Saturday, June 22, 2013

With Every Inhale of Smoke Something is Damaged, With Every Exhale Something is Lost

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Seven Different Kinds of Smoke is a collection of short stories by Roman St. James.

Seven stories to be exact. They all focus on some kind of hardship or harmful element. 

The first is 'The Greenest Grass', and tells the story of Tasha Evans- who is a transgender man born into a woman's body. 

First Sentence:

"Tasha Evans stared at her face in the mirror and wondered what it would be like to no longer exist."

He always knew he was interested in women, but considered himself gay for the longest time, having never made the connection between wondering what it would be like to be a man and actually being one. 

Growing up in Mississippi, this alone would cause friction between him and a lot of the residents, but adding to that his African-American race and there's a lot of bigotry thrown in his face. Through the story we get a view of his past and a glimpse of things to come. He has a plan, but how much is he willing to sacrifice to make it happen? This is a story about identity.

The second is 'Seven Different Kinds of Smoke', the namesake for this book.

First Sentence:

"Kenya Watkins was nervous."

This story provides an explantation of the 'seven different kinds of smoke', though they're pretty interchangeable. The seven different kinds of smoke are just different (and more specific to the characters of this book) names for the seven deadly sins, mixed in with some life lessons to help deal with them. What's important to note, is that while 'smoking' harms the 'smoker', it also harms those around them. Other people's 'sins' can harm others, whether intentional or not. 

Here we meet Kenya Watkins- a twenty-nine year old woman with an eventful past, of which several events have unfortunately been plastered over the news. She's sitting in a cafe contemplating the bottle of pills in her pocket, when an old woman joins her, claiming she is one and the same person and is here to save Kenya from herself.

As with any sane person, Kenya 1 does not believe Kenya 2's story and so decides to test her with a series of questions, ones only she knows the answers to. If Kenya 2 can pass the test, she'll listen to anything the old woman has to say.

In 'Babble' Angela and Jack are a married couple with communication problems. 

First Sentence:

"The woman, Angela, walked into her home and dropped her purse on the dining room table."

They're trying to get through them and listen to each other better and more and are a prime example of how one small misunderstanding can lead to serious repercussions. 

Next up is 'Leap Frog', a story about Alexandra 'Alex', who believes she turns men into frogs with a kiss.

First Sentence:

"So do you want to play, or what?" Blue asked Alexandra."

She and her girlfriend are visiting Dr.Phillip Sanford, for help with their relationship. The problem it seems, stems from this belief. Alex isn't so sure she's gay, but she has sworn off men, after turning one too many of them into amphibians. Dr. Sanford has his work cut out for him.

'A Void of Sorts' is the story of Marie, a woman who has just lost her son.

First Sentence:

"One day you have a son."

A son she doted on a treasured, as all mothers do. She had always wanted a child, but had no partner of her own, so spent her savings in sperm banks. After that failed, she went 'bar hunting', looking for a suitable man (physical features wise), with the best genetics, that she could use to get her pregnant. After a few failed attempts, she finally managed it, and now her precious son is gone. Hell hath no fury like a mother.

The penultimate story is 'The Tell Tail Tale'. 

First Sentence:

"Ding Dong."

We meet a grandfather babysitting his twin, seven-year-old grandsons and making up a bedtime story for them. He is a little upset with the man his son has become- or rather where his son's values lie, so the story he tells his young grandsons, is his son's. Not that they know that.

The last story is 'Elevation'. 

First Sentence:

"Mrs. Alberta Terrell Henderson woke up and looked at her clock."

Mrs. Alberta Terrell Henderson has sold or given away all of her possessions. Her beloved husband died a year previously and she is 'going to meet him'. When her daughter shows up confused by the movers, Alberta finds herself with an extra person for the 'journey'. Her daughter, afraid of what her mother's ambiguous words mean, decides to follow her and make sure she doesn't do anything stupid. 

Despite her probing questions, her mother remains vague, and keeps repeating the same phrase as an explanation, without much detail. All her daughter can do is tag along and try to keep her mother safe. 

An interesting range of topics are explored in these seven stories. Some bittersweet, some humorous and some hateful. That's one of the good things about collections of short stories- there's usually something for everyone. 

The stories can be about a lot of uncomfortable topics. For example hate crimes. Most of the stories centre around women. Every main character is black and a couple are gay. All three are hot topics that can draw a lot of bigotry. In some of them, it provides a very raw and real perspective and we get a good story out of it. But I found myself wondering if it was necessary for every story to centre around a particular race. I want to point out now that I have absolutely no problem with any race. I'm not against any skin colour, hair colour, religion, sexuality, gender, etc, what I'm interested in is the person. 

So, would it have made any difference if some of the character's race was different? There are a few stories where race doesn't really play a part. Perhaps leaving some of the character's features deliberately vague might've been a better option. Rather than making this a book about seven stories of seven black people, I think it could reach a larger audience if it was simply seven stories about seven people. There's always the danger of putting yourself into a too specific niche. 

And these stories are worth reading. They all have interesting things to say and their own points of view. I can see what the author was trying to achieve by making all the characters black, but I think a little more subtlety could make this an amazing book. Rather than simple saying 'this person is African-American', allow the description to convey the same thing. Through the culture and the environment. If this had been one story, the method used would've fine. But when each time you start a new story and immediately see 'this person is black' it can get a little tedious and repetitive. Instead, work it into the story. Something along the lines of 'so-and-so always faced prejudice because of the colour of their skin'. It gets across the same point without being quite so blunt about it. Allow the reader to make the connection themselves.

Other than that, I did enjoy these stories. If I had to pick a favourite it would be either 'The Greenest Grass'- which deeply explores the subject of a person's identity or 'Leap Frog' for the comedic (though slightly dark when I think about it) tones. If you're wondering whether to pick this up, as I said earlier, short stories almost always have something for everyone.

Disclaimer: I received this book from the author through a giveaway. This is not a sponsored review. All opinions are 100% my own.

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