My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber

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My Life and Hard Times (1933) is a pleasant, gently funny but fairly slight batch of autobiographical reminiscences. Thurber focuses his very short book (115 pages in this paperback) on his childhood and does a vivid job of bringing to life early 20th century Colombus, Ohio.

The book is really a series of very short stories, almost family tall tales, with a couple more essayic pieces. The entire work is very diverting and entertaining but does not stick around the mind all that much. Thurber and The New Yorker, of which he was a staff writer and cartoonist, referred to works like these as “casuals”, and that is how they feel in both ease and impact.

Two pieces really standout in reaching the heights of almost screwball farce: “The Night the Bed Fell” and “The Day the Dam Broke”. But even the less substantial stories are delightful in their view of Thurber’s madcap family, especially his quasi-senile Civil War Union veteran grandfather. Thurber illustrates scenes throughout in his scratchy cartoonist manner.

 

The Kestrel by Lloyd Alexander

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The Kestrel is the second novel in the Westmark trilogy, and, like many good sequels, it deepens the themes and muddies the morality from the first book. Theo, the printer’s devil and main protagonist of the series, has been exploring the kingdom to get an honest feel for the people and the land when an assassination attempt is made on his life. Meanwhile, a faction of Westmark noblemen and military officers conspire with the king of neighboring Regia to invade Westmark and force Queen Augusta, the Beggar Queen, from the throne.

War breaks out and it’s a nasty, tough business – even if this is more or less a children’s fantasy novel. Things get truly dark as Theo joins with the partisan troops of the democratically-minded Florian. Alexander doesn’t flinch from the sins of the soldiers, even the “good” characters, the ones whose aims we sympathize with. There is a toll to the violence and a growing amorality as tough decisions are made and callousness in the name of their cause prevails.

The conflict between monarchy and the rights of commoners – a burgeoning democratic spirit – deepen, as well. This is a story with a lost princess reclaiming her throne that did not end there but instead asks if she even deserves a throne in the first place. I’ve never seen this element in a fantasy series before and I admire it greatly. Alexander is asking some tough ethical questions here in the frame of a children’s story and he doesn’t force feed any trite answers down our throats.

The Kestrel may be a darker sequel but it still has plenty moments of fun and is entertaining throughout. If Westmark is to Star Wars then The Kestrel is to The Empire Strikes Back. It remains to be seen whether The Beggar Queen is this trilogy’s Return of the Jedi. P.S.: this is a secondary world fantasy series without one ounce of magic! It’s truly doing its own thing.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins

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The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) is a marvel of naturalistic tough guy talk, life of crime minutiae, and understated violence.

Eddie Coyle, a small time crook and gun trade middleman facing upcoming jail time, is the eponymous character but he isn’t really the main character. The story equally belongs to three others: Jackie Brown, a young gun dealer, Dave Foley, a cop with a pair of untrustworthy informants, and Dillon, a bartender rat who may be more connected than he seems. All their lives circle around a gun deal supplying a gang of bank robbers, and the desperate shuffle of snitching and favors and threats that unfolds.

The dialogue here is amazing. It’s a mix of pop culture digressive, stammering beat around the bushness, and cold, hard speech. Higgens doesn’t show us the insides of his characters head so much as they way the talk, the way they dress, and the things they do.

I really admire just how bullshit all the tough guys are: they are very dangerous, of course, but they are, on the whole, so far from having any actual code (honor among thieves). It’s refreshing to read a crime story so devoid of gangster romanticism.

A well-reviewed film starring Robert Mitchum was made in 1973 but I haven’t seen it yet. I really want to now, because I can’t imagine how Mitchum, always a vivid tough guy performer, would play such a desperate rat as Coyle. Either they had to change Coyle’s characterization or Mitchum did something I’ve never seen him do. I plan to watch that as soon as I can.

The Hour of the Dragon by Robert E. Howard

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The Hour of the Dragon (1936) is the only Conan novel Conan creator Robert E. Howard wrote, as well as the only novel of any kind that he ever finished. It is set late in Conan’s chronology, where his adventuring and opportunity has crowned him King of Aquilonia.

A group of conspirators resurrect the ancient wizard Xaltotun through the mystic jewel called the Heart of Ahriman and enlist the undead warlock in their scheme to seize the throne from King Conan. The warlock helps one of the conspirators assume power in neighboring Nemedia and then crushes Conan’s army through his magicks.

Then the barbarian begins a quest to reclaim his kingdom, through the aid of his still loyal subjects, an old witch woman, and a secretive order of priests allied to his cause. Along the way he retraces the steps of his life in a race to find the Heart of Ahriman so that he can use its untold power to topple Xaltotun and his evil allies.

The Hour of the Dragon is a fantastic sword and sorcery novel, and a fittingly epic (near) conclusion to the Conan Saga. After Conan’s throne is stripped from him, we watch him pass through the various phases of his career (and previous stories): we see him stealthy and rogue-like (“The Tower of the Elephant” or “Rogues in the House”), watch him don the guise of a mercenary-for-hire (as he was for much of his life), and witness his capture and take over a slave ship in a return to his pirate past (ala “Queen of the Black Coast”).

In many ways, this novel is a remix of all the previous stories. Major plot elements are borrowed wholesale from “The Scarlet Citadel”, where Conan’s throne was also seized and he was also captured. Even beyond that, the barbarian’s adventure takes him through a series of episodes reminiscent of his hard but lusty life. He fights hellish ghouls and giant snakes and sinister wizards and (more negatively) there’s all the requisite damsel-in-distress and racism I’ve come to expect from Mr. Howard.

