Friday, November 24, 2017

Vermilion Sands

By J. G, Ballard

A collection of nine short stories set in a luxury resort town on some extraterrestrial location. Wherever it may be, it is hot, dry and sandy, with strange plants and animals. Each story centers around the activities of some beautiful, warped woman and the men attracted to and affected by her. Of the women in the nine stories, most where crazy, several were murderous, some were conceited and vain and none of them were worth the trouble they caused. About four stories into the book, I began to think that the author has some kind of grudge against women, which was shown, perhaps, by this quote from the book:
"Made me realize how absolutely terrifying all women really are."
Speaking as a woman, these stories did not appeal to me. I began to tire of his view of women after about five stories in and was relieved to reach the end of this rather short book. His anti-women bias ruined the stories for me.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

True Experiences with Ghosts

Edited by Martin Ebon

The editor gathered several ghost stories that he believed were true, unexplainable events.
One of the stories concerns Ocean Born Mary. According to the story and to information I found online, Ocean Born Mary was a real person. Her parents were traveling to America by boat when the boat was intercepted by a pirate. He planned to pillage the boat and kill all aboard, when he heard a newborn baby crying. Going to investigate, he found the captain's wife and her tiny baby, who was born on board the boat. He was charmed and promised to spare everyone is the new mother would name her baby Mary, after the pirate's wife. She agreed and the pirate left the boat. He later returned with a bolt of expensive green  silk cloth which he gave to baby Mary to made into a wedding gown when she grew up and married.
All this part of the story of Ocean Born Mary are true to that point. But then the author of the story, Louis Roy, starts making stuff up. He bought a house in the town where Mary spent her old age which he then claimed was haunted by her and by the pirate who befriended her. He claimed the house was built by the pirate and that Mary moved into it to be his companion and housekeeper. He claimed the pirate died and was buried there along with his pirate treasure. He further claimed many people had seen or experienced many uncanny and eerie things on the property and in the house, which he also claimed was filled with Mary's original furniture.
But there is a site online, by the local historical society, that totally debunks all of Roy's claims. The house was built by one of Mary's sons, not by a pirate. Mary never lived in the house, she lived in a nearby house with one of her other sons and, at the time, she was quite elderly, in her seventies. Her furniture was never in the house, since she never lived there. The pirate also never lived there and was never part of Mary's life beyond that first encounter. Roy made all the haunting nonsense up and charged people admission to the house and property. The details can be found at Henniker Historical Society website:
Since this story was so thoroughly and easily debunked. it casts doubt on the veracity of the other stories in the book. I am inclined to believe it is all a bunch of made up nonsense. The one proven false story taints all the other stories, I am sorry to say.
But besides all that, it just wasn't a very interesting book. It cloaks itself in scientific & scholarly terms but, although the editor might have intended it to add weight to the book, it merely makes it dull.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Yearling

By Marjorie Rawlings

Ora and Ezra, know as Penny, with their only child, young Jody, are poor farmers in rural Florida. They have a lot of problems with their no-account neighbors, the Forresters who have been stealing their pigs.
One day, while out searching for the missing pigs, Penny gets bit on the arm by a rattlesnake.  So he shoots a doe and uses her liver as a poultice to draw out the poison. But the doe had a young fawn and Jody adopts the little orphan fawn. His parents understand his compassion but know that this will just lead to problems in the future.
Jody loves the little fawn and names him Flag. They grow up together. But Flag grows up a lot faster and, as predicted by the parents, having a growing deer on the property is just causing too many problems for a family struggling just to get by. Some hard decisions are going to have to be made, whether Jody is ready to make them or not.

I really enjoyed this story a lot, even given its heartbreaking elements. This is a sad story and one in which we wish the impossible could, for once, become possible. But it never does, it never does.
This novel is the Pulitzer Prize winner for 1939. It a tremendous read and well worth it.

See also, Kirkus Reviews:

The Store

By T.S. Stribling

This is the story of Miltiades Vaiden of Alabama of the 1880s. Vaiden was a Civil War veteran, former leader of the KKK and, since the South was freed, not prospering like he feels he should. He feels he is a Southern Gentleman of the Old South and he longs for those days to return, a time he thinks of as a kind of Eden. Of course, it wasn't an Eden for the slaves, but Vaiden is not accustomed to thinking of black people as human beings. They are property and as such have no equal standing with their former owners. A view that is held by 99.99% of the whites in the South at the time.
Vaiden was swindled by a store owner, Mr. Handback. When he sees an opportunity to swindle Handback and enrich himself in the process, he seizes upon it. With the result that Vaiden becomes wealthy and Handback is driven into financial ruin. The whole town knows what Vaiden did and holds it against him. But being rich has it rewards and he is eventually forgiven and welcomed back into the social ranks, especially after fixing up a mansion in town and making donations to the building of a fancy new church. He even ends up marrying the beautiful young daughter of the woman who left him at the altar when he was a younger man. Seems like everything is going his way, finally. Until his only child, his only son, is murdered at the hands of an enraged mob, a son he only found out about as he rushed to save him from the lynch mob.

