The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak***-****

Clifford D. Simak was given the third Grand Master Award by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America; he wrote short stories proliferately for several decades in the last century.  His work was generally published in magazines, but with the digital age comes the release of his collected work in twelve volumes.  My thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road, from whom I received a review copy…two years ago. Ouch. As you might expect, this title is for sale now.

Here’s the thing about this collection as a whole: not all of it is science fiction. Simak wrote a lot during the 1940s and 1950s, and back then it was Western stories that sold big. For fans of science fiction, then, these stories are definitely a mixed blessing. The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories is the twelfth and final collection in the series.

The tltle story is excellent, and it shows why the editor has not chosen to separate Simak’s sci fi and Western stories into separate volumes: some of his stories—some of his best ones in fact—blend the two genres. In this one, Daniels sits on his farmhouse porch and chats with the sheriff; there are concerns about chicken thieves in the area. But even at the outset, small references here and there tell us that this is no ordinary Western story. For one thing, up North is an area casually referred to as “the Canadian Shield.” And as the sheriff departs and the rest of the story unfolds, Daniel learns that he is not alone, and his visitor is an unusual one indeed. This story contains a beautifully written inner monologue, and I find myself rereading passages out of admiration for the word smithery involved.

The next two stories are fun ones. “The World of the Red Sun” is suspenseful, and “Skirmish”, which is a man-versus-machine tale with a degree of prescience is laugh-out-loud funny in places. These stories, alas, are followed by an interminable Western—not blended, just cowboys and more cowboys—that I finally gave myself permission to skip. The rest of the stories offered after it are good, but the first three are the ones I like best.

Should you buy this collection? I suggest that if you are new to Simak’s writing, you purchase the first collection in the set, I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories. It doesn’t matter whether you read the collections sequentially, but this is a solid short story collection and his best selling one also. I have read and reviewed eight of the twelve volumes in the set, and although The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories is well written and entertaining, there are five volumes, all reviewed here, that I rate as five stars. Of course if you have the opportunity to buy the entire set and have a serious love of old school sci fi, you won’t be disappointed.

Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault, by Cathy Guisewite****

Guisewite began publishing the comic strip “Cathy” in 1976, the year that I graduated high school. It was a time of high expectations for women, and the unrealistic suggestion that we would be able to “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man,” as Madison Avenue decreed, was daunting.  Through her sharply perceptive humor, Guisewite let her peers know that it wasn’t just us; we were judging ourselves with an unfair yardstick. She kept it real, and in doing so, kept us sane.

My thanks go to Net Galley and G.P. Putnam for the review copy.

So how does cartooning translate to prose?  Whereas the cute, punchy single-page entries and single sentence proclamations—and the lists—are her most familiar territory, my favorite parts of this memoir are the least cartoonish ones. Yes, I love the way she takes down the women’s fashion industry and the unhealthy way it affects our body images.  She was good at it forty years ago, and she’s good at it now. But the passages that drew me in and let me get lost in her story are the more vulnerable, deeply perceptive parts of the narrative, her fears for her aging parents; the struggle and triumph of raising a daughter, one with special needs, alone; and the failure of her marriage. I am in awe of the fact that she and her ex made each other laugh until the tears came as they planned their divorce. Who does that? And of course, she made me laugh too.

Guisewite stays inside her usual parameters, never veering outside of the middle class Caucasian realm with which she has experience. Younger women won’t get much joy out of this memoir; women that came of age between 1965 and 1985 are right in her sweet spot, and it is to them that I recommend this book. It’s available now.

The Department of Sensitive Crimes, by Alexander McCall Smith*****

The author of the renowned #1 Ladies Detective Agency books has begun a brand new series, and when I found a chance to get in on the ground floor, I hopped onto it. This one is the first in the Detective Varg series, and the author’s signature drollery is in full effect. Big thanks go to Edelweiss and Random House Pantheon for the review copy. It’s for sale now. 

