Great Tales of Fantasy and Imagination

My renewed diligence in reading the physical books I already own has had the unintended consequence of vastly increasing my short story consumption. Great Tales of Fantasy and Imagination is the third such anthology I’ve read this year, and might be the last.

This one was a collection that I picked up in my high school thrifting adventures, though I can’t remember if I bought it myself or if my best friend and partner in crime bought it for me on one of our trips out. Regardless, even though I kept putting off reading it, at the same time sentimental value kept me from culling it. (I think it has a companion purchased at the same store, a collection of Russian fiction, but it’s not here. Not sure if I got rid of it, or if it’s still at my parents’ home owing to a delicate physical condition that I wouldn’t trust to international shipping.)

Also, please appreciate that cover art, which has absolutely nothing to do with any of the stories inside.

This anthology was compiled by Philip Van Doren Stern, an academic and Civil War expert remembered today as the author of the short story that went on to become It’s A Wonderful Life. While Great Tales of Fantasy and Imagination is maybe around twenty years newer than the other collections I’ve been carting around in my library, in his introduction Van Doren Stern expresses the same uneasy relationship with pulp magazines as Schweikert: those stories are trashy but these stories are high art.

However, since this collection specifically focuses on the fantastic—fantasy, science fiction, horror, and magical realism before the genres had been entirely codefied—Van Doren Stern does have some interesting thoughts about how the fantastic can be used as a means of elevating a story and highlighting the worries and dreams we all have.

Out of the three short story collections I’ve read for this project (the third was another one of my Dede’s but for whatever reason I didn’t note it here?), this one had the best killer/filler ratio. Out of the twenty-one stories in the collection, only three or four were really disappointing. Lord Dunsany‘s “Our Distant Cousins,” already dated by the year of anthologizing (1943), is too old-fashioned to really have any appeal left in the year of Our Lord 2023; Walter de la Mare‘s “All Hallows” is fantastic gothic atmosphere but without much resolution; the same could be said about A. E. Coppard‘s “Adam and Eve and Pinch Me,” though it’s comic rather than gothic; and the Poe story in the collection (“William Wilson”) doesn’t have the visceral appeal of The Greatest Hits.

In contrast, there were too many really great stories to name them all in a blog post without quickly becoming tedious. Instead, I will limit myself to naming Stella Benson‘s “The Man Who Missed the ‘Bus” as the most unsettling story in the collection and point out that the entire collection is available to borrow at Archive.org.

Terminal Boredom

I’m a big fan of email newsletters. Everyone gave up on RSS feeds, apparently, but now email newsletters are making a comeback. Or maybe they never left, who knows. I’m a big fan of LitHub, which keeps me up to date on at least some of the happenings in the literary world. This is how I stumbled on Izumi Suzuki and news of her first translation into English in 2021 through Verso Books, titled Terminal Boredom. Now in 2023 another collection has been published (Hit Parade of Tears), and the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club made Terminal Boredom a read for March.

While I can’t comment on the quality of the translations qua translations, it would probably be fun to compare them against each other, as six translators were engaged for the seven stories in the collection: Polly Barton, Sam Bett, David Boyd, Daniel Joseph, Aiko Masubuchi and Helen O’Horan.

There are similarities to Murakami (references to music are deeply embedded in the stories) and Oyamada (the mood in Terminal Boredom is about as queasy as Weasels in the Attic). I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Suzuki was an influence on both of them; in particular, it’s worth noting that Murakami and Suzuki were exactly the same age, and Murakami would have owned a jazz club for the same period of time Suzuki was married to avant garde jazz saxophonist Kaoru Abe. A cursory internet search didn’t turn up anything linking the two biographically but I expect I’d have to go excavating in Japanese to really find out more.

Somewhere in all of the hasty background reading I did for this entry I saw Suzuki’s work described as “SF short stories of manners,” which I’d argue rises above being merely a disservice to becoming a gross misunderstanding, but maybe that was a reference to work that’s not in the Terminal Boredom collection. (For an actual science fiction novel of manners, I would direct your attention to The Sky is Yours.) A blurb on the back compares Suzuki to Ursula K. LeGuin, which is a much more apt comparison. Our disaffected protagonists live in a variety of dystopias, some on Earth and some on other planets. All of these dystopias reflect and magnify troubling dynamics we already see today: hyperpatriarchal norms and power structures, overconsumption of mass media, colonialism and its fallout, addiction.