The Store is the second book in the Vaiden triology. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1933. It deals very frankly with the racism of the Old South. And lays out, in painful detail, white attitudes to blacks among them. Must reading for anyone who is ignorant of or dismisses the history of slavery in the United States.
But other than that, I am sorry to say that I found the book dull. It was a plain chore to finish it. I am not going to say it was a bad read, but it just didn't engage me the way I want when I read a novel. For one thing, it is a long book, almost 600 pages long. Frankly, I got bored with it and just wanted it to be over.
Also, one thing that annoyed me from the very beginning of the story was the author's constant ragging on Vaiden's fat wife. The author calls her fat, shapeless, overflowing, heavy, fleshy and on and on. He can never mention her without reminding the reader that she is fat. OK, we get it, she's fat! Give it a rest, man!
Here is something I thought was little funny. But whether the author was poking fun too, I don't know. Anyway, two white people are commenting on the odd names that black people choose. The name they are laughing at is Toussaint. Meanwhile their names are Miltiades and Sydna :-).

See also, Reading the Pulitzer Winners for Fiction:

Thursday, November 09, 2017

The Egg and I

By Betty MacDonald

A fictionalized version of Betty's life on a chicken farm in western Washington state in the late 1920s.
Newlyweds Betty and  Bob pooled their money and bought a rural acreage, intending to get in the chicken egg business. The property did have a house and few outbuildings and an orchard of mixed fruit trees. The house, while sturdy, had no modern comforts, no electricity, no bathroom, no furnace, no indoor plumbing. All their water had to be hauled in and heated in a stove in the kitchen, said stove being their main source of heat for the house. (Betty never mentions a fireplace or other wood burning stove, so I assume there was only the kitchen stove.) Laundry had to be done by hand. All the hot water had to be heated on the kitchen stove. In the winter, all the laundry had to be dried inside, as winter there was mostly rainy. Plus Betty had to help Bob with his work on the acreage, building chicken houses, pens for livestock, clearing the land for crops and gardens and clearing the orchard of unwanted trees and brush. They got up at 4 AM and worked all day and Betty had all the housework and food preparation too. And it wasn't too much longer before there was a little baby to take care of also.
So it was a hard life, very demanding, but Betty tells her story with humor and self-deprecation. Unfortunately, some of her humor comes across as looking down on the locals, whom she describes as ignorant, unenlightened, and, in some cases, lazy and dirty. She especially singles out her next door neighbors, the Kettles. And she has harsh words for the local native peoples, about whom she says:
"...the more I saw of them the more I thought what an excellent thing it was to take that beautiful country away from them."
Oddly though, she goes on to comment about the devastation to the land caused by logging:
"On the way we passed barren ugly hills which had once been beautiful green mountains and saw mile after mile of slashings [logging areas], ugly, dry as tinder and inexcusable." 
Never seems to occur to her that if the native peoples she despised were still in charge of the land, the mountains would be pristine and green instead of stripped bare.

The book, which was written in the early 1940s, has an interesting passage about abortion:
"One day when Bob and I were driving to Town, a man hailed us. We stopped and he climbed on the running board and leaned into the car confidentially. 'Say,' he said, 'heard you was that way.' 'Yes,' I said, 'I am.' The man leaned in farther so his face was uncomfortably close to mine. 'Just say the word and I'll fix you up. Drop by some evening with six dollars and I'll fix you good as new. Not a thing to it,' he said winking at Bob. 'Took care of Mrs. Smith when she was six months along and got rid of three for my own wife at three months. Just a plain old-fashioned buttonhook. Nothing to it.'
'Oh, him!' said the girl in the doctor's office in town. 'His wife's in the hospital right now recovering from her last abortion. We get his work in here all the time,' and she laughed heartily. I didn't think it was funny. 'Why don't they stop him? Why don't they arrest him?'
The girl sighed and looked out the window. 'If it wasn't him it would be someone else. If they can't find someone else to do it they abort themselves. The hospital's full of 'em all the time. Buttonhooks, bailing wire, hatpins. God, they're dumb.'
Just a little reminder of what abortion was like back before it was a woman's right to choose.

Literay Ladies' Guide review:

Friday, November 03, 2017

The Sugar Queen

By Sarah Addison Allen

Josey is the only child of a successful entrepreneur. Her father revitalized the small town when he built built a ski lodge on the slopes of the nearby mountain. As a result, he was looked up to and admired by the townsfolk.
Josey was only nine years old when he died and her view of her father is a bit clouded by her childish hero worship of him. Now in her late twenties, Josey still lives at home, serving as a sort of companion to her elderly mother. As a child, Josey was a pill, prone to temper tantrums, stealing, and breaking things. She was so wild, her parents kept her home and hired tutors for her instead of sending her to school. But after her father died, Josey changed her ways and became quiet and submissive, blaming herself for her mother's seeming dislike of her only child. Josey's only act of independence and rebellion is a stash of goodies (candy, cookies, chips) hidden behind a panel in her closet.
One morning Josey wakes up to find a strange woman hiding in her closet. The woman, Della Lee, pleads with Josey to be allowed to hide in the closet and Josey gives in. In fact, she goes to Della's house and gets some clothes and stuff for her, nearly getting caught by Della's psycho boyfriend, Julian.
Della Lee continues to hide in the closet and gradually leads Josey into discovering some truths about herself, her father, her mother and about Della Lee too. Josey is finally able to face her dreams and enter into the life she has wanted for a very long time.

This was a good story, with a touch of fantasy, as is quickly revealed in the first few pages by this sentence about the South American maid that works for Josey's mother:

But the first day she was sent off to the market with a grocery list, she spent two hours crying on the front porch, her tears falling into the flower pots where mysterious South American tropical flowers later sprouted without explanation.

Publishers Weekly review: