You Are Not a Stranger Here

You Are Not a Stranger Here

3.9 31
by Adam Haslett

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In his bestselling and lavishly praised first book of stories, Adam Haslett explores lives that appear shuttered by loss and discovers entire worlds hidden inside them. The impact is at once harrowing and thrilling.

An elderly inventor, burning with manic creativity, tries to reconcile with his estranged gay son. A bereaved boy draws a thuggish classmate into a

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In his bestselling and lavishly praised first book of stories, Adam Haslett explores lives that appear shuttered by loss and discovers entire worlds hidden inside them. The impact is at once harrowing and thrilling.

An elderly inventor, burning with manic creativity, tries to reconcile with his estranged gay son. A bereaved boy draws a thuggish classmate into a relationship of escalating guilt and violence. A genteel middle-aged woman, a long-time resident of a psychiatric hospital, becomes the confidante of a lovelorn teenaged volunteer. Told with Chekhovian restraint and compassion, and conveying both the sorrow of life and the courage with which people rise to meet it, You Are Not a Stranger Here is a triumph of storytelling.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Spectacular. . . . You should buy this book, you should read it, and you should admire it. . . . [It] is the herald of a phenomenal career.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Extraordinary. . . . Frighteningly tender. . . . Displays an order as natural as a tree branch in winter—lithe and achingly austere.” —The Boston Globe

“Haslett possesses a rich assortment of literary gifts: an instinctive empathy for his characters and an ability to map their inner lives in startling detail; a knack for graceful, evocative prose; and a determination to trace the hidden arithmetic of relationships.” —The New York Times

“Fascinating. . . . Haslett is an eloquent, precise miniaturist.” —The New Yorker

“Elegant. . . . Invigorating. . . . [Haslett has an] assured, almost democratic empathy for his admirably varied characters. . . . These are graceful, mature, witty stories.” —San Francisco Chronicle
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
In his debut story collection, Adam Haslett transports readers into the hearts and minds of characters who find themselves at profoundly life-transforming crossroads. In "Notes to my Biographer," we meet an aging father whose mind is consumed by what he believes is a beautiful, creative fire but which the rest of the world -- especially his gay son -- knows to be mental illness. In "The Good Doctor," a psychiatrist's determination to help a reluctant patient rejoin the world after the death of a child forces the doctor to examine his own needs and motivations. In "Reunion," a young man compelled to make the arrangements for his own impending death writes poignant letters to the father with whom he will soon be reunited. And in "Devotion," the upcoming visit of a former lover, combined with a secret kept for a lifetime, momentarily upsets a delicate balance in the lives of two siblings.

Haslett's exceptional and elegant command of both language and subject matter imbues his stories with a fervent honesty and powerful emotional intensity, moving readers from the suburbs of London to a Los Angeles beach community, from the desolate American West to the cliffs and cathedrals of Scotland. He paints arrestingly precise portraits of his characters, meticulously invoking the humor and pain that help us face important moments of decision and change. (Summer 2002 Selection)

The New Yorker
The characters in this début collection, many of them gay, many of them depressed, are plagued by the sense that they once had the temerity "to spear mediocrity in the eye." Now, dismayed by the niceties of everyday life, they compulsively scrutinize the people around them, as if this could teach them how to live. These muted stories are driven by the moments of crystallization that result: a boy suddenly knows that his brother is going to die; a lonely teen-ager finds relief as the target of a classmate's violence; a self-absorbed, manic-depressive father discovers that he is unable to say goodbye to his son. All this can be a little gloomy, but Haslett is an eloquent, precise miniaturist, and his characters' struggles with their own assumptions collectively provide a fascinating snapshot of life during the era of Prozac, when new ways of thinking about emotion have forced us to adjust our notion of identity and even, perhaps, of grace.
Tom LeClair
All the characters in Haslett's debut collection of nine stories are estranged. Four protagonists suffer from schizophrenia or depression. A young boy disturbs his family with the power of precognition. Three primary characters are gay men alienated from their families. And one story concerns a psychiatrist who feels "like a sponge, absorbing the pain of the people he listened to." Haslett records the pain of his characters, asks us to absorb it and presumably aims to enlarge our sympathies. The best stories feature "strangers," the delusional or the repressed elderly. The weakest dramatize the angst of "familiars," Salinger-sensitive youths. In "The Storyteller," a despairing man gains solace from making up stories for a dying boy. Reading Haslett's book may not give similar comfort because, like the moribund boy, most of his characters have no hope. One who does, a clinically depressed man who throws away his psychiatric case file, travels to see an old friend, who is now a grave digger. It's that kind of collection. Not every reader will care or dare to enter Haslett's sometimes melodramatically painful world, but the book welcomes the courageous—and the estranged.
Publishers Weekly
In this affecting debut collection, Yale Law School student Haslett explores the complex phenomena of depression and mental illness, drawing a powerful connection between those who suffer and those who attempt to alleviate that suffering. In "The Good Doctor," Frank, a young M.D., goes out of his way to discover the origin of his patient's illness, only to learn of both her untreatable pain and his own fears and regrets: "The fact was he still felt like a sponge, absorbing the pain of the people he listened to." In "The Beginnings of Grief," suffering becomes a way of healing when a teenager coming to terms with both his homosexuality and his parents' sudden deaths seeks connection wherever he can find it, even in the pain inflicted by a classmate's violence. Often, Haslett convincingly interweaves the perspectives and lives of seemingly disparate individuals. In "The Volunteer," a teenager's awkward incomprehension in the face of his first sexual encounter bizarrely coincides with the breakdown of a schizophrenic woman he visits after school. Not all of the stories are charged with this kind of emotional complexity, however, and some tend toward the sentimental, as does "The Storyteller," in which the clinically depressed Paul, who feels himself to be nothing but a burden to his wife, Ellen, rediscovers his vitality in a chance encounter with an elderly woman and her dying son. Though the thematic similarity of many of the stories dulls their startling initial impact, this is a strikingly assured first effort. (July) Forecast: A blurb from Jonathan Franzen is particularly apt, since Haslett's eye for contemporary detail and talent for capturing complex emotional states makes his work resemble that of the author of The Corrections. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
In almost every one of these stories, the main character is suffering from some serious problem. Some of these problems are mental conditions, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or suicidal thoughts. Other characters suffer from the crush of life's pressures: being a lovesick teenager, having AIDS, or taking care of a terminally ill child. Haslett writes of these characters with great compassion and empathy and seems to understand them from the inside out without ever being maudlin. Their difficulties with dealing with the world, given their situations, are the core of the stories. Some of the characters succeed and others don't, but they all strike a note of familiarity, as if they are people we might have met somewhere, but never really got to know. Haslett opens them up and shows us what makes them act the way they do and gets into their inner core. Some of the stories are particularly good, such as "The Volunteer," which is able, in one story, to get the reader to understand and empathize with both a teenage boy and an elderly woman. Haslett brings their worlds together, which makes each of their lives richer. KLIATT Codes: SA-Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Random House, Anchor, 240p., Ages 15 to adult.
— Nola Theiss
Library Journal
Those setting collection policy in public libraries are often forced to base their decisions on genre alone and will buy a detective novel, for instance, at the expense of a collection of short stories, especially one by a first-time author. Haslett's debut shows what is wrong with this approach. Courageous and compelling as any in today's fiction, the despairing characters in these nine stories are all related to someone who has left or will leave them, usually owing to mental illness. In "Divination," for instance, a sensitive boy reflects on the precise moment when he became alienated from his family. In "Notes to My Biographer," the narrator, in a burst of manic impulsion, decides to visit a son he has not seen in years. His irascible sense of humor propels the story until we learn that his son treats his inherited disease with medication that the father won't ingest; reconciliation is only possible if the son stops taking his. Such uncompromising and realistic representations of depression and its symptoms are commendable. Too often, the sufferers' loved ones are depicted with lugubrious sobbing, but the narratives move forward with few detours, and readers will turn the pages accordingly. Strongly recommended for mid- and large-sized public libraries and academic literary collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/1/02.] Edward Keane, Long Island Univ. Lib., Brooklyn, NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
There are some spectacular moments, and also several inexplicable miscalculations in this extremely uneven yet unquestionably promising debut collection of nine stories by Yale Law student Haslett. Most of Haslett's characters are silent sufferers or unrequited lovers who live out lives of silent desperation unrelieved by full connection with others or disclosure of their innermost secrets. This is particularly true of stories that focus on gay characters, such as an orphaned high school boy powerfully attracted to a surly, violence-prone classmate ("The Beginnings of Grief"); an unmarried brother and sister who have loved and lost the same man ("Devotion"); and a terminal AIDS patient whose carefully planned withdrawal from job and relationships ends in (harrowingly described) surreal dementia ("Reunion"). These are edgy, disturbing explorations of loneliness that don't quite work-as are "My Father's Business," a mock-documentary look at a bipolar patient with a curious philosophical bent; and "The Volunteer," an initially gripping account of the relationship between a lonely elderly woman and the effectively motherless teenager who bonds with her that falls apart into inexcusable contrivance. And yet Haslett's riskiest, most far-reaching pieces are his best. "Divination," about a private school student who has inherited his father's unwanted prophetic "gift," grates expertly on the reader's nerves. Even better are "The Good Doctor," in which a callow physician's efforts "to organize his involuntary proximity to human pain" are unsettled by the story of a luckless family's destruction by economic failure and drug addiction; and "The Storyteller," a hypnotically strange amalgam of Chekhovand Beckett, about an American in Scotland torn between suicidal guilt over his lingering depression and its erosion of his marriage, and his compulsive intimacy with a stoical old woman and a dying boy: it's one of the finest, and most unusual, stories of recent years. Not by any means the book it might-perhaps should-have been. But don't overlook those three terrific stories.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Notes to My Biographer

Two things to get straight from the beginning: I hate doctors and have never joined a support group in my life. At seventy-three, I'm not about to change. The mental health establishment can go screw itself on a barren hill top in the rain before I touch their snake oil or listen to the visionless chatter of men half my age. I have shot Germans in the fields of Normandy, filed twenty-six patents, married three women, survived them all and am currently the subject of an investigation by the IRS, which has about as much chance of collecting from me as Shylock did of getting his pound of flesh. Bureaucracies have trouble thinking clearly. I, on the other hand, am perfectly lucid.

Note for instance how I obtained the Saab I'm presently driving into the Los Angeles basin: a niece in Scotsdale lent it to me. Do you think she'll ever see it again? Unlikely. Of course when I borrowed it from her I had every intention of returning it and in a few days or weeks I may feel that way again, but for now forget her and her husband and three children who looked at me over the kitchen table like I was a museum piece sent to bore them. I could run circles around those kids. They're spoon fed ritalin and private schools and have eyes that say give me things I don't have. I wanted to read them a book on the history of the world, its migrations, plagues, and wars, but the shelves of their outsized condominium were full of ceramics and biographies of the stars. The whole thing depressed the hell out of me and I'm glad to be gone.

A week ago I left Baltimore with the idea of seeing my son Graham. I've been thinking about him a lot recently, days we spent together in the barn at the old house, how with him as my audience ideas came quickly and I don't know when I'll get to see him again. I thought I might as well catch up with some of the other relatives along the way and planned to start at my daughter Linda's in Atlanta but when I arrived it turned out she'd moved. I called Graham and when he got over the shock of hearing my voice, he said Linda didn't want to see me. By the time my younger brother Ernie refused to do anything more than have lunch with me after I'd taken a bus all the way to Houston, I began to get the idea this episodic reunion thing might be more trouble than it was worth. Scotsdale did nothing to alter my opinion. These people seem to think they'll have another chance, that I'll be coming around again. The fact is I've completed my will, made bequests of my patent rights, and am now just composing a few notes to my biographer who, in a few decades when the true influence of my work becomes apparent, may need them to clarify certain issues.

*Franklin Caldwell Singer, b.1924, Baltimore, Maryland.

*Child of a German machinist and a banker's daughter.

*My psych discharge following "desertion" in Paris was trumped up by an army intern resentful of my superior knowledge of the diagnostic manual. The nude dancing incident at the Louvre in a room full of Rubens had occurred weeks earlier and was of a piece with other celebrations at the time.

*BA, PhD Engineering, Johns Hopkins University.

*1952. First and last electro-shock treatment for which I will never, never, never forgive my parents.

*1954-1965 Researcher, Eastman Kodak Laboratories. As with so many institutions in this country, talent was resented. I was fired as soon as I began to point out flaws in the management structure. Two years later I filed a patent on a shutter mechanism that Kodak eventually broke down and purchased (then Vice-President for Product Development, Arch Vendellini WAS having an affair with his daughter's best friend, contrary to what he will tell you. Notice the way his left shoulder twitches when he's lying).

*All subsequent diagnoses—and let me tell you there have been a number—are the result of two forces, both in their way pernicious. 1) The attempt by the psychiatric establishment over the last century to redefine eccentricity as illness, and 2) the desire of members of my various families to render me docile and if possible immobile.

*The electric bread slicer concept was stolen from me by a man in a diner in Chevy Chase dressed as a reindeer whom I could not possibly have known was an employee of Westinghouse.

*That I have no memories of the years 1988-90 and believed until very recently that Ed Meese was still the Attorney General is not owing to my purported paranoid black-out but on the contrary to the fact my third wife took it upon herself to lace my coffee with tranquilizers. Believe nothing you hear about the divorce settlement.

When I ring the buzzer at Graham's place in Venice, a Jew in his late twenties with some fancy looking musculature answers the door. He appears nervous and says, "We weren't expecting you 'til tomorrow," and I ask him who we are and he says, "Me and Graham," adding hurriedly, "we're friends, you know, only friends. I don't live here, I'm just over to use the computer."

All I can think is I hope this guy isn't out here trying to get acting jobs, because it's obvious to me right away that my son is gay and is screwing this character with the expensive looking glasses. There was a lot of that in the military and I learned early on that it comes in all shapes and sizes, not just the fairy types everyone expects. Nonetheless, I am briefly shocked by the idea that my twenty-nine year old boy has never seen fit to share with me the fact that he is a fruitcake—no malice intended—and I resolve right away to talk to him about it when I see him. Marlon Brando overcomes his stupor and lifting my suitcase from the car leads me through the back garden past a lemon tree in bloom to a one room cottage with a sink and plenty of light to which I take an instant liking.

"This will do nicely," I say and then I ask him, "How long have you been sleeping with my son?" It's obvious he thinks I'm some brand of geriatric homophobe getting ready to come on in a religiously heavy manner and seeing that deer-caught-in-the-headlights look in his eye I take pity and disabuse him. I've seen women run down by tanks. I'm not about to get worked up about the prospect of fewer grandchildren. When I start explaining to him that social prejudice of all stripes runs counter to my Enlightenment ideals—ideals tainted by centuries of partial application—it becomes clear to me that Graham has given him the family line. His face grows patient and his smile begins to leak the sympathy of the ignorant: poor old guy suffering from mental troubles his whole life, up one month, down the next, spewing grandiose notions that slip like sand through his fingers to which I always say, you just look up Frank Singer at the U.S. Patent Office. In any case, this turkey probably thinks the Enlightenment is a marketing scheme for General Electric; I spare him the seminar I could easily conduct and say, "Look, if the two of you share a bed, it's fine with me."

"That drive must have worn you out," he says hopefully. "Do you want to lie down for a bit?"

I tell him I could hook a chain to my niece's Saab and drag it through a marathon. This leaves him nonplussed. We walk back across the yard together into the kitchen of the bungalow. I ask him for pen, paper, and a calculator and begin sketching an idea that came to me just a moment ago—I can feel the presence of Graham already—for a bicycle capable of storing the energy generated on the downward slope in a small battery and releasing it through a handle bar control when needed on the up hill—a potential gold mine when you consider the aging population and the increase in leisure time created by early retirement. I have four pages of specs and the estimated cost of a prototype done by the time Graham arrives two hours later. He walks into the kitchen wearing a blue linen suit, a briefcase held to his chest, and seeing me at the table goes stiff as a board. I haven't seen him in five years and the first thing I notice is that he's got bags under his eyes. When I open my arms to embrace him he takes a step backwards.

"What's the matter?" I ask. Here is my child wary of me in a strange kitchen in California, his mother's ashes spread long ago over the Potomac, the objects of our lives together stored in boxes or sold.

"You actually came," he says.

"I've invented a new bicycle," I say but this seems to reach him like news of some fresh death. Eric hugs Graham there in front of me. I watch my son rest his head against this fellow's shoulder like a tired solider on a train. "It's going to have a self-charging battery," I say sitting again at the table to review my sketches.

With Graham here my idea is picking up speed and while he's in the shower I unpack my bags, rearrange the furniture in the cottage, and tack my specs to the wall. Returning to the house, I ask Eric if I can use the phone and he says that's fine and then he tells me, "Graham hasn't been sleeping so great lately, but I know he really does want to see you."

"Sure no hard feelings fine."

"He's been dealing with a lot recently. Maybe some things you could talk to him about . . . and I think you might—"

"Sure, sure no hard feelings," and then I call my lawyer, my engineer, my model builder, three advertising firms whose numbers I find in the yellow pages, the American Association of Retired Persons—that market will be key, an old college friend whom I remember once told me he'd competed in the Tour de France figuring he'll know the bicycle industry angle, my bank manager to discuss financing, the Patent Office, the Cal Tech physics lab, the woman I took to dinner the week before I left Baltimore and three local liquor stores before I find one that will deliver a case of Don Perignon.

"That'll be for me!" I call out to Graham as he emerges from the bedroom to answer the door what seems only minutes later. He moves slowly and seems sapped of life.

"What's this?"

"We're celebrating! There's a new project in the pipeline!"

Graham stares at the bill as though he's having trouble reading it. Finally, he says, "This is twelve-hundred dollars. We're not buying it."

I tell him Schwinn will drop that on donuts for the sales reps when I'm done with this bike, that Ophra Winfrey's going to ride it through the half-time show at the Super Bowl.

"There's been a mistake," he says to the delivery guy.

I end up having to go outside and pay for it through the window of the truck with a credit card the man is naive enough to except and I carry it back to the house myself.

"What am I going to do?" I hear Graham whisper.

I round the corner in to the kitchen and they fall silent. The two of them make a handsome couple standing there in the gauzy, expiring light of evening. When I was born you could have arrested them for kissing. There ensues an argument that I only half bother to participate in concerning the champagne and my enthusiasm, a recording he learned from his mother; he presses play and the fraction of his ancestry that suffered from conventionalism speaks through his mouth like a ventriloquist: your-idea-is-fantasy-calm-down-it-will-be-the-ruin-of-you-medication-medicat ion-medication. He has a good mind my son, always has, and somewhere the temerity to use it, to spear mediocrity in the eye, but in a world that encourages nothing of the sort the curious boy becomes the anxious man. He must suffer his people's regard for appearances. Sad. I begin to articulate this with Socratic lucidity, which seems only to exacerbate the situation.

"Why don't we just have some champagne," Eric interjects. "You two can talk this over at dinner."

An admirable suggestion. I take three glasses from the cupboard, remove a bottle from the case, pop the cork, fill the glasses and propose a toast to their health.

My niece's Saab does eighty-five without a shudder on the way to dinner. With the roof down, smog blowing through my hair, I barely hear Graham who's shouting something from the passenger's seat. He's probably worried about a ticket, which for the high of this ride I'd pay twice over and tip the officer to boot. Sailing down the freeway I envision a lane of bicycles quietly recycling efficiencies once lost to the simple act of pedaling. We'll have to get the environmentalists involved which could mean government money for research and a lobbying arm to navigate any legislative interference. Test marketing in L.A. will increase the chance of celebrity endorsements and I'll probably need to do a book on the germination of the idea for release with the first wave of product. I'm thinking early 2003. The advertising tag line hits me as we glide beneath an overpass: Make Every Revolution Count.

There's a line at the restaurant and when I try to slip the maitre'd a twenty, Graham holds me back.

"Dad," he says, "you can't do that."

"Remember the time I took you to the Ritz and you told me the chicken in your sandwich was tough and I spoke to the manager and we got the meal for free? And you drew a diagram of the tree fort you wanted and it gave me an idea for storage containers."

He nods his head.

"Come on, where's your smile?"

I walk up to the maitre'd but when I hand him the twenty he gives me a funny look and I tell him he's a lousy shit for pretending he's above that sort of thing. "You want a hundred?" I ask and am about to give him an even larger piece of my mind when Graham turns me around and says, "Please don't."

"What kind of work are you doing?" I ask him.

"Dad," he says, "just settle down." His voice is so quiet, so meek.

"I asked you what kind of work you do?"

"I work at a brokerage."

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You Are Not a Stranger Here 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 30 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I can give Haslett credit for originality, but these depressing stories about people living dismal lives on the edge just don't merit the enthusiasm of the critics. I was happy to put it into my bag of books destined for a charity sale.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a book full of amazing, character-driven stories. The prose is beautiful, but not in a 'look how clever I am at writing' kind of way. It's beautiful in that it truly lets you get into the hearts and minds of the characters. It's obvious the author loves his characters. He knows them well enough to know their flaws, and their reasons and goodness within and in spite of those flaws. It's a beautiful empathy with pain of ordinary existence. Most of the negative reviews I see have to do with the lack of action and the depressing settings. It's true. This book is not something to read on the beach or if you dislike character-driven stories. That does not, however, make it a bad book -- what the author sets out to do, he does excellently. I've yet to see his equal. However, if you don't enjoy that type of writing generally, you probably won't enjoy it this time around either. Also, it is definitely a book I CAN put down and come back to. It isn't something you'll stay up all night dying to finish. The beauty of it is that even though I can put it down, I can't stop myself from coming back to it. Re-reading it, re-learning these characters.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Before I begin, I freely admit that I come to stories hoping to be entertained by way of vicarious living; I'm looking for an escape. Haslett's book offered nothing but depressing settings, dull characters, and stories that I ultimately didn't care about. Seldom do I ever put down a book--I should have dropped this one. If you're looking for a great story to escape with, avoid this book.
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Camboron More than 1 year ago
Sometimes, while reading this book, I had to laugh, or else I would have to go as far down and deep into the emotions and happenings in this mini-novels. When people talk about painting, and how a few strokes can create or suggest forms, landscapes, I haven't really seen that in art as much as I thought I would. But, it is realized here in these stories. I think I'm not a good enough writer to even critique these stories. Some people won't watch certain intense movies, despite their amazingness, like Misery or Silence of the Lambs. I think, due to some of the subject matter of these stories, others might have the same reaction. But, these stories, I would hand out to passersby on the street, if I had enough copies. I would beg them to read them, even if they found some of the themes repulsive. These stories deserved every accolade put upon them. Can't wait to read something else from this gentleman.
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anonymous67 More than 1 year ago
This book is depressing and full of unlikeable, deeply flawed characters. The short stories are clearly written, but offer little reason to read further than the first chapter.
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theshippingnews More than 1 year ago
I don't see the reasons for the critical acclaim this book got. I think it's well-written and some of the characters are truly interesting, but it isn't a great book. The language is simple and direct, which I like, but it isn't especially graceful or powerful. If the book has any power, it's in its conviction that life is desperate and useless. How powerful a conclusion is that really?
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Guest More than 1 year ago
so unpretentious. insightful and witty. well-balanced. true. human. it's not about the stories' subjects and heroes' strange life stories, it is about the acceptance of people, characters, choices, and acceptance of the fact not being able to do or undertake anything. and about all that being perfectly all-right.
Guest More than 1 year ago
My favorite collection of short stories. Haslett's clean ( that is, free of melodrama) style of writing allows for these sad and funny (dark humor) stories to shine. I can only hope the author is working on more stories or a novel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While some may overlook this debut as nothing but a collection of short stories others will find it a remarkable look at the human experience of life and love. The stories are touching, honest and at times heartbreaking. Haslett has a true understanding of Chekhovian insight into why we love and why we lose. A triumph.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Unless you love death and like to be brought down, don't read. It is a very depressing book! It was so bad that I took the time to write this review and have never written one before-Ever.