Book report: The Little Disturbances of Man

I was at a loss about what to read after Harold Brodkey’s First Loves. A timely recommendation pointed me the way of Grace Paley’s stories.

Pungent is perhaps the best word to describe The Little Disturbances of Man. Paley paints a heady concoction of lust and bitter exhaustion on the faces of her single mothers. But the beautiful cadence of her writing brings levity to stories that might otherwise be too naturalistic for my mood right now. Paley’s understatement is simply sublime.

I also loved how confined in time these stories were. Paley keeps the aperture pretty small. There’s no speculation about what it all means, how it will all come out, about how the kids will grow up. Her characters move day to day largely living as it unfolds before them, that’s enough to occupy them.

But there's such layered reality even in that confined time frame. Paley draws a stark contrast between how we really live and the stories we might tell ourselves, the pictures we might draw. There's a distinct lack of companionship in these stories, little to no sense of romance. But there are moments of harmony, of a mother holding a child or of a post-coital couple.

This is a tough pill for me to swallow. I'm a romantic, but I also readily internalize stories that are more cynical. Paley's stories have the potential to leave me feeling deflated. That they didn't is due to her light touch, the twinkling undercurrent of wit and warmth that runs through her stories. There's a sly wryness to her, but also a warm tolerance of all our foibles.

Paley's stories reminded me of Edward Hopper paintings, which I've inserted in the post here. This is something I don't normally do. I try not to plant images in people's minds when it comes to books. But the images were powerful this time. And I think Paley and Hopper share a special brand of empathy. They don't romanticize in order to empathize. They see it as it really is, show it as it really is.

Image credits: Edward Hopper | Morning in a City (1944), via
Grace Paley in 1994, Credit: Gentl & Hyers / Arts Council, Inc., via |
Edward Hopper | 11am (1926), via

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