Just After Reading – Or Listening

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When Stephen King isn’t publishing an average of two novels a year, he writes short stories. By this, I mean, he exhales or stretches or gets a chiropractic adjustment and as his joints crackle, the words leap from his essence and onto the page.

I’d erratically read a couple of his short stories in years past, but when I saw an audio book version of Just After Sunset, I took a chance at sustained short story reading/listening. Normally, I’m not one for horror except for in small doses, so this collection ostensibly appealed to me.

The collection contains 13 offerings, most of which have at least a tinge of the supernatural/paranormal. I expected this. However, because I have great deal of respect and admiration for Stephen King as a writer, I have to articulate my partial dissatisfaction with a significant number of the stories. Because King is such a renowned novel writer, it might be my own error to assume all his shorter works should be as equally exquisite. But again, it could be that I’m simply not the person who should read and review horror. (Or it could be that no one wants to tell King his latest submissions aren’t up to snuff, and they publish them anyway, but…). Nevertheless, I will attempt to explain:

In the collection’s fifth story, “Stationary Bike,” the protagonist is an overweight painter who—at the behest of his physician—purchases a stationary bike to get exercise. In a twisting turn of events, his workouts become so vigorous that he’s putting his personified body’s lipids out of work and they subsequently rise up against him. Now, tell me that’s not a great idea? It is. But as I’ve found King occasionally has some “diarrhea of the pen,” taking a narrative beyond where it should have wrapped up. That trait seeps into this tale as after fifty-some pages, the plot is too blurry and wraps up too easily for a satisfactory conclusion. I think this is the issue I have with the other stories too. I keep waiting for something unexpected, something—different. For example, in “The Cat From Hell,” there’s an evil cat and a hitman is supposed to do it in. From the first page, I knew the cat was evil, and was going to kill people. Yet, if my subconscious is being entirely transparent, a part of me wanted to be wrong. I wanted to be surprised by the unexpected, but, when I look back, realize the clues were there all along. But that’s not what happened. The cat behaved exactly as I thought it would, culminating with exactly the conclusion I thought would happen. And so? Meh.

Even in one of the longest stories “N.,” (which to my surprise is being made into a movie), the characters continue passing on a form of OCD which is incidentally saving the world from an alien invasion of sorts—my quota of tension and eventual resolution is filling to the brim—and then, the cycle merely continues. Er. I get the never-ending cycle shtick, but why spend so much time examining one character, couching his story within a story, within a story as thought to say “this is unique!” to only say, “nope, it’s all the same.” It could be done in a lot less space.

If you’re still reading this, you probably don’t have any idea what I’m talking about because it’s difficult to give a summary of a story that is already short. On the plus side, I do recommend (it turns out), the shortest of the short stores. These include “Harvey’s Dream,”—a husband recounts his previous night’s dream while his wife begins to notice the dream is slowly happening in reality—“The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates”—a wife’s dead husband calls her on the landline, but his cell phone battery is running low—and “Graduation Afternoon”—a high school teenager is consumed with all her extraneous social graces and whimsical future planning, but her life and the life of everyone she knows is about to change in a literal instant.

These three stories worked, I think, because King forced himself to be brief. In such a small space, you must be profound, must say something worthwhile because there isn’t anything else to divert a reader’s attention. I imagine this is the goal of all fiction, but here it is imperative. If King’s Just After Sunset collection has not greatly impressed me, it does leave me with this exhortation: If you’re going to say it—in any length—make it matter. 2.5/5 stars.

 

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Robin Hood is Inviting You to Dine on a Review

robin hood

In the name of King Richard and of Research, I found myself reading through Roger Lancelyn Green’s The Adventures of Robin Hood this week. Not what usually makes the cut on a blog such as this, but Robin Hood and all his lore undoubtedly have some fantastical elements worth talking about.

Frankly, the wily outlaw in green was my childhood hero. If you—unknown internet reader—were to peruse the photo albums of my childhood (yes, that’s when ‘albums’ weren’t on our iphone or Facebook), you would find many a photograph of me in the fullest trappings of Robin Hood gear. Despite his less noble, real-life attributes, I had most of Errol Flynn’s character memorized, and still found the movie enthralling each time I watched it. More to the point, this past week I even persuaded my wife to watch Disney’s Robin Hood with me – on our date night no less!

