CBR #7 – Papercut By Polaroids, I Bled to Death Looking For A Band-Aid

Threats by Amelia Gray

Another library gank.  Gray’s upcoming short story collection is called Gutshot, and it sounds right up my alley.  People keep describing her work as “punching them in the face” or “gashing them with visceral nature” or shit like that, so I thought, well hell yeah, giddyup motherfucker. Of all her previous works, and the short story collections, I picked up Threats because on the surface it sounds amazing: a man’s wife dies mysteriously, and then he finds threats hidden around the house — in a bag of sugar, behind wallpaper, carved into the side of an old television.  And the detective who has David as a person of interest.

This was not quite that. It was but it wasn’t.  It was more like finding a shoebox full of old Polaroids that you flip through.  The images are all blurry closeups.  By about halfway through the stack, you realize these are all of wounds.  But you can’t tell if they are the same person in each photo, or a collection of wounds that the photographer gave to other people and kept as trophies, or if they just approached strangers and asked to see their scars.  You kind of want to drop the stack, because it’s confusing and kind of making you feel bad, and not really making sense.  But you shuffle through. And when you finish you put the shoebox away.  There’s nothing graphic in there that will scar you for life or haunt your days.  But it’s not something you really want to keep around.

I don’t know if there’s a such a thing as a unreliable third person narrator, but that’s what’s going on here.  The story unfolds in fits and starts, as David spirals into madness.  And while it’s third person, we’re also inside David’s head and observing him as things go weird and visceral.  This feels like it wants to be very David Lynch.  It’s not that itself feels David Lynch-ian.  It’s that this book sort of has those inklings.  It’s absurdist and surreal, but just four paces off the path too far to work at least for me.

The threats are the best part of the book, but you have to go through so much humming weirdness to get there that it’s almost not worth it.  Here’s a favorite one: I WILL CROSS-STITCH AN IMAGE OF YOUR FUTURE HOME BURNING.  I WILL HANG THIS IMAGE OVER YOUR BED WHILE YOU SLEEP.  We kind of suspect who wrote them, but we never completely can be sure of anything.  It’s the fucking box of Polaroids.  It exists to exist to be weird.  Like people who would buy lifetime passes to the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.  You should go once.  You can go maybe a few more times, to bring people there.  But why would you want to go every day?  What’s the point?

I’m still excited for Gutshot, but if it’s more of the same, I’ll be disappointed.

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CBR #6 – Do The Evolution, Baby

Hall of Small Mammals by Thomas Pierce

Another short story collection furnished by The Millions Anticipated Reads list.  I got this from the library, and started digging through this immediately.  It was an excellent collection, reminiscent of early Jonathan Lethem.  Before he went all vinyl hipster.  I’m talking Gun, With Occasional Music or As She Climbed Across The Table.  

The stories blend this combination of science and whimsy.  Not all of them, but the best parts of the collection.  When I wrote Twenty-Sided Die, as I do with even my evenings of one acts, there are always clunkers.  Stories that nobody really likes or that they kind of say, “okay” and move on.  There’s an element of that here.  The stories that deal with strange science — a television show that genetically recreates extinct animals, or a new rare exhibit at the zoo, or a woman who has been dreaming that she’s married and her jealous husband — are the strongest.  But what makes them so good is not the bizarre or the science, it’s that they are rooted in these terrific moments of human relationship dynamic.  The woman married in her dreams story is great because of the husband trying to reconcile and his reactions.  The rare exhibit story is great because it’s all about a man trying to relate with his girlfriend’s asshole twelve year old son from a different marriage.

I really recommend this collection if you get a chance to find it.  I’m excited to see where Pierce goes next, if he publishes a novel or if he puts out more short stories.  I’ll read the hell out of whatever it is.

CBR #5 – So You Think You Can Creative?

Show Up, Look Good by Mark Wisniewski

I actually thought at first this was going to be another short story collection, but instead it was a full length novel.  It follows a girl from Kankakee in Illinois who is jilted by her fiancee who then decides on a whim to go to New York City.  And there she sort of Candides her way through several bizarre living arrangements and job situations.  From an old woman who rents her a room for a reasonable rate provided she agrees to shop for her and bathe her at night to a quirky couple who she meets after winning a ham for trying to do stupid human tricks for David Letterman, there’s a lot of oddness and intrigue.

