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.

Comic Book Review: Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

Comic Book Review: Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman edited by Gary Groth

In later years, Harvey Kurtzman was better known  for his humor work, among other things being the first editor of MAD.  But while he worked at EC Comics in the early Fifties, Mr. Kurtzman was also known for some very impressive tales of action and warfare in Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat.  He was a pioneer in the area of more “realistic” war comics, ones that didn’t treat the enemy as subhuman or inherently evil.

Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

This book reprints many of those stories, divided into two sections, those Mr. Kurtzman illustrated himself, and those done by other artists from his layouts.  (He was notoriously unhappy when those artists deviated from his vision, and as he was also the editor of the books, those artists usually didn’t get invited to work with him again.)

The volume opens with “Conquest!”, a story set during Spain’s expansion of its empire into Central and South America.  Captain Juan Alvarado and his conquistadors initially have great success against their under-gunned native opponents, but their lust for gold undoes them.

The final story (with art by Reed Crandall) is “Memphis!” about a battle between Union and Confederate gunships on the Mississippi River during the Civil War.  The enthusiasm of the spectators, especially the children, is contrasted to the horrific cost of the battle.

The Korean War was going on during the run of these comic books, and the majority of the stories concern that conflict.  Several of these are top-rate.  “Rubble!” is about a Korean farmer building a doomed house, with step-by-step coverage of the hard labor he puts in–the art in some panels reminds me of WPA heroic friezes.  “Air Burst!” is the tale of a Chinese mortar squad as they try to survive a UN attack, their numbers dwindling.  “Corpse on the Imjin!”  was one of Mr. Kurtzman’s favorites, about two soldiers fighting to the death near the title river, with narration that’s deliberately poetic.  And “Big ‘If’!” is a meditation on the randomness of death that focuses on one soldier considering the choices that have led him to this place, sitting facing five “devil sticks.”

Some of the stories are not quite as good–“Contact!” about a U.S. patrol looking for the North Koreans and finding them ends with a patriotic speech straight out of Hollywood propaganda.  And “Bunker!” (art by Ric Estrada) about two disparate units trying to take a heavily-defended hill, has some unfortunate exaggerated features on the black soldiers that would not fly today, despite the well-meant message of the story.  But overall, most of the stories are solid to excellent.

The stories are reprinted in black and white, which favors the strong inking skills of Mr. Kurtzman, but there is also a color cover gallery that shows off his sense of color design and the work of Marie Severin as a colorist.

The volume is completed with several essays about Mr. Kurtzman’s work and EC Comics in general.

While the violence level is high as you might expect from war stories, these tales don’t lean on the gore as some of EC’s horror titles did–even visible blood is rare.

Highly recommended to EC fans, war comics buffs and those studying the Korean War and how it was seen at the time.

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 Blue Fairy Book

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang

Once upon a time, (1889 to be specific), British children did not have access to collections of fairy tales.  Educators of the time thought fairy tales were too unrealistic and harmful to children, and beneath adults.  Mr. Lang felt differently; he had delighted in such tales when young, and the Grimm Brothers had done quite well with their books.  He selected stories from many countries, and his wife and other translators brought the foreign ones into English for the first time.

The Colour Fairy Book series was a huge hit, running twelve volumes (finishing with The Lilac Fairy Book in 1910.  But since the Blue book was the first, it’s been the most reprinted (and the one I review here is the 2012 Barnes & Noble edition.)

The Blue Fairy Book

The first thing I was reminded of was how random fairy tales seem at times.  Our hero or heroine will be walking along to get to the main plot, but there is suddenly a glass mountain in the way, and it’s time to work for a blacksmith for seven years to earn iron shoes.  Or a wish will be made for a ship that has St. Nicholas at the helm.

The stories have been bowdlerized (edited to be “safe for children”) which seems to do little to tone down the violence, but I note a couple of stories where a man comes to a woman’s bed and promptly falls asleep there…suspicious.  Other stories seem to have the numbers filed off–“The Terrible Head” is the story of Perseus without any of the names.

I also notice a strong theme of materialism.  Humble and giving though many of the good characters are, there’s a lot of attention paid to sacks of gold, diamond-encrusted dresses, houses with so many rooms you could not visit them in a year, and exotic, fabulous food.   I was surprised when Aladdin used his genie sensibly for a quiet steady lifestyle for several years (until he falls in love with the princess, at which point it’s time to pour on the wealth.)

But still, some classic tales, others that I don’t recall reading before, and well worth looking into.  There are even a couple with active heroines; “The Master-Maid” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” (Morgiana is the real hero of the story.)

While the Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome, sturdy cover and overall good presentation, it leaves out several stories from the original, and more importantly, Mr. Lang’s introduction.  If you’re mostly interested in reading the stories for yourself, it may be best to download it from Project Gutenberg to get the full text.  The physical copy would do very nicely as a gift for a child with strong reading skills, or a parent looking for old-fashioned bedtime fare.  To that end, I should mention that two of the stories are in Scots dialect, and you should probably rehearse before reading those to your children.

