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 Naturalist

Book Review: The Naturalist by Darrin Lunde

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), 26th President of the United States of America, was big on nature.  Specifically, he had a strong interest in natural history, and wanted to become/be known as a naturalist.  This new biography focuses on that part of Roosevelt’s life, from his boyhood collection of stuffed birds to his African expedition for the Smithsonian Institute.

The Naturalist Theodore Roosevelt

The author is himself a museum naturalist, so the narrative is perhaps a bit biased in favor of those who go out to collect specimens for natural history museums.  Roosevelt considered himself a “hunter-naturalist”, someone who went out, observed nature carefully, then killed animals for scientific study.  Sickly as a boy, with bad asthma, Teddy had to re-invent himself several times in his youth.  He worked hard to build up his body and mind, engaging in outdoor activities and especially learning about animals in nature.  His family was involved with the founding of the New York Museum of Natural History, which gave him a head start.

Interestingly, Roosevelt’s choice to go to Harvard seems to have doomed his ambition to become a full-time naturalist–according to this book, the college’s natural history program was dominated by laboratory work, not the field expeditions Teddy favored, and he met his first wife and realized that a naturalist’s pay wasn’t going to keep them in the style they were used to.

Instead, Roosevelt studied law and got into politics, with the results I mentioned in the first paragraph.  While he certainly made some headway as President, including creating America’s first wildlife reserves and other environmentally friendly actions, Teddy chafed at not being able to hunt properly and the last months of his term were largely taken up with preparations for his African expedition.

There were many bits of knowledge in this book that I either had not known before or had long forgotten.  Theodore Roosevelt’s poor vision meant that he was a bad shot, and often had to use far more bullets to bring down specimens than was ideal (and sometimes this meant he wound up killing more animals than he wanted!)

I found the literary feud between Roosevelt (and other scientifically-oriented naturalists) and the “sentimental” nature writers as exemplified by the Reverend William J. Long interesting.  Dr. Long heavily anthropomorphized the animal behavior in his “non-fiction” stories, and often depicted events that were so unlikely that naturalists accused him of just making things up.  (Side note:  I looked up Dr. Long’s work and among other things he penned an entirely serious book on the subject of animal telepathy-not just non-verbal communication, telepathy.)  In response, Dr. Long said that President Roosevelt could only touch the hearts of animals…with bullets.

The book stops with the aftermath of the successful African expedition-the less happy Amazon expedition does not get mentioned at all.  As is common with these specialized biographies, any parts of Roosevelt’s life that did not have a bearing on natural history get short shrift, and the serious student should also read a more general biography to get a balanced picture.

A heavy emphasis is placed on how Roosevelt’s practical experience with hunting influenced his ideas on conservation.  He could see with his own eyes how over-hunting was wiping out game animal populations, even within the span of a few years.

There’s a center section with black & white photos, and a few more scattered through the book.  There are extensive end notes, a bibliography and index.  Bright senior high students should be able to handle the material and language.

I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to those interested in Theodore Roosevelt, natural history and the role of hunters in nature conservation.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through Blogging for Books for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Book Review: Chameleon 2: In Garde We Trust

Book Review: Chameleon 2: In Garde We Trust by Jerry LaPlante

One of my reading addictions as a teen was trashy series hero paperbacks.  The Executioner, the Destroyer, Nick Carter Killmaster…much like the old pulp heroes but grittier and with more sleaze.  The more successful series are still published to this day in one form or another, but there were many imitators that have sunk into the memory hole.  The Chameleon series is one of them.

Chameleon 2: In Garde We Trust

Vance Garde is a genius scientist (his primary specialty is engineering physics) who has a prosperous think tank producing inventions and innovations to improve things for humanity.  But every so often he encounters injustice, and in his rage works to destroy those evil people who are responsible.  In the first book, it had been the death of his half-sister from tainted drugs that caused him to create a new subdivision of his company, VIBES, that produces weapons for his missions of vindication.  Ably assisted by his Vice President of Operations Ballou Annis (the first book was heavy on the punny names), he wiped out the entire drug ring.

