You Know When The Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon – Book Review

You Know When the Men are Gone by Siobhan Fallon
Published by Amy Einhorn Books, an imprint of Penguin

At one time, I swore off short stories, at least to review. They are always so uneven and difficult to talk about comprehensively. And then I had a chance to talk to Amy Einhorn, the publisher of an imprint I adore at Penguin, and she told me about this short story collection she would be releasing called “You Know When the Men are Gone.” She told me that short stories don’t usually call to her, but these did, and she found herself more captivated than she would have expected by the stories of men and women whose lives are touched by enlistment in the Army, men and women who live at Ft. Hood in Texas – at least when they are not overseas in Iraq.

Short stories about army families. The concept doesn’t immediately grab me and demand to be read, but because of Amy Einhorn’s enthusiasm, I knew I wanted to try “You Know When the Men Are Gone.” If anyone else had published this, if I had not had a chance to sit down with Amy and hear her talk about it, I would likely never have picked this book up, it would not have even been on my radar. If that had been the case, my reading life would have been poorer for it.

You also know when the men are gone. No more boots stomping above, no more football games turned up too high, and, best of all, no more front doors slamming before dawn as they trudge out for their early formation, sneakers on metal stairs, cars starting, shouts to the windows above to throw down their gloves on cold desert mornings. Babies still cry, telephones ring, Saturday morning cartoons screech, but without the men, there is a sense of muted silence, a sense of muted life.

The passage above, located on the first page of the first story, stood out to me in particular, partially because it is the title passage from the title story. However, as I reflect back upon the book, it stands out to me again, not because it is the highlight of Fallon’s writing, but because it is indicative of the strength of this collection. The first story starts out strong, and stays strong, and the same is true of the rest of the stories. There always seem to be stories that are weaker than others in collections such as this, it is such a truth that to say so has become a cliche to mention it in a review. This is not the case for “You Know When the Men Are Gone.” I’m sure each individual will resonate with some stories more than others, but none of the stories can be denigrated as a weak link, all are incredibly well-written, and the character development is top notch. Story arcs are not rushed, but still come to a satisfying – if not always tidy – solution at the end of 30 or so pages.

Siobhan Fallon has been compared to Jhumpa Lahiri on the back cover of the book, a daunting claim since Lahiri’s stories seem t be the only ones read by people who aren’t really fans of short stories. In some ways, this may do a disservice to Fallon, whose stories don’t have the same bleakness that characterizes “The Interpreter of Maladies,” a trait which does turn some readers away, despite Lahiri’s brilliant writing. Certainly some of the stories in “You Know When the Men Are Gone” are full of despair, but many also contain kernels of hope. People expecting the same sort of stories that Lahiri tells may not be immediately satisfied – in my opinion that was more closely achieved by Sana Krasikov’s collection “One More Year” – but readers searching for the strength and beauty of writing and storytelling that Lahiri possesses will be very pleased with “You Know When the Men are Gone.”

I read “You Know When the Men are Gone” over the space of a single day, even pausing between stories, making myself read something else or step away from the book for awhile, to make the experience last longer. At the end, however, I simply couldn’t keep myself from returning to it time and again, until I found myself at the end of the collection, and experiencing my first disappointment brought to me by Fallon’s book: that there are only eight stories.

Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells.*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound.*
Amazon.*

Source: Publisher, via a trade show.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

The Surrendered – Audiobook Review

The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee, narrated by James Yaegashi
Published in print by Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin
Published in audio by Recorded Books

Synopsis:

As much as I hate using the publisher’s description of books, I think I may have to for “The Surrendered.” There was so much going on I don’t think I can put it together coherently.

June Han was only a girl when the Korean War left her orphaned; Hector Brennan was a young GI who fled the petty tragedies of his small town to serve his country. When the war ended, their lives collided at a Korean orphanage where they vied for the attentions of Sylvie Tanner, the beautiful yet deeply damaged missionary wife whose elusive love seemed to transform everything. Thirty years later and on the other side of the world, June and Hector are reunited in a plot that will force them to come to terms with the mysterious secrets of their past, and the shocking acts of love and violence that bind them together.

As Lee unfurls the stunning story of June, Hector, and Sylvie, he weaves a profound meditation on the nature of heroism and sacrifice, the power of love, and the possibilities for mercy, salvation, and surrendering oneself to another. Combining the complex themes of identity and belonging of Native Speaker and A Gesture Life with the broad range, energy, and pure storytelling gifts of Aloft, Chang-rae Lee has delivered his most ambitious, exciting, and unforgettable work yet. It is a mesmerizĀ­ing novel, elegantly suspenseful and deeply affecting.

Thoughts on the story:

I really didn’t quite like the way that “The Surrendered” was structured. It opened with June in Korea, and then jumped ahead to her adult life. Shortly after we realize that she’s very sick and about to go off in search of her child, we jump to a pretty long section on Hector. At that point I had no idea how they really connected, and wasn’t sure why we had left June. I thought that this just went on too long, and it really broke up my investment in the story. In addition, June’s search for her son seemed to me like it was too much simply a vehicle to get her and Hector together and to tell their story in Korea, it didn’t have enough of an emotional impact for my taste. I think I would have preferred “The Surrendered” had it been set solely in Korea, with perhaps some flashbacks to Hector’s life before the war.

Thoughts on the audio production:

I’m sort of sad, because this production was so well done, and yet it so didn’t work for me. My first problem was that the entire first two discs worth of story didn’t have any dialog at all. This is obviously not the fault of James Yaegashi or Recorded Books, but it made it seem like Yaegashi was reading more than narrating. It wasn’t until I got farther into the story that I realized what a good narrator he actually really is. My biggest problem with “The Surrendered” in audio, though, was all the jumping around the story did between characters and in time. Perhaps I’m just not yet a sophisticated enough connoisseur, but I have a difficult time following most stories that jump around a lot in audio. I find that in print there tend to be clues in the formatting of the book, and it is much easier for me to jump back to find where that thread of storyline left off in print.

Overall:

Because so many factors contributed to me not really liking “The Surrendered” I think that others with different pet peeves many enjoy it, but I can’t quite recommend it.

Buy this book from:
Audible: Audio
Powells: Print*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound: Print*
Amazon: Print*

This review was done with an audiobook received from Recorded Books for review.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

Digiprove sealCopyright protected by Digiprove © 2010