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 Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds

Book Review: The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds by Selina Siak Chin Yoke

This is the life story of Chye Hoon, a Nyonya (Malaysian woman of Chinese heritage) who lives between 1878 and 1941, a time of great change in her homeland.  Initially a willful child who wants to break out of her culture’s tradition (why shouldn’t a girl get the chance to go to school like her brother?), Chye Hoon grows into a young woman whose reputation for temper and independent spirit seem to doom her prospects for marriage.

The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds

But an enterprising matchmaker brings her together with a Chinese immigrant named Wong Peng Choon.  Despite this being an arranged marriage and the pair never actually meeting until the wedding, things work out well.  Peng Choon appreciates Chye Hoon’s cleverness and unwillingness to be cheated, and in return is a good husband.  The young couple moves to Ipoh, a rapidly growing tin mining town.

The next decade or so is good to the couple; Peng Choon is much in demand as an accountant, and Chye Hoon has ten children!  But then Peng Choon must return to China to take care of some family business.  He perishes in that far-off land; while he was careful to make sure that Chye Hoon had enough capital for a couple of years, she knows that raising ten children will soon drain that, and jobs for widows with no formal education are few and low-paying.

Chye Hoon applies her cleverness and cooking skills to the problem, becoming an entrepreneur in the field of tasty kueh (Nyonya cakes of both sweet and savory varieties.)  There are many difficulties involved in making the business a success, but she and her servants make a go of it.

Meanwhile, Chye Hoon must also raise her children, facing times of joy, times of heartbreak and times of great frustration.  In this last category is the increasing  influence of the British over the Malay States as they take firmer control of the government, and increasingly the young people adopt Western ways.   Chye Hoon has become a traditionalist who fears that her people’s heritage will be forgotten in the rush to modernize.

Chye Hoon is based loosely on the author’s own great-grandmother, and apparently many family stories were woven into the narrative.  The parts of the book that give a sense of the time and place are fascinating.  Less helpful is that quite a few of the large cast are underdeveloped or vanish from the story–a couple of the sons get brief mentions at times just to remind us they’re still alive but not doing anything relevant.

The author has made some interesting stylistic choices; uneducated characters use traditional Malayan syntax, while those with formal schooling speak British English.   (Even when they’re clearly not using that language.)  There’s also frequent usage of traditional Malayan filler words and interjections, and the author has chosen to use the older transliteration of some words, as well as some language that is now considered pejorative.  In places, this works well, and in other places it becomes intrusive.  (It also kind of raises the question of just who Chye Hoon is telling this story to at the end.)

The story ends just before the Japanese invasion during World War Two, which gives a pretty obvious cue for a sequel with the surviving family members.

Worth checking out if you are into family saga stories, and especially if you are curious about Malaysian history and culture.

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Once, Mars was a place of mystery.  Humans looked at it from the blue Earth with feeble telescopes, and imagined what life, if any, might inhabit that red dot in the sky.  Were there canals filled with water?  Bloodsucking tripod operators?  Beings that had never fallen from grace with God?   Ray Bradbury looked, and imagined stories of Martians and Earthlings, and the doom of both.

The Martian Chronicles

Several of the stories in this volume were written in the latter half of the 1940s, and then connected with interstitial material in 1950 to make a chronological narrative.  The book opens with “Rocket Summer”, when a January 1999 Ohio winter is interrupted with heat from exhaust tests on the launchpad.  It ends with “The Million-Year Picnic” as refugees from war-torn Earth arrive on Mars in October 2026, and see the new Martians.   In between is the coming and going of the human presence on Mars.

The first three expeditions to Mars all die; perhaps if the U.S. government hadn’t outlawed science fiction and fantasy (but apparently not religious texts) in the 1970s, they would have been  better prepared.  But they get posthumous revenge; in a nod to H.G. Wells, by the time the Fourth Expedition arrives, the majority of Martians have been killed off by a common Earth disease.

Wave after wave of Earthlings arrive, most of them from the United States, as it monopolizes the construction of interplanetary rockets.  In the story “Way in the Middle of the Air”, the entire black population of the Southern U.S. decamps to Mars.  (in this bleak future, race relations did not advance beyond the early 1950s; poll taxes have only recently been abolished as of 2003. and the Klan is still very active.)   One particularly virulent racist panics when he realizes he will soon not have African-American people to oppress!  There’s use of the N-word and other racist language, so this story is sometimes left out of school editions of the book.  Because of the stitched-together nature of the collection, this large population of emigrants is never mentioned again, and their fate is finally revealed in a completely different short story collection.

Eventually, once the early settlers have made the place relatively safe, the moral guardians who eradicated speculative fiction  on their homeworld arrive to make Mars just as joyless.  “Usher II” has a multimillionaire who is still hopping mad about their destruction of his library take revenge in inventive ways mostly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe.  Mr. Bradbury was tangentially involved with the comic book industry, which was undergoing the attacks (“think of the children!”) which would lead to the Comics Code.  He would return to the theme of book burning in Fahrenheit 451.  As a kid I could easily imagine boring grownups banning all the good stuff.

Eventually, atomic war breaks out on Earth, and most of the population of Mars returns to that planet in a probably vain attempt to help out their relatives or home nation.   “The Silent Towns” concerns one of the very few people left, a miner who’d been up in the hills without communication for a few weeks when everyone else took the rockets home.  He’s initially thrilled when he learns there’s a young woman also still on Mars, but isn’t pleased when he actually meets her.

Some of Bradbury’s stories from this time period showed a nasty streak of misogyny, and this is one of them.  Genevieve stayed on Mars because she’d been constantly bullied about her weight, but rather than treat her sympathetically, the narrative flow treats her as a gross monstrosity for daring to be fat, and indulging herself in ways roughly equivalent to those Walter had done earlier in the story.  Walter escaping and hiding from her for the next twenty years is treated as a happy ending.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” is also included in this collection, one of the most perfect short stories ever written.  After the atomic war on Earth, we look at the last day of a “smart house” that hasn’t quite figured out that all the humans in its city are dead.

One of the interesting things about the stories is that in the early ones, while the Martians are still flourishing, we see their petty sides and moral failings; but after they have mostly died off, those fall by the wayside and their great accomplishments and gentleness are emphasized.

Ray Bradbury really does have a gift for poetic turns of phrase, and his nostalgia for Midwestern small towns shines through.  Sometimes the poetry can get in the way of comprehensibility, or become self-indulgent, dragging on for a paragraph or two too long.  And of course, he made no attempt to be scientifically accurate even to what was known about Mars back in the day–he readily admitted that the stories were really fantasy.

Several of the stories were adapted for EC Comics, and there have been some television show versions as well.

The book is certainly well worth reading at least once, even if it will not be to everyone’s taste.

Book Review: Behind the Forgotten Front, a WWII Novel

Book Review: Behind the Forgotten Front, a WWII Novel by Barbara Hawkins

Like many red-blooded American men after Pearl Harbor, Lieutenant Harry Flynn joined the Army to fight the enemy directly.  But the Army has a lot of jobs to fill, and his excellent handwriting gets Harry posted as a supply officer in a backwater post in India.  The Japanese have taken Burma (now Myanmar), cutting China off from supply by the other Allies.  Therefore, a road must be built from India through Burma to China.  Or at least that’s what the brass think should be done.  Harry is unconvinced–this road seems to be killing more Americans than the Japanese ever did.

Behind the Forgotten Front, A WWII Novel

The CBI theater of World War Two is relatively obscure in American media compared to the European struggle against the Nazis or the Pacific campaign.  So this historical novel was a good change of pace, shedding light on an area I am unfamiliar with.

In the early part of this story, Lt. Flynn is cynical about his superiors, bored with his humdrum duties, and willing to take dangerous steps to fight against what he sees as a doomed strategy.  About a third of the way through, Harry is reassigned as the supply officer for Merrill’s Marauders, a combat unit sent well into enemy lines to take out certain targets that will make it easier to build and use the road.  Then he sees plenty of action!

Probably the best parts of the novel are the descriptions of things that happened in real life, taken from the author’s research (there’s a reading list in the back.)  I’m a sucker for the gritty details of long marches and miserable weather.

Harry is not a particularly likable person, though he gets over his period-authentic racism pretty quickly.  (He’s smart enough to realize it’s a bad idea to antagonize the “Negro” troops, while a designated bad guy isn’t.)  He does some things that put people in unnecessary danger, and probably kills at least one innocent bystander when a sabotage plan goes awry.  Some flashbacks establish where he got his sour attitude from, but don’t justify his actions.

There’s some salty language (perhaps not enough given the setting) and discussion of the factors that lead some women into prostitution.  Lots of violence, of course, with vivid description of the smells.

One character is built up as important in the first part of the novel, then vanishes with a “whatever happened to?” at the end; many other characters have on-page deaths.

The Kindle version I downloaded has a number of spellchecker typos, most commonly “lightening” for “lightning”–it’s an older copy so these might have been fixed by now.

Recommended for readers who want to know a bit more about a relatively obscure part of WWII, and aren’t up for reading straight-up military history (because that can get pretty dry.)

