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.

TV Review: Public Defender

TV Review: Public Defender

“If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.”  The office of the Public Defender is a special government department that  specializes in handling the cases of indigent defendants.  The first such office was opened in Los Angeles in about 1914.

Public Defender

This series, which aired in 1954-55, was intended to raise awareness of the work of public defenders, who at the time were relatively few in number and were primarily used for cases where the death penalty was possible.   The stories were purportedly based on actual cases, but several of the episodes just say that all the characters are fictional.  Reed Hadley played Public Defender Bart Matthews, who narrated each episode, but was not always the focus character.  Each episode ends with a tribute to a real life public defender

I watched four episodes on DVD.

  • “Badge of Honor”  We open at the funeral of a police officer. Mr. Matthews recalls the decedent, a rookie cop who makes a mistake during an arrest, then tries to cover it up with a falsified arrest report.  His conscience bothers him, and he confesses to Mr. Matthews, who must find a way to see justice is done, but not cost the policeman his job.  At the end, we find out that the cop died a hero years later, having served with honor since that one mistake.
  • “Let Justice Be Done”  The focus this time is on a deputy public defender who must defend a cop-killer.  But not just any cop-killer, but the one who killed his best friend.  In real life, the attorney would be allowed/expected to recuse himself due to this conflict of interest.  But for the sake of the story, Mr. Matthews deliberately assigns him the case as some sort of lesson in justice.
  • “Eight Out of One Hundred”  A young Polish immigrant is accused of stealing jewelry from her mother’s employer.  Mr. Matthews’ investigation is hindered by the police department being sore at him for giving a speech in which he pointed out that his office gets acquittals for about eight percent of their clients.  This case is one of those eight, as the employer was hitting on the woman, and she refused him.  He was also engaged in wage theft, supposedly paying the mother a living wage, but using various fees and charges to claw back 70% of it.  To add insult to injury, he’s also fond of misquoting the Bible.
  • “Behind Bars”  It’s discovered that a woman in prison is there under an assumed name, which she used to avoid bringing trouble to her ex-husband and their daughter.  A witness claimed she’d murdered her landlady in a fit of alcoholic rage.  When the defender tracks down the ex, he reveals that the woman was not a violent drunk, but an extremely timid one.  It’s soon discovered that there were other important details that hadn’t come out at the trial, such as that the landlady was already dying, and the witness had a grudge, as he’d tried to force himself on the defendant.

The writing is decent, but too earnest for modern tastes; the scripts do backflips to avoid criticizing the police or the justice system.  I enjoyed “Eight Out of One Hundred” the best.  Be aware that 1950s attitudes are rife in this show, from the frequent smoking to the expected gender roles.

Book Review: Good Advice from Bad People

Book Review: Good Advice from Bad People: Selected Wisdom from Murderers, Stock Swindlers and Lance Armstrong by Zac Bissonnette

Disclaimer:  I received this book from a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Good Advice from Bad People

People love to give advice.  Maxims, moral pronouncements, proverbs and detailed instructions on how other people should live their lives drop from people’s lips like pearls and diamonds (or toads and snakes, if we don’t like the advice.)  Some folks even make a living out of it!

But often what advisers do is not what they say to do.  This is a collection of advice snippets from famous people that for the most part didn’t follow their own sayings.   Some are presumably good people who cracked under pressure, others are hypocrites who have a higher standards for others than themselves, and not a few are just plain con artists who used pious phrases while not meaning a word of it.

The people cited in this short volume are mostly contemporary, with a few dips back as far as the Vietnam era.  They’re overwhelmingly male, something the author talks about a bit, but from across the political spectrum.  The quotations are selected to either be the opposite of what they did in real life, or to have an ironic twist of phrase.

Most of the names will be familiar to anyone who’s paid attention in the last twenty years (Bernie Madoff, for example), but others may surprise you, or even be someone you once respected.  The closing has a list of signs that a person might soon be joining the ranks of exposed hypocrites.

There are a number of black and white photographs, and a small bibliography of works the author has mined the quotes from.

As a humor book, it would make a good gift for people who enjoy self-help books and people who favor schadenfreude.

“But where can wisdom be found?
Where does understanding dwell?
No mortal comprehends its worth;
it cannot be found in the land of the living.”–
Job 28:12-13

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