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From My Bookshelf: Romance, Ghosts, Trees, Town (Book Haul)

April closed out with Independent Bookstore Day, which means I’m also starting May with new books on my shelves. Well, on my desk really—I haven’t had time to shelve them just yet. All four of the following gems were found at Devaney, Doak and Garrett Booksellers, and I’m excited to share them with you.

The Romance of the Forest
Ann Radcliffe

  • Oxford University Press | World’s Classics 1986

When I think of Ann Radcliffe I think of The Italian, and subsequently Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. I read both novels in one of my favorite English courses in college, and while The Mysteries of Udolpho is Ann Radcliffe’s most popular novel, I will always have a soft spot for Ellena and Vivaldi’s story.

Anyway, I thought back to all of that when I spotted The Romance of the Forest on the shelf at the bookstore. I could hardly ask for a better edition to find, too; the introduction and explanatory notes will be great to read in conjunction with the text.

The Romance of the Forest was first published in 1791, at the beginning of a decade that was to witness an enormous surge in the popularity of Gothic novels, including Ann Radcliffe’s later works, The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian.

Set in a Roman Catholic Europe of violent passions and extreme oppression, the novel follows the fate of its heroine Adeline, who is mysteriously placed under the protection of a family fleeing Paris for debt. They take refuge in a ruined abbey in south-eastern France, where sinister relics of the past—a skeleton, a manuscript, and a rusty dagger—are discovered in concealed rooms. Adeline finds herself at the mercy of the abbey’s proprietor, a libidinous Marquis whose attentions finally force her to contemplate escape to distant regions. 

The Romance of the Forest is rich in allusions to aesthetic theory and to travel literature; it is also concerned with current philosophical debate. The hedonism preached and practiced by the Marquis is contrasted with the Rousseauistic values of a clergyman and his family whom Adeline meets in Savoy: opposing systems of thought central to the intellectual life of late eighteenth-century Europe. 

Edith Wharton

  • New York Review Books Classic 2021

I’m a mild Edith Wharton fan, an admirer of unsettling “ghost” stories, and a lover of short stories, so I found this book irresistible.

No history of the American uncanny tale would be complete without mention of Edith Wharton, yet many of Wharton’s most dedicated admirers are unaware that she was a master of the genre. In fact, one of Wharton’s final literary acts was assembling Ghosts, a personal selection of her most chilling stories, written between 1902 and 1937. In “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” the earliest tale included here, a servant’s dedication to her mistress continues from beyond the grave, and in “All Souls’,” the last story Wharton wrote, an elderly woman treads the permeable line between life and the hereafter.

Wharton’s great gift, in all her writing, was to mercilessly illuminate the motives of men and women, and her ghost stories never stray far from the preoccupations of the living, using the supernatural to investigate such worldly matters as violence within marriage, the horrors of aging, the rot at the root of new fortunes, the darkness that stares back from the abyss of one’s own soul. These are stories to send “a cold shiver down one’s spine,” not to terrify. As Wharton explains in her preface, her goal in writing them was to counter “the hard grind of modern speeding-up” by preserving that ineffable space of “silence and continuity,” which is not merely the prerogative of humanity but—”for the fun of the shudder”—its delight.

Stories of Trees, Woods, and the Forest
edited by Fiona Stafford

  • Everyman’s Pocket Classics 2021

It’s official, I now collect Everyman’s Pocket Classics (it started with Books and Libraries: Poems). I’ll never turn down nature writing, so I’m looking forward to dipping in and out of these ones over the next few months.

Stories of Trees, Woods, and the Forest is an enchanting anthology of tales by a surprising mix of classic and contemporary writers who have been inspired by trees. 

Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains
Kerri Arsenault

  • St. Martin’s Griffin 2020

Like the author, I also grew up in a Maine mill town, and I’m interested in how Kerri Arsenault approaches the topics outlined in the summary.

Kerri Arsenault grew up in the rural working-class town of Mexico, Maine. For more than a hundred years the community orbited around a paper mill that employed most townspeople, including three generations of Arsenault’s family. Years after she moved away, Arsenault realized the price she paid for her happy childhood. The mill, while providing social and economic cohesion for the community, also contributed to its demise and the destruction of the environment in a slow-moving catastrophe, earning the area the nickname “Cancer Valley.” 

Mill Town is a work of narrative nonfiction, investigative memoir, and cultural criticism that illuminates the rise and collapse of the working class, the hazards of loving and leaving home, and the ambiguous nature of toxics and disease. 

Are you familiar with any of these books? Did you add any books to your shelves during Indie Bookstore Day? Let’s chat in the comments.

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