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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 28, 2009
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Remarkable. I have read Dog Soldiers, but this is of a different order. This is a book about what comes after hope. Stone puts it best in the last story, when, a character compares his seascape to that of an earlier artist:

"The good early stuff, all those wild whirling colored lights, was about the teeming overripe possibilities of the coming age...maybe his was about the exhaustion of those possibilities, the disappearance of that time, the great abridgment of the popular age. The ghost of a century, a show closing down for the lack of interest."

To me, that is a broader statement that is not about two paintings, but really about two eras. Stone is an artist now, but he came of age at a brighter time, when people were re-imagining the possibilities for lives and for our society. Now, forty years on, Stone is assessing his, and his generation's, finistere. Those ideas resonate throughout this book.

Stone's collection of sevens stories presents a set of individuals who experience the costs of substance abuse, or of failed integrity, or of dreams set aside. They are people who have betrayed their hopes, in small ways or great: an actress whose final role will be overdose, a writer who make copy for lad mags, a classicist who writes software manuals.

One aspect of these stories is their tendency to end suddenly. The fall comes quickly, out of nowhere. These people have accidents. In particular, the chorus of drinkers, free-basers, and tweakers in these pages meet with a lot of misfortune.

This book reminds me of some of the writing of Raymond Carver. With its setting in modern California, it makes me think of how Robert Altman interpreted Raymond Carver in Short Cuts. It has echoes of Frank Bascombe or Jernigan. These are people living at the margins, struggling with their own temptations. These stories feature actors, writers, and musicians who have lost their way. It is not a dirge, in spite of its content. Sometimes this book is absolutely funny.

My favorite story involves a formerly successful college painting professor. Having wrecked his marriage and his reputation, he has recently taken to making a living as a lecturer on the second tier speaking series. Maybe it is beneath him. After all, should a great painter be forced to eat imitation crab meat? If he does, should he assume the responsibility to let his guests know that they are actually eating red paste in a tube, made by people who laugh at Americans for eating it? And, if they can't serve whiskey on a Sunday in Pahoochee, would it be appropriate to order some kind of amphetamine? Yep, it ends badly for him. I can't blame him, I suppose. Imitation crab meat is a problem.

I don't believe in giving a lot of five star reviews. If I can't put it down, if I find myself arriving late to appointments, if I am reading while everyone around me is socializing - then I relent. This, for me at least, was one of those books.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
There are two very different groups of readers who may be considering this book. The first is those of us who know and revere Robert Stone's best novels and ones who will come to it with fewer preconceptions. For the first group, these short stories are almost elegiac completions of his dark odysseys; they are more laconic and measured than the novels but just as disturbing in how powerfully they portray characters who have no bearings and act out the dark and repeated mini-dramas of their fatalism. The stories are vignettes, focused around an encounter--a husband still entwined in unresolved agendas with his first wife while on his honeymoon, a journalist intruding on a couple with their own darknesses, with the tale motivated around a Secretary of Defense going finally crazed, another husband being conned by a woman who enigmatically talks about it being more interesting when others think you are someone else, and, in the longest piece a long-term relationship between a writer and an actress, whose ending is inevitable but not which of the two would "walk away" from life.

Short stories are hard to bring off; they are not so much out of fashion as not well-tuned to the modern mainstream. I am not entirely sure that I would have resonated to this work as much as I do if I did not bring to them my readings of Stone's novels. I note that in an interview, Stone picked out Chekhov's short stories as something beautiful that can help you make it through the night. These have much of Chekhov's meticulous control and in a weird way his deep respect for his characters. Among American writers, only Updike seems to me to match Stone's ability in so few pages to pin down so rivetingly quiet despair. There is no moralizing and not a wasted word.

I recommend this work to readers who do not know Stone's big novels as a small sample that may lead them to him. My own preconceptions are that Stone is one of the true greats of modern fiction and a leader among the writers whose sensibilities were shaped by the Beats and Vietnam. Stone was immersed in those worlds--he moved in the circles of Ken Kesey and Alan Ginsburg and spent time as a journalist in Vietnam. He has been summarized as the poet of the strung out and his characters live in a bleak world of booze, drugs as just part of getting through, a loss of belief and a passing through their own and lovers' lives, leaving behind so much and having so little left to even regret.

To this world he brings the detachment and superb observation of a major writer. He reminds me in this regard of Fitzgerald's self evaluation in The Crack Up. Stone has more tension and the sense of anger waiting to burst. In an interview, he rejected Kesey's description of his being "a professional paranoid" and while his writing has the sense of being autobiographical, it is clearly fiction derived from experience but harnessed by superb craftsmanship. I would place A Flag For Sunrise in the very topmost ranks of U.S. novels of all time and Dog Soldiers close to it.
So, for me, a definite five stars. But then I am really, really biased. Please try it.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
It both dismays and delights me to have discovered Robert Stone. Dismayed because he's apparently been around for awhile, and I'm only just now learning about him. Delighted because I'm just now learning about him.