I think one of the problems I have with dystopias is that authors insist on being dramatic and emotive about how terrible this reality is. My personal conspiracy theory is that someone, somewhere along the editorial process (the authors themselves? their editors at the publisher?), knows that the world building in those novels is flimsy and lazy, like a mustache-twirling villain who’s simply evil for no other reason than the author needs conflict in their story. But this conspirator also knows that good world building takes precious time that they don’t have in the consumer capitalist book publishing world, so all of that is skipped in favor of The Rule of Drama. Populate the book with meticulously detailed, almost comical misery and punctuate it with emotionally-charged scenes to paper over the shoddy groundwork. The Hunger Games is a great example of this. Lots of drama, lots of pathos, but if you stop and think about the actual logic of the world for more than five minutes, you realize it doesn’t make a lick of sense.

The Rule of Drama does not apply to Suzuki’s stories. Pathos is minimal; emotions are most often muted, which makes actual teary moments stand out. There is no litany of “here are all the terrible consequences waiting for you in this world”; they are gestured to when relevant and left largely to the imagination. The result is a somewhat ironic city pop vibe, like city pop from hell. The indifferent resignation characters display about their surroundings—flatly accepting their reality as a trivial matter of fact instead of being wild, passionate rebels advocating for change—is ironically enough what makes the dystopia land and feel real. As a result, the setting has enough internal consistency to stand up to the five minutes of thought under whose weight The Hunger Games collapses.

That said, the language itself in all of the stories felt a bit stilted and clunky. It was present in some more than others, so it becomes hard to know if it’s a variation in the source material or a variation in translator. It’s also similar to the prose in Weasels in the Attic, but since that was translated by one of the translators in this collection, it’s hard to ascertain whether it’s a similarity in writing style, a quirk of translating Japanese to English generally, or a personal choice of that particular translator.

In the end Terminal Boredom was one of those “eat your vegetables” books for me. From a larger, overall perspective: yes, more overlooked writers translated into English, objectively good thing, especially overlooked women writers. To that end, my aesthetic response to the book doesn’t even matter.

On a personal level, I still think it was definitely good for my bookish self to have read Terminal Boredom. Whatever the prose, it’s still full of lots of good ideas, the kind that are fodder for kickstarting other people’s imaginations. It’s also a quick read; none of the stories are overly long or meandering because Suzuki gets right to the point in all of them. I’m even curious enough to look up Hit Parade of Tears. But I didn’t walk away from this with a new favorite short story, either.

Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century

Another book club book, this time the Discord book club. Turns out if you let me show up once, I never leave. (Well, except that time I dropped in to discuss Solaris and then didn’t attend another meeting until Light From Uncommon Stars.)

Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century is a snappy little collection of short stories from Kim Fu. They all go pretty quick, making this book another member of the illustrious One-Sit Read Club for me. I’m struggling to remember any others except The Crying of Lot 49, but I know there’s at least one more besides. Possibly Kokoro? Honorable mention: The Seep.

As a short story collection, there’s not really any plot to recount. Around half of the stories flirt with science fiction, or speculative fiction, however you want to call it, whether by relying on technology beyond what’s currently available or by inventing scientifically plausible monsters, illnesses, or mutations. Regardless of genre, all of the stories share a deft, light touch that in the end is possibly a bit too light. Few of them have a closed or definitive ending; a bit like Weasels in the Attic, they all have the sensation of a kind of literary show and tell. “Here’s this weird idea I had. Sure is weird, isn’t it? Anyway…” Sometimes this works for the subject matter, but other times it feels a little bit like a cop-out, like Fu couldn’t figure out what the logical conclusion of their idea should be. This was maybe the most frustrating in “#ClimbingNation,” which has enough paydirt drama and conflict set up in just one post-funeral scene to fuel an entire novel (hidden stashes of gold bars! unresolved guilt! mysterious pasts!) but instead simply ends. On the other hand, it works well in “Doll,” where that kind of unresolved tension works because the story is classic, old-school horror straight out of Weird Tales. Then there’s a third class of story where the lack of conclusive ending renders the entire story forgettable. Like, very literally forgettable—in the hour between finishing the book and starting this post, I still had to look up reviews to remind myself of what I had just read.

