Canadian author Shane Joseph grew up in the 70s and 80s in post-colonial Sri Lanka (formerly called Ceylon), immigrating as a young man. His boyhood a...moreCanadian author Shane Joseph grew up in the 70s and 80s in post-colonial Sri Lanka (formerly called Ceylon), immigrating as a young man. His boyhood and youth have apparently furnished grist and inspiration for his fictional vision before (though this is the first of his works I've read), and it certainly does here, with all seven of the stories set wholly or mainly in the island nation. The Goodreads description simply reproduces the back cover copy verbatim. That may have been designed more to sell than to describe, and arguably overstresses the immigration theme; most of the main characters do, or have, immigrate(d), but two of them don't, and in any case the focus isn't on the immigrant experience. It's on the mother country, in all of its particularity; but its particularity is, as in all great fiction, a setting for universal themes.
Shane and I are Goodreads friends, and he offered me a review copy of the collection last month, with no conditions on the quality of the review. I don't automatically give five stars to friends' books, or even necessarily ever read their books; and I warned him at the outset that my impression was that this wasn't the type of fiction I usually read, and might be of a type I wouldn't like. He was game to take a chance that the latter wouldn't be true, and he guessed correctly!
Of course, statistically, most of my reading is speculative and genre fiction. Mainstream, descriptive, general fiction hasn't bulked large in that corpus, comparatively speaking, and the kind set in our own time is an even smaller subset. So, truthfully, this isn't the kind of thing I usually read. To be sure, that partly has accidental causes, and doesn't mean I don't like well-done contemporary general fiction. But I avoid self-consciously "literary' fiction like the plague; "experimental" or "meta-fictional" style, aversion to plot, and cultivation of hack "political correctness" and bored nihilism are NOT keys to my literary heart, and I initially feared that was what this collection might be. That, however, proved to be far from the truth. It's certainly serious, realistic fiction, with an interest in tackling significant psychological, moral and social themes (it could define what the term "literary fiction" might have meant today if the critical community hadn't made the term a not humorous joke). But the author presents this by creating a real story, with well-crafted, vivid characters and careful attention to literary technique. These are stories that are actually very much in the tradition of what Conrad and Kipling wrote, allowing for the facts that the setting is more recent, that Shane has his own style and vision, and that his style incorporates much more grittiness than a former generation of editors or readers would have accepted.
Grittiness is indeed present in spades. The violence born of civil war and domestic terrorism is a factor in several stories; coarse, bad language (including the f-word) isn't uncommon in the dialogue, though I'm guessing that this actually reflects the speech the author heard growing up, rather than being dragged in unrealistically; and sexual references and situations also appear, most prominently in the title story and in "A Lie Oft Repeated." (In both stories, some of these scenes involve what we could call "explicit sex," but they're very brief, not detailed.) Darkness is a very real, omnipresent factor in all the stories. We have plot elements like the horrors of a violent, war-torn, oppressive political order where the unaccountable "haves" treat the "have-nots" like dirt, and the latter respond with viciousness of their own; government-sanctioned murder; old-fashioned private murder (or is it justifiable, defensive homicide?); exploitation of humans by others in all kinds of ways, including sexual (and including what's essentially homosexual prostitution --the narrator protagonist of "Inheritance" is also homosexual, though there's no described homosexual sex in that story); patriarchal sexism and loveless marriages; infidelity; poisonous family dynamics and lousy parent-child relationships. But the stories aren't about darkness in a nihilistic way (though the slightest story, "Nombera Eka (Number One)," a character study of a tourist-swindling, predatory con artist sociopath, could be mistakenly read as one; I think, though, that we're really to take him a negative example who inspires revulsion, rather than as a role model). Rather, they're about positive steps and choices against the background of darkness -about love, courage to do what's right, constructive relationships; hope.
A reader who knows very little about Sri Lanka (which describes me; I'd vaguely heard of the Tamil insurgency, but that's about all I knew when I opened the book) could painlessly learn a lot about the country from these stories. (A glossary of Sinhala-language terms in the back is a helpful feature, though a few more could have been included and some definitions are less than clear. A map would have been useful, too, for those who don't automatically place city/locality names). The country, its culture and its ethnic groups --European-descended Burghers like the author; the Buddhist Sinhalese majority; the more disadvantaged Hindu Tamils-- come alive here in a real way. There's a strong cross-cultural theme in most stories, an exploration of the interaction of South Asian and Western/Anglo ways. (Except for "Inheritance," all the stories have Burgher protagonists, but there are major Sinhalese characters as well.) You learn more than you might want to know about the legacy of colonialism, and the social injustice that's still continuing. Shane's an excellent story-teller, captivating you with a desire to find out what will happen to these people you've come to care about, and endowing scenes like the old-style reading of a deceased family patriarch's will with real drama and suspense. The natural beauty of the Sri Lankan countryside is evoked with the skill of a painter in some places, as well.
If you're interested in serious short fiction, Canadian literature, or cross-cultural literature with a South Asian flavor, this is definitely a collection you should consider. And Shane's definitely become a writer whose work I want to explore more fully!(less)
I read this as a really little kid (I'm thinking maybe age nine, or younger), at the stage where I'd more or less read anything. The plot description...moreI read this as a really little kid (I'm thinking maybe age nine, or younger), at the stage where I'd more or less read anything. The plot description in the Goodreads entry is familiar, but I don't recall the details of the book well enough to presume to rate it (except that I remember that, even back then, I thought it was awfully shallow --even more so than Horatio Alger's books), and it isn't a type of fiction I'd read today, or bother to re-read. However, I've always regretted that I couldn't remember the title, so I could list it on my "read" shelf for the sake of completeness. (Adrian Monk would understand! :-) ) But I'd never forgotten the name of the heroine's rich but unworthy suitor (after all, how could you forget a name like Llewellen Lauderdale?), and when I ran across a book description of this title, on another Internet site, which mentioned him, that was my "Aha" moment! :-)(less)
Intrigued by the title, my wife picked this book up for a dime this past summer at a yard sale. Having now read it, she was so pleased by it that she...moreIntrigued by the title, my wife picked this book up for a dime this past summer at a yard sale. Having now read it, she was so pleased by it that she wants to pass it on to our oldest daughter and her husband, and asked me to read it as well. As my rating indicates, I wasn't as taken with it.
Like Joseph Addison's 18th-century work, "The Vision of Mirzah," this is definitely didactic literature intended to teach ideas, with a very plain storyline: human meets supernatural being, who then spouts philosophical precepts accredited by his supernatural status. (Fortunately, though, Brady's style is much more winsome than Addison's ponderous Neoclassical prose.) Comparison/contrast also suggests itself with The Shack, which I reviewed here on Goodreads earlier; both are written to state the author's religious views in terms palatable to secular-minded readers. But where the latter book is written from the standpoint of evangelical Christianity, this one is based on liberal theism with some flavoring of process theology and Eastern religion, which distinctly affects the result. Where The Shack sees sin as the basic human problem, and the remedy as radical moral reorientation through faith in God's saving work in Christ, here the problem is envisioned as poor attitudes, and the offered solution is pulling yourself up to mental health by the shoelaces through acceptance of pop psychology bromides. Of course, sin is basically attitudinal. But there are significant differences in the two approaches.
