Shades Of Words

Ugly to Start With

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On the road I have often passed little towns with fenced houses, some glossy and new, just as in magazine ads and some falling apart, as if they have seen decades of rain. I have often wondered about the lives of the people inside. On reading the opening story “The World Around Us” from John Cummings collection of short stories, I knew that I was going to find some answers and get a glimpse into small town America.

“Ugly to Start With” is a collection of interrelated stories that escapes being a novel simply because you can’t quite always connect the events, the people and the passing of time. The constants are our protagonist and narrator, a teenaged white boy, Jason and his home town of Harper Ferry.

I don’t usually read short stories and I am not a frequent reader of American fiction, however, I was pulled in from the first story. Cummings uses  the opening story “The World Around Us’ to pin the location of Harper’s Ferry not only geographically but also to  drive home the nature of the mundane existence of Jason’s boyhood. There is this really funny exchange of dialog in which Jason and his mother argue about the distance of Harper’s Ferry from Washington DC and whether that’s long enough to justify never visiting the capital. With “Two Tunes” we get a glimpse of Jason’s dysfunctional home which has its moments of redemption.

The rest of the stories we are introduced to some other characters in Harper’s Ferry that Jason or his family has had to deal with.  As a reader your heart often reaches out to Jason’s pitiful existence, but Cumming’s keeps the narrative light and does not get into philosophizing.

 “The Scratchboard Project” is another endearing story tackling adolescence love.  I like how Cumming’s describes Jason’s reaction into stepping for the first time into an African-American household, and his confusion and mumbling respect. Everything is new and weird, but only when he gets to know his classmate Ty better, does he realize that how similar and more human they both are in spite of the color of their skin.

It  may sound clichéd but my favorite story of the lot is “Ugly to Start with” which is the story of a cat which the family adopts.  Skinny Minnie  is beautiful and brings comfort to the family  but soon she falls sick and gets into fights into with other cats. As her usefulness wanes off so does the interest of the family . There was something about this story that was too close to the shallowness of human nature, that makes us want to look into our inner selves. I remember that I wanted to cry when I finished reading it

The story that I least enjoyed was “We never liked them anyway”. It’s pivotal in the way that it exposes the relationship between Jason’s parents but it does refer to his precarious and non-existent circle of friends and the danger of gossips of small town. I just find that distasteful.

Cumming’s writing is fluid. The language is simple, effective and potent. Some of the chapters are really well written. I am not a one who usually judges a book by it’s cover, but there is something very displeasing about the cover art of “Ugly to Start With”.  It’s as if it’s incomplete and if I were to see this in a store or even in an online book store I would skip it unless someone had told me that  I must read it.


Author: Vipula

Before talking about who we are, we’d like to tell you a bit about how and why Shades of Words came into being. It all started with the idea of “A place where we could share with likeminded people about things we enjoy. From books to music to movies to travel; Shades of Words was to be a place about the best of our experiences” We thought about why should anyone read us? The answer was that whatever we review would be a mix of our experience of the thing along with interesting and useful information about it. So in case you are reading us regularly or even checking us out once in a while then we have succeeded in our efforts someway somewhere. Who are we? Known as Kapil Sood and Vipula Gupta, we thought of Shades of Words on one fine Sunday afternoon. Tired of writing interesting RFP’s and project documentation; we decided to give this a shot. Yes! We work in Indian IT industry. Cupid struck us while were innocently slogging together on the highly intricate job of formatting and beautifying documents! And since then, we have been working together to establish Shades of Words as a place that we can claim as ours. (Because buying a house is still years away!) What else? Kapil also writes some blogs which you can read here and here.

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