Edwards-Stout, Kergan. “Gifts Not Yet Given and Other Tales of the Holidays”, Circumspect Press, 2013.
Those Times of Year
I was thrilled to hear from Kergan Edwards-Stout a few weeks ago. He wrote to ask me to review his new book, “Gifts Not Yet Given” and I did not hesitate for a second to say that I would love to. His earlier novel, “Songs for the New Depression” was one of the highlights of my literary life and I have always found that discovering a new author who really knows how to write and to tell a story to be a blessing compared to some of the books I read. This time, it is not a novel but a collection of short stories about the holidays we celebrate and if I am too name a must-read, this would surely be it. Each story focuses on a holiday and those times in our lives when we realize that we are part of a larger world where there is a lot of good. The collection is made up of fourteen stories each about a specific holiday and like those special ornaments that are placed on Christmas trees, each story reminds us of someone or somewhere in time. Now you make ask what a Jewish reviewer like me knows about Christmas trees and ornaments and I say to you that I live in a Christian world with many Christian friends from whom I learn a great deal. However, there is one thing that I have learned from all of the reading that I do and that is to recognize a good writer when I read. Kergan Edwards-Stout impressed me greatly with his first book, “Songs for the New Depression” and he gave himself quite a task for measuring his work that was yet to come. I am glad to say that this book not only lives up to my expectations, it surpasses them.
I always have problems when I review a collection of short stories because I can either write about each story separately which I really do not like to do since that takes away from the readers’ enjoyment and surprise or I can write a more general review taking the book as a whole. As I write this, I am still not sure what I will do but have patience and we will find out together.
What I found to be so amazing in this book is that the author’s personal stories became my personal stories as well and to me this attests to the universality of man. It is almost as if he wrote some of these stories directly to me. I knew from the moment that I read the preface that I would be in for a special treat reading these stories but I did not know that they would affect me the way that they did. To me, a sign of good, or even great, literature is when the writing speaks to you. This is what Edwards-Stout is so good at. He not only writes each story as if he is writing just to you, he has each story pull you into it. You are not just a reader—you are also a participant. Several times I had to stop reading to make sure that I was indeed reading something written on a page and not being acted out before my eyes.
There is something else this writer does that is stunning—he is able to mix love and compassion with anger and rage and he has us laughing and crying in the same story and sometimes in the same sentence. He writes of love in a way that is self-defining and makes you never again question what it is.
I suppose that if I have to pick a story that really spoke to me, it would be “The Cape” and I did not choose it because I live not far away (and that reminds me that Kergan Edwards-Stout had better call me the next time he is in my neck of the woods. I loved his description of Newberry Street in Boston) but I cannot agree that life in Boston is like one big party. In fact, we work hard in Boston and only play when work is done which for me seems like almost never. I chose it because my generation was so affected by the deaths of those we loved. Our main character, Paul, was planning to head to the Cape, to Provincetown. He had always been a party person and now he was heading to the Cape in the cold of winter and he felt that this was just what he needed. He was still reverberating from the loss of so many friends to AIDS and just when he thought the death bell had pealed for the last time and then he met Sean who became another victim to the disease that robbed us of so many beautiful men. With Paul it seemed that death was a way of life. He lost his parents in a car crash and so many friends were lost to the Plague. He began to set himself apart because he found he cared too much. As he drove to the Cape he remembered so many who were no longer here. He suddenly realized that he did not know himself at all and he hoped that this trip would help him find the soul that he felt he had lost.
I am not going to tell you anymore about the story or about any of the stories. What I wanted you to see was how a story that can be written by one person can mean so much to so many others and you will see this as many as fourteen times in this book. The themes herein are universal as are the characters of who many are looking for the place they fit in this world and tackle the issues of spirituality and faith as well as identity. We know these struggles are sincere because we share them. We also see the importance of holidays as stepping stones in our lives. Holidays remain constant but getting to them and celebrating them are always different. Constancy seems to change. I think I know what the author is trying to tell us and I would like to know if you think the same. But first you will have to read this beautiful book to find that.