Collection

Collection of short stories, artwork, or articles by one (or two – in case of collaboration) authors.

Knight’s Gambit

Knights GambitIn carrying on the idea of reading things I might not normally read, this past week I read Knight’s Gambit by William Faulkner (1897 – 1962).  I have never read Faulkner before, due to a number of reasons including my not wanting to.  American literary fiction older than the 1960s is really tough for me to force myself to read.  Heck, sometimes even some of it after the 1960s….  In any case, the reason I picked up this collection by Faulkner is actually because it is crime stories, in a sense. Well, the main character is lawyer Gavin Stevens and that could be argued because maybe the main character is actually Yoknapatawha County, Mississippi.  As far as these being crime stories, well, they fit that description about as well as they fit any other. Anyway, Knight’s Gambit was published in 1949 and contains five short stories and a novella.

Here is the truth:  I expected this to be pushing 2 stars; I expected to despise this entire book. Instead, I really enjoyed and appreciated (that is two different sentiments) the first five stories in this collection.  Those five stories make up nearly exactly half of the pages in the book.  Then I read the other half of the book, which is entirely the novella “Knight’s Gambit” for which the book is titled.  That rubbish was so bad that it literally obliterated my memory and interest of all the stories that I had read previously. 

  • Smoke (1932) (Harper’s, April 1932)
  • Monk (1937) (Scribner’s, May 1937)
  • Hand Upon the Waters (1939) (Saturday Evening Post, November 4, 1939)
  • Tomorrow (1940) (Saturday Evening Post, November 23, 1940)
  • An Error in Chemistry (1946) (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, June 1946)
  • Knight’s Gambit (1949)

After I read Smoke, I was a little skeptical, because it seemed like the hero might be a dishonest – if even for good purposes – chap and I disliked that somewhat. It was a good story, though, because I really bought into it. I was friends with the characters, I could see and smell the courtroom, I was invested in the history of the situation. Since it is the reader’s first meeting with Stevens, the first impression is important. He was windy, he was maybe a bit of a hustler. He seemed also to have an insight into the other characters and their rôles that maybe feels a little unfair. The writing style was no problem for me whatsoever. I think the setting here is extremely well-written; one feels right there in town.

Monk is probably a little less than Smoke.  I like, though, that it portrays Stevens in a somewhat different situation than a room in which he is in the spotlight.  Monk is a story that seems to have been rewritten and re-composed dozens of times in stories and TV episodes since.  Something about it is not uncommon, but the story is still engaging.  Stevens’ questions and the narrative that sifts through the past come in a strong tone and contain a lot of vibrant colors. After reading these two stories, I was on my way to thinking Faulkner is a not a total waste of time.

Hand Upon The Waters is one of my favorites in this collection (the other being Tomorrow).  This story feels the most noir/crime. It has more suspense and upfront violence than the others do, somehow.  If one could consider Faulkner as edge-of-your-seat, this one would be that description. It has wild characters and a prop-item that is key to the story. This story contained, what I feel, is a lot of the truest representation of the other character’s responses to Stevens.  In the other stories it almost seems like Stevens is some prima donna who is adjudicating among people who everyone knows are backwoods, simple folk. In most cases, Stevens seems to be given a deferential respect that he deserves, but is not resented for. In this story, the other characters seem to choose to not be so cowed simply because an educated Harvard man is on the scene. 

You see, Harvard only means something to an already advanced class of people. You already have to have an appreciation or an impression of institutions of education and the differences between them for Harvard to mean something. Its an empty concept, not one of awe, to many in these stories. 

Tomorrow is another top notch story. I think it is my second favorite story – until I run through the storyline in my head, and then it becomes my favorite. I love how the history of the scenario is told – not overtold. I love how the narrators have opinions that color their explanations. I also love the sense of justice and loyalty that is heavy on every single page. Truthfully, the story does take some work from the reader, because having read all the collection, I see Faulkner moving more toward the prose in Knight’s Gambit and away from the slightly more spare and straightforward Smoke. Sometimes the convoluted and colorful manner of writing suits the storyline perfectly – as it does here.  I really liked Mrs. Pruitt and her pea-shelling while she told the story. I was right there on the porch.

An Error in Chemistry is also a good story – mainly for the characterizations and the sense of “it takes a village.”  However, as a crime story it relies on that annoying conceit that crops up here and there in fiction (written and on screen).  So, in 2021, I just could not be as impressed by this one – through no fault of Faulkner, I guess. The story just hinges on a thing that now has become cliché.  It actually suits that it was first printed in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The best parts of the story are the Sherriff and the whiskey and their importance to the story really cannot be overstated. So readers should ignore the silly crime and focus on the way Faulkner wove these other elements into this story. Once again, though, Stevens is a formidable hero.

Then the tragedy and disaster of Knight’s Gambit. Now, I am utterly sure there are American Lit experts out there who will extol the virtues of this story. I am sure there are French fanboys who will not even entertain hearing anything but praise for this novella. I am, however, a straight-shooter – just like many of Faulkner’s dear characters – and I will tell you that this is a heap of dung. At this point, if this is Faulkner’s “signature prose style” then he needed to stop.  This is a mix between trying to emulate James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and writing exactly how Southerners talk.  No one should write whole novellas how Southerners talk. Ever.  Now, there is a zeitgeist in the world that Southerners are “good salt of the earth” people. There is a manufactured belief that they are the lords of hospitality and good manners. Further, there is a sort of feeling that they are good cooks, good farmers, and good people. I sincerely honestly have yet to find the truth in these stereotypes/images that are proclaimed. Its all propaganda if you ask me.  I talk to Southerners a lot and lawd ha mercy, most o’ the time, I want the interaction to stop hurting me. Seriously, who in their right mind would write a story entirely as the stream of consciousness [I almost chose a different word than “consciousness” here…..] of Southerners? 

It is not quaint, insightful, or unique. Its tedious and unnecessary. In Knight’s Gambit the story is written in this “Southern” fashion and at this point Faulkner had placed Stevens on such a high-pedestal that the story is nearly all an homage to Stevens’ greatness and wonder. At the same time, the character in the story is actually pared down and reduced even further, so it is very difficult to even get ahold of what the heck we are all praising. 

Now, I don’t know how the war changed or affected Faulkner, but suddenly he seems to have developed the need to preach at the reader about his opinions, which on occasion blurrily become Stevens’ as well. And the storyline is utterly lost constantly in this mess. But there is also a Hispanic man and horses.  This is garbage. Avoid it. There ain’t nothin’ to be found in this mud, this dawg won’ hunt, y’all.

Anyway, I utterly recommend whole-heartedly for good readers to enjoy the five other stories in this book I think every good reader would enjoy them, or at least profit from having read them. Stevens – in those stories – is an excellent character to meet and know about.  Do not believe the hype about Knight’s Gambit. Seriously, its one of those “literary circles” pieces that demonstrates the “Emperor Has No Clothes” anecdote.

4 stars – for everything but Knight’s Gambit, which I refuse to recognize.

Signs and Portents

Signs and PortentsI grabbed a paperback of Signs and Portents by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, among a bunch of other books, the last time I was in Atlanta.  I think the copy of Signs and Portents was maybe .50¢.  It is a collection of ten stories by Yarbro that are somewhat difficult to classify in a precise genre.  Maybe they lean toward horror or science fiction/fantasy, but I think identifying them like that would mislead potential readers.   So, normally I would not have picked up this book.  However, I had to remind myself that I am supposed to be reading from a more expanded panorama and I saw it was cheap and threw it on the stack of books I had already collected.  Why would I normally not read this book? Well, the scary graveyard 80s cover art, for one thing.  I do not normally read books with those covers.  Yes, very superficial.  Secondly, Yarbro is around in science fiction/fantasy and I do not have any interest in her stories and she seems a little “far out,” maybe? I am not sure. In any case, this just is not a book I would gravitate to.

Sadly, after having read the stories, a fiesty part of me wants to exclaim that this proves my point and that my instincts were correct!  Honestly, the ten stories averaged out to a two-star rating, but there were plenty of single star and two star stories and maybe I was being somewhat generous with a three-star here and there.  So, it actually took a lot out of me to read through this, because it was just not very good.  

  • Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin’ – (1984) – 2 stars
  • Depth of Focus – (1984) – 2 stars
  • Space/Time Arabesque – (1978) – 1 star
  • Savory, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme – (1981) – 3 stars
  • Best Interest – (1978) – 3 stars
  • The Ghosts at Iron River – (1973) – 1 star
  • Fugitive Colors – (1979) – 1 star
  • Coasting – (1983) – 2 stars
  • The Arrows – (1983) – 2 stars
  • The End of the Carnival – (1984) – 3 stars

This collection was first published in 1987.  It contains a variety of stories that have a diverse range of settings.  It is my belief that the two best stories in the collection are Savory, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme and The End of the Carnival.  In fact, I feel any interested reader would do well to just skip everything in the collection but those two stories.  However, I want to also say I am not just picking these two stories “because they are the best of the bunch.”  They are, actually, quite decent reads irrespective of the surrounding stories. 

Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin’ is predictable, but its a decent story to start the collection.  Its really not a terrible story, but it is very predictable and a little tedious.  Even if something is predictable, it can be suspenseful, but somehow that suspense was absent.  Still, its a good one to settle the reader in to the book. A modern, mundane setting in which an unseen entropy is at work.

Depth of Focus is quite unique.  It, again, is a modern setting, but quite noir and maybe that is what earned it two stars instead of just one.  I liked the pacing and the way the time in the story was depicted.  I also liked disliking the main character. Unfortunately, the ending just fell down and maybe it could have had a little moral adage or a provoking assertion, but instead it was flat. The end. I did mention it has a noir feel to it – and I did like a certain turn of phrase:  “…there was no conviction in his words and his eyes were like chips of stone.” (page 24).  The ‘chips of stone’ to describe eyes really caught me. I liked this wordworking.

Space/Time Arabesque is not really a story. Its got a few alternative history lines/paragraphs. It feels too weak; like an idea that could have been so much better, even if we kept its choppy stylings.  I liked only one “snippet” in the thing, which involved an alternate “Sherlock Holmes.”

Savory, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme is definitely the best piece in the collection.  It is well-written and feels like a finished work from start to finish.  It is both shocking and horrific and yet, weirdly, endearing and sympathy-drawing.  It is a rural setting wherein the main character is a teenage girl.  The girl, Amy, evenutally is the pivot of the story when she turns from lovesick, to stubborn, to empowered, to vengeful.  Its a story that has elements of the shift from traditional to modern and from patriarchical to otherwise. There is actually a lot one can unpack from this story. The ending is somewhat shocking – you can see it coming, but its got the twist and victory anyway.  Recommended for readers who like revenge stories, coming-of-age stories, witches (herb women), and nighttime forest adventures. 

Best Interest is a good story to a point. I hestitated on giving it three-stars – that feels like a gift.  It is smutty and the characters are snarly and vile.  It is easily the most obviously science fiction in the collection because of the main gimmick, which is a household “computer” that has residents’ best interests at heart.  And in 1987 it was probably more interesting than now – “now” when Google, Siri, Alexa, Cortana, et al. are a chorus in our world. No, it does deserve the three-stars.  The ending is rueful, black humor, which offsets the somewhat unpleasant reality of ill-tempered future humans.

The Ghosts at Iron River and Fugitive Colors are bad. Really bad. The one is a total mess – as if it wanted to be a noir rural crime story and then turns into a tribal dispute, which degenerates into bickering and then just gets worse until the ending happens and its pointless.  Fugitive Colors is maybe an attempt to write very meta…. esoteric… science fiction from deep, deep space. But it just feels painful and tedious as heck. I am surprised I survived reading these, my word!

Coasting is a story I would likely enjoy. The probability of me enjoying a story that takes place “at sea” is high. I really liked the setting and the problems that the main character faces and the descriptions are vivid and, honestly, quite frightening. However, the horror is ruined by awful introspective drivel about the character’s relationships with his ex-wife and his son and it kills the suspense and all the work of the wordsmithing. Still, it probably is worth reading for the setting. 

The Arrows is also fairly predictable and unsurprising, and yet seems like it is so plausible.  It feels realistic and maybe has a perspective of artist-painters that just seems to stereotype them. The unique thing amidst all the predictability was the subject of the main character’s painting.  It works well with the story, but it still feels like an unique and interesting selection by the author.  Literally, this one is a “graphic horror.” 

The End of the Carnival is a heckuva way to end the collection.  Once again the unique and unusual setting for this one really does a lot of the work for the story.  It is also one of the more “completed and polished” in the collection.  It is a revenge tale, but the revenge is also bittersweet.  Sorrows all over the place here, some little twist per page to make the story interesting and unpredictable. The main character is strong-willed and stubborn and her rôle is dynamic.  She takes ownership and she stands up to injustice.  It is another story worth reading for the unusual perspective and storyline that deals with an accident at a power company and the victims/sufferers that are left in that accident’s wake. Not a story full of joy, though.

Savory, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme and The End of the Carnival are worth reading because they are unique perspectives with lots of unusual elements.  And they are the ones that feel the most put-together and established. I do not know if I would suggest readers go out of their way to get these two stories read.  However, these stories will probably be enjoyed by readers who are looking for a little more than the usual, dull and predictable storylines.

2 stars

The Gulp

Alan BaxterThe Gulp by Alan Baxter is a collection of five novellas that take place in the same setting, which is Gulpepper, Australia (fictional). The author shares with us (in the Afterword) that it is more of a concept than a place. I was turned on to this work by some of my favorite fellow readers. Col’s Criminal Library and Books, Bones, and Buffy who each wrote 4+ star reviews of this work. Also, this reader (aka Well Read Beard) made a YouTube video-review of the book, and I enjoy his reviews, as well. Heck, since I am posting URLs, here is the author’s website:  Alan Baxter.  Anyway, I have made a bit of a small effort to sort of read some things outside my “usual” selections. So, instead of vintage science fiction, I have read a few small publishers’ prints, some crime, some horror, some non-mainstream and The Gulp is one that normally I would never have considered reading.

I do not read much horror at all, if any. I think I can count on one hand the amount of horror I have read – and most of it counts only as “classic/vintage” horror. I am referring to stuff like W. W. Jacobs and H. P. Lovecraft.  I read Needful Things by Stephen King when it first came out and I liked it. Liked it so much I watched the movie, which I also enjoyed. Honestly – I cannot think of much else that I have read that might be in this genre. The truth is, there is a lot of horror and terror in the world, and I usually like to use my reading for learning or entertainment. I can understand the argument that others might use reading as catharsis or that not everyone shares the same entertainment opinions. But for me, I get enough horror already without seeking it out.  Also, well, sometimes “horror” means “gross.”  There are a lot of examples of media in which these two are jumbled and I do not enjoy the gross too much.

So, before I ordered the book, I did read some reviews from trusted reviewers. I also went to the author’s website. Or Facebook. Or something. Something of his online. I skimmed what was there. To be completely honest, I do not know that he and I would get along. Or, maybe we would be chums. I do not know, but there is something about him that I find aggravating and/or abrasive. There are things we would agree on and then there are other things I think would end in a front yard fisticuffs.  So what? I do not have to like an author to read their stuff.

There is a reason I am mentioning both of these points:  I am the tough sell. I am the outlier and the reader that yeah, if I am praising the work, it does mean something stronger. And yes, like my book blogger friends listed above, I am going to give this work 4 stars.

The Gulp consists of five novellas that take place in a country/coastal town in Australia. I have never been to Australia, nor is it on my list of places I would like to go. And this is after one of the most significant people in my life having been from Sydney. That being said, The Gulp could really be anywhere, so shuffle the lingo a bit and yeah – its the creepy coastal town in Your Country. This is really cool because the universality of the setting is important to this particular type of writing, I think.  Drawing the readers in and immersing them in this town is really key to these stories.

All five stories are very original. I mean, the storylines themselves have an originality that was striking.  I feel after all that has been written in the horror/crime/science fiction genre, coming up with something original is quite challenging. It seems like it was not difficult at all for this author. As I consider this, I think that perhaps the trick is these stories are all somewhat “slice-of-life” stories. Meaning, the mundane is one of the most powerful elements in the stories. That is kind of odd to say considering some of the events that take place. But Baxter makes the reader believe that those events take place because of the setting in which they take place. Nicely done.