My personal favorite out of the collection was “Pre-Simulation Consultation XF007867,” the first story in the collection and which maybe doomed the other stories by setting expectations too high because it is really, really good. I might have even choked up a bit. And while I don’t know that “Twenty Hours” is necessarily a great story, it perfectly encapsulates a particular mood and dynamic that I recognize from being in a long-term relationship so I’ll credit Fu with that much.

Overall I’m not mad I read it, because Fu has a way with words and it’s a delight to reside in their world, even for those too-brief moments. I expect it’s a bit hard to track down at the moment due to new release hype, but if you come across it in the bookshelves in a year or two it’s worth the browse.

Weasels in the Attic

All told I’m in three different book clubs, to whom I have varying levels of allegiance. At one end of the spectrum there’s the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club, to which I am more or less firmly committed and which accounts for around 25% of my annual book consumption. One step below that is the neighborhood dinner and book club, which I abstain from attending during The Season at work, but whose selections I often read on my own because I’m otherwise not plugged in to new, or at least recent, Swedish releases. At the other end of the spectrum is the ultra casual “buddy read” group in one of my Discord servers, which I usually ignore unless I’ve already read the book. Such was the case with Light From Uncommon Stars, which was an Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick for November and then a Discord buddy read for December, meaning this was the rare occasion I was part of the Discord book chat and witness to the process of selecting the next buddy ready book.

That was a long preamble to say, “I read Hiroko Oyamada’s Weasels in the Attic because it was a book club read for a book club I don’t normally attend.”

I also read it because it was short, because as a translator I appreciate reading works in translation, and because it sounded intriguing. It’s hard, even, to decide between classing it as a novella or as a short story collection. We have the same characters throughout, all riffing on the theme of indifference, or even antipathy, towards parenthood, but their only common thread is the same narrator. Each story? chapter? on its own feels a bit unearthly: deliberately flat and almost imagist, where the point isn’t a clever plot or character development but just the mood of the scene.

The word “sinister” comes up in different reviews of the book, but maybe a better word would be “uneasy.” You get that horror movie knot in your stomach, but the other shoe never drops. The narrator’s friends, Urabe and Saiki don’t come across as great husbands, or even decent men, but the narrative doesn’t stick around long enough to confirm or deny those allegations. It’s possible that the young, vulnerable girl Urabe caught eating his stock of fish food is now his wife, but then again, maybe she isn’t. We don’t find out either way. Both of them boss their (significantly) younger wives around and do very little to help in entertaining their guests, but things fail to rise about the level of the inconsiderate to demeaning or abusive. Likewise, the infants in the story are not particularly cuddly or even robust creatures, and in the stories where they appear you have the sense that they’re not going to survive until the end of the chapter (but they do).

If great art, according to Aristotle, is supposed to elicit some sense of catharsis in its audience, then he would have hated this book. (We’ll pretend for a minute that he would have understood the context of modern suburban Japan.) Oyamada shows you a few uncomfortable scenes and then leaves. The result is unsettling.

Did I like it? Hard to say. But it’s so short and goes so quickly—I read it cover to cover before I rolled out of bed one Saturday morning—that I’m not mad I read it, either.

Short Stories, H. C. Schweikert

This was one of a couple short story anthologies that made their way from my Dede’s library to my parents’ house to my own bookshelves, for the simple reason that I’m a sucker for old books. This, especially, is a piece of family history to hold in my hands, with my Dede’s name and old Kensington address in neat, old-fashioned cursive in blue ink right on the flyleaf. I finally sat down to read it after a long stint with Swedish, when I could only muster enough brain for 1) something in English and 2) something short.

