In Sunlight or in Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper by Lawrence Block

Hardcover, 288 pages
Expected publication: December 6th 2016 by Pegasus Books

Short stories hold a power that longer works of fiction do not have the advantage of: they can pack a hard punch that’ll knock your socks off in mere minutes, spilling uplifting joy, heart-wrenching pain or newly provoked thought from readers all in one fell swoop. This, of course, is because they are so much more concentrated than their longer counterparts, doing away with excess prose and condensing the narrative arc into a matter of pages rather than chapters. For this reason, some of my favorite reads—the most thought-provoking and resonating reads—of all time have been short stories, and I sought this out here, within this collection, to continue that tradition for me. However, In Sunlight or in Shadow seemed prepared to offer up nothing but the latter, with the few glimmers of entertainment here so weak and sporadic that it was like the sun never quite pushed through the blinds.

Story after story were mind-numbingly dull and unmemorable. In reading through this anthology centered around the paintings of Edward Hopper (also featured within these pages before the start of each story written around them), I often felt like I was trudging through thick mud in search of that jewel that would glimmer brightly from beneath the sludge. It took me longer to finish this than it should have—than it could have—because I didn’t really want to pick it back up. But, alas, that is the magic with short story collections, isn’t it? You always feel that just around the next corner, with the next turn of the page, the next story might be the one. The next story might be enough to carry the entire collection—and so, you read on. But I never found anything magical in this compilation.

To be fair, Stephen King and Nicholas Christopher lightly touched on a literary nerve, and had this collection been filled with stories such as those, In Sunlight or in Shadow would’ve earned itself a far stronger rating from me indeed. But nothing truly moved or inspired me here. In truth, most of these stories took themselves far too seriously, as if the author’s identity or the mere fact that they’d proffered literary prose (rather than commercial plot lines) would alone carry the read, make me love it, make me keep turning pages. Well, Block, it wasn’t enough! Not by a long shot. I found most of these stories to be tedious and stuffy at best. No doubt, some teacher will find this collection and force it upon her high school English students, because it seems to exude the literary seriousness—gravitas, shall we say—requisite to be considered great. And no doubt the students will likely feel as I did.

My life has not been changed in reading this. Neither has my mind been stretched nor my imagination tested, my joy for reading stoked or my heart rate even quickened. In fact, the only thing that changed in reading this collection was my willingness to ever pick up anything else that Lawrence Block has ever laid a finger on. Will I dare? We shall see.

This collection has managed to earn the first 1.5 star review I’ve ever given—I could barely finish it, but somehow Stephen King’s “The Music Room” and Nicholas Christopher’s “Rooms by the Sea” saved it from complete engulfment by the yawning abyss. I have nothing else to even say about this collection, except that I need a good palette cleanser to start anew on something else. *

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Pegasus Books, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Hardcover, 368 pages
Published March 22nd 2016 by Ecco

       The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney did absolutely nothing for me. I had high hopes for this one going in—another brilliantly written cover flap did the trick—but my expectations were never met, and by mid-way, I stopped hoping and assuming that they eventually would be. In fact, this one almost didn’t get finished; sheer perseverance pushed me through.

        The Nest is about the Plumb siblings, four middle-agers whose lives are thrown into tumult when the eldest, Leo, gets himself into trouble yet again—drugs, a Porsche and a pretty young thing complete the cliché—and their mother nearly depletes “the nest,” their trust fund, which they are all expecting to inherit soon, to get him out of this bind. His siblings, Jack, Bea, and Melody are outraged and anxiety-filled, worrying about their personal financial situations that have escalated to the point of emergency because they assumed they’d have the nest to bail them out, and now it’s nearly gone. Leo and his siblings struggle to find a way out of the mess he started, and isn’t sure how to remedy, while dealing with the intricacies of their own lives.

The problem with this one is that this novel could’ve been written by anyone. I saw no particularly extraordinary skill, no ambition, no originality, no nothing. Even the endings were all hastily done, formulaic bow ties fit for day-time TV. In short, I was not impressed as a reader. The Nest fell so flat for me that there was nearly an audible splat sound ringing in my ears throughout the entire reading process. The writing was mediocre, at times hitting on pithy narrative prose that occurred so infrequently that I have to believe they were flukes, one-offs.

       “Maybe she would slip Melody some cash, enough for some Botox or a facial or something to brighten her pallor. She was the youngest and somehow the most faded, as if the Plumb DNA had thinned with each conception, strong and robust with Leo and each child after being—a little less.”

That was one of the better lines of this novel (in addition to the 9/11 nationalism sarcasm), but unfortunately it also sums up how I felt about this one—strong and robust packaging and selling of this one only for each chapter to impress me less and less. The characters here were so uninteresting, so unremarkable, that I could hardly keep them straight. They were all either blah, like Melody, or cliché—oh, the clichés here!

I can’t even really discuss the glaring rudimentary stereotypes running rampant in this one. There was the drunken, ice queen of a matriarch who dressed in a sexy robe for her daughter’s 12th birthday (one of the more interesting characters, whom we hardly saw, but the cliché smacked me in the face). Then there was Matilda Rodriguez, the naïve Hispanic girl who “called everyone Mami or Papi” despite their age—cliché, yawn—and Simone, the supposedly cool, urban, street smart black girl (honestly, already the shallow cliché in this novel’s setting) who says, “Tight” a lot. Tight? REALLY? Tight? What decade is this, please? This one was absolutely deserving of the eye-roll, that she would stake her novel on such underdeveloped outlines of overdone stereotypes (and that it would then be praised as great writing really confounded me). Then we shan’t forget the cliché of the gay sibling who wanted lots of random, casual sex in sleazy nightclubs (I literally forgot his name and had to look above to write it here, Jack) who marveled at his luck at dodging AIDS (really?), and the list actually does go on. There were so many clichés thrown into this one that it was like the literary equivalent of Scary Movie. This element in and of itself revealed that Sweeney is as out of touch with the real world as her characters are and that made the read unenjoyable—in fact, a chore. This element wasn’t nearly pushed far enough to be satire; this is really the world she wanted to paint, which would have been fine, possibly even funny, as a satire but nothing more than that.

The Nest also had too many superfluous characters and storylines! (I’m looking at you Robohook man, and the guy from the 9/11 towers). If you want to read about WASPy yacht problems (1st world problems that no one cares about other than the self-absorbed people experiencing them), endless whining about not receiving a large, undeserved amount of money and having to settle for a mere $50,000 each, and storylines that suffered because of the sheer number of them squeezed in here, you’ve come to the right place. I started to give this one 2 stars, because I finished it, but then realized that that was my own accomplishment, not this novel’s. 1 star. *