The Big Book of Reel Murders – Edited by Otto Penzler – 4/5
The concept of this collection is still mostly pulpy stories (though with some other older stories and more contemporary stories not really pulpy) that were made into films. It should really be called “Reel Crimes” as not every story involves a murder, but the concept mostly works. It ends up being a little frayed throughout as apparently it’s just much easier to get some rights to stories than others, so like the other collections, you end up with several stories by the same authors. The first section alone is basically a small anthology of Cornell Woolrich stories, which ends up with some accidental comedy as Penzler spends a lot of times introducing Woolrich in repeated ways trying to find new ways to say that Woolrich was a sad guy whose personal life often made it into his stories, minus the murders. It’s also funny because Woolrich’s stories are often retreads of his other stories. This collection is much more varied though than other Penzler collections, as the pulp is often broken up with stories by, simply put, better writers.
Some thoughts on the stories:
- The Woolrich story (I mean this in a Platonic way) starts with someone coming to from some kind of state and thinking for whatever reason they might have done a murder. The reasons are always different. Maybe they got drunk. Maybe they were hypnotized. And in one story, maybe they blacked out doing cocaine! The rest of the story usually involves them solving the murder, usually with the help of a cop they just happen to know.
- One great story involves a character getting spurned by a woman and thinking of a great way to murder her. Luckily for both of them, he’s a playwright who simply wants to use his idea for a play idea he has. He spends a night in a bar telling someone all about the idea, and follows this up by going out into the street where he’s hit by a car and gets some amnesia. He spends the rest of the story trying to track the guy down in order to find out what he told him so he can finish his play. You can just guess what that guy does with the information.
- This collection thankfully also anthologizes several stories by British writers, so we end up moving away from the American idiom for awhile. You get several Sherlock Holmes stories, which are kind of a waste here since they’re so widely available otherwise, Daphne du Maurier’s “Don’t Look Back” which is weird and worth reading, some Agatha Christie, and even the first Raffles story, among others. There’s also a Robert Louis Stevenson true crime story and a few others. It helps break up the effect.
- It wouldn’t be a Penzler collection without the addition of some specific detective he just loves and isn’t very good. Here there’s a bunch of stories about a semi-retired school teacher who helps the NYPD solve heists.
- Ultimately the collection is salvaged (not from being bad, but from being indistinct from the Big Book of Pulps) by the addition of so many stories by well-known and often literary writers. It’s hard not to notice how much better a writer, say Somerset Maugham, is from some of the other pulpier writers.
The Optmist’s Daughter – 4/5
Laurel McKelva is the middle-aged daughter of a retired judge. She’s unmarried (a WWII widow) and living by herself in Chicago where she works as an interior designer. She’s summoned back to her childhood home where he father is going through some health issues. He’s going blind and is being coaxed into a corrective surgery. He’s remarried to a woman close to Laurel’s age, and this is some time after her mother’s death. When she arrives Laurel finds that her father seems strange and changed by this new marriage, and after the surgery when he starts having complications, Laurel is even more put off by the imperiousness and effrontery of the new wife who has no love or respect for the life before she married the judge. He dies of course, and the rest of this short novel circulates around the mourning and funeral before Laurel heads back to her old life.
This is a meditation on middle-age and death, and especially the ways in which lives that seem set on a particular path can go astray. We learn more and more about Laurel and her life as the short period of the novel progresses, and the final conflict is both sad and satisfying for our curiosity as readers. This is a reread for me, from college, even though I cannot imagine why in the world my professor thought a bunch of college students should read this novel instead of one Welty’s story collections.
The Skin of Our Teeth – 3/5 Stars
Maybe this is just too close to a Looney Tunes cartoon for my liking. I remember once having someone explain to me what’s going on in this play, and it seemed like a lot of fun and interesting and weird. But reading it (I guess re-reading actually) I am actually kind of struck by how put-on the weirdness here. Breaking down the plot, it sounds like it’s going to be a kind of Beckett play, but it’s maximalist where Beckett tends to be stripped bare.
The plot happens on stage at the Atrobus’s house. They’re a married couple who’ve been together for 5,000 years and they have two teenage (well, thousands of year old) children. It’s simultaneously current times and the stone age. We’re gifted a kind of Greek chorus in the maid character, who often asked the questions we’re wondering about, and of course explains that she’s also in the play. I am oddly not left with much of a strong impression, but because the play is humorous and weird, I do think that’s it’s fun to see.