In a serendipitous turn of events, while I was reading this collection my sambo had taken to devouring old pulp magazines from the extensive collection at the Internet Archive—publications that were contemporaneous with this collection, and about which the editor (Harry Christian Schweikert, a prodigious anthologizer it seems) had this to say:

The pupils who will use this book are already confirmed short story readers, many of them, unfortunately, addicts of the popular and more sensational magazines. To condemn these magazines is worse than useless, especially if the teacher adopts a “high-brow” attitude. Pupils like nothing better than to shock the teacher. The situation is often complicated by the fact that many of these journals often contain good stories. Perhaps the best way is to ignore the magazines entirely at first. If the teacher is successful in stimulating genuine interest in the discussion of stories, the pupils will themselves dispose of the trashy magazines.

The second entertaining morsel about this collection is seeing how many of its featured authors are referred to in the present tense and whose death dates had not yet come to pass.

A table of contents in a short story anthology. The authors birth and dates are given, but several authors who have been long dead, such as Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Hardy, Arthur Conan Doyle and James M. Barrie, lack death dates.

Since it’s a textbook, each story comes with an author biography, though as whole they’re more editorializing and nakedly subjective than anything I would have read in an English textbook in school. Discussion questions and “subjects for composition” also accompany each story, which make for a fun little peek into the English teaching of yesteryear. The same can be said for the actual selection of stories, a snapshot of prevailing tastes of the time. Several of the authors chosen were already well-established giants in 1925 (O. Henry, Anton Chekhov, Alexandre Dumas); others are familiar household names today that were still in their productive years (the above Sinclair Lewis et al.); still others were popular at the time of publication but later faded into obscurity (Joseph Hergesheimer or Frances Gilchrist Wood).

The vast majority of the stories were new to me, even if I knew around half of the authors. Is this another sign of changing times? Or am I just woefully ill-read when it comes to short stories? Hard to say. But the best part is how many new authors—especially women writing in the first half of the twentieth century—I can look up and enjoy for the first time.

Världen av i går & Amok

It seems I followed much of the rest of the world, or if not the world then just one friend of mine in particular, in reaching for Die Welt von Gestern in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. But since my arbitrary rule of translations is to read German originals in Swedish rather than in English, I had to wait until I came across a Swedish translation (and it never seemed to be available at the library when I remembered to check). Six years later, it appeared in front of me at Söderbokhandeln Hansson & Bruce. I took it with me for vacation reading, and while I was browsing Hubenettes in Östersund I happened to notice Zweig’s novella collection Amok on the shelves. Since they’re the same author and I read them in such close succession, collapsing them into a single blog-thought makes sense.

Amok is not any deliberate assemblage of Zweig’s or time-honored collection that’s seen international release in several languages.  Instead, it’s a collection from Ersatz Förlag, only available in Swedish, featuring “The Royal Game,” “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman,” “Confusion,” “A Girl and the Weather,” and “Amok.”

The World of Yesterday, on the other hand, is available in several English translations: one from titan among translators Anthea Bell, which seems to be the translation put out by Pushkin Press; one from Plunkett Lake Press attributed to B. W. Huebsch and Helmut Ripperger; and finally a translation from Robert Boettcher independently published through Amazon.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Zweig doesn’t really discuss his own writing much in Världen av i går, at least from a personal perspective on the process. The only time he addresses the craft of writing more or less head on, he toots his own horn and talks up how one of his strengths as a writer is his ability to murder his darlings and stick to only the most essential elements of a story. After the five stories included in Amok, I have to disagree, but maybe that’s a factor of changing times and literary conventions.

Women are essentially invisible in Zweig’s depiction of Europe in general and of his life in particular. Not surprising for the content or the times, so I’m not exactly mad about it. Nonetheless, it’s worth pointing out that Zweig’s first wife (who only gets two incidental mentions in Världen av i går, one of which is when Zweig is trying to divorce her) undertook a significant chunk of research and administration for him; his second wife (whose only mention is in the same breath as the aforementioned divorce) had originally been his secretary. Amazing how being able to outsource drudgery and life maintenance frees you up to be a highly productive writer!

The same lack of women more or less applies to the stories in Amok, which are all deeply anchored in a first-person perspective from a male narrator. Even “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman” uses a male narrator to frame the story of the woman in question—a frame that I don’t see much narrative use for. Of course, Amok only contains five novellas out of a substantial body of work; such a limited selection is hardly indicative of an entire body of writing. I just wish there had been more thought on the publisher’s part about which stories to select.

Overall, I was touched by Zweig’s humanity and empathy, which was just as much on show in the above stories as it was in his memoirs. They are all deeply psychological, character-driven narratives rooted in human struggles, suffering, and resilience. But in all honesty, his knack for characterization is actually on better display in Världen av i går than in most of the stories in Amok. Zweig’s sketches of his contemporaries are precise and cutting, unambiguously sympathetic to the person involved but clear-eyed about their flaws or failures. The characters in the stories collected in Amok, on the other hand, are muddier and harder to pin down. I cried at some point in every chapter of Världen av i går, but I shed no tears over any story in Amok.

The reason I was so unmoved by, and ultimately a bit disappointed in, Zweig’s fiction might be the same reason I could lose myself so easily in his memoirs: they are a product of a specific time. Sympathy for an amorous widow scorned by a younger lover, or for a closeted gay English literature professor, might well have been scandalous or at least unusual upon publication in the 1920s, but close to a century later those stories are fairly tame and predictable. So the wheel turns; with any luck, in another hundred years, stories like “I Sexually Identify As an Attack Helicopter” will seem confusing or just banal because we’ll live in a better world where fluid gender identities are a matter of course. While Världen av i går might as well be subtitled “Plus ça change,” stories like “Confusion” with their now-dated and unremarkable plot twists make you realize that things can get better.

Black God’s Kiss

One of the last books I finished in 2021 (a record reading year for me, though maybe not for entirely good reasons) was Black God’s Kiss, a selection for the Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club’s January meeting.

Cover the 2007 edition of Black God's Kiss by C. L. Moore

Or, well. To be more precise, the short story “Shambleau” by C. L. Moore  was a selection for the meeting. Beyond that, we were left to our own devices to find what we could of Moore’s writing elsewhere. The Stockholm public library had Black God’s Kiss, a 2007 edition of the anthology of Moore’s “Jirel of Joiry” that Paizo first collected and published in the 80s, so I rounded out my sci-fi experience with a generous helping of fantasy.

I won’t comment too much on “Shambleau” here, because it’s not in the Black God’s Kiss collection, but you can easily find it in the Internet Archive’s fantastic collection of old pulp magazines. That said, the protagonist of “Shambleau,” Northwest Smith, appeared in several other stories by Moore, including a crossover story with Jirel of Joiry that does appear in this collection.

To provide some context, our organizers suggested C. L. Moore after doing a deep dive into the real-life pulp writers who inspired the writer characters in the Star Trek: Deep Space 9 episode “Far Beyond the Stars.” There is widespread fan agreement (and maybe even official Word of God?) that the character Kay Eaton is a fictional analogue for Star Trek writer and producer D. C. Fontana as well as pulp writer C. L. Moore. (That said, while Eaton in the episode is instructed not to disclose her gender, there’s nothing in either Moore’s or Fontana’s biography indicating they did likewise. Moore used initials to hide her identity, but that was to hide her status as a published author from her employer, not necessarily to obfuscate her gender.) That was the first time I’d ever heard of Moore so this was undiscovered country (hah! hah!) for me, and I think most, if not all, of our book club members.

Up to this point I’d already read several short stories from the magazines in question—primarily Weird Tales, but also a few others like Astounding Stories—so I was familiar with their typical literary style. I bring this up because Moore writes in the same style and thus her stories have a certain breathless “biff! pow! socko!” quality to it that’s no longer en vogue. And like so many of these other stories, the characters are really second billing to the Weird and Astounding elements: the alien settings, the supernatural forces, the fantastic magic. Does Jirel really evolve in the way we expect characters to do today? Only very slightly, perhaps, in the title story. Do we get a glimpse into her inner life, thoughts, dreams? Not really. Does she have any defining characteristics besides “proud” and “violent”? Nope! It’s not entirely science fiction or fantasy as it’s commonly written today, but if you’re already well-read in the genre then Moore does not disappoint. The stories advance at a  breakneck pace through the weird and magical 16th century France that Moore has created, the kind featured in countless Dungeons & Dragons campaigns.

