Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Great Automatic Grammatizator and Other Stories by Roald Dahl

The Great Automatic Grammatizator and Other Stories by Roald Dahl
Copyright 1996
Puffin Books - Fiction/Short Stories
264 pages

The Great Automatic Grammatizator is a collection of Roald Dahl's adult stories specifically gathered to market to young adults. To be honest, I doubt I realized it was marketed to the YA crowd when I bought it because it was one of those books I snatched up at such a bargain price that the manner in which it was classified surely didn't matter. But, I thought the Young Adult classification was rather interesting given the fact that some of the stories seemed awfully adult -- not in a rude way but in the manner of events or situations.

"Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat", for example, is a horror story involving a married woman, a lover, and a mink coat. The story tells what happens when Mrs. Bixby, who has had a lengthy affair with a wealthy colonel, gets a beautiful mink coat as a parting gift when he decides to end the affair. You get into Mrs. Bixby's head a bit, which is part of the adultness and creepy factor. She considers her husband a dull man, not exciting or particularly handsome, and certainly less demanding in the bedroom as the years of her marriage and affair have gone by.

There's no way she can justify the acquisition of a fancy mink coat, so she decides to pawn the coat without giving the shop her personal information. She then informs her husband that she's found a pawn ticket with no name on it. He agrees to collect the pawned item for the $50 disbursement listed on the ticket because it must be something of great value -- whatever some unknown person pawned, he assumes it's worth paying $50 for. There's a clever, awful twist that I probably shouldn't mention but . . . here, I'll save you with a spoiler alert, so you can decide whether or not to read on:

SPOILER ALERT - Don't read this spoiler if you plan to read the short story, "Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat" right away (or you just don't want to know the ending because that would be cheating)!!!! You have been warned!

It turns out Mrs. Bixby's husband, a dentist of moderate means (who certainly couldn't afford such a deliriously high-quality mink coat) has been having an affair of his own. His wife eagerly shows up at his dental practice expecting to find that he's retrieved the coat. Instead, he hands her a hideous mink collar with two little mink heads grasping each other's jaws. And, then the dentist's secretary walks by in a glossy mink coat.

END SPOILER!!! It's safe, you can come out, now.

The situation in that story seems pretty adult to me but, then again, I suppose affairs are just run-of-the-mill to the younger crowd, these days, given what's on TV.

The way Roald Dahl takes ordinary situations and turns them into horror reminds me a bit of Richard Matheson's short stories, such as "The Incredible Shrinking Man". Like Matheson, Dahl's stories begin with a completely ordinary person or situation. Something minor but ominous or telling occurs and then the author keeps ramping up the suspense until the story ends on a truly awful note or with a surprising twist. His stories are creepy, but at the same time Dahl maintains his sense of humor. I do love Dahl's sense of humor. My favorite of his works by far was Going Solo, one of two memoirs he wrote -- at least in part because his real-life anecdotes tend to be really funny. The creepy factor is missing entirely from Going Solo.

I enjoyed The Great Automatic Grammatizator and Other Stories, but there was only one story that I considered knock-your-socks-off amazing writing and that was "Katina", the story of a young Greek girl who is adopted by RAF fighters "in the last days of the Greek campaign" of WWII, after her family is killed in the bombing. "Katina" is an incredibly vivid, moving story, unquestionably realistic because Dahl served in the RAF and experienced WWII first-hand. The brutal honesty of the story and its tragic ending combine to make "Katina" both believable and poignant. I think "Katina" is worth the price of the book. It's truly a beautiful piece of writing.

Rating an anthology or collection is so rough. I'd give "Katina" a 5/5, but I think the endings of most of the stories are a little abrupt, if apropos, and people who don't like short stories would tend to dislike this collection. I'm a little more tolerant with short stories than a lot of people and I like Dahl's writing enough that I'd rate it a 3.75/5, overall. The writing is solid, but I didn't enjoy it as much as some collections.

I had to look up anthology vs. collection to figure out if I was using the word "collection" correctly and I happened across the concept of the "omnibus", a word that is totally new to me in the literary sense. Here's the definition I found for the word "omnibus": A volume of reprinted works of a single author or of works related in interest or theme.

And, the definition of "collection": A book of selected writings from various books by an author of the same theme or various themes. e.g. a book of selected short stories from various books by the same author.

Since I don't think the works in The Great Automatic Grammatizator are all thematically related (certainly, there is only one WWII story) and they came from various books by the same author, I'm going with "collection" as the descriptor. Never say I don't keep you informed.

I found a wonderful article written by one of Dahl's daughters in 2005, reminiscing about her father upon the release of a new movie version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I was reading a little bit about Dahl and searching for photos when I happened across that article -- probably for a really ridiculous reason: I wanted to see a photo of him standing because I knew he was tall, but I didn't realize he was that tall -- Dahl was 6'6". I never did find a standing photo, partly because I got sidetracked.

While I was bopping around the internet, I also happened across an article about measles written by Roald Dahl. The story was connected to a modern story about a woman in Great Britain who chose not to have her daughter given the "jab" to protect her from measles and whose daughter then ended up in a hospital with a bad case of measles, gasping for breath and unable to have visitors. The article was linked up to Dahl's own story about the death of one of his daughters before measles innoculations became available. Dahl's 7-year-old daughter, Olivia, was recovering from a long battle with the illness, he said, when he handed her some pipe cleaners to play with. Her mind, however, was not connecting with her hands and he became concerned. Within an hour, he said, she was comatose. Within 12 hours, she was dead. The doctors could do nothing to stop the measles-induced version of encephalitis that killed her.

My childhood innoculation against measles "didn't take" and I was very, very sick for several weeks but I had no idea the disease could be deadly, so I found that essay fascinating. Dahl's objective was to encourage British parents to get their children innoculated because the vaccination was not mandatory in Great Britain. The United States had made it mandatory some years prior to the time he wrote the article.

Anyway . . . babble, babble. Look up Roald Dahl and you'll learn all sorts of fascinating things. I'm convinced I would have loved to meet him and, of course, we would have ended up friends for life and la-di-da.

I've spent way too much time goofing around, going on tangential Roald Dahl-related journeys, today, so I'll stop here. I'm not writing my reviews in any sort of order. Maybe next time I'll shoot for brevity and succeed. I don't even know what I'll be writing about. Someone shake me.

Off to do the housework I ignored all day. Happy Thursday!

Bookfool who really should get up off the chair, for crying out loud


  1. I haven't tried short stories in a while because I generally don't enjoy them that much. This collection does sound interesting. (I don't think I had a measles vaccination.)

  2. I keep seeing Dahl's adult story anthologies over here -- shelved in the kids' section, lol. I'm not very into short stories right now, or I'd probably grab one. "Lamb To The Slaughter" is one of my favorite short stories of all time.

    I didn't realize Dahl was 6-6! Wow!

  3. Kathy,

    I used to think short stories were all universally horrid and then for some reason I began to read a variety of them and discovered they can be amazing if well done. I do think it's a rare author who can write short stories well, though. Now, anyone who asks will be assaulted by a long list of favorites. :)

    Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccinations (MMR) have been standard in the U.S. since the 1960's. Do you think you might have missed out because you were in Bermuda? Trust me, you don't want any of those illnesses. My sister had a whopper case of the mumps and my experience with the measles is a vague, feverish, awful memory. I remember my mother kept the room dark because measles can cause blindness and apparently it was best not to be exposed to light.


    Oh, don't. Now I'll have to look up "Lamb to the Slaughter"! I know what you mean. I go through short story phases. I'm not always interested in them, although I know better than to avoid them completely, thank goodness.

    He was a lanky man, that Dahl fellow. I'd have to look up 15" if he stood next to me. Goodness.

  4. One of my goals for this year is to diversify my reading. I joined the short story reading challenge because I have not read very many of them and really not since school. I would love a list of recommendations from you. :)

  5. Brittanie,

    I'm a big fan of the Russians. Nabokov and Chekov wrote great short stories. Also, one of my friends (who lives in the Jackson area), John Floyd, has written two books of short stories. I love his stories because he's got a great sense of humor and writes clever twists. I think Borders carries both of his books. Simon Van Booy's Love Begins in Winter is awesome; it only has 5 stories and I love 4 of them. One of them is kind of nyeh, but the others are so totally wonderful that I'll just skip that one when I reread (I've read the book twice, so far). Borders has it filed wrong -- in the poetry section -- but B & N has it correctly stocked in literature. I've got The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield and I've only read a single story but it was amazing. Plotless, but amazing. I'm not a big fan of Shirley Jackson, but there are several pretty thought-provoking stories (one, for example, is about racism) in The Lottery. And, I love, love, love, love Jack Finney's time travel short stories. I think About Time is the title of the one that has most of my favorites.

    Enough of a list, for now? :)

  6. I went ahead and read the spoiler. It sounds like a twisted version of O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi!

    I'm interested in reading Katina so I guess I'll have to track down this book. Or maybe I can find it online somewhere.

    Marvelous post, BF. I love reading all the background info you include in your reviews. Saves me from bopping around the Internet too long. ;)

  7. Les,

    Well, it's twisted, all right. LOL

    Don't bother. I'll send you the book. I still owe you a thank you for Christmas -- sorry about that. I had no idea the cat care and then the grieving would so completely throw me.

    I enjoyed bopping around to read all that, but I know what you mean. Sometimes I spend way too much time online.

  8. Aw, you're a sweetheart. I'm glad the gift arrived. I put Rod in charge of mail duty and wasn't sure how he sent some of packages. ;) Please don't rush. I know you have a lot going on these days and I'm certainly not in any hurry to accumulate more books.

    Started an email to you. Hope to get it sent in the next day or so. :)

  9. Les,

    Well, I'd say I'm going to jump right on it anyway, but I've got some books I promised to mail about 3 weeks ago sitting in my living room so . . . I guess it'll get to you eventually, but you don't have to worry about being weighed down too soon. LOL

    Great! I'll be watching my inbox. :)


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