Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Thanksgiving Visitor

Every Thanksgiving (including, soon, today) I make it a point to re-read "The Thanksgiving Visitor" by Truman Capote.  This is a short story that is essentially a memoir of an event from his childhood as he grew up in Alabama in the household of some older unmarried relations.  I have a copy of this story in a volume with his other more-famous memoir/short story, "A Christmas Memory."  (This volume, which is also in a beautiful slipcover, is one of my most treasured possessions.  If my house were burning down, I would have to fight not to go back in and get it.)  If you are not familiar with this story, then drop EVERYTHING you are doing right now and go find a copy and READ!  Seriously, it is not long and can be easily read in a pleasurable break from the hubbub of Thanksgiving Day.

In the story, the narrator Buddy has his worst nightmare come true when his friend and relative Miss Sook invites the school bully, Odd Henderson, to the Thanksgiving meal.  This simple act casts a pall over what was supposed to be a magical and wonderful day for Buddy.  This story is not moralistic by any means, but it teaches a great lesson about kindness that I think is what draws me back to it every year.  It's a lesson we all need.

Wishing you and yours a very happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Rogue's Life -- The Wilkie Collins Blog Tour

A Rogue's Life by Wilkie Collins

Pages: 156
Rating: 5 out of 5
First sentence: "I am going to try if I can't write something about myself."

Today I'm happy to welcome Wilkie Collins to my blog as part of the Wilkie Collins Blog Tour, the brainchild of Rebecca and her friends over at The Classics Circuit.  Check this page for the rest of the stops on the tour, as well as stops previous to this one.

When I signed up for a spot on the tour, I did so with not a little fear and trembling.  For one thing, although I had heard of Wilkie Collins and his more famous novels such as The Moonstone, I had never gotten around to actually reading any of his work.  Part of it was an inability to believe that his writings could possibly be as good as the conventional wisdom thought they were -- this, despite the fact that his work has survived for the past 150 years or more.

So I signed up for the blog tour as a way of literally forcing myself to read some Collins.  But then, which work should I choose?  I picked A Rogue's Life not for its synopsis or characters, but for the most mundane reason of all:  it is a short book.  I figured that, if I just absolutely hated the book, it would be a limited torture.  I am happy to report that that was not the case.  Reading A Rogue's Life was a delightful experience and it whetted my appetite for more Collins.

A Rogue's Life was first published in installments in the weekly periodical Household Words in 1856.  As might be anticipated from the opening sentence above, the novel is in the form of an autobiography of Frank Softly, the "rogue" of the title.

Frank is born into a well-connected family, but one that cannot give him much of a start in life as far as money is concerned.  So his early adult life is a tale of bouncing from one profession to another, and failing or getting bored with all of them.  He eventually ends up in debtor's prison.

It is here that Collins introduces the 19th-century equivalent of a running gag into the story.  Frank's brother-in-law, a Mr. Batterbury, comes to visit him in prison to bring him word that Frank's grandmother, Lady Malkinshaw, has left an inheritance in her will to Frank's sister Annabella.  There's one catch: Frank must outlive Lady Malkinshaw, or Annabella (along with her slightly odious husband) gets nothing.  So the Batterburys suddenly take a sporadic but intense interest in Frank's welfare, bailing him out of prison and in general serving as a kind of humorous "deus ex machina" whenever Frank gets into a financial scrape, which is frequently.

Upon getting out of prison, Frank takes up with a forgery ring that specializes in forgeries of old masters such as Rembrandt.  It's at the offices of the leader of this ring that he first sets eyes on the love of his life, a beautiful but mysterious young woman who remains a mystery, since he has no way of finding out her name or where she lives.  The forgery ring soon falls apart, and Mr.Batterbury steps in again to save Frank from ruin by arranging his employment as secretary to a Literary and Scientific Institute.  (Part of the humor of the Mr.Batterbury gag is that he shows up only when Lady Malkinshaw's health has taken an unexpected and undesirable turn for the better, or has had some catastrophe happen to her and has survived it better than anyone would have thought.)

Frank's efforts to sell tickets to a ball being sponsored by the Institute put him in the path of the young woman again, and he finally learns her name -- Alicia Dulcifer .  This encounter begins the central and most exciting part of the novel.  Alicia's father appears to be a scientist and former physician, but Frank learns that he is looked upon by the community with fear and distrust, with the result that Dr. Dulcifer and his daughter are essentially pariahs.  Frank is told by an associate that Dr. Dulcifer is hiding something in his country home, and Frank eventually discovers what it is: Dr. Dulcifer runs a complex counterfeiting operation out of his home, where he and three other men turn out near-perfect copies of gold coins.

