Miss Queenie – 4/5 Stars
This is a brilliant follow-up to The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry that came out a few years earlier. Like very few, but very potent sequels, this one eclipses the original. While the original book is heart-warming and touching, something akin to the Straight Story meeting BBC2, this book is downright beautiful and devastating. Harold Fry was about a man who receives a simple and cryptic postcard from a former colleague from the time he worked for a local brewery. His relationship with Queenie remains quite understated throughout that novel but it’s clear throughout that there’s more to it than he is able to understand or explain. He picks up and decides to walk across the whole of England to see her. She is currently in hospice and was only sorting out her affairs. Now, with the impulse to walk, Harold Fry sets on his own journey, checking in periodically.
In this follow-up, Queenie is writing her own version of events. It turns out how little Harold knew could fill a book, literally. High on her cancer medication and painkillers, Queenie spills her heart out on the page, after page after page. Her confessional and her therapist, the short postcard she sent to Harold opens the floodgates of her feelings. What was a charming tale of trying to hold onto the past turns into a kind of Ishiguro like story of desire and despair, pain and loss. You definitely have to read the first one to make sense out of this one, but this one is worth reading the first.
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes – 3/5 Stars
I thought I was going to like this a lot more than I did. For one, I like Sherlock Holmes in general. But I found this one to be more of a chore than The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. This happened for a number of reasons. One, the mysteries just aren’t as good. Two, Watson is not IN every one of them, and the one’s that Holmes tells Watson about and Watson just reports on are more weak than strong. Three, Arthur Conan Doyle feels like he’s bored and tired with Holmes, which he was, but it makes it on the page.
So there are a few really good ones. “Silver Blaze” — THIS IS THE STORY OF A HORSE WHO WAS HURT CHANGED THE WHOLE WORLD. It was a regular good one.
“The Tale of the Musgrave Ritual” was also really good. It’s got a code, and the code ones are pretty good, but it also talks about Holmes in the past, which is usually good for a laugh.
“The Final Problem” – it’s good becomes Holmes “dies” and that’s great.
So this one was a chore, and I wasn’t actually planning on reading the whole thing but a student of mine was reading The Musgrave Ritual for a project and I read that and got pulled in, but then it became a real chore to keep up with it. I don’t think I would skip it per se, but in terms of the Holmes canon, I didn’t like it. It’s like Holmes DLC….not really the main story….something something.
Beasts – 4/5
So you should know right off the bat that this book was not the inspiration or original version of the movie from a few years back. And you should also know that it’s unfortunate they took the title, because this is a really strong collection and the title story is pretty much perfect.
This collection has nine stories and Doris Betts is incredibly wry, wicked, funny, and poignant of a writer. The collection opens with “Ugly Pilgrim” about a disfigured woman running away. Other of the shorter stories includes the “Hitch-Hiker” and “Mother in Law”. By the time we get to the title story, it just becomes completely unhinged.
The story is about a teacher in a high school whose school and home-life are demanding, awful, hilariously rough, and so dreams about a kind of almost utopian space where she can love another man and send her own husband to some kind of prison. The scenes in the schoolhouse are hilarious and so true to life. It’s a nice reminder how much of stories about school are rightfully told from the perspective of kids who have been abused by the system and not enough about teachers who are also abused by the system. Her description of kids asking to turn in anything, anything to stand in for what is assigned is hilariously accurate and a little reassuring given it’s 45 years later and still happens.
The rest of the collection is mostly good with one or two stories being less than that. One more story really shines, and that is “Still Life with Fruit” which tells of a truly nightmarish hospital stay of a woman ten days past her due date.
So Dorothy Allison is something else. For one, this book screams 1980s! And that’s not a bad thing at all, but it does place it pretty firmly in a time and place. Dorothy Allison writes about the SOUTH, like the SOOOOOOOOUTH. And unlike bullshit artists like JD Vance, any politician, and many many male writers, she doesn’t give a shit about your economic anxiety. Her collection is not all that different from Doris Betts in that same way. Guess what’s worse than economic anxiety of white men? Being the women those guys take it out on. And then throw in the mix being an out and unrepentant lesbian, well, this is what you get. The major criticism of this book would be that the stories tend to blend. While that does suggest a narrative cohesiveness that is really attractive, the stories’ borders can blur a little much. There’s also an issue with the variety of length being a little out of balance.
But all that is to say that this is a really effective and poignant collection of stories. The inhabitants of Allison’s fiction do not have it easy and do not take it easy. They are living the life handed to them in the best way they can. They don’t have time to whine or complain because too much more is coming right for them. I didn’t quite grow in the same South as Allison but I’ve been around it enough to not be falsely mesmerized by it either. Dorothy Allison isn’t buying it either.
Seven Japanese Tales – 4/5 Stars
This is my second book by Junichiro Tanizaki. I think I mostly liked the previous novel Some Prefer Nettles better because of the more cohesive story. I think that short story collections are already a push for me and story collections that are retrospective rather than connected by time or theme especially. That said, I did enjoy the stories in this collection. The long stories (which range from 60 to 95 pages) play upon more historical themes and more historical narratives adopting the voice or drama of known quantities and putting them on display. The short short stories (10-20 pages) are more explorative of themes and situations.
Of the seven stories, the opening long story “A Portrait of Shunkin” is the best. it draws upon the historical life of a blind artist who is a truly demanding and (well truth be told) abusive and awful woman. But what makes it so good is that Tanizaki draws from a published biography, quoting it at times, and then adding more illustrative writing to balance out the long story. I don’t even know if it’s based on a true story or not, but the writing is very strong and I guess I don’t really care.
Of the shorter stories, “Terror” was the most memorable to me.
I know I will be reading a long of his novels in the next few months because I bought it recently, and I am hoping that since it was written in the 1930s and the best of this collection happen in the 1930s it will be good.
Strange Weather – 3/5 Stars
Snapshot: In this first short “novel”–these are novellas, we have the most Stephen King of Joe Hill’s stuff. There is a fat kid living in a small town when a man with a magical camera rolls into town. That’s a Stephen King story if I’ve ever read one (I’ve read lots) but that’s ok, Joe Hill’s version is nice too.
Loaded: This story does not give a fuck, politically. Turning the “good guy with a gun” myth on its head, this novella focuses on a would-be mass shooting (kind of) upended by a mall security guard. Nothing is as it seems (to the characters—we luckily know everything that’s going on with no issue). The most pernicious part of that myth of the good guy is that cops and men with guns kill tons of innocent people all the time and all the mythologizing in the world won’t change that. This asks the question: What is the biggest Milkshake Duck of all?
Aloft: I can’t honestly tell you much about this story. I blurred out of almost as soon as it started. It reads like a “Bullet to the Brain” for the “Nice Guy” Set.
Rain: Again, this one goes right for it. Basically, it’s about a seeming terrorist attack in Boulder/Denver where crystallized rain falls from a seeded cloud and kills thousands of people. Told through the eyes of a local woman waiting for her girlfriend to show up. This story is strange and just ok, but it’s a real actual narrative unlike the Aloft story before, so it had something for me to focus on. A few nice jabs at Trump…first through allusion and then by name.