This isn't a very long collection, but if these seven short stories are any indication, Stone doesn't need many words to strike the bull's eye of meaning. His lines are confident but also delicate with detail. He's one of the best wordsmiths I've stumbled across since Chang-Rae Lee or David Mitchell.

Words he puts together elegantly; plots, maybe not so much. I could complain that the stories all seem like they are about the same kinds of people having the same kinds of fun with the same kinds of problems, and that complaint's legitimate. (The synecdoche of this little book: "No one would convince him that character was fate..." That, or "They couldn't take a punch and you couldn't wake them up with one.") I don't think this singularity of purpose is a flaw, though, and I gather it is probably also one of the collection's main points.

No, the only real problem with any of these stories lies in the awkward and inelegant plot construction. For someone with a poets ear for the cadence of words, Stone oddly gets the cadences of life just a little bit wrong, rending some stories too short, some too long, and some like Frankenstein mish-mashes of different tales. Here's my take on all seven:

FUN WITH PROBLEMS: Peter, divorced public defender, inexpertly consoles his client and becomes damagingly connected with a woman looking for self-control. Peter is an unlikeable and predictable person, and his motivations aren't incredibly interesting. 3/5

HONEYMOON: The shortest piece of the book, this depressing little vignette is poetic but barely accessible. 2/5

CHARM CITY: A schizophrenic story about lonely, ineffectual Frank and the woman who seduces him. Although it's the only real story to have a chewy and obvious moral, it also has some of the best characterization. 4/5

THE WINE-DARK SEA: A weirdly splintered story about three men and the different madnesses (cultural, social, and professional) they are possessed with. Intriguing, but the ending seems cartoonish and out of place. 4/5

FROM THE LOWLANDS: Leroy is wealthy, self-absorbed, and treats the world like a machine he invented as a child. He lives high on a gorge, but is brought low by a nameless visitor. Leroy's mastery and charm is expertly portrayed; his dismay and concern is not. 4/5

HIGH WIRE: A screenwriter and an aging actress meet, separate, and meet again over the course of their drug-addled, love-tortured lives. I can see a lot of people hating this one - it sprawls so much that it's a handful of missing punctuation away from being stream-of-consciousness - but I think it reads like a slowing pulse. Their meets grow weaker and further apart in time, but there's a purpose to them that Stone delivers through the achingly eloquent narrator. 5/5

THE ARCHER: This is the only time I've ever read about madness and experienced it vicariously with such clarity. Duffy, an artist/teacher, is still recoiling from his divorce when he makes a trip to deliver a lecture and suffers a nervous breakdown. This one, unlike the breakdowns suffered in so many of these other stories, is told from the inside out. The ending rings a little hollow, but it's also beautifully done, maybe Stone's way of saying that, yes, it's all rather depressing, but there are also reasons to smile. Someone, at any rate, should be having fun. 5/5
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This slim (195 pages) collection of six short stories and one novella packs a punch. They are all -all--stories of separation, about flawed people unable to connect or communicate. In most cases, these people are careening out of control, drawn toward chaos and destruction by alcohol, drugs, their own egoism. It's a kind of negative hubris: doomed not by their strengths or virtue but by exaggerated weakness, a lack of moral energy that draws them deeper and deeper into the abyss.

The title story, "Fun with Problems," is cruel and effective. Two people meet in the county jail conference room. One is a middle-aged man, public defender for a felon so damaged by past life that he can't extract himself from the disaster he's making of his life -it'll only get worse. The other is a woman at the tail end of her twenties or in her early thirties. She's an actress wannabee who works as a social worker to pay the bills. She's there to minister to a vicious Alpha Male type who is probably psychotic. Her client's assertive masculinity stirs up waves of antagonism in the public defender. The two professionals leave the jail and he transfers his aggression toward her. They have a few drinks, then a few more, and he's in bed with her, a classic one-nighter. He never calls her again, never tries to make it less tawdry than it was. ("Matthew's life had become so solitary he had almost stopped caring what he said, or to whom.") Months later, he sees her in a bar, "still on the sauce," with an older man. Her boyfriend is a creep: the public defender realizes immediately that he'll take advantage of her and make her feel worse about herself than she already does. He joins them and orders a drink. He makes a toast, a very nasty one, and the story ends.

