Friday, May 6, 2016

FFFirstB: MOTHER ISN'T DEAD SHE'S ONLY SLEEPING by Kit Reed (Houghton Mifflin 1961); SHORT STORY 2 by Arno Karlen, Sally Weber, Michael Rumaker and Gertrude Friedberg (Scribner's 1959)

Kit Reed has had a fairly remarkable career for someone who has only infrequently gotten due attention and commendation for her consistently sharp and grounded comic vision, satirical without rendering her characters as cartoons. Not all of her work is inherently sardonic as well as humane, but that's the way to bet it, from what I've read (I still need to read the suspense novels, such as Gone, she's published as "Kit Craig" and the horror novel, Blood Fever, as by "Shelley Hyde"...her legal name is Lillian Craig Reed). She came out of college and began a career in journalism, originally in St. Petersburg, Florida, at the Times in 1954, marrying in 1955 Joseph Reed, who became an English professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where she resettled, joining the staff of the Hamden Chronicle, and quickly moving on to the New Haven Register, where she was recognized for her work by peers, both on her paper and in the wider journalistic world, named by the New England Women's Press Association "New England Newspaperwoman of the Year" in 1958 and 1959. 1958 also saw her first short story publication, "The Wait" (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April); she reported recently on FaceBook that her colleagues at the Register left rope and other bits on her desk shortly after publication, relating to events in the story itself (which I have yet to read, but will soon, as it's in her fine retrospective collection, The Story Until Now, which I picked up recently, published by Wesleyan University Press, as she herself has had a long teaching as well as publishing relation with the university)(I also have the F&SF issue, but it's a slightly less sturdy product). Mother Isn't Dead She's Only Sleeping was her first novel, published three years later, with an excerpt, an earlier form of chapter four, in The Yale Literary Magazine in 1960. 
We are introduced to Linda Sharon Snigg as a pre-schooler, abandoned by her mother, who'd conceived her as the result of  a one-night stand with a random pickup, to her grandmother's care; young Linda idolizes her mother, who apparently joined the Air Force but is cagy about where she's stationed in her infrequent mail to her mother and daughter, never providing a return address. 
Anna Snigg is none too pleased to find herself in late middle age suddenly in loco parentis of a strong-willed, in some ways deeply sad infant, and isn't above reminding the child of this...while idolizing her mother, as much as she can, Linda hates her name, and becomes obsessed at a young age with listening to Connecticut local radio host Willie Butz, soon demanding that everyone refer to her as Willie Butz Snigg, or simply Willie. After some interaction with the actual Butz and his family, Willie is a bit disillusioned but retains the name and a loose connection to her former idol and budding lust/father-figure, even after winning a teen beauty pageant Butz signs her up for as a sort of farewell gesture, as he moves on to a new job in Phoenix. Willie's winning a $2K cash prize in the next-level pageant gives Anna an idea, to retire from her civil service job and move down to a resort in Florida to snag herself a wealthy-enough, perhaps widowed new husband.  And that is where I'm currently at, about 60 pages in (the book was delivered rather later than I expected, on what has turned out to be a sporadically busy week), along with a rather deft set of introductions to the cast of characters in the opening pages, almost all aside from the Sniggs already resident in or converging on the sleepy resort town of Ft. Jude (a nice amalgam name, that), including a ne'er-do-well uncle and his rather more rapacious nephew, both keeping one step ahead of the younger man's scandal-messes as their brother and father finance their lives far away from the family estate...and the youngish creep has just met, and set his sights on, Willie. 
Reed has been one of what is arguably a generational cohort of women writers who began publishing fiction in the latter 1950s, who have contributed consistently good to brilliant work to a range of fields, from contemporary/mimetic fiction to crime fiction to fantastic fiction and a bit beyond, all with equal facility and often with nearly equal numbers of publications in at least two of their fields, Reed perhaps the most-"balanced" of the group as I think of them, including also Kate Wilhelm, Carol Emshwiller, Lee Hoffman, Joanna Russ and, increasingly, Joyce Carol Oates, who started just a bit later and has received, of course, easily the most attention. But Reed's work, in its gentle incision and excellent sense of detail, can also put one in mind of such other writers as Bruce Jay Friedman, Wilma Shore or a less detached Kurt Vonnegut, where the consistent deployment of wit doesn't interfere with the serious intent of the work, nor countermand the empathy the writers seek to demonstrate (Reed and Friedman perhaps more consistently than the post-trauma Vonnegut; Reed has noted today, in response to a roundabout question I posed on FaceBook, that her fiction writing, certainly her sense of comic writing, was heavily influenced by Evelyn Waugh). I'll be finishing the novel over the next few days, mostly likely, and will have a fuller assessment then. 

