Rebecca Kauffman’s latest novel The Gunners is a skillfully crafted, character-driven novel with one noticeable flaw: it’s a bit uneven. That’s not to say it’s an extreme case of the horrible mixed with delightful; the difference is between great and merely “good enough.” When The Gunners is at its best, it really moves. It is brilliant and compelling. The characters are complex. And then there are times when the novel feels a little light. It takes the route through easy storytelling and simple plot devices. These are the moments that might bore more literary readers, but the readers of commercial fiction will likely not notice. I recommend this novel for readers of both camps, particularly those who love wonderfully drawn characters, but I suspect some readers will similarly notice this patch of roughness
Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” is immensely important because it presents a first-hand narrative of the last-known survivor of the transatlantic shipment of Africans to the Americas and because it gifts the reading world with a lost work of Zora Neale Hurston's. Barracoon is an important work as any historical record, particularly one that lacked an abundance of first-hand narratives, should be. But Barracoon is just that: a historical record. Sure, it is written in the dialect, but it's ultimately the record of the life of Oluale Kossola (renamed Cudjo Lewis; I prefer to use the subject's given name).
Most readers are probably eager to hear Kossola's perspective on his life in Africa and his forced journey to America. This was my primary want from this narrative. Unfortunately, it becomes clear far too soon that Kossola is an old man trying to resurrect memories that are seventy years old. His memory of slavery in America is more than sixty years old. I've only lived half as long as Kossola did, but already my childhood memories have begun to jumble and I cannot help but question some of what I clearly recall. I have no doubt that Kossola's recollection was accurate in some regards, but surely some of those memories had grown fragile and corrupted with time. It's also too evident that he views his upbringing through a lens of Christian teaching, which casts much of it in a negative light.
Much of this narrative is about Kossola's life post-slavery. And while this is important and interesting, it presents little new to anyone who's familiar with life in the South for former slaves. Perhaps most interesting are Kossola's records of the Clotilda and some of the finer details of living in Africatown. Barracoon is not the eye-opening riveting story I hoped for, but I'm still glad that it was published and that I had the opportunity to read it.
I haven't quite made up my mind about Stephen King. Part of me is repelled by his trendiness; that part also recognizes an author with flaws of dialogue and resolution and an author who needs to better listen to his editor (or find a new editor). And yet the guy can craft a really riveting, well-told story, ie “The Body.” No work better displays both sides of King than The Stand, a wonderfully constructed tale that suffers woefully from diarrhea of the pen.
But I keep coming back because there is a draw. After a year or two away, something about King's works calls to me. Sometimes I'm glad I returned. Other times, I'm like “eh.” This time around, I am truly, genuinely surprised.
I wasn't expecting a whole lot out of The Long Walk. It's not one of the author's more notable works. The summary of the book brought to mind ideas of a potentially strong story, but greater likelihood of cheesiness. And knowing that King would have to maintain an entire novel of teenagers talking with one another frightened me.
But this novel really, truly worked. First, The Long Walk is believably scary. This isn't about killer clowns or murderous cars, it's about a society that encourages and delights in the sacrifice of its youth. Once a year, one hundred teenage boys begin walking. They cannot stop until there is only one left. What happens if they stop or walk too slowly? They receive a warning. After three warnings, they're killed. That's it. So simply terrifying. And the walk goes on day after day, because when your only choice is to live or to stop and rest, you find the will to keep going (or maybe you don't.)
But this isn't really a story about a dystopian society in love with the long walk, now is it? This is the story of war. Boys on the verge of manhood being sent on some ridiculous quest. They're spurred on by the words of a general shouting encouragement at them. They're cheered on by the patriotic fervor of the crowds that watch from the sideline, but never join the walk. They're shell-shocked and unsure why they'd even started walking in the first place. Published in 1979,The Long Walk likely was inspired by the war in Vietnam, but it could easily be about any war.
