Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016 by various

While I spend many of my comics-related posts on this  blog talking about the Big Two’s superhero comic books, there are a number of worthy small press comics companies that put out interesting material every year.  Oni Press has put out an affordable collection of seven first issues from various series they’ve printed over their existence.

Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Leading off this trade paperback is The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn & Brian Hurtt.  This horror-western about a collection of cursed firearms is as it happens something I have reviewed before.  I won’t repeat myself here, but note that the series lasted eight collected volumes in its main storyline, with three extra graphic novels of spinoff stories.  Pretty impressive!

Letter 44 by Charles Soule and Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque is science fiction.  When incoming president Stephen Blades reads a letter left for him by his predecessor, he learns that many of the bizarre actions taken by Francis T. Carroll were based on information not shared with the American people..  It seems that there are aliens doing…something…in the asteroid belt.  President Carroll felt it was most important for America to arm itself just in case the aliens are hostile, thus his warmongering activities on Earth that have made a mess of foreign policy while neglecting domestic issues that are coming to a head.

The United States also sent a secret manned space mission out to the location of the alien activity in an effort to learn more; they’re just now coming close to their destination.  The astronauts have concealed certain information from their Earth-bound mission controllers…among other things, one of them is pregnant.

There are some pretty clear parallels to the Bush/Obama transition, with mentions of lies about weapons of mass destruction, and a white conservative president with a bad reputation on the economy and war being replaced with a darker-skinned liberal.  But as the series progresses, the special circumstances lessen those similarities as President Blades tries a very different approach to the same situation President Carroll faced.

Meanwhile, the astronauts learn the truth behind the alien presence, and we learn the backstory of their mission.

The Bunker by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Joe Infunari starts with five recent college graduates going out to the woods to bury a time capsule.  Except that they find themselves uncovering a bunker with four of their names on it.  A bunker that contains items alleging to be from the post-apocalyptic future, including letters from their future selves.

It seems that by their actions, the quintet will bring about the near-extinction of the human race.  But not doing so might create an even worse future.  It’s not clear if the future selves are trying to create a time loop, or avert one.

This was a double-sized first issue, so a lot goes on.  This does include nudity and on-page sex, as well as some nasty violence and strong language.  The last page twist is foreshadowed, but still pretty shocking.

Stumptown  by Greg Rucka and Justin Greenwood appears to be the first issue…of the third series.  Private detective Dex Parios participates in an amateur soccer match (her team loses) before going to a professional game of footy with her brother Ansel and friend Mercury.  It’s hometown Portland vs. Seattle, and autographs after!  But afterwards, Dex and Ansel find a badly beaten (maybe dead) Mercury in the bushes.  Is it hooliganism or a crime unrelated to sports?

Greg Rucka is well known for his crime comics, but the soccer elements took up most of the issue for a slow start.

Helheim by Cullen Bunn & Joëlle Jones takes place somewhere up North during the Sixth Century.  A stockaded village is caught in a war between witches.  A raiding party is chased by warriors of the witch Groa who soon become the undead.  A man named Rikard keeps having visions of himself weeping tears of blood.  When the village itself is breached, Rickard is beheaded, but that’s not the end of his participation in the war.  Especially if his lover Bera has anything to say about it!

Rikard is relatively nice for a Norseman of the time, not happy about abandoning comrades or turning over loved ones to the enemy as a peace offering.  His father is made of sterner stuff, but neither of them is fully prepared for what happens next.

Kaijumax by Xander Cannon is a considerable change of pace.  The world has long been infested with monsters who ran rampant over the human civilizations.  But now the humans have developed a way to give themselves giant superpowered forms (ala Ultraman) and have been capturing the kaiju they see as criminals, placing them on an island prison.

One of the latest inmates is Electrogor, who claims to have been just out looking for food for its children.  Alas, the humans take poorly to kaiju eating their power supplies.  Electrogor knows the humans are after its children, and it appeals to E68FE3 (“Hellmoth”), a monster that’s about to be released on a technicality, to help the kids out.

E68FE3 wants a return favor though, and the resulting altercation puts Electrogor in solitary confinement.  It’s only then that a guard lets Electrogor know that the “technicality” Hellmoth was released on is that there are no living witnesses to its crimes.  Especially the children.

Despite the cartoony art and many jokes, this series is a commentary on the American prison system and the abuses rampant within it.  So Not For Children.

We finish with The Life After by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Gabo.  Jude sleepwalks through his life, every day seeming exactly like every other day.  Perhaps a little too much exactly like every other day–how many times can one woman drop her handkerchief on the bus?  But today is different.  Today, Jude picks up the handkerchief and tries to get it back to the woman.

It seems like the world is out to stop him, and it starts getting much weirder, but Jude eventually does catch up to the woman, and seemingly breaks her out of her routine as well.  This disturbs secret watchers who say that no one has escaped in two thousand years.

Shortly thereafter, Jude meets Ernest Hemingway, who believes that everyone in their city is in fact a suicide, and this is the afterlife.

Some nifty use of panels and other art tricks, reminiscent of the Franco-Belgian style.

Content note:  the woman’s flashback includes on-panel prostitution, gore and childbirth as well as suicide.

There’s a wide assortment of genres represented here, and this is a good choice to pick up if you’re unfamiliar with Oni Press and want to know which series you might like.  Based on these first issues, I’m least impressed with The Bunker which skews even more cynical than I have a taste for.

Book Review: Festival of Crime

Book Review: Festival of Crime Edited by Christine Husom, Mickie Turk & Michael Allan Mallory

Minnesotans have a reputation for being a bit mild-mannered and reserved.  But we love celebrations just as much as anyone else, and the state is filled with fairs and festivals, from small-town scarecrow contests to the crowded Pride in Minneapolis.  And sometimes crimes happen at these events.  Thus this collection from Twin Cities Sisters in Crime, a local writers group.

Festival of Crime

Most of these 19 tales are indeed crime stories, but not always murder, and a few have mystery elements.  A couple have supernatural elements, though only one has it proven.  Some merely take place at or near a festival, while others have it essential to the plot.

The collection begins with “Sawbill Checkpoint” by Michael Allan Mallory (wait, isn’t he one of the editors?)   A man is shot during a dogsled race, and his final word may be a vital clue…if only someone knew what it meant.  The last story is “All Sales Final” by Douglas Dorow.  A pair of art dealers discover a treasure trove owned by two elderly women.  Now, how to get it away from them before the old ladies figure out how much it’s worth?

Stories I enjoyed the most were “Looney Daze” by Cheryl Ullyot, in which a gambler woos a woman obsessed with wiener dog races; and “Corn on the  Cob” by Colin T. Nelson, about a sheriff faced with criminals he can’t put in jail, and an election coming up.

“No Time Like the Present” by E.B. Boatner is about a man who spots some anachronistically-dressed people, and learns their secret.  It feels a little too tidy, with a long-winded wrap-up.

Content warning:  homophobia, torture and domestic abuse come up in different stories.

The writing is decent on average, and I only spotted a couple of minor typos.   There are author bios in the back if you decide one of the stories makes you want to read more.

Recommended primarily for Minnesotan crime story fans, as they’ll be most familiar with the local color, but any fan of crime stories should be able to enjoy this.

Comic Book Review: The Fix, Volume 1: Where Beagles Dare

Comic Book Review: The Fix, Volume 1: Where Beagles Dare written by Nick Spencer, art by Steve Lieber

Disclaimer: I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

The Fix Volume One Where Beagles Dare

Roy and Mac are crooked cops in Los Angeles.  Unfortunately, they’re not very good at being crooked.  Or cops.  They’ve gotten themselves deep into debt with the Mob, and now the local crimelord wants them to do him a favor.  A large favor that’s going to take more smarts than these two have put together…and involves a beagle named Pretzels.

Of course, the actual plot is much more complicated than that, and most of this first volume of the comic book series is dedicated to setting up the many moving pieces of the story, some of which Roy and Mac have no clue about.   There’s at least one scene which makes me wonder if there’s going to be a sudden genre change in the next volume.   This does create the problem that my opinion of the series might drastically change based on how well all the pieces fit together in the back half of the story.

Roy is our narrator, a sleazy grifter who isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, and tries to project a “lovable rogue” image without being likable.  His schemes succeed less often because they’re well thought-out than that they are so stupid and audacious that people don’t realize it was an actual plan.  That, and a crooked Internal Affairs officer is covering for him.  Roy doesn’t learn from his mistakes, and operates under the assumption that everyone else is secretly just as awful as he is, but covering it up better, or stupid.

Mac is slightly more sympathetic, being the follower type–he could have developed some decency if he had a better friend than Roy.  Mac is vaguely aware that following Roy’s lead always gets them in worse trouble, but doesn’t know any other way of doing things.

I should mention that this is a comedy, with riffs on Hollywood option deals, anti-vaxxers and celebutantes, among other targets.  Most of the humor is vulgar, with body fluids, sexual references and foul language, as well as some gory violence played for laughs.  It’s got a “Mature Readers” rating for a reason.

The art is okay, but I really want to point up Ryan Hill’s coloring job as his work carries several sequences where pencils & inks just aren’t enough.

Overall?  Again, a lot will depend on the conclusion of the series and how well all the moving pieces mesh together.  I don’t really care much what happens to Roy or Mac, but at this point I do want to know what is up with Pretzels and hope he succeeds at bringing down the criminals.

Recommended to fans of the creators–others should wait until the second volume is confirmed up to snuff.

Book Review: Curiosities of Literature

Book Review: Curiosities of Literature by John Sutherland

This is a book of trivia, factoids and amusing stories about the world of literature.  The author is a professor of English literature, so he knows his stuff.  The book is organized by loose themes, beginning with food (both as featured in literature, and as eaten by authors.)  There are bits on authors’ pen names, sales figures and famous deaths.  After the index, there’s an essay on “the end of the book” where Mr. Sutherland muses whether the codex book as we know it will soon vanish, replaced by electronic media or even telepathic communication.

Curiosities of Literature

The illustrations are by Martin Rowson, who is in the old style of detailed editorial cartoons, and give a very British feel to the book.  (The words are less obvious about it.)

Being relatively widely-read, I had run across many of the factoids before, but there were some I had no idea of, or had long forgotten (like the true fate of V.C. Andrews.)  Mr. Sutherland makes no pretense of being neutral in his opinions–he’s particularly scathing about the Left Behind series.  His writing is informative and readable; it might be worthwhile to look his more serious work up.

As with many other trivia and lists books, this is less something one would buy for themselves, and more something to buy as a present for a relative who loves reading.  As such, it’s good value for money–but given that “mature themes” are discussed, I would not recommend it for readers below senior high school age.

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine July 2016

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine July 2016 edited by Janet Hutchings

Frederick Dannay, who along with Manfred B. Lee wrote the Ellery Queen mystery stories, was asked by Mercury Press to be the editor of a new magazine that would print a higher class of detective stories than the general run of pulps, with the first issue of EQMM coming out in 1941.  At first it was a reprint magazine, featuring classic tales by writers like Agatha Christie and Cornell Woolrich.  But by the seventh issue, new stories began to appear, and one, “The Bow Street Runner” by Samuel Duff, was that author’s first professional sale.

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine July 2016

Over the years, Mr. Dannay sought out new writers to appear in “The Department of First Stories”, many of whom went on to great success.  His successors have carried on that tradition, and as part of the magazine’s 75th Anniversary celebration, the July issue #898 features new stories by authors who got their start in EQMM.

“The Staff of Asclepius” by Stephen Saylor features his Roman sleuth Gordianus the Finder.  This one is set in his youth, when Gordianus and a friend were on a trip to see the Seven Wonders of the World.  They winter in Rhodes, home of the fabled Colossus.  During their enforced idleness, Gordianus learns of a shipping magnate named Rhosander who has suffered several bouts of illness, then miraculously recovered due to wacky cures he dreamed of in the temple of the healing god.  Perhaps these episodes are the symptoms of some underlying illness…but they could also be slow poison.  The illustration has male rear nudity, which is germane to the story.

“Department of First Stories: A History” by Marvin Lachman reveals the material I cited at the beginning of this review, but in much, much more detail, including a list of some of the most famous writers to debut in the magazine and their accomplishments.

“The Granite Kitchen” by David Morrell is a monologue to a real estate agent by a woman selling her home.  She’s obsessed with making her homes just so, always moving on to a bigger project once she has it right.  And either she has the unluckiest bunch of family and friends I have ever seen, or….  Chilling.

“Blog Bytes” by Bill Crider is a regular column of mystery-related internet sites; this time focusing on fans of the Ellery Queen stories.

“The Jury Box” by Steve Steinbock is a more traditional book review column.  Among other works, this month it mentions several novels starring famous writers as the detectives, including A Riot Most Uncouth by Daniel Friedman, which I reviewed a while back.

“Get Them Out” by Nancy Pickard has a homeless man kicked out of a shelter for making a disturbance.  The new janitor at an apartment building offers him a place to sleep in the basement, but his motives may not be altruistic.  Ends on an ambiguous note.

“Black Monday” by John H. Sherman is a first story.  Howard, a lab technician at a hospital, has been having problems with alcohol and painkiller addiction, and has missing time.  His dreams of swimming have gone dark, and he can’t remember what he did last night.

“The Red Tattoo” by Percy Spurlark Parker is a noirish tale featuring Las Vegas private eye Trevor Oaks.  He’s hired to find a man’s missing identical twin; the only clue is that the twin was seen in LV with a woman who had a red tattoo.

“The Hangman” by David Dean is the story of a cops-and-robbers game gone south, and the years later sequel.  Depressing.

“Flight” by Trina Corey is set in a nursing home during the Vietnam War era (I suspect to avoid easy fixes by technology.)  Rachel is crippled by multiple sclerosis, unable to speak or write.  Perhaps that’s why a murderer has taken to coming into her room at night to gloat, knowing that she can’t tell anyone.  But Rachel still has her mind, and there’s a young nurse that hasn’t lost her ability to care yet, and maybe there’s a way to stop the killer.

“The Man from Away” by Brendan DuBois takes place in New Hampshire and Boston.  People tell Amos Wilson he’s too gullible, that his estranged wife is a gold digger he’s better off without.  But when she is accidentally killed by tourists who then vanish, Amos feels obligated to do something about it.  He may be long-suffering, but he’s not stupid.  Satisfying.

“Consuming Passion” by Martin Edwards is about two old friends, one a master chef, the other a restaurant critic, having dinner together.  It does not end well.

“The Peter Rabbit Killers” by Laura Benedict closes out the issue with a little girl whose mother has an obsession with cleanliness, and a neighbor girl who is bullying and not at all clean.   Another creepy tale.

Overall, a strong issue with many fine stories.  I liked “Flight” the best, while “Black Monday” and “The Hangman” were less well done.  This issue is certainly worth picking up while the anniversary celebration is still on.

Comic Book Review: The Best of Judge Dredd

Comic Book Review: The Best of Judge Dredd edited by Tharg

It is the dark future of the 22nd Century.  Nuclear war and environmental devastation have made large portions of Earth’s surface barely inhabitable, and the majority of the remaining population is crowded into sprawling urban areas called Mega-Cities.  Overpopulation, high unemployment, and a general social despair have caused crime to skyrocket.  To combat this, most law enforcement has been turned over to an elite force of Judges, who act as police, the judicial system and the prison system all in one.  It takes a special breed of human to become a Judge, and the most legendary of these is Judge Dredd.

The Best of Judge Dredd

Judge Dredd first appeared in the second issue of the British comic weekly 2000 AD in 1977, but quickly became the magazine’s flagship character.  The strip combined dystopian science fiction with dark humor and Dirty Harry style violence.  Over the course of the first few years, the Judges went from an adjunct to the regular police force to the only viable government of Mega-City One due to repeated disasters.  As a literal police state, the Judges tackled any problem by criminalizing it, the flaws in this becoming more obvious with time.

Dredd himself is an antihero, an incorruptible man who is trying his best to make the system work, but the system is so oppressive that it crushes the people beneath it, even when properly applied.  And one of the recurring themes is that the Judge system lends itself to corruption and abuse, and fails even at its most basic purpose of reducing crime.  Judge Dredd may be fair, but he’s harsh.

The first story in this volume is the first Judge Dredd story, and contains only the seeds of these themes.  “Meet Judge Dredd” by John Wagner (writer droid) and Carlos Ezquerra  (art droid) introduces Dredd as he avenges the death of a fellow Judge.  The criminals are holed up in the old Empire State Building, now a dwarf building compared to the mile-high construction around it.  The Judges’ advanced crimefighting motorcycles and firearms are introduced, but it is the prison the head criminal Whitey is put in that shows the most imagination.  “Devil’s Island” is a traffic island, surrounded by mega-freeways constantly flowing with high-speed traffic.  There’s no wall or fence, but just try crossing to safety!

There are several fine single stories, including the first appearance of Rico, Joe Dredd’s corrupt and vengeful clone-brother.  While he dies at the end of that chapter, Rico’s legacy affects Dredd for decades.  This volume also has bits of several of the epic stories that ran for months in the strip, including the Cursed Earth saga and the Judge Child storyline.  If there is one flaw in this volume, it’s that they only have those fragments.

However, all of “America”, which was the first storyline in the Judge Dredd Megazine monthly magazine, is included, in full color.  This hits the dystopian elements hard, as the child of immigrants is named after their dream of a better life, but the America they’re thinking of is long dead, and eventually so is the title character when she tries fighting for her ideals.  The story is told from the perspective of her childhood friend, with a bizarre science fiction twist at the end.  It’s a hard-hitting story, and perhaps the best in this book.

The weakest story for me is “Mrs. Gunderson’s Big Adventure.”  A profoundly deaf and legally blind senior citizen is embroiled in the escape of a crime boss who has unfortunately for him attracted the attention of Judge Dredd.  The “humor” stems from Mrs. Gunderson being almost completely unaware of what’s going on around her due to her sensory handicaps, and swiftly grows tedious.

Also of note are the first two appearances by serial killer P.J. Maybe who is only thirteen years old at that point.  It feels like the second story was created first, and the first story written to make sure the reader realizes that Maybe is not the good guy here.  In the first story, he kills two random people and their pet vulture, just to establish that he can.  In the second, Maybe wipes out the obnoxious relatives that stand between his family and a fortune in manufacturing.  (It took a long time for Judge Dredd to figure out that there was a serial killer, let alone that P.J. Maybe was him.  Years later, Maybe was the best mayor Mega-City One ever had, while remaining a remorseless serial killer.)

In addition to the expected ultra-violence, there’s some nudity and sexual situations.

This volume is a good choice for an introduction to Judge Dredd and his setting, with a variety of his writers and artists (including Brian Bolland) represented.  Recommended to fans of dystopian science fiction and dark humor.

Book Review: Jewish Noir

Book Review: Jewish Noir edited by Kenneth Wishnia

Many of the themes of noir fiction, alienation, hostile society, darkness and bitter endings, resonate with the experience of Jewish people.  So it’s not surprising that it was easy to find submissions for an anthology of thirty-plus noir stories with Jewish themes.  (Not all of the authors are themselves Jewish; see if you can guess which ones.)

Jewish Noir

The volume opens with “Devil for a Witch” by R.S. Brenner.   A man caught embezzling for what he thinks are good causes has his death faked by the FBI so that he can go undercover in the Klu Klux Klan.  The title comes from an old saying about trading a known danger for an unknown one, and this assignment turns out to be perilous indeed.  The author bio mentions that this is an excerpt from an upcoming novel.

Most of the stories in this collection are appearing for the first time, but two are not.  “A Simke (A Celebration)” by Yente Serdatsky was first published in Yiddish in 1912, and this is its first publication in English.  It’s a melancholy tale of a woman whose refusal to conform to the social norms of Russian-Jewish immigrants made her popular in her youth, but isolates her now that she is middle-aged.  Harlan Ellison® contributes a story first published in 1960. “The Final Shtick”, about a comedian returning to the small town he had good reason to flee, and his feelings concerning this.

As one might expect, several of the stories concern Nazis, neo-Nazis and/or the Holocaust.  “Feeding the Crocodile” by Moe Prager is perhaps the strongest of these–a writer tells stories to a death camp commandant in hopes of surviving just a bit longer.  But the crocodile gets greedy.

There’s a fairly wide variety of protagonists in these stories.  Good people who do bad things, bad people who try to do good things, evil people who sink even lower, men and women, religious Jews and secular ones, Jews of different sexual orientations and skin colors.  Ethnic slurs and antisemitism are peppered throughout, and there is mention of child sexual abuse, suicide and rape.

“The Golem of Jericho” by Jonathan Santlofer is on the borderline with supernatural stories.  A bullied boy and his grandfather build a golem, which may or may not have killed the bullies; it’s certainly a mysterious coincidence.

The weakest story is “Her Daughter’s Bar Mitzvah: A Mother Talks to the Rabbi” by Adam D. Fisher which is just one long kvetch.  (My spell checker doesn’t flag that word, interesting.)  No crime, no hopeless ending, just complaining.

It should be noted here that this volume published by PM Press has no connection to the series of regional noir anthologies put out by Akashic Books despite the very similar presentation and book structure.

Most of the stories are good; recommended to noir fans who are willing to stretch their focus a little.

 

Book Review: The Silence of the Loons

Book Review: The Silence of the Loons edited by The Minnesota Crime Wave

The long-time reader may by now have realized that I have something of a weakness for anthologies.  Collections of short fiction are an excellent use of limited lunch reading time.  And I am also a faithful son of Minnesota.  So this book of short mystery genre stories hits several of my buttons.

The Silence of the Loons

Perhaps it is our long, cold, dark winters that inspire thoughts of murder and mayhem, but Minnesota has a bunch of mystery-genre writers, thirteen of whom wrote stories set in the Land of the 10,000 Lakes for this volume.  They were also instructed to choose from a short list of clues.  It will become very evident by oh say the third story which clues those are.  Some uses are quite clever, others are forced.

My favorite story is “The Gates” by Judith Guest, which isn’t really in the mystery genre as such, edging more into horror–but explaining why would spoil the surprise.

The first story in the volume is “Holiday Murder at Harmony Place” by M.D. Lake, which takes place in a senior citizen apartment building only a few blocks from where I live.  This familiarity gives it a great sense of place; the story itself is a “cozy” with a resident of the building investigating the death of a particularly obnoxious neighbor.  The detective work is clever, but fallible, appropriate for amateurs.  (A lot of the stories involve senior citizens; Minnesotans tend to live a long time.)

Finishing the book is “Jake” by Pat Dennis.  A man has quickly tired of his new bride, who is not at all as she presented herself on the internet.  He decides that murder is the best solution, but may have underestimated just how much she lied.

And ten more stories, including “Norwegian Noir” by Ellen Hart, a cautionary tale of a small town woman moving up to the big city suburbs; who can she trust?

While this book is calculated to appeal most to Minnesotans, I think it will please most mystery story fans who enjoy a little dry humor with their murder.  Consider purchasing it directly from Nodin Press.

Book Review: The Jungle

Book Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Jurgis Rudkos is a Lithuanian immigrant who has come to America with his fiancee Ona and their families to seek the good jobs advertised in his poverty-stricken homeland.  It’s tricky for people who don’t know English or the local customs to get around, but finally they make it to the Packingtown district of Chicago, and a countryman who can give them advice.  Soon, the adults of the family have jobs in the slaughterhouses and related businesses, and they move into a house together.  Times are tough, but if everyone works hard and saves their money, things will surely get better.

The Jungle

But the naive immigrants have no idea just how much worse things can get in a world where the law of the jungle prevails, and each is pitted against each.

This (in)famous novel was originally published as a serial in The Appeal to Reason and One-Hoss Philosophy, Socialist publications.  In order to get it published as a book by a major publishing house, Mr. Sinclair had to tone the story down quite a bit, and it was still considered immensely shocking.  The version I read is called “uncensored” but would more rightly be called “unexpurgated”, with the text as it was written for the serial.

An introduction by Kathleen De Grave explains what was cut for the 1906 version, and how that affects the tone of the story.  For example, it’s left in that the slaughterhouse workers spent their lunch time in saloons, but left out is the explanation that there were no other places to get food in walking distance of the plants.  If you wanted to have a warm place to eat, you must buy alcohol.

In either version, this is a depressing story.  The odds are stacked against Jurgis and his family from the very beginning, with grifters ready to swindle the immigrants any way they can, from phony officials asking for fees that don’t exist to “pesticides” that are completely inert.   One of the central heartbreaking examples is the house the immigrants “rent to buy.”  It is not at all as advertised, there are fees in the lease contract that are not disclosed until well after the family has settled in, and miss even one payment, and you are out in the street.

Which would be fine if everyone stayed in work.  But what if you get sick or injured and they fire you for missing work?  What if your boss fires you because he’s found someone who will do the job for two cents less an hour?  What if the entire factory just closes down for a month or three?  Even the relatively nice employers have no compunctions about getting rid of workers who become inconvenient.

And while the slaughterhouse scenes are as horrific as advertised, don’t think the vegetarians are going to get away unscathed.  Fruits and vegetables and milk are all adulterated, the clothing sold in the stores the poor have access to is thin shoddy (and overpriced at that!) and you can drown in the streets during the rainy season.

The misfortunes that Jurgis and the others undergo are all real, but probably happened to a half-dozen different families that Mr. Sinclair talked to while researching this book.  Here, it’s all visited on one unlucky group of immigrants, and particularly Jurgis.  The rule of thumb is that if Jurgis gets a couple of pages where things are looking up even a little, the hammer is about to come down even harder, sometimes by Jurgis’ own ill-considered actions.

While Jurgis is initially a decent man, who tries to do the right thing, by the time everyone he ever loved is dead, he is ready to chuck conventional morality.  He sinks lower and lower, becoming in turns a mugger, a political operative, and worst of all, a scab worker.

Even when the novel ends on a hopeful note, as the Socialists gain votes (for the only way the world can be saved is to smash capitalism and adopt socialism), Jurgis himself is being carted off to prison for attacking the politically protected man who raped his wife.

Yes, there’s (off-camera) rape in the story, and child abuse (by Jurgis!) and a fair amount of other things that could be triggery, even if you can keep your lunch down during the slaughterhouse scenes.  The last few chapters are nigh unreadable for the opposite reason, as they devolve into sermons (at least one literal) on the benefits of socialism.

There’s early 20th Century ethnic prejudice, racism and sexism on display; it’s up to the reader to decide how much of it is a realistic depiction of the attitudes of the times, and how much Mr. Sinclair being unable to fully rid himself of unworthy cultural blinkers.

It’s also worth considering how things have changed since this book was written, and how little things have changed.  Too many pundits and plunderers would gladly have us go back to before “onerous” government food regulations, minimum wage laws and other protections for workers.  They think that of course they would be immune to the dangers of the Jungle, but in the end, the Jungle consumes everything within it.

Book Review: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

Book Review: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

Economics can be a deadly dull subject, at least when dominated by stuffed shirts talking about trade deficits, returns on annuities or fiat currency.  But the basics of economic theory can be used to learn useful or amusing things about the world.  With a large enough set of valid data, you can tease out fascinating conclusions, such as the answer to the question “is there cheating in professional sumo wrestling?”  (Probably, or some really amazing and highly consistent coincidences.)

Freakonomics

This book, as the front cover, back cover and several pages at the front remind us, was a New York Times bestseller and all-round phenomenon back in 2005.  (I wonder if there’s some sort of data available on whether having eleven pages of praise for the book before you even get to the title page is a good investment; I skipped right over it.)  It talks about such concepts as positive and negative incentives, regression analysis and information inequality as they relate to cheating schoolteachers, crime rates, baby names and other offbeat subjects.

Perhaps the most controversial subject covered is the notion that legalized abortion led to a massive drop in crime rates in the United States.  The evidence seems sound, but as the authors remind us, the data only shows us what is there, not what should be there.  The same results might have been achievable by other, less painful means.

There are some major changes to this edition of Freakonomics; the chapter  with the story of how the Klu Klux Klan was beaten back had to be heavily revised when one of the sources was revealed to have been exaggerating his role.  There are also several newspaper articles covering subjects that only got a passing mention in the main text, plus the one that got Mr. Dubner interested in covering Mr. Levitt’s research in the first place.  The advertised “Author Q & A” is rather flippant, and more of an advertisement for their next book, Super Freakonomics.

As a semi-scholarly book, there are footnotes, and an index, as well as a list of baby names you might want to consider.

I found this an interesting book with some thought-provoking insights, though some of the conclusions seem a bit iffy.  Recommended to just about everyone, but especially those who’d like to know more about the less stuffy side of economics.

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