The collection is entirely short stories. While the first two are tied together through their plot, and a couple of the later stories make oblique reference to the events of the first, all of the stories stand on their own and exist in a sort of self-contained vacuum. This only makes sense, when you consider their original publication over several years in various editions of various magazines, but readers going in expecting (for whatever reason) a long-form novel would be confused and possibly disappointed. Even with that understanding, it can take a moment to shift gears when you’re mostly used to reading novels, or short story anthologies where the stories are entirely disconnected in terms of plot and characters.

From a genre historical perspective, these were a lot of fun. After countless words spilled about Manly He-Man Heroes running around beating stuff up, having a Xena Warrior Princess run around and beat stuff up is a welcome change. One refreshing difference from stories we see today is that Moore never presents it as weird or unusual for Jirel to be the feudal head of Joiry or the commander of her men; no secondary character remarks on how Joiry is unnatural for being commanded by a woman, and none of the foes Jirel faces (who run the gamut from relatively mortal wizards to unearthly sorceresses to vague, abstract supernatural forces) underestimate or undervalue her because of her gender at all. Nor is Jirel simply a palette swap of Conan the Barbarian. Several of the conflicts in the stories are driven by romantically or at least sexually charged encounters rather than overt violence; Black God’s Kiss is maybe my favorite in the collection because despite being a swords-and-sorcery revenge story, the story also captures the erotic tension of competition and rivalry well.

With that all said, I’m not entirely thrilled with the cheesecake cover art of this edition of the collection. I guess boob armor and tactically inadvisable exposed skin is now a fantasy art trope, but it clashes with Jirel’s actual character. Her dress is invariably actual armor, a doeskin tunic, or some kind of fancy gown. It seems to miss the point to take a pioneering woman fantasy protagonist and give her the Heavy Metal treatment. Of course, the original cover art for “Black God’s Kiss” isn’t really a proper representation either:

Cover of Weird Tales with the text

Overall the stories were fun and compelling, and I really wish that Moore had used them to launch into a full-length novel so we could spend more than an hour or two at a time with Jirel and her world. Or, barring that, more than just six stories would have been nice. By contrast, Conan the Barbarian appeared in 18 stories published before Robert E. Howard’s death—not counting Conan-adjacent pieces and posthumously published works. Perhaps if there had been an equal volume of Jirel of Joiry stories, she’d have her own beefcake cinematic avatar to cement her place in pop culture history.

It’s not too late for that, I suppose! I nominate Ronda Rousey for the role.

Los Angeles Noir

I was already familiar with Akashic’s Noir series when a friend included Los Angeles Noir—completely unprompted—in a care package she sent me over the summer. After textbooks and thorny, hundred-year-old Swedish, I needed something light to take the edge off during the holiday. Noir short stories seemed like just the ticket.

Cover of Los Angeles Noir
Image courtesy Akashic Records press

Editor: Denise Hamilton

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.66 stars

Language scaling: B1/B2

Summary: A collection of noir short stories set in Los Angeles.

Recommended audience: Fans of crime and thriller fiction; people with a soft spot for Los Angeles

In-depth thoughts: Much as I’ve sung the praises of short stories elsewhere, they’re not my favorite genre to read. Nor am I much of a crime or noir fan. Still, there were a couple I really enjoyed.

My friend sent it in the care package on account of “Koreatown,” by Naomi Hirahara, which takes place primarily at a Korean-style spa, and probably equally for our shared love of Korean spas as for the story itself. (It was a good story. I didn’t see the twist coming and actually said, out loud, “Holy shit!”)

Otherwise, the only other stories I really liked, from beginning to end, were Patt Morrison’s “Morocco Junction 90210,” a mystery behind a woman’s stolen, then found, jewels, and “Fish,” by Lienna Silver, about truth and friendship.  There were moments “Golden Gopher” (Susan Straight) that really worked for me, but ultimately I liked the protagonist better than the plot. Some stories felt bloated and unwieldy; some were short and trim but too nihilistic for my taste (“That’s noir,” you can fairly point out, and you’d be correct); and some protagonists were just a little too anti-hero and unlikable (again: “That’s noir.”)