The reasons for all this, outside of nostalgia, are purely academic. I’m doing research for an eventual collection of short stories which retell classical myths and fairy tales. Suffice to say, I filled several pages with valuable research, and also thoroughly enjoyed getting reacquainted with the English speaking world’s favorite outlaw.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (and all the derivations and derivatives, etc) is so much fun, so much adventure and so much daring, it’s no wonder why children and adults continue returning to Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men. We love rooting for the underdog, after all. However—while many of the stories/characters were familiar—it must not go unstated that many of them have also been overlooked in popular culture. Exhibit A: Much the Miller’s son. He was a staple in renderings of the 1800s but hasn’t been around much since. Pun intended. Nevertheless, what it comes down to is that I had a blast hanging with Little John and Will Scarlet. I loved to hate Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. I’m still wondering, who is that Black Knight anyway? And I think you would have a blast too. You can even embrace your inner Marxist—you know, redistribute the wealth sort-o-thing—if you want.

If you’re not convinced, I’ll add this: after finishing the novel, I did my mandatory author biography investigation and learned that Roger Lancelyn Green was a member of the Inklings, the writing/critique group with its most famous members being CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. Unfortunately for them, they were unable to convince Green to published as RL Green. …Just kidding.

Here’s the bottom line: any one who is writing or reading modern myths and fantasies owes a great debt to Robin Hood. So do yourself a favor and set your sights on Sherwood.

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Back to an Old School Review

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One of my absolute favorite short stories is Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” At only four pages, it is masterful in its execution and brevity. Incidentally, both of those descriptions could be construed as puns. If you want to know what I’m talking about, I suggest you click this *link* and read “Bullet in the Brain.” The process will take five minutes, and your life will drastically improve. What weight loss program can boast that kind of result?

Okay, fine. What does this have to do with a book review? I’m glad you asked. First off, my heavy interest in the science fiction and fantasy genre is a relatively recent development. I’m a lit guy at heart. So, secondly, after a score of reviews in the sci-fi/fantasy realm, I’m returning to my roots this week.

Tobias Wolff is known for both his short stories and his non-fiction essays, but I would like to posit that he should also be recognized for his debut novel Old School. (A quick disclaimer: this novel has nothing to do with the Will Ferrell movie of the same name.)

As is often my instinctive practice nowadays when I’m reading a novel I enjoy, I’m usually also thinking about elements of craft and how an author is fruitfully employing those elements within the writing. In the case of Old School, I recommend it to anyone who is writing a novel in the first person point-of-view. In fact, I wish—with a tang of lament—that someone had recommended this novel to me before I drafted my first person point-of-view manuscript.

In no small percentage of first person narratives, the “I” pronoun can rapidly become redundant, repetitive, and even obtrusive as every observation, feeling, and action is “I saw this. I’m feeling that. I went here.” It’s tough to avoid. Toughness notwithstanding, Wolff has soared in his delivery. While I never lost sight of the first-person speaker, whole pages transpired without the “I” pronoun popping up to constantly remind me who the story is about.

Wolff hides the “I” pronoun so successfully that the narrator, the story’s protagonist, is never even named—gasp! Furthermore, this absence not without reason since through indirect means, the reader discovers that the narrator is intentionally attempting to hide himself and his past at an all boys’ boarding school where he is trying to forge a new identity by earning the admiration and respect of his peers through his literary prowess. There’s a subtle interplay of fact and fiction (is there any difference?) and Wolff cleverly blurs the lines.

This novel was especially dear to my proclivities since it is a lit book written about lit. Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway all make extended cameos, and Wolff’s rendering of their personalities (so far as I can ascertain) is so spot-on it’s hysterical. No, really. I couldn’t wait to vividly experience the earthy philosophy and decisive declarations of Frost, the pompous and condescending egotism of Ayn Rand, and the rambling and somehow directive tangents of a drunken Hemingway.

If you’ve read these authors, you’ll know what I’m talking about. And if you want to know another noteworthy author, check out Tobias Wolff. And darnit, read “Bullet in the Brain” already! 3.5/5 stars.

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