A few months ago before the pandemic hit, I was in the same room as Tom Hernandez when he displayed great compassion and patience in a situation that ordinarily would have triggered some impatience.
I was impressed and told him so. And, yes, this story is important to the review.
A lot of people in and around Will County know Hernandez in various capacities.
Many of those people also know he’s self-published several books of poetry and essays, along with one semi-autobiographical novel.
Hernandez recently sent me his fourth collection, “The Weekly Fruit And Vegetable Report: Tales and Tidbits from a New Grandpa” (he’s also written a novel) and asked if I’d give it an honest review.
Full disclosure: Since I do co-lead a local writers group with Hernandez, I’d already read all of the pieces in this book and, in many cases, offered comments/suggestions/feedback along the way, too.
Ditto for his other books.
But I’d have to say this fourth collection is the best of the bunch – even though the title and photo really don’t properly explain the writing readers will find between the covers. That was my first thought when flipping through the pages and encountering these pieces I’d read over the past couple years, now assembled into one volume.
Just as Hernandez’s third collection, “The Edge of Middle,” isn’t about middle age per se, but instead contains the writings that came out of a particular time period and mindset, “The Weekly Fruit and Vegetables Report,” is not just about the joys of new grandparenthood.
It’s the literary fruit of another period of time in Hernandez’s life.
I think this smorgasbord of poetry, essays and fiction is more polished in terms of the actual compositions and more raw and honest in terms of the vulnerability Hernandez has chosen to express.
These selections show that Hernandez is not only striving to improve his prose, he’s striving to become a better human being. Here’s an example:
“In our human arrogance, we try to wrest credit for every good thing that happens, trying to put a name to it, own it or capitalize on it. Shame on us.” (“Go Light”)
Now Hernandez does share the elation at becoming a grandfather in “The First Two Million Kisses” and the periodic letters he writers his young granddaughter, assuring her of good in the world, how she can contribute to it and that “no, Papa isn’t a grumpy old man.”
He shares the nightly 2 a.m. frustrations of walking the dog when he has to be at work in a few hours.
He shares the struggles of middle age and he shares his admiration of friends who transformed their son’s fatal overdose into a blessing for others:
“They turned their private despair into public action. With faith in a tomorrow their son won’t know, and determination to help give that tomorrow to someone else’s child.” (“Walking”)
He shared loss of identity and confidence at the loss of a job that was extremely important to him. He shared his periodic sinking into dark places where “only the hands of friendship” can lift him out.
And yet in the same essay, Hernandez also admitted to his selfishness in having little patience with loved ones who actually do have clinical depression.
Don’t get me wrong. The overall tone of this book is not dreary. Lighter pieces include “The Camping Virgins” and the famous “baby cheetah” story. (You’ll just have to buy the book to read this one).
Theology meets humor meets branching into fiction with “God Walks into a Bar…” And Hernandez’s love for music shines in his “Elvis” fan fiction piece.
Speaking of fiction, Hernandez often admits writing fiction is harder for him than writing essays and poetry.
So as part of adding more challenges to his life, Hernandez dove into that genre, too, and experimented with different styles. “The Garbage Man” is a nicely constructed story with a surprise ending.
In this book you will, yes, read plenty about Hernandez’s political views and social justice leanings.
Mostly, and this is where I feel the book shines, the overall tone just feels very human. Anyone who knows Hernandez knows he likes to perform and he often serves as emcee at local events. Some of his earlier essays, for me, do pick up that “performance” tone.
But in the “Weekly Fruit and Vegetable Report,” Hernandez loses a lot of that “I’m on” voice (and his over-reliance on adjectives) and writes in an almost “from me to you” personal way that will make it nearly impossible for the reader to not connect with at least one piece.
My personal favorites? I have two particular favorites. they are both heavy and some may consider them dark. But both, I feel, offer much hope.
I think Hernandez’s short story “If I Die Before I Wake” shows the growth in his personal spirituality as he depicts the relationship between a daughter and the regrets of her dying father.
And I really like the words, mood, music and honesty in the poem “Small Things.”
“Call me a fool, I suppose, for failing to hear magic in the evening’s solitude; peaceful silence may calm the troubled spirit. But its empty voice also speaks of death.”
For more information and to purchase Hernandez’s books, visit tomhernandezbooks.com.
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