There are few epiphanies in these bleak stories. In "Honeymoon," the shortest story in the collection at four pages, an aging husband on a honeymoon realizes too late what he's lost and how little value his own life has. In "High Wire," one of the best stories in a collection of all good stories, a screenwriter pursues a decades long involvement with a doomed actress. In the process, he throws his own life away. He pulls away -from her and the life he now leads himself-- at the end, but it's probably too late to make much difference. It's a personal epiphany perhaps, but not a big one and not a happy one. (the screenwriter quotes Nelson Algren's advice which must have been intended for people just like him: "Never go to bed with someone who has more problems than you do.")

The last story in the collection, "The Archer," is worth the price of the book by itself. It is also, in a strange way, the only one that points a path toward redemption, although there's no concrete evidence that redemption follows. I don't want to say more about the story. It deserves to be read fresh, with no preconceptions as to what it says or means.

Most of the characters in these high-wire stories either have a long history of self-punishment or are still engaged in punishing themselves. They lead desperate lonely empty lives. The landscapes where their adventures take place mirror their emptiness: with two exceptions (the beach in "Honeymoon," a country estate in "From the Lowlands"), the stories unfold in painted over, garish, frenetically phony places, breeding places of failed dreams.

Stone's way of expressing himself is worlds apart from Raymond Carver's minimalist prose, but their view of the world isn't far apart.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on December 18, 2009
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
It's pretty rare that you can find short stories that don't announce 'short story' all over them. Even better when they're interesting and thought-provoking. That's what Robert Stone's compilation of previously published short stories will provide you. "Fun with Problems" is the epigram, but it could just as well be the world view of the characters that inhabit these stories. It might just be that the world is a big problem--even though it's politically correct to say it's a journey. But the people in these stories would probably say that's B.S., and I suspect R. Stone would say the same.

Stone has a neat way of portraying the outwardly benign behaviors of his characters while scoping out or into their true thoughts and felings. There's a slick, rich Silicon valley-former whiz kid-who shows affection for the regular folk, while envying autocratic countries where your lessers are beaten if they don't stay in their place. There's a woman psychologist who seems borrowed from an episode of Frasier who turns out to be a drug dealing grifter. Even more problematic are the stories where everybody's a bit nuts: a semi-crazed conspiracy theorist reporter (there were no PLANES on 9/11!) is on assignment to do a story on the Secretary of Defense. The Secretary is just as crazed--so wacked out you could imagine HIM flying a plane into something. He just wears nicer clothes. I'm being vague so as not to give away a lot of surprise endings, which at times have deus ex machina endings, but the deus (Robert Stone) has a writing talent (machina) that seems perfectly plausible given the world of the stories, not to mention the world of our world.

You could argue these stories are 'downers: suicides, rip-offs, people desperate for love. Well, I guess you could pull out an O.Henry anthology or read the latest collection of snore-inducing Alice Munro stuff, but if you like having 'Fun with Problems' they won't do it for you. If you're the type that would find a movie scene where a CEO sings a ditty to comfort himself as he's about to be ripped apart by a Jaguar in his own high end swimming pool, with both man and beast getting their 'just desserts,' you might be in for a treat.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon December 21, 2009
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
A selfish misbehaving male character sits at the center of each short story within "Fun With Problems." The things that revolve around these degenerate men are the same; alcohol, drugs and sex with misguided women. If it's not a drunken haze that hovers over our main man, it's how he's pushing this, doping that, shooting this, smoking that. And in the end these men often come to some painful realization that they're all jerks.

I'm guessing that the coastal towns of California are an important factor to the persona of a desperado who enjoys feeling sorry for himself while stoned, because author Robert Stone is not the first to do it. I'm guessing he won't be the last either. I realize that Stone is the recipient of the National Book award (so far, this is the only thing I've read by him), but his writing feels like a foreign film with no subtitles, volume turned down low, and many steps ahead of you. Especially taxing was the short story "High Wire" in which pages and pages and pages are used to describe how drugs can mess up your girlfriend.

It's not that I am a prude when it comes to such indulgences. I just think that a very commanding writer would be able to handle subjects like sex and addiction with aplomb. But I found it to be very tedious. It was mostly swagger and no heart. As of this writing, I don't know if I'll bother reading anymore Robert Stone after this. But if you feel you can change my mind in the comments section, knock yourself out.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 3, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Robert Stone's story collection is deep down funny in a very sad way. His characters are mostly high functioning intellectual or artists who have serious drinking, substance and/or mental issues who manage to get themselves into outrageous situations and just when mayhem is about to ensue the other characters reach deep and relieve the tension. Stone's humor seemingly comes out of nowhere. You never see it coming and as a result you can't avoid a belly laugh but these aren't likeable people and you'll work hard NOT identify with them. The characters are users who don't even get pleasure out of using others, even distantly observing what they're doing, owning it but they're so sunk into their sad lives they can't stop......they're apathetic, entropy has set in and they are slowly or quickly doing what they've always done though it's not working if it ever has. They are all of a certain age. What are those lines from Dante, "Midway upon the journey of our life found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost." Where is your buddy Virgil when you need him? And someone warn Beatrice not to answer her cell. They need to help these folks FAST.

