Tag Archives: short stories

Review: The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

 

thecomletestoriesofflanneryoconnorFor today’s catch-up review, we’re looking at Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories. I’d read three of these stories previously but started at the beginning and read through the full collection of thirty-one stories in May alongside Melanie’s Month of Flannery O’Connor project. She’s more informed on O’Connor’s life and work than I am, so be sure to check out her posts, which tell a little about the content and publication of each story with some background on O’Connor’s life and overall thoughts on theme and patterns as well. Partially because Melanie did such a fantastic job covering each story (and partially because I didn’t take notes on the individual stories as I read them) I’m going to be talking more broadly about my experience with the collection and some things I’ve noted generally about O’Connor’s short story style.

“She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”

The first thing to note about O’Connor’s stories is that they don’t make points so much as they make clear where there’s a point of contention to be grappled with. What I mean is, O’Connor seems intent on highlighting conflict- racial, theological, social- not with the intent of making a stance or guiding the reader’s thinking, but simply to demonstrate that the conflict exists, and perhaps to encourage the reader to consider multiple views before choosing one. Her stories often end without clear resolutions, which I think is why they’re so widely studied- the reader must sift for clues, and what the stories are actually saying is hotly debated.

For example, one of O’Connor’s best-known and most-read pieces, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is either a story of a woman seeing the error of her ways and finding grace in a moment of peril, or a woman blind to the error of her ways remaining selfish to the end, even at the cost of her lifelong faith. The ambiguity is the draw, and presents as O’Connor’s favorite modus operandi; to sow the seeds of discord and then leave the reader to decide- in the case of “Good Man,” to decide whether the old woman’s final act is a cheapening of her religion or a finding of it. So yes, the story is theologically themed, but it’s impossible to tell from the fiction provided where O’Connor herself stood on the matter or which way she expects the reader to lean upon reading.

This is also why I felt so conflicted about the portrayal of racism in her stories. What’s clear is that it’s there. The white and black characters filling these stories are always at odds, there’s no denying that. There’s no denying that the whites often consider themselves superior because of the color of their skin. It’s also clear that many of these characters suffer as a result of their racism. What’s unclear is what O’Connor’s stance is on all of it. Normally I would say it doesn’t much matter- I’m a big supporter of separating the art from the artist wherever possible, though I can certainly admit there are cases (especially with classics) where knowing a bit about the author’s circumstances can enhance the reading experience. But the fact that there is so much up for debate in O’Connor’s stories leaves the reader uncertain which way things are “meant,” and it’s hard to decide what to believe without knowing the author’s intentions- hence questioning O’Connor’s personal stance on the themes she returns to so often in her fiction.

Frequent use of racial slurs and stereotyping can be found in everything from the first story to the last, and O’Connor’s approach to race remains in-your-face and morally questionable throughout the book. I became increasingly uncomfortable with that facet of these stories, especially since I happened to be reading this as George Floyd was killed, protests swept across America, and the volume was turned way up on conversations about racism. There’s plenty of racism to be found in O’Connor’s stories.

There should never be a time where it’s comfortable to read about racism, but the tail-end of May 2020 was one of the absolute worst moments for it. However, while I agree wholeheartedly that racism should not be condoned or supported in any way, I think including racist characters in fiction can have a positive/worthwhile effect, if the racism is portrayed as an evil. It can be used as a lesson, as a cautionary device. And for the most part, that is how it came across for me in O’Connor’s stories. The racist characters O’Connor writes are often depicted as being in the wrong, and learning so. But there’s also some casual racism that is not challenged, which I chalked up to being a product of its time and place- though an article I read recently has made me reconsider that stance. The 1950s – 60s was still a time of significant racial inequality in the US, but it’s worth noting that America was undergoing a change in these years that other authors of O’Connor’s day handled in other, arguably better, ways. In that same article, one particular hypothesis jumped out at me: that O’Connor’s stories on racial tensions were perhaps a way for her to work through her own racism.

Apparently racism is much more apparent and overt in O’Connor’s essays, letters, and other works. I’ve not read any of O’Connor’s nonfiction, so I can’t speak on it, but the speculation about working through her own racist thoughts struck a chord for me even with only her stories to go on. I came to this collection much more interested in the fiction than the author- I knew O’Connor had been an Iowa Writer’s Workshop grad, and since my undergrad studies brought me in close proximity to that program (the grad students there led the undergrad creative writing workshops that I took part in) it’s been a personal interest of mine to read previous Workshop writers when I can, to see the fiction that was produced and published from that familiar environment. (If you’re looking for better alternatives from Iowa Writer’s Workshop grads, let me strongly recommend Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing for starters.) I didn’t intend to learn about O’Connor’s personal history or read her letters- it wasn’t her real life I was interested in. But now that I know a bit about them it’s not something I can ignore.

Ultimately, I have to admit that I don’t know exactly where I stand on whether O’Connor is doing a good thing with the content of her stories or not. I did feel most of the time that O’Connor was questioning and condemning racism through her fiction. But I also thought while reading that perhaps it was progressive for her to do that in her time- but her stories aren’t actually that old, and certainly other writers have done more in the way of calling out racial inequality at that time than O’Connor (these were the days of Martin Luther King Jr’s essays and speeches! He was not alone in challenging the status quo). I want to be able to say that she’s trying to do a good thing here, but I was left feeling uneasy about it all, and I suppose that speaks for itself.

I had the same uncertainties about what O’Connor was trying to say about religion; she’s clearly very concerned with morals and religious rituals, though it’s not always clear where she stands in the fiction despite being Catholic herself. In the end, I just wasn’t as concerned about whether O’Connor was supporting or condemning Christianity as about where she stood on racism. One’s stance on religion, I think, is mainly a reflection of personal choice, whereas one’s approach to racism can impact those surrounding (or in this case reading the work of) that person. Whether you practice religion or not should be up to you. Whether you practice racism should not be.

“She felt that religion was essentially for those people who didn’t have the brains to avoid evil without it.”

So why put myself through all this confusion? Why talk about O’Connor at all? Because she is, I think, a good storyteller (in the way that Stephen King is a good storyteller though he also has a knack for problematic writing). O’Connor’s characters, even the despicable ones, always feel like real people one might meet on the streets (or the farms) of 1950s Georgia. She doesn’t shy away from violence or death, which keeps her plot twists shocking and unpredictable. Her work feels like a snapshot in time- perhaps not a flattering snapshot, but it’s worth recognizing where people have been wrong, I think. Should Flannery O’Connor be remembered and studied? Perhaps. But if so, she should be recognized for her flaws as well as her assets.

I do like that O’Connor doesn’t try to tell the reader what to think; her characters’ actions and opinions leave no room for doubt, and yet conclusions on meaning are still left to the reader. She touches on law and politics, city vs rural life, academia vs spirituality, death and grief, parenthood and care for those in need, loneliness and community, and plenty more big toics that are still relevant today. Her writing noticeably improves as she goes, becoming sharper, more immersive, and I think more personal, toward the end of her career. The stories that originally appeared in her last collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge, are (in my opinion) the most impressive. There’s also a beautiful sort of symmetry to the fact that this chronologically-organized complete collection is bookended by two attempts at writing the same story- her first published short story, “The Geranium,” was also her final work, rewritten as “Revelation,” a much stronger version, shortly before her death. She may not have been a good person, and her talent may have been put to better use with subjects other than race, but she is a skilled writer nonetheless. Do I recommend reading her work? …Not without a lot of caution and a firm idea going in of where you stand on racism and religion.