Still, as a collection of contemporary popular writing it’s perfect for EFL students. Learners with a penchant for crime writing would enjoy this, and might enjoy seeing if Akashic has a collection for a city they know well or want to visit.

Carry On, Jeeves

Back in June I organized a book swap for the Meetup I co-organize, The Stockholm Writing Group. I came away with a bunch of new children’s books for my work library, plus Carry On, Jeeves.

Author: P. G. Wodehouse

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.28 stars

Language scaling: C1

Summary: A collection of Jeeves short stories, including “Jeeves Takes Charge,” “The Artistic Career of Corky,” “Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest,” “Jeeves and the Hard-Boiled Egg,” “The Aunt and the Sluggard,” “The Rummy Affair of Old Biffy,” “Without the Option,” “Fixing It For Freddie,” “Clustering Round Young Bingo,” and “Bertie Changes His Mind.”

Recommended audience: Anglophiles

In-depth thoughts: Despite a life-long affinity for British pop culture and humor, Carry On, Jeeves was my first-ever exposure to P. G. Wodehouse. I wasn’t exactly disappointed, but I wasn’t blown away, either. Certainly Wodehouse is a master of the plot, and has an impeccable ear for character voice, but there is an element of “privileged men getting to do whatever they please” that is unappealing in this day and age, at least for me, especially in combination with the rather dated, stereotypical women characters. I can see what makes the stories enduring classics, though, and they’re certainly diverting. I might have also been in a grumpy mood when I read them.

Advanced learners might enjoy Wodehouse’s prose, which is polished and distinctive. I wouldn’t recommend these stories for beginner or intermediate learners, however, who might find the old slang terms too much of a barrier of entry.

Review: Ancient, Ancient

This is another book club selection, this time for the feminist science fiction book club based out of Austin. (I guess I’m now an honorary satellite member?)

The cover of Kiini Ibura Salaam's Ancient, Ancient
Image courtesy Aqueduct Press

Author: Kiini Ibura Salaam

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating:  3.89 stars

Language scaling: C2+

Summary: A collection of short stories in the speculative fiction genre

Content warning: “Rosamojo” includes some scenes of child abuse; the rest of the stories aren’t necessarily traumatic but involve a great deal of sexuality

Recommended audience: Readers looking for #ownvoices works

In-depth thoughts: There were a lot of cool ideas in this book that ended up suffering from overly workshopped, possibly way too abstract writing. (Hence the C2+ language rating.) In a lot of ways it reminds me of Freshwater, but where Emezi takes that abstraction and works with it until you get it, grounding it with concrete language and imagery and deliberate call backs to specific mythology, Salaam just leaves it all out there, confusing and weird in a world that seems to be entirely of her own creation but without any rules or explanation.

The stories are the strongest when Salaam remains more or less in this world: “Marie,” “Rosamojo,” and “Ferret” were probably my favorites, as well as a very short piece about ants whose title I can no longer remember and that no one else seems to mention in their reviews so there it is. A trilogy of short stories focus on moth-like aliens who can take a human form and who harvest nectar from humans, most often by seducing them. The premise is unique enough that it really deserved to be its own book rather than a handful of short stories. And unlike almost everyone else, I didn’t care much for the first story (“Desire”) or the last one (“Pod Rendezvous”). “Desire” is just too distracting, caught up as it is in what is (as far as my Googling can find) a fictional mythology and an unusual-and-completely-unnecessary narrative structure. The same can be said for “K-USH” and “Battle Royale,” though people tend to rave less about those two. (I wonder if people pick up the book, read the first and last story, and then declare that they’ve read the whole book?) “Pod Rendezvous,” like the nectar-gathering moth aliens, had so much in there that it should have been a proper novel rather than an overly long short story. A story should be as long as it needs to be, and “Pod Rendezvous” was definitely the wrong length.

Overall, a disappointing collection. It wasn’t bad, but I made the mistake of going in with impossibly high expectations.