The Green Knight – 2/5
Not every Iris Murdoch novel is all that enjoyable. Her last novel Jackson’s Dilemma is a strange book that is almost universally understood as the final product of a brilliant mind slowly diminishing from Alzheimer’s. It’s not that dissimilar to Agatha Christie’s late decline. This book is the last before the last book, and it has almost the opposite sense. Like a lot of authors as they aged, Murdoch seems very determined to say what she has to say in this final push. The result is a sizeable novel (though hardly her longest by about 100 or so pages. But it feels the most strained. Reading this involves you sorting through sometimes 2-3 page long blocks of uninterrupted text, often the precise physical movements of a character. Gone is the brilliant dialog and clippy descriptions of the early novels and also the long ponderous and often hilariously ironic views of the later novels. We’re stuck with a novel in search of a purpose. I didn’t particularly like the novel that precedes this one either, but that feels more like a matter of taste for me, and not a failure of the novel itself.
Our Town – 4/5
I first read this play in high school in 11th grade American literature. My put the show on as a class and had fun with it. Is it as excited to read as a class as say The Crucible? No, because you don’t get to call anyone a “whore” or accuse anyone of making compact with the devil. But the metaphors are much more direct in this one. Our Town is an attempt to tell the American myth of the small town. I guess so is The Crucible now that I think about it, but in that one, it’s about understanding the truth behind the lies, and in Our Town, it’s about understanding the importance of the myth in the face of much more brutal reality. It’s sort of like understanding the architecture of the American myth, so that the particular ways it takes shape are more flexible. The play of course ignores racism, sexism, wholesale slaughter, and religious persecution, as American as anything else the play contains, but that’s also part of the deal. It either deeply sentimental, or wryly ironic about it’s sentimentalism. It’s not a warts and all thing, but it’s also not not that.
The Real Cool Killers – 4/5
Another Chester Himes detective/crime novel, this one being the second in the series, and possibly the best. The novel begins with a white man showing up in a Harlem bar and getting run out of the place when his presence bothers some of the regulars. He’s chased down the street by one of them and he ends up dead. No one can quite agree on who killed him, or more so, aren’t willing to tell. The case then becomes the responsibility of Ed Coffin and Gravedigger Jones to solve it. It turns out it’s complicated. The bartender is somewhat implicated, as is the man accused of the crime (the guy who chased him). It’s also true that no one seems to really care that the guy is dead, but as the police captain lets us know, you can’t just have a white man gunned down in broad daylight in Harlem and have it go unsolved. Adding some complication is the presence of the “Real Cool Muslims” a gang of teen-agers who dress like Nation of Islam (before they were a thing everybody knew) members who commit petty crimes and play around with guns. The case will end up more complicated and personal than all this suggests, as you can imagine.
The Hand of Oberon – 4/5
I don’t dislike any of the Roger Zelazny books, but I might be getting weary of reading them. Uh oh, because there’s six more after this one. They’re all short, but the way in things happen in the book strains the reader (well me) somewhat. First, a lot happens both in terms of plot and world-building all at the same time. This book graciously gives us a literal few page section of the rundown of the entire plot of the previous three books. I think I know the first two book well enough, but I had forgotten a decent amount about the third book. What’s happening is that the plots of the books feel not particularly important to the overall story of the series, but at the same time, the plots are the thing. So when we sit down with this one, I have already forgotten parts of the previous one, and also, I can’t actually tell all the Princes (and Princesses) apart and there’s always more of them.
My Head! My Head! – 3/5
The title of this book makes me think of the Phish song “My Friend, My Friend!” but it’s not about that at all. The story is taken from the Old Testament, specifically from Kings, in which Elisha, the disciple of Elijah is treated well by a rich woman and for whom he prophesies that she will soon have a son. When the son is born, she knows the prophecy has been fulfilled, confirming her faith. The story then passes a few years and the son comes in from working in the field exclaiming “My Head! My Head!” and he is stricken ill and dies. Elisha comes to her and finds her with her son and he blesses her and raises the son from the dead.
This novel is simply that telling, but in the throes of the whole thing, along with a lot of discussions of faith. More interesting than the novel itself is the introduction written by Graves about his curiosity in the story. What comes out of this introduction for me is that Graves is of that generation (maybe the last?) where the stories of the bible are thoroughly well-known and discussed as a matter of academic curiosity, not just religious curiosity.
