Book Review: Speak to Me of Death

Speak to Me of Death: The Selected Short Fiction of Cornell Woolrich, Volume 1
Speak to Me of Death: The Selected Short Fiction of Cornell Woolrich, Volume 1 by Cornell Woolrich

My rating: 5 Stars

The world of Cornell Woolrich is dark. No, darker than that. The kind of dark that sinks into your guts and creeps up to your brain, filling you with an awful, smothering dread.

The fifteen stories collected here describe paranoia and madness, doomed criminals and ordinary men caught in desperate situations, usually of their own making. They are page-turners of the best kind, so loaded with white-knuckle suspense and yawning despair that I frequently caught myself pausing mid-scene, muttering “no no no, don’t do THAT!,” almost afraid to move on to the next paragraph, yet utterly compelled to do so.

These are not realistic stories. They hinge on coincidence and irrationality, or 90-degree turns from normalcy. They tell of a capricious world ruled by a cruel, taunting fate. You may be an ordinary, law-abiding citizen today, Woolrich warns, but you could be a dangerous, deranged killer by morning.

Not all of the stories are brilliant, but the many gems far outweigh the two or three middling ones. A few of them became more famous in later versions: “Speak to Me of Death” was expanded into the novel Night Has a Thousand Eyes and “It Had to Be Murder” is the source of the Hitchcock masterpiece “Rear Window.” The Centipede Press paperback edition is beautifully designed and subtly sequenced, with a creepy cover, high-quality paper, and a durable, sewn binding. It’s a terrific collection inside and out.

Contents:

Dead on Her Feet
Dusk to Dawn
Rear Window (a.k.a. “It Had to be Murder”)
Marihuana
Murder in Wax
Post-Mortem (a.k.a. “Death Wins the Sweepstakes”)
Speak to Me of Death (basis of “Night Has a Thousand Eyes”)
The Corpse and the Kid
The Death of Me
The Living Lie Down with the Dead
The Night Reveals
Three O’Clock
Wardrobe Trunk (a.k.a “Dilemma of the Dead Lady”)
Finger of Doom (a.k.a. “I Won’t Take a Minute”/”I’ll Just Be a Minute”)
The Corpse Next Door

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Book Review: 20th Century Photography

20th Century Photography
20th Century Photography by Museum Ludwig Cologne

My rating: 5 Stars

When buying photography books on the cheap, one generally gets what one pays for. But Taschen’s budget editions break the mold. This fat little hardcover (760 pages) is both a handy reference work and an inspirational launching point for further exploration, perfect for people like me who love photography but don’t yet have a deep historical grounding.

The material is wonderfully diverse. 278 artists — from Ansel Adams to Piet Zwart — are presented alphabetically, covering the whole of the 20th century and ranging widely across genres and styles. There are nudes and abstracts, portraits and architectural studies, studio still life and “decisive moment” street scenes. The 860 photographs are all drawn from the collection of the Museum Ludwig in Köln, so German photographers are particularly well represented.

The book is a joy to browse despite the small reproductions, and the biographical sketches, although dry, are informative. I’m sure I’ll refer to this book often as I continue my photographic education.

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Book Review: The Man Who Shook the Earth

The Man Who Shook the Earth
The Man Who Shook the Earth by Kenneth Robeson

My rating: 3.5 Stars

Original publication order: #12 (February 1934)
Bantam reprint order: #43

Doc and his crew face off against a typically bizarre enemy: a fiend who is using an earthquake machine to murder prominent mine owners in Chile. The story opens with a bang, has a drawn-out middle section and limps into a rushed ending. I feel like author Lester Dent missed an opportunity here: this could easily have been one of the best novels in the series, but it never quite gets where it’s going.

Dent may have been experimenting a bit: the style is a bit more leisurely and expansive than previous stories, and the story is longer than average. The flip side is that it’s unfocused. Tough gal “Tip” Galligan has all the marks of an exciting character but is wasted after her initial scene. I’m still scratching my head over a minor villain who appears midway through the book and is promptly killed off. And the evil plot behind the story is revealed far too late and wrapped up far too quickly, as if Dent himself didn’t figure it all out until the very end.

Oh well. An “average” Doc Savage story is still a good time. I just thought this had the makings of a classic, and it didn’t live up.

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Book Review: Brand of the Werewolf

Brand of the Werewolf
Brand of the Werewolf by Kenneth Robeson

My rating: 2 Stars

Pulp lore has it that when Bantam Books reprinted this Doc Savage story in 1965 (fifth in their weird reprint order), it proved to be the best-selling title in the series. This can only be because of the exciting cover art, because that’s the only worthwhile thing about Brand of the Werewolf.

This story, first published in January 1934, was the eleventh Doc adventure. It is notable for the introduction of a new character: Doc’s cousin Patricia Savage, “a two-fisted woman who could go out and do things.” Like Doc, Pat is bronze-haired, easy on the eyes, and smart as a whip, although she lacks the lifelong intensive training that has converted Doc into a superman. When Pat’s father is murdered by a gang searching for a mysterious ivory cube, Doc and his friends find their vacation to British Columbia diverted into a game of cat-and-mouse with the killers.

This is one of those Doc novels where the racism of the era gets in the way of the story, at least in the early chapters (a black train porter and two First Nations characters each get some embarrassing dialogue). But it isn’t much of a story to start with. Once you get past the cube and the presence of Pat, this is a run of the mill lost treasure story with a second-rate villain, too much dependence on bulletproof vests, and a hack ending that raises more questions than it answers. And those drawn in by the cover will be doubly disappointed: there’s no actual werewolf in the story, but the Bantam reprint does put a huge (but predictable) spoiler right in the blurb.

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Book Review: The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps

The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps: The Best Crime Stories from the Pulps During Their Golden Age - The '20s, '30s & '40s
The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps: The Best Crime Stories from the Pulps During Their Golden Age – The ’20s, ’30s & ’40s by Otto Penzler

My rating: 4.5 Stars

Holy Toledo, after living with The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps for nearly three months I finally made it to the end!!!

It’s tempting to give this beast of a book five stars for sheer volume alone. Containing two full-length novels alongside dozens of novellas and short stories (53 tales in all!), it’s a wide-ranging survey of the taut, gritty style of hard-boiled crime story pioneered by Black Mask magazine in the 1920s and ’30s. All the greats are here: Hammett, Chandler, Woolrich, along with many other penny-a-word writers, famous and obscure.

Honestly, it’s too much. I reached the saturation point twice while reading and had to put the book away for a few weeks. And with so many writers represented, the contents are very much a mixed bag. There were a few smoothly written, deeply haunting stories that I really loved and will certainly read again. But there were also a large number that were entertaining but forgettable, several others I couldn’t finish quickly enough, and a few I gave up on completely. The Kindle edition also suffers from some annoying OCR errors, on some stories more than others.

Pulp (the name comes from the cheap woodpulp paper the original magazines were printed on) isn’t for everybody. These are tough-guy stories from another era, and they had no literary pretensions. They were meant to be candy for the masses, completely disposable — after all, a whole new crop of stories would be out in a few weeks. So modern readers may find it cheap, cliched, or hackneyed (or blatantly sexist and racist). But if you enjoy noir movies and other early 20th century entertainment, you’ll find the pulps easy to love despite their many flaws.

Many of the stories here were first published in Black Mask, then and now regarded as the pinnacle of the crime pulps, although editor Otto Penzler also dredges the archives of seedier titles like Gun Molls and Spicy Detective. Compared to those half-cent-a-word rags, the Black Mask stories read like Shakespeare.

Of course, there was a lot more to the pulp phenomenon than crime stories. Nearly all of what we today call “genre fiction” was nurtured in the pages of pulp magazines, from high adventure to horror, sci-fi to westerns to romance. But no aspect of the pulps endures quite like the hard-boiled world of private dicks, gangsters, and murderous mayhem explored here. So The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps is a wonderful sampler to get lost in, for veteran pulp fans and neophyte readers alike. Just don’t try to consume it all at once.

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Book Review: Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

My rating: 4.5 Stars

Wow. Ann Leckie’s debut novel (the first in a planned trilogy) is a brilliant and disorienting new spin on space opera, packing some truly epic world-building and a vast, millennium-spanning story into a surprisingly lean frame.

The mind-blowing aspects begin with Leckie’s bizarre yet strangely sympathetic protagonist: a 2,000-year-old artificial intelligence which controls not only the huge warship Sword of Toren, but also hundreds of living, formerly human bodies. It’s a situation that makes even the word “I” or “me” ambiguous—Which “I” the narrator means at any given time isn’t always obvious. That ambiguity also extends to the word “she,” as Sword of Toren comes from a society in which gender terms are irrelevant (everyone is a “she”), but must interact with cultures where gender is essential to language. So various characters might refer to a single person as both “her” and “him” in back-to-back sentences. Whee!

Honestly, I spent long sections of the story somewhat confused, but some of that was probably intentional on Leckie’s part and the rest was my own fault. I started the book while traveling, and read the first half of it in brief, scattered sessions, making it very difficult to get my footing. What kept me going was the incredibly rich, deeply detailed, and utterly addictive universe that Leckie has created. And her writing swings easily from the hugeness of galactic politics to the intricacies of manners to the lonelieness of the human heart, making it all believable and compelling. In the end, I don’t mind those stretches of confusion. They just make me want to read Ancillary Justice again, all at once, so I can catch whatever subtleties I might have missed the first time.

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Book Review: Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong
Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout

My rating: 5 Stars

Pops is, by far, the best account of Louis Armstrong’s life I’ve ever encountered. Terry Teachout’s narrative is graceful and full of insight, and his esteem for Armstrong shines through every page. But reading it, I also realized for the first time how challenging it must be to write about the man.

Armstrong was an undisputed genius. He raised jazz above the level of novelty music and inspired an entire generation of artists with his 1920s Chicago bands and the seminal records of his “Hot Five.” He even demonstrated how jazz could truly be art with essential, timeless recordings like “West End Blues.” But within a decade of his emergence on the scene, the critical tide was already beginning to turn against Armstrong: first for joining the big band craze and turning his back on small-group hot jazz, then for sticking to his “good ol’ good ones” while the rest of the jazz world was moving relentlessly forward. Satchmo was chastised for working with mediocre sidemen, for embracing commercial pop songs, for his old-school vaudeville antics on stage, for his shrinking and fossilized repertoire, for his roles in a long string of forgotten B-movies, and for his apparent subservience to white managers. Such stones would be flung at Armstrong by music critics, modernists, and black intellectuals for the rest of his life.

All of these criticisms have merit, but they neglect Armstrong’s own vision. His desires were simple. He wanted to play the songs he liked for the largest possible audience. He wanted to sing. He wanted the spotlight, without competition from his sidemen. He wanted to be taken care of and absolved from difficult business decisions. And he wanted to be loved.

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