My favorite stories from the set included:

  • “A Stroke of Good Fortune” – A woman realizes something serious about her health
  • “The River” – A young boy is taken to be baptized by a babysitter and there discovers a way to escape his neglectful parents
  • “A Good Man is Hard to Find” – A family goes on a road trip and encounters danger
  • “The Lame Shall Enter First” – A man takes in a bright but troubled boy, hoping to give him and his own son a better start to adult life
  • “Parker’s Back” – A man gets a bold tattoo in an attempt to impress his wife

“He had not done anything. He was twenty-eight now and, so far as she could see, nothing occupied him but trivia. He had the air of a person who is waiting for some big event and can’t start any work because it would only be interrupted.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I originally pegged this as a 4 because most of the second half of the book consisted of 4-star stories for me, and I was willing to round up for writing growth. But now that I’ve read a bit deeper on O’Connor’s body of work and racist remarks, and as I’ve sat with this collection a bit longer and remember it a little less fondly in general, I’ve changed my rating to a 3 to acknowledge that initial and lasting discomfort over the lack of clarity in whether O’Connor is speaking against racism through these stories. There are certainly individual pieces worth reading, but I would recommend only picking this full collection up if you’re prepared to do a deeper dive into O’Connor’s life and work as a sort of author study; I do think there’s merit here and plenty to learn, but without putting in a substantial amount of work I’m not convinced the reader is able to draw any conclusions that really make the experience worth the time and effort.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Lot (+ We Need to Talk About BOTM)

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. I’d like to put some books on your radar that might have slipped by you, including this remarkable short story collection you may have missed last year! Today I’m talking about Bryan Washington’s Lot.

lotIn this story collection, each piece is a snapshot of a time and place in modern Houston. Many of the stories follow one young man through his teens and early adulthood as he struggles to find his way through family and relationship strife, a changing (gentrifying) neighborhood, and prejudice against his identity as a biracial (Black and Latino) gay man. In some cases, all of these opposing forces combine. Other stories woven in between are not directly related to the main character’s life, but showcase others facing similar challenges within the same community.

This is a fantastic book to read this month, both for LGBTQ+ Pride and in light of the Black Lives Matter protests. I would, however, recommend it mainly to an adult audience, and perhaps not to anyone searching for basic education about racism or LGBTQ+ issues, just because the points that Lot has to make are largely revealed between the lines rather than explicitly stated and explained. (One example that has stuck with me is when a “whiteboy” gives our MC a new name because he can’t pronounce his real one- the MC does not react or share with the reader why this is Bad, so it’s up to the reader to pick up on this one-sentence insult.) It’s a book that’s not especially geared toward the white gaze. However, if you’re looking for subtler commentary on life in minority groups in America, you may appreciate with Lot has to offer.

“Money issues aside, leaving the neighborhood meant leaving the shop. Which meant leaving Ma. Leaving her broke and alone. […] Ma’s daughter had left her. Her son had left her. Her husband had left her. So I couldn’t leave her.”

This is a collection about characters, but it’s also a deep dive into a place- Houston. The stories are very grounded in that setting, but in many ways the city feels like it could be any place in America, and I really would be surprised if there aren’t similar undervalued communities in every metropolitan area. That is part of Lot’s magic- it manages to be very specific while also hinting at a much larger scope.

In a similar way, it shows particular experiences of non-white queer life, and while these characters are presented as unique and are given plenty of specific detail, they also indicate some generalities that seem more universal- the incidents of prejudice, the struggle to stay out of poverty and receive appropriate aid, the lack of fair treatment and opportunities driving down-on-their-luck and overlooked people into questionable professions like drug sales. Washington zooms in individuals and elaborates on their life stories, but if the reader takes a step back from single trees and examines the collection as a whole they’ll see an entire forest laid out, full of people caught in the systematic oppression we’ve been hearing so much about lately. It’s a stunning balance.

“Some days are just bad, he said. Some people live their whole lives and not a single good thing happens to them. / I told him those were just the rules. He should follow them unless he had something new to say.”

Though these are all separate stories and most would stand alone well, it’s best to read them all together as parts of a whole. About half of them follow the same family via the same narrator and are presented in chronological order. The last story references characters and plot points from previous, seemingly unrelated, stories. A couple of the pieces particularly impressed me from the set (the very last story, “Elgin,” was my favorite!), but on the whole I found each story immersive and interesting, with something to add to the overall narrative. There wasn’t a single story I disliked. The only point of dissatisfaction I had with the set was based on personal taste- these are slice-of-life stories, where I tend to prefer short stories that are a little… punchier? I love short stories full of drama and emotion. Instead, Lot is a slow-burn that chips at the reader’s heart a piece at a time and works to build a larger story than any one piece encompasses on its own, which is an effect I adore in character-driven novels but find harder to navigate in short story collections, where the reader must “start over” again and again with each new piece. To be fair, I think Lot would’ve suffered as a novel and its strength lies in its interlocking structure, it just requires a different sort of patience than I was expecting.

At the sentence level, the writing style here reminded me of Junot Diaz’s, in terms of pacing and flow. As for content, Washington gives the sort of cultural glimpse I’d hoped to find in Diaz’s writing and instead found lacking (in the one story of his that I read). I’ve never been to Jamaica, Guatemala, Mexico (or any other country outside of the US, unfortunately) but I loved the way Washington brought little pieces of their culture into the story through food, language, and behavior. Lot’s narration feels insightful, effortless, and easy to get caught up in. Washington’s is a fresh voice with plenty to say, and he says it well.

“People think about things all the time, he said. All people fucking do is think. But really, he said, you do things or you don’t.”

(DO sign petitions! Donate! Speak up against racism! The time for thinking without acting has passed.)

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. In my effort to amplify Black stories by reading and reviewing more of them, I just want to throw a reminder in here that I rate on the scale Goodreads suggests, based on my own enjoyment of the novel, not on the merit of the book nor in any reflection of the author’s ability or person. They might not all be 5-star favorites for me, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth checking out! I think Lot‘s a great book and I’m glad I read it. I wouldn’t be averse to reading further from Washington in the future- and he does have a new release coming soon!

 

 

Before I sign off here, I want to say a little about what’s going on with Book of the Month Club, since I got Lot through their service. I’ve been a BOTM member since 2017, and I think the basic idea they’re operating on is a good one- offering a selection of hardcover new release books every month that members get to choose from, for only $10-$15.

