Ghostly Tales

Genre: classic lit
Secondary genre: paranormal
Format: hard copy
CW: mental illness/hallucinations, mentions of suicide

Authors: M.R. James, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, F. Marion Crawford, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Amelia B. Edwards.

I received this anthology as a gift, and was super excited to read it. I love classic lit, and ghost stories, and I had no idea that Elizabeth Gaskell had even written a ghost story.  I’m usually not a big fan of anthologies or short stories in general, but this one was quite a good read. I think the stories got better–and creepier–the further I got into the book. The Screaming Skull was by far my favorite.

If you’re looking for some lesser known works by some of the 19th century’s most famous writers, then this is definitely a good book to pick up–and read on a dark and stormy night by the fire, with a cup of tea and a nice fuzzy blanket. Just don’t turn out all the lights.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Genre: Classics
Secondary genre: romance/drama
Format: audio
CW: infidelity, antisemitism, suicidal ideation, suicide, emotional and financial abuse
Rating: planchet-4

**This review contains spoilers**

Are you in the mood for a surprisingly modern classic novel that weighs roughly the same as a small child? Then have I got a book for you!

All joking aside, even on audio this book took me a good long time to work through. I had to start out with the narration on a slower (for me) speed (1.4x) while I adjusted to the Russian naming conventions (Russian names are weird. Familiarize yourself before you start reading Russian lit or you will be very confused as every has 3-4 names). About a third of the way through I was able to up it to my usual 1.8x.

I wasn’t sure how I would feel about this this book. Infidelity is one of my hot button issues; I will frequently DNF a book if it comes up. It drives me crazy for reasons I won’t get into here. But, despite being written by a white dude in the 1870s, it was refreshingly feminist (Spoiler: the feminism ends abruptly when Anna commits suicide because she can’t stand being scorned, separated from her son, or the fear of her paramour leaving her). Though society maligns our titular character for carrying on an affair and leaving her husband, the author questions why Anna is an outcast in society while her brother, who is a serial cheater and ends up abandoning his wife, is still welcome in all the best drawing rooms in St. Petersburg, leaving her to the mercy of her sister and brother-in-law.

At one point, there’s even a really great conversation about the working rights of women and if they should be allowed to own property, hold public office, or even vote. While the conversation ends on a sour note, I was surprised to hear the pro arguments presented by male characters in a novel from this time period.

There are also great arguments–both for and against–communism, education, religion, and the meaning of life.

I’ve never read any Russian literature before, but I did really enjoy Tolstoy’s writing (okay, it was in translation, but still. Really good), and I’m planning to listen to War and Peace over Christmas break.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Genre: Classics
Secondary genre: historical romance
Format read: audiobook
CW: racist/antisemitic remarks, child abuse, ableism
Rating: planchet-5

It almost feels unfair for me to review this book, as it’s a re-read for me and one of my all time favorite books.

Jane came into my life at just the right moment, as books sometimes do, and it has shaped so much of my adult thinking and my writing. I related so much to poor little Jane, abused by her peers and her teachers, largely alone in the world even when surrounded by people.

As this is a classic, I will skip over the bulk of the plot summary, as it can be found literally anywhere online, including Google and Wikipedia.

However, this time was a little different, as I noticed more of the subtext. I’ve read this book so many times, but up till now it’s always been in my mostly white, mostly Christian hometown, and the last read through was about 3+ years ago.

This time, I noticed how many comments Jane and Rochester make, using comparisons to people of color or Jews (negatively)*. I also noticed how awful her cousin John is, which is not something I realized when I read the book the first time. But when I look back, I see that he shares many qualities with people who abused me when I was younger, so his judgmental, controlling nature was something I took for granted.

Still, I find that it’s a story of hope and independence. While it has its problems, it’s remarkably forward thinking for the period in which it was written. Not perfect by a long shot, but it still strikes a cord in my heart, and I will never let this book go.

 

*This is actually pretty fascinating because the book was written not so long after slavery was abolished in England and its colonies, and the pro-slavery camp started spreading all sorts of racist rumors to further their cause. For more information on this (including a fascinating discussion of whether or not Mrs. Rochester was mulato (mixed race), please see this series on youtube. Please note there is a fairly high rate of white appologists in this particular documentary.

The Lost Prince by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Genre: middle grade general fiction
Secondary genre: classics/historical
Format read: hard copy
Rep: disability
Rating: planchet-3

Burnett is one of my favorite authors from my childhood. A Little Princess and The Secret Garden were books that got me through the toughest part of middle school, with a little help from Harry Potter and Mercedes Lackey.

I found this particular book at a Half Price and was sold based on the cover and author alone. Published in 1910, this book has a lovely old fashioned cover with gilt accents. I’d never heard of the title, so I snapped it up.

Having now read it, I do see why Princess and Garden are more popular. The story isn’t bad, but it is a bit slow, and our main character, Marco, is not as well-rounded of a character as Mary or Sara, and I didn’t find the plot as intriguing.

But I should probably tell you what the book was about, shouldn’t I?

