Bring Out the Dog, by Will Macklin****

bringthedogsWill Macklin can really write. His disquieting collection of short stories draws from his time as a special operations soldier in Iran and Afghanistan. Some soldiers come home and go crazy, if they aren’t already; this one came home to write. Thanks go to Random House and Net Galley for the DRC.

The skill level that is shown in these eleven stories, from setting, to pacing, to character, is tremendous. That said, I found it hard to read. Given the subject matter, I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it rattled my cage more than most; then too, the opening story involves deliberately blowing up the home of a teacher that one of the local allies disliked, and I suspect that other teachers are going to have a tough time with that one, too. I set the collection aside to shake off my dislike, and then plunged in again. To be fair, there isn’t one of these tales that is designed to be a feel-good read. They’re all intended to move readers out of their comfort zones, and the author succeeds richly for this reviewer.

I am not a fan of ambiguous endings, and all of these stories conclude that way, which is where the single star fell off my rating.

The most impressive addition is “Kattekoppen”, and after I noted this, I discovered that it was included in a best short story collection.

Macklin is a writer to watch. This collection is recommended to those that like war stories.

Eloquent Rage, by Brittney Cooper****

EloquentRageCooper has had enough, and who can blame her?

I received my copy of Cooper’s essays free and early, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. Her prose is clear, articulate, and full of fire.

Had I read my post-Trayvon civil rights titles in a different sequence, I might very well have called this a five star collection. However, I read Samantha Irby, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Angela Davis, and Matt Taibbi first, and so the bar was set somewhere in the stratosphere when I opened this galley. I wanted Cooper’s viewpoints to be accompanied by some hard facts, complete with citations. However, for those looking to have their world view clarified and their consciousness raised, Cooper’s collection is recommended.

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 Opposite of Fate, by Amy Tan *****

theoppositeoffateThough book stores and book clubs bill this as a memoir, it is really a collection of essays and speeches originally published for other purposes. Though I would love to read an actual autobiography written by Tan, this is an excellent anthology, and I cannot deny it the five stars it deserves.

Tan writes about a wide range of experiences, from contracting Lyme disease to writing the screen play of The Joy Luck Club for Disney. It was nice to see somebody say something positive about Disney for once.

But if there is one really urgent entreaty nestled amongst the wide variety of topics addressed here, it is this: Tan would like to be released from her pigeon hole. Though the large number of her books sold is both profitable and gratifying, she feels both awkward and a trifle outraged as well at having been labeled by the press, by school districts who require that her stories be read, and by any number of other sources as an Asian-American writer, or a writer of color. What, she asks, is required just to be called an American writer? She was born in the USA. It’s accurate to say that she has written a lot of stories, both fictional and true, about her mother, who was born in China. But Tan takes exception to being held up as the one person who is supposed to represent all Asian-American writers.

One might imagine other Asian American writers would take even greater exception, if they could be heard.

I confess that I am at least partially among the guilty, having created an Asian studies label on my own bookshelves. Actually, since I am married to a Japanese citizen, the titles written by and about Asian Americans are crowded by vastly more titles written in Japanese, which take a number of bookcases all by themselves. This is not something that happens in most American homes. But yes, I have also regarded Tan as an Asian-American writer, and she is right in saying that regardless of pigmentation or ethnic background, her prose has won her a place on our shelves. Marketing be damned.

I reflected a bit here. My youngest daughter is half Japanese, half Caucasian. We named her for her Japanese grandmother, and we started attempting to teach her Japanese when she was quite young. She has been to Japan and met relatives there. Yet she would rather be regarded as an American rather than an Asian-American. She pointed out to me that my own side of her counts too; does anyone call her an Irish-American because one parent is of Irish descent?

The score stands at parents 0, offspring 1.

But Tan also reminds us that our lives are not about what has happened to us—and she certainly does a fine job of recounting her own varied, sometimes bizarre experiences—but about whether we take charge of them. In the final essay, “The Opposite of Fate”, she contracts Lime disease and it continues to ravage her health and interfere with her writing until she does a comprehensive web-crawl and diagnoses it herself. Leaving the mystery for physicians to unravel hasn’t helped, and so she does what needs doing. That having been done, the official, medical diagnosis and treatment are fairly straight-forward. The cure isn’t easy or quick, but progress is made steadily. She took ownership of her problem, advocated for herself, and received treatment.

Though the message inherent in the title seems obvious, I find it powerful. Most of us know someone—perhaps even in the family—who seems to ride through life helpless and riddled with excuses for everything. There is nothing for these folks that can’t wait another day, and sometimes another and yet another. They don’t “do” things; things “happen”.

I confess it makes me crazy.

Thus I found Tan’s essays keenly satisfying. She tells hilarious stories sometimes, while others are poignant, but all of them involve decisions at some level, though not always up front and pointed. She doesn’t preach, but she also doesn’t duck and cover. When life presents challenges, she rises to meet them.

One could, of course, say that in publishing these stories, she has created a powerful example for Asian-American girls. But one really shouldn’t.

Because the fact is, she has presented a strong, positive example for everybody.