Sunday, October 31, 2010

Night Shift by Stephen King (GRADE: B)

I just finished Night Shift by Stephen King this morning.  Night Shift is an early collection of short stories, published in 1978.  NOTE: I'm kind of into short stories now.  This collection includes Children of the Corn which was made into a movie of the same name; Trucks which was also turned into a movie, directed by Stephen King, and titled Maximum Overdrive; and The Lawnmower Man, which was also made into a movie, which had almost nothing to do with the short story; some of these stories were made into short movies, the collection of short movies was released under the name Cat's Eye.

How does one review a collection of short stories?  Well, one way is to review each story one at a time but that seems a little tedious to write and, I'm imagining, tedious to read.  So I will choose three that I liked and write about them.  Why three?  WHY NOT!  Anyhoo.

BATTLEGROUND is about a hit-man named Renshaw who is hired to kill a toy maker.  A box is mailed to him and it is full of tiny army men and equipment.  The one inch army men are functional and so is the equipment.  Their bullets feel like bee stings and the propellers of the helicopters slices Renshaw's hands to the bone.  This story is about Renshaw and his encounter with the little army men.  I liked this story.  As a kid, I've imaged my toys coming to life but in my imagination, the toys were my friends.  What if the toys were not your friends?  Well, that is what this story is about.

THE LEDGE is about a tennis pro, Stan Norris, who is sleeping with a dangerous powerful crime lord's wife.  The crime lord, Cressner, says that he will let Norris go and give him money and let his wife go with Norris, if Norris is willing to do one thing, walk along a 6 inch ledge around the outside of his apartment building; Cressner is expecting Norris to fall and thus exact revenge on him.  This is Stan Norris's story about the walk around the building.  I liked this story also.  This is a great example of a simple story that is plot/suspense driven.  Well done, Mr. King

THE LAST RUNG ON THE LADDER.  All I'll say about this story is that it made me cry.  Good times.

Overall, most of the stories were very good.  King's stories are mostly plot driven instead of 'slice-of-life'.  I liked most of the stories but, as is common with most collections, even if all the stories are by the same author, some stories in Night Shift were strong while others are not as strong.  But an enjoyable read for the most part.  I rate this book a B.  Some stories were As and most were Bs and maybe one was a C.  Good times.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Bigness of the World by Lori Ostlund (GRADE: B)

I just finished The Bigness of the World by Lori Ostlund a couple of days ago.  It is a Flannery O'Conner Award for Short Fiction, a very prestigious award for short story writers.  My feelings are mixed about this book.  Essentially, the writing is excellent; she is a master of writing short fiction.  But many of the short stories didn't resonate with me, partially because the stories are more character driven than plot driven and, in a lot of ways, her worldview is really different than my own.

It is hard to write a review of this book/collection of short stories in a coherent manner.  If I may, I would like to just give a few random thoughts:

1.  Ostlund is a brilliant writer.  She uses words like a painter uses a brush.
2.  Some of the characters were teachers.  Her insights about education and students were provocative and the education aspect of her stories did resonate with me.  I especially like her passing comment on how the main character did not know when teachers became the keepers of students' self-esteem.
3.  Some of the stories were just bizarre like The Children Beneath the Seat.  I just couldn't get over the image of vomit rolling on the floor of the bus as the children were positioned on the floor under the seat.
4.  Minnesota was mentioned often and many of the characters came from Minnesota, but the stories were seldom set there.
5.  The story, The Bigness of the World, was set apart from the others, both in flavor and writing.  I thought this story was outstanding and very accessible.  In my opinion, this story by itself is worth the cost of the book.  I have seldom read a character as rich as Ilsa Maria Lumpkin, the nanny in this story.
6.  I really liked the quirky idiosyncrasies that she gave each character.  And the idiosyncrasies are, not only well thought out, but memorable.  She was very good at character development.  

Overall, Ostlund is a brilliant writer.  Most of the stories didn't resonate with me as I was reading them; it was only in discussion with a friend, after I had finished the book, that I realized the writing was outstanding.  The stories are on the melancholic side (but, then again, most modern short stories are).  I grade this book a B, (an A for the writing but a C for the stories being engaging to me--but of course, that has more to do with me as a reader than her as a writer--averaging to a B).