Magazine Review: The Saturday Evening Post 6/10/61

Magazine Review: The Saturday Evening Post 6/10/61 edited by Ben Hibbs

The Saturday Evening Post ran weekly from 1897-1963; after several format changes, it is now published six times a year.  The Post was well known for its lavish illustrations and a combination of current event articles and short stories by popular writers.   I got this issue from the month of my birth as an early birthday present.  At the time, this magazine was printed in the broadsheet format, which is too large for my scanner–thus the truncated cover image showing only a part of Amos Spewell’s painting of tourists in Venice.

The Saturday Evening Post 6/10/61

To entice potential customers at newsstands, the Post front-loaded the illustrations in spreads at the front of the magazine, and each of the articles and stories continued in the word-heavy back pages interspersed with a few cartoons.  There were also many large illustrated advertisements–one for tampons is notable for not telling the reader what the product is, showing the product or saying what it’s used for exactly; if I didn’t know from the name of the product, I’d assume it’s some kind of skin cleanser or deodorant.

The Post was also known for having a staunchly conservative editorial stance, and this is on full display in an editorial expressing relief that leftist thought was vanishing from college campuses and conservatism was on the rise. “Of course, the battle isn’t over.  Queer characters still appear on college campuses sponsored by ‘liberal’ groups.”  Oh, if only they knew!

In the lively letters to the editor section, comments on an article about Bobby Darrin reveal changes in our pop culture, with people being shocked or pleased that he was willing to share personal opinions with the press even if they didn’t match the public’s desired stance.  One letter writer asked why an article on “Presidents in Retirement” did not include FDR.  The editor waggishly replies that the place that man retired to is not on the reporter’s regular beat.  There’s also a couple of letters on segregation, responding negatively to a previous letter writer’s suggestion that since Southerners didn’t go to Northern states to demand segregation, Northerners should reciprocate about desegregation.

Let’s look at the contents.

“The White House Insiders” by Stewart Alsop is a look at President Kennedy’s political staffers (all men, all white-one had a black deputy) and how they helped him keep on top of what was happening in the country and the world.  It goes into detail about JFK’s management style.  The only top staff name most younger readers are likely to recognize is Arthur Schlesinger Jr., but Henry Kissinger is briefly mentioned as a second-stringer.

“Death of a Demon” by Rex Stout is part one of three of a Nero Wolfe mystery novella.  The sedentary detective is briefly engaged by a woman who wants to show him the gun she will not use to shoot her husband.  That’s…kind of suspicious, and when the husband turns up dead from a bullet wound, some questions are raised.  Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s leg man, is pretty sure the woman didn’t do it, but there are gaping holes in her story.  It’s certainly an intriguing beginning!  Happily, this story was included in Homicide Trinity by Rex Stout, which you can probably get through interlibrary loan.

“How the Doctors Saved Chicago’s Burned Children” by Alice Lake is a look at how St. Anne’s Hospital dealt with the victims of a fire at Our Lady of the Angels School in 1958.  95 people died immediately or in the aftermath, but this story concentrates on the survivors.  Part of the credit for St. Anne’s quick and organized response goes to disaster preparedness they had undertaken after a fire some years before had caught the hospital unprepared for multiple victims.  There are details of the treatment s used and updates on a couple of the survivors as of mid-1961.  One of the treatments tried was using blood transfusions from recovering adult burn victims in the hope that their blood had antigens against “burn toxin.”  (From the little I could find, research into this treatment has shown scant evidence of effectiveness.)  For more on the fire, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Lady_of_the_Angels_School_fire

“Handsome Samaritan” by Phyllis Duganne is a story about an airline pilot driving to vacation in Florida when he stops to help some stranded motorists.  One of them is a very pretty woman, but he’s supposed to be meeting his fiancee.  The pilot comes to realize he is much more compatible with this new woman who is more interested in who he is than who she can make him become.  I found this story uncomfortable, and skimmed to the end.

“The Poacher” by Gene Coghlan, set in Depression-era North Dakota, has two brothers growing up on an isolated farm, and using traps to earn a little pocket money.  One brother is laid up with a broken leg, and the protagonist takes advantage of this to claim that a fur animal was caught in one of his traps, rather than his brother’s.  Presumably he learned a valuable lesson about life, but the conclusion pages are missing from my copy.  Unfortunately, Mr. Coghlan doesn’t seem to have any books in print.

“The Case of the Comical Banker” by Harold H. Martin, profiles Mills Bee Lane, Jr., then president of the  Citizens & Southern National Bank in Atlanta, Georgia.   Known for a jovial style (unlike the stuffy conservatism usually associated with bankers of the period), his business acumen turned the C&S into the largest bank in the South.  You may be more familiar with his nephew, Mills Bee Lane III, who became a famous boxing referee and TV judge.  Lane, Jr. was credited in the article for jumpstarting tobacco farming in the Atlanta area when cotton took a dive in the market.

“The Meaning of the Eichmann Trial” by T.S. Matthews was published about halfway through the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann.  (He was found guilty and hanged.)  The article talks a lot about the trial conditions and the thoroughness of the Israeli court system.  “Israel means to show the world that, in the British phrase, ‘justice is not only done but seen to have been done.”  It also talks about the character of Israel as a country, and its people.  The trial took place in a newly built suburb of Jerusalem, because at that time the Old City was in the hands of Jordan.  This is a very moving article, and I think the best in the issue.

“Cop with Camera Eyes” by Thomas Walsh features a police detective with “photographic memory”, if he sees something, and it’s important to him at a later time, he will remember it clearly.  It triggers when he notices the same person in the crowd three times during a date he’s having with his new neighbor.  After safely returning his date home, The cop ambushes this tail.  Surprise!  It’s a federal agent!  Seems the attractive foreign lady is suspected of being a Communist spy.  Reluctantly, the cop agrees to keep an eye on the girl he has come to adore, but then she vanishes–and for the first time, the cop’s memory fails him at a critical moment.  Can he crack the case before innocents are killed?  It’s a pretty good story; I don’t know if it’s ever been reprinted, but Mr. Walsh’s Nightmare in Manhattan is considered a superior mystery novel and that you can find.

“Is Nature Getting Neurotic?” by Corey Ford is a humor piece about how over-complicated gardening and landscaping have become, requiring the homeowner to employ multiple specialists and expensive treatments just to keep the lawn alive.

Art by James Bama for "In the Best Interest of the Service."
Art by James Bama for “In the Best Interest of the Service.”

“In the Best Interest of the Service” by Walt Grove takes us inside an Air Force base.  A major must make a difficult decision because of the need for unit cohesiveness.  A rescue chopper pilot is being accused of cowardice by one of his crew members.  This is complicated by the officer being a Negro, and the crew member being a white man from the Deep South and the type of person who nowadays would be decrying “political correctness.”  He doesn’t mean any harm by the N-word, he claims, so why shouldn’t he use it?  But that does raise the stink of possible racism.  Oh, and the chopper pilot is the major’s best friend on the base, so there may be the question of favoritism.  Who will be getting transferred out?  The resolution  to the situation may be a little too convenient, but is satisfying, and inspires the major to take some steps in his personal life he’s put off too long.  Mr. Grove wrote several action books about pilots, but it doesn’t appear any are currently in print.

“Comeback of the Giant Turtle” by Bern Keating is about efforts to increase the population of the green sea turtle (so called because of its distinctive green fat deposits inside the shell) in the Caribbean.  Despite these and other preservation efforts, the green sea turtle remains an endangered species.

And finally, “The Big Swindle” by Clarence Budington Kelland is part 5 of 6.  Twins Pet and Pete Du Chillon have finally come of age, and are attempting to make sense of what their guardian, Mortimer Norton, has done with the family company.  It seems all sorts of shady shenanigans have been going on!  The twins have some sort of scheme to expose the truth, involving a phony foreign prince and double-bluffing the man who runs security for Du Chillon Industries.  This installment suffers from coming in the middle of the story, but I think it’s also a pretty bad story.  Pet and Pete, as well as their beloved grandmother, are the sort of people who the author tries hard to convince us are very witty, but come off snide instead.  The funniest bit for me was one of the supporting characters denying the possibility of a “twins threesome” in such a way as to make me think he’s thought waay too much about the topic (and also never mentioning sex because this is a family magazine.)  Mr. Kelland is largely forgotten, but once was popular enough that Harlan Ellison called him out by name for lowering the tastes of the American public.

There’s also short poems (amusing but forgettable), jokes and cartoons.

This was a fun look back at a moment in time just before I was born.  Copies of the Post in bad condition can be found relatively cheaply; issues in excellent condition, or with stories by top authors, will set you back considerably more money.  Also, you can visit the website of the current magazine: http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/

Magazine Review: Gamma 3

Magazine Review: Gamma 3 edited by Charles E. Fritch

Gamma was a short-lived science fiction magazine (five issues in 1963-64), known for high-quality cover art and snagging stories from authors connected with the film industry.  (Indeed, I picked up this issue because of the sweet Morris Scott Dollens art.)  It was digest-sized and relatively thin.   Let’s look at the contents!

Gamma 3

“The Girl of Paradise Planet” by Robert Turner concerns retired millionaire George Prentiss.  He and his third wife Evvie have come to the title planet on a long vacation (her idea.)  Bored, Robert has taken up underwater swimming with future SCUBA gear.  This world is not supposed to have any native intelligent life, but then where did that water-breathing naked girl come from?  Is George having hallucinations from the water pressure, or is he just going insane?

