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Mini-Reviews: Faber Stories Pt. 4

I’ve just read another handful of Faber Stories and am ready to share my thoughts on them with you! I’ve now read 14 of the 20 stories in this 2019 collection, 4 of which I’ll be talking about below. If you’re interested in checking out more of these reviews, here are the links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of my mini-review series.


An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah. 3 stars. 

Most of the Faber Stories are set it America, the UK, or Ireland (which corresponds perfectly with the fact that these countries are home to most of the authors). I picked up this one because it is set in Zimbabwe.

The synopsis tells us that the Queen is coming to Harare, and so everything unsightly must be swept under the rug. This includes an overabundance of citizens, who are relocated to a temporary town called Easterly Farm, which is quickly overrun by poverty. The story follows in particular one woman in Easterly who has “lost her wits and gained a pregnancy.”

I found this an engaging and worthwhile story from start to finish, but was not surprised to discover that it is only a small piece from a larger collection: a set of short stories by Gappah published under the same title in 2009. This single story sticks closely to the pregnant woman- including those who help her and those her hurt her, and those who only want to gape and jeer. Though I did find her story interesting and complete in itself, it is only a snapshot of a larger picture that I found more intriguing than the vague background provided as setting info here. I think I might’ve benefitted more from reading the entire collection by Gappah rather than this one story alone, as it left me feeling as though something were missing.

“All the women who walk alone at night are prostitutes, the government said- lock them up, the Queen is coming.”

The Country Funeral by John McGahern. 3 stars. 

This story, originally published in 1992, features three Irish brothers who travel back to their mother’s childhood home for their uncle’s funeral. I tend to like morbid tales that brush against death, and indeed the brothers’ reactions to the loss of their uncle are complex and compelling. The best aspect, in my opinion, is that the change in perspective that each brother undergoes throughout the course of this story also runs parallel to shifting power dynamics between the siblings.

The downside (depending on the sort of reader that you are) is that this story is largely a character study and thus has very little plot. While I did find each of the brothers interesting and enjoyed seeing their late uncle through the snippets of dialogue they share amongst themselves and the other mourners, I must admit that there were moments of boredom for me. I do tend to like character studies and don’t often need much plot, but following them through the planning and hosting of this funeral just wasn’t quite enough of a hook for me.

The Forester’s Daughter by Claire Keegan. 4 stars. 

Also set in Ireland, The Forester’s Daughter gives us another look at the workings of one family. Here also we have scant plot- a man gives his daughter a dog that he did not buy, whose owner wants him back.

Though in some ways similar to the previous story, I found this one immediately gripping and would’ve enjoyed it taking up dozens more pages than it did. The prose is straightforward, but Keegan uses it well; each character is unique, their personalities and motivations simultaneously tying them together and pitting them against one another, the ending inevitable but nevertheless fascinating. It could have gone no other way, but Keegan lays out each step of this journey masterfully to create an adventure worth taking.

My only disappointment is that in a narrative brimming with distinct and well-explored characters, the titular daughter felt completely unknown to me. Though her feelings are less significant to the story than her parents’ reactions to her feelings, it still felt odd to me that such a central character would be left so open to the imagination. She’s described as very smart and rather quirky, but I never had any idea what made her tick, beyond the typical childlike desire for approval and affection. She could have been drawn to much greater affect, though I still enjoyed this story immensely.

“Before a year had passed the futility of married life had struck her sore: the futility of making a bed, of drawing and pulling curtains. She felt lonelier now than she’d ever felt when she was single.”

Mr Salary by Sally Rooney. 4 stars.

A reread; I talked about my first impression of this one briefly in my January wrap-up, after reading it online because I was too impatient to order a copy. I loved the story enough to want my own copy and to start over with it again not long after its arrival.

In this story, a woman returns to Ireland to visit her dying father in the hospital. In the midst of a morbid fascination with mortality, she also reconsiders her relationship with the man (a sort of family friend) who’s housing her. Very little actually happens as the characters shuffle from one scene to the next, and none of them seem to understand (if they’re even aware of) their own emotions. The joy- as with any Rooney piece- comes in piecing together the unsaid from the characters’ movements and dialogue. Rooney’s stories are delightful puzzles for the reader to assemble, all the more interesting for the fact that the outcome will not look the same for every reader. In fact, I had an entirely different impression of the ending this time around than I did in my previous reading only a few months ago. It’s impressive how much Rooney can evoke in the reader’s heart and mind in just a few short pages- how interactive an experience her writing is.

