Tag Archive for 'Fiction'

Hope for the Flowers

Hope for the Flowers (6/16/14) Illustrated Fiction (1972 ***) Written and illustrated by Trina Paulus. Two caterpillars, Stripe and Yellow, search for the meaning of life, which may or may not involve climbing a writhing pillar of their brethren. I was loaned this book by a friend, who said it was a personal favorite of hers. I began reading it one evening, got about halfway through, then set it atop a stack of books on my nightstand and didn’t get back to it for about two years. Finally tired of the feelings of guilt, I brought it into work and read it in one sitting over a long lunch hour. It would be extremely hard-hearted and cynical of me to dismiss its anti-establishment hippy-dippy message as the product of its early 1970s origins. So I won’t do that. After all, it’s ultimately about something that is near and dear to my heart, something I learned long ago and never forgot: Ambition can be a very dangerous thing; it’s all too easy to live your life driven by the thrill of competition, only to turn around at the end and realize just how much of life’s rich pageant you’ve missed out on as a consequence.

About Time

About Time (5/5/13) Short Fiction (1986 ***1/2) Written by Jack Finney. This short story collection contains twelve science fiction stories, most of them about time travel in some form, originally published between 1957 and 1962. I had been looking for something to read that would be a pleasant diversion, and I happened to run across this book amongst my collection. This was the second time reading About Time, which I first read more than a decade ago. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed Finney’s writing, though with this reading I became aware that some of the stories were decidedly stronger than others. It’s odd to think that the man who write the book on which The Invasion of the Body Snatchers was based was also capable of such a perfect marriage of science fiction and nostalgia. The reason Jack Finney’s stories worked as well as they did was that they all had heart. Each and every one had a strong emotional component. I may have to pay a visit to our storage unit and try to dig out a copy of his other time travel story collection, Time and Again.

Love At Absolute Zero

Love At Absolute Zero (3/21/12) Novel (2012 ***1/4) Written by Chris Meeks. Gunnar Gunderson, a young Wisconsin physicist, celebrates his tenure by seeking love using the scientific method. As one of his former students, I’m a big fan of Meeks’ work, particularly his short story collections and his previous novel, The Brightest Moon of the Century. I have consistently felt he’s done — through his characters and their situations — a terrific job of gently illuminating the nuances of the human condition. Unfortunately, his newest book didn’t resonate with me quite as strongly as his other works. Perhaps that’s because this book was more of a deliberate attempt to create a more accessible and simply-defined (and marketed) product. There seemed to be a conflict in its content, between a lighthearted, somewhat superficial farce and something far deeper. In the first part of the book, we’re given a brainy scientist who bleaches his hair and buys a new wardrobe, then gets Lasik surgery, braces and a teeth-whitening treatment all within three days in order to find love at a speed-dating event. But later, the story takes us to Denmark, where our hero Gunnar learns the pain of heartbreak and exactly what “absolute zero” really feels like. I wish the book had contained more of the latter and less of the former, even though that would have changed the overall tone and high-concept nature of the book considerably. Threaded throughout Love at Absolute Zero was a great deal of actual science, which Meeks rendered believably and integrated quite well, though I suspect some of his readers may have tuned those passages out. Also, in the final pages, Meeks did an admirable job of relating the science with the book’s theme. However, I didn’t feel it built to the compelling resolution he undoubtedly intended.

Cell

Cell (3/3/11) Novel (2006 **) Written by Stephen King. The zombie apocalypse begins with a pulse that reboots the operating systems of everyone talking on a cell phone. Full confession: I was in the Houston airport and realized (to my horror) that I’d lost my Amazon Kindle. And so I bought Cell so I’d have something to read to pass the time. In my life I have read a surprisingly large number of Stephen King’s books and I have often been an apologist for King, defending his writing talents when others have referred to him as a hack. I hate to say it, but it was clear as I read this book that an attention to quality was missing. Even though King thanked Chuck Verrill for editing the book, I ran across several instances of editorial oversights I never could have gotten away with in a writing class. However, there is still something about King’s storytelling skill that kept me reading, right all the way through the book to its ambiguous and frustrating ending.

Tom Sawyer, Detective

Tom Sawyer, Detective (1/27/11) Novel (1896 **1/2) Written by Mark Twain. Based on an actual story (or so Twain would have us believe), Huck Finn narrates as he and Tom Sawyer travel back down the Mississippi to Tom’s uncle Silas’ place and solve a murder mystery involving twins. At a mere 23,000 words, this book was the briefest of Twain’s four Tom Sawyer books, all of which I read on my new Amazon Kindle. It’s interesting to note that this book made no reference to the aeronautical adventures of Tom Sawyer Abroad ever taking place. Considering the fantastical nature of that book, I’m not surprised. Judging it as a book, Tom Sawyer, Detective frequently captured Huck Finn’s voice and the flavor of the first two books, but it also felt like a short story that had been padded to book length.

