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Babylon Revisited and Other Stories ~ A Capsule Book Review

Babylon Revisited and Other Stories cover

Babylon Revisited and Other Stories ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

More than any other American writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald chronicled the age he lived in, especially the 1920s. He coined the term “Jazz Age.” If you want to know what it was like to live in the twenties, with its good times, easy money, Ivy Leaguers, extravagance, sexual freedom and booze in spite of Prohibition, read the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In his relatively short time on earth (44 years), he wrote four completed novels—one of which, The Great Gatsby, is among the three or four greatest American novels of the twentieth century—and dozens of short stories, which were mostly written for magazines.

Babylon Revisited and Other Stories is a collection of ten of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories. Some of the stories in the collection are much longer than conventional short stories, which should run about 5,000 words or less. If a story is much longer than that, I think it technically qualifies as a novella. This collection runs over 250 pages. With ten stories, that’s an average of 25 pages per story. One story in the collection, May Day, is 50 pages. I think the shorter stories are better plotted and more memorable.

The best and most famous story in the collection is, of course, the story for which the collection is named, Babylon Revisited. It was written in 1931 and is about a man, Charlie Wales, who has passed through the 1920s but not unscathed. He is a reformed (or trying to reform) heavy drinker who used to spend money freely when he had it. He had an unhappy marriage to a woman named Helen. Charlie and Helen had a daughter, named Honoria, who is nine years old when the story takes place. Helen has died of “heart trouble” and Honoria lives with her aunt (Helen’s sister, Marion) and Marion’s husband, Lincoln, in Paris, since Charlie is seen as too irresponsible to care for her and give her a proper home. Now that Charlie has a steady job and has his drinking habit under control, he wants to take Honoria back and have her live with him. He must, of course, prevail upon snooty Marion, who doesn’t like him, to give up Honoria. This isn’t going to be easy since Marion has legal custody of Honoria and still sees Charlie as an irresponsible drunkard. When he just about has Marion convinced to give up Honoria, his past catches up with him in the form of two drunken profligates he used to associate with, reawakening Marion’s doubts about him.

Other memorable stories in the collection are The Ice Palace, about a girl from the warm, sunny South who wants (or thinks she wants) to marry a boy from the cold North. When a frightening episode occurs when she’s visiting her boyfriend’s home in the icy North, she calls off the marriage.

A Diamond as Big as the Ritz is the not-so-happy story about the richest man in the world who owns a mountain that is in reality a diamond. He and his eccentric family live in splendor, apart from the rest of the world. When his son takes a classmate from boarding school home with him for vacation, the visiting boy comes to know this family first-hand. What he discovers about them isn’t pretty.

Absolution is about a “beautiful” eleven-year-old boy who comes from a strict Catholic family. He is confused about his religion and believes his sins are much graver than they really are. When he confesses to an old priest—the priest is struck by the “beauty” of the boy’s eyes—he finds the priest is just as confused as he is and isn’t capable of offering him any comfort.

The Freshest Boy is about a boy named Basil Lee who is attends a fancy boys’ prep school. His family can barely afford to send him there and he is very unhappy because he is so unpopular and disliked by the other boys. It seems that everything he does makes him even more hated. On a trip to New York to see a show, however, he has a revelation about his life. When he has a chance to leave prep school forever and live in Europe with his mother, he decides not to take it.

The shortest story (five pages) in the collection is The Long Way Out. It’s about a woman who has had a nervous breakdown and is a patient in a mental hospital. She is waiting for her husband to come and take her on a trip, but he has been killed in an accident on his way there. The nurses don’t want to tell the woman her husband is dead, so every day they tell her he has been delayed one day but will be there the next day. The woman believes that the arrival of her husband is just one day away. Always one day.

Babylon Revisited and Other Stories is a good sampling of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short fiction. It gives the reader a sense of what he was about as a writer. There are many more stories to be had for those who are interested in delving further and, of course, there’s always The Great Gatsby, which, as a novel, is about as good as it gets.

Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway ~ A Capsule Review by Allen Kopp 

Ernest Hemingway is probably the best known and most identifiable American writer of the twentieth century. He is known almost as much for his adventurous life and for his travels as for his writing. He wrote about the manly pursuits of big-game hunting in Africa, bullfighting in Spain, and boxing wherever it happened to be. He was a newspaper reporter for the Kansas City Star, drove an ambulance as a young man on the Italian front in World War I (which formed the basis for his novel A Farewell to Arms), was among the “Lost Generation” of artists, writers and painters who expatriated to Paris between the World Wars, went to Spain to fight with the anti-fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War (leading to his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls), and served as a war correspondent on the European front in World War II.

Throughout most of his life, Hemingway suffered from the mental condition known as manic depression, which is now called bipolar disorder. He underwent electroshock therapy, which affected his memory and his ability to write. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot would in July 1961, a few days before his sixty-second birthday. He left behind a body of work that has stood the test of time. In addition to his dozens of short stories and nonfiction work, he wrote at least three novels (The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls) that are considered among the best of the best of twentieth century American writing. His style of writing (terse, clean, straightforward, simple without being spare) has often been imitated but never equaled.

This summer I undertook the monumental task of reading all 650 pages of The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. The book is divided into three sections. The first section is “The First Forty-Nine” stories that Hemingway wrote as a young man. It contains the most famous and well known of his stories and was published as a collection in 1938. The second section contains the stories that Hemingway published after 1938, and the third section is stories that, according to the preface, had never been published before.

The section of previously unpublished work contains some fragments of unpublished novels that (sort of) stand alone as short stories. The last selection in the collection is a forty-five page novel “fragment” called “The Strange Country” that later became Islands in the Stream, a novel that was published in the 1980s, long after Hemingway’s death. If it was anybody other than Hemingway, this meandering, rather pointless fragment probably would never have seen the light of day. It’s about a middle-aged man with several failed marriages to his credit on a road trip through Florida with a much-younger woman. They drive, they drink liquor, they talk a lot, they eat, they sleep, they have sex. Was Hemingway writing about himself? It seems a little self-indulgent.

The stories are apparently just in random order, rather than in the order in which Hemingway wrote them. The African stories (“The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “An African Story,” etc.) are interspersed with the bullfighting stories (“The Capital of the World,” “The Undefeated”) and the stories of the Spanish Civil War (“The Denunciation,” “The Butterfly and the Tank,” “Night Before Battle,” “Under the Ridge”). The two “Henry Morgan” stories later became incorporated into the novel To Have and Have Not. The “Nick Adams” stories, which Hemingway wrote early in his career, were inspired by summers he spent with his family in Michigan as a boy. The longest of the Nick Adams stories, at forty pages, is “The Last Good Country,” which, for some reason, was never completed. Of the “groups” of stories in the collection, I like the Nick Adams stories the best.

Some of the stories in The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway I had read, but most of them I was reading for the first time. I liked most of the stories and found them engaging and worth my time, although some of them are not really to my taste. I’m not a fan of either bullfighting or big-game hunting and cringe at some of the long passages about killing animals, but it is, after all, Hemingway, so he must be indulged in his passions. Nobody else demonstrates such a breadth of subject matter in a body of short stories. He is a master of the form. For a great reading experience, though, read either of the novels A Farewell to Arms or For Whom the Bell Tolls. Both of them are love stories in a war setting and are superb.

Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp