Night of the Mannequins – 3/5 Stars – Stephen Graham Jones
This is a newish novella from Stephen Graham Jones that you’ll have to roll with the bad title and go with it because it does some very interesting things. It has a significant flaw by the end, and the way I will describe that is that it either doesn’t trust the audience or trust itself to make the more interesting choice.
The plot involves a group of teenagers, friends and frenemies, who friend works at a movie theater and this causes them to find ways to try to sneak in (more for the thrill and fun of it than the the free movie). After a few thwarted attempts, they come up with a prank to sneak a mannequin into the theater wearing clothes and holding a ticket stub to freak out the persistent and annoying assistant manager who is their nemesis. The thing is that when the manager checks the stub of the mannequins, he simply nods and moves on. Later the mannequin is gone. This freaky experience greatly disturbs the narrator of this novella, and even more so later on when one by one members of the group start dying off. Is the mannequin doing it?
The AI Who Love Me – Alyssa Cole – 3/5 Stars
I haven’t read any Alyssa Cole before, so I can’t really talk about where this short novel falls in with her other work. What we have here is a budding relationship between an AI program that causes nothing but consternation (well, once it’s been embodied in a vessel) and a programmer. It’s a funny charming story that also oddly spends more time investigation important questions related to this kind of relationship than recent novels by Nobel Prize or Booker Prize (or both!) authors.
What strikes me about this book or at least about the question is how this mini-mini-genre of sci fi books has taken shape over the last 50-100 years of film and television. For me, I think about movies like The Man with Two Brains, in terms of someone falling in love with a disembodied voice, and perhaps you can go back to The Ghost and Mrs Muir if you want for ghostly versions of this. In terms of AI, obviously Her, the recent Spike Jonze comes up, and there’s a lesser known Richard Powers book called Galatea 2.2, which takes on the Pygmalion myth (and that’s not even getting into the Pygmalion mythos of the original Greek myth, Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, and My Fair Lady). In the Powers books, if I recall right, the central character is trying to shape an AI’s development into the personality of his most recent ex. The book I most think about is the Marge Piercy novel He, She and It (or Body of Glass in the UK), where a woman decides upon an artificial mate in part because of his ability to protect her in a post-apocalyptic future. What makes that even more fascinating is the use of the Jewish golem myth intertwined within the sexual fantasies, and modern takes in transactional relationships.
Anyway, this book is charming, but it’s a short fun novel that explores some interesting ideas.
A Jury of Her Peers – Susan Glaspell – 4/5 Stars
A classic story by a writer mostly known for this short story and the short play Trifles, which shares some similarities. There’s been a murder and the police are investigating. A man is dead in his home and it looks like it could be suicide or it could be murder, his wife doesn’t seem to upset or concerned. The police are unable to understand much about the scene and make a few cracks here and there. The sheriff’s wife and another woman from town are along for different reasons, and the two of them really start to notice some parts of the evidence that police cannot understand. It goes from there.
The story reminds me a lot of many of the Agatha Christie novels and stories, specifically the Miss Marple, not because there’s much in common in terms of the characters or the mode of writing. Instead, it’s that clear, evident idea that prejudices brought into an investigation will cloud the judgment of the investigator. This story is of course cited among women’s literature for doing just this, and it also reminds me of all the different places where this idea has borne fruit in literature and scholarship. In many many stories the subjects of oppression and prejudice often find within this space room to hide in plain sight. It happens very famously in Herman Meville’s Benito Cereno of course. Even in scholarship, that a prejudice can so clearly cloud judgment shows up in Donna Haraway’s work when she describes how assumption about how biological sex determines animal hierarchies led to man misunderstandings of social order in biology. And of course how misunderstanding something in biology acts to influence the way humans view their own prejudices as therefore “natural”.
Yard Work – David Koepp – 3/5 Stars
An Audible Original written by screenwriter David Koepp about a retired judge who always assumed that he would die before his wife. When he wakes up one morning to find that she died in her sleep, he is unable to process this loss or his future without her. In the weeks that come after, he decides he will move himself to the lake house they bought earlier in life, much to the chagrin of his adult children. While there, he realizes that he has quite a bit of yard work ahead of him, especially to tackle an invasive vine that not only is taking over his yard, but is specifically choking the life out of the tree that he and his wife planted together. While working on it, he starts to believe that the vine has a sentience about it and is actively fighting him. He begins to up the firepower to a chainsaw, and even a shot gun. Repeated battles with both the vine and his family lead him further and further to question his sanity and reality.