Endgame – 5/5
I think this is about as perfect a play as you could have. I don’t necessarily mean that this play is the most enjoyable thing in the world to read, but I did enjoy it. It requires focus and patience to work through, and while I hardly “get it” all, I certainly got more out of it now at 40 then I did at 19 in college. The play, as the title, suggests, is at the end of things. We’re in a kind of wasteland. The set is mostly bare, a living room with few pieces of furniture, and a trashcan (this will be important). Hamm is a blind man, and Clov is his servant. They are tied together, still in the wasteland, and Hamm spends his time thinking, complaining, lamenting, and commenting, Clov gives him what he wants, another person to hear him. They are not alone, as Nagg, the old man lives in a trashcan and Nell. The play is life stripped down to the barest of essences and weirdly catalogs the last of days for Hamm, as well as for all of us.
There’s a real feeling that comes first in middle-age and then later too that when I die, so too does everything else. Sometimes this leads (mostly men) to take others with them, and sometimes it leads to a pure sense of alienation of isolation.
Pale Sister – No Rating
I read Colm Toibin’s novel The Testament of Mary, which revisits Mary years after the death of Christ and explores the ways in which her life had been shaped by it and the emerging Mary cult that came soon thereafter. I was shocked by how much I enjoyed it and thought it was solid and good. This short story (or play, depending on how you look at it) is a retelling of Antigone and has some similar surprises to it. Like in The Testament of Mary, we are getting a well-known story through the now awakened voice of someone otherwise silent in the original version. Here we are treated to Ismene’s version of events.
Deep Hole – 3/5
A kind of little fable about a fishing town in New England, where surfing, whether you can call it that or not. Two friends surf and work and screw around. Unfortunately one of them also has a gambling problem. Even more unfortunate is that his friend works for his mafioso uncle and takes the bets, and now there’s a sizeable debt between them. The tourist season now played out, there’s not really a way to make back the money, so the tensions rise, leading to the point of the one friend terrorizing the other for money, but not really having the heart for it. It just so happens though that that uncle has a underground card game that could be ripe for the picking. In addition to that, there’s a girl who the uncle happens to like. And things will swirl from there.
The Ophelia Network – 1/5
Man this one is bad. The story takes place in a near future US where a fascist government who uses surveillance technology to spy on citizens has take over things. We are focused on a children’s television show where an underground network sends messages to people to get out.
And I can’t. It’s hard to capture why this was so unenjoyable.
Heart – No Rating
A solid play that begins with a young London woman, the daughter of African immigrants, who finds herself marrying a man she thinks she loves, and when his violent tempers arise after the marriage, and they get a divorce. Feeling like a failure, she spirals and spirals and spirals, until a moment of self-discovery offers her a chance to rebuild her life in a way she never imagined, if she can let herself.
Legal Immigrant – No Rating
A one-man show by Alan Cumming that is mostly about the role and importance of immigrants and immigration to the US. This is a VERY middle of the Trump administration resistance piece (that of course involve a lot of well-meaning white liberal discourse by a rich person) but features Alan Cumming singing a selection of showtunes often written by immigrants or the children of immigrants.
The Cube – No Rating
A woman goes to see a play in which a giant glass cube is the centerpiece of several different narrative elements that represent different parts of America. She becomes hyper-focused and obsessed with one of the central figures and chases her down, even though it’s the middle of the pandemic expecting to have a profound interaction as a result. The actress certainly has a different interpretation.
The Twits – 5/5 Stars
I haven’t read this Roald Dahl book since I was a kid, and I actually listened to an audiobook version and remember every single picture from it. Here’s the best of the lot:
But here’s Ms Twit:
Enemies, A Love Story – 4/5 stars
Isaac Bashevis Singer opens this novel with a brief author’s note where he states that while he did not survive the death camps, he knows plenty who did. This is an interesting notes, especially given the sheer number of Holocaust novels we’ve had over the years. I can’t an author stating something like this. It’s not a defensive posture, but a compassionate one. Singer knew his own terrors, growing up in the early 20th century Poland, seeing the horrors of WWI as a witness, and finally moving to the US. Unlike later Jewish-American writers, he does not seem to be reacting the a kind of guilt at being in the US at the time of the Holocaust and questioning one’s place in the world here.
