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.
Disclaimer: I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of this review. No other compensation was offered or requested.
Tuttle Publishing was founded by Charles Tuttle, a Vermonter who came to Japan with Douglas MacArthur’s staff after World War Two. His job was helping the Japanese publishing industry get back on its feet; along the way he married a Japanese woman and founded the first English-language bookstore in Japan. Tuttle Publishing’s goal is to print “books to span the East and West.” So it’s not too surprising that they’d publish a tourist guidebook.
The author is a British writer who has resided in the country since 1999 and traveled extensively, writing about his journeys and Japan’s tourist destinations.
The book itself is thin and light, designed to fit well into a backpack or tote bag for easy consultation. There’s a fold-out map of Japan (and details of certain areas) tucked into a pocket in the back, as well as several detail maps in the book itself. There are many color photographs as well. (One of Sapporo’s Snow Festival is reused several times.) It’s slickly produced, but sturdy enough that it should survive a several week journey.
After a quick overview of Japan at the encyclopedia summary level, the main book starts with a chapter of “must-see” sights, ranging from Mount Fuji to the “Art Island” of Naoshima. These alone would take a month or so to get in with any comfort, as they are scattered all over the country.
This is followed by an “Exploring Japan” chapter that focuses on the tourist sights of the major cities and individual regions, making it easier to plan an itinerary. This includes callbacks to the opening chapter, but also mentions what else is around the must-sees. There are sidebars on local cuisine travelers might like to sample.
Chapter 3 is the “Author’s Recommendations” section, where he talks about hotels, museums, kid-friendly attractions and the like that he personally really likes. The edition I have is from 2013, so there may have been some changes–he mentions that a particular fish market was scheduled to move to a different location in 2015.
The last major section, “Travel Facts” is the most likely part to be useful on your actual trip, with the location of important embassies, key Japanese phrases to use, how the transportation system works, and so forth. There’s an index and a page of photo credits.
The language is clear and straightforward, with key words bolded to make them easier to find. As a tourism booster, it focuses almost entirely on the positive; people who like to be more cautious might want to do further reading to see what they need to prepare for.
This book would be most useful for tourists who like to plan their own itineraries, or at least dream about doing so. Package tours, well, you see what’s in the package. People who want to live in Japan for extended periods will need to consult more substantial materials.
Another group that might find this book useful is fanfiction writers. You’ve decided that Jeneriku High School will be taking a summer field trip to Okinawa; how long will it take to get there, where will Hana and Tarou be going on their date, and what sights offer the most ideas for plot twists?
Manga Review: Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1 written by Kazuo Koike, art by Goseki Kojima
Ogami Itto was once a samurai warrior of high rank, the official executioner for the shogunate. He had a lovely wife and new son; life was good. But another clan was ambitious, and framed Ogami for treason. Under sentence of execution and with his wife murdered, Ogami asked his infant son to make a choice between merciful death and life on the run. now Ogami is a ronin, and an assassin for hire. If you need someone dead, and you can find them, you can hire the Lone Wolf assassin who travels with his cub.
This classic manga series was popular enough to spawn a series of live-action movies, a television series and several spin-off manga. It was also influential outside of Japan, notably influencing the art and storytelling style of Frank Miller (who provided the cover for this omnibus edition.) As such, it was one of the first manga series to be translated for the emerging American market, using the expensive and painstaking “double-flipping” method to make it read left to right.
This volume contains the first three volumes of the Japanese version, and these stories are very episodic, focusing on an difficult assassination, a particular facet of feudal Japanese life, or a philosophical point. It is not until several stories in that anyone recognizes Ogami for who he is, and even longer before even a partial explanation of his past.
Ogami is a stoic character who works hard not to give away his emotions; his tenderness towards Daigoro is almost entirely seen in his actions, not his face. This does not prevent him from placing his son in danger if it will help with an assassination plan. Daigoro himself is one of the most ambiguous characters I’ve ever read. He seems most of the time to act like the small child he is, but in other instances is far too mature for his age, even allowing for the massive trauma Daigoro has undergone in his short life. It makes him kind of creepy to be honest.
The art is dynamic and varied, able to handle both exciting battles and calm scenes of nature. There’s a fair amount of reused faces, which with the episodic stories make the manga feel like a television series with a limited pool of guest star actors.
As expected from a samurai revenge story, there is plenty of violence and death; not all of Ogami’s assassination targets are evil people deserving of death. In particular in this volume, one target is a Buddhist priest who must die for political reasons–he teaches Ogami how to attain mu (“emptiness”) which allows the assassin to strike without projecting sakki (“killing intent”). This becomes an important part of Ogami’s personal sword style going forward.
There is also quite a bit of female nudity, and at least one rape/murder scene. Ogami himself is decent to the women he meets, but feudal Japanese society is not a good place for them.
Because of its influence on the subgenre of samurai manga, this series is well worth reading and rereading. Recommended for fans of this sort of thing.
Book Review: The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder by William Hope Hodgson
Four men come to the house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea when the man who owns the house, Thomas Carnacki, summons them for dinner. They ask no questions, as they know Carnacki will wait until his own good time to tell them a tale of his adventures. And because he is a ghost finder, that tale will be worth waiting for.
William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) was a sailor and physical fitness instructor before taking up writing and becoming best known for his weird tales. The Carnacki stories were written between 1910 and 1914, when Mr. Hodgson enlisted in the British Army during World War One. Only six of them were published during his lifetime (he died at Ypers) with the remaining three first appearing in the collected edition in 1947.
Carnacki is very much in the Sherlock Holmes tradition of the cerebral detective, examining the evidence with the best scientific methods known to him. Sometimes the menace turns out to be merely human trickery, sometimes it is truly supernatural, and then again sometimes it’s both! Other than that, the stories are formulaic–the four friends arrive, everyone has dinner, Carnacki tells his tale, there are a few clarifying questions, and then the guests go home.
Carnacki is interesting as a ghost finder, as he’s terrified of ghosts and supernatural phenomena, and readily admits it, even as he confronts these phenomena. It’s suggested in one story that fear makes you more sensitive to the spirit world–someone who knows no terror might not even notice ghosts! He also uses both eldritch lore and modern science like photography and vacuum tubes to battle the supernatural.
The collection begins with “The Thing Invisible” in which Carnacki investigates a haunted dagger that seems able to strike on its own with deadly force. This story was also in The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries. It ends with “The Hog”, a tale of sheer horror as a man’s dreams turn out to be a direct conduit to the Outer Monstrosities. The latter story would be a good source for artists seeking horrific imagery, but becomes overlong with the special effects sequence.
The best story is “The Whistling Room”, a story that starts with a seemingly harmless haunting that becomes much more disturbing by the end as we learn just what exactly the whistling is. The least effective story is “The Find”, a change of pace that has no supernatural elements even as a distraction. A second copy of a supposedly unique book has surfaced and Carnacki must learn if it’s genuine. The case is resolved in a summary to the main suspects, which is summarized for Carnacki’s friends.
The writing is a bit old-fashioned and there’s a bit of genteel sexism. We learn little of Carnacki’s past, involving him living in a seaside house with his mother as a young man, apparently inspiring his career. And of the four guests, the only thing we learn is that one of them has studied magical science, apparently in the theoretical model only.
This is a nice little collection of spooky tales, which I would recommend to fans of old-fashioned ghost stories.
Book Review: The Art of the Dragon edited by Patrick Wilshire & J. David Spurlock
One of the most enduring symbols of the fantasy genre is the dragon. It evokes a primal response and is really fun to draw and paint, so it shows up all the time in fantasy art and sometimes manages to get into science fiction as well. With so many dragons on the covers of books, it’s no surprise that an entire book can be filled with nothing but dragon paintings.
This book features works by over a dozen fine artists, most of them currently active in the field. There are a couple that were recently deceased at the time the book was published, and the volume is dedicated to one of them, Jeffrey Catherine Jones. Several of the artists are spotlighted, giving details of their careers and their different philosophies of creating dragon pictures. I personally picked this book up for the Michael Whelan section (including his very influential White Dragon piece), but there is also excellent work by Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell among many others.
It’s coffee-table sized and as an art book, far heavier on pictures than words. Concerned parents should be aware that the second most common element in these paintings is half-naked women (and a couple of fully naked ones.) Mr. Vallejo in particular talks about how his depiction of women has changed over the years.
Several of the artists have worked for the companies that published Dungeons and Dragons game material over the year, so gamers may be especially interested in this volume. Otherwise, this book is recommended for fantasy fans in general and dragon fans in particular.
Comic Strip Review: The Complete Little Orphan Annie Volume Ten: The Junior Commandos by Harold Gray
Little Orphan Annie was one of the all-time great comic strips, debuting in 1924. The story centered on a plucky orphan girl with curly red hair (which was considered unattractive at the time) and her attempts to get by in a cruel world with the aid of her dog Sandy. Early on, she was taken “on trial” by the unpleasant Mrs. Warbucks, whose husband Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks took an immediate shine to Annie.
The strip’s formula depended heavily on finding ways to separate Annie from “Daddy” for long periods, or giving him financial troubles so they could go on the road together. The device of having one of them believe the other was dead was used repeatedly for melodrama. Mrs. Warbucks eventually relented and made friends with Annie, only to permanently die shortly thereafter. (There was a second Mrs. Warbucks who was also hostile to Annie, and who Daddy may have murdered offscreen.)
Eventually, the strips added Daddy Warbucks’ exotic servants Punjab (a giant of a fellow with mystic abilities) and the Asp (a East Asian with a mysterious past and no given name.) Harold Gray had strong conservative views, which often featured in the strips, both as story themes and character dialogue. He was a big believer in hard work and honesty as ways to get ahead, and sometimes showed huge blind spots about the flaws of capitalism.
This volume covers stories from 1941-1943, and is strongly influenced by the events of World War Two. While Daddy is testing a new bomber plane (he is after all a munitions manufacturer), he and the group are forced to land somewhere in the midwest. Annie is injured in an automobile accident, and narrowly escapes the ministrations of quack Dr. Eldeen. Instead, she is placed under the care of Doctor Zee, a friend of Daddy’s he met in Spain (presumably during the Spanish Civil War), who has become a recluse.
Daddy Warbucks and his associates are reported missing, presumed dead, shortly thereafter, stranding Annie in the large town. Dr. Zee, one of the few sympathetic characters in the history of the strip with progressive views, is brought out of his shell by Annie, and by reconnecting with a childhood friend who has become known as “Crazy Kate.” Zee starts a low-cost medical practice that clashes with both Dr. Eldeen (who runs a private clinic for not particularly sick wealthy people and uses heavy drugs to keep them under control) and Dr. Dubb, a mediocre physician who owns the town hospital.
Eventually, it is learned that one of Dr. Eldeen’s patients is a scientist called “Zaney” who has developed an explosive formula vital to national security, which Eldeen wants to sell to the Nazis. This plot fails, and Eldeen has to go on the run. Daddy Warbucks and crew reappear alive, but now enlisted in the military of “an allied country” so they can fight the Axis menace. (Gray didn’t have them enlist in the U.S. Army as then they’d have to obey regulations instead of getting straight down to killing the enemy.)
Determined to do her bit to help win the war, Annie organizes the town kids into “Junior Commandos” who sell War Bonds and collect recyclables for the war effort, performing many helpful functions for soldiers and war workers. Rather suddenly, the town is near the seacoast so that Annie and a new friend can sink a Nazi submarine. Shortly thereafter, the town takes in a war refugee nicknamed “Driftwood” who has lost his family to “the invaders.”
Doctor Zee enlists in the military, so Annie and the supporting cast move in with a Mrs. Sleet, a seemingly chilly wealthy woman who Annie helps deal with the loss of her husband and son, and who becomes a sponsor for the Junior Commandos. Daddy Warbucks and his men are reported killed in the fighting, and Dr. Zee returns minus an arm. But Annie and a female surgeon, Dr. Clover, help Dr. Zee recover his will to be a healer, and after some mild love triangle shenanigans, Zee marries Katie, his childhood friend. (There’s also a lot of other action going on in the meantime.)
The Nazis become convinced that Daddy Warbucks (now revealed as surviving) left a copy of Zaney’s formula with Annie, and come up with an elaborate plot to get it from her. This involves impersonating a reclusive writer, Malcolm Mitt, another of Daddy’s old friends, and inviting Annie to a castle built by an eccentric Spanish immigrant to await her guardian’s return. The castle is full of secret passageways and tricks, as well as Nazi spies and a submarine harbor. Annie’s able to recruit the local Junior Commandos and Serbian immigrant “Big George” (formerly a spy on the Germans for twenty years) to help her clean out this nest of rats.
But it’s not until Daddy Warbucks finally shows up for real and Punjab uses his disappearing trick that the situation is fully resolved. The war’s still on, though, and Annie ends the volume being shipped off to live with another of Daddy’s old friends…
Annie’s tough and wise beyond her years, and a natural leader, but we do see moments of her still being a child, as when she exclaims in glee over a new doll. The strip openly mocks the idea of protecting children from the knowledge of war; Driftwood is all too aware that the war does not spare anyone because of age or innocence. That said, this is not a children’s story as such, but a family one–parents should read these strips along with their kids to aid in understanding the context.
Violence is rife in this story, and Annie, while not directly killing anyone, has to dodge a question on the subject of whether she hasn’t disposed of some enemies permanently. (It’s also noted that in his backstory, Daddy Warbucks once snapped a man’s neck like a toothpick.) Don’t let anyone kid you that violence in the media is a modern decline!
One interesting tidbit is the appearance of George, an African-American child, who is afraid he won’t be allowed into the Junior Commandos. Annie assures him he is welcome, and George swiftly proves his worth, getting a promotion. He only appears in one Sunday strip (and is mentioned on Monday) but black readers strongly appreciated the interlude. A Southern newspaper publisher wrote to warn Mr. Gray that he might lose readers in the South for showing “race-mixing.” Mr. Gray’s response was to the effect that while he fully supported the South working out its own issues, a lot of “colored” people bought newspapers too, especially in the large Northern cities.
The “Nazis in a castle” story isn’t as good; the introduction notes that the artist had recently lost his father, and may have been distracted from his work; also, he was becoming disenchanted with the U.S. government’s handling of the homefront of the war, which would really show up in the next story.
Still, this volume is a good introduction for kids to what life was like on the homefront in World War Two, with proper parental guidance. Highly recommended to fans of older comic strips.
Book Review: The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge
Disclaimer: I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it. My copy was an uncorrected proof, and there will be changes to the final edition. Specifically, there will be maps, genealogical charts, and an index.
William Marshal started life as the younger son of a minor noble, so little regarded that when he was taken hostage, his father pretty much said, “go ahead, I can make more.” But a combination of superior battle prowess, a gift for political maneuvering, and a certain amount of luck caused William to rise through the ranks of knighthood, until he ended his career as regent of all England, acting for the boy king Henry III. In some ways, he came to define what people expected a knight to be.
We know more about William Marshal than many other figures of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries because his family commissioned a flattering biography of him, the sole remaining copy of which turned up in the 1860s, and was finally read and translated in the 1880s. Now, I say “flattering”, but as the author points out, what people in the 1220s considered admirable traits do not necessarily conform with what Twenty-First Century folks consider to be the ideal of chivalry. William often acted out of naked self-interest to gain rewards of land and titles. It’s also pointed out when The History of William Marshal skips over or obfuscates events we know from other sources that William was involved with, but don’t reflect well on him.
William Marshal’s life was strongly tied to the fortunes of the Angevin dynasty, and this book covers the political situation of the time, as well as a general discussion of knighthood as it then existed. It puts the treachery of John Lackland against his brother Richard the Lionheart into perspective when we see that their entire family was like that (Richard was actively trying to overthrow his father when the old man suddenly took ill and died.) It’s just that King John was much less competent at it than most of his relatives, so he got saddled with the worst reputation.
While the writer has to speculate in places, it doesn’t feel forced. He has the advantage of writing about an interesting subject who lived through many historic events. But William Marshal soon fell into obscurity; all his sons died without heirs, and his biography was written in the days before printing presses, so only a few copies were ever made. By Shakespeare’s time, he was reduced to a cameo in the King John play as “Pembroke.” Thus you may be hearing about him for the first time.
While this book is written for adults, it should be suitable for junior high students and up. I’d especially recommend it to readers who love tales of knights and kings, and Game of Thrones fans who want deep background.
Magazine Review: Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue edited by David Shields and Bradford Morrow
Conjunctions is a literary journal published twice a year by Bard College. Each issue contains essays, short fiction, poetry and less classifiable writing on a given subject, with this issue being about death. Literary journals tend to have a connotation of pretentiousness, and death is one of the primal subjects, so I approached this 2008 issue with a bit of trepidation.
The issue starts strong with an essay entitled “The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies” by Sallie Tisdale. It’s a stomach-churning but very informative look at flies, Buddhism, and the Buddha nature of flies. The ending piece is “Andalucia” by H.G. Carrillo, the story of a writer mourning his artist lover, who has died of AIDS.
In between, the most memorable pieces are Joyce Carol Oates’ “Dear Husband”, a chilling suicide note; and “St. Francis Preaches to the Birds” by David Ives, a not-quite-working comedic play about the saint’s encounter with vultures. Several of the pieces caused me to shed a tear. Sadly, as I cannot make head or tail of the appeal of modern poetry, I feel unable to comment on whether any of the poetry was good. Two pieces are illustrated with photographs, the only visual art in the issue.
With forty pieces altogether, this is a thick volume that takes some grit to get through. I understand that the Oates story is in one of her own anthologies, so if noir fiction is your thing, you might want to check that out. The rest is a mixed bag; see if your library system has a copy of this or other issues so you can see if Conjunctions is something you want to subscribe to.