Wednesday, May 23, 2018


Rating: 5/5 stars

I don’t usually read—or enjoy—short stories, but this collection piqued my interest, probably because of the tragedy that happened to Marina. I got this book for free from a selection of otherwise uninteresting choices, but I probably wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise. I started casually browsing through it the day I got it, but then I decided I wanted to sit down and actually read the whole thing immediately. This is the first time I can remember when I read a whole book within a week of acquiring it.

I will summarize my thoughts on each story and essay below:

  • I really enjoyed reading the introduction by Anne Fadiman about Marina’s life and her enthusiasm to be a writer. This really set the ground for her stories, giving me some background into who she was.
  • “The Opposite of Loneliness” was wonderful and very empowering, especially to recent graduates and young people. Some lines of it spoke to a part of me that needed to hear them, and I’m glad I discovered this essay (which I actually read three times in a row).
  • The first fiction story, “Cold Pastoral,” was pretty good but also sad. In my opinion, it was her best story in this collection.
  • The next story, “Winter Break,” honestly seemed dull and pointless, and I wasn’t really sure what she was trying to communicate with that one. It was my least favorite piece in this collection.
  • “Reading Aloud” was very different, a unique concept. I can’t say that I entirely enjoyed it, but I was so enthralled that I couldn’t stop reading.
  • “The Ingenue” was an interesting story that shows how one inconsequential detail can make all the difference. I did like it.
  • Even though I didn’t care for “The Emerald City” (I just don’t really like war stories), the descriptive writing was great. And I loved how we got to read the email correspondences from only one person, even though it was implied that the other person was writing back. That’s a unique way to tell a story.
  • “Baggage Claim” was the shortest and most forgettable of the stories, but it was still based on a unique concept.
  • I want more of the story told in “Hail, Full of Grace.” I want to know what’s going to happen to the characters. I’m also impressed that Marina was able to write someone twice her age so well. I don’t think it’s very common for authors to write about a protagonist older than themselves, but she did a good job.
  • “Sclerotherapy” was a nice, very short story about the permanence of our choices. I wonder where Marina came up with the ideas for her stories such as this one.
  • “Challenger Deep” was the saddest of all the stories and I didn’t really care for it, but it continues to show Marina’s gift of writing.
  • Now on to the nonfiction. The first essay was “Stability in Motion,” and I loved it. I just love her writing style so much in the way she describes scents and memories, everyday visuals with such detail that I wonder if I’ve ever even seen those things at all before now. I could never write an essay about my car as poetic and beautiful as this one. Definitely a favorite.
  • “Why We Care about Whales” reads like a paper for school, but how I wish I could have written papers like this. It is not formal. It is whimsical. It illustrates her argument beautifully while other essays might be rigid with forced concern. The way she wrote this really made me interested in the topic, and I love how the point isn’t even about the whales. She really was a gifted writer.
  • “Against the Grain” was an important story. I learned a lot from it. I didn’t realize people could feel so left out being gluten-free. I really like the title of this story as it doesn’t mean what you think it means at first; it’s very clever. This might be my favorite nonfiction story.
  • “Putting the ‘Fun’ Back in Eschatology,” at barely two pages long, felt like the introduction to a science paper. It didn’t feel like a full essay because it just brushed on the topic of preserving our solar system with no real depth, and I felt it introduced contradictory ideas. This was my least favorite essay in this book.
  • In “I Kill for Money,” Marina was distant as the author, writing entirely in third person and inserting no real opinions. It felt like a documentary but it read like a fiction story. And it was an odd sort of story. I wonder what led Marina to interview and shadow a bug exterminator for a day.
  • Yes! “Even Artichokes Have Doubts” is an excellent essay that supports an epiphany I’ve been having for the past three months (more on that at the end of this review). This essay definitely had the biggest impact on me. Pursue your passions, people!
  • “The Art of Observation” sounds like a journal entry. It’s raw and honest, but it also recognizes a great truth in the world.
  • “Song for the Special” is another really good essay. There’s a quotation in here that immediately resonated with me (see my epiphany below for details): “There’s a really good chance I’ll never do anything.” I feel like that all the time.

I have a hard time believing that Marina was my age or younger when she wrote these stories. The fiction stories are very evocative and emotional. She has a way of noticing the smallest details, and in writing about them, she creates a very realistic portrayal of life. Her descriptions are immaculate. For a book titled The Opposite of Loneliness though, these stories are all very lonely. It intrigues me that someone who advocates for not being lonely, being surrounded by friends and love, would write such sad stories.

I especially love all the opening lines and titles that Marina comes up with. The titles are refreshing and original, giving me a different perspective on her stories before I even start, and the first lines are so shocking that they draw me in in fifteen words or less and I’m already invested before I finish the first paragraph.

Overall, I loved this collection. I thought I’d mildly enjoy it as I do any average book, then forget about it a few weeks later, but I was wrong. This book showed me that short stories can actually be good. They can, in fact, make me feel emotions after ten minutes that I normally only feel after spending hours with a character. They can be profound and deep, which I never expected. I guess I’ve just never read any good short stories before now because I never knew that good ones existed. This book also showed me that essays don’t have to be stuffy and boring. They can be engaging and resonate with me in ways I never imagined, and they can even teach me about myself.

Marina was a very talented author, and it is a blessing she could share even this much of her passion with the world. If Marina had lived to write a full-length novel, I have no doubt it would have gotten published, and I predict I would have loved it. Her writing style is wonderful, even if the content of her fiction stories is a bit depressing. But it’s touching and it makes me feel things, which is the mark of a good writer. Again, I can’t believe she was only twenty-two or younger when she wrote these stories. She has a raw talent that I think is hard to find in writers these days, especially young ones.

*Here is more about my epiphany: The people who really make a difference in the world and are the happiest at what they’re doing and are living a “dream” life are the people who have a passion and have sought after it to no end. You cannot dedicate your life to something you’re not wholeheartedly passionate about. But not everyone has a passion. In fact, I would say that most people don’t. For example, I’ve casually thought my whole life that because I collect words and I like reading, because I’m good at writing and editing, I would become a writer someday. Not necessarily an author, but maybe a writer for a magazine or something. Now I realize that isn’t true. I haven’t been writing my whole life. In fact, other than writing in my journal to comprehend my emotions and writing all these book reviews, I’ve never written anything that wasn’t required for school or for some kind of application. I’ve never written a short story, a nonfiction essay, or even a basic novel outline. I’m the age of Marina when she died, and I have no collection of writing to my name, nothing to show for my “love” of writing. Marina had so much to show, so many poems and essays and stories. That is what defines a true writer: someone who cannot stop writing, who writes everything they can think of, all the time. I’m glad Marina wrote all these pieces for me to read. I’m glad I could see what determines a real writer from a fake one. (I am the fake one.)
   The difference is that Marina had a passion for writing, whereas I do not. I’m interested in a lot of things from reading and writing to playing the piano, dancing, creating all forms of art, photography, horseback riding, interior design and graphic design, traveling, rock climbing, and the list goes on. But I’m not passionate about any of that. I don’t want to devote my life to only one of those activities and abandon the rest, but that’s what having a passion is. You give up everything to pursue your passion, even when it’s completely illogical and your family thinks you’re crazy and you’re up all night working on your project because nothing will stop you until you get there. The people who quit their jobs to start non-profits because they want to help people in a specific way are people with passions. The people who travel around the world to visit strangers and research history just to learn are people with passions. The people who dedicate a decade of their lives to being nearly homeless and broke just so they can be a drummer or a singer in this no-name band are people with passions.
   I wish desperately that I had a passion, but I don’t think I do. Logic rules my life, sometimes a little too much, and it always gets in the way of me making decisions and following any one path. I’m rambling now, but this particular essay, “Even Artichokes Have Doubts,” really shows me that I’m not alone in wanting to do something with my life but being scared and not knowing what to do so taking the easy way out instead. It is so common, and it is so sad.

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