The story starts with young Marco, his father Stefen, and their servant arriving in London. They have lived all over Europe and even in parts of Asia. Marco has been trained to speak the language of every country they’ve lived in as if he’s a native, mastering English, German, French, Russian, and others, though they are originally from the fictional country of Samavia, a small, war-torn nation in Eastern Europe that appears to border Russia, as well as a small collection of other tiny, made-up nations bent on tearing it apart. Marco and his father have fled the carnage, though they intend to return one day when it is safe. Though they are poor, they live like gentlemen, and insist on proper manners, cleanliness, and a way of holding themselves that sets them apart from the others living in the London slum.

One day while walking, trying to learn the layout of his new city, Marco stumbles upon a group of boys playing in an alley. At their head is a boy on a cart, who clearly cannot walk. Despite this, “the Rat” as he’s called (due to the way he scurries around on his cart, and also a play on his surname) has a power over these boys, and they’d follow him into fire if he asked. The dozen or so children play at military drills and imaginary wars. The Rat reads the papers and learns about current events from his neglectful, alcoholic father.

Among the things he has learned about are the political troubles in Samavia. When he learns that Marco knows of them, too, they team up, adding a richness to “the game” as they dub it that previously didn’t exist. They plan imaginary battles and how to guard or protect the capital city. When The Rat learns the tale of The Lost Prince, their small company dedicates themselves to finding him and restoring him to the throne.

According to legend, 500 years earlier, the good son of a wicked ruler went out for a walk and was never seen again. Shortly after he vanished, his father was murdered and deposed and the current, cruel regime took over.

But there’s a story that the prince was injured and taken in by a monastery, and his line lives on, hidden from view, waiting for the right time to take back the throne.

When Marco tells his father about “the game” his father encourages him, and then slowly begins to reveal his own secrets about their time in England: He, too, has been seeking to restore the lost prince’s line to the throne.

But things take a turn when other discover Stefen’s goal and try to use Marco to find out what he knows. The boys are drawn into political machinations spanning the entire continent, though they themselves have only limited knowledge of what is actually going on.

This book mirrors a lot of the political unrest happening in Europe around the time the book was written, and would probably be a good introduction to pre-WWI history for younger readers, though it is of course fictional and most of the politics involve countries that don’t exist and never did. There is a fairy tale element to it in the way the Lost Prince returns to save his country and his people, instantly bringing peace to the area again.

It wasn’t my favorite Burnett book, but it might be worth a read, especially for younger boys–who are, after all, the intended audience.

 

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

Genre: Classics
Secondary genre: Scifi
Format read: ebook
Rating: planchet

This classic novel tells the story of an inventor who creates a time machine and then thrusts himself thousands of years into the future.

I picked up this book because it’s usually spoken of in the same breath as some of my favorite Jules Verne novels, and because I was at a Steampunk event at the time.

Alas, my favorite thing about this book is that it is relatively short and I got it for free since it’s a classic.

For starters, I disliked the narration style. None of the “present day” (i.e. Victorian) characters are named, including our narrator. They are identified only as “the Doctor,” “the Scientist”, etc. It follows a common trope popular in Victorian and early 20th century literature (such as the Great Gatsby) in which we have a relatively dull narrator speaking to a more interesting character, and recording their story. In this case, the one actually doing the telling is the otherwise unnamed Inventor. Because the story is told as if the narrator is hearing it from his friend, every paragraph is in quotations, which I found rather annoying.

The other thing which greatly annoyed me is how ill-prepared the Inventor was for his journey. Instead of doing the scientific thing and testing out his machine in small bursts, he hops a couple of days into the future just to make sure the machine works, the immediately floors it and jumps thousands of years into the future, watching as London grows and then crumbles around him.

When he finally stops, London is gone and the human race has “devolved” into a diminutive race of weak, pale people who do nothing but enjoy themselves all day and have child-like innocence.

I don’t want to go into a full summary just because this is a classic and if you haven’t seen a retelling, a movie or show inspired by it, or been forced to read it in school then it’s only a quick google away.

If I listed all the reasons I disliked this book, then I would be here all day, so I’ll try to just pin down the more problematic elements. Here, we’ll start with my favorite line in the whole book: “She seemed to me more human that she was.”

This line refers to Weena, one of the little people he finds in the future, called the Eloi. Weena attaches herself to him, and it’s somewhat confusing as to whether he sees her more as a ward or a casual girlfriend. Both are possible, considering the penchant for Victorian erotica to focus on the “appeal” of pre-pubescent girls. The author, at least, does make it clear that even if she’s mentally about 10, Weena is physically an adult. I think.

The Inventor views the Eloi as being less than human because they lounge around all day, do no work, don’t read or have any kind of education. I’m not really sure how this would work, considering they also have no technology, no agriculture, no economy, no weapons, and don’t even know what fire is when he arrives.

Which brings me to my second pet peeve of the book, which is how absolutely ill-prepared he was for the trip, arriving with only a handkerchief and a box of matches in his pocket. To be fair, he did get stranded when the time machine mysteriously vanishes, but still. You would think a man capable of inventing time travel would think to, I don’t know, pack a lunch or something? At the very least.

This book is the epitome of colonialism and the Victorian view that they were clearly the best and most advanced civilization in the world, and that arrogance is really what grated on me. The Inventor is more interested in judging his new companions than in understanding them. The entire book is based on the idea that late Victorian culture was the peak of civilization, and humankind had nowhere to go from there except down, which feels both arrogant and naive.

Save your time and read some Jules Verne instead.