Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2012 Evelyn C. Leeper.


THE FINAL SOLUTION by Michael Chabon:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/14/2005]

THE FINAL SOLUTION by Michael Chabon (ISBN 0-06-076340-X) is a novella, rather than a novel, at about 27,000 words (by my rough estimation). It is a Sherlock Holmes murder mystery in which the murder is not the only mystery. It is as much about Holmes in his old age as about the mystery. This makes it somewhat similar to Mitch Cullin's A SLIGHT TRICK OF THE MIND (reviewed in the 05/06/05 issue of the MT VOID), although Chabon's Holmes's problems are as much physical as mental. (Well, contrary to several of the Universal Studios Sherlock Holmes film, by the 1940s Holmes is almost ninety.) What Chabon manages is a story in which everything is resolved for the reader, if not for the characters in the story. (I would say that his method, involving a rather odd point-of-view chapter, may strike some readers as awkward.) Recommended but with reservations, and not as a Sherlock Holmes story of the traditional sort.

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GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD by Michael Chabon:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/30/2007]

I find Michael Chabon a very frustrating author. I will find one book of his wonderful, and the next one unreadable. For example, I loved THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY, but could not get into SUMMERLAND. I liked THE FINAL SOLUTION and adored THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION, but could not finish GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD (ISBN-13 978-0-345-50174-5, ISBN-10 0-345-50174-8). The last seemed to be very well-written, with an amazingly ornate vocabulary, but there was just something about it that distanced me from it to the extent that I finally gave up. It is particularly irritating because part of me knows this is a very good book, but the other part says that reading it is a chore. I would be curious to hear other people's reactions to it.

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MCSWEENEY'S ENCHANTED CHAMBER OF ASTONISHING STORIES edited by Michael Chabon:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/28/2012]

MCSWEENEY'S ENCHANTED CHAMBER OF ASTONISHING STORIES edited by Michael Chabon (ISBN 978-1-4000-7874-5) is a follow-on to MCSWEENEY'S MAMMOTH TREASURY OF THRILLING TALES. The cover is from FANTASTIC NOVELS magazine, January 1949, in keeping with the retro idea. But the stories are by current authors, few of whom were even alive in 1949. I must be out of touch, because they have names on the front cover that I have never heard of (David Mitchell, Heidi Julavits, and Roddy Doyle) while leaving off better- known authors (Margaret Atwood, Poppy Z. Brite, Jonathan Lethem, and China Mieville). The stories themselves are fantasy (including dark fantasy, or horror), not science fiction. I cannot say that I loved every story, but as with the magazines it is patterned after, it has enough to satisfy to make it worthwhile.

To order McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories from amazon.com, click here.


MCSWEENEY'S MAMMOTH TREASURY OF THRILLING TALES edited by Michael Chabon (Vintage, 2003, ISBN 1-40000-3339-X, 480pp, $13.95):

Michael Chabon begins this anthology with an introduction in which he says he wants to "revive the lost genres of short fiction," and expresses a preference for "the Plotted Short Story." While this sounds admirable, one gets the impression that he hasn't been reading much outside precisely those literary magazines he is criticizing for not carrying this sort of story. As James Hynes in the "Washington Post" observed, "[I]t's not as though there's a deficit of plot in print, either. Much more plot-driven popular fiction is published and read every year than literary short stories, which appear mostly in little magazines and are read mainly by their authors' friends and family. The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine are still going strong, and fat anthologies of the best science fiction, mystery and horror stories still appear every year."

(On the other hand, Mark Holcomb in the "Village Voice" said, "Save for a few moldering back issues gathering dust in rural barbershops or drawing preposterous bids on eBay, pulp- and popular-fiction magazines went the way of Vitalis hair oil and fake-turtleneck dickeys sometime in the 1970s. Out of step with the times, these bastions of populist literature passed quietly into publishing history." From this we can conclude, I think, that Hynes has a far better grasp of a clue than Holcomb.)

Anyway, Chabon's support of the plot is admirable. Would that the stories in this book lived up to it.

Oh, there are some stories that seem plot-centered, but many of them appear to me to be more of what Chabon is protesting against. They may be "genre" pieces, but they are as focused on psychology and inner angst as on plot. And somehow, "thrilling" is not a word I would apply to most of them.

Take for example the first story, "Tedford and the Magalodon" by Jim Shepard. You would think that a story about a search for a giant sea serpent would be thrilling, but it manages to be another story about the protagonist's inner feelings rather than an adventure.

"The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter" by Glen David Gold, on the other hand does have mystery and plot, even if a lot of the plot is related by one character to another. Heck, it worked for Asimov in "Foundation".