This volume opens with Vance being chased across a Montana glacier by a grizzly bear while doing metric conversions in his head.  Which is a pretty good use of in medias res.  We then flashback to him as Ms. Annis (who has a pretty vindictive streak herself) and he are interrupted during a meal by a girl in green robes who hasn’t eaten regularly in a while and is seriously glassy-eyed.  She collapses, and when taken to the hospital, swallows cyanide rather than be treated.  Her male conterpart is prevented from suicide and goes catatonic.

Vance Garde is already beginning to get angry at the cult that sponsors these green-robed fanatics, The Symbiotic Synagogue, when it becomes personal as Ballou learns her brother Adrian has joined the cult and wants his trust fund released to that organization.  The two hatch a plan to rescue Adrian by kidnapping him, but that plan goes seriously awry, leading to the situation at the beginning of the book.

Having survived that, Mr. Garde is ready to come up with a plan to crush the Symbiotic Synagogue, if he can just figure out what they’re really up to.

The Symbiotic Synagogue and its leader Father Sol Luna are obviously based on the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon, right down to the cultists being named “Lunies”, but there are also elements of the Hare Krishnas and other cults of the time.  Their mind control is more literal than in real life, though more subtle than many uses of that idea, and Vance Garde isn’t thinking clearly for a substantial piece of the story.

That serves to smooth over the fact that Mr. Garde is one of those multi-competent protagonists who is both physically and mentally superior to just about everyone in his vicinity.  He’s rather smug about it, too–so it’s amusing when he screws up.

Ballou Aniss is less likable, due to her petty yet over-engineered pranks against those who offend her.  Seriously, you do not want to get on this woman’s bad side.  She also benefits in-story from not so much being brilliant as her targets being stupid, sometimes repeatedly.

It’s interesting to look at the technology in the story as well.  Aside from the mind-control gadget and an interesting method of detecting uranium deposits, we have the hero’s computer.  It’s got a very powerful database system, and he has three people dedicated to putting in information about science and industry.  So when Vance needs information on a company he’s investigating, that’s something he can find right away.  But he’s never bothered with religion, so someone has to go out to the library to look up the cult they’re fighting.  It’s also apparently not hooked up to ARPANET.

Also, no cellphones, so our heroes hide miniature CB radios in largish tourist cameras.

As mentioned above, this is a sleazy paperback.  Two running gags are that Vance and Ballou never actually get all the way through sex (including a waterbed disaster) and a dog that’s been conditioned to poop whenever it hears a telephone ring.  The former is more amusing than the latter.

On the more serious side, there’s chastity belts with some nasty surprises built in, attempted rape, and torture (this last one by Vance, who enjoys amateur dentistry too much for this reader’s comfort.)

The writing is adequate for the kind of book this is, and often rises to the level of amusing; it would be a good disposable read for fans of sleazy Seventies paperback series.

Magazine Review: Water~Stone Review Volume 15: Dark Matter

Magazine Review: Water~Stone Review Volume 15: Dark Matter edited by Mary François Rockcastle

This literary journal is published by Hamline University in Minnesota.  The title comes from another name of the Philosopher’s Stone, the transformative agent which turned base metals into gold, in the search for true immortality, as literature turns ordinary words into art.  This issue’s theme is “dark matter” the unknown encountered and given a name by humans in an attempt to categorize it.

Water~Stone Review #15

This issue is heavy on the poetry, unfortunately, most of it is modern poetry which (as I have mentioned before) I do not have the tools to fully appreciate–I can’t even tell good modern poetry from bad.   I did like Ruth Stone’s “Train Ride” which at least has a rhyme scheme and comprehensible imagery.  Also of note is “Song for the Generations: December 26, 1862” by Gwen Westerman.  It’s about the mass hanging of Native Americans in Minnesota as a result of a rebellion, and uses a particular line structure to reflect this event.  (For more on this subject, see my review of The Thirty-Ninth Man by Dale Swanson.)  It’s also the poem in this issue that caused the most dissension in the editorial office, as different families learned different stories of the event.

