I have often considered reading ARCs—advance reader copies—to review, but I have stayed away from this in the past because 1) I have two self-published books and reviewing other self-published books felt like a conflict of interest and 2) I really don’t want to be honest about a bad book from an emerging author. I mean, I want to promote emerging authors as much as possible and I hope to be one really soon, so why muddy the waters around me with discouragement? Quite frankly, I didn’t know if these reasons were valid, and when I was approached by an editor/agent with a book that was traditionally published, I hesitated. She also had some knowledge of me reviewing positively a similar book in the past. I am at this full-time author stage in my life (again and maybe not for long), so I went for my first ARC in many years. (This is slightly misleading, as I have just read and reviewed Orphaned Believers, but that was for a friend.) I received my ARC of The Good Slope by Elizabeth Rau before its publication date. I am not being paid for this review. I just got a free copy of the book.
Rau is a journalist whose articles have appeared in Rhode Island publications (and The Boston Globe) since 1989. The Good Slope is a collection of her work (the subtitle is A Collection of Essays) and has now been published by Apprentice House Press—a publishing house, I was interested to find out, that is 100% staffed and run by students at Loyola University. This factoid made me more susceptible to take on the ARC, because training writing students in actual, publishing experience is an awesome thing to do and I was in support. When the book arrived, I was not as impressed as I wanted to be, just for two small reasons: it felt self-published (though on the high end of self-published, I’ll admit); and it was long. 341 pages of essays is, in my opinion, hefty, and due to the thick, bright white pages (part of what made it feel self-pubbed to me; another part was the page layout and formatting inside), it was big in my hands. While some people who saw me reading it (I carry around literature at all times) found the cover impressive, I was a little bummed that it looked photoshopped and the fonts/style were a tad behind the times. I am being super picky, but it was my first impression.
Here’s the thing about getting a thick book of essays in the mail, for me: I have a hard time reading books with shorts in a timely manner, and to read what I might guess is 75-100 shorts—nonfiction to boot—is going to take me some time. I am unsure if this is my ADHD, but things that come in pieces leave many places for me to get lost or distracted—too many moments for me to put the book down. Which means that I have now passed the publication date and that you can rush out and buy the book (or order it) right now, if you want. It was available on May 2. But I really need to get my review live, because Rau needs reviews. If you read the book, would you be so kind? (Reader reviews (at least positive ones) on major websites mean a great deal to smaller publications and emerging writers.)
I was pitched this book because I had favorably reviewed A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin. That book is officially a collection of short stories, though I discuss in my review how they are thinly-veiled memoir. That book compiles stories from the 1960s to 2004. Berlin’s themes include alcoholism, loss, grief, single mothering, etc. Now to switch gears back: Rau’s book is a collection of small-town articles, straight from her life and the lives of those in her community. She wrote them from the 80s until 2018 (for this collection). Her themes are much softer than Berlin’s; that is the appeal of this book. It is honest and realistic, but it has a whiff of nostalgia, of times past, a kind of spit-shine akin to The Andy Griffith Show but from a more modern perspective. While I could read my own experience into it pretty well (raising small kids in the early twenty-first century), I was also lulled and soothed by the chatty, homespun pace of Rau’s life and observations. If you have an interest in Rhode Island, baseball, small city-living in the early twenty-first century, raising boys, or, well, people-watching, then Rau might be for you.
Here’s actually who I feel would most enjoy a book like this: someone older. (Not old, just older.) Someone who remembers local, editorial columns. Someone who subscribes to Readers Digest (or picks them up in the supermarket line, or some modern version of this). Someone who isn’t easily led astray by the fast-paced, sleekly-edited, social-media-ed, big price-tagged, trendy thing. Rau has provided a meander into the normal life, like for real. Not a dramatic life. Not a manicured life. Just a quiet space where real people inhabit real lives without strange packaging, though not devoid of surprises or poignancy. And it’s not just her own life. In fact, I liked the chapters and essays less which revolved around her own home; I more enjoyed when—in her later writing—she turned outward to members of her community. The idea of taking your friend’s kid and writing an article on him like he’s the crown prince or a rockstar is just joyful and cool, and I read those essays with a sparkle in my eye.
Which leads me to my two critiques of this book. For one, it is too long. I believe they should have cut more, because this is an introduction for most of us to this author, so zooming in on Rau’s best work would have been a better move, I think (unless their target audience is her fans visiting local bookstores in Providence. (To be fair, she also tells stories about growing up in St. Louis and a tiny bit New York City)). And two, I wish it had not been arranged chronologically. One of the things I praised about A Manual for Cleaning Women was the un-chronological way the stories were arranged so that there was a slow dawning, a circuitous unveiling, and a proper resolution of sorts. Arranging Rau’s work so that a reader would be hit with some of her best writing up front and then again at the end, making sense of her work to highlight themes or something: I would have liked that a lot better and, more importantly, it would have drawn me in much quicker. That way, too, those chapter breaks could have had titles, which would be much more interesting and sensical than just lopping off a chunk and calling it, “Chapter 5.”
My favorite essays were:
- “My Hermit Crabs”
- “Our Land”
- “Yousef and Me”
- “Michael’s Watch”
In a time when very few people go beyond visiting your Facebook page or honking at your car, Rau has been paying attention to people for decades. She writes about others—and the patterns and spaces of her own life—with painstaking care and an open mind and heart. What we end up with in The Good Slope is a calm slice of American pie in which we can see that the seeds have not been sieved away. Sometimes her essay endings are a little cheesy, but she did seem to improve her writing over time. (Oh, I forgot, there is also no table of contents, in case you were looking for one.) And I’ll agree with the cover copy: “…the collection elevates moments we take for granted into luminous stories about the experience of home,” at least for her particular demographic, which is small city Rhode Island and plenty of other places like it. If you like A Manual for Cleaning Women or even Olive Kitteridge, you might want to give The Good Slope a try. Keep it someplace handy for reading a few minutes at a time and I think you’ll find you want to return to it to see who will show up next in her cast of very real characters to charm you.