Over the course of the story, we learn that George is a self-made man who spent his youth starting a business, growing that business and getting rich, so he didn’t look for romance until middle age, and three times went for trophy wives, none of whom have worked out.  Which is okay…except that the possibly imaginary Irlana comes across as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose function is to rekindle his love of life (and is younger and prettier than Evvie.)

Mr. Turner was an experienced author, but this was his first time writing science fiction, and I can tell.  He’s certainly no climatologist, and the ending twist relies on most of the characters forgetting a perfectly logical explanation for events that would be common knowledge to them, even if the reader wouldn’t know it.

“The Feather Bed” by Shelley Lowenkopf presents a bizarre future in which the economy runs on make-work.  For example, three years after a building is built, all the piping is torn out and replaced just to give the plumbing crews something to do.   This extends to writing as well.  Every 37 years, all extant editions of Shakespeare are destroyed, and replaced with “newly written” versions by living authors.  Except that it’s just retyping the whole thing verbatim.  And the same goes for all other works of fiction by dead writers.

Lew has had it with the system–he doesn’t want to “rewrite” King Lear again, and on the union points system, it will be years before he’s allowed to write more of the original fiction that made him a successful author in the first place.  Unfortunately, he’s just one man against the system, and winds up causing even the FBI to intervene.  If Lew sticks to his principles, he could lose everything, including the writing he really wants to do.

“Angel Levine” by Bernard Malamud stars  Jewish tailor Manischevitz, who is going through hard times.  His shop burned down, and the insurance money was eaten by customer lawsuits.  His son died in the war, and his daughter ran off with a man and never communicates.  He’s got chronic pain, and his wife Rosie is dying.  Manischevitz asks God for assistance, but when an “angel” named Levine shows up, there are reasons the tailor is unconvinced.  It’s ultimately a story about belief in the face of your assumptions about people.  There is racism and anti-Semitism in the story.  (This one was reprinted from one of the author’s collections.)

“The (In)visible Man” by Edward W. Ludwig  is a fantasy about James Smith, who has become socially invisible.  He’s finally decided to exploit that fact, but one person has finally become able to see him, and that is both Mr. Smith’s weakness and best hope.  It’s a fairly sweet story, helped along by James Smith, even when he turns criminal, sticking to a “least harm” principle.  There is an attempted suicide in the story.

“Inside Story” by Miriam Allen deFord takes place in a far future when the Galactic Federation sends scouts to find new worlds that one of their myriad species can live on and isn’t already inhabited by intelligent life.  These planets are exceedingly rare.  It looks, however, like this one might be ideal.  Presuming the scout party doesn’t find any surprises like rapid inexplicable temperature variations….

In this future, scout ships have mixed-sex crews, but this is because every member of that crew is a different non-compatible species.  The twist ending is suitably bizarre.

“The Birth” by George Clayton Johnson is a retelling of a classic story from a different perspective.  See how long it takes you to figure out which one!

“Buttons” by Raymond E. Banks concerns John Burke, a starship officer who is forced by disaster to upload his mind to a computer memory storage system.  Supposedly, he will have his mind reinserted into his human body once that’s fixed.  But that procedure has a high failure rate, and Burke is rapidly discovering the advantages of being a disembodied intelligence.  There’s some relatively early thought about the benefits versus possible hazards of transhumanism.

“Society for the Prevention” by Ron Goulart is a humorous piece about the travails of a interplanetary surplus store manager.  He’s just gotten a large shipment of extremely ugly wicker urns, the natives of the planet have organized a violent “Shop Local” campaign, and the newly arrived Young Girls Space Police and Welfare Committee officer suspects him of being in cahoots with the inventor of a death ray.  Everything more or less works out in the end, but now the store manager has to try to explain to his boss why the urns didn’t get sold.  The female Space Police officer is treated as a joke–admittedly so is everyone else, but it may not sit well with some readers, as part of the joke is that women are completely unsuited for the work.

The final story is “The Snail Watcher” by Patricia Highsmith.  This creepy tale is about a man who gets a little too fascinated with the reproductive habits of snails, not noticing that these particular snails are reproducing much more rapidly than is anywhere near normal.

Art copyright 1964 by Luan Meatheringham
Art copyright 1964 by Luan Meatheringham

Interior art is by Luan Metheringham, who sadly seems to have completely dropped out of sight with only her Gamma appearances known.

There is also an interview with “Ivan Kirov” about the state of Soviet science fiction in the early 1960s.  He declined to have his real name published for security reasons.  Per the interview, SF in the USSR was beginning to blossom after being suppressed during the Stalinist years.  Noted was a tendency for “nuts and bolts” stories of adventure, with little of the social or psychological exploration that had become common in Western nations’ science fiction.  (At the time, the government censors were big on Soviet Communism going worldwide being the only possible future, and writers were expected to get on board with that.)