But the current issue is that while protests were going on worldwide at the start of June, BOTM was promoting their June line-up, and conspicuously silent about the business’s stance on Black Lives Matter / current events. Finally, over the weekend, they posted on Instagram (their main social media outlet) an image featuring two non-fiction books by Black authors available through their site. On this post (which I’m not linking because the original text has been changed since), they received a lot of backlash in the comments for the fact that those two books were never main monthly selections for BOTM but farther down the site only as add-ons. A small gathering of six books on “antiracist learning” has been the only acknowledgment on the site of the recent protests. Further criticism included the fact that BOTM has included only 3 (out of 30) main selections this year by Black authors. Their selections are predominantly white, with an average of only one book (out of five) per month from an author who is not Caucasian. The majority of their judges, bookbassadors, and affiliates are also white. These facts, combined with the fact that the post came only after a fraught week of protests while BOTM promoted their own content, and the fact that their post of recommended reading offered no commitment from the company to work against racism in any way, drew a lot of ire.

In the midst of these complaints, at least one (Black) bookstagrammer announced publicly that her dissenting comments on the post had been deleted, and her account had been blocked from engaging with BOTM. Much of the Bookstagram/BOTM community is now calling for BOTM to issue an apology to this commentor, whose reasonable concerns were erased. Silencing a Black woman questioning the company’s committment to diversity and its current stance on BLM is… extremely low behavior on BOTM’s part, to put it mildly. I’m hoping there was some sort of accident or malfunction, that this happened only to one person, and that BOTM will share why it happened and commit to not doing anything like it in the future.

The reason I’m staying with BOTM for now despite their iffy (at best) response to current concerns of racism, is because after this debacle they released a stronger statement: it’s a general apology, a list of specific ways they’re planning to help fight racism with their platform and assets, and a confirmation that they stand with Black Lives Matter. The tone of their post and the comments seem to me genuinely apologetic and sincerely intent on doing better in the future. I’m glad they’ve been called out for questionable behavior and practices, and I’m not entirely satisfied with the way they’ve handled this yet, but I do think BOTM is in a great position to affect a positive change in the reading community (they have a HUGE influence in the US, even as they lose followers over this) and if they follow through with the list of goals they’ve posted it sounds like they’ll become a company I’ll be happier supporting. I’d love to see this major subscription service bringing diverse books to shelves across America (they’re only open to US readers at present) and supporting lesser-known authors who could benefit from the attention. While it is important to call out and challenge incidents of racism and put your money where it can best help those in need, I think it is also worth giving people/businesses a chance to learn and improve, and to support those willing to make that effort. I think it’s also important that when these companies send out their surveys to assess customer satisfaction someone is still there to advocate for positive change.

I’m sharing all of this here because I’ve pictured one of their books above, and don’t want you to imagine that I’m blindly ignoring what’s going on or in support of silencing Black voices in any way. I sincerely hope BOTM will become a better (more diverse and inclusive) service going forward, and if not, I will certainly be ending my membership.

That’s where I stand on that.

 

The Literary Elephant

Mini-Reviews: Faber Stories Pt. 9 (Plus Series Ranking!)

This has been a long time coming! If you’re new-ish here, you might not even know that I spent last year reading 29 of the 30 individually bound Faber Stories, a series of collectible short story editions published by Faber & Faber. There have been 30 volumes released between two batches- whether the series will be growing further in the future has not been announced, though I believe the intent was to celebrate their 90th year of publishing, which is now past.

When I reached the end of the first batch (which included 20 stories) I ranked them all here in order of favoritism; now that I’ve finished the rest I figured I might as well update that list! But first, I’ll go over the four stories I haven’t reviewed yet. Three I read back in December, intending to read the last in January… your guess is as good as mine as to why this took me until May!

 

Homeland by Barbara Kingsolver. 3 stars.

An old Cherokee woman who ran from Cherokee lands with a new husband just in time to avoid the US government’s forced relocation of Native American tribes is now a great-grandmother whose ancient culture lives on only in her heart and through the stories she impresses upon her granddaughter. Her oblivious American descendants take her to visit her birthplace, but the modern town they find in her tribe’s old place is no more than an inauthentic tourist trap.

This is a lovely and sad little piece about culture stolen from native peoples, and that culture living on as best it can through memories passed down to further generations. It is also a scathing critique of Americans’ irreverence for native history. That said, between the blurb on the jacket mentioning the disappointing trip to the Cherokee town, and the first two-page “chapter” providing the concept of culture living on as a seed inside living descendants, the reader has the entire formula of the story already within grasp just 5% into the read. I didn’t find much payoff in reading the rest, with the Point and the method of making it laid out so early, even though the writing is propulsive enough. Furthermore, I did have a fair grasp going in on the unfair and atrocious fates forced upon native tribes by US settlers, which made this story feel a bit predictable.  In any case, it’s a worthwhile point that Kingsolver is making, and she makes it well- it just wasn’t new to me at this point, which is no fault of hers.

Upon further inspection, this story was actually first published in 1989, so perhaps the trouble is simply that it’s a bit dated and would’ve had more punch for earlier readers.

” ‘I guess things have changed pretty much since you moved away, huh Great Mam?’ I asked. / She said, ‘I’ve never been here before.’ “

 

The Cheater’s Guide to Love by Junot Diaz. 2 stars.

In this volume, a Dominican-American man is going through a breakup; his girlfriend has discovered he’s been cheating on her (to an extreme extent), and dumped him. His best friend advises that the best way to get over the heartbreak is to find another woman- both struggle to find and maintain healthy relationships with women.

If there is anything positive to be found in this story, it eludes me. The MC and his friend have little respect for women, including those they supposedly love. When their misbehavior does lead to heartbreak (and complicated parenthood), they pity themselves without taking any responsibility for their mistakes or putting real effort into ditching bad habits. Yunior (the MC) does try exercise as a coping mechanism and distraction, but when it leads to injuries the story seems to be suggesting that there is no point in trying to resist cheating and objectifying women, it only leads to further punishment. I kept waiting for this to turn into a commentary on how awful this sort of behavior and mindset is for everyone involved, but right up to the final sentence it seems instead to be a wistful longing for being able to cheat in “monogamous” relationships without facing consequences. The men of the story seem to expect to sleep with whoever they want, when they want to, drop those women whenever it pleases them, and pop in to see any resultant children only when it suits them. I found the humor contemptible, felt no sympathy for these men, and gained nothing from this story.

hope I’m missing something. The only upside was that it was a quick read, at least.

 

Giacomo Joyce by James Joyce. 3 stars.

Only a story in the loosest sense, this little book is full of poetic vignettes about a man (clearly modeled after Joyce) in the midst of an affair with a student he teaches.

I think there’s going to be a very particular audience for this story, and I wasn’t it. There are a lot of references and similarities to other Joyce works, which I wouldn’t have noticed, not having read any others through- but nearly half of this volume is actually dedicated to pointing out and explaining these many ties. As a Joyce novice these didn’t have much meaning for me, though perhaps  someone better versed in Joycean lit would find them more appealing. The prose is beautiful, though very dense and somewhat impenetrable. Poetry connoisseurs might also have better luck.

Ultimately I thought this was lovely, though a terrible place to start with Joyce’s work as a relative beginner. If ever I were to become more knowledgeable and interested in Joyce’s life and work, I’d want to revisit this story to see if it would have more to offer me at that point.

 

Shanti by Vikram Chandra. 3 stars.

