Saturday, 4 March 2023

The Willa Cather Short Story Project (2023)

I stumbled upon this reading challenge over on the excellent Fanda Classiclit and could not resist joining up. It is hosted by Chris Wolak who has been on a mission since 2019 to basically read all of Willa Cather's short stories. Very impressive. 

I am not very familiar with this author and reviewed "My Antonia" on this blog years ago but it did not receive a favorable review. Going back even further, I have vague recollections of reading the short story "Paul's Case" for a university class but could not tell you a single thing about it. Nevertheless, this is a great opportunity to delve deeper into the author's works and since I pretty much only read short-stories these days, this reading project seems right up my alley. It should not be too difficult catching up on the previous January and February selections.

Here is a list of the titles for each month: 

January: The Affair at Grover Station
February: A Singer's Romance
March: Jack-a-Boy
April: El Dorado: A Kansas Recessional 
May: The Professor's Commencement 
June: The Treasure of Far Island
July: The Namesake
August: The Profile
September: The Willing Muse
October: Eleanor's House
November: On the Gull's Road
December: The Joy of Nelly Deane

Let the fun begin!

Friday, 3 March 2023

Aye and Gomorrah by Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany is one cool cat. 

Displacement and loneliness are prevalent themes in this gender-bending science-fiction story by the incomparable Samuel R. Delany. His experimental writing style is both dazzling and abstruse, a common literary aesthetic found in the SF New Wave during the late 60's and 70's. At times, he can be a challenging author to read because many of his stories are bizarre, ambiguous and fragmented with very little narrative context but they are often worth the effort. This is true of Aye and Gomorrah, which begins in medias res and remains quite disorienting throughout but in a good way. The background story seems to exist on the periphery, focusing on the two main characters while developing a sense of cognitive estrangement pertaining to gender roles.

The narrator belongs to a group of space travelers known as "spacers" who must undergo anatomical modifications in order to survive the perils of traveling throughout the galaxy. In essence, they are androgynous or possibly gender-non conforming. During one of the crew's various escapades, the narrator has a brief encounter with a woman in Istanbul. She belongs to a group of people referred to as "frelks" (similar sounding to "freaks") and they are fascinated by these exotic spacers, often paying them for sexual favors. There are discussions about sex but never anything explicit. Even the biblical title is misleading. The relationship between the narrator and woman is very confusing, to say the least. They spend most of the time exchanging vitriolic diatribes against each other. At one point she refers to both of them as perverts and necrophiles. She even tells him: "I want you because you can't want me. That's the pleasure. If someone really had a sexual reaction, we'd be scared away. I wonder how many people there were before there were you, waiting for your creation." She seems to be going through some kind of identity crisis, full of contradictions. Conversely, he reproaches the frelks, yet there is a strong desire to be with them that has nothing to do with sex. Instead, their conversation seems to suggest that they are both desperately seeking a deeper emotional connection.

The spacers and frelks both suffer from intense longing to be loved and accepted. One can certainly make the argument that this story is an allegory for the historic struggle and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. I can appreciate Delaney's prescience and he was certainly ahead of his time. 

Friday, 24 February 2023

Gimpel the Fool by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Gimpel, the archetypal schlemiel.

Gimpel the Fool is one of those heralded Jewish literary classics, so naturally I was curious to see what all the fuss was about. Suffice it to say, this was an excellent short story and I can see it growing on me with further readings. Translated into English by Saul Bellow, this is a weirdly comical and compelling read on the surface but also contains plenty of depth and complexity. It begins with one of my favorite opening lines in recently memory: 

"I am Gimpel the fool. I don't think myself a fool. On the contrary. But that's what folks call me. They gave me the name while I was in school. I had seven names in all: imbecile, donkey, flax-head, dope, glump, ninny, and fool. The last name stuck. What did my foolishness consist of? I was easy to take in.

It is clear from childhood that Gimpel is consciously aware that he is neither a complete dullard or pushover; rather, there is an element of choice in his naivety, maybe even a sense of morality. While this kind of self-deprecating humor is prevalent throughout the story, it is Gimpel's unassuming nature that makes him sympathetic even though he becomes an easy target for ridicule. He is treated like the village idiot and others take pride in playing practical jokes on him for their own amusement. Gimpel is perceived as a simpleton, a feeble-minded schlemiel by the small Jewish community in Frampol, Poland. 

Framed in a type of episodic narrative, the story follows Gimpel's life as he matures into a young man and eventually gets married to a boisterous shrew named Elka. She brazenly cheats on him with other men, denying it of course, and even has various children with them. Despite Gimpel's naïve personality and gullibility he accepts this betrayal for reasons that are not made entirely clear. Perhaps he feels a special bond with Elka because she is also an orphan or he wants to remain a family because of his loving attachment to her baby. He even names the child after his deceased father, keeping the family history alive. He seems willing to accept so much pain and abuse from Elka and others where it becomes easy for the reader to castigate Gimpel as a masochist. However, not everything so clear-cut, especially in relation to Gimpel's subjective reality. He can also be seen as a suffering martyr figure or a wise fool (yes, the irony is not lost on me). The ambiguity provides so much room for interpretation. Gimpel's transformation at the end from a schlemiel into the Wandering Jew is heartwarming, beautiful, cathartic. Regardless of the abuse and humiliation he experienced in Frampol, he still believes that people are inherently good in the world. A sanguine disposition? Maybe. 

I have barely scratched the surface of this text. Additionally, an examination of religion, morality and the supernatural would also make for an interesting analysis. The compact writing style is both humorous and philosophical. A must-read.

Thursday, 23 February 2023

Now Die In It by Richard Matheson


I am glutton for punishment or maybe just an optimist. Perhaps both. Either way, I keep hoping to discover a hidden gem somewhere in this Richard Matheson collection of short-stories only to find myself continually disappointed. Dress of White Silk comes pretty darn close but is not without its flaws.

Now Die In It is a great title and one of the few positive takeaways from this story about a home invasion. Matheson does have a good ear for dialogue, which drives much of the narrative. 

A married couple receives a phone call from a stranger, looking to speak with someone named Don Tyler. At first they believe the caller is mistaken because the husband's has a different last name: Don Martin. The caller is convinced that he has the correct phone number and then threatens to kill the husband. After hanging up, the wife insists that they involve the police. Before they can take any immediate action the doorbell rings...oh no! The killer is on their doorstep! There is no tension or suspense at all. The meagre plot that unfolds is silly and the "twist ending" is pure stupidity. Another misfire from Matheson.

Haircut by Richard Matheson

The good ol' days when a haircut and shave cost $2.50.

Another paltry effort from Matheson. At least it was only six pages long and he does not drag out the weak premise, which tends to be a recurring pattern in his writing. 

A mysterious looking figure shows up at a barber shop for a haircut. That's it. Again, simple enough with plenty of creative potential only to quickly become a writing exercise in futility. Too much emphasis is placed upon the big reveal or "twist ending" that is obvious from the get-go. 

If Matheson was trying to create suspense and horror, none of it works. Instead, we get a silly answer to a well-known vampire joke: how do yo vampires shave if they can't see them themselves in the mirror? According to this story, they go to the local barbershop in broad daylight and leave without paying. Bunch of cheapstakes. 

Dress of White Silk by Richard Matheson

Quiet is here and all in me.

Finally, a short-story by Richard Matheson that isn't terrible and the first one to receive four-stars from yours truly. This is probably my favorite story in the collection so far, although that is not really saying much considering the majority of them have been disappointing or a complete waste of time.

Dress of White Silk makes for a great companion piece to Born of Man and Woman, both featuring a young unnamed first-person narrator and utilizing an experimental writing style with spelling mistakes and incorrect syntax. In both cases, the short staccato like sentences along with bad grammar and punctuation effectively evokes a sense of childlike innocence as well as the narrator's lack of schooling. The  limited point of view creates a wonderfully creepy atmosphere. 

This is a clever horror story full of ambiguity and part of the fun is trying to unravel the mystery surrounding the young girl's obsession with her deceased mother's white silk dress. Without giving too much away, there are enough clues to suggest that there might be elements of the supernatural at work here. Pay attention to any descriptions of the dress, the portrait of the mother and the final few lines. Once the potential truth has been discovered, the story comes full circle. Themes of grief, the loss of childhood innocence and loneliness take on greater meaning as they become more emotionally resonant within the context of the hidden narrative framework.

