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What We’re Reading: A Cavalcade of Lesser Horrors

2012 March 29

What We're ReadingA Cavalcade of Lesser Horrors by Peter Smith (University of Minnesota Press, 2011)

This book of nonfiction essays from Peter Smith reminded me of two of my uncles, who inevitably end every family function with everyone gathered ’round while they recount stories from their childhood on the farm, the kooky hired hands, complete with spot-on imitations and lots of wheezy laughter. These are some of my favorite memories of my own childhood, and the association with this book is a welcome warmth. The essays are relatable and understated with golden moments of humor and reflection. The stories start with Smith’s childhood as a Catholic kid growing up in Chicago with eight siblings, and moves on through his life, from his move to Minnesota for college, all the way to his father’s deathbed. He looks at each moment of these essays as an opportunity to learn, to reflect, and to laugh.

My one complaint is the title. I don’t think it does this collection justice. The dust jacket refers to uncomfortable, messy episodes in life as lesser horrors. While life is messy, this book doesn’t seem all that messy in comparison with anyone’s everyday life. In face, the overall sense I was left with at the end was a friendly affection. I would have rather had a title reflecting the warmth, the humor, or good ol’ lessons that crop up in each essay.

There isn’t a specific high point or clear favorite essay in this book. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this at first, but after reaching the end, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. This book follows the arc of Smith’s life, and each piece segues into the next effortlessly. Each essay is well-written, and a true pleasure to read. This is a quick book to digest, because the language and stories are so clear familiar, yet each containing an element of surprise. In a way, the book is as Minnesotan as you can get—Smith is not out to make a big fuss; rather, he’s just telling these stories straightforward as they are, with his naturally adept and enjoyable narration.

Smith contributes weekly essays to Minnesota Public Radio, so you may have heard his work before. He is also the author of A Porch Sofa Almanac (Minnesota, 2010).

What author/collection of essays has made you feel that warm connection to your own childhood? Do you think a book of essays needs to have a clear high point?


2 Responses
  1. Timothy permalink
    March 29, 2012

    There are few authors whose work I associate with my childhood, especially when I was just falling in love with books. Sadly, for me, I’ve yet to encounter essays that remind me of those times. However, a few years ago my dad gave me a collection of E.B. White essays which really changed the game for me. One of my favorite luxuries is sleeping in and being woken by the sun, and reading one of White’s essays before I roll out of bed. For me, one of the joys of a book of essays is that they don’t need to have any sort of through line, other than being well written. You can pick and choose at your leisure, finding pieces that connect with you, and others that are just fun to read.

  2. Wren permalink
    April 5, 2012

    I agree, Timothy! I love with both books of essays, and also short fiction, is picking through them at your own pace, and discovering each piece in its own happenstance way. However, it makes me think also that this format of reading especially fit with, or even is encouraged by our society’s crazy schedules, need for instant gratification, and short attention spans… Hmm…

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