The Didomenico Fragment
This story by Amor Towles takes place all in New York City, with Brooklyn being posed almost as a foreign country. The narrator is an aging art critic and scholar who was recently in possession of a small fragment of a Renaissance masterpiece. He’s approached by an art dealer who asks him about selling the fragment, but he laments that he sold it years ago. This leads to an idea. Early in the story he talks about how being retired, even comfortably, can be fraught because of chance. So the opportunity to make some money to supplement his life is enticing.
The story of the fragment is essential to discuss. The painting is in fragments because the financier/art patron patriarch of the family, who began to collect art in the late 19th century, as they did (like Morgan for example). Not being a believer in primogeniture, this patron decided to take his near priceless painting and split it in quarters and give one each to his children. Then, the same happened with their children, and so on. The result is that as far as our narrator knows, there’s only one fragment remaining in the possession of the family. Not only is this the only, but perhaps the best, being a large section, and one framing the face of Mary. The painting is an “Annuniciation” and Mary’s face on learning the news of her immaculate pregnancy is a big part of it obviously.
So his plan is to convince his nephew to sell the painting, from which he’s been promised a finder’s fee. When he meets with his nephew, a teacher in Brooklyn, he senses that he and his wife would consider it, but there’s a 10 year old son who has fallen in love with the painting. The plan shifts now to taking the son to the Met, teaching him the value and importance of art patronage, and hoping that puts the idea in his head.
It’s a charming story, and the plot — both the story and the scheme — are relatively harmless.
The Gentlemen from Peru – Andre Aciman
A kind of fable story that begins with a few couples going ashore after a delay in their cruise. This delay is in the Amalfi coast, so they’re not exactly complaining. The group is eating dinner one night when a strange, an older man with a slight accent comes over and suggests that one of the men seems to be in physical pain (the normal kind of aches and pains) and offers to help. Taking him for a kind of chiropractor the man accepts and the man seems to heal the man. This opens up conversation and more about the stranger and more about the group is revealed. It seems the old man knows a lot about each of the group to the point where even a scam or trick seem unlikely. As they move forward in the story he begins to assert himself further, sparking some vague feelings of familiarity. I will stop explaining from there. It’s a relatively sentimental story written by a talented writer, and worthy enough audiobook to listen to for free.
On Blueberry Hill – Sebastian Berry
This short story begins a little confusingly, in part because the audiobook has two actors telling you their story in a back and forth, and their voices are just close enough to be confusing. Once that’s cleared up what emerges is a story about a local priest who has a friendship with a youth in town who is gay. There’s some implication of more than friendship, and certainly there’s a deep sympathy. But in a way I cannot really understand, this leads to the death of the boy, when the priest seems to push him off a cliff in front of witnesses. So be it.
After seeing the priest’s mother at the funeral, the boy’s dad becomes enraged, and seeks her out, and murders her. Now with two killers in town, the local sheriff decides to put the two men in the same cell, which is initially catastrophic, and then later, palliative. I don’t know that I buy so much of the original set up, but it’s meant to be a vehicle to get us to the same cell.
Good Enemy – Yilong Liu
An Audiodrama that begins with a middle-aged Chinese immigrant father seeing his increasingly estranged daughter in a TikTok at an anti racist violence protests. He’s alarmed and immediately begins a road trip to visit her.
The alarm becomes more apparent when elements of his past emerge. In his youth he turned in his mother to the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution where she died in prison. Later, he became a police officer, and was immediately conscripted into infiltrating a youth protest group. There, as you would guess, he falls in love with a young woman, and through this budding relationship he begins to doubt all that he knew before. Because he is in the US for the present time, we know he gets out, but the drama keeps us in suspense as to how for most of the play.
In the present, his daughter is horrified by his showing unannounced. They’ve become distant after the death of her mother. He’s also shocked to meet her white boyfriend who doesn’t speak Chinese. The play does an interesting thing where the dialogue is all in English, but suggested that we’re hearing Chinese, so the boyfriend’s talk in rudimentary Chinese is stilted and informal.
The play is interesting, and perfectly good in a lot of ways. The frame is a little too convoluted and not as necessary to the plot as suggested.
The Cat Who Saved Books
I really am not sure I liked this book very much. The setup is a teen boy’s grandfather dies, leaving behind his used bookstore. The boy begins to neglect school in order to spend time at the store, with a girl from his class stopping by to give him his work. One day a cat shows up, begins talking, and tells the boy that he needs his help freeing books.
The boy agrees, and what happens next is basically a Persona game, with the boy and the cat (and you guessed it, the girl) visiting different people who are mistreating books in some way (all in some sort of spiritual mind palace or labyrinth) and the group must work to save the books from the mistreatment.
Turns out there’s a final boss toon.
Anyway, I tend to think people should be allowed to read in the way that suits them best. Sure, I can have my opinions about it and I might even judge (I actually tend to be not as judgmental as I might be really) but that’s mine to deal with. The book leans heavily on the idea that compassion and empathy are human requirements, again I have more complicated ideas, but the whole mission of the book is that there’s a wrong way to love books and those people must be stopped!
I didn’t grow up reading RL Stine books at all, so the only couple I have read have been as adults. I get what they are, so I have to accept their limits. What is kind of crazy is how violent and relentless they are. They’re freaky and weird, but they’re not just scary, but actually deadly. This isn’t Lois Duncan pumping the breaks whenever things get too hairy.
So The Snowman is about a girl, Heather, who lives with her aunt and uncle. The uncle is abusive, but not in that way, and mostly just an asshole. She’s frustrated with him. One day a new boy shows up in town, and he’s very pretty and very pale with dark features, but snow white hair. He’s the Snowman, so not an actual snowman. Something is up about him, but that comes later.
The snowman is nice, shows her attention, and goes on dates with her. He also listens sympathetically to her issues with her uncle. He seems to take it all in. One day she learns that his brother needs an operation, and so she offers him money from her inheritance from the death of her parents. He’s resistant at first, but takes it. That’s when things start going bad.
It’s funny because everything about this book points towards something much more supernatural, but the book is a thriller more than anything, and more in common with noir than horror. What is kind of happening in this book is that this is the kind of book that would have been written in the thirties or forties, with the particulars changed to early adult life (maybe killing a bad husband instead of a bad uncle) but without the real thoughtfulness of something like a Brighton Rock, which explores (in a real way) the themes presented here.
James Salter is not primarily known for being a short story writer, having published a number of novels, written a number of films, and also being one of those writers known to having had to work for a living. So when a writer falls into this territory, often the short fiction is a little indulgent or experimental or weak as a consequence of it being a form the author took up later in their career as opposed a form they played around with as they learned to as they learned to write and kept working to perfect as they got older and more experienced.
I don’t think these stories are either bad or masterful, but they are good, and for a short collection and as a tool I feel I am using to get myself to read more of Salter’s work, it’s a good place to start, or rather continue, as I read his other collection earlier in the year.