Listening to The Turn of the Screw

61biobf7pal-_sl150_         Henry James’ classic The Turn of the Screw has always had a scary plot – no matter how interpreted.  The first time I read this short book, I worried about ghosts creeping up to the  window; later in college, the specter of a mad woman governess who imagined ghosts seemed just as thrilling.  Thanks to a friend who recommended Emma Thompson’s interpretation of The Turn of the Screw on Audible,  I am again convinced the ghosts are real, and the audiobook has me checking the locks on windows and doors.

Emma Thompson easily portrays the new  governess to two angelic children in a remote English country house. She becomes convinced that the children are conspiring with a pair of evil ghosts, former employees at the estate – a valet and a previous governess. In life, the two had been discharged as illicit lovers, and their spectral visitations with the children hint at Satanism and possible abuse. The governess is convinced she must protect her two charges; in her effort to shield them, she traumatizes the little girl and kills the little boy.  The reader must decide whether the ending is the result of a governess gone mad or the evil ghosts are real.

The story is full of dark “dreadfulness,”  and Emma Thompson easily switches from the well rounded vowels of the governess to the high- pitched voices of the children.   Emma Thompson’s terror becomes tangible as she describes the apparitions, and you can almost imagine the silent screams of the ghosts. But when, as the housekeeper, she uses a quavering voice to deny them, the first hints of the governess’s possible mental instability appear.  Which terror is real – ghosts or madness or possibly both?

After listening to the story, I agree with Brad Leithauser, the editor of The Norton Book of Ghost Stories: “Consigned to everlasting misery, the damned are restless in their perdition. Some of them are too nasty for hell, and they sometimes get in among us.

If a book club is looking for a classic to discuss, The Turn of the Screw would be a great selection – especially around Halloween.

 

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The Woman in White

9781400119424_p0_v5_s192x300     When one of my book clubs identified Wilkie Collins’ nineteenth century classic mystery The Woman in White for discussion, I looked for another way to reread the famous story and found the four hour BBC radio dramatization on Audible.  With rich British intonation, the dialogue kept me immersed in the plot, most of which I had forgotten since reading it for a college literature class.

A detective story with Gothic overtones, the story has an other worldly tone as the reader tries to discover the secret of the ghostly woman dressed in white. In her review, Camille Cauti cleverly summarized the plot without revealing too much for readers who want to thrill to its twists – either again or for the first time.

The story begins with an eerie midnight encounter between artist Walter Hartright and a ghostly woman dressed all in white who seems desperate to share a dark secret. The next day Hartright, engaged as a drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie and her half sister, tells his pupils about the strange events of the previous evening. Determined to learn all they can about the mysterious woman in white, the three soon find themselves drawn into a chilling vortex of crime, poison, kidnapping, and international intrigue.

The father of the detective novel and a contemporary of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins was the first to transform a sensational crime story into a tale with clues the reading audience could follow.  When it was first published in 1860, the book was serializedand according to mystery expert Charles Silet, readers enthusiastically started  a Woman-in-White craze “which gave rise to a popular song, a dramatization of the novel, and even prompted women to dress in white.”

I throughly enjoyed listening.  The music heightened the suspense, and the characters’ intonation made the complicated plot easy to follow.  I’ll look for another book performed by this talented group of British actors.

 

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

9780451498083_p0_v1_s192x300    Anne Tyler delivers another quirky romance in Vinegar Girl in her delightful twist on The Taming of the Shrew published by Hogarth Shakespeare as one of a series of novels based on the major plays.

In Tyler’s version, fiery Kate lives at home with her father, an absent-minded scientist at Johns Hopkins on the verge of an important discovery for autoimmune disorders. Her sister, Bunny, a scatterbrained teenager more interested in boys than books plays the beautiful Bianca.  Their mother died long ago, and Kate has the responsibility of the Baltimore household, organized by her father’s hilarious system to maximize efficiency. Homemade meals consists of  a scientific formula of  “beans, green vegetables, potatoes and stewed beef pureed into a grayish sort of paste to be served through the week.”

