Fiction, What Shannon Read

Heather, the Totality & Uncommon Type

Book covers: Heather, in Totality and Uncommon TypeI felt moved to write about these books in comparison to one another, I think because I read one after the other.

And maybe because I felt they somehow fit into the same reading mood. Do you know what I mean?*

Also, full disclosure, I did not make it through Uncommon Type.

Anyway, Heather, the Totality is a novella by Matthew Weiner (creator of Mad Men, one of my all-time favorite shows) and Uncommon Type: Some Stories is by Tom Hanks (yep, that Tom Hanks).

I didn’t have any expectations going into Heather, the Totality, and, in spite of a lot of telling and very little showing, I found myself swept along in the narrative of the relationships between the three main characters, Karen and Mark Breakstone and their beloved daughter Heather.

There’s also a compelling concurrent story about Bobby, an ex-con who grew up with an abusive, drug-addicted mother and all the terrible consequences that entails. The two narratives build and come crashing together toward the end in a very satisfying, I thought, climax.

Image of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail

The voice in the first story of Uncommon Type is the voice of NY152 for me.

And then I started Uncommon Type. The stories were extremely bland. I didn’t expect either of of these books to really plumb the depths of human emotion, but I think Heather, the Totality got closer.

And I realize I’m unfairly comparing a part of Hanks’ book to a whole, unrelated novella, but hey, maybe write a book that makes me want to read the whole thing…

Anyway, there is a grit and realness in Heather that I think Hanks comes way shy of in his stories and after reading Weiner’s book, they seemed…cute, for lack of a better word.

For one, all of Hanks’ stories feature a typewriter (usually in a small way). And there are illustrations of typewriters at the beginning of each one. Knowing that Hanks is a big typewriter collector, I like that his first book centered on that (again, kind of cute) theme.

But his stories reminded me of both the characters he’s played and his general media personality: likeable, fairly interesting, moving at times but not necessarily gritty (I’m sure someone reading this could come back with an example of gritty Tom Hanks, but I’m just speaking generally here). For example, here’s how he handled one instance of sex in the first story of Uncommon Type called “Three Exhausting Weeks”:

“As soon as Steve’s car was out of the driveway, Anna took my hand, leading me to the backyard. She put cushions down on the soft grass and we lay there, kissing, then, well, you know, putting my capabilities to the test.” 

The last phrase is a reference to the same phrase used earlier in the story but applied to something non-sexual, and so, it’s cute.

The next story, which includes memories of a soldier in WWII, does have some battle scene descriptions that are somewhat violent and ugly. But still, the story is more of a nostalgic reflection rather than an actual description of what going to war and recovering from it are actually like. And that’s honestly where I gave up on this book. I paged through some of the other stories, saw that they were equally superficial, and moved on with my life.

Meanwhile, in Heather, in Totality:

“The night Mark and Karen finally undressed before each other, he stared at her as she got up to get a robe and go to the bathroom. It was a bright moonlit night and her nipples were almost purple in the blue air, her skin so milky, her thighs so full and ankles so narrow. He thought he would never get tired of having sex with her and he took that thought very seriously and knew they would marry.”

So, not necessarily gritty per se, but we get real intimate with the Breakstones and their desires.

I will say, though, that Hanks made some astute observations about very specific personality traits. Again, in “Three Exhausting Weeks”:

“I am one of those lazy-butt loners who can poke my way through a day and never feel a second has been wasted. In fact, as soon as I sold my mom’s house and parked the money into investments, I walked away from my fake business and settled into the Best Life Imaginable. Give me a few loads of laundry to do and a hockey game on the NHL channel and I’m good for an entire afternoon.”

He’s pretty much describing me.

But in the end, I enjoyed Heather, in Totality more because it gave me a window into some complicated relationships that, on the outside, appeared mundane, and the story continually built toward a dark ending. I like dark endings.

Conversely, the subtitle of Hanks’ book “Some Stories,” is completely apt as the stories were delivered (and received by me) with a sort of nonchalance: “Huh, how about that?”

* I feel super chuffed to have just discovered that one of my favorite reviewers did the same thing.


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