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"Of This New World" by Allegra Hyde

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One new world is the mythical Eden, one is Mars, one a Caribbean basic training camp for eco-activists, another is a Shaker settlement in 19th-Century New England. All of Allegra Hyde’s stories in this sprightly and clever collection feature some version of humankind’s impulse to build a paradise. It’s a very impressive set of stories and I know the University of Iowa wouldn’t give the John Simmons Short Fiction award to just any collection.

Some stories tackle the theme head-on, like the opening piece, “After the Beginning.” It serves almost as an introductory piece, setting the theme. In it, Eve refers to her troublesome, preoccupied “husband,” but the clever author makes it clear that while a wrenching adjustment must be made on their banishment from the Garden of Eden, they can now rely on themselves and each other, and dream of a new paradise. “Shark Fishing” takes a present-day look at a quasi-military camp set up to train the young and the privileged in environmental activism. This story introduces the idea that not all utopias are well-considered or altruistic.

The story that deals most fully with this theme is “The Future Consequences of Present Actions.”  It features an 19th Century idealist man who has moved on from one failed commune in Massachusetts to a settlement of Shakers. While there, he becomes embroiled in a controversy about his commitment to the community, is ostracized and loses his son in the process. For me, this and “Shark Fishing” are the most accomplished of these excellent pieces. They offer fresh views of the human conflicts that doom utopian dreams, and of the practical minutiae that without
exception undermine the communist ideal.

The thread unifying these stories adds a level of meaning, particularly to those pieces that don’t deal directly with new Edens. The best case in point is “Ephemera.” In it we get an oblique view of one young man’s hope for a new world with the beautiful woman who searches for her missing daughter.  This woman realizes the young man is just another lost child, and it makes her realize the hopelessness of her quest. She goes back to her home so he can return to his.

These stories pack wisdom and recognizable human striving and stumbling. Like all good short fiction, these stories offer sharp focus and leave us lasting images and wonder at the continued creativity in today’s narrative. Take this up, do not delay!

"A Slant of Light" by Jeffrey Lent

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Jeffrey Lent’s A Slant of Light features the life and death issues so closely associated with  his work, and in this case an oblique approach to resolving the central conflict. These aspects of Mr. Lent’s latest novel don’t necessarily separate it from previous brilliant efforts like In the Fall and Lost Nation, not at all - but they reinforce and add depth to his already stunning body of work. A Slant of Light uses a device not often found in previous Lent novels: he uses a focused image to suggest the wider and more significant events swirling around the tragic hero. This book is a marvel.

Malcolm Hopeton returns to his Finger Lakes farm from fighting in the Civil War. He spent a full four years in what he felt was personal combat with evil. He comes home to find his farm fallow, stripped of crops and equipment, and his wife gone. At the root of all this damage is the man Hopeton had trusted to take care of things in his absence. The usurper made a clean sweep of everything Hopeton held as his own. In the stunning and brutal first scene of the book, Hopeton kills the villain, and also the wife he had called his own.

The book follows events in the murders’ wake: young Harlan Davis worked Hopeton’s farm and was trustworthy in Hopeton’s absence and remains so, although he thinks no one understands what really happened (he was a witness). Neighboring farmer August Swartout takes Harlan in after the crime, since he already employs Harlan’s older sister. Much of the plot revolves around these three who are caught up in the wretched  business; they each have paths they must follow to see things set right, and particularly Harlan’s row is difficult to hoe.

The real focus here is Malcolm, however. While the state may be persuaded to clemency, he’s simply resigned to a death sentence, in fact thinks it’s the only just thing. Malcolm sits in a cell in the basement of the court house and half-consciously watches the progress of
days in the form of sunlight slanting through a high window opposite. And the light of justice swings around in its inexorable way, its path pushed and bent by the actions of the principals. It’s a lovely, an elegant device, a fine and impressive stroke by a master.

We find the period’s religious preoccupations on display, as well as the daily, grinding challenge of running a farm at the time. We encounter interesting secondary characters, like the two legal professionals who will attempt to influence and decide the case, and a handful of wonderful women, each of whom enjoys Mr. Lent’s full and assured touch.

I’ve believed for years in Jeffrey Lent’s mastery. He’s ambitious and eloquent, and adorns his prose only with the most appropriate descriptive touches that never detract from his art. I think this is his best book yet, and from me, that’s a real compliment.