This would make for a good tv show episode for an anthology and it’s read competently (if not in much spirit) by Kevin Bacon.
Anonymous – Uzodinma Iweala – 3/5 Stars
A short story by the writer of Beasts of No Nation, this story takes place mostly in a kind of holding cell in a stateless space. A consultant is flagged at the airport and held in detention indefinitely. I It becomes a nightmare space for him as he’s haunted by his past and present, and possible lack of a future. As an American, I am complicit through my very being with the kinds of torture that this character is experiencing, and it’s the kind experience that my brain almost goes through blackouts in trying not to embody in my consciousness. There’s been so much written about being in prison, and while that itself seems so wasteful and awful of a life, one in which being caught in a suspended kind of animation seems infinitely worse.
There’s a Giant Trapdoor Spider Under Your Bed – Edgar Cantero – 3/5 Stars
This is a fun story where a couple of kids playing a kind of “Floor is Lava” game end up manifesting their worst fears. As opposed to the specific rules of “The Floor Is Lava” the kids can instead spook each other by directly referencing the worst fears of the other. The game itself is a direct reference to the boggarts in Harry Potter, the ghoul who takes on your fears, and plays into the kind of mixed universe fun in the story. It becomes a real life when the title sentence is yelled aloud and spooks our characters.
I haven’t played Floor is Lava in a long time and I don’t really want to imagine my worst fear, but the spookiness of the game combined with the lighthearted tone of the story makes for a fun listening experience. It’s the right amount of story to play out the conceit, to add a little commentary and pathos, and to leave it behind. It IS weird to borrow so heavily and purposely from Harry Potter though. Or I should say, it’s become weird more recently.
Falls the Shadow – Skip Horack – 3/5 Stars
A short fiction piece about a billionaire who hires NOT an environmental superstar to help support a new venture, but an actor who is known for playing on in commercials. This creates a serious tension when the actual motives behind the venture is revealed.
This story really draws on the ideas about corporate support for political causes and how empty that is. For example, right now we’re spending a lot of time and energy hoping that companies that function in Georgia (like Coke, like Hollywood companies, etc) use their pressure to generate wealth to help pull back the voter suppression. But as we all know, companies are not rational agents. They ARE easy to manipulate and to move, but it requires saving or costing them money and putting on the pressure to get them to use their influence in such ways. Billionaires are even more so wild cards in all this. I personally think that every single billionaire is a complete nightmare person with no attachments to actual reality, and well maybe this story lends some credibility to that idea.
The Beckoning Fair One – Dan Chaon – 3/5 Stars
A long time ago I read Michael Chabon’s collection of adventure stories anthology. This brought together a host of different writers like Stephen King, Kelly Link, Jim Shepard, Carol Emschwiller, Laurie King, Chris Offutt, Sherman Alexie, and of course Dan Chaon. The story that collection was freaky and weird, like a lot of the stories in the collection, and like a few of the stories in the collection it was clear that Dan Chaon was going for something more literary than genre. I think the same thing is going on here. This story involves a teen boy and his slightly older sister experiencing a kind of abandonment in the world. The sister begins to fixate on a small man, who she repeatedly calls her future beloved, and the boy begins to realize there’s a real chance that his sister is looking for an our from her own sense of being alone in the world and this would of course mean that he would be on his own. This real fear begins to permeate every aspect of his life and his sister’s focus gets deeper and their relationship is strained more and more. There IS more going on here.
The Remedy – Adam Haslett – 3/5 Stars
Like the Dan Chaon story above, Adam Haslett is primarily known for his award-nominated fiction and novels. This story involves a cryptic setup in which our protagonist is seeking out treatment for a vaguely amorphous condition he’s experiencing. He goes to a clinic that’s famous for a mysterious treatment and rather than have the treatment itself described, he is shown one of the adherents, who is shown as being in total thrall but also contentment. The most of the story involves the treatment.
This reminds me of a handful of other writing. For one, there’s some Magic Mountain here, writ very very small. There’s also some of those kinds of mysterious castles in the mountains feel here. And there’s a lot of cult, miracle cure, and cultish spa stories (Like Road to Wellville and the like) as well.
Screwball – Simon Rich – 3/5 Stars
A short story about Babe Ruth written by SNL writer Simon Rich and performed by Beck Bennett. The story itself is ok, and the performance does elevate it. If not for being a parody of sorts on Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al, about a wayward baseball player in the teens, this story might not work as well. Babe Ruth is played here as a lovable oaf who has no clue how deep his natural baseball talent is. I am always surprised about Babe Ruth as his homerun hitting absolutely masks how truly dominant a player he was. He was a solid pitcher, but in addition to his homeruns, his batting average, on base percentage and slugging percentages were just through the roof. So that the version of him here can’t even recognize how good he is, how humble he is for being pulled from the orphanage and how jealous his manager and manager’s son is of his talents makes for a short but goofy listen. Again, this is ok material elevated by a good performance by someone with good comedic timing to play a character drenched in comedic dramatic irony.
Q&A – Ben Winters – 3/5 Stars
This is a new audio novella by Ben Winters and published by Audible. Like a lot of Audible originals this seems to have commissioned by Audible, as the story structure, audio features, and other storytelling elements seem specifically designed with audio in mind. Unlike a LOT of Audible originals this is more successful.
The story begins with an interview between a young writer and a famous criminal defense lawyer. We begin with the writer getting really upset after realizing that his phone was not recording the conversation. What becomes clear is that he is researching a book, the lawyer is indulging him a lot by answering pretty basic answers, and now he’s trying to get out of what he knows is coming next, asking for more of his time. He finally agrees to continue the conversation and after a few more questions, the tone shifts dramatically, and the lawyer realizes that this conversation might not be everything it was originally supposed to be. I won’t say more, because I did find this story compelling and don’t need to get to more of the beats.
Again, I found this this program was written with a clear understanding that it would be heard. That speaks to its strengths.
Driving Miss Daisy – Alfred Uhry – 2/5 Stars
This is THE play that became THE movie, that people eventually decided was one of the worst Best Picture winners at the Oscars ever. It didn’t have to be this way, but it beat out Born on the Fourth of July which is clearly a significant better movie. I think they just refused to pick a real bummer of a movie over a feel good movie that erases all the racism that ever happened in America. Why be a bummer? It’s OG Green Book.
That said, it’s trite and silly, and could actually be good if they could figure out a way to actually say something more than familiarity doesn’t have to breed contempt. There’s an honest friendship between Hoke and Miss Daisy, and her being Jewish does help to spell out why this friendship develops as it does. That said it doesn’t have much to say but it gives the impression that it’s saying something, which is worse.
The performances here are good. It’s Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones, and they’re impeccable, but the writing isn’t great.
Decorum at the Deathbed – Josh Malerman – 2/5 Stars
This is another Audible by the writer of Bird Box among other others. We begin with our protagonist on a run. She’s trying to exorcize (she makes this pun too) bad feelings. Her husband has a chronic illness and she’s no longer feeling up to the task of caring for him. She’s kind of feeling guilty, but instead she’s feeling an awareness of the guilt she’s supposed to be feeling and what expectations on her feelings, but not the actual feelings. The resulting set of feelings involves her wanting a way to process or even express the very non-kosher thoughts she’s having. She happens upon what can only be described as a confessional booth in the woods. There’s nothing apparently exceptional about it and she can’t figure out what the “deal” is and it’s also abandoned. So she goes in and confesses her feelings. She not only feels better, she feels GOOD as a result. This euphoria causes her to not just confess more things, but seek out things to confess.
Thoughts: my wife always says “Brains make thoughts like butts make poops” and I think about this a lot. I don’t know if it’s true around the world (and it’s definitely true for me) but a lot of Americans feel that a thought is the same as an action, morally. Like if you think something unpleasant, you are guilty of that thing. I guess this story feels a lot of the same or might agree with me. I blame Jesus on this, or maybe Jimmy Carter, because thinking is NOT doing, and people need to chill with that.