Sunday, August 2, 2015

Thunderstruck and Other Stories

To make a sweeping generalization, I enjoy collections of short stories.  This is especially true for YA authors whose full-length novels I might not read because of instalove or love triangles or just general disinterest in the subject matter, but I find that you can really see a writer's craft shine when they're restricted to a shorter format.  There's no time to develop an elaborate love triangle or parallelogram or whatever, Plus, I find that short stories tend to end with a punch.


Other readers and reviewers of Thunderstruck and Other Stories praise McCracken's prose for being funny and wise and "exquisite."  When I finished, I sat there, wondering if I had read the same book as all of those other people.  Because this collection of stories was at best, mildly offensive (which at least adds a little zing to the reading experience), but on the whole, as bland and unsatisfying as Dickensian oatmeal.


Basically, in each story, someone has died, is dying, or will die.  The protagonists need to deal with this.  Unfortunately, death is common to everyone, so it's not like this is a groundbreaking topic.  I am unsure of what these stories were supposed to make me feel.  They were neither creepy, nor sad, nor funny.  It was a bit of a flatline.

I'm not going to do a breakdown of each story.  Some were more memorable than others; this means, simply, that I felt more angry about those stories and so I made an effort to remember them in order to write this review.

"Juliet" is a story that pulls out all the stops on librarian stereotypes.  Granted, that isn't the focus of the story, but since I was so very distracted by all the "children's librarian wears dorky shoes" comments, I don't really know what I was meant to take away from this.

"The children's librarian had no friends at the library.  She wore peasant skirts and thick-soled shoes and pendants on long black strings."  Um, if you are a children's librarian with no friends, you're doing it wrong.  The kids, at the very least, should be your friends.  And while I think that we youth services librarians can be the quirkiest of the bunch in our sartorial choices (pink hair!  poodle skirts! bow ties!) we can't all be lumped into the "hippie" category.  And for pete's sake, what's wrong with wanting to wear peasant skirts or clunky shoes?  They're dang comfortable!

Anyway, "Juliet" is essentially the story of how a small community deals with a brutal murder--that of quirky library patron "Juliet"--or Suzanne, as we come to find her name is.  Stabbed ninety-six times and a local boy of a big-name family arrested for the murder.  It's hinted that the children's librarian (never granted a name, interestingly; I'm sure I could write an essay about the symbolism in that, but this is not lit class, thank the Old Ones) was suspiciously absent around the time of Suzanne's death, but it's so much easier to believe the circumstantial evidence and convict Tommy Mason of the murder.  It's a decent short story, but aside from someone being murdered and people saying hurtful things, not much else happens.

The other story that stuck with me was "Hungry," mostly because of how it dealt with weight and children.  Sylvia is caring for her granddaughter, Lisa, while Lisa's father (and Sylvia's son) is in the hospital dying of cardiac failure.  Sylvia spends the entire story beating herself up over the fact that she has--horror of horrors--allowed Lisa to get fat during her sojourn in Iowa.  Woman: priorities, you need them straight.  Your son is dying and his daughter is old enough to know and you're in distress because Lisa split her pants?  Too many buffets out there in Des Moines and Lisa has become a problem to fix "with dietetic caramels and sugar-free fake M&Ms ... For the block party this afternoon, she and Lisa together had made a lo-cal noodle kugel: low-fat cottage cheese, fat-free sour cream, margarine, a cornflake topping."  Lisa, on the other hand, doesn't seem to care or notice that she's bigger than when she arrived.  She's more interested in declaiming famous orations of the past.  But you know what?  She's going to get a complex real quick with her grandmother constantly trying to "slim her down."

"It pained her, too, the pudge of her granddaughter's thighs.  The straps of her bathing suit cut into her shoulders, and her weight had changed."  Sylvia superficially acknowledges that weight isn't everything, but we also learn that she routinely underfed and critiqued her daughter Rena.

Although I understand (I think) where McCracken is going with this story: Sylvia expresses her love through control and criticism, and flips out about her ten-year-old granddaughter's weight as a way to push aside the reality that her son is going to die--it's still profoundly uncomfortable to read.  Maybe that's an interesting way to look at it for Sylvia, but I keep thinking about Lisa, and how she'll grow up.  Heck, I started having food anxieties reading the story--some of the food comments were pretty triggering.  I guess the theme is that we're all broken and life sucks, which is kind of the theme of all of the stories here.

None of these stories left me thunderstruck.  I saw no spark of liveliness or humor or even originality in them.  They simply were, and I wish I hadn't spent my time reading them.

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