Thrilling Tales – 2/5 Stars
I’ve read this book twice previously and more or less liked a lot of the stories. But this reread was pretty sour for a few reasons. The story collection is ostensibly a genre collection of adventure stories posed off of Michael Chabon’s childhood of reading such stories. There’s probably references in the introduction to Edgar Rice Burroughs and Edgar Wallace and other Edgars. And so, when I bought and read this story in college, I felt more or less that that was what I was getting. Some of the stories are solid, some are pretty bad, and some didn’t really seem to try one way or the other to make the writing project part of this collection work at all.
The audiobook on the other hand is VERY disappointing. It’s definitely misleading to call this “Unabridged Selections” which is another way to say “Abridged book”. The audiobook’s description even lists all the original stories, even ones not appearing in the final tally. Ah well, live and learn. It didn’t help things that one of the first things they seemed to do was cut all the women and then only publish the more famous of the male writers. So you end up with bad stories by Michael Crichton instead of interesting ones by Kelly Link. You also get a bunch of stories: Dave Eggers and Rick Moody that appear prominently in their own collections. Bummer.
One interesting thing about this reread is that I remember distinctly not being able to make heads or tails of the Stephen King story, which makes sense since it relies on four novels worth of context to get there.
The Final Solution – 3/5 Stars
This is a short novel that I really really really wanted to read when it first came out because I had recently really gotten into Michael Chabon. It’s weird because I bought it and then just kept not reading it. I think that’s a way to say I didn’t really like what I was reading and didn’t know how to process those feelings. I did read it this time, and did like it to a certain extent, but I am still struck by how strange my original feelings about it.
The novel is a kind of closed door mystery involving a death, a German speaking parrot, and a curious set of numbers that remain ambiguous by the end. It wouldn’t be something without a reference, and that comes in the form of their being a quite old detective in the novel who helps to solve the mystery. Of course, it’s heavily suggested in it’s Sherlock Holmes. This is NOT a Sherlock Holmes though, and feels ersatz at best along those fronts. It’s a lot closer to an Agatha Christie novel, specifically N or M ala Tommy and Tuppence.
This Telling – 2/5 Stars
This short story by Cheryl Strayed begins in the early 1960s with a girl talking about her boyfriend about being pregnant. He seems relatively uninterested in the future, and when she explores some possibilities she first decides to seek out an abortion. This leads her to a perfectly suitable, if clandestine, clinic where at the last minute she backs out. Her parents step in and send her to a girls home out in the country where she develops short, intense relationships with girls and women in her situation, while not really being able to develop a sense or understanding of her own life and situation. When she has the baby and stays on to lose further weight, she returns back to the path of her life before the detour. She meets a man a few years later, gets married, has more children, and starts to get older. She spends a lot of time reflecting on that first pregnancy when modern technology and communication both forces her hand and gives her a chance to tell her story.
Sweet Virginia – 2/5 Stars
I don’t know if this was the least good story in the collection or simply the one I was most disappointed in. Our narrator is a writer, living a life with her husband, her new baby, and her mother. Life is more or less good, but feeling slightly off in some important ways. Our narrator wants to write about her obsession with Hallmark movies, especially those starring Candace Cameron Bure, but she can’t quite make the story work. She’s also worried about letting on to her husband that she doesn’t feel nearly as satisfied in their little life and she lets on. When she starts getting alluring texts from a 555 number, she starts to wonder aloud if there’s something more exciting for her to try out.
There’s a turn after this, but I felt it was really forced, and a little too on the nose in ways that soured the story for me by the end.
Shine Pamela Shine – 3/5 Stars
This story by Kate Atkinson begins in the fashion of a lot similar stories. Pamela finds herself past her child-rearing stages (her children are adults, more or less) and her husband leaves her to “sow his oats” which he claims he was unable to do earlier. He leaves her for a series of younger women. Pamela moves on with her own life of book clubs and wine dates until one day she realizes that the weight that she’s gained in this more bohemian approach to life might not be just the few more glasses of wine a week. The story takes a dramatic turn at this point into some fantasy or even fairy tale-ish storytelling. Big departure for Kate Atkinson at least.