One of the things that almost doesn't work but ends up working spectacularly in this novel is the dialogue. Some of these conversations are so brilliant. Others are completely asinine. Who would believe that these individuals would have the conversations they do right after watching their neighbor being gunned down. But isn't that exactly how it is in war? Don't these soldiers become so immune to it all that while they may from time to time philosophize about life and death, they're just as likely to talk about Saturday morning cartoons? At times, the raging hormones of these one hundred became a bit over the top for my tastes, but largely I believed this group's actions and discussions.
The only area where I would've liked to have seen change was in the contemporary setting. King places these kids sometime in the sixties or seventies, I'm never quite sure. Again, this probably alludes to Vietnam, but it dates the story horribly. The boys discuss the music, the cars, and the babes of the era. In 2018, it makes an otherwise universal story sound a bit hokey at times. This was a problem thatThe Stand suffered from as well.
I was really pulled into this novel and I must say that while I've read relatively little of King's complete bibliography, this has been my favorite so far. There are some really wonderful passages here and the overall story is quite engaging. The Long Walk truly made me hungry for more of King's writing.
West begins with a wonderful premise, a good cast of characters, and some lovely language. Then it ends. And I'm not sure how I feel about that. Part of me thinks, I could've stayed with these characters for a full 300 pages. I would've endured the journey wherever it took me. Surely this story could've gone on longer. Then again, I'm not sure. There's such a thing as a story stretched too thin, and I think Westcould've been a victim of this had it been much longer. Perhaps it is too long as it is. Maybe West isn't too short for a novel, but too long for a short story. The final fourth of this novella does wane a bit. I'm not sure what side of the fence I fall on, but something feels off about it and I think it has to do with length.
Overall, West is a wonderfully quick and entertaining read. The premise really sells this book. In the early 1800s, a father goes on a quest to find monstrous beasts whose bones have recently been unearthed. He leaves his daughter behind to begin her own quest into womanhood. It's a wonderful idea and I think Carys Davies pulls it off exceptionally well. I'm curious to see what else Davies can do, long or short.
I picked up Outline because and only because I've heard Cusk's name being dropped as a potential Man Booker Prize contender this year. If she is nominated, it will be for her newest novel, Kudos; but as her newest is the third in a trilogy, I did not want to find myself already two books behind when the longlist drops. So I thought I'd get a head start... just in case.
Man Booker Prize nominated books can come in many varieties, but it's not uncommon for the list to have several titles that are intelligent and/or relatively dry. The latter can be difficult for some, but more often than not, I enjoy them despite being slow. I cannot speak for Kudos as I have yet to read it, but man, oh man isOutline boring. I can see why some might think Cusk would be a welcome nominee. If Kudos were nominated, I'd read it, as I didn't dislike Outline or the style Cusk used to bring her story together—it was just abysmally dry.
Outline is the story of stories. It's about an author interacting with people in Athens, and telling their stories. But her stories are more like an outline of these characters. There's not much to them. They're not the most interesting stories, but I'm sure they're some kind of a reflection of the author herself. Who am I kidding? This book was so uneventful. There's beauty of words and a certain strong realism to the dialogue, but it lacks plot and character. Still, some people love it. LOVE IT. And I say kudos to them. Personally, I think I missed something, but I'd be willing to give it another go.
Safe Area Goražde gets four stars because it covers a war that doesn't get enough attention. It earns its four stars for giving voice to many who would not have otherwise been heard. It gets four stars for not shying away from the horror of the war. And it gets four stars for trying to educate a people.
As an annal of the Bosnian War as told through graphic novel, Safe Area Goražde succeeds. It could be better. It tells about only a fragment of the conflict, but this is to be expected, I guess, in a work of journalism by a solo observer. But, Sacco does not remain an impartial observer as one would expect from this style of journalism. My complaints about Sacco do not end there.
Sacco's gross misrepresentation of self was horribly distracting. It's not that Sacco is a fabulous artist, particularly in regards to the human face, but no character is portrayed as cartoonish and malformed as Sacco's own. Having finished the book, I did a search for the author's photo, half expecting to find a monstrous facsimile of the Sacco character. Nope, Sacco's a pretty normal looking guy.
