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Among the Christmas goodies that turned up in my kilt hose were several collections of short stories: by the Italian Giovanni Verga, by the Swede, Isaak Denisen, and, perhaps most noticeably, by the American film star, Tom Hanks. Hanks is one of those rare ‘A-listers’ who gets, and has got for decades now, not only good reviews of his film roles, but also and consistently good reports of his ‘real’ persona.

Of course, real personas, even for those of us who are not listed at all, not even under ‘Z’ are not all there is to our stories, and nor should they be. All of which is easing round to a confession that it’s difficult to make a judgment about the first collection of short stories to be published under the name of a famous and well liked actor. If we damn them, we’re at risk of being thought of as pressing sour grapes; if we praise them we court the label of sycophant.

I wondered too, as to whether or not this was, as well as being a first collection, a collection also of first stories. Has Tom Hanks, I wondered, been learning this new trade in secret, in nom de plume and alias, in the pages of and on the websites of the unpaying magazines and e-zines that most of us inhabit? Or was it a matter of jumping in with both metaphoricals, and enjoying the revenue from sales that would undoubtedly follow the publication of stories by the hero of Saving Private Ryan, and Sleepless in Seattle, and Sully (et al)? Has the man done his apprenticeship?

 

Uncommon Type, subtitled, rather originally, I thought, some stories, is a collection of tales that all involve, include or at least refer to a (usually) named make and model of typewriter. Typewriters, it appears, are a passion of Mr Hanks, and why wouldn’t they be? I have fond memories of typing stories and poems on my Olivetti Dora, a neat, manual portable typewriter that carried me through the first phase of my writing life – when I was a poor poet. That machine has long gone, but I’m still a poet of that ilk.

I’m coming round to the belief that there is no ‘good’ writing, but only degrees of liking, or disliking any specific example of the form, sometimes with what might be called objective, but often with what must be recognised as subjective reasons.

I liked Tom Hanks’s short stories. Especially, I liked the one called Christmas Eve 1953. Reviewers in the press have drawn attention to the battle scenes in this, referring back to those in Saving Private Ryan, and it should be recalled that Hanks was also involved, though not as an actor, in the more ambitious Band of Brothers. He also, in interviews, has referred to reading William Manchester, who wrote Goodbye Darkness, a very original personal history of the Pacific War. The battle scenes, though, are not what the story is about.

This is a Christmas story, and very much a character study, which shows us two ex-World War Two soldiers, dealing with their post-war issues. One has physical injuries, the other mental ones. It throws a powerful sidelight on how we cope, rise above, or fail, to deal with the cards we have been dealt, while the main protagonist struggles to get his wartime buddy to agree to visit over the festive season.

In Christmas Eve 1953, I like the way he leaves it till half way through before dropping into the story the nature of the particular injury that his main protagonist suffers from. I can remember telling students, repeatingly, that if ever you need to give a character a wooden leg, or a glass eye, you’d better get it in early on, so that readers aren’t fooled into imagining the wrong sort of person as they progress into the story. Of course, the advice doesn’t work if, like Hanks, you need to be making the point that the injury has not crippled, though it may have challenged, the character in question.

At just short of 25 pages in the Heinemann hardback edition (no doubt there will be paperbacks to follow), it seems about average for the collection (which has some that are longer, and some that are shorter). The longer ones make me think Mr Hanks might try his hand successfully at a novel one day (tho’ that would be a shame, if it drew him away from the senior genre). The writing style is clean, by which I mean that I can understand it, sentence after sentence, all the way through, even though it’s written in that foreign language named after my mother tongue. One or two words, I admit, in the collection generally, were totally meaningless to me, though I got the sense of them from their contexts. Stephen Fry, on the dust jacket, says that author is ‘smart, engaging and humane’, which seems true. Steve Martin calls him ‘wise and hilarious’. I’d go for ‘insightful’ too, and a ‘neat technician’, who can pull some clever tricks with language, and with stories told in it.

The press reviews are more universally negative about the collection. Several mention the length of the book – even the Irish Times, which took a generally positive view (‘But Hanks is a good writer and, even without his fame, I suspect that many of these stories would have found their way into print.’ -John Boyne in the Irish Times). Mostly though, they don’t like the writing, the tone of voice, or the admittedly cosiness of most of the stories – ‘Hanks’s stories – Alan Bean Plus Four aside – are forgettable, middle-of-the-road and touched by the special banality of mere competence.’ The Guardian (no byline). ‘It’s rare that a book is actually painful to read, but getting through Tom Hanks’s short-story collection, Uncommon Type, was like pulling teeth.’ – The Independent. I can sympathise with that last comment, having experienced it with an A.S.Byatt collection, but doesn’t the reviewer mean having teeth pulled? Pulling them, surely, would be more enjoyable? Amazon, in its sales pitch, says that Hanks is ‘as good a writer as he is an actor’, which strongly suggests that they know very little about either art form, other than with regard to how well individual examples of them might sell.

The Guardian review hits a nail though with its ‘mere competence’. The stories are competently written, but competence alone is not enough. A similar criticism was made about contemporary poetry by the editor of Acumen recently. She put it down to the widespread teaching of ‘Creative Writing’, which can teach the competence, but not the reason for telling any particular story. I found Hanks’s stories likeable, but they didn’t shake my beliefs to the core, nor open my eyes to that which I hadn’t seen before, neither did they remind me, either forcefully or subtly, of deep truths that I had forgotten. They are the sort of stories I would be happy to listen to at forty thousand feet, in a metal cylinder that I feel has no business staying in the air, and which delusion I’d prefer to be distracted from.

Tom Hanks’ stories are the stories of an amiable and garrulous companion, but are they entirely what stories have to be, if we are to think of them as good, or even as short stories? In my part of the world we have something called the Cumberland Sausage. Unlike other sausages it is constructed as a single, long tube, not split, like ordinary sausages, into links, each of which can be described as ‘a sausage’. When the Cumberland Sausage is cut into sections, each section remains simply that, a section of, rather than a Cumberland Sausage in its own right. There’s something similar about writing, a similarity that makes us think that some poems are merely ‘chopped prose’, and, perhaps, that some ‘short stories’ are merely descriptions or accounts of people, places, and events.

Do Tom Hanks’ stories pass the test that all stories to some extent are at risk of failing, which is that of whether or not they need to be told? The answer to that lies almost always with the ending of the short story, rather than (as in the case of novels) with its crisis. Tom Hanks, I found, reminded me a little of Chekhov in this regard, for I had to turn the tales over in my mind for a time, considerably so in some cases, trying to get an idea of why he had brought me to those specific words that were his endings, and of what he expected me to, or hoped, I would see when I got there.

 

 

 

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