But that kind of gets thrust aside by the writing style.  What makes his short stories so good make this less so.  It feels like a treatise making fun of anyone pursuing a creative art. It’s just openly mean-spirited, like people who want to be writers, or actors, or painters, or performers in any capacity are all phonies, psychotics, people who are deluding themselves.  And while there’s an element of truth to that, fuck you, man.  It’s like the book is this masturbatory exercise where he’s like “hahaha, you think you can do stuff, but you’re an idiot.”

And then the narrative itself kind of doles out in weird fits and starts. It’s less a cohesive progression and more someone who cobbled together interesting postcards and called it a collection.  The ultimate reveal at the end of the book comes not as a clever twist but a foul ball batted from the left field bleachers that pegs you in the side of the head.  You don’t know if anything you read was real or if it was all some fudged fever dream by the unreliable narrator.  It’s like she’s telling the story to someone back home and leaving out details and then admitting them later.  It might have worked, but coupled with the snickering behind the back pissing on of creative endeavors, it’s just sort of like, “Well, fuck you, too, kid.”

However, I still feel like his new novel Watch Me Go might work better, because it leans more towards the shady and sketchy trailer ensemble of his short stories.  So I’m still willing to give him another whack.

CBR #4 – Hips Don’t Lie

All Weekend, With the Lights On by Mark Wisniewski

This will begin the flow of books I borrowed from the library because I was intrigued by the new releases on these authors.  This happens all the goddamn time. I scan lists from i09 (because Charlie Jane Anders is awesome) and the best of lists from The Millions and other people stuff, and then I see a book and think “OOH! That sounds good.  And then I go and check the back catalogs on the authors and then I want to read everything.  So one recommendation can lead to three or four adds. As is the case with Messr. Wisniewski here.

While I couldn’t get my hands on a copy of Confessions of a Polish Used Car Salesman, I was able to get this, his first short story collection and Show Up, Look Good, which is a novel.  All of this is in anticipation of Watch Me Go, which sounds right up my alley.

I liked this collection quite a bit.  They were all supposedly centering around people having sex — hence the title — but it wasn’t just some kind of misogynistic erotica or anything that salacious.  It was actually very thoughtful and haunting in several cases.  I’ve been on a real tear lately with short story collections, and as per usual, there were a bunch that worked for me and some that didn’t quite hit it.  It’s not quite as rawdog meth-head as the Midwest Gothmeth run — Donald Ray Pollack, Frank Bill, Daniel Woodrell — but it’s definitely got the trailer-park, ballbat to the beer bottle mentality.  These are not good people who populate these stories.  These are bookies, boozehounds, minor league criminals.  These are desperate people, cruel to one another.  And when you couple that with the sex element, it makes for some gritty shit.

I dug this, and I look forward to reading more of Wisniewski’s work.

CBR #3 – Pagliacci Weeping the Tears of the Chosen One

Stone of Tears by Terry Goodkind

Get ready, because I’m making my way through all of the Sword of Truth.  All fourteen or so novels.

This intrigues me, because I do not know which inspired what.  This series just feels like the Wheel of Time done over in a different way.  And I can’t believe the audacity.  Here’s my imitation of the books:

I’m just a poor boy.  No I’m the CHOSEN ONE!  And then everyone cried.
And Kahlan and Richard realized they loved each other with all of the powers of love.  But they could never be together.  So they cried.
And then there was no way the bad guy could ever win unless they did that one thing.  They did that one thing.  And then they loved each other.  And they cried.
And then the world was going to end.  There was no way to stop it.  Ever.  There’s no chance.  None in the world.  Unless you do that one thing.
BUT WE CAN’T DO THAT ONE THING!  We must love each other.  That’s all.  Love. Love.  Cry. Cry. Cry.
And then they do that one thing.
And then they are in love.  And then they cry some more.

That’s pretty much how they all seem to run.  Only with varying degrees of rape and creeeeeepy BDSM/borderline MRA stuff.  In fact, the prevaling theme of these books seems to be getting more in the MRA categories.  Women are evil, magic is evil, people who have more power than me are evil, and then everyone has a good cry.

Magic is super fucking weird in the series.  There doesn’t seem to much rhyme or reason to it.  Also, I don’t know when the Rada’HAN stuff — where magicians can be leashed and tortured — came about.  Because that’s a huge part of the Wheel of Time stuff.  So again, i don’t know if it was just two brilliant minds finding stuff out at the same time, or if stuff was getting borrowed from.  Granted, and this was my complaint about most fantasy, it’s always, THE CHOSEN ONE!  BUT LOVE!  BUT CHOSEN ONE KEEPS CHOOSING.  And in here, there’s a lot of crying.  I mean, a lot.  I mean, A LOT.

Anyway, I’m gonna gun through them all.  If only to just see where they go.  And also, because I love knowing thy history. I’m curious if other folks have read these and what their thoughts are.

CB7 #2 – Woe to Middle America

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

First time I ever read Franzen, and I don’t if I’m a cliche worthy of Guy in Your MFA, but goddamn I dug it.  The story, like most of the Oscar noms this year, really fucking meandered.  But it’s the characters.  And as I read in another review, it’s totally motherfucking schadenfreude.  I hated everyone in this book.  Even when I was starting to feel sympathetic, another monolithic chapter would come along and just churn my stomach with what a fucking asshole they were.

I’m working with a story development group, where we read screenplays and discuss their salient points, and one of the screenplays I submitted had hateful characters.  Because that’s what I love.  I love miserable people.  I guess that trend is waning.  But I felt like grabbing this huge tome and bashing my fellow writers in the face with it, screaming, “DO YOU SEE?  DO YOU SEE?  CRITICALLY FUCKING ACCLAIMED.”

But that was 2001.  And I even read a review of a forthcoming book that touted it as “The Corrections but with characters you can stand.”  So maybe The Reign of the Hateful has passed.  Still, while it just seemed to keep going and going, I was okay with that.  And it was amazing seeing a character suck the rootability and joy from everyone in masterstrokes.  All families are selfish, but some are selfish in phenomenal ways.

CB7 #1 – The Maryest Sue to Ever Mary a Sue

Insatiable Appetites by Stuart Woods

Actors read while on set.  Well, a lot of them “network” which mostly involves humblebragging about other projects they’ve worked on and trying to sound important.  But a bunch of us, we read.  So while I was working on Raising Hope, I started a convo with another actor, who also clutched his Kindle.  And he started recommending series to me.  Now, he gushed about how much he loved James Patterson’s NYPD Red, which was an immediate flag.  But I figured, ah, fuck it, I’ll take his suggestions.  And so, among others, he suggested I read Stuart Woods.

Stone Barrington was pitched to me like this: A cop, he sees a dead body land in front of him one night and then ends up quitting the force and becoming a lawyer and then it goes from there.  Sounded promising.  And that’s what it is.  But it’s really the ultimate fucking Mary Sue.  The Mary-est fucking Sue to ever Sue a Mary.  He’s a lawyer who becomes super ultra mega, mega rich.  Who eats at the finest restaurants, who bags more cooter than a redneck grocer, who flies airplanes, fires guns, owns houses in several countries, has a Cayman islands account.  It goes on.  Each progressive book.

But what drew me to Stuart Woods was that, like many of my other favorite authors, he ties all of his books together. So as I did with the Dark Tower, I read the Dark Woods.  And no matter the gender, the background, even the premises, all of Woods characters become fucking professional pilots, who bed starlets, eat the finest foods, and fire weaponry.  It’s like this amalgamation of the 1%.  And to even spoil this by explaining to you where we are with all of these characters would ruin you.  With laughter.

Woods is an airport author.  He drops a book every three months.  They’re all Stone Barrington’s now, and they number in the 40’s.  They aren’t good.  But they’re formulaic and fast like an episode of SVU.  The latest one involves the president, and lawyering.  They all do.  This one actually makes great use of the long pedigree of characters, while re-introducing and re-using a great villain.  For some reason, it feels like Woods might be winding down.  And that’s to our benefit.  Yet, I know he’s got at least three more books coming out this year.

And to his credit, I mislabeled him a conservative 1%-er.  He touts the highlife, but this book’s premise was way more surprising to me.  While he cascades around the rich and fabulous and old school (seriously, Stone has rampant sex on an adjustable bed), he manages to use his vast cast to great strides.

If you’re looking for a quick way to up your read count, you’ll gun through these books in as long as it would take you to marathon Law & Order.  And I would highly recommend reading them in order of publication.  Including the early books, The Will Lee series, the Ed Eagle series, the Holly Barker and the two Rick Barron books.  They all tie together, and then eventually settle in on the Stone Barringtons.  It’s telenovella shit, it’s so disposable, but there’s a reason why there are McDonald’s in Los Angeles.