Greek myths, Mickey Spillane and more


All authors hope their books receive full-length reviews, preferably raves. But space, even in the digital era, is still a newspaper’s final frontier. Hence the roundup. By covering many titles in a single column, a critic — in this case, me — can at least alert people to the existence of some odd, specialized or strangely wonderful reading experiences.

For example, what former English major wouldn’t get a kick out of “The Lamb Cycle,” by David R. Ewbank, with illustrations by Kate Feiffer (Brandeis University Press)? In it, Ewbank, a Kent State University professor emeritus, imagines how English poets — from Spenser and Shakespeare to Philip Larkin and Stevie Smith — might have reworked the Mother Goose classic “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Here’s the appropriately macabre opening of Coleridge’s “The Crime of the Urchin Mary”: “It was an ancient crone who wrote / Silly rhymes for tots / Was stopped by a maid in a pinafore / With blood-red polkadots.” That last phrase delivers the true Gothic shiver.

Ignorance is not always bliss — and not always bad — a new book argues

Any fan of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” or “The Mysterious Island” — whether the books or the classic adventure films — should grab a copy of “Extraordinary Visions: Stories Inspired by Jules Verne,” edited by Steven R. Southard and Matthew T. Hardesty (BearManor Media). Chosen from a competition sponsored by the North American Jules Verne Society (of which I am a member), the 13 stories derive from, or pay homage to, some of the French writer’s best- and least-known works. In Joseph S. Walker’s “The Dominion of all the Earth,” the now-aged Axel Lidenbrock, from “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” is touring the United States giving lectures about his descent into our planet’s interior. One afternoon in Chicago, he meets an enigmatic young woman who reveals the earthshaking truth about the gigantic cave man he briefly glimpsed so long ago. With comparable deftness, Kelly A. Harmon’s “Trumpets of Freedom” reassembles characters from “The Lighthouse at the End of the World,” then adds steampunk robots and that aeronautical buccaneer, Robur the Conqueror.

The oldest stories never seem to lose their power to shock. For proof, consider poor Myrrha in Sarah Iles Johnston’s “Gods and Mortals,” this Ohio State University professor’s superb retelling of, in the words of its subtitle, “Ancient Greek Myths for Modern Readers” (Princeton). Beset with an undeniable lust for her father, Myrrha eventually becomes the mother of the beautiful and equally doomed Adonis. Johnston’s account of this generational tragedy is nuanced, sympathetic and deeply moving. For each myth, she also adds invigorating context and sometimes supplementary detail, giving Odysseus “a keener appreciation of his wife’s intellect than Homer did.”

John Spurling’s “Arcadian Days: Gods, Women, and Men from Greek Myth” (Pegasus), a companion to his lauded “Arcadian Nights,” focuses on Greek couples, including Prometheus and Pandora, Jason and Medea, and Odysseus and Penelope. In this last, Spurling unexpectedly makes Odysseus a first-person narrator, allowing the reader to be privy to the hero’s thoughts. This shift in perspective proves breathtakingly successful in creating suspense, especially in the penultimate scene when a tattered beggar, mocked by Penelope’s boorish suitors, picks up Odysseus’s bow and checks to be sure that it is still sound.

The moon falls to Earth in a 1939 novel that remains chillingly relevant

John W. Kropf’s “Color Capital of the World: Growing Up With the Legacy of a Crayon Company” (University of Akron Press) interweaves corporate history with family memoir. The American Crayon Company, in Sandusky, Ohio, was established in the 19th century by members of Kropf’s family, becoming the longtime rival of Binney & Smith, purveyor of the more familiar Crayola brand crayons. Kropf describes how his family’s crayons were produced and promoted — through coloring contests, for example — and how a focus on art materials for school classrooms led to its acquisition of Prang watercolor paints. At one point, the Sandusky plant employed 500 people. Interspersed with this often fascinating business history, Kropf — now a lawyer in Washington — recalls his childhood and youth in the 1950s and ’60s. The mix of the corporate and personal doesn’t always jell, but “Color Capital of the World” is well-written and, for those of a certain age, suffused with nostalgia. I can still remember those Prang paint boxes, holding an egg-carton-like tray of eight colors. Happy times!

Even Stephen King, I think, would acknowledge that Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft are the two most influential American writers of supernatural horror fiction. What’s more, both led lives — cut short at 40 and 46, respectively — that remain as fascinating as their stories. Mark Dawidziak’s “A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe” (St. Martin’s) uses that writer’s puzzling last days in Baltimore as the starting point for a biography that reads like a gripping, well-reported feature story. Dawidziak quotes throughout from a wide range of Poe scholars, their insights and speculations reflecting the latest thinking about the author of “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Ligeia” (my two favorite Poe stories). What’s more, as with Dawidziak’s earlier book on the TV series “Columbo,” his informed enthusiasm sweeps the reader irresistibly along.

More reviews by Michael Dirda

While Poe is an icon, Lovecraft has become a flash point. He can be reprehensibly racist and misogynistic, and yet there’s no denying his fiction’s originality and visionary power. Over the past several years, David E. Schultz and S.T. Joshi have been assembling, editing and annotating Lovecraft’s correspondence in multiple volumes, all published by Hippocampus Press. The latest, “Miscellaneous Letters,” again shows the “Sage of Providence” as funny, self-mocking, critically shrewd and exceptionally painstaking in answering his mail. To one Alvin E. Perry, Lovecraft outlines how he constructs his stories; to a Mrs. H.H. Hughes, he confirms that Arkham is based on Salem, Mass. As for the supernatural, he frankly confesses that “I think this kind of thing fascinates me all the more because I don’t believe a word of it!”

Edited by Tom English, “Nightmare Abbey,” from Dead Letter Press, isn’t just an illustrated magazine, it’s a showcase for essays on the horror genre and “chilling tales of terror,” both old and new. In its just-published second issue, Gary Gerani reflects on the TV show “Thriller,” inimitably hosted by Boris Karloff, while English traces the influence of Theodore Sturgeon’s novella “It” on swamp-monster comics. There are also excellent new stories by Helen Grant, Steve Duffy and many others, as well as the older, too-little-known tour de force “By One, by Two, and by Three,” written by Adrian Ross, a Cambridge friend of ghost-story master M.R. James.

Is Mickey Spillane now a neglected author? In the early 1950s, his immensely popular novels about private eye Mike Hammer were called sadistic and pornographic revenge fantasies, fever dreams of violence accelerating to “slam-bang” — Spillane’s adjective — surprise endings. No one who’s read “I, the Jury” (1947) will ever forget its final sentence, innocent-seeming but immensely shocking in context: “It was easy.”

In my early teens I raced through all the Spillane paperbacks I could unearth, so I quickly devoured “Spillane: King of Pulp Fiction” (Mysterious Press), by Max Allan Collins and James L. Traylor. With no-nonsense concision, it describes Spillane’s early career in comics, his jump into writing novels, the adaptation of his work into movies (most notably the noir classic “Kiss Me Deadly”), the various Mike Hammer TV shows and the later spy thrillers about Tiger Mann. The authors also discuss Spillane’s personal life, his three marriages and — paradoxical as it may seem — this tough-guy writer’s membership in the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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There’s only one caution I would make to a prospective reader of “Spillane: King of Pulp Fiction.” It’s forthrightly full of spoilers, so that Collins and Traylor can trace the connections among the early novels as Mike Hammer works through some formidable residual guilt. This openness about Spillane’s plots may have been unavoidable, but if I were about to begin “Vengeance Is Mine” (1950) or “The Long Wait” (1951) for the first time, I’d rather not know their tricky secrets.

Michael Dirda will be on vacation for the next six weeks. His column will resume on April 16.

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