Overall thoughts: I didn’t realize quite how Irish this batch was turning out to be when I made my selections, but I certainly don’t mind. All said, this was a pretty solid group; nothing really disappointed me, I still loved Mr Salary, and The Forester’s Daughter was a pleasant surprise that I highly recommend. I might give the full collection of An Elegy for Easterly a try at some point, and I’d be very interested in reading more from Keegan. I wasn’t sure whether I would keep going with the collection after this batch, but I haven’t read anything yet that’s left me with the impression that I won’t enjoy the rest of the Faber Stories, so I suppose there will be another round of mini-reviews in a few weeks!

Have you read any of the stories from this collection? Which has been your favorite?


The Literary Elephant


Mini-reviews: Faber Stories Pt. 3

The time has come again- for another round of Faber Stories reviews! I’ve now read eleven of the titles in this little set of twenty singly-bound short stories; you can check out my first and second batches of reviews if you missed them, and I’ll be talking about four more of the stories below.


Terrific Mother by Lorrie Moore. 3 stars. 

The synopsis of this 1998 story opens with the news that the central character will accidentally kill a neighbor’s baby at a holiday picnic. Indeed, this happens within the first two pages. Though of course no one quite blames her, this unfortunate woman retreats into herself, feeling unfit for “normal” life in the aftermath. This is essentially what drew me to the story.

Much to my disappointment, the scene of the accident, though well-crafted, is brief and then almost forgotten; the woman’s seven months of self-imposed house-arrest pass in only a few sentences. The bulk of the story instead takes place at an artists’ retreat in Italy. The woman’s attempts to come to grips with what has happened include only two or three mentions of the baby, focusing mainly on her divine massages at a local shop and her conversations with the other artists. This journey to self-acceptance felt so cold to me because it seemed that Moore had left the inciting horror of the situation entirely up to the reader’s imagination and instead skipped ahead to moments near the end of the grieving process that felt a bit unearned, with a forced amount of whimsy.

Essentially I felt that it wasn’t the story I had expected to read based on the synopsis, which was understandably short to match the story. But there are certainly beautiful and humorous moments here, and I’m sure I would have enjoyed this more if I hadn’t made assumptions beforehand.

“Normal life is no longer possible for me. I’ve stepped off all the normal paths and am living in the bushes. I’m a bushwoman now. I don’t feel like I can have the normal things.”

Come Rain or Come Shine by Kazuo Ishiguro. 4 stars.

This piece from 2009 I picked up primarily because this is one the authors I feel somewhat ashamed for having neglected to read thus far in my life- the synopsis about a man who inadvertently steps into a dispute between his married college friends (and is supposed to convince the wife that her husband is great by showing himself to be subpar) didn’t interest me near as much as the name on the cover. I went in with high expectations for the writing style and low expectations for the story.

And came out completely smitten with both. This is a wonderful little story that continually takes things a little farther than expected, in the best possible way. There’s no magic, nothing supernatural, no man behind a curtain to manipulate events. In an entirely plausible and awkward situation, Ishiguro manages to take a simple plot to incredible highs and lows. It had me sighing sadly, laughing aloud, and utterly awestruck.

Only the slow start and the odd solution the narrator’s friend has concocted to put his marriage back on track kept me from a 5-star rating here; I know I’ll be revisiting this story with fondness in the future.

The Shielding of Mrs Forbes by Alan Bennett. 5 stars.

From one Faber favorite to another! This 2011 story stood out to me initially because of its high rating (4.28 on Goodreads right now), but also because of its intriguing premise: one man tries to keep his homosexuality (or bisexuality, it’s not entirely clear which way he identifies, but what matters for the story is that he’s a man interested in other men) hidden from the rest of his family.

But the story is actually so much more interesting than this suggests; instead of one man with one secret, Bennett delivers an entire family, all keeping various parts of the same secret from one another. The man’s wife has her own reasons for staying in the marriage despite her husband’s bizarre and somewhat criminal situation; his parents are involved in their own scandalous ways, and none of them quite knows the full truth about what’s going on. There are beautiful layers of irony and espionage woven into the tale, and Bennett’s prose is delightfully aware of its link between these fictional characters and the reader observing them.

Though none of the Forbes family members are particularly likable, they’re certainly dynamic. If you pick up only one volume from this collection, I think this is the one that really shouldn’t be missed- though I haven’t read them all yet to make an entirely fair comparison.

“This is where love generally comes in: whether the inequality between the partners is physical or social or indeed financial, evening up the score is what love is about. Still, even in the most perfect of unions there’s often detectable an element of bestowal.”

Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine by Thom Jones. 3 stars.