Some of Brady's advice is unexceptionable common sense. But her basic starting-point is self; one of her six commandments (designed to replace the Biblical ten) is "Take care of yourself, first and foremost." It isn't hard to recognize that "self-help," approached this way by people without the radical moral re-orientation alluded to above, easily degenerates into another form of navel-gazing selfishness.(less)
Oct. 2, 2009 For years, I've been dipping into this book off and on, and enjoying it. I've resolved that sometime next year (as part of a process I wan...moreOct. 2, 2009 For years, I've been dipping into this book off and on, and enjoying it. I've resolved that sometime next year (as part of a process I want to do of tying up the "loose ends" in my reading :-)), I'm going to read the rest of it; but I thought I'd take time now to review what I've read so far.
The Goodreads description above (which I wrote) gives the book's basic factual description. As it suggests, there are a lot more contributors than the Goodreads template's 50 slots allow to be listed; all 82 selections are by different authors. I tried to list all the well-known ones, but many more minor authors are represented as well (and their work may be as rewarding as that of the "major" ones). The full list is almost a roll call of British fiction writers up to 1930; even some who are known almost entirely as novelists, such as Dickens and Thackeray, appear here (and the stories by those two are each excellent in their own way). Rather than often-anthologized selections, the better-known writers are often represented by lesser-known, but good, stories that readers are more apt to have missed. For instance, the Conrad story is "The Inn of the Two Witches," a historical piece set during the Napoleonic wars (this has a similar theme to one of the earliest selections, a 16th-century novel excerpt by Thomas Deloney; contrasting them makes a fascinating study in the evolution of fictional technique over the intervening centuries). D. H. Lawrence is represented by his grim tale "The Prussian Officer." Some other choices are more conventional (but well worth a read also!), such as Stevenson's excellent "The Sire de Maletroit's Door," which I read in another anthology in my teens. George Eliot's novella The Lifted Veil (which I've reviewed separately) is included in its entirety; Sterne and Smollett are represented by excepts from their novels, which in keeping with my usual practice I don't plan to read --though I did read Deloney's.
Some of the selections are tragic and even heart-tearing. This is most often the case with the stories from the Romantic period, with their aim of evoking emotion; the emotions some of these aim for are sorrow and pity. However, many stories in the collection are more upbeat. The oldest story here, Barnaby (or Barnabe --16th-century spellings vary) Riche's "Of Apolonius and Silla," was the inspiration for Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night. Leigh Hunt delivers a worthy morality tale in "The Beau Miser, and What Happened to Him at Brighton." If you don't think a story can be built around a viewpoint character who's only looking into a house window from across a street, join M. G. Lewis in peering through "My Uncles' Garret Window." :-) And two of my favorites here are Thomas Love Peacock's "The Capture of Mr. Chainmail" (which is surprisingly, and refreshingly, free of the typical open wealth-worship and class snobbery of that day) and Rafael Sabatini's "The Ghost of Tronjolly" --which isn't a ghost story.
Genre fiction is well represented here, though, including ghost stories and other supernatural tales. The contrast between one of the first, if not the first, English ghost stories, Defoe's "True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal," and Scott's "The Tapestried Chamber," written about a century later, perfectly illustrates the contrast in the Neoclassical and Romantic approaches to literary style in general and the supernatural in particular: the one dry, pedantic-didactic, interested in the supernatural only as a literary means of lending symbolic authority to the ideas intended to appeal to the mind (and that describes Addison's "The Vision of Mirzah" as well); the other richly atmospheric, evocative, and unabashedly meant to be scary. My first acquaintance with Le Fanu was here, in "The Dream; and I've commented elsewhere on Bulwer-Lytton's "The Haunted and the Haunters" and Lord Dunsay's "Chu-bu and Sheemish." Doyle and Chesterton are represented, respectively, by Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown stories. And the Wells selection is one of his less-known gems, "The Stolen Bacillus."
The introduction is no more than adequate (its largest section is a spirited defense of the comparative quality of English short fiction as opposed to the Continental tradition --though I'm not sure many people in 1930 actually supposed the former to be inferior). However, the short bio-critical notes about each author that precede the stories can be interesting and informative. More next year! :-)
May 4, 2012 When I checked this book out to read the rest of it, there were still 50 stories here I hadn't read (another selection, the one by George Henry Borrow, is a novel excerpt). Since then, I've read 15 more; so I've decided it's time for another partial review.
Most of the 15 tales in this batch are by authors I'd never heard of outside of this book (the exceptions are Capt. Frederick Marrayat, G. P. R. James, and Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell). All of them, however, were at the very least good, diverting stories, speaking well for the editors' ability at selection. Chronologically, those in this group are all drawn from the the earlier part of the 19th century. Their 19th-century formal diction wasn't a problem for me; the linguistic challenge in some cases came from the authors writing dialogue in the colloquial style of the day, with considerable use of British (and Irish and Scots, in the case of Samuel Lover and Dr. John Brown, respectively) dialect and slang; but in most cases I could glean the meanings from the context. At times, the attitudes of the characters were more of a challenge; the class-obsessed snobbery in Robert Surtees' "The Cheltenham Dandy" and one narrator's frank intention of marrying a girl for her expected inheritance excite contempt. To be fair to the authors, though, that may have been an intended reaction; both of those stories and several others had a strong note of satirical humor, and indeed humor was the most common tone for these stories. (Very often it was gallows humor, or of an "irreverent" type that mildly surprised me, considering the period.) A few stories, though, were quite serious; a couple are tragic, and one might bring tears to your eyes (but as Tolkien has Gandalf observe at one point, "Not all tears are an evil"). Sexism occasionally rears its head, most egregiously in G. R. Gleig's "A Pyrenean Adventure," where one character comments that the killing of rape victims by their rapists was for the best, since their menfolk couldn't "receive" them back after they'd been "defiled." (If I'd been present in the flesh for that observation, there might have been a duel!) James' "Norfolk and Hereford," in happy contrast, has a strong female protagonist whose strength is sympathetically treated, and exhibits a pretty equalitarian view of marriage.
The latter was my top favorite in this batch, a stand-out historical story set in the rein of William the Conqueror, and centering around the conspiracy/revolt of Earl Waltheof; like Parke Godwin in Sherwood, James took what's known of the bare facts of this event and made his own interpretation of it --one that treats the principals in the conspiracy much more sympathetically than Godwin does! This was my first experience with James (as indeed with all these writers except Marryat, and I'd read only one other story by him), but it's definitely made me interested in exploring more of his work. With my fondness for the speculative side of fiction, two more stories here that I particularly liked were R. H. Barham's "Singular Passage in the Life of the Late Henry Harris, D.D.," a foray into dark arts and out-of-body experiences, and Gaskell's delightful "Curious if True," which demonstrates that tongue-in-cheek re-imagining of fairy tales wasn't invented in the late 20th century. :-) (This one most probably isn't typical of her overall body of work.) Other selections deserving individual mention are Brown's "Rab and His Friends," which isn't the kind of story I usually like, but which earned my approval anyway; W. Harrison Ainsworth's "Mary Stukeley," which could have been fleshed out more, but which still captures a sense of timeless human psychological conflicts between safety and adventure, constraint and freedom, duty and spontaniety; and Lover's "King O'Toole and St. Kevin," which purports to retell an Irish legend --though the slight anachronisms in it, and the questions as to the narrator's veracity, indicate at least some liberties. :-) (But the reference to "Fan Ma Cool," spelled as Fin MacCool in some old sources, suggests that the author did have some real knowledge of Irish lore.) Also memorable (though a departure from his trademark sea stories) is Capt. Marryat's "The Story of the Greek Slave," set in the Middle East in an evidently medieval milieu; speaking of gallows and irreverent humor, there's no better example anywhere! (Though there's no suggestion here of any mean-spirited ethnic prejudice, the author's also clearly no more interested in modern-style "political correctness" than his characters are.)
May 18, 2012 Henry James is treated as a British writer here, and he's represented by "The Special Type," which unfortunately shows him at his worst rather than his best. (Any of his ghost stories would have been a better choice.) I made an honest effort to read it, but after about three pages, which felt like 30, I concluded that while it was somewhat less unpleasant than hitting myself in the head with a hammer, there was no real point in doing either. However, I did read 18 more stories since my last partial review, ranging in date from the mid-1800s to the early 20th century. Many of the general comments written above would apply here as well, though purely humorous stories were less numerous in this group. Some were starkly tragic; but the tragic events are presented with so much sensitivity and compassion that they're invested with a kind of bittersweet poignancy that helps you to come to terms with it. Others are realistic tales of human family and social interaction that hold up a clear mirror to life; and the human realities they reflect aren't always pretty, nor do they always show virtue rewarded (though they may). Several stories (which is also true of those in the above group) have series protagonists, about whom the authors sometimes wrote entire books of stories; the most interesting of these has to be E. W. Hornung's Raffles, who's a burglar --but not without his principles. (Reading Hornung's "Gentlemen and Players" is like reading a Christie or Sayers mystery story, but from the crook's perspective.) Again, the literary quality of the 18 selections I actually read was pretty high. Only two were disappointing: W. Pett Ridge's "Oh, Liberty!" which I found psychologically implausible to the core, and W. J. Locke's "The Adventure of the Fair Patronne," in which I didn't like any of the characters and didn't care for the premise, attitude, or denouement.
A number of the authors were ones whose work I had read before, and several others are well-enough known even today that I'd heard of them. Thomas Hardy is represented by "The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion," set characteristically in his Wessex, at the time of the Napoleonic Wars (the British army used German mercenaries in that conflict, just as they did in the American Revolution). Anthony Trollope displays his usual insight into character and his gentle humor in "The O'Conors of Castle Conor, County Mayo," which also has the distinction of making the family's butler a sympathetic character rather than part of the furniture. The W. Clark Russell selection is, naturally, a sea story. "The House of Silence" by John Galsworthy is actually more of a highly-critical sketch of the British prison system of that day than a real story; his "Quality" would have been a better choice, IMO. Rather than the often-anthologized "The Monkey's Paw," the editors chose to represent W. W. Jacobs with a non-supernatural, humorous story, "An Odd Freak," which is much slighter than the former, and not free of a taint of racism in its portrayal of a mixed-race character --though the satire and comeuppances are fairly evenly distributed. One of my favorite stories here was "There's Many a Slip 'Twixt the Cup and the Lip," by Charles Reade, a writer I'd only heard of before, but whom I'd definitely like to read more of.
Less well-known writers came through very well, contributing several of my favorite stories in this batch, and indeed in the whole book. Pride of place in that group goes to Louise de la Ramee' (who wrote under the pen name Ouida) for "Cecil Castlemaine's Gage," a romance set against the backdrop of the first Jacobite Rebellion in 1715. It has a simple, linear plot, but the author creates genuine suspense and brings to it a really lush, descriptive prose style that adorns the narrative like the jewels on the heroine's outfits. And in Cecil, she created a strong, smart heroine atypical for that time (the story was published in 1867), and made her a dynamic character capable of growth. I also really liked H. Seton Merriman's "Sister," and Clive Holland's "The Wooing of O Sasa San." The former is set during the Boer War (it isn't named as such, but we can tell), and reminded me of some of the better episodes of the old TV series M*A*S*H; in fact, the premise was actually used in one of those episodes. Holland sets his story in Japan (in Nagasaki, which lends a particular tragic cast to his descriptions of the beauty of the harbor, etc.), and it's a stand-out, not least because it doesn't denigrate the non-white Japanese, and because the title character is a geisha who's portrayed with respect and dignity. (That's particularly praiseworthy for a story published in 1913, given that geishas, if I understand correctly, are courtesans as well as entertainers, and Edwardian society didn't view women in that profession with much compassion.)
June 4, 2012 Except for Benjamin Disraeli's "Popanilla," which I left for last due to its length, none of the stories I read in this final go-around date from later than the 1930s (or possibly the 1920s; they're mostly not dated). The Disraeli selection is pure tongue-in-cheek political and social satire, using the vehicle of a couple of undiscovered islands, one of them pretty much Edenic and the other only too reminiscent of early-1800s England, but in caricatured form. It's actually pretty witty, and marked by a scathing eye for sham, selfishness and stupidity. Most of the real-life referents are detectable to readers with a basic knowledge of the period, or of British history.
Given the time frame of the rest of the stories, it was harder for the editors to judge what might stand the test of time. A couple of these stories were, IMO, real clunkers: Ernest Bramah's "The Malignity of the Depraved Ming-Shu Rears Its Offensive Head," and "Cuvee Reservee, or, "The Widow's Cruse," a pathetically overwritten, dragging piece set during the Boer War and revolving around a shipment of high-priced wine that everyone wants to pilfer, by Gen. Sir Edward Dunlop Swinton, who wrote as "Ole-Luk-Oie." (Considering his lack of talent, his use of a pen name is understandable.) The former is part of a series set in China. (Why Bramah attempted to write in that setting, of which he was clearly clueless, is a mystery; his efforts to write Chinese dialogue are wince-worthy.) A few others are better, but flawed. Aldous Huxley is represented by "Cynthia," a very slight story that depends for its (weak) humor on a knowledge of classical mythology. "Old Joe" by Thomas Burke actually foreshadows the grim, gritty style of later American noir, but lacks the cynicism at its core. It's seriously marred, though, by the racist portrayal of Orientals; I don't mind Oriental --or Caucasian-- villains, but phrases like "drunken devils of yellow seamen" and "large, stooping Chinky" (in the third-person narrator's voice!) cross a line. Anthony Farley's "The Choice of a Profession" reads like a mash-up of two works, a satirical piece by an obnoxious representative of The Evil Oppressing Class --Farley was obviously a Socialist who took his social labeling of white hats and black hats with unrelieved self-righteous seriousness-- writing advice to his nephew and a dark account of outlawry in Belize (which would be pretty good by itself), and the two never really mesh. The humor in Stephen McKenna's "Pandora's Box," revolving around a couple trying to pretend to his employer to be something they're not, is real enough, but shallow (it reminded me of the weaker episodes of the old TV series Bewitched, to which I used to have the same reaction).
Even in this group, though, most of the stories were up to standard --though some are very dark indeed. A couple are laser-lit looks at cohabitating couples, and at the misery a selfish male jerk in that relationship can inflict on a woman (both women here earn the reader's compassion, but they react in very different ways). Another is a story of a woman's infidelity, and what that can do to her husband. (All of these realistically reflect the sexual revolution, which didn't start in the 60s --but they aren't sugar-coated propaganda for it.) The long shadow of World War I falls over three stories, all written by men who served as officers in that conflict. (One of these, F. Britten Austen's "A Battlepiece: Old Style," is probably one of the most horrific evocations of the nightmare insanity of modern war ever penned. It's not necessary to be a total pacifist to be in complete sympathy with his indictment.) Michael West, in "Cerise," delivers one of his characteristic (good) imitations of a medieval tale of magic and morality, which reads like the real thing. Saki is represented by "The Reticence of Lady Anne," which is hard to describe without a spoiler, but which perfectly illustrates his darkly cynical, deceptively humorous vision (his humor is almost always gallows humor). Finally, F. St. Mars' tale of modern-day (that is, post-1900) smuggling is one of my unabashed favorites here. :-) Other favorites included "Crab-Pots" by L. A. da Costa Ricci ("Bartimeus"), and A. E. Coppard's "Fifty Pounds," because of its strong heroine whom I liked --and respected.
I've shared some quibbles above regarding particular selections, and if I'd been editing the collection, I'd have included something by Katherine Mansfield. But no 1,047-page anthology will be perfect! It's an outstanding collection overall, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to either study the history of British short fiction or read it for pleasure (or both!). (less)
Nov. 20, 2009: This book served as a textbook for a college class I took in the mid 90s. I've read some of the stories already; so I'm going to review...moreNov. 20, 2009: This book served as a textbook for a college class I took in the mid 90s. I've read some of the stories already; so I'm going to review the ones I've read so far. Three selections (actually, four; Jesus' parable of the prodigal son from Luke 15:11-32 falls into the same category, though it's not grouped with the others) are accurate written versions of oral fictional forms --folktale, fable, and parable-- that helpfully illustrate comparison and contrast between this tradition and the later-developing form of literary fiction. These are followed by about two dozen stories divided between units on aspects of fiction like Plot, Character, Setting, Theme, etc., each introduced with an essay by the editors. Then one writer, devout Roman Catholic Flannery O'Connor, is singled out for in-depth study, with three stories and two very good nonfiction pieces by the author herself that help to explain her philosophy of writing. The best known of the three stories is "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," which of course has a positive message (as O'Connor explains in one of the included critical pieces); but for me the horrific impact of the events of the story --even depicted without blood and gore-- was so pervasive that the message was lost in it, and the climactic gesture that embodied it was just perceived as an odd anomaly and passed over. (Perhaps some of this was because I originally read it as a child of about ten --which is probably not the best age at which to encounter something like this.) It's easily one of the most starkly horrifying tales in the English language, and the more so because, unlike tales of supernatural menaces, it's something that could really happen. These units are all followed by Suggestions for Writing, and all the stories in these sections are followed by intelligent questions that help the reader to interpret and appreciate them. The other stories, for "Further Reading," follow the O'Connor section, and are arranged alphabetically by author. (For the most part, I haven't read many of the stories in order). In choosing the stories, the editors concentrated heavily on descriptive general fiction. It isn't possible to discuss all of the selections I've read so far, but a number of them are classics such as "The Lottery," "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," "The Yellow Wallpaper," "A Rose for Emily," "The Rocking-Horse Winner," and London's "To Build a Fire." Some of my own favorites include Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," Poe's "The Tell-tale Heart," Faulkner's "Barn Burning," Flannery O'Connor's "Revelation," Thurber's "The Catbird Seat," and Cisneros' "Barbie-Q." Several stories are so heart-breaking that they couldn't be called "enjoyable" (and aren't supposed to be); but they serve to sensitize the reader to the sufferings of others --to awaken a compassion, not just for the suffering characters, but hopefully for real-life sufferers we may meet; and hopefully a heightened willingness to look for the suffering of others even if they don't loudly trumpet it. I'd place stories like Chekhov's appropriately titled "Misery," Mansfield's "Miss Brill," Langston Hughes' "On the Road," and even Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums" in this category; they're stories that should expand and soften the heart, and make you want to hug someone who's hurting. Other selections didn't impress me as favorably. Singer's "Gimpel the Fool" and Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" were distinctly underwhelming. (In the former, the protagonist's decision not to serve the townsfolk bread after he'd urinated in the kneading troughs, of course, is supposed to be a great moral epiphany, but it's overwhelmed by the sheer gross-out quality of the tasteless image.) Chopin's "The Storm" and "The Story of an Hour" are expressions of an anti-marriage philosophy that I don't share or sympathize with. (Ironically, her marriage, which ended in her husband's death before she began her writing career, was completely happy, by her own admission; like a lot of literature in the century that would follow, these stories represent the complete triumph of ideology over the writer's personal experience and normal feelings). The literary-critical pieces by famous writers that follow the stories are short snippets, and I've only read the one by Poe. That one, though, has an intriguing insight --he argues that short stories, since they can be read at a sitting, allow the writer full scope to work an effect on the reader's mind, undiluted by the distractions that are inevitable when you have to read a work in several sittings instead of one. That makes short fiction a more effective medium for the literary art, in his opinion, than novels. Aug. 8, 2010 I've recently read six more stories in this collection, while I've been between some other blocs of reading, and waiting to leave on vacation. One of these, Jorge Luis Borges' "The Gospel According to Mark," was not one that I personally appreciated at all, though it would be impossible to analyze why without engaging in a spoiler. He's an author whose work I'd never read before (though of course I'd heard of him, as I had of all the authors I sampled here this time around); suffice it to say that I'm not particularly motivated to read more of it. The other five stories, though --Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" (1957), Alice Walker's "Everyday Use" (1973), John Cheever's "The Five Forty-Eight" (1954), and "Greasy Lake" (1985) by T. Coraghessan Boyle-- all earned high marks from me, in their different ways. Each of these tales is as unique as the authors are; they have very distinct settings and plots, and the authors were coming from distinctly different places and backgrounds. But they have certain commonalities. They all deal, to different degrees, with subject matter that could be considered in some way dark or depressing --but to the writers' credit, they all deal with it (again, not to share any spoilers!) in an ultimately redemptive way. Also, they all demonstrate a real skill for creating deeply realized characters whose attributes are brought out perfectly through the telling detail. Their protagonists or other characters may be very flawed; but the writers aren't promoting or excusing the flaws, but rather the reverse. I'd read (and greatly liked) some of Tolstoy's other short stories before, and come to appreciate his unflinching --and skillfully conveyed-- Christian moral vision. This selection, the story of the wasted life and lingering death of a Czarist Russian judge, a selfish and worldly man who's never considered ultimate reality and hardly ever had a thought or feeling in his adult life that was original or authentic, is of a piece with this body of work; it becomes a vehicle for driving home the universality of death, and raising the question of how we meet it. It isn't explicitly Christian in its message, but knowing where Tolstoy is coming from adds depth and context to the reader's understanding. The writers of the other four stories were all completely new to me; I might not like all of their body of work, but these selections were good, well-chosen introductions that whetted my appetite for more. Cheever writes in the classic short fiction tradition; here, he gives us a totally unlikeable, morally repulsive protagonist (assuming that he's fairly representative of prosperous urbanites of his time, the reflexive sexism and male chauvinism of his attitudes and actions, and the ease with which he's gotten away with them in the past with no challenge, does a lot to explain the rise of militant "gender" feminism a few years later as an understandable reaction!). For me, that usually doesn't work in a story; but Cheever makes it work here. Baldwin and Walker deal with, respectively, the urban and the rural American Black experience, and with issues of family dynamics, personal character and choices as well. Neither of them reductively subsumes the whole Black experience as a wooden, monolithic exercise in racial victimhood at the hands of whites --racism is a background in the stories, as in life, but the focus is on the black characters as determiners of their own destiny and makers of their own cultural world. (Baldwin's story tries to explain something of the dark psychology of drug addiction, which is a worthwhile literary subject but hard for me to relate to personally; and as a tone-deaf person, I probably get less benefit out of the role of blues music in the story than a blues fan would.) Boyle portrays the milieu of the socially, morally and culturally lost, stoned, egoistic, irresponsible delinquent youth of the 60s (and afterward -- this has, tragically, become a fixture of the American scene) with an obvious insider's eye, in the setting of a polluted lakeshore, the perfect symbol of nature defiled and perverted by a toxic culture. But he portrays it to expose and critique, not glorify, its defilement. (The Baldwin and Boyle stories both have a component of bad language, which in the latter case includes some use of the f-word; but, IMO, the dialogue in both is arguably defensible as realistic in its setting.) August 21, 2010 Since my last update, I've read four more stories here. The only one that proved to be really disappointing was Raymond Carver's "Cathedral." Of course, this is a darling of the critical community; and yes, I know the point of it is supposed to be the narrator's learning to regard blind people in a less negative way. But for me, the gratuitous depiction of casual recreational dope use was disgusting enough to negate any positive message the rest of the story might have. And yes, I do recognize that drug use is a (negative) feature of some people's lives, and that it's depicted or referred to in other literary works that I like (including "Sonny's Blues," above). The significant difference is that there it isn't depicted in a positive way that seems clearly designed to normalize and mainstream it, as it is here. We as a society have, in general, lost enough of our common sense and moral compass in the post-60s decades that we're mostly psychologically incapable of recognizing anything (such as drug use) as unnatural and destructive --even when it patently is. Fiction like Carver's has been a tool for hamstringing us in that fashion --and it is not to adopt a "conspiracy theory" to recognize that this is a hefty part of the ideological agenda behind it. (Calling that kind of fictional element out for what it is, on the other hand, is an instrument for recovery of perspective.) The other three stories, though, were well worth reading. "Paul's Case," (1905) of course, is a classic --and almost invariably the one Cather story that modern critics zero in on; it's also the one selected for dramatization in the American Short Story video series. In that connection, it's no doubt not coincidental that's it's a story with a teen protagonist --who can be viewed as the "hero" by the same critical school that treats Satan as the "hero" of Paradise Lost :-) -- who runs off to New York with stolen money (not a spoiler --the short blurb in the table of contents here tells that much!). "Neighbor Rosicky" is a story I liked better and would deem more representative of Cather's work; if I'd been the editor here, I'd have selected that one instead, but this one isn't without its value, because Cather's portrayal of Paul is far from lionizing him or justifying what he does. Instead, her exploration of the social, moral and psychological ramifications of the character and his situation is nuanced, penetrating, balanced and thought provoking. Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" and Amy Tan's "A Pair of Tickets" (the latter was either later incorporated in, or first written as part of, Tan's novel the Joy Luck Club, but can stand as a self- contained whole) are both more recent, dating respectively from 1961 and 1989. They're also both powerfully evocative stories that draw very heavily on the writer's own life experiences: in Olsen's case, that of a working class woman abandoned by her husband with a child and having to raise her in the Depression and war years in rough circumstances, and in Tan's that of an American-born woman of Chinese extraction, coming to terms with the Chinese part of herself that she's inherited from her parents. Both of the narrators quickly became, to me, real people that I could empathize with, and see and feel through their eyes. Though my ethnicity is Swedish, not Chinese, I could see real parallels in my own consciousness (though my specific family circumstances are very different, and I'm another generation removed from the old country). Olsen touches cords of feeling about the inevitable strains and misunderstandings between parent and child, and between siblings, that are part of every family's experience; and as is natural for a Marxist writer, she makes you acutely aware of the social injustice that shapes the lives of the working poor. (She and I don't agree on whether Marxism is the solution --though she doesn't argue for Marxism in the story-- but we'd agree that the system has to change.) These stories, and Cather's, exemplify "mainstream" general fiction the way it should be done! Sept. 12, 2010 I've read three more stories in this collection, all by writers whose work I hadn't previously experienced: Gordimer, Hurston, and Lessing. Also, I read most of the remaining comments by authors about the craft of fiction. (The latter proved to be interesting --sometimes, as with Mansfield's, giving some insight into her own creative process, sometimes giving insight into fiction in general as with Henry James'. Faulkner's is a quote from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, which I'd read elsewhere years ago, but it's quite good --and flies in the face of so much of the critical community's dominant attitudes today!) All three of the stories were worthwhile in their own way. Both Lessing's "A Woman on a Roof" and Godimer's "The Defeated" are in the tradition of relatively unplotted stories that focus mainly on the character's inner perceptions of things; but they manage to do this in a constructive and involving way that holds interest (a feat most of the lesser authors in this school don't manage). Lessing's is a sobering look at the objectification of women in the minds of (too) many males; Gordimer's is an unflinching look at the way that some growing and grown kids fail to appreciate their parents or their roots, and the way human beings can take their hurt out on others without even understanding what they're doing. (Both stories, of course, have other dimensions as well; much could be written about them, and the same can be said for Hurston's "Sweat.") For readers who enjoy description, Gordimer's evocation of scenes in her native South Africa are probably as vivid and satisfying as any ever penned in English. The Hurston story is traditional plotted fiction, a masterpiece of a morality tale told with a stark, spare simplicity about characters so real they practically walk off the page. Oct. 4, 2010 Today, I finished all of this book that I intend to read. I did NOT read Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," and never will. No doubt it's great literature; but I'm too repulsed by roaches to ever immerse myself in the story of a human being turned one. And I didn't read the part dealing with how to do academic writing about literature, because it no longer has any relation to anything that I'll do in the remaining chapters of my life; my school days are long behind me. But I've read the vast majority of the book, and feel qualified to review it. (There are a few stories --"Everything That Rises Must Converge," Mason's "Shiloh," and Porter's "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall"-- that I'm not sure I've fully understood and appreciated, and may read again; but that'll be a project for another time.)
Of the five fiction authors whose selections I read this time around, the only one I'd previously had any real experience with before was Oates. (Okay, as a kid I'd picked up a copy of Roth's Goodbye Columbus --at that age, I'd experiment with reading most anything-- and quit at the first page because I was appalled at the foul language; but that doesn't qualify as an extended experience.) The Oates story I'd read earlier was "Queen of the Night," which is merely boring and pointless. The one here, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been," is repulsive, horrifying and disgusting (even without any explicit violence and gore). Basically, it deals with a 15-year-old girl who becomes the prey of two middle-aged psychopaths bent on rape. (Oates' reputation for ultra-dark, sick subject matter, evidently, isn't wholly undeserved.) No doubt, critics would say this is a brave exploration of the psychology of rapist psychopaths, and of the psyche of females who are often socialized to helplessly let themselves be victimized. Be that as it may, it was an exploration I didn't need, and it serves, IMO, no constructive or uplifting literary purpose (save maybe to remind me of why I much prefer to get my "horror" in the supernatural realm). This was the only story of the five that I disliked --unapologetically!
Garcia Marquez' "The Woman Who Came at Six O'Clock" actually strays into noir territory, though it too doesn't have any explicit violence. To keep his respectability in critical circles, the author avoids any resolution in the cop-out ending; and he milks every fleeting emotional nuance of the characters in a performance that comes across as something like a picture of a tree that concentrates so much on wood grain and leaf textures that it's hard to focus on the tree. But he does introduce you to two really interesting characters, in a really interesting and charged situation that invites all sorts of moral and psychological reflections. Roth's "The Conversion of the Jews" and Frank O'Connor's "First Confession," though very different, have in common that they focus on the experience of young boys being reared in a kind of religiousity that's stifling, mean-spirited, obscurantist, intolerant and soul-crushing. You don't come away from these stories with the impression that this is how God really is, or that religious belief is inherently bunk; but you do come away with the realization that the perversion of religious belief too often foisted on kids is much worse than bunk. And of Alice Munro's "How I Met My Husband," suffice it to say that it's one of my favorites in the whole book, and I'd gladly read more of her work!
The last authorial snippet came from Raymond Carver (and was actually, in itself, pretty insightful). To finish the book, the authors gave brief descriptions of a number of critical approaches to literature --formalist, biographical, historical, etc.-- followed by short sections (mostly helpful) from critics of each stripe expanding on the method. My conclusion from this is that there's some validity in almost ALL of these approaches, and they should be used together, like a carpenter' tools -any carpenter who insisted on building a shed or a bookcase using ONLY a saw, or ONLY a hammer, would soon find himself or herself very frustrated. The one exception to this is deconstructionist criticism, which I view as unadulterated tripe. (A good question for deconstructionists: if language can't communicate, why do you bother communicating your half-baked theory in language?)
In summary, this is, overall, a pretty good treasure trove of solid, quality reading for fans of short fiction, and a good introduction to serious literary study for readers interested in that sort of thing. The parts that I read also suggest that it would fill its function as a college (or high school) textbook in a literature class very well.(less)
At first, I didn't expect to like this book; as I noted in a comment below, it was one I had to read because of my work. The premise of a young child'...moreAt first, I didn't expect to like this book; as I noted in a comment below, it was one I had to read because of my work. The premise of a young child's death at the hands of a serial killer (and serial killing in general) is one I usually avoid in my reading, and I'd read negative comments about Young's style and theology. My reservations vanished very quickly! Some of the commentary in the book description above verges more into the territory of a laudatory review; but for once, the praise is well merited.
Young doesn't directly describe Missy's ordeal and death, and he spares the reader graphic details. While we fully realize the horror of Mack's loss, this isn't gratuitous; it's necessary, because the author wants us to join him in grappling with the problem of theodicy --how a loving God can allow suffering and evil-- and he confronts the profoundest evil and suffering to make it clear that his answers aren't glib and cheap. His answer is thoroughly Christian (not just theistic), and grounded in free will; a Calvinist would reject it out of hand, but to an Arminian like myself it makes perfect sense. But it does more than "make sense," and it isn't the dry philosophical treatment that "the problem of theodicy" might imply; it speaks to us on a profoundly deep emotional and personal level, as two very real, full-fleshed characters (Mack and God) relate to each other. Yes, it's a novel of ideas. But its ideas are enfleshed naturally in the context of personal interaction and unfolding physical events, so that it's anything but arid and boring (I was absolutely riveted!).
The book's messages about God, of course, cover much more ground than theodicy; they're about, ultimately, what it really means to relate to God in Christ, the relationship of trust and surrender to his control that He wants to have with every human being. All of the theological messages here are completely orthodox, rooted in New Testament teaching or traditional Christian dogma (his approach to the Trinity, for instance, comes from the Nicene and Athanasian creeds), including his Pauline view of the relationship of grace to rules; but they're stated in a fresh and winsome way that a non-Christian (as well as a nominal or biblically-uninformed Christian) can readily grasp. Nor does he treat "the Church" as a man-made organization to which God is indifferent (as my Goodreads friend C. J. thought); he simply makes a Biblical distinction between the church of redeemed believers and the man-made organizations into which it's been fragmented. And he also doesn't advocate ignoring the Ten Commandments and responsible behavior --rather, he recognizes that we can fulfill these only by yielding to the Holy Spirit's control, not by self-contained virtuous effort. I might differ with some of his terminology in places, but not with the underlying ideas; and I didn't find his treatment of God irreverent or disrespectful at all. Also, to me Mack's responses to the situation throughout came across as believable and realistic.
This is not a treatise on Christian evidences; but it may speak to non -Christians much more forcefully than the best of such treatises. And re the question I sought to answer when I started reading it: I'm putting it in the library's main collection --not because it contains anything objectionable for Christians, but because I want more people to find it and read it!(less)
When I first began reading this series-opener, it took me awhile to warm up to it. That's because the human drama of the various plot lines is slow to...moreWhen I first began reading this series-opener, it took me awhile to warm up to it. That's because the human drama of the various plot lines is slow to develop, and because I didn't immediately get close enough to any of the characters to actually get inside their heads and understand or relate strongly to them. (The third-person narration isn't the cause of this. Arguably, that's much the way things are in real life; most of the time, it takes awhile to get to know a new community and new people and to feel fully a part of things.) As my rating shows, it was worth sticking with it and giving it a chance; the number of stars I was prepared to give rose steadily as I read --which is always a nice experience, compared to the all-too-common reverse!
Karon's central character here is a sixty-ish Episcopal priest, Father Tim (his last name is never given, as far as I can recall), rector of a small congregation in a little North Carolina mountain town, clearly modeled on the author's home community. The various plot strands revolve around his own concerns and the life of his parish; this makes it easy and natural for Karon to weave in references to the Christian faith of her characters (which mirrors her own) and its role in both individual and community life. Her Christianity is of a simple, gentle sort; she shows God working through the changed hearts of those who respond to Him, more so than through spectacular miracles, and Father Tim's witness and spiritual counsel is more in the nature of winsomely declaring truth that most people can instinctively relate to, rather than of arguing theology and Christian evidences. For general fiction dealing with the everyday lives of ordinary people, this approach strikes me as pitch-perfect. This book was published by a secular press (perhaps partly because Karon's Episcopal characters aren't averse to an occasional glass of wine, which no doubt violates ECPA/CBA rules), and I think could appeal to secular readers who aren't reflexively repelled by portrayals of religious believers. It also has no sex or bad language, and would certainly appeal to most Christian readers. (Though Karon is an Episcopalian herself, she doesn't beat a denominational drum here; indeed, the warm fellowship between Father Tim and Baptist preacher Absalom Greer makes a good ecumenical point.)
While I expected to encounter regionalist Realism here, I would say that Karon actually doesn't make as strong a use of the specifically Appalachian setting as Sharon McCrumb does in the Ballad series; much of the atmosphere here might be that of any small town anywhere in the U.S. She also does not deal much in grappling directly with modern social and economic problems (though she doesn't ignore them totally; one short passage, for instance, makes it clear that Mitford's mayor and others are well aware of the threat of so-called "development" and --in a community whose home-owned businesses are still viable-- resolved to resist it). At times, the novel can also have a somewhat "sanitized" feel (and that's apart from the freedom from profanity and sex, which to me is positive). But the characters do face serious and realistic painful or challenging situations: Father Tim's diabetes, the loss of a beloved spouse, a terminal illness, thwarted romance, dark family secrets, schizophrenia, and the starkly awful family situation of 11-year-old Dooley (he and his siblings given away by an alcoholic mother like a litter of unwanted puppies or kittens), to name a few. There's rural poverty in the back country hollows, and drugs and crime are realities. The mood, though, is upbeat; we see characters able to confront and get a handle on problems. While Karon can sometimes, IMO, use "quirkiness" as a crutch, she's basically good at characterization; she has a healthy sense of humor that leavens the story, and she's able to blend the mundane and the lyrical in some beautiful passages (the ending here lifted the book into four-star territory). She also imparts a lot of solid wisdom for life in these pages, and delivers an appealing romance (of a man and woman in the autumn, rather than the spring, of their lives), though this isn't a "romance" novel and doesn't follow commercial "romance" conventions.
More by accident than deliberate choice, my reading over the years has tended to neglect contemporary general fiction. But that tradition has a lot of rewards to offer, as novels like this show; and I do want to read more in it. I definitely plan to continue with this series (eventually); and I'd expect to be able to get into the second one much more quickly now, for knowing the characters and community!(less)
I'd started reading this book several years ago, in the library at another college, while I was attending a library convention, and I've just now gott...moreI'd started reading this book several years ago, in the library at another college, while I was attending a library convention, and I've just now gotten around to finishing it. At his best, Bradbury is a master of short fiction; his output in that form ranges across the genres, from the speculative realms of science and supernatural fiction to the everyday world of descriptive fiction. But the unifying thread in all of it is a flamboyant imagination, by turns whimsical or chilling, that can transform the ordinary into a strange and alien landscape. And the whole is presented in a uniquely lyrical and evocative prose style, rich with metaphors and similes, and appealing to all of the reader's senses to a degree that few writers have ever equaled. The 19 early stories here (several of them reprinted from his earlier collection, Dark Carnival) well illustrate these characteristics, with an emphasis on the scarier side of his work.
