Review: Once More We Saw Stars

Jayson Greene’s Once More We Saw Stars 

Why I read it: I read one of the excerpts published online in advance of the story and the description Greene wrote of being in hospital with Greta was the closest thing I’ve ever read to my experience of Emily’s death. So I read this book not for edification, but for connection.

How it was to read it: The naked directness of that excerpt continued throughout the book. Lately I’m attracted to writing that is direct, bare-boned, probably because right now in my life I feel like I only have time to read things that get to the point, so to speak. My love of literary pyrotechnics is in a waning phase. I absolutely love that Greene expresses his experience of grief without a lot of meandering through the critic’s mind that would justify his emotional and, spoiler, mystic experiences.

I also have sometimes struggled to find writing that expresses the totality of grief. There’s the grief, and then there’s one’s experience of oneself experiencing grief, and then there’s the whacked way that grief actually hits you when you are also intersecting with the world.

A few weeks after Emily died, I was walking down Yonge Street just south of Yonge. A woman passed me going north, holding a baby, about 6 months old. The baby was in a pink coat, red-cheeked with the wind. The mum was, on that flash of passing, upset, a little hunched over, in a longer raincoat with jeans and sneakers on. I remember these things vividly, because I slowed my walk down, deliberately slowed my breath. I knew that this woman was overwhelmed and that any moment she would turn around, run towards me, and give me her baby.

 It was a feeling deep inside me, from the place that knows when you fall and break something that this fall was a real fall with a real wound, the piece of you that knows the glass is going to shatter before it hits. This baby is going to be mine, said that place.

And at the same time, an equally knowing place in me, higher up, between my ears, knew that I was having essentially a break in reality, that no one just turns around with a baby on the street, that this baby was not mine and that I had no claim to it. This part of me was also sure that it was fine that my gut, the place dread grows in nightmares, fully believed that this baby was mine.

And a third part of me balanced the two, both assessing that since I was not, you know, grabbing the baby, and the rational mind was engaged, I was okay enough not to have to call a mental health professional right away. And that part of my mind also found it absolutely hilarious that I thought I would find a baby on Yonge Street, like plucking Thumbelina from an orchid, but in front of a Taco Bell.

I find Greene’s book rings so true from that place. And I’m awed that people can write like that; the word fearless comes to mind.

I admit that I read this book quickly, setting some training wheels on the emotional bicycle in that I read it at a time I knew I’d have way too much to think about shortly to let it dominate the week. That was for me. But it means I didn’t savour it. Maybe I’ll re-read it in March.

I gave it a 5 star rating on Goodreads.

Review: Unspotted by Justin Fox (short e-book, non-fiction)

unspottedIn summary: Worth picking up. Here’s the Amazon link and here’s the publisher page with all the other ways to get it.

One of my favourite books ever is Douglas Adams’s (yes, that Douglas Adams) Last Chance to See, a travelogue-quest to spot rare and endangered species around the world and which predisposed me to love the first-person account of chasing after animals in the wild in order to save them.

Unspotted by Justin Fox fits into that genre with an added twist (or bonus, if you are me and taking care of a 4 year old post-surgery as well as renovating 1/4 of your home for the arrival of your mother-in-law.) It’s a short e-book: 40 pages.

Fox recounts his time spent chasing after the elusive Cape Mountain Leopard at the side of zoologist Quinton Martins, founder of the Cape Leopard Trust. Seven reasons I give it a thumbs up:

  • Chasing leopards around is a pretty cool activity and Fox brings the reader inside the experience with a lot of rich detail.
  • The pacing of the book is pretty good; it does sometimes feel like it could have been a longform article but for the most part there’s not a lot of extraneous information, or a lot of gaps.
  • I got a good sense of the zoologist at the centre of the story, Quinton Martins. There are a couple of moments that made me want to go meet him, which is a gift in any story.
  • I learned a lot without ever feeling lectured to, with the possible exception of the scene that actually is a lecture.
  • There’s a strong sense of place without (mostly) being overwrought description.
  • Pictures!
  • It feels candid on the truth side of truth-telling, and controlled on the telling side…in other words, Fox (who is not a novice writer) is providing a true tale, well-told, or at least that’s the sense I’m left with as a reader.

Three ways it could improve:

  • I didn’t come away with a strong sense of Fox’s interior journey beyond details like mud in his shoes. This could be a feature for people who find The Serpent and the Rainbow-type books to be self-indulgent writing, but because the narration was quite close first-person, I expected a bit more. I felt a bit like I missed some of the journey, or like this was a smaller piece of a larger work.
  • Occasionally I felt pelted with adjectives/adjectival phrases, particularly in the opening chapters. It settled down well once the story got rolling.
  • I think Fox is a strong enough writer that he could have dropped the chronological narration and moved some of the stronger anecdotes to the start of the book or at least the start of a chapter. I mention this not just editorially but because my understanding is that as a money-making enterprise, e-books sold through Amazon are increasingly compensated for whether people actually read through them. I found some of the strongest material was buried at the end of the book.

Publishing digression: And with that last point I want to talk a bit about why I volunteered to review this book. I think the idea of small e-press publishing original works is a great compromise between “free” and “writers don’t get compensated and The World Ends.” But it doesn’t work if people can’t find them or aren’t talking about them, so I’m pleased to be a part of the conversation.

This particular book didn’t sell me on the format in the sense of wow, were it not for novella-ish-length e-publishing this completely perfect gem wouldn’t have been the ideal shape to bring me joy but given the crazy summer I am having, it absolutely was the best length for me as a reader.  And it costs less than a latte!

Here’s the handy publisher link if you want to check it out. 

Disclosure: I received a free review copy and I’m an Internet fan/supporter of Annorlunda Enterprises which is a startup enterprise publishing short e-books.