"Prison Noir"

Monday, September 29, 2014

Edited by Joyce Carol Oates

The stories in Prison Noir have a sameness of setting, being written by prison inmates about prison plots and themes, but they diverge in tone and focus, and have just as much sophistication in structure and theme, as any short piece of fiction by any professional. I enjoyed them quite thoroughly – to an extent that surprised me.

The stories cover a gamut: one piece details the experiences of a man imprisoned in solitary for so long that he hallucinates that he has a highly unwelcome (but rather well-read) cellmate. Other stories offer the possibility of pitched physical battle, but never come to it; other stories offer us and the characters insights about charity, redemption, freedom. One thing they all have in common, and there’s no mistake about Joyce Carol Oates’s editing influence here, is the accurate portrayal of the human spirit under duress. Characters’ hopes in this volume will mainly be dashed, and the better the prisoner adapts to his or her incarcerated life, the better their chances at long-range survival.

I recommend this slim volume of short stories. They convey to us the claustrophobia and constant tension of inmates, and the unavoidable toll these take on lives and psyches. They also reveal to us a highly talented group of writers with a wide variety of thematic concerns. A highly admirable collection, worth some of your time. 

"The Light Between Oceans" by M.L. Stedman

Saturday, September 20, 2014

M. L. Stedmans’ debut work of fiction, The Light Between Oceans is another exhibit in the case against reading cover blurbs. This book had a note using the term “heartwarming,” which is not appropriate for this book, in my opinion.  Light Between Oceans is a fine effort that deals with love, war-ravaged psyches, and the jealousy of the maternal instinct. It’s also a well-unified piece, using the bright spot of the little girl to encapsulate the shining light of opportunity and love between two opposed mothers. But I would hardly consider this novel’s events or conclusion “heartwarming.”

Ms. Stedman’s book contains the story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife, a young couple who have suffered through several miscarried pregnancies. One day a miracle falls to them: a baby washes up on their remote island in a rowboat, the man in the boat with her (apparently her father) dead from cardiac arrest. The plot has interesting points, and is made quite believable by the author. But flaws creep in … I had a difficult time with how willing the young mother (Isabel) was to assume the duties of and give the love of a mother. My suspension of disbelief was further strained by Isabel’s apparent willingness later in the book to let people think the absolute worst of her incarcerated husband.

Nevertheless, this book’s descriptions of beautiful and captivating little Lucy-Grace are perfect – never off by even the tiniest bit. She embodies the shining hope and ideal object of love for two different women, and thus stands out as the light between two oceans. However, this book made me tense, as I kept expecting a certain outcome, but was disappointed in that expectation. And the very end didn’t quite seem necessary, and had a definite formulaic feel, which the rest of the book certainly did not.

A family saga, set in a unique place – off the southeastern coast of Australia – that deals difficult family, legal, and psychological issues, this is a flawed but interesting debut. This author shows promise, but I recommend waiting for subsequent efforts.

"The Forgotten Waltz" by Anne Enright

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The events of The Forgotten Waltz lead us down the trail toward Evie, the just-prepubescent daughter of philandering Seán, and she’s a quirky, uneven character to carry all that energy. And up until the last sections of the book, she doesn’t play a particularly prominent part in the story – she’s important, there’s just not a lot of text devoted to her. Forgotten Waltz is a surprising book, considered in the context of Ms. Enright’s Booker-winning The Gathering. It has none of the deep psychological strife, and abjures the artful burgeoning clarity of that masterpiece. But it is nevertheless a compelling read.

In The Forgotten Waltz we follow the thoughts and sometimes the emotions of Gina Moynihan, a Dubliner in her early 30s, who although married, pursues an affair with married Seán. Her inward dialogue rings too true: she kind of knows what she’s doing is reprehensible and costly, knows why she’s now caused alienation and sorrow in two families, but – she and Seán will try to make a go of it, at least for now. And slowly, the importance of Evie, Seán’s 14 year-old daughter, starts to grow. By the end of the book I thought of her as about to exercise the judgment of the world – will she survive and thrive while aligning herself with Gina, or will she turn her back and thereby take her Dad – and Gina’s happiness – away?

I’m convinced of this importance for the character by the open-ended way Ms. Enright leaves the issue – there is really no way to ascertain Evie’s state of mind from her statements. It gives us the opportunity not only to understand the critical nature of the issue for Gina, but also to speculate as to the outcome. But a fortiori it gives Gina’s and Seán’s misadventures the slight possibility of durability, of the certifying mark of longevity, and we don’t know if we want that for Gina. As a character, she engenders no sympathy, and this is perhaps Evie’s function. It could be that the youngster’s final judgment dooms Gina, and this is a highly persuasive, perhaps the most logical, reading.

I looked for parallels with the grand and magisterial The Gathering, and I did find them. We get the same crystal clear and true-to-life inward dialogue in the main character. Although the morality of the two characters from the two books is at least very divergent (if not diametrically opposed), we understand the series of machinations and rationalizations that Gina goes through, and this is a great accomplishment, make no mistake. Ms. Enright set out to portray a realistic progress of an adulterer, which by playing it perfectly straight, she achieves extremely well. By then placing her fate in the hands of a shaky and retrogressive teen, she leaves the end of the story open, and the reader is free to form her own conclusions.

This is a very balanced and honest conjuring. We enter the head of our anti-hero and see its none-too-pretty workings clearly, and this is the great success of Forgotten Waltz.

"Swift River" by R. C. Binstock

Saturday, August 30, 2014

In Swift River author R. C. Binstock uses the tender, inchoate voice of a young girl to speak for the doomed Swift River Valley in Depression-era Massachusetts. The valley is doomed because the thirsty residents of Boston need water, and the valley – families and farms and factories of long standing – will be inundated when Boston gets its reservoir. The eloquent and plaintive diary entries of Polly form the perfect canvas for witnessing the mounting weight of loss; they are stunning, unforgettable, and captivating. This character and her brave suffering are truly precious inventions, not to be missed.

 Swift River shares with Mr. Binstock’s other work a fearless willingness to cite and decry the greedy or rapacious aspects of human nature. As in his well-received Tree of Heaven, Mr. Binstock never fears to plumb the depths or heroics of human nature. 

In this book, Polly McPhee of the Swift River Valley in Massachusetts starts a diary as she approaches her 12th birthday. A seeming world away in Boston, the state Legislature passes a law that will destroy her farm, her family, and her way of life. Hers and three other towns will be permanently inundated under a new reservoir so that Boston can have water. Polly’s brief but heartrending diary entries propel the story, along with snippets from other sources. If it isn’t always obvious what or who these other sources are, finding out or already knowing the answer is one of the many sources of delight here. One very powerful device drives a certain narrative energy as well: the author sets up a contrast between Polly’s elegiac diary entries and the ponderous, self-satisfied bureaucratese of how Polly and her family will be ground under the state’s heel. 

Polly’s diary entries, which form the book’s main framework, give us a glimpse into a young girl’s mind and heart as her world’s ripped asunder. Loss does form the backdrop for her narrative, but we do see the lively, developing teen and young woman, who blesses the world with her good heart in spite of all the odds stacked against her. In her entries, Mr. Binstock manages unerringly to capture the hope and wonder and fear and daring of this marvelous fictional invention – this Polly. 

The lead character carries the narrative forward, obviously, but she does so in a way that’s equal parts endearing and awe-inspiring. She’s forced into adulthood far too quickly, but at the same time sees the beautiful rural landscape of her home valley, the awkward, mostly unwelcome advances of boys, the blessed community of school, the solace of study, the necessity of chores – all of these she faces with a proud and resourceful innocence that place her in the first rank of characters.  

I have spent a lot of energy on Swift River’s protagonist, and with good reason. It is with Polly’s development that this novel reaches its highest achievement. By no means let this book pass you by. Unreservedly I add it to my pantheon of masterpieces. Take it up!

"Fractured Legacy" by Charles B. Neff

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The ambitions of a jealous, maniacal entrepreneur join tender romance and political trench warfare to give Fractured Legacy its powerful emotional punch. Labeled a thriller and set in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, Legacy doesn’t boast the heart-pumping suspenseful denouement of many thrillers, but instead concludes in equal parts romance and realism. Its thrills derive from the drama of underfunded and less-powerful forces taking on the high and mighty. Its touching and hopeful nature flows from an unexpected chance at love between two very unlikely people. These characteristics take nothing away from this book’s thrilling nature; in fact, they definitely enhance it.

In one thread, Jeff and Sara Winter’s marriage appears doomed: since injuring his hip, Jeff isn’t able to help run their outdoor adventure business, and sharp, decisive Sara has lost patience. She meets powerful businessman Grant Tomson, with whom she begins to hatch a plan for a new venture, and doesn’t worry about its possible effect on Jeff. However, this all occurs after the apparently accidental death of Grant’s twin Will, and the halting, unproductive police investigation that follows. The most intriguing character here, and the one with the most intimate and sympathetic story is Bebe Sorensen, curator of a museum in town, who helps the police investigation, and discovers a world of romantic possibility in the process. Some citizens suspect Grant of subterfuge and much worse, and resolve to halt his development ambitions for an idyllic wilderness lake, and his reaction to this threat is a main driver in the story.

I try never to speculate on other work that an author may undertake, or what he or she intends, but Fractured Legacy has the definite feel of something to be followed up with a sequel. The first-blush realization of the nature of the businessman/developer has not resulted in anything but dark suspicion.
No building has proceeded in the wilderness, no land-grab has occurred, and romantic realization for one couple and possible rapprochement for another are still to come.  If there is a follow-up volume, I definitely want it, because I definitely want a chance to see these characters through.

This book has outstanding pace, exceptionally realistic political infighting, and a highly appealing budding romance. Of all things in a thriller, I expected only the pacing; I did not bargain for the other pleasures. Indeed, this book has a great deal to offer the discerning reader, and I for one am not ashamed or embarrassed to hope for a sequel. Rewarding, crisply done, top flight. Highly recommended.  

"When Mystical Creatures Attack!" by Kathleen Founds

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

When Mystical Creatures Attack! won this year’s John Simmons Short Fiction Award from the University of Iowa, and it’s damn easy to see why. The writing is a splendid and arresting combination of irreverence, counterculture rebellion, and gallows humor. It portrays a Catholic upbringing – complete with nuns – in the heart of Texas, which as I always suspected, is another country altogether.  It also deals with juvenile delinquency, unwanted pregnancy, drug addiction, mental illness, and suicide. In case you were thinking its humor makes it light reading.

These short pieces are linked very closely together, moreso than usual in a short fiction collection, although they can certainly be read independently. The experience would be very different in that case, although not as deep or affecting. I have to honor and thank the Simmons award committee for singling out this multifarious work, because it clearly, clearly deserves the recognition. Besides all the adjectives above, in main it’s a moving, disturbing, topical collection.

The narrative threads follow Laura, an inexperienced high school English teacher in her early 20s, and her student Janice, whom Laura calls “a feral raccoon devoid of impulse control,” in honor of her excessive eye shadow. The two are not enemies, however, or even adversaries, for very long. They unfortunately share too many toxic and alienating influences in their lives: distant and/or suicidal mothers, deep and dangerous problems with men, drug use – in Laura’s case, coerced, in Janice’s, not so much. These two vivid creations come packaged up in a raucous, rebellious, frightening, hysterically funny set of stories.

And the stories are worth every bit of their award.  Consider the fanciful: a giant squid that hugs you until your unwanted pregnancy goes away, a wood nymph who could save the environment, a wax figure battle at a museum that pits George Washington against Moses. Or the plain bizarre: Laura is confined to a psychiatric treatment program in which she must try to earn negotiable “Wellness Points™” which purport to measure her progress, but are really punitive and counterproductive. Consider the all-too-real: young women trying to navigate through a universe that might be indifferent if it weren’t so treacherous. Through all the wisecracks and comic effects, Mystical Creatures has a serious, compassionate soul, and I am quite impressed. Do take it up, you won’t regret it for a minute.

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