Set in India, this is a set of stories within a story within a story, set in the wake of WWII in 1945. The main characters are a man whose identical twin has died, a woman on a futile search for her missing fighter pilot husband, and a couple of their friends.

The jacket copy claims that this is “a spiraling tale of loss, and two wounded people becoming something new.” Without that hint of direction, I’m not sure I would have found the themes of this one out at all; there are so many layers to this tale and so many details given; it felt both elaborate and strangely empty. By which I mean, the biggest obstacle for me here was simply the fact that despite reports of how these people were dealing with their grief, I never felt a hint of emotion. And thus, no matter how each of the individual narratives might have worked for me, it never quite came together to a meaningful point or payoff. I believe the innermost level of narratives is meant to capture some of the characters’ unspoken emotions, but the fact that this is all told through a friend of this man and woman rather than either of them or even a neutral 3rd-person narrator puts the action too far distant to be properly effective.

All in all I found this a rather frustrating read, with moments of beauty overshadowed by my difficulty in sympathizing with the characters at the heart of the tale.

“They would go home, and even if nothing was finished, not ever, they would batten away the memories and find new beginnings.”

 

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Concluding thoughts:

Despite high hopes for at least two of these stories (Homeland and Shanti), this has turned out to be perhaps my most disappointing batch of Faber Stories yet. I don’t regret picking these up and rounding out my experience with this series of stories, but I had wished to end on a higher note. From this round, I’d say Homeland has probably been my favorite, and I’d read more from both Kingsolver and perhaps Joyce, based on these offerings.

 

To amp up the fun, my revised ranking of the Faber Stories, in order from most to least favorite! I’ve linked each title to its respective review set in case you’re interested in learning anything further about any of these in particular.

  1. Mostly Hero by Anna Burs – 5 stars
  2. The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes by Alan Bennett – 5 stars
  3. The Forester’s Daughter by Claire Keegan – 4 stars
  4. Come Rain or Come Shine by Kazuo Ishiguro – 4 stars
  5. Mrs. Fox by Sarah Hall – 4 stars
  6. Mr Salary by Sally Rooney – 4 stars
  7. Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead by Milan Kundera – 4 stars
  8. Paradise by Edna O’Brien – 4 stars
  9. Intruders by Adrian Tomine – 4 stars
  10. The Inner Room by Robert Aickman – 4 stars
  11. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor – 4 stars
  12. The Lydia Steptoe Stories by Djuna Barnes – 4 stars
  13. Ghostly Stories by Celia Fremlin – 4 stars
  14. Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath – 3 stars
  15. The Victim by P. D. James – 3 stars
  16. Three Types of Solitude by Brian Aldiss – 3 stars
  17. Fairy Tales by Marianne Moore – 3 stars
  18. Dante and the Lobster by Samuel Beckett – 3 stars
  19. An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah – 3 stars
  20. Homeland by Barbara Kingsolver – 3 stars
  21. My Son the Fanatic by Hanif Kureishi – 3 stars
  22. Daughters of Passion by Julia O’Faolain – 3 stars
  23. Shanti by Vikram Chandra – 3 stars
  24. The Country Funeral by John McGahern – 3 stars
  25. A River in Egypt by David Means – 3 stars
  26. Terrific Mother by Lorrie Moore – 3 stars
  27. Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine by Thom Jones – 3 stars
  28. Cosmopolitan by Akhil Sharma – 3 stars
  29. Giacomo Joyce by James Joyce – 3 stars
  30. The Cheater’s Guide to Love by Junot Diaz – 2 stars

 

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Set Reflection:

I would read more of these. I’ve absolutely enjoyed my time with this series overall; it’s nice to come to each story fresh- a new author, a new subject, pretty packaging. My average rating is 3.5, which is a bit low to get excited about but far from terrible. I still think this is a great way to sample authors’ work in bite-sized pieces; I’ve added several of these writers to my TBR as a result of reading this series (though shamefully I’m yet to pick those additional works up) and I just love the look of them. It’s been a good run. I probably wouldn’t recommend reading all of them unless you’re a die-hard completionist (welcome to the club!), but you can hardly go wrong picking up a few of these that appeal!

Who’s your favorite short story writer? (Feel free to mention someone who’s not included in this set!)

 

The Literary Elephant

Mini-Reviews: Faber Stories Pt. 8

I’ve been reading my way through Faber’s new collection of individually bound short stories this year, and am nearing the end of the titles published so far! Today I’ll feature the three stories I’ve read most recently, which will leave me with one more batch of four coming up around the end of the year. In case you missed them, here are the links to my previous Faber Stories mini-reviews: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Now let’s dive in.

My Son the Fanatic by Hanif Kureishi. 3 out of 5 stars.

In this story from 1996, a father watches his teenage son’s changing behavior with growing concern. Both are Pakistani Muslims living in England. The father is becoming, to an extent, “Westernized,” even as his son is learning about his cultural heritage and becoming more staunchly Islamic. The two cannot agree on a compromise between their religion and the Western ways of life, finding themselves at irreconcilable odds.

This is a straightforward piece with themes of assimilation and loyalty- to family, religion, and nation. The main focus is on the relationship between the father and his son. It’s an interesting glimpse into a clash of cultures, of how adapting to a new country can alter people in different ways, and even create rifts in families.

What didn’t work for me was the humor. The blurb in the front flap of the book calls this story a “comedy of assimilation,” claiming that it is “both uproariously funny and so prescient it’s barely funny at all.” Perhaps when the story was first published it came across differently, but I found the attempts at humor bothersome rather than amusing. First is the father’s fear that his son is selling his possessions to buy drugs. Rightfully he’s concerned, but his response is to tell his colleagues and spy on his son, and then makes light of it when it turns out to be religion-related instead, as though drug abuse is anything to joke about. There’s another detail about a friend of the father’s who is a prostitute, whose final scene in the story revolves around her being insulted for her profession and the father failing to defend her or their friendship. I didn’t find any of the writing outright offensive, and I don’t think it’s exactly meant to have the reader rolling in laughter anyway, but even so the tone just seemed a bit unpalatable to me.

“There was more to the world than the West, though the West always thought it was best.”

Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead by Milan Kundera. 4 stars.

In this story, originally written in Czech in 1969 (oddly there is no mention anywhere in this little volume of the identity of the translator), an aging woman returns to the city where her husband was buried to attempt to renew the lease on his grave. After receiving some bad news on that front, she runs into a man with whom she had a brief affair years previously. In thirteen tiny chapters, they spend the afternoon together, remembering their past encounter and wondering whether they are too old to change the way they left things.

There’s not much plot to this story; the unfortunate situation with the grave (and the meaning of the title) are revealed within the first five pages, and the rest of the story is spent in a will-they-or-won’t-they exchange between the two old lovers. Most of these pages are spent simply ruminating on how age changes things, no matter how much we might want to deny it. The constant presence of death as a theme in the background, combined with the beautiful writing, also lends the story a delightfully morbid air and the impression of a ticking clock.