Perhaps this is a reflection of his character, which is also unappealing. Sacco comes off as sort of an invasive creeper, in my opinion. I could not trust the guys intentions. And if this is how the author himself presents his character, I have to wonder how much worse it might have truly been.
Safe Area Goražde is a good graphic novel almost entirely because of its subject. The authorial intrusion was unnecessary though. Was Sacco's character needed at all? Sure, it helps place the journalist in the conflict, but I would've been more invested in the story at the heart of the book with his inclusion kept to an absolute minimum. It's the promise of his presence in his other works of journalism that will likely keep me away.
When I went to graduate school for writing, I learned that there are grad school books and authors. These are the authors or titles you likely have never heard of before entering an MFA program, but you're going to hear about them before they let you leave. During my two years there, no unknown name came up more than Russell Banks. Three of my four mentors highly pushed his work to me. Each pushing a different title (one mentor recommended two or three different titles). At the time, I did read The Sweet Hereafter, which I enjoyed somewhat, but Banks didn't grasp my attention enough to completely reel me in. It has been eight years since I read that novel, so I felt it was time to give Banks another shot. This time he certainly reeled me in.
I had to look back on my review of The Sweet Hereafter to recall why I didn't love it. Apparently, I thought Banks was ineffective at accurately giving voice to his characters. I find this surprising, because this was certainly not a problem in Continental Drift. I actually thought Banks did a marvelous job giving voice to his characters. Maybe that was the case with my first outing with Banks. Maybe I'm just a much different reader now.
Continental Drift is one of the most—if not the single most—American novel I've ever read. It's the story of people from different backgrounds who are struggling to get ahead. Each believes there is hope in a dream that is unequivocally American. The strength of these characters and the believability Banks lends to their situations are two of the largest components to this novel's excellence. These are characters who genuinely believe they're good people despite the evidence to the contrary. This is the heart and soul of America.
This is a novel that can be disgusting, depressing, or offensive to its reader. It puts on display a cross-section of the American people, their selfish justification and their pompous dream. I've never heard Continental Drift among the list of contenders for the title of the Great American Novel, but I certainly believe there are few novels more American than this. Banks is an author I will assuredly return to.
"...no one had told them that the most frightening thing of all about the loss of youth is not what is taken away but what is granted in exchange. Not wisdom. Not security. Not sound judgment or tranquility. Only the awareness of universal disintegration."
"...they had learned that is everyone's life there is only one person whose name can be cried out in the moment of death."
Katalin Street has a enchanting start (though it is sort of confusing). With each subsequent chapter, the novel becomes slightly less mesmerizing and affecting (and less confusing). In the end, I cannot say that I really enjoyed or even fully appreciated this novel. It certainly has some powerful prose and a wonderfully conceived story, but it does grow a bit tiresome. A very solid effort from Magda Szabó, but I do wish it had been polished more
If you actually read my reviews regularly (hi mom), you may have noticed that I'm not writing reviews regularly. I've been finding it difficult lately. You see, more than five years ago I began working part-time so that I could focus on being a writer. At the time I had a nearly completed novel and dozens of stories that I intended to publish. Also, I thought I could use all my spare time to keep the house immaculate and also solve the world's problems. Five years later I can say I did a pretty good job at keeping up with the dishes and laundry. You see, having all the time in the world did not work for this writer. And so, I decided (very grudgingly) to go back to work full-time. I figured I couldn't be any less productive of a writer.
The thing is, I'm having a really tough time adjusting. I don't remember how I did it before. And so, I've been slacking on everything. While I continue to read—I do work at a library, after all—my reviews keep pilling up. Seeing all the books I have yet to write something about is almost too stressful.
Apparently, I read this novel, Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson sometime earlier this year. Of everything that stood out about the novel, here's what I remember: 1) the protagonist is an elderly gentleman looking back on his life in Norway; 2) the narrative is completely non-linear; 3) there are some gorgeous passages through this novel.
1) Trond is the nearly seventy -year-old man who is reflecting on his life. He takes his time getting around to all the details of his life (see 2), but does so with enthralling description (see 3). Some of Trond's reflections are quite tragic, and these are the stories that really make the plot interesting. Largely, Trond's narrative lacks much in the way of action.
2) I learned while reading Out Stealing Horses that Per Petterson is a writer who plans nothing. He begins a story without a plan and just writes. This is what we call writing by the seat of your pants. That explains why this narrative is all over the place, but it doesn't make it any less difficult to follow. Personally, I find the style makes for a less-than-pleasant read and that the final payoff on this particular novel was lacking.
3) Out Stealing Horses is a language-driven story. I realize that it has been translated from the Norwegian, so my judgment in regards to its mastery of language is based entirely on the English translation. The sentences in this novel are quite simple, as you'd expect from a character such as Trond, but that doesn't keep them from carrying a certain rhythm and depth that really stand out. Take, for example, this passage:
There was a smell of roasting meat and coffee in the air, and the smell of smoke, and timber and heather and sun-warmed stones and some special scent I had not noticed anywhere else than by this river, and I did not know what it was made of if not a combination of all that was there; a common denominator, a sum, and if I left and did not return I would never be able to experience it again.
For what it's worth, that's what I remember all this time later of Out Stealing Horses. This is far from a thorough or wonderfully written review, but I'm slacking. (If you think this is bad, you should see the state of the dishes in my kitchen right now.)
The year was 1999. Most of my friends at the time were in their late teens. I was twenty. We were a group obsessed with music, we all knew we were destined for a future in the auditory arts. A couple are still involved in making music; most of us gave it up a decade or more ago. We all had a faith in God, though I think that's largely been shaken at this point. Most of the time we hung out, we discussed music, movies, books, and theology. That year, we fell under the tutelage of a much older mentor. He challenged us in many ways. He inspired us to think outside of the conventions of faith and brotherhood. We loved him and we believed he loved us. He ended up being a creeper in the end, but that's a story for another time.
Every time my friends and I discussed lit, our mentor would chime in with his favorite author: Harold Bell Wright. None of us had heard of him. Wright was an author of a different time who'd largely been left behind. Our mentor swore by the brilliance and majesty ofThe Shepherd of the Hills. One by one, my friends read it and brought their opinions of the book back, and before long entire nights were spent discussing The Shepherd of the Hills. I planned on reading it back then, but life took me slightly on the outside of the group and I hadn't returned to the idea in the two decades since.
The Shepherd of the Hills was a widely successful book in its day: 1907. I can see why. It’s a gripping tale that toes some of the era’s conventions without stepping over any lines. The Shepherd of the Hills features the same kind of blend of mystery and adventure that made Mark Twain what he was, but in place of Twain’s signature witticism, Wright inserts spirituality. And this spirituality is interesting, because on one hand it feels very orthodox Christian, but on the other it is full of a mysticism that I would've imagined not accepted by people of faith at the time. Likewise, the novel has progressive thoughts regarding marriage, gender roles, and other things while at the same time remaining firmly rooted in a very conservative soil.
The Shepherd of the Hills is in part an adventure story, but it is just as much a love letter. It is a love letter to the Ozark hills of Missouri and an allegory for the love letter of Jesus. Surprisingly, considering that the author could've written a very cloying Jesus-loves-you tale without alienating his audience, Wright was cautious in laying the religious allegory on too thick. Even so, I thought the tale dragged on a bit too long for my tastes. The longer it goes, the more the plot is replaced with introspection, and the more Wright’s spiritually intriguing story is pushed aside for a traditional sermon. I think Harold Bell Wright’s story is still read today because it is just different enough and it is mechanically sound, but I do have doubts that it’ll persevere through the next generation or two. There are other authors that I believe better captured the time and they will be the ones who will be remembered in the future.
I think that if I had I read this novel in 1999, along with most of my friends, I probably would’ve “agreed” with our mentor that it was a fabulous book. That’s what you do when you’re young and under the influence of another. I might've even enjoyed it some, but in reality, I wouldn't have loved it all that much. Twenty years late to the party, I can only say that it was a fine read, certainly a good example of the twentieth century’s first decade, but it didn’t grab me the same way it grabbed him. For my former mentor, this was the book to end all books. I’m sure he had his personal reasons why this book touched him so and they probably had to do with the person he was at the moment he first read it. That’s the subjectiveness of reading. Our impression of the written word is a greater reflection of the person we are at the moment we read it than of the work itself. So all that said, if you read my review because you wanted his opinion, then by all means this a five-star book.
"As soon as you are born the sand starts falling and only by demanding to be remembered do you stand a chance of it being upturned again and again."
I think Asymmetry may have a tough time finding its audience. It’s a difficult book for the casual reader in some ways: the prose is simple enough, but the structure is entirely a different matter. I think most readers are going to say “what the hell was that about?” while other more astute but critical readers will say “that was hella pretentious.”
The “problem” rests in that Asymmetry is three very distinct stories tied together by the thinnest of threads. “But there’s no thread at all,” many readers will say. There is and there isn’t. You see, it’s all very metafictional and I’m all about the meta. In Part I we have a young woman, Alice, from Massachusetts who works as an editor, dreams of living in Europe, and develops a romantic relationship with a much older National-Book-Award-winning author. The author of Asymmetry, Lisa Halliday, is herself a former editor from Massachusetts who now lives in Italy. Whether truly based on the author's personal experiences or not, it is logical for a reader to assume that Alice is autobiographical. And therein lies the brilliance of Asymmetry because we do not really know Lisa Halliday’s story, we only make assumptions based on the few facts we do know. But then Halliday goes in the opposite direction. In a time when we too often question the writer’s ability to write from any other perspective than their own, Halliday turns the book on its head and writes a very different story.
A young friend of mine has written a rather surprising little novel about this, in its way. About the extent to which we’re able to penetrate the looking-glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own. It’s a novel that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do with its author, but in fact is a kind of veiled portrait of someone determined to transcend her provenance, her privilege, her naiveté.
In Part II, we’re introduced to Amar, an Iraqi-American man who is detained by immigration officers for an entire weekend. He reflects on his back and forth relationship with Iraq and America and with his family, caught between two worlds. It’s natural for the reader to expect some sort of connection to exist between Amar’s story and Alice’s. The reader is busy looking for it and any direct connection that exists is so thin the reader is most likely to miss it: at the end of Amar’s story, we briefly see a woman who may or may not be Alice. That’s it. But the connection goes beyond that, because if that woman is Alice, then she’ll go on to be the writer who writes Amar’s story.
Halliday nails the voice of Amar, proving that a privileged woman from Massachusetts can write from a perspective that she has no first-hand experience with. That's not to say Halliday doesn't understand Amar. Her story is reflected in Alice's as it is in Amar's.
...even someone who imagines for a living is forever bound by the ultimate constraint: she can hold her mirror up to whatever subject she chooses, at whatever angle she likes—she can even hold it such that she herself remains outside its frame, the better to de-narcissize the view—but there's no getting around the fact that she's always the one holding the mirror. And just because you can't see yourself in a reflection doesn't mean no one can.
Yet Asymmetry is so meta that I'm wondering if there's not more to it. For instance, in the opening pages, the young editor is reading a book that itself bears similarity to the novel of Part II, a novel “made up almost exclusively of long paragraphs, and no quotation marks whatsoever, and what is the point of a book, thought Alice, that does not have quotation marks?” So is Alice reading the book that she herself has yet to write? Or is Alice not the author? Is the fictional Alice perhaps reading the book that her own creator Lisa Halliday wrote? Only now, as I write this, am I drawing the connection between “Alice” and her “looking-glass.” Am I looking too much into this? I'll just leave it at this and let the reader infer their own conclusion.
As I read this novel, I occasionally caught glimpses of other works and authors I have read, all of them Man Booker nominees: Eleanor Catton, Kamila Shamsie, Ian McEwan, Ali Smith… There’s a strong similarity in the tone and structure of the works. I will not be the least surprised if Asymmetry is not on the longlist to be announced in a few months. It's not a perfect book and it may fail in conveying its message to the vast majority of readers, but Asymmetry is such an intelligently written and relevant book that I'm sure someone will take notice.
I don't know if there's ever been a book I've hated disliking as much as I hated disliking Heart Berries. This is such an honest, heartrending memoir. Written by a First Peoples woman battling mental illness, it is a very important and unique work. The prose is gorgeous though not always easy to follow: Mailhot takes a stream of conscious approach that may leave a reader feeling disoriented. I think the style works well as it gives the impression of the mental and political struggles Mailhot faces throughout these pages.
For these reasons, Heart Berries is a stellar read. But…
Mailhot has some reason to be angry. I understand. She’s been through several toxic relationships and many difficult situations. But her answer is to perpetuate stereotypes and justify her own toxic response. It’s all very honest, but it doesn’t give me much hope for the future. Though it’s beautifully written and very heartfelt on one hand, on the other, Heart Berries is little more than a highly intelligent Fuck Off note. Rather than respond with my own vitriol, I’m just going to stuff it back into the pages of this book and move onto the next.
I had a really tough time getting into this book initially. There's no doubt that the voice of the narrative is interesting, but that doesn't mean it is not confusing. Trust me, it is. Told by the voices in Ada's head—are they personalities indicative of a mental illness or spiritual beings that battle for her attention—Freshwater does not stop to answer questions. This commitment to voice is good for the end result, because it really adds credibility to the narrative, but it does make for a somewhat difficult beginning.
In her debut novel, Akwaeke Emezi crafts a journey that is devastating and empowering. There is much in this story that can break a heart or turn a reader in disgust. Those avoiding difficult subjects in their reads should skip this one. Ultimately, however, Freshwater is a very spiritual tale, a battle for one soul. Despite the many dark moments, it becomes a display of strength and fulfillment. Through lyrical prose and the unrelenting voices, Freshwater explores what it is to be between two worlds—living and dead, Africa and America, Allah and Yeshua, peace and rage.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration is epic indeed. What's most amazing about this book is the sheer amount of research that must have gone into it. Despite focusing largely on only three migrants, Isabel Wilkerson interviewed nearly two hundred individuals in addition to gathering information from nearly eighty organizations. The result is a story that provides a relatively complete picture of the “Great Migration” that started during World War I and lasted into the 1970s. The Warmth of Other Suns is as vast as it is important.
The book's only flaw comes from a lack of editing (though it could've been a conscious choice of style). The Warmth of Other Suns is unnecessarily repetitive. Every few chapters, the reader is reminded of what happened ten or twenty pages earlier. Now, this may be intentional. When telling a narrative with three different story lines, it's understandable that the author may feel the need to reiterate. Perhaps she didn't trust her readers to remember. Perhaps she thought they'd welcome the reminder. Certainly, I wouldn't have been opposed to a little of this courtesy, but it does exceed necessity.
Though the repetition keeps this book from being the riveting narrative it could be, it is not any less important of a story of an often overlooked historical event. The Warmth of Other Suns is the right blend of voice and historical detail, a telling so rich that one expects it may be remembered for a long time.
"...I have come to feel that the end of the space shuttle is going to be the ending of a story, the story of one of the truly great things my country has accomplished, and that I want to be the one to tell it."
For some reason, I associate spaceflight with the month of February. I'm not sure why. I tried to unpack this reasoning as I read Leaving Orbit, but I cannot say there is any cause for my association. Perhaps it is because when I think of spaceflight, I think of Challenger. I was only six at the time of the explosion. We didn't watch the launch in my first grade classroom—I recall little talk of it beforehand—though neighboring, older classes were watching that day. I remember a teacher from one of those classes came into the room, whispered to my teacher who responded with a gasp. She cautiously announced the accident to the class. We watched this strange adult behavior with awe for only a couple minutes, then returned to coloring our paper coins copper and silver. By the time I unpacked and processed what had happened during the January launch it may have been February. Perhaps this is the reason for my association. Maybe none of this matters, but each February since this book has been published, I have set it on my reading table only to put it off for one more year.
I don't have the same love for spaceflight that Margaret Lazarus Dean does. I am amazed by the cosmos. I appreciate the beauty of the universe and of stars and planets. It is the majesty of space that I love. Space vehicles in and of themselves do nothing to excite me. That said, I always thought the shuttle was a majestic vehicle. Unlike the rockets before it which ripped apart the sky and penetrated the exosphere, the shuttle was a graceful and beautiful bird that merely skirted space. Unlike the gruff military men of 1960s spaceflight, the astronauts of the shuttle were men and women of the sciences and engineering. Apollo delivered gray lifeless stones. The shuttles set into motion the objects that sent back images of distant galaxies, images that far exceeded our expectations.
So I may not be the target audience for this book. Certainly, I have a greater appreciation for the shuttle than perhaps the average person, but I have no strong opinion about the likes of Aldrin. Even so, I really enjoyed Leaving Orbit. Dean gorgeously unpacks the history of spaceflight throughout this book. It's a wonderful blend of expert research and personal reflection. Leaving Orbit is the story of spaceflight, but it is also the story of Dean's love for spaceflight. This is unlike any work of non-fiction I've read before because it's clear that the author pours her heart into every page. She is incredibly passionate about the topic. Leaving Orbit is a eulogy for not only the shuttle, but modern spaceflight in general, and it is written by someone who knew and loved the deceased very much.
Dean's love for all-things NASA is so great that it could easily be called a religion. She makes pilgrimages, studies the holy works, and offers sacrifices. But Leaving Orbit's appeal wanes in those moments when the author becomes overly evangelical. When she attempts to explain away the doubters, the book becomes less about the glorious experience of spaceflight and more about the argument. Look, I've had doubts about the feasibility of humans traveling 240,000 miles in a metal cone with a twelve-foot diameter and a computer with less memory than the flash drive in my pocket. Even more unbelievable is the fact that without any previous experience, truly accurate data or test runs, they were able to get off the surface of the moon and return to earth. Honestly, it would be much more believable if the first two or three missions failed to return. It's natural for any intelligent person to question. All religion asks us to do is move a mountain from time to time. We either have the faith to believe in the impossible or we do not. Apollo is no different from any other god.
Despite these few hiccups, Leaving Orbit is such a stupendous read. Even though it is bursting with so many marvelous facts, I wanted more. I watched the launch videos. I read the official reports. I developed a greater appreciation for spaceflight in general. And it wasn't enough. My heart was broken for those who've invested their lives into the space program, and I hope against hope that one day the program will soar again.
Even the best of short story collections are uneven. I used to find this odd—how could a writer who wrote such a fabulous story follow it with such a crap story? I realize now that it makes sense. I mean, after all, if you look at any author's complete body of works, you'll find great works and ho-hum works. No writer is one-hundred percent consistent. The difference is in presentation. We think of a collection of short stories as a complete work. A novelist's whole career is not held under the same scrutiny.
Danielle Lazarin's Back Talk is no different. There are stories I really enjoyed. And stories I could've done without. The difference was the grouping of these stories. Normally, a collection starts with one or two good stories and follows it with a dud, then another good story and several duds. Depending on the total number of stories in the collection and the ratio of good stories, all this may vary, of course, but often the middle contains several lackluster stories that lead into a final one or two good stories.
So when I started reading Back Talk and found that the first several stories barely held my attention, I assumed the whole collection was not for me. Midway, the stories really started to improve however. In fact, story after story was quite wonderful. At this point, I questioned whether it was me: perhaps some preconceived notion I had about the collection, or some blockage in my personal life. I decided that, when finished, I'd go back and read one of the first few stories that I found to be far from special.
On a second reading, the story I selected was slightly more enjoyable, but I still didn't love it. So maybe this collection is oddly uneven, but it does contain several wonderful stories. The best of these stories really get into the minds of their protagonists. They're quiet stories about everyday events, but they're full of heart. In these character-driven stories, I think it ultimately comes down to connection. I was pulled into the mind of some of these characters, not into the minds of others. Readers of character-centric short fiction should give Back Talk a try.