Robert Long Foreman’s essays in his book Among Other Things (Pleiades Press, 2017) provide glimpses into his life through his stories which often center on specific “things.” One might consider the topics of his essays to be ordinary or mundane objects, but Foreman focuses on them with his thoughtful reflections, historical tidbits, and funny recollections.
The essays explore how he acquired these items, contemplating how certain things, such as a burned skillet, for example, can provide meaning to its owners (see essay, “Skillet”). But, through inheritance, the items often lose significance and may be discarded and forgotten. Other times, an inherited item may offer more knowledge about its prior owner’s life. He writes, “I suppose this is the fate of many people; we think we know our parents for years, until someday we read diaries written by the dead people who knew them better and gain a dramatically new perspective.”
Foreman admits in his Preface that writing good essays is hard. “I gained a new appreciation for the genre’s difficulty when I returned, recently, to writing essays after five years of writing short stories and a novel.” But after having spent so much time writing fiction, he returns to what is essential about writing creative nonfiction essays: “Scenes in the essays…have been rendered as faithfully to objective truth as possible, and every sentence was written with the intent to portray things with clarity and honesty.” And so he delves into the stories from the school he attended as a child, but first he alters the name of the school, because he is “reluctant to use the name of the school where my bad dreams take place, as it is still operational,” so he calls it, “Carlo, after Emily Dickinson’s pet Newfoundland.” This essay could have been the first essay in the book, as it was highly entertaining, specifically the horrifying, yet hilarious recollection about the snake attack in his classroom. It is a story so unbelievable, it brings to mind the title of Lee Gutkind’s book, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up.
Although it might seem difficult or unnecessary to write an essay centered on something so abstract such as dirty laundry, Foreman pulls it off. In his essay, aptly titled, “Dirty Laundry,” (not his dirty laundry, by the way), Foreman offers a unique story about a bag of dirty laundry that someone had left behind after sub-letting his apartment. The discovery of the dirty laundry consumes his thoughts, and he leads the reader into his prolific thinking. His dry humor is, at times, sudden, but make for delightful reading. He again displays his witty musings in an essay about becoming a vegetarian titled, “Pigs and Eggplants.” He writes, “I will stay a vegetarian because when strangers eat prime rib it looks like they are chewing and swallowing my friend Eli, whom I have not seen in years.” The humor is especially effective in what could be a debatable topic for some, but the essay is quite amusing.
A dozen essays comprise this book, each one a quick read, save for the next to last essay, which focuses on his Aunt Posy. He illustrates how inheriting some of her things, such as her private diaries, enlightens him about her life, more so than when he spent actual time with her growing up. While his plan “was to write a collection of short pieces about inanimate things,” he realizes he “was about to take on more objects than [he] could possibly write about in one book, all of them pregnant with meaning to someone who was now gone.” In one diary excerpt she had written, “Perhaps if I try to keep some sort of record of my feelings, the events of the time, at some future date, someone may come across this and get to know me.” And get to know her, he does. He needed to come to terms with his inheritance from his aunt, as he was haunted by it; he felt he had to “earn” it, that he was indebted to her for it, even though he could never thank her in person.
I felt the ordering of the essays could have been switched around, putting some of the more poignant pieces first. For example, a reader may be pulled into Foreman’s musings much quicker had the book begun with “The Most Lifelike Thing in the Room.” The beginning paragraph, alone, was so funny that I wanted to read it aloud to my friends and family. Perhaps readers can’t connect with the exact objects Foreman presents, but readers can connect a similar experience derived from an object, as most people will inherit something from a relative, and perhaps recall a story or two about it.[boxer set=”eckhart”]