Review of Collected Stories by Roald Dahl,

Dahl’s adult stories are not as famous as his children’s books. Taken as a whole, The Collected Stories is as impressive as Saki’s Complete Works if you ask me.

Many of these stories, for me, were the antidote to reality. His characters, their perpetually gleaming eyes, their moist lips, constantly wringing their hands and exclaiming, even cackling demoniacally, might put one in mind of fantasy villains. But they are ordinary people. In most cases, any supernatural element is secondary to the human element, and occasionally altogether absent.

Evil children, vengeful spinsters, mad husbands, conniving wives, the murderous, the cunning, the smarmy, and the grand in every way – no matter his target, Dahl conceals and reveals with equal facility. His sly exuberance is always on display when it comes to the surprise endings. And there are plenty of those to go around.

These are not fairy tales. ‘Parable’ and ‘fable’ might be words which describe the technique he employs here and there but any of his writerly choices are cast in a modern light. Combinations of outrageous description and stellar plots characterize the majority of the tales. Characters who transform into the things they are consumed by reminded me of The Witches and film adaptations of his children’s books.

His sparse, well-chosen, eerie details, provide the texture for his storyteller’s art, which flows masterfully. He possesses specialized knowledge when needed, explaining the intricacies of greyhound racing for instance. Grief, vanity, and an enormous range of other human emotions and experiences are packed into this bulky collection. The whole gamut.

A few have the sensibility and charm of Twain, others are Rube Goldberg-level business schemes. Think of Wodehouse’s cat-ray factory system: (Breed cats and rats in large numbers. You feed the cats to the rats and the rats to the cats. Sell the cat skins for profit.)

Detail is paramount to the success of most stories. But the sales pitch is one of the things at which Dahl excels. His characters, when they’re not selling a product, are peddling an idea.

Figurative language often explicates the position and emotions of the characters and the reader must use their imagination to conceptualize the story’s metaphorical and allegorical significance. Figurative language is just fun too, when used well. Other times it is all too clear what he is getting at and subtlety was not the aim. Nonetheless, he is always extraordinarily vivid.

The collection begins with 10 stories about pilots. The author was a pilot himself, and he presents an intimate examination of many transcendent moments, both real and imagined. They deal with man versus nature, the horrors of war, empathy, tragedy, bomber pilots put into harrowing situations, the veteran’s damaged psyche and even a dreamlike adventure. Lots of death and air battles provide a backdrop of action, desperation, helplessness. Many take place in exotic locales, like Cairo, Greece, and France. The first 140 pages should be enough to draw any serious reader in to the strange world Dahl crafts so meticulously. It will also turn away any people who assume he can only write stuff for children. These are not the most demanding stories you will find, but they are not for youngsters. Actually, the further along you get in the collection, the more adult they get, including a handful of ones sold to Playboy and other magazines, which really ratchet up the sex and grotesquerie.

The second set of stories deal with the art world, of which Dahl was also a part in his time. Eccentric rich people are easy to poke fun at, and he does it very well. “Nunc Dimittis” reveals what Dahl can do with the revenge plot. “The Sound Machine” could have been written by H. G. Wells. When Dahl decides to include science, he is on point. “Mr. Botibol” presents a recurring character at his most self-delusional. It is a charming and heartwarming story. One of the most innocent.

“Vengeance is Mine, Inc.” is the first comedy of the business acumen variety in the book. A harebrained scheme turns out miraculously well, while capturing the spirit of industry which so easily consumes and encapsulates a whole history of human affairs.

He lapses into Wodehousian aplomb, relishing insane levels of detail in one of the masterpieces of the collection, called “Taste.” Other standouts include “The Ratcatcher, Mr. Hoddy, Madame Rosette, Galloping Foxley, William and Mary, Georgy Porgy, Pig, The Landlady, The Visitor, & The Last Act.”
There is just so much variety here. He might discuss bullying, innocence, naiveté, more satires of the rich and fabulous of English and American society, orphan life, pheasant hunting, furniture dealing, being swallowed whole…

The one called “Bitch” features a recurring character, Oswald, whose fictitious memoirs provide a metafictional element. The idea is very similar to Perfume, but the approach and climax is quite unexpected.

His worst story is on the subject of cow-birthing. Occasionally his far-fetched ideas are simply absurd, without being clever enough to propel the reader’s interest. But the vast majority are incredibly satisfying to read.