This has got to be one of my favorite pieces about an affair written by a male author, ever. The woman seems like a real person, and isn’t objectified even though much of the story revolves around whether or not these people are going to sleep together again. The man is equally well-sketched. Both are concerned about how age has changed their physical bodies, and yet the details reflect their mental states and maturity rather than a shallow interest in appearance. Though this is on the surface a sort of romance, the reason it works so well is that ultimately it’s about the passage of time and the things that give life meaning. Is it better to remember a good experience and close the door on it, or to keep experiencing new things, even if they might tarnish the memories of the old things? This is the question that will decide these characters’ fates. Not much happens in these pages, but I thoroughly enjoyed the read all the same.

“Just as she could not have prevented her husband’s death, so also she was defenseless against his second death, this death of an old dead who is now forbidden to exist even as dead.”

Mostly Hero by Anna Burns. 5 stars.

At 144 pages, this is by far the longest of any of the Faber Stories published so far, but I did not want it any shorter. Having already loved Burns’ Booker Prize-winning Milkman last year, this was one of the Faber Stories volumes I was most excited to read, and even though my expectations were high going in, it didn’t disappoint.

In this story, which is a sort of spoof on sci-fi superhero narratives, our main characters are femme fatale, superhero, and Great Aunt. There are also assorted supervillains and a misguided cousin. Burns draws on what the reader expects from these “types” of characters to create interesting personas that both conform and defy conventional norms. The plot is fun, fast-paced, and continually surprising, beginning with a secret spell designed to make femme kill her boyfriend (superhero) without knowing what she’s doing, complicated by a backstory involving superhero’s tragic family past, and progressing into a plot for temporary world domination. No one is quite who they seem at first, and every revelation both takes the story a step farther and leaves the reader questioning what we typically expect from superhero narratives. It’s a captivating romp with deeper themes of expectation vs perception, of the blurry line between good and evil, of the messiness of love.

Similar in style to Milkman, with long sentences and paragraphs, a convoluted doubling-back of plotting and backstory, and the use of simple qualifiers in place of actual names,  the brevity of Mostly Hero makes it a bit more accessible though I think ultimately the writing will appeal to a similar audience. The topic is very different though, which means a reader who loved Milkman for its Irish focus might not get on with this one quite as well, while sci-fi fans might fare considerably better. Mostly Hero is still a literary story at heart, which is most apparent toward the end of the story when the plot begins to drag in favor of introspection. That was really the only downside to the reading experience for me, and the only reason I might have considered lowering my rating, but in the end I had such a fantastic time that a shift in focus at the end of the story couldn’t impact my overall impression. I absolutely loved this one.

“This was just the twist of fate and of incestuous Greek playacting to be expected in the dark, umbrous world hero lived in.”

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Concluding thoughts: this batch just kept getting better and better. I appreciated the commentary in My Son the Fanatic, though otherwise felt lukewarm about it, only to love the writing in Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead and to find myself overjoyed with every single detail of Mostly Hero. I can’t believe I haven’t gotten around to reading more of Burns’s work yet, but this story has reminded me of how much I love her writing, and I’ll definitely be trying harder to pick up the titles from her backlist going forward. It’s hard to imagine any of the Faber Stories I have left to read topping Mostly Hero for me, but I’m certainly hoping to find another gem!

 

The Literary Elephant

Mini-reviews: Faber Stories Pt. 7

My Faber Stories journey continues! In case you missed it, I’ve been reading through the 2019 collection of Faber Stories- individually bound short stories from a wide range of celebrated authors- since early this year. Originally a set of 20 stories (though always meant to expand, I think), there have been 10 more recent additions to the collection. I’ll link my reviews for the first 20 stories here: ( Mini-reviews part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, and part 6). Below are the first three I read from the new batch; I’m aiming to wrap up the rest of the new volumes in two more sets of mini-reviews before the end of the year. For now:

Ghostly Stories by Celia Fremlin. 4 stars.

This volume contains two short pieces by Fremlin, originally published in 1968 and ’70. Both are stories of hauntings, and both highlight a fraught mother-daughter relationship. The first features a teen girl home alone, ruminating about the house and her parents, when a mysterious girl her own age stops by and seems to understand everything. The second piece is the longer of the two, and focuses on a woman who, after the death of her sister, has spent years acting as a mother figure to her niece. Now that the niece is engaged and preparing a house of her own, her aunt has a terrible sense of doom hanging over the girl, and recounts her own past as she tries to piece together the reason for her increasing worry that her niece is in danger.

Both of the stories contain a twist at the end that answers the main “mystery” of their story, though neither are framed as a mystery, and neither has much of a plot. Where they excel is in their discourse on difficult parent-child relationships. The first story touches on the disparity in viewpoints: the child thinking she has some special insight into her parents’ personalities, the parents harboring a layered past to which she’s not privy. Building on this idea, the second piece shows the aunt’s backstory in the midst of her present fright, which contains enough depth to entirely explain the current situation. In this story, the protagonist’s history with her niece’s parents proves to have affected her entire relationship with the girl, though until this recent incident neither of them knew it.

In the end, though the broad strokes seemed fairly obvious, I enjoyed the depth revealed in each relationship, perhaps even more so in the final implications that each ending is actually a beginning of a new phase of life for these characters. The first story seemed the most predictable to me, and didn’t delve deep enough to really impress me, so that was a 3-star; the second piece I found much more intriguing, and landed on a 4-star rating. Overall I went with 4 for the volume because the themes and details did make these two pieces a very apt pairing.

Intruders by Adrian Tomine. 4 stars.

I had no idea until I picked this one up that it’s actually the first graphic short story to appear in the Faber Stories set (originally published in 2015). Each page includes a bit of text, with an image beneath, comic-square style.

The story here centers around a soldier back at “home” between tours of duty; though he’s staying elsewhere, day after day he comes back to look at the old apartment where he once lived with his wife. Someone else now lives in the apartment, and the soldier, after learning this new tenant’s schedule, begins to let himself into the place with his old key. Things eventually go wrong (of course).

Though the surface details of the plot are certainly intriguing here, making this a quick read aided by expressive art that furthers the story, what really drew me to this one is the subtle between-the-lines commentary on this soldier’s state of mind. It’s clear that his time in service has altered his behavior and perspective, which likely led to the split with his wife. In that respect, I think this is an excellent piece depicting some of the hardships soldiers can face, even after returning home. I was a little disappointed that Tomine shied away from greater conflict with the ending, but I appreciated the psychological insight nevertheless.

Fairy Tales by Marianne Moore. 3 stars.

Translated from Charles Perrault’s original French dating back to the 1600s, poet Moore here shares three early fairy tales. (“Early” here meaning that Perrault was the inventor of the fairy tale genre.) The pieces included in this volume are “Puss in Boots,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Cinderella.” Though these are all familiar stories now, the original versions vary a bit from their modern counterparts, meaning there are still a few surprises for the curious reader.

Unlike the two volumes above, the plots are the selling point here. The conflict is introduced early on, a magical element comes into play, and the hook is invariably, “how will this good hero/heroine get out of this mess?” From the introduction and Moore’s background in award-winning poetry, it’s clear that much attention has been paid to wording, and these stories are indeed very readable.

