This installment: the book behind the hot new TV series (read last winter); a charming, peculiar DVD; a horror stew by a versatile writer; creepy, quirky short stories; linked stories set in a coal-mining town; and a novel about a tagger.
Orange is the New Black by Piper Kermin
Cute, sweet, middle class, blond, a graduate of Smith. What’s she doing in the Pen? Misspent early adulthood with a high-living lover, Nora, who led her into in the drug smuggling trade. Piper extricated herself, or so she thought, and took up with Larry, a good guy. Ten years later it all comes down and off she goes for 13 months to Danbury Correctional Facility. She’s determined to get through it intact, which means learning an insane new culture fast and keeping a low profile. She has a fabulous support system, including a steady stream of books. What a crash course, and in the process she makes some really good friends among her fellow prisoners. Also she sees close up how totally broken the system is. We get jailhouse recipes, including cheesecake, craft projects, craftiness, meltdowns—quite a gamut. Her tone remains pretty perky throughout, but reflection, regret, and anger creep in too, appropriately.
A wonderful disquisition on the paradox of the human condition. Bernie is a sweet, devout, generous, loving fellow. He arrives in small town Texas, works in a funeral home where he offers comfort and skill, is embraced by the church and musical groups—he sings like an angel. An extremely mean older widow is taken with him and they become a very odd couple. Bernie becomes more slave than consort and finally he snaps and she ends up in the freezer. (This is based on a true story!) He’s convicted but still considered a beloved figure by most of the townsfolk and now he’s making the best of it in prison. A pudgy Jack Black is Bernie; Shirley McClain projects black widow malevolence, and the actual townspeople give priceless, colorful vignettes. (Like the woman who described someone with “sticky-outy teeth.”) Brilliant.
The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns
I’ve been reading Dobyns on and off for years, intrigued by his multifaceted persona: poet and tough guy. This latest is a horror stew with a bang up start: as Nurse “Spandex” is having it off with a doctor, someone steals a newborn and substitutes a very large snake in the crib. Uh oh. In this little Rhode Island town many bad and mysterious things start to happen which the local police with their less than stellar abilities can’t figure out. Could it be Satan’s minions—there are some Wiccans out there, and worse. Eventually suspicion falls on the eponymous crematorium and its incredibly creepy staff and not a moment too soon. The supernatural aspects of the events are eventually debunked but a good kid, Hercel, appears to have real talents in this area despite. Lots of fun and excellent characterizations to boot.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
Short stories by this delightful writer who combines creepy and quirky to excellent effect. A fresh take on blood suckers in the title story—fangs have to sink into something, but lemons don’t have staying power over the centuries. Transformations galore: girls into silkworms, a tattoo as a portal to traumatic memories as well as to possible healing, a scarecrow that bears an uncanny resemblance to a boy who disappeared. Breathtaking.
News from Heaven by Jennifer Haigh
Baker, a coal mining town, gets grimmer by the years as the economic base dries up. In these linked short stories, we meet residents who escape, return, or move through their days with a mix of resignation tempered by the comforts of familiarity. The daughter of a leading family ends up as a miserable hoarder, a flamboyant aunt turns up and wows her niece who discovers her true and tragic identity years later. Solid, moving storytelling.
Rage is Back by Adam Mansbach
Billy Rage is a famed graffiti artist who hid out for 16 years but is now back in NYC. His son Dondi has been kicked out of Whoopty Whoo Ivy League We’s A Comin’ Academy for all sorts of bