Halloween Special: ‘Seven Gothic Tales’ by Isak Dinesen (aka Karen Blixen)

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Title: Seven Gothic Tales

Author: Isak Dinesen aka Karen Blixen

Publisher: Folio Society has produced yet another beautiful book illustrated by the extremely talented Kate Baylay

Publication Date: 2013

Hardback: 392 pages

Why did I choose to read this book? I was sent this in time for Halloween by the Folio Society’s press agency FMCM

Refreshments: I didn’t really want to eat or drink near the book as it’s so pretty and I have a penchant for spilling. However, as a reading aperitif – and this is only because reading these stories brought to mind old libraries in stately homes – I quaffed a glass of Port (this one is exceptional and ate some cheese on toast

Review:

Seven Gothic Tales was first written by Karen Blixen and published in 1934 under one of her many pen-names, Isak Dinesen. Written, in English rather than her native Danish, after her return from living in Kenya and the First World War, these seven tales represent Blixen’s nostalgia for a time of innocence, while embracing the dark realities of life.

As the name says the book consists of seven stories. All are set in 19th-century continental Europe most notably: Denmark, Germany and Italy. The tales span all themes and society including: noblemen and spinsters, lovers separated and lovers brought back together, pirates, bishops and whores, a prioress of a convent that actually is not a convent, a monkey and of course a ghost.

This edition is published by the Folio Society and is bound in midnight-blue and beautifully illustrated throughout, by Kate Baylay, in a hybrid style combining mystical fantasy and Edvard Munch’s ‘Scream’. The introduction, by Folio favourite, Margaret Atwood is frankly admiring of Blixen’s creation, declaring that ‘each combines shrewd psychological insights with the elegant prose and supernatural themes of the 19th-century gothic tale.’ With this in mind it was ready to crack on.

The tale I picked to review for this Halloween was, ‘The Dreamers’. In this tale Isak or Karen (??) introduces us to the famous opera singer, Pellegrina Leoni, who unfortunately loses her voice as a result of getting caught in a horrific fire. As a consequence of this tragedy Pellegrina has to seek out new life dreams and aspirations on her own.

This tale deals extremely astutely with misfortune as Pellegrina experiences personal utopia as a singer to then be forced to adapt and assume a series of different guises. Unfortunately, (as this is a gothic tale) Pellegrina finds herself living in her imagination where she escapes responsibility for life’s worries which consequently leads to her demise.

Another character in Pellegrina’s story is that of Marcus Cocoza, a wealthy Jewish manan who some have interpreted as the characters of both Satan and the Archangel. Cocoza is her unannounced companion who tracks her through each of her reincarnations.

These themes of identity and escapism act as an education to us all too both overcome adversity but also to never pretend to be someone you’re not, the results are never happy. Blixen thanks to all her life experiences has proved herself to me to be a very wise woman!

Another thing I love about these types of books and by that I mean short stories and tales (I recently dipped in and out of Roald Dahl’s collection of short stories) is that you as a reader have a choice about where you want to begin and how much you want to read at a time. Seven Gothic Tales is a hefty tome but it is also one you’ll pick up again and again, and although it’s too big for the handbag (or TFL) it’s certainly a welcome companion when you’re sat in your armchair.

So with that tantalising titbit concerning ‘The Dreamers’ , I’ll leave the other six for you to make your own mind up: The deluge at Norderney, The Roads Round Pisa, The Supper at Elsinore, The Poet, The Monkey and The Old Chevalier. Enjoy.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10 – the illustrations aside this really is a magical set of short stories!

NB: The Folio Society edition of Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen, introduced by Margaret Atwood and illustrated by Kate Baylay, £34.95 available from http://www.foliosociety.com Tel: 020 7400 4200, or from The Folio Society, 44 Eagle Street, London, WC1R 4FS

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Book Review: ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ by Ian Fleming

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Title: The Man with the Golden Gun

Author: Ian Fleming (official website)

Publisher: Jonathan Cape, Random House

Publication Date: 1965

Paperback: 192 pages

Why did I choose to read this book? My partner had a rather weather worn copy and took it with us on holiday to Italy, it’s the quickest I’ve seen him ever read a book so I thought I’d give it a whirl, after all I’ve seen all the James Bond films but rather embarrassingly never read one of Fleming’s books.

Where to read? On a beach, by the coast, somewhere with a view of the sea. In my case this was a view of the Mediterranean Sea whilst staying in an apartment (courtesy of Airbnb) with a cute (small) balcony in a town along the Amalfi Coast called Praiano.

Refreshments:

I was eating linguine with freshly caught mussels and a litre of local Italian red wine – however, Bond drinks tins of Red Stripe and Bourbon so that's also acceptable if you find yourself without a caraf!

Review:

In this MI6 outing we discover Bond ‘missing presumed dead’ after becoming entangled in the inner workings of the KGB. Discovered alive and well, albeit brainwashed, Bond is given a seemingly suicidal case to prove his allegiance, terminate “Pistols” Scaramanga. Traveling to Jamaica Bond, goes undercover and infiltrates Scaramanga’s organization including, to name but a few, arson, drug smuggling and arms dealing, counting the KGB and the Mafia amongst his colleagues. Under the heat of the Caribbean sun, Bond faces a seemingly impossible task, to win a duel against the Man with the Golden Colt .45 Gun.

This was my first time reading rather than watching Ian Fleming’s Bond and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The book is certainly not the film, aside from the main characters the storyline is extremely different and much more focussed on creating a good gritty plot rather than Roger Moore flying by the seat of his pants popping caps (sorry).

Bond is as equally smooth, sharp, cunning with a hint of cheese in his witty humour on the pages as he is in on the big screen, if not more so. Fleming has a wondrous way with adjectives and the descriptive passages are hugely entertaining to describe the secret agent’s though processes. In addition the fact that Bond’s pseudo name is Mark Hazard is brilliant proffering mental images of a sharp city banker type who actually doesn’t have a clue.

Overall a really fun and easy read and a reason to escape into the wonderful and fantastical world of Ian Fleming.

Rating: 7 out of 10 – Bond never disappoints!