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2010 Stories 28 - 36 and Essays 6 - 7

First, let's finish up the Stephen King stories I listened to on the drive home from Hartford, bringing to a close my discussion of his Just After Sunset collection:

28. Ayama, read by George Guidall.  How do we mentally process witnessing a miracle, especially when that miracle happens to someone we love right in front of our eyes?  And what happens when we become the "carrier" for similar miracles to others, although the method of that carrying may be beyond our comprehension.  The narrator of this story never really descends into sappy sentimentality.

29. A Very Tight Place read by Ron McLarty.  McLarty shows that he is more than just a gruff voice with his work on this story, which descends into the territory covered by Poe in A Premature Burial and A Cask of Amontillado --- this story feels like a modernized combination of the two.  One man's revenge scheme turns into another's.  This one definitely also taps the queasy quotient.

Now three from Rick Riordan's short collection The Demigod Files (from the adventures of Percy Jackson & The Olympians).  As those you you who have read my Dresden Files reviews know, I am a big proponent of series authors using short stories to aim the spotlight at supporting characters.  Riordan does that very well here.

30. Percy Jackson and the Stolen Chariot  Percy and sometimes-foil Clarisse, daughter of Ares, track down her father's missing chariot and do battle with her immortal half-brothers Diemos and Phobos.  We get to see a different side of the Percy-Clarisse relationship, a little less antagonistic and a bit more playful.

31. Percy Jackson and the Bronze Dragon  One of the demigods Percy seems to genuinely respect is Charles Beckendorf, son of Hephaestus.  And one of the demigods Percy doesn't seem to really understand (although he likes her well enough) is Silena Beauregard, daughter of Aphrodite.  They both play important roles in the final novel of the series, and this story allows us to see them in less hectic times -- during a typically screwed up Camp Half-Blood game of Capture the Flag.

32. Percy Jackson and the Sword of Hades  It is rare to see the "Big Three" children together in the Jackson books. Riordan smartly gives us a story that brings Percy (son of Poseidon), Thalia (daughter of Zues) and Nico (son of Hades) together on a short but important quest that also sheds some light on secondary bad guy Ethan Nakamura.

All three of these stories provide background and little touches that influence the last book in the series, but they also stand very well on their own as character pieces.

And, four more from The New Yorker:

33. Complicity by Julian Barnes from the October 19, 2009 issue:  I've read other Barnes stories that I've liked.  This one seems a little off to me somehow.  The narrator describes the genesis of a relationship (that one gets the sense will not last long beyond the end of the story) and his story is littered with his attempt to look for signs and magic touches (starting with a description of his mother's cure for his hiccups).  I'm usually fine with narrators who attempt to read too much into their own story, and with narrators who feel unreliable ... but somehow I just couldn't muster deep interest in this man, despite a lot of interesting turns of phrase and anecdotal asides.

34. Diary of An Interesting Year by Helen Simpson from the December 21 / 28, 2009 issue.  I hate to do this, but I have to call this story "the female The Road."  Simpson captures that same sense of an apocalyptic future world where every person must fend for themselves.  Women seemed largely absent from Cormac McCarthy's work, and those that were present were either in the past or madly abused in the present.  The narrator of this story, told in diary-entry form, is also abused and treated poorly -- her despondency comes through, but also her refusal to give up.

35. Baptizing The Gun by Uwem Akpan from the January 4, 2010 issue. There's an odd sort of inconsistency in this story.  Parts are pure tension-filled crime drama in an underdeveloped African urban sprawl (and having recently read several Stephen King crime stories, I can say parts of this story feel a piece with that).  Unfortunately, the excellently tense pieces flow into long "looks what's wrong with this country that has brought these characters to this point" passages that feel less like fiction and more like political analysis / travelogue by the author.  If the story had maintained a bit more economy of words, the political commentary would have had more effectiveness.

36. Safari by Jennifer Egan  from the January 11, 2010 issue.  I'm usually skeptical of short stories that shift between multiple points of view -- it's a hard thing to pull off well when you're going for a tight story with limited word count.  Egan pulls it off in this story because she doesn't try to be tricky about it.  The transfer from the teenage girl to her father's new girlfriend to the girl's younger brother and back to the girl again is smooth and sensible.  The family, and some friends, are on an African safari where relationships and passive-agressiveness affect more than just what they see in the brush.

And two essays:

6. Sunset Notes by Stephen King, from his Just After Sunset collection:  King's end-of-collection notes about how the stories came to be written are usually pretty illuminating about his process and inspirations.  These short blurbs seemed a lacking compared to previous collections.  It was interesting to find out that "The Cat From Hell" was actually close to 30 years old, and to hear about the genesis of "A Very Tight Place," but I'd like to have heard more.

7. Uncovering The Secrets of the Sphinx by Evan Hadingham, from the February, 2010 issue of Smithsonian magazine.  I can't say I learned anything new from this piece about Egypt's greatest mystery and archaeologist Mark Lehner, who has done more to figure out its secrets than anyone else.  But as a refresher on what we know and don't know, and on the problems researchers and the Sphinx itself faces from the passage of time, the article does its job well, and the accompanying photographs and artists renderings are fantastic.

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