What I’m Reading

I’ve been experimenting with ways to share what is coming up next. Usually I put this on a different page, but then it also tends not to get seen, likely due to the absence of share buttons. Let me know what you think. Is it better to post it separately, or do you like it here?

 

Here are books I’ve finished reading, and as soon as a sane moment presents itself in my uncharacteristically busy domicile, you will see them reviewed here:

 This is what I am reading now; all are good, but some are outstanding. [Imaginary drum roll goes here.]

The Shipshape Miracle and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak*****

TheShipshapeMiracleThis is volume 10 of a complete collection of the writings of Clifford D. Simak, who won 3 Nebula awards, 1 Hugo Award, and was the third Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 1977. It’s my sixth volume of Simak’s stories, and it’s my favorite so far, which is saying a good deal. Thanks go to Net Galley, Open Road Media, and David W. Wixon, whose brief, useful notes set context for each of these stories. Wixon and Open Road have republished Simak’s work digitally for new generations to enjoy; I received a DRC in exchange for this honest review.

For those new to Simak’s work, here’s a thumbnail sketch. He began writing in the 1930’s, submitting short stories to various magazines, and continued writing stories and novels into the early 1980’s. He wrote a few war stories during the mid-1940’s, then continued writing Westerns and science fiction. Both of these genres make it into this volume, and although when I began reading Simak, I questioned the choice to foist annoying cowboy stories on sci fi readers, I came to see that it’s not easy to tease them apart in every case. One of my favorite stories here, “Rim of the Deep”, is about a journalist named Grant who is given the dreaded assignment of chasing a story in an undersea city. Once he is down there, it becomes a tongue-in-cheek underwater cowboy story:

“‘You think there’s a gang of robbers down in that deep?’ asked Grant.
‘That’s the only place they could be,’ said Gus. ‘It’s bad country and hard to get around in. Lots of caves and a couple of canyons that run down to the Big Deep. Dozens of places where a gang could hide.’
Gus sipped gustily at the coffee. ‘It used to be right peaceable down here,’ he mourned. ‘A man could find him a bed of clams and post the place and know it was his. Nobody would touch it. Or you could stake out a radium workings and know that your stakes wouldn’t be pulled up…But it ain’t that way no more. There’s been a lot of claim jumping and clam beds have been robbed. We kind of figure we’ll have to put a stop to it.'”

The story is chock full of whimsy, and includes a pet octopus named Butch that bounds after them like a dog and occasionally does something heroic. I love it.

And this is the thing I love about old-school science fiction in general and Simak in particular: the reader doesn’t need a technical background to read and enjoy these stories. There are no jokes that only a programmer can understand; Simak writes fiction and writes it well, and so we liberal arts types can sit back and enjoy the stories.

In addition, the period in which the writing was done actually adds to the whimsy. For example, another favorite in this collection, “How-2”, is about a man that orders a kit to make himself a mechanical pet dog and inadvertently ends up with a very valuable robot instead. I won’t give the rest of the story away other than to tell you it’s hilarious, and I can’t imagine the author wrote it without laughing himself silly, but there’s also the unintentional hilarity of having a robot that can do almost anything imaginable, asking for a paper and pencil so that he can make a list of the things the protagonist desires. A pencil! I love it.

The collection contains 9 stories. One is a straight Western that I started and then gave myself permission to skip. That’s okay, though; the other 8 stories make this tasty collection worth the purchase price. (One story, “Paradise”, is a sequel to the story “Desertion”, which is included in an earlier collection, and if possible you should read it first.) I would not have named the collection for the story Wixon chose, but it’s also a strong story; it’s just a matter of taste. I happened to love at least 3 of these others more.

Finally, the reader should know two things: first, Simak was a creature of his time. Although he is more progressive than most writers of the mid-20th century, there are a couple of baldly sexist moments. This reviewer grew up watching reruns of television shows and movies produced in the 1950’s, and to hate Simak’s work, one would also have to hate every stinking one of those productions also. However, in the brief philosophical metaphors and other indirect allusions, Simak shows himself to have been unusually progressive where civil rights were concerned. Again, such references are oblique, since most of the featured characters aren’t actually even human.

The other thing the reader should know is that these collections are only available digitally. They’re ridiculously cheap, so those that love great old-school science fiction should order this collection and read it. Those that want it on paper will have to hunt up some used books most likely, and they will be either single stories or different groups within a given volume.

This collection is strongly recommended for all that love excellent science fiction.

Summertime, and the Reading is Easy

On my radar for July and August:

The Accomplished Guest, by Ann Beattie*****

theaccomplishedguest Ann Beattie is a seasoned writer with a list of accolades as long as your arm, and this is why I requested a DRC of her soon-to-be-published short story collection, whose theme is visitors and travel. I was not disappointed. Thank you Net Galley and Scribner for letting me read it free and early in exchange for this honest review. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, June 13.

The first selection is droll; our protagonist is going to see an older man, and so we wonder…is this a boyfriend? Is it an ex? And as we move down the checklist, I love what she does with it. The next couple of selections are good but not as striking, but then the wind catches in Beattie’s sails and she is unstoppable.  Other favorites here are “Other People’s Birthdays”, “The Debt”, and “The Cloud”. I found myself highlighting most of the text, which is wasted effort, since I can’t quote most of the book to you, but it’s something that happens to me when I read top-drawer fiction. The story I loved best is “The Caterer”, which made me laugh out loud and woke Mr. Computer, who was slumbering next to me and had to get up the next day for work.

Short stories are wonderful bedtime material, because there isn’t the wrenching sensation in tearing oneself loose from the book. When the story is over, it’s time to bookmark one’s place and turn out the light. I’ve read over a hundred short story collections, and this one is among the best.

Highly recommended to those that love excellent prose, and in particular to Boomers.

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, by Samantha Irby*****

wearenevermeetingGet out your plastic and go use the restroom, because this book will leave you holding your sides. Samantha Irby mines what ought to be old material but isn’t, at least not by the time she is done with it, and her edgy, plain-truth humor may leave you breathless by the time the last page is turned. My thanks go to Net Galley and Knopf Doubleday for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review. This book has just been released and is available for purchase.

Much of the base level subject matter is eternal and well worn: needing to use the bathroom while stuck in traffic; dating; racism; attempting to lose weight. But Irby has a fresh take on everything. She refers to herself as “old”, and since at 36 she is the age of this blogger’s eldest child, I suspect that I am not her target audience. But so much of what she says is eternal, and her take on current social concerns such as cop violence and the horror of stumbling upon a bunch of white people in the hinterland performing a Civil War reenactment complete with Confederate flags is welcome and resonant. The thread in which she voices the horror of being away from a major urban center is one I share. I have not laughed at potty humor since I was twelve, but the essay containing the traffic jam bathroom emergency on the way home from the dorm made me laugh hard enough to shake the bed, and my husband—a silver-haired Japanese gentleman old enough for Social Security—laughed hard enough that he was doubled over. The passage where she discusses having squandered money on things she doesn’t need just to prove she can do it is just one instance where I laugh because I am surprised. What writer ever admits this? Irby does.

Other aspects of this wonderful collection of essays were more educational than resonant, but also good to read. Can Black women admit they have mental health issues and still be Black?

Her cover model represents the cat from hell, Helen Keller:

“’I know where they keep the euthanasia solution,’ I whispered into the downy fur on top of her head.”

Every book blogger knows the pressured feeling that comes with scooping up a galley right before publication. When I begin the book, all I want is to read it fast so I can review it in a timely manner; yet by the time I turn the final page, I am disappointed that we are done here.

Highly recommended to strong women with an offbeat sense of humor, and those that love them.

You Can Have a Dog When I’m Dead, by Paul Benedetti***-****

youcanhaveadogwhenThis is a collection of funny stories and brief essays. It’s geared for the Boomer generation, and is billed basically as bathroom reading. Thank you to Net Galley and Dundurn Press for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. I rate this book with 3.5 stars and round it upward; it will be available to the Canadian public –and presumably anyone anywhere that wants to buy it digitally—February 17, 2017.

I confess I made an assumption when I saw the title. I was expecting jokes and essays dealing with man’s best friend; actually, I find very few stories related to dogs, but an unexpected number related to death. Of course, many of the essays are not humorous, but of a more reflective nature. This is all well and good, and the quality of the writing is worthy of such a sobering topic. But when I saw the book billed as being similar to the work of Dave Barry, I wasn’t anticipating reflections on my own mortality. I was expecting jokes.

That aside, there are indeed some very funny pieces here, and although I am on the borderline in terms of being in—or out—of the Boomer generation, a lot of the humor does resonate. I love seeing Benedetti try to explain a home phone to a young person:

 

“I should probably explain to anyone under thirty that a home phone is an actual device about the size of a toaster that remains in your house. The reason you cannot take it with you to the bar, to your class, and into the toilet, where I’m sure you’re receiving very important calls, is that it’s attached by wires directly to the wall in your house.”

 

I enjoy the piece on his garden, and about his elderly mother’s dance class.  I am disquieted to learn that every person, real or imagined, in any of these stories is assumed by the writer to be Caucasian.

I also find myself wondering why every story has to have booze in it somewhere. Wine, beer, whiskey, Bailey’s, more beer, more wine, gin, Kahlua…what’s up with this?

Should you pick up a copy for yourself? I suppose that depends upon what the purchase price looks like and how much time you spend at home. If it’s affordable and you are retired, you might like to have it. If the price tag is hefty, you may want to wait.

But I imagine Mr. Benedetti would prefer you to purchase it before you get that dog. Because…yeah.

 

1917, by Boris Dralnyuk**

1917I received my DRC for this collection courtesy of Net Galley and Pushkin Press. I thank them for the opportunity to read and review; this compilation of poetry and prose will be for sale on December 1, 2016. What a crying shame it’s so negative.

There are a few of us left out here—dinosaurs, to be sure—that regard the initial two or three years of the Russian Revolution as an inspirational time, a time when the working class and the Russian peasantry cast off their shackles, ran the brutal, entitled royal family and their minions out of power and eventually to a richly deserved death, and took control of their lives and their nation. When I saw this collection, I believed that this perspective would be represented here somewhere.

Instead, we read poetry about the Tsar’s wine. Oh, no! They destroyed all that expensive wine! Give me a break. Millions of peasants freed from bondage, and all we hear about is the wine casks, and some sorrowful reflections that lament the defeat of the Mensheviks—the party that tried to halt the progress of the revolution and create a bourgeois democratic state. All those sorrowful White Russians weeping into their vodka.

Do I have a bias? Of course I do, but unlike our editor here, I admit mine. The introduction to this thing, which is overlong and somewhat duplicitous, tells us that rather than relate the various political positions that were held during this cataclysmic time, we should instead look at feelings, at experiences. But everyone’s feelings during this tremendous upheaval, a time when the news footage at the time of the revolution shows throngs of joyful Russian workers screaming with enthusiasm, is apparently either sorrowful—aw geez, the poor royals—or conflicted. Not one person is glad it happened.

Poetry and prose are, at their root, political, and in rewriting history, Dralyuk demonstrates this. This collection is revisionist dross.

One other comment I’d make is that when editors decide to republish historic writing, they are often deluded as to how much of their own prose readers are looking for. For every piece, for every author, there is way too much introductory narrative. I really just want to read the work itself, not so much Dralyuk’s discussion of them. Had I enjoyed most of the poetry and prose, I would have upgraded this review to three stars and stated that it is hard to find the original work amidst the rambling discussion. Generally, the poem is short, the introduction is long; lather, rinse, repeat. The same is true of the prose.

So to those lonely Marxists out there hoping for literature, for poetry that’s in English and available readily in the US, I have to say, put that plastic away, because this isn’t that.

Earth for Inspiration and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak*****

earthforinspirationClifford D. Simak wrote for decades during the mid-twentieth century.  His close friend, David W. Wixon, has undertaken, with Simak’s approval in his declining years, to collect all of the stories that were published in various magazines and anthologies beginning in the 1930’s and ending before the digital age was off the ground. This one is volume 9, and it’s an interesting hodgepodge of the very best—which is most of it—and the very worst, which is just two stories. Needless to say, I thought a lot about how I should rate such a collection.

Finally, I decided that price would be the deciding factor. If it was going to set you back twenty or thirty bucks, then I’d have to cut it down the middle and call it three stars, which would be sad but fair. However, I logged onto the big A and found it’s sold digitally for six bucks. At this price, you’re paying a buck each for six absolutely stellar short stories; there are three more good ones thrown in; and you can afford to skip the two stinkers. Given that factor, I’m rating this 4.5 stars, with just half a star gone for the two missable stories, which I’ll talk about in a moment.