The first novella, Out On A Rim, was the one that most interested me when I read the other reviews. Something about this idea was interesting to me and I figured if it was good enough, it would be worth it even if the rest of the book was not great.  I think that it was the most suspenseful and scary of the group. It is strategically placed at the start of the collection – because one of the characters actually takes a walk around The Gulp – and introduces the reader to the setting. Again, smoothly done. However, the story gets quite gory and shocking really quickly and ends with a kind of flashbang.  Pay attention:  this is horror, crime, and it is very violent and gory.

I had to take a break for awhile after reading that story, honestly. Not because it was bad. But because I knew whatever came next was going to be intense. And wow, it sure was. The second story in the batch is, I think, the best written. However, it COULD come with valid content warnings all over it. There is a lot of gore and its not just splatter – it is emotional gore. This is the story I would be most concerned about when recommending this collection to other readers, to be honest. I am not a particularly sensitive reader, generally, but I could not help but worry about certain readers being just too open and gentle for this one.  As key reading material, the author has a solid blog entry on this sort of thing. The entry is entitled: “Content Warnings Are Not Censorship” and it was posted June 12, 2021.  It is very worth reading – get over there and read it. Here is a statement from that entry: “Horror is meant to be confronting. That doesn’t mean it should be traumatic, or that people avoiding trauma are somehow wrong, weak, or censors.”  Horror is meant to be confronting – this is an phrase/idea that I am going to ponder and turn around in my brain for awhile.

Anyway, Mother in Bloom was great. Unfortunately there are not as many readers that can confront this one as I wish. But the writing is so skillful, I really appreciated it. I like how genuine the characters seemed and their slice-of-life felt realistic.

The third story, The Band Plays On, was good, though it was somewhat predictable. I mean, it was not difficult to see where this was headed. That does not mean its a bad story. And again, it subtly gave us background info and developed the setting even more.  I felt sympathy for the main character and I am glad it ended the way it did – Baxter was not cruel to the reader in this one, wherein he could have been. Also, I did appreciate the music details throughout.

The fourth story, 48 To Go, starts circling the collection back to the start ever so gently. Finally, a story that is taking place not on the coast – but on the water. Again, a slice-of-life of one of The Gulp’s residents. Things suddenly go wrong for the main character. I did not feel a whole lot of compassion for him at this point, though. And then things just go sideways, downhill, and inside-out. I think this is the story that is the most bizarre of the collection. Its original, its gory, its full of what-in-the-ever-living-______!!!!!  But, because it is so chock full of bizarre and gore, it somewhat takes the edge off of the pandemonium. As events get to a fever pitch of outrageous, yeah, I started to feel a little compassion for the main character who somehow maintains some level of functionality while the world turned inside out.  This is a good story, but it is also the most wild.

Rock Fisher is the last story and I think the shortest. A lot of tie-ins to the rest of the collection occur. The Gulp is very claustrophobic. Anyway, here we have another basic main character with his slice-of-life struggles. Like every main character in these stories, it seems there is a real and honest characterization in which family, peace, contentment are strong goals. These are not necessarily bad people is what I suspect Baxter is telling us. However, fate, luck, and the monsters of The Gulp coerce and instigate and maul these people into doing outrageously horrific and unthinkable things. Troy is twenty-five years old, lives on his own, owns an aquarium, goes to work at a manufacturing plant, and enjoys fishing.  The story starts and he is upset about his girlfriend, whom he knows is not exactly a class act, ditching him for another fella.  Troy takes his troubles to the shore and brings his fishing rod. After a long day, he hauls in a very strange and somewhat disgusting catch; and it ain’t a bream or a sea bass!  Eventually, as Troy becomes more obsessed with his catch, he also becomes sicker – until he is transforming into………..?  The writing here is really good because Baxter shows (not so much bludgeons) the reader with how this magnetism-obsession is overtaking Troy.  Troy loses time, whole hours and then days go by where he is in a trance-like state near the thing he hauled in from the sea. Its creepy and the loss of will is truly the horror here – not just the “creature.”  It is a good story, especially rounding out this set.

And here is the thing:  I was planning from the end of the first story, to read this collection and send it onward. I have mentioned I am downsizing some of the bookshelves in this house. (I say that all the time, don’t be fooled.) Anyway, I had every intention straight up through halfway of the fifth story of finishing this book and plopping it on the stool that currently has about a dozen books on it to be shared elsewhere. After finishing Rock Fisher, I asked myself, should I get rid of this? Who can read it – it does “need” content warnings?  Maybe I should keep it, it isn’t like they have copies at all the bookstores in town. And then I laughed and laughed and laughed – because I felt just like Troy…. maybe I should just keep it. Gollum moments, right?  If y’all don’t hear from me for a good long while, maybe I’m in a fugue state staring at the book on a bookshelf.

Yeah, I’m definitely all in for a second helping if Baxter writes one!

4 stars

Men Without Women

Men Without WomenMen Without Women is a short story collection by Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961). It contains fourteen stories, first published in 1927, and is Hemingway’s second such collection. It is, I think, the first of Hemingway that I have ever read. I know, I know, I know Hemingway is some sort of big deal; important author or major writer or whatever. To me, there was never any appeal to his writing and, frankly, anytime I learned a tidbit about his life and lifestyle, I was less than enthused.

Truthfully, I wanted to read the short story Fifty Grand. And then, I told myself, I could feel better about reading Haruki Murakami’s work of this same title (Men Without Women, 2017). I’m endlessly about proper method. Finally, though I have no strong desire to read Hemingway, if I was going to ever read Hemingway, starting with a small well-received story collection is likely the best entrance.

  • The Undefeated – 3 stars
  • In Another Country – 3 stars
  • Hills Like White Elephants – 1 star
  • The Killers – 4 stars
  • Che Ti Dice La Patria? – 2 stars
  • Fifty Grand – 4 stars
  • A Simple Enquiry – 1 star
  • Ten Indians – 3 stars
  • Canary for One – 2 stars
  • An Alpine Idyll – 3 stars
  • A Pursuit Race – 1 star
  • Today is Friday – 2 stars
  • Banal Story – 0 stars
  • Now I Lay Me – 2 stars

Well, the final rating for this collection is 2 stars. This kind of fell exactly in the place I thought it would. I do not care for (most) American literature, I have a distaste for Hemingway, and I do not have a strong tolerance for certain topics. I did come to the collection with an even temperment; I went into this thing open-minded. 

So three of the stories are, to my mind, utter trash. “A Pursuit Race,” “Banal Story,” “A Simple Enquiry.”  Rubbish. Now, I am sure there are plenty of other people out there who disagree with my assessment. I encourage them to start their own blogs and pontificate at length about the stupid philosopher who called some of Hemingway’s stories “trash.” However, I am not one to budge easily from my opinions, so its probably not worth arguing with me about these stories. I disliked them for different reasons, but mainly because at the end of them I have no idea what the point of reading – or having written them in the first place – could be. Why? Stream of consciousness junk for “Banal Story.”  “A Pursuit Race” is sad in topic, but what was the point of the story? “A Simple Enquiry” is also something that I finished and wondered briefly what the point of writing that would be. Why bother. Kind of felt that way about “Hills Like White Elephants” – but in that story the writing is a bit better. I mean, the actual wordsmithing. 

Instead of wasting time talking about things I do not like, let me expand on those stories that I felt were very good reads. I was impressed with “The Killers.”  I could recommend this to a lot of folks for a good, quick read. Also, I think if I am going to continue reading noir/crime fiction, this was a good one to include right in the start of my journey. I liked locating the story in Henry’s cafe/diner. I wanted to belly up to the lunch bar for a club sandwich. Or eggs and bacon. I liked the cook who wants nothing to do with any of it, but has curiosity anyway. I like the realism in the snippets of choppy conversation. I like the way the storyline went with Ole Anderson. This is a good solid short story. And I think, though I could be way off here, its fairly representative of Hemingway’s alleged patent style.

