Columns > Published on April 27th, 2021

Ruminations on Humanity, Escape and Sexiness: Recent Works by Kelly Kay, Leesa Cross-Smith and Alice Kaltman


I want to tell you about my experience reading the books Crushing by Kelly Kay, This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith and dawg towne by Alice Kaltman.

I do, and I will, there's just a lot going on.

Yes, there is hope that COVID may yet run its course with vaccines now widely available. The new administration is talking about climate change. There is justice for George Floyd.

Yet, there are still a lot of people who don't want to take the vaccine. There is a long way to go in the battle against global warming. Justice for George Floyd is merely the first step.

Plus, there is always another Blake Bailey lurking in plain sight to remind us just how fucked things can be and how willing so many are to enable such behavior.

Maybe then it's not a surprise that I've been thinking about escape and how one might accomplish this.

Alcohol and edibles are decent options, for some, not all, but have been for me. Journaling has been great, as has writing and running. Watching movies, not big, blockbuster movies either, such as Godzilla vs. Kong, all of which are technically built for escape, but smaller, eclectic, shambling movies like Sound of Metal, which are about the actual world, rituals, the creative process, and the challenges contained therein.  

There’s all of that and there’s also love.

Is it too cheesy to want to believe that we can escape into love, that love can trump all, or at least make day-to-day life more palatable?

Is it too cheesy to want to believe that we can escape into love, that love can trump all, or at least make day-to-day life more palatable? That more than anything it's the love that’s all around us that we can fail to recognize and embrace when we seek answers and solace?

Because I've been thinking a lot about love, about all of this, and I've been reading a lot, too. 

Most currently there have been three recently (or soon to be) released books by authors I love (and full-disclosure I like, no, strike that, love to think of as friends), all of which spend time translating and illuminating the ways we love (while not shying away from how fucking hard life can be).

And yes, these are the books I referenced at the beginning of this piece: Crushing by Kelly Kreglow, This Close to Okayby Leesa Cross-Smith and dawg towne by Alice Kaltman. 

There was no plan with these choices. I didn’t think to myself, who’s writing about love, or who do I love that’s writing now? The books were coming out, they landed in my mailbox and I consumed them. 

The act of consuming things by the way, will not offer one much insight into where my head might be at these days. I consume things. Everything. Always. Though consuming books has been tough during the pandemic, most of it, 2020 anyway.

Not anymore.

And not with so much love to be had.

Crushing is a full-on romance novel. Girl is asked to help market a small family winery the owners wish to sell. She sleeps with the owner’s misbegotten son the night before the big pitch meeting having no idea who he is. Boy is great in bed and somewhat terrible as a human (what with the family friction that is always present and always has been). Which is why the misbegotten son is also the prodigal son—there’s just no other way. Tension and escapades (and the presence of organized crime) follow in a wholly fun, terribly sexy and highly engrossing read that may lead to something good, if the son didn’t leave, again and...there weren't more books to follow.

In terms of sexy, no writer consistently does sexy like Leesa Cross-Smith, starting with her smashing debut short story collection Every Kiss a War, up to, and now including This Close to Okay. Not that said sexiness should distract from her beautifully lyrical writing, much less the story at hand: the tale of a man on a bridge who has a startling, yet somewhat public, secret, who just may want to kill himself, and the woman, who saves him, keeps her own secrets, and the weekend that follows, as she takes him in and they carefully move around one another, their stories, and their secrets too.

With movement on the table, I can add, that neither of these books can quite compete with the rolling, always intersecting, cast of characters in dawg towne, all of whom have challenges they’re working through - recent widowhood, writers block, faltering acting career, cheating husband, a hidden trans-centric existence - and missing dogs. So many dogs. It should be noted here, that while all of these writers write their characters with great compassion and sensitivity, few writers know what compassion looks, smells and tastes like, quite like Kaltman does.

Despite these books coming to me randomly, what these authors all have in common as well is their humanity. Whether probing mental illness, misogyny or cruelty (of all kinds), the writers treat their characters and their beautiful damage as human beings worthy of consideration, empathy and yes, love.   

That we as humans can lose our way as we lose ourselves in secrets and pain is not a surprise. That our relationships with our parents and family may be fucked and ongoing sources of stress is the way of life. That we may fail to communicate in healthy ways will not catch the reader unaware, we all know this too well in our own relationships. That love offers us a path out of this, ought not to surprise us either, and yet for me, I cannot be reminded of this often enough. 

Nor most of the time can I read enough, it's just been so hard this last year. 

Given the state of the world, is that a real problem though?

No, not when so many real problems surround us. However, if reading is also about more than escape, if it is also a form of self-care, then it is a problem. We would all benefit from a lot more self-care than we've been affording ourselves. That these authors recognize this and write both to it and about it, is more gift than anything. That the writing is sexy, fun, engaging, and real, while also making you smile, well, that’s just a bonus.


Get Crushing at Bookshop or Amazon 

Get This Close to Okay at Bookshop or Amazon 

Get Dawg Towne at Bookshop or Amazon 

About the author

Ben Tanzer is an Emmy-award winning coach, creative strategist, podcaster, writer, teacher and social worker who has been helping nonprofits, publishers, authors, small business and career changers tell their stories for 20 plus years. He is the author of the soon to be re-released short story collection Upstate and several award-winning books, including the science fiction novel Orphans and the essay collections Lost in Space: A Father's Journey There and Back Again and Be Cool - a memoir (sort of). He is also a lover of all things book, taco, Gin and street art.

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