Thank you Net Galley and Open Road Media for the DRC, the fifth Simak collection I have received from them. I sat on this one for a long time because I’d been reading a lot of his work, and was beginning to get grumpy at the similarities among some of them. Just how many different characters can a writer name “Doc” and remain credible? But then I realized that when Simak submitted his stories to various periodicals, names were about the least important aspect of his work, because he wrote them never dreaming that his writing would be important enough to appear in an entire series, back to back. Who knew he would become so successful?

During the 1940s and 1950s, as Wixon points out, science fiction was barely off the ground—pun intended—and Westerns were massively in style. I guess you could say they were the zombie apocalypse of their time; if a writer wanted to pay his rent without having to work a day job, he had to write some westerns. And since Wixon is publishing all of Simak’s stories rather than the best-of, he has to insert the few losers somewhere also.

So let’s just get the bad stuff over with so I can tell you what’s great here. The bad ones are sandwiched midway through the collection and appropriately flanked by good writing before and after. “Hellhound of the Cosmos” is bad enough that Wixon’s preface—a brief paragraph appearing before each story—says he “…will not try to excuse this story’s failings” by pointing out that Simak wrote it in 1931, at the very get-go of his career. Fine; don’t. But it’s a really dumb story, and I’d hate to see you use it as a yardstick by which to measure this man, who would become a Grand Master of sci fi. Read it or skip it, but this is not the story I recommend.

Further along we have “Good Nesters Are Dead Nesters”. This one is actively offensive, and if it were written today, I might well shoot down the entire collection because of it. But I know from the things I heard during my childhood that the language used here, while truly offensive, was also commonplace back then. The US was a lot whiter; the interstate was a new thing; satellite communication wasn’t yet dreamed of. People lived in isolated areas and got stupid ideas about what other people were like, largely due to stereotypes promoted in the news, on radio, and on black and white television.

So although I—married to an Asian immigrant—am as pissed as anyone about the singsong caricature of the Chinese cook, I also know this was a widely accepted way to regard people from China and Japan. As if that’s not terrible enough, a disabled person is referred to as a helpless, “twisted cripple”. Ohhh, no thank you. As you can imagine, I quickly gave myself permission to make a note and then skim till I reached the next story.

However, the stories that flank the collection, starting with the title story and ending with “Full Cycle”, are outstanding.  The latter is written in the 1950s, and reflects both the reality of a pair of Atomic bombs having been dropped in Japan eleven years before it was written, as well as the anti-communist hysteria so prevalent in the news. The idea is that all cities are decentralized, because a bomb might be dropped on a large urban center, but the USA is a very big place, and so small, mobile communities, all of them having traded their houses for trailers, is now the way Americans live. It’s very cleverly put together conceptually, and Amby, the protagonist, is so well drawn that at times, I wanted to weep for him.

“Honorable Opponent” has to do with a US planetary colony that has just been defeated by another planet’s military. The result took me entirely by surprise, and I think I’ll remember this story after I’ve read other science fiction by other authors. The same is true of “Carbon Copy”, a fine tale combining  science fiction, ruthless capitalism, and brilliant imagination. “Desertion” is another stellar story. If you want to read science fiction that makes your dreams sweet, read this one at bedtime. “Golden Bugs” is equally clever.

So for the price you pay, there is too much good writing here to turn your back on. My records tell me that over time I have read over 100 short story collections, which is about 90 more than I ever expected to read, and yet this one is outstanding among them. For those that love old school science fiction, this one, with the caveats mentioned, is highly recommended, and it’s available now.

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, edited by Otto Penzler*****

TheBigBookofXmasNote to the reader: I originally posted this when my blog was just a few months old, and I was still struggling with basic issues, such as how to insert the book cover into the text. Now the holiday season is here again, and I am running my review–with some basic technical adjustments–one more time, because in the past two years, I haven’t found a Christmas book I like better than this one. It’s the only book I’ve found since I’ve been writing reviews that I found worth actually buying not just one but two copies at full price to give as gifts. For those that love Christmas stories and mysteries, this one’s for you!

I received this wonderful collection last year as an ARC from the “first read” program via the Goodreads.com giveaways. At the time, I didn’t have a blog; I reviewed it on Goodreads and because I liked it so well, I also reviewed it on Amazon. Then, while I was on the site, I bought two copies to give as gifts. I have never done that with an ARC before or since (so far), but it is so wonderful that I wanted others to have it, and I wasn’t willing to share mine.