“Fifty Grand” more or less met my expectations. I wanted a gritty story about boxing that was realistic. Not shiny current-day boxing with social media and glitter. But old-time boxing with all the underlying crime and troubles. You know, the kind that our grandparents and great-grandparents knew about. I know this is a good story because I am going to remember it for awhile. Its not going to fade away and be lost in all the many things I have read. Frankly, I think Hemingway should have written exclusively about boxing and bullfighting. His war stuff annoys me and makes me feel sour. 

“An Alpine Idyll” has an unexpectedness to it. Maybe this is something of what all the Hemingway fans are on about. The story starts off with two skiers, returning to their hotel after being tired out from skiing. They are exasperated and cranky from “doing the thing too long.” Sun all day and poor snow conditions made them weary. Hemingway does a really good job of wordsmithing here – letting us see the scenery and the exasperated over-skied fellows heading back to the hotel. If you try, its quite easy to conjure the scene in your imagination. 

“We better have some more beer,” John said.

Though Hemingway does not actually describe the beer, I could almost taste it. The bottles of cold beer after a long day that became draining and tedious. I love the way John deadpans “we better have some more beer.” Yes, we better. Because. Beer. John. The story takes an odd turn to talking about “peasants” who live in these snowy mountains. Olz just buried his wife and he is the subject of the conversation.  It is an odd “slice of life” sort of story, but just the sort of story one would hear in a hotel at the bottom of a skiing mountain with bored men and a couple of beers. We are left with not being really certain if there is a tall tale being told, or if there is a sinister side to the story, or if its just something being made out of nothing. This is why my buddy John says: “Say, how about eating?”  The story of the peasant and his wife was fine, but after a tiring day and a couple of beers, no one really cares about it anyway.  If the food is as good as those beers, I am sure John and Nick had a great hearty meal.

“Ten Indians” is not a nice story. It is a bit raw and ugly. Its rural and Americana and not things that appeal to me a whole lot. However, the last two paragraphs make up for the ugly of the rest of the story. My rating, really, is based on those last two paragraphs. Anyway, here we have Hemingway’s star character, Nick, riding home with some neighbor friends from a holiday event. In a horse cart. I am going to admit, as soon as I put any of that together it was difficult to keep reading. I have a strong dislike for rural horsecart Fourth of July things. Now, the randomness of the indians all over place is absurd. I do not know if this is racist or bizarre or some hidden symbolism by a weird writer. The rating I gave to this story comes from Nick’s broken heart and the last few paragraphs. 

I do not read a lot of bullfighting stories. Nowadays, I feel, bullfighting is looked down upon, so even if there are stories about bullfighting, well, they are surely different. Sometimes I do think I was born in the wrong time period. Anyway, my experience with bullfighting is through my father’s stories of him having to go to Mexico to retrieve G.I.s who would get rowdy and arrested at Mexican bullfighting arenas. When I was in my very low single digits, the only book I would read or have read to me was The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. (1936) I have not watched the recent (2017) film they made. Just to be clear about this childhood obsession, the library had TWO COPIES of this book. When mother would return the book at the counter (remember they stamped the cards?), I would go to the shelves and get “the other copy.”  So, mother had literally a revolving borrowing of the two copies. This. Was. All. That. I Read. Ever. For. Years.  I have also read Yasushi Inoue’s “Bullfight” and I thought quite highly of that – however that story is not quite the same as Spanish bullfighting, I believe. 

Needless to say, I have a tendency to enjoy bullfighting stories. Hemingway’s “The Undefeated” is excellent.  The characters are rustic and rough.  The reader attends the fight right there on the shoulder of the matador, eye level, dust blowing up at us. The writing is spare, but honest. This is a good story. 

So, at the completion of this collection, I have to say it is about what I expected.  I dislike Hemingway, but I still found some things to enjoy and praise. The stories I did not enjoy, I was actually surprised by how much I did not enjoy them. Still, I am glad I read this collection – it is never a bad thing to read new things. I do not know how soon (if ever) I will return to Hemingway, but I will not forget too quickly some of the stories here. I can recommend this collection to readers who like spare writing and who are tired of shiny characters and blazing success stories. 

After reading all of this, the good and the bad, I’m with John: “Say, what about eating?”

2 stars

The Shores of Space

The Shores of Space - R. Matheson; Berkley, 1979

The Shores of Space – R. Matheson; Berkley, 1979

The Shores of Space by Richard Matheson (1926 – 2013) was a quick read for me. The thirteen stories zipped by in no time at all.  Originally published in 1957, the book collects some of Matheson’s stories from the early 1950s.  Matheson seems most well known for his horror stories, including:  I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, and What Dreams May Come – all of which were adapted (some multiple times) into film.  It is not really fair to lock authors into one category or another. While there may be some “genre authors,” many writers pen works in a variety of genres/subgenres. Nevertheless, I confess I am not really into horror fiction and so I have never really delved into any of Matheson’s works.  This collection does contain some stories that might qualify as “horror” and few that would be “science fiction,” so it typifies the so-called speculative fiction genre.

One of the things that had me reading this collection, besides the push to get through the 1950s, is that Matheson’s works are so often plumbed by pop culture.  It seems like when a screenwriter/scriptwriter/producer does not know what to do – they all turn to Matheson’s stuff. I do not even know that most people who are pop culture nuts even realize how much material seems to get pulled from Matheson.  Well, in order to familiarize myself, I grabbed this early collection of his works. On the whole, I was not incredibly impressed – and it is difficult to say if my lack of enthusiasm was due to a latent unconscious familiarity due to the popularity of Matheson’s work?

  • Being3 stars –  1954
  • Pattern For Survival1 star – 1955
  • Steel2 stars – 1956
  • The Test2 stars – 1954
  • Clothes Make the Man3 stars – 1951
  • Blood Son2 stars – 1951
  • Trespass3 stars – 1953
  • When Day is Dun3 stars – 1954
  • The Curious Child4 stars – 1954
  • The Funeral 4 stars – 1955
  • The Last Day3 stars – 1953
  • Little Girl Lost3 stars – 1953
  • The Doll That Does Everything2 stars – 1954

Being was a good piece to put at the front of this collection. I think it is very well written and though I feel the basic story has been told or shown to us a million times, this was still rather gripping and harrying.  Starting off with Being really lets the reader know that this is not goofy, silly stuff. The stories in this collection are scary and sometimes even dark.

 

I did not love the second story, Pattern For Survival. It is one of “those” stories where you are supposed to close one eye and consider the whole thing after you read it. Sometimes that is okay. Sometimes, I could do without. This was a time of the latter.

 

As soon as I started reading Steel, I was reminded of the 2011 movie starring Hugh Jackman. I later checked this out and yes, the movie was allegedly based on this story.  I am somewhat grumpy because since 2011 I have wanted to see Real Steel, but have not had the opportunity.  Because: Robots.  What can I say, I am a child. Anyway, the story itself I only gave two stars, mainly because it tends to focus on the human-side of things.  The main characters are fighting losing battles against technology and refuse to give up the “glory days.”  I am not impressed by futile stubbornness.

 

Interesting to note,  Steel was also made into a Twilight Zone episode. The main character of interest was played by Lee Marvin (1924 – 1987), one of Hollywood’s more interesting actors; you may know him as Liberty Valance. Anyway, the Twilight Zone episode is in Season 5 as Episode 2.

 

The Test is a disturbing drama.  Several of the stories in this collection carry a heavy drama involving family. I think The Test is a good story but I did not enjoy reading it. And frankly, I have to say, the solution to problems for a number of characters in these stories is often suicide. It is not a comforting or gentle scenario.  However, Matheson writes these stories with a lot of skill. He really drops the reader right into the scene and every tick of the clock, every ambient sound in the story seems realistic and tangible.

 

I think Clothes Make the Man is my favorite story in the collection, though I was not able to give it the highest rating. The way it is written as it gradually reveals its plot twist just tickled me. I really enjoyed this one, though it is short and slightly obvious. I think the best part is that the “main character” is so snarky.

 

Blood Son is a definite horror. I do not think it was written well, I do not like the storyline, and it ends ridiculously. I feel instead of being truly horrific – like it begins – it turns comedic or stupid. Pass on this one.

 

Trespass is one of the longer stories in the collection. The storyline itself is obvious from the start, but the point of it is for the reader to have to watch the horrific struggles of the characters. I am not sure that I am so cruel as to enjoy watching the characters suffer and struggle like this. At the same time, the story is well-written because Matheson really gets into the character’s guts and presents their struggles with twisting, wrenching feeling. Again his skill in drawing the reader into the scenes, so that we are frustrated and restless and angry along with the characters, is demonstrated here.

 

When Day Is Dun is well-written, as is expected by this point. However, I found it disturbing and miserable. Sometimes, it is not easy to look at humanity qua humanity. And some authors do take a dismal view of the subject. Here is another theme found in several of these stories:  end of the world (hence the title).

 

The Curious Child is another of my favorites in this collection. This is the kind of horror that I can read and enjoy. I appreciate the psychological/existential horror a lot more than the blood and guts monsters stuff. So, in this short story we follow the main character as his day falls apart into a chaos that only he experiences. This is really “fun” and gripping. With Matheson’s ability to put the reader in the scene, this story works really well.

 

The Funeral is the comedic episode in this set. This story takes place in a funeral home.  A quite unusual client arrives to make funeral arrangements – for himself.  Very expertly written, I love Matheson’s descriptions and directions of the character Morton Silkline. Seriously, his work here in presenting this character is magical.  There is a lot to like about this story, particularly its light-heartedness that gives one a break from some of the dismality in some of the other stories in this collection.  Matheson’s ability to describe the character’s voices and their mannerisms is expert level. Aspiring authors need to read this to get schooled….

 

The Last Day is a tough story to get through.  It involves family drama and also the miserableness of end of days. If that is not enough, it begins in a sordid, foul scene.  This contains suicide and murder and general human decay.  Not that it is entirely out of place – if it was indeed the last day, this is likely how humans would react. As I said earlier, it can be difficult to look at humans qua humans.  Also, the undercurrent of mother/son relationship is strange and when juxtaposed with the chaos of the plot, it is disturbing.

 

Little Girl Lost again contains some comedy, heavy doses of characters struggling, and also family drama. It also highlights Matheson’s ability to make the reader panic and stress alongside the characters. This short piece takes place in a small apartment in which we find the husband, wife, young daughter, and pet dog.  My main complaint about this story is the very sudden, without explanation, inclusion of an outside character (Bill).  It is jarring when he is introduced because it interrupts the storyline – the reader is busy being confused as to why Bill was summoned. Still, it is a nice, tight read.

 

The Doll That Does Everything is really bland. It is totally skippable. Especially because it is very obvious and I would say it is the most heavy-handed of the collection.  A husband and wife, who are focused on their hobbies, dislike the demands their young son places on the household. So they get him a playmate. Things go poorly.

 

The best thing about this collection is the display Matheson puts on with his ability to put the reader in the scenes. And, perhaps, that is why a lot of his work ended up being made into film – the whole concept of reaching the audience, etc.  Matheson also likes looking at characters who are frustrated and struggling and making the reader watch these battles. I am not so sure I like this style of entertainment, however it works well within the horror/speculative fiction genres. One can safely read The Curious Child, Clothes Make the Man, and The Funeral and be rewarded for their time spent.  Reading the other stories is a good idea as long as the reader can take a little of the gritty, dismal stuff.

Average:  2.69

Most: 3

Untouched by Human Hands

Untouched by Human Hands - Robert Sheckley

Untouched by Human Hands – Robert Sheckley

Untouched by Human Hands by Robert Sheckley is a collection of stories published in 1954. I believe it is his first collection published. I have also read his collections:  Pilgrimage to Earth and Citizen in Space.  Just like in those collections, Sheckley’s stories are witty, wry, unique, and very readable.  These were all published in 1952/53 so they were collected soon afterward.  The stories remain very contemporary and I could pass them off on unsuspecting non-science fiction readers as this month’s best stories.

On the back of the book is a short paragraph of praise comparing Sheckley to John Collier and Shirley Jackson. The blurb calls the stories here “delightfully fresh in concept, development, and writing.”  It is signed H. H. Holmes. Now some trivia:  H. H. Holmes is the assumed name of an infamous pre-1900 killer. It is also the sometimes used penname of Anthony Boucher (1911 – 1968).  Boucher was a well-known editor and reviewer of mystery and science fiction writing.

  • The Monsters – 2 stars – (1953)
  • Cost of Living – 2 stars – (1952)
  • The Altar – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Shape – 3 stars – (1953)
  • The Impacted Man – 4 stars – (1952)
  • Untouched By Human Hands – 3 stars – (1953)
  • The King’s Wishes – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Warm – 4 stars – (1953)
  • The Demons – 4 stars – (1953)
  • Specialist – 4 stars – (1953)
  • Seventh Victim – 4 stars – (1953)
  • Ritual – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Beside Still Waters – 4 stars – (1953)

Several of the stories in this book deal with first contact scenarios – but not the usual “aliens invading earth” story. Therefore, as can be expected, several of the stories also hinge upon the ability or inability to communicate. I like this little problematic. Communication, miscommunication, and knowledge-sharing are key components in The Monsters, Ritual, Beside Still Waters, and Specialist. In each of these, the problem of communication is faced and dealt with differently; in some cases by using ingenuity of the characters’ wit to circumvent the issue.

I have seen that many readers liked The Monsters. I liked it, but it seems too obvious. I guess after you read enough Sheckley you start to expect more and better. It is a rather disturbing first contact environment juxtaposed with cultural habits. Sheckley presents it in a tidy, light amusing way. A good story, but I expect better!

Cost of Living is another story wherein the basic idea is okay as a topic/plot, but I just felt like the story was flat. Maybe a little too heavy on the morality. I am fine with authors using ethics as a skeleton in their work, but this was a little too shoved in the reader’s face. Maybe not pure ethics, but it contains that questioning society/guilt-factor that the reader is supposed to pause and consider. I did not like the ending, either. So I only gave this two stars.

The Altar is good average fare. It is creepy and puzzling and mysterious, which I like in stories. It may not be science fiction, though. It probably fits that other category – speculative fiction. Mr. Slater lives in North Ambrose, which is a small town where the residents find safety, security, and contentment in their very basic “plastic” lives. One morning, en route to work, he runs into a dark stranger looking for an oddly named place: The Altar of Baz-Matain. Obviously, Slater is at a loss and cannot help the man. Later that evening, Slater tells his wife and she says that she does not think the Better Business Bureau or the P.T.A. would allow such things in their town. Slater continues crossing paths with the stranger……… In any case, I enjoyed the story, the ending was a little less than perfect; I actually like everything up until the ending a lot more.

The stories Shape and Ritual are both average stories. They are both from the viewpoint of alien species who meet humans. The gulf in this meeting is pretty vast, so the humans are less characters than plot devices. In Shape, Sheckley gets a little bohemian on us and the main character alien questions the culture and habits of his species upon visiting Earth with his ship and crew. In Ritual, there is a small power struggle among two aliens regarding the proper way to welcome (using dance) the gods (humans) who have landed on their planet. In both cases, the alien race is the point of view and in both there is a questioning of the authority of the species’ traditional norms. Solid stories, but not much wow-factor.

The Impacted Man is my favorite story in this collection. I like that it is told from a “bird’s-eye view” as well as from a human standpoint. The “bird’s-eye” is a construction contractor who builds galaxies and meta-galaxies, which is really cool. He has built one and is demanding payment for it. The controller is refusing payment due to some anomalies and at least one impacted man. The impacted man is Jack Masrin (and by association, his wife and landlord). I really like the usage of parallelities in this story. And I like that this is sort of a lightweight-action story that kept me a lot more engaged than the other stories. This is good writing all-around and I found the resolution sudden and witty. I recommend this one to all readers.

Untouched by Human Hands and The King’s Wishes both deal with two humans facing a strange, difficult scenario. In the first, two rather annoying characters are forced to land on a strange planet in search of food. In the latter, a djinn-type creature appears in the humans’ appliance store and whisks major appliances away with him. In both cases, the humans face the serious damage to their lives/livelihood and seek out solutions. In the former, the two humans find a warehouse, but cannot comprehend the writing on the stores there in order to determine if there is food and potable water. They end up unleashing things that worsen their predicament. In The King’s Wishes, one human tries one method, the other human tries another. The solution is somewhat lame and the story fizzles out. Very readable stories, just nothing outstanding or vibrant.

Warm is easily the most esoteric story of the collection. It is also nihilistic, existential, and psychological. Unlike most of Sheckley’s other stories, this one does not contain any humor – and in places it is quite dark. In fact, if the reader is particularly existential, it has terrifying elements to it. Not for the casual science fiction reader and not for those who prefer action scenes. I found the “story” gripping and disturbing. Sure, there are some (let’s call them…) holes in the “plot,” but the general thing is creepy and metaphysically well-written. I feel like there are a lot of edgy writers who attempt things like this, but either try too hard or make it too heavy handed.

The Demons is a quirky story told from various viewpoints. I really liked the different viewpoints, no matter how brief some of them were, and I really enjoyed how the story just rolls around without seeming disjointed or confusing. It is a super skill of Sheckley’s that I have seen him use before. He combines elements without being plodding or chaotic, which keeps his stories light and fast. This one involves demons conjuring demons; sort of a twist on the rubbing of Aladdin’s lamp. Or “demons.” And the ending is a witty chortle. This is a really original fun story.

Specialist is a very unique story. I really liked it because the characters are so unique and the problem they face is one of those “usual science fiction space problems.” This story is another where the ability to communicate and understand foreign/alien cultures and norms is a key component. For whatever reason, I was drawn in to these bizarre characters who compose their cooperative “ship” and had concern for them. Generally, that means a well-written story. I even liked some of the seemingly sensible (or realistic) reactions the characters have. Definitely four stars.

Seventh Victim is a really unique read, too. It has a lot of things going for it. For one thing, its noir-dirty and not at all science fiction. For another point, it has a dose of resentment and criticism regarding the violent human race. In some sense, it is a partial “study” of drawing this violence out to the absurd. So, here again we have a strange cultural norm that has been established. Now, overall, the female characters in Sheckley’s stories are rather dumb and flat. Or just plain non-existent. However in this story, that changes a lot. And it changes in a wry manner, as well. The female character is just as stupid and simple as one would expect her to be in any vintage story by a male author. But that is not exactly how this one ends. Perfectly written.

Beside Still Waters is a very maudlin piece. It really is sad, although in a contemplative, gentle way. I do not know what to make of this one. The elements of communication are definitely there, albeit in a different way than just alien vs. human miscommunication. And the ending is far more serious than how Sheckley’s stories usually end. I’ve only read one thing comparable: Contraption by Clifford Simak. This is a good story, but only on rainy, introspective, lonely days, I think.

Overall, easily a four star collection. I read this Ballantine edition and I really think the cover is a hoot. Again, expand this cover to poster-size and I surely have a print of it on one of the walls around my home.

4 stars

Pilgrimage to Earth

Pilgrimage to EarthPilgrimage to Earth is a collection of short stories written in the 1950s by Robert Sheckley.  The collection of fifteen stories was first published in October of 1957.  This is the second Sheckley collection I have read; I can comfortably recommend both collections to readers.

The back of the book has a blurb by New York Herald Tribune stating: “No one in recent years has vaulted so promptly into the first rank.”   I keep imagining Sheckley vaulting promptly… with no lagging or sluggishness.  For a bit of trivia, the book is dedicated to Harry Altschuler.  Altschuler (1913 – 1990) was Sheckley’s literary agent. In fact, he was a fairly significant player in publishing during the 40s, 50s, 60s.

Pilgrimage to Earth • 4 stars
All the Things You Are • 4 stars
Trap • 3 stars
The Body • 3 stars
Early Model • 3 stars
Disposal Service • 3 stars
Human Man’s Burden • 4 stars
Fear in the Night • 4 stars
Bad Medicine • 2 stars
Protection • 2 stars
Earth, Air, Fire and Water • 2 stars
Deadhead • 2 star
The Academy • 2 stars
Milk Run • 4 stars
The Lifeboat Mutiny • 3 stars

Well, I started this collection in June, but only finished it now, in November. I made it halfway through and then my cat drooled on the front cover – an entire house for him to destroy and he purposely seeks out something valuable like a book. I was disheartened, though I cleaned the cover (and it did not suffer much damage, really), so I read other things. Finally, I decided I’d better finish this collection.

I mention this rather stupid story to sort of explain why I do not remember all of my thoughts that I had in June regarding this collection.  Luckily, I’m trained well-enough to write down one or two words as I go along for each story, but that does not mean a thorough review of the works.

One of the things that I remember from Citizen in Space and also is apparent in this collection is Sheckley’s wry sense of humor.  There are keen senses of humor, off-color senses of humor, dry/deadpan senses of humor – but rarely do I really find someone with a truly wry sense of humor.  Just like the dictionary says, his stories contain clever and often ironic tidbits.  For the most part, this keeps the stories fresh and interesting.  After having read two of his collections, I am slightly, very slightly, less impressed with this wryness. I mean, maybe he’s overusing it a bit? Well, even if he is, it surely is not any amount that would dissuade me from reading his work.

Sheckley combines that wry sense of humor with his studies of humans. I think he was only about twenty-nine years old when this collection was published.  But throughout, it contains a feeling that he is poking fun at humanity just a little. He seems to have some degree of  the “understanding people” skill that was so massively developed in great authors like H. L. Mencken and G. K. Chesterton. The combination of this skill with his wry wit makes his short stories readable – and then, re-readable.

The stories Pilgrimage to Earth, Disposal Service, and Human Man’s Burden are very much worthwhile; containing the wry little twist to make them amusing and a little surprising.  They also seem to demonstrate humans at their core.  Pilgrimage to Earth and Disposal Service are actually somewhat disturbing stories if you really consider the heart of the story [pun intended].  The former involves Alfred Simon returning to Earth whereat anything he wants can be bought – including love. But is it really love, like the poets of old would name it?  Disposal Service centers on the 17-year marriage of the Ferguson’s and a unique service that the couple uses. Both stories hinge upon the freedoms and scientific advancements of mankind, but show that mankind is still governed and tossed about by emotions and whim.

That is probably a theme for the majority of the stories in this collection. I recognize that theme in Deadhead and Earth, Air, Fire, Water – both stories that I did not consider to be more than average works.  Nevertheless, there is that theme that no matter how “advanced” mankind seems, he is still the animal, from Earth, that can be whimsical, irrational, over-confident, and foolish.  Maybe the lesson, if there is one, that Sheckley wants to show us is that the key characteristic of humans is that they are both scientific and silly.

Based on my ratings for the individual stories, I clearly like the first half of the book more than the second. I think the stories that I rated below 3 stars all seem to suffer from the same problem:  just a little too much is left unsaid, unsolved, and/or unexplained.  This lack makes the stories seem a bit underdeveloped and not fully written.  Bad Medicine is one example, The Academy is the other. The story has potential, but just doesn’t completely work.

Finally, the last two stories in the collection are part of a “series.” By this I mean, a common element is found in these stories and then in other stories (not part of this collection) by Sheckley.  Here we meet the proprietors of the AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Service.  Basically, some fellows trying to make some money in a universe of highly competitive businesses, corporations, and smugglers.  This “series” is definitely interesting and I really got a kick out of Milk Run.  Both of these AAA Ace stories are fun adventures for all those readers who want some amusing space pulp fiction.

3 stars

Twenty-One Stories

Twenty-One Stories - Graham Greene; Penguin, 1983

Twenty-One Stories – Graham Greene; Penguin, 1983

Twenty-One Stories is a 1954 collection of Graham Greene’s (1904 – 1991) short stories/novellas. As expected, it contains twenty-one stories, which is an expansion of the collection published in 1947 aptly named Nineteen Stories. All of the editions that I have come across have the stories in reverse chronological order, which (according to Wikipedia) is typical. I  read the 1983 Penguin edition with cover illustration by Paul Hogarth.

My overall impression of Greene is that he is an excellent writer. He knows what he is doing and he has plenty of published works to prove it.  He is definitely in the top ten list for most influential/important authors of the 20th Century. I also think Greene is difficult to pigeon-hole into some narrow category. I cannot tell you if he wrote noir, espionage, religious-themed, etc. The diversity of his writing is subtle but wide. I also feel this is somewhat descriptive of Greene himself. It seems critics and readers have always debated on Greene’s personality, career, and lifestyle. Regardless, Greene is certainly not some hack writer.

