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: A Miscarriage of Justice

Book Review: A Miscarriage of Justice by Nicholas Carter

The quiet village of Tarrytown, New York (not far from Sleepy Hollow) is rocked by scandal when Bert and Adele Denore cut their honeymoon in Cuba short.  It seems someone sent poison pen letters to the hotels and casinos they had planned to visit, alleging unspeakable things about Mrs. Denore’s background.  (And you know it’s unspeakable when a Cuban casino feels obliged to ban you to protect its reputation!)

Miscarriage
No cover is available, so enjoy this vintage French image of Nick Carter.

Due to the unusual stationery the anonymous letters were written on, suspicion falls on Marjorie Ellsworth, a minister’s daughter that Bert had unsuccessfully wooed some time before.   More evidence piles up, and postal inspector Fraser thinks he’s made his case.  But Marjorie’s fiance Frank Dean is sure she’s innocent, and engages the famous detective Nick Carter.  Nick soon convinces himself that Marjorie indeed is not the author of the poison pen letters..but there’s not enough evidence to convince a jury of that–and seemingly no motive for anyone to frame her!

As mentioned in my previous Nick Carter pulp reviews, he also had a stunning career as a dime novel character, with over 1000 volumes of his adventures printed.  This one, originally published in 1914 a brought out in a “paperbound” edition in 1919, is one of them.  My copy is barely holding together, with the covers and some of the spine missing, but all the story pages are there, so I thought I’d better read it now before it disintegrates.

The story is…of its time.  Nick is easily able to discern good people from bad by their facial features (he’s a trained expert at this) and plays fast and loose with the laws of evidence.  (Some dodgy legality at a court hearing is handwaved by the judge declaring it “informal.”)  Marjorie is a “damsel in distress” who is pure and innocent as well as beautiful, and seems to have no skill set beyond being of good character.  Adele, being French, is a conniving woman of dubious character, but a much more dynamic person with considerable spine.

There’s a small amount of violence, surprisingly none of it by the hands of the hot-tempered Frank, but this is decidedly not a murder case and the villains have no wish to make it so.  There’s an unfortunate cameo by a black bellboy who speaks in heavy dialect.

Superwoman
Ad for Ainslee’s Magazine from the back of the book.

Nick could probably have solved the case much faster if he hadn’t stuck to some cultural assumptions, but evidence would still have been hard to find.

Overall, this book is a disposable, quick and enjoyable read for fans of light detective fiction.  It’s mostly valuable as a curiosity, but people who love old books should keep an eye out for other Nick Carter volumes.

Book Review: Jet Set

Book Review: Jet Set: The People, the Planes, the Glamour, and the Sex in Aviation’s Glory Years by William Stadiem

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an Advance Uncorrected Proof, and there will be considerable changes made to the final product, due to be in stores June 2014.

Jet Set

This is a chatty history of the period from 1958, the introduction of the 707 passenger jet, through approximately 1970, the heyday of fast, easy and almost affordable travel between the United States and Europe.  The book opens with an account of the Cháteau de Sully crash in 1962, the worst blow to Atlanta, Georgia’s society since General Sherman, as a 707 crashed in Paris with most of the Atlanta Art Association aboard.

But most of the book is less about the ordinary travelers of the period, or even the pilots and crew of the jets.  Instead, we get short biographies of the movers and shakers of the jet aircraft industry and airlines, the glitterati who made up the “Set” even before jets were added, and the various hoteliers, restaurateurs, movie folks and gossip columnists that gave the era much of its glamour.

It’s very much a “six degrees” book, with Celebrity A having been married to Model B, who then married Executive C, who attended parties for Movie Star D…There’s a lot of name-dropping.  Often, the narrative will flit through three or four different tangents before coming back to the story the chapter is telling.

There was an awful lot of sex going on in the Jet Set, it seems, with many of the people discussed having three or four spouses, and twice as many affairs.   Also a lot of sexism.  While there are stories of a few notable women who managed to beat the odds, becoming successful and influential in the society world, the Jet Set was not a hotbed of the Women’s Lib movement, which was going on elsewhere.

By the end of the time period discussed, a number of factors killed off the Jet Set era; skyjacking, inflation, the aging out, imprisonment or death of many playboys, and the youth movement making “cool” more important than “smooth.”  The final chapter describes the fate of many of the main people discussed.

There’s a scattering of black and white photos, and in the finished product there will be a bibliography and index.

The book’s style tends towards the gossipy, with more sober chunks interspersed.   I’d recommend it more for the casual reader who is nostalgic for the era, or would like to know what it was all about,  than the serious scholar.

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