Review: You Know When the Men Are Gone, Siobhan Fallon

Further study may confirm or deny this, but I suspect that short story collections do not make for good book club discussions. Or maybe my nonwork brunch book club is just bad at keeping on topic. We completely forgot to brainstorm a name for ourselves, and we spent about twenty (nonconsecutive) minutes talking about the book, and the remainder of the time chattering about shoes.

You Know When the Men Are Gone is a loosely connected group of short stories about the army: life on an army base, or life in a war zone, or how to handle a homecoming. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of stuff about this lately, but I think that’s just because my roommate watches Army Wives and Coming Home back to back every Sunday evening. An army wife herself, Fallon depicts life on an army base with incredible vividness, the social norms, the constant worry, the small resentments and disrupted schedules.

Good endings junkie that I am, I tend to find short stories unsatisfying. The authors don’t have enough time to build up the emotional resonance I want, and when they do, they run the danger of coming off melodramatic. It is my opinion that short stories work best one at a time, in total isolation from other short stories. “The Lottery” will bowl you over when you read it by itself, but maybe not if you’ve just read fourteen other short stories by Shirley Jackson.

You Know When the Men Are Gone had this problem too. There were several stories in the collection that ended similarly to each other, with a sort of “my man, I will stand by him; my life, it isn’t so bad” attitude on the part of the protagonist. I didn’t dislike any individual one of those endings, and in fact actively liked several of them, but the collective effect was diminishing. I think I’d have really loved the end of “Inside the Break” if I’d read it by itself. Such are the vagaries of short story reading.

This all sounds rather negative, when in fact this was one of the very few short story collections I’ve ever (a) managed to get all the way through and (b) wanted to get all the way through. I was reading it for a book club, but I’d have finished reading it anyway, once I started. It wasn’t like Let the Great World Spin, which I might well have abandoned if I hadn’t known I needed to be able to discuss it in book club.

Thanks to the lovely Lydia for sending me my copy!

  • I also have problems with short story collections for much the same reasons that you mention. I just need a lot of time and space to get close to the characters and to watch them develop. I have heard varying things about this book ranging from comments that it was brilliant, to comments that it was lackluster. I still think I want to read it though. If you are interested in reading a short story collection that is really interesting and that gives all the stories a really belivable dramatic arch, I would recommend Vanishing by Deborah Willis to you.

    • Yep, same. It has some very, very good short stories, which would benefit by being read separately, although they do interlock with each other. So it’s worth a read. Hope you like it! 🙂

  • I’ve been kinda interested in this one but kinda on the fence. Hopefully I can get it from the library and give it a go. I did just finish the BEST short story collection ever: Little Black Book of Stories, by A.S. Byatt. OMYGOD!

    • It’s a good book to get from the library! And I shall duly try the Byatt. I only ever loved Possession by Byatt, but I would like to have a broader sense of her gifts.

  • I’m not into short stories either but I think my reason is probably stupid: after reading short stories, I don’t feel like I can say to myself that I read a “book.”

    • Interesting! That has never crossed my mind in any articulated way, but now that I read your comment, I recognize the sentiment. I have read very few collections of short stories.

  • I don’t often like short stories but I find that the ones I like REALLY stick with me. I happened to love this one, I felt like she packed the slices of life she took so much emotion and truth.

    • *with so much emotion and truth

    • I agree with that, and there were some stories that I thought were superb. I have now forgotten all the titles, but I liked many of the individual stories a lot, and would have been happy to spend more time with those characters. (If only I could have.)

  • We’ve done a couple of loosely connected story books for our book club (A Visit from the Goon Squad and The Imperfectionists), and they seem to work ok, although we get off topic pretty quickly too 🙂

    • Well, my other book club did fine with Let the Great World Spin, which is loosely connected (but a novel, not short stories) — it’s possible the book bloggers book club just likes shoes and springtime too much to have productive discussions. :p

  • I find that when I read short story collections, I need to read one story at a time, with something else in between. I can’t read them straight through or else they all sort of run together – exactly what you pointed out. I did like this book, though, I agree with Amy that there was so much truth in the book.

