Naples by Avram Davidson Vs. Didi by Michal Witkowski
Naples by Avram Davidson: I dunno what Naples did to deserve this treatment. The story is basically a guided tour of a terrible crappy rundown bad place which may or may not resemble the real Naples, but would have horrified the Naples Tourist Board, had this book been a best-seller. Then there's a supernatural sting in the tail which has little bearing on the rest of the story, and ought to have been the basis of its own tale. It feels like Davidson just wanted to character-assassinate a city, then slapped on a twist ending so he could sell it to the genre mags.
BTW I haven't read much of Davidson's other work, but I have a lingering fondness for him because in high school I read aloud his much-anthologized story The Golem for Prose Reading competitions; it went down much more smoothly with judges than the Norton Anthology modernism I usually inflicted on them. Davidson's polished prose blends chatty mid-20th century "slick" writing with 19th century stylings that remind me, just a bit, of Gene Wolfe's more filigreed antiquarian approach in his Dark Forces installment.
Didi by Michal Witkowski: An extended excerpt from a longer work, this is an account of a teen trans streetwalker's life; adjectives like "gritty" fail to do justice. (There are only subtle hints that Didi is trans, but the author's note was more direct.) It's so deftly plotted, sympathetic, and incident-crammed that it manages to be entertaining despite, or because of, its horrifying verisimilitude. It's like drinking champagne made from subway mop water.
Compare/Contrast: Both are tales of the naked, suppurating city. One feels like a whimsical hatchet job, the other like sympathetically researched reportage.
Verdict: I liked them both, but Didi is the one worth rereading for its sympathy-demanding portrait of down-and-out life. Naples felt like an amusing card trick with a muffed payoff.
The Gorgon by Tanith Lee Vs. dona malva and senhor jose ferreiro by Valter Hugo Mae:
The Gorgon by Tanith Lee: A tourist swims to a small forested Grecian island despite cryptic warnings from the locals. There he encounters a sophisticated woman who wears a mask. Is she a Medusa? OR ARE WE?
This tale is prescient; a woman who hides her appearance and ought to be known for her knowledge and accomplishments is, nonetheless, known and judged only by her appearance. A tale for the Instagram age, way back in the 80s.
Lee requires no introduction for literary fantasy fans of a certain age, but I'll always regard her as the best Blake's Seven writer, admittedly not a high bar. She added romantic complications to the dying days of that space opera which the show both needed and squandered.
dona malva and senhor jose ferreiro by Valter Hugo Mae: (BTW the lower-case is the author's) Oh man, do you like haunted houses with bleeding walls? Do you like buggin'-out female hysteria? If not, buzz off. If yes, you need to check this story out. A shot of sawtooth horror with a spritz of magical realism.
Compare/contrast: A woman, viewed from a certain distance, has a rough time of it in both stories, more subtly in Tanith Lee's story.
Verdict: I want to read more from both authors.
Moving Night by Nancy Holder Vs. Three Hundred Cups by Cosmin Manolache:
Moving Night by Nancy Holder: A boy is terrified by the kinds of things that scare kids in the night, in the dark. But are this boy's fears vindicated? Reversals loop-de-loop in a concise, twisted shocker that recalls another horror classic, It's a Good Life. Sadly, the bathetic prose is much poorer than the structural cleverness. Imagine the dialogue in the dopiest flashback from the shoddiest serial killer movie. It's like that.
Three Hundred Cups by Cosmin Manolache: A visit to a history museum triggers a poetic rumination on Romanian history, then considers the cups cosmonauts used in space. The story turns into a poem, listing 300 metaphorical cups (that could be one: "The metaphorical cup") that the cosmonauts might have drunk, each one suggesting a lens through which one might perceive life afresh. And then the story slides into a gross misogynistic fantasy about impregnating a streetwalker. Yes, it's doing cunning metaphorical tricks, as the streetwalker is identified both with Russia and the cosmonauts' ship (her theoretical future fetuses are the cosmonauts, see, and...) but I found it awfully distasteful.
Compare/contrast: Both stories are kind of terrific and kind of crappy; clever, but undermined by something I find unacceptable. In Holder it's the prosecraft; in Manolache, his tasteless humor. Needless to say, terrible prose and gauche jokes are perfectly acceptable to many readers, so take my groans as you find them.
Verdict: Nancy Holder seems to have built a busy career writing genre and franchise fiction. I was sufficiently dazzled by her cleverness to consider checking in and seeing if she's refined her prose. I'm not looking for Nabokov here (clearly, or I wouldn't have made it this far into this ridiculous reading project). Manolache cast a gentle, oceanic spell over me, and then shattered that spell with his offhand misogyny. Nonetheless, I grudgingly recommend Three Hundred Cups. Manolache's narrative recalls Montaigne's essays, drifting along and offering a tool kit for looking at life from new angles. I guess I'm more of an aesthete than a moralist. The aforementioned Nabokov would be proud.
Jamie's Grave by Lisa Tuttle Vs. Friedmann Space by Victor Pelevin:
Jamie's Grave by Lisa Tuttle: A single mom centers her life around her little boy, whom she adores. Lately, though, he's ditching her to go dig in the backyard and commune with a mysterious imaginary friend. Mom pines for the day when he was a cuddly, sweet-smelling baby. As is mandatory in all stories of this type, the imaginary friend isn't imaginary, and is SPOILER WARNING a babylike creature that smells and feels just like the boy did as an infant. In cuckoo's egg fashion, the creature replaces the boy in Mom's affections.
Jamie's Grave is a clever use of an old narrative template to address issues of parenthood and misdirected love. It's a smart idea for a story, undermined by flavorless prose. Tuttle's account of a mother's thoughts and feelings for her child have heft, but there's not much imagination in her telling of it. Reading this story was a drag, but the payoff was as wise as the setup was dull.
Harold Bloom cracked that anyone could retell Fall of the House of Usher better than Poe told it. I'm not cosigning that verdict, but it's an interesting way of looking at the validity of adaptation and retelling. In other words, Jamie's Grave could provide the basis for a crackling Twilight Zone episode, if and when they bring that back.
Friedmann Space by Victor Pelevin: Some Russian investigators discover that rich people are swallowed into a perceptual black hole that warps their view of the world in ways that no one can understand. The researchers use large sums of money to make people temporarily rich and study the results. This sly satire slips the scalpel into post-Communist Russian wealth while delivering absurdist twists. The ending complicates the social commentary (the researchers' methods are undermined by sloppiness, as happens in research more often than breathless science reporters like to let on) without blunting the satire.
Compare/contrast: Both stories take on big topics via an investigatory narrative. Both have a sting in the tail, although Tuttle's sting delivers the message, while Pelevin's is more of a rococo bonus.
Verdict: I've read 2 stories by Tuttle now, and while I respect her thoughtfulness, I'm bored by her prose. Apparently she's edited an Encyclopedia of Feminism, though, which I might check out. Pelevin and/or his translator keeps the prose lively, which you'd better do if you're going to write fiction about such potentially dry subjects.