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 Snow Queen

Book Review: The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen

Kay and Gerda are best friends who live in adjacent garrets, and often visit each other across the roof, where their parents have installed flower boxes with rosebushes.  They are like brother and sister, and very happy together until one day Kay’s personality changes.  He has been pierced in heart and eye by shards of the Devil’s distorting mirror, so now Kai only sees the flaws and ugliness of people, and his heart is slowly turning to ice.

The Snow Queen

In mid-winter, Kay recklessly goes sledding without Gerda or any other companion, and winds up hitching his sled to the sleigh of the Snow Queen.  As it happens, the queen of all snow has seen Kay before, and decides to keep him, kissing away his memory of family and friends.  Everyone else is convinced that Kay has frozen to death or drowned in the river, but Gerda is not so sure.  When the weather thaws, Gerda goes looking for Kay, having many adventures along the way.

This is one of the many fairy tales written by Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), one of Denmark’s most famous authors.  First printed in 1844, it’s also one of his longest fantasy works (but still only about forty pages without illustrations) and much acclaimed.  It’s been adapted many times, and has inspired other works such as the movie Frozen.

Since this is a public domain story, easily downloadable for free from Project Gutenberg, or available at your local library in the children’s section, the main reasons to look at this particular edition are the fresh translation by Jean Hersholt and illustrations by Finnish-heritage artist Sanna Annukka.  The language flows well (though parents will want to read it with their children the first go-round to explain some of the words.)   The illustrations are striking, and perhaps a little frightening in places (this would be a good time to introduce young readers to the variety of Scandinavian art.)  The art is very stylized, which works well for the magical beings involved in the story.

The Snow Queen is very much steeped in Scandinavian Christian folklore, from the hobgoblin who is in fact the Devil and his cruel mirror, to Gerda’s prayers bringing angels to defend her in time of need.  It’s stated that Gerda’s simple faith and innocence give her power–it never occurs to her that it’s odd to be able to speak to flowers (but not get much out of the exchange) or that a robber girl will suddenly choose to help her on her quest rather than kill her.

And this tale is surprising rich in  female characters: the wise Grandmother, alien Snow Queen, selfish Flower Witch, clever Princess and wild Robber Girl, as well as sweet Gerda herself.  Some of these characters would make good stories with their own adventures.  It’s notable that there is no confrontation with the Snow Queen at the end–she’s away on a business trip when Gerda arrives to free Kay.  Perhaps this is for the best, as someone must see that snow gets where it belongs.

One aspect that may be troubling for parents is that after Kay is affected by the distorting mirror, he only finds beauty in mathematics, logic and symmetry.  He’s noted for being able to do arithmetic in his head–with fractions!

The book has sturdy covers and thick pages, so should survive frequent re-reading by youngsters well.  Recommended to families that don’t already have a copy of this classic tale, and people who like this style of art.

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

And now, let’s have the trailer of a Finnish movie adaptation!

Manga Review: Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1

Manga Review: Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1 written by Kazuo Koike, art by Goseki Kojima

Ogami Itto was once a samurai warrior of high rank, the official executioner for the shogunate.  He had a lovely wife and new son; life was good.  But another clan was ambitious, and framed Ogami for treason.  Under sentence of execution and with his wife murdered, Ogami asked his infant son to make a choice between merciful death and life on the run. now Ogami is a ronin, and an assassin for hire.  If you need someone dead, and you can find them, you can hire the Lone Wolf assassin who travels with his cub.

Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1

This classic manga series was popular enough to spawn a series of live-action movies, a television series and several spin-off manga.  It was also influential outside of Japan, notably influencing the art and storytelling style of Frank Miller (who provided the cover for this omnibus edition.)  As such, it was one of the first manga series to be translated for the emerging American market, using the expensive and painstaking “double-flipping” method to make it read left to right.

This volume contains the first three volumes of the Japanese version, and these stories are very episodic, focusing on an difficult assassination, a particular facet of feudal Japanese life, or a philosophical point.  It is not until several stories in that anyone recognizes Ogami for who he is, and even longer before even a partial explanation of his past.

Ogami is a stoic character who works hard not to give away his emotions; his tenderness towards Daigoro is almost entirely seen in his actions, not his face.  This does not prevent him from placing his son in danger if it will help with an assassination plan.  Daigoro himself is one of the most ambiguous characters I’ve ever read.  He seems most of the time to act like the small child he is, but in other instances is far too mature for his age, even allowing for the massive trauma Daigoro has undergone in his short life.  It makes him kind of creepy to be honest.

