Review: The Dinner Party

I requested a collection of short stories by Joshua Ferris from NetGalley months ago (I’m running behind). I was familiar with Ferris from two of his earlier books: The Unnamed and Then We Came to the End. In both cases, the premise was sound but the main plot was rehashed repeatedly until I throttled the book and said: “I’ve got it. Can we move on with the story now?”

My experience with Ferris’s long fiction is what made me excited to read a collection of shorts. He’s a witty writer who goes for dark humor (which I like). My hope was that the limited page count would leave room for his originality but not his tendency to wax on. Yet most of the stories in The Dinner Party follow a similar arc despite the range of subjects.

Adding to the repetitive feel is that most of the stories examine a deeply-flawed or unhappy person and the same flaws keep cropping up: insecurity, self-loathing, dishonesty, and an inability to connect with others. The actual writing is quite good; whenever I thought I might set the book down permanently I’d run across a little gem. Ferris can put his finger on a thing/emotion exactly and make the reader feel it with surprising clarity.

The highlights for me are:

“The Dinner Party”
One couple waits on the arrival of another for a dinner party. The longer they wait, the more it seems like the other couple is staying away for their own reasons. Because it’s first, its hooks and twists are the most effective in the collection. It sets the tone for those that come after.
Here is “The Dinner Party” as originally published in The New Yorker, August 11, 2008.

“The Pilot”
An insecure writer is invited to a party thrown by a successful acquaintance. He wonders whether he was invited intentionally or accidentally and, to cope, he hides behind an alter ego and tells everyone that his pilot is almost finished. The tension that comes from his writhing insecurity and problematic drinking is skin-crawling. Come to think of it, most of this collection is uncomfortable so it stands to reason the best stories are those that nail discomfort most efficiently.
Here is “The Pilot” as originally published in The New Yorker, June 14 & 21, 2010.

“More Abandon, or Whatever Happened to Joe Pope”
Points awarded for absurdity. “More Abandon” follows another self-loathing man, Joe Pope, as he leaves an embarrassing series of voicemails on a coworker’s phone. He then explores the empty offices in his building and does a little redecorating…

Overall: 3.5  Ferris can write and he’s a little more interesting than average so The Dinner Party can’t slip below a three even if the redundancy is tiring. Many of these stories were originally published in The New Yorker—which makes sense, they have that New Yorker vibe—and they’d be better if read months apart instead of in a collection where their similar themes and tones are obvious.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown and Company (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads

Review: The Tale of the Unknown Island

the-tale-of-the-unknown-island_coverI tracked down a copy of José Saramago’s The Tale of the Unknown Island after reading the opening lines:

A man went to knock at the king’s door and said, Give me a boat. The king’s house had many other doors, but this was the door for petitions. Since the king spent all his time sitting at the door for favors (favors being offered to the king, you understand), whenever he heard someone knocking at the door for petitions, he would pretend not to hear, and only when the continuous pounding of the bronze doorknocker became not just deafening, but positively scandalous, disturbing the peace of the neighborhood (people would start muttering, What kind of king is he if he won’t even answer the door), only then would he order the first secretary to go and find out what the supplicant wanted, since there seemed no way of silencing him. (1-2)

The man wants a boat so he can seek out an unknown island, but he’s met with impatience everywhere because there are no more unknown islands in a mapped world. Nevertheless, the king is obligated to supply a boat:

Give the bearer a boat, it doesn’t have to be a large boat, but it should be a safe, seaworthy boat, I don’t want to have him on my conscience if things should go wrong. (16-17)

My two favorite genres are adventure/exploration lit and fairy tales. Unknown Island quickly establishes itself as an excellent mash-up and follows through. At just 51 pages (tiny pages with periodic illustrations), this book can be read in about 25 minutes without breaking a sweat. The dialogue is tricky through. Saramago joins the ranks of the writers who eschew quotation marks—punctuation scraps specifically designed to clarify conversation—to make conversation more flowy/literary/whatever:

The harbormaster came, read the card, looked the man up and down, and asked the question the king had neglected to ask, Do you know how to sail, have you got a master’s ticket, to which the man replied, I’ll learn at sea. The harbormaster said, I wouldn’t recommend it, I’m a sea captain myself and I certainly wouldn’t venture out to sea in just any old boat, Then give me one I could venture out in, no, not one like that, give me a boat I can respect and that will respect me, That’s sailor’s talk, yet you’re not a sailor, If I talk like a sailor, then I must be one. (20-21)

It’s not unclear, but only because the man’s and harbormaster’s voices are distinct. When the man talks to someone who shares his views, their voices blur into one. While this makes a statement on their characters, I feel like I can appreciate their development without this pesky lack of useful punctuation.

By the end, the meaning of the fable is clear without being preachy, but I confess to wanting an actual adventure. Saramago displays a flair for imaginative detail and description; I wanted to see what he would do with a sea voyage, possible monsters, and the thrill of discovery. The boat was procured so swiftly, I thought there would be time for some of the journey. That said, the story is so lovely that it feels shallow to have expected these things at all and they don’t belong in this story.

Strangely, the back cover of my book includes this blurb from Washington Post Book World: “Laced with the sharp satire of Swift…a subtle sweet tale about love and the search for personal identity.” The second half of that sentence is accurate, but I didn’t catch the “sharp satire” business. On the whole, the tone is warm and dreamy; even the observations about human nature aren’t particularly pointed. I recently read Gulliver’s Travels and this book is the anti-Gulliver in its attitudes. That said, the language is neat and clean, but sharp?

Overall: 4.8  It’s dreamy and moving in all the best ways. It’s hard to be rough on it since it requires such a short time investment.

Translation: Read it. It’s even available for free online. 🙂

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:

“Taste”
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?

First Impressions: Trigger Warning

Neil Gaiman’s latest collection is his weakest work to date. I can’t recommend it.

I KNOW! I can’t believe it either. I’m a huge fan of his: I love Sandman, I love his books, I love his short fiction most of all…and yet, Trigger Warning isn’t solid. There are 2-3 stories with his usual magic and cleverness, but the rest feel like writing exercises knocked out over an afternoon. Go read the collection then come back and convince me I’m mistaken. Please!

(Dear Neil Gaiman: you’re still in my top fifteen!)

I’m going to have a drink while I scrape something together for a review. Cheers, all.