Perhaps my favorite story was “The Visitor”, about Oswald’s Casanovan adventure in the desert. It features a picaresque element and a shocking ending. Dahl is so good at lulling you into a false sense of security. Grim visions like these, are almost guaranteed to capture the heart of fans of speculative fiction, even if he doesn’t stray far from Realism. He is not afraid to discomfit the reader. I grew nauseous while reading the prolonged description of brain surgery in “William and Mary.” I could see the procedure happening in excruciating detail in my mind’s eye.

Come to Dahl for the extravagant plots, the weird, ghostly surrealism, the cruelty, horror, violence, subtly telling details. The tenuous and artificial connections between human beings are elegantly presented. His rhythm is like a well-composed bar-room style retelling, but add in the uncanny description, and you have his recipe. Levity, amid squalor, provides profound contrast. Lethargic, indulgent, beatific – he was able to capture it all.

What keeps us sane and makes us go insane? Each slanted and skewed perspective was a joy to uncover.

Dahl’s stories are always fascinating, and this is a must-have jumbo collection.

Review of The Enchanter by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov is unapproachable, never ordinary. He is a master and is fundamentally enjoyable to read. This short short novel is elegant in the extreme. 

Nab describes the desire to write Lolita as a throb plaguing him much of his life. It produces a corollary in this work. An offshoot, the proto-Lolita. But be not fooled. This is a polished, pristine, powerful publication.
The same set-up as his great work with all the inbuilt tension. Contemplates the nature of carnality, lechery, love and lust, social strictures, and passion, all in versatile, angelic prose, inducing literary bliss. It is a refined sustained, lucid dream of a novella, another ode to nympholepsy. Vladikov exhibits extreme variation in word choice, as he seeks to express the justification of the guilts of his tortured characters, the sophisticated warring, internal conflicts, the sensuous nature of their artistic souls. His writing is dense with observations, pithy, imagistic, suggestive ethereality, and barbed phrases, a honeydewed style perfectly suited to the descriptions of obsession, psychological clarity versus intense moral confusion, and yearning, amid the empty substitutes provided by propriety, always seeking after ideal beauty, running from mortality, and appreciating the finest cadences of the English language. It is a magnificent evocation of vigorous emotion, blossoming effortlessly in its contained structure, radiant, fraught with complex caricatures, and utterly riveting. He is fond of chess metaphors, and he is a keen player in this game of language. His approach betrays a keen insight into the motives of deception, the vain art of seduction. Somehow it is more daring than Lolita, and just as enchanting.

Review of An Angel of Sodom by David Vardeman

Primarily through comedy, Vardeman’s experimental stories run the gamut of human emotion, from hilarity to harrowing heartbreak.

From page one he offers an unflinching and unflattering view of the human animal’s foolish and various ways of tackling life. It is with a unique literary mastery of his chosen arguments that he depicts the often pathetically inept actions of his characters.

Above all, these are character-driven tales, taken to the very edge of believability. The conversations always take a turn for the bizarre, even as they touch on stunning human truths.

The aplomb on display is equalled on by the control of his gamma-knife-sharp wit. What results, is an utterly devastating circus of dream visions.

The first story forsakes punctuation except full stops, which makes for a learning curve. Force your mind around his rhythmic style and you will likely get addicted to the surprises to be found within and around every unexpected word.

Several of the stories capture convincing perspectives of troubled youth seeking after a place to belong, employing sardonic logical fallacies, coupled with rude, salacious, and satirical narration.
These are characters who take dysfunctionality to an art form, stroking their Godzilla-sized vanity with absurdist fantasies, indulging in their incurable blindness toward common sense and everyday propriety by behaving in shocking and silly ways.

I sensed touches of bizarro-fiction, but this could have only been my perception – a result of the constant fluctuations of bewilderment. You might describe this work as disturbing, twisted, demented, riotous, or profound. Vardeman asks the relatable question: why doesn’t anyone take me seriously as a human being? Am I a joke? Can’t anyone see past my obvious flaws to the brilliant unique individual beautiful person inside? The most commonly posited answer is: No. Or if they can, they don’t care, and are too worried about themselves to listen to your whiny pity party soundtrack/ sob story – like, get over yourself, join the party, get in line, etc.

