BOOK REVIEW: Twain Illustrated: Three Stories by Mark Twain by Mark Twain [Ed. by Jerome Tiller]

Twain Illustrated: Three Stories by Mark TwainTwain Illustrated: Three Stories by Mark Twain by Mark Twain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This collection gathers three pieces of Twain’s short fiction and presents them in an edited and illustrated volume. The stories are edited from the original published editions. My understanding is that the editing was confined to making the volume more readable to a present-day audience (and probably to younger readers, specifically.) As far as I can tell, that’s the case.

The three stories have in common that Twain, himself, features as a character. [This is less explicit for the second story than for the first and third, it being merely written in first person while the others reference Twain by name.] The first story, “Emerson, Holmes, and Longfellow,” is essentially a roast of those three important 19th century American poets. The story is written as though Twain is traveling on walkabout and happens upon a miner’s household where, as luck would have it, the three titular poets had stopped in previously. Supposedly, this was first a speech given in Boston at a celebration for another poet, John Greenleaf Whittier, and it went down like a lead balloon.

The middle story, “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut,” is about a mysterious visitor who comes calling who seems to know about all the narrator’s misdeeds. It turns out that said visitor is the narrator’s conscience. This personification of conscience is a clever plot device and makes for a hilarious story.

The final story is entitled “Running for Governor,” and it shows that fake news is far from a new phenomenon in American politics. It imagines Twain running for governor of New York and the one news story after the next presenting outlandish, contrived claims that begin to stick as Twain ignores them. This reminded me of the Twain essay that disabused me of the popular notion that we are [at any given time] in uniquely contentiously partisan times for American politics.

I enjoyed this collection. I would probably have preferred an unedited text, but it’s readable, engaging, and humorous as is. The illustrations are line-drawn, and many are cartoonishly jocular while others are more realistic caricatures. It’s certainly an entertaining read.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Opium and Other Stories by Géza Csáth

Opium and Other StoriesOpium and Other Stories by Géza Csáth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Release Date: December 13, 2022 [For the reviewed edition by Europa and translated by Kessler and Rogers]

Csáth was a Freudian who, in 1919 at the age of 31, murdered his wife before committing suicide. He was a brilliantly imaginative [if macabre-oriented] writer, and — as one might expect — this collection’s two dozen stories are dark, dreamy, and often detached from reality. The collection is full of hazy surreality and bleak obsessions, but it’s an intriguing and engaging read.

The book presents several recurring themes: mothers, murder, the murder of mothers, etc.; as well as repetition of surreal settings involving dreams, drugs, and demented minds. Therefore, I’ll only discuss a handful of my favorite stories in the hope they are a reasonable representation. In “Murder,” a man meets an acquaintance on the train and is told of the murder said acquaintance committed, told in a matter-of-fact tone. This prosaic approach to murder is a recurring element of Csáth’s stories as well, and it lends to both the surreal and eerie nature of the stories. “Little Emma” is about a “play hanging” committed by a group of kids. In “Young Lady,” a patient in an insane asylum tells his friend about his obsession with a young woman. “A Joseph in Egypt” is the story of a dream in which the dreamer engages in a tête-à-tête with a married woman. In “Toad” a man imagines he wakes up to find a monstrous toad in his bedroom, or so he believes. In “Matricide,” brothers attempting to rob their mother end up murdering her when she awakes during the crime. “Father, Son” is the story of a young man going to retrieve his father’s remains from the medical school that had come into possession of the body because his mother didn’t have the funds to afford a proper burial while the son was away overseas.

If you enjoy macabre and surreal stories, this collection is well worth reading. However, it will not be everyone’s cup of tea, owing to the dark tone and themes of the stories.


View all my reviews

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

Amazon.in Page

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.


View all my reviews

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

Amazon.in Page

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.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: A Bad Business by Fyodor Dostoevsky

A Bad BusinessA Bad Business by Fyodor Dostoevsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This collection gathers six pieces of Dostoevsky’s short fiction, each brilliant in its own way. The stories vary in length and genre, but share an interesting insight into humanity.

“A Bad Business” is about a high-ranking official who decides to wedding crash one of his underlings. Like the third story in this collection, it’s the psychology that makes this tale compelling. The lead character vacillates between feeling empowered by his host’s deferential behavior and feelings of embarrassment and regret over violating norms. While it might sound like an unrelatable story, the psychological foibles shine through recognizably.

“Conversations in a Graveyard (Bobok)” is largely as the title describes, and is one of the speculative fiction pieces.

Much like the first story, “A Meek Creature” deals in subject matter that may seem unrelatable to today’s reader, but one will recognize the state of mind that drives the story. It’s about a middle-aged man who marries a teenaged girl. The story revolves around the young wife’s death, and attempts to reconcile her demise, which leads him into a dismal territory of self-discovery.

“The Crocodile” is the one piece that doesn’t at all suffer from being dated. While the details may feel retro, this absurdist dark comedy story remains both hilarious and meaningful. The underlying theme is disappointment that economic considerations have come to rule the world, but the story doesn’t beat one over the head with the politics, but rather lets the absurd situation of a man being swallowed whole by a crocodile do the work.

“The Heavenly Christmas Tree” reminded me of the fairytale “The Little Match Girl,” and is a heartfelt Christmas tale.

“The Peasant Marey” is the story of a prisoner having a flashback of the kindness of a neighborhood peasant in his childhood. It’s written in an autobiographical style. I don’t know how much license was taken, but I do know that Dostoevsky did spend time in prison as does the story’s lead.

This collection is well worth reading by any lover of short fiction.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: A Personal Anthology by Jorge Luis Borges

A Personal AnthologyA Personal Anthology by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This is a collection of poetry, short fiction, essays, and other short writings (that fit into two or more of the previously mentioned categories) – all chosen by Borges as the works he wanted his literary legacy to be based upon. For those unacquainted, Borges was a brilliant Argentine author whose writings were philosophical, mystical, erudite, and brief. He was the perfect writer for those of us who love ideas and contemplation of the world, but who also suffer deficits of attention. He wrote in bitesize pieces, but those bites couldn’t have been more intensely flavored with ideas and evocative and provocative commentary. His subject matter includes lofty topics such as the lives of Homer, Shakespeare, and Buddha, but also crude, visceral experiences such as a knife fight.

Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of Borges’ work, and couldn’t resist reading his choices for his personal best – even having recently read many of the pieces – particularly the better-known ones. It’s worth noting that Borges’ choices include a great many of the works that others have called his best work, e.g. “The Aleph,” “Borges and I,” “Biography of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz (1829 – 1874,)” “The Zahir,” “The Maker,” “Averröes’ Search,” “The Golem,” “Circular Ruins,” etc. The biggest surprise of the collection was that it included much more poetry than I expected. The works I’ve read previously contained minimal poetry, but I’d say this collection is about half poems.

I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s thought-provoking and magnificently written / translated. I would normally say that I’m not qualified to comment on the skill of translation other than to say the book read well, but the two translators wrote an epilogue that I think showed they could channel the mystery and creativity of Jorge Luis Borges.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Monkey: New Writing from Japan: Vol. 2: Travel ed. Ted Goosen & Motoyuki Shibata

MONKEY New Writing from Japan: Volume 2: TRAVELMONKEY New Writing from Japan: Volume 2: TRAVEL by Ted Goossen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Out: December 28, 2021

This anthology of travel-themed short writings by prominent Japanese authors includes: short stories, essays, poems, excerpts from longer works, and even an illustrated story [i.e. “The Overcoat” by Satoshi Kitamura.] The nature and degree of travel varies considerably with some pieces being travelogues or setting-centric fiction, but other pieces explore travel in a more symbolic sense (e.g. “Hell” by Kikuko Tsumura or “Decline of the Aliens” by Hideo Furukawa.] And one piece, “Cardboard Boxes and Their Uses” by Taki Monma deals more with the topic of being shut in, so it might be considered a study in travel through its absence.

The anthology includes works by literary stars such as Mieko Kawakami, Haruki Murakami, and Yasunari Kawabata, and showcases translation by some of the most well-know translators of Japanese literature. [The edition ends with a dozen brief statements by translators about what they have found particularly daunting to translate — not necessarily because the literal translation is difficult but because the elegance of the origin language can be lost to clunkiness in the translated language.]

Among my favorite pieces were “The Dugong” (a historical fiction story with a “Journey to the West” feel to it,) Haruki Murakami’s essay entitled “Jogging in Southern Europe” (which anyone who’s ever exercised amid people who don’t exercise will find amusing,) “Five Modern Poets on Travel” [particularly the tanka of Kanoko Okamoto and the haiku of both Hisago Sugita and Dakotsu Iida,] and “Every Reading, Every Sound, Every Sight” by Jun’ichi Konuma. That said, I don’t think there was a clunker in the bunch, each piece was well-composed and translated, and I’d highly recommend reading this book.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: When a Robot Decides to Die and Other Stories by Francisco García González

When a Robot Decides to Die and Other StoriesWhen a Robot Decides to Die and Other Stories by Francisco García González
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Out: November 15, 2021

This book isn’t for everyone. There are two factors I believe a reader needs to be aware of going forward. First, shocking and taboo plot devices are used throughout; so, one needs to be mentally ready for bestiality, necrophilia, cannibalism, and enslavement. Second, while this is nominally science fiction, it’s not nerd’s sci-fi, but rather English Lit / Humanities major sci-fi. Which is to say, scientifically- / technologically-minded people are likely be occasionally distracted by thoughts like: “that’s not how that would work,” or “why did he use that word? It doesn’t make sense in that context. Is it just because it sounded vaguely techy?”

For those who are still reading, the stories are more than just shock for shock’s sake. They are thought-provoking, and the taboo topics both engage readers on a visceral level, but also engage readers on an intellectual level as symbolism. While it’s far from great sci-fi, it’s fine psych-fi (a subgenre that – like sci-fi – deals in speculative futures, but which focuses more on changes in human modes of interaction and ways of behaving – rather than on the effects of technological advances.) “The Year of the Pig” was probably my personal favorite. That story explores family dynamics, cultural proclivities, and personal psychology in a smart way.

If the opening paragraph didn’t scare you away, you’ll probably find some compelling stories in this collection.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges

The Aleph : including the prose fictions from The MakerThe Aleph : including the prose fictions from The Maker by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This book contains the seventeen stories of The Aleph, plus about twenty short pieces of prose fiction from The Maker. Borges was one of the best writers of the twentieth century. His writings are mystical, philosophical, imaginative, provocative, compact, and thick with ideas and references to great literature from Don Quixote to Shakespeare to Greek Mythology. Much of Borges work has a fantasy / speculative component, but it never feels like it’s for its own sake, but rather to convey ideas of a philosophical, psychological, or spiritual nature. One might think that such short writings by a man who was clearly obsessed with a few key ideas (e.g. libraries and labyrinths) would get stale, but far from it.

The collection known by its titular final story (i.e. “The Aleph”) makes up the bulk of the book, and offers some exceptional stories – e.g. “The Other Death,” “Deutsches Requiem,” “The Man on the Threshold,” and, of course, “The Aleph.” The stories engage the readers with issues like mortality, fate, courage, and mystery.

The pieces from “The Maker” are short, few more than a couple pages and some just a paragraph. The most famous piece included is probably the brilliant “Borges and I,” but other important pieces include “The Maker,” “Everything and Nothing,” “The Yellow Rose,” and “The Witness.”

The book has notes and back-matter by the translator / editor, which can be useful for readers who aren’t acquainted with Latin America or the broad canon of classic literature Borges regularly references.

I’d highly recommend this for those who enjoy though-provoking, philosophical fiction. It is a thinking person’s read, but yet many of the pieces are highly engaging as stories.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Return of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes, #6)The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This short story collection is the sixth book in the Sherlock Holmes canon, and – as the title suggests – it marks the return of the famous fictional detective after a hiatus. Doyle had tried to kill off the Holmes character so that he could work on other projects. At the end of “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes,” Doyle leads us to believe Holmes and his nemesis, Moriarty, wrestled off the Reichenbach Falls, plummeting to stony deaths.

In the first story in this collection, “The Adventure of the Empty House,” we discover that Holmes didn’t die, and has been exploiting his reputed death, playing a game of cat-and-mouse against the remnants of Moriarty’s gang, notably the deadly, Col. Sebastian Moran. The other twelve stories of the collection stand alone among the larger canon, and follow the usual Holmes narrative weave. Most involve murder, but there is one (“The Adventure of the Three Students”) that involves a “crime” as mundane as test theft, and in some cases, e.g. “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” the murder is a secondary issue. Each crime is solved using the intense observation, out-of-the-box thinking, and leaps of intuition of which only Holmes is capable. Usually, the guilty party is brought to justice, but, in some cases, Holmes follows his own moral code, deciding not to assist the authorities in cases for which he believes the crime justified, or unavoidable.

Among my favorites of the collection are: “The Adventure of the… Norwood Builder,” …Dancing Men,” and …Missing Three-Quarter,” but there’s not a vast standard deviation of quality or style in these stories. They are all intriguing and have their own distinctive features while showing Holmes’s quirky brilliance. This is definitely a must-read for Holmes fans.

View all my reviews