Book Reviews


I loved so much about Jim Tomlinson’s short story collection, Things Kept, Things Left Behind. It was one of those reads that I felt compelled to carefully portion out so as to not have it be over too quickly. I wanted to savor it. I hated for it to end. The book has a beautiful, poignantly apt cover design with a number of excellent blurbs on the back, but one blurb in particular expressed what I found most to love about the collection. George Saunders wrote, “Jim Tomlinson uses the traditional gifts of the writer–love of place, a keen eye for the telling detail, unflagging interest in the human heart–to bring to life a very specific and eye-opening version of America, particularly working-class, rural America…his care for these people and his generosity toward them are evident on every page.” I have actually put off writing this review for over a week, because what I most wanted to do was point to Saunders’ words and shout, “What he said!” But that would do a disservice to all of Jim’s hard work and I truly was transported by the very real characters and their situations, so who better to discuss the book than me? I am a product of that “working-class rural America” that Saunders mentions and when Cass (in the the half-title story “Things Kept”) says, “When he comes to see Ma, don’t matter if it’s a hundred degrees, Dale here is wearing long sleeves so she don’t see them tattoos he’s got drawed on his arms,” I KNOW her. She is utterly, absolutely real to me. And in particular, I was impressed by how the women in Things Kept, Things Left Behind are portrayed. In the reading, I had the sense that, while writing, Jim allowed them to live and breathe. They have flaws and desires and idiosyncracies that allowed me to see and appreciate them, warts and all–like real people. I think that can be difficult enough when we are creating characters; doubly so when we are creating characters across a gender divide. But there is no gender divide in this collection. Men cheat, women cheat, men love obsessively, women love obsessively, both succeed, both fail. It is such an even-handed look at what makes us human. I am also so grateful that Jim resisted the urge that so many (particularly southern) writers of late have embraced: the urge to gently mock their characters. A fascinating article by Jonathan Dee (in Esquire?) opened my eyes to this, and ever since I have been sensitive to the notion that we, as writers, should respect our characters. As storytellers, you...

Read More

I’ll be writing a few reviews over the next week, to share thoughts about and excerpts from some of the great books I’ve been reading recently. I confess that I’m new to Percival Everett’s work. Some of my good friends are great fans of his, and he was at Bread Loaf this year and gave a great reading, and well, I just decided it was about time I read something of his. Since I write a lot about race issues myself, I decided on ERASURE which on its front cover (paperback version) has the following quote from the New York Times Book Review: “With equal measures of sympathy and satire, Erasure craftily addresses the highly charged issue of being ‘black enough’ in America.” “Craftily” is a good word to use because Everett gives us a book within a book to illustrate his (and his character’s) point. The protagonist, a novelist, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, is having trouble getting his most recent work published when he comes across the work of an “authentic” black novelist whose book “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto” is a runaway bestseller. Horrified by the stereotypes and the dialect in it, he sets out (angrily) to write a book just as horrible and titles it “My Pafology” (later changing the name to something that the publisher suggests he spells ‘Phuck’ so as not to alienate more sensitive readers–he refuses). Of course, he submits it to his agent and the book gets attention, raves and an obscenely large advance. The problem is, Monk didn’t submit it as himself. He submitted it under the pen name of Stagg R. Leigh, and endowed his doppelganger with a rap sheet and prison time in his past. Of course, everyone wants to meet the infamous Stagg, further complicating Monk’s plan and forcing him into an even greater charade. Ever more humorous complications arise and the book is finally nominated for a prestigious award for which Monk is made a member of the jury. To recuse, or not to recuse?? That delightful romp aside, the book is also about relationships and love and filial duty…and about the damage a father inflicts when he dubs one child “the golden child” and emotionally excludes the others. (Damage, by the way, that is done not only to the siblings, but also to the golden child.) Outside of his publishing woes, Monk loses a sister who is a successful OBGyn for underpriveleged women (at the hands of a radical right-to-lifer who guns her down), a brother who has come out of the closet and can’t reconcile his relationship with Monk, and a half-white, racist half-sister he didn’t...

Read More