Sunday, November 5, 2017

Short story round-up

I have been trying to sneak in some short stories, along with all the novels on my reading list.  I thought I would weigh in on some of these collections.

I already mentioned that I thought Atwood's Moral Disorder (essentially a novel in stories) was good.

I have sort of mixed feelings about John Fante's stories.  So many of them are about his childhood growing up in a working-class Italian neighbourhood that they start to feel a bit repetitive.  Also, it's quite difficult for me to really cheer on hell-raisers, particularly those that commit some relatively serious crimes, then come to the nun or priest and tell a sob story and get it all hushed up, ending with them getting communion.  It really feels like a particularly illegitimate use of religion.  At some level it is a class issue, and I really don't care for any of the family members the way they are portrayed, as always feuding and getting drunk and generally being unpleasant. ("A Bad Woman" from The Big Hunger may be the worst.)  That said, the writing generally elevates the material, and I'll wrap up The Big Hunger fairly soon, as well as West of Rome.  I'm not sure when I will get to the Bandini Quartet.

In many cases, F. Scott Fitzgerald's writing also elevates his material, even when the story line is a bit silly or even corny.  All that said, I'm coming around to the opinion that he didn't always have the Midas touch.  I'm currently about halfway through F. Scott Fitzgerald's I'd Die for You and Other Lost Stories.  Some of these are stories that were a bit too dark for periodicals of the time (or at least under his byline, given what the public expected from him).  But in most cases, he had a policy of refusing to accept any editorial advice, and then just filed the stories away if they couldn't be sold "as is."  I'm very sorry to report back that, in most cases, Fitzgerald was wrong and far too proud at this stage of his career, as these definitely could have used editing.  Quite a few are really corny (especially his movie treatments turned into stories), and one ("The Pearl and the Fur") has so many factual errors (claiming that the subway up in the 200s in Manhattan only had service every hour) and such ridiculous plot contrivances about an underage cab driver that I actually found it unreadable and stopped midway through.  Even his literary agent begged him to fix the errors, but Fitzgerald refused.  The first story in the collection (The IOU) was decent and was recently (and belatedly) published by The New Yorker.  The second was improbable but at least readable.  I personally didn't care for the title story (due to the over-the-top sexual magnetism of one of the characters), but it was reasonably well written and some people will like it.  And that's about it.  The rest are basically a mess (I've sort of been peeking ahead to the remaining stories).  So this is one for Fitzgerald fanatics only, and even then I would only borrow it from the library.

I have slightly higher hopes for The Price was High (50 uncollected Fitzgerald stories, which were at least all published in magazines at the time).  However, perhaps I should temper my expectations.  A contemporary review claimed that they were pretty thin gruel, and only a handful migrated from this book to Bruccoli's final volume of Fitzgerald's selected stories.  The Price was High is probably also one for fans only.

I've been somewhat pleasantly surprised by Anthony Trollope's Lotta Schmidt and Other Stories.  These are generally pretty solid stories.  One or two have a bit of a twist (predating O. Henry), though in a way I was impressed by a story ("The Adventures of Fred Pickering") about a young writer, on the verge of starvation, who doesn't miraculously acquire a patron at the 11th hour, which I had been expecting from the set up.  The denouement was a bit more interesting than that.  "The Two Generals" is a very early example of the brother against brother theme so prevalent when writing about the U.S. Civil War.  What is particularly notable is that it was written midway through the war, but even then most knowledgeable observers knew the North would win eventually, since it had such a much better industrial basis and had a larger population as well.  It's also obvious, despite those today who would deny it, that maintaining their system of slavery was really the root cause of the South's rebellion.  No one pretended any differently during the war.  Overall, the stories all are just a bit longer than I would like, but that's Victorian fiction for you...

In the very near term, I expect to be reading Mordecai Richler's The Street and a couple of volumes of Narayan's short stories, and I'll try to remember to report back at that point.

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