Let’s get this out of the way now, so I don’t have to mention it too much during the review of ‘Uncommon Type’. Yes, it’s Tom Hanks. The prolific, award winning, Oscar winning actor Tom Hanks. Yep, the person that voiced Woody in Toy Story, that’s him. You didn’t know he was a writer…well he is, and judging by ‘Uncommon Type’ he has a ‘BIG’ future (Ok I’ll stop dropping in the film titles now before I get carried away).
I wanted this review to focus on the man, the writer the typewriter enthusiast Tom Hanks; for him to be judged solely on his writing credentials and nothing else. I am a huge fan of Tom Hanks and it could be easy for me to float his ego with an outpouring of beautifully constructed sentences that tell you he’s the best writer ever…but I guess acting is a lot like writing. You get better the more you do it. The more you hone your skills the sharper they become. Iron sharpening Iron. Great actors helping to bring out performances of their unknown co-stars; but the difference with writing is it’s a solo sport, it’s gauged on the words on the page and the writers’ pursuit of personal development and the continued belief that they are not the finished article…a lonely journey to discover the greatness within.
So ‘Uncommon Type’ was an eagerly anticipated book for me; I’d found out through some sources that Hanks was writing a collection of short stories a while ago and it’s been on my radar ever since. I was delighted when the book found its way through my letter box. I peeled back the envelope to reveal a rather simplistic cover, a very unpretentious cover, a cover that screams out judge me on my words, judge me on my works. So Mr. Hanks I will.
On so many occasions I receive a book from publicists of a debut short story writer or novelist that’s grotesquely marketed, its advertising campaign are dripping with misdirection, trying to cover something up with freebies, foil embossed artwork, postcards, t-shirts etc. with the sole purpose of trying to detract you (or me the reviewer) from the book itself. So, with ‘Uncommon Type’ I found the cover to be a marketing triumph, it’s as if Tom Hanks has said ‘Here’s my book, judge me on that an nothing else’ – well done art department.
I’m not going to lie to you, it did take me about three stories of the seventeen stories within the collection to stop reading them in the voice of Tom Hanks; I challenge anyone who reads this book to pick it up and not do so. But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the stories, Tom Hanks after all has a very nice voice, a voice that is synonymous with his name (unless you have lived under a rock for your whole life). The book as mentioned is made up of seventeen short stories, but there are four which are somewhat linked titled ‘Our Town Today with Hank Fiset’, which are written as newspaper articles and help to give the collection a binding factor and something that creatively I felt worked wonders; the break in format and having this narrator you get to hang out with along the way was a lovely touch that I appreciated immensely.
What I found endearing about Hanks’ writing is that it is so simplistic in its nature, that one can’t help but be moved by its simplicity, its structure, it’s cadences. Almost as if every word was chosen with intricate precision, like a composer creating his symphony. It’s a book that grows on you the more you invest in it, the more you just ease back into its simplicity, and get carried away by an arrestingly delightful storyteller.
‘these are the meditations of my heart
The words had been typed as many as thirty years ago, when the machine was brand new, just out of the box, perhaps a gift on a girls thirteenth birthday. A more recent owner had typed BUY ME FOR $5 on a piece of paper and rolled it into the carriage.
The machine was a portable; the body was plastic. The ribbon was two-tone, black over red, and there was a hole in the lid where the name Smith Corona or Brother or Olivetti had once been plugged. There was also a reddish leatherette carrying case with a half-sleeve opening and push-button latch. She punched three of the keys – A, F, P -and they all clacked onto the paper and settled back again. So, the thing worked, sort of.
“Is this typewriter really only five dollars?” she asked of a Lady Methodist at a nearby card table.
“That?” the woman said. “I think it works but nobody uses typewriters anymore.”
That was not the question she had asked, but she didn’t care. “I’ll take it.”
“Show me the money.”
And just like that the Methodists were five bucks richer.’
As some of you may or may not be aware Tom Hanks collects typewriters (250+) when he was last asked (for the film California Typewriter – trailer here ) and you may have guessed by the title of his book and the wonderful illustration on the cover, that his obsession with collecting these beautiful machines features in his debut collection. Each story has a picture of a typewriter at the beginning and I believe every story mentions a various make, model, colour or sized typewriter – again another running theme that is used to great effect.
The stories are an eclectic bunch of genres, which I feel shows Hanks’ range as a writer or maybe this is something that he wanted to put across from the get go, not to be pigeon holed with his first outpouring of fiction. Some, are better than others, there are a couple of stories I was glad to get to the end of. There are also some that are slow burners with powerful endings that stay with you long after closing the book (Go See Costas and Welcome to Mars spring to mind).
The stories within ‘Uncommon Type’ start off quite like Tom Hanks, inoffensive. As I began reading (in my Tom Hanks voice) the opening chapter I was wondering when the touch paper would be set ablaze, when I would start to feel the gravitas of this new voice in fiction and when looking back it started for me in the second story ‘Christmas Eve 1953’ and ebbed and flowed its way throughout the remainder of the book. Pausing every now and again with a pedestrian story – but as I mentioned before he’s a new writer (I’ve read some reviews that absolutely slate him), give the man a break, he’s not going to be what he is in the acting world in the writing world overnight.
Some of my personal highlights of the book were ‘Christmas Eve 1953’, ‘Welcome to Mars’ which was a brilliant story, showcasing Hanks’ brilliance as a writer, wonderfully executed and a sheer joy to read. ‘A Special Weekend’, ‘These Are The Meditations Of My Heart’, ‘The Past Is Important to Us’ and the quite stunning ‘Go See Costas’ are again all worthy mentions.
The book in my opinion is a delightful collection of short stories, there is room for improvement; not all of them are knockout, but there are some that leave a lasting impact long after reading. Hanks has produced a solid debut collection of fiction and I can’t wait to see if he turns his hand to a novel. But one thing is for sure, whatever he writes next I’ll be buying, if his acting career is anything to go by and as D:Ream once sang ‘Things can only get better’ so his next project whatever that will be, will be something to watch out for.
Hanks is a true raconteur of our time; ‘Uncommon Type’ is a delight to read, a wonder to discover and a collection that is good for the soul.
Sorry I couldn’t resist…
Tom Hanks makes a BIG Splash with his debut collection of short stories ‘Uncommon Type’. Whether you are Cast Away on a beach somewhere, Sleepless in Seattle or Philadelphia for that matter you should run like Forrest Gump to your nearest book shop to purchase a copy of this electrifying book, Hanks is seriously in a League of His (Their) Own right now.
To discover more about William Heinemann / Penguin Random House click here…
Review by Ross Jeffery
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