Monday, May 12, 2008

The Baum Plan for Financial Independence: And Other Stories

The Baum Plan for Financial Independence: And Other Stories is a collection of stories by John Kessel. The publisher, Small Beer Press, made the book available both through LibraryThing as an Early Reviewer title, and through the Small Beer website as a free PDF download (still available here as of May 12, 2008). As well as, you know, a book you can buy.

This book is worth purchasing solely for the story "Pride and Prometheus", in which Mary Bennett, the serious and studious Bennett sister from Pride and Prejudice, encounters Victor Frankenstein and for the first time in her life is moved by romantic feelings. Frankenstein is likewise drawn to Mary, but makes no secret that his motivations lie elsewhere. I don't want to spoil the story for anyone, so I will say only that this story is beautiful, serious, and heartfelt, never descending into parody or gimmickry.

The other story I was most interested in reading was the title story, "The Baum Plan for Financial Independence". In this story, the narrator picks up his relationship with Dot right where he left it off when he went to prison because of something the two of them did together. Because he can't refuse Dot anything, they break into a house Dot has heard contains a great deal of wealth, and are surprised when a passage from a bedroom closet leads to a train station that in turn leads to something like the Emerald City we know from Oz.

I found this story, and indeed most of the stories, very well written, but many of them, including "The Baum Plan", have an arbitrariness and/or lack of resolution that left me wanting something more. Kessel's prose contains lovely details, but there is sometimes a clean quietness to the stories that feels almost antiseptic, even when the characters are filled with strong emotion. One story, "The Snake Girl", appears to have no speculative element, which is certainly not a crime, but it reads a bit like the type of earnest literary magazine story that an intense college student writes just after suffering the end of his/her first profound relationship, rather than a story that offers any of its readers anything particular to think about.

Another story, "It's All True", is about a man who goes back into time (well, one timeline, anyway) to try and persuade Orson Welles to join him in a future that will appreciate his brilliance. (I understand that this universe is the same in which Kessel's novel Corrupting Dr. Nice takes place, although I did not recognize the connection myself.) This was a neat concept, and the resolution of the Welles element is generally satisfying, but I still came away with a slight feeling of "why does the story end here as opposed to anywhere else?" Also, in a few of the short-shorts, I felt as though the author clearly knew what was going on, but somehow I was missing critical information and/or the joke and/or the point. I also consider it a strength that Kessel does not browbeat the reader with clumsy exposition, but at the same time I felt like I often didn't get enough information to work with.

All that said, it's worth your time to take a look at this book. Different stories will appeal to different readers. And again, "Pride and Prometheus" is worth more than the price of admission (which is $0 if you do the download -- but it's still worth the actual price of the book!) all on its own, with an ending that is not only not arbitrary, but feels necessary and just right.
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