I love the subtly of Stone's writing, his use of words is utterly unique, his plot elements seem to hinge on the fanciful yet somehow he sets you back down in reality again. The ride is bumpy but still you feel safe.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I hadn't read Robert Stone before and was in the game for some great short story writing/telling with some dark humor, sex, drugs, and naughty twists.
The first story is Fun With Problems, ...locked them down in a nineteenth-century brick fortress of a jail, a penitential fantasy of red brick keeps and crenellations. The sight of it had twisted many a cocky smile...and with that first few written words in Stone's first paragraph I was hooked. And it just kept getting better. The story & charcters were as well developed as his writing.
All the stories are great. The first one and the last, The Archer were my personal favorites. However, in his The Wine-Dark Sea he makes, what to me was an unequivocal Cheney characterization, The Secretary(who has secret service w/him) that had me twisting a cocy smile. In that short story a character, Taylor, references...Like those planes. That was faked, wasn't it? The planes into the buildings. For the oil, wasn't it?....and I was again elated that the author was touching HOT rails!
But the last story really shows Stone's art form in a stunning manner. He protreys an artist. To me, an artist is a master who can carry his trade into another perspective/dimension and for some lucky aficionados, it is just enough to follow him through. It is an awakening that, however effervescent, is worth the sweat...There was a lot to look at if you were not in a hurry, if it did not bother you that you had seen it before, if you were observer enough - well, he thoght, let's say enough! - to look it all over one more time....
At the ene of The archer Stone writes about...The ghost of a century, a show closing down for lack of interest. But, he thought, somebody had to be around to tell the story. It was too easy to mock the tag end of it, to do a burlesque on the failure of public joy. Someone ought to show a degree of compassion, he thought. Someone ought to have a heart about it...

That someone has a heart ot Stone.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED !!!!!!!
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on December 20, 2009
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I was a writer then, and there too. Hollywood, West L.A., the Hollywood Hills, up and down California. Chances are, if you could read or switch channels in the 60's or '70's in America, you read or watched my work. Always thought I'd write about those extraordinary times, dramatic places..

After reading these short stories, especially HIGH WIRE, Maybe I should really try to write about those times; but
I really doubt I could match Stone's accomplishment in this collection. Stone did it far, far better than most any writer ever could. I envy his talent and the character/focus/strength to put it all down.

Normally I don't mark up books. Ones I want to keep I want well-kept and those I don't, I plan to sell or donate
to m'little local library. But FUN WITH PROBLEMS I marked, made notes, stopped and thought; I didn't want to lose those many so-true and so-smartly written lines and unique plots that so socked me.

Buy FWP, read it and, as I have, read it again. You'll probably go back times again just for the one liners and the visions and moods they create and the thoughts they spawn. The characterizations, plots, places, all so true, all
so sharply drawn that I had to write them down.

Many of these sharp, multi-leveled stories would make incredible movies. For one, HIGH WIRE updates and outdoes DAY OF THE LOCUST. You may have missed California in the 70's, but maybe have met such dramatic kinds of people. Only I doubt you met such archetypes so sharply drawn. You'll remember these characters; probably learn from them.

I compare this collection to Salinger's NINE STORIES, some of Hemingway's short stories, too.
Stone has his own 'voice' and attitude, but the caliber of insight and rendition is the same.

Hope you aren't put off by my raving's here. I swear it's not hyperbole. (Read my other reviews, I'm not a gentle, kind reviewer.) It's a great writer's work, maybe at his peak. He's won one National Book Award and had a movie made; FWP could well be the next one; I vote for HIGH WIRE).

Last note: I never heard of Stone before, didn't see the movie from his book, DOG SOLDIERS; but now I'm going to play catch up and get the rest of his work. Thanks Amazon, for opening yet another door. Oh, I wasn't a real writer back then; I was an advertising copywriter. Mea Culpa and then some.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon December 9, 2009
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
In this entertaining and readable collection we vicariously experience the lives of various creative types down on their luck or in a slow fall from grace.

Most of the stories are written with a manic, pressured style. A few, especially Fun With Problems, have a kind of hard boiled tone that the author does really well.

There are seven stories of moderate length, the longest being The Wine-dark Sea, which was the only story I didn't quite understand. Was it a cultural metaphor? A political parable? Whatever it was it was enjoyable enough that I will probably return to it and see if I can figure what the author was trying to say.

This collection is great for short story lovers, as well as for travel and the beach.
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