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.

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A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear by Atiq Rahimi – Book Review

A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear by Atiq Rahimi, translated by Sarah Maguire and Yama Yari
Published by Other Press

Kabul, 1979. It is the early days of the Soviet invasion, but for Farhad life does not yet seem particularly different. This happy naivete does not last long, however. Something happens while Farhad is out carousing with a friend preparing to flee to Pakistan, and the young man is severely beaten. When Farhad finally awakes, grievously  injured, he finds himself in the house of a young widow Рa woman whose life has already been greatly impacted by the presence of the Soviet soldiers.

Typically when I read, I like big meaty paragraphs, with lots of words to latch onto. Spare pages make me a bit nervous; “can this author really impart enough in these few words?” I wonder. Oftentimes, the answer is no. However, with “A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear,” the answer is yes. Some rudimentary knowledge of the situation in Afghanistan in the late 1970s is necessary to understand what is going on, but even knowing something so simple as the fact the Soviets invaded is, really, sufficient. With that firmly in mind, the atmosphere of a country at war is incredibly evident as Farhad drifts in and out of consciousness, as well as the reality he finds in the young widow’s house when he wakes up.

The prose is simply gorgeous, and incredibly evocative. This is all the more stunning as “A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear” is a translation. Maguire and Yari are very skilled indeed, to take Rahimi’s stark, poetic prose and render it lovely in English, without losing the sense of place and import.

This may not be a book for every reader, but for those who revel in writing and the power of language to evoke emotion, as well as those interested in feeling what it might be like to live in an occupied country, I highly recommend “A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear.”

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http://www.powells.com/biblio/9781590513613?&PID=34002

Exley by Brock Clarke – Book Review

Exley by Brock Clarke
Published by Algonquin, an imprint of Workman

When Miller’s dad leaves their family, he announces that he is going to join the war in Iraq, and Miller takes him at face value. Miller’s mother, on the other hand, is adamant that her husband could not possibly have gone to Iraq – after all he was too old, too out of shape, too lazy. When Miller continues to insist that his father is in Iraq and letters start showing up, ostensibly from his father, Miller’s mother put him into therapy. Miller’s doctor, who refers to him as M., is a bit pretentious but does seem to have M.’s best interests at heart – if only because he has a crush on M.’s mother. Everything comes to a head when Miller discovers that his father – or someone he assumes is his father – is lying unconscious in the Veteran’s Hospital. In order to return his father to health and to his own life, Miller decides that he must find Exley, whose fictional memoir, “A Fan’s Notes,” is the one thing Miller’s father is truly passionate about in life. He is certain that if he brings Exley to his father, his father will get well again.

Over the last weekend, I found myself in a bit of a reading funk. I had a hard time picking up or concentrating on anything, until I picked up “Exley.” As might be expected of an author whose first book is titled, “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England,” Brock Clarke has, with “Exley,” written a quirky and fascinating novel. The most immediate thing that captured my attention was the question of whether or not Miller’s father really went to Iraq and whether he was currently lying unconscious in a hospital bed. This brought up an even more intriguing question: if he had not been to Iraq, was Miller simply misinformed and confused, or is he an unreliable narrator? There is, of course, the issue of the man in the hospital, as well as some letters Miller’s mother intercepted, which she believes that Miller wrote and had someone post from an APO address.

This is an incredibly quirky book, with Miller expounding on things his father taught him, which his father learned from Exley, and calling people by their initials and speaking in imprecise dates as his father and Exley both do as well. Although not for the easily offended, Exley is an immensely enjoyable book which I can highly recommend.

Thanks to Beth Fish Reads, who has helped me to become more aware of the imprints I love over the past year, beginning with her Amy Einhorn Perpetual Challenge. Follow her blog for regular spotlights of some of her favorite imprints.

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

Source: Publisher.
* 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.

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The Gendarme by Mark Mustian – Book Review

The Gendarme by Mark Mustian
Published by Amy Einhorn Books, an imprint of Penguin

The first thing that caught my attention about “The Gendarme” was the arresting cover. I found it very reminiscent of the National Geographic cover of the Afghan girl, if a slightly less intense gaze. When I read the jacket copy and saw that it was about Turkey and the Armenians in WWI, I was totally sold.

And, although, it was not at all what I expected, “The Gendarme” did not disappoint.

Emmet Cohn was born Ahmet Khan in Turkey at the end of the 19th century. Unfortunately, he does not remember much of anything before he woke up in a British hospital during World War I with severe head trauma. He made it to the United States due to the determination of his American nurse, whom he married. After a long life in which he considered himself American first and foremost, Emmet, 92 and recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, has become dreaming again of Turkey. Specifically, he is dreaming of being a gendarme – which is odd, because he is positive he was a Turkish solider, not a gendarme – who is taking a group of Armenians to Syria and is beguiled by an Armenian girl with two different colored eyes, Araxie.

I really enjoyed “The Gendarme,” the way it worked through memory, sins of the past, aging, sickness, duty, and repentance. The two storylines were worked together masterfully, particularly considering there was not always a visual cue of transition. One thing bled into another with ease and occasionally when the transition was overly quick, it was wonderfully evocative of exactly what Emmet must have been going through with his tumor and increasingly frequent lapses between waking and dreams. I adored the uncertainty – shared by Emmett himself – of whether or not we could trust him as a narrator, or whether him tumor and previous head trauma left him unreliable. There were times I felt that I shouldn’t buy the blossoming relationship between Emmett and Araxie, with all of the hardships between them, but Mustian wrote them so compellingly that I had a difficult time not believing their relationship, unlikely as it may have seemed.

In “The Gendarme,” Mustian blends history and the human spirit beautifully. Highly recommended.

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

This review was done with a book received from BEA.
* 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 Report by Jessica Francis Kane – Book Review

The Report by Jessica Francis Kane
Published by Graywolf Press

In 1943, a shelter in Bethnal Green, London became the site of the largest civilian accident of World War II. Citizens of Bethnal Green, anticipating a retaliatory air strike, crowded into the station. Before 9pm, 173 of them were dead, although the Germans did not bomb London that night. After the accident, there was much finger-pointing in many directions: from the lack of light and the late arrival of the constable to the general existence of Jewish refugees. In order to quell unrest, the government appoints the young and popular local magistrate, Laurence Dunne, to conduct a private investigation. He works with surprising speed to create a report he hopes will mend the broken ties of the city in general and Bethnal Green in particular.

When I picked up “The Report,” I expected a competent novelization of a fascinating historical event and mystery. I also expected the account to be somewhat dry, if interesting, based both on the less than titilating title and the fact that it is essentially the story of how a governmental report came to be. Still, I was interested enough in the Bethnal Green tragedy, of which I had never heard before, to give it a go.

How wrong I was to be expecting something dry!

Kane takes an ensemble cast of characters and manages to make all of their stories compelling, without spending so much time on character development that she loses the thread of the story. A major element in this success is the inclusion of a secondary storyline, that of a documentary film maker – who has his own ties to the tragedy – who contacts Dunne to enlist his help in a documentary that will memorialize the 30th anniversary of Dunne’s report. This storyline serves as a nice foil to the primary storyline, ¬†moving events along and explaining what is necessary, without being overly expository.

“The Report” is a surprisingly compelling novel about a seemingly unlikely subject. A fabulous read if you are at all curious to explore history and human nature. Highly recommended.

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

This review was done with a book received from the publisher 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.