Thursday 29 February 2024

In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried by Amy Hempel

Al Jolson in blackface, starring in the Jazz Singer.

I first read this story a few years back and thought it was pretty good, if not a little overhyped. After revisiting it again recently, I have completely changed my tune, much like Al Jolson in the Jazz Singer! This time around, something just "clicked" for me and I was able to full appreciate the author's literary talents. Moreover, the narrative resonated with me more deeply, firmly establishing Amy Hempel as a master of the short-story. 

"In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried" stands on the precipice of literary perfection. 

Her minimalistic style is very reminiscent of other prevalent writers from the 1980's like Raymond Carver and personally, I can't get enough of it. The brevity of the writing is so sharp, raw and emotionally impactful. Despite the somber backdrop of the narrator's visit to a dying friend in a hospital, Hempel skillfully utilizes humor and clever banter to weave a narrative that is both poignant and profoundly moving. 

In the face of immense sorrow and grief, words often falter, leaving emotions intricate and elusive, concealed beneath a veneer of superficiality. The levity found in the humorous anecdotes and jokes exchanged between the two friends emerges as a courageous response to grapple with the overwhelming pain that defies easy expression. It is within this realm that Hempel's skill as a writer truly shines, transforming melancholy subject matter into an exploration of a friendship's depths and the transient nature of life.

"In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried" is a testament to the author's ability to navigate the delicate balance between sadness and ironic humor, creating a literary experience that transcends the boundaries of conventional storytelling. 

A remarkable literary achievement.

Werewolf by Angela Carter

Little Red Riding Hood, D&D style.

Angela Carter fearlessly dives into the macabre with this gothic twist on Little Red Riding Hood, and the results are well, pretty badass. Admittedly, I approached her work with a certain trepidation, fearing her peculiar and twisted fantasies might not gel with my tastes. To my delightful surprise, I found myself enchanted by this dark and shockingly violent spin on the classic children's fable.

The writing possesses a lyrical charm, skillfully balancing poetic storytelling without succumbing to excessive purple prose. The narrative creates a vivid and atmospheric setting, skillfully interwoven with sinister undertones that captivate the reader's imagination. Through swift pacing and a focused narrative, tension steadily builds, leading to the inevitable climax: Little Red Riding Hood vs. the Big Bad Wolf. Yet, the tale takes an unexpected twist, adding another layer of grittiness to an already darkly woven story. Definitely not for the faint of heart.

Wednesday 28 February 2024

White Hills by Rebecca Roanhorse

I will never look at strawberry smoothies the same way again.

As my first encounter with the author Rebecca Roanhorse, I had no idea what to expect with "White Hills." This story is taken from an anthology entitled "Never Whistle at Night", dedicated to showcasing 'dark fiction' by indigenous writers. It was a thoughtful gift from my wife, who keenly understands my appreciation for short stories and consistently encourages me to explore a diverse range of literature, especially beyond my frequent indulgence of Ray Bradbury.

While delving into this particular story, it became evident that its intended depth and meaning might have eluded me. The author's purpose, beyond crafting a tale designed to elicit shock and awe, remains somewhat elusive. Stripped of its exaggerated theatrics, the story appears somewhat hollow and confusing. 

Drawing parallels with the film Get Out, I couldn't help but notice similarities, albeit with a slight twist. The protagonist, an indigenous woman named Marissa, is married to a rich white man and living a life of luxury. She lives in a mansion located in an affluent white neighborhood, drives a fancy car, wears expensive fashion and has a membership to the most prestigious country club. She passes as white but once the husband finds out that she is "part Native American", things start to go bad for her real fast. However, unlike the movie, the storyline unfolds with her choosing to stay rather than relinquish her white privilege even when confronted with her racist mother-in-law's true malevolence. She is pure evil and will stop at nothing to ensure the purity of her family's bloodline. The turning point of the story is very disturbing when she takes Marissa to see a doctor regarding her pregnancy. It is reminiscent of the scene in Get Out, when the male protagonist is drugged and falls into the sunken place. Yet, despite enduring such atrocities, Marissa frustratingly chooses to remain loyal to this family, defying every instinct to run away and never look back. 

Again, very confusing.  

Unless, the narrative seems to be suggesting that white supremacy operates insidiously, highlighting the pervasive trend of self-inflicted erasure of indigenous identity. This erasure serves as a strategic means to gain acceptance within a predominantly white society, concurrently enjoying the privileges and wealth that come with it. Or maybe I'm just reading too much into the subtext that really isn't there at all. 

