Thursday, August 29, 2013

Unexpected Applause: "Memories"

Note: This review will be full of spoilers. The work is short enough that there's no practical way to talk about aspects of it without actually talking about those aspects of it.

In "Memories," author Alex Hurst has given us a bitter-sweet story of love and its importance no matter what kinds of gender boundaries may exist. From that perspective, it is well worth reading, this look back through the important moments of two lives that have come together. It's sweet and it's sad, and it could, really, be the lives of any two people that have come together in love and lived out their lives that way, which is where the power of the story comes from.

However, I found the vehicle for that story to be... distracting. And, actually, unconvincing. But, first, there is a brief introduction for the audience that spells out what's going on which I also thought detracted from the story. The story itself is really one of discovery or, actually, re-discovery by  the story-teller. I think introducing the story to the audience by telling us that she has entered a shop of memories takes that journey of discovery away from the audience, removing some of the power the story could have as we figure out what's going on. It removes rather than adds to the tension of the story.

The real issue for me, though, was the artificial limitation of "you can choose only one thing" which just made me want to know "why?" I get that the author is using that limitation as a vehicle to stroll the memories of the character and examine them while contemplating the importance of each, but that didn't stop the question of "why" from bouncing around in my head. It reminded me of those silly games people do:
You're stranded on a desert island and can only take one book, movie, food with you; what do you choose?
And I want to know, "Why am I stranded on a desert island?" and "If I am stranded on a desert island, what good is one book going to do me?" And "how am I going to watch this one movie while stranded on the desert island?" And "What? There's going to be a pizza tree there?"
So, yeah, this idea of the narrator only getting to pick one memory from her life before going on to wherever it was she was going really got in my way of enjoying the story itself.

Which may or may not be fair to the author and may or may not affect anyone else, but it did effect me.

Also, there is the issue of the ghostly store clerk, which I couldn't stop thinking about in terms of a static-like TV image after the description of it being like bad radio signal. If the memories are the narrator's and it's her store, so to speak, why is there a sales clerk following her around? And, if she has all the time in the world to choose, why does it keep interrupting with "have you chosen, yet?" Yes, I'm sure some of that is just my own issues. But I was annoyed on behalf of the narrator and wanted to tell the clerk to "go away and leave me alone! I'll call you when I'm ready."

And here's the problem with such a short piece: what I'm saying here makes it sound like I liked the piece less than I did. I enjoyed it well enough. It's well written. There are only a couple of grammar issues (which I can't even remember now, so they couldn't have been that big a deal). And it has a message that, probably, more people need to get. Okay, not probably, certainly. This is the kind of piece that might be able to give people a connection to how a real person feels about the issues being dealt with in the story, and, for that, it's worth the read.


  1. Sometimes you are hard to please. Sometimes I like that. Not in this case. I don't have a problem with limiting a story to one memory or playing a game where you are asked, "one book, which book." Why? Because you don't go into McDonald's and say, "but why can't I have Yorkshire pudding." That's the short of it. The long of it is too long for here.

    The store clerk part would bug me as well. I know there are people who are irritating but that doesn't mean you have to read about them. That is unless the author is setting him up to be the victim of a crime in which case it reduces the sorry factor.

    You didn't spoil the story for me at all. It doesn't sound like something I would enjoy but if you are convinced I need to get the message of the book, I'll add it to my monstrously long reading list.

  2. After reading your review I am left feeling ambivalent. Should I read it with all the shortcomings you found with it? Is the message good enough to make me pick it up? I don't know.

  3. Doesn't sound like my kind of read anyway, but the 'why am I stranded on an island in the first place' aspect would bug me as well.

  4. I agree with Anne, I don't think that you spoiled anything here.
    The more you read and write, (at least for me) it seems the pickier I become. Not just of other people's work either, but of my own as well.

    I get the impression that you were able to overlook the couple of things that bothered you here, and were able to enjoy this in the end. I hope readers will be as forgiving of my work, one day. :)

  5. It sounds rather a strange book and perhaps too short.

  6. David: Mostly, I'm hard to please. Okay, that's not true; I'm actually easier to please than most people might think, hence being able to look at, say, a movie I like with a critical eye, point out its flaws, and still enjoy it.