Flying in the face of society’s strictures, the characters find hope and consolation in resistance to the norm, the safe, and the boring. They seek adventure and excitement as a means to define themselves and assign meaning to their terrifying lives.

“A Young Guy and his Career” is a bizarro detective story. It is unlike anything I have ever read.

“Farm Girl” is an immersive story about a girl growing up on a farm, longing to become a literary immortal, who thinks running away to Paris is sufficient qualification to become the next Proust.

The title story is poignant, and bizarrely descriptive, easy to parse, fast-paced, intuitive, with integrated dialogue and a pervasive sense of grotesque humor. I laughed out loud on almost every page. Utterly ridiculous. But it operates within the confines of its established logical landscape, becoming miraculously readable through rhythmic stylistic thrusts, charming through blasphemy, wrestling with biblical undertones, sliding into the just-plain-weird, until the sheer outrageousness becomes entertaining in a reality TV sort of way, but far more condensed, unrepetitive and deep. Vivid description accompanies sharp dialogue, again, dependent entirely on quirky character facets, often bordering on insanity, full of quips and egregious cleverness, and morbid in the extreme. The commentary on art and idolatry, pop culture, the media, tourists, and the backwater residents of America’s heartland were pointed, affecting, and effective. Its delusional characters shed light on our times and foibles. In complete helplessness, their confrontation with harsh reality cannot but be the anodyne for the oversaturated postmodern literary landscape we face today.

“Perversion is only a lack of acquaintance,” one of the characters says. This is during an exquisite punk rock satire, suffused with a sense of lost youth, spoiled potential, an inescapable dejection, amid moral decay, within a bereavement for the nostalgic pastures of youth, grappling with a sick sort of logic – all of which provide motivations to propel the narrative.

The author’s sophisticated commentary on religion through creative blasphemy lends itself to a range of interpretations. No matter how susceptible you are to the uncanny and the odd, Vardeman’s debut is a forceful example of honed aesthetic principles. For the herniated metaphors, and the stomach-churning detail of a pork-themed restaurant debacle alone, he deserves five stars.

Review of The Unabridged Edgar Allan Poe by Edgar Allan Poe

ISBN 0894712330 (ISBN13: 9780894712333)

When choosing which single volume of Poe’s to keep in my collection I settled on this one. 

I decided against the Library of America edition of the tales due to conspicuous absences in the Table of Contents. This one has all of my favorite poems, stories and a few essays. I supplemented this with the LOA edition of his Reviews and the Delphi Complete Works ebook edition, chiefly for the letters. You would be hard-pressed to find a more delightful volume of Poe than this one, even if it is missing a few gems (like Eureka). It has pretty much all of my favorites.
He was the kind of author I will reread for life. I rarely grow tired of his semi-Gothic prose and lyrical poetry. Ever since reading Tell-Tale Heart, Pit and the Pendulum, Cask of Amontillado in middle school, I’ve cherished this large tome for the wealth of memories attached to it. I remember reading Pym and being amazed (in high school) and rereading The Raven a hundred times in an abortive attempt to memorize it. Most charming of all, perhaps, are the illustrations in this omnibus. If only LOA would take their work more seriously, stop leaving out key works from their authors and invest in illustrated pages. These editions from this publisher may be getting hard to find, but I also picked up their first volume of Twain as well.
If you are debating about reading Poe, do yourself the favor of reading his Complete Tales, in any form – even ebook – and if you can afford it, stick this one on your shelf.

Review of In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories by William H. Gass

ISBN 0879233745 (ISBN13: 9780879233747)

I think I am going to like this Gass, I thought, and here I am, at the end of it, hovering between four and five stars, as I so often do, but settling for that generous bedizening – the whole roster of stellar units.

Linked only by nefariously complex sentences, riddled with the kind of chewy phrases boys on the ballpark lawn would work with their chapped lips to pull and prod between clenched teeth, the stories here are fascinating, jewel-like run-on spasms through form and essence, like a sun-drenched day, like houses standing in rows, staring at some horizon you are too short to see, like a moon in the sky at midday, defying reason, but lingering like some pendant over blasted landscapes of ghost-peopled towns, where sunk in lazy fiddling, meandering maws squawk and fingers rummage pocket lint, where schooled but not well-reasoned kids resuscitate Caesar within the abstract labyrinths of their somnambulism. The setting is fashioned after some sort of dioramic blend of gothic minimalism, which somehow isn’t hollow. Like a fruit, well-full of rind and insect-swarming seeds, peeled open to reveal a glint of golden nectar. It’s nostalgic headway into dream. It’s a slow slackening of all the reeled strictures of noveled, inflexible fiction. We’ve walked these roads, met these stunted Shakespeares, but we seldom paid attention to the blinding patter of their paws, to the struggles they wield in their wild tunneling toward death. Little stories come and ungainly go, but certain stories capture in their amber, hallowed moments of crystal life, refracting the essence of that unknowable divine back into our double-mirrored minds. Snatch what you can from Gass’ gaseous brand of madness.

Review of The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter

ISBN 014017821X (ISBN13: 9780140178210)

My first reading of Angela Carter. I can see why she is popular and well-regarded. This book is about as good as retellings of fairy tales could be.

Through rabid exorcisms of imagery mesmerizing moments are born from her disturbing imagination. The dense sentences cluster like a nest of snakes, sniping you from the shadows. Her Baroque stylings are distinctly old-fashioned, but her standpoint and her quirkiness are bold and fresh.

I am easily taken in by the promise of exile in a magic kingdom. I was on guard at first, since I could sense sinister intent in her method. It was a little like the feeling you might have had sitting around a campfire as a child, when some storytelling prodigy joins the circle with the commitment to scar you for life.

Multiple stories deal with captivity, and probably stem from Carter’s dissatisfaction with the outmoded portrayals of women in traditional fairy tales. This is understandable, since they were all conceived in the long age of patriarchal oppression. The Revisionist nature of her composition lends relevance to old stories. She essentially claims them for her own. Aside from her intentions, the craft on display is of the highest caliber. Many descriptions are as poetic as Bradbury’s, but have more bite.

She does not shy away from statutory rape, from sheer carnage. She depicts the confines of poor marriage in a truly frightening manner. Characters seethe with their hideous pasts and dark secrets, concealing the eldritch monsters dwelling in their hearts. Movement and innovation are par for the course for Carter. These are certainly no longer stories for children. They are sophisticated but playful, and the prose is infused with magic. They are suggestive, and mingle the morbid and the beautiful extremely well. Long paragraphs of Gothic and colorful musings, luscious landscapes and boudoirs all contribute to an antiquated rhythm suggestive of Poe.

“The potentiality for corruption,” struck me as a theme. While pessimistic, the stilted perspective is a means by which all things gain shades of sinister meaning. She sustains an effective chilling atmosphere throughout, as the heroes and heroines experience the slick slide into terror, with breathtaking intensity, derailing the Huysmanesque still-life compositions.

Carter lacks innocence, seems to have lost the childish wonder inherent in the original source material. In exchange she brings a wickedness which underlies her charming descriptions. The double meanings of her twisted tales are pretty graphic, and I wonder if we shouldn’t pass them on to our children anyway. The world is a dark place. They will encounter a few monsters in due course. And the monsters were in the original tales in the first place. They just weren’t so heartrendingly deranged.

Review of The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories

ISBN 0141395621 (ISBN13: 9780141395623)

Since I’ve read every word Haruki Murakami has published in English I felt obligated to read his introduction once it showed up in the preview on Amazon. People saying “Haruki Murakami is my favorite author” has now become a cliche. But cliches can sometimes be true.