Detective Varg works for the sensitive crimes unit of the Malmo police. The unit exists for the purpose of investigating cases that require research. The setting is one of mind numbing blandness; Martin, our investigator’s dog, is growing deaf, and Varg is teaching it to lip read. We read about skin problems, a dairy farm, aging bikers, and my eyes begin to glaze over. And then, eureka! A case! There’s been an assault in the market. Someone has entered the puppet theater and stabbed its proprietor in the back of the knee. Not only a crime, but a crime of violence! Everybody wakes up and roars into action. Varg and Anna, his partner, head for the scene of the crime; they could conduct their interviews at the station of course, but Anna needs to buy eggs anyway. 

The stabbing is the first of three stories, but each piggybacks on the last, so you should read them in order. Once the stabber has been caught, tried, and has tearfully confessed, we move onto a missing person’s case featuring an imaginary boyfriend that can’t be found anywhere, followed by other disappearances. Yes, things are hopping at the Department of Sensitive Crimes. 

Smith has a dry, sneaky sense of humor, so if you read this while you are partly thinking about something else, you’ll miss a lot of the funniest bits. This is what I appreciate most about this author. Some humor writers assume that the reader is as stupid as a sack of rocks, and they drop the joke, but they can’t leave it there, and so they drop it again and then explain it, and it ruins the whole thing. Smith is the opposite. He’ll include a remark that is almost offhand, and then there’s a beat of about three seconds where I start to read on, and then it hits me, and my eyes scroll back. Did he say…oh my god. That is hysterical. And so if you’re paying attention you’re in for a treat, and if you’re checked out, it’s your loss. 

This satirical series is off to a strong, vastly amusing start, and I rate it five giggles. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are right around the corner; could your parent use a laugh or two? Who knows. If you buy it for your parent, they might let you read it when they’re finished. Highly recommended. 

Southern Lady Code, by Helen Ellis****

Helen Ellis makes me laugh out loud. If you can use some of that, you may want to read this book. Thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the review copy.

Southern Lady Code is a title that carries a code of its own.  Some people use the word “lady” to describe European royalty; some to describe a courteous woman, which is what I anticipated here; and some use it to describe a well-mannered woman with a very comfortable income, which appears to be the author’s operating definition. In terms of the “code,” I thought I’d be reading straight satire, but discovered that she has provided a combination of self-help tips and searing, sometimes raucous humor. It works surprisingly well.

I have never made a cheese log before or wanted one, but Ellis’s recipe sounds so persuasively delicious that I may try it. That said, my favorite essays were short on advice and long on humor. I nearly hurt myself laughing over the construction man she found masturbating in her bedroom—did I mention that she gets a little edgy here?  And “The Ghost Experience” is massively entertaining.  There’s a lot of good material here.  Though at times her outlook is a little more conservative than my own, I like the things she says in support of gay and trans friends.

Ultimately, I suspect that I am not the target audience for Ellis, who in her middle-aged years is dispensing life skills wrapped in bountiful amounts of humorous anecdotes. She is writing to her peers and to those women younger than herself.  I am ten or twenty years older than this woman, but I still came away impressed. So, ladies and women, if you can look past the assumption of a greater-than-average income, you’ll have a good time here, and if you can’t, try to get this collection at the library and read selectively, because more of these essays will resonate than not, for all of us.

I rate this book four giggles, and it will be available to the public tomorrow, April 16, 2019.

Lessons from Lucy, by Dave Barry***-****

3.5 rounded up; thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy.

Dave is seventy, and his dog Lucy is up there in years as well. Unlike most of Barry’s essays and books, this one has a reflective aspect and a bit of advice for those nearing or entering their senior years. There’s still a great deal of humor, but there’s a gently philosophical self-help thrust not present in his earlier work. As a 60-year-old retired reader that loves her dog, I represent his target demographic. And I also have to say—his demographic is clearly Caucasian, and this made me a mite uncomfortable. I’ll get back to that in a minute. I have to, since apparently no other reviewer anywhere is going to address it. *

Dave breaks his advice down into seven suggestions, all of which are in some way inspired by Lucy. None of his points are especially new or profound, but because he is so capable in describing and explaining them, he makes old tired advice seem worthy of my attention. A number of his observations left me nodding my head, and he includes liberal humorous anecdotes that in some cases, made me laugh out loud. And here I will put on my teacher hat and tell you that brain studies reveal that learning is easier when there is positive emotion that goes with it.

Dave wants senior citizens to stop merely being content—which is exactly what I am—and take the occasional trip out of our comfort zones. He describes a family trip to a wildlife preserve in Africa to illustrate his point, and his story is so hysterical that it leaves me gasping for air. I can never imagine myself participating, as Dave has, in a parade involving decorated lawnmowers, but I love reading about it. And he reminds senior men to find their friends and tell them how important they are. A great many men have friends that are very important, and that they haven’t talked to in person or even by phone for years. What are you waiting for? At some point, one of you will be dead, and then the survivor will realize his mistake. Barry argues for seizing the moment. (He also makes me glad I am female. My friends hear from me all the damn time, and when I leave the planet, they will know what they meant to me.)

I began reading Barry’s work in the 1980s, and during the ‘90s and ‘00s, I used one of his columns, “How to Play with a Dog,” to teach middle school students expository writing. Step by step, he told us how to do it, and in the most enjoyable way; and that’s what expository writing is. Kids that didn’t like to write sat up and listened to this. It is a genius piece of work, and because of this, and because of the long period during which I loved each and every thing he wrote, this book receives a favorable rating from me. Because there’s also a big problem with it. Keep reading.

I loved the way Barry skewers the whole ‘mindfulness’ shtick even as he also advocates for some of its better aspects. When he digs into the topic of the diversity workshop, I feel a little hitch in my breathing, a twinge of anxiety. I read Dave Barry Does Japan, and the things he said about the Japanese demonstrated that his understanding of other races and cultures needs an upgrade. Here he tells us that his wife is half Cuban, half Jewish, so we know he’s probably not an alt-right white supremacist, but at the same time, some of the jokes he makes are cringe-worthy at best. When he tells us that if he was ever forced to sit through another diversity workshop (as was required by the Miami Herald,) he would join the Klan and the Black staff members would go with him, I slumped. Aw, shit. Dave, statements like this are why diversity training even exists. If there’s a training and you are invited, run there and get you a real good seat. In fact, there’s a chance that other staffers had to go to a workshop that was mostly aimed at you!

I have had a similar experience with 3 or 4 other books I’ve reviewed, and there’s always someone out there that will leave a comment saying it’s ridiculous to fuss over one little sentence in the book. In anticipation, I have an analogy just for those people, and here it is:

imagine you have been invited to a potluck supper. You hand your contribution, maybe a bowl of potato salad to the host to add to the collection of food, and you grab a plate. There are three long tables, and you move down the row selecting from among the crispy fried chicken, the smoky ribs, watermelon, three-alarm chili, coleslaw, nachos, garden salad, pasta salad, fruit salad, a bowl of human excrement, baked squash with cinnamon, homemade cherry pie, key lime pie, shrimp salad, pesto salad, deviled eggs, and of course, your own contribution, the potato salad. But once you sit down, your appetite has fled, hasn’t it? You came in feeling hungry. You skipped a meal before this thing, cause you knew there’d be a lot of good things to eat. And of course, when you passed that bowl of human poo, you didn’t take any of it, and like everyone else, you politely diverted your eyes away from it once you were satisfied that it was exactly what it looked like. What the hell…? After a glance around the room to see whether a joke is about to be sprung, or at least a conversation had about this inappropriate addition, you edge toward the garbage, where you quietly deposit your uneaten meal, and then you edge toward the door…all because of that one thing.

