A bunch of state-owned bridges in San Francisco is all set to start operating through an all-electronic system of toll collection.
There’s a little sense of dissonance when I read a classic and my response is “huh, okay.” This is especially true when I read the classic in translation; in this case, the translation is very smooth, contemporary, and easy to read, which causes its own form of dissonance. These now feel like contemporary stories rather than something written in the early 19th century, and compared to contemporary stories they don’t particularly stand out to me, but then I neither read them in their original language nor am familiar with the history of Russian literature so as to appreciate the ways in which Pushkin was blazing a new trail.
“The Captain’s Daughter”: This novella occupies almost half of the book. It involves a romance between a young officer and the angelic daughter of the captain, set during the time of Pugachev’s rebellion, and Pugachev himself is the most vibrant character in it. The story moves along briskly and is fairly satisfying, though the characters are not particularly complex. This edition also includes an omitted chapter, which is interesting in that Pushkin ditched a bunch of melodrama and overt paternalism.
“The Tales of Ivan Petrovich Belkin”: These five stories, mostly around 15 pages each, are given a framing device in that they were all collected by a fictional young dead man, but they aren’t actually linked, so I’ll discuss them separately.
“The Shot”: The narrator pieces together the story of a multi-episode duel from others. It’s a bleak world in which men are expected to kill and die in duels over the most mundane insults, and those who refuse lose all respect from their fellows. (Pushkin, sadly, died himself in a duel at age 37.)
“The Snowstorm”: A prank disrupts a love affair. This is a cleverly structured story, in which after reading the end you go back and read over the earlier parts with fresh eyes, something I love in a short story. It made me uncomfortable in that I didn’t find Burmin’s behavior deserving of a happy ending.
“The Undertaker”: A man has ungenerous thoughts and is punished with a nightmare. Um, okay.
“The Postmaster”: Another narrator piecing together someone else’s story, this time of a postmaster and his prodigal daughter. This didn’t do much for me.
“Mistress Into Maid”: A sweet little story about a forbidden romance, also involving some pranking, but this time harmless. I enjoyed this one.
“The Queen of Spades”: This is a somewhat longer story about gambling and obsession, in which a calculating young man will go to almost any length for a guaranteed win at cards. I found this one pretty good and with a satisfying ending.
“Kirdjali”: Eight pages about the legend of an Eastern European bandit. Okay.
“The Negro of Peter the Great”: This is an unfinished fragment, around 40 pages long, of what was perhaps intended to be a novel. The title isn’t politically correct these days but the “Negro” in question is a (lightly fictionalized?) version of Pushkin’s own maternal great-grandfather, Abram or Ibrahim Gannibal, who was brought to Russia as a boy, adopted by Peter the Great as his godson, sent to France to study military engineering, and later returned to Russia to be an important figure in the military and the court. The fragment deals largely with Ibrahim’s love troubles, as well as his relationship with Peter the Great, who’s presented in a very positive light. This is interesting from a historical perspective though a fragment is unlikely to satisfy in a storytelling sense.
Overall, I’m glad to have read some work by a classic author I hadn’t been exposed to before, and appreciated the window into 18th and early 19th century Russia. But while the writing is perfectly fine, I can’t say any of it blew me away. I also have the sense that this collection doesn’t represent Pushkin’s best work, much of which was poetry and plays.
This is my first year reading the Best American Short Stories, after having gotten more into short stories over the last few years. I am not a fan of multi-author anthologies, finding them impossible to “get into” when each new story is like starting a new book, and that’s particularly true here, where there is no unifying theme. From reading a number of both brief and in-depth reviews of this collection and its stories, I have the sense this year wasn’t the best for this series. Many readers only connected with a couple of the stories, though Doerr must have done something right in selecting them when readers’ favorites seem to vary so widely. Looking through the top reviews on this page shows that while most readers only really liked a third or fewer of the stories, almost every story made somebody’s shortlist, with little consistency in which were the favorites. For me the only two standouts are “Letter of Apology” by Maria Reva and “Omakase” by Weike Wang, but I liked these enough that I now plan to read the authors’ books.
So, a rundown in order of appearance:
“The Era” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: The collection begins with a dystopian tale about a world in which kindness and human connection are despised, and the resulting hole is filled with constant injections of drugs. All this I think is astute commentary on certain trends in our society, but I found other elements – like the genetic engineering that sometimes goes wrong and gives people only one personality trait – rather less relevant, and like many insecure sci-fi stories, this one spends way too much time talking about why their values aren’t our values and how our world became theirs. It’s as if we went around talking about the Renaissance all the time and why we aren’t like those people; I’m not buying.