The Banks story is the one that I liked best, though the Highsmith story was also effective.  Worth seeking out if you’re a fan of either author or the cover artist.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Men of War

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Men of War edited by Paul Levitz

In 1977, African-American male leads in mainstream comic books were still countable on one hand (and don’t even ask about African-American women!)  But this also had the effect of making a comic with a black person on the front attention-getting.  And I suspect that at least some of the creation of “Gravedigger” came from that fact.

Showcase Presents Men of War

Gravedigger was the lead feature in DC Comics’ last-launched war comics series of the Bronze Age, Men of War.  He is introduced as Sergeant Ulysses Hazard, a polio survivor who threw himself into intense physical training (including martial arts) to overcome his handicaps.  Despite his superior physical condition and combat skills, Hazard was consigned to a segregated battalion and assigned to funeral detail (thus his codename.)  After his heroics saved lives (except his best military friend) and defeated Nazi troops, the white officers ignored his contributions and denied his request for reassignment to a combat unit.

In the second issue, Hazard somehow gets back to the U.S. and single-handedly infiltrates the Pentagon War Room to demonstrate his skills.  A character identified in that issue as the Secretary of War but in later issues demoted to an undersecretary (as his sliminess would have been a slur on the character of Henry L. Stimson, the actual Secretary at the time) decides to use Hazard as a political pawn.  If “Gravedigger” fails on one of the suicidal missions, he can be written off, but if he succeeds, the Undersecretary can take credit.

Now Captain Ulysses Hazard so that he can pull rank when necessary, Gravedigger returns to Europe and takes on a number of commando missions ranging from rescuing art from the Nazis to destroying an experimental mini-sub.  There are guest appearances by a couple of DC’s other war comics characters, and the final issue features Gravedigger actually leading Easy Company (normally the job of Sergeant Rock) for a few hours.

Gravedigger was basically “military Batman”, performing superheroic feats on a regular basis.  To be fair, this is common in comic books about commando-style solo characters, but if you are a stickler for realism, look elsewhere.  Later in the series, he gets a cross-shaped facial scar to make him more distinctive looks, important in comic books.  He even gets an archnemesis, Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, who enlists mad science in a massive scheme to rid the Reich of this one commando.

In the next to last story, Gravedigger personally saves the lives of Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though an opportunity is missed to have Captain Hazard bond with FDR over their mutual experience with polio.

In addition to the expected violence, there’s also period racism, ableism and anti-Semitism (the last confined to Nazi characters.)

The back-up features varied from issue to issue.  “Enemy Ace” featured Baron Hans von Hammer, “the Hammer of Hell”, a World War I German fighter pilot.  He was depicted as noble and honorable, one of a dying breed of warrior outdated by brutal modern warfare.  Some of the stories have art by Howard Chaykin, who is not as well served by the black and white reprint as the other artists.

“Dateline: Frontline” was about American reporter Wayne Clifford, covering World War Two while the U.S. was still neutral, and having his naivete chipped away bit by bit.  He struggles with censorship, the temptation of writing the story to suit the person who can give you access, and the moral gray areas of war.

“Rosa” features a spy working in the late 19h Century who is loyal to no country, and has the habit of switching accents in every sentence either to disguise his nationality or (as he claims in a somewhat dubious origin story) because he is literally a man without a country.  His name might or might not actually be Rosa.  Most notable for having a character switch sides between chapters for plot convenience.

This volume contains all 26 issues, and is not brilliant but is decent work by journeymen creators.  Worth picking up if you are a war comics fan, or interested in the history of African-American characters in comic books.

Book Review: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Book Review:  Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Tom is a good man, a Christian man.  Tom is kind, hard-working, trustworthy, intelligent (though barely educated) and honest.  He’s respected by his colleagues, a faithful husband to Chloe and a loving father.  But Uncle Tom is also a slave, and all his positive qualities mean nothing to the law which makes him a piece of property to be bought and sold.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Tom’s owner, Mr. Shelby, lives in northeastern Kentucky, not far from the Ohio  border.  While a kindhearted fellow, whose wife is practically a saint, Mr. Shelby is unlucky in his stock speculations and has become heavily in debt.  His notes have fallen into the hands of Mr. Haley, a slave trader.  Mr. Shelby can clear his debts by selling Mr. Haley his best hand, Uncle Tom, and the handsome, witty child Harry…or all the other slaves on the farm.  Mr. Shelby’s choice is clear; it grieves him, but after all, they’re just property.

Eliza, Harry’s mother, refuses to give him up.  Her other children died in infancy, and she knows her husband George Harris is soon to be sold by his own crueler master.  Forewarned of the sale, she runs off with Harry in the middle of the night.  But even if she can cross the broken ice in the river separating Kentucky from Ohio (for it is early spring), the free state holds no safety, for this is the time of the Fugitive Slave Act, and the law requires her and the child to be returned to bondage.

