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.

Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout*****

anythingispossibleStrout is a writer of enormous talent and the owner of a Pulitzer. Here she builds on the characters she introduced in 2016 with My Name is Lucy Barton. Lucy is back, along with various relations and everyday people. I read this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Random House, for the purpose of generating an honest review. This title will be sold April 25, 2017, and those that love strong literary fiction won’t want to miss it.

Lucy has become a successful writer, and she has left behind her early life of extreme poverty and the people she spent it with. They’re still there, and some of them are bitter. Strout crafts each character in a series of consecutive short stories that build on one another, and although most of the people she features here are not ones you might want to spend time with if they were real, she designs them with so many layers and with so much nuance that it’s hard to remember they aren’t. We revisit the Pretty Nicely girls, and Lucy comes home for a visit. But facing the demons of the past, those that her siblings still speak about freely but that she has kept carefully compartmentalized in an emotional deep freeze is too much for her, and she has to leave earlier than she had planned.

One thing I appreciate about Strout’s writing is her affection for the working class and the down-and-out. Some of her characters have been kept from success by hard luck, and others by lack of talent, but they are still people, and they’re sometimes capable of more care and greater compassion than other folks that haven’t ever suffered. Strout develops these characters like nobody’s business, and you almost don’t need a plot, because the people themselves are the whole story. I like the chapter that features the Hit Thumb Theory, and the ramification of privilege it conveys.

Strout writes with an implied intimacy that is rarely found. Sometimes I feel as if I have entered in the middle of a conversation, and there’s a shorthand among the family members present that I have to watch for carefully before I understand what’s happening between them. Most writers don’t even attempt this kind of subtlety because it’s so difficult to achieve. In someone else’s hands, the reader might come away wondering just what that whole thing was about, but here I find myself leaning in, absorbing details carefully meted out with great discipline and flawless pacing.

If you’ve read this author’s work and liked it, you can be assured you will like this as well. If not, be aware that it isn’t warm and fuzzy writing; don’t take it to the beach. Rather, the joy comes from witnessing the way she draws her characters and their lives without trying to put a shine on them, leaving them as stark and real as human beings often are.

I highly recommend this book to those that enjoy brilliantly written fiction, and to teachers of creative writing.

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.

A Long Time Dead–A Mike Hammer Casebook, by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins*****

 alongtimedead  “The evening sky was gray and growling but I had left the trenchcoat behind and my suit coat was unbuttoned. This was the kind of sketchy gin mill where I wanted easy access to the .45 under my arm. The waterfront bouquet greeted me, salt air, grease, oil, sweat and dead fish drifting like a ghost with body odor.

“If you needed to know anything about the harbor facilities stretching from the Battery to Grant’s Tomb, or wanted a line on anybody in the National Maritime Union or the Teamsters, this was your port of call. If you wanted to get laid or make somebody dead, that could be arranged, too. You know the place. They have them in London and Mexico City and Rome and Hong Kong, with smaller variations in smaller locales. But none were meaner or dirtier than the bar run by Benny Joe Grissi.”

Spillane was the prototype for noir fiction, and even though he’d been hiding in plain sight, I never read Spillane because he wrote so many books that I assumed he was cranking out something formulaic, a pot boiler special. I am delighted to find I was mistaken; this set of short stories, an atypical medium for Spillane, was provided to me free courtesy of Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media in exchange for an honest review. I’ve had a few DRCs that didn’t measure up to my expectations lately, and this particular galley was my bright spot, the reading I considered my dessert after I had dutifully choked down the stuff I was only reading because I’d said I would.

Collins was a close friend of Spillane’s, and at the author’s request, he rounded out some rough drafts that had been left behind when Spillane died. Collins suspects that they had been left dormant because the author’s church would not have approved of the brief—and by today’s standard, very tame—sexual content included. Whatever. We can read them now, and Collins has used Spillane’s style seamlessly. Only one of these stories is more his than Spillane’s, and he tells us which one it is. He did a great job with it.

The author is legendary for the call-and-response style dialogue associated with the genre as a whole now. His use of it and other figurative language is so sweet that I found myself—a retired language arts teacher whose highlighter is the modern day equivalent of the red pen—noting passages where it’s artfully used, and sometimes I got so caught up in watching the language that I had to go back and reread a few pages, because I had lost track of the plot. But it was worth it. Here are a couple of examples:

“’Sure you aren’t seeing ghosts?’

“’Once I’ve killed this guy—really killed him—then maybe I’ll see a ghost.’”

And on the same page, more of the same; Lincoln followed by Lincoln, salesman followed by salesman. Together with the alliteration and the brisk, no nonsense yet curiously intimate prose, I found myself mesmerized. Spillane doesn’t care about preserving evidence, and he usually won’t call cops, at least not until his own business has been concluded. Given today’s social climate and mistrust of urban cops, I suspect this newly issued work by the famous writer will find a wide audience.

Although it’s been decades, I can nearly swear that the Carol Burnett show did some spoofs of this type of narrative during the 1970s, when I was just a kid. If one uses too much of the repetition it becomes ridiculous, and of course Burnett and her colleagues could spot fodder for satire a mile away. But although I kept my antennae up, I never found a weak place in the text that took the lyrical repetition to the point of silliness. It’s carefully meted out so that it reels the reader in rather than appearing ridiculous and distracting. And if you look at my last sentence, I can promise you the alliteration there was unintentional. Good writing stays with us, as any teacher will tell you; this is one reason we have students read something before they write. And thus it is that a tiny nugget of Spillane’s technique has made its way into my review.

Most people don’t want to analyze detective stories; they just want to read them. If so, then you should be good to go here. I was additionally pleased by the lack of racial and ethnic slurs which some writers of the genre would include in the name of authenticity. Likewise, the gorgeous receptionist is actually Spillane’s partner in both senses of the word, and she listens to what people reveal when they believe no one important is listening.

This is the very best of the noir genre. If you enjoy great detective fiction and can stand some graphic violence, this book is for you.

A Death in the House and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak****

adeathinthehouse.jpgClifford D. Simak wrote fiction, mostly science fiction in the form of short stories, for more than fifty years.  Thanks to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media, I’ve been binge-reading for the better part of a year. I received this DRC, as I did the others, in exchange for an honest review.  This is my fourth Simak collection; most of its stories are brilliant and have stood the test of time, though a couple of them haven’t aged as well as the rest.

The collection begins with one of his best, “Operation Stinky”, which is about a skunk with supernatural ability. A hallmark of a truly brilliant science fiction writer is his capacity to take a truly preposterous premise and make us not only believe in it, for a short time, but respond to it emotionally. I laughed out loud at least once at a wry moment here, and in other places I was really moved. Simak does that to me a lot.

Another favorite was “Green Thumb”, about a plant that comes from outer space and is horrified to learn that its new host is actually—dear heaven—eating plants! Again, Simak plays this string like the sweetest violin, and at the end I had to put my reader down and assimilate what I’d read before I could read anything else. “The Sitters” made me think of Stephen King, though of course Simak’s story was written before King had published a novel at all. I also enjoyed the title story as well as “Tools” and “Nine Lives”, but the one I liked best was “Target Generation”, a longer story about a huge spaceship that had hosted so many generations of people, many of them born right there on the ship, that an entire origin myth had become the basis for the ship’s culture and the beliefs of its residents…all but one. When the character—if we can call it that—called ‘The Mutterer’ came, I could not move until that story was done.

That said, there were some weak places. In some respects this may be unfair of me, because I don’t think Simak wrote with the knowledge that anyone would ever sit down and binge-read his stories end to end; he submitted one story at a time to magazines and earned his living that way. Nevertheless, I really wish he’d write more stories in which nobody gets named “Doc”.  And the story titled “War is Personal”, while I am sure it was well received by many readers when he wrote it during World War II, really upset me. I found the “J” word a couple of times and together with the overall flavor of the story, was disturbed enough to straight-up skip to the next entry. I began the lengthy novella, “When It’s Hangnoose Time in Hell”, and was absorbed, but part way through it was shot through with some unbelievably bad dialogue and trite expressions. And although “The Birch Clump Cluster”, the final entry, wasn’t bad, it didn’t measure up to most of his work.

Two stories give unfortunate titles to disabled people and refer to them in a disrespectful way. Again, it was common at the time the stories were published, but as a society we are more enlightened now, and so this aspect of his work hasn’t aged well.

Unless you are a diehard Simak fan, skip the introduction. It was written by a close friend of his and has to do with a break from writing on the part of the author. I didn’t care at all and decided not to finish it, because trying to slog through it was going to prevent me from getting to the stories themselves.

The good news is that most of the stories here are fantastic, and this collection was published this summer, so you can have it now. Recommended for those that love good science fiction.

Good Night, Mr. James: and Other Stories by Clifford D. Simak*****

goodnightmrjamesSimak was a prodigious writer of science fiction during the middle of the twentieth century; he was the third Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and won numerous other awards, among them the Nebula and multiple Hugo Awards. His short stories are being republished digitally, and as fast as Open Road Integrated Media can publish them, I snap them up, having already read two volumes; this is volume eight. Thanks go to ORIM and to Net Galley, from whom I received a DRC in exchange for this honest review.

There’s a special sort of satisfaction that comes from reading science fiction written during the era that followed World War II, and in seeing what technology science fiction writers imagined might be around the corner. Many times we read stories of passenger flights to other planets and galaxies, stories of mind control, and yet nobody ever imagined that one day we would each have a small telephone in our pocket that would double as a camera, wristwatch and telegram service. But the musings and imaginings of old school science fiction are just plain fun, and they don’t require the technical proficiency that some of today’s writers often require in order to read, understand, and enjoy the stories they produce.  Sometimes a bit of philosophy and world view sneaks into these stories, and we may find kindred spirits in the most unlikely places.

The title story used to open this collection is a fun one, and the tension that accompanies Mr. James as he approaches the enclosure where he believes he’ll find the ‘puudly’, a creature from another world unwisely snuck into the present one, is almost unbearable.  What follows on his journey home is absorbing as well. But this wasn’t my favorite story. There are two others I found even better, but first, let’s get this other news out of the way.

The bad news is that there is just a trace of the racist stereotyping common to white folk of this time period, but it’s limited to one story, and it’s scarce. If you read my reviews often, you know that if I see it, I call it out, and my tolerance level is much lower than that of most reviewers. It’s in one story which isn’t all that good anyway, and it pertains to Asians that are featured briefly. The story is “The Gunsmoke Drummer Sells a War”, and it’s a cowboy tale of the sort that was popular in the USA during the 1950’s. A man of Chinese origin is referred to as ‘The Chinaman’, and during his short tenure in the story, he is untrustworthy.  He speaks in a “sing song” cadence. This story cost the book half a star, but it’s my view that you could buy this collection, skip this story, which is overlong and contains some less than stellar dialogue, and you’d still get your money’s worth. That’s all the bad news there is here.

“Reunion on Ganymede” made me tremble with mirth, nearly causing me to wake Mr. Computer, who slumbered peacefully beside me. In this story Gramps is dying to go to the reunion of veterans of a war that took place between the “Marshies” (Martians) and the “Earthies” .  His family is trying to dissuade him from taking his flame gun with him. They tell him the weapon is too old to be trusted, but clearly it isn’t the gun, but rather the owner that they’re worried about. As developments take an unexpected turn, it becomes obvious that there are some things for which one just can’t plan. Eventually we see that Gramps and other characters unforeseen by his kinfolk are on a collision course, and what follows is pure poetry.

However, my very favorite story is “Kindergarten”. A man has bought a cabin and retreated to it; he’s been told he has a short time to live, and so he’s determined to do it in pastoral solitude. Imagine his surprise when he goes for a stroll one day and finds the mysterious machine on his property! It’s certainly not a saucer, yet it’s also not from Earth. It couldn’t be. And the whole thing unspools in a way I interpret as being subversive and delicious. Please note that the entire collection is edited and introduced by a close friend of the author’s, the latter having died in 1988. The editor’s spin on this story is completely different from my own, and yet knowing this didn’t make me enjoy it any less.

If you’ve had the pleasure of reading the We Install story collection, or Grotto of the Dancing Deer collection, you know what kind of prose Simak spins, and if you like old school science fiction, you almost have to like most or all of his. If you haven’t dipped a toe in the water yet, hop on in. Between this collection and at least nine others, there’s plenty to keep you reading happily for quite some time.

As a last note to teachers looking for suitable classroom stories, there’s no sex or foul language here, but be prepared to discuss or explain some of the slang of the period in question.

Highly recommended and available to the public now.

The Fat Artist and Other Stories, by Benjamin Hale*****

Happy release day! Today this title and another winner, Everyone Brave is Forgiven,  hit the shelves. I don’t reblog all titles upon release; only the ones I really like. Don’t let the cover scare you away, because once I had gotten into the title story, I understood why this was exactly the right cover art. Happy reading!

Seattle Book Mama

thefatartistI like short stories. My Goodreads library tells me I have munched my way through 89 collections and anthologies; yet I can tell you that there is nothing even remotely similar to what Hale offers here. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for permitting me to view the DRC for the purpose of an honest review. You should get a copy May 17, 2016 when it is released, so that when it is immediately banned by various school boards you will know what they’re screaming about.

The ribbon that binds these brilliant, bizarre tales is that each of them features a social outlier as a protagonist. We start with the airline flight from hell in “Don’t Worry Baby”; you have doubtless flown at least once on a flight with a small child whose mother you long to smack upside the head for her dreadful parenting skills, but…

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