Why would you toss a plateful of delicious food merely because there was one distasteful thing on the table? Because neither you nor your food could be close to that mess for even a minute.

So that’s how I see the Klan reference. It’s hard to chuckle after a bomb like that has been included, and he even includes a snarky remark after it about the fact that some will be offended, which comes off like an extended middle finger to anyone that doesn’t like a Klan-friendly joke.

And maybe that’s how it rolls with him; he has all the money he needs, and he doesn’t care if there are people that don’t like what he wrote. But I cannot for the life of me understand why someone would write a memoir like this, one intended to provide an excellent philosophy for his aging readers, one which will also be a part of his legacy after he’s gone, and then include something that will hurt some of the people that read it. I just don’t get it.

Do I recommend this book to you? From where I sit, if you want it, don’t pay full price for it. I wouldn’t buy it for anyone I like, but now you have my take on it, so the as always, the decision rests with you.

*Sigh!

The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America, by Matt Kracht***

I received this review copy free and early, courtesy of Net Galley and Chronicle Books. This whimsical yet bawdy take on our feathered frenemies will be for sale on April Fool’s Day, which figures.

Kracht—whose name sounds ever so slightly like something a crow might say—illustrates each bird he discusses in a style that is not half bad, with some anger tossed in as seasoning. I have to admit I don’t entirely understand his indignation, given the state of the environment. I myself tend to relish the sounds of birds, most of whom the author refers to as “shit sacks,” “noisy little fucks,” etc; yet clearly his tongue is in his cheek, since he studies them sufficiently to write about them.

Much of the humor will be appreciated by teenagers, and so if you are expecting a teenage guest over the spring and summer holidays and the blue language won’t be considered inappropriate in your family, you might want this book for your guest room.

If I could change one thing about this book, I’d expand the section devoted to “Murderers,” meaning birds of prey. This is where the art is the best and also the funniest, and so I don’t understand why he only includes four birds here, one of which is the bald eagle, which even Kracht cannot diss. Most of all I wonder how a Seattle birder can omit the Peregrine Falcon, a magnificent and adaptive bird that dwells on the ledges of many of our city’s tallest buildings. Go figure.

If this eccentric little book sounds like something you or those you gift might like, you can get it April 1, 2019.

Vacuum in the Dark, by Jen Beagin***

I received this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Scribner. It will be available to the public February 26, 2019.

The cover grabbed my attention right away since I like sassy working class fiction. I haven’t read the author’s first book, but this one doesn’t rely on back story, so that is no problem.

The promotional blurb says this is laugh-out-loud funny, and it did make me laugh out loud right away. The protagonist Mona is a housecleaner, and as she is wiping down the various surfaces in the bathroom, she comes across a human turd on a soap dish. The hell? But she resolves not to say anything about it, because she tells us once you mention it, they win. I howled with laughter. This is great stuff. Every now and then she tosses in a cleaning tip, and for some reason it works with the narrative. Maybe it’s because she already uses such an eccentric style that it seems consistent with the rest of the story.

As the first of the book’s four sections moves forward, she recollects the oddball things that she’s found while cleaning other people’s homes, and then we see the reward she gives herself at the end, after several hours of cleaning a large, expensive home: she paws through the residents’ clothing, selects some, and tries it on. She photographs herself in their clothes, and she also photographs herself mostly nude with their more remarkable possessions.

But one day she is interrupted in this ritual by the homeowner, and a truly bizarre relationship develops which includes his wife as well, and just like that we moved out of my comfort zone, but I promised to read and review this thing, so I forged onward.

I knew this would be edgy humor when I requested the galley, and perhaps I should have read between the lines a little more thoroughly. The narrative contains a goodly amount of explicit sexual content—much of it twisted–not to mention a rape that Mona recounts, a scarring episode from her past. But in all of it, I don’t see any character development to speak of.  The plot seems like more of a framework that’s been constructed in order to contain the various bits of humor that the author wants to include. And here, I also have to wonder why, why, why would anyone include the horrific suicide of a family member in an otherwise raunchily funny book? It was unexpected and made my gut flip over, the snide things she thinks about how the couple has dealt with the death of their daughter, the disposition of the ashes. Once you have read something you can’t unread it, and in all honesty I won’t read anything by this writer again.

At the same time, there are readers that loved her first book and I’ll bet you a dollar that they will love this one too. It bears the hallmark of a cult classic. I have no doubt that many readers will love it, but I do not.

Recommended to readers that read and enjoyed the author’s first book.

As Directed, by Kathleen Valenti****

Oh, I do love me some Maggie O’Malley mysteries. Thanks go to Henery Press and Edelweiss Books for the review copy. This is the third in the series, and will be available to the public March 12, 2019.

Maggie is recovering from brain trauma inflicted on her by a bad guy in an earlier book. Maggie 2.0 is more savvy than before, tougher than before; yet she is impaired sometimes in memory and thought because of her injury, and this adds to the suspense.

But you can’t keep a good woman down and she is here to prove it. She is healing and also planning her wedding to Constantine, which is a delicate balancing act, with the senior women from her family and Constantine’s ready to do battle over critical world issues like frosting choice and the cut of the bridal gown. These things fade in importance, however, when three pharmacy customers collapse after ingesting cyanide that is traced to Petrosian’s Pillbox. They are forced to close indefinitely, and the police—who Maggie and Constantine agree are “falling short of Magnum P.I. status”—focus on two people of interest: Maggie, and her boss. Once again Maggie and Constantine must team up in order to save her job and her reputation. They have to unravel the problem themselves as they have done so successfully before. 

“What could possibly go wrong?”

Along the way we encounter newsman Brock, who follows Maggie relentlessly as he jumps out from behind dumpsters and whatnot with a microphone at all hours, and an admirer of sorts who is following her, leaving her threatening notes. Constantine points out that Maggie has a “two-fer” on stalkers, and he isn’t wrong. We also meet The Boulder, a steroidally enhanced bodybuilder that teaches spin class at the local gym; Maggie’s friend Ada works at the gym and serves as confidant. 

And Maggie gets a dog. 

Insightful humor pops into all the best places. Valenti knows all the timeworn clichés that hack writers utilize, and she turns them all on their heads in a delightfully satirical way. As we go, she deepens Maggie’s character and the bond she shares with Constantine, her father, Miss Vanilla, and now of course, the dog. 

I love the ending, and the creative uses that Maggie finds for bridal ribbon.

This is a damn fun series and you should get all three of these books, but if you want to read this as a stand-alone novel you can do it without getting lost. Recommended for those that like humorous mysteries.

The Plotters, by Un-su Kim*****

The author of this surreal, expertly crafted tale has been called “the Korean Henning Mankell,” but I say he is the Korean Kurt Vonnegut. Enter a world in which the most ignorant and uncurious survive, one in which “Reading books will doom you to a life of fear and shame.” My thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the advance review copy, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. This novel will be available in the U.S. February 12, 2019.

Our protagonist is Reseng. Orphaned at a young age, he grew up in Old Raccoon’s library. He is an assassin. Killing others for hire has grown into a huge industry, and the story begins with Reseng watching an old man through a scope. He has a job to do.

Readers are forewarned that this story is not for the squeamish, and I almost abandoned it, because although I like dark humor, this is triple-dark. I set it aside fairly early, unsure whether I was coming back or not, but despite its brutality, it drew me back, and I am glad I returned to it.