The novel is the story of a survivor, Herman Broder was married and living in Poland when the Nazis arrived. In a final moment of despair he hid at a farm owned by Gentiles, where one of the daughters helped to hide him. Later, after the war Herman married this Polish girl and brought her to New York, his previous wife long dead.
Now years later (late 1960s) Herman lives with this wife and spends a lot of his energy making sure they don’t have children. He also doesn’t want to have children with his mistress Masha, a Jewish from also from Europe who lives with her mother, away from her estranged husband. She demands all from Herman and wants to marry him at least in a Jewish ceremony, if not a state ceremony. When she becomes pregnant, things begin to unravel within her and between them.
But wait, there’s more! It turns out that Europe is also not done with Herman.
What’s the Black Comedy version of a farce? Where things are so dark and so sad, but also so funny and off? Anyway, here’s one for you.
Anyway, here’s the Elisha story if you want to read it:
Elisha and the Shunammite Woman
8 One day Elisha went on to Shunem, where a wealthy woman lived, who urged him to eat some food. So whenever he passed that way, he would turn in there to eat food. 9 And she said to her husband, “Behold now, I know that this is a holy man of God who is continually passing our way. 10 Let us make a small room on the roof with walls and put there for him a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp, so that whenever he comes to us, he can go in there.”
11 One day he came there, and he turned into the chamber and rested there. 12 And he said to Gehazi his servant, “Call this Shunammite.” When he had called her, she stood before him. 13 And he said to him, “Say now to her, ‘See, you have taken all this trouble for us; what is to be done for you? Would you have a word spoken on your behalf to the king or to the commander of the army?’” She answered, “I dwell among my own people.” 14 And he said, “What then is to be done for her?” Gehazi answered, “Well, she has no son, and her husband is old.” 15 He said, “Call her.” And when he had called her, she stood in the doorway. 16 And he said, “At this season, about this time next year, you shall embrace a son.” And she said, “No, my lord, O man of God; do not lie to your servant.” 17 But the woman conceived, and she bore a son about that time the following spring, as Elisha had said to her.
Elisha Raises the Shunammite’s Son
18 When the child had grown, he went out one day to his father among the reapers. 19 And he said to his father, “Oh, my head, my head!” The father said to his servant, “Carry him to his mother.” 20 And when he had lifted him and brought him to his mother, the child sat on her lap till noon, and then he died. 21 And she went up and laid him on the bed of the man of God and shut the door behind him and went out. 22 Then she called to her husband and said, “Send me one of the servants and one of the donkeys, that I may quickly go to the man of God and come back again.” 23 And he said, “Why will you go to him today? It is neither new moon nor Sabbath.” She said, “All is well.” 24 Then she saddled the donkey, and she said to her servant, “Urge the animal on; do not slacken the pace for me unless I tell you.” 25 So she set out and came to the man of God at Mount Carmel.
When the man of God saw her coming, he said to Gehazi his servant, “Look, there is the Shunammite. 26 Run at once to meet her and say to her, ‘Is all well with you? Is all well with your husband? Is all well with the child?’” And she answered, “All is well.” 27 And when she came to the mountain to the man of God, she caught hold of his feet. And Gehazi came to push her away. But the man of God said, “Leave her alone, for she is in bitter distress, and the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me.” 28 Then she said, “Did I ask my lord for a son? Did I not say, ‘Do not deceive me?’” 29 He said to Gehazi, “Tie up your garment and take my staff in your hand and go. If you meet anyone, do not greet him, and if anyone greets you, do not reply. And lay my staff on the face of the child.” 30 Then the mother of the child said, “As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So he arose and followed her. 31 Gehazi went on ahead and laid the staff on the face of the child, but there was no sound or sign of life. Therefore he returned to meet him and told him, “The child has not awakened.”
32 When Elisha came into the house, he saw the child lying dead on his bed. 33 So he went in and shut the door behind the two of them and prayed to the Lord. 34 Then he went up and lay on the child, putting his mouth on his mouth, his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands. And as he stretched himself upon him, the flesh of the child became warm. 35 Then he got up again and walked once back and forth in the house, and went up and stretched himself upon him. The child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes. 36 Then he summoned Gehazi and said, “Call this Shunammite.” So he called her. And when she came to him, he said, “Pick up your son.” 37 She came and fell at his feet, bowing to the ground. Then she picked up her son and went out.