The art is dynamic and varied, able to handle both exciting battles and calm scenes of nature.  There’s a fair amount of reused faces, which with the episodic stories make the manga feel like a television series with a limited pool of guest star actors.

As expected from a samurai revenge story, there is plenty of violence and death; not all of Ogami’s assassination targets are evil people deserving of death.  In particular in this volume, one target is a Buddhist priest who must die for political reasons–he teaches Ogami how to attain mu (“emptiness”) which allows the assassin to strike without projecting sakki  (“killing intent”).  This becomes an important part of Ogami’s personal sword style going forward.

There is also quite a bit of female nudity, and at least one rape/murder scene.  Ogami himself is decent to the women he meets, but feudal Japanese society is not a good place for them.

Because of its influence on the subgenre of samurai manga, this series is well worth reading and rereading.  Recommended for fans of this sort of thing.

Book Review: Wintersmith

Book Review: Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

Tiffany Aching is a witch in training.  She in some ways is already a very powerful witch, and has endured some hard lessons that required growing up fast.  But she’s also very much a girl who’s almost thirteen.  Miss Treason, on the other hand, is over a century old and has not been a “girl” in a very long time.  So when she tells Tiffany not to move during a dance, it doesn’t occur to her to explain what the dance is or why moving during it is a bad idea.  Tiffany senses a spot in the dance that seems to be shaped for her, and her feet dance her right in.

Wintersmith

That was a huge mistake, as the dance is the change of seasons.  And now the Wintersmith, the personification of winter, has become fascinated by Tiffany.  He sees her as the Summer Lady somehow in his time, and wants to hold her forever.  And if Tiffany doesn’t make it to spring, then spring will never come…..

This is the third Tiffany Aching book within the Discworld setting; the first book in the sequence is The Wee Free Men.  Tiffany is a farm girl who grew up in sheep-herding country called The Chalk.  She’s very practical and straightforward, which serves her well in witchcraft.  (In the Discworld setting, witchcraft, while it certainly includes a heaping of magic, is more about being a “wise woman” who provides skills and knowledge to a rural area.)  On the other hand, she is very young and has many things to learn, and sometimes Tiffany will get her back up and turn stubborn at the wrong moment.

Tiffany is aided as always by the Nac Mac Feegles, tiny blue men that combine the more disturbing aspects of Smurfs with the more violent aspects of highland Scotsmen stereotypes.  They have their own special dialect, and there’s a glossary at the front that also helps readers and parents know what they’re in for with the Feegles.  The tiny men provide much of the comic relief in the book, and are usually annoyances, but they are helpful when pointed in the right direction.

As well, Tiffany interacts with the community of witches, from the fearsome Miss Treason who has mastered the art of Boffo, through the harsh but highly competent Granny Weatherwax and jolly Nanny Ogg to the vain and in way over her head Annagramma.  Each of them has lessons to teach Tiffany (yes, even Annagramma has her uses) and help her on the way in her Story.

And Roland, the baron’s son, Tiffany’s friend who is a boy, comes into play as he has his own problems, but sets them aside for the time being to be the Hero that the Story needs at a crisis point.  His highly unpleasant aunts sound like they will be an issue in the next volume.

The Wintersmith, of course, is the antagonist of the book.  As the anthropomorphic personification of the idea of winter, it isn’t evil.  But Tiffany’s mistake has thrown the Wintersmith out of balance, and unbalanced winter is highly dangerous.  Worse, it’s trying to make itself more human without understanding what that means or caring about the effects it has on others.  It chillingly (pun intended) follows a children’s rhyme about what “makes a man” until it gets to the most important ingredients and just skips those.  It’s both funny and scary when the Wintersmith tells random people “I am a human being.”

A nice twist of the book is that it starts with a version of the final showdown between Tiffany and the Wintersmith, then rewinds the story, reminding the reader “the future is always a bit wobbly.”  When we reach the ending again, things are somewhat different.

This is listed as a “Young Adult” book but should be fine for precocious middle-schoolers on up.  Some parents may be disturbed by references to sex and childbirth (no gory details), but it makes sense in setting; Tiffany’s a farm girl with older sisters in a society that doesn’t shy away from those topics.  But the important thing here is relationships and learning how to say “no” to ones that are not a good idea.  Younger readers should probably start with the first Tiffany Aching book.

Recommended to fantasy fans, young readers and fans of practical, straightforward women.

Magazine Review: The Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate

Magazine Review: The Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate edited by John Gaterud

Yes, this is yet another literary magazine; I picked up a bunch inexpensively at the book fair.  This one seems to take its title from Jack Kerouac’s writing; this first issue was published in 2007.

Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate

The index is unusual for this kind of magazine.  Rather than a linear index, or arranged by subject or type of literature, it’s by author.  It also doesn’t distinguish between fiction and non-fiction–while some pieces sound more fictional than others, you will need to make up your own mind.

Insert my usual comments about modern poetry here.  The most interesting ones for me are “Postcards to Mike” by Ed McManis, a set of verses describing a school trip to Europe, the small disasters and odd moments of traveling with students.

A couple of the pieces are very much written in 2006, and feel dated now with their jabs at the Bush administration.  Deserved jabs, but still.  “Letter from Iceland” by Bill Holm and “Letter from London” by Donna R. Casella are both most interesting as time capsules, I think.

Best of the prose pieces from my point of view was “O Mary, Where Art Thou?” by Suzanne Lillian Bunkers.  It’s an examination of the various appearances of Mary, mother of Jesus, with an emphasis on the sites that the author has personally visited.  One of the qualifications for authenticating a visit by Mary, it turns out, is conformity with Catholic doctrine.  If your vision of Mary has her advocating ordination of women, you’re out of luck officially.

Overall, the theme is of road trips and journeys.  Many of the pieces are sad or bittersweet; others are nostalgic.  I do not know if any further volumes were published by Blueroad Press.

As with other literary magazines I’ve reviewed, it seems decent if this kind of literature is your thing.

Book Review: Twin Cities Noir: The Expanded Edition

Book Review: Twin Cities Noir: The Expanded Edition edited by Julie Schaper & Steven Horwitz

Like the previously reviewed USA Noir, this is a collection of grittier crime stories from Akashic Books with a regional focus.  In this case, the cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in Minnesota, and the surrounded metro area, plus one up north in Duluth (“Hi, I’m God” by Steve Thayer; a teenager drowns in Lake Superior…or does he?)

Twin Cities Noir

This is the “expanded edition” released in 2013 with three new stories, bringing it to a total of eighteen.   The new ones are conveniently all in the front in the “Star of the North” subsection, starting with John Jodzio’s “Someday All of This Will Probably Be Yours”  about a speed dating scam gone wrong.  The other sections are “Minnesota Nice”, “Uff Da” and “Funeral Hotdish.”

Each of the stories is set in a particular neighborhood, several of which I’m familiar with.  One scene takes place less than a block from where I live!  This makes it easy for me to picture the action in my mind.  This may not be as evocative for non-locals, but will please readers in the Twin Cities area.

Some standouts:  “Skyway Sleepless” written and drawn by Tom Kaczynski takes place in Minneapolis’ extensive skyway system.  The art uses the rectangular boxes of the skyway to indicate the maze-like architecture of the story, as people are found filling chalk outlines and no memory of how they got there.

“The Brewer’s Son” by Larry Millett is a period piece set in 1892 Saint Paul, and starring his series character, saloonkeeper and amateur detective Shadwell Rafferty, acquaintance of Sherlock Holmes.  The title character has been kidnapped, supposedly by the Black Hand, and Mr. Rafferty is called in by the concerned father.  This is noir, so expect some darkness.

Mary Logue’s story “Blasted” takes place in upscale Kenwood, as a police officer tells her daughter about a domestic dispute call that was the most frightening experience of her life.  The officer is still alive, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t good reason for fear.

The final story is “”Chili Dog” by Chris Everhart.  A small time crook stops in downtown Saint Paul for lunch, and things go very wrong for him.

As a crime story anthology, there’s a fair bit of violence, one story features domestic abuse, and there’ mention of suicide.

If you are local to Minnesota, or have lived here in the past, highly recommended.  The book’s pretty good if you’re not local, but you might miss some of the nuance.  Akashic may have a volume set in your area; check their catalog.   If you own the previous version, you might want to save money by going with the e-book, so you can check out the new stories without shelling out the big bucks.

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Four

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Four by Makoto Yukimura

SPOILER WARNING:  This review contains spoilers for earlier volumes.  If you have not read them, please see my earlier reviews.