Halfway to Free – 4/5 Stars
This is one of the top two stories in the collection (along with the very good Lisa Ko story), and really tackles the assumptions we have about children. It’s the future, and humanity is well on the way of decreasing population (through selective lowering of birthrates) and reprogramming our thinking about it. Our protagonist is an outlier in this new world because she wants to have children. She meets a man who thinks like her and you can guess the plot. The story though is not about an oppressive regime that won’t allow children, but of the somewhat dehumanizing element of tackling our overpopulation problem. It’s story that really takes on the idea of “Everything allows for something; everything doesn’t allow for something.”
Graceful Burdens – 2/5 Stars
I read this one right after the Emma Donoghue story from this same collection, and there’s a kind of thematic connection between them. The future means dwindling fertility rates and overpopulation. This leads to a situation in which ideal genetic specimens for breeding are licensed to have children, while others are not. This also means a striated system of haves (or hads) and have nots and of course, whenever you have restrictions on births, you end up with illicit births. Our story involves an unlicensed woman still trying to figure out what, if anything, she wants to do with her ability to be licensed. She “borrows” a baby from the library (a thing in this world) and is approached by two older women who tell her the baby can be reunited with its mother if she wants to be. It turns into a Children of Men kind of story for a little bit at least.
Bear Witness – 4/5 Stars
A story with multiple narrators where a man is narrating about having a weird obsession with his elementary school teacher, the elementary school teacher is reflecting on the experiences that complicate her memories of teaching, and a member of a grand jury eventually overseeing rape charges swirl in this cryptic and alarming story. This is the most disturbing of the fiction pieces in the collection and the one the is probably strongest in terms of writing (it’s not the most intriguing for me, but powerful nonetheless). The differing voices put the reader into some very uncomfortable spaces in this one. The juxtaposing jump cuts that teachers often feel when the student who they taught is now in front of them much older comes into the fore in this story.
The Contractors – 4/5 Stars
I thought this story was also very good, though I struggled to understand why it was in this collection. The story involves two women who work for a contracting firm that screen social media posts for a specific website that share the same name. The names ultimately don’t mean much except that Sandra Guzman in the US and Sandy Guzman in the Philippines are clearly experiencing different versions of their shared work. This plays upon privilege in some very interesting ways, is structured well, and makes for some uncomfortable discoveries by both women at the center of the story.
Sun of a Beach – 3/5 Stars
I try not to worry too much about genre traits for genres I don’t read a lot of. I can credit Audible for giving me more romantic comedy (but heavy into romantic) pieces to read, so when I say that the hook up that builds up in this novella comes, it comes fast, so to speak.
Our dual (and dueling) narrators in this book both work as creative leads for a men’s magazine. Dwindling readership has them both looking into the question of where to take the magazine. Naomi wants to find ways to expand through increased inclusivity and Donovan wants to innovate. They think they are at odds with one another because of sour working relationship over the years, but they will soon find out that there’s room for both of their ideas. Of course, we will find out that they have a lot more in common along the way too.
In a lot of ways there’s the slow build up of the attraction that leads to the steamy hook up here. That all works and is solid. but man does this book (which just came out) feel like a relic in terms of how magazines work.
Nils – 3/5 Stars
Obviously it’s a little difficult to rate a novel that is written for children, an earlyish venture into a genre, doesn’t represent much of the author’s catalog, is more than a hundred years old, and translated from another language. There’s a lot of filters to sort through with this then given all of the above.
Like a lot of children’s literature, this one feels partially seeped in a didacticism and morals, given that Nils is mostly known around town as a boy who is mean to animals. (The cats and the geese especially like to remind him of this). So there’s a level of “teaching” children in a way that I think very good children’s literature tries not to so much any more. Present honest portrayals of life and promote solid virtues and values without hammering it over the head and you’re good.
In addition, there’s the issue of this book having the problem that a lot of kids books have and plenty of adult books too, a heavy leaning into “and then” as the motivating plotting. That can work, but I usually don’t like it. But the book is also a national treasure, just not my nationality. The values within here speak to a culture that is foreign (but not alien) and some of that gets a little muddled. More than anything, this book suffers from a formlessness of genre that still plagues a lot of science fiction and fantasy for a long time.