ArtSunday

The World’s 100 best short stories, sort of… volume 10: humor

Statistics prove that there are 25 bathtubs sold to every Bible… and 50 to every dictionary, and 380 to every encyclopedia… proving that while we may be neglecting the interior, we are looking after the exterior…. – Will Rogers

Will Rogers (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Will Rogers (image courtesy Wikimedia)

And now we reach the last volume in the collection The World’s 100 Best Short Stories. The subject/theme of this volume is humor. There are some well remembered writers such as P. G. Wodehouse, Will Rogers, George Ade, and, oddly enough, Emile Zola. There are some not so well remembered writers such as Emile Gaboriau, Charles Brackett, H. C. Witwer, and William Hazlett Upson. And there are some figures whose literary legacy is either based on a single work (Frank R. Stockton, mentioned previously) and Booth Tarkington, a writer extraordinarily popular in his time whose reputation is now all but eclipsed.

This is the weakest volume in the entire collection. There are reasons for this and we’ll explore them.

But first, a digression. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

The World’s 100 Best Short Stories, sort of…volume 9: ghosts

Perhaps it’s all just a cock and a bull. But it’s a great one.

“There is neither ghost of earl nor ghost of countess in that room; there is no ghost there at all, but worse, far worse, something palpable….” “The worst of all things that haunt poor mortal men…and that is, in all its nakedness – Fear!” – H. G. Wells

Edward Everett Hale (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Edward Everett Hale (image courtesy Wikimedia)

This, the penultimate volume in The World’s 100 Best Short Stories set, takes as its subject matter/theme ghosts. As has been the case with other volumes in this series, the editor has chosen to interpret his choice broadly. Certainly in every story the characters find themselves haunted in some way, but this comes in most of the tales as a result of actions or circumstances rather than from any supernatural force.

The list of authors in this volume represents the most canonical or near-canonical group of any of the volumes thus far. Besides the above quoted Wells, Alexander Pushkin, Washington Irving, Sir Walter Scott, Prosper Merrimee, and John Galsworthy are all represented. There are some now forgotten (by contemporary audiences, anyway) writers, too, such as Johan Bojer, Stacy Aumonier, and James Hopper.  Then there’s the pictured Edward Everett Hale, known to generations of American school children for his story “The Man Without a Country” which is part of this collection.

Hale is the most fascinating of this latter group because he is known for a single work. Like Richard E. Connell (whose “The Most Dangerous Game” was discussed on my essay on volume 1) or Frank R. Stockton (known for “The Lady or the Tiger?” who will be discussed in the next essay of this series (though for  a different story), Hale’s literary legacy, though he was critically well regarded in his lifetime, hangs on that single story. This the topic for another essay, however, so let’s move on to the works in this collection. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

The World’s 100 Best Short Stories, Sort of…Volume 8: Men

‘Shall I betray my best friend…? He is all that I have in the world. He saved me from the bear when its claws were already at my throat. We have suffered hunger and cold together. He covered me with his own garments while I was ill. I have brought him wood and water. I have watched over his sleep and led his enemies off the trail. Why should they think of me as a man who betrays his friend?’ – Selma Lagerlof

Selma Lagerlof (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Selma Lagerlof (image courtesy Wikimedia)

In my essay on volume 7 of The World’s 100 Best Short Stories, the volume devoted to stories about women, I bemoaned the fact that eight of the ten stories in that volume were written by men. In this, volume 8, a collection devoted to stories about men, only one of the ten stories is by a woman, the Swedish author and the first woman Nobelist, Selma Lagerlof. Lagerlof’s story is the best description of what male friendship is like in this volume.

Life is full of ironies, isn’t it?

Among the stories in this volume is one by another major literary figure, Fyodor Dostoevsky. That story, “The Thief,” is also an interesting depiction of male friendship, though its real focus is, as is often the case in the great Russian’s work, identity. And, as one might expect in a collection of stories about men, there are stories about sailors and cowboys and duels and war. So, as anyone who knows a little psychology and/or sociology would expect, these male centered stories are about men doing things together. You know, like fighting and shooting at each other….

It’s great to be a guy, for sure. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

The World’s 100 Best Short Stories, Sort of…Volume 6: Courage

“It can never be said…. Because there’s no guide for the search and no definition for the thing found. There’s only the necessity…for man to go beyond himself, to go beyond reason, even beyond truth….” – Dana Burnet

Nicolai Gogol (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Nicolai Gogol (image courtesy Wikimedia)

This, volume 6 of The World’s 100 Best Short Stories, has as its theme courage. I think that it’s the most frustrating volume of this collection that I have yet read. (With the exception of a classic tale by Gogol, none of the stories are memorable.) When I was searching for a quote, for example, to use as sub-heading, I probably spent the better part of two hours fumbling through the volume trying to find any quote that would work as a stand-alone. I had hoped to use a quote from the Gogol classic, “The Cloak” (you likely know it by its more common English translation, “The Overcoat”) mentioned above. No luck – whether it was the translation or the late hour when I was searching, no usable quote appeared from the only canonical author in this volume.

So I find myself using a quote from a popular author of the time, one Dana Burnet.

And here we go. You may, at this point, like those guys in Holden Caulfield’s Oral Expression class, begin yelling “Digression!”- but, as Holden says, “I like it when somebody digresses. It’s more interesting and all.”

I couldn’t find a picture of Dana Burnet. Burnet was a highly successful writer who wrote for Broadway and for Hollywood (including at least two screenplays for Jimmy Stewart movies). And so you see a picture of Nicolai Gogol.

Because you can’t find Dana Burnet’s picture. On the freaking Internet. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

The World’s 100 Best Short Stories, Sort of…Volume 4: Love

“Youth prefers to be tortured by youth…Youth to youth is the end of all wisdom.” – Konrad Bercovici

Konrad Bercovici (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Konrad Bercovici (image courtesy Wikimedia)

The theme of this fourth in the ten volume collection The World’s 100 Greatest Short Stories (volume 1 here, volume 2, here, volume 3, here) is – Love. Though there is less – shall we say variation? – on the theme in this collection than in the previous collections on Romance and Mystery, the stories are, nevertheless as interesting and thought provoking as those in the earlier volumes.

In one way or another, all the stories in this collection are about romantic love. Some involve memories of romantic love viewed from the perspective of age and wisdom (or lack thereof) whether treated sentimentally as in Hermann Sudermann’s “A New Year’s Eve Confession” or Gouverneur Morris’s “A Postscript to Divorce” or comically as in Ring Lardner’s “The Golden Honeymoon.” Some involve the foolishness and passion of youth as in Barry Benefield’s “Down Bayou Dubac” and Sherwood Anderson’s “I’m a Fool.” A couple, surely daring for their time, involve explorations of love for those less traditionally inclined – “Mademoiselle Olympe Zabriski” by Thomas Bailey Aldrich and “Boless” by Maxim Gorky.

Perhaps the most interesting of these stories about love and its power to make fools of us all are those in which youth and age collide.  Continue reading

ArtSunday

The World’s 100 Best Short Stories, Sort of…Vol. 2, Romance

“Only a moment; a moment of strength, of romance, of glamour — of youth!… A flick of sunshine upon a strange shore, the time to remember, the time for a sigh, and — goodbye!” – Joseph Conrad

Thomas Burke (image courtesy deeprootsmag.org)

Thomas Burke (image courtesy deeprootsmag.org)

This second volume  (volume 1 here) in the collection The World’s 100 Best Short Stories takes as its theme “Romance” and, thankfully, treats with that term in its classical sense “the fascination with far off places and times” rather than focusing on its more recent interpretation as “boy meets girl and complications ensue.” That is something of a relief, the latter variation on the term having been pretty completely spoiled by young adult fiction of one kind or another.

As a result, the stories in this second book take the reader from the American Wild West to the France of Louis the 15th to (kinda sorta) ancient Egypt to the slums of London.

There are a couple of interesting issues to discuss concerning this collection of stories, some related to the stories as stories, some related to the stories’ adaptations by other media. That brings up the old issue of the experience of fiction vs. the experience of the re-interpretation of fiction as visual art.

So. To a few of the stories…. Continue reading

S&R Honors: Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize: a personal view (S&R Honors)

Bob Dylan’s award feels like a sop to a generation many of whose finest artistic talents took a popular art form (the rock song) and raised it to unheard of heights of artistry in both musical expression and lyrical content.

Part 2 of a series.

“Life is more or less a lie, but then again, that’s exactly the way we want it to be.” – Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan by Martin Sharp (image courtesy Dangerous Minds)

Bob Dylan by Martin Sharp (image courtesy Dangerous Minds)

Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature and I have been struggling with how I feel about that. Like many, my first response on being told the news was astonishment. It felt to me momentarily as if it were 1967 again when The Times of London gave a full page, serious, and respectful review to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and in an editorial in that same newspaper William Rees-Mogg, less than a month later, excoriated the British criminal justice system for its heavy handed treatment of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to maximum sentences for a minor drug bust in a now classic editorial titled “Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?

It felt, then, like the counter culture was winning, that finally, to use a truly quaint term, “the establishment” was seeing the world as my g-g-generation saw it. Mick and Keith should be set free by “The Man” to make more music and Sgt. Pepper was great art.

As another of my heroes of those days said famously a couple of years later, all their received wisdom, their rules, their culture, didn’t “…mean shit to a tree.”

Zeitgeist is a helluva drug, isn’t it? Continue reading

Book-Review

H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines…Adventures in Boyhood Dreaming….

“Haggard’s heroes attain a legendary stature as their adventures strip away what Tarzan, Lord Greystoke, calls ‘the veneer of civilization,’ and perpetually confront them with danger and death.’ – Robert Morsberger, Afterword to King Solomon’s Mines

1965 Hammer Films poster for

1965 Hammer Films poster for “She” starring Ursula Andress (image courtesy Wikimedia)

This begins with Ursula Andress.

Back in junior high, when my buddies and I were the sort of slobbering idiots about girls and women that one our current POTUS candidates seems to be in advanced middle age, Hammer Films, the British film company that specialized in remakes of Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy announced that it was releasing a new film version of the H. Rider Haggard adventure novel, She. More important to my crowd’s budding libidos, the film would star original Bond girl (there’s a respectful term) Ursula Andress (Andress was the first Bond girl, appearing in the first James Bond film, Dr. No, as the tastefully named Honey Ryder).

We dutifully, lustfully went to see She – which was a typical Hammer film: a lot of fun once one put one’s critical thinking skills on hold. In the aftermath of that experience, and without telling my friends, who would have laughed at my bookishness, I decided to read Haggard’s novel.

It was a lot of fun, too, and a damned sight better than the movie, Ursula Andress notwithstanding. I planned to go on and read King Solomon’s Mines, too, but something distracted me (probably baseball or a guitar) and I never got back to the Haggard universe.

Until last week. Continue reading

Playing Marco Polo…WITH Marco Polo: S&R Honors

Marco Polo is one of our most renowned travelers and explorers. Yet there is controversy about whether he actually went where he says he did. If only he’d taken a selfie stick and set up an Instagram account….

Marco Polo dressed as a Tatar (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Marco Polo dressed as a Tatar (image courtesy Wikimedia)

On my book shelves are several of the nicely bound sets of what used to be termed “classics” (i.e., books considered sacrosanct members of the Western Canon) that were all the rage many years ago when the American middle class aspired to be like their betters and give the appearance of being cultured – back when part of being cultured meant being well read, of course. Please do not misconstrue my intent here; owning a handsome set of “classics” is not the same as having read them. Lea and I have bought most of these sets in used book stores and antique shops and found almost all of the volumes in a given set in mint or near mint condition (after all, sitting on bookshelves year after year does cause some slight aging, as does being moved from the prominent bookshelves in the den to the ratty ones in the basement).

Thus it is that I have, as mentioned above, several sets of these “collections of ready made culture” (I have mentioned one popular collection in another essay). The set from which the book that is the subject of this essay, Travels of Marco Polo, The Venetian, is taken is called, interestingly, “The Programmed Classics,” and is published by Doubleday. It’s a handsome book, though the translation by 19th century “Orientalist” William Marsden is, at best, creaky.

So, to Marco Polo’s travels…real or made up…. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

James Hilton, WP Kinsella and The Bettys: writing to remember, writing being forgotten…

There are two motivations for writing – one pure and one not so much.

“There’s only one thing more important… and that is, after you’ve done what you set out to do, to feel that it’s been worth doing.” – James Hilton

Goodbye Mr. Chips and Other Stories by James Hilton (image courtesy Goodreads)

Goodbye Mr. Chips and Other Stories by James Hilton (image courtesy Goodreads)

This is about being a writer.

The motives for someone wanting to do more than write, to become that person that others refer to as a writer, may be so individual as to be specific to very single person who aspires to that moniker. But I doubt it.

My suspicion is that there are two motives that drive writers, one fairly – shall we say pure? One, not so much. The first, purer, motive is that writers are blessed (or cursed, I can never decide) with the desire to preserve that which they have known or known about or would have liked to know. That act of preservation is part of the title of this essay: one might call it writing to remember. When done really, really, really well, it gives us lines like this:

O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.

Then there’s that other motive, the – less than pure one, shall we say. That’s the desire for recognition: fame, money, respect in one form or another, either because of critical success or financial reward (I have met famous writers who were humble and I have met famous writers who were smug enough to deserve a boot up their asses). It may be of interest only to me that the humble famous ones were far less rich than the smug famous ones. Maybe Ms. Lauper pegged it when she intoned, “…money changes everything….” Continue reading

Me, Albee and the Butterfly Effect: Scholars & Rogues Honors

An icon of the American theatre, Edward Albee, died this week. Scholars & Rogues honors him and notes the small ways that the influence of great artists can affect our lives for years to come.

The Zoo Story by Edward Albee, New Theatre Company, The Factory Theatre, Boston, 2/23/12-3/4/12

The Zoo Story by Edward Albee, New Theatre Company, The Factory Theatre, Boston, 2/23/12-3/4/12

We read The Zoo Story in one of my classes at Wake Forest – maybe freshman or sophomore year. I absolutely loved it. I think Jerry spoke to my teenage sense of who I was and what I didn’t want to be, and this dynamic was reinforced by the culture of the university. Wake was conservative and elite. I was conservative, but working class. Many of my fellow students were preparing themselves for sensible, practical, conventional lives. I wanted to be a poet. So while I don’t believe I necessarily understood that tension then the way I do now, I felt an immediacy in Peter and Jerry’s confrontation that, truth be told, still resonates for me today.  Continue reading

ArtSunday

Book Review: Apalachicola Pearl by Michael Kinnett

“History written by men reveals no cowards except those of the enemy, tells of great deeds of worth and cause, but shows only one face, and fails to distinguish the testimony of those consumed by its passing.” – Michael Kinnett

Apalachicola Pearl by Michael Kinnett (image Southern Yellow Pine Publishing

Apalachicola Pearl by Michael Kinnett (image Southern Yellow Pine Publishing

Michael Kinnett’s Apalachicola Pearl is clearly a work of a lover of history. This tale of one Florida city’s role in the Civil War is based on Kinnett’s  research into the annals of the city. In his preface, Kinnett claims that his novel is based upon “journals I found hidden beneath a floorboard in the attic of the Orman House Museum.” Whether this is true or the author’s invention is a matter for reader conjecture. If true, Kinnett is indeed fortunate to have found such a trove of material; if it is a literary invention, it is a wonderfully clever one.

The novel is a melange of two forms: while it purports to be the journal of the main character, one Michael Brandon Kohler, it eventually evolves into a historical adventure. Further – the character who gives her name to the title to the novel, LaRaela Retsyo Agnusdei, known to both characters and readers as Pearl, appears only briefly in the novel near its beginning and at its end.

Either of these choices on the part of the author might seem to jar the reader enough to make the novel an unsatisfying read, but the narrative is packed with so much action and historical information that one is carried along by the quick pace and the wealth of detail about 19th century Florida life that Kinnett offers.  Continue reading

Book-Review

Jose Saramago: Our Doppelgangers, Our Selves…

The Double is, ultimately, a meditation – on who we are and, more importantly, on why we are.

“Chaos is merely order waiting to be deciphered.” ― José Saramago, The Double

The Double by Jose Saramago Image courtesy Goodreads)

The Double by Jose Saramago Image courtesy Goodreads)

The use of doppelgangers in literature is a common enough  device. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “William Wilson” and Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” explore the idea of a double who shares an intimate relationship with the protagonist.  In novel form Dickens treats the idea in A Tale of Two Cities and Dostoevsky explores it in The Double. Of course the device has been given permutations, the most famous of which is likely Robert Louis Stevenson‘s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde wherein the doppelganger idea is blended with an exploration of chemically induced multiple personality disorder.

The Portuguese Nobelist Jose Saramago (whose Baltasar and Blimunda I wrote about last year) offers a postmodern spin on the doppelganger. Saramago’s The Double is both a story of a man who accidentally encounters his human duplicate while watching a video and a meditation on identity, self-hood, and the power of language. Continue reading