Bear is Reseng’s friend, and he runs the pet crematorium.  That’s what it’s called, because the murder industry is still officially illegal; it wouldn’t do to announce his business as the place to dispose of a freshly assassinated human victim. Not yet anyway; the way things are going, this may change. Reseng is there on business, though, because the old man he just killed has to be processed. And as he and Bear converse on the state of the profession—so many immigrants are coming to South Korea and taking these jobs; Chinese, North Koreans that sneak over, Vietnamese. They’ll work cheap, and it makes it harder for guys like Reseng to get what the jobs are worth. And then there’s outsourcing. Assassins are hired by plotters, but Reseng reflects that “Plotters are just pawns like us. A request comes in, and they draw up the plans. There’s someone above them that tells them what to do. And above that person is another plotter…You know what’s there if you keep going all the way to the top? Nothing. Just an empty chair.”

 Reseng’s greatest concern is Old Raccoon, Reseng’s aging mentor who is being edged out by unseen forces. Old Raccoon isn’t an assassin, but he has kept himself out of the crosshairs by permitting his library to be used as a meeting point between shady individuals looking to make deals. That’s worked for him pretty well, until recently. Old Raccoon is all the family Reseng has, and so out of concern, he begins asking questions. It’s a reckless thing to do, and he knows it.

Before long, Reseng’s life turns into a hall of mirrors, and it’s hard to know who to believe, because he can’t trust anyone. Where does Hanja, who was also mentored by Old Raccoon, fit in? What about the cross-eyed librarian? Is she on the up and up, and if so, where did she go? Is The Barber involved here? His queries take him to visit Hanja, who is now wealthy and influential, a giant among giants in the industry, and his offices take up three whole floors in a high-rise building:

“As if it wasn’t ironic enough that the country’s top assassination provider was brazenly running his business in a building owned by an international insurance company; the same assassination provider was also simultaneously managing a bodyguard firm and a security firm. But just as a vaccine company facing bankruptcy will ultimately survive not by making the world’s greatest vaccine but, rather, the world’s worst virus, so, too, did bodyguard and security firms need the world’s most evil terrorists to prosper, not the greatest security experts. That was capitalism. Hanja understood how the world could curl around and bite its own tail like the uroboros serpent…There was no better business model than owning both the virus and vaccine…A business like that would never go under.”

The struggle unfolds in ways that are impossible to predict, and what kind of fool would even attempt to make sense of it? When challenged, Hanja tries to warn Reseng that when an anaconda tries to swallow an alligator, it instead dies of a ruptured stomach, but Reseng will not be stopped. His journey builds to a riotous crescendo, and there’s a point past which it’s impossible not to read till the thing is done.

It’s a scathing tale of alienation told by a master storyteller, and the ending is brilliant as well. There’s nobody else writing anything like this today. Highly recommended.

The Waiter, by Matias Faldbakken**

Translated by Alice Menzies

Thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. I am sorry to be so late here; the truth is that I kept setting it aside because I didn’t like it, and then returning to it, thinking that I was missing something. I’ve given up on finding the magic, though there are some nice moments here; I also have a strong hunch that there may be a cultural barrier in play. Those that spend time in Europe, possibly with some Scandinavian background, may enjoy this in a way that I didn’t. 

The setting is a fine restaurant in Norway, and the protagonist is of course the waiter. The author pokes fun at the pretensions of everyone present. I like satire and dislike pretension, and so I expected to like this book. There are some clever character sketches, and that’s where I am able to engage, but a character sketch is by definition a brief thing, and so I am quickly disengaged again. I feel like the same joke is being made a different way a great many times, and the “neurotic waiter whose wit is sharp as a filleting knife” (to quote the teaser, more or less) seems not just sharp or witty, but downright vicious. And here it isn’t just a lack of connection that gets in my way; I recoil at some of the passages. 

The book is supposed to appeal to everyone that likes food and wine, spends time in restaurants, or has European sensibilities. Food and restaurants are a match; but I don’t keep wine in the house and have no European sensibilities at all, apart from a few Irish habits passed down over generations. So maybe foodies that spend time in Europe will respond better than I have. In order to see print in other languages than the original, the novel must have met with acclaim locally, and this is why it confuses me that my own response is so negative. But a reviewer can only write her own viewpoint, and mine is that this book isn’t funny, and I don’t recommend it.