Two Strange Classics

I finished one more book in each of the two reading challenges that I’m doing this year. Both are classics and both left me with a bit of that “What did I just read?” feeling. From The Official TBR Pile Challenge I read this collection of classic short stories:

Title: The Overcoat and Other Stories
Author: Nikolai Gogol
Genre: Classic Russian Weirdness
Pages: 144
Rating: 2 of 5

I have read a couple other books by Gogol (Dead Souls and Taras Bulba) and enjoyed them well enough (if enjoy is the right word for appreciating the bleakness that is Russian literature)….this collection, not so much.

Gogol’s work is generally oddly satirical, and in these stories he cranked up the odd part to the max. A couple of them crossed the line into completely surreal nonsense territory which just isn’t my samovar of tea.

Add to this the fact that Gogol is a Russian-speaking (albeit Ukrainian-born) author who frequently pokes fun at Ukraine (which he mostly calls “Little Russia”) and it just wasn’t a good time to be reading this. I have friends in Ukraine who are now refugees and others who spent weeks hiding in their house for fear of being robbed and/or shot by the Russian occupiers, so a Russian-speaker poking fun at Ukrainian culture is the last thing that I wanted to read, even if he is doing it with some level of fondness.

The second book that I read was this modern classic for the Mystery/Detective/Crime Classic category at the Back to the Classics 2020 Challenge:

Title: Picnic at Hanging Rock
Author: Joan Lindsay
Genre: Classic Australian Weirdness
Pages: 225
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I hope that this author thanked her editor for convincing her to drop the final chapter and leave the mystery at the heart of the story open-ended. As it stands, this reads like a bleak Unsolved Mysteries true-crime docudrama.

Three teenage girls and a teacher disappear on a school picnic in the Australian brush, and we get front row seats to the effect it has on their posh boarding school and the surrounding community. Along the way we get a few weird clues about what happened to the missing people with mysterious asides from the author, but the story cuts off with a mass of loose ends. The fact that we don’t get a nice, neat wrap-up puts the focus on well-written characters in heartbreaking situations and makes it the haunting modern classic that it is.

An attached essay gives the gist of the original ending which has since been found. It seems like weirdness just for the sake of weirdness that sucks any reality out of the rest of the book. I would advise against reading it (or a summary of it). Just let the loose ends haunt you…

Fantastical Fiction

Title: The Big Book of Classic Fantasy
Editors: Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
Genre: Fantasy(ish)
Pages: 848
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: July 2, 2019 (Thank you to the editors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Having read and greatly enjoyed Ann & Jeff VanderMeer’s massive anthology entitled The Weird, I jumped at the chance to review another one of their tomes. This volume collects “classic fantasy” stories (and excerpts from longer books) ranging in date from the early 1800’s up until World War II when fantasy became more of a defined genre. The blend of authors includes classic fantasy/sci-fi/weird writers, classic literary legends dabbling in the fantastical, and many authors less known to the English-speaking world.

The editors’ most basic definition of fantasy is: “…any story in which an element of the unreal permeates the real world or any story that takes place within a secondary world that is identifiably not a version of ours, whether anything overtly ‘fantastical’ occurs during the story.” This allows for a wide variety of stories, very few of which fall into high fantasy, swords & sorcery, or other popular modern sub-genres.

A large number of the stories have a folklore, fairy-tale, or tall-tale feel with all the incoherencies and random digressions common to them. Quite a few are unclassifiable other than to say that they contain a fantastical element…maybe magic realism or surrealism? Some are more didactic like beast-fables or political satire that dips into the fantastical. A few I would classify solidly in the weird/horror or pulp sci-fi categories rather than fantasy, but such things are always a matter of opinion.

Overall, the editors have produced an interesting blend of the fantastical. How much you enjoy it may depend on your taste and how willing you are to give fantasy an extremely broad definition. Personally, I like a fairly coherent story even when I read fantasy, so the high number of folkloric tales, surreal stories, and small excerpts from longer books sometimes got on my nerves. However, if you’re into fantastical stories or “fantasy before there was a fantasy genre” this book is well worth your time.

Kafkaesque Police Procedural

Image result for the city and the cityTitle: The City & the City
Author: China Miéville
Genre: Surreal Police Procedural
Pages: 312
Rating: 3.5 of 5

In the Surreal world of The City & The City, two antagonistic city states locked in a Cold War-like relationship share the same geographic location. The citizens of each city employ doublethink worthy of Orwell’s 1984 to unsee, unhear, etc. anything that is not in their city. Violations are an unthinkable crime and are summarily dealt with by the shadowy agents of Breech.

The plot revolves around a murder investigation with “international” complications. Inspector Tyador Borlú of the more run-down, Eastern-European-flavored city of Beszel must cooperate with Detective Qussim Dhatt of the more prosperous Middle-East-flavored Ul Qoma. The murder mystery plot wraps up in a satisfactory manner after plenty of twists, turns, and conspiracy theories. Along the way we learn quite a bit about how the politics and culture of the two cities and Breech operate. However, we never really receive solid answers as to why the cities exist as they do and why Breech does what they do.

The lack of solid “why are things like this?” answers didn’t really bother me since that was not the main plot. If the author wants to leave his setting unexplained, I’m okay with that…especially in a book this surreal. What did detract from my personal enjoyment of the book (knocking it down from a 4.5 to 3.5) was the pervasive profanity. Call me a prude, but I’m not a fan of F-bomb-strewn dialogue. Overall: if you’re a fan of fantastic world-building and don’t mind profanity or non-answers to some questions, this might be a good book for you.