Fantasmagoriana (story collection)

Fantasmagoriana: Tales of The DeadFantasmagoriana: Tales of The Dead by A.J. Day
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first time I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I was hooked. The second time, I became obsessed. I turned to John Polidori’s The Vampyre. Both of these stories were germinated during a summer stay by Lake Geneva in 1816. Gathered at Lord Byron’s residence, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, her stepsister Claire Clairmont and Polidori read each other ghost stories to set a mood. These stories were contained in Fantasmagoriana, a French collection of German ghost stories. The edition I read was a print-on-demand, English translation of the French version.

Beginning with Johann Musäus’s “The Spectral Barber”, I found it an enjoyable read. Next up was August Apel’s “The Family Portraits”. This excellent tale also included a great way to approach ghost stories. Before a ghost story telling session, one of those present said:

”No one shall search for any explanation, even though it bears the stamp of truth, as explanations would take away all the pleasure from ghost stories” (p. 39)

So very true. This collection continued to get even better with Friedrich Laun’s “The Fated Hour”. I found it a well-told, chilling scare with no simplistic closure at the end. My reading notes say it all, “Well done.”

I wasn’t as excited about the rest of the stories in the collection, which included three more by Laun, add another by Apel. They mostly had simplistic, Hollywood-style trajectories and endings. Although, one story by Heinrich Clauren (“The Gray Room”) was interesting in that it reminded me of Ann Radcliffe’s approach to Gothic, in which the supernatural is always shown to have a rational explanation.

Overall, I’m glad I read this collection and would enjoy being able to see the 1812 French first edition some day.

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Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

Two Serious Ladies: A NovelTwo Serious Ladies: A Novel by Jane Bowles
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve always wanted to read Jane Bowles, as I’ve read everything her husband Paul Bowles wrote. I almost picked up “My Sister’s Hand in Mine”, her collected works, several times. I finally saw an old edition of her only novel at the Southwark Book Market in London in 2013 and almost bought. This primed me, so that when we were in Boulder in April this year, I bought this new edition from the Boulder Book Store, a fantastic indy bookstore right on Pearl Street. I finally got a chance to read it this weekend.

I was a bit disappointed. I never engaged with the characters. I thought the language was stilted at times and mostly written in Hemingway-esque short, simple sentences, which I don’t like.

But, I did think there were a lot of possibilities, especially with the storyline of Mrs. Copperfield and her husband. In some ways, this reminded me of the story of Kit & Port Moresby from her husband’s first novel, The Sheltering Sky. It explored themes of fear, travel vs. tourism and exploring and expanding boundaries. Jane Bowles novel was published six years before Paul’s, so I wonder if he was influenced by her work and explored some of the same themes in his writing.

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Shelley’s Poetical Works, ed. by Mrs. Shelley

The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe ShelleyThe Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Various
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed working through the three volumes of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetical works, as edited posthumously by his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. This was the second edition, published in 1853. I have a thirst for the Romantic period and Shelley has been called one of the greats. Having read a little bit of William Blake and a great deal of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Keats, I think I’d say Shelley was definitely one of the greater second generation Romantics. I currently prefer first generation poets Coleridge and Blake. When reading Shelley and his contemporaries Keats & Lord Byron, I found it hard to sustain my momentum through several of their works. Perhaps it was just me, and there is certainly a large amount of Shelley’s work that I truly enjoyed. I will surely return to these volumes again and again.

I liked Queen Mab (1813) and was impressed that he wrote it when he was so young. My edition only contained the first two cantos, so I had to read the rest from a Project Gutenberg edition. My edited version was due to self-censorship to avoid prosecution for blasphemous libel for Shelley’s atheistic passages and criticisms of organized religion. The long poem covers many topics, including business greed, religious shams and the guile of kings and leaders. Queen Mab still resonates 201 years later.

Ozymandias (1818) is one of my favorite Shelley pieces and one that I hope someday to commit to memory. It so cleanly, quickly and incisively gets its point across. It conveys how small we are and how fleeting our glory and power are when compared against the expanse of time.

I really enjoyed the Cenci (1819), based on a true story from the end of the 16th century. It was more direct writing and easier to read than Prometheus Unbound (1820) or Hellas (1822). Those two felt unnecessarily complicated and overwritten. The Revolt of Islam (1817) was interesting but what I took most from it was Shelley’s preface where he notes that many writers of his day were writing for contemporary critics, not the ages or freely (1: 67). He said that was the problem of his age, and something I think people still fall prey to today.

The Masque of Anarchy (1819) touches on nonviolent resistance: “With folded arms and steady eyes / And little fear, and less surprise, / Look upon them as they slay, / Till their rage has died away” (stanza 86, 2: 373). Powerful words now, I can’t imagine how new and powerful they were when first published.

To a Skylark (1820) wowed me, especially at the end. I hope, like Shelley, that my writing will one day learn from the skylark:
“Better than all measures
Of delightful sound
Better than all treasures
That in books are found,
Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!

Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow,
The world would listen then,
As I am listening now.” (stanzas XX-XXI; 3: 26)

Adonais (1821) is a beautiful elegy for John Keats, after his tragic death at just 24. Adonais is Shelley at his best. He conveys honor, love and regret on the death of his contemporary. I was touched by his plea: “Awake him not! Surely he takes his fill / Of deep and liquid rest, forgetful of all ill” (Stanza 7; 3: 127)

Finally, Shelley and I seem to approach our reading time in similar fashion: “How sweet it is to sit and read the tales / Of mighty poets, and to hear the while / Sweet music, which when the attention fails / Fills the dim pause–“ Fragments (stanza XIV; 3: 244).

