Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Chapbook Review: "Along The Highway" by Barry W. North

A few weeks ago, I lamented over the fact that I finally had a long short story that I felt confident enough in to submit to one of my favorite contests, but couldn't due to it falling outside the maximum length. I also mentioned that I had received a copy of the winning chapbook of the 2009 version of the contest. And I also mentioned that if I got the opportunity, I would do a review of this particular chapbook.

I got the opportunity.

First off, let me say that as general rule, I do not like to criticize another person's writing. I can understand and appreciate the amount of time and effort that a person can put into a story, and based on personal experiences, I will bend over backwards not to overly criticize someone's hard work (please read the comment section of this post for a thoughtful conversation that I had with David Cranmer over this particular issue).

With that said, let me share with you what one of the contest judges, Tom Smith, had to say about the winning entry.

With unflinching authenticity and intelligent compassion, Barry W. North has created in "Along The Highway", a first person narrator we can respect as we recognize she is too fine for the grimy fate that binds her. Even more than the socio-economic and biological determinism that surrounds her, she is ironically undone by her most sympathetic qualities: the love and consequent guilty responsibility she feels for her tragic younger sister. Are we our sisters' keepers? How does a person (and should she) let go of love and responsibility in order to get on with life? In this story, every detail of both style and content carry conviction and compelling reality.

Excuse me?

Anyways, in spite of the convoluted and analytical endorsement of the story that raised a ton of red flags in my mind and caused me to just now write that preceding sentence, I cracked open the cover and began to read.

And just as quick, I skipped over to the last couple of pages to find out just exactly what the story was really all about.

In spite of the effusive praise for this story and the writer (who apparently has a lot of stories in a lot of literary journals), this story was not for me. The problem I had with the story was that the first 20 pages were used as one monumental background dump. Only in the last two pages do we find out why the narrator had a tragic younger sister and what happened to said tragic younger sister.

I also found that to me personally, the writing was dry, the content analytical and the pacing flawed. Which is fine I guess, if you enjoy that type of formulaic writing that most MFA programs churn out.

But if you don't like that kind of writing, then this chapbook isn't for you. To me, this story reads more like a bizarre psychological case history than a well written creative endeavor.

This story did absolutely nothing for me, as it didn't meet any of my criteria for a good read.

1} It wasn't entertaining.
2} I frequently got lost.
3} And I actually read this story backwards (that is I started at the last page) in a vain attempt at understanding it.

I personally wouldn't recommend this chapbook. I also feel a little disappointed, because I have ordered chapbooks from this company before and those were pretty good reads (The Wisconsin Avenue Waltz, The Last Full Service Crocodile Ranch In Quintana Roo, and the 2008 contest winner Benediction).

Nevertheless, if you're interested in checking out some very fine fiction/poetry chapbooks (and even some rare chapbook editions of writer Joe Hill), please visit the White Eagle Coffee Store Press.

As always, I thank you for stopping by to spend a minute or two out of your very busy day to read what I had to write today.


  1. I just re-read them. That was quite a back and forth we had in those comments.

  2. I'll never understand why certain writers can break all the common sense rules of hooking the reader into the story and compelling them to read through and yet still get great praise. The info dump would have killed me for sure.

  3. David: Yes it was. I really do enjoy stimulating conversations like that and they have been too few and far between for my liking in the blog world.

    Charles: I may over exaggerating a bit, but it really felt like the majority of the book was used as a day in the life of the main character and it was literally the last two pages in which I found out what the entire story was all about.

    If this story was supposed to have a hook, I think it was contained in that little blurb I posted.

  4. Sometimes, after reading reviews and snippets of reviews, I have to wonder if I have read the same book.

  5. I don't think I've had that problem. I very rarely pay attention to reviews of books because to be honest most of the reviews I've come across have been overly gushing in their praise.

    It's very rare in which I find a review of a book that the reviewer is honest about what was good and what was bad.

  6. I find this with reviews of new albums too, particularly ones that rave on about how wonderful the music is, and I'm thinking, well not to me!

    I suppose it's all about personal taste.

  7. Joe: I agree. I have old albums that I've listened to and enjoy quite immensely, and when I've found a write up about it in a music encyclopedia, it often pans the album in question by saying it wasn't one of the artists better efforts.

  8. Snow: And a very Merry Christmas to you and your family as well.


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