A few quick book reviews

Part of the reason why this place has been so quiet lately is that I’ve been working a lot – and reading a lot, too. Here’s three quick reviews of some stuff I’ve recently enjoyed – an

The Big Knockover: Selected Stories and Short NovelsThe Big Knockover: Selected Stories and Short Novels by Dashiell Hammett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Big Knockover is something of an odds-and-ends collection of Hammett’s short fiction. Most of it is filled with stories about The Continental Op, basically the first hard-boiled detective, and as a whole they’re pretty good. Some of the tales – Dead Yellow Women and the title story in particular – stand out and really pack a punch. And like a wise man one said about pizza or Eric Clapton’s guitar playing, even when an Op story isn’t at it’s best, it’s still pretty good.

It’s interesting to read these stories with the hindsight of how Hammett’s career went. One can see him experimenting with location and content in these tale even as he keeps the Op at their core; Corkscrew reads as a hard-boiled western, This King Business delves into federal politics in a post-WW1 European country and Dead Yellow Women has a theme of patriotism blended into a story about human trafficking. There’s really some depth to these stories, which show Hammett as a writer who could take inspiration from a range of ideas.

At the same time, the book includes a section of an unfinished novel of Hammett’s called Tulip. It’s an odd story about a writer – almost surely based on himself – who can no longer write. It’s not exceptionally good and in a way it’s depressing to see Hammett trying to write his way out of a creative block. It really doesn’t fit in with the rest of the story, although I can see why it was included by editor Lillian Hellman.

It’s too bad that Vintage hasn’t collected all the Op stories – the ones here and in the Nightmare Town and Continental Op volumes – in one book. But until they do, you can’t go wrong with this collection.


The John McPhee readerThe John McPhee reader by John McPhee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s probably a cliche to say that John McPhee is a writer’s writer, but that’s only because he never seems to have the same acclaim among more casual readers. And, as this collection shows, that’s a damn shame.

The first John McPhee reader is a well-edited collection showcasing selections from his first dozen books and cover everything from the cultivation and selling of fruit (Oranges), an in-depth profile of two tennis stars (Levels of the Game), the quirky scientists who design and built atomic bombs (The Curve of Binding Energy), the head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (A Roomful of Hovings) and more. Taken as a whole, it’s nothing short of stunning that McPhee is able to cover to much ground and do it all so well; he feels equally at home going into scientific workings of nuclear propulsion as he does writing about basketball.

Of course, as anybody who’s read McPhee before knows, the core of this book is based around two kinds of writing: writing about people and writing about nature. And in the book’s strongest sections, McPhee does both. The excerpt from Encounters with the Archdruid is so detailed, you feel not only like you’re riding in a canoe down the Colorado River, but that you know both Floyd Dominy and David Brower, are party to their fighting and know it’s because they’re both equally passionate about their work.

But that’s only one section. His trip in a birchbark canoe is just as good, as a working vacation to a Scottish island. It’s all good, and like the best anthologies, it made me want to pick up each individual volume. Highly recommended.

The Canterbury Tales, in Modern EnglishThe Canterbury Tales, in Modern English by Geoffrey Chaucer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m not a scholar of English and I’ve never read anything in middle english (or early english, for that matter). I’m only passingly familiar with literature from this period. And I’ve seen the untranslated version of this collection, but I haven’t read it – nor would I really be able to without any help. So I can’t especially comment on the details of this translation.

But I feel pretty confident in saying that it’s a great translation, one that’s highly readable, flows well and engages the reader. Is it faithful to the original? Hell if I know, but one would assume it is, especially given the copious notes in the back. But enough about that.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a great collection. You probably knew that already (it’s one reason why this book has survived this long). And given Chaucer’s reputation, I don’t really want to get into this book in a lot of detail, but merely offer a few reasons why I’d recommend it on top of it’s importance.

Did you know that’s it funny as hell (The Miller’s Tale)? or that it’s chock full of retellings of classic legends (Monk’s Tale)? I didn’t – I went into this knowing it was important, but hadn’t especially bothered to check it out in detail. I was pleasantly surprised: while some of the tales did drag on, they never ceased to be interesting at the least and the best of the stories are great. That’s kind of the secret of this collection: you may come in with some idea that it’s a scholarly text, something read by english or history majors, but there’s a lot here for even the casual reader.

Personally, I liked the Miller’s Tale – a story of infidelity which cumulates with a blast of a fart, a poker being shoved at somebody’s ass and a man flipping the hell out, thinking a flood of biblical proportions is on it’s way – the most, but there’s plenty here for everybody. The range here is nothing short of astonishing, even if most of it is a retelling of folk tales, when one considers the age in which it was written: Chaucer – let alone this poem’s audience – did not have access to the range of literature we do now. That he was able to take tales from all over and adapt them in a way that his audience could then (and continues to today) find them accessible is a great feat.

I’d recommend Chaucer just on historical importance alone. After all, smarter people than I have said what we consider English literature begins with him. I’ll go a step further and recommend you read it – Coghill’s translation in particular – because it’s a great pleasure to read as well. Keep this one by your bed and read some of it each night.

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