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.

Manga Review: Nisekoi

Manga Review: Nisekoi by Naoshi Komi

Raku Ichijo is a mild-mannered teenager who just happens to be the heir-apparent to the Shuei-Gumi Yakuza clan.  He wants nothing to do with this, intending to become a strait-laced civil servant when he grows up.  Raku also dreams of romance.  He has a lock pendant from ten years ago, that he promised to keep so a girl could unlock it with her key and they would get married.  Unfortunately, he no longer remembers the girl’s name or appearance.  But he wouldn’t mind if she was his current crush, Kosaki Onodera, who is sweet and shy.

Nisekoi Volume 1

However, another girl comes crashing into Raku’s life, knee to face first.  She’s Chitoge Kirisaki, a boisterous, half-American girl who’s very pretty and athletic, but sorely lacking in proper deportment.  Raku and Chitoge get on like mongoose and viper, each seeing the other as the source of problems.  (Most notably, Chitoge accidentally caused Raku’s pendant to go missing.)  Over the next couple of weeks, being constantly thrown together allows them to learn each other’s bad points and some of their good, but at last it looks like they’ve reached a truce.

It’s at this point that Raku’s father announces that in order to make a truce with the new criminal organization in the city, the Beehive Gang, Raku must enter into a false relationship (the nisekoi of the title) with the daughter of that gang’s leader.  Who is, of course, Chitoge.  In order to keep peace between the gangs, they must pretend to be lovey-dovey, while in reality they drive each other up the wall!

Legend has it that Komi’s previous series, Double Arts, was innovative and took some creative risks, but struggled to find an audience and was cut short.  So he deliberately made this romantic comedy series as cliched as possible, but as well-written as he could manage to capture sales and series longevity.  And yes, many elements of the series are very predictable.  Of course Onodera secretly has a crush on Raku she’s too shy to ever act on.   Of course Raku and Chitoge find themselves growing closer even as they valiantly struggle against such feelings.  Of course new wacky characters appear to cause more complications in their lives as the circumstances force them into sitcom antics.

Most of the time, it’s done quite well, and is enjoyably readable.  There’s just enough of a twist at times to keep it from being completely obvious, and most of the characters are kind of likable when they aren’t being sitcom stupid.

Like many Shounen Jump series, there was a long period in the middle where the manga seemed to be spinning its wheels, doing fun stories, but no real plot advancement.  Then about a year real time before the series ended, Komi started resolving plot points one after another, devoting arcs to clearing away the complications that prevented the central relationship from advancing.  The ending, while also in its way cliched, was very satisfying.

There’s also an anime adaptation of the early part of the manga.

I have the first volume to hand.  After the initial set-up, Raku and Chitoge are forced to go on their first (fake) date, which is something of a disaster, especially when Onodera stumbles on them together, and is convinced the relationship is real.  There’s also the reveal that Onodera wears a key pendant that looks like it might fit Raku’s lock pendant.  Could she be the promise girl?

This is followed by the entire school finding out about the (fake) relationship, so Raku and Chitoge can’t even let their guard down there.  The final chapter in the volume reveals that neither Chitoge nor Onodera can cook, good thing Raku can!  The main menace in this volume is Claude, security chief for the Beehive gang.  He’s pretty sure the relationship is fake, and keeps spying on the couple.  (He fades into the background a bit in later volumes when his teen protege Tsugumi is introduced as Chitoge’s bodyguard.)

The series is fanservice-light, with slapstick violence, so should be suitable for junior high readers up.  Recommended primarily for teens, as older readers may find all the cliches a bit much.

Manga Review: So Cute It Hurts!! Volume 4

Manga Review: So Cute It Hurts!! Volume 4 by Go Ikeyamada

Quick recap:  Meguru and Mitsuru Kobayashi are fraternal twins who look a lot alike.  Due to a zany scheme, they switched uniforms and went to each other’s school for a week.  While there, each fell in love with a student at their sibling’s school, complicated by the fact of the disguises.  Now the week is over, but the romantic comedy is just starting!

So Cute It Hurts!! 4

In this volume, the Kobayashi twins go on first dates.  Meguru is out with the dashing Aoi Sanada, a tough but gentle lad who reminds her of famous Japanese warlord Date Masamune.  They get along quite well, despite Aoi being afflicted with anxiety attacks whenever a woman (including Meguru and his half-sister Shino Takenaka) gets too close.  So they can spend time together, but not touch.

Meanwhile, Mitsuru finds himself spending the day with “mean girl” Azusa Tokugawa rather than the lovely Shino.  She blackmailed him into a day with her in exchange for not revealing his crossdressing adventure, but Mitsuru didn’t understand what she meant and showed up in kendo dueling gear, while she’s in Gothic Lolita finery.  Onlookers assume it’s some sort of cosplay date.   Azusa is confused by her own feelings, alternating between anger at this stupid boy and being charmed by his good points.

But drama lurks in the wings.  Aoi’s trauma runs deeper than he’s been letting on, and Mitsuru may have waited too long to reveal his true identity to Shino.

Again, this is an adorable series with innocent feelings, and some amusing reaction faces, particularly from Azusa.  The crossdressing is mostly over, confined to an extended flashback.

Abuse in Aoi’s backstory is hinted at, and Azusa’s bullying is mentioned.  There’s also some brief non-graphic violence.  But in general, this is safe for its target audience of junior high readers.

If you liked the previous volumes, this one is also good.

 

Comic Book Review: Vertigo CYMK

Comic Book Review: Vertigo CYMK edited by Scott Nybakken

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

Vertigo CMYK

I don’t talk a lot about colorists.  In most comics, they’re not noticed unless they really screw up, or there’s a particularly striking image.  But they are an essential part of the color comics creation process.  It’s the colorist who makes sure that the characters have the same color clothing and hair from panel to panel and page to page.  The colorist has to choose appropriate background colors that will complement the foreground without hurting the eyes, and create mood with appropriate shades for the circumstances.  It’s a difficult job and one that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

The reason I bring this up is because this anthology comic book is all about color.  It’s named after Cyan/Magenta/Yellow/blacK, the four inks used in tiny dots to create all the colors in the “four color” printing process that allowed color to work on cheap newsprint paper.  For many years it was used both for the Sunday comics and comic books.  The latter are printed on fancier paper now, allowing for more shades and variations, but “four-color” is a history that all comics creators know.  This was originally a four-issue series with each color getting a focus.

The Cyan section leads off with “Serial Artist” by Shaun Simon (writer), Tony Akins (artist) and Andrew Dalhouse (colorist.)  A struggling musician falls in love with a girl he finds “tagging” a building.  When he inherited a funeral parlor, he feels obligated to make a go of that instead.  His girlfriend has an idea for bringing in some business…he really should have asked more questions about that building she was putting graffiti on.

Many of the pieces aren’t full stories, but mood pieces or story fragments.

One of my favorites is “Adrift” by Jody Houser (writer)  and Nathan Fox (artist who did his own colors.)   A bereaved girl has a conversation with her little sister’s “Barbara Jean” doll while they wait for her grandmother’s funeral.  The doll’s garish magenta clashes with the gray tones around her in a way that emphasizes she’s not of this world.

The Black section tends towards…well, darker pieces, but a couple of them play against this expectation.  “Super Blackout” by Gene Luen Yang (writer) and Sonny Liew (art & colors) is about an app that allows you to erase photos on your smartphone–but that’s not its true purpose.  There’s some effective use of app icons to carry the story with a minimum of dialogue.

Each section ends with a story by Fabio Moon, who does all the chores himself.  They form a connected narrative about a vase artisan and his friend who lose one gallery and go in search of another.  The artisan is able to see this loss as an opportunity and sees hope in the future.