This 1852 novel was originally published as a newspaper serial (which is most obvious in the final chapter “Concluding Remarks”.)  Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was an abolitionist, but some of the heartfelt sorrow in the writing came from her own experience of losing a small child.  The 1850s were a time of high infant mortality, and nearly every woman in the United States would have known the heartbreak of losing a child or be personally acquainted with someone who had.  So one of the main target audiences of the book was the nation’s mothers.

At first, Uncle Tom’s fate does not seem too hard; though separated from his wife and children, and everything he’s known, Mr. Haley prides himself on his humane treatment of his goods.  Why, he even makes sure not to sell children directly in front of their mothers!  As it happens, Tom saves the life of a little white girl, Evangeline St. Clare, who begs her father Auguste to buy Tom.

In many ways, Auguste St. Clare is the nicest slaveowner in New Orleans.  He despises the institution of slavery, and the abuses the law allows, so tries to be kind to his servants.  But his own heartbreak has left Auguste feckless, and prone to “I’m only one man, what can I do about the system?”   Worse, he married his wife Marie as a rebound relationship without taking time to see if they were compatible–they aren’t, and she is a cause of misery to all around her.

Evangeline, on the other hand, is too good for this sinful Earth, and is a joy to everyone with her simple and kindly faith.  She forms a special bond with the trustworthy Tom, and even manages to reach the heart of Topsy, an abused girl who frequently acts out with destructive pranks.  Too soon, Eva’s health fails, and she passes away to the sorrow of the household.

Between Eva and Tom, Auguste’s heart is moved, and he resolves to reform, beginning with doing the involved paperwork required for freeing Uncle Tom.  Before he does more than start, however, St. Clare is mortally wounded in a tavern brawl.  While it appears he finally comes to Jesus before he dies, Auguste fails to tell Marie his intention to free Tom, and she refuses to hear anyone else informing her of this.

Thus it is that Tom is sold at auction to Simon Legree, a planter who hates everyone, but especially his own slaves.  Legree is a cruel man who cares only for profit, driving his slaves until they die from overwork.  Tom is deeply unhappy at this twist of fate, but is willing to work hard and help his fellow slaves.  Legree can’t abide kindness, so tries to drive it out of Tom.  But this is where Tom draws the line.  He will not be cruel, even if it costs him his life.  Nor will he inform on runaways, which leads to the final crisis.

This is a very religious book, heavy-handed on the Christian message.  Which is not to say that it’s comfortable reading for Christians.  Many white Christians of the time believed that the Bible fully sanctioned the system of chattel slavery  practiced in the United States, and this is on full view.  At one point, we even have pastors quoting dueling proof-texts.  We also have the character of Miss Ophelia, Auguste’s cousin from Vermont.  She’s firmly against slavery as a matter of principle, but deeply prejudiced against black people, and must overcome her own narrow-mindedness to help Topsy.

And though the people of best character in the book are fervent believers in God, He is silent throughout.  Perhaps He has a hand in fortunate things that happen, and lends strength to His children to endure; He also seems to allow vast suffering and withhold punishment from the wicked.  It’s up to Christians themselves to do the right things as best they know how.

The book is melodramatic, full of coincidences and unlikely twists.  Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, while individual incidents and types of people are drawn from real life and things that actually happened, all of this happening to a small group of people is clearly fiction.  The last few chapters heap on happy coincidences as if to make up for what happens to Uncle Tom, and point towards what people of conscience should be doing.

As one might expect, the book is full of period racism (much use of the “N” word included) and period sexism also plays a part (in later years, Mrs. Stowe was what we now call a first-wave feminist.)  There is suicide, infanticide, animal abuse, torture and what is obviously rape takes place offstage.  The old-fashioned writing style can also be a bit difficult to get through; I would not recommend this book for teenagers, as it works better if you have some experience with adult life.

This is an important book, and Mrs. Stowe really knows how to hit a reader in the “feels”, while also knowing when to use heavy sarcasm.  If you haven’t already read it, consider doing so; it’s in the public domain, so easily available in affordable editions, or free at the library or online.

Book Review: The Marsco Dissident

Book Review: The Marsco Dissident by James A. Zarzana

It’s a Marsco world.

The Marsco Dissident

Much has changed by the last years of the 21st Century.  The rot started to set in with the Abandonment Policy (euphemized as “Divestiture”) where countries with prosperous sections and not-so-prosperous bits split off the not-prosperous sectors as “another country now, not our responsibility” and shoved any citizens they didn’t want to keep for whatever reason into the new Unincorporated Zones.  (It’s implied that even the United States did this on an unofficial basis.)  The new rich countries became the Continental Powers, while the castoffs became PRIMS.

Meanwhile, an IT startup ambitiously named “Marsco” grew into a cross between Microsoft, the Union and Pacific, and United Fruit Company.  Yes, it did eventually get to Mars, and its innovative finger disc cybernetic implants became the new status symbol.  As part of its philanthropic aims, it became the primary benefactor of PRIMS, providing food rations, some medical care, etc.

A Luddite movement also grew, primarily among the PRIMS who found themselves shut out of the modern world, starving and ridden with cure-resistant diseases.  It also found favor among some in the CP, and even associates of Marsco itself.

Eventually, the Continental Powers decided that Marsco was too powerful, and tried to nationalize it.  This was a huge mistake as the megacorporation had designed all their computers, had its own armed forces and the advantage of operating from space.  They even got PRIM armies on their side.  If that wasn’t enough, the more violent strains of the Luddites took advantage of the chaos to destroy or infect any high technology they could reach.

Now, Marsco rules what’s left of Earth’s population, just as a temporary measure until the locals can get back on their feet.  Except that it’s been a generation, and Marsco control doesn’t seem to be going away, and the Unincorporated Areas aren’t getting any better.  Certain people are beginning to realize that Marsco isn’t the solution anymore, it’s the problem….

This book is the first in a series planned for four volumes, the “Marsco Saga.”  It’s serious about the “saga” part; months or years often pass between segments of the story and I suspect by the end we’ll be reading about the grandchildren of the current characters.  It’s been a while since I’ve read a science fiction book that fits more into the “future history” subgenre than action.

The dissident of the title is Dr. Walter Miller, formerly one of Marsco’s most brilliant engineers, but now on an extended sabbatical  on his independent farm/research facility in what used to be the Sacramento Valley.  The first few chapters concern a visit to him by his daughter, Professor Tessa Miller, who teaches at a Marsco academy.  Her journey across Sac City to his grange has some interesting world-building, but then there’s no sign of a plot for a while.

Abruptly, we switch to a shuttle in the asteroid belt, and an entirely different set of characters for several chapters.  Not all of the crew or passengers manage to survive the sudden emergence of plot.

And then, it’s months later in a different part of the asteroid belt, and an Independent colony views the arrival of a mysterious Marsco deep-space craft with justifiable suspicion.  This part introduces another of our protagonists, Lieutenant Anthony “Zot” Grizzoti is one of the crew of the Gagarin, and Tessa’s ex.  He’s a specialist in hibernation technology, and knows things he can’t reveal.

Some time later, we’re in the SoAm Continental Zone, as Father Stephen Cavanaugh goes to the camp of the Nexus, the most violent of the Luddite factions, in order to retrieve two boys they’d lured away from his school for PRIMS.  A former student of his, Pete Rivers, is one of the Marsco Security personnel that escorts the priest to the area, but from there Cavanaugh must proceed on his own.   This is the tensest part of the book and could stand on its own as a novella.

With most of the characters now introduced, the story moves forward.

The best part of the book is the world-building.  Mr. Zarzana has done a lot of research, and worked out the details of the Marsco world.  The book comes with a glossary (there are some mild spoilers in this section) due to all the specialized terminology and future slang.  While some of the steps to reach this setting are dubious, it all hangs together well enough once it’s there.

However, a lot of the information is delivered in professorial lectures (Dr. Zarzana himself is a professor of English), which can get tedious.  A little fun is had with the delivery by having a precocious child do some of the lectures to show off to adults.  But too often, it comes across as “As you know, Bob….”

Many of the more interesting characters are in the book too little and some of them won’t be returning later.  I found the Tessa/Zot romance bits tepid and was irritated every time it came up.

The primary active villain, Colonel Hawkins, is planning to avenge the Continental Powers’ defeat and is working with others who want to change the balance of power, and haven’t realized just how obsessed he is.

Marsco has a lot of classism (Marsco associates on top, Sids (people who trade with Marsco) in the middle, and PRIMS on the bottom and treated as barely human), but little racism–one of the associates suddenly breaking out racist slurs shocks his colleagues and is taken as an indicator of his actual age.  Casual racism is more common among the Earth-bound.

There’s a lot of talk about rape, (including a possibly fake story about mind control rape) and a couple of attempted rapes onscreen .  Prostitution is rife in the non-Marsco areas. There’s bursts of violence, some of it dire.

This book is self-published, and the latter half starts having spellchecker typos (“site” for “sight” several times) which suggests that with books this size, the proofreader should take the job in smaller chunks.

Overall…it’s a decent beginning, but not really satisfying on its own.  A lot will depend on the next part expanding on the themes and subplots satisfactorily.  Consider this if you like detailed world-building.

Disclaimer:  I received a free copy from the author for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was involved or requested.

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