Monday, July 31, 2017

International Short Stories: American, edited by William Patten

From canon to commonplace
Washington Irving
What the rather confusing title/subtitle combination of International Short Stories: American doesn’t tell you is that this is one book of a trilogy which also includes volumes of French and English stories. This particular volume, a collection of 22 short stories by American authors, was edited by William Patten and published by P. F. Collier & Son in 1910. The selections contained within are an odd mix of the classic and the obscure. Glancing down the table of contents one can see that the book begins with some of the greatest names in American literature, followed by some also-rans, and then, with a few exceptions, concluding with the barely-heard-ofs. The result is that the first half of the book reads like a greatest stories of all-time collection, while the latter half comes across as a promotional showcase for up-and-coming unknowns.

In general, not surprisingly, the better-known authors provide the best stories. The book opens with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who’s not one of my personal favorites, but his story “The Prophetic Pictures” is better than his usual fare. This is followed by a line up of heavy hitters including Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, James Fenimore Cooper and Bret Harte. Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was likely America’s first literary masterpiece, and it still holds up excellently today. In the perfect combination of horror and humor, Irving manages to satirize American folklore while creating his own enduring piece of it. From Poe we get not one of his macabre horror tales but rather the satisfying treasure hunt adventure “The Gold-Bug.” Cooper’s offering, “Corporal Flint’s Murder,” is a solemn tale of White vs. Native American conflict, like a scene lifted straight out of the Leatherstocking Tales. From the mining camp sketches of champion yarn-spinner Harte comes “Uncle Jim and Uncle Billy,” a well crafted and vividly drawn tale of two inseparable claim partners who reach a critical point in their relationship.

So far so good, but overall the collection takes a downward dive from there. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s entry “The Notary of Perigueux” is a bit of a disappointment, given his illustrious name. Still, there are gems here and there. O. Henry delivers an entertaining tale with “The Count and the Wedding Guest.” Of the writers I would consider second-tier authors, Frank Stockton scores with a comedic yarn and Anna Katharine Green provides a tale of suspense reminiscent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. One of the best stories, “Miss Tooker’s Wedding Gift,” is by an author I’ve never heard of, John Kendrick Bangs. It concerns an idle rich man who goes to great lengths to prove his worth to the woman he loves, with hilarious results. Other pleasant surprises spring from the pens of F. Hopkinson Smith and Charles G. D. Roberts. Too many of the remaining selections are mediocre at best, with the worst being two brief fables by George Ade that amount to little more than dumb punch lines. When taken as a whole, however, the balance sheet is favorable, and the collection hits more than it misses.

You’re not going to find many tales of profound insight or emotional power here. Editor William Patten’s intention seems to have been to pleasantly entertain, so, with few exceptions, what you get are clever, lighthearted tales with surprise endings. This is by no means the best collection of century-old short fiction I’ve ever read, but it’s pretty good overall. Readers who like this sort of thing might also check out the Stories by American Authors series, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1884, of which volumes III, VI, and X are the best.

Stories in this collection
The Prophetic Pictures by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving 
The Gold-Bug by Edgar Allan Poe 
Corporal Flint’s Murder by James Fenimore Cooper 
Uncle Jim and Uncle Billy by Bret Harte 
The Notary of Perigueux by H. W. Longfellow 
The Widow’s Cruise by F. R. Stockton 
The Count and the Wedding Guest by O. Henry 
Miss Tooker’s Wedding Gift by John Kendrick Bangs 
The Fable of the Two Mandolin Players and the Willing Performer by George Ade 
The Fable of the Preacher Who Flew His Kite, But Not Because He Wished To Do So by George Ade

The Shadows on the Wall by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman 

Major Perdue’s Bargain by Joel Chandler Harris 

A Kentucky Cinderella by F. Hopkinson Smith 

By the Waters of Paradise by F. Marion Crawford 

A Memorable Night by Anna Katharine Green 

The Man From Red Dog by Alfred Henry Lewis 

Jean Michaud’s Little Ship by Charles G. D. Roberts 

Those Old Lunes! by W. Gilmore Simms 

The Chiropodist by Bayard Taylor

“Mr. Dooley on Corporal Punishment” by F. P. Dunne 

Over a Wood Fire by Donald G. Mitchell 

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Friday, July 28, 2017

Into the Wild by John Krakauer

The allure of wanderlust
Journalist and mountaineer John Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, published in 1996, is an expansion of an article he previously published in Outside magazine in 1993. The book is an investigative biography examining the life and death of Chris McCandless, who, immediately after graduating college, gave all his money to charity, broke all ties with his family, and embraced a life on the open road, sometimes living a primitive solitary lifestyle in remote natural areas. Krakauer tracks McCandless’s travels across North America from Atlanta to Alaska and engages in in-depth interviews with the people whom he met along the way. Unfortunately, this is a posthumous biography because McCandless died in Alaska, having chosen to venture alone into harsh conditions with minimal preparation. Krakauer pieces together the final days of McCandless’s life and conjectures as to the young man’s cause of death. The book is more than simply one man’s life story, however, as Krakauer uses McCandless as a case study to draw larger conclusions about our relationship with nature and the motives that drive some to take fatal risks.

Into the Wild is one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books, and I recently reread it for the second or third time. McCandless’s journey really speaks to me on a personal level. He and I are roughly the same age and both lovers of the literature of Jack London and classic literature in general. McCandless took the works of London, Tolstoy, and Thoreau to heart, adopting the ethical code of individualism and living in accordance with nature that they advocated and turning it into his own personal quest for spiritual enlightenment. In many ways I envy the freedom of McCandless’s deliberately nomadic existence. The conventions of society, the demands of work, the responsibilities of civilization, and the rules and regulations we are all constantly subject to leave little room for personal freedom or the nurturing of personal ethics. How many of us have occasionally thought life would be so much more meaningful if we could strip away all the bull and get back to the basic necessities of life? Well, McCandless pulled it off, for a while anyway. Sadly, it killed him in the process.

McCandless’s story combines romantic idealism with sometimes stupid mistakes and unforgivable hubris—wandering into the wilderness without a map and little food, for example. Krakauer does not let McCandless off the hook for his poor choices. McCandless’s wandering lifestyle is not portrayed as idyllic, but rather described with a balanced consideration of its rewards and faults. Thus, there’s something for everyone in this book, as one can make a case either to admire McCandless or to despise him.

In addition to his study of McCandless, Krakauer provides a fascinating overview of other idealists who chose to live “off the grid” under dangerous conditions. Most of these often foolhardy individuals ended up disappearing without a trace. One shocking example is Carl McCunn, who had himself flown into the remote Alaskan bush to live off the land for a few months but failed to arrange a pickup for a return trip. Krakauer adds a mountain climbing story of his own to the mix, which may or may not be relevant, but at least it’s well-told. All of these examples demonstrate a need for mankind to commune with the wild, partly to withdraw from society and partly to test one’s own mettle and fortitude. Though one may choose to write McCandless off as a crackpot hippie, one cannot deny that the call to go “into the wild” exists, and Krakauer gives it its proper due here by examining it in psychological and philosophical depth. Into the Wild is a thought-provoking, soul-stirring, and heart-wrenching book that I wholeheartedly recommend.
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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Ghost of a Model T and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Three

Weaker than other volumes in the series (but still very good)
The Ghost of a Model T and Other Stories is the fifth volume I’ve read in the Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series. I’m not reading them in numerical order, but rather just buying whichever ebooks get offered as Kindle Daily Deals. So far I’ve read and reviewed Volumes 1, 2, 7, and 8, all of which I rated five stars for excellence. Volume 3 proved to be less impressive than those other volumes. While it’s still a great collection of short stories that I enjoyed very much, I wasn’t blown away by it the way I had been by those other volumes.

That’s not to say there aren’t some exceptional stories here. The title selection, which closes the book, is likely the best of the bunch. In a tale told with great sensitivity and pathos, an aged man is picked up by a mysterious Model T that takes him on a nostalgic time travel trip. Another excellent piece is “Mirage,” about an archaeologist on Mars who meets up with some of the planet’s indigenous inhabitants. “Leg. Forst.” is a humorous tale of stamp collecting and alien visitation. “Condition of Employment” and “Founding Father” both deal with the hallucinations of space travelers, while “Byte Your Tongue!” highlights the desires of a daydreaming computer. “The Autumn Land” and “The Street That Wasn’t There” are spookier stories in which the very fabric of reality itself seems to unravel.

Also included in this collection is the story “City,” which would later be combined with several other stories to form the novel City, perhaps Simak’s best-known work. The story “City” is a tale of suburban flight run amok. On some points time has proven it prophetic, on others it’s just unrealistically exaggerated. “Physician to the Universe,” in which robots enforce a draconian system of health care, is another example of a social issue being taken to extremes. Last and also least, like other volumes in the series, this collection contains one western story, “No More Hides and Tallow.” Simak’s westerns are hit and miss, and this one is not so great, suffering from too much action without enough story to back it up.

The problem with Volume 3 may be more editorial than authorial. The contents here just seem more homogenous in style and tone than the other books in the series. Series editor David W. Wixon has not arranged Simak’s stories chronologically or thematically. Instead, each volume is just a grab bag of whatever Wixon chooses to put in, and the diversity is a big part of the fun. As you finish one story, you never know what you’re going to encounter next. With the exception of the one western, however, the selections in Volume 3 almost all seem to fall into that amorphous area of science fiction best exemplified by The Twilight Zone: strange and mysterious phenomena take place that are never satisfactorily explained or justified. The approach is more emotional than scientific, emphasizing the psychological effect on the characters. These tales are sometimes humorous, often wistful and nostalgic. The darker ones mildly touch on the horror genre, but they’re more thought-provoking than scary. What this collection really could have used is a few more examples of theoretical hard science fiction like “Mirage” mixed into the bunch.

I plan to read the entire fourteen-volume series of Simak’s complete short fiction, and I certainly don’t regret reading this one. If you’re only planning on reading a few volumes, however, I would recommend books 1, 2, 7, or 8 over this one.

Stories in this collection
Leg. Forst. 
Physician to the Universe 
No More Hides and Tallow
Condition of Employment 
The Autumn Land 
Founding Father
Byte Your Tongue! 
The Street That Wasn’t There 
The Ghost of a Model T

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Monday, July 24, 2017

Wind River by James Reasoner and L.J. Washburn

Where the railroad ends, trouble begins
When I travel to Wyoming I like to read a Wyoming novel. This year I decided to give James Reasoner and L.J. Washburn’s 1994 book Wind River a try. The story takes place in the fictional town of Wind River, which is confusingly described as being about 80 miles west of Laramie. That would put it more likely on the North Platte than the Wind River and closer to the Snowy Range than the Wind River Range, though the novel often mentions the latter as being visible from the town.

Anyway, when the story opens, the young town of Wind River has just become the western terminus of the Union Pacific Railroad. Railroad construction has brought some undesirable characters with it, from rough-and-tumble track workers to shiftless drifters or “hardcases” with seemingly no other purpose than to cause trouble. Violent clashes between these two groups have drawn attention to the need for law and order in the town. With work on the tracks recently completed, the citizens of Wind River gather to celebrate the arrival of the first locomotive. A fistfight breaks out among the crowd, and one of the town’s eminent founders is killed by a stray gunshot. Present at the incident is Cole Tyler, who has been hunting buffalo in the region, providing meat for the railroad workers. When the trouble goes down at the train station, he demonstrates a level head, a quick draw, and a commanding presence that demands respect. Tyler is invited to serve as the town’s first marshal, and he reluctantly accepts. He soon finds himself not only keeping the peace in this frontier town, but also working to solve a murder.

I’m not a habitual reader of westerns but I am an avid fan of western films. Wind River reads as if it were written with hopes of a movie adaptation. Each scene and character is familiar, like those you’ve seen in countless westerns on the silver screen, yet Reasoner and Washburn skillfully manipulate the players in this drama to keep the story from being bogged down in western clichés. The introduction of each new character is intriguing, as each has their own personal mysteries that keep the reader engaged. Since this is a town western rather than a range western, you not only get cowboys and cattle rustlers but an entire ensemble cast of characters including the doctor, the newspaper editor, the blacksmith, and the woman who runs the local cafe. This opens up a lot of narrative possibilities and provides a broader picture of western life than a simple good vs. evil shoot-’em-up, though it’s still a romanticized depiction of the West.

As the book goes on, Wind River becomes less like a movie and more like a TV series, along the lines of Gunsmoke or Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman. As the mystery reaches its resolution and the bad guys are revealed, the story lines become more predictable, and the action starts to feel safe. It becomes apparent that this will be the first novel in a Wind River series, and once the reader figures that out then it’s obvious that none of the important characters will die, since they all have to return for the next installment. As the stakes become lower, the novel becomes less exciting, and one can expect the ending to be wrapped up with a neat little bow.

Still, Wind River is better than a lot of western literature I’ve read. Like the TV series mentioned above, it’s easy to get involved with these characters. Though I generally prefer my western tales darker and grittier, I might pick up the next Wind River book the next time I go to Wyoming.
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Friday, July 21, 2017

Dune by Frank Herbert

Not just a sci-fi masterpiece but a masterpiece, period.
I know a lot of Star Wars nuts, Harry Potter nuts, and Lord of the Rings nuts, but I was always a Dune nut. I first read Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel as a teenager in the ‘80s, and I recently had the pleasure of reading it again for the fourth or fifth time. Like the works mentioned above, much of the attraction of Dune comes from the intricately detailed world in which it is set. In fact, I have never read another single-volume work that creates a more fully realized fictional universe. Herbert has exquisitely conceived this world in multiple dimensions: political, religious, cultural, ecological, historical, and linguistic, to name a few. Dune is more than just a pretty backdrop, however, as the wonderful world Herbert has created sets the stage for an equally epic story.

