Different Kinds of Stories

The Orchard Window by Daniel Garber, oil on canvas 1918

I believe we can distill the plethora of story types into two main categories: feverish cliff hangers that compel their readers to read on through the night, and the more tranquil tales that follow a structure of “this happened, and then this, and then this.” Of course, many stories offer a fusion of both types. Thrillers often drive the narrative to the very last word, while other stories might resemble meandering rivers that gently float the reader to their conclusion. I appreciate both, but I find the more mellow stories can be more compatible with a busy schedule. Kids, for example, don’t care if a novel is impossible to put down when demanding attention.

The Legend of Zelda Tears of the Kingdom, a new game released just before Mother’s Day, is a case in point. My son predicted that on its release date, people would take the day off to indulge in the game. He was right, resulting in what could be called a national Zelda fever day. We saw a similar scenario during the release of the Star Wars sequels, with fans playing hooky to go see the movies. The only literary equivalent that comes to mind is the Harry Potter series. Both adults and children eagerly lined up to purchase the books and then stayed home to read, effectively putting their lives on hold. That’s the power of a gripping “what happens next” narrative.

I enjoy both types of stories. A long, meandering journey through the lives of fictional characters can provide an ideal getaway from personal troubles without compromising sleep or responsibilities. But if a thriller is short enough to be read in a few hours, I love the head rush of a total escape into another reality — “Don’t bother me, I’m gone for the afternoon into a book!” It’s great fun to read such books, and be reminded that our personal lives are relatively tranquil compared to the chaos often found in fiction. After all, life is more of a marathon, not a frantic race to the finish. Excitement is enervating in large doses.

Reading helps keep me sane and puts my own personal issues in perspective. So here are a few gems I’ve enjoyed in the last few months:

Eternal Life by Dara Horn. This was unexpectedly great, a completely different take on immortality from ones I’ve read before. Living forever is now a genre. Just in the last few years, I have picked up at least five books that featured immortality as the backbone of the story. In this story, immortality was not a coveted state. Instead, it’s a price paid for a divine favor. It turns out to be a very heavy price. The story spans over two thousand years and does so with compassion and insight. It was not a thriller, but rather a contemplation on the theme of having a life worth living. I give it my strong recommendation.

Relic by Alan Dean Foster was another near immortality story. The sole human survivor in the distant future is being kept alive and relatively happy by a race of aliens that find human civilization an interesting study. Although the premise is intriguing, I felt the book could have done more with it. It’s meandering but punctuated with thriller-like scenes. Ultimately, it was an entertaining if somewhat forgettable story.

Mickey 7 by Edward Ash. Those who don’t know death are required to die over and over again — a story of how cloning can be used to supply humanity with dispensable humans for dangerous jobs. An interesting premise, more in the thriller category, it was a short and fun ride.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. Seanan is an impressively imaginative writer, and she is also neurodivergent. This book is the first in the series. So far, I have read about five. Seanan’s stories feature people who are misfits in the world into which they were born and yet are a perfect fit in some other reality. Aren’t we all? I think the trick is to make the world we live in one where we are able to be happy. For most of us, this takes a lifetime. These stories read like short surreal cozy mysteries, mostly so fantastical that it’s impossible to anticipate the next twist or turn. This gives a meandering feel of traveling through someone else’s dreams or nightmares. They are also like little candies, to be swallowed whole in a few hours. Perhaps they are not very nourishing, but they are a great diversion with wonderful characters.

Points of Departure a collection of short stories by Pat Murphy. I know Pat. She used to work for the Exploratorium in San Francisco when I did my master’s thesis on visitor interaction with that museum’s exhibits. I’ve read other books by Pat, but I think this short story collection is by far her best. There wasn’t a clunker in the bunch, and most of the stories stay with you and pop into your thoughts many months later. This book is worth your time.

Lizard Music by Daniel Pinkwater. I bought this book on a lark. I don’t know what I expected, and I never knew what would likely happen next. It was entertaining and very different.

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami. Another immortality novel? Not really, but sort of? It was meandering and drifting and very much a Murakami story. Once you’ve read a few of those, you may find them somewhat repetitive. That holds especially true for Norwegian Wood. If you are considering delving into Murakami’s oeuvre, I’d recommend starting with 1Q84. This is an alternate reality story about revenge. Yes, there are supernatural rapes and murders and abuse of women, all immersed in modern Japanese culture. It’s a thriller and I think a good introduction to Murakami’s body of work. Kafka on the Shore is another excellent choice.

There were many other stories consumed by me in these past few months, but these were the best. Happy Mother’s Day, everyone!