His introduction was nice and long and juicy. My impression of the collection of stories was that they were chosen, as Mr. Rubin explains, for the casual reader. Maybe it’s pretentious but I consider myself more than a casual reader of Japanese fiction. I have an entire bookcase devoted to Japanese literature.
I like to imagine what stories I would have picked if I had the opportunity to compile an anthology of this kind.
There are new translations, which are sorely needed in this day and age. Akutagawa’s previously untranslated short story “General Kim” was my favorite inclusion. Out of Akutagawa’s 300+ works only 77 have thus far been translated into English. Since he’s one of my other favorite authors I’ve actually gone to extremely nerdy lengths to read them all. I wish Rubin would just translate all of Akutagawa already. And maybe Bakin while he’s at it.
I am glad that he put a lot of translating into this volume, but why include “Patriotism” and the first chapter of Sanshiro? Not only do they take up valuable space but they are available almost anywhere. I buy anthologies because they contain stories on the brink of obscurity. Where are all the translations of Hiromi Kawakami or Junnosuke Yoshiyuki? I would have liked to see something new from Ryu Murakami, who never gets anthologized but is one of the best Japanese writers of all time.
I gave this book four stars because it was excellent, but it really could’ve gotten five. The two stories by Haruki are previously available, but luckily we get something new by Banana Yoshimoto and Akutagawa which save this collection, in my opinion, from being a rehashing. It’s hard to find Kenji Nakagami and we are treated to a new story by Mieko Kawakami, which was appreciated, so while I would not recommend this for your shelf if you can only have one Japanese literature anthology – it’s hard to beat the two volume Columbia anthology – I’d put it in my top 5 Japanese literature anthologies. Yes, I am that much of a geek that I would create a top five.
Though this is a step in the right direction there’s about 3000 miles of stepping left to do if we are ever going to get the most out of J. Lit. I keep asking myself, why can’t I just read Japanese? Oh yeah, it’s insanely difficult. Anyway, check it out if you are a fan.

Review of Selected Short Stories by Honoré de Balzac

Balzac, I have found, is one of those authors you can read for your whole like, like Dickens, spreading out the oeuvre as necessary

Balzac’s books, in my opinion, are not to be consumed like snacks or junk food. They are hearty vegetables, often not terribly exciting, but vigorous and nourishing. One can become enamored with his style or one can become distracted, depending on one’s enthusiasm for the everyday lives of 19th century people.

Balzac died at 51, after working 20 years on his Human Comedy, comprising 90 works, and rising to the rank of greatest French author in many critical opinions. For much of his life he was fighting off debt, and 2 months before his untimely death due to overconsumption of coffee, he married a rich Polish countess. He produced 50 short stories, and we have 12 selected here. At first this selection appeared meager and insignificant, but further along in the slim volume the value compounded.

In summation, this is a fabulous depiction of the discrete charm of the bourgeoisie. Balzac drops aphorisms and well-sprinkled witticisms throughout his calm, collected recounting of lives. He is a vastly intelligent writer, on the level of Chekhov, with a subtle wit rarely equalled. He captured the people and key details of his time astutely. Unlike Anatole France, Balzac confined his subject to a set period, wishing to give the fullest picture of a slice of history, concerning almost entirely the French characters he was familiar with, picking and choosing from real life and his imagination as necessary, conjuring perfect examples with precision. He could discern a person’s key attributes from a single glance, seemingly, and could draw out descriptions for pages where a lesser writer would have dashed off a few nondescript lines.

His stories are often simple. 10 sous can mark the border between life and death. Money and ambition take center stage, as does the honest work of the poor. He describes abject poverty like a pro, and the many guises it takes, its resonating affects upon families and great geniuses, for, as has been said, most everyone in Balzac is a genius. He utilizes melodramatic displays of charity and good will worthy of Dickens. There is much sacrifice, injustice and sorrow mingled with the surprisingly uncommon instances of romance.

There is only one decapitation in the whole collection, which is to say that Balzac is no Dumas. Dumas relied on cinematic gestures, grand statements, and a flair akin to the stage plays I imagine he devoured. Balzac rather, reveled in the tiny tragedies, the heartwarming moments, without entirely neglecting the grand episodes of the climaxes of his novels and the occasional “pulp” story. There is to be found the attendant troubles which come from the sudden acquisition of wealth, and much more in several entertaining stories in the second half of the book. The first half is rather droll, though it contains deep irony and brilliant characters. My rating verged on 5 stars after the final story – an amusing satire on the life of a painter. In short, these stories will not satisfy everyone, but if you are an appreciator of delicate sensibilities, prose which moves elegantly and logically through crystalline storytelling, it is hard to do better than Balzac. Take, for instance this quote:

“…creditors being today the most real shape assumed by the ancient Furies. He wore his poverty with a gaiety which is perhaps one of the greatest elements of courage, and like all those who have nothing, he contracted few debts.”

Much meaning in a tight package. Look to Balzac for both distraction and enlightenment.

4th Quarterly Review 2017

My short story “Cygnus” was featured in the 4th Quarterly Review of Bewildering Stories for 2017.

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3rd Quarterly Review

My story, “Eve in the Belly of the Whale” was included in the 2017 3rd Quarterly Review of Bewildering Stories. Check it out:

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