The Scent of Sarsaparilla by Ray Bradbury

If you know, you know.

Although I hold Ray Bradbury up to a very high standard when it comes to the art of the short-story, I am not expecting every one of his works to be a masterpiece. I've encountered plenty of mediocre and forgettable ones, even some real stinkers. "The Scent of Sarsaparilla" is not exactly a terrible read lacking all merit, but it's certainly a far-cry from Bradbury's best. I would place it in the mediocre category and it's doubtful that it will linger in my mind for very long. 

It's most redeeming qualities include Bradbury's delectable prose and captivating use of magic realism involving time travel. Nostalgia is a recurring theme in many of his works, especially pertaining to childhood memories. Much to the chagrin of his wife, an older man spends most of his free time up in the attic, indulging in the sensory experiences of the past through various mementos from many years ago. Bradbury wastes no time jumping right into the story, cultivating intrigue around this mysterious attic, which might harbor more than dusty floorboards, cobwebs and long forgotten heirlooms.

The narrative maintains a steady pace, never overstaying its welcome, and initially, it seemed like I had stumbled upon another literary gem. However, my enthusiasm took a sharp downturn when Bradbury included an unwarranted and blatant racist remark against black people. In a heated argument between the wife and husband about the past, particularly the old roads in town, she inexplicably states, "Those old roads were dirty. We came home looking like Africans." While acknowledging the era in which it was written—1950s—and the prevalence of racial prejudices, it's difficult for me to overlook this stain and fully appreciate the story.

Changing Planes + Five Carat Soul (5-star Short Story Collections)

Presented here are two short-story collections that not only deserve the highest praise but also stand out as my favorite reads of 2023. Despite their marked differences in genre, theme and literary style, they share one common characteristic: every single story here is brilliant, unique and utterly captivating. In my experience, most collections offer a mixed bag and you might get one or two stories that really stand-out with the rest being mostly forgettable. 

Encountering a collection where every story is not just powerful but also memorable and masterfully crafted is a true rarity. Ursula Le Guin and James McBride showcase an extraordinary literary talent for the short-story form. If you were ever skeptical about the potential limitations of the short-story, consider those doubts thoroughly dispelled. 

Regrettably, as far as reviews go, I do not have any concrete evidence at the moment to substantiate my claims. Instead, some fragmented thoughts on some of these stories languish in a Google Doc like the forgotten leftovers in the back of the fridge. However, I intend on revisiting both collections at some point in the future to provide a more thorough evaluation. 

I suppose the main purpose of this post it to dust off the proverbial cobwebs and throw a spotlight on these two literary masterpieces. They come with my highest recommendation and I hope you dive headfirst into the magic encapsulated within these pages.

Tuesday 27 February 2024

The Fire Balloons by Ray Bradbury

"Behold your new God and you shall call him Jesus"

In the pursuit of my literary aspirations, despite encountering various challenges, my determination remains steadfast to immerse myself in the entire anthology of Ray Bradbury's short stories before I bid farewell to this mortal coil. Among the many treasures I've uncovered on this literary journey, "Fire Balloons" slightly misses the mark. While undoubtedly a commendable short story, it doesn't etch itself into my memory with the same indelible mark as "The Veldt," a captivating piece I had the pleasure of reviewing earlier today.

The narrative unfolds with a poignant commentary on the hubris of assuming one's understanding of the divine universe. Bradbury delves into the realms of religious discourse and philosophy, although the subject matter a little heavy-handed at times. Missionaries have travelled to Mars in a ship called The Crucifix, with the purpose of preaching the gospel to entities far beyond human comprehension. These Martians appear as ethereal globules of radiant blue light. 

For the most part, I found the story quite dull, lacking a certain Bradbury-esque quality. However, it takes an intriguing turn when the two priest protagonists encounter 'The Old Ones,' that resemble fire balloons (hence, the title). This development propels the main plot into motion: the priests' ambitious quest to build a mega church, urging the Martians to seek redemption for their sins. From a colonial perspective, history repeats itself. The interplay of belief, understanding, and the instinctual drive to impose salvation upon these celestial beings underscores the theme of religious imperialism. 

This was a worthwhile read but is bound to fade from my memory very quickly.

The Furnished Room by O. Henry


Wow, that was depressing. 

O. Henry is a towering figure in the short-fiction genre (I mean, they named a prestigious short-story award after this guy for heaven's sake!) and despite his vast oeuvre, remains remarkably consistent. 

