Monthly Archives: August 2012

Review: Stories

I tend to be wary of collections of short stories, as they rarely live up to their longer counterparts. Don’t get me wrong — I will on occasion come across short stories I love. For the most part though, they leave me underwhelmed. This particular collection, Stories: All-New Tales Edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, pulled me in despite that. It was mostly due to the names on the author list: Neil Gaiman, Chuck Palahniuk, Jeffrey Deaver, Joyce Carol Oates. Names I recognize, respect, and have produced work I enjoyed in the past. Plus, it was crazy on sale. I’m a sucker for a sale, I admit it.

I started this collection with high hopes. Gaiman’s introduction was charming, reflective, and honest. He focused on the four words that every storyteller wants to hear from their audience when they pause: “… and then what happened?” Gaiman discusses his own feelings on stories and their potential, as well as the implications they can have on those who hear them. It was a strong start, and gave the reader the momentum and motivation to dive into the stories themselves.

Unfortunately, the stories did not build on Gaiman’s promising beginning. They weren’t bad, but they certainly weren’t great either. Roddy Doyle’s “Blood” was just sort of gross. Joyce Carol Oates could have shortened “Fossil Figures” by half. “Wildfire in Manhattan” by Joanne Harris was anticlimactic and cliched.

Neil Gaiman’s contribution could not come soon enough. His story, “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains” was a full of imagery and sensory details, a miniature epic of violence, tragedy, and revenge. My responses were both emotional and visceral: at one point chills literally crept up my neck. Gaiman’s short story was on par with any full-length work he’s done, which in my opinion is a trait of a good author; he can tell an excellent story in exactly the amount of time it requires. Novel or flash fiction, Gaiman can hit it out of the park.

Richard Adams had a decent story in “The Knife,” but it was just alright. It certainly benefited from comparison to the works around it. I hate to say it, but I really felt that “Unbelief” (Michael Marshall Smith), “The Stars Are Falling” (Joe R. Lansdale), and “Juvenal Nyx” (Walter Mosley) all could have benefited from a ruthless editor. [Oooh! Oooh! Pick me! Me! I happen to have a red pen right here!] On top of that, the overwhelming dark and dismal tone of these stories started to take a toll on me. Next up: Jodi Picoult’s “Weights and Measures.” I actually considered skipping this one, as I could make an educated guess based off of every book she’s written that her story just might be a downer. I gave it a shot anyway and lo and behold: a story about a couple whose only child dies suddenly, leaving them unable to continue their lives together. Cheerful. I set the collection aside for a while, actually choosing to grade papers rather than continue reading.

When I came back to Stories, I picked up with “Goblin Lake,” by Michael Swanwick. This particular tale really stood out to me because of its strong meta-literary theme and content. Swanwick turned the focus of his story on the nature of fiction, and through that, the nature of life and our perceptions of reality. It was one of the few stories that made me stop and think, and I found myself mentally returning to it over the course of the afternoon. The main character is forced to confront serious decisions about his existence, and I wondered what my own course of action would be were I in his position.

After “Goblin Lake,” however, it was back to the bleakness. Even Chuck Palahniuk’s “Loser” failed to impress. The stories were just too one-note. They were dark, twisted, and hopeless. The protagonists were irredeemably flawed. Violence was the norm, gratuitously so. I skimmed them with ever-decreasing interest. A lonely bright spot popped up courtesy of Diana Wynne Jones. In the futuristic “Samantha’s Diary,” Jones explores the increasingly comical plight of a woman whose admirer sends her the gifts from the traditional “Twelve Days of Christmas” carol. Jones deftly combined descriptions of a Margaret Atwood-esque future with the very relatable exasperation of the recipient of a ballooning menagerie. Kat Howard also presented a strong story in “A Life in Fictions,” a tale of magic realism in which a real-world woman begins literally to be pulled into the stories written by her boyfriend.

