Review: My Uncle Oswald

my-cousin-oswald_coverI still read The Best of Roald Dahl and hold it up as the “best collection of short fiction (by a single author).” When I needed a gift for a friend, I gave her this collection accompanied by My Uncle Oswald. There’s an Oswald story in the collection and it’s a riot; gifting more Oswald stories without reading them seemed an easy call. Then I finally read My Uncle Oswald and texted “Ohmigosh. I just realized I gave you porn!” (Soft core.) It’s hilarious, but I only recommend it if you’re a) not shy about sex, and b) in possession of a robust sense of humor.

My Uncle Oswald follows Oswald Hendrycks Cornelius as a young man and details how he made his fortune. Using a powder from the Sudanese Blister Beetle, he creates a pill that afflicts the user with overpowering sexual desire (and capability) exactly 9.5 minutes after ingestion. He sells this pill to various elites for huge sums. Once he discovers that the pill also works on women, he doubles his market by suggesting that men and women take it together. Oswald enjoys his pill business, but craves something more challenging and lucrative. He finds Yasmin, a young woman who isn’t hesitant about rough sex, and makes the acquaintance of A.R. Woresley, a scientist. With their help, Oswald perfects a method of collecting semen from the intellectual giants of the day and freezing it to sell.

“How long do you think it will take?”
“To make our fortunes? About seven or eight years. No more. That’s not such a long stretch when it means you can laze about doing nothing for ever after.”
“No,” she said, “it isn’t. And anyway, I’m rather enjoying this.”
“I know you are.”
“What I’m enjoying,” she said, “is the thought of being ravished by all the greatest men in the world. And all the kings. It tickles my fancy.”
“Let’s go out and buy a French motor car,” I said. (164)

Oswald travels Europe with Yasmin, collecting samples for his sperm bank from a roster of famous men: Monet, Picasso, Freud, etc. Each sexual conquest is outrageous, but the first few are best because the book grows repetitive. Dahl works variety into the scenes, but a clear pattern emerges nonetheless. Right when I worried the book was ruining its premise by becoming routine, Oswald says as much himself.

I give self-aware narrators a lot of latitude (particularly when they acknowledge faults in their telling of the story). Oswald’s self-awareness adds to the humor. He loves to preen and grandstand for the reader and win them over to his cause. He explains his schemes frankly (though under a tide of self-aggrandizement, of course) and his personal philosophies force the book to be lighthearted:

I myself have always found it difficult to treat anything too seriously and I believe the world would be a better place if everyone followed my example. I am completely without ambition. […] All I want out of life is to enjoy myself. But before one can achieve this happy end one must obviously get hold of a lot of money. Money is essential to a sybarite. It is the key of the kingdom. […] I refuse to have anything to do with money-making unless the process obeys two golden rules. First, it must amuse me tremendously. Second, it must give a good deal of pleasure to those from whom I extract the loot. (171)

Sure, the premise is crude, but what makes the book funny and endearing is Dahl’s unique brand of wit. Plus Yasmin, armed with a hat pin and watched over by Oswald, is never thought to be at risk. Like Penthouse letters, which no one takes seriously these days, each of Oswald’s stories is soaked in fantasy. Despite the content, much is described via euphemism or under silly circumstances, which keeps it from being vulgar. It’s warm, tongue-in-cheek, and seems crafted to humor more than titillate.

Overall: 3.8 It’s very funny with memorable scenes, but even Oswald’s self-awareness can’t stop the conceit/joke from wearing thin. The end has a great payoff that works as well as the wondrous endings found in The Best of Roald Dahl.

Translation: Recommended. A sense of humor is required.


Previously On:

3. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
2. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
1. Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

Review: The Best of Roald Dahl

the_best_of_roald_dahl_coverI make passing references to my Top Five (or Ten) List, but these lists don’t exist. Books float in and out of these designations and, if I added up my Top Ten, I’d have twenty books. So listen close: I’m going to be uncharacteristically definitive: this collection, The Best of Roald Dahl, is the best collection of short fiction (by a single author). Disagree? Send suggestions! I take requests (see Twilight, see also Gone Girl). Now, this collection isn’t for everyone—it’s definitely not for kids and shouldn’t be confused with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (which is delightfully messed up).