Another book, which I've barely begun (I checked it "out" of the partner Open Library, but it got caught up in a technical snag resolved only the day before yesterday, after I'd barely begun reading the first of the four chapbook-like collections in one volume, of short stories by then-new writers), inspired me to note this about it and the short series of books Scribner's published, as the first multi-author collections from some people who often went onto impressive careers:

Woman on the edge of sf*: Gina Berriault (along with Gertrude Friedberg and Joseph Slotkin)...and Scribner's new-writer showcases of the 1950s and '60s...
Best remembered for her short story "The Stone Boy" and the film version she scripted, along with her retrospective collection Women in Their Beds, and the namesake of a San Francisco-based literary award, this from her NYT obit:
'Her first novel, The Descent, was published in 1960. Set in America in 1964, the story described the conflict between the Secretary for Humanity, a newly created Cabinet post, and a group of people who believed that moving to underground shelters would manifest "prepared togetherness."'
I'm catching up with her in the course of looking into a brief but interesting project Scribner's ran as the '50s turned into the 1960s, Short Story, a series of three anthologies featuring the first collections of short fiction from four writers each, each getting roughly a quarter of the pages.
1958's Short Story featured Berriault, Richard Yates (who went on to a major career, most famously with Revolutionary Road), Seymour Epstein (the fiction writer and Denver professor, vs. the psychologist and Massachusetts professor) and Bonnie Barnett, who wrote one much-loved-by-coterie novel, Love in Atlantis. 1959's Short Story 2 had the first collections of Gertrude Friedberg (occasional F&SF contributor and remembered in the sf community for The Revolving Boy, as well as considerable fiction of other sorts), Michael Rumaker, Arno Karlen, and Sally Weber (the only member of this quartet who didn't appear to go on to a sustained career). The third and last volume, 1960, featured an all-stag line-up of writers better-known now for their engagement with poetry: Burton Raffel, Robert Creeley, and two who had less-sustained careers, Matthew Carney (probably not the Australian documentarian) and Joseph Slotkin, who was probably the same writer who published ten stories in US and UK sf/fantasy magazines in the 1950s.

Scribner's gave up on this series at that point, but mined it a bit later on with the 1967 anthology Publisher's Choice: Ten Short Story Discoveries:
A really good jazz piano / Richard Yates --
A survivor in Salvador / Frank Tuohy --
Your best interests at heart / Joseph Slotkin -
The clown / Arno Karlen --
The pipe / Michael Rumaker --
Sicilian vespers / Burton Raffel --
The starless air / Donald Windham --
Don't take no for an answer / George Garrett 
The stone boy / Gina Berriault --
The well / Hugh Nissenson.
(courtesy WorldCat). No editor credited for any of the Scribner's volumes.

*a bit of a reference to Marge Piercy's work...

Todd Mason (with thanks to Eric Davin for his PARTNERS IN WONDER for a few of the background facts on Kit Reed conveniently gathered.)
for more of today's first and other books, please see Patti Abbott's blog.


First appearance of Reed's first short story, "The Wait"...


Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Learned a lot here Todd, thank you. Not actually read anything of hers yet - I do try not to get too disheartened by the sheer and near-constant limits to my reading, which i am reminded of so frequently when visiting Sweet freedom, because there is always hope :)

Todd Mason said...

I'm there with you, Sergio...I never seem to get my reading projects done, as there are so many fiddly things I need to or should do, which encourages, say, looking in on FaceBook between them, but is certainly less good for sustained reading of fiction.

George said...

Glad to see Kit Reed featured here! Very underrated writer!

Todd Mason said...

Indeed...or, at least, not enough note is taken, too often, in at least three literary communities.

Mathew Paust said...

You've sold me on Reed, Todd, with whom I am unfamiliar beyond your enticing review.

Todd Mason said...

I suspect you'll be glad!

stevefah said...

First Kit Reed story I read was "Automatic Tiger," I believe in F&SF way back when. I've been a fan since then. I'm very happy to be Facebook friends with her. The women in science fiction have always helped form my attitudes.

Todd Mason said...

She remains very incisive and talented, and is a gracious presence on FB. I'd say that the women and men writers I read have been influential on me in nearly equal measure, but definitely influential, many of them. I've written at least one post about this.