Sticking it to Wells Fargo

Title: The Ballad of Black Bart
Author: Loren D. Estelman
Genre: Historical Fiction / Western
Pages: 237
Rating: 4 of 5

I don’t care for Westerns, but this tale of the poetry-writing, walking-rather-than-riding “gentleman bandit” with a grudge against Wells Fargo was an entertaining read. It isn’t a typical Western, but more like “novelized history.” In other words, the author has meticulously researched the people and events he is writing about and retells their story while inventing some dialogue and inner thoughts and using his imagination to flesh out the details (think Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels or Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford).

The style occasionally drifts into sounding more like a history book than a novel and is more about dogged detective work than high action, but it suited my taste. If you like history, especially the history of notorious people, this is worth your time.

More Mini-Reviews

This week is Vacation Bible School at my church so between publicity and preparation last week and keeping control of a swarm of kids this week it’s been insanely busy.  Also, I’ve had kind of a run of “meh” books that I didn’t feel particularly motivated to review. However, I’m trying to give at least a short review of everything I read this year, so here are a few mini-reviews.

Title: The Maltese Falcon
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Hard-boiled Detective/Noir
Pages: 189
Rating: 4 of 5

This is probably the best known of Hammett’s novels thanks to the excellent Humphrey Bogart movie adaptation. Rather than the usual Continental Op, it features shady-but-not-quite-as-dishonest-as-he-seems private eye Sam Spade. Murder, greed, and lies (so many lies) surround the quest for “the black bird,” but Spade sees through the murk enough to come to a satisfactory ending for himself. Personally, I prefer the Continental Op to the more womanizing Sam Spade, but this is still a great book in the morally ambiguous world of Dashiell Hammett.

Title: The Crucible
Author: Arthur Miller
Genre: Play/Historical Fiction
Pages: 147
Rating: 3 of 5

This classic play about the Salem witch trials is really an exploration of the attitudes/actions during the McCarthy era Red Scare. Sadly, most of those attitudes rear their heads now and then to this day (I hate church politics so much!). Even though the author is insightful at times, I’m not a fan of authors of historical fiction altering solid historical facts to make the narrative fit the point they are trying to make, and Miller does this quite a bit. Between that and the overall bleakness, I didn’t really care for the play.

Title: Lysistrata
Author: Aristophanes
Translator: Douglas Parker
Genre: Play
Pages: 123
Rating: 2 of 5

I read this mostly because I needed something short to blast through for my library’s reading contest (and I was already at the plays shelf to pick up The Crucible). The premise of this raunchy comedy is that the women of Greece refuse all sexual favors to their men until they agree to end the ongoing war. The translator’s introduction described it as Aristophanes’ “most phallic” play…it was disturbingly so. Proof that crass humor has always been with us. Blech.

Title: The Stranger
Author: Max Brand
Genre: Western
Pages: 206
Rating: 2.5 of 5

About once per year I read a Western and then decide I’ve had my fill of the genre for at least another year. This one was combination of Western and Mystery as two cowpunchers try to figure out who killed the man they were supposed to be protecting for ten days at $1,000 per day. Between the insta-love, fairly obvious whodunnit, and a plot hole or two I wasn’t terribly impressed.

Title: Woman in the Dark
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Crime/Noir
Pages: 87
Rating: 3

This short novel, originally serialized in Black Mask, isn’t Hammett’s best, but it’s still a decent pulp story. Rather than Hammett’s usual detective, the protagonist is a convict recently released from prison. When his landlord’s mistress puts him in the middle of a messy domestic situation his newly regained freedom is threatened. Overall, a pretty typical Black Mask story worth reading if you’re into noir.

Title: The Captain’s Daughter and Other Stories
Author: Alexander Pushkin
Translator: Natalie Duddington
Genre: Classic/Short Story Anthology
Pages: 288
Rating: 3.5

I have never read anything by Pushkin before and was curious how he compared to other Russian authors, so I picked up this collection. There was quite a bit of variety from outlaw and soldier stories (reminiscent of Gogol’s Taras Bulba or Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad) to a slightly supernatural tale (The Queen of Spades – probably my favorite in the collection) to one with a nice twist at the end worthy of O Henry. Pushkin has a lot of the bleakness that I associate with Russian authors, but to a lesser degree. I’ll probably pick up more by him in the future.

Hitmen are people too

Title: The Sisters Brothers
Author: Patrick deWitt
Genre: Noir?
Rating: 3 out of 5

I have a difficult time classifying this book both in terms of genre and in terms of whether I really liked it or not. Though set in the West during the California gold rush and featuring plenty of gunslinging, this doesn’t read much like a Western. It bears much more resemblance to the crime novels of the 1930’s-50’s by the likes of James M. Cain and David Goodis but with some of the levity and style of a picaresque novel.

The episodic storyline follows a duo of infamous hired killers on their latest assignment to hunt down a certain prospector. The first-person narration by the younger brother, Eli, paints a picture of a somewhat bewildered, often likeable man rather than a conscienceless monster (even as many of the brothers’ actions are sadistic and/or appalling). The book definitely kept my interest throughout, and the author’s extremely dry sense of humor was entertaining, but there were some parts that were just a bit too graphic and/or crude for me to really like the book.