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: The Wall

Book Review: The Wall by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Marcia Lloyd is an upper-crust socialite who is not as wealthy as she used to be.  Not by any means broke, but when she comes to her summer home, Sunset, in New England, she can only afford to employ a handful of servants for a house that needs a dozen or so.  Still, Marcia is looking forward to a break from Depression-Era New York City–until she discovers that her brother Arthur’s ex-wife Juliette Ransom is in town.  The conniving Juliette insists on staying at Sunset, being rather vague about her reasons for being on the island.

The Wall

Juliette is known for her expensive tastes and fondness for playing with men’s affections, so it’s perhaps not too surprising when she goes out riding one day and never comes back.   Some time later, her corpse turns up, and it’s pretty obviously it was murder.  But who did it?  Was it Marcia, our narrator?  Arthur, who can no longer afford the ruinous alimony payments?  The mysterious painter Allen Pell, who knows Juliette from somewhere but won’t say more?  Any of the dozen or so men of “the summer people” Juliette partied with in the past. or perhaps a local?  Or a complete stranger?

Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958) was a prolific author perhaps best remembered for her mysteries; she was at one point known as “the American Agatha Christie.”  This book is an example of the “Had I But Known” school of mystery writing, where a character (usually female) has incomplete information, or fails to grasp the significance of the information she has, and makes blunders that cause the  mystery to be harder for the investigators to solve.

Marcia often mentions bits from further along in the story–“I did not know then who Juliette had seen in the town” and fails to get clues to the sheriff in a timely manner because she doesn’t realize they are clues.  In the early part of the novel, she also doesn’t reveal what she knows about the activities of her brother Arthur as she’s trying to protect him, muddying the waters.  But Marcia is scarcely the only one at fault, Arthur and several other male characters also make mistakes that tangle up the investigation to avoid scandal or pursue their own agendas.  Plus the murderer is of course not telling the police anything.

The book is very much a period piece; not just because of the vanishing way of life Marcia and the “summer people” represent, but the little cultural references.  For example, “Bank Night at the movies” is mentioned offhand.  In 1938, Ms. Rinehart’s readers would have instantly understood; nowadays most readers will need to consult Wikipedia.

One amusing bit is that the house is wired with bells to summon servants, and these keep going off at random intervals when no one’s there, despite the electrician claiming all the wires are functioning correctly.  Marcia tells us right up front that the bells have nothing to do with the mystery, and they are still unexplained at the end, even after the title of the book is finally explained.  (This part may or may not be based on something that happened at Mary Roberts Rinehart’s real-life Maine summer house.)

There’s also a romantic subplot, as Marcia develops a thing for Allen Pell, and vice-versa, despite the very real possibility that he’s a multiple murderer.

Content issues:  There’s a fair amount of classism, some period sexism, a couple of ethnic slurs and discussion of suicide.  Marcia and most of the other characters smoke heavily and drink alcohol (overuse of alcohol leading to tragedy is a plot point.)

While not Ms. Rinehart’s best known work, this is a fun read if you are willing to put up with the characters acting rather stupidly and some twists that seem to come out of nowhere.   Recommended for fans of old-fashioned mystery novels.

Book Review: Herblock’s Here and Now

Book Review: Herblock’s Here and Now by Herbert Block

Shortly after reviewing Herblock at Large, I discovered this volume in the local used book store.  It was published in 1955, and contains many of Mr. Block’s political cartoons from the early 1950s.

Herblock's Here and Now

This included his Pulitzer-winning Joseph McCarthy work; Herblock appears to have actually coined the word “McCarthyism” for the witch hunt-like anti-Communist grandstanding so popular at the time.  Mr. Block was pleased to be able to speak of the senator’s career in the past tense.

There is quite a bit more prose here than in the 1980s volume, helpful as I am less familiar with the period.  Some prominent figures who feature in multiple cartoons are lost in the mists of history now, remembered perhaps only by their hometowns.   President Eisenhower comes in for quite a bit of ribbing, but his treatment is gentle compared to that of Vice President Nixon, who is depicted as crawling out of a sewer.

The John Q. Public figure is seen quite frequently in these Fifties cartoons, a short, bespectacled fellow who is much put upon.  He seems to have vanished by the 1980s, replaced by more varied civilians.   Also a frequent visitor to the editorial page is Atomic War, a stylized atomic bomb wearing the helmet of Ares.  He’s usually grinning menacingly, always ready to threaten.

Of resonance to today’s situation are the cartoons on the refugee crisis, thousands still displaced after World War Two, and the U.S. only allowing in a trickle–and under great suspicion at that.

Copyright 1955 by Herbert Block.
Copyright 1955 by Herbert Block.

The Soviet Union was considered a huge threat, and so was covered in detail as well–but Herblock reminds us that he has no inside information, so his depictions may be highly misleading as to what was actually going on inside the U.S.S.R.  There’s also some commentary on the U.S. habit of  supporting dictators and other unpleasant people in the name of containing Communism–this would come home to roost many times in the coming decades.

There’s surprisingly little on the civil rights struggle, only mentioned as part of a broader concern for American’s freedoms under the Constitution.

This one will probably be a bit harder to find, but highly recommended for fans of editorial cartooning, and those wanting a window into the early 1950s.

Book Review: Weird Golf: 18 Tales of Fantastic, Horrific, Scientifically Impossible, and Morally Reprehensible Golf

Book Review: Weird Golf: 18 Tales of Fantastic, Horrific, Scientifically Impossible, and Morally Reprehensible Golf by Dave Donelson

Disclosure: I received this book through a Firstreads giveaway in the expectation that I would review it.

Weird Golf

To make where I’m coming from clearer, I’m not a sports fan, and in specific not a golf fan. I’ve played just enough golf to know the game doesn’t appeal to me as a player, and I don’t believe I have ever watched an entire match on TV. However, I’m a big fan of “strange sports stories” which blend a real-life sport with fantastic elements.

As you might gather, this is a single-author anthology which is exclusively about golf. Thus, the changes are rung by introducing different unusual elements, not all impossible. It’s double-spaced for easy reading.

The best single story is “Grand Slam”, where a veteran golf writer (much like the author) realizes there’s something more unusual than most about an up and coming golfer. The ending’s very predictable, but the research is good.

Mr. Donelson appears to have been his own editor/proofreader, as there are a couple of “relies on spellchecker” errors.

And then there is the story “Superhero Grudge Match”, in which Superman and Batman compete to join a pro-am golf tournament. I was very surprised to not see a fanfic disclaimer, or an indication that Mr. Donelson got permission to use the characters for his book.

It really felt like the writer hadn’t done the research on the comic book characters nearly as well as he’d researched Pebble Beach. The story references some current events that might have made the business pages, but the Batman and Robin combo used were clearly the ones from the 1960s TV series. The characterizations are closest to the Silver Age “World’s Finest” comic books, in which Superman, Batman or both suddenly start acting dickishly for reasons given at the end of the story. Except that this time they’re dickish for the sole purpose of winning a golf game.

Notably, though both heroes end up cheating during the match, neither of them uses the skills/powers that would allow them to be freakishly good at golf. As a comic book fanfic reader, I have to say it’s not very good.

I would only recommend this book to people looking for a gift their golf-mad relative probably doesn’t have already. It’s a light read, suitable for rainy days and waiting for tee times.

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