5 Reasons to Read: Heart Attack Watch, by Alyson Foster

5 Reasons to Read Heart Attack Watch

Alyson Foster’s Heart Attack Watch* is a slim book of seven short stories packed with tension. I admired the book very much, so in lieu of a traditional review (always tricky with short story collections), here are five reasons to read Heart Attack Watch:

  1. The tension ratchets up fast: I like this quality in a short story, which doesn’t have the novel’s luxurious length to play with. All seven of these stories feature disasters of different flavors (a heart attack; a blackout; a mysterious tree plague; an unwanted, possibly nefarious visitor’s arrival), and it is a treat to see what a talented writer can create with those building blocks.
  2. The settings are varied and interesting: A Hollywood stuntman worriesIMG_6900 about his longevity in L.A.; in a semi-rural town a bus driver is caught between opposing forces (environmental scientists studying pollution and factory workers fearing for their jobs); on Lake Superior a woman and her husband take their girls to a sand castle competition; in Arkansas, a precocious girl helps her mother run a home for battered women.
  3. You’re looking for stories about mothers and daughters: “Sand Castles,” “The Place of the Holy,” and “Blackout”  investigate the difficult, sometimes devastating love between mothers and daughters; the latter two are the strongest stories in the collection. (And “The Art of Falling” is a touching in its portrayal of a father’s love and admiration for his adult daughter.)
  4. It’s nuanced and smart: These stories demand work from the reader to make connections and fill in missing pieces. The endings of “Blackout” and “The Theory of Clouds” lingered with me for days.
  5. You liked God is an Astronaut: If you were a fan of Alyson Foster’s debut novel (2014; review here), you already know how well she can spin a tale of crisis.

What short stories have you been reading lately?

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: God is an Astronaut, by Alyson Foster

photo (109)Alyson Foster’s debut novel God Is an Astronaut* considers questions of personal and public ethics as its protagonist, Jess, sorts out the reverberations from several shocking events.

Jess is a professor of botany, and her husband, Liam, is an engineer and part of the leadership of a space tourism company; they live quietly with their two children in Michigan. When one of the company’s shuttles explodes just after takeoff, Liam and Jess’s lives are upended as the investigation into the cause of the crash begins.

We see events only from Jess’s perspective, because God Is an Astronaut is an epistolary novel, composed entirely of emails from Jess to her colleague and friend, Arthur (we never see Arthur’s replies — just his subject lines when Jess keeps an “re:” thread going). As Jess explains what life is like with constant media scrutiny, staged press conferences, and even a documentary crew underfoot, Ms. Foster gradually reveals the unraveling seams of Jess’s marriage, and the ways that she’s tied to Arthur.

The epistolary form creates both intimate and distancing effects. Because Jess (apparently unafraid of the NSA) shares with Arthur not only Liam’s company’s secrets, but also her own struggles and desires, and the mundane workings of ordinary life, the reader is drawn close, a feeling compounded by the voyeuristic pleasures of reading someone else’s mail.  On the other hand, Jess’s emails are both lengthy and extremely detailed, and it strains credulity that a busy working parent with a surly husband and a publicity crisis would have time to write such lyrical missives. This, combined with the effort required to imagine Arthur’s words from Jess’s replies, pushes the reader an arm’s length away from the material.

Nevertheless, the novel’s lyrical meditations on our responsibilities in the world — to our spouses, children, family, friends, colleagues, customers, the earth itself — are quite lovely. If you’re in the mood for an extended character study, or you’d like to feel better about not being able to afford a Virgin Galactic ticket, this is the novel for you.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.