While he may unabashedly embrace a literary schtick characterized by "twist endings," his narrative finesse continually manages to elevate the art of surprise to new heights with each unexpected revelation. In his masterful hands, the anticipated twist transcends mere formulaic expectations, becoming a literary device that not only startles but also resonates with a profound impact. It is this unique ability to seamlessly blend the anticipated with the unforeseen that sets O. Henry apart, ensuring that even seasoned readers are treated to a fresh and compelling experience in each meticulously crafted tale.

This haunting narrative delves into the fleeting tapestry of human connections and the lingering specter of unresolved grief. Our narrator embarks on a quest for a lost love, leading him to a rooming house—a melancholic setting where she allegedly took refuge before vanishing mysteriously. The vivid and lyrical brushstrokes used to paint the portrait of the eponymous "furnished room" cast an eerie and unsettling spell on the reader.

In this short story, the author achieves the seemingly impossible task of infusing heartbreak and despair into the very fabric of the narrative. The emotional resonance is palpable, as the reader becomes an unwitting participant in the exploration of love lost and the haunting echoes of unanswered questions. The tale, with its deftly woven words, not only captivates but also leaves an indelible mark, proving the author's mastery in the nuanced art of evoking profound emotions within the confines of a short story.

The Veldt by Ray Bradbury (1951)


The Veldt is classic Ray Bradbury and oh boy, it's not just a stroll in the park – more like a sprint through a virtual savannah! Now, I've read this story before many times and figured it would be another good choice to get back into the groove of reading and guess what? It still holds up tremendously well and feels even more relevant in today's tech-obsessed world.

The time period is 1950's: the era of poodle skirts, jukeboxes, and early rock 'n' roll, yet Bradbury was already side-eyeing the looming possibilities of AI and virtual reality. It's almost as if he had a crystal ball, predicting our ongoing love affair with technology that, let's be real, often feels like it is simultaneously beneficial and detrimental to society and our humanity.

Eerily prescient, The Veldt emerges as a time-traveling oracle, predicting our modern tech-induced nightmares. It is cautionary relic for those contemplating surrendering their abodes to the whims of "Google Home" or whatever futuristic tech is poised to raise our children (YouTube generation, anyone?). Bradbury, the undisputed techno-soothsayer, wasn't about to let us blindly fall for the charms of our gadget companions. Back in the '50s, when we were still mastering the art of the rotary phone, he was already warning us about the untamed underbelly of technology's potential dark side. He keenly saw through the glossy sheen of progress and handed us a timeless warning about the perils of surrendering our homes to the silicon overlords. 

Despite the disturbing subject matter, there is an underlying humor and absurdity to this cautionary tale. Fully sentient appliances and AI with existential angst? Bradbury skillfully creates a pervasive creepiness that is surprisingly chuckle-worthy. 

Colony by Philip K. Dick (1953)


Well, folks, let's talk about my grand plan for 2023 - attempting to read a whopping 1000 short stories. Now, in hindsight, I might as well have declared my intention to conquer Mount Everest on roller skates. Unfortunately, my reading habits took another nosedive and let's just say that I fell a bit short of that unrealistic goal. But hold your applause because, drumroll, I did conquer about 130 short stories! Not too shabby, right?    

Now, for the 'Deal Me in Challenge' of 2024: If I somehow manage to squeeze in 20 short stories for the entire year, it will be a miracle. I hope you will join me on this rollercoaster of literary highs and lows, where my reading aspirations are like a cat on a unicycle – precarious and bound to elicit a few laughs. Stay tuned, dear readers! 📚😅

To ease back into reading again, I decided to start with Colony by Philip K. Dick. He has a pretty good track record when it comes to entertaining sci-fi short-stories, and this one certainly fits the bill. As an alien encounter plot, it's silly fun even though the ending is a little on the predictable side. I find some of Dick's earlier works, including this one, tend to be less cerebral and more pulpy entertainments--not that there is anything wrong with that! Sometimes I just want a story that's less 'Inception' and more popcorn and soda, please. His usual trademark style of blending philosophical depth, wild sci-fi concepts and a gripping plot will not be found here. Yet, he still manages to turn out a compelling enough story filled with mounting paranoia as a group of scientists on the newly discovered "Planet Blue" (creative, right?) find themselves at the mercy of a shape-shifting lifeform.

And Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts, brace yourselves. You'll spot a familiar monster in this tale that'll make you wonder if Gary Gygax was secretly taking notes. Maybe Dick was the unsung bard of D&D lore all along?