    You also don't go into a McDonald's and have them tell you that you may only order one thing off of the menu.

    Anne: I think the value of the message is going to be dependent upon the person, but, hey, at $0.99, it's not much of a risk.

    Alex: Yeah, I'm not sure why people in general are so fixated on the "but if you could only pick one" thing. The point with most of life is that I don't have to only pick one.

    jaybird: I mostly get pickier because of lack of time, but it kind of works out the same way.

    Sally: I wouldn't say that it's strange, and it's short because it's a short story.

  7. When someone says you're stranded on an island, I immediately recall Castaway and remember all the Fed Ex boxes that washed ashore and what I would want to find in them.

    However based on your review, I am curious about the shop of memories!

  8. Can't really comment on the story, since I haven't read it, but I have to say that I respect it a lot that you put up a review that shared your feeling about the work (even though it wasn't overwhelmingly positive) in a way that doesn't sound disparaging or mean.

    Well done. :-)

  9. Okay, I'm going to draw upon an earlier discussion on your blog here. I think this is why even good writers need good editors. Anything in the text that draws the reader out of the reading experience is problematic. That's not to say you shouldn't make people think. Setting a book down for a while because you need to mull over what happened is good. But being pulled out of the read over technical issues is another matter. That's the sort of thing a GOOD editor should be able to help clean up.

  10. Have you heard of "Afterlives"? It's 40 different stories about what (might) happen if we die.

    I heard about this on one of the podcasts I listen to, and they had some of the stories read by Jeffrey Tambor, and they are phenomenal. A lot of my 250 stories follow the sort of inspiration of that set of stories, and "Einstein's Dreams," another set of short short stories that all talk about the same thing through different lenses.

    So my stories "In The Beginning" and such, and the 5 Time Travel Stories, and "Skyfalls" and the like are sort of like that -- or maybe this story: artificial limitations on an unusual situation to bring out the emotional aspect of it.

    What I thought as I read your descriptions is that this really is a captivating idea: when we die, before we go on to something else, we have to choose JUST ONE MEMORY to take with us. The "why" is less important in this context, I think, especially for a shorter story, because the focus is on the difficulty of picking that one memory.

    A longer story might explain the mechanics of what's going on here -- like I tried to do with 'the After' (which someday might have a sequel I've been toying with), trying to figure out why and how it might actually work to have an afterlife set up exactly the way you want it -- but for a short story you may have to accept the artificial limitations, and focus on the emotional impact.

    Which it actually sounds like you did; contrary to what other commenters are saying, I took it that you liked the book and wanted more, and more explanation. Maybe I'm wrong?

    As for the stuff about the desert island: WOW. A pizza tree? I'd love that. As I read it, I imagined a short story "A Conversation With Andrew Leon, In Which Everything Is Questioned."

    I may write that story, and make fair use of your name and likeness. NOTE: I am not sure what 'fair use' really means, as that's not my area of law, but I wanted to scare you off from suing me by saying legal stuff.

  11. Man, that cover sure makes it look like a dimestore romance.

    '"And I want to know, "Why am I stranded on a desert island?" and "If I am stranded on a desert island, what good is one book going to do me?"'

    You are a super-literal person, aren't you? ;)

  12. Yolanda: Well, what I can definitively say is that I would not choose a volleyball as my one thing.

    Misha: Well, thanks.

    TAS: I'm not completely certain those are things an editor would have caught since the "one thing" is culturally pervasive and being followed by sales clerks is my own thing. But maybe.

    Briane: Let me try to sort of hit these in order:

    No, I've never heard of Afterlives. I'll try to take a look over the weekend sometime.

    I think I might like your idea if that was sort of the point of the story, but the point of "Memories" was something else. However, if the story revolved around the idea of taking only one memory, that was the point and the choosing was the conflict, especially if the character is asking "why just one" and not getting an answer, well, that might be a cool man vs himself sort of conflict.

    And, yes, I would have liked more exploration of the relationship.

    The pizza tree was all for you.

    There's this book, Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas, that your idea doesn't actually sound like but it made me think of it and doing something like that would be cool.

    Stephanie: Well, no, not really. My response is not that I'm taking the question too literally, it's that I'm pointing out the inherent flaw in the question. The actual question is, "Why do I need to make this choice?" If there's a good reason for it, the choice doesn't matter; if there's not a reason for it, there's no reason to choose.

    Maybe that's just me.

  13. Doesn't sound like my kind of story at all.

  14. Thanks for steering me away from this piece although I doubt whether I would have found this anyway. Sounds more like the subject matter for some philosophical dilemma essay. I don't mind literature dealing with philosophical dilemma, but this one you describe sounds a bit corny and cliche. I'll save the "pick only one" scenarios for blog posts when I'm trying to whip out something quick or blogfests where we can all share picks without going to deeply into the whys and wherefores.

    Tossing It Out

  15. But it is the sort of distraction I encounter with startling frequency, even in highly successful works. There are parts of Girl with the Pearl Earring that drove me nuts.

  16. Jo: What kind of stuff do you like to read?

    Lee: Well, the point is not philosophy. The point is... well, I'm not gonna tell you the point. Let's just say it's social commentary.

    TAS: Which is what I mean by an editor not necessarily catching it. The frequency of it leads me to believe that most people just accept it, including editors.

  17. I don't read much that is serious any more, mainly spec fic these days. Too old for the heavy stuff these days.

  18. Right. But see, that's what I mean by GOOD editors. I think you're absolutely right about the whole keys to the kingdom thing. But if editors would just stick to the job of helping make books better, I say let 'em have at it.

  19. Jo: Technically speaking, all fiction is spec fic. This one certainly is.

    TAS: Yeah, well, editors, at the moment, are on the endangered species list.

  20. It didn't sound it from what you wrote. Yes, I guess all fiction is spec fic, but you know I didn't really mean that. Fantasy and Sci Fi are my main preferences although I do read other stuff, some romances although I hate the modern tendency to include sex in such detail. Many detective stories and so on.

  21. Jo: Well, it's a story about moving on to whatever happens after death, so, by definition, that's speculative.
    Also, the definition of spec fic does include almost everything out there: sci-fi, fantasy, horror, alternate reality, alternate history, super hero, dystopian... I could go on and on. It includes so many things as to be a worthless term.

  22. So a story about after-life not only sounds speculative, but also philosophical. And philosophy is pretty speculative since those philosophers are always sitting around and speculating on stuff. A basket full of philosophers could keep a hot air balloon aloft for a good while.

    Tossing It Out

  23. Well I guess that's set me straight, I had never realised spec fic included such a wide variety of genres. Throughout my life there aren't too many genres I haven't covered, but today I find I don't want to have to think too hard any more. I guess I read to escape rather than to think. I think at my age I am entitled.

  24. Lee: Philosophy, by its nature, draws conclusions from observations. This story is not drawing any conclusions nor is it actually making any observations. It's making a statement about personal experience. There's no "this is what I think death is like;" that is just a vehicle to relate the life experience of the main character.

    I do not disagree with you about philosophers.

    Jo: Yeah, it's just a broad term to mean anything that doesn't deal with strict reality. It encompasses so much, it's almost the same as saying "I read fiction." It's not an actual genre, which is why there is no speculative fiction section in book stores.

  25. I've always took the 'you can only take one book' thing as another way of asking what your favorite book is. Or what you think your most rereadable book is. Otherwise, anyone who didn't answer with, 'How to Escape from a Deserted Island' or something similar would be a moron.

    I think framing the question that way makes the person answering give more honest answers than they might otherwise. Not that they are lying on purpose, but they might not say 50 Shades of Gray is there fav book until they think about what they can't live without.

  26. It seems to me that you've written an honest review, Andrew. I wish Alex good luck with his book!

  27. Rusty: Yeah, I get that, but, then, it's like a trick, and, personally, I don't appreciate that kind of trick. I mean, I can answer, or not, "what's your favorite?" without the forcedness of being stranded on an island.

    Cathrina: Thanks! And I wish her luck, too, but it seems like she's doing pretty well with it so far.

  28. I do prefer a story that makes sense, i.e. "you are limited in this way for these very believable reasons".

  29. Trisha: Yeah, I need to know the reasons.