Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Manga Review: Showa 1926 1939 a History of Japan

Manga Review: Showa 1926 1939 a History of Japan by Shigeru Mizuki

This is the first volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s  massive history of Japan during the reign of Emperor Hirohito, the “Showa Era,”  It was a long reign, covering most of the Twentieth Century, from 1926-1989.  In addition to the larger story of Japan, it is also his autobiography, as Mizuki’s earliest childhood memories coincide with the beginning of that era.

Showa 1926 1939 a History of Japan

This volume opens several years earlier, with the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 which devastated Tokyo.  The repercussions of this, combined with fiscal mismanagement, created a financial crisis that crippled Japan’s economy.  The optimism and liberalization of the Taisho period took a huge hit.  Japan struggled along until 1929 and the worldwide effects of the Great Depression hit.

A combination of the Red Scare (the belief that Communists were about to take over), military successes and government incompetence led to the rise of right-wing organizations, especially military cliques.  Japan became ever more aggressive against its neighbors in Asia, setting up the puppet state of Manchukuo and grabbing ever more territory from China.

Japan became a rogue state, leaving the League of Nations when that body attempted to intervene in its conquests.  Only Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy recognized Manchukuo, and Japan’s alliance with those nations was about to drag it into World War Two.

This is a “warts and all” history, which covers events that many Japanese schoolkids might not be taught in official classes, or have glossed over for them.  There are many painful topics in here, so despite childish hijinks in the parts dealing with Shigeru’s early life, I would recommend it for senior high school students and up.

Warts and all is also how Mizuki depicts himself as a child and young man.  Naturally athletic but lazy, bright but unmotivated, sensitive but engaging in fights both as part of a gang and solo.  It will take the horrors of war (as depicted in the third volume) to force him into a responsible adult life.  Perhaps he got some of it from his father, who is shown as a Micawber-like optimist despite his economic woes.

There’s a lot of names and dates, so the end-notes are very helpful–you still might want to have Wikipedia open to assist with some of the more obscure bits and to cross-reference what else was going on in the world at the time.  Some bits come across as very dry, making the personal stories a relief.

The art may be jarring for those unused to Mizuki’s style; many pages are drawn directly from photographs in a realistic style, while others are done in a very loose, cartoony fashion.  It’s also kind of weird to have Nezumi-Otoko (Rat-man) as the narrator of the more serious history portion-he would not seem the most reliable of narrators.

Overall, not as interesting as the third volume, which features Shigeru’s most harrowing experiences, but well worth seeking out from the library.

Book Review: The Financial Expert

Book Review: The Financial Expert by R.K.  Narayan

In the South Indian town of Malgudi, across from the Central Cooperative Land Mortgage Bank, there is a banyan tree under which sits Margayya, the financial expert.  Margayya (“the one who shows the way”) is an unofficial middleman who helps the unlettered villagers apply for small loans from the bank (for a small fee), arranges for people who still have good credit to take loans to help out those with bad credit (for a small fee) and gives financial advice, among other services (for a small fee.)  He works hard at his dubiously legal profession, from early in the morning to when the sun is setting.

The Financial Expert

The problem with nickel and diming poor people for a living is that at the end of the day what you have is a small pile of nickels and dimes.  Margayya is on the “needs reading glasses” side of forty, lives in half a house with his wife and preschooler son Balu, and hasn’t bought a second set of clothing in years.   When the Bank officially takes unfavorable notice of his business, and Balu playfully tosses the only copy of his financial ledger in the sewer, Margayya realizes that he needs a lot more money if he is to be treated with the respect he thinks he deserves.  But where to get it?

R.K. Narayan (full name Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami, 1906-2001) is considered one of the most important writers of literature from India, at least partially because he wrote in English which made it easier to spread to the rest of the Commonwealth and eventually America.  His novels and stories were set in the fictional community of Malgudi, a “typical” large town somewhere in southern India, which allowed him to invent geography as needed and avoid lawsuits when he used real-life incidents as the basis for the story.

In this case, Margayya is a composite of two real-life people, one an actual middleman who performed the services Margayya does at the beginning of the novel, and a high-flying financial wizard who was incredibly rich for a short time before crashing and landing in jail for his shady practices.

In the story, Margayya makes a fervent appeal to Lakshmi, goddess of Fortune, and in the process happens to run into a writer named Dr. Pal.  Dr. Pal is interested in psychology, sociology and improving the life of his fellow humans.  He’s written a manuscript that will eventually be titled Domestic Tranquility, an important sociological work to improve married life.  To be blunt, it’s a sex manual.  He gives the manuscript to Margayya to do with as he will, and the businessman gets it printed; the book is apparently phenomenally successful.

Mostly what Margayya does with his new-found cash flow is try to get a good education for his son Balu.  Unfortunately, Balu  is not the kind of kid that the formal education system of the time served well, and since no one ever bothers finding a better way to engage him, Balu becomes a wastrel instead.  Part of the problem is that Balu has inherited his father’s habit of being sullen and silent when he has issues, and thus the two never have honest conversations instead of blowups.

Eventually, Margayya gets tired of the publishing business, where he never directly gets to see the money, and cashes out.  With a substantial capital, he can now open a formal money-lending and investment business, becoming a “financial expert” who is respected by even the wealthiest men in town.  But he again has left a single-point weakness in his business, which leads to ruin.

Margayya is not a very likable protagonist; he’s small-minded, sneaky and arrogant.  He’s good at making money in the short term but poor at long-range planning.  His relationship with his wife is more “she can’t bring herself to leave this jerk because there isn’t anything better for her in her society” than any form of mutual loyalty.  Margayya’s constantly worried that other people are taking advantage of him, while taking advantage of others whenever possible.  Margayya’s dignity is easily wounded, and he is quick to injure others’ dignity when he can.  He loves his son, but completely fails to understand him, so the rottenness in the young man’s character grows.

The Time-Life edition, which is what I read, has two introductions, by the editor (you may want to save this one for after you read the book) and by the author.  Mr. Narayan explains the background of the novel, including the economic conditions that lead to a cycle of debt, and how things had changed in India since the book was written.

There are several references to teachers striking students, and classism is often a subtext to what’s going on.

Recommended for those looking for a mostly realistic novel about life in India before independence with a not particularly sympathetic protagonist.

Book Review: City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago

Book Review: City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago by Gary Krist

Full disclosure: I was sent this volume as a Firstreads giveaway on the premise that I would write a review of it.   Also, my copy was an uncorrected proof, and small changes may have been made between it and the final product.

City of ScoundrelsLate July of 1919 was certainly a troubled time for the city of Chicago, and thus one ripe for interesting history. The book opens with an account of the Wingfoot disaster to hook the reader, then moves back to the beginning of the year to set the stage for the more politically oriented events. After the main narrative, there’s a summary of later events and finally a “where are they now” section.

The Wingfoot disaster involved an airship crashing into a bank, killing several people both in the Wingfoot and in the bank.  (After that, Chicago instituted flight restrictions.)  During the days that followed, Chicago was struck by a transit strike, a race riot and a sensational child murder that set off a massive manhunt.

The central figure is colorful mayor “Big Bill” Thompson, but space is made for the stories of others, including a ordinary Chicago woman, Emily Frankenstein, who happened to keep a very good diary. There are copious footnotes, a full bibliography, and an index.

The book is written in clear, understandable language and was a quick but not insubstantial read. I would have liked a bit more information on Chicago’s dealing with the “moron” problem after the events covered, but was otherwise satisfied.

Be aware that as a race riot is part of the history, there are quotes from racist people–and some early 20th Century sexism.

I’d especially recommend this book to high school history students looking for an interesting subject not as yet overdone.

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