Nevertheless, I cannot give this collection (or, really, any of the stories in it) fantastic ratings.  This is tough, because I can see the quality and effort and skill in these stories. I also understand the symbolism and the contextualization of many of the stories. However, as far as entertaining reads – gripping, thrilling, stunning, or invigorating…. well, I cannot say that these stories fit the bill, so to speak. Most of the stories are good, none of them are great.

  1. The Destructors – (1954) – 3 stars.
  2. Special Duties – (1954) – 4 stars.
  3. The Blue Film – (1954) – 3 stars.
  4. The Hint of an Explanation – (1948) – 3 stars
  5. Greek Meets Greek – (1941) – 2 stars.
  6. Men At Work – (1940) – 2 stars
  7. Alas, Poor Maling – (1940) – 1 star
  8. The Case for the Defence – (1939) – 2 stars
  9. A Little Place off of Edgware Road – (1939) – 3 stars.
  10. Across the Bridge – (1938) – 3 stars.
  11. A Drive in the Country – (1937) – 3 stars.
  12. The Innocent – (1937) –1 star.
  13. The Basement Room – (1936) – 2 stars.
  14. A Chance for Mr Lever – (1936) – 2 stars.
  15. Brother – (1936) – 3 stars.
  16. Jubilee – (1936) – 1 star.
  17. A Day Saved – (1935) – 1 star.
  18. I Spy – (1930) – 3 stars.
  19. Proof Positive – (1930) – 3 stars.
  20. The Second Death – (1929) – 3 stars.
  21. The End of the Party – (1929) – 2 stars.

The Destructors is probably one of the most famous of all of these stories.  It has all the post-war angst and societal symbolism one could want.  Nihilistic, fatalistic, and dark, this is not an easy read.  Well, it is not easy if you have any sort of positive view of humanity and society.  Still, this should not be surprising – the story is titled appropriately. I gave it three stars because I do not think I will forget it, but I do not really want to remember it, either.

Special Duties was a fairly good read. I have to admit, it being about a female secretary’s duties for her fussy male boss – I could not help but think this was going to be an entirely different “dutiful” secretary. I guess in 2015 my mind is as corrupt as yours. Kidding! Anyway, this was an interesting piece – cynical all over the place.  I know that a lot of people probably think this is Greene being critical of the Roman Catholic Church, but that is missing the point. The true cynicism is directed straight-as-an-arrow at humans. Which character is more devious in this story? And, because of that corrupt morality, which one is more likeable in spite of it?  Maybe the characters are not as bad as we think.  Don’t they both just want happiness?

The Blue Film is also a very good read. I would have to say that this is the most introspective and deepest story of the bunch.  Greene manages to give us a rather superficial and bare story, which someone contains a wealth of emotion and psychology.  Of course, it also contains that cynicism and pessimism that we have seen so far in Greene.  If you can only read one story in this collection, I suggest this one.

The Hint of An Explanation is the fourth story. It is one of the most religious-themed stories in this collection.  However, even though the religion is a bit more overt, there is a depth to it that focuses, again, on the human condition and psychology.  If you have heard good things about this story, let me confirm them.  This is definitely worth reading and I would re-read it.

After these first four stories, I felt the rest were not as good.  I found the suggested “humor” of the seventh story (Alas, Poor Maling) to be cruddy. The most popular and well-known story seems to be The Basement Room, which I must admit I found unappealing.  I found the child to be absurd and I felt no sympathy for him. I also felt no sympathy for Baines. The story itself was too long.

At one point, I woke in the middle of the night and could not return to sleep, so I figured I would read whatever story was next in the book. It happened to be Jubilee. Now, I don’t know if it was because I was drowsy or if the story is that odd, but I kept thinking: “what the heck am I reading here?” It was funnily ridiculous. I guess its an “interesting” story, though. Definitely different (particularly in 1936).

Overall, these are good stories. Nothing here is truly awesome. A couple are very worthy reads.  My rating will seem low – numerically. I think that this is an important collection to read. It reads longer than it seems, too, so you get your money’s worth.  While the stories do not get rated super highly, I do think that anyone needing to access Greene’s style and writing, this is a very good starter set.  Reading these stories should let the reader know if they want to commit to any of his novels. Greene is an interesting thinker/writer, even if his stories are not the most entertaining ever written.  He has a distinctive voice and style. And his stories (n.b. I do not say Greene qua Greene) have a recognizable cynicism and pessimism.  I think it is a major point, though, that you understand I do not think Greene has the bitterness that others possess (Cp. Céline).  Greene doesn’t hate humanity and he actually still likes it. A lot.

2.38 stars

Autobiography of a Corpse

Autobiography of a Corpse - S. Krzhizhanovsky; nyrb

Autobiography of a Corpse – S. Krzhizhanovsky; nyrb

Autobiography of a Corpse is a collection of eleven stories written between 1922 and 1939 by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (1887 – 1950).  Krzhizhanovsky’s stories were mostly unpublished during his lifespan and nyrb has published several new translations and collections of his works.  Autobiography of a Corpse was published in 2013, but Memories of the Future was published in 2009.  Both collections were translated by Joanne Turnbull in collaboration with Nikolai Formozov.   Turnbull was the winner of the 2007 Rossica Translation Prize for her translations of 7 Stories (seven stories by Krzhizhanovsky).  The publications received reviews from a number of literary sources.

Krzhizhanovsky, of Polish descent, was born in Kiev, where he attended University.  In 1922, he relocated to Moscow, where he more or less spent the rest of his life. Throughout his life, his writings did not get published for a variety of reasons including:  bankrupt publishers and Soviet censorship.  He was writing roughly around the same time as H. P. Lovecraft in America, but Krzhizhanovsky’s stories are much more cosmopolitan and urban.  Generally, he is compared to Borges, but Borges comes much later in history.  Kafka, too, couldn’t have had an impression on him.  Likely, influences were E. T. A. Hoffmann, Poe, Gogol, and the theatre director Alexander Yakovlevich Tairov.

Krzhizhanovsky is not afraid to philosophize in public. His stories are fatalistic, fantastic, and satirical.  These are stories that are full of shadows and trees and city streets.  Repeatedly, Krzhizhanovsky investigates “I” and “the other” (or the “not-I”); reminding readers of Martin Buber’s Ich und Du (1923) and Levinas’ concept of alterity.  Krzhizhanovsky tries to explore the difference between the real and the not-real using architecture and personhood, etc.  He was a contemporary of Mayakovsky and it feels that way.More than anything, however, Krzhizhanovsky loves wordplay and language.  Lacanians and linguists might enjoy these stories for the wordplay.  Somehow Krzhizhanovsky is a master satirist, but without the savage bitterness that seeps through many satirists’ writings.

  • Autobiography of a Corpse – 3 stars – (1925)
  • In the Pupil – 4 stars – (1927)
  • Seams – 3 stars – (1928)
  • The Collector of Cracks – 2 stars – (1927)
  • The Land of Nots – 2 stars – (1922)
  • The Runaway Fingers – 4 stars – (1922)
  • The Unbitten Elbow – 4 stars – (1927)
  • Yellow Coal – 3 stars – (1939)
  • Bridge Over the Styx – 3 stars – (1931)
  • Thirty Pieces of Silver – 4 stars – (1927)
  • Postcard:  Moscow – 3 stars – (1925)

The title story (Autobiography of a Corpse) was an average read – honestly, I wanted more out of it.  My expectations were set fairly high because I had never read this author previously, so I did not know what to expect.  I actually re-read this story a few times before moving onward through this collection.  I admit that my appreciation increased after reading this story again.  Still, with this sort of title, a reader wants an awesome story, not one that is just average.

In the Pupil is my favorite story in this collection. I am giving it four stars, but truly, I could easily give this one five stars. I may have been feeling excessively critical to give it only four stars.  I think this is one of the most original and unique stories I have ever read.  It is also extremely heartfelt – and heart-rending – and also shows the depth of understanding that Krzhizhanovsky has regarding time and space.  This is a lover’s story, a philosopher’s story, and a rueful comic’s story. Excellent.

