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: Headaches Can Be Murder

Book Review: Headaches Can Be Murder by Marilyn Rausch & Mary Donlon

Charles “Chip” E. Collingsworth III was supposed to become a neurosurgeon like his father and grandfather before him, but wasn’t suited to being a doctor, so dropped out of medical school.  Three failed marriages later and with his trust fund depleted, Chip wrote a crime novel about famed neurosurgeon John Goodman  investigating “the Cranium Killer” with the FBI, and casting two of his ex-wives as victims.  To his surprise, he found an agent willing to represent the manuscript, and it turned into a best-seller.

Headaches Can Be Murder

On a cross-country trip, Chip stumbled across an abandoned farmhouse in Turners Bend, Iowa, and decided that this would be a good place to write his second book in.   Except that he’s run out of ex-wives he wants to murder (his first wife was much nicer)  and that means he’s out of ideas.  Until one day he falls off a shed, and the ensuing bump on his head gives him a painful inspiration for a possible plotline.  As his real life and novel intertwine, can Chip survive long enough to finish the manuscript?

The gimmick in this book, the first in the Chip Collingsworth series, is that there are two stories unfolding simultaneously.  Chip lives his life in rural Iowa, and as things happen around him, he incorporates versions of them into Dr, Goodman’s quest to find out whether microchips inserted into people’s brains are turning them into killers.  Chip meets an attractive veterinarian, and Dr. Goodman meets an attractive FBI agent.  Chip adopts a golden retriever, and Dr. Goodman does as well.  Not all the things happening in Turners Bend are so benign, however, and Chip winds up doing some investigating himself.

One thing that amused me was Chip constantly being given suggestions on what kind of characters should be in his next book, which just happened to match the persons who suggest them.

The twin narrative approach is fun, but means that each story gets less character development.  I noticed quite a few spellchecker typos, which would be acceptable in the “fictional” chapters as Chip writes his drafts, but not so much in the “real world” ones.

There are a couple of sex scenes, and a bit of torture in the Goodman section.

Recommended for those wanting to read mysteries with an Iowa connection.

Manga Review: One-Punch Man 01

Manga Review: One-Punch Man 01 story by ONE, art by Yusuke Murata

Saitama wanted to be a hero when he grew up, the sort of good guy who could beat any monster or villain with a single punch.   Like many people, he forgot that dream as he prepared for a more realistic career as a salaryman (white collar worker.)  That didn’t really work out for him, and Saitama became unemployed and stuck in the hell of applications and interviews and rejections.  Until he saw a monster about to attack a child, and it reawakened his desire to be a hero.

One-Punch Man 01

He managed to beat the (fairly weak) monster, and started training to become a hero.  After three years of intense training, his hair had fallen out, and Saitama had gained great power, the ability to defeat any foe with a single punch.  Now you may be thinking, “that sounds way too easy; surely there is some horrible down side to these powers.”  And you would be right.  For a hero who lives to battle evil, defeating any opponent in one punch makes the victories hollow.

Comic book fans sometimes talk about the “Superman problem”; a protagonist so grossly overpowered that he can solve most difficulties is difficult to write interesting stories for, since normal challenges just don’t work.  A skilled writer can overcome this problem, but you also end up with a lot of Kryptonite stories where the hero’s powers are arbitrarily reduced to provide a challenge.

This series takes a different approach to the problem.  The first few chapters set up what would normally be world-threatening dangers, which Saitama defeats with ridiculous ease as he notes how he’s become detached from his own emotions, mechanically going through the motions of fighting monsters, but  feeling hollow inside.

Things start to change with the appearance of angsty cyborg Genos.  He’s the first person to really see Saitama in action and understand just how impressive he is.  Thus Genos becomes Saitama’s sidekick (although “disciple” is closer to what he acts like) and his first real friend.  They battle the Mosquito Lady, which brings them to the attention of the first arc villain of the series, the House of Evolution, which specializes in uplifted animal monsters.

This manga has a different backstory than many, as it started as a webcomic by ONE, who is an okay artist but not first-rate; as far as I know it’s still running.  However, the webcomic had strong writing and a good sense of comedic timing, and became a huge success.  A deal was made to have top notch manga artist Yusuke Murata (of Eyeshield 21 fame) redraw the series for magazine distribution, with some minor story edits where ONE felt it was a good idea.  This also became popular, and now there’s an animated adaptation as well (currently streaming on Hulu.)

There’s quite a bit of over-the-top superhero violence in this series, so more sensitive young readers might be uncomfortable.  Mosquito Lady is simultaneously a parody and example of oversexualized female supervillains (why does an insect need mammary glands?) but Saitama is fully naked during the same sequence so you may think it balances out.

The characterization is relatively simplistic in these early volumes, but as more continuing characters appear, the storyline gets deeper.

Highly recommended for superhero fans.

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