Mini-Reviews: The Graybar Hotel & Saints for All Occasions

My attention was drawn to The Graybar Hotel, the debut story collection by Curtis Dawkins, because the author is a convicted murderer serving a life sentence in a Michigan prison. (You can read more about his background in this Guardian article.) These 14 short stories are all set at least partially in prison, and feature men learning how to live with the consequences of their mistakes and how to fill long, empty days. They perfect their amateur tattooing skills, write raps, or carve soap figures; they watch TV or make collect calls to random numbers. There’s a kind of make-do attitude in the air, as well as the idea that you can reinvent yourself – starting with your past. But of course there are also more destructive forces around, with drugs, suicide, and violent revenge always lurking in the background.

Perhaps of necessity, the collection is rather homogeneous. For instance, all but two stories are in the first person, with the typical narrator an observer who recounts other prisoners’ dreams and desperate actions but reveals little or nothing about himself. My favorite stories are those that also look backward and/or forward to show the protagonist’s life before and after prison rather than just dwelling on daily life in the pen. In one stand-out, “Leche Quemada,” Clyde is released after 12 years and tries to slip back into life with Melissa but finds that – like the boiled milk candies his Hispanic cellmates made and he always coveted – what you’ve been waiting for all this time might not be all that you hope for. My overall favorite is “Engulfed,” in which Steven, who admitted selling phony security systems after he fell for a set designer, calls his roommate out for lies about his past. Fire as a destructive yet cleansing force that reveals the truth is a potent symbol here as well as in “Six Pictures of a Fire at Night.”

*All proceeds from the book go into an education fund for Dawkins’s children.

My rating:

The Graybar Hotel was published in the UK by Canongate on July 20th. My thanks to Alice Laing for the free copy for review.


Having enjoyed J. Courtney Sullivan’s The Engagements, I was keen to try her new novel, Saints for All Occasions. It opens in 2009 with Nora Rafferty, a mother of four, rushing to the hospital after being informed of a death in the family. She reluctantly accepts that her next task will be to contact the abbey where her estranged sister Theresa, now known as Mother Cecilia, lives. From County Clare, the girls moved to Boston together in the late 1950s: Nora to join Charlie, the fiancé she didn’t really love, and Theresa to have a chance at a new and exciting life. Moving back and forth between 2009 and earlier points in the sisters’ history, the novel considers the way their decisions have played out over the course of half a century, musing over what was fated and what they might have changed. We meet and spend much time with Nora’s children, especially John, who worked on the campaigns of a suspiciously Mitt Romney-esque figure and adopted a daughter from China with his wife; and Bridget, who’s planning to have a baby with her partner Natalie but hasn’t come out to her mother yet.

I’m not sure I ever gave this book a fair shake; from the earliest pages it reminded me so strongly of other Irish-American family stories I’ve read: Mary Costello’s Academy Street, Anne Enright’s The Green Road, Nick Laird’s Modern Gods, Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must Be the Place, and Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. With these forebears in my mind, it was hard to judge the book on its own merits. I also thought the ‘secret’ was as plain as day from the beginning. If it’s a less familiar story line for you, you may well enjoy it more than I did.

Favorite lines:

Charlie gave her a sad smile. ‘Isn’t there anything you like about Boston?’ Nora thought it over. ‘Brigham’s vanilla ice cream,’ she said. ‘That’s it.’

It was amazing that you did not become your grief entirely, and walk around leaking it everywhere. It could lie dormant inside of you for days, weeks, years. You could seem a perfectly whole person to everyone you met. Without warning, grief might poke you in the ribs, punch you in the gut, knock the wind out of you. But even then, you seemed just fine. The world went on and on.

My rating:

Saints for All Occasions is published in the UK today, August 31st, by Fleet. My thanks to Hayley Camis for the free review copy.

13 responses

  1. I had wondered that about the Sullivan. Thanks for the tip!


    1. You’re welcome…but which bit exactly? 🙂


      1. The Irish-American storyline.


    2. Gotcha. I do wonder how I would have responded if I hadn’t already read those five similar books that I mention.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great reviews, both.

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Your review of the short story collection reminds me that I have a new year resolution (after over forty years teaching my new year will always begin in September) to read more short stories. It is a resolution that I have on repeat. I know I don’t give them enough time but somehow however often I vow to read more (some, any) I never get round to it. This isn’t going to be the collection that makes the difference but possibly this year………


    1. I am terrible about letting short story collections pile up on my Kindle and never actually reading them. A fellow book blogger recommends reading one story at a time between other bits of reading, so I may try that next month.


  4. I wish I could get to like short stories more – I buy the with good intentions but never actually get around to reading them


    1. I hardly ever buy collections, but I do download them free from NetGalley and Edelweiss all the time. I made a list of all the ones I had and couldn’t believe how many there were considering I hardly ever get around to reading short stories!


      1. Things have a habit of disappearing into my netgalley black hole


  5. Am I the fellow blogger who recommends leaving time between stories? *grins* It’s totally something I would say, lifting Mavis Gallant’s advice. I’ll track down her quote to share. This one sounds like it would be necessary to really respond to the individual tales, because the collection must have a very insular feeling? It interests me, but I have such a stack of collections right now, thanks to reading Peter Orner’s Am I Alone Here (which I think you might like, too, knowing your weakness for bibliomemoir-styled books – this one appears to be a collection of essays but is actually best read from start-to-finish because of the throughline of his personal experience, especially his relationship with his ageing father). I’ve read one of Courtney Sulian’s other novels and enjoyed it, but I haven’t picked up another; I like both quotes you’ve shared from this one, but I suspect I’d see that plotline coming too (which doesn’t bother me, but it’s nice to know in advance if it’s going to follow that trope). Would you be interested in reading another by either author?


    1. You sure are! 😀 And I’ve been taking your advice, reading just one Pearlman story a day on the cross trainer, and just 2-3 Keret stories in a sitting (they’re flash fiction, really: no more than 3-4 pages each).

      You’re right: reading the Dawkins prison stories at a more leisurely pace would have been better, but I felt a bit of pressure to deliver a review. The best few of his stories are definitely worth searching out online or in the literary journals in which they were originally published. If he came out with a full-length novel I do think I’d read it.

      I have the Orner on my Kindle and have meant to read it for quite a long time. I’ll try to get to it this year. Thanks for the advice to read it straight through like a bibliomemoir.

      Sullivan has two other novels I haven’t read. I think one is a New England family story and the other a campus novel, both of which are genres I have a fondness for, so I might think of reading them. Even though I only rated the two I have read 3 stars, hmm…


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