Through a diplomatic agreement, House Atreides, one of many noble families in an interplanetary feudalistic society, have been assigned and/or sentenced by the Emperor to relocate to the desert planet Arrakis, nicknamed Dune. There they will take over the management of the planet’s priceless natural resource, a spice named melange that acts as a prescience-enhancing drug. The Atreides fear the move to Arrakis may be a trap set by the Emperor in collusion with their rivals the Harkonnens. Paul Atreides, the son of the Duke, is the end result of an extensive breeding program for genetic excellence. As he reaches manhood, he begins to show signs of superhuman mental abilities. The Fremen, desert people indigenous to Arrakis, have foretold the coming of a messiah, and Paul just might be it.

Though an excellent novel, Dune is not an easy read. There is a great deal of foreshadowing to upcoming events, as well as flashbacks and references to fictional history, to the point where the lines between past, present, and future are often blurred, much like the time-spanning visions of the book’s hero. The effect can be disorienting. In addition, Herbert has crafted a unique vocabulary for Dune, enough to fill over 20 pages of appendix. While labor intensive, all these thoughtful details enhance the authenticity of the world in which the reader is immersed.

What’s never mentioned explicitly in the text (though alluded to in the appendices) is that the story takes place tens of thousands of years in our future. The characters are descendants of the human diaspora that emigrated from Earth to colonize other worlds. This is evident from the religious and linguistic artifacts that have persisted over millennia. The Fremen, for example, exhibit cultural traits that are Arabic and Islamic in origin, though mingled with elements of Christianity and Buddhism. Over 10,000 years prior to the story of Dune, a cataclysmic war between man and machine took place, known as the Butlerian Jihad. As a result, computers and robots are absent from the world of Dune. Instead, humans have developed their physical and mental abilities to the utmost through rigorous training, eugenics, and drugs. Mentats, for example, specialize as human computers, while Paul and his mother, among others, are trained in the “weirding way,” a sort of martial art combined with hypnotic suggestion.

If any of this sounds familiar from Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and so on, just remember that Dune was here first. There are very few works of science fiction created since 1965 that don’t to some degree owe a debt of gratitude to Herbert’s masterpiece. Dune is often cited as the greatest sci-fi novel ever published, and rightfully so, in my opinion. Frank Herbert would go on to add five sequels to the Dune canon before he died, and his son and other writers have published numerous ancillary works set in the Dune universe. The first is still the best, however. If you’ve never before dabbled in the Dune world, treat yourself to a fascinating and engrossing literary experience. If you’ve read it before, by all means read it again.

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Clapton: The Autobiography by Eric Clapton

Slowhand, warts and all
I’m a lifelong Eric Clapton fan, though I can’t say I like everything he puts out. I am familiar with all stages of his musical career, but prior to reading his 2007 autobiography entitled Clapton I knew very little about his personal life other than disjointed anecdotes here and there. In this book, the guitarist extraordinaire offers a candid look back at his roller coaster life. Overall, it’s a pretty satisfying tour through about a half century of rock and roll history. I may not always have enjoyed the ride that Clapton took me on, but I was always thoroughly engaged by it.

Perhaps the defining moment in Clapton’s life is his much-discussed romance with George Harrison’s wife Patti Boyd, the inspiration for the Layla album and other songs in Clapton’s body of work. That particular episode proves not to be quite as romantic as the music that was composed around it. Here Clapton admits that as soon as he won Boyd’s love he began cheating on her. In fact, Clapton treats a lot of women like dirt in this book, and delves pretty deeply into the psychological hows and whys of it all. To his credit, however, unlike Pete Townshend in his autobiography Who I Am, Clapton doesn’t ask you to forgive him, beg you to like him, or expect you to admire his exploits. He simply relates everything in a matter-of-fact way, as if to say these are some bad things I’ve done, and there’s nothing I can do about them now.

Clapton is equally candid about his substance abuse, and his story of recovery is inspiring. One can’t help but admire the way he eventually turned his life around. Yet the book is frustrating because for most of its length he is still very much an emotional child. He doesn’t really get his act together until his mid-50s, when he marries a woman 30 years his junior. At that point you’re happy for him, but the book also starts to get boring as Clapton becomes your grandpa, talking about “computer culture” (owning a laptop), shopping for shoes in Japan, and the necessity of taking a nap every afternoon.