Book Review: Temporary Walls

Book Review: Temporary Walls edited by Greg Ketter and Robert T. Garcia

This short book of fantasy stories was inspired by John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction, in which the author argued that writing fiction is an inherently moral endeavor and that writers, especially those in the fantasy genre, should instruct their readers about “the morality that tends to work for all people throughout the ages.”  Art, for him, built temporary walls against the dissolution of what makes us not corpses.  And so, six short tales that involve ethics and morality.

Temporary Walls

“High Ground” by Kathe Koja and Barry N. Malzberg starts off the volume with a murky tale in which a motley group of stock fantasy characters discuss ethical dilemmas in the forest of inconsequence.  They do not reach a conclusion; the point perhaps being that there is no conclusion to reach.  I will say, however, that the first scenario discussed is one of those forced “no-win” scenarios so beloved of philosophy professors and villains, and loathed by most audiences.

“Dream Harder, Dream True” by Charles de Lint is more optimistic.  A young man finds a woman hiding by the back steps of his apartment building and takes her in, because helping is what you do.  And in return, she teaches him much more about stories and dreams than he ever imagined.

“Dateline: Colonus” by John M. Ford is a retelling of the death of Oedipus in modern dress, from the perspective of a reporter who is traveling with the family.  Can good come from an evil life?

“Woman with Child” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is about a woman who is cursed (literally) with an unwanted child.  She would do nearly anything to be rid of it, but there are still regrets.

“Choices” by Mary Frances Zambreno features another woman, but she is uncertain if she wants the child she bears.  That is why she has come to a witch for a divination.  One kind of child will bring more vengeance, another temporary peace.  Once she knows, what choice will she make?

“The Stranger” by Patricia A. McKillip is a meeting between two weavers, one of cloth, and the other of skyfire.  If you know that the art you make is harmful, but you have no passion but that art, what are you to do?  Is beauty worth any price?

I like the de Lint and Rusch stories best, I think.

This book was a souvenir of the 1993 World Fantasy Convention held in Minneapolis, Minnesota and not sold in any store.  Thus it may be a little  hard to find a copy.  However, it’s quite possible to track down the individual writers’ stories in anthologies of their own work.

Manga Review: Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit

Manga Review: Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit by Motoro Mase

In an alternate-history Japan, the government immunizes all children as they enter first grade.  But one in every thousand injection also contains a nanocapsule that lodges in the child’s heart.  and somewhere between age 18 and 24, will activate and stop that heart.  There’s a triple-blind system in place to prevent anyone from knowing just which injections contain the lethal capsules.

Ikigami

But just before the capsule is due to detonate, the name of the person is revealed to a government agency that delivers death notices known as ikigami to the victim twenty-four hours in advance.  One such deliveryman is a bureaucrat named Kengo Fujimoto.

The frame story follows Fujimoto as he joins the Ministry, gets his basic training, and delivers the ikigami.   He’s a bland character, which is deliberate.  He’s drifted through his early life without any particular direction, and wound up in this job more or less through inertia.  Each volume covers two deliveries.

This is where most of the action is, as the actual stories are asking the question, “What would you do if you only have twenty-four hours to live?”  The answers are as different as the victims, who range from brilliant creative types who had their whole future ahead of them through average kids to criminals with nothing left to lose.  There is, of course, a part of the law that punishes your family if you take the opportunity to go on a crime spree, but not everyone is deterred by that.

In the volume at hand, #9, the cases are:

“National Welfare Immunization”  A young woman who became a nurse specializing in neonatal care because she was born prematurely and had to struggle for life, discovers that she is one of the Chosen.  She infiltrates a school where the children are being immunized, and takes one hostage so she can confront their parents about the unfairness of the system.  The doctor doing the immunizations is dealing with his own guilt, as he had personally injected one of the Chosen at the beginning of his career and was his personal physician for years.  Can the situation be defused with only one death?

“Two Fallen In War”  Many years ago, two men met in World War Two, and a series of incidents bound them together.  Now, are those same circumstances repeating with their grandsons?  Questions of fate and intention intertwine.   Surprisingly, incontinence is a key point.

In the frame story, war threatens, and the Thought Bureau is finally concluding their investigation.  Fujimoto must finally confront his misgivings about the National Prosperity Law and the injustice inherent in the system.  He makes a decision, but what will that decision be?

One of the  interesting aspects of the series is that other than the dystopian aspects, the alternate Japan’s culture is virtually identical to our world’s, with the same social ills and crime rate.   In other words, the supposed benefits of the ikigami system are in fact pointless.

This series is marketed to the seinen (young men) demographic in Japan and has some intense violent scenes and generally mature readers subject matter.  One chapter contains an attempted rape.  Parents should heed the “mature readers” label.