One of the most famous stories in this collection, “Lamb to the Slaughter,” pops up in a number of English classes so you may have read it already. If it hasn’t (and even if it has), you can read it here: “Lamb to the Slaughter.” I’ve been wracking my brain for the words to express how much I love Dahl’s writing, but I realize now that I can throw you a link and let the man sell himself.

Dahl’s stories cover a remarkable variety of topics. He writes as though he has traveled the world, is a mad scientist, an oenophile, a furniture expert, a musician… He imparts knowledgeable authority to his characters no matter their field or interest. Surprisingly, the first story is the weakest and serves as a poor hook for the collection. “Madame Rosette” lacks his customary turn of bleak humor/brilliance and is straightforward. It might have been written by anyone. What it does establish, however, is a clear line (via an Egyptian brothel) between this collection and his children’s literature. The realization that Dahl has more stylistic tricks up his sleeve than I’d given him credit for is what kept me reading past this initial story.

About those turns at the ends of his stories…
They can’t rightly be called twists. They’re more like clarifications. Many of his stories are taut, suspenseful pieces that left me wondering at the possible resolutions. I knew something big would happen (or be explained), but I could rarely put my finger on it. Typically, I know where a writer is going, but Dahl provided some laugh-out-loud shockers. As dark and “wicked” as many of his stories are, there’s always a spark of wry humor.

Top Picks:

“Man from the South”
The second story—the one to really grab me after the intriguing, but plain, “Madame Rosette.” It features a nasty, old gambler who bets expensive items and collects his “winnings” with a butcher knife.

“Dip in the Pool”
More gambling, but on a cruise ship. A nervous man is about to lose his savings and enacts a bizarre plan to fix the odds in his favor.

“The Way Up to Heaven”
My favorite. I would have linked to this story if I’d found it online. It follows a very anxious woman who absolutely, positively, without exception cannot stand to be late. She is preparing for a long flight and her husband, who may or may not be doing so maliciously, invents tiny reasons to hold her up. The way her distress and unease builds is extraordinary. I found myself shouting at her husband to HURRY UP, ALREADY. And the end…

“Parson’s Pleasure”
This is a longer story that revels in details. A man dresses as a parson and cruises the countryside, buying up antique furniture at rock-bottom prices. Picture Antiques Road Show + Sleaze + False Valuations and you’ve got it. He finds an exceedingly rare piece and tries to talk it away from its owners. The ending on this one made me laugh so hard that I cried. And no skipping to the end! I know the furniture descriptions can go on a bit, but they’re worth it in the end.

Honorable Mentions:

A man invites an irritating wine-lover to dinner. The descriptions of food and wine are extraordinary. I’d like to crack open a bottle just thinking about this one—and I don’t even like wine. (Gin, please.)

“Edward the Conqueror”
A woman is convinced that a stray cat is the reincarnation of Franz Liszt to the frustration (and jealousy) of her husband. I like music (and cats), so I was a bit partial to this one. Though, because people are funny about animal stuff, I ought to warn you that it doesn’t work out for the cat in the end.

“William and Mary”
A truly WTF ending. And I mean that in the best way. Once you get through the gnarly floating-brain-in-a-basin set-up, you’re left with a dark sci-fi story that I would love to have written. Am writing a bunch of off-beat stories around a twisted cryonics company and this would have been a wildly fun starting point.

I could keep going…but you’d have a list of pretty near every story in the book. A small handful are weaker than others (that always happens). But most of the stories are short, so even if you don’t like one, you’re not out much time and Dahl will stick an unusual idea in your head for your trouble.

I can’t recommend this book enough. I want to buy dozens and dozens of copies and throw them at people; at people I know, strangers on the train, random folks on the sidewalk… It’s the right blend of dark/twisted and riotously funny. Oh, I’ve forgotten to mention “The Visitor”! In it, Uncle Oswald, a famed lothario is taken in by a kindly man while his car is being repaired in the middle of the desert. Being something of a bad guest, and an epic lover, Oswald sets his sights on his host’s wife. And daughter.

Overall: 4.9  The entertainment value provided by this little book cannot be overstated. Read it!

Note: This edition is of spotty quality; there are a number of typos and the book jumps between fonts (absently, not artistically). Perhaps recent printings have fixed this?