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.
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.
Magazine Review: Gamma 3 edited by Charles E. Fritch
Gamma was a short-lived science fiction magazine (five issues in 1963-64), known for high-quality cover art and snagging stories from authors connected with the film industry. (Indeed, I picked up this issue because of the sweet Morris Scott Dollens art.) It was digest-sized and relatively thin. Let’s look at the contents!
“The Girl of Paradise Planet” by Robert Turner concerns retired millionaire George Prentiss. He and his third wife Evvie have come to the title planet on a long vacation (her idea.) Bored, Robert has taken up underwater swimming with future SCUBA gear. This world is not supposed to have any native intelligent life, but then where did that water-breathing naked girl come from? Is George having hallucinations from the water pressure, or is he just going insane?
Over the course of the story, we learn that George is a self-made man who spent his youth starting a business, growing that business and getting rich, so he didn’t look for romance until middle age, and three times went for trophy wives, none of whom have worked out. Which is okay…except that the possibly imaginary Irlana comes across as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose function is to rekindle his love of life (and is younger and prettier than Evvie.)
Mr. Turner was an experienced author, but this was his first time writing science fiction, and I can tell. He’s certainly no climatologist, and the ending twist relies on most of the characters forgetting a perfectly logical explanation for events that would be common knowledge to them, even if the reader wouldn’t know it.
“The Feather Bed” by Shelley Lowenkopf presents a bizarre future in which the economy runs on make-work. For example, three years after a building is built, all the piping is torn out and replaced just to give the plumbing crews something to do. This extends to writing as well. Every 37 years, all extant editions of Shakespeare are destroyed, and replaced with “newly written” versions by living authors. Except that it’s just retyping the whole thing verbatim. And the same goes for all other works of fiction by dead writers.
Lew has had it with the system–he doesn’t want to “rewrite” King Lear again, and on the union points system, it will be years before he’s allowed to write more of the original fiction that made him a successful author in the first place. Unfortunately, he’s just one man against the system, and winds up causing even the FBI to intervene. If Lew sticks to his principles, he could lose everything, including the writing he really wants to do.
“Angel Levine” by Bernard Malamud stars Jewish tailor Manischevitz, who is going through hard times. His shop burned down, and the insurance money was eaten by customer lawsuits. His son died in the war, and his daughter ran off with a man and never communicates. He’s got chronic pain, and his wife Rosie is dying. Manischevitz asks God for assistance, but when an “angel” named Levine shows up, there are reasons the tailor is unconvinced. It’s ultimately a story about belief in the face of your assumptions about people. There is racism and anti-Semitism in the story. (This one was reprinted from one of the author’s collections.)
“The (In)visible Man” by Edward W. Ludwig is a fantasy about James Smith, who has become socially invisible. He’s finally decided to exploit that fact, but one person has finally become able to see him, and that is both Mr. Smith’s weakness and best hope. It’s a fairly sweet story, helped along by James Smith, even when he turns criminal, sticking to a “least harm” principle. There is an attempted suicide in the story.
“Inside Story” by Miriam Allen deFord takes place in a far future when the Galactic Federation sends scouts to find new worlds that one of their myriad species can live on and isn’t already inhabited by intelligent life. These planets are exceedingly rare. It looks, however, like this one might be ideal. Presuming the scout party doesn’t find any surprises like rapid inexplicable temperature variations….
In this future, scout ships have mixed-sex crews, but this is because every member of that crew is a different non-compatible species. The twist ending is suitably bizarre.
“The Birth” by George Clayton Johnson is a retelling of a classic story from a different perspective. See how long it takes you to figure out which one!
“Buttons” by Raymond E. Banks concerns John Burke, a starship officer who is forced by disaster to upload his mind to a computer memory storage system. Supposedly, he will have his mind reinserted into his human body once that’s fixed. But that procedure has a high failure rate, and Burke is rapidly discovering the advantages of being a disembodied intelligence. There’s some relatively early thought about the benefits versus possible hazards of transhumanism.
“Society for the Prevention” by Ron Goulart is a humorous piece about the travails of a interplanetary surplus store manager. He’s just gotten a large shipment of extremely ugly wicker urns, the natives of the planet have organized a violent “Shop Local” campaign, and the newly arrived Young Girls Space Police and Welfare Committee officer suspects him of being in cahoots with the inventor of a death ray. Everything more or less works out in the end, but now the store manager has to try to explain to his boss why the urns didn’t get sold. The female Space Police officer is treated as a joke–admittedly so is everyone else, but it may not sit well with some readers, as part of the joke is that women are completely unsuited for the work.
The final story is “The Snail Watcher” by Patricia Highsmith. This creepy tale is about a man who gets a little too fascinated with the reproductive habits of snails, not noticing that these particular snails are reproducing much more rapidly than is anywhere near normal.
Interior art is by Luan Metheringham, who sadly seems to have completely dropped out of sight with only her Gamma appearances known.
There is also an interview with “Ivan Kirov” about the state of Soviet science fiction in the early 1960s. He declined to have his real name published for security reasons. Per the interview, SF in the USSR was beginning to blossom after being suppressed during the Stalinist years. Noted was a tendency for “nuts and bolts” stories of adventure, with little of the social or psychological exploration that had become common in Western nations’ science fiction. (At the time, the government censors were big on Soviet Communism going worldwide being the only possible future, and writers were expected to get on board with that.)
The Banks story is the one that I liked best, though the Highsmith story was also effective. Worth seeking out if you’re a fan of either author or the cover artist.