Tag Archives: short stories

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.

bookhaul12.18

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?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: You Think It, I’ll Say It

Last year I read and loved Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, an irresistibly funny modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. This fall, I want to get back into some short story reading, so I thought I’d pick up Sittenfeld’s more serious new collection of short stories, You Think It, I’ll Say It. The two have been vastly different reading experiences.

youthinkiti'llsayitAbout the book: A collection of “regular” people in seemingly ordinary circumstances learn that there is always more to people than what one might assume. From new moms in infant classes to college freshman to successful lawyers, the characters of this book form relationships or impressions of the people that they think they know best– and eventually come to realize that what they’ve known about their acquaintances has been no more than a product of their own imaginations.

Usually when I’m reading a story collection or anthology I take notes on each piece individually to review in a few sentences. I did start reading with that method, but by the fourth story or so I realized that all of these pieces are variations of the same theme. All of my notes for the individual stories started looking the same, because the stories all felt the like different angles of the same view.

I appreciate the morals this collection has to offer:  mainly that making assumptions about other people (even if you feel bad about it, even if you keep your thoughts to yourself) is a bad and potentially harmful habit. It’s something we should all be more careful of. But it’s also a lesson the reader can learn in one or two stories, rather than the ten of this book that all seem to grind out the same message. Once you figure out Sittenfeld’s formula, these stories become predictable and it’s hard to take anything new from subsequent stories. So instead of talking about them each individually, I’ll say that my favorites were “Bad Latch” and “Do-Over,” my least favorite was “Volunteers are Shining Stars,” and I would probably recommend reading a few of the titles– whichever ones catch your eye, they all have about equal merit– rather than all of them, and especially rather than reading all of them in one go.

One of the supposed highlights of You Think It, I’ll Say It is that it subverts stereotypes. It challenges all sorts of assumptions that the reader is likely familiar with. Unfortunately, all of the assumptions it seemed to be challenging were old-news to me, and some felt particularly forced.

” ‘Bobby was in the wrong too,’ I said. ‘But Ashley shouldn’t have poached another girl’s boyfriend.’ “

There’s also one in which a couple is revealed to be in a same-sex relationship where the withholding of the partner’s gender feels unnecessarily dramatic; Sittenfeld is perhaps trying to catch the reader in an assumption, but making such a big deal out of how acceptable the relationship is takes away any sort of normalization the story might have been striving for. And then there is again the issue of repetition– by the time you’ve reached the secret-gender story (chronologically), you know every assumption is wrong, and can predict exactly where the story’s headed and which details are trying (and failing) to mislead you along the way.

Also, and this would probably go unnoticed by most readers, it really bugs me when people from Iowa are stereotyped as bumpkins. Sure, Iowa has a lot of corn and it’s not a hot vacation spot, but it is not the most desolate place full of idiots. This is just ridiculous:

“I’d been at Dartmouth long enough to recognize the name of a fancy boarding school, even if I was from Des Moines.”

“What boy would want my dowdy Iowan virginity?”

The closest we get to an excuse for these comments is being told that the Iowan girl thinking them suffers from a lack of self-confidence.

In the end, I thought this collection’s biggest fault was simply a lack of subtlety.

“Is there some subtext to this comment? He isn’t sure.”

Me, either. I disliked most of the characters, partially because they seemed dumb not to realize how far astray their assumptions were leading them when the reader can see it so clearly. Individually, there wasn’t anything specifically wrong with any of these stories, and I think any one of them would stand better on its own than the group did as a whole, but none of them managed to surprise or impress me, either. It just seemed a bit… aimless. Like this story ending, which didn’t seem to know if it was supposed to be an ending at all.

“They’re both quiet, and, weirdly, this is where the conversation ends, or maybe, given that it’s past eleven and Casey’s alarm is set for six-fifteen or possibly for six, it isn’t weird at all.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I actually rated most of the stories 3 stars on an individual basis, but as I got more bored and frustrated with that mediocrity toward the end I bumped my overall rating down, based on enjoyment level. I was vastly underwhelmed, though it’s hard to say there was anything truly wrong with this book. It’s just a collection for readers who don’t mind repetition, which I am not. I’m not sure if I’ll try any more of Sittenfeld’s work, or just hold on to my happy memories of Eligible. 

Do you have any favorite short story collections?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Lance

In case you missed it, I’m basically obsessed with the 2018 Penguin Modern series. It’s a set of 50 modern classic samples that run about 60 pages each, to give the reader a taste of modern classic works and authors. I’ve read 11 of them now, have 1 left to read on my shelf, and just ordered 6 more. I can’t stop. Today’s title: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lance.

lanceAbout the book: This volume contains three of Nabokov’s short stories, written over a period of 20 years. These include: “The Aurelian,” “Signs and Symbols,” and “Lance.”

What connects all three stories is a very purple and plotless writing style that manages to be simultaneously beautiful and unsettling.

“Only by a heroic effort can I make myself unscrew a bulb that has died an inexplicable death and screw in another, which will light up in my face with the hideous instancy of a dragon’s egg hatching in one’s bare hand.”

I’ve read Nabokov’s Lolita in the past and loved it– as much as one can love such a story. Though it deals with alarming subject matter, Nabokov filled Lolita with vibrant characters and train-wreck tragedies I couldn’t look away from. I mention this because I expected to find similar aspects to love in his short fiction, and was ultimately disappointed on that count. I don’t remember such elaborately ornate prose in Lolita, but that seems to be the main focus in Lance. Whole paragraphs with no discernible purpose beyond aesthetic make up the bulk of this little book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I wish I had known to expect it when I picked up Lance because it’s not to my personal taste.

“The name of the planet, presuming it has already received one, is immaterial. At its most favored opposition, it may very well be separated from the earth by only as many miles as there are between last Friday and the rise of the Himalayas– a million times the reader’s average age.”

But let’s take a brief look at each of the stories.

“The Aurelian” features a shop-owner whose true passion is lepidoptery: the study of moths and butterflies. He sells what he needs to to make ends meet, but his heart is in his collection and his growing desire to travel and capture specimens of his own. An unexpected chance to do so leads the story to a surprisingly dark ending. This is the purplest of the stories and my least favorite of the bunch, though I appreciated seeing the intersection of Nabokov’s interests in literature and butterflies.

“Signs and Symbols” is the shortest and, in my opinion, simplest of these stories. What looks at first like an ordinary day– as ordinary as it can be, in this family– spirals to extremes through a series of large and small events revolving around a visit to the family’s son in a sanitarium where is mental health is being monitored. I thought this one would turn out to be my favorite, but….

“Lance,” the titular piece, finds the perfect balance between unsettling theme and lush prose. At first this spoof on science fiction bothered me, but for a story that condemns the very genre it follows it turned out incredibly well. This is the story I pulled all of my favorite quotes of the book from, but beyond the lyricism of the wording, “Lance” also offers some interesting insight in sci-fi, space travel, and the human condition. Though it got off to a rocky start for me, it turned out the best of the set.

“Deep in the human mind, the concept of dying is synonymous with that of leaving the earth. To escape its gravity means to transcend the grave, and a man upon finding himself on another planet has really no way of proving to himself that he is not dead– that the naive old myth has not come true.”

The whole book reads almost as prose poetry; each word is chosen so carefully, to such great effect. These stories sound wonderful read aloud, and they look beautiful on the page. Nabokov is clearly a gifted writer, and the darker sides of these stories add an extra layer of flavor and intrigue to what might otherwise be “pretty” work.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. Though I can appreciate Nabokov’s skill, this book just didn’t suit me. There’s definitely an audience for it, but that’s not me. Purple prose isn’t my schtick, and though the little disturbing details saved these stories from being a total wash for me, they weren’t enough to make me truly enjoy reading this volume. I’m glad I read Lolita first, to know that I do like some of Nabokov’s work more than I liked this sample of it; maybe his novel writing is simply a better fit for me; I will definitely reach for another of his longer books before any more of his short stories.

Have you read any Nabokov? Which of his novels should I try next?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Vigilante

I’m back with another title to review from the Penguin Modern series: John Steinbeck’s The Vigilante. It’s been years since I read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which I loved, and there are a couple of other Steinbeck titles I want to pick up this year- so I thought this would be a nice, easy reintroduction to his work. I can’t get over how manageable it is to pick up these little modern classics that have only 55-65 pages apiece; every one of them changes the way I think about literature, and I love them.

thevigilanteAbout the book: This volume contains three short fiction stories: “The Vigilante,” “The Snake,” and “The Chrysanthemums.” These are all literary fiction snapshots of particular characters in particular circumstances, who learn lessons or display some sort of social commentary that can be more widely applied to the reader’s experiences– whether personal or observational.

