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: Indexing

Book Review: Indexing by Seanan McGuire

Have you ever wished you could have a fairy tale life?  Be the hero of the story, vanquish evil, gain true love and live happily ever after?  Well, the Narrative is here to help!  It loves shoehorning people’s lives into the shape of fairy tales.  Of course, there’s no guarantee it will slot you into one of the good roles.  And have you ever noticed how much death and misery is in your average fairy tale?  Plus, trying to make real life mimic magic has its limitations, often lethal ones.

Indexing

And that’s where the ATI Management Bureau comes in.  Using their knowledge of the Aarne-Thompson Index to Motifs in Folk Literature to spot the Narrative trying to break into reality as we know it, the ATI agents try to thwart the worst effects of the stories on innocent bystanders.  The focus is on the field team led by Henrietta “Henry” Marchen, who is trying to avoid going full Snow White.  She’s assisted by Sloane Winters, an obnoxious woman who has averted the Evil Stepsister role only by not having any family; Jeffrey, the team archivist (who has an affinity for shoes) and Andy, the team normal who handles social interaction.

There’s been a sudden spike in Narrative incursions lately, in particular ones that look like one fairy tale only to morph into more deadly ones.  The team is forced to take on a new member with Pied Piper abilities to solve a case, but then the hits just keep on coming.  Pretty soon it becomes obvious that the Narrative has a mole inside the Bureau itself!

Seanan Mcguire is the author of the October Daye and Incryptids urban fantasy series, as well as writing horror as “Mira Grant.”  This book was her first try at writing a Kindle serial, with chunks published online every two weeks.  (There’s also a sequel.) “Fairy tales are real” is a hot concept in recent years, with the long-running Fables comic book series, the television shows Grimm and Once Upon a Time and a fantasy series I forget the name of set in “The Realms” and having a very similar premise to Indexing.

There are some cool twists to the concept–every time a new adaptation of a fairy tale comes out, it adds variations that the Narrative can use.  Thanks, Disney!  Literary fairy tales with known authors like Peter Pan count too.  Also, the Narrative has figured out how to change up the casting, for example putting a male character in the “Little Mermaid” role.  And then there’s what Henry realizes about the roots of the Snow White story….

This is not, however, the author’s best work.  She was not used to working in serial form, and it shows.  In particular, the chapters repeat basic information over and over on the assumption that the reader might not have read the previous part, or at least not remember the details.  This is most notable in the first half of the book.  On the other hand, it’s interesting watching Ms. McGuire improve as the story goes on.  (I personally would have re-edited the book to eliminate redundancy as was the custom with fix-up novels of the past, but that’s just me.)

Most of the characterization goes to Henry and Sloane, with Demi (the Pied  Piper) woefully neglected for much of the book.  Sloane’s battle to be wicked but not outright evil is the most enjoyable character arc.

If you’re familiar with fairy tales, you are aware that they often have dark content–there’s suicide, and rape is mentioned, in addition to the usual murder and maiming.  I’m just glad “Manyfurs” and “How the Children Played Butcher” weren’t referenced.

Again, not the author’s best work, but entertaining and worth reading if you’re a fan of dark fairy tales.

 

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