field research, and after a while, decided he had made earth-shattering discoveries, and must write a book. So he went to the one editor he knew of – me – and said that he wanted editing.

I told him one usually edits a book. A written book.

“I don’t care about usually. I want someone to follow me as I write. To bounce ideas with. To assist me all the way trought.”

Had I known any better, I would have run like the wind. But I didn’t, and not only accepted, but rather looked forward to it, as an interesting experience. It would be more like co-authoring than anything else – and I love history… what could go wrong?

Oh, so many things.

The fellow couldn’t write to save his soul, hadn’t the first notion about structuring  a paragraph – let alone a chapter or a whole book – and had a deep-seated aversion to archival research.

Why, why, oh why history, you’ll ask again. I was very soon wonderinRiverBookg myself – but the worst was yet to come. His theories at first seemed interesting enough, although there was no convincing him that he needed to support them somehow. Then one day, he sprang on me his Big Discovery: he claimed that, at some point in the 14th Century, the local lords had had the largest river in Italy moved. Secretly and more or less overnight. So very secretly that no one had realized in seven centuries…

I was flabbergasted. When I found my voice again, I asked how on earth he thought he was going to prove this. He said he needed no proof: that was how it had happened, and it couldn’t have been otherwise. And all the other historians who hadn’t seen it, were either incompetent fools or lying scoundrels.

All of which he meant to say in his book.

For months I tried to dissuade him, or at least to have him do some research. I preached historiography methodology, I told him (real) historians would butcher him with relish… to little avail, at first – and right when I thought I was perhaps seeding a few healthy doubts in his mind, he went to a local vanity publisher, who pronounced himself interested, and started to pre-sell copies to local municipalities.

“Did he read your chapters?” I asked, on receiving the news.

No, the publisher hadn’t bothered. He had seen the maps and, apparently, fallen in love with the project. My amateur historian was ecstatic. The publisher understood him (as I did not, was heavily implied), and he was a publisher, he’d know, wouldn’t he?

Of this I had my doubts, but there was no chance the poor man would ever heed my warnings by then. So I did my best to beat his style in some appearance of readability, and to tone down the worst of the attacks on established historians, and that was it.

In due time, the book was published, and I was invited at the launch. I went – with many misgivings…

My poor amateur historian was no better speaker than he was a writer. He muddled his arguments hopelessly to begin with – and then the (real) historians – three of them – closed in for the kill. They were unamused at being called names in print. As was to be expected, they shredded the poor fellow and his theories to ribbons, even the less loony ones. Most of all, they laughed at his portable river, and at his utter lack of documented proof…

The publisher, when called upon, candidly said that he had never read the book, and that authors should take all responsibility for what they wrote.

It was a nasty, gory, unpleasant affair – and do you know how it ended? The amateur historian stopped speaking to me for a few years. Because, well, nobody is ever grateful to Cassandra, I guess.

Then he decided he could forgive me, and to this day, whenever we meet, he starts on it again: how he was misunderstood, and how all other historians were either fools or liars, and how it must have been the way he says – because it couldn’t have been otherwise.

I try to avoid the man as much as I can, and when I can’t, I nod, murmur and then flee – but goodness. Moving rivers is an interesting activity!

 

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