The Stand, by Stephen King

The StandThis book. I don’t even know what to do with it.

As I’ve mentioned a couple times, I tried to read this book on a vacation a couple years ago and got just over halfway through before the vacation ended and I got caught up in other, shorter books. So when it became the October read for my book club, I was like, hey, now I’ll finally have to read the darn thing! But of course I didn’t remember much of the first half, so I started over at the beginning and read the whole updated version, all 1200 pages of it, over the course of three and a half weeks. I am never getting those three and a half weeks of my reading life back.

Which isn’t to say that it’s not a good book, it’s just not the book I wanted it to be. I always forget that Stephen King’s doorstops are focused more on worldbuilding than on, say, story or plot or characters, and I get frustrated when things refuse to move at a reasonable pace and when the “I know something that character doesn’t know” lasts chapter after chapter after chapter with no resolution in sight. It didn’t help that I’d recently read Station Eleven, which, as I described to my book club, is kind of like The Stand but twenty years later and a heck of a lot quicker. Oh, quicker, I miss you.

But The Stand was a truly appropriate read right now, with Ebola in the news and the flu starting to go around, so I was probably more creeped out by it than I would have been had I actually finished it two years ago. Yay, creepy!

If you don’t know, The Stand follows the accidental release of a manmade flu that kills something like 99 percent or more of the US population, if not the world’s population. The first many chapters involve lots of people developing a sniffle and then dying a horrific death, and then eventually the survivors of these chapters start dreaming about a Good person and an Evil person and they start seeking out their preferred new leader. Mostly the book sticks with the Good survivors as they all make their way to Nebraska and then Boulder, Colorado, where they settle and collect more survivors and work to form an interim government and get life back on track. There’s a running undercurrent of worry about the Evil survivors and their creepy-pants leader Randall Flagg that is obviously going to have to resolve itself in some kind of epic showdown, but mostly the book is just about people doing day-to-day things in a strange new world.

I had no trouble coming back to the book every day to find out what was going on with all these people that I was starting to care for and worry about, though I really wanted that whole epic showdown thing to show up quick because seriously, I wanted to know who was going to win. So then when I got to the showdown and spoilers, it’s neither epic nor really showdown-y, I was like, you have got to be kidding me. And yes, I get that that’s kind of the point, that life doesn’t actually have epic showdowns even when people bring atomic bombs to a gunfight (no, really), but I WANTED A SHOWDOWN, people.

At least I totally called the survival of my favorite characters at the expense of my only-slightly-less-favorite characters, because otherwise I would have had to go find a print copy of this book in order to fling it across the room. Throwing a Kindle is just not the same.

Recommendation: Go read Station Eleven, it’s so much shorter and probably better. Or read this if you’ve got the time and the inclination to enjoy Stephen King. It’s a decent one.

Rating: 6/10

Another Fine Myth, by Robert Asprin

Another Find MythThings are looking up between me and my coworker, reading-wise… after reading Touch of Frost I have a better idea of what she’ll like and I also know that I need her to explain what’s awesome about a book before I go ahead and read it. Also, she’s promised to give The Eyre Affair another go at some point in the future, which is all a girl can ask for, really.

With this book, though, we almost had a situation on our hands. My coworker was talking about this series to one of our patrons, and she mentioned that it was a send-up of fantasy series, with all the appropriate dragons and such but also a good amount of humor. At the exact same time as I was saying, “Oh, funny fantasy, I love that!”, my coworker was telling the patron, “It’s humorous; Alison wouldn’t like it.” I’m pretty sure a Look was given, and the patron was definitely laughing at us. I couldn’t find this first book in our library or my home library, and I feared I would be unable to prove my clearly advanced sense of humor, but luckily my coworker had a copy and was willing to lend it to me, possibly only to avoid getting stuck on shelf-reading duty. I will take it!

Aaaaaanyway, to get to the actual story part of the story, this turned out to be a pretty funny book! The narrator, Skeeve, is an apprentice magician whose master decides to summon up a demon for a proper introduction and then proceeds to die at the hands of an assassin. Skeeve is terrified of the demon until he finds out that “demon” is just a terrible abbreviation of “dimension traveller” (suuuure it is) and also that this demon, Aahz, would be no worry anyway as Skeeve’s master happened to take away Aahz’s power when he summoned him. As a practical joke. As you do.

Of course, Skeeve soon becomes terrified again, because, you know, dead master, assassins, potential future death, not actually a magician yet, stuck learning all the important things from a guy with no powers. But Aahz is smart and funny and not unlike a certain Bartimaeus, so he is of course able to shepherd Skeeve through all of the ridiculous things that are about to happen to him. These things include mastering disguise, travelling through dimensions, meeting a hot chick, and, you know, going up against the guy who sent the assassin, so there’s something for everyone!

The writing style and the plot of this book reminded me of a slightly less absurd Terry Pratchett novel, which is excellent except that I’d rather gotten used to the absurdity and this book seemed practically straightforward in some places. Asprin also focuses his satire more on the fantasy novel and less on, say, everything in the world, so I felt like I was missing a few things since I’ve never been a big classic fantasy reader.

It’s nothing terribly new to me (though it was probably new in 1978, when this book came out). But I still enjoyed it rather a lot, and after I finish my giant work-based TBR pile (ha… haha… ha…) I may see if my coworker will let me borrow the second book so I can keep up on the exploits of my new friend Skeeve. He seems pretty cool.

Recommendation: For those who like a good satire and a snarky demon.

Rating: 8/10

an RIP read

Weekend Shorts from the New Yorker Fiction Podcast

The New Yorker Fiction PodcastI haven’t been reading too much this week, so I’m glad to have this podcast just waiting for me on my phone when I need a quick escape into fiction. Last week I tracked down print versions for you to follow along in, but that proved to be far more difficult this week so I’m going to have to leave that up to you — but of course the audio is just waiting for you!

“I Bought a Little City”, by Donald Antrim

Oh, my goodness. As soon as I started listening to this, I was like, “I know this is only the third story I’ve listened to on this podcast, but I think it’s going to be hard to top.” And it will be.

In this awfully hilarious little satire, our intrepid narrator buys Galveston, Texas (as you do) and decides not to do anything drastic, except, you know, tear down some houses and build up not-too-imaginative new developments and have the newspaper publish diatribes against him because maybe his city people won’t want to do it themselves? It is very very weird, and Donald Antrim reads it so straight-faced that all I could do was laugh.

“You Must Know Everything”, by Isaac Babel

This was a weird story in a much different way. It’s got a pretty slow start, with a young narrator just sort of talking about his life and his day hanging out with his grandmother, but then toward the end it gets very serious, with the grandmother making the titular pronouncement and some other pronouncements that are maybe not quite what you would expect. I definitely appreciated this story more after the discussion with George Saunders (whose work I have checked out from the library right now!) about the cultural and societal implications of the story, which are actually pretty interesting.

“Somewhere Else”, by Grace Paley

More culture! It’s almost like these segues are planned, though I doubt that they are. As Nell Freudenberger, who discusses the story, says, this is a story about pictures. At first, it’s a story about a Western tour group in China in the 70s, when people weren’t really going to China, and the big event is an argument about taking photographs of Chinese citizens without their permission. Then the story shifts perspective to another picture-taking event in a completely different place with completely different people. The politics and privilege inherent in this photographic objectification (and the objectification of travel in general) are something that I’ve been thinking about lately, so listening to this story talking about the same thing from so many years ago was kind of cool!

“The Gospel According to Mark”, by Jorge Luis Borges

Aaaaaaaaaaaah. This is another story that starts off slow and then takes a turn for the exciting at the end, though on a second listen you can almost feel the buildup and where things start going very wrong. As Paul Theroux discusses, there’s a bit of a horror element to it, and it is definitely that type of horror that is my favorite, the kind you’d find in Shirley Jackson‘s work or certain darker Flannery O’Connor pieces. You should definitely track this down and give it a read or a listen and then another and then possibly another, because it will give you new things to think about every time.

How about you guys? Any short stories to share?