Thursday, January 30, 2014

Oyster, and Short Reviews of Two Short Story Collections

I've been a subscriber to the new Oyster service for just over a month now, and I can report faithfully the following: It's pretty awesome. If you're not familiar, the easiest way to describe Oyster is as a Netflix for Books. You download an app on your tablet or phone, pay $10 a month, and you get unlimited access to any book in Oyster's catalog.

The books available are mostly backlist titles and classics, but I can assure you (as Book Riot editor Jeff did in his review here, and Rioter Jeremy did in a follow-up review here) that you'll easily find plenty to read to make $10 more than worth it. My queue is now more than a dozen titles long — books I actually, truly want to read — and so reading just three books a month from Oyster means you're paying $3 a book, and that's a deal that's hard to beat! And no doubt, books will be added more and more as Oyster is able to make deals with publisher. It's a cool thing, and I'd highly recommend giving it a try (the first month is free!).

And but so, the first Oyster book I read was was Jonathan Miles' Dear American Airlines, which I discussed a couple weeks ago. The next was Ben Fountain's collection of short stories titled Brief Encounters With Che Guevara. If you read and enjoyed Fountain's National Book Award finalist Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, which I certainly did, you'll most likely dig this 2009 collection. The stories take you all over the world, from Haiti, to Malaysia, Columbia, 19th century Austria, and...wait for it...Sierra Leone. The stories are mostly about normal people rubbing up against corrupt, violent power in corrupt, violent countries. A fisherman in Haiti tries to report drug dealers to the police. A down-on-his-luck pro golfer unwittingly helps a businessman bribe corrupt generals in Malaysia. And, in probably my favorite story in the collection, a kidnapped ornithologist in the Columbian jungle hopes ardently for rescue, then might get it, but at what price?

These stories are straightforward, easy-to-read pieces of fiction perfect for short sittings or breaks between novels. Some are sad, some are funny, but you'll definitely learn something new about the exotic settings in each of these stories.

Finally, my third Oyster book was Between Friends, by Israeli writer Amos Oz. Several years ago, I read Oz's memoir/novel titled A Tale of Love and Darkness, about his childhood in newly founded Israel. I really loved it and had been meaning to read some of his fiction. Well, here we are (and a perfect example of why Oyster is great for readers) — this 2012 collection of inter-related short stories takes place on a kibbutz in the late 1950s. Each of the eight stories follows a different character, with cameos by the others peppered throughout — it's kind of like Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, except on kibbutz.

These are really simple, quiet stories about every day life. But every day life on a kibbutz is still exotic to a modern reader, and one of the themes of these stories is whether the kibbutz system — a socialist ideal — will remain ideologically rigid, or will it adapt to changing times and the changing sentiments of its members. What's more, does the ideology of the kibbutz trump basic human emotion — like the need to care for an aging parent, the desire to leave a failed marriage, or the hope to see the world? As Oz writes about one of his characters, a sad bookish young man, "His reading was leading him to the simple conclusion that most people need more affection than they can find.” That's a morose sentiment, to be sure, but one that rises to the surface frequently in this collection. Another character, a caring, loving woman who has been jilted by her husband echoes: "(She) said to herself that most people seem to need more warmth and affection than others are capable of giving, and none of the kibbutz committees will ever be able to cover that deficit between supply and demand."

I really enjoyed this collection — it's one of those pieces of fiction that seems fairly basic, until you really stop to think about what the writer's up to. And then you're amazed that so much could be accomplished with so few words (this collection is eight stories, each only about 15 pages). Highly recommended!


  1. First of all, if you liked Between Friends, you should definitely read Oz's Scenes from Village Life from a couple years ago. A great short story collection (also loosely connected) with one of my favorite short stories of all time. Between Friends felt a bit rehashed after that. And also a bit more taunting with the knowledge of the future, which I felt was a bit heavy-handed.

    As for Oyster... I'm going to be honest that I don't understand why anyone would pay for a service that is absolutely free through your public library (well... free until you pay your property taxes). I guess the advantage is not having hold times and whatever, but that's not a strong enough argument for me...

    1. Thanks for the rec on Scenes from Village Life - added that to my Oyster queue, too. I'm think going to try one of his novels next - either My Michael or A Perfect Peace.

      Regarding Oyster, if it's not for, it's not for you. That's fine. But for me, $10 a month is MORE than worth paying for several reasons:
      1) Two of the three books I've read from Oyster weren't available at my free public library.
      2) The wait times here in Chicago are several weeks for any book even remotely popular, even backlists. I've been holding for Eleanor Catton's debut The Rehearsals for more than a month now, and I'm still 2 people away. (I've also been holding for Malcolm Gladwell's new book for three months.) So the instant access to a book I decide to read on a whim is worth paying for (I can't tell you how many times I've been excited about a book, put it on my hold list at the library, and when it came available three weeks later, I'd already forgotten why I wanted to read it, was on to other things, and skipped it). With Oyster, I can finish one book and start the next, and not wait. That's worth paying for. Also, the library only lets you put three books on hold at a time.
      3) Oyster and the library aren't mutually exclusive - you can still do both. Indeed, I'm taking a break from reading a library book to type this.
      4) The Oyster e-reader is awesome - really slick.
      5) I like supporting innovating ideas in publishing, and trying new things.

  2. Glad to hear that Oyster is doing well-my publisher Smashwords recently signed a deal to have all of their ebooks available on that service and the financial arrangement is very author friendly:)

    1. That's so good to hear about Oyster being author friendly! Seems like a great opportunity for authors to have their work more widely read...