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.

Book Review: Snuff

Book Review: Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Commander Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, Duke of Ankh-Morpork and Blackboard Monitor, has been aware in a general way that his wife Sybil owns some property in the countryside.  But now that their son Young Sam is six, Sybil has decided that it’s high time that the family take a holiday to visit the ancestral manor.   And she’s somehow convinced Sam’s boss, Lord Vetinari, to sign off on this.

Snuff

So Sam Vimes finds himself on vacation for the first time in ever, stranded far from the smell and sounds of the city he knows so well, and at a loss how to handle himself in a rural area where he’s not got jurisdiction as a cop.  But as Sherlock Holmes remarked in “The Copper Beeches”, the countryside is not free from vile sin.  When Vimes discovers that there’s been a murder on his land and the oppressed cry out for justice, he’s willing to bend the definition of jurisdiction to bring the villains to heel.

This is one of the last Discworld books (only two after this one) and the last of the City Watch sub-series.  While Vimes is front and center for most of the story, we do check in with many of the other continuing characters for at least a sentence.  (This is one of the few Discworld books to miss out Death as a character, but that does not mean that no one dies.)

Over the course of the series, Ankh-Morpork has advanced from a parody of generic sword-and-sorcery cities that happened to share some geographical features with London to more or less a fantasy version of Victorian London–and most of this progress has happened within Sam Vimes’ lifetime.  Indeed, Vimes can be said to have facilitated much of this by his dedication to law enforcement that does what is right rather than what is convenient.  Another running theme of the books has been that people are people, regardless of their shape, odd customs or biological weirdness.  Dwarves and trolls and even vampires have become people, with all the rights and responsibilities that come with that description.  And now it is the turn of the goblins.

Goblins are the lowest of the low, considered filthy creatures with no visible culture, and treated as vermin.  Enslaving them, taking their sacred objects, killing them–none of these are considered crimes by the majority of people or the written law.   But Commander Vimes’ previous experiences give him some unique ways of seeing the “humanity” of goblins.

And while his efforts do yield results, Sam Vimes would not be able to fully achieve the goal of bringing goblins under the protection of the law without the aid of his socially-connected wife, an author who has her own insights into goblin culture, and several goblins who step out of their stereotype to show their worth.  (Although there is some question whether Stinky is really a goblin…or something more.)

Much of the “humor” this time revolves around bodily excretions, as Young Sam has discovered the scientific wonders of poo.  For those of us not keen on toilet gags, this gets a bit tiresome.  There’s also a fair amount of swearing, and a discussion of “the dreadful algebra” of what to do with an infant that’s been born in a time of famine.  And not all sins are forgiven.

The general quality of the writing is excellent as always, but Sir Terry’s sentimental side perhaps overwhelms the sharper edge of social satire, particularly in the ending.

Recommended to Discworld fans; newbies should probably start with Guards! Guards! which is the first of the Watch sub-series.

Anime Review: Silver Spoon

Ooezo Agricultural High School is the best agricultural vocational/technical school in Hokkaido, and farm kids from all over the territory come there to pursue an education.  But there’s a different student this year.  Yuugo Hachiken is from the big city of Sapporo, and for…reasons…has decided to join the dairy science program at Ooezo in lieu of the prestigious prep school he’d been aiming for.

silver

As a city kid, Hachiken is woefully unprepared for farm life, and has no clue where food actually comes from.  “Chickens produce eggs from their what!?”  He’s warned not to get to attached to a piglet he’s helping raise, but names it anyway.  He’s certainly not ready to wake up before dawn to take care of the chores!

But life at Ooezo does have its compensations.  Fresh air, exercise, good food…and Hachiken discovers talents he never had the opportunity to exercise before.  He joins the Equestrian Club, and there’s this girl named Aki that just might be interested in him.  There’s a silver spoon mounted outside the student cafeteria, symbolizing a wish that their graduates will never starve.

This series is based on the manga by Hiromu Arakawa, who also created the Fullmetal Alchemist manga.  The story takes full advantage of her background growing up on a dairy farm.

Hachiken is kind of rude and surly early on, initially seeing most of his classmates as hopeless rubes.  However, he quickly catches on to the fact that they have their own useful skill sets and acquired knowledge, even the ones that are actually stupid.   We see that his true nature is helpful and tender-hearted, which gets him in over his head more than once.

The other characters are more complicated than they may first appear, and Hachiken’s friends have their own stories to live through, not all of them successful.

Parents of young children should be aware that animals have natural functions and the show does not shy away from this.  Hachiken skins a deer at one point, and assists with a difficult calving at another.  One episode does have some disturbing imagery from a slaughterhouse (when Hachiken must send Pork Bowl off to be turned into meat); the story specifically warns that this is coming up and sensitive viewers might want to leave the room for a bit.  Overall, if your child is not yet ready for the “where food comes from” talk, they’re too young for this series.

There are some hints of romance and sexual thoughts, but Hachiken points out (when he is falsely accused of an affair) that the students’ schedule just doesn’t allow time for any serious hanky-panky.

The manga is still ongoing, so the anime stops abruptly about three-quarters of the way through Hachiken’s freshman year.  It is unknown at this time if there will be an animation of the remainder of the manga.

Those of you who grew up on a farm will certainly nod along at parts, and big city dwellers can learn new things.  Highly recommended.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights by too many to list.  Trust me, a lot of great names.

Between the late 1940s and somewhere in the 1990s, one of the most pervasive fears of the American public was atomic war. For the first time in known history, humans were truly capable of destroying all civilization, perhaps all life on Earth. One of the ways people dealt with this fear was science fiction. After all, the SF writers had forseen the possibility of annihilation well before such a thing was actually possible–and their stories would tell us the ways things might fall out. At DC Comics, this became a loose theme called “The Great Disaster.”

The Great Disaster

Unlike other Showcase volumes, this one collects not one series or character’s appearances, but a thematically linked set of stories, dealing with the aftermath of atomic war. As such, it provides a wide array of notable comics writers and artists.

The volume opens with a couple of stories about people traveling from after the Great Disaster to the present, or vice versa. This is followed by a collection of short-shock stories all titled “The Day After Doomsday”, presenting varied scenarios for what life after the Bomb might be like. Perhaps the most effective of these is the “Adam and Gertrude” trilogy.by Len Wein and Jack Sparling, but they all have their charms.

Then we have the feature event, the “Atomic Knights” stories. These were all by John Broome and Murphy Anderson. World War Three began in October 1986, and lasted less than a month, but wiped out much of human civilization, leaving a world without many animals or plants, and only a few pockets of humans struggling for survival. Into this world comes Sergeant Gardner Grayle. When he joined the Army, they discovered he was exactly average both mentally and physically, but during the War he was trapped in a bomb shelter that collapsed from a near-hit. The experience gave him traumatic amnesia, and only months after the disaster does he come to himself.

Grayle happens to be near a town named Durvale that was relatively untouched by the war, which is to say it’s a total wreck. It’s come under the thumb of the Black Baron (so named because of his hair color) who has managed to corner the local food supply. By coincidence, Grayle and a local school teacher, John Herald, discover that the suits of medieval armor in the museum have become resistant to most forms of radiation, including the ray-pistols used by the Black Baron and his men. There are six sets of armor, and soon Grayle and Herald recruit twin ex-soldiers Hollis and Wayne Hobbard, as well as scientist Bryndon (who is feared and despised for being one of those who made the bombs that ruined the world.) The last suit is deemed too small to be usable by any combat-ready man, so the Atomic Knight five set off. John’s sister, Marene Herald, who is small enough to fit in the last armor, takes it upon herself to follow them, and helps out in a tight situation.

The Atomic Knights became the new force for law and order in the post-apocalyptic world, fighting bizarre radiation-spawned monsters, evil dictators, the remnants of Atlantis and the mysterious mole people (who it turned out had actually caused the war.) Bit by bit, they began to make Earth liveable again.

These stories were all about the cool ideas, and were aimed primarily at children, so scientific plausibility and deep characterization were generally skipped.  Bryndon being reluctant to discuss his pre-War research and the Hobard brothers being jazz fans was about as much as we learned about them as persons.  Speaking of jazz, the early 1960s habit of only depicting white people in comics was on full display on a visit to New Orleans, where names of black performers are dropped, but there are no people of color in town.  Marene, of course, is often excluded from dangerous missions and seems to have no particular skill set beyond “being feminine.”  She even muses to herself that she’s “just a woman!”  Perhaps appropriately, the last official Atomic Knights story from 1963 has her disguising herself as a boy and demonstrating some athletic talent.

Next up are stories of the return of the gods.  There’s a one-shot about Atlas by Jack Kirby that doesn’t tie into anything in particular, but shared a resemblance to his Kamandi series, also set after the Great Disaster. The Kamandi series lasted long enough to get its own Showcase volume, so the next set of stories are Hercules Unbound, which ran 1975-77.

We open with Hercules bound to a rock, as he has been for the last millenium or so. Suddenly, the chains holding him snap–could this mean that Ares, who treacherously bound Hercules there, is dead? No time to think about that, as a blind boy and his dog are battling sea monsters nearby. Kevin, the blind boy, explains that he was in Greece when World War Three broke out, and he set out in a sailboat to see if he can get to his father, an ambassador to the Vatican. As it happens, Ares is in Rome, and very much alive, pitting the remnants of armies against each other for his own amusement. While Hercules triumphs against Ares’ champion, the opening chapter ends in tragedy for Kevin.

Hercules and his companions begin wandering the post-apocalyptic earth, encountering mad gods and mutants. There’s one person of color, a loincloth-clad hunter named Cerebus (not the aardvark) who is repeatedly referred to as “Nubian.” Yeah. The new-fangled “Women’s Lib” is mentioned a few times, mostly in association with Jennifer Monroe, a woman who was a model before the war, and mostly serves as a damsel in distress for Hercules.

Over the course of the series, it ties into OMAC, Kamandi and the Atomic Knights, despite these series not precisely being in continuity with each other. The last couple of chapters return to the question of why Hercules was chained to that rock in the first place; it answers some lingering subplots, ignores others, and flatly contradicts some of the earlier characterization. (The series had changed writers more than once in a dozen issues.)

After that are a few back-ups from Kamandi, and one last “The Day After Doomsday” shock story. To close out the volume, we have a Superman story from 1983. By this time, it was looking less and less likely that we would actually have an atomic war in 1986, and even if we did, it wouldn’t have the future-Fifties design aesthetic and cultural behavior seen in the Atomic Knights series. So when Superman suddenly finds himself in the Atomic Knights future, he is quick to point out the scientific implausibiliy of the scenario. Yes, this is hilarious coming from Mr. “The laws of physics are just mild suggestions.” Turns out it’s a virtual reality scenario gone horribly wrong, with the moral being “The task before man-kind isn’t to survive an atomic war! It’s to work in this world we’re living in to make certain such a war can never begin!” The story is also notable for giving Marene Herald a much more important role.

All together, this is a mixed bag with something for many comic book fans, including rare stories. It’s well worth a loan from your library, and if you’re a collector, consider buying it.

Book Review: The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human

Book Review: The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human by Noah Strycker

Disclaimer:  I received this book from the publisher as part of a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  I received an Advance Reading Copy and there may be changes in the final edition.

The Thing with Feathers

As the title states, this is a book about the behavior of birds.  Mr. Strycker is a field researcher with a specialty in birds, so most of the chapters have stories of his personal experiences with the type of birds mentioned.  Each chapter covers a different type of bird and an interesting topic about it, from the ability of homing pigeons to find their way, through the pecking order of chickens to albatross monogamy.

Some of the topics will be familiar to anyone who paid attention in biology class, but others have up to the year research with new implications.   For example, the chapter on starlings explains how mathematics, physics and computer modeling have advanced our knowledge of flock behavior.  Many of the chapters do tie back into possible ties or comparisons to human behavior and biology.

It’s fascinating stuff, and is written in a casual, easy to read style.  The book should be suitable for bright junior high students on up to non-ornithologist adults who enjoy watching or reading about birds.  However,  the casual style carries over to the end notes, and there is no index.  Serious ornithology students will want to dig for more rigorously cited works to please their professors.  Each topic has a bird drawing by Janet Hansen.

Please be advised that this book does cover biological functions of birds and nature red in tooth and claw, so may not be suitable for sensitive children.

I recommend this book to bird lovers and science-minded readers.

Book Review: Hen of the Baskervilles

Book Review: Hen of the Baskervilles by Donna Andrews

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  Also, this review is of an Advance Reading Copy, and there may be small changes in the final text.

Hen of the Baskervilles

Meg Langslow is a blacksmith in the Virginia city of Caerphilly, although she isn’t doing any smithing in this particular volume.  It seems that (as in real life) the Virginia State Fair has run into severe financial trouble, and various communities and counties have decided to put on their own fairs, in an effort to become the new must-see event.  Caerphilly’s entry into this competition is the “Un-Fair”, which is basically a jumped-up county fair, notable for being in two counties–the midway is in adjacent Clay County, which is causing some jurisdiction friction between city police and county sheriff’s office.

Thanks to her superior organizing skills and having an extensive network of useful relatives and friends, Meg has been drafted into being assistant director of the fair.  Which would be stressful enough without a rash of theft and vandalism just before the fair is set to open.   The title comes from a garbled memory of one theft’s victims, and it’s mentioned a couple of times how much of a stretch it is.

Things get even dicier when the boyfriend of one of the fair’s most hated exhibitors turns up murdered.  With clashing law enforcement  stomping about, more missing animals and a slew of suspects, can Meg figure out what’s really going on before the fair is closed down for good?

The Meg Langslow mystery series has birds in the title of each book, previous cases aren’t much referred to, except that by now Meg has an extensive list of defense attorneys in case anyone she knows is arrested.  As someone who’s been to many county fairs, I found the setting charming and reasonably authentic.  The characters were also pretty enjoyable, especially the person everyone thought would be murdered.  The mystery worked well, and had a plausible solution.

Based on this volume, I would read other Meg Langslow books, but I might want to check them out from the library as the recent ones are only available in expensive hardbacks.

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