They’re also very dated. My biggest qualm here is simply that these tales are absolutely a product of their time, and were not modernized in translation. Princesses are supposed to be beautiful and charming and otherwise helpless while the king gives them away to whichever suitor he pleases, or a prince sweeps in to rescue them; the mother-in-law who doesn’t like her son’s wife is literally presented as an ogre; a man with hardly any property to his name impresses the king with gifts of small game, and easily gets away with lying about his title and land ownership. Some casual misogyny and pre-internet lawlessness are to be expected from this time period of course, but even so I wish we could celebrate this genre and these stories without perpetuating some of those less desirable elements that haven’t aged as well.

Even so, I found “Puss in Boots” clever and amusing, “Sleeping Beauty” captivatingly dark, and “Cinderella” simply a very pleasant read- she’s such an amiable character in this version that it’s impossible not to root for her happy ending. My only complaint about plot is that “Sleeping Beauty” really felt like two separate stories: one about the princess pricking her finger on a spindle and falling asleep, and one about the princess become a secret bride in a dangerous family. Both interesting, though the second half doesn’t quite flow logically and smoothly from the first. All three stories are engrossing and amusing, though unless you want to ruminate on helpless women and tricksters becoming rulers, there’s not any sort of moral to be drawn or thought path to continue down after closing the cover.

“A prince, young and in love, is always brave, and this one, true to tradition, went boldly to the forecourt of the castle. There, what he saw would have frozen the blood of the bravest. In the fearsome silence, everything everywhere had the look of death…”

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In conclusion, these were entertaining reads I’m glad I picked up, though none of them is compelling me to pick up further works by these authors. These all helped keep me going when I hit a bit of a reading slump in October/November though, so I’m grateful for that, but hoping for even better luck as I continue through this collection!

Have you read any of these, or have your eye on any of the other Faber Stories?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

TBR 11.19 / General Update – I’m back!

I’m finally making my return to the blogosphere!! After a few very long work weeks that kept me mostly offline, I am (at last!) back to business and so ready to talk about books. I have a lot of posts to catch up on, both in terms of viewing and writing, so unfortunately it’ll probably take me a while to be fully back to “normal” here. I was hoping for some periodic breaks in my work schedule to allow me to keep up a bit better this month, which really didn’t happen. The good news: while I’ve been cut off from the internet, I’ve still been reading and making tons of plans for post ideas, 2020 book/blog goals, etc. so you’ll be seeing a lot of new stuff here soon and I’ve got ALL THE EXCITEMENT for it!

To start off, I’m catching up with the last post I had partially drafted: my October book haul / November TBR. It seems like as good a way as any to fill you in on a bit of what’s been happening with my reading and what I’m planning for the rest of the month, even if it is late for a TBR.

As per my 2019 TBR goal, I’m *supposed* to be reading all the new books I’ve acquired by the end of the following month- this hasn’t been working well for me, but I’m continuing to track the info and make a small attempt, so first up below will be a list of new books that came to my shelves in October. After, I’ll mention any other books that I’ve *actually* been reading this month, with an overview of the reviews I’ll have coming up.

New books I haven’t read yet:

  1. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. This is one of the 2019 Booker Prize winners, and one of the longlisted titles I was most looking forward to reading. I put it off during the Booker craze because it wasn’t out in the US yet, but I finally caved and ordered a copy when it won (and I believe it is now available in the US in paperback as well). This will probably be my next read, which should mean a review in early December.
  2. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. My October BOTM selection. I suspect I’m going to appreciate Coates’s nonfiction (I still haven’t read any of it yet, the shame!) more than this novel, but after skipping my BOTM boxes for a few months (very unlike me, even though I haven’t been thrilled with the selections this year) I just couldn’t resist.
  3. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. I enjoyed Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and have heard nothing but praise for this latest novel from him. It’s historical fiction about racial prejudice in the southern US that’s been nominated for the National Book Award (though I believe it didn’t make the shortlist) and the Goodreads Choice Awards (which I don’t hold in much esteem but still vote and view).
  4. The Vagina Bible by Jennifer Gunter. This is a nonfiction book that I hear is both useful/informative and also fun, as it debunks popular misconceptions about female health. (And is written by an actual medical doctor.) I ordered a copy as soon as I heard about it. I’m hoping to dip in and out of this with the aim of finishing before the end of the year.
  5. The History of Bees by Maja Lunde, translated by Diane Oatley. This is a translated novel I’ve been meaning to read for a couple of years now, am pretty sure I’m going to love, and for some reason keep refraining from checking out at the library. I found a copy on sale and am hoping that having it on hand will be the final push I need to reach for it! I’d like to read this one yet in November.
  6. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I found this one on Book Outlet and couldn’t help picking it up, even though I don’t really know much about it. I believe there’s a writer who finds a diary from a Tokyo girl, and as she gets swept up in the story she finds there she’s not sure whether the diary writer is still alive? I’m uncertain about that, but enjoy going in blind. I know this one’s been on several award lists and it’s been recommended to me, so I was pleased to find a cheap copy.
  7. On Beauty by Zadie Smith. Apparently I’m building my collection of Women’s Prize winners. I’ve picked up several others from the winners list in the past few months, and it looks like the trend is continuing. I know nothing about this book other than its inclusion in that literary award list, and even though she’s been on my TBR for years I’ve not yet gotten around to reading anything by Zadie Smith! Hopefully that will change soon.
  8. Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and Its Private Consequences by Catherine Pelonero. This is a nonfiction book about a case that’s intrigued me since high school psychology class. Kitty Genovese was a woman murdered in New York in the 60’s- there were many witnesses who saw or heard what was happening, and no one helped her or called the police. I need to know more.
  9. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. Another nonfiction, this one focuses on the effects that humans eating animals have on this planet. It was actually Foer’s more recent We Are the Weather that caught my eye, but after looking into it I decided to read this one first.
  10. Foe by Iain Reid. I read and enjoyed Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things a while back and have been meaning to pick up this new novel. I wasn’t planning to buying it right now, but Book Outlet had a cheap hardcover available and I found it in a moment of online retail therapy when my defenses were low (which explains why this list is getting so long). I know very little about the story- I believe there are a pair of siblings living on a secluded farm, and something creepy happens.
  11. All Systems Red by Martha Wells. This is a sci-fi novella I’ve seen around but only added to my TBR fairly recently. I’m pretty sure I’m going to love this, so even though I know my library has a copy I couldn’t pass this one up on Book Outlet either. I know it features an android main character (“murderbot”) who is not fond of humans. I suspect I’m going to want to binge this series as soon as I get started.
  12. Faber Stories. After reading and (mostly) enjoying all 20 of the original Faber Stories (and also seeing some of those prices rise absurdly as the year has progressed), I went ahead and ordered all 10 of these new stories before they had a chance to become ridiculously expensive. I expect to read these all before the end of the year, probably resuming my habit of reading and reviewing in batches of 3-4 titles. the newly added stories are:
    • Let The Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead by Milan Kundera
    • Giacomo Joyce by James Joyce
    • Shanti by Vikram Chandra
    • The Cheater’s Guide to Love by Junot Diaz
    • My Son the Fanataic by Hanif Kureishi
    • Homeland by Barbara Kingsolver
    • Mostly Hero by Anna Burns
    • Intruders by Adrian Tomine (I recently read this one)
    • Fairy Tales by Marianne Moore (And this one)
    • Ghostly Stories by Celia Fremlin (And this one)

New books I’ve read:

  1. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling, illustrated by Jim Kay. I’ve looked at all of the illustrations and read the text in an older edition, so I’m counting this as read even though I technically haven’t read the text from this copy and I am planning a series reread including the 4 illustrated editions. I don’t think I’ll be starting that reread before the end of the year, but Kay’s art makes it so tempting!
  2. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I read this back in high school and loved it. I’m not in a hurry to reread it, but I’m slowly adding to my personal collection the books that have made the biggest impact on my reading life or been memorable for some particular reason that I don’t own; this was the book that convinced me I like reading “weird” stories, with a bizarre/unrealistic element. Also, I think my mom will enjoy this one so I’ll lend it to her.
  3. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. I read and loved this sci-fi classic a few years ago, before I learned some things about Orson Scott Card that turned me off of his work. While I don’t think I’ll be continuing to read this series, I do want to hold on to my fond memories of this story. Book Outlet’s excellent prices meant I could pick up a copy without feeling like I was offering Card my full support. Distasteful authors can be hard to navigate.
  4. No One is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg. This is a tiny compilation of some of Thunberg’s speeches on climate change, and this busy time of year was perfect for me to enjoy a short, inspirational nonfiction bind-up. I didn’t find it quite as informative as I’d hoped, but fascinating and compelling nonetheless. More thoughts coming soon.

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That brings us to the end of the book haul portion of this post.  (I know the stack pictured is incomplete, I took the photo before my Book Outlet box arrived and don’t have sunlight now to update it- sorry!) I’m certainly not going to be reading all of those books before the end of November. I am planning to get to a few more Faber Stories, and, as I mentioned above, Girl, Woman, Other and A History of Bees. I’m currently reading Stephen King’s Firestarter in preparation for an upcoming buddy read of King’s The Institute, which I’m expecting to read between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’m also tentatively hoping to finish S. A. Chakraborty’s The Kingdom of Copper before the end of the month, an adult fantasy sequel I started much earlier this year and had to put down at about the halfway point due to other commitments intervening.

And, before I close, here’s a recap of what I’ve read in the time I’ve been away from my blog. These reviews will probably be coming up in this order, or close to it; I’m also hoping to post something for Nonfiction November and my 2019 Almost-Favorites, so there’s plenty on my plate. Some of these books I mentioned in my October wrap-up, but I thought an updated list was in order:

  • Wilder Girls by Rory Power
  • The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
  • Faber Stories mini-reviews, including: Ghostly Stories, Intruders, and Fairy Tales
  • Nonfiction mini-reviews, including Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli and No One is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg
  • Hannibal by Thomas Harris
  • Unbelievable by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong

By the time I post these reviews, I’ll probably have finished a couple more of the titles I’ve mentioned above, so I probably won’t be entirely caught up until early/mid December. But I’m hoping to be caught up on reading blog posts within a week! Please bear with me while I’m settling back in, but feel free to chat-

Have you read any of these books?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Mini-reviews: Faber Stories Pt. 6 (plus full series ranking)

Almost 9 full months after I read my first volume from the Faber Stories collection, I have finally succeeded in finishing off the set of the first twenty volumes! And just in time, as Faber has recently announced another batch of 10 stories to be added to the collection in October. I have thoroughly enjoyed my experience with these little books so far, and do plan to continue with the collection. But for today, I’ll be reviewing the last three stories I read, and then having a bit of fun ranking my favorites!

If you’re interested in seeing my thoughts on more of the stories, you can check out the rest of my mini-reviews here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5. And without further ado…

 

Daughters of Passion by Julia O’Faolin. 3 stars.

In this story, a woman on a hunger strike in an Irish prison recounts the events that have led her there. In doing so, she also examines her relationship with a friend, and their involvement with the IRA.

Though every aspect of this synopsis intrigued me (hunger strike! prison! Irish! delving into f/f relationships!), somehow none of them managed to satisfy me on the page. I didn’t feel any emotional investment because O’Faolin tries to use the meatiest bits of the story as concluding surprises rather than mining them for the thematic depth I was searching for. Instead of giving me an interesting lens to reflect back on the story with, those late revelations felt more like the beginning of the story I had expected to find here.

Ultimately, an adequate plot with plenty of potential that just utterly failed to engage me.

Three Types of Solitude by Brian Aldiss. 3 stars.

Much as the title suggests, in this volume we are given three short vignettes that feature entirely different characters and scenarios that each ruminate on solitude. Each main character is in some way alone, though others are affected by his choices. Two of the stories feature a sci-fi element.

The first story of this set was my favorite- a judge writes to his wife about a case he claims to be reviewing, in which a man relocates to an uninhabited island with his ventriloquist dummy, to disastrous effect. The epistolary set-up added an extra layer of intrigue, and I found the whole story immensely bizarre and enjoyable. The second story features a celebrity artist on the outs with the public; this one I found a bit slower paced and somewhat boring without a sci-fi element, but I did enjoy its irony, even if a bit overt. The third piece included another interesting sci-fi element: little electronic cubes that appear to converse with each other. The “lesson” of the story isn’t the most original, though I did appreciate the uneasy character dynamic between the couple at the heart of the story.

I flew through this book, found it very entertaining and readable, but didn’t rate it any higher because I’m sure the messages and even the simple plots themselves will fade quickly for me.

” The dummy broke the silence. ‘So what’s this “sad” business mean anyway? I mean, how often do you feel like doing it?’ / ‘Sad? Oh, sadness is just happiness in reverse. We humans have to put up with it. Just being human is an awful burden to bear.’ “

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor. 4 stars.

My last Faber Story (from this first set, at least) also turned out to be one of my favorites! I might have read this one in high school because it seemed vaguely familiar, but that didn’t prevent me from thoroughly enjoying the reread.

In this story, three generations- and one cat- pile into the family car for a road trip. What seems at first a satire- a rude family expecting great service and loudly complaining when anything fails to that meet their expectations- takes an even more interesting turn when their stubbornness leads them to encounter a dangerous wanted criminal.

The narration makes no attempt to tell the reader what sort of conclusion to draw from this family’s experience, though the main event of this trip is so momentous that there are plenty of conclusions available for the reader to draw. For me it was a story of two people (enemies, perhaps, or at least opposites) realizing that society is flawed, from opposite ends of the spectrum- one has faced injustice and been slighted by the strong voice of the law, the other has held herself up as righteous and lawful, only to realize that her own sense of morality won’t be enough to save her, either. For such a collection of unpleasant characters, this made for a very amusing and engaging read, and one that I think will only grow richer upon further visits.

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Concluding thoughts:

Though Daughters of Passion went a bit unrealized, these last two stories were entertaining both in content and style, and I’d happily read both again. I do have Flannery O’connor’s complete story collection sitting on my shelf, and after this positive experience I’m looking forward to reading more of her work!

And for fun, a full ranking of the Faber Stories I’ve read so far, from most to least favorite. This list is completely based on personal preference; I’ve just reread all of my earlier reviews and considered also how well different elements of the stories have stuck with me in the months since I’ve begun reading them. The order is:

  1. The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes by Alan Bennett
  2. The Forester’s Daughter by Claire Keegan
  3. Come Rain or Come Shine by Kazuo Ishiguro
  4. Mrs. Fox by Sarah Hall
  5. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor
  6. Mr Salary by Sally Rooney
  7. Paradise by Edna O’Brien
  8. The Inner Room by Robert Aickman
  9. The Lydia Steptoe Stories by Djuna Barnes
  10. Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath
  11. The Victim by P. D. James
  12. Three Types of Solitude by Brian Aldiss
  13. Dante and the Lobster by Samuel Beckett
  14. An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah
  15. Daughters of Passion by Julia O’Faolain
  16. A River in Egypt by David Means
  17. Terrific Mother by Lorrie Moore
  18. The Country Funeral by John McGahern
  19. Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine by Thom Jones
  20. Cosmopolitan by Akhil Sharma

 

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(The complete set, pictured in the order I read them.)

It’s worth noting that none of these stories rated below 3-stars for me, that the lowest on the list were simply the most forgettable and none struck me as problematic in any way. Almost all of them either delighted me or encouraged me to consider something from a new perspective, so the set was entirely worth the read for me! I’m eager to check out the next additions to the collection.

Have you read any of these stories, or other works by these authors?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Mini-Reviews: Faber Stories Pt. 5

I’ve now read 17 / 20 of the individually bound short stories that comprise the Faber Stories collection, and I’m still so pleased overall with the selection and experience! These little books have been a great way for me to incorporate more short stories into my 2019 reading, and to check out authors I might not otherwise have picked up. Today I’ll be sharing thoughts on my three most recent Faber Stories reads.

In case you missed them, here are the links to the rest of my Faber Stories mini-reviews: part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4. And without further ado, part 5:

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Cosmopolitan by Akhil Sharma. 3 stars.

In this 2017 piece, a man is left behind as first his grown daughter moves out of the family home, and then his wife takes a trip to India and decides not to return. After a period of moping and mourning over his solitude, Gopal meets a neighbor who excites him, and decides to try his hand at an affair.

The title drew me to this story, and the synopsis further explains that Gopal uses an article from Cosmopolitan magazine as a set of guidelines for pursuing his female neighbor. The article was actually aimed at women who wanted to attract men. I expected a bit of comedy. Instead, Gopal takes this endeavor very seriously while struggling to determine whether he is in love with Mrs. Shaw or not, and whether she might be in love with him. However, this is not a romance as much as a searching of the soul, which adds depth to this awkward situation.

Even so, upon finishing this volume, I found that it hadn’t made me think or feel in any meaningful way. It’s a perfectly competent story about unattached romance and self-discovery that sadly just didn’t leave any impression whatsoever. I’m afraid this will probably be the most forgettable story of the entire set for me, though I can’t complain that anything actually bothered me about it.

“To fall in love I think you need a certain suspension of disbelief, which I don’t think I am capable of.”

Dante and the Lobster by Samuel Beckett. 3 stars.

Published in 1934, this one is a stand-out from the Faber set because of its unrelenting oddness. I’m not sure if I “got” everything here, but the plot seems to feature a man named Belacqua going about his typical mid-day routine. He does some reading, makes lunch, runs an errand, attends an Italian lesson, and visits his aunt. It sounds straightforward, but nothing goes quite as the reader expects, nor as Belacqua expects.

I was immediately struck by the style of writing in this volume. (The flap states that Beckett’s style in this early work is “indebted to his mentor, James Joyce,” but it’s been years since I’ve read anything from Joyce and only excerpts for college then, so I can’t say for sure if this explains my reaction.) Belacqua, as a character, is very particular and intent about even the most mundane things, and yet his thoughts and actions are strangely absurd. For example, deliberately toasting his bread to a blackened crisp, over a low enough flame to avoid leaving any soft spots in the middle. Despite his laying out the afternoon plan for the reader by page three, one can never be sure what will happen next with Belacqua. It’s entertaining and amusing, though admittedly also confusing at times.

This was a fun read that constantly left me wondering. And yet, at the end, I found that I still didn’t know quite what I had read, or why. I’m good with weird, but I also need a sense of purpose, and I didn’t find that here. Who is Belacqua? Why has his aunt requested a lobster? What does the reader gain from following him through this afternoon? I just don’t know. Proof that an ordinary day can go awry? Do we need proof of such a possibility? It’s entirely possible I’m missing something, but it seems to me that this story relies on a certain level of whimsy and nonsense that is not meant to be organized into neat reasons and meanings. This was both the best and worst feature of the story for me.

The Lydia Steptoe Stories by Djuna Barnes. 4 stars.

This volume is actually a set of three stories which first appeared in the years 1922-24. All are written as journal entries penned by the central character (each story has its own unrelated cast), over a period of several months. The three main characters set out with a certain sexual intent (or are set upon by someone else’s) that is overthrown in the course of the story. I’m not sure how to explain what these stories do in any better way without giving away their small plots. The official synopsis shares more specifics, but I felt spoiled by that information while reading and don’t want to cause the same for anyone else. But let me try again.

In the first story, a young woman sees two choices for her future: marry and submit, or live a life of seduction and independence. In a disturbing (to her) turn of events, she must face the possibility that the choice was never hers to make. In the second story, a young man is tricked by someone he innocently believes to be a cousin. In the third story, an older woman reflects on the sense of youth still within her, only to become appalled by the desires her young heart harbors.

It’s a strange set, but thought-provoking and full of commentary about the relationships we’re led to expect and those we’re willing to accept- as well as the possibility that other options exist, for better or for worse. There’s also a subtle disregard for gender that I found appealing; a woman dresses up as a man, which has a powerful effect on her child. A girl longs not to become a woman but rather to run away as a boy. Another woman tells herself to “be a man.” It’s a challenging set, thematically; I think there are many conclusions to be sifted through from these small pieces rather than any obvious Point to these stories, and the more times one reads them the more one might find. I suspect that this is a volume I’ll be revisiting, in any case.

“He is broad-minded. He takes in all human aspects.

I wonder when I’m going to be a human aspect?”

 

Concluding thoughts:

The only author I feel at all inspired to look into further from this batch is Djuna Barnes, as The Lydia Steptoe Stories were by far my favorite between these three. And yet, as the volume is filled with three stories rather than one of greater length, I don’t feel like I have any sort of grasp on Barnes’s style yet. I would have no idea what to expect from her in any further reading. I’ll probably look into her oeuvre out of curiosity, but I can’t say I’m committed at this point; the stories were just so short!

I’m not sure where to go from here with the rest of the Faber Stories collection, either. Just as I’d decided that I might as well read them all, the prices of the last three titles I needed more than doubled. I am usually such a completist, but even so I can’t afford to spend $8+ each on single short stories, no matter how pretty they may be. I was planning to rank all twenty in terms of personal favoritism once I’d completed the set, and I do want to complete my set, so I’ll keep an eye on the prices, but it will have to wait for now, unfortunately. 

 

The Literary Elephant

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.

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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.

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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