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: Justicariat

Book Review: Justicariat by Nathan Bolduc

In an alternate history, the newly-formed United Nations created an extra-national force called the Justicariat.  Its members, the Justicars, hunt down and kill those they believe to be criminals, not bound by any authority or law higher than themselves.  They have absolute immunity from local laws or regulations, though many will cooperate with/commandeer local law enforcement when it is convenient for them.

Justicariat

Two North American Justicars, Brian Galan and Noriko Tachibana, are assigned to a multi-jurisdiction operation when it’s learned an international syndicate has acquired what appears to be a doomsday weapon.   Shortly after they arrive on the remote island, the mission goes south, and it’s unclear just how many enemies the Justicars actually have.

In the early part of the novel, we see both Justicar Galan and Justicar Tachibana on more typical operations, Galan tracking down a cop killer in Detroit, and Tachibana dealing with a mob boss in Las Vegas.  Both of these end with considerable collateral deaths, although only Tachibana receives a mild reprimand; Galan faces no repercussions for straight up murdering a police officer for daring to punch him.  We are assured that the Justicars themselves deal with Justicars who have gone wrong.

I’d expect there to be more suspicion of the Justicariat among the general population, but they seem to be generally admired, and the problem of potential corruption from their legal immunity is handwaved with intensive and selective training.

This is closest to the “military SF” subgenre, I think, with lots of loving description of weapons, emphasis on tactics, and stuff blowing up.  There’s lots of action in here, with a climax out of a James Bond movie.

Sadly, little is done with the alternate history aspect of the story–there do seem to be more serial killers and terrorists than in our timeline, or perhaps the regular governments have left them to be taken care of by the Justicars since they don’t have to care about human rights or actual proof.  I was reminded of Judge Dredd and how it’s made clear in that series that the Judges are part of the problem as well as the makeshift solution.

Torture is indulged in by both villains and nominal good guys, and rape is mentioned but does not happen on screen.  Several people die in horrible ways beyond just violence.   It’s mentioned more than once that mercy is a weakness, and forcibly demonstrated.

To be honest, the Justicariat creeps me out, so I wasn’t as sympathetic to the main characters as I suspect I was supposed to be.  It’s a battle of very dark grey vs. absolute black.

From  a writing aspect, there are multiple viewpoints (none from the bad guy side), and there’s a fair amount of redundancy between the characters’ accounts and dwelling on minutia–I think this novel could have been a good ten percent shorter with nothing of importance lost.

Still, if you are looking for science fiction action starring people who don’t have to deal with pettifogging regulations when  they eliminate criminal scum, you could do worse.  The end has a strong sequel hook, and that book is in the works.

TV Review: The Man Behind the Badge

TV Review: The Man Behind the Badge

It’s back to the big box set of old TV shows with this anthology series that ran 1953-55, with Charles Bickford as the host.  This one is interesting because it didn’t concentrate on one law enforcement agency or type of crime, instead featuring public servants of all kinds.

The Man Behind the Badge

The stories are based on actual events, with all names except that of the civil servant himself changed to protect the innocent.  My DVD had six episodes:

  • “The Case of the Dying Past”  A district attorney for a small city in Vermont receives anonymous complaints that a harness shop owner is engaging in loan sharking.   When he investigates, the shop owner engages in a rant about how people these days don’t appreciate hard work and craftsmanship, like this here horsewhip.  They’re lazy whiners who want handouts.  Not that he’s admitting to the loan sharking.  Before the DA can find enough evidence to move ahead, the loan shark is murdered and the DA must solve the crime.  Notable for the first suspect telling what appears to be a cock and bull story, but is actually true.
  • “The Case of the Priceless Passport”  Foreign nationals have been entering the United States with really good fake American passports.  Two men from the immigration service go undercover in Mexico to track down the forgers.  Some tense scenes in an abandoned warehouse, and particularly good performances by the villains’ actors.   An interesting time capsule from when Mexicans weren’t the people we were worried about coming in from Mexico.
  • “The Case of the Capital Crime”  Security guards at a department store in Washington, D.C. are murdered during a robbery.  The police detective assigned to the case is able to determine the killer must have worked at the store within the last six months and be over six feet tall.   That narrows the list of suspects considerably, but actually catching the killer is another matter.  The case is resolved when an act of kindness by the detective has an unexpected dividend.
  • “The Case of the Hot Stock”  A man from the Bureau of Securities based in Lincoln, Nebraska, tracks down a conman who selling fake oil well ownership certificates.  This one was very painful to watch, as most of the episode was dedicated to the conman romancing a lonely spinster to take her money.  The government man is finally moved to crush her romantic dreams by the most direct demonstration of the criminal’s perfidy he can manage.
  • “The Case of the Hunted Hobo”  Young couples are being robbed on Chicago’s Lover’s Lane.  After one victim gives a important clue to where the robber hides, a police officer goes undercover as a hobo to track him down.  Aaron Spelling(!) has a bit part as a Lover’s Lane Romeo.
  • “The Case of Operation Sabotage”  A B-47 Aircraft Commander at a base near Riverside, California notices some odd behavior on the part of one of his crew’s wife.  As there’s a big training mission coming up, tensions are heightened, and he’s not sure if there’s really something going on or if she’s naturally curious.  The episode touches a bit on the strain military secrecy can cause in a marriage, and there’s a huge twist at the end.

Some nice writing and the variety of public servants profiled make this an interesting find.  Some episodes are online.

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