In the powerful and satisfactory end, Hour of the Dragon feels like a fitting finale to the entire cycle, although it wasn’t the last Conan story published in the author’s lifetime – that’s “Red Nails”. This is a fantastic story, well told. I’d recommend any fan of fantasy read it but I’d further recommend them to first read the previous Conan stories by Howard. For the fullest effect.

The Nightmare Chronicles by Douglas Clegg

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The Nightmare Chronicles is a fantastic, weird and transgressive collection of horror short stories.

Clegg is a master of characterization – there are no cardboard tropes here. Each setting is fully realized, seemingly authentic and feeling very lived in. He doesn’t bog his monsters down with much in the way of explanations and spares his readers clumsy exposition. A nightmare dream logic pervades throughout. Clegg reminds me of Clive Barker with his mixture of terror and sensuality and transformative otherness.

A frame story, about a group of far-left radicals who have kidnapped a child who, it turns out, is more of a monster than a normal child, bookends the collection and intrudes as interludes here and there, as well. The framing device is what I assume to be One Thousand and One Nights-inspired but unfortunately I haven’t actually read that. It’s decent but the stories themselves are much, much better.

Highlights among the collection include:

“O, Rare and Most Exquisite” – A fully realized period piece and character study of a cad of a gardener having an affair with his boss’ wife and his finding the perfect, and very strange, flowers to give her. The revelation of where the flowers come from will be revisited in some form or fashion throughout much of the rest of these stories. Clegg is fascinated with body transfiguration and sex.

“The Fruit of Her Womb” – An older couple move into a house that was once the site of a brutal mass family murder. The husband becomes more and more obsessed with the crime and the occultism that lead to that crime. A work of folk horror here, tied up heavily with Greek myth, and a finely tuned spin on a ghost story.

“The Ripening Sweetness of Late Afternoon” – A work of true bizarro. A faithless preacher returns to his hometown to atone for a horrible crime he committed in his youth. I won’t give away the weird element of this one but only say that it is superbly introduced and brilliant.

“Damned If You Do” – A truly fucked and excellent story that drops us right into the mind of an retired schoolteacher and serial killer. A disturbing tale. Probably the most horrific in the book.

“I Am Infinite; I Contain Multitudes” – In an asylum for the criminally insane, a new convict navigates his psychopathic lover and the old timer who claims he’s God and says he knows the way out. One part suspenseful crime story and one part sci-fi weirdness with an ending of mystic body horror madness.

There are seven more stories in the book and all of them are good. (Years ago I read Clegg’s The Hour Before the Dark and Red Angel and enjoyed them.) The Nightmare Chronicles has impressed me and entertained me and challenged me in a way that makes me want to seek out more of his work very soon.

Sunday by Georges Simenon

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Note: Georges Simenon has a complicated historical record during Vichy France. He collaborated financially with fascist media organizations. I had heard a bit about that but forgot it before I read this.

Sunday is a brilliant, spare yet detailed short crime novel of a man who runs a cottage in Southern France with his wife and has made up his mind to murder her. Emile is a talented cook who married into the tourist industry but feels owned by his wife Berthe and trapped within his sham of a marriage. His pride and misogynistic hatred of his wife has mixed with his affair with the odd servant girl Ada to inspire his criminal intentions.

The story is told in a series of free-floating, smoothly time hopping flashbacks. His humiliations, marital struggles, and murderous plans are revealed in systematic and revealing segments. The slice-of-life glimpses of the Southern French tourist town are vivid. This murder is all in the details, the small insults, the food and the weather. Simenon shows us the inside of a man who feels he has been pushed into an evil action. It’s chilling in its sympathy.

Sunday is an extremely effective character study of a man committing a crime of almost passionless passion. The end is a jolt of twist with a dash of revelation.

 

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

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The Man in the High Castle is the first alternate history book and the second Philip K. Dick book I’ve ever read and it is fantastic. The Axis powers won WWII and partitioned the world between them. Genocide is rampant in the German half of the world while the Japanese half of the world is in an uneasy and complicit relationship with the Nazis.

A book-within-the book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, posits a world in which the Allies won and has taken the public by storm. Several characters in the Japanese territory of the Pacific States of America and the neutral and independent Rocky Mountain States navigate caste, race, duty, and reality itself in a world gone rotten.

High Castle is in a lot of ways a slice-of-life character study in almost a proto-Robert Altman mode, where characters enter and exit each others lives in a storyline that slowly builds together. I mean this is as a compliment.

Dick’s worldbuilding here is terrific with changes massive and minor dropped expertly into the background and the social stratisfication of this horrible new world explored in minute detail.

The moments of climatic violence are sudden, brutal, and almost beautiful in how they affect the characters involved in very real emotional and spiritual ways. These characters live, breathe and think. The secret sauce of truly great speculative fiction.

There is a preoccupation with position, status, and place in society that as is fascinating as the emphasis on Eastern philosophy, specifically the I Ching.

Gnawing at the edges of the Japanese-dominated setting is the fascist sickness of Nazi Germany.

Racism is explored in all its insidious triviality through a handful of characters, who, true to life and rarely to fiction, are more than just racist strawmen. The evil of evil is that evil is not entirely evil. That line’s probably stupid but it feels right.

The Man in the High Castle has instantly jumped to one of my favorite science fiction novels. In the past, I’ve enjoyed Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and a handful of Dick’s short stories, but now I’m really excited to read more of his work.

Maybe I should finally try some Harry Turtledove, too, see if I’ve grown a taste for the alternate history subgenre.

Should probably check out the show, too.