The third story, “The Chrysanthemums,” was my favorite, primarily because I found the first two rather disturbing. I’ll divulge a bit about each, but I want to avoid spoiling both the basic plots, and the unspoken commentary behind the plot, as those “morals” are arguably the most important elements of these stories.

“The Vigilante” features a lynching, and while that is disturbing in itself, I felt that the “moral” of this story cheapens that awful death. Our main character can’t even say after the event whether the lynched man was good or bad, or why he was deserving (if anyone ever is) of that particular fate in the first place. This story was originally published in 1938, which was a different time, clearly- but I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed this story in that era, either. It does offer an interesting psychological viewpoint, but I just kept wishing it had been presented in a different way.

“His brain told him this was a terrible and important affair, but his eyes and his feelings didn’t agree. It was just ordinary. […] everything was dead, everything unreal; the dark mob was made up of stiff lay-figures. In the flamelight the faces were as expressionless as wood. Mike felt the stiffness, the unreality in himself, too.”

“The Snake” focuses on a biologist in his laboratory, and a visitor who finds him there. Though her desires aren’t much different than the scientist’s– arguably even more well-intentioned, he finds himself repulsed by them. This could have been my favorite story of the bunch, but I was too uncomfortable over the scientist’s treatment of his animals, and the graphic description of the snake feeding on a rat. Also I have a soft spot for cats, and I can’t stand to see them as “specimens.” If you’re an animal lover, enter this one with caution.

And then we have “The Chrysanthemums.” This is a low-stakes story about: you guessed it, flowers. A farmer’s wife has a prize bunch of chrysanthemums that she’s passionate about, and she encounters two people in the pages of this story: her husband, who supports her passion, and a traveling workman who uses her interest to his own advantage. What’s most interesting about this one, I think, is that neither the farmer’s wife nor the workman have any real respect for each other, but it doesn’t seem to be the callous opinions of each other that bothers either of them. And as a bonus, there’s a nice little bit of feminism here, however brief:

” ‘It must be nice,’ she said. ‘It must be very nice. I wish women could do such things.’

‘It ain’t the right kind of life for a woman.’

Her upper lip raised a little, showing her teeth. ‘How do you know? How can you tell?’ she said.”

What all of these stories has in common is that none of them are about what they seem to be about on the surface; Steinbeck is a master at making a point without spelling out what point he’s trying to make. Each character is believable as a person, though they are only the puppets through which Steinbeck’s morals are displayed. These are stories that require the reader to do the lifting, though they guide the reader in the right direction. Steinbeck is clearly one of the greats.

“When the night is dark– why, the skies are sharp-pointed, and there’s quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It’s like that. Hot and sharp, and– lovely.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I was so disturbed by some of the details in the first two stories that I seriously considered two stars, but I do love Steinbeck’s writing. None of these stories came anywhere close to my Of Mice and Men appreciation though, so I’m hoping for a lot better luck with The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, both of which I want to pick up within the year.

Do you like short stories? (I really do, but I don’t pick them up often enough.)

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Breakthrough

I’m getting back into my growing Penguin Modern collection, so brace yourself for more short modern classics reviews from me this month. I just read Daphne du Maurier’s The Breakthrough, which I chose partially because it’s the next in numerical order from the unread books I own in this collection, but also because a couple of months ago I read my first du Maurier novel, Rebecca. I enjoyed Rebecca so much that I planned to love The Breakthrough as well.

thebreakthroughAbout the book: Stephen is an electronics engineer being sent to beautiful and secluded Saxmere for a three-month job with a questionable scientist. From the moment of his arrival, nothing about his new workplace is as expected, and he’s immediately tempted to tell lead scientist “Mac” that he can’t and won’t do the job. But Mac has three computers with extraordinary capabilities and potential, and Stephen agrees to stay on the project to work with the advanced computers. Mac wants to use them to collect life energy as it leaves the body– but even he may be surprised by the experiment’s results.

“Dispatch the maimed, the old, the weak, destroy the very world itself, for what is the point of life if the promise of fulfillment lies elsewhere?”

As usual (at least as far as I can tell with only Rebecca to judge from so far), du Maurier’s writing is impeccable. This is the first Penguin Modern I’ve read in which one story/text fills the entire book, but I was so engrossed that the pages flew by faster than most of the shorter pieces I’ve read from other authors in this collection. Du Maurier is great with atmosphere and unsettling details, and even though The Breakthrough lacked most of the psychological intrigue that endeared Rebecca to me, the same spooky tone ran through this short piece. The Breakthrough is a science fiction story, but du Maurier is such a master of language that she made the switch in genre work.