The problem with Stories was that the gems were few and far between. For every short story that I enjoyed, there were several that I was ambivalent toward and several more that I didn’t like at all. I was eager to read this collection, since short stories offer the benefit of being able to read in short bursts and walk away at virtually any time. I was, simply put, let down. I am not giving up on short stories across the board, nor on any of the authors contained in this collection. I believe that each author is capable of greatness. I believe that there are short stories out there that will knock my socks off. This book just didn’t do it for me. I was disappointed in this instance, but hey — at least it’s nudging me to go back and keep reading The Hare With Amber Eyes (yes, I am still moving along in that — albiet slowly).

My final word is this: unless you’re very into darkness and melancholy, this is probably not going to be your cup of tea.

Go find some happy reading!

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Review: The Gargoyle (And a rant. As well as a book club.)

Things never quite seem to go as I plan them, especially when it comes to this blog. For instance, I fully expected to have posted reviews for two books — neither of which is this book — by now. Alas, I have not, mainly because of a book defect. As I mentioned in my previous post, I was reading The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. I was happily engrossed when BAM! Suddenly what I was reading made no sense. I read and reread, until I finally looked at the corners of the pages and realized that somehow, 30 pages were missing out of the book! Keep in mind, I purchased this book brand new. It jumped from 120 to 153, and let me tell you: the resulting gap rendered the book unreadable. I was very confused by what I had missed in the chasm of missing text, and I just couldn’t keep going. I emailed the publisher and Barnes and Noble, hoping to get a complete copy, but so far neither has come through. (Hyperion Publishing, I’m shooting a nasty look in your direction! At least have the decency to give me a response of some sort!) Hence, Deliverance Dane was grudgingly abandoned, at least for the time being.

Meanwhile, the first meeting of a book club that a friend of a friend had decided to form was fast approaching. We were to read The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson. Since I had already set aside one book, I gritted my teeth and put aside The Hare with Amber Eyes as well. I began reading The Gargoyle, but very nearly stopped reading it just as quickly. The beginning of this novel is a horror story in which the main character stars as the monster, though a case could equally be made for his role as the victim.

Let me explain. The Gargoyle opens with a fiery car crash, in which the protagonist is burned very nearly to death. The main character, who remains nameless for the entirety of the novel, is very upfront about the fact that he ran off the road and flipped his car into a ravine because he was high on cocaine and literally drinking and driving; specifically, his intoxication caused a hallucination that he swerved to avoid. The bottle of bourbon he’d been swigging from only served as an accelerant for the flames, especially where he had spilled it on his lap. The man describes his car going up in flames, with him inside, in stomach-turning detail. He is saved only when his car tips into a stream, extinguishing the fire. It is too late, though. The extensive damage has been done, and he has third-degree burns covering his head, neck, and upper body. Paramedics arrive on scene and rush him to the hospital, where he will then stay for many months.

The burned man’s time in the hospital is educational and appalling. The treatments for his burns are as bad — or worse — than the original injury. His organs fail. His immune system stops functioning. He loses fingers, toes, and, most insultingly, his penis. This loss is especially cruel, as the man made his living as a highly successful porn star before the accident. He intersperses details of his life in the hospital with recollections of his earlier life as a child raised by two meth-addicted relatives, then a man whose body made him wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. He bluntly discusses the sex and drugs that were his work and his lifestyle, and admits that he was a bastard.

At this point in the novel, I couldn’t really see where it was going. It was interesting, but didn’t exactly have a driving plot. And then, out of the blue, a woman walked into the burned man’s room, took one look at him and calmly said, “You’ve been burned. Again.” While the man ponders the meaning of this, the woman continues, “This is the third time you’ve been burned.” Thus, we the readers meet Marianne Engel. She becomes what the burned man looks forward to from day to day, and what the reader looks forward to for excitement and plot development.

Marianne tells the burned man a love story dating back to the 14th century — but insists that they themselves are the lovers of which she speaks. It’s impossible to tell what her motives are, as she truly seems to believe that she was born over 700 years earlier, as was the main character. Her historical knowledge is flawless, but the general consensus is that she must be crazy. The fact that she is a psychiatric patient at the same hospital as the man does nothing to help her case. She might be schizophrenic. Or manic-depressive. Or have obsessive-compulsive disorder. Or, as the burned man conjectures, some confluence of all three. Whatever her issues, there is no denying that Marianne tells a damn good story and is a very talented sculptor. Naturally, she carves gargoyles on orders from God. Despite her many eccentricities, one can’t help but fall under her spell.

Marianne and the burned man begin to forge a bond, one which she unwaveringly insists is centuries-old. Marianne serves as the motivation for the main character to actually begin the healing and rehabilitation process. She tells him love stories from around the world and from different eras, though she always returns to the one that unfolded in medieval Germany — the one that she says is the two of them in an earlier lifetime.

Davidson seamlessly merges the stories Marianne tells into the modern-day plot, and both begin to emotionally engage more and more. I have to say that I was probably more fond of the medieval story than the modern one, though they coexist to the point of interdependence. The novel has excellent story-telling, though the pacing is occasionally off. The characters are well-rounded and likeable, even when they do crazy or cruel things. Davidson clearly did his research, as well; the literary and historical references that he incorporates throughout the novel are fitting to both the plot lines and the places. I also appreciated that he left the novel open-ended in a way that lets the readers draw our own conclusions, without feeling like Davidson copped out in any way.

The bottom line: I liked this book. I doubt I’ll read it again, but it was definitely worth the time I put into it for this read. Honestly, I never would have read it were it not picked for my book club, but I’m glad it was. More to the point, I’m glad this book club exists at all. I didn’t know any of the other women in the group before this first meeting (which took place earlier this afternoon), but it was a wonderful warm experience. I am so pleased to find myself among other people who happily carve out time for literature, and are open to books of all types. We’re a very diverse group in terms of backgrounds and occupations, but this just makes it all the more special that we’re finding this common ground on which to bond. I’m already looking forward to next month’s meeting, and the other members expressed the same sentiment. It’s great to be reminded that the love of books is still alive and well.

Happy reading!

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Olympics and back-to-school prep have taken over my life.

This is not an exciting post, I’m afraid. All I’m going to do is say that I’m reading two books and give general thoughts on them, explain why I haven’t reviewed anything for a couple weeks, and promise to do so soon. Ready? Good.

I’m currently reading The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal. I am also reading The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe. I began The Hare with Amber Eyes first; it’s a nonfiction family history of sorts that centers around a collection of 264 tiny Japanese carvings (called netsuke) passed from family member to family member down through the generations. It’s an interesting read, combining art and cultural history, major world events, and family lineage and stories. I constantly feel like I’m learning new things about people and places, from the humble to the well-known. However, it’s a bit dry. I’m enjoying it, but in the sense that I might also enjoy a trip to the museum or looking through family photos from generations past.

So, I decided to add a purely fun book on the side. I picked up The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane more or less at random at the bookstore’s “Last Chance” sale rack. The back of the book promised a story of a modern girl with ties to the infamous Salem witch trials, with all the obligatory blurbs from positive reviews. It sounded pretty good, and I have always been interested in the history of witchcraft and the cultural responses to it, especially as they shift and change over the centuries. I’m only about 50 pages in, but I’m liking it so far. It’s fast-paced, balancing history with action and relatable characters (especially for a history/literature nerd about to go for a graduate degree herself!). It balances well against the heavier material of The Hare with Amber Eyes.

The reasons I haven’t posted anything recently are simple. You can probably guess, especially given the title of this post. Yep! The Olympics. Pretty much since they started, my productivity has tanked. Then, when I do manage to tear myself away from the sporting events, I have a lot to do to get ready for this upcoming school year, when I’ll be beginning graduate school. So… limited time for reading, even less time for blogging. I’m working on improving the ratio, though.

I will post reviews as soon as humanly possible after I finish each respective book. Promise.

Alright… I do believe that covers everything advertised in the beginning of this modest post. Until next time, happy reading!

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