This manga’s main protagonist to this point has been Thorfinn, a young Viking serving in the mercenary band of Askeladd.  Years before, Askeladd treacherously slew Thorfinn’s father Thors, and the boy has sworn vengeance in a fair duel.  Recently, they’ve become involved with politics, clashing with the legendary warrior Thorkell the Tall (who turns out to be Thorfinn’s great-uncle) over the fate of Prince Canute, son of King Sweyn Forkbeard.

Vinland Sage Book Four

As of this volume, Canute has manned up, earning the respect and temporary service of both Thorkell and Askeladd.  Thorfinn tags along for his own reasons.  They come into the camp of King Sweyn, where the politics become hot and heavy.

Thorfinn meets a figure from his past, who offers him a last chance to turn away from the path of vengeance.  And then in Chapter 54, “End of the Prologue”, several of the subplots come to a head in a climax that isn’t shocking (It’s a Viking saga, everyone expected a bloodbath) but still manages to be surprising.

The next chapter finds us in Jutland (part of Denmark in modern times), with a new viewpoint character.  Einar has recently been enslaved, and is sold to a landowner who needs some forest land cleared.  Einar is less than happy with the whole slavery thing, but he meets one of the characters from the prologue, who has changed greatly.

Much of the focus in this volume is on Askeladd, whose full background is finally revealed, and whose complex motivations make him a key player in Prince Canute’s plans to take the throne.  We also see a fair bit of Canute himself, as he swiftly grows into the role he must play to stay alive.  Thorfinn, on the other hand, is mostly characterized by his refusal to turn from his destructive path; it seems likely he’ll have more development in the next volume.

In addition to the expected violence, some of which is quite graphic, there’s a bit of female nudity, and some implications about owners of slaves sexually mistreating them.  A fair amount of strong language as well.

The art and writing continue to be excellent.  Highly recommended for fans of Viking stories.

Book Review: White August

Book Review: White August by John Boland

It is one of the hottest Julys on record in Worchestershire.  In a time before air conditioning became common in Britain, the people are roasting in the summer heat.  So they are more bemused than frightened when it suddenly begins snowing.  English weather, isn’t it funny?

White August

Except that it doesn’t stop snowing.  For days.  As the temperature starts to drop, it becomes all too clear that this is not a natural phenomenon.  And as the snow starts to pile up, it is noticed that it’s also radioactive.   Britain is under attack by an unseen, unannounced foe with an inexplicable weapon; can science find an answer before it’s too late?

This 1955 novel is a quick read, positing a science fiction device that causes a massive environmental disaster.  (J.G. Ballard would later work in the same vein to better effect.)  The author works out the details of what a steady fall of snow for weeks on end would have on the infrastructure and society of 1950s Britain.

The government officials depicted in the story are remarkably competent and sensible for the disaster novel subgenre; even the American general is calm and reasonable.  The memory of the Blitz is resonant in this story, as people try to muddle through as best they can (though late in the novel, the commoners start going feral.)

The main hero of the story is William Barnaby Garrett, Doctor of Science.  He’s a bald, middle-aged scientist who has a thing for his secretary Mary, but more importantly, he used to work with the mad scientist the government is pretty sure is behind the snowfall.  Thus, his line of research might hold clues as to how to stop the disaster.

One of the more chilling aspects of the novel is that while everyone becomes reasonably sure Hans Bruderhof, a deformed Austrian with a hatred of humanity, is responsible, he never actually appears, it is never positively proved that he did it and his accomplices if any are never figured out.  There are no villainous monologues, no demands made, only a cold silence, freezing fog and the never-ending snow..  In the end, the British government is forced to have the Americans drop an atomic bomb on the presumed source of the problem.  The snow stops, but Bruderhof may not have been there, and the plans for the device may still be in the hands of Britain’s enemies.

Mary, alas, is in the book mostly to be a plot device, someone to show Garrett’s humanity by having him emote to and about her.  She’s not really even able to be an exposition person, as Garrett’s work is too secret for her to be kept in the loop.

There’s a lot of stereotypical British stiff upper lip going on, although some people do fold under pressure.

This would make a good summer vacation read, with its descriptions of cold and snow, but moving quickly.  It’s not something I’d recommend for serious reading, and it could stand some serious expansion of the subplots (better use of the female characters for a start.)

Manga Review: Vinland Saga, Book Three

Manga Review: Vinland Saga, Book Threeby Makoto Yukimura

Note:  This review will contain SPOILERS for the first two volumes.  If you do not want to be spoiled, see the reviews for those volumes instead.

Vinland Saga, Volume 3

It is the Twelfth Century C.E., the age of the Vikings.  Thorfinn Thorsson serves as a Viking warrior in the band of Askeladd.  But he does so only for the eventual chance to kill the treacherous murderer of his father in an honorable duel.  Askeladd himself holds secrets about his heritage and true loyalties.

In Volume Two,  Sweyn Forkbeard invaded England.  His son, Prince Canute, has fallen into the custody of Askeladd’s band, who are trying to get him back to his father’s camp in the middle of a harsh winter.  They are pursued by the English warriors under the command of Thorkell the Tall, a near-superhuman fighter who switched sides to get better battles.

In this volume, Thorkell and his men catch up with Askeladd’s band.  An epic battle between Thorfinn and Thorkell is the centerpiece, with Thorkell revealing some things about Thors that Thorfinn was unaware with.  Meanwhile, Prince Canute comes to a realization about his fate and makes a decision that may change the course of history.

As with previous volumes, the author’s research really shows (and he talks a bit about it in an interview at the back of the book.)  The art is detailed and dynamic, and the writing is layered.  Thorfinn remains something of a one-note character, but we can see the chips being made in his monomania, and ask what will become of him if he ever achieves his goal.

On the cautionary side, there’s a lot of over-the-top violence, so it’s for older teens and up.  There’s also  some theological discussion as to what “love” is that may be uncomfortable for some readers.

If you enjoyed the previous volumes of Vinland Saga, this one continues to be worth reading.

Book Review: White Fang

Book Review: White Fang by Jack London

Like many a lad, I read this classic adventure story when I was quite young (despite it most assuredly not being a children’s book.)  I have long planned to reread it when I had the opportunity, and was fortunate enough to get it for Christmas.

White Fang

For those who have forgotten the plot, or somehow never got to read the book, the title character, White Fang, is a wolf-dog crossbreed who is born in the wilds of the Yukon Territory.  He is captured by native humans and trained as a sled dog, then sold to a cruel white man who uses White Fang in cage fights.  Finally White Fang comes into the possession of a kind man who treats him with compassion and retires to California.

This book is based loosely on Mr. London’s own experiences as a sourdough in the Klondike gold rush, and is a mirror to his book Call of the Wild, which is about a dog from California that is shanghaied to the Klondike and eventually goes feral.  The story takes its own sweet time getting to White Fang.  The opening paragraphs begin with spruce trees and ice in the Wild, then introduce dogs, then the sled they are pulling, and only then the humans who own the sled.

These humans are fleeing a starving wolf pack, and they don’t all make it out alive.  We then follow the wolves for a while as their party dwindles.  Finally two are left, and they spawn a cub who is named White Fang a couple of chapters later.

The harsh realities of death are constantly brought up in the story–most of the animals and several of the humans we are introduced to die, some of them at the fangs of our protagonist himself.    There’s also a fair bit of musing on the “nature vs. nuture” question, though never put in those terms.   White Fang’s behavior is based on his inherited instincts, but heavily modified by his environment; thus when he is finally shown compassion, White Fang can learn to love.

This is contrasted in the final chapter with an escaped convict, Jim Hall, whose circumstances have turned him into a hardened killer.  (And in an instance of dramatic irony, has a genuine reason for his grudge against the judge who sentenced him to prison–he was innocent that time!)  Hall never got that moment of compassion, and has passed beyond human redemption.

As you might have gathered, there are many scenes of animal abuse in this book which may be too intense for young readers.  In addition, the story is a product of its time, and its portrayal of First Nations people is antiquated.  (While White Fang “instinctively” knows that the white men are superior to the Indians, it’s made clear that this superiority is confined to ability to project power.  The cruel Beauty Smith is a much worse dog owner than the harsh but practical Grey Beaver.)

There’s also some dubious canine behavior, some of which may be because Mr. London was genuinely mistaken, and other bits exaggerated to make the story more exciting.

Overall, this is really one of the great dog stories, and highly recommended to readers mature enough to handle the themes.  This story is in the public domain and you should be able to find it in an affordable edition (often paired with Call of the Wild) even new, or readily available at any used bookstore or library.

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