Now the season is upon us. This blog will be punctuated by worthwhile Christmas books of a secular variety. I guess it is a typical retired-teacher behavior to decorate my home with brightly jacketed Christmas books when others are getting out their craft supplies and hot glue guns. At any rate, if you buy just one Christmas book for yourself or someone else, and if the reader enjoys mysteries, this is the best you will find.

The stories are organized according to category in a format and layout that is congenial all by itself. There are ten sections, starting with “A Traditional Christmas”, with the first entry being one by Agatha Christie; it is a story that has aged well, and I don’t remember having read it even though I thought I’d read everything by that writer. There are a few more, and range from just a few pages, double columns on each page, to 25 or 30 pp. Then we move on to “A Funny Little Christmas”. The first there is a story by the late great Donald Westlake, and I gobbled it up and then felt bad that I hadn’t saved that story for last, because I adore his work and he’s gone and can’t write anything more. But I perked up when I noted that yet another section, “A Modern Little Christmas”, has an unread (by me) story by Ed McBain. There are many others. The final section, “A Classic Little Christmas”, bookends the anthology neatly by finishing with Dame Agatha. All told there must be about sixty stories, maybe more.

The anthology, edited by the brilliant and acclaimed Otto Penzler, is billed as having a number of rare or never-published short stories, and I think it’s a true claim. There are many mystery writers I’ve read and enjoyed here, and others I had never even heard of, but found immensely entertaining. I haven’t skipped any yet, but even if I find something I don’t care to read, the book is worth owning. I know that already. It is also billed as an anthology to warm the heart of any grinch, and indeed, there has been at least one story with a satisfyingly creepy ending.

One of the charming things about anthologies is that one can read a single story in a sitting and not feel too bad when it’s time to put the bookmark in and go get something done. Then it waits there to greet us as we return from executing less pleasurable tasks, a reward that invites us to sit down, curl up with good cup of coffee or the dog or both and have a cozy read. It also makes the book a lovely thing to keep where guests can access it, because they can enjoy it even if they haven’t time to read more than a story or two in between other activities.

…but I’m keeping you. You could be reaching for your car keys, your bus pass, or even better, going to another window to find this book online and order it. Once you see it, you will most likely feel as I do…unwilling to part with your own copy, yet yearning to get at least one more for somebody else! Get the plastic out and do it right away.

Murder in Dragon City, by Qin Ming**

murderindragonIs there a killer on the loose in Dragon City, one that’s trailing body parts everywhere he goes?  I received my DRC in exchange for this honest review, thanks to Net Galley and Amazon Crossing.  This collection of stories l is written by a Chinese medical examiner, translated to English by Alex Woodend. I’m always up for something new, and so I took my galley and curled up. Unfortunately, this one just never gelled for me. I tried setting it aside, reading other things and coming back to it, hoping that with fresh eyes I would like it more than I had before; finally I had to face the fact that I couldn’t write a happy review and also be honest.

It happens.

Undoubtedly the strongest aspect of this story in my view is, as one might expect, the forensic detail and physical knowledge the author commands. But that can cut two ways, if you’ll pardon the expression. Some of us just love gore, and the more fleshy fingers or toes that land in sizzling oil, the more we eat it up.

On the other hand, some of us are completely grossed out by frequent, grisly findings, and this author put his thumb on my “ick” button and never took it off.

One other thing I like and that’s consistent is that Chinese cops that find corpses or find themselves in strange, scary situations don’t feel compelled to feign indifference. There’s no noir to be found here, just honest cops that yelp when they are scared and that dive when they hear a loud noise near a crime scene. The candor is refreshing and sometimes funny.

Obviously, each story has a different spin to it, but the tone overall is much the same.

I confess that the last time I studied Chinese government and culture was in the post-Mao period, before the largest Stalinist types of government fell apart; I don’t know what life is like for women these days in China. But the author never seems comfortable portraying women as people that are female. Women are featured and discussed as political bigwigs, servants, and technicians, but we never see them acting in concert with men or each other. There’s a clump of men, and then…there’s this woman. Sometimes. The woman is always featured as “other”. The male cops gather and discuss whether any woman would be ruthless enough to commit the crime in question, but by this point I was so green around the gills that I didn’t want to find out whodunit or why. I just wanted to be done, which I am.