Kate has the reputation of her model from Shakespeare, yet Tyler softens her attitude with common sense – but missing any traits of diplomacy.  She drops out of college because she calls out her botany professor when he botches a lecture on photosynthesis, and she blithely refuses to falsely flatter a pre-schooler where she is an assistant to the elderly teacher, when the drawing is no good, much to the dismay of the head teacher and the parent.

Pyotr Shcherbakov plays Petruchio; in this story he is a brilliant yet blunt spoken scientist from foreign lands and assistant to Kate’s father; he is about to be deported unless he can change his legal status.  Kate’s father concocts a scheme to have Kate marry Pyotr to secure the ongoing research, and surprisingly, Kate agrees.

The twists and turns involve a vegan boyfriend, research mice, a gaggle of intolerant relatives and friends – even a guitar playing granola boy as a foil for Kate’s affections. Although the story is predictable, Tyler infuses an element of suspense to the upcoming marriage, with the possibility of its not taking place.  Of course, all’s well that ends well, and Tyler happily includes an epilogue, fast-forwarding ten years beyond to note how successful and happily ever after their lives continue.

Anne Tyler can’t write fast enough for me.  I read Vinegar Girl as soon as I could get it and polished it off with relish in an afternoon.  Kate is my favorite character from Shakespeare; it’s hard not to identify with her forthright opinions, her independence, and her cranky moods.  She is often misunderstood, masking her vulnerability in stubbornness but Anne Tyler captures her innate goodness and strength in her modern adaptation, and has Petruchio love Kate for who she is – no taming needed.

Reviews of other Anne Tyler Books:

 

 

 

I Love Book Lists

One of my many guilty pleasures is browsing through Real Simple magazine, and the publication just came out with a summer reading list. From a list of forty-four books, I was surprised by how many I haven’t read.

A few of my favorites did make the list:

And a few classics:

  • Odyssey by Homer
  • Kim by Rudyard Kipling
  • Frederica by Georgette Hyer

But so many more on the list to read. To check out my reviews, click on the red title.

To see the rest of the list, go to the  Real Simple Reading List

The Madwoman Upstairs

9781501124211_p0_v2_s192x300With the mystery of Jane Eyre and the force of a modern romance, Catherine Lowell creates a satisfying plot in The Madwoman Upstairs.

Samantha Whipple, new student at Oxford University, is the last living descendant of the Brontë sisters.  Home-schooled by her father, Tristan Whipple, a scholar who “spent his entire life trying to deconstruct” the writings of his famous relatives, Samantha, at twenty, is well-versed in the famous novels.  Lowell generously sprinkles excerpts from the well-known Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as well as the less famous The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

At her father’s request, Samantha’s residence at Oxford is an isolated tower, often the site of campus tours.    When her father’s copies of the Brontë  books mysteriously arrive on her doorstep, encrypted with her father’s obscure notes referring to her inheritance, a collection of writings and paintings, including the “Warnings of Experience –  that may have been left to her by her father, she enlists the help of her tall, dark, handsome Oxford tutor to help her decipher the clues.

If you are a fan of the the Brontë  sisters, the references to the famous novels, and Lowell’s dissection of some of the plot lines may prompt you to reread the original texts.  References to the Brontë  treasure may have been inspired by the recent uncovering of a lost book containing poems and snippets from the Brontë  children –

“The Brontë Society has recovered the treasure for £170,000 from a seller in America where it has been for more than a century…it was originally sold following the death of their father Patrick Brontë  in 1861″…the Telegraph, 2015

If you are a student of literature, you will enjoy Lowell’s notes on literary criticism and intellectual pursuits:

  • “The great reward given to intelligent people is that they can invent all the rules and equate any dissent with stupidity.”
  • “…what everyone wants: meaning. Happiness in some sense, is irrelevant.”
  • “…the interpretation of a novel depends on the reader far more than it does on the text or the author’s intent…”
  • “Reading teaches you courage. The author is trying to convince you something fake is real…”

If you have never read a Brontë book – or only seen one of the many movies – and are looking for a romantic interlude with the trappings of an intellectual discussion, The Madwoman Upstairs has a story to keep you reading, while you sigh through the passion and try to decipher the mystery.