Stay Up With Me by Tom Barbash

stay up with meA good collection…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Tom Barbash’s collection of 13 stories has been nominated for the 2015 Folio Prize. Each of the stories has one central viewpoint, sometimes given in third person and sometimes first. The main characters vary in age and gender but in almost every case they tend to be dealing with some form of loss – sometimes romantic loss, but often grief over the loss of a parent or a child. However that makes the collection sound more downbeat than it is. While some of the stories are quite moving, many of them are lifted by a touch of humour in the telling.

Although I’ve been reading a lot of short stories recently, it’s still a form I struggle with. I’m aware of the fact that I like stories to have a plot – a beginning, middle and end – and that this isn’t always the case with shorts. Barbash’s stories are more in the form of character studies for the most part, and often seem to stop rather than end. This left me feeling dissatisfied with many of them, though my dissatisfaction was usually caused by the fact that the characters and situations had interested me and I wanted to see them taken through to a resolution. On the few occasions that the story came to some kind of firm conclusion, I found I enjoyed them a good deal, but with the rest I was left feeling a little let down – a clash between author’s style and reader’s preference, I think, rather than a real criticism of Barbash’s skill.

There is a theme in many of them of dysfunctional relationships between parents and children, often with sexual jealousy thrown into the mix. So we have the mother who becomes obsessively jealous of her son’s relationship with a waitress, and the father who finds himself having sexual feelings for his son’s girlfriend. But there is always an added layer of depth, an examination of the cause behind these feelings, and this is the real interest of the story.

Here are a few that I particularly enjoyed – individually each of these would get a five-star rating from me:

Howling at the Moon – a tale of a young boy who had been the accidental cause of the death of his brother some years before, and the emotional distance this has caused between himself and his mother. Barbash leaves the guilt and grief skilfully understated, which I felt actually added to the emotional impact of this one.

Letters from the Academy – this is written as a series of letters from a tennis coach to the father of a young player about whom he has become obsessed. This is the most overtly humorous of the stories as we have to read between the lines of this man who clearly thinks his increasingly crazed behaviour is normal. Pete Sampras puts in a cameo appearance, which added a nice touch. And beneath the humour is a layer of pathos that gives the story some depth.

Paris – a tale of a newspaper man who does an expose of the poverty-ridden lives of the people of the run-down town of Paris (somewhere in America – not Paris, France). This one looks at how the journalist’s own worthy motivations to highlight the blight that poverty causes blinded him to the effect of his article on the people he used. Quite different from the other stories in the book, very well written, and it made me wish that Barbash had tackled subjects like this more often.

The Women – told from the perspective of a teenage boy whose mother has died, this is the story of the different ways in which the boy and his father come to terms with their loss, and of the boy coming slowly to an adult realisation of why his father has dealt with it as he has. Again this story has a more complete resolution, and the characterisation of both father and son is excellent.

Tom Barbash
Tom Barbash

On the whole, the storytelling is done quite conventionally, but Barbash mixes it up stylistically occasionally by, for example, giving us one story written in the form of letters, and another written in the second person. I’m not a huge fan of stylistic tricks, but these worked well for the subject matter of each. The characterisation throughout is the main strength of the collection, ringing true even when the circumstances might easily have led to them becoming unbelievable or caricatured. The scenarios are more variable, some excellent but others too slight or too contrived to satisfy. However the majority of the stories are either good or excellent, with only a few that I would rate as no more than average. A good collection overall, then, and I would be interested to read one of Barbash’s novels, since I suspect his writing would work better for me within the longer format.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

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51 thoughts on “Stay Up With Me by Tom Barbash

  1. FictionFan – Sounds like an interesting collection. I think I like short stories more than you do, so I was inclined to like this group in any case. But it’s good to hear that the stories are well-written and that you enjoyed them, for the most part.

    • Yes, I’m always a bit wary of being over-critical of short stories because I know it’s not a format I really feel at home with. But on the whole I think this collection is worth reading… 🙂

  2. This sounds like a very interesting collection. I am always a bit wary of short story collections but the stories you highlighted do indeed sound rather good. I shall have to keep an eye out for this Barbash chap.

    • Yes, I’m not a huge fan of short stories overall – don’t know why I keep getting these collections really. But sometimes they work for me. There were enough stories that I enjoyed in this one to make the collection worth reading, and I would like to see how he handles the novel format.

  3. New author for me…. thanks for bringing him to my atttetion.
    Review highlights strong and weak points ( reader’s preference) ….I should remember to incluld more of my preferences in a review without subtracting from the writer’s talents. This is an original perspective.

    • New to me too – and I’d be happy to read more of his stuff.

      Thanks! 🙂 I’m always a bit wary when I’m reviewing short stories because it’s not a format I’m keen on really, and I always feel it’s a bit unfair on the author if I hold that against them…

  4. Interesting as ever review. I could well be tempted, but the NetGalley TBRs , the Vine TBRs and a particularly weak willed January where I’ve been unable to pop into book shops, scour charity shops for second hand books and ALSO succumb to several fits of click click on Amazon, both downloads and the greeting of the postman bearing a familiar small cardboard packet, means resistance. For a day or so at least. I seem to be more on a ‘now i really enjoyed that author so let’s buy their earlier’ state of mind.

    And I’ve already got not 1 but 2 collections of short stories from NG waiting accusingly for reading.

    • Well, these were quite good and might appeal to you, but I’m going to attempt to talk you and Jilanne into another one next week – a brick – so you’ll need to read voraciously all weekend to make a bit of room. I’ve really been quite controlled the last few weeks, and though the tennis means I haven’t been getting through much, I actually do feel happier that I’m beginning to find time for some re-reads and for some stuff that’s been sitting around on the TBR for too long. But I’ve still got about 15 NG ones – some old, some not yet published, so not completely clear yet…

  5. Don’t know this author at all, but some of these sound interesting. I’m comfort reading at the moment – the rest of my time I’m spending with my dentist ( who is a very nice young woman, but……).

    • Yes, the tennis one was great – and it really read as if he knew his stuff, both about the game and the tennis world. I thought the drunk driver one was really good too – another 5 star one, but I didn’t want the list in the review to get too long. At first I was a bit put off by the second person thing but I thought it worked in the end. Actually I thought there were more good stories in the second half – either that or I got more used to his style. But there were a couple of duds, one of them being the title story unfortunately. I was also a bit concerned that he seems to feel 65 is extremely elderly…

      • LOL Yes, he does have graying hair, but he’s in his early to mid 40s, I think, so that additional 20+ years seems long off. Little does he know! 😀

        Yes, I agree with your analysis of the stories. Will be interested to see what you think of Chaon’s work after this. I hope he’s not a disappointment for you.

  6. Like you I find short stories less fulfilling than a full-length novel because I often feel like I want to know more, although I am quite intrigued by this collection. I like the fact that the stories are built around a theme too and this one sounds as if it works quite well with many variations both in type of character and the loss endured. Another great review.

    • Thanks, Cleo! 🙂 I reckon the subject matter of these would probably work well for you, but the format might leave you feeling a bit dissatisfied with some of them, like it did with me. But his characterisation is great, and I really must try to read one of his novels at some point – they seem to be quite positively reviewed…

  7. This collection is on my to-read list, so thank you for reminding me of it! I like what you said about the stories being more like character studies and the stories stopping rather than ending. I tend to enjoy this about short stories, it almost lets the characters and the story take on a life of its own after you’ve finished reading. But I understand what you mean, sometimes you just want a resolution after you’ve become interested in the characters. Great review!

    • Thanks, Gemma! 🙂 Yes, I think it’s easy to think of short stories as just very, very short novels, but the format can really be very different. I’m getting better at accepting that as I read more of them, but I still find I really want some kind of ‘end’. But I reckon that if you like that about the format, then you will get a lot out of this collection – his writing is very good, and the characterisation is excellent. Hope you enjoy!

    • I’ve avoided short stories for most of my life until this last couple of years and, though I appreciate them more than I did, it’s still not a form I’m particularly comfortable with. I haven’t read O. Henry, but I’ve heard several people praise them, so I really must try him sometime…

    • Thanks, Beth! 🙂 Yes, could be! Although there’s a loose theme through lots of them, they could certainly each be read as a standalone, and some of them are very good.

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