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One Of These Things Is Not Like The Others

Stephanie Johnson

"The Mother taught her the words to Rolling Stones songs and tucked candy cigarettes into her book bag. The Mother cut crooked bangs into the daughter’s hair and shadowed her eyes so she could look like Debbie Harry."

Reviewed by Melissa Lee-Houghton

The poetry is to be found not in the prose but in the meaning of these stories, which is always oblique, with a small window of interpretation, as Johnson strays from telling us exactly what to think, to allowing us to think for ourselves. She does not betray this ethos by handing us a woven narrative with a conclusive ending, but rather tells Americana parables where you can see where the story is going but it never quite ends up where you thought it would. 

In Vino Veritas, a bookish librarian narrates an elusive tale of a meeting between his wife and an old friend. It is the wife's profession which hold the key to our understanding of the idea which pins the story down, and comes as an artful focal point to the second-guessing and mistrust which accompany the stranger to the narrator's house where his wife is,  "... dressed in a tight red dress, necklace, earrings, the whole deal. The diet worked; especially for her guest."

A hapless premonition in My Great Aunt Meets Jesus At The Mobil In Montana, culminates in a tragedy that has a lasting impression on the narrator, and in her later travels alone she admits, "I'll never escape being lost." This piece of flash fiction is brilliantly crafted and tinged with a kind of spooked sadness which lingers.

In Baby, Baby a young couple beginning life as new parents are warned by the all-seeing eye of the mother-in-law that, "life (was) a video. Avoid doing anything you don't have the stomach to watch. The story itself is abject, squeamish, and may make you very glad your other half is not the angry, sweaty "creative-cusser" that the narrator's husband is.

Tennessee Travel Inn, Circa 1979, translates such a vivid evocation of a perpetually abandoned and re-united childhood, completed in half a page of prose, that I was stunned that I took anything from it; though it's difficult not to suffer sympathy for the child and also admiration for the skill of the writer of something so compact and yet completely moving.

In contrast, another short piece, Motherhood, deals with the losses of both a dog and its owner; and although the piece indeed feels complete it doesn't have the power and resonance of Tennessee

Magdalene is a lovely tale of the glorious love triumph of a wayward, or even ordinary girl over the frightening religious rigour of an overbearing mother. Johnson writes about the world of parents and mothers with the startling tell-tale signs of universal imperfection. Many of her characters are just people that made wrong decisions, or had bad luck, or were just plain wrong; but there is occasionally that element of a kind of good triumphing, in its own often quirky or ironic way.

There are so many stories to enjoy in this packed volume, and this book is a perfect companion for journeys, being that the stories can be so easily digested and many of them encompass some kind of journey or moment in time marked by realization or insight. The writing is taut and contained, without being bleak. The subject matter can be dark without feeling overly morose; and ugliness is not avoided though is matched by a feel for the small, magical details which give back to the enjoyment of the read. There were elements of the writer's style which I would have enjoyed being fuller, but that is personal persuasion. I think that this book could fill a gap on many a short story reader's bookshelf, especially if they have a good feel for contemporary American fiction.

Read one of the stories from this collection in Smokelong Quarterly

 Melissa Lee-Houghton Poet, Author of Patterns of Mourning (available from all good online retailers), and reviewer. Contact mclee2006@hotmail.com.

Melissa's other Short Reviews: Philip Shirley "Oh Don't You Cry For me"

Jason Brown "Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work"

Delmore Schwartz "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities"   

David Gaffney "Aromabingo"

Elizabeth Baines "Balancing on the Edge of the World"

John Saul "As Rivers Flow"

Publisher: Keyhole Press

Publication Date: 2009

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Book website: Oneofthesestories.com 

Author bio: Stephanie Johnson lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Her work has appeared in many top American literary journals including SmokeLong Quarterly and Night Train.

Read an interview with Stephanie Johnson

Buy this book (used or new) from:

The Publisher's Website: Keyhole Press


The Author's Recommended Bookseller: Powell's


And...don't forget your local booksellers and independent book shops! Visit  IndieBound.org to find an independent bookstore near you in the US

If you liked this book you might also like....

Tania Hershman "The White Road and Other Stories"

Raymond Carver "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"

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