Seams, The Collector of Cracks, and The Land of Nots were all roughly of the same ilk.  These are a bit obscure and inaccessible.  “I” and “not-I” are used here, as well as being and not-being. But do these ideas come to fruition? Sometimes it feels like there is some interesting philosophical concept being investigated.  At other times, it feels like Krzhizhanovsky is just babbling in a stream of consciousness.  One is slightly reminded of Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake – but without all of the really bizarre Irish musicality.

The Runaway Fingers is another entirely fun and unique story.  It is macabre and thrilling and again shows Krzhizhanovsky’s familiarity with the physicality of cities and streets. I really liked this one and I would think that it is one of his most well-known.  If you are gonna read any of Krzhizhanovsky, I would definitely recommend this one.

The Unbitten Elbow is the most macabre and bizarre of the collection.  It is another unique and interesting read. The satire in it is extraordinary.  Krzhizhanovsky is definitely making some comments about contemporary society – trends and government involvement and, above all, profiteering.  He even tosses some of his scalding water on the academics like scientists and philosophers.  Yellow Coal, however, is even more satirical and sharper.  It is really well written and utilizes excellent concepts about society.  There is plenty of witty wordplay, particularly on “yellow” and the symbolism of it.  This story presents the downfall of society via the demand for economic and natural resources, which outweighs good morality. Moral turpitude seems to overcome society in a revaluation of matters.  People live better now that “love” is an archaic notion.  They live better right up until they become lazy, enfattened, and deadened. . . Hearts Versus Livers.

Thirty Pieces of Silver is also exceedingly satirical – but I feel this is less of a commentary on the greed and slime of mankind’s money-grubbing and more of a statement on how “schools” of writers in Krzhizhanovsky’s time adjudicate how/why works get published.  Soviet censorship and cliqueish writer-groups came to my mind while reading this.  Judas’ blood money is used under the guise of a writing prompt for this story. What is the silver itch – and are we all victims to it?

3 stars

Citizen in Space

citizen in spaceI finished the short story collection Citizen in Space by Robert Sheckley (1928 – 2005).  It was first published in 1955 and contains twelve stories – the majority of which had appeared in Galaxy Magazine.  I have recently been stuck in the 1950s as far as my reading goes, and the cover of this book looks so colorful that it always catches my eye.  Richard Powers created this cover.  Anyway, this is the first Sheckley I have read, although I have heard from a variety of sources that he is one of the “grandmasters” of science fiction short story writing.  I reviewed a collection by Kornbluth and then one by Sturgeon not too long ago, so I feel I was really into the swing things with short stories.  Sometimes, a reader feels like a great novel, sometimes just shorter works are perfect for the day.

In all of these stories, Sheckley is critical of society.  He questions the current conceptions of civilization qua civilization.  His best questioning, I think, comes when he highlights the paradoxes and contrary outcomes of intentional ethical scenarios/acts, etc.  In other words, when Sheckley presents characters whose acts conclude in unexpected – unintended – ways, his stories excel. In many places, Sheckley plays on the idea of concepts that are heavily influenced by a limited perspective.  And sometimes, this even results in peeking at simulacra, which I find super fun in science fiction.

Here are the stories in this collection:

  • The Mountain Without a Name – 3 stars – (1955)
  • The Accountant – 3 stars – (1954)
  • Hunting Problem – 5 stars – (1955)
  • A Thief in Time – 2 stars – (1954)
  • The Luckiest Man in the World – 3 stars – (1955)
  • Hands Off – 5 stars – (1954)
  • Something for Nothing – 4 stars – (1954)
  • A Ticket to Tranai – 5 stars – (1955)
  • The Battle – 2 stars – (1954)
  • Skulking Permit – 4 stars – (1954)
  • Citizen in Space – 3 stars – (1955)
  • Ask a Foolish Question – 4 stars – (1953)

The Mountain Without a Name is the first story in the book.  I gave this one three stars because I felt it was precisely what a science fiction story should be; a solid start to the book.  The frustration of the main character, Morrison, is evident and the environmental ethics of terraforming as a commercial enterprise drive the storyline.  Primitives and magic also play a role here – juxtaposed against the final quote of the book “Where do we go from here?” (a question the primitives wouldn’t know how to ask).

The Accountant is more fantasy than science fiction.  It is a relatively “cute” story – the main character is interesting.  Here is a witty, critical commentary on society.  However, like all of Sheckley’s critiques and complaints – done in a gentle and oblique manner. Again, three stars.

Hunting Problems did not start too highly in my esteem. I really do not go in for “coming of age” stories.  However, the occasional alien terminology/vocabulary interested me.  I’ll be honest:  I loved the ending.  The human characters are a bit “plastic” and “stereotypical,” but maybe that’s okay for this story.  Sheckley’s got a little more obvious disdain here for the humans than he usually shows in other stories. Still, five stars….

A Thief in Time was only a decent, basic read.  I’m not a fan of time-travel paradox stories.  Too much jammed into this one made it annoying and made me wonder why authors ever attempt time-travel paradox stories.  Of note, this is a story wherein Sheckley explores the concept of utopia, however here it is the stereotypical one. Only two stars for this one.

The Luckiest Man in the World is the shortest work in the book.  It presents an oddly optimistic, pro-science post-apocalyptic scenario.  This is not a new story, per se, but the positivity and optimism seemed “new.”  In any case, it is important to see that of all the challenges mankind faces, it seems the need for society/companionship is one that cannot be conquered by mere science.

Hands Off is one of those “cautionary tales” that one remembers and worries about even if the story isn’t particularly great.  Because in the case in which one finds oneself in an alien environment, all these warnings seem valid and crucial.  This story did seem slightly more heavy-handed than the previous ones, but no matter how overt or blatant, it still had a couple quirky twists and turns.  A good one to have young undergraduates read in their beginning Ethics courses.  Four stars.

Something For Nothing is supremely ironic and witty.  It suggests that greed, haste, assumptions lead to ruin.  But also that man cannot isolate himself from the bigger entity – government, IRS, society, civilization, etc.  There is also a fun quote:  “When the miraculous occurs, only dull, workaway mentalities are unable to accept it.”  Anyway, something for nothing / something out of nothing.  Either way, this is a unique piece. Four stars.

A Ticket To Tranai is one of the longer works in this collection.  It is creative and thought-provoking. Sure, the characters are a bit wooden (in all of these stories, they tend to be – but the main character here is actually named ‘Goodman’), but this is a curious look at intentions and ethics within society.  In this story Sheckley questions the concepts of (again) utopia, ethics, social change, and feminism.  The science fiction takes a backseat here – even though we have gone to the edge of the galaxy – this story is best enjoyed by those who like to play conceptual engineer. I gave this five stars and recommend it for all readers.

Skulking Permit is one of those unpredictable stories where the omniscient reader has to keep shaking their head at the silly characters.  The story is about a long-forgotten Earth colony that has recently been re-contacted by Imperial Earth.  Earth demands that the colony be up to “Earth standards” (which have long since lost any meaning to the colonists). This results in a bit of a farcical comedy. Definitely a unique piece, so I gave it four stars.

Citizen in Space is the title of the collection and though I gave it three stars, I cannot say I was really thrilled by the story.  It is good fiction, also a bit light on the science and a bit heavier on the “criticize society” parts.  Nevertheless, it is all couched in a lovely witty amusement that is good entertainment. Three stars.

Finally, the collection ends with Ask a Foolish Question.  This is the most esoteric of pieces in the collection.  Many readers who are not given to contemplation or introspection may not tolerate this one.  However, philosophers will be amused by this. The underlying suggestion is valid, if not obvious.  It is interesting and novel to see this wrapped in any kind of science fiction.  Four stars.

Overall, this is a great collection of really good stories.  The science fiction is present but not overwhelming.  All of the characters are wooden – like any true 1950s science fiction – but the concepts and the ideas are priceless.  Above all, entertainment is not sacrificed for any sort of ideology-mongering or attempt to seem philosophical.  These are amusing and clever and should be enjoyed by most (if not all) readers. I am definitely going to read more Sheckley.

4 stars