One of My Best Friends: Happy Birthday, The Raven

raven
I have been on quite the mystery kick lately, so more posts will be forthcoming.

In the meantime, today is the 170th anniversary of the publication of Poe’s The Raven. Earlier this month I wrote a piece for the Review Direct newsletter listing some lesser known facts about Edgar Allan Poe in honor of his birthday. To celebrate both, I am going to share eighteen of those facts.

  1. He was born Edgar Poe in Boston. After his father abandoned the family and his mother died, he was unofficially adopted by John Allan of Richmond, VA.

 

  1. He usually went by E.A. Poe or Edgar A. Poe after his estrangement from his adopted father as a young man.

 

  1. His often scathing book reviews in Southern Literary Messenger increased readership in the publication by almost seven fold- and got him fired twice!

 

  1. He coined the term ‘short story’. There is reportedly no record of its definition before Poe used it in 1840.

 

  1. Poe is considered one of the first Americans authors to make his living solely through his writing (which caused many financial problems in his life).

 

  1. Charles Dickens and Poe were pen pals and even met once.

 

  1. He loved cats and often wrote with his cat on his shoulder.

 

  1. The mustachioed Poe most people think of really only represented the last couple years of his life. For most of his forty years he was clean shaven.

 

  1. In 1837, Poe published Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the story of shipwrecked men who were forced to select one of their crew to be eaten. The unlucky sailor in Poe’s story was Richard Parker. The books was largely panned as sensational, though Poe tried to claim it was based on a real story (it wasn’t). Later, a real shipwreck in 1884 eerily mirrored Poe’s story right down to the unfortunate victim, the cabin boy, Richard Parker.

 

  1. Poe originally wanted to write about a parrot in his classic, The Raven.

 

  1. After the success of the The Raven there were stories of kids following him down the street flapping at him. It is reported he would respond good naturedly by turning suddenly to face them uttering, “Nevermore”.

 

  1. Poe was a fan of cryptography and tried to make it mainstream by incorporating ciphers into some of his short stories.

 

  1. Before his death, he left Virginia for Philadelphia and disappeared for days, until he reappeared a week later in a Baltimore tavern ill and wearing clothes that did not belong to him.

 

  1. His cause of death is unknown. At the time newspapers reported different illnesses and all records pertaining to his death, including death certificate, have been lost. Speculation often concludes he died of complications from alcoholism, but theories as far ranging as rabies to cooping (the practice of using booze and force to make someone vote for a particular candidate) have been put forth. The later theory has been given more credence recently as he disappeared on election day in an area of Baltimore known for this practice.

 

  1. His travel trunks were not located for weeks when one was found in Baltimore and another in Richmond.

 

  1. After his death, alleged friend Joseph Snodgrass, a teetotaler, exacerbated claims of Poe’s alcoholism to serve as a morality tale to be shared on the lecture circuit. Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who had a vendetta against Poe after a bad review, also helped to spread the rumor Poe was a terrible drunk- including writing a fake biography of his rival.

 

  1. Though his credibility has been questioned, Poe’s physician John Moran claimed that Poe was not a heavy drinker and it was unlikely to have been the cause of his death.

 

  1. The NFL Baltimore Ravens were named in tribute to him, which might not be as odd as it seems as Poe was actually an athletic man and even held a swimming record as a young man.

Some of My Best Friends: Reading Festive

Christmas to me is listening to classic Christmas tunes, decorating a tree from my favorite lot, and rereading a few books that always put me in a festive mood. Two are novels I still treasure from my childhood, while one is a more recent tradition.

darkrising
The Dark is Rising
by Susan Cooper
Before there was Harry Potter, there was Will Stanton. Just before Will’s Midwinter eleventh birthday, he notices strange things happening around him- family pets avoid him, electronic devices go on the fritz, and neighbors are behaving oddly. On his birthday, Will discovers he is the last of the Old Ones, a group of immortals who exist to fight the Dark, an evil that threatens the world. As a Sign-Seeker, he is tasked with collecting the Six Signs of the Light . This quest takes him through time and space as the story races to a thrilling ending. Fantasy fans will have no trouble believing Cooper was an actual student of J.R.R. Tolkien when reading this tale.

This books speaks to me at this time of year since I have long been fascinated by the co-opting of pagan traditions by Christianity (and now the secular world as well). The action in The Dark is Rising takes place around the holidays, but it begins with the Winter Solstice for a reason. The mythology underpinning this book and series is very much rooted in Celtic myths and Arthurian legend. The heavy winter snow that builds throughout the story always makes it festive for me, but the nods to ancient customs definitely brings to mind the old celebrations like Yule and Saturnalia. Recommend reading with some nog-or maybe even some wassail- by a fire and a real tree if you have them. It is really a good read anytime though!

This was the cover of my copy from childhood.

This was the cover of my copy from childhood.


The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
by C.S. Lewis
I can still remember being truly amazed when my mom first read this to my brother and me. Sure, I had watched fantasy based cartoons before and heard fairy tales, but this was my first true fantasy novel. Imagine! Kids just playing in a house and discovering a door to a whole new world filled with “imaginary” creatures. It filled me with such a sense of wonder and curiosity. When I started reading full chapter books on my own, it was one of the first I read- followed shortly by the rest of the Chronicles of Narnia. This is a pretty standard classic, so I will not go into plot.

As to why it is a Christmas favorite, I yield to a description of Narnia from the book, “Always winter but never Christmas.” Later, I would read it in school through a more academic lens, but that was lost on me. The basic story- kids fighting an evil witch in a magical land to break up an endless winter (did I mention I live in a place where it tends to snow a lot?)- is all I need. When the snow begins to melt and Father Christmas shows up with gifts, I recapture some of the joy I experienced while reading this as a child. How often can any of us say that about anything in life as adults?

poirotchristmas
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas
by Agatha Christie
There are few characters whose deaths I have wanted more than Simeon Lee. In this patriarch Christie gives us quite a villain- so much so I hesitate to call him a victim. His death is early in the book, so no spoilers here. And what a death it is! A locked room mystery of the finest order! Add to that a bevy of suspects by way of the family all stuck under the same roof and you have all the ingredients for a classic Christie mystery.

This is not a cheap holiday gimmick of a book though. The characters in this one are some of the most well developed in any of Christie’s works. A proper English family handling the pressure of a murder investigation as well as trying to keep up with all the traditional trappings of the holidays creates the perfect dynamic for it. As he does though, little by little Poirot chips away at the seemingly baffling case to solve it in a brilliant fashion.

When I was home from college my senior year (quite a few years ago), I happened to pick this one up for the first time in ages and found a whole new appreciation for it. Since then I like to reread it every couple years. If you want to read this one for the holidays, it is great for travel or a lazy day of reading- it is just a great puzzler.

So, that is what I have been/will be reading. Do you have any holiday reads you enjoy? Or reading traditions tied to the holidays (Hanukkah, Christmas, New Years,etc)?

East Enders: Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times

midwife

This edition of Call the Midwife is kind of a cheat- it’s the television tie-in version. Still, I cannot think of a better review to post on Thanksgiving than this celebration of life.

Jennifer Worth’s full memoir is three volumes accounting her years as a midwife in post- WWII London’s working poor East End. The stories in this edition are all as she wrote them in the original text, but selected based on their use in the excellent BBC/PBS series. I went with this version for the new book club I formed so we could discuss the themes without intimidating members with three volumes.

Call the Midwife is nothing short of wonderful. Literally. Filled with wonder. Jenny’s experiences are full of so much joy, mixed with pain and loss. As a young, privileged woman from a middle class family, Jenny’s training has not prepared her for the reality of the East End. Jenny, and a few other midwives, work with the nuns of Nonnatus House serving the neighborhood. The religious base of her work heightens the spiritual sense running through her accounts. That is not to say this is a preachy, religious book, but Jenny goes through a lot transition with her experiences. There are also a lot of facts about current medical practices that she brings in to contrast the still limited options they had as midwives. Particularly interesting were Jenny’s reflections on the women they lost to preeclampsia- which was untreatable then- but can be managed now. Also, the astounding drop in births once birth control and family planning were available in the East End was almost unbelievable.

Jenny is joined on this journey by Trixie and Cynthia, both young midwives from similar backgrounds as herself. They are later joined by Chummy, a woman from a more affluent background who surprises many with her hard work and ability. Rounding out the crew of Nonnatus House are stern Sister Evangelina, Sister Julienne, and (my favorite of the whole group) Sister Monica Joan.

I did listen to the audiobook and have to give credit to Nicola Barber’s pitch perfect narration. She captured Jenny’s joy, awe, heartbreak, and frustration perfectly.

Call the Midwife is ultimately about life. Not every family has a happy ending. Jenny’s life itself does not go as planned. It is not a “downer” though. This memoir is the only book I have honestly ever felt the phrase “heart warming” could truly be applied. I am now seeking out the full three volumes to read the full range of her experience and spend more time with these amazing women.

Haunting Reads: Silence for the Dead

silence

Did I mention I love spooky reads in autumn? After listening to An Inquiry Into Love and Death, I knew it was foolish to believe I wouldn’t listen to another book by Simone St. James before Halloween this year. One night while working on some data entry, I gave into the urge and downloaded Silence for the Dead to make it a little more interesting.

Like St. James’ other novels, Silence for the Dead takes place in post-WWI England. At the start I wasn’t sure what to think of the narration for this one. Mary Jane Wells narrates it with a rather “common” accent, which fits the main character, Kitty Weekes. It is a departure from the other narrations since they usually featured women with some higher education. In the end though, I think it came down to the fact I wasn’t really sure I liked Kitty.

From the start, Kitty presents herself (the book is first person narration) as a tough girl who has exhausted all her options for work in London and is now on her way to Portis House, a remote convalescence home, for an open nursing position. After a rough interview, she takes the job, but constantly seems rankled by everyone and everything. Despite the harrowing working conditions, her deep anger and distrust was so grating, I almost couldn’t feel sympathy for her.

The home is a private hospital for shell shocked soldiers of the Great War. They range from men with violent rages to seemingly normal guys who are just sensitive to noise and surprise. World War I has been the setting for quite a few books and TV shows in recent years, but it really cannot be stressed enough how little sympathy there was for the “cowards” who came back from war unable to fully deal with the horror they witnessed. The men of Portis House are sent there by their families for this reason. Most of them are trying very hard, no matter what the circumstance, to maintain a normal facade in front of the staff in the hopes they will be given a good review and allowed, maybe, the chance to go home again. It soon becomes obvious to Kitty though, that some very unnatural, supernatural even, things are happening that are not the product of her patients’ disturbed minds. She tries to get the men to open up, but with so much on the line they are reluctant. When she meets a former war hero hidden away in a ward who also seems to be affected by whatever is agitated in the house, Kitty knows she must get to the heart of it.

As the story allows you to meet more of the residents, Kitty doesn’t really soften, but she does fit in more with her surroundings. These are damaged men and she is a damaged woman. In the end it is the “cowards” and the unemployable nurse who face off against pure evil. St. James has done a much better job with character development here than previous novels. These are not just angsty, lonely people who bond over their outsider status, they are people who work to understand one another and build trust. All the elements worked well together and I have to say it is my favorite of her books. Sure, it is not a perfect novel, but it is a great, suspenseful read for a person like me who will take a ghost story over a gruesome horror any day.

A Quickie: The Guilty Pleasures of Amanda Quick

Amanda Quick’s romances are a favorite guilty pleasure of mine. Like a Lauren Willig novel, Quick writes romances with just enough action and mystery in the plot to make them an overall fun read. Her heroines are independent women for their time (usually Regency or Victorian eras) and the men often have some flaws to keep them from being too perfect. Also, unlike so many romances, the conflict always comes from an outside force, not frustrating miscommunication between the main characters. For a little break from reading for work, I recently read two Quick romances. One was good, the other not so much.

The first Quick novel I read was The Mystery Woman and I slugged through it. What was supposed to be a quick read (see what I did there), took months because I put it down- something I have never done with any of her books. The mystery plot was weak and relied too much on one character’s “psychical talent”. I was also really disappointed in the lack of chemistry between the main characters. I made myself finish out of principle, but do yourself a favor and skip it. For the record though, I would recommend Crystal Gardens, the first of the Ladies of Lantern Street series if you like supernatural romances.

engaged
Onto Otherwise Engaged! I didn’t realize it, but it’s been YEARS since Quick has written a non-supernatural romance. I kind of missed ones like this.

Amity Doncaster is an independent, world traveling woman of the world (well, by Victorian standards). On a boat trip through the Caribbean, she happens on a wounded man in an alley. Benedict Stanbridge hands her a letter and tells her to make sure it makes it off the island as he believes he has been fatally wounded. Amity, the daughter of a doctor, does not give up on Benedict so easily and safely transports both the letter and him to the ship. Over the next couple weeks while sailing to New York, Amity nurses him back to health and they grow closer. Once they reach port, Benedict leaves for California with a promise to find her again in London- her final destination.

Weeks go by and Amity still has no word from Benedict, but those who move in polite society have a lot to say about them. Somehow word of the time they spent alone together on the ship is making the rounds among the town gossips. Though not bothered by her slightly tarnished reputation, Amity is worried about Benedict. Her fears for him are only put aside when she is attacked in a carriage. Benedict arrives in London just after the attempt on her life and wonders if it is connected to what happened in the Caribbean. They decide to investigate together under the guise of an engaged couple to excuse all the time they will spend together. Of course, Amity and Benedict have great chemistry so maybe it isn’t just pretend. Before they can really explore their feelings though, they need to figure out who wants them dead.

