The Archivists by Daphne Kalotay (Short Stories)

A collection of stories taking place in Charlottesville, Virginia, spanning a wide array of people who all seem to be somewhat lost in their own lives (as anyone who spends time thinking about larger issues often will be). Some good reflections on self with respect to those larger issues. My favorite story was the eponymous The Archivists which introduced the concept of possible epigenetic manifestations throughout generations from an initial extreme trauma (in this case the Holocaust). One phrase really stuck with me: heart-scalded — meaning “an anguished, active, grief.” Not just grief at the loss, but “the ongoing torment of her regret.”

I admit I found many of the stories mildly depressing, though all were thoughtful and piqued my interest in some way. One made me laugh while simultaneously despair: Guide to Lesser Divinities — wherein an adjunct professor of English lectures her class on the subtle difference between similar meaning words:

“To deny the accuracy of one versus the other, I explained, was a first step toward moral corrosion. I told them how the degradation of language set the stage for ethical misjudgment, that our careful parsing of word choice and allusion were skills to combat despots and charlatans. That the semicolons they so blithely misused might be the last feeble shims propping up our teetering republic.”

And later in the same story: “To be imprecise is moral laziness. Not idleness. Not sloth. Moral laziness. It’s a matter of morality because to knowingly misuse a word is a way of lying. And deception is, of course, immoral.”

I’m not a big short story person, but I like Kalotay’s writing and each of the stories did provide insight into experiences outside of my own.

Thank you to Northwestern University Press, TriQuarterly and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 15th, 2023

Blue Hours by Daphne Kalotay (Fiction)

Writing: 4 Plot: 3 Characters: 3

How far would you go for a friend? Successful author Mim Woodruff faces this question when a call reveals that a humanitarian aid worker in Afghanistan has gone missing. Once an intensely close friend, Mim has not spoken to Kyra in twenty years.

The novel is composed of two major parts: the first takes place in Manhattan twenty years before the phone call. Mim and Kyra, fresh out of school, finding their way in the world. Kyra stylish, pushing away the wealth that is her birthright, and possessed of a deep, almost painful, awareness of the distress around her; Mim, dreaming of being a writer but instead folding sweaters at Benetton, observing the world around her but always at a remove. A youthful but intense love affair, a shattering experience, and an almost surgical split lays the foundation for events twenty years later.

Part two follows the journey Mim takes into ever-more remote Afghanistan in the search for the missing Kyra. Beautiful descriptions of the physical environment and the people. Well-researched portrayals of the organization of and interplay between the various factions, the military, the aid organizations, and those in remote villages. Stunning portraits of the individuals involved and those they avoid, warily approach, or engage.

The story feels real — messy, inescapable, and somewhat hopeless — and yet giving up really can’t be an option. The tone is emotionally removed, like our central character. While I found the detail and depth of the story engaging, I did not resonate with the characters at all — in fact I really didn’t like Mim very much. As an author describing her observations from an objective viewpoint, she works; As an individual going through deeply personal experiences, not so much. Possibly this says more about me than her!

Thank you to Northwestern University Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 15th, 2019.