A teenaged boxer spends all year preparing to best the fighter who beat him last season. Though this very male story (originally from 1998) didn’t seem exactly my cup of tea from the synopsis, I always find it interesting to check out the work of Iowa Writer’s Workshop grads, of which Thom Jones is one. And actually, once I’d started reading, I realized I’d read this story once before, probably in high school.

Jones does a great job of building up the tension of this story from the first mention of Kid Dynamite’s boxing aspirations to the anticipated fight- but in a brilliant storytelling move, it is Kid Dynamite’s reaction to the fight that the reader will remember most.

This is a perfectly adequate story that unfortunately just didn’t excite me in any way. It’s not a story that requires a male audience or even a passing interest in boxing, though I’m sure either of those qualifications would help; for me it was simply a straightforward coming-of-age tale that didn’t stand out from other stories with similar themes.

Concluding thoughts: This batch came as a bit of a surprise as far as ratings; Terrific Mother was the title I’d been most anticipating among these four, and it turned out to be my least favorite of the bunch; conversely, despite the high ratings for The Shielding of Mrs Forbes I picked it up rather arbitrarily one evening and was surprised to find my first 5-star rating from this collection. I’d be interested to read more from both Ishiguro and Bennett, and I feel like I should give Moore another chance even though I’m not particularly enthusiastic about that at the moment. On the whole, I’m still really enjoying this collection of stories and planning to continue with at least one more batch.

Have you read any of the Faber Stories? Which has been your favorite?


The Literary Elephant


Mini-Reviews: Faber Stories Pt. 2

A few weeks ago I talked about the first batch of Faber Stories that I read, and mentioned that I had more on the way. There are 20 volumes in this little collection, which has really been helping with my goal to read more short stories in 2019 (and also feeding my penchant for tiny books). I’ve read 3 more now, so it’s time to update.


The Victim by P. D. James. 3 stars. – I had not read any P. D. James before picking up this story, but she is an author I’ve been wanting to try for a while. This story was originally published in 1973 and it does feel rooted in that time period, as the protagonist sends type-written letters to the man he intends to murder as a key plot point.

The story is expertly crafted, however; the clues to what will happen are carefully sown early in the piece but the inevitable conclusion is not obvious. Since the story starts from a future date that gives the reader an idea of how things will turn out, most of the story focuses on the how and why rather than relying on mystery to keep readers entertained. James does not need shocking twists to make her skill apparent.

I do think this is a strong piece that will be favored by readers who appreciate the careful maneuverings and covering-of-tracks involved in crime fiction, and even days later it is interesting to consider who the actual victim was in this tale. But though I enjoyed the piece, it just didn’t quite keep me intrigued on the same level as the other Faber Stories I’ve read thus far.

“A successful murder depends on knowing your victim, his character, his daily routine, his weaknesses, those unalterable and betraying habits which make up the core of personality.”

Mrs Fox by Sarah Hall. 4 stars. – This story is only a couple of years old, and is a strong contender for my favorite Faber Story so far. I was immediately hooked by the first paragraphs, which reminded me a bit of Sally Rooney’s writing- high praise.

But then there is a magical realism twist that takes the story in a new direction. It’s hinted at though not blatant in the synopsis, so I’ll say only that a transformation takes place, to avoid spoiling anyone who might not be aware of Mrs Fox‘s main event. I actually found the characters’ adjustment period in the middle of the story a bit boring, but worth the time in the end.

What I found most compelling about this story were the themes I drew from it, and honestly those are probably up to every reader’s personal interpretation. For me, this was a story about the difference between loving someone and trying to possess them, and also about how to continue to love someone for who they are even as they undergo a major, life-altering change. These ideas feel both timely and timeless, with the unanswered mystery of the transformation simply an interesting surface layer to deeper meaning beneath.

“To be comfortable inside one’s sadness is not valueless. This too shall pass. All things tend toward transience, mutability. It is in such mindful moments, when everything is both held and released, that revelation comes.”

A River in Egypt by David Means. 3 stars. – And finally, a 2010 piece about a father and his son awaiting a cystic fibrosis diagnosis. This story highlights the anxiety involved with confirming an unideal diagnosis, and the way that anxiety is complicated by the fact that there’s also relief to be found in the moments of not-knowing. There’s a wonderful nuance to the complication of emotion in such a situation.

But unfortunately, though I appreciate the concept, this story just wasn’t for me. I had a bit of difficulty with the writing style, which tends toward interrupting itself and doubling back in ways that had me occasionally rereading passages to decipher what exactly was going on. Then there was the issue of the narration, which focuses entirely on the mind of the father, who projects the thoughts and feelings of other characters. I found it difficult to know whether to trust his assumptions.

But I did feel some of the anxiety described and was convinced to dread the next appointment along with the rest of this family by the story’s end, so I cannot say it was entirely ineffectual.

Concluding Thoughts: The authors I’d be interested in reading more from here are P. D. James and Sarah Hall. (Recommendations welcome!) I’m having a great time reading these, even though two from this batch were only 3-star reads for me. They all leave me with something to think about and I can understand why each one of them made the cut in this collection.

I don’t think I’ll end up reading all 20 of the Faber Stories, but I do have another batch picked out so there will be at least one more set of mini Faber Story reviews.


The Literary Elephant


Mini-Reviews: Faber Stories

There are 20 short stories individually bound in a(n adorable) collection of Faber Stories that was released in the UK earlier this year. I read Sally Rooney’s Mr. Salary from the collection back in January and talked about it a little in my wrap-up for the month, but now I’ve read three more and they’re so short that I’ll just talk about them all together  here.


Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath. 3 stars. This is a story just published for the first time in 2019, although the introduction to the story mentions that another heavily-changed version has been published previously. This is the original, from Plath’s college days. It features a girl whose parents have sent her on a train with a ticket for the Ninth Kingdom; throughout the journey, the girl (Mary) makes a friend and considers where she will end up when the train reaches the end of its line in the Ninth Kingdom.

It’s been a while since I’ve read any Plath, and I was excited to get back into her writing, which may have skewed my expectations a bit. But even with my hopes way up, this story started out great. There’s a wonderful level of detail that’s just at the edge of ordinary and odd, and that mysteriousness kept me invested in the story.

Though the theme of the story does become clear in the end- a child’s grab for independence rewarded- there is so much left uncertain. What is the Ninth Kingdom? Who is Mary’s travel companion, and why do the rules not seem to apply to her? Why was Mary being sent away in the first place?

Though I enjoyed the weird imagery and the compelling sense of doom created by the train’s progress, I was hoping for some of the sinister hints to be realized in a more dramatic way; instead, the story veers aside, avoiding the impending chaos. Though it made sense with the point Plath seemed to be making, it also felt like a missed opportunity and I was left wanting a bit more.

The Inner Room by Robert Aickman. 4 stars. This story was originally published in 1988 in a collection of “strange stories,” and “strange” is certainly an apt descriptor for this one. It’s about a girl who is given a dollhouse that does not open and inspires some bizarre dreams/experiences. Years later, the same character has a very different encounter with the same house.

It took me longer to get into this one, as I was eagerly awaiting the appearance of the dollhouse and the hallucinations/dreams/supernatural elements mentioned in the story’s synopsis, but the story is slow to start. I thought the introduction to the story could have been abbreviated much further without losing anything, but it’s possible the family’s background and the car trouble that opens the story has more importance than I grasped.

But by the end, I quite liked this weird little tale and was also sufficiently creeped out, which I’m counting as a success. Gothic narratives are so eerie and fun, and though the build-up was a bit slow here, I liked the way it all came together in the end. My only qualm is that I wanted to know more about the dollhouse. Where it had come from, where it went after it left the girl’s possession, why her mother reacted to it the way that she did. Fortunately, these curiosities seemed less vital than the loose ends that nagged at me after reading Mary Ventura, so this was an improvement in my Faber Story reading experience.

Paradise by Edna O’Brien. 4 stars. A break from the horror/thrills. This story is narrated by a woman who has accompanied her lover on holiday, where she feels outside of the group of his rich friends. While the others go out in the boat, she takes swimming lessons in the pool; she is expected to give a demonstration of her swimming later in the summer, which is a test not only of her prowess in the water but her worthiness of the group.

This is the story I liked the most of this batch. The narrator never tells the reader outright how much is riding on her ability to swim by the end of the summer, and the other guests are cordial to her on the surface; but her thoughts and the letters she writes (but never sends) show the depth of her situation deftly. There’s a beautiful examination of the divide between the haves and the have-nots, and the way that wealth (or lack thereof) alienates.

The only aspect I didn’t appreciate was the writing style- O’Brien has a great sense for what should be spoken and what should be implied, but she uses so many sentence fragments. I can’t stand the choppiness that comes with sentence fragments, and it took me several pages of begrudging reading to get into the flow of O’Brien’s writing enough to look past them and just enjoy the shape of the overall story.

“We do not know what we feel at the time and that is very perplexing.”

