I’ve been taking photos long enough to learn that the passing of a cold front is a photographer’s gift. As one system leaves, and another arrives, the clouds turn beautiful colors and scatter across the wind-driven sky. I see it as falling into my trap. As blue patches of sky appeared and the fading sun lit up the Northern sky, I ran into the road with my Canon 5D. Felt like Kansas to me. The sky fell into my trap.
Note: These reviews are done in conjunction with Battenkill Books, my local bookstore and are part of an effort to support independent bookstores. If you are interested in the book, please consider purchasing it from Battenkill or your local independent bookstore. You can call the store at 518 677-2515 or e-mail Connie Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the store’s website. My reviews are being archived there, and they take Paypal and ship anywhere in the world.
When I started reviewing books recently, I decided that I would only review the books I really liked. I’m not into trashing the books of other writers, I don’t have the heart for it. I would not praise a book I didn’t like, but there’s no reason to dump on it in public either. So if I don’t like it, I just don’t review it. A few hours ago, I finished reading “Middle Men” by Jim Gavin, ( Simon and Schuster), a lavishly praised collection of short stories dealing with the lives of men. Both Amazon and indie bookstores have been pushing it. Amazon picked it one of the best books of the year.
I guess I have to depart from rule a bit.
I have noticed something interesting about short story collections – I like to buy and read them – and am developing a theory about why most of them sell so poorly. Before reading “Middle Men,” I went through three other collections. They are all profoundly bleak, and it seems the more depressing they are, the more enthusiastic the reviews. Sadness, loss and death are a part of life, but these days, there is a lot of bad news available, and it is free, piped into people’s eyes, ears and butts day and night. I’m not sure I can or should convince somebody to spend $23 and up for a book that will make them want to run in traffic.
I just wrote a short story collection, “Dancing Dogs,” and while almost every story has a happy ending, a dog died in one of the pieces and some people just went ballistic, shocked that I would even mention such a thing in a book about dogs. It’s a touchy market out there.
I felt the need to write about “Middle Men,” and it is a complex book to review. This is a wonderfully written book, witty, contemporary, honest and often deeply moving. The stories are penetrating, original.
But here’s the problem. Each story is grimmer than the first, and the first is plenty grim. In “Play The Man,” we watch a young basketball hopeful see his dreams fade poignantly and painfully away as his family falls apart, broke and dispirited. In “Elephant Doors” we see a young production assistant trapped in a horrible and doomed job working for a lunatic and them humiliated in his Friday night gig as a stand-up comic. An unemployed man falls in love with a depressed woman much older than he does, is ruined personally and financially and gets dumped while traveling to an island paradise in search of her. A manic depressive in Berkeley disintegrates slowly all across the Bay Area, losing job after job, slipping off his meds and ending up vomiting on a stranger’s couch jilted by his only friend and love. The final and most powerful story is about Costello, a middle-aged toilet salesman coping with the painful death of his wife from cancer. And coping painfully.
Reading the glowing reviews, I was excited to possibly come across stories about the real lives of real men, a rare thing in fiction, and I was eager to write about men here. I love writing about men, they are hard to capture. Gavin’s stories are beautifully crafted and stylish. He is a wonderful writer. But why write such a one-dimensional book? And why do the literary people love these books so much?
Isn’t there one man in the world who does well at work? Who gets the girl? Who is happily married to a woman who lives awhile? Who isn’t living on somebody’s couch and stealing their stuff? Isn’t there one life to inspire us or give us hope? Contemporary publishers are obsessed with marketing, yet many don’t seem to grasp that the days when people will spend a chunk of cash to feel crummy are dwindling. They can watch the news 24/7.
And just whose lives are we chronicling? And for what audience? I am not a man like the ones in this book. I don’t know a man like these. Men and women die from cancer, and their spouses struggle with it. Why is this story a penetrating and brave look at the psyches of males? The book is about as entertaining as watching icicles melt. Why didn’t a single review prepare me for this catalog of misery and woe? I’ve made a note not to do that in my reviews.
I enjoyed Karen Russell’s “Vampire In The Lemon Grove,” a brilliantly original collection of stories but also a dark collection. I had a nightmare about the last story. At some point in the reading of any book, I ask myself what is it I am supposed to take from a book, what does it bring me? I get that it’s hip to be dark, but it is no secret in publishing that few people are buying collections of dark stories.
I felt “Middle-Men” was a lost opportunity, that the writer chose to write to himself and his friends. There are many different elements to the lives of men these days. One of them is struggle and failure. There are probably another couple of hundred – change, love, courage, family, responsibility, work, war – but you won’t find any of them in this collection.
I see that I am doing the very thing I decided not to go – write about a book I didn’t like. But there is a larger point to make here, and it is worth making. When I began my life as a journalist and a writer I believed it was my job to capture the dark truths of the world, there was so much pablum out there. Now there is so much dark truth raining down on people, my role has been reversed: to remind people that there is light and love and color in the world. They can get the ugly stuff on the smart phones all day.
Maybe I’ll come across a short story collection that doesn’t make me want to go shoot myself while I’m reviewing books. I’m on number five and it doesn’t look good. If there is one, and it is good, I will praise it to the skies.
Red and I took a walk up the late. It was beautiful, a big wind blowing across the hill, and the sky cleared suddenly and opened up to a beautiful sunset. Had the right lens for a change.
The New Bedlam Farm is close to a busy road, but surrounded by farmlands, woods and corn fields. It is comfortable for us, in several ways. It is not remote, it is near a town we love, but it is also private. In the spring, we are anxious to explore the 17 acres of woods behind the farmhouse. Maybe bulldoze a path back there, put in a bench or table and chairs. We walk the dogs all over the place, and I realized I hadn’t shown this perspective on the new farm.
Thomas Aquinas wrote that human beings need to be merciful and compassionate to animals because it helps us to be more human. When I feed my animals, care for them, show them mercy and compassion, it is a selfish thing. It is for me as much as it is for them, always. We show animals the mercy and compassion that we do not show for ourselves or often, for our fellow human beings. This is the true message of what we call the news.
When I am struggling with anger or self-righteousness or judgement, I have learned to ask myself this: how do I treat my animals? How do I show patience and understanding for Red? For Simon? For the sheep? And then I seek to apply this to the people in my life. How strange that this should work this way, but this was Aquinas’s idea: we are merciful to animals because it shows us how to be merciful to ourselves, and to our fellow human beings.