Boston Book Blitz – Pt. 1: “Fun With Problems” Has Got Some Problems

It was around this time last year that I came up with the idea. I am loathe to call it my idea since it has been done in other variations. One guy spent a year of his life living according to the Bible. And of course, there was “Julie & Julia,” a book I have not read and a movie I have not seen. The point being, my idea was not new. It could be considered unique.

The idea itself was simple. Every December, The New York Times publishes a list of the 100 Notable Books of the Year.  The list includes 50 works of fiction and 50 non-fiction books. For whatever reason, it is not the Top 100 books of the year, it is the 100 Notable Books of the Year. I thought it would be a neat feat to read all 100 from 2009 in 2010 and blog about it. However, working full time and being in possession of a PS3 with a humongous flat screen TV stymied this endeavor.

But I’m back! The New York Times recently released the list for 2010 With an actual blog, no PS3 or TV, and the Medford, Massachusetts Public Library at my disposal, I’m gunning for the top. I’m not blind to the challenge. Reading 100 books in 365 days requires a pace of finishing a book every 3.65 days. Hence the title: Boston Book Blitz. And I’m proud to say, I picked up my first book on the list this past Saturday and as of 11:30 this morning, I had finished it.  A whole 1.65 days ahead of the required pace. Sure, it was only a 200 page book of short stories. But come on, they don’t start the Tour de France in the Alps and I wasn’t going to start with some 800-page book on the life of Samuel Tilden.  I do expect champagne when I finish the list.

Not Much Fun to Read

The collection of stories, by Robert Stone, entitled “Fun With Problems” promised to “illuminate the dark corners of the human soul.” One of the problems with many of the stories in the book is that the main characters don’t seem very human.  Primarily written in the third person, most of the characters came across like cardboard cutouts whose actions don’t make much sense in their respective worlds.  More than anything else, most of the characters don’t sound or act real.

And if the nagging feeling that the characters seem horribly unrealistic isn’t enough, the plots are disappointing. Most of the stories, except for “Honeymoon,” which clocks in at a sparse four pages, start out promisingly enough. Eventually, the plot pivots, usually based on an out-of-the-blue sexual energy, encounter, or desire. This turn is disappointing. If for no other reason than Stone does a good job of setting the initial scene. He leaves promising storylines untouched, allowing his characters to prattle on in what sound like stream of consciousness commentary that detract from the already disappointingly absurd plots.

It is only when he switches to first person, in “From the Lowland,” about a screenwriter and the actress he loves who is a drug addict, does Stone come close to matching the promise of the book. The characters seem more natural, the storyline more plausible, and the moving closing is worth the minor issues with the writing.

Robert Stone is a National Book Award winner and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Despite my best efforts to stay well-read, I’ll admit this is my first encounter with his writing. From everything I’ve read about him, his previous works are examples of good writing. When it comes to “Fun With Problems,” I’m not sure what motivated the Times staff to add this book to the list. The only thing notable about it was how perpetually frustrating and disappointing it was.

One down, ninety-nine to go. Obviously, I’m not a professional book reviewer or literary critic for that matter. Maybe some of you out there have read this book and think I missed what Stone was aiming for or have read some of his previous work and can recommend a better place to start with in his catalogue.

I had wanted to use mountain-climbing metaphors at the end of each review, since I consider this the reading equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest. Then I realized I know as much about mountain climbing as I do about being a literary critic. How do these oxygen machines work again?

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