As revealing and cathartic as all the talk about his drug use and alcoholism may be, the reader is left wishing Clapton had devoted more ink to his music. He covers Blind Faith, Cream, and Derek and the Dominos pretty well, but glosses over much of his solo career. He left the Yardbirds because their music was too poppy and not true to the blues, but he doesn’t feel the need to justify his later forays into easy listening, smooth jazz, and Luther Vandross-style R&B. Some of his greatest albums, like Slowhand, he dismisses as sloppy, drunken playing. His own personal favorite is Pilgrim, an album which critics frequently cite as one of his all-time worst.

A really good rock and roll biography will make me want to go back and dig out that artist’s old albums, thereby reliving some of his or her glory days. This book didn’t do that for me. As much as I love his guitar playing, I’d have to say my respect for the man diminished a bit after reading his life story. Not only were some of his moral choices off-putting, but he just doesn’t come across as intelligent as you might expect a virtuoso musician to be. I’m not here to criticize Clapton’s life, however, but rather to review his book. There’s no denying that Clapton the book is well written and covers a lot of what you’d want to know about the man. It isn’t always fun or exciting, but it’s consistently informative, surprisingly candid, and provides a great deal of insight into the man behind the music.
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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Stories by English Authors: Italy by James Payn, et al.

Manages to make Rome, Venice, and Florence seem dull
Laurence Oliphant
This book of short stories is one of ten volumes in the Stories by English Authors series that was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1896. The five stories included here all take place in Italy, hence the subtitle of this particular volume. In Western civilizations, Italy was traditionally viewed as the world’s wellspring of art, literature, and culture, at least until the late 19th century when it may have been supplanted or at least matched by Paris. Anyone with money or artistic talent was expected to make a pilgrimage to Rome, Florence, and Venice at some point in their lives, and the characters of these stories are no exception. These five works of short fiction are all tales of Brits in Italy. If you’re a lover of Italy yourself you’re unlikely to find much satisfaction here. These stories give very little insight into Italy’s ambience or culture, and are for the most part rather annoying in their concentration on rich people’s petty problems. The characters show little affinity for the country in which they happen to be traveling. Through their eyes it is merely a box on their bucket lists that needs to be checked off.

The book opens with “A Faithful Retainer” by James Payn, in which a rich young Englishman is sent to Italy to get over his gambling vice. This is a boring and predictable piece, with a very thin plot dressed up with weak humor. “Bianca” by W. E. Norris is about a Brit in Venice who’s friendship with an Austrian officer obligates him to assist in the fellow’s elopement with an Italian mistress. In A. Mary F. Robinson’s “Goneril” we find a young woman with the unfortunate name of Gonerilla enjoying an extended sojourn in Florence, where she makes the acquaintance of an older gentleman who takes an interest in her. These first three offerings are all rather formulaic and dull. Italy merely serves as a backdrop for stories that could just as well have been told in England, and in fact have been told many times before by other and better authors.

The best entry in the book, and that’s not saying much, is “The Brigand’s Bride” by Laurence Oliphant. It’s about an English adventurer who goes to Italy seeking excitement and gets involved in the country’s ongoing civil war. He winds up falling in love with the wife of the leader of one of the bandit gangs he’s been commissioned to suppress. This is an amusing romantic tale, but a little slow in pace and longer than it needs to be.

Even Anthony Trollope can’t save this collection. His “Mrs. General Talboys” concerns an Englishwoman who travels to Rome with her daughter, leaving her husband behind. Though she is faithful to her spouse, to others she is vocal in her advocacy of freedom from the conventions of matrimony, an attitude that inadvertently wins her a suitor. The piece is well drawn by Trollope, but he treats his own heroine with such mean-spiritedness you never really care about the characters, and the overall effect is unpleasant.

This is the ninth volume I have read in the Stories by English Authors series, and this book on Italy can rightfully vie with the one on Ireland for worst volume in the series. The only story worth reading is Oliphant’s, and I can only give that one a halfhearted endorsement. In general the series has been a rather lackluster showcase of late 19th-century British fiction, but two volumes, one on Africa and the other on Germany and Northern Europe, are pretty good and worth a look.

Stories in this collection
A Faithful Retainer by James Payn 
Bianca by W. E. Norris 
Goneril by A. Mary F. Robinson 
The Brigand’s Bride: A Tale of Southern Italy by Laurence Oliphant 
Mrs. General Talboys by Anthony Trollope

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