    • Yes! To everything, but particularly to the stories running together. I feel I’ve been unfair to each of the stories when I read them all in a row, because I’m inevitably comparing them to each other.

  • justbookreading

    I have the same problem with short stories. I’ve been reading more of them than usual this year but the ‘what do you mean it’s ending already when you haven’t really finished telling this story’ feeling is still there. I’ve convincing myself that in order to enjoy these short ones, they must be read individually in between longer books. So, pretty much your theory.

    • The trick, I think, will be to find the right longer books to read in between the stories. You wouldn’t want anything that resembled the stories, because that would be distracting, but equally I feel like you wouldn’t want something that would suck up your whole mind and possess you, because then how could you go back to wee short stories afterward?

  • My book club isn’t good with short story collections, either. The only one we’ve read so far was Words From A Glass Bubble by Vanessa Gebbie – then again, my book club spends far longer gossipping than discussing the books anyway.

    • I feel gossip is a viable alternative to book talk in a book club. Just because gossip is fun. :p

  • The difficulty I have with short stories is that they’re not meant to be read all at once. You’re supposed to enjoy and savor them one at a time, which means that a short story book should take a fair amount of time. It never does for me; I always read them too fast and they begin to lose their impact because of that.

    My “book club” meets weekly(ish) and we discus two short stories per meeting tops, so none of us get overwhelmed by short story overload.

    • I’d like to hear a bunch of short story writers say how they’d like to have their stories read! I wonder if consensus would emerge that you really are supposed to enjoy them one at a time, or if half would say that and half would say read them all together. Hm.

      This is why I feel like short story anthologies are worthwhile. They’re too huge for anyone ever possibly to read all at once, which means you can’t claw your way through the whole thing at once; but they don’t have stories by all one writer, so you don’t get burned out on that one person’s work.

      • I’m partial to the Sword & Sorceress series for that reason. Nice classic female-lead fantasy. 😀

        Ever tried Flash Fiction?

  • Short story collections are probably more difficult to discuss in book clubs simply because there isn’t one clear, coherent story to follow. The individual stories themselves are typically less memorable (less exposure to the characters and the story…) and all together make for a different experience than the novel-reading one.

    As for the book itself, I don’t recall having read many stories (short or otherwise) about the surrounding life of the army. This is a fascinating subject and I would certainly like to read a work of fiction – short story collection or novel – that delves into this topic. Would you say that Fallon’s collection is overall a worthy choice?

    • I would absolutely call it a worthy choice! Fallon writes very well, and her stories are very nicely constructed, and I think they make a very vivid picture of life on an army base.

  • I quite agree short stories can be tricky. Although funnily enough I’ve been reading more of them lately and doing quite well. I’ve loved Scott Fitzgerald’s and the recent collection by Michelle Latiolais and I’ve also enjoyed Maupassant. But that being said, I read two brilliant stories by him, and then the third was a dud. Ah well.

    • Ah yes, the classic good short-story writers. I will read more Fitzgerald and that will happen! I will try not to expect all the short stories to be good — it’ll be like poems, right? Some are painfully awesome and some are crap, and that’s just how it goes with poems (and maybe short stories too).

  • When our group has attempted to discuss short fiction, we’ve had to select a handful (4-5) to discuss/compare, rather then look at every story in the book. Unless, of course, they’re linked short stories, like Olive Kitteridge (which may be billed now as a novel?).

    I just read Edith Pearlman’s collection BINOCULAR VISION. Every one a gem … try her!

  • I would hazard a guess that we may have had the same problem with a novel! Let’s see what happens next month. Although, perhaps because the stories were short it led to stopping and starting in our discussion so we never gained momentum?

    I most enjoyed this collection because it open my eyes to the lives of those in the military which is something to which I had little exposure.