By the fire (Anthology: “Places where I enjoy reading”)

By the fire (Anthology: “Places where I enjoy reading”)

Thought it would be a one-off, didn’t you? You’d just write that silly post about the toilet and then forget all about it. Face it. These type of posts are way more difficult than your usual book reviews, aren’t they? These posts are somewhat personal. Well! I’m giving it another shot! Here is part deux of my anthology aptly titled “Places where I enjoy reading”. To kickoff this entry let’s begin with the following description:

It is winter and there is a house by the mountain side. The house is empty and the summer days when it was filled with people are long gone. Now it is only visited during the weekends if rain or cold allow it. In that house there is a fireplace. It is surrounded by a rocking chair, a two-seat couch, an armchair and a table with four radios, two of which do not work. On the ground there is a woven basket filled with old logs of pine and evergreen trees at the bottom and thinner branches on top that are used to feed the fire once the kindling takes a spark.

The fire starts. Smoke  appears. Wood begins crackling. The room is still unbearably cold when one moves away from the hearth. A blanket and a cup of tea help to ward off the cold. 

(Editorial note: you actually stopped and made a cup of earl grey tea after you wrote this. I sincerely hope that you are not as much a procrastinator as I am future-me)

One of the four radios is on. It is an old SANYO, 2 Band receiver RP 6160 A, and it is currently set to FM. The National Classical Music Station is somewhere around the 100 Mhz mark as indicated by an orange bar that is operated by a small wheel on the side of the radio.

My grandmother used to listened to it every night. 

The thinner branches are already in the fireplace and I’ve placed a big log on top that I hope lasts the rest of the night. I sit back. The announcer on the radio let’s me know that the piece of music that I’ve been listening to for the past few minutes is Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

My eyes begin to close. Will there be embers in the morning hidden in the ash?

*

Outside of an exercise in describing one of my favorite places to sit down and read, I hope I’ve achieved an additional thing that explains why I love reading by the fireplace: it’s all about the mood.

Unlike the worryingly specific criteria that I have for a toilet book, the following are just a small -but excellent- selection of books to help me illustrate this “mood” theory and that go extremely well with a dark cold room, a small reading light and a roaring fire.

H.P. Lovecraft – Necronomicon & Eldritch Tales

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These are the only two books that I’ve read exclusively by the fireplace. They are both compilations of H.P. Lovecraft’s work and, whilst they do not contain all of his work, the beautiful illustrations and the care that has gone into this editions is still palpable (Unfortunately, I still found some typos).

Lovecraft’s gothic prose is far more effective if you are sitting next to a fire on a cold winter night. The horror and nightmarish landscapes of his stories soon became a bit more ominous and outside, where the sky is dark and the wind is howling, those terrors appear to be growing and lurking. If you are new to Lovecraft and you want to test if what I say is true, I suggest you get your hands on (or click on) any of the following: The Colour From Out of Space, The Music of Erich Zann, Dagon or The Tomb; and if you are thinking about purchasing one of these two books I suggest you go for the Necronomicon first (both are great, but his best stories are in there),  either way stay close to the fire. I assure you that it is the only thing that will keep you sane.

Random Trivia: and if you really want to OD on mood put on some Electric Wizard inspired by Lovecraft. WARNING: the following song is B-A-D-A-S-S.

The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe

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I own this beautiful Wordsworth Edition.

How could I not include Poe in this list? You can’t talk about horror in books without mentioning Edgar Allan Poe! He was the first one to shape the genre. Without him there is nothing: no Stephen King, no Lovecraft, no Neil Gaiman, no Alan Moore. Nothing.

Additionally, Edgar Allan Poe deserves special mention because he is a fantastic wordsmith -one of the bests in my humble opinion-. Almost everything he has written reads beautifully and, even if you don’t enjoy horror but love words, you might appreciate how he weaves each sentence with seamless perfection.

His stories are capable of creating a very real, palpable and confusing horror (The Pit and the Pendulum), a schizophrenic madness (The Tell-Tale Heart) or a doomed melancholic atmosphere (The Fall of the House of Usher), and if none of that is for you I still invite you to check out the brilliant adaptation that The Simpsons did of his most famous poem, The Raven.  It is narrated by James Earl Jones and has a huge fireplace! How can you possibly resist?

J.R.R Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings

9780261103252It is one of the few books that I’ve gone back to on several occasions and to be fair I do not need to have a fire to enjoy it, but the last time I read it I noticed that I was only feeling like delving into Middle-earth during the coldest months of the year, and the moment that there was no fire my desire to resume the quest to destroy the one ring vanished. It took me all the weekends of two winters and two autumns to finish it back in 2010 and 2011.(Editorial note: I’ve got to check the date when I finished reading it. I bet now that it must have been winter. Second editorial note:  It was the 29th of December of 2011. Well done me!)

I remember that during those two years I avoided the Peter Jackson movies because I wanted to detach the film’s visuals from the words of Tolkien and see if I could imagine Middle-earth just like I did when I was a kid. I’m happy to report that I was succesful in my attempt and that it was all thanks to the fireplace, the tea, the blanket and the book itself. All these elements managed to create the feeling that I was in my little hobbit hole where I could ponder and dream about these far away adventures.

So what is it about these four books and why are their stories enhanced by the companionship of a good fireplace? Well, as I mentioned throughout the post there is a question of mood and atmosphere, but the truth is that the particular fireplace that I’m talking about is located in a place that also helps me shut out the world and let my imagination soar. In this place the hearth becomes a vortex to another world where magic, fantasy, horrors and all that is unreal becomes a little bit more tangible; acting as a bridge between my imagination and my reality. The authors of these books are capable of conjuring entire worlds and their stories can transport you to amazing places, so it makes perfect sense that all the magic locked in those tales reacts well to the fire because, like Calvin said at the beginning, there is something magical about having a fire.

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A memento for you future-me. Those were really happy days, make sure you get more of them!

Last editorial note (I swear): the first drafts of this post were  a real bitch very complicated and frustrating to write. It took me quite a shitload few attempts to go from completely abstract thoughts on a preference that only made sense to me and that did not necessarily seem logical to a somewhat coherent post. I’m quite proud of it.

P.S: Beginning-of-the-post-me is so depressing. He needs to relax!

P.S.S: A P.S does not count as another editorial note. So suck it!

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A Country Doctor’s Notebook: Bulgakov & Rural Russia in 1916.

A Country Doctor’s Notebook: Bulgakov & Rural Russia in 1916.

*grabs a fictional pipe, lights it up and looks moodily towards the horizon*

It really is an odd story how I got to this book. It all begun with Mad Men. It was the end of season four of one of my favorite TV shows. Matthew Weiner (creator of Mad Men) and his team were producing one great episode after the other and, like all great shows, the writing was always elevated by the excellent performance of the cast and the main character Don Draper, expertly played by Jon Hamm. It was this acting masterclass that led me to his IMDB page to learn more about his work. Mind you, it is important to point out that between seasons four and five of Mad Men there was a two-year gap when the show was halted, and that it was during those years that IMDB kindly informed me of a new TV show that Jon Hamm was doing in the UK with Daniel Radcliffe (the Harry Potter kid). Finding nothing of interest in his filmography and curious to see if Don Draper was the only character that he could play, I stayed alert for the first season’s release of A Young Doctor’s Notebook in Christmas 2012.

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The premise of the show is as follows: a young doctor fresh out of the Imperial Moscow University of Medicine & Dentistry receives his first assignment in a small one-doctor hospital found in the middle of nowhere, otherwise known as rural Russia in the nineteen tens. It ran for two seasons, the first one taking all of the materials from the book of the same name and adapting it in very creative ways – more of that later – and the second one continuing the story arch set in season one but taking inspiration on other Bulgakov works– the white guard is featured in season two quite heavily so it is not too much of a stretch assuming that some elements may be taken from the novel The White Guard –. Once season two finished there was a small Making of episode where Daniel Radcliffe mentioned that one of the reasons he agreed to do the show is because one of his favorite books is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and that he had become obsessed with it since he first read it. This led me to learn about the book’s cult-classic status and the premise -the devil’s visit to 1930’s Moscow and the mischief he causes on the Russian elite- intrigued me. So, I bought The Master and Margarita instead of A Young Doctor’s Notebook.

But wait a second! If you loved the show so much, why on earth didn’t you buy the book? Well… *puffs again on the fictional pipe* Pay attention because here is where the story gets really stupid juicy:

There is one additional factor I skipped. I wanted to read A Young Doctor’s Notebook and not The Master and Margarita, but apparently they only released the book with that title to make use of the shows popularity (this unfortunately backfired because it came and went and nobody mentioned a word about it). So much to my surprise, when I went to purchase a book that was decades old I found it priced like a brand new release and, because I am indeed a very cheap man and back then I did not spend so much time looking into the details of books, I ultimately decided for the more affordable and cultish The Master and Margarita. The real stupid funny part is that a few months ago I remembered reading that the book had been retitled to use the show’s popularity and that previously it was simply named A Country Doctor’s Notebook. So, guess what happened when I searched abebooks under that name? Prices lower than three pounds! (Oh, sweet cheapness how I embrace thee)

But hold up! The real stupidity punchline is that Bulgakov originally wanted to release it as The Notes of a Young Doctor, thus making the two titles chosen for the English translations quite poor and, to add another yet another twist in this already-too-long story, I found out thanks to a dear friend of mine that the Spanish release is titled Morphine after one of the stories in the book. I wonder if there is a worldwide conspiracy to avoid naming the book like Bulgakov wanted? It seems like it.

Now that I’ve mesmerized you with the absurdly long way to explain how I came to get my hands on the book best purchasing story ever, let’s get to the novel.

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The Harvill Press edition additionally contains the story “The Murderer”

The book is divided in chapters each one narrating the events of the young doctor: from his arrival to the hospital and his very first amputation on a little girl who damaged her legs with a brake used to process flax (I actually found the ending of the chapter rather sweet despite the horrible scenario) to a visit in the midst of a blizzard to a woman with a fractured skull or the use of a steel windpipe on a little girl’s closed throat. All these events are based on Bulgakov’s own experience as a young doctor -a position that he eventually left to dedicate himself to journalism and, after finding success, a fulltime writer and playwright- and it is very interesting to see how he analyzes and reflects on past experiences.

I have to give a special mention to Michael Glenny’s excellent translation of the original Russian text. I didn’t feel anything unusual about the flow of the text and, whilst I don’t speak Russian, I didn’t notice anything estrange about the expressions or dialogue of the characters which are usual telltale signs of a poor translation. He also provides a very good introduction to Bulgakov, his experience as a doctor and the nature of the stories (I didn’t know they were serialized upon publication in two monthly magazines).

Has my opinion changed on the TV show having read the book?

Yes. For the better.

The TV show is oddly faithful to the book all throughout season one and it is very clear that the writers did their job to make sure that they stayed true to Bulgakov’s story. However there are a few deviations worth noticing:

– The show is told from the perspective of an older doctor reading the journal he began writing when he first arrived to the rural setting where the story unfolds. The older doctor begins interacting with the younger doctor as events unfold which is a very smart way to turn the observations taking place in the book to a dialogue exchange between characters.

– There is also very twisted humor. The event of the amputation I previously mentioned is played rather comically on the show and the same approach is taken with the steel wind pipe story. Both stay true to the book despite the fact that it is not written as if it is meant to be funny. It is almost as if someone with a very weird humor read the book and decided that the events narrated must have been hilarious. To be fair Bulgakov does poke fun at himself in the novel but it is done subtlety whereas the TV show is very at ease with dark humor.

– The biggest deviation in the TV show is caused by the adaptation of the chapter titled Morphine. In the book, Morphine is a transcript of the notes taken by the replacement of the young doctor in his previous practice. His replacement begins to fill sick and makes the mistake of using morphine, thus becoming an addict. He then proceeds to keep a log of his addiction and, in an ultimate act of despair, shoots himself the day after sending a letter begging for help. The TV show makes this the main driver of the narrative. The old doctor is being investigated for the forgery of prescriptions to maintain his supply of morphine and it is through the investigation that the story unravels. It is his reflection upon the events that first got him hooked on morphine all those years ago that eventually leads to his incarceration in the present(an event that was created exclusively for the show). I think merging this story with the others works very well to move the plot forward, but I can understand purist disliking this change. Thankfully, I’m not a purist so I’m OK with it.

I don’t recall any events of season two being taken from the book except maybe a very loose adaptation of the story “The Murderer” in one of the subplots. To be fair, the title at the beginning of each episode was changed to “A Young Doctor’s Notebook & Other Stories” in season two and I was just happy to get more episodes; and -as previously mentioned- since some of the other subplots may be taken from the first Bulgakov novel, The White Guard, I think it may be worth keeping that book in mind if I ever want to read more from Mikhail Bulgakov.

I finished reading A Country Doctor’s Notebook on the 1st of May 2017.

Additional notes of interest:

About the book: The new edition released with the title of the TV show A Young Doctor’s Notebook does not include the story “The Murderer” which you can find in the version titled A Country Doctor’s Notebook. So, Michael Glenny’s introduction aside, not only you’ll be getting the book cheaper but also you will get one additional short story. If you’ve missed the footnote below the bookcover this new story is in the edition published by Harvill Press. (Random Trivia: and because I have too much free time I’ve corrected the Wikipedia English entry which did not include this piece of information.)

About the show’s DVD: I’ve only found both seasons being sold together in the Spanish version of amazon (direct link). Fear not, it has the English language option.