Doesn’t everyone read more in August?
The Best American Short Stories 2020, edited by Curtis Sittenfeld is the latest in this long-running series. I don’t read it every year, and in fact, have mostly used it only when I’m teaching a class in the short story. This year I have been holding tutorial sessions on the short story and for each session, I have paired a “classic” story from my syllabus that illustrates the session’s subject with a story from BASS 2020. I’ve chosen the modern stories for each session almost but not quite at random. The fact is that for most subjects—character or setting or dialogue, or whatever—any decent story will offer lessons that will be valuable. I can’t say that I’ve loved all the stories in the volume, but we’ve had good discussions about them, and it makes for a more lively analysis of the subject each session than if we were just reading an old, shop-worn classic.
River Weather by Cameron MacKenzie is a collection of stories that the author asked me to blurb, and here’s what will appear on the book’s back cover: “The stories in River Weather manage to be both sensitive and transgressive, socially conscious and hard-edged. MacKenzie captures with exquisite detail the challenges of being a man in a world that’s gone to hell, coping with irresistible urges and impossible expectations. Like the work of Palahniuk and Ellis, these stories are riveting and bleed tensile masculinity. Crisp and hard-hitting, this book will leave you breathless.”
—Clifford Garstang, author of What the Zhang Boys Know
Teaching the Way by Steven T. Nelson is a wonderful book that I was asked to blurb because I saw a much earlier draft several years ago. The author is a friend of mine, but I genuinely think this is a hugely valuable resource for composition teachers, especially someone first starting out. He uses Sun Tzu’s Art of War as a guiding principle and suggests the best way for a teacher to approach a class, to handle assignments, to conduct exercises, etc. In fact, the book includes a number of sample exercises that by themselves would be useful, and a suggested grading rubric. I had none of these tools when I taught composition, and I wish I had.
Pride of Eden by Taylor Brown asks the reader to make a decision: is it acceptable to break the law if your actions are morally right? The two main characters here seem to think it is. Malay, a woman from a military family and a veteran herself of the Iraq war, has found herself faced with this dilemma on more than one occasion—in Iraq, later in Africa when hunting poachers, and now in South Georgia. She’s working with Anse, a Vietnam vet and former jockey who has taken wild animal rescue to an extreme, hunting down and stealing big cats and other animals that he lets live on his property. Together, the two don’t let legalities get in the way of their efforts to do right by these animals, even at great bodily risk to themselves. My full review is forthcoming in Southern Review of Books.
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti is a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time. I can’t say I loved it, but it was reasonably engaging, mostly because of the voice of the young girl who is the primary narrator, Loo (short for Louise). She is living with her father in the town where her deceased mother grew up, and in the story, she is learning more about her parents and herself as she matures. We frequently are transported to the father’s rough past, however, and learn how he survived the twelve gunshots that have scarred him. That’s a little tedious, and I wondered if we really needed twelve. Couldn’t it have been the “Six Lives of Samuel Hawley”? There is something of a mystery surrounding the death of Loo’s mother, and that’s sufficient reason to keep reading, but after that is resolved I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on. Overall, there is the question of why the reader should care about Samuel Hawley. Yes, it’s mostly Loo’s story, but Samuel is a thief and a murderer who deserved all of the gunshot wounds he’s received. His daughter might just be better off without him.
The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science by John Tresch was my book club’s selection for August. It’s an interesting read and I learned a lot about Poe and the state of scientific knowledge in the first half of the 19th Century. While the main theme of the book is the “forging of American science,” along the way we are informed about Poe’s personal life as well as his work as a writer and editor. He was something of a celebrity at times—particularly after the publication of “The Raven”—but he was also always stretched for cash. He even declared bankruptcy at one point. He engaged in numerous literary feuds, which may have been a way for writers simply to claim the public’s attention, but that we’ll never know for sure. It’s a fascinating book that is a little dense, given Poe’s complicated belief system and the science that engaged him.
Bewilderment by Richard Powers is the follow-up to his very powerful, Pulitzer Prize-winning Overstory, but with much less of that book’s weight, in my opinion. My full review will appear in the New York Journal of Books, but here I will say that much of the book was fascinating. The main character, Theo Byrne, is an astrobiologist, someone who searches for life on other planets, so there is a lot of speculation about the universe, distant galaxies, and whether other life forms are looking for us. He is also a single father, his wife Aly having been killed in an automobile accident before the book begins. (Hmm, that’s how my own book, What the Zhang Boys Know, begins.) His son, Robin, is on the autism spectrum, but highly functioning most of the time. At one point, Theo, who is struggling with Robin’s behavioral problems, reaches out to his wife’s friend (and maybe lover, Theo jealously suspects), Martin, a neuropsychologist, to see if there isn’t something other than a drug that could alter Robin’s behavior. Robin is worked into Martin’s “Decoded Neurofeedback” experiment, with spectacular results. There’s more to the book, including the dangerous anti-science political environment, the manipulation of elections by a Trump-like President, a frightening virus—all things that feel too true. While the book falls short of Overstory, it does retain some of the fabulous wonder—bewilderment—with nature (Robin is obsessed) and carries that wonder out to the stars. It also has an important message: we’re killing off the animals and the planet along with them.