But let’s look at the plot. I would not say that I’m any sort of sci-fi expert, but neither am I a stranger to the genre. And this plot… did not impress me much. It’s well-crafted with various weak and odd characters at the center of a life-altering experiment– an intriguing balance. Mac believes that certain “supernatural” phenomena is caused by inadvertently trapping one’s life energy in another vessel after the body dies– not the person’s intelligence or soul, but their spark of life. He has gathered a child who may have access to her dead twin’s life energy, and a terminal cancer patient willing to donate his. But at the crucial moment, no one on the team knows whether to call their results a success; what they have succeeded in accomplishing may be something far beyond their expectations and capabilities for continuing, and is frightening in its implications. But this case is so isolated and the experiment so limited and specific that the stakes are low. Death has already occurred when the real dilemma arises, and the story seems to take its only available ending– the one that prevents further exploration of its theme. Let me clarify: it all fits together very well, and there is nothing wrong with this story. It just didn’t surprise me the way sci-fi usually does.

“My mouth felt dry and I kept swallowing. Something inside me kept saying, ‘Don’t let it happen.’ “

I also want to mention as a side note that I’ve been rewatching some old X-Files episodes lately, and The Breakthrough felt a lot like one of those. It’s a story about something that shouldn’t be possible, something just a little too strange and beyond belief, but real enough to leave its audience wondering.

“We had numbered it X in the files, because it was different from the others.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I had a hard time deciding on a rating for this one because it didn’t particularly sway me one way or the other. I usually consider a 3-star rating the worst possible category because a lower-rated book for me generally has something actually bad about it that’s at least fun to rant about or learn from. But The Breakthrough wasn’t boring and it didn’t feel like a waste of my time in the way 3-star books often do. It just didn’t quite have enough oomph for a 4-star rating. My opinion on this book might change as I read more du Maruier and have a better sense of her work overall.

What’s your favorite sci-fi story?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Distance of the Moon

(Are you tired of my Penguin Modern excitement yet? I promise I’ll cool it after this month. But in the meantime…) I read another Penguin Modern! This is the 4th of the 6 I bought first, and I’m going to read the last two before the end of March and then take a little break from them. Maybe. My next 6 are already on their way to my mailbox. But first, I read Italo Calvino’s The Distance of the Moon, a set of short fictional stories involving astrology.

thedistanceofthemoonAbout the book: Qfwfq is a fount of stories, having apparently lived several billion years in our solar system and held on to remarkable memories of his cosmic experiences. Through Qfwfq and our narrator(s), these stories explore Earth in a time when the moon could be touched from its surface (“The Distance of the Moon”), at a time when Earth was not yet fully formed and lacked color (“Without Colours”), in modern times as an ancient family prepares for the sun to burn out (“As Long as the Sun Lasts”), and separate from Earth entirely as the narrator considers the pros and cons of imploding vs. exploding, the fate of all cosmic matter.

Italo Calvino is the sort of writer I could follow anywhere. I have read a few of his short stories before picking up this volume, but I still wasn’t prepared for what I found here. I know embarrassingly little about astrology, and I can’t say for sure whether the italicized paragraphs preceding each of the stories in this book are true scientific facts or not. I can say that this whole collection felt like an accessible lesson in astrology, with things like gravity, life spans of stars, and the big bang transformed into fantastical fiction that I just couldn’t put down once I’d started. I mean, granted, the whole book is less than 60 pages, but even so I usually take breaks between the stories/speeches etc. in these little volumes. This one I read straight through, and the four pieces seemed like stories that should be read together.

It’s difficult to classify exactly what I would say this book is. Certainly some sort of sci-fi/fantasy collection, but readers who don’t usually like sci-fi shouldn’t be afraid to read this book. There were a few times I wanted to call it (well-done) magical realism, and underlying it all there’s incredible romance. The general lesson in love seems to be that we want what we can’t have rather than what’s available, and the romance is more an intriguing side force pushing through the story rather than the main focus. But Calvino’s writing is certainly romantic, by which I also mean that it is generally beautiful and lush and captivating and whimsical. Calvino is doing more than telling stories here, he’s testing the language and wielding it with poetic mastery. Check out a couple of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Seen from the Earth, you looked as if you were hanging there with your head down, but for you, it was the normal position, and the only odd thing was that when you raised your eyes you saw the sea above you, glistening, with the boat and the others upside down, hanging like a bunch of grapes from the vine.”

“He won’t be able to forget even for an instant that everything around him is temporary, temporary but always repeated, a mosaic of protons, electrons, neutrons, that will fragment and come together again indefinitely, a soup that will be stirred until it cools or heats up: in short, this holiday in the most temperate planet in the solar system is completely ruined.”

“For Ggge, light-years seem like flea jumps: she hasn’t realized that space is a glue you get stuck in, just like time.”

It’s hard to pick a favorite selection from this book. “The Distance of the Moon” started a little slow for me, but the Deaf Cousin and the changing orbit of the moon upped the intrigue. “Without Colour” might have been my favorite, though the banter and the look at the solar system through the eyes of some very long lives infinitely amused me in “As Long As the Sun Lasts,” and none of them got me thinking as much about existence and possibility as “Implosion.” They’re all such different stories and yet they certainly belong together, with a connection I didn’t feel between the stories in the last fiction volume I read from the Penguin Modern set, The Missing Girl.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had no idea what to expect from these stories going in, but they absolutely hooked me. I need more Italo Calvino (I started reading his short story collection Difficult Loves a few years ago; I think I should go back and finish it). I need more Penguin Moderns. As much as I love a good, long saga, I’m really appreciating these little sample-size volumes this month. I wanted to expand my reading horizons in 2018, and these glimpses at modern classic authors are really helping me decide which directions I should go with that goal.

What reading surprises have you encountered this month?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Missing Girl

I have another Penguin Modern review for you today. This is the first volume I’ve read that highlights fiction: it’s Shirley Jackson’s The Missing Girl. Though fiction is my preferred genre, I rather preferred the nonfiction samples of letters and speeches that I’ve encountered so far. Although this one grabbed my attention and kept me hooked in a way that the nonfiction volumes I’ve read did not do quite so efficiently, I know this one won’t impact the way I think about the world as much as Letter From Birmingham Jail and Create Dangerously did. But I still had a great time reading it.

themissinggirlAbout the book: In this 54 page booklet are three of Shirley Jackson’s short stories. They utilize Gothic, mystifying, and psychological techniques. The first story, “The Missing Girl,” takes place at a camp for teen girls where a roommate is reported missing and the clues lead to contradictions. Is there, in fact, a missing girl? Who is the missing girl?

“…what she says is that of course she loves Martha and all that, and of course no one would want to say anything about a girl like this that’s missing, and probably had something horrible done to her…”

The second story, “Journey With a Lady,” is an intriguing though less puzzling tale. It’s a story about crime and punishment, and perhaps most of all about lies, though those elements all appear surprisingly blatantly in the text. A young boy travels on a train and is at first disgruntled to share his seat with a nosy lady, who makes the train ride an unusual adventure.

The third story, “Nightmare,” follows a woman on an errand in New York City. She becomes more concerned as she realizes that she is the target of some sort of prize-game taking place in the streets that day.

“She realized she could never prove that she wore these clothes innocently, without criminal knowledge…”

“Nightmare” was my favorite story from the book, with “The Missing Girl” following as a close second. I picked up this particular volume from the Penguin Moderns because I read and loved Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House last October. The first and third stories did remind me of that work– masterfully done with a steady build-up to a delightfully confusing conclusion. The second story did not seem as sinister as I had expected, though it did lead me down some interesting trains of thought regarding right vs. wrong.

” ‘I’m not ever going to do it again,’ the woman said. ‘I mean, you sort of build up all your life for one real good time like this, and then you can take your punishment and not mind it so much.’ “

These are stories that make the reader think. Determining what is going on and how and why is generally up to the reader; the base of the story is provided, but there seem to be several options from which to form theories, which is my favorite sort of conclusion to a story. This book is for the lover of ambiguous endings.

“It was generally conceded in the town that the girl had been followed in the darkness by a counselor from the camp, preferably one of the quiet ones, until she was out of sight or sound of help. The townspeople remembered their grandfathers had known of people disposed of in just that way, and no one had ever heard about it, either.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This volume was a quick and engaging read for me. It didn’t expand my thinking quite like the nonfiction Penguin Moderns I’ve read so far, but it did engage me while I was reading and it seemed an accurate sample of Jackson’s work. Though I don’t think these will end up being my favorite Jackson stories, they did help me decide to pick up more of her work, so I’d say this was a successful read for me.

Do you like reading creepy books? I find I’m more a fan of the psychological than the slasher variety of thrilling; which do you prefer?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant