Books May 2012

Cover to Cover

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Collected Ghost Stories
M. R. James
Oxford

James, born in 1862, was a noted medieval­ist who specialized in the minutiae of biblical Apocrypha and ecclesiastical history. He spent all but his youngest years as a student, teacher, or administrator at Eton and at King’s College, Cambridge, and many of the spooky stories collected for the first time in this edition involve some donnish fellow whose safe world is upset by the discovery of a glimpse of the super­natural. James wrote them for his own enter­tainment and that of his friends, and they are indeed entertaining. Although ghosts do play a large role in each climax, the stories’ effectiveness doesn’t rely on this so much as on the suspense created by the exquisitely deployed conventions of pacing and on the atmosphere, for which James often draws on the bleak East Anglia landscape of his childhood: “The light was obscure, conveying the impression of gathering storm, late winter evening, and slight cold rain.” Most striking and admirable is the witty narrative voice in which the stories are told, so that a refreshing current of humor and irony sharpens the swell of horror. Editor Darryl Jones provides a scholarly and highly readable introduction that places these stories in the context of James’s character and his times.

Sir Walter Raleigh
Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams
Continuum

“The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword, / Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state, / The glass of fashion and the mould of form, / Th’ observ’d of all observers”—among all his contemporaries, Shakespeare’s words applied best to Sir Walter Raleigh. A man of middling birth, boundless enter­prise, prodigious talent, sparkling charisma, and overweening ambition, Raleigh studied at Oxford and the Middle Temple; fought in France and Ireland and on the Spanish Main; captured Cádiz; privateered in the Atlantic; served in Elizabeth’s court (where, until he married for love, he was for a time the Queen’s favorite) and as lord lieutenant of Cornwall; founded the ill-fated Roanoke colony; and searched for El Dorado. He was also a great writer in an age that saw the flowering of the English language: he wrote prose in a vigorous style (including The History of the World, the nearly million-­word work that Cromwell, Milton, Locke, and Gibbon would admire) and poetry for the ages (including the dedicatory sonnet for his friend Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and an epitaph on another friend, Sir Philip Sidney). But he was also an inveterate intriguer, a chronic liar, and a convicted traitor. A man of terrible judgment whose life ended in failure, he redeemed himself with a famously, piercingly eloquent speech on the scaffold and a surpassingly brave, mocking death. Attractive if not necessarily admirable, lovable if not necessarily likable, Raleigh is a great subject for a great biography. Here it is. Stylishly written, judicious in its verdicts, based on archival research and the latest scholarship, this book probes the infighting at court, grand affairs of state, religious and cultural developments, and Raleigh’s literary achievement with equal rigor and acuity. To their expected sobriety, Nicholls, a Cambridge historian, and Williams, a historian at Oxford, marry brio—­fitting enough, given their subject, who urged his son, “Awaken thyself to industrye and rowse upp thy spiritts for the world,” and about whom the great 17th-century biographer John Aubrey remarked, “He was no Slug.”

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