Friday, October 29, 2010

Cell by Stephen King (GRADE: B)

I finished Cell by Stephen King a couple of weeks ago.  Before I even picked up this book, I heard all sorts of bad reviews for Cell.  After reading it, I can say that most of the bad reviews are greatly exaggerated.  I liked the book.  It wasn't his greatest masterpiece but it was an enjoyable read.  I grade Cell by Stephen King a 'B'.

Summary of Cell:
In Boston, Clayton Riddell, a graphic comic artist, observes people on cell phones simultaneously transform into violent, mindless 'zombies' that physically assault and try to kill each other.  Clay has an estranged wife and son and he wonders if they have been affected.  In the book, Clay, along with with Tom McCourt, a middle aged man, and Alice Maxwell, a teenage girl, travel to Kent Pond, Vermont, to find the status of his wife and son.  Along the way, the trio meet others: a professor and a boy at a school, some punks traveling fast in a car through ruined streets, and others.

I thought the writing was pretty good.  The action started immediately at the beginning of the book.  The only characters that were really developed were Clay, Tom and Alice.  I especially liked the character of Alice; her development was enjoyable (and at times really sad).

Stephen King's view of man as intrinsically bad is interesting.  It reminded me of John Calvin's view of total depravity, a man, deep down inside, is essentially evil and selfish; there are good parts of man but there are no parts of man that is untouched by sin.

I can see why people didn't like the story.  It doesn't answer the questions that similar novel will answer (usually tritely).  This book is novel length but it feels more like a short story, more of a slice of life story.  There can be much more to the novel, all the questions can be answered but the story essentially is complete where King ends it.  I didn't mind the ending. I thought that it was melancholically appropriate.

The pacing the book was faster in this book than most Stephen King books.  He got right to the action.

The writing I thought was good.

The characters that were developed where developed well but there were a lot of characters that came and went.

I love the personality pictures that King creates.  I especially liked the picture of the professor and the boy surviving on their own at the school surrounded by killer zombies.

Overall, I thought the book was good.  I enjoyed reading it.  It wasn't a masterpiece like the Stand but I don't think that it was meant to be.  I think that King wanted to write a medium to short length novel about zombies that was interesting to read and I think that he achieved his goal.

I grade this book a B.  :)

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009 edited by Laura Furman (GRADE: B)

I just finished The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009 edited by Laura Furman.  It is a collection of 20 short stories, the prize winners for the year 2009, written by a variety of writers of all ages and ethnicity.  This collection has both the strength and weakness of most short story collection, it is uneven; it has a few duds as well as a few gems.  I grade this collection a B.

Thousands of stories are entered in for every year for this prize and these are the 20 winners.  It is one of the most prestigious short story awards around today.  (The other one that I am familiar with is the Flannery O'Conner Award for Short Fiction but this award publishes, usually, 10 short stories by the same author, instead of a collection of authors.)

I've been reading a lot of short stories lately.  I like that I can read one in its entirety in one sitting, over one cup of coffee or hot chocolate or whatever specialty drink is available at Starbucks (I think I read one over a pumpkin latte.  Hmmmm, pumpkin latte.)

This collection, like most collection, is uneven.  Some stories don't resonate with me and I have a hard time getting through them.  Some stories are really really good.  I guess that is why I read collections so I can find these gems that I would not be able to find otherwise.  Overall, most of the stories were pretty good.

Three that caught my attention are the following:

I really really liked Twenty-two Stoires by Paul Theroux.  It is his version of a long story, short.  Each story is about a page long.  I was amazed as how much I got into one of these short stories in such a short amount of time.  It was also a great study for me on the essential elements of story.

I really liked Kind by L. E. Miller.  It is a story about forgiveness and regret and tying up loose ends.  The architecture of this story was great and I like how there was great mirroring via specific words in this story.

I also liked The House Behind a Weeping Cherry by Ha Jin.  I guess it is what the movie Pretty Woman would have been like if it wasn't far-fetched.  This is a pulpable and gritty love story about a prostitute and a man that discovers that he's in love and tries to save her.

Overall, I liked this collection.  There were more good stories than bad.  I grade this a B.