Home

“On it went, moaning and rushing past the house…” @NottingHillEds @BehemothMusic

38 Comments

As the nights grow longer and the days get colder, it’s traditionally the time of year to hunker down with a good book; and often during October and November, thoughts turn to spookier reads! Now, as I’ve said before, I’m not good with horror, and I have to be selective about ghost stories; however, I couldn’t resist when Notting Hill Editions sent a copy of their newest anthology! The book is “The Wrong Turning: Encounters with Ghosts”, introduced and edited by Stephen Johnson, and it’s a real treat from start to finish!

Stephen Johnson is a writer, composer and musician, amongst other things, and I’ve previously covered another NHE for which he’s responsible, the wonderful “How Shostakovich Changed My Mind”; so I knew I was in good hands with this anthology! The choice of authors featured is interesting, an excellent range, and the book also has an intriguing structure. Johnson provides linking commentary between each piece, teasing out connections and putting the stories in context, which really adds to the pleasure of reading as well as making you think a little differently about stories which might be familiar – an excellent way to construct an anthology.

So let’s take a little look at the contents… The book is pretty much bookended by extracts from “Wuthering Heights“, Emily Bronte’s scary gothic masterpiece, and both are chilling. In between, there are extracts and short stories which could well be familiar to the reader – “The Turn of the Screw“, “The Yellow Wallpaper“, “The Monkey’s Paw” – but are no less chilling because of that familiarity. In particular, “Wallpaper…” seems to get more and more frightening with re-reading and the ending is quite unforgettable.

However, the book also has some perhaps unexpected entries which were really rather wonderful. An extract from Tove Jansson’s “Moominpappa at Sea” features the terrifying Groke, a recurring character in the books; I came to the Moomins as an adult but I think I would have been quaking in my books if I’d read this as a child. Interestingly, this particular piece is one which seems to be telling us to face our fears – often good advice. Then there are short pieces which subvert the idea of ghostly presences, by Lang Ying and Flann o’Brien and these do lighten the mood nicely.

Because, tbh, there are times when you need to be lightened a little when reading ghost stories. I made the mistake of reading M.R. James’ “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” in bed at night which was not a good move. I know the story, of course, having seen the old BBC TV adaptation which is creepy enough. However, as always, the story was better and by exercising the reader’s imagination and ramping up the tension, this reduced me to a bit of a jelly!!! So after that I read the book in daylight….

Other authors featured are Pushkin, Ambrose Bierce and Penelope Lively; and the latter was via a particularly impressive and memorable story called “Black Dog“. I’ve long been a fan of Lively’s writing, although I’ve read mostly her children’s books; and I don’t think I’ve read any of her short stories. However, on the strength of this one I’ve been missing out. “Black Dog” is a wonderful modern counterpart to Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, dealing as it does with men’s misunderstandings of women; and the prosaic everyday setting just makes the protagonist’s experiences and behaviour even more unsettling.

“The Wrong Turn” is a really cleverly put together anthology, in the usual stunning livery from NHE. Johnson’s choices are obviously thoughtfully made, intriguingly linked, and explore all kinds of unsettling experiences – just going to show, I suppose, how easy it is to take the wrong turning and end up in a situation you really didn’t want. Whether it’s ghosts, curses, disordered states of mind or monsters, all of the scary happenings in these stories are guaranteed to send shivers down the spine – just don’t read them in the dark….. 😀

Revisiting a wonderful book on the genius of Shostakovich @BehemothMusic @NottingHillEds

18 Comments

A timely recent arrival reminded me that however bad things feel at the moment, they could be an awful lot worse. That book was “How Shostakovich Changed My Mind” by Stephen Johnson, originally published in cloth-covered hardback by Notting Hill Editions, and now released in one of their beautiful paperback volumes.

I reviewed the original book on its original release for Shiny New Books and found it to be a wonderful and engrossing book. I’ve loved Shostakovich’s work for years, but this book is about *so* much more. I’m reprinting below part of my original review (you can read the full version here) and I’ll come back at the end!

“(in this book) Johnson is taking on the healing effects of music and also specifically how the music of Shostakovich has helped him throughout his life and during his struggles with bipolar disorder. Yet the book is marvellously wide-ranging, gathering together a beguiling mix of history, anecdote and musicology to present a compelling and personal response to this great composer’s very individual work.

Johnson, who writes and broadcasts on classical music, had a troubled family life, growing up with a mother suffering from mental illness and a father who couldn’t cope. Johnson’s own problems were dismissed and swept under the table, with the overarching instruction being to not upset his mother. He found a kind of salvation in music, specifically Shostakovich, and this lifelong love of the composer’s work informs the whole book. In it, Johnson explores how music affects the human brain, why we want to listen to sad music when we’re sad, and why what we might perceive as wallowing in gloom is actually helpful.

Woven into this exploration is the story of Johnson’s own journey through life (though ‘journey’ is a term he hesitates to use), a meditation on Shostakovich’s own life and work and survival, and recollections drawn from research undertaken in Moscow for a radio documentary on the composer which Johnson made in 2006. This latter provides some particularly moving sections, including an interview with a survivor of the orchestra which famously performed Shostakovich’s Seventh ‘Leningrad’ Symphony during the siege of that city in 1942; as well as the happy acknowledgement of one of the composer’s friends that the music speaks to all who wish to hear it, wherever they were from.

And Johnson very astutely puts Shostakovich’s music into the context of the times in which he lived, with biographical details when needed, and reminiscences of the composer’s colleagues… Shostakovich did survive Stalin and his Terror, but at what cost? Like so many who made it through unthinkable times and conditions, both composer (and author) seem to suffer from survivor’s guilt (a debilitating state of mind which many believe author Primo Levi paid for with his life). No-one came out of the terror untainted …Shostakovich was not the only one to suffer in this way; but living through the unbearable tension of not knowing whether the knock on the door will come for you tonight must be unthinkable…

So what is it about music that makes us feel human and not beast (as in the quote from Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, which prefaces the book and which Johnson is drawn back to, again and again); and why are we attracted to sad music at sad times? Catharsis is the obvious conclusion here, although I think it goes much deeper than simply the releasing of intense emotions. Again, Johnson returns to the fact that music gave him a sense of belonging – being a “We” and not an “I”, understanding that someone else felt the same way he did and was putting this into the music which spoke to him so strongly. It’s the “We” in Shostakovich’s music that Johnson also believes is what makes the composer speak so strongly to the Russian people, highlighting the collective nature of the country; and as someone for whom music of all sorts has been vitally important at various times of my life, I can empathise with this strongly.

So this was a fascinating read featuring so much; wide ranging discussions of history and philosophy; touching encounters; compelling autobiography and personal experience; and a powerful belief in the transformative power of music…Shining through all of this is the wonderful music of Dimitri Shostakovich and Stephen Johnson’s love of it. As someone who shares that love, this was the perfect read for me; but if you’ve never heard any of the great composer’s work you should do yourself a favour and not only read this book, but get hold of something by Shostakovich – your life will be transformed!”

The original hardback edition

Revisiting the book I found my original opinion unchanged; if anything, I was moved more strongly second time round and once more drawn to go back to Shostakovich’s music, which is oddly cathartic right now. As the publisher reminded me, although we are living in unprecedented times, Shostakovich and the Russian people lived through unimaginable privations; humanity does tend to pull on reserves in times of great stress and danger, and I hope we will all be coping. Working from home and social distancing is odd, but we do have homes and food and plenty of entertainment.

Anyway. We also have books, which as I always say are my great comfort in times of need. This is one that I absolutely loved and can’t recommend highly enough. Whether you prefer the lovely cloth-bound hardback or the pretty paperback with French flaps, I really hope you’ll track this one down and enjoy it! 😀

The genius of Shostakovich @shinynewbooks @BehemothMusic @NottingHillEds

7 Comments

I’ve been lucky enough not only to review some wonderful volumes for Shiny New Books, but also to read some real treats from Notting Hill Editions. Those two strands coincided in this really outstanding book which I was ridiculously excited about reading and reviewing!

I have a bit of an obsession with Shostakovich anyway, so I was probably the ideal reader for this one… An absorbing, moving and thought-provoking mixture of memoir, musicology and history, I found it unputdownable. You can read my review over on Shiny here!

I should add here as a coda to my review that I learned after its publication that author Stephen Johnson has put a page of audio reference clips on his website, which would be a useful aid for anyone reading the book, particularly if they aren’t literate in musical notation (like me!)

The clips can be found here:

https://www.stephen-johnson.co.uk/shostakovitch-clips/

%d bloggers like this: