You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon

Once upon a time, my husband (very early in our dating life) expressed his desire to join the military.  Two of his best friends were in the Air Force ROTC and they loved it.  I went into a panic attack trying to imagine myself as a military spouse and knew deep down that that life was too much for me.  I’m a worry wart by nature and already had trouble breathing when I knew he was riding long distance on a motorcycle – there’s no way I could handle him being deployed to a war zone 7000 miles away.  Thankfully, he decided to be a CPA instead, but since that moment I’ve always had the utmost respect for the men, women, children, and other loved ones soldiers leave behind.

Siobhan Fallon is one of those spouses – her husband has been deployed to the Middle East on three occasions and they have most recently been stationed in Jordan as a family.  Her debut novel is a collection of 8 fictional stories centered around families at Fort Hood, Texas dealing with the deployment and subsequent return home of their husbands, fathers, and sons.

You also know when the men are gone.  No more boots stomping above, no more football games 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.

Fallon is great at creating a very emotional atmosphere.  Within just a few paragraphs of each story you’ll find yourself affected and deeply invested in each story’s outcome.  The unfortunate consequence of your investment is that none of the stories actually has a proper ending – we’re always left rather ambiguously wondering what happens next, which for myself was frustrating.  Once or twice would have been acceptable, but not each story.  Knowing that Fallon has her MFA, I almost wonder if she were taught to do this in her studies because it feels like something an MFA program would teach. But if she did in fact learn this technique in school, then the abrupt endings are done on purpose and have some sort of meaning.  I suppose they could represent how it might feel to have your spouse, a parent, or a child deployed to a far off war suddenly.  The upheaval the family left behind feels and the uncertainty of how things will end.  I could see this being a poignant literary device, but after 8 times it just sort of felt like a gimmick and cheapened the experience.

Conversely, the fact that you want to know what happens, that you are so heavily entrenched in the welfare of each family speaks to Fallon’s writing ability and her talent at capturing the nuances of her particular life experiences.  Each of the stories could be fully fleshed out into amazing full length novels.

I loved that Fallon’s portrayal of the military doesn’t shy away from showing ugly truths and harsh realities.  Obviously, military life is not a cake walk and the physical, mental, and emotional sacrifices that all military families endure need to be better understood and respected by those of us who live on the outside.  Some readers have been angered by Fallon’s treatment, citing a lack of patriotism, like she’s spreading some sort of unseemly gossip.  I see it quite differently.  When you read these stories, they don’t make you scoff at the military – they make you thankful for your freedoms and the men and women who sacrifice so much so that we can live our nice cushy lives.  They’ll make you proud to be an American without playing into war politics and remind you to thank soldiers for their service when you see them in uniform.

I would have enjoyed seeing a family where the wife went to war.  I know that most soldiers are men, but plenty of women serve as well.  Fallon was asked why she didn’t include such a perspective and she claimed she wanted to but that no particular character really came alive for her to write adequately.  One of the most striking stories for me personally involved a soldier not being deployed with his company because his wife had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.  Seeing how cold the family was treated by others on base because he had ‘dodged’ the deployment was shocking.  They had children who could have been orphaned!  And I defy all readers not to ball like a baby during the final piece, my favorite and a perfect way to end the collection.

You Know When the Men Are Gone (great title, by the way) is a book I’d recommend to anyone wanting a look inside military families – so often war can seem so foreign to us in America because they are fought so far away – this collection makes you face facts and brings the brave men and women closer to home.  And it doesn’t matter if you’re pro-war or anti-war, you just have to be pro-human to enjoy!  Not a perfect first novel, but a promising start for Fallon.  I also recommend checking out her website.  She writes a personal blog and has several great posts on life in the Middle East.  I particularly enjoyed her take on visiting Saudi Arabia as a woman.

Coming up this week are my reviews for Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Bossypants by Tina Fey, and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.

Note:  I won You Know When the Men Are Gone through the Goodreads First Reads program.  The book was provided by the publisher, Penguin Group (USA).

 

January Meetup: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Book club Sundays are absolutely my favorite days.  I look forward to the next one as soon as the current discussion ends.  It’s not just because of the books (even though as a huge book nerd they play a large part) – it’s also because we have the best members of any book club in the whole wide world since the dawn of time, Amen.

Today’s meeting was at my house (hence the cleaning post below) and our January selection was The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  I was nervous because I loved this book more than what some would consider a ‘normal’ amount – what if they didn’t like it?  What if they thought my book love was creepy?  But I decided to just be honest and let my freak flag fly – and yes, I do think some members thought I might have taken things a little too far (especially the newer ladies), but I’m not making any apologies.  Y’all should just be thankful we’ve never read any Harry Potter, trust me.

Speaking of new ladies, we had several first time attendees and I hope y’all felt welcome – we can be a bit overwhelming as a group because we get louder and louder as the evening progresses.  We’re also very opinionated without fear of expressing those opinions.  At the same time, we welcome any and all, love hearing what others think even (and maybe even especially) when it differs from our own, and most of us started out strangers at some point so we know how you feel!

“A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.” Oscar Wilde

Ok, on to the discussion.  On a whole, everyone enjoyed (some fell madly, deeply in love) The Night Circus.  Of course, there were a couple of members here and there who weren’t as thrilled primarily because this type of story just wasn’t their cup of tea.  Everyone agreed that this novel is a sensory experience – the midnight dinners, the circus sights and smells, the magical attractions hidden inside each tent, even the heat of the fire jumps straight off the page.  Reading this book is an experience – it feels like something new and exciting.  We are convinced it could make a fantastically enchanting visual experience when it finally comes out in theaters – Summit Entertainment has purchased the movie rights and David Heyman (Harry Potter!) has been in negotiations to produce the film.  We just hope the magic and whimsy isn’t lost in translation.

Some loved Marco and Celia; others loved Bailey, Poppet, and Widget.  We discussed whether the book and the competition had a true villain.  Are Hector and Alexander H. really evil or can their actions be excused or at least understood?  Have they lived for so long that they no longer value life or do they just not believe death is the worst thing that can happen to a person?  I think everyone enjoyed Herr Thiessen the clockmaker – for most he was the most beloved character.  We all felt sort of sorry for Isobel, but others were put off by her clinginess – how many people would essentially give up their life and follow a circus around to be with someone they don’t even actually ever see?  I love when a book’s secondary characters steal the show.

The ending left some members wanting – feeling more like a whimper than a bang.  But Kelly thought the quietness of Marco and Celia’s story went perfectly with the subtle ending.  Several ladies loved the Shakespeare allusions – The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, bits of Hamlet are all interwoven.  And we thoroughly questioned Bailey’s decision to join the Circus – fate or free will, what was the true driving factor of his ‘decision’?  And what about that email address on his card?

Side Note:  When you email Bailey you receive the following auto-response:

 

Thank you for your interest in Le Cirque des Rêves!

If you are inquiring as to the itinerary of the circus, we apologize,
but it is against our policy to disclose information about current or
upcoming locations.

Other inquiries will be responded to in as timely a manner as possible.

Cheers,
Erin

 

So if you like magic, illusion, quiet love stories, and a sense of place that is undeniable – go read The Night Circus if you haven’t already.  A little disclaimer: the novel isn’t about a high-action competition between two master magicians – in fact, as Jessica so succinctly pointed out, the competition is really only glorified interior decorating – but it’s the best interior decorating book I’ve ever read!

Second Side Note:  Courtney berated me for not having watched Downton Abbey yet.  SHAME!  I promise to watch (and maybe blog) about my experience with the show once it hits my mailbox.

Next month the Litwits are reading The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach where we finally discover the answer to the age-old question:  Do you really have to love baseball to love a book with baseball in it?

All the Dirt on Book Club Sundays!

In a few hours, many of Atlanta’s finest (Hi Litwits!) will descend upon my abode with their sweet offerings of snacks and desserts.  We’ll cozy up in the living room, eat a little, talk a little, and then give some much deserved love to The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  I’m both thrilled and excited that the Litwits have continued to meet and get to know one another for over a year and I can’t wait to see everyone this afternoon!  But…

Yes, there’s always a but.

I hate cleaning the house.  Loathe and detest.  Which is why I don’t do it much (besides the bathrooms and kitchen) and then it all piles up until I feel extremely overwhelmed.  Nobody’s fault but my own.  Either my husband or I will decide we just can’t take it anymore and we’ll finally get around to removing the dirt mountains from at least one level of our house.  Most times, these purgings take place on book club Sundays since people are actually going to see into the whale’s belly.

Today, for instance, was the first downstairs vacuuming since we took down Christmas.  You should have seen the piles of Christmas tree needles scattered across the floor.  I’m shocked my dogs haven’t eaten them by now.  Which brings me to another point – dogs.  My dogs have decided in the past couple of years that seasonal shedding requires far too much starting and stopping and have consequently decided to forego the stopping bit.  My house is a 24/7 western flick with all the hair tumbleweeds that blow through.

But now that the house (or really, the downstairs) has that shiny new feeling again, I’m shrouded in a cloud of cleanliness bliss.  This bliss may only last until the first time one of my dogs decides to scratch, but I’ll enjoy it until then.

Side note:  This post was entirely for my own sanity.  I needed to vent.  Now I can get down to the stuff I love about book club – the BOOKS, the camaraderie, and the wine.  See y’all at 4!

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

I tried reading this book several times as a kid, but it always ended up on my DNF pile.  Not sure why as I remember being fond of the idea of a wardrobe transporting me to a secret land.  There were cubby holes in my house that I pretended did this very same thing and I was convinced the small woods behind my house (really some trees and a few shrubs) were a magically enchanted forest.

Everyone knows the story – four siblings (Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy) stumble across the magical wardrobe during a game of hide and seek.  The wardrobe transports them to the land of Narnia where the evil White Witch rules and has thrown the world into perpetual winter, without Christmas.  With the help of the children, Aslan (Lion and King of Beasts) has returned to set things straight in a battle of good vs. evil.

I’m not reading this novel as a Christian allegory – yes, I know that it’s meant to be one.  You can’t hide from it as there is absolutely no subtlety AT ALL to the story’s religious overtones.  Instead, I really wanted to see how the story held up separate from that fact as most children aren’t reading it in that light anyway.  And this is most definitely a children’s story.

The very idea of a magic wardrobe leading to a wonderful new world is brilliant – what kid won’t find this enjoyable?  Imagination and creativity are nurtured in such fairy tales and I adore any book that steps outside the bounds of reality. Narnia is masterfully and whimsically drawn as a winter wonderland hiding a frozen hell.  I also love how the color white that’s so often used to symbolize purity and good covers this evil world ruled by a snow ‘queen’.

The children themselves are hit and miss with me.  Peter and Susan as the eldest siblings are flat characters who receive almost no attention.  Edmund and Lucy are much more well-rounded.  Poor Edmund as mislead traitor and Lucy as brave explorer and independent thinker.  As for the White Witch and Aslan, I wanted to know them better – to understand their motives.  I hated feeling like one is just bad and the other just good – what makes them this way?  Is this all they are?  So frustrating and I don’t really see how they can teach us anything.

I wanted to like it – I really tried to, but everything just fell limp and lifeless at the end.  Lewis built a gorgeous world with non-dimensional, cardboard characters.  Are the rest of the stories any better?  I’m not inclined to keep reading.  To be honest, I had more fun reading about the controversy of which novel to read first, The Magician’s Nephew or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (you can see which side of the argument I fall).  Very young children will still probably find this tale enchanting – obviously, they do since this novel has remained so topical and present 62 years after its first publication.  So, in general, no one agrees with me and that’s perfectly okay!

I hope everyone has a wonderful Friday and super weekend.  The Litwits meet this Sunday at my house – 4 pm – to discuss The Night Circus!  Looking forward to seeing everyone!

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns

This book and I share a birth year (1984).  Burns and I share our birth state, Georgia.  She being born and raised in Commerce, Georgia (inspiration for the book’s Cold Sassy) and me being born in Atlanta and raised in a tee-tiny little South Georgia town called Thomasville.  Commerce is only about an hour up I-85 from my current home in Atlanta.  None of this matters too much except that reading this book felt like going home.

In 1906, Cold Sassy, Georgia is rocked by scandal.  A prominent family’s matriarch (Miss Mattie Lou) has died and her widow, Rucker Blakeslee, elopes with a woman young enough to be his daughter a mere three weeks after his wife’s death.  And frankly, he doesn’t give a damn (homage to another great Georgian novel/film).  Rucker’s 14-year-old grandson and our narrator, Will Tweedy, sees it like this:

Nobody asked my opinion, but I had always admired Miss Love, with all that wavy brown hair piled atop her head, and that smiley, freckledy face and those friendly gray-blue eyes.  She was a merry person, like Grandpa.  Always wore big flowered hats and bright-colored dresses, never “quiet” clothes like nice ladies were supposed to wear on the street.  I could see how Miss Love could cheer up a man whose wife was short of breath for four years, dying for ten days, and dead for three weeks.

For the next year, we follow Will Tweedy as he attempts to make sense from all the grown-ups gossiping, acting childish, setting societal rules he doesn’t understand, and even questioning the religion the town often uses as an excuse for their behavior.  Cold Sassy Tree is a coming-of-age story for not just Will, but his whole family and their small town.  Burns proves you’re never too old to grow-up!

For the first 100 pages, I was convinced this book might be the best Southern novel I had ever read.  I wanted to go back in time to my Southern Lit class and reject Faulkner, Toomer, and Welty and to replace them with Burns.  The last 100 pages solidified my desire and I can now proudly declare this my favorite Southern language novel of all-time.  After all, the South really does have their own language and authors so often get it wrong.

Cold Sassy Tree is a character driven story and a fine one, at that.  The character voices are so authentic that I associated them with members of my own family.  Miss Mattie Lou and her desire to help others became my grandmother, Aunt Loma with her rebellious, outspoken ways and dreams bigger than small town life was a hybrid version of me and my Aunt Kathy, and Will’s Mama was almost a perfect copy of my own mother.  And poor Miss Love, the Yankee transplant trying to get along with all those busy-body Southerners.  All this made me realize just how little people have changed from 1906 – to 1984 – to 2012 and how fiercely people hold on to tradition and a certain way of life.  Back home, we still consider people from the North Yankees (North being above Atlanta) and treat them as outsiders.  My mom constantly berates me about my need to live ‘up North’ (20 minutes north of Atlanta proper) and the audacity to speak like a Yankee (she swears I’ve lost my accent).

What really shines in this novel is the relationships – especially between Will Tweedy and Grandpa Blakeslee.  Rucker only had daughters so Will becomes his adopted son of sorts.  Will idolizes his grandfather, yearns to learn the ways of the world from his 59 years of experience.  Something about a grandparent-grandchild relationship is always so special and filled with so many lessons learned.  I loved the quiet little moments where Will would be questioning life, God, the world and only feel comfortable enough to speak with his grandfather:

“How you go’n stand it, Grandpa?  I mean goin’ home every night and she ain’t there.”

“Thet’s what I don’t know, son.  Thet’s what I don’t know.  Yore granny was –”  He choked up again.  When he could go on he stretched both arms down into the grave, dropped them, helpless-like, and said, “But do I got a choice, Will Tweedy?  I got to stand it,  ain’t I?  Livin’ is like pourin’ water out of a tumbler into a dang Coca-Cola bottle.  If’n you skeered you cain’t do it, you cain’t.  If’n you say to yoreself, ‘By dang, I can do it!’ then, by dang, you won’t slosh a drop.’

Can’t you just hear them philosophizing?  The dialect is pitch-perfect.

Will was such a charming narrator.  I particularly loved that Burns allowed Will to think one thing, but say another.  The reader was really allowed to gain a sense of his internal moral struggles.  As his thoughts began to align with his actions more and more, you knew he was growing up, that he was changing into the man he would become.  A perfect example of an author showing, not telling.

Before you think this novel has no flaws, there are a couple of troubling bits.  I loved the beginning and ending dearly.  And while the middle was still entertaining enough to keep me turning the pages, the story meandered and felt kind of loose, a little less polished.  Also, I kind of twinged over Burns’ portrayal of the black/white relationships in Cold Sassy Tree.  It’s obvious she loves her characters of both races, but I felt a bit of rose-colored glasses syndrome.  At times, the separate but equal mentality she expressed seemed to come with softened edges, rainbows, and sunshine.  I’ve thought a lot about this and have convinced myself she did this on purpose and wasn’t actually ignorantly obtuse about the reality of the situation.  I think because her white characters are telling the story that she’s showing us how they perceived the situation.  I have to believe if Loomis (husband of the Tweedy’s cook) was allowed to tell his side of things, the novel would have read much differently – I would have loved to read that book!

So I recommend this to anyone wanting a genuine Southern experience from the comfort of their own home.  You’ll see our flaws, our triumphs, who we are and who we want to be.  I’m going to be reading a Faulkner novel soon so I’m excited to compare the two experiences.

Once Dead, Twice Shy by Kim Harrison

There was a time when all I read was classic literature and paranormal/urban fantasy (odd bedfellows, to be sure).  I’ve since dropped every last one of the fantasy series I followed (haven’t even read the last two Sookie Stackhouse books), except Kim Harrison’s The Hollows series staring Rachel Morgan.  When Harrison announced that she was writing a YA series, I obviously gave a little shout of joy and raced out to buy the first book.  It only took me about 2 years to read it (FAIL).

Madison Avery is killed the night of her junior prom by a Dark Reaper.  She steals the Dark Reaper’s amulet which keeps her body corporeal as long as she wears it, so no one knows she’s dead.  A Light Reaper is assigned to protect her and teach her.  The Dark Reapers are after her and she slowly begins to realize there’s more to her story than meets the eye.  Her protectors are quickly beginning to look like her enemies and she’s left on her own (albeit, with the help of her human boy crush and singing (yes, singing) guardian angel) to figure out the truth about her post-death existence.  Sound confusing?  It is.  Plus, there’s a whole commentary on fate (Dark Reapers) versus free will (Light Reapers).  Oh, and did I mention that the Reapers are Angels?

What left me most wanting in regards to Madison’s story was the utter sense of befuddlement I felt at trying to figure out what was actually going on.  The above synopsis partially came from reading the book and partially from googling the bits I couldn’t figure out – never a good start.  The novel seems to jump right into Madison’s story with very little back plotting and scene setting.  My googling soon led me to discover that Madison’s death had already been covered in a previously written short story.  If only the short story had been included in the novel – would have saved me a ton of hassle!

What I’ve come to love most about Kim Harrison’s adult fiction is her world building capabilities, especially in regards to creating a very down-to-earth atmosphere and characters filled with humanity in a world with very little humans.  Once Dead, Twice Shy is devoid of this quality – I’d be hardpressed to even begin to describe the town, state, or country this novel takes place in or anything about Madison’s character besides the fact that she has purple and blonde hair.  Apparently, her own personality is summed up in purple dye.  Where is the strongly written, fully fleshed out female heroine I know Harrison is capable of writing?  I can barely believe Kim Harrison wrote this.  I want to make a thousand excuses for her – editing pressures, rushed deadlines, misleading advice?

I also wouldn’t describe Once Dead, Twice Shy as Young Adult fiction.  At best, this is middle grade stuff.  I read this 200+ page book in a couple of hours.  Honestly, if I had a teenager, I’d direct them to her adult stories instead.  The only character I found interesting was Dark Reaper, Nakita, who was a decent depiction of how we aren’t always what we seem and everyone is filled with both light and darkness.  I missed Rachel and Jinx so much.  I hate when characters end up as caricatures, and not even particularly good caricatures at that.

I won’t continue on with the trilogy.  I spoiled myself on the rest of the story and other readers have assured me I’m not missing much.  I hope Kim gives YA another try with better success.  In the meantime, I’m anxiously awaiting the next book in The Hollows series, A Perfect Blood, and Harrison’s visit to Atlanta the day after my birthday next month.

Top Ten Tuesday: Short Stories


Hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

Today’s topic is Top Ten Books you’d recommend to someone who doesn’t like X (fill in the blank).  I’ve chosen my Top Ten Favorite Short Stories for those who think they hate short stories.  They are in no particular order and are linked to the actual story online so you can have fun reading!  Also, these stories are a great introduction to some amazing authors and are often much more accessible than longer novel length works.  Give them a try!

1. Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne
2. A&P by John Updike
3. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
4. The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs
5. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
6. The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe
7. The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin
8. Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway
9. A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner
10. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor