BOOK REVIEW: The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway by Ernest Hemingway

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest HemingwayThe Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Hemingway was widely regarded as a master of short fiction, and for good reason. This book collects published and previously unpublished short stories into one volume. While the collection prominently features Hemingway’s obsessions with safari, war, and (to a lesser degree) bullfighting, it actually covers a lot of ground from what might today be called flash fiction to almost novella length pieces, from grim and gritty tales of violence to quiet stories of being and everyday life, and from crime in the big city to life in rural America.

The complete collection offers all the well-anthologized pieces, such as: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “The Killers,” “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” and “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio,” but it also presents some exceptional stories that may have slipped past readers. Some of my favorites include: “The Last Good Country” (about a young man and his sister on the lam from the game warden,) “The Butterfly and the Tank,” (a drunk gets a bit too merry among men of violence,) and “The Strange Country” (Hemingway’s version of “Lolita.”)

The book is arranged into three sections. The first is “The First Forty-Nine,” a collection that gathered all of Hemingway’s fiction published to that point. The second section consists of the fourteen pieces published after “The First Forty-Nine” came out. The final section is seven unpublished stories, a few of which are connected by virtue of the fact that they were meant to be part of a novel that was never completed because of Hemingway’s untimely demise.

If you enjoy short fiction, this collection is worth reading.


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BOOK REVIEW: Animals in Our Days by Mohamed Makhzangi

Animals in Our DaysAnimals in Our Days by Mohamed Makhzangi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: June 14, 2022

Besides being animal-themed or animal-centric to varying degrees, there are a couple of other features common to the stories in this translated collection from Egyptian author, Mohamed Makhzangi. First, it’s truly international in terms of settings. In addition to stories that take place closer to the author’s (i.e. in the Middle East,) there are tales set in Bangkok, Jaipur, Windhoek, and undefined but evocative locales that all feel based on the author’s travels. Second, the stories tend to have a dreamy, surreal quality and / or speculative elements – i.e. they aren’t strictly realist, but more magical realist. At times, stories read like Kafka (e.g. “Brass Grasshoppers”) and at other times like a fairy tale (e.g. “White Bears / Black Bears.”) Where the stories vary is with respect to theme, from war to alienation to the interconnectedness of nature.

The translation by Chip Rossetti is highly readable, and the stories are well-crafted, engaging, and often thought-provoking. I’d recommend this for all readers of short fiction.


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BOOK REVIEW: Sadhus by Patrick Levy

Sadhus: Going Beyond the DreadlocksSadhus: Going Beyond the Dreadlocks by Patrick Levy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I got to the last couple chapters before I realized that this was a novel, and not a work of immersion journalism. I don’t mean to suggest that it wasn’t as compelling as I’d wish a work of fiction to be. On the contrary, it’s a fascinating look into a group of people (Sadhus / renunciants) who are little understood because they exist on the edges of society and can appear strange – if not a little scary – in their countercultural existence. The book reads like an authentic account of the Sadhu experience of a Frenchman who gives up his money and all but a few meager possessions to become a wandering ascetic under the tutelage a philosophically compatible Baba. (Until the fever dream ending instills a bit of surrealism and fourth-wall breaking.) The fact that the lead is demographically and a philosophically like the author, heightens the tendency to believe it’s nonfiction. [It’s quite possibly fictionalized autobiography to some degree, but I couldn’t say to what extent.]

Besides telling a story centered on a wandering Western ascetic in Northern India, the book does double duty in reflecting upon Hindu-Yogic-Tantric philosophy, particularly with respect to metaphysics. The lead character is neither religious nor a believer in the supernatural. Rather, he is (like many of us) in search of an almost defunct variety of a philosophy, the kind practiced by Socrates and some historic and present-day Buddhists, a variety that’s open to questioning and challenging all beliefs and assumptions as the means to better understand one’s world, a variety that recognizes the ubiquity of ignorance with respect to key questions of metaphysics. The story includes a number of Socratic method style conversations, as well as quotes from texts such as the “Avadhuta Gita” and “Ashtavakra Gita.”

I found this story to be compelling and informative, shining a light on a rarely-seen side of India.

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BOOK REVIEW: Naked Lunch [the Restored Text] by William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch: The Restored TextNaked Lunch: The Restored Text by William S. Burroughs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This isn’t a novel so much as a series of heroin-fueled fever dreams. While that makes it sound incoherent and unreadable, there’s a great deal of visceral imagery and clever language in it. What there’s not is a thread that carries the reader through a series of events constituting a coherent narrative arc. The book reads like dystopian fiction, but that’s merely Beat-style lingo and heroin addict worldview applied to a combination of Burrough’s world and the surreal mind-space of the addict on a fix.

As is also true of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” if you’re a reader who needs a coherent story and the avoidance of experimental language, you probably won’t like this book. Furthermore, readers who’re uncomfortable with pornographic imagery will also find the book objectionable. However, if you enjoy books that are prose poem-like in their use of language and if you don’t mind the disjointed strangeness necessary to convey the addict’s mental experience, then you’ll probably get a kick out of this book. It’s worth recognizing that what makes the book a challenging read is simultaneously what makes it such a masterpiece of the drug-addled experience. If it were more lucid, it’d be tepid and purposeless.

This is the restored text edition. This is one of the few cases in which I’d recommend reading all the backmatter. It includes some “outtakes” from the earliest drafts, but (more usefully) some essays by Burroughs that offer important insights. When one finishes this book, there’s a tendency to think, “What was that? What did I just read?” The appendices help one understand the book better. Here we read Burrough’s claim that he had no recollection of composing the original draft, and a later statement in which he clarifies that his earlier statement was an exaggeration – that he did have some memories of it.

I found this book to be an engrossing read. As I say, while it’s bizarre, outlandish, and frequently pornographic, it also lends insight into a state of mind that most of us – fortunately – will never experience.

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BOOK REVIEW: DMZ, VOL. 1: ON THE GROUND by Brian Wood

DMZ, Vol. 1: On the GroundDMZ, Vol. 1: On the Ground by Brian Wood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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DMZ is a work of dystopian fiction that ditches the tired plot devices like Zombies and Nuclear Holocaust in favor of the fresh and simple idea of the American political divide run amok. The demilitarized zone (DMZ) in question is a sealed off New York City that exists in an armed and anarchic state.

The story features a journalism intern, Matty Roth, who helicopter crashes with a news crew in the NYC DMZ. At first, Roth is in over his head and just looking to escape to safety, but over the course of this volume he undergoes trial by fire and comes out the other side following his journalistic impulse to share the stories of the DMZ, stories which are much richer and more complex than people have been led to believe.

I had mixed feelings about the story as it feels like the protagonist is robbed of agency by always being saved. However, the story does show the character grow considerably and to face challenges voluntarily, and the assistance he receives does demonstrate community and humanity in a place that is supposed to be devoid of both.

Ultimately, I found the concept compelling and was deeply pulled into the world of this story. If you’re up for dystopian fiction, you might give it a try.


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BOOK REVIEW: Shock Treatment by Cullen Bunn, Peter Milligan, & Aaron Douglas

Shock TreatmentShock Treatment by Cullen Bunn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: June 7, 2022

This graphic novel consists of three unrelated pieces of short fiction. All of the stories are of the horror / dark speculative fiction genres, but – otherwise – they are distinct both with respect to story and art. I enjoyed them all, but definitely felt there was a variation in quality.

“Piecemeal” (Cullen Bunn) is about a clique of teenagers who stumble onto a long-deserted house, and find formaldehyde-preserved body parts. It’s got a “Final Destination” meets “Freddie Krueger” kind of vibe. I would rate it as my least favorite. Despite an intriguing (if simple) premise, it never achieved a high creepiness factor, and it resolved too easily / cleanly for my tastes. It also had the most chaotic art, which I’m sure was on purpose, but it didn’t do much for me.

“God of Tremors” (Peter Milligan) this is a period piece set in the 19th century household of a prominent Anglican vicar. It’s about a boy with epilepsy whose anti-science father wants to beat the demon out of him (because that’s what used to cause medical conditions.) While his mother tries with limited success to protect the boy, he ultimately gets help from an unexpected source. This was my favorite because it generated emotional resonance and offered evocative character development. It also had the cleanest artistic style of the three, though I don’t know how important that was to my liking it.

“10 Years to Death” (Aaron Douglas) shows a boy’s uncle telling him a disturbing tale that took place at a prison where the uncle works as the head jailer. That may seem completely unbelievable, unless you’ve had an uncle who didn’t know how to interact with kids so he just – for good or ill – treated them like adults. This was my favorite as far as story premise is concerned. The way the story unfolds is compelling and well-presented.

If you like short fiction of the dark / horror genre, you may want to look into this one.

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BOOK REVIEW: Second Chances by Ricky Mammone

Second Chances, Vol. 1Second Chances, Vol. 1 by Ricky Mammone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: March 22, 2022

This is essentially a hard-boiled PI story, except, instead of being a private investigator, the protagonist runs what is basically a commercial witness protection program for individuals who are trying to escape from someone (but aren’t witnesses and – thus – can’t get the government to provide a new life on the taxpayer dime.) The story follows the fallout of a case gone wrong, in which the lead, Leblanc, finds himself being pursued by a sexy hit squad and must protect his clients at all cost.

It’s not the most innovative of stories and relies on action a great deal. The action being all the more important because our hard-boiled lead experiences little to no growth throughout the story. That said, it’s no worse than a great deal action stories, and better than some. It has a coherent storyline, lots of action, and characters that are interesting – if in a clichéd sort of way.

The illustration is monochrome but detailed, presumably the black-and-white format is meant to contribute to the noir / pulp feel.

If you like action stories, this is a fine one – but not necessarily one that differentiates itself from the pack.


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BOOK REVIEW: Shang-Chi, Vol. 1: Brothers & Sisters by Gene Luen Yang

Shang-Chi by Gene Luen Yang, Vol. 1: Brothers & SistersShang-Chi by Gene Luen Yang, Vol. 1: Brothers & Sisters by Gene Luen Yang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This five-issue story arc tells the tale of an intra-family battle for control of the Five Weapons Society, a kung fu dynasty that dates back at least to the Boxer Rebellion. With the patriarch deceased, sides form behind Shang-Chi, on the one hand, and Sister Hammer, on the other. While close as young children, Shang-Chi and Sister Hammer grew up separated, and could not have turned out more differently. Shang-Chi (aka. Brother Hand) has been reluctantly drawn into the conflict by virtue of his being the “chosen one,” and by having the support of Brother Sabre and (to a lesser degree) Sister Dagger. Sister Hammer has raised an army and is bent on taking over the dynasty by whatever means necessary.

So, this is one of those stories that’s not about a purely good hero against a purely evil villain, the latter needing to be completely destroyed, but rather it’s about the need for catharsis and reconciliation. But that doesn’t keep the comic from being loaded with action. We also see a protagonist who experiences a change, which is a story convention that is often jettisoned in the action genre. Shang-Chi must move past his reluctance, and embrace his role in the family.

I found this comic to be compelling and worth reading.


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BOOK REVIEW: Tales of the City, Vol. 1 by Armistead Maupin (w/ Isabelle Bauthian & Sandrine Revel)

Tales of the City Graphic Novel (Volume One)Tales of the City Graphic Novel by Isabelle Bauthian
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: May 3, 2022 [may vary in your area]

Set in San Francisco in the 70’s, this graphic novel based upon a 1978 novel by Maupin adeptly moves between about half a dozen story arcs. All of these stories are connected by key characters being residents of a Barbary Lane rooming house run by a maternal and jovial hippie pot-grower landlady named Anna Madrigal.

In a sense, the lead character is Mary Ann Singleton, a new arrival at 28 Barbary Lane. Singleton isn’t the kind of lead that the entire story revolves around; there’s plenty going on that takes place outside her perspective. However, Singleton does make a great focal point because she’s a fish out of water. Being Midwestern and straight, she’s a run-of-the-mill character in Ohio (her home,) but in SF, she’s the oddball. Her extreme ordinariness among outcasts both generates tension and highlights the unconventionality of the Barbary Lane rooming house.

The story is soap opera-like. It’s loaded with drama and low-level intrigues – extramarital affairs, closeted gays with out of the closet partners, drugs, etc. – but the pacing of these low-level intrigues keeps the flow of the story intense.

I never read the original novels, but I thought the artists did a great job of not only of illustrating the work, but also of organizing the story into a graphic format.

I’d highly recommend interested readers check it out.


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BOOK REVIEW: Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

Right Ho, JeevesRight Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the second novel and seventh book by P.G. Wodehouse to feature the comedic duo of Bertram Wooster and his butler Jeeves. Wooster is a young man from a wealthy family who thinks more highly of himself than anyone else does. He’s a schemer, but not a particularly adept one. He serves as both narrator and comedic foil. He’s not a bright man, but thinks himself clever and is jealous that people are always coming to his preternaturally professional and laconic manservant, Jeeves, with their problems.

The plot and the humor are driven by Bertram’s harebrained schemes to save the day while showing everybody that it is he, and not Jeeves, with the insight to solve their problems. In this case, said problems include rectifying two breakups, getting a relative to repay his aunt Dahlia, and keeping a temperamental French chef from quitting, forcing the household of Brinkley Manor (Dahlia’s estate) to be subjected to the horrors of British cuisine.

While lifestyles of the rich and British might not be relatable, the humor travels well. I found the book to be funny, and – while it has a slow build — it ultimately generates a compelling plot. If you like humorous novels, this one is worth reading.


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