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
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
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.
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
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
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.
Congratulations to Heather A. Slomski for winning the Iowa
Short Fiction Award this year for The
Lovers Set Down Their Spoons. This collection amply shows Ms. Slomski’s
talent in her craft, and her deep expertise around the human heart. She renders
a series of tableaux in a melancholy palette, but always combines subtly new
hues from one story to the next. While it’s a careful balancing act, there’s
also a highly assured quality to all the entries, and a ranging ambition: to
illuminate subtle tells between lovers, to aspire to fairy tale, and to plumb
the depths of serious delusion.
There are fascinating entries here: the woman whose lover
returns to her in the form of a cricket – or that’s her belief, anyway; the
retail clerk who converses with, and offers to run off with, a store mannequin.
Some snippets capture the seemingly inevitable strife between two strangers,
particularly the brief “Octaves,” while others deal with the issue in a lengthier
form, especially “The Neighbors.” The finest entry in the collection,
“Corrections,” a highly satisfying and beautiful story, captures a couple’s
halting, ineffective attempts at intimacy, using the stunning symbolism of
Douglas Miller’s drawings.
This is a series of stories written in the key of the blues,
but without music’s cathartic release. They show unerringly the clumsy and
short-sighted self-interest that thwarts love’s connecting impulse. What’s left
is simply loneliness. Sensitive, observant, and thought-provoking in the
extreme, this collection adds Heather A. Slomski’s very able stories to all the
other prize winning short fiction emerging from the University of Iowa.
So often with a memoir, or a seeming memoir, you will hear
that it is “intensely personal,” as when a strong emotion affects one’s
thoughts and behavior. Such does not apply to Mary Olivier: A Life. The novel evokes restrained Victorian mores,
and deals with religious doubt, and propounds a variety of philosophical and
scientific thought. Its treatment of these themes gives one a brush with some
fairly recondite concepts, but when the potentially true shining insight
finally cracks through (in the book’s last handful of paragraphs), I was worn
out waiting for it.
Mary Olivier the character displays cleverness and a certain
stubborn rebelliousness in matters of conscience and religion. She worries her
mother when, just starting her teen years, she reads Spinoza and Kant, and
annoys her by concluding that the Christian God is only a small example, and
not a very good one, of the divine. Mary follows her own compass through her
life, but does not behave in any outrageous way, when it comes right down to
it. She stays home to care for her mother, living with her into her forties.
The events of Mary’s life are relayed in fits and starts, always with the
backdrop of the philosophical strands of her thought. Mary is certainly a
spirited creature, and ultimately I admire her courage in facing so many people
and societal strictures that worked so assiduously to shut her up.
As a reading experience I found Mary unrewarding. The philosophic milieu into which Mary thrusts
herself and the reader held promise, but in the end there was precious little
of it discussed. If it had been more prominent, the book would have difficulty
qualifying as fiction, I guess. Mary’s ultimate insights are what set her apart
as a fictional heroine: if there is happiness to be had, you will find it
within yourself, not in people or objects that are outside of you. I suggest