Summer Reading – Palo Alto: Stories

Where were you when you first saw James Franco on the big screen? I was thirteen. I saw Whatever It Takes with my best friend Shea. I remember leaving that movie wondering if all the teenager movies were going to be as dumb as that one. And then he was back in Spiderman. And ever since James Franco has been everywhere. Last year when I read about his collection of short stories being published I was immediately intrigued. He’s sort of a fascinating person. And the idea of a short story cycle (like Palo Alto) appealed to me. I’m a huge fan of Ray Bradbury, who along with Fahrenheit 451, has written several short story cycles. They’re basically a collection of stories centered around a theme and featuring recurring characters.

My most overwhelming reaction to Palo Alto: Stories is that it’s very sad. All the narrators have terribly sad lives. This one section from the short story “Tar Baby” sort of sums up most of the narrators’s views on life:

You can’t fight the Tar Baby, that’s what he wants. You punch that Tar Baby and he sucks you in. Once you get wrapped up with the Tar Baby, he loses his shape, he becomes a sticky, black goo-monster and he gets all over you… Instead of button eyes, you still have your real eyes, looking out from under the tar.

Palo Alto: Stories, 165

The last short story “Jack-O'” features a kid who repeatedly risks death in order to feel alive. It reminded me a lot of Perks of Being a Wallflower. The idea that all these kids were so numbed by real life they’d forgotten how to live. In my opinion one of the most impressive aspects of this collection is how distinct the narrators’s voices are. There’s a mini-cycle named “April”. It’s told in three parts; the first two by a kid named Teddy, the last by April. The stories are sad and full of pain. You ponder whether any one person can actually bring joy or hope to another person, because these two, motivated by each other as they are, seem to only destroy themselves.

The collection is seedy, and graphic. At points I didn’t think I would read all of the stories merely because there was so much discussion of anatomy and sexual exploits. It fits the characters and the content, but it wasn’t pleasant for me. The succession of Lamb to Maus I & II to Palo Alto might have been a bad choice. The first was so light hearted and fun. By the end of Palo Alto I just wanted to read something happy. Or stare at some daisies. It was depressing. But a quick read. I read maybe a quarter of it last night and finished the rest today. Granted I have huge chunks of time in the middle of the day… so I have abnormal amounts of reading time. But I still think you could get through Franco’s collection easily enough.

The Acknowledgements in the back were interesting to me as well. Franco started it by saying, “My favorite people are teachers.” He goes on to list all of the teachers he’s learned much about writing from. It’s a long list. The only name I recognize is Dave Eggers. But, by playing a weird version of  The Six Degrees of James Franco I feel as though I now benefit in some small way from what he learned. I give Palo Alto: Stories  out of 5 for entertainment and instruction. I feel as though it’s a great example of writing about a particular place, experience, and group of people. However, I probably wouldn’t read it just for funsies.

Next on the list is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I picked it up at Inkwood Books a few months ago after one of the employees suggested it. He told me it’s an influential book for many writers. I’ve only read a short story or two by Atwood, and they were good. So, I’m pretty excited about digging into this novel. It’s 295 pages long, plus some “Historical Notes” but I’ll do my best to finish it for you for a review by Wednesday.

You may (or may not) have noticed that Monday along with my book review for the day I put up one of my original short stories that I submitted for workshop earlier this year. For a little while I’m going to put up original short stories and poems on at least a Mon/Wed schedule. And as long as I can keep up the book-a-day reviews I’ll try that, too.

Anyone out there in blog land want to share what’s on their summer reading list? What you’re reading? I’d love to share this reading with you. 🙂


4 thoughts on “Summer Reading – Palo Alto: Stories

  1. I haven’t started reading much this summer, sadly. But I do intend on reading Aquariums of Pyongyang, as well as a book I bought about Burma (can’t remember the title….written by a Noble Peace Prize winner). I want to do a lot of reading about North Korea, non-profits, totalitarian regimes of the past and revolutions. I’m also interested in reading a book called Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

    Also, I want to read the book you just reviewed! The reasons you disliked it sound like reasons I would like it haha. I don’t know why I like sad things so much.

    But I miss you lots ❤


    1. Chels, it looks like you have quite a reading list lined up 🙂
      And I didn’t dislike Palo Alto. It just made me sad :-/
      I miss you. Let’s have a bi-coastal O.C. party soon?


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