Concluding thoughts: These stories definitely whet my reading appetite for more Plath (I think I’m going to try some of her poetry next) and Aickman (I must check out more of his “strange stories”); I’m on the fence about reading more O’Brien, because while I loved the essence of Paradise I’m afraid that I’ll have similar struggles with her writing style. Conversely, in a longer piece it’s possible that I would be able to get used to the style early enough in the story to enjoy the reading experience more. And it’s certainly possible that others of her works don’t include the abundance of sentence fragments that Paradise does. It might be worth looking into.

I’ll definitely be looking into picking up more of these Faber Stories in the meantime. I can’t resist a good tiny collection.


The Literary Elephant

Review: Full Dark, No Stars

Hey guys, I’m back.

February has been an incredibly slow reading month for me so far, and when it rains it pours, so I’m behind on blogging as well. Hopefully I’ll be able to catch up this week. To start it off, the first book I finished in February was actually one I should’ve finished back in January (which gives you an idea of how things have been going for me lately): Stephen King’s 2010 story collection, Full Dark, No Stars.

fulldarknostarsAbout the book: In one short story and three novellas, King explores the dark side of mankind and proves that real people can be just as horrifying as any of his more fantastical plots (alien invasions, child-snatching clowns, pets that won’t stay dead, etc.). This collection includes a murdering farmer in historical Nebraska, a woman with car trouble who is raped instead of assisted, a man who makes a selfish trade in order to live a little longer, and a woman who stumbles upon evidence that her husband of almost thirty years is not the man she thought he was.

“How many unsuspected selves could a person have, hiding deep inside? She was beginning to think the number was infinite.”

“1922”- This first story in the set took me longer to finish than I was anticipating spending on the entire book. Here we have a small-time Nebraskan farmer whose wife wants to move; she’s inherited some land that will finance a fresh start, and she’s determined to take her son with her. Her husband will stop at nothing to keep the boy and his own 80 acres.

In concept, I really liked this story. I liked its themes, its morals, its characters. The year gives it a perfect setting. But in actuality, I really struggled to get through reading “1922.” There’s a lot of gore, a lot of physical injury, a lot of suffering animals. The wife is villainized perhaps more than is good for the story, and the other female character is hardly more than a prop. The inclusion of a ghost seems unnecessary and far-fetched. There are a lot of rats. A lot of rats. In the end, I was able to appreciate how it all fit together, but this story was not at all pleasant to read. Sometimes an unpleasant story can feel worth the effort, but this one often felt like it was just trying to be as disgusting as possible.

I watched the Netflix adaptation of this story as soon as I’d finished reading it, and I had a much better time with it. It’s very loyal to the text, but the few changes I noticed were improvements. My only hesitation in recommending the film over the written story is that the ending doesn’t have quite the same psychological punch. It leaves out one detail that changed how I felt about the rats when I reached the end of the story.

“I believe there is another man inside every man, a stranger, a Conniving Man.”

But once I made it past “1922”, I had a great time with the rest of the book.

“Big Driver”- This is the story of a woman novelist who is set up to be raped and murdered on her way home from a book event. However, as the premise notes, she is not murdered, but left for dead in a culvert on the side of a little-used road. I was a little nervous about this one, as a rape story can be difficult to pull off without sensationalizing what should be taken very seriously, but King did not disappoint. I haven’t always agreed with the way he portrays women in his fiction, but I liked this one. He focuses the story on the woman trying to solve the mystery of why this has happened to her, and on how far she’ll go in the name of revenge. I was hooked.

“Fair Extension”- The third piece is the shortest of this set at just over 30 pages. It’s the story of a man close to the end of his final fight against cancer; instead of meeting his end, he meets a mysterious stranger who sells “extensions” of various sorts. The man has to “trade” someone he hates in order to postpone his own death. This is more a character study than anything else, as his choice in the trade is somewhat surprising, as is the way he feels about the trade as the story progresses. There’s not much that really happens in this story, and what does happen is fairly predictable, but King puts an interesting spin on the “be careful what you wish for” narrative that made for an unexpected ending.

And finally,

“A Good Marriage”-  After 27 years of marriage, a woman learns a disturbing secret about her husband and must decide what to do with the new information. Turn him in? Run for her life? …Ignore it? This story was somewhat spoiled for me by the fact that I read a thriller with a similar premise last year. This is by no means 2010 Stephen King’s fault, and the stories were different enough. The problem was that the element that is the same is meant to be a shock in this story, and instead I was expecting it. For which reason I won’t even name the thriller, to avoid spoiling you- I would absolutely recommend “A Good Marriage” over that other thriller anyway. This story had a slow start, but I loved where it went.

All in all, I found this a very intriguing collection of stories, connected only by the fact that they each display some of the uglier choices men and women are capable of making. There are a few supernatural details, but nothing very significant, as the focus is on the (very human) characters rather than anything otherworldly. Writing-wise, this is one of the best Stephen King works I’ve read in recent years, and probably the most accomplished of his works from the last ten years (that I’ve read so far). There are so many pleasing references and parallels to other Stephen King novels also, which I always particularly enjoy. I found a mention of events from Ita mention of a tactic that’s key in Mr. Mercedes (which had not actually been published yet at this time, but clearly the idea mill was rolling), and a parallel between the wife’s mode of discovery in “A Good Marriage” and Bobbi’s mode of discovery in The TommyknockersThere were probably more I missed, as I’m just noticing that all of my examples come from books I’ve read in the last year, which probably left me predisposed to notice those particular instances. It’s all done very subtly and tastefully though, so if you haven’t read what’s referenced, you likely won’t notice and you certainly won’t be spoiled. This is a must-read for Stephen King fans, and a good choice for anyone looking to get into King’s books who maybe doesn’t know where to start and/or is intimidated by the size of some of his classics.

“In the end we are all caught in devices of our own making. I believe that. In the end we are all caught.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a really solid set of stories, even though I struggled with the first one. I’ve been reading several short stories this year, and found several good ones, but these stand out. I’m looking forward to exploring more of Stephen King’s shorter stories in the future, as I’ve overlooked them in the past and apparently should not have! I’m glad I stuck with these and finished even though the first story was… gross.


The Literary Elephant



Review: Fen

I read Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under last fall after it appeared on the Man Booker longlist, and loved it so much that I determined to read the rest of her work. So far that consists of one previous short story collection, titled Fen. As I’m making an effort to read more short stories in 2019, this month seemed like the perfect time to pick it up.

fenAbout the book: Set in English wetlands, these stories of metamorphosis overlap one another from start to finish. Each story is distinct and separate, featuring characters with their own unique desires and grievances, all featuring their own magical element. Though the rules of the real world seem to apply only loosely in this place, at the heart of each bizarre circumstance is a situation or feeling shockingly relatable- but driven to new, elaborate extremes. Nothing is as it seems as these (often young and sometimes animalistic) characters attempt to navigate what seems at first ordinary life- but turns out to be something entirely other.

There’s no denying that Fen is structurally impressive. Any reader new to Johnson’s writing will find a perfect introduction to her magical realism style as the first story takes a realistic start and winds deeper and deeper into the bizarre, finally pushing toward its conclusion as the final story of the collection closes the book. Though Johnson’s tendency to take the hypothetical very literally remains constant through Fen, each story is thoughtfully ordered amongst the others so that her tactics never quite become repetitive. After the first story introduces its otherworldly surprise at the very end, Johnson never relies again on shocking the reader with her magic in the same way. Sometimes it enters a story early and is used to explore an emotion; sometimes it comes in the middle as a catalyst for a character’s growth. Only the promise of its presence remains as a constant.

My favorite aspect of this collection is the fact that the characters (human or animal) keep coming back into play. Often it’s just a quick appearance, a familiar face in an otherwise new situation, but its fascinating to see how these people move about in each others’ lives. I’m a huge fan of intertextual references to the author’s other work. There’s even a paragraph that felt very reminiscent of Johnson’s novel, Everything Under, which was published later but clearly occupies some of the same fictional space as the stories of Fen:

“There wasn’t room on the boat for more than a few books but they’d swap them at the docks and the baby would puzzle them out, quote them, grow a language only they understood. They would not need anyone else.”

But the most remarkable aspect of Johnson’s magical realism is probably the way that it entertains so successfully on the surface even as it masks more familiar concepts moving underneath. The characters seem- if not ordinary- at least ordinarily relatable. They express the same fears and desires that will be familiar to many readers- a woman trying to save face when she’s stood up on a date, a girl who worships her wild older brother, a parent who begins to wish her perpetually-absent partner gone for good; the strangeness emerges where these usual emotions meet the fantastic that Johnson weaves through the collection. It’s an engaging blend.

But there are two main obstacles that held me back from appreciating this collection as much as I wished I could have.

The first is simply that having already read Johnson’s novel, Everything Under, her tricks with the magical realism failed to surprise me. Fen feels like a new writer exploring fresh territory that readers of Everything Under have already begun to uncover. I’m afraid I simply read Johnson’s books in the wrong order.

