Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories – 1983

Though I do enjoy the occasional ghost story, an entire collection–even of the best ever–was a little much, and I’m happy to list this on Paperback Swap where 3 members are wishing for it. Perhaps they work better when you’re not alerted to the genre. When you know it’s a ghost story, right off the bat the mysterious child/dog/crone/policeman isn’t so mysterious–only the details remain to be determined. The only image which stuck in my mind was the “white fat hand” in Sheridan Le Fanu‘s “The Ghost of a Hand.” The story itself is more imagistic than plot-driven. I did especially enjoy my dear E.F. Benson‘s “In the Tube,” more light-hearted than the rest and with an optimistic ending (as in The Sixth Sense, the ghosts want the help of the living to communicate with their loved ones). That’s the key–I like fantasy and not pure horror because the latter is so often purposeless. Why the haunting? No reason is given in classic horror–the scary stuff just is, and the story dwells on the protagonists’ reactions. My impression is that seeing the motivations and mechanisms of the Big Bad steers closer to fantasy.

In the introduction, Dahl claims that women are/were (this was the early 80s) disproportionately represented in the writing of great ghost stories, as they are/were in great children’s books. After talking about how rare and difficult it is to write a truly classic children’s book, he veers off into an anecdote about the publisher Crowell Collier inviting “all the most celebrated writers in the English speaking world to write a children’s story.”

…[A]ll the writers accepted. These were big names, mind you, famous novelists, so-called giants of the literary world. I won’t mention who they were but you would know them all.
The stories came in. I saw each one of them. Only one writer, Robert Graves, had any conception of how to write for children. The rest of the stories were guaranteed to anaesthetize in two minutes flat any unfortunate child who got hold of them. They were unpublishable.

Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story – Leonie Swann, 2005 (English translation 2006, Anthea Bell)

What an unusual book! It does work – the sheep are believable sheepy and yet solve the mystery – but I can’t say I loved it. It’s a lot better than Play Dead, where the dog is the key to the mystery, but precisely because the narrators are sheep and don’t fully understand what’s going on, the solution doesn’t have the complete mystery payoff. We’re at a remove from all the human protagonists. Instead the payoff is how Swann manages to have her sheep act and reason within their species limitations. It’s brilliant in a way, and funny, but not compelling. I don’t want to read anything else on these lines, but I would pick up her next book with anticipation.

Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – Danny Danzinger, 2007

I grew up just a few blocks from the Met and have spent many, many hours there. It’s not my favorite museum in the world (that would be the V&A;, followed by quite a few others before getting to the Met), but it’s the one I know best. Yet I saw many other sides of it in this Studs-Terkel-style interview book. Danziger’s no Terkel, but he draws out many different sides of his subjects. The most interesting aspect to me was probably the clear class divisions between the workers (security guard, plumber, etc. – not totally blue-collar but close), the curators (intellectual, boho), and the trustees (obnoxiously wealthy and privileged). Because the order is simply alphabetical by last name, they rub elbows in the pages in a way that presumably doesn’t happen in real life. A quick, enjoyable read, which makes me want to visit again and take a closer look at Duccio’s Madonna and Child, Rembrandt’s portrait of Gerard de Lairesse, and the pi-pa (a Ming dynasty lute). The Akkadian (Assyrian) reliefs always fascinated me, but I didn’t realize before how unusual they are.

Song of the Wild by Allan W. Eckert – 1980

This book was described on the Project Wombat list, and to my surprise we had it at the library (it hadn’t circulated since 1994, but it’s a memorial so we kept it anyway). The concept is fascinating – a boy can project his consciousness into any animal, bird, or insect, and share its experience – but the writing doesn’t do the idea justice. It’s a strange book – it should fit into the tradition of great fantasy fiction like the animal parts of The Sword in the Stone, but it’s actually on the dry side. Caleb’s life in the human world is downer realistic fiction, and his experiences in the animal kingdom don’t feel involving. It’s partly the distant third person narration. The overall impression is Mark Trail come to life. Apparently it was pitched as an adult novel, but it falls between two stools – it’s not involving enough for teens, but it doesn’t feel like a standard novel either. I’m glad I read it once.