I enjoyed this long short story/short novella quite a bit more than The Metamorphosis. I'm a sucker for dark, absurdist humor (can't fault a man for b...moreI enjoyed this long short story/short novella quite a bit more than The Metamorphosis. I'm a sucker for dark, absurdist humor (can't fault a man for being raised on Ren and Stimpy). Kafka's a bit darker, to put it mildly, but in this piece the situational humor is at once so shocking and funny that it's hard to justify anything less than four stars. Colorful characters. Probably a religious critique lurking in there somewhere.
When an author goes out of his way to explain that the novel you are holding in your hands is the result of a failed attempt to write a novel and is o...moreWhen an author goes out of his way to explain that the novel you are holding in your hands is the result of a failed attempt to write a novel and is obviously cobbled together with no apparent structural or narrative concern in mind, do not proceed.
Vonnegut is an uneven writer. That's not a sin. If you've ever tried to read the worst of King or Poe or even Hemingway you'll discover that for yourself. Nevertheless, there's no use downplaying it. This novel was a bloody mess. Vonnegut stumbles from topic to topic, ranting, bitterly cynical with one or two lumps of sweetener just to keep it interesting. It doesn't really help. The book does not take long to read and so in that regard is painless. Yet I can't help but wonder why, if the original Timequake he keeps referring to as a story that "didn't want to be written," did he then, for whatever reason, decide to write a novel called Timequake? The story--if you want to call it that--works primarily as a distraction from the autobiographical segments that were smeared over the original idea. Why he couldn't publish a memoir, especially so late in his career, is the most mysterious aspect of the work. It certainly looks as if that's what he really wanted to do.
If Timequake is the only thing between you and completing the Vonnegut canon, all right. If not, do not proceed. (less)
I still remember sitting in my grandparents' kitchen in Elkhorn, Nebraska--this was before Omaha swallowed it--listening to stories about Saturday nig...moreI still remember sitting in my grandparents' kitchen in Elkhorn, Nebraska--this was before Omaha swallowed it--listening to stories about Saturday night baths, blizzards that killed people, men playing poker and smoking cigars in the barn on summer evenings, waking up at dawn to milk cows, working the hand crank so the car could make the weekly supply run into town. My grandma once told me about the day her parents got indoor plumbing, and how it made her cry. She went to school, crops permitting, in a one room schoolhouse. Willa Cather's My Antonia is set several decades before the depression era when my grandparents were young children, but there is such a resemblance between the novel and the stories I remember that it gives me a feeling more personal than literary, a feeling that Jim Burden describes as an "obliterating strangeness." Our lifetimes overlapped, but it's as if my grandparents were born in a different world.
On the novel itself, Cather had a knack for capturing the spirit of things and painting descriptive landscapes. There are many moving and beautiful moments; in fact the scenery is more of a character than the characters. The book is light on plot and, yes, I would argue character, but the effect is something more than the sum of its parts. Stories, whatever form they happen to come in, say something about experience, about life, that at this place and at this time life was like this. Whatever gripes I may have about Cather's uneven narrative, she reflects something about existence on the Nebraska prairie, its summers and winters, its simplicity and harshness, community and isolation, that makes those qualms irrelevant. Call it a literary quality, a historical verisimilitude, or even a mood piece--there's an undefined power at the heart of the book that gives it resonance.(less)
In the 2006 film The Last King of Scotland, Idi Amin (played by the surprisingly terrifying Forest Whitaker) leans over a bruised, broken and bleeding...moreIn the 2006 film The Last King of Scotland, Idi Amin (played by the surprisingly terrifying Forest Whitaker) leans over a bruised, broken and bleeding Dr. Nicolas Garrigan (James McAvoy) and says, "I think that your death will be the first real thing that has happened to you." Aside from the obvious unpleasantness of impending death, this statement rebukes Garrigan's naive and selfish reasons for coming to Uganda and getting caught up in a violent regime. It forces him to look reality in the face. Not just the reality of his situation, his moral emptiness, and his arrogance. It reveals the hard reality of his own wasted life.
Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich is similar in this respect. Ivan Ilyich is a man who never gave death much thought––any thought, really. He spent his brief time on this earth obsessing over class and status, his ministerial position and the powers it afforded him, on pettiness and jealousy, and the appearance of wealth (if not actual wealth itself). He never suspected that a little thing like falling while hanging a drape would be the beginning of the end of his life. He didn't realize that it would be too late to form the deep relationships that might have eased the last few miles. All that's left for him to do is wrestle with the absurdity of it.
With just every translated work I've ever read, it seems like there's something off. It's like seeing a painting that's dripped all over the place. You can see that yes, this was a tree, and yep, that was a river, but the subtlety has somehow gone out of it. That being said, I still found the prose striking in its simplicity and the voice was one that demanded attention. Tolstoy also has a way of inserting the odd and offhand details about dying and the thoughts of a dying man that made the novella simultaneously funny and tragic.
Dr. Garrigan manages to escape his fate by another's sacrifice. The film never shows us what becomes of him, but the audience reasonably expects that this period of his life has left some kind of useful impression. Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich dies, but he does so without a chance to make any earthly amends. In this respect, the novella is bleak, almost tormented. Yes, the character 'sees the light' in various ways both literal and figurative at the very end, but it's a little like learning to ski after losing your legs to gangrene. The lesson is for the audience, not the character. It's an old lesson. Use your time wisely.
Reading this book was a part of an exercise in reexamining some of the conclusions I'd hastily drawn about authors over the years. Like most, my intro...moreReading this book was a part of an exercise in reexamining some of the conclusions I'd hastily drawn about authors over the years. Like most, my introduction to Hemingway came principally from two short stories, "Hills like White Elephants" and "A Clean Well Lighted Place." I still can't fathom why the first is so overwhelmingly popular, or why it cuts in line in front of better Hemingway shorts, but I'm willing to let that one go because fighting the tide is exhausting. I wouldn't call In Our Time a revelation, but it certainly was a reward for backtracking down a literary path. Yes, I'm still underwhelmed at points with the truncated prose, and yes, sometimes even the crests of the icebergs have sunken beneath the water, but several times in this collection––and here I'm thinking Nick Adams stories––the muscularity of Hemingway's compressed contents-under-pressure writing style really does a number on you.
If I had to pick one, it'd be the two-parter, "Big Two-Hearted River." "The Battler" was also great. (less)
Stephen King is the sort of writer who, on the vast spectrum of writers, one would politely call prolific. Across various mediums you meet these kinds...moreStephen King is the sort of writer who, on the vast spectrum of writers, one would politely call prolific. Across various mediums you meet these kinds of artists with this questionable gift. It's the ability to churn it out, to make lemonade, to spin straw into--well--not necessarily gold, but something. King can't even fathom what it is to be a Harper Lee clear on the other end. What is she doing with the rest of her time? Collecting stamps? I think on some basic level King understands the risks involved with being the kind of guy whose keyboard sounds like a machine gun. For every story as good as IT or The Shining, you get a harsh hit of Big Driver.
King's short story collections are like microcosms of his career. Even in the bad stories, and there are usually at least a couple squashed in there, you can see the talent. The premises, like the title short of this collection, hold a certain fascination. Then through predictability, familiarity, or plain old-fashioned blah storytelling, they die on the vine. But all is not lost. Turn the page and you find something like "The Man in the Black Suit," an incredible short told incredibly. Or "All You Love Will Be Carried Away", a simple, refreshing literary story. The highs and lows seem somehow intrinsic to a fertile imagination which doesn't stop to question much. There's always next week. It's hard to argue with success, I guess, even while you're suffering through "The Road Virus Heads North."
I'm not good at rating short story collections. Averaging everything out story by story in some dull flashback to middle school math seems both useless and unjust if there are enough bright spots. And with this collection there are several. On the strength of "The Man in the Black Suit," "Everything You Love Will Be Carried Away," "Lunch at the Gotham Cafe," "1408," and a couple other very decent yarns, by the authority invested in me by absolutely no one, I give this collection four stars.(less)