Second, though I loved the fact that many of these stories were left rather open-ended (which allowed for the characters to move about more freely in each other’s narratives), it did leave me with the impression that the collection was never quite finished. I wanted more from almost every single one of these stories. More length, as Johnson seems to drive her characters straight to a brink and then leave them there, but also more depth- though the characters’ emotions and motivations feel very human, the magical realism seems to accomplish little more than shock and entertainment; I think that if Johnson had allowed these pieces more pages and exploration, she could have teased out more underlying significance.

Though I enjoyed Fen and can’t wait to see where Johnson’s talent takes her writing next, this collection has not had the same impact on me that Everything Under did, and I’m finding it impossible not to compare the two.

A shoutout to my favorite Fen stories: “How to Fuck a Man You Don’t Know” (a failed romance written in reverse chronology), “A Heavy Devotion” (a son steals his mother’s memories), ” and “The Scattering” (twin boys’ fascination with chasing foxes goes awry).

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Johnson’s writing is superb even in these short pieces, but I think her prowess with both language and magic really comes out more clearly in her longer novel. Ultimately, this is a short collection that didn’t feel at all a waste of my reading time, and even though it didn’t impress me as much as the last book of Johnson’s that I read, I’m still very much looking forward to reading whatever she publishes next.

Further recommendations:

  • If you’ve read Johnson’s Fen and not Everything Under, you’re missing out. Everything Under is about a woman who grew up with her mother on a canal boat, speaking a language only the two of them understood and oblivious to the secrets of her mother’s past. This is a Greek story retelling with a dangerous magical element.
  • If you like magical realism in short stories, I can’t recommend highly enough Julio Cortazar’s “Bestiary,” in which a tiger roams the halls of the relatives’ house where the young narrator lives for the summer.
  • If you like magical realism and are willing to read something a bit longer, try Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest, a short novel that also features a tiger indoors; this one is set on devouring an aging woman who is losing her sanity while a helper staying on to look after her house reveals nefarious motives.

What’s your favorite short story collection?


The Literary Elephant

Book Haul 12.18

So Christmas hit me pretty hard this year. Mostly in good ways, but I’ve been so exhausted the last few days and off of my usual routine. But I’m finally coming around and getting excited for the year’s wrap up and the start of 2019. This post ties in to both, as it shows the books I’ve acquired throughout the last month, which are also the books I’ll be reading in the first month of the new year. I set a 2019 goal for myself to read the new books I pick up within the next month, so this is basically my January TBR. There will be some exceptions, some of these I know I won’t read in January and also I’ll have some library holds coming up that I’ll prioritize. But let’s get to the book haul! Since there are so many (and I don’t remember a lot of the synopses) I’m not going to say much about them. I’m sure you have better things to do today. Without further ado, my final book haul of 2018!

What’s new:

  1. The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty. This is an adult fantasy I’ve had my eye on for awhile, and finally found a cheap copy. This book and the next 13 came from a Black Friday haul from Book Outlet; everything was insanely cheap (which is why this list is so long).
  2. The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley. I probably won’t read this historical/magical novel in January because I still need to read The Watchmaker of Filigree Street first.
  3. Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon. I heard great things about this lit fic all through 2018 but I didn’t end up reading it yet. I’m really looking forward to it.
  4. Love and Other Words by Christina Lauren. I was in a romance novel mood in Nov./Dec. and wanted to give this author duo a try. I read a different one of their books (Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating) in early Dec. through the library that didn’t impress me, but I’m hoping I’ll enjoy this one more.
  5. Love and Friendship and Other Youthful Writings by Jane Austen. I’ve been making a slow tour through Austen’s novels, and I want to read this bonus book of Austen material when I finish with the novels. (I have Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility left.) I probably won’t be reading all three of those in January.
  6. Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh. I’ve been so intrigued to read this author and I want to get back into some short story collections in 2019 after my failed attempt at that this fall.
  7. Autumn by Ali Smith. I’ve been interested in checking out Smith’s seasonal quartet for a few months now and I’m looking forward to giving this first book in the series a go.
  8. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve not read any Ishiguro yet and I feel like that needs to be remedied. There are several Ishiguro titles I want to pick up, but this was the one on sale so I’ll start here.
  9. The Mothers by Brit Bennett. I’ve heard good things about this one, and it was cheap. One of my friends is also going to be reading it soon, so it will be nice to chat about it.
  10. The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell. Purcell’s The Corset caught my attention in 2018, but I’ve decided to start with this earlier publication which sounds even more appealing to me.
  11. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote. I’ve seen the movie but never read the book, and I hear they’re pretty different. I’d love to compare them for myself, and there are several short works in this copy that will fit well into my short story reading efforts.
  12. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. I’ve never read any H. G. Wells, and due to my interest both in classics and sci-fi it seemed like a good time to change that.
  13. Hag-seed by Margaret Atwood. I’ve read this one! I love Atwood’s writing, and this modern take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest made me appreciate the original in a way I never did while reading the play. I wanted my own copy to reread and lend, I won’t be reading this in January.
  14. The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Another I’ve already read- I loved this adult fantasy trilogy when I read it in 2017 and I do eventually want to won all three books, but I don’t like paying a lot for something I’ve already read, so I got the one that was cheap and I’ll get the others later. I won’t be rereading this one in January.
  15. A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi. I actually picked this up as a potential Christmas gift for a friend who likes YA more than I do, but she got her own copy before Christmas so this one’s mine. I don’t mind, I’ve heard good things.
  16. Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King. Apparently I’m on a mission to read all of King’s publications. It’s going to be a slow trek over a span of years, but I’m starting to pick up more of his titles. This is a short story collection. I won’t read all of my new Stephen King books in January, but I would like to read this one as well as one of the novels.
  17. The Shining by Stephen King. I’ve actually read this one already but wanted my own copy. I also own the sequel, Doctor Sleep, which I haven’t read yet; I want to reread The Shining before I get to the sequel. No guarantees this will be a project for January.
  18. Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King. This sounds like one of King’s more psychological novels, which intrigues me a lot.
  19. In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne. Don’t even get me started on this one. It’s the final title I needed to wrap up my Man Booker longlist experience and I had a frustratingly difficult time getting a copy. This is not the edition I originally ordered, and it took way too long to arrive, but I did want to read it before the end of the year so I had to just go with what I could get in the end. I’m currently reading this one and do plan to finish before 2019. (Since it was on my nightstand instead of in my TBR box, I forgot to include it in the haul thumbnail. I have the yellow US paperback right now.)
  20. The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King. This is one of King’s fantasy novels, and one thing about King’s writing that’s intriguing me lately is how varied his writing. There’s something distinctly King-y about all of his work, but he has written in a wide range of genres and I want to check them all out. This one seemed like an easier place to start than his Dark Tower series.
  21. Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand. I picked up this creepy YA fantasy on a Christmas sale, and am absolutely looking forward to picking it up ASAP.
  22. Fen by Daisy Johnson. I read Johnson’s Everything Under from the Man Booker longlist (and shortlist) this year and loved it enough that I wanted to read Johnson’s other publication. This is her short story collection.
  23. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. This one is invisible in my haul thumbnail (but it is there!) because I got a very tiny edition of the single short story. My mom’s been recommending this one to me for ages, and I do want to read more of Jackson’s work so I suggested she could give me a copy for Christmas. She found this binding of the single story, somehow. I do eventually want to read the entire The Lottery and Other Stories collection, but I guess I’ll start with this one. It should be an easy title to cross off my January TBR, as the story is only 16 pages long.
  24. Severance by Ling Ma. This was my December BOTM selection, and I am ashamed to say it is the only BOTM main selection that I haven’t finished within the year. I’ve gotten a couple of extras that are still waiting on my shelf and I haven’t entirely caught up with last year’s extras, but I did so well reading my main selection every month of 2018. Until now. It’s my own fault, for taking time off of reading and blogging to sleep and regroup these last few days. I am definitely looking forward to picking this apocalyptic satire up in January.
  25. The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay. This was a December BOTM extra for me, which I knew I wouldn’t have time for in Dec. I am hoping to find time for this cultural lit fic also in January. It sounds like a good winter read.


I think that’s everything new. I think. I have a couple of backup Christmas gifts that I am holding on to for a final Christmas celebration with a bookish friend, and if she doesn’t already have the first-choice books I picked out for her then the backups will be mine. If she does, then I’ll keep the ones she has. I’ve learned this is the only way surprise book gifts work with her, especially when we do our gift exchange after Christmas. So I’ll have two of those backups as well as final Christmas books by the 31st, but I’ll add those to my January haul because this one is already looking a bit unmanageable and I’m ready to post.

My 2019 goal to read my new books within the following month is intended to stop the increasing of my owned-unread TBR every month. I want to read what I’m buying when I buy it, so the unread books I’ve hauled here are going to be top priority. I did buy 3 books I’ve already read, plus I’m reading a 4th, but 21 books is still more than my recent monthly averages. I have no idea which books will be left on this list at the end of the month, but I’m aiming to read the majority. Only future me can say how that will go. Stay tuned for my January wrap-up to find out!

Which books found their way to your shelves this December? Have you read any of these?


The Literary Elephant