While some of the pieces are weaker than others, it’s a beautiful assortment.  I should mention that this is a Vertigo “mature readers” title, so there is some violence and nudity, as well as rough language.  There are stories that involve suicide and rape, both off-page.  (It doesn’t wallow in it like some other Vertigo series have, however.)

I’d recommend this book especially to art students to see how different colorists work with artists and writers to enhance the stories.

Book Review: Slow Dancing Through Time

Book Review: Slow Dancing Through Time by Gardner Dozois in collaboration with Jack Dann, Michael Swanwick, Susan Casper and/or Jack C Haldeman II.

The art of collaboration is an interesting one; two authors (rarely three) blending their skills to create a story neither could produce individually.  Ideally, the reader should be able to see the fingerprints of the collaborators, but not the seams between them.  Gardner Dozois wrote a number of fine collaborations in the 1970s and 80s, before taking on a full-time job as editor for Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.

Slow Dancing through Time

This volume reprints fourteen of those stories, along with essays by the collaborators on the collaboration process, and afterwords for each story written by Mr. Dozois.  (It also has a list of his other collaborations if you want to hunt them down.)  The stories cover science fiction, fantasy and horror, with a couple of them on the edge between genres.

The first story is “Touring” (with Jack Dann & Michael Swanwick), in which Buddy Holly gets a chance to perform with Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin.  It’s a Twilight Zone type story, although the language is saltier than Rod Serling would ever have been allowed to air.  The book ends with “Down Among the Dead Men” (with Jack Dann), a chilling tale of a vampire trapped in a Nazi concentration camp.  It was quite controversial at the time, and still packs a punch, despite where the horror genre went during the Nineties.

Standouts include  “A Change in the Weather” (with Jack Dann), a bit of fluff about dinosaurs that hinges on the last line (and provided the endpaper illustration), “Time Bride” (with Jack Dann) about the use of time travel to emotionally abuse a girl (and with a downer ending as the cycle continues), and “The Clowns” (with Susan Casper & Jack Dann), another chiller featuring a little boy who sees clowns that no one else can.

Some of these stories may be hard to find elsewhere, such as “Snow Job” (wth Michael Swanwick.)   This tale of a con artist and a time-traveling cocaine addict first appeared in High Times, which can be difficult to find back issues of.

Overall, the quality of the stories is good, but budding writers may find the essays on collaboration more useful to them.  Recommended to speculative fiction fans.

Comic Strip Review: Still Pumped from Using the Mouse

Comic Strip Review: Still Pumped from Using the Mouse by Scott Adams

Dilbert is an engineer who works for a poorly-managed mid-size corporation.  His co-workers are hostile, his boss is pointy-haired, and Dilbert himself is less than competent with anything other than engineering.  Such as dating.

Still Pumped from Using the Mouse

The Dilbert gag-a-day comic strip has been running since 1989; this collection is of strips from 1992-1993.  While details of corporate culture have changed (one set of strips has Dilbert carrying a plethora of electronic devices that would now all be contained in his smartphone), much of its office-based humor is still relevant.  And funny.

Perhaps the most evocative sequence is a little girl named Noriko discovering how badly adults have messed up the world, and so her generation will have to spend most of their time working to fix the damage.  If Dilbert ran in real time, Noriko would be one of the Generation Y workers desperately trying to stay afloat now.

Noriko rebels against the system. Art by Scott Adams
Noriko rebels against the system.
Art by Scott Adams

The art is…adequate; it’s easy to tell most of the named characters apart.  The strength is in the gags.  There’s a fair amount of sexism by Dilbert and his male co-workers; it can be difficult to tell how much of that is them being jerks, and how much the author’s now-outdated attitudes.  (Women are still under-represented in the engineering field, but not as badly as they used to be.)

Unsurprisingly, I found this volume in the lunchroom reading shelf at work, to which it will return so that others may enjoy it.  It’s certainly aged better than many of the trendy management fad books of the same era!

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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