It's in this section of the novel that Collins shows his mastery of the art of storytelling.  What had been a pleasant, albeit antiquated, story in the early part of the novel suddenly turns into a page-turning thriller worthy of a James Patterson or a John Grisham .  (OK, I suppose I am exaggerating just the tiniest bit.  But I found the page-turning part to be absolutely true.)  At the risk of spoiling any more of the story than I already have, I'll say no more about the plot.  But the story does have a completely unexpected but entirely satisfying happy ending.

One thing in general that pleasantly surprised me about Wilkie Collins (besides his prodigious storytelling skills) was his deft use of humor.  This novel is not actually a comedy, but still Collins slyly injects humorous episodes and even just funny turns of phrase into the story.  The scenes concerning Lady Malkinshaw's escapes from death are genuinely funny, and they definitely increase the reader's enjoyment in what might otherwise be a slightly darker book.

Collins also does a wonderful job with the main courtship scene between Frank and Alicia in the book.  Suffice it to say that he takes a scene that has the potential to devolve into something quite maudlin and turns it into an utterly charming episode.

All in all (in case you couldn't tell), I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it to anyone, whether they are a Wilkie Collins fan or not.  If you enjoy a well-told tale, you will enjoy this book, and who knows -- it might turn you into a brand-new Collins fan, like me.  Thanks, Wilkie!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Volume 14 -- Book Review

Pages: 590 (although I didn't read the whole thing)
Stars: 4 out of 5

I picked this book up from the library a few weeks ago, in hopes that it would be the perfect companion for some dark October nights.  In general, I would say it fulfilled that need.  Edited by Stephen Jones, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror (Volume 14) has a variety of short-story (and not-so-short-story) offerings that are somewhat uneven in their appeal.  Some were not appealing to me at all, and I suppose that is the inevitable result of every anthology -- the editor is doomed to give everyone something to hate.

I am not familiar with this series, but in addition to being a yearly anthology of the best horror stories, it is evidently also a review of the Year in Horror, as it were.  A large portion of the book is devoted to two sections: "Horror in 2002," a review of publishing activity in the horror genre; and "Necrology: 2002," a listing of people in the field who passed away during 2002.  I didn't read either one of these.  I think only the most die-hard horror fan would.

I read about 75% of the stories in this volume, and liked about half of them.  Here's a list of my favorites, with an extremely brief analysis/synopsis of each one:
1. "October in the Chair" by Neil Gaiman: At the monthly meeting of the months of the year, October tells a dark tale of a runaway who decides to permanently join his newfound playmate from the graveyard.
2. "The Wretched Thicket of Thorn" by Don Tumasonis: A short pleasant day trip by boat to a forbidden island soon turns dark and bloody.
3. "The Absolute Last of the Ultra-Spooky, Super-Scary Hallowe'en Horror Nights" by David Schow: My absolute favorite kind of story -- a fun-filled romp with pretend monsters terrorizing a theme park on Halloween night.  Except that most of the monsters turn out to be real.  A healthy dose of obnoxious people getting what's coming to them, too.
4. "Little Dead Girl Singing" by Stephen Gallagher: A well-written story with great atmosphere and perfect foreshadowing.  A tale of a little girl singing in a dress that looks like funeral home curtains, and a mother who has a strange power over her.
5. "Nesting Instincts" by Brian Hodge: One of the most perfect (and creepiest) stories I've read in a long time.  A real page turner about a young boy whose mother goes through a surprising transformation at the hands of her live-in boyfriend.  This story actually had my heart racing as I approached its climax.
6. "Hides" by Jay Russell: Robert Louis Stevenson is a prominent character in this story set in the old West. A group of stagecoach passengers (including Stevenson) find themselves stranded in a lonesome, out-of-the way rest stop with visions of the Donner Party dancing in their heads.
7. 20th Century Ghost" by Joe Hill: A captivating story about the ghost of a young girl who proves to be the salvation of an aging moviehouse and its owner.  A perfect plot.
8. "Egyptian Avenue" by Kim Newman: A slow, strange start to this story about evil that persists throughout the decades, and about tombs that come in all shapes and sizes.
9. "The Boy Behind the Gate" by James Van Pelt: Excellent story about a father whose son is missing and a father from a different time who gradually realizes his son is a monster.  These two families are inextricably and inexplicably linked in time and space by an old mine, with disastrous results.

Overall this was an entertaining collection for this time of year, but I find that short story collections are relatively hard for me to read.  I finish one story and then am reluctant to go on to the next.  If the story I just finished was a good, satisfying read, I want to savor it, and not spoil the atmosphere of the story with another totally unrelated plot and set of characters.  I guess this is a kind of reader's OCD.