And so it goes. As I said, at least half the stories seem no different to me than the sort of "contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story" Chabon decries. They may be good (or in some cases not), but they hardly seem the sort of thing one expects in a book of "thrilling tales."

The closest to classic science fiction of the "Twilight Zone" variety is Nick Hornby's "Otherwise Pandemonium"--it even has the "magical machine" that one found so often in the old pulps. Another story with a strong plot is "The Case of the Nazi Canary" by Michael Moorcock features "Sir Seaton Begg, Metatemporal Detective," but there is no time travel or anything else like it. It is, however, an alternate history murder mystery. Chris Offut's "Chuck's Bucket" is a wonderfully convoluted alternate worlds story which obviously derives from Alfred Bester's "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed", but takes its premise down a different path--or strand of spaghetti. (One feels obliged to note that Bester lived--and died--before the recent rise of the fatwa.)

Michael Chabon's own story is also an alternate history in which the British still rule North America in 1876. However, because it is presented as the first chapter of a serialized novel, and the rest isn't there (is it possible Chabon will actually finish it?), it is ultimately disappointing.

Carol Emshwiller's "The General" seems as though it could be science fiction--or it could be straightforward adventure fiction. And Rick Moody has a science fiction story even before he starts fooling with levels of reality in "The Albertine Notes", which is the longest story in the book and the most crafted, although the style was not to my taste.

Since Chabon was not assembling a strictly science fiction anthology, or even a science fiction, fantasy, and horror anthology, there are some stories of other genres--mystery, adventure, and so on. "The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter" (mentioned above) is more along the lines of those stories of animal tamers, and "The General" (ditto) is close to a straight war story. "The Case of the Salt and Pepper Shakers" by Aimee Bender is a straight mystery story highly reminiscent of John Collier. Elmore Leonard's "How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl and Became a Famous Oklahoma Lawman" is a flat-out Western.

Ultimately, one has to ask two questions: whether Chabon delivers on his promise of "thrilling stories," and whether the anthology is good. The answer to the first is probably "no", but the answer to the second I would say is "yes".

(It is inevitable that I would compare this in my mind to CONJUNCTIONS 39: THE NEW FABULISTS. In both cases, the intent seems to be to bring genre writing to the mainstream audience. In the case of CONJUNCTIONS, it is supposedly fantasy stories in particular; in the case of MCSWEENEY'S it is broader. But in both cases, even though the results are good, the contents do not deliver what the title implies. Then again, how often do volumes titled "The Year's Best ..." really contain the best stories, particularly when there are four different ones, each with different stories?)

To order McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales from amazon.com, click here.


THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION by Michael Chabon:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/31/2007]

And while we are talking about translating between languages, let's talk about THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION by Michael Chabon (ISBN-13 978-0-007-14982-7, ISBN-10 0-007-14982-4), which had its origins in a phrase book. In an interview (http://tinyurl.com/2385em>), Chabon has described the origins of this book as being the phrasebook SAY IT IN YIDDISH, published by Dover as part of a series of "Say It in [language]". Wondering where one would use the Yiddish phrases for "Do you have a tourniquet? and "What is the flight number?" Chabon constructed just such a place, a Yiddhkeit Sitka, Alaska, which in Chabon's alternate history had been made a refuge for the Jews during World War II, and a homeland afterward. Chabon has combined the alternate history with the hard-boiled detective novel, and come up with something unique. (There have, of course, been other alternate history novels set around changes in the Holocaust: Philip Roth's THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA, Philip K. Dick's THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, and Martin Gidron's THE SEVERED WING. Chabon is aware of at least the first two of these.)

(Chabon's original article on SAY IT IN YIDDISH may be found at http://www.mrbellersneighborhood.com/story.php?storyid=1113.)

Lisa Goldstein has said, "THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION might not be rigorous enough for purists" (http://tinyurl.com/22qjx5), by which she means that not every difference is explained. But I think this is a virtue--too many people writing alternate history feel they have to explain everything. (E.g., "He opened a can of Blarg Cola, again reminded of the atomic bomb on Atlanta that destroyed the old Coca-Cola company and let Blarg grab the market." This is not an example from THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION!)

I might make a few minor quibbles. Chabon uses "papiroses" as the plural of "papiros"; it should be "papirosn". (This would be less important were there not a classic Yiddish song called "Papirosn".) And he has a cafeteria serving both corned beef and cheese blintzes, which is possible, but highly unlikely in a city as outwardly religious as Sitka.

But these are minor, and even for people not looking for a Yiddishkeit alternate history, the hard-boiled detective aspect gives it a much broader appeal than it might otherwise have. Highly recommended.

To order The Yiddish Policemen's Union from amazon.com, click here.


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