Otherwise Engaged was a fun way to burn a couple hours. If you enjoy romances or even light thrillers (think creepy killers, but maybe not the most literary fare) check this one out.

Haunting Reads: An Inquiry Into Love and Death

inquiry

Autumn is my favorite season. While I miss the long days, I do love the excuse to curl up earlier in the evening with a good book. Summer here has lasted well into September in recent years and winter has started pretty early in November, making for a very short fall. This summer has been quite cool, so once the calendar rolled to September I jumped into seasonal reads with abandon.

Last year around this time, my book club read Simone St. James’ The Haunting of Maddy Clare. While I really liked the suspenseful ghost story featured, the main characters were really flat and not very appealing. Despite a lackluster first read, I decided to give St. James’ ghost stories another try with An Inquiry Into Love and Death. This time I was not disappointed.

Jillian Leigh is an usual woman for the 1920s- a dedicated female student at Oxford. One day she is called out of class and informed her estranged Uncle Toby, a professional ghost hunter, has died unexpectedly. Jillian is more put out than grief stricken when the solicitor explains she needs to go identify his body and collect his belongings from the small, coastal town of Rothewell.

Upon arrival, Jillian begins to suspect her uncle’s death might not have been an accidental fall and makes inquiries into what he was working on before he died. She is not the only one. Scotland Yard Inspector Drew Merriken is also in town with suspicions of his own about Toby’s death. Soon after her arrival, Jillian has reason to believe Walking John, the ghost her uncle was hunting, might be more than the imaginings of an eccentric man. Inspector Merriken most certainly thinks whatever is not right in Rothewell has a logical explanation. They both are about to be tested.

Lovecraft she is not, but St. James knows how to set a creepy scene and build suspense. More than a few times I stopped what I was doing and sat on edge waiting to find out what would happen next. The romance between Jillian and Drew had just the right amount of chemistry. It is part of the plot, but does not detract in any way from the eerie feeling of the tale. An Inquiry Into Love and Death is very much in the vein of dimestore novels, suspense movies, and radio programs (especially thanks to Rosalyn Landor’s narration) of the ’20s and ’30s- a ghost, buried secrets, and a budding romance. Pick this up for a fun, spooky read.

Exception to the Rule: Outlander

Ad for the Starz show.

Ad for the Starz show.

I have to be honest- I really didn’t like Outlander when I read it. In 2005, I was working at a bookstore among some of the most interesting readers I have ever met. Several of these co-workers would not stop recommending Outlander. One in particular, whose taste in books was completely in line with my own, was relentless- with me, with customers, probably even strangers in the street! Around this time Random House released a special $5.99 paperback edition and my coworker bought it for me and sent me home with it. (side note: RH also released a similar special edition at the same time of a book I was unfamiliar with called A Game of Thrones. Great foresight, RH.). I slogged through the 800+ pages.

EIGHT HUNDRED PAGES!

The characters and concept were quite original, I give Gabaldon credit for that. Especially for creating such a strong, female lead (as opposed to Strong! Female!). Even this sometimes hard heart was cheering for Jaime and Claire. But the plot was beating me down. How many horrible things could happen to these poor people? When I finally finished, I decided I was done with the series- creative or not. Another 800+ pages seemed too much to ask.

Then two things happened.

First, the pilot for the Starz series was released- in advance to reviewers, then to the general public by way of the premium channel offering up the first episode free. From social media to Sci-Fi/Fantasy blogs, I was reading nothing but raves for the writing, actors, and cinematography.

Second, I had a chance to listen to an author event Gabaldon did in my town last month. She was delightful and quite the storyteller. While I am sure she has addressed it before, it was the first time I heard her explain that Outlander was a practice novel. She never intended it to be read by the public, so she threw everything but the kitchen sink into the plot because she thought it would be her only chance with these characters. Also, maybe more importantly to nerdy me, the inspiration for Jaime came to her while watching an old episode of Doctor Who featuring Scots in kilts.

So, I gave in and watched the premiere this weekend. It was quite good. The actors seemed comfortable in their roles straight out and it was visually stunning. Claire, who was physically rather vague to me while reading, was brought to life wonderfully by Caitriona Balfe. As soon as Sam Heughan was on screen, I was reminded of the picture I had of Jaime through the first couple hundred pages of the book, before it became more about terrible events than characters to me.

So, for the first time I can recall, the adaptation of a book might be changing my mind about the book itself. I am still coming to terms with this idea, but it will be easier to work through while watching Sam Heughan. He is rather handsome, so if he convinces me to tackle the second book I will definitely post it here.

If you are a fan, what do you think of the show? Has a movie or television series changed your mind about a book?