“Natural Light” by Kathleen Alcott: This is perhaps the most literary and best-written story in the collection, about a woman in her 30s who discovers something new about her deceased mother. I admire the author’s skill a lot, but her subject matter was too run-of-the-mill to interest me in reading more, and I still can’t figure out the ending; the last couple of sentences just seem like word salad to me. The story made more sense once
I figured out that the random interjections were the narrator’s intrusive thoughts of suicide methods. The contents of the photograph, meanwhile, seemed obvious to me: the mother was receiving oral sex with drug paraphernalia scattered around, yes?
“The Great Interruption” by Wendell Berry: An entertaining boyhood escapade turns into a local legend, which is then used to comment on the demise of local culture in America. A well-written story, though Berry’s nostalgia for the rural America of yore is steeped in white male privilege, which though not acknowledged becomes visible at one point when the females privileged to hear the original story are referred to as the “housewives and big girls” of the community (it contained no other adult women).
“No More Than a Bubble” by Jamel Brinkley: Two college boys crash a party with the goal of hooking up with a pair of slightly older women, and wind up way out of their depth. It’s a vividly told tale but I didn’t really know what to make of this one. The problematic aspects of the boys’ sexuality are clearly acknowledged, but I didn’t know how to reconcile Ben’s
telling us that he learned the most important lesson of his life from all this with his still being alone and confused many years later, i.e., at exactly the same place his father’s view of women, which the young Ben adopted unquestioningly, led his father to end up.
“The Third Tower” by Deborah Eisenberg: In a vaguely-sketched dystopian world, the medical system tries to stamp out the creativity and possibly repressed memories of government-sponsored horror from the mind of a young woman. This one was a little too on-the-nose for me, and Therese’s gullibility and eager compliance made it harder for me to have strong feelings about what was being done to her.
“Hellion” by Julia Elliott: An adolescent girl in rural South Carolina befriends a visiting boy, and unfortunate consequences follow from their actions. It’s sweet enough I suppose, but what Doerr cites as its exuberance and courage, for me was just over-the-top in a way that seems almost careless: the character referred to as having grown up “before the Civil War” early enough in the story that we don’t yet realize this isn’t meant literally (it’s set in the 1980s or thereabouts); the young female narrator going off on a sudden tangent about people killing the planet when she’d never before mentioned an interest in science or ecology and again, it’s the 1980s. It all felt a bit haphazard to me, and the grounding in serious questions about whether this girl has a shot at a fulfilling life wasn’t quite enough to draw it back.
“Bronze” by Jeffrey Eugenides: A gender-nonconforming freshman meets an older gay man on the train home to college from New York, and has to finally decide whether he’s actually gay and if not, whether his self-expression is worth letting people read him that way. Interesting enough but didn’t do much for me, though I did find it interesting that Eugenides developed the older man, who without getting a point-of-view would have just been a standard creep.
“Protozoa” by Ella Martinsen Gorham: A 14-year-old girl tries to establish her self-identity in both the real and virtual worlds. Doerr perhaps sells this one short by calling it a cautionary tale about the amount of investment teens put into their online lives; in many ways Noa seems to live more in the real world than a lot of teens (she interacts with quite a few people in real life over the course of the story), and I found myself thinking that the cautionary message might have been sent more effectively. But I’m not sure the author actually intended the story as anything so simple: what might have been portrayed as traumatizing cyberbullying in another story, Noa seems perfectly well-equipped to handle and even in some ways to welcome, while her real story is about trying to establish herself as someone darker and edgier.
“Seeing Ershadi” by Nicole Krauss: A dancer and her friend both attribute newfound motivation to leave bad situations to visions of actor Homayoun Ershadi. This one didn’t really do anything for me. It seems to have a hole at its center: we hear a lot about the plot of the Iranian film Taste of Cherry, and a lot about the narrator’s friend’s life, while the narrator’s own life and decisions are sidelined. It is sweet though that according to the author’s note at the end, Ershadi read and was touched by the story at a difficult point in his own life.
“Pity and Shame” by Ursula Le Guin: An outcast young woman in a late 19th century California mining town cares for a lonely mine engineer injured in an accident, and the two of them and a doctor all form a bond. A sweet story but not one that leaves the reader with much to think about, despite the author’s legendary status.
“Anyone Can Do It” by Manual Muñoz: A young mother struggles to figure out how to pay the bills when her husband, along with other farmworkers, is suddenly snatched by immigration. Timely, certainly, though set in the 1980s rather than the present, and the author adds some complexity in that, for instance, Delfina doesn’t actually seem to like or miss her husband much. But she was a bit of a hollow character that was hard for me to root for, and
I was a little disturbed by the way the theft of her car was foreshadowed by her allowing her 4-year-old son to shoplift a toy car. It seems to me that she’s allowing her son to grow up into exactly the kind of person who took advantage of her.
“The Plan” by Sigrid Nunez: Inside the mind of a killer. Interesting enough, but didn’t do much for me.
“Letter of Apology” by Maria Reva: In late Soviet Ukraine, a KGB agent is required to extract a letter of apology from a renowned poet for making a political joke. The agent, who narrates the story, is in denial about certain aspects of his own life, leading him to wildly misinterpret the behavior of the poet’s wife. I loved this one: there’s a ton of humor in the contrast between the dread image of the KGB and the reality of the bumbling and confused Mikhail, as well as the absurdities of the system as a whole. The whole story is full of dark humor and the changes wrought in both Mikhail and Milena seemed very real and sympathetic to me. I was excited to find that the author has also published this as part of a whole collection of linked short stories.
“Black Corfu” by Karen Russell: On a Croatian island in 1620, ruled at the time from Venice, a black man wanted to be a doctor but is permitted only to cut the hamstrings of the dead, meant to prevent them from rising again as less-violent zombies, known as vukodlak. He’s falsely accused of botching a procedure – or is the accusation really false? This was my first exposure to an author who’s gotten a lot of buzz lately, and the story hits a lot of buttons in terms of racial prejudice and glass ceilings, but didn’t actually work well for me.
“Audition” by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh: A young man who wants to be an actor instead, for unspecified reasons, works on construction sites owned by his father, a real estate developer, and seems to be falling under the spell of crack. This didn’t do much for me.
“Natural Disasters” by Alexis Schaitkin: A young New Yorker moves to Oklahoma with her husband, where she takes a job writing descriptions of houses for sale and tries to fit everything that happens into some meaningful narrative of her life. I enjoyed the narrator’s voice, her obvious pretention and her adult awareness of it when telling the story from the vantage point of many years later, but I was underwhelmed and unconvinced by the “big event.”
Really, at age 24 it’s this earth-shattering moment for her to hear that some guy’s brother died meaninglessly?
“Our Day of Grace” by Jim Shepard: An epistolary story about the American Civil War: two southern women write letters to two Confederate soldiers, one of whom writes back. The letters are credible enough but the Civil War has also been pretty well done to death as a setting, and in my view this didn’t do anything new or exciting.
“Wrong Object” by Mona Simpson: A therapist treats a man who at first seems boring, but then reveals that he only experiences sexual attraction to adolescent girls, though he insists he’s never acted upon it. This is interesting, but perhaps too short for me. I would have liked to know a little more about the therapist’s life, which is only vaguely hinted at, and to have seen the consequences at the end developed a little more. But the existence of people seeking treatment for pedophilia who have never acted on their urges was not new information to me, which may have blunted my reaction to the story.
“They Told Us Not To Say This” by Jenn Alandy Trahan: Blink and you’ll miss this 7-page story, told in the first person plural about a group of second-generation Filipina-American girls who are second-class in their families but find empowerment on the basketball court. This is the one story no reviewer seems to have highlighted as a favorite, and I can see why not.
“Omakase” by Weike Wang: A Chinese-American woman in her late 30s goes out for omakase (in Japanese, “I’ll leave it up to you”; in restaurants, sushi selected by the chef) with her white boyfriend, who increasingly shows his obliviousness about racial issues and his dismissive and condescending attitude toward her, despite the fact that she’s the one to do most of the sacrificing and pay most of the bills in their relationship. It’s interesting to see the widely varied responses that reviewers have had, some feeling that all the ways in which the woman is marginalized and put down in the world and within her own relationship to be too stereotypical, while others seem to take the boyfriend’s opinions at face value and view her as too sensitive and neurotic for her own good. Those varying responses are certainly a testament to the realism of the story. She is a bit neurotic, but to me much of this is the conflict generated by her instincts telling her she’s in a bad situation, while everyone around her (boyfriend, family, friends) insists that the only problem is her – thereby robbing her of the sense of self-worth she needs to actually stand up for herself. She comes across as real and vibrant, as do the racial issues addressed, and I’m interested in reading Wang’s novel.
Overall, an interesting collection of stories I don’t regret reading, but that took me a really long time to get through. I’m not sure if I’ll try another of these collections, but I did at least discover a couple of promising authors.
I have read some of Calvin Demmer’s stories and Dark Celebrations is an anthology that may make you want to party…or not.
Dark Celebrations is not my first foray into Calvin Demmer’s world and I look forward to going wherever he wants to take me in this collection of stories.
I was going to review each story separately, but with Covid -19 around and being cooped up for six weeks now, I find my motivation running a bit empty. So…
I enjoyed all the stories and spending time in the world of horror and the supernatural. Calvin Demmer is skilled at crafting tales that give me the creepy crawlies,making me glad that it is fiction.
Wantta party? The door is open. Come on in. But, lock the doors and turn on the lights.
I voluntarily reviewed a free copy of Dark Celebrations by Calvin Demmer.
MY CALVIN DEMMER REVIEWS