Clocking in at only five pages, Matheson's highly compressed plot finally delivers a satisfying ending that is more nuanced, ambiguous, complex. This was a fun ride and highly enjoyable. 

Wednesday, 22 February 2023

Dying Room Only by Richard Matheson

Just keep driving if you see a sketchy looking restaurant in the middle of nowhere.

Awful. Just awful. Matheson duped me again with another slick title! I find it completely mind-boggling that the editor, Victor Lavelle, made a conscious decision to include this garbage in the Penguin Classics anthology entitled "The Best of Richard Matheson." Considering the large number of duds in this collection, "The Worst of Richard Matheson" seems more accurate. Dying Room Only is another pointless, dull and anticlimactic work by an author who has a knack for introducing a premise with potential that ends up falling flat. He teases the reader into believing that this will be a compelling story when it is all just smoke and mirrors.

Relying on a familiar horror genre trope, a couple is driving through the desert and decide it would be a great idea to stop at a dilapidated looking restaurant on the side of the road. The reader already knows that this couple is doomed the second they step out of their car. The patrons inside the restaurant are sketchy and give off serial killer vibes but husband and wife decide to stick around anyways because, why not? The turning point occurs when the husband needs to use the washroom and does not return. The wife is then left alone with these creepy men who claim ignorance about the husband's whereabouts when she starts questioning them. She soon realizes that something sinister might be going on here. Great detective work captain obvious. 

At one point she calls the police and a local sheriff quickly arrives on the scene. Now, this is where Matheson could use the Sheriff character in any number of interesting ways. Even if he decided to go down the predictable route and have the Sherriff be an accomplice with the other men in their nefarious scheme, this "twist ending" would still be more satisfying than what Matheson comes up with. It is so nonsensical, reducing everything up until this moment as completely superfluous. An utter waste of time and easily one of the worst stories in this collection.

Monday, 20 February 2023

The Last Night of the World by Ray Bradbury

1950's living room décor.

Happy Family Day! We are back again with another Ray Bradbury short-story and this time the world is ending. However, this is not your typical apocalyptic tale of despair and survival. Instead, the author decides to focus on family life as a couple spends one final evening together with their children. There is an underlying sadness but also a joyful acceptance of their fate. The juxtaposition between the parents discussing the end of the world while watching their children play in the living room, completely oblivious to worldly events, is quite poignant. 

There is a great moment when the parents are getting ready for bed and the wife remembers that she forgot to turn off the water in the sink when they were washing dishes earlier after dinner. Of course, none of this matters but Bradbury is highlighting the irony of holding on to some kind of normalcy through domestic routine even though the world is on the brink of destruction. Only a few pages long, this is another  concise and well-crafted narrative by one of the best in the short-story business. 

Sunday, 19 February 2023

Witch War by Richard Matheson


I am glad to be wrapping up Richard Matheson week on this blog. Considering his enormous influence on 20th century genre fiction, perhaps my expectations were too high for this author. Indeed, he should be acknowledged for setting the groundwork for his successors although I must diagree with Steven Spielberg's blurb on the back cover of The Best of Richard Matheson (Penguin Classics): "He is in the same category as Bradbury and Asmiov." No. Just no. I respect Steven Spielberg as a director and one of his first movies was an adaptation of "Duel" found in this collection but this feels like an overstatement to me. Bradbury and Asimov are towering literary figures, especially within the science-fiction genre.  Granted, "I am Legend" is a wonderful horror/post-apocalyptic novel but if we are comparing the complete body of work, Matheson does not even come close to matching the greatness of either author. 

Since we are focusing on short-stories, Bradbury and Asimov are in a league of their own. In contrast, Matheson's short stories mostly come across as underwhelming or half-baked thought experiments, which often feel dated. Nonetheless, there are a few hidden gems in this collection, Witch War being one of them. Matheson is at his best when he embraces his darkly humorous side and not constrained by genre conventions. 

For those familiar with the Netflix show "Stranger Things," let me know if this sounds somewhat familiar. A group young girls with special powers are being used as weapons of war by a secret government agency to defeat their enemies. Much of the humor derives from the personalities of the girls remaining apathetic amidst all the violence and carnage they cause. This is a slight, if not amusing little story that does not waste any time getting right into the action. If Matheson had written more fun and polished stories like this one, I might hold him in higher esteem.