Of course, given the sheer volume of Bradbury's output, and the speed with which he produced it in his early years, some of his stories inevitably miss the mark. Here, the science fiction stories generally share the common theme of making some harmless feature of ordinary life somehow lethally menacing --one's own skeleton, the wind, a newborn baby who wants to kill his parents in "The Small Assassin." Bradbury doesn't succeed in making any of these premises credible, or in carrying the reader along despite the incredulity; these works illustrate the dictum of one critic that the author's besetting fault is "silliness." But most of the stories here succeed very well in being what they're designed to be. The ghost stories are very effective, and "The Homecoming" is a supernatural genre masterpiece. Much of the descriptive fiction is a powerful evocation of the real horror in this world: death, madness, murder, suicide, and the major and minor cruelties we inflict on each other. "The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse" is exaggerated social satire that derives its bite precisely from its deadpan exaggeration; and "The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone" is a serious meditation on life's priorities, of special interest to those of us who are writers.(less)
While the setting of this brilliant novel is presumably Hinton's native Tulsa or modeled closely on it, and the specific social circumstances of the t...moreWhile the setting of this brilliant novel is presumably Hinton's native Tulsa or modeled closely on it, and the specific social circumstances of the teen milieu she depicts, with its sharp and often violent class conflict between the spoiled, nihilistic upper crust versus the angry, socially/economically circumscribed white underclass, may (or in some places, may not) have changed since the 60s, the themes she addresses here are absolutely universal and timeless: the universality of human feelings, needs, and worth regardless of artificial divisions; the need --and ability-- that every human being has to make his/her own moral decisions and character, regardless of external social circumstances; the value of family ties and friendship; and the transcendent reality that some behaviors are innately right and others wrong, depending on how they treat other people. Through the utterly realistic characters she creates, and the perfectly crafted plot she constructs around them, Hinton conveys her message with an artistry not found among many authors in their 50s and 60s, let alone their teens. She writes thoroughly believable dialogue, and conjures the gritty atmosphere of a lower-class urban neighborhood, without resorting to profanity or cheapening her work with gratuitous sex. And while she conveys a keen consciousness of social injustice, she does not reduce her characters to puppets of social circumstances, nor reduce the personal to the political.
Though the publishing industry marketed (and still markets) this book to teens, there is nothing "juvenile" or "kiddish" about it that merits patronizing treatment by older readers or critics. On the contrary, while teen readers continue to embrace the book, it's a work of serious fiction as appropriate for adults as well as any of the books marketed to them --and a better read with more constructive content than most of those, to boot. In short, this is descriptive fiction as it should be written. Forty years is a short period from which to judge the enduring significance of a novel; but I predict that this one will stand the test of time, and that one day a sane critical community (if we ever have one :-)) will rank it as a crown jewel of the Realist tradition, and of American fiction.(less)
In the case of books I've read but disliked, I often indicate that fact with a one-star rating, so people browsing my shelves won't be misled as to my...moreIn the case of books I've read but disliked, I often indicate that fact with a one-star rating, so people browsing my shelves won't be misled as to my tastes. Some Goodreaders object to the practice of giving single-star ratings without a review to explain why; one likened it to a drive-by shooting. Mindful of their point, I've tried to go back and add reviews in some of these cases; and (to keep the shooting metaphor) this is one where I'm quite glad to come back and pump a few more bullets into the corpse. :-)
As the glowing Goodreads description indicates, Nobel laureate Hemingway is a critical establishment darling, so anybody panning his work risks condemnation as a philistine or worse. In my friends circle, ratings of this book range from five stars to one (and points in between), and some of the former come from friends whose judgment I respect a lot more than I do that of most critics. Of course, literary tastes are subjective; so I can only indicate how and why the work impressed (or failed to impress) me, for whatever that's worth. (As another friend sometimes says, "Your mileage may vary.") It's probably worth noting that I read this while I was in high school, and while it wasn't assigned by a teacher, I read it as something one had to read in order to be "educated." So I wasn't really drawn to it on its own merits; that may have been a factor that helped color my reaction, though a negative reaction didn't need much help.
To begin with, there's the matter of what the author of the Goodreads description (who was probably writing a jacket blurb!) calls the author's "spare but powerful" style: a limited-vocabulary, staccato, sometimes repetitive diction that's averse to adjectives, adverbs and most description of any kind. If prose were bread loaves, this would definitely be industrially-baked, thin-sliced white bread that dissolves in the mouth like slush and is more or less tasteless. It's significant that, despite the critical adulation of Hemingway as a stylist, this way of writing is virtually unique to him; it's usually explained in textbooks as a result of his background in newspaper journalism, but I've never encountered any newspaper story that affected this style, and no subsequent fiction writers I know of have chosen to imitate him (though a few have dared to parody him, sometimes to hilarious effect). There's just so much verbal richness to the English language, in vocabulary and syntax, so many expressive possibilities, that are simply lost here! So, especially given that the English-language writers I admire the most as stylists --Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, C. L. Moore, Tanith Lee, and others-- have a much lusher, more fulsome style, it might be expected that I'm not an admirer of Hemingway's. Before reading this novel, I'd been exposed to it in some of his short fiction; I didn't like it there, and didn't appreciate it here.
More importantly, there are the more substantial matters of message, plot, and characters. Basically, the premise here can be summed up as: socially useless expatriates in Paris, whose worldview is comprised of cynicism, nihilism and hedonism, sit around killing time by drinking, fornicating, being bored, and going on jaunts to other places where they can sit around and do the same. That also pretty much summarizes the plot; if you're looking for eventful storytelling, examinations of constructive human relationships, a tale of some goal achieved or conflict undertaken, moral choices made or principles stood upon, you won't find it here. Of course, Hemingway was following the adage, "Write what you know;" (Jake Barnes could be his alter ego). He was part of a vast sea of human flotsam that came out of World War I with their shallow beliefs destroyed, and nothing to put in their place, convinced that life is futile; and he wrote this novel as a literary testament to that conviction. The symbolism of the title expresses the thought in a nutshell, being taken from the epigraph from Ecclesiastes (having been raised in a Plymouth Brethren church, Hemingway was familiar with the Bible); the quoted verses make it clear that from a purely earth-bound perspective, human life is a cycle of vanity that doesn't go anywhere but in the same pointless circle. (For the Biblical writer, of course, in context, this is balanced by an awareness of the divine and transcendent that breaks the circle; but there's no such awareness here.) Since the literary critical establishment of the mid-20th century came out of the same "lost generation" (to quote the novel's other epigraph), this is the kind of self-referential, navel-gazing literature that they could eat up with a spoon and solemnly declare to be Great Truth. But if you recognize that life and the universe are meaningful, this doesn't come across as Great Truth, but as whiny drivel from people who need to grow up and get a life. Nor does it really succeed as a literary portrait to help us understand what makes these people tick, or to present it alongside the backdrop of an alternative; Hemingway isn't perceptive enough to analyze what makes his characters this way, and he hasn't got an alternative.
To be sure, there's a kind of vestigial plot, in the form of a triangle of sorts (I wouldn't go so far as to call it a "love" triangle) involving Jake, Lady Brett Ashley, and Robert Cohn --the latter two have a brief sexual dalliance, and the former two are quite scandalized that he's so gauche as to expect it to be anything more. (The reader might be scandalized, too --but not by that.) But none of these characters are likeable enough to arouse any emotional connection, or caring one way or the other about what they do or who they end up with --at least, I didn't. The book did, though, evoke one emotional reaction: resentment and distaste for its anti-Semitic undercurrent. Hemingway takes pains to note Cohn's Jewishness, paints him in as unflattering a light as he can, even compared to the other characters, and puts in one character's mouth the line, "Brett's gone off with men. But they weren't ever Jews, and they didn't come and hang about afterward." (This represents, of course, the author's way of trying to hurt the feelings of his nominal friend Gertrude Stein, towards whom he harbored pretty ambivalent feelings that included a hefty component of resentment.) If the critics hadn't already canonized this book before the Nazis gave anti-Semitism a bad name in respectable circles, one suspects it wouldn't be so highly rated today.
So, if this book "educated" me with any lesson, it was that I never wanted to read another Hemingway novel. :-) One might assume that this was an adolescent negative reaction to fiction from that era. But at the same time of my life, I read and liked works by such Hemingway contemporaries as Cather, Sinclair Lewis, and Arthur Koestler. Nor is it a blanket rejection of fictional writers with Hemingway's worldview --Lovecraft was, like Hemingway, an atheist and materialist (and from the same generation), but he became one of my favorite writers. He also produced a body of fiction that has something to offer in terms of literary enjoyment and rewards, whether you accept his worldview or not. Alas, that's not something I personally can say of Hemingway.(less)
While Sparks is known for having romantic plotlines in his fiction, and would probably appeal to fans of the romance genre, he eschews the conventiona...moreWhile Sparks is known for having romantic plotlines in his fiction, and would probably appeal to fans of the romance genre, he eschews the conventional formula here, and this novel gains depth as a result. The core of his story is most definitely a (clean and wholesome) romance, between two people that the reader comes to care about, and that's a type of story with an innate appeal to many readers of both sexes -- it's true that most men aren't big fans of commercial "romances," but that's because we usually don't appreciate the verbal excesses and predictable plotting that mar most of those efforts, not because we don't root for true love as much as female readers! But more than romance, like all really good fiction, this book offers a serious look at the things that matter in life, and subtly invites the reader to grow in appreciation of those things as we watch Landon Carter grow.
Sparks' prose is clear and straightforward, and the book is easy to read (I could imagine some readers wanting to read it at a sitting), and his setting, small-town coastal North Carolina in 1958-59, just before his own birth, is evoked well. A Roman Catholic, his treatment of his heroine's faith (she's the daughter of a Baptist minister) is very positive and respectful. While the book is titled A Walk to Remember, Jamie is certainly also a character to remember, for a long time --one of the classiest ladies to grace the pages of contemporary fiction. (And fans of tough females can take note: she's not a swordswoman like, say, Jirel of Joiry, but she's her equal in guts and inner strength!) (less)
The central theme of The Chosen is the possible difference between our inherited religious tradition vs. the genuine will of God for our lives; and it...moreThe central theme of The Chosen is the possible difference between our inherited religious tradition vs. the genuine will of God for our lives; and its central moral question is, how far (if at all) do we have an obligation to let the former define who we can become? Both boys in the book have to grapple with this; it's most obvious for Danny, "chosen" from infancy to succeed his father as a rabbi of the super-orthodox Hasidim, with their almost medieval traditions (a role he's not at all cut out for), but Reuven also faces it in his yeshiva, when he realizes that his own study of the Old Testament leads at times to different conclusions than those of his rabbinic tradition. Himself Jewish, Potok doesn't demonize tradition; he delivers a serious, nuanced and balanced look at its role. Though they're presented here in a Jewish context, the religious issues he deals with here are profoundly important for Christians (or persons of any faith) as well.
Like all great novels, this one has other dimensions as well. (The meaning of the title is also multi-faceted: Danny is "the chosen," but Reuven is also "chosen" across sectarian lines to become his friend; and at a deeper level, Israel itself was chosen by God as the vehicle for His revelation to mankind.)
For Gentile Christians like myself, another rewarding feature of this book is the window it provides into Jewish culture and thought, especially the American urban Jewish culture that had so great an influence on the shaping of our country in the decades after the story takes place. Prior to reading this book, I really knew nothing at all about Hasidic Judaism, its origins or particular beliefs; so all of the historical information Potok seamlessly provides was fascinating to me.(less)
Modern/contemporary general fiction hasn't formed the largest bloc of my reading --not because I don't like it, but just because, at the specific time...moreModern/contemporary general fiction hasn't formed the largest bloc of my reading --not because I don't like it, but just because, at the specific times when I've picked books to read over the years, selections from the other genres have usually happened to overshadow anything from this one. And I greatly enjoy both the supernatural (as well as other speculative) and mystery genres. So it's perhaps not surprising that when I do read general fiction, some of what I'm attracted to has elements of other genres, though not pronounced enough to make it part of them. That's the case with the Ballad series, set in fictional Hamelin, TN and featuring continuing characters Sheriff Spencer Arrowood, his small staff, and mountain wise woman Nora Bonesteel (as well as characters unique to each novel). McCrumb is a successful author in the mystery field, and this series, anchored as it is to the life of a small-town sheriff's office, frequently has plots that involve crimes, sometimes involving detection and unanswered questions --as is the case here, where there is more to this "murder-suicide" than meets the eye. The books also have occasional matter-of-fact glimpses into the supernatural, woven into the fabric of normal life but never overwhelming it; Miz Bonesteel, for instance, has second-sight (as did her grandmother), and that's just something everyone knows and takes for granted. ("Magical realism" is a term that might be apt here.) And in some books of the series, though not this one, the author interweaves blocs of historical fiction with the present-day narrative, as Appalachia's past continues to affect, and even haunt, its present. But these books don't fit neatly into, or wholly adopt the conventions of, any of those three genres.
Here, the real central concern is with realistically depicting the life and relationships of the characters, and the broader fabric of life and social problems of the modern Appalachia in which they live. (Author McCrumb herself comes from Appalachian roots, and now lives in the area herself.) This isn't the idealized Appalachia of, say, Manly Wade Wellman's Silver John series, almost frozen in time and untouched by the evils of modernity. Rather, it's the real modern-day Appalachia, characterized by grinding poverty, environmental degradation, ruthless exploitation by powerful interests, and a decaying social fabric. But traces of the older mountain culture survive and endure; a strength of the series is McCrumb's knowledge, and skillful use, of the history, lore, and folkways of the region. (My own long residence in the area, my wife's roots in it, and my growing affection and appreciation for its heritage, is undoubtedly a factor in my attraction to this series.) The author's moral and social instincts are sound; she's an able storyteller, creates characters you care about, and she doesn't employ explicit sex or much bad language (though there's some of the latter). Readers should be warned, though, that events in these books can be as rough and painful as real Appalachian life often is; in this book, for instance, besides the grisly deaths at the farmhouse, the plot lines include a terminal illness, a fatal trailer fire, and a dangerous flood.
This is actually the second novel of the series, and the one where I'd recommend that readers start; McCrumb really hits her stride here (and this is also the novel that first introduces Nora Bonesteel, who does a lot to make the series as good as it is). The first novel is the angst-drenched If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O (that title is taken from an old folk ballad that's actually relevant to the story; I'm not sure what the title of this installment derives from :-)), which is steeped in post-Vietnam post-traumatic stress disorder and doesn't really succeed in making the characters likable; but the writing improves sharply in the succeeding books, starting with this one, IMO.(less)