One of the two book reviews covers three books of modern poetry–because of my previously-mentioned problem, it read like gibberish to me.  There’s also an interview with poet Ralph Angel, and that was mildly interesting.

The fiction and “creative non-fiction” sections are very similar, being mostly melancholy stories about relationships with parents or loved ones that stop rather than have endings.  Of the fiction, the most striking was “Missions, 1969” by Anastasia Faunce.  A little girl is used as a servant at her mother’s moon-themed party, and learns yet another lesson about the casual cruelty of adults.

From the non-fiction section, the two most interesting pieces are “Elegy for the Old NIght Sky and Other Bodies” by Katie Hae Leo, about childlessness, being an adoptee, and dark matter; and “Dust to Dust” by Amy Roper, about the author’s job cleaning fossils for a museum.

There are also visual arts, a section of photographs titled “Open. Shut. Open.”  It’s pretty random-feeling, some are in color, a few are interesting.   Lawrence Sutin contributes two “erasure pieces” in which he has taken old books and erased most of the words to create “found” poetry.  It seems like a mutilation of perfectly good books to me.

The concluding piece is another book review, three books that reflect the reviewer’s hobby of collecting other people’s home movies.

Due to my dislike of modern poetry and the generally depressing nature of most of the prose pieces, I did not get much out of this magazine, despite the above-average quality of writing.  If modern poetry is your bag, I think you’ll appreciate this much more than I did.

Book Review: Blood Aces

Book Review: Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster who Created Vegas Poker by Doug J. Swanson

Disclaimer:  I received this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway in the expectation that I would review it.  This was an Advance Uncorrected Proof copy, and there will be changes to the final product.

Blood Aces

As the subtitle indicates, this is a biography of Benny Binion, who was born in a tiny town in Texas in 1904 to a horse trader’s family, and rose through moxie, violence and crime to be a beloved fixture of Las Vegas.  Like many gangsters, Mr. Binion’s life makes for colorful reading, full of narrow escapes, famous names and death.

The picture painted of Dallas in the 1930-40s is not a flattering one.  Mr. Binion started in the numbers racket, and eventually managed to break into the lucrative and more “respectable” dice gambling world.  He was perhaps a victim of his own success.  That and somebody kept trying to kill one of his major rivals,  Herbert Noble, and everyone was pretty sure Mr. Binion was behind it.

So Benny Binion had to light out for Las Vegas, where gambling was legal and eventually became the owner of the Horseshoe casino, best known for its “no-limit” dice games.   Later he also became the founder of the World Series of Poker.

Like many gangsters, Benny Binion was a good friend to those he liked, and generous to the disadvantaged.  But get on his wrong side, and he did not stint on the anger.  As he got older,  the people of Las Vegas preferred to remember his good side.

Since Mr. Binion tended to lie a lot, and quite a few allegations were never proved, the author has had to rely on secondary and unreliable sources for much of the story.  After lighting out for Las Vegas, the only thing Mr. Binion was ever convicted on was tax evasion.  But there sure were a lot of people he didn’t like that wound up dead under suspicious circumstances.

There’s also asides on various people who also affected circumstances in Dallas or Las Vegas, such as Howard Hughes, who almost inadvertently changed the way casinos were owned just so he could hole up in his room in peace.

There are black and white photos at the beginning of the chapters, end notes sourcing the quotations, and a selected bibliography.  The index is not in the uncorrected proof, but should be in place for the final product (scheduled for August 2014.)

I did not know about most of the information in this book, particularly the bits set in Texas.  It’s a good book for true crime fans, and will have local interest for people in Las Vegas and Dallas.  it certainly makes a change from Chicago gangsters!

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