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The Iliad by Homer (transl. Edward, 14th Earl of Derby)

The IliadThe Iliad by Homer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my third time reading Homer’s Iliad. I read Robert Fitzgerald’s translation in college. In 2008, after reading his rendition of the Odyssey, I turned to Robert Fagles. This time, I read a much older version, done by Edward Smith-Stanley, the 14th Earl of Derby. He published his work in 1864. He was also a UK prime minster, serving three, non-consecutive terms. He studied at Eton and Oxford before venturing into politics. I wish he’d stuck with classics and published an edition of the Odyssey.

I didn’t like the Iliad the first time I read it; however, Derby’s translation blew me away. It read so much faster than Fitzgerald’s, yet kept close to Homer’s original intent, as far as I can tell from reading multiple translations and studying a bit of Homeric Greek. Fitzgerald’s translation was good, but it seemed stilted in its word choice and the pacing stuttered at times. Fagles seemed to write his own interpretation of the story, rather than translate it (like Pope did with his version of the Odyssey).

As an example, see the various sections that describe Achilles’s new shield in Book 18 of the Iliad. It just sounds so much better in this translation than in Fitzgerald’s or Fagles’s versions.

When I read Fagles’s version, I gave the book only two stars. After finishing this one, I gave it five stars. I savored each book (chapter) and truly was sad as I neared the end. I wish the 14th Earl of Derby had translate the Odyssey so I could turn next to that.

For more on the Iliad and its translators, see this excellent article from the Chronicle of Higher Education:…

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John Keats: Selected Poetry (ed: Elizabeth Cook)

Selected PoetrySelected Poetry by John Keats
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I almost gave this book three stars, since I really loved only a few of the Keats poems contained within, but the book as a whole gave me such a great look at his progression from start to finish. That was one intent of the editor, Elizabeth Cook. She writes in her introduction: “But to read Keats’s poetry through in chronological sequence (the principle of this volume) is to be impressed with the astonishing speed with which it matures. Keats effectively produced his life’s work in two years; the greater part of it in one” (p. x).

I found several of his poems too verbose, as though he were trying to impress us with his vocabulary. I’ve seen intense poetry from Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley and other Romantics that hit on similar themes but did it in fewer words. I’m not looking to enforce a word limit (e.g. I love the Odyssey), but I want these poems to be beautiful, using only what is necessary. Keats succeeds best when his craft fades away and the story and emotions come to the foreground. But even in these longer works, he often has a moment of clarity. In “Sleep and Poetry,” he writes: “Stop and consider! life is but a day; / A fragile dew-drop on its perilous way / From a tree’s summit” (lines 85-87).

I like his narrative poems the best. “Lamia” is my favorite, by far. It is a well constructed story with beautifully chosen words the flows perfectly. I thoroughly enjoyed “Hyperion: A Fragment” as well. His attempt to rework this unfinished poem in “Fall of Hyperion” fails, in my opinion. He returns to using too many words again, almost like a student padding a paper to reach the required page count. The beauty and sadness of “Hyperion” is lost amongst the glut of words.

I wonder what Keats would have produced had he not died of tuberculosis at 25. Based on Hyperion and Lamia, I think he would have continued to grow and increased his legacy even further.

Let me give yet another shout out to the wonderful editions in the Oxford World’s Classic series, produced by the Oxford University Press. I really love these editions … this is my 7th in the series. A great introduction, timeline of the authors life, the work and then fantastic notes that provide context and elucidation.

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The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

The Devotion of Suspect XThe Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this novel but couldn’t get excited about it. With murder mysteries, I tend to like ones where the crime is intricate, you don’t know “whodunit” or you have an endearing detective figuring out the situation.

In the Devotion of Suspect X, the crime coverup seemed unbelievable and the characters were never developed beyond the basics. It seemed more like a sketch of a mystery rather than the finished product.

Natsuo Kirino’s Out remains my favorite novel for this type of mystery.

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The Italian by Ann Radcliffe

The ItalianThe Italian by Ann Radcliffe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian. While it wasn’t a very deep story, it was well-told and kept me turning pages. At times, the plot twists were a tad melodramatic but she always kept the suspense high throughout three volumes, moved the plot swiftly and tied many threads together by the end. She didn’t explain everything, but I enjoy not having everything neatly tied up. It lets the reader enjoy and continue the story through their own mind.

I was impressed that Radcliffe, writing in 1797, suggests that torture is never a valid method for eliciting truth. Innocents will create false confessions just to stop the pain (vol. 2, p. 199, original text). Today, 217 years later, some still don’t realize that torture is both wrong and useless. She goes further by having one of her lead characters, Vivaldi, comment on the torturer: “that any human being should willingly afflict a fellow being who had never injured, or even offended him; that unswayed by passion, he should deliberately become the means of torturing him, appeared to Vivaldi nearly incredible” (vol. 3, p 312 Oxford World Classics complete edition).

Some might have problems with Ann Radcliffe’s verbose and descriptive language, but this should be savored not feared or dismissed. She was at the cusp of the Romantic movement that explored natural beauty and description of everyday experiences, and her prose is expansive in describing scenery and emotions. Sure, one could probably compress these three volumes into one, or maybe even a novella, but I believe such an effort would diminish the beauty of the journey.

It was a joy to hold these books, both old and new. The leather-bound editions with their old style script and spelling methods were scrumptious. The new Oxford World Classics edition had a wonderful introduction and useful reference materials. Finally, on a personal level, it was fun that one some of the characters were from an area at the base of the Tyrolean Alps. Some of my family is from this area!

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