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7th May
2009
written by Steph
Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link

I doubt it...

When I reviewed Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth earlier this year, I stated up front that I’m not really a reader of short stories.  I always find the first part of anything I read to be the hardest slog as I work to attune myself to the writing and ensconce myself in the world of the story.  With short stories I feel like I’m doing this the whole time because just when I feel I’m in synch with a story, it ends and I’m left wanting more, but instead have to dive into a new story.  While I had serious problems with Unaccustomed Earth, the one thing that did impress me about it was how easily I slipped into each story, and moreover, each one felt like a complete entity that did what it said it would: it told a story.  But I’m supposed to be talking about Stranger Things Happen, right?  I’ve already reviewed Unaccustomed Earth!  Well, I give all this preamble simply because I’m a bit at a loss with respect to this collection, and in large part that’s because half the time I had no idea what was going on in any of the stories, and just when I thought I had a handle on them, they ended rather abruptly… the curse of the short “story” strikes again! To be fair, Stranger Things Happen tells you right in the title that you’re going to be reading some pretty weird stuff.  The back cover promises you stories about a girl who learn to make herself vanish, a dead man who writes letters to his wife, a girl who dates the son of Zeus, and visits to the Underworld (amongst other things).  So it wasn’t the content that utterly befuddled me.  I was fully expecting to read things of a fantastical and perhaps even macabre nature, but I was also expecting stories, and I feel like I only got those, at best, half of the time.   Don’t get me wrong, tons of things happen in the narratives Link presents to her readers, but they didn’t always add up to a complete story, or even a complete thought to me.  Sometimes I felt like Link had just had a brainwave regarding something that would be a rather cool or creepy element of a larger story or novel and ran with it, fleshing it out and taking it as far as she could go, but when all was said and done, I felt like I had been given a sketch or a vignette or a fragment but not really a story.  Sometimes Link’s writing was so ambiguous I had a hard time asserting anything concrete about the plot, and was even at more of loss when I tried to think about what said story could possibly mean.  Looking at reviews of the book on GoodReads, I’m not the only one who seems continually confused by what Link is getting at in most of her stories, though I do seem to be one of the few who doesn’t think that she is brilliant for being so obscure and inscrutable.  I think Link is very creative and has a rich imagination, but I also felt like her stories were so ephemeral and elusive that I had nothing to grasp onto. With most of the stories in Stranger Things Happen, I felt like at least three important details had been left out that were critical to tying everything together and allowing the reader to mine a tiny bit of wisdom or even inspiration from what she had just read. I will say that for all my bemusement, Stranger Things Happen was not an unenjoyable read.  Link’s writing was both playful and creepy, depending on the tone she was trying to set, and her prose was light and crisp.  The place I got snagged was definitely not with her writing.  I also appreciated that she played with her style from one story to the next, sometimes adopting the second person singular (e.g., “You enter the bar and see her at once”), sometimes numbering off her sections, sometimes using an epistolary format.  It made each story an adventure, and helped each story feel like its own.  Although I felt I was too often yanked out of each story too soon, I found myself quickly immersed in each new story, which is certainly a plus as well.  I didn’t always know what the heck was going on, but I was there watching it happen! All in all, Link’s stories were definitely interesting, even if many of them felt beyond my scope.  There were a few stories in the collection that I liked a good deal and felt had some real meat on their skeletal frame.  In particular, I quite enjoyed “Flying Lessons”,  “Vanishing Acts”, and “Louise’s Ghost”.  However, this leaves 8 stories that I didn’t much care for or get a lot out of, which isn’t a great success rate.  I think I was hoping for something spectacular, but by and large simply wound up reading things that were quite odd -  smoke & mirrors, but not much else.  Link likes to play with mythology and rip apart old fairytale motifs, so fans of those types of stories might find things to ponder and enjoy here.   “The Specialist’s Hat” and “Travels with the Snow Queen” are two of the stories that most people seem to enjoy, though I found the former spooky but baffling, and the latter a tad crude both in tone and style (it was clearly one of Link’s earlier stories – the collection is made up of stories she wrote over a 4 or 5 year period). For anyone curious in trying Link out, this entire collection is available for download here.  She’s since published two others, I believe, and I would be open to exploring them one day.  I enjoyed her writing and her spirit, even if many of her tales made me feel as though I were simply floating in a haze. One thing I’m wondering is if maybe my enjoyment of this collection was perhaps somewhat hindered by the way I read it.  I plonked myself down and essentially read the whole thing throughout the course of a single day.  Maybe I would have been better served by reading one or two at a time and then letting them linger in the back of my brain for a day or two before tackling the next?  For those of you who read short stories on a more routine basis, is this how you approach them, or do you dole them out slowly over a more prolonged period of time?  I tend to only like to read a single book at a time, but I wonder if it wouldn’t be in my best interest to intersperse short stories with the rest of my reading from here on out (perhaps reading a single story before bed each night).  How do you prefer to read short story collections? Rating: 3 out of 5

10 Comments

  1. 05/07/2009

    You probably should try interspersing them. I do a bit of both, depending on the book or the circumstances. I will read a whole book throughout if it really interests me to go on. If not, then I save the other stories for another day. I find that I much enjoy each story this way.

  2. 05/09/2009

    Good review. I think you nail Kelly’s writing style perfectly.I’ve actually read this collection twice now. I would agree that it would’ve been better to read two stories at a time and then take a break.

    I also found that when I re-read them much more came out in the stories that I failed to notice the first time. Her stories center on motifs rather than traditional plot arcs, as well as the character’s emotional changes.

    I actually wrote a little about the final story, <a href=”The Girl Detective on my blog.”

    In all fairness, I’m not an entirely neutral party. Kelly was one of my teachers the year I attended the Clarion Science Fiction writing workshop.

  3. 05/09/2009

    @ Claire: I think that I will try to space out my short story readings within a collection next time and see if that helps. I suppose certain collections lend themselves to one-shot reads, while others require that you dip in and out of them over time. I felt like Lahiri’s book was an example of the first, but maybe I would have liked it better if I had spaced out the stories (and therefore forgotten bits of them so that they didn’t seem so repetitive!).
     
    @ Eric: Thanks for your insights into this collection in particular. I read your post on The Girl Detective, and I am right there with you on all of the points you make – I wasn’t sure what to make of that last section/paragraph either! Right now I’m not 100% sure I would want to re-read many of these stories again, although I think you’re right that I would likely glean more from them on a second reading… I certainly couldn’t understand most of them any less!

  4. 05/10/2009

    I’m not a big short story reader either Steph and when I do read them I tend to do what you have done here and read the whole collection right through. I had never thought before that this might be impacting (negatively) on the reading of the stories – I think it sounds like a good idea to pace them out. I’m going to try that!

  5. […] that secretly haunts every book blogger: to re-read or not to re-read? This comes shortly after I suggested to Steph at Steph and Tony Investigate that she might profit from re-reading Kelly Link’s first short […]

  6. 05/13/2009

    Great review! I think these stories sound both interesting and weird, and I might like to try them out just to see if I “get” any of them.

    I am not usually a short story reader for the same reasons you mention, but I am trying to find some really good collections out there in an effort to change my mind.

  7. 05/14/2009

    @ Karen: From visiting some other blogs, it seems there is a fairly even mix between those who read collections straight through, versus those who show some restraint when it comes to short stories… I’m not sure that one style typically lends itself to greater enjoyment of the stories, but like you, I’m going to try a more restricted approach the next time I tackle a collection and we’ll see how that influences my feelings towards it!
     
    @ zibilee: I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on Link’s stories. I’d be curious to hear which ones you liked best, as well as whether you get more out of them than I did. They certainly give you a lot to contemplate, and hey,they’re free, which is always nice! 😉

  8. 05/14/2009

    I agree that it’s difficult to start over again after I have just gained footing on the characters and setting of a story, after being “ensconced” as you said. I felt the same way about Olive Kitteridge, even though I enjoyed the sometimes remote connection to her. I’m not a huge short-story fan and if I do have a choice, I always favor a novel.

  9. 05/15/2009

    Matt, it seems like short stories are a tricky business for us novel readers! 😉 I am still interested in reading Olive Kitteridge at some point – hopefully the fact that the stories are somewhat tied together will make them easier for me to read them!

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