Many of the cases presented are tear-jerkers, and intensely dramatic.  The art style is suited for the subject matter.  The final volume is due out in August 2014, but tentatively I recommend this series for fans of dramatic fiction.

Anime Review: Magi: The Kingdom of Magic

Anime Review: Magi: The Kingdom of Magic

This is the sequel to last year’s Magi: The Magical Labyrinth so please see my review of that show, and the Magi manga if you don’t want to be spoiled for those.

Magi: The Kingdom of Magic

After defeating another dungeon, our heroes are in high spirits.  But soon new matters come up.  Prince Hakuryu must return to his homeland of Kou (basically dynastic China) as his father is dying.  Alibaba decides that he needs instruction in combining his swordsmanship with his djinn powers in Leam (roughly Imperial Rome.)  Morgiana wants to visit the place her tribe came from, even though no one lives there any more.  And Aladdin?  Well, he wants more magic training, so he’ll go undercover as a student to the land of Magnostadt, the only kingdom where wizards rule.

After some adventures getting to the continent where all these places are, the main characters split up, having separate adventures.  We mostly follow Aladdin, who may have great power as a magi, but needs much more training for finesse and versatility.  Magnostadt is a great place for wizards, but there are some strange things that don’t quite fit the outward image, and the city has a terrible cost for its power.  Also, one of Aladdin’s fellow students has a secret that could lead to global war–if El-Sarmen doesn’t bring about the end of the world first!

The most interesting new character in this storyline is Mogamett, leader of Magnostadt.  He clearly wants to be the Professor X of wizards, but has fallen into Magneto territory instead.   The contrast between his kindly demeanor and his cruel acts stuns Aladdin, and me as well.

The biggest weakness of this season is the absence of Morgiana through most of it.  Her quest is left hanging about halfway through, then we don’t see her until  the penultimate episode, when she shows up out of the blue with a new power.  At least Alibaba got to show up a few episodes earlier for some character development.

The manga is not yet complete, so the series ends on a sequel hook in case it gets renewed for another season.

Aladdin continues his obsession with breasts, and the script obliges him every so often.  On the good side, we get a bit more skin tone variation.

If you liked the first season, you should enjoy this one too.

Anime Review: Magi – Labyrinth of Magic

Anime Review: Magi – Labyrinth of Magic

Based on the manga by Shinobu Ohtaka, Magi is a 24-episode anime series currently streaming subtitled on the Crunchyroll website.  It’s set in an Arabian Nights-influenced world with djinn and other trappings of the genre.  Young Aladdin was raised in an isolated temple with no human contact for as long as he can remember, and is thus new to the outside world.  Good thing he has a big blue genie to help him out!

magi

In the first episode, Aladdin meets up with Ali Baba, a drifter who dreams of conquering the local “dungeon” (a mysteriously appearing building filled with traps and monsters) as it’s said anyone who survives a dungeon will gain great wealth and cool magic items.  Soon, the pair is exploring the dungeon.  But they’re not the only ones.  The local lord (who’s cruel and a little crazy) and his slaves battle Ali Baba and Aladdin.  One of the slaves, Morgiana, survives and becomes free, later joining our heroes on their adventures.

After some individual adventures, the trio reunites in Ali Baba’s hometown and the main plot kicks in.  The government has become corrupt and someone’s manipulating both it and the rebels to assure that the country is thrown into chaos.

Good points:  There’s plenty of cool fight scenes, the dungeons are inventive and there’s a nice variety of characters on the good guy side.  Sinbad, sailor of the Seven Seas, is particularly nifty.  Morgiana doesn’t get stuck with a cheerleader or damsel in distress role.

Not so good stuff:  For a series taking place in a hot desert area and the main characters spending most of their time outside in the sun, the character designs are suspiciously light-skinned.  Morgiana’s lack of agency in the early episodes may be off-putting for some viewers, we don’t get to see her real personality until episode 6, after which it never goes away again and she has full agency.  (But be aware that episode 6 might be triggery for some viewers for abuse in her backstory.)

Also, most of the bad guys are kind of cardboardy, committing evil acts because, well, they’re evil.  The big exception here is Cassim, Ali Baba’s blood brother.  While he is by no measure a good person, his motivations make sense given his background and circumstances.

Fate is a big theme in the series.  It’s explained that destiny is the force moving events in the direction of a better tomorrow.  But it’s a general trend, and many of the characters suffer great injustice and pain in the process.  The secretive organization Al-Sarmen seeks out these people to empower them to curse their fate and “reverse the flow of destiny.”   However, they have no interest in easing suffering or increasing justice, they just want to return the world to formless chaos.  For some reason.

Overall, the series (which has a hasty conclusion; the manga continues) was enjoyable to watch.  Some of its issues might make it less watchable for certain viewers.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...