Tom Sawyer Abroad

Tom Sawyer Abroad (1/22/11) Novel (1894 **) Written by Mark Twain. In search of high adventure, Tom, Huck and Jim sneak aboard an airship and sail across the Atlantic Ocean, where they use their elevated vantage point to philosophize at length about the world at the end of the 19th century. At roughly 34,000 words (compared to Tom Sawyer‘s 72,000 and Huckleberry Finn‘s 110,000), this third book in the Tom Sawyer series is most kindly described as a novella. While I have no evidence to support this claim, I suspect Twain wrote it (coming twenty years after the first book’s publication) for the express purpose of making money. It’s not a bad little book (as Linus Van Pelt might say), but it’s certainly nothing much when compared to Twain’s earlier two books. It ended quite abruptly as well, and I highly suspect that Twain had originally meant for it to be a far longer adventure, but realized along the way that it wasn’t going anywhere interesting and so he killed it.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1/14/11) Novel (1884 ***1/2) Written by Mark Twain. When Huck Finn’s father wants the $6,000 his son wound up with at the end of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, young Huck fakes his own death and lights out for a life on the mighty Mississippi. There are undoubtedly many who will fault me for not giving this American classic anything less than a full four out of four stars, but let’s be fair: (1) The duke and the dauphin characters were amusing at first but they occupied a third of the book and eventually wore out their welcome; and (2) there was an interminably long sequence in which Huck and Tom conspired to break the runaway slave Jim out of a cabin in the most convoluted way possible, doing little or nothing to advance the plot. I loved the flavor of Twain’s writing, but by modern standards his plotting skills left something to be desired. On another note, Huckleberry Finn made headlines while I was reading it due to the publication of an edition in which the n-word has been replaced throughout by the word “slave.” I understand the arguments against modifying a classic in a way clearly analogous to the Catholic Church ordering the replacement of the genitalia on Roman statues with fig leaves. However, as I read the book, the frequent occurrences of the offending word were distracting and probably affected my enjoyment of the book.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1/3/11) Novel (1876 ***1/4) Written by Mark Twain. A scrappy, clever, superstitious young scamp in St. Petersburg, Missouri pisses off the murdering Injun Joe and gets himself and his girlfriend lost in a cave. Judging this book by contemporary standards, Twain committed numerous literary atrocities such as: an intrusive narrator; a frequently-shifting point-of-view; an awkward dramatic climax; racially insensitive language and characterizations; a secondary character (Huck Finn) who temporarily takes over the book; sexist and misogynistic female characterizations; and (finally) entire chapters that don’t contribute directly the primary narrative or move it forward. In spite of all this, and in spite of the fact that I was frequently bored, when the book was cooking on all four cylinders it was thoroughly engaging. I would love to learn more about the writing of this book, particularly Twain’s influences. My guess is that it began as a collection of short stories about the same character and at a certain point Twain decided to turn it into a novel. This would explain why so many of the chapters work as self-contained pieces.

Island of the Blue Dolphins

Island of the Blue Dolphins (12/30/10) Novel (1960 ***1/2) Written by Scott O’Dell. When a 13-year-old native girl named Karana finds herself alone on an island off the coast of California, she learns to survive and thrive, both physically and spiritually. This book, nominally written for children, probably appears an odd choice for me, but it was recommended by my wife who loved it as a little girl. When I was halfway through I told my wife my plot prediction for the rest of the book. She just smiled and reminded me that the book had won the Newbery Medal when it was first published. Of course I was very wrong, and the book’s narrative took a much higher, richer path than the one I’d laid out. It made me question my own storytelling skills, not necessarily a bad thing. What was most amazing is that the book was based on an actual woman, though according to my wife the real Karana’s fate was far less upbeat than the end of her fictionalized story.

Chipmunk Seeks Squirrel: A Modest Bestiary

Chipmunk Seeks Squirrel: A Modest Bestiary (12/28/10) Short Fiction (2010 **1/2) Written by David Sedaris, with illustrations by Ian Falconer. This volume collects a set of short stories featuring animals acting very human. I recently watched Sedaris’ appearance on The Daily Show, and in his interview with Jon Stewart Sedaris acknowledged that the stories in this collection were written over the course of several years in-between book tours and other projects. Though the title story (its end, anyway) resonated with me emotionally, it was the only one. Most of the stories were disappointing and left me with the sense that the anthropomorphic conceit could have been exploited more effectively if the stories themselves had been stronger. I was also left with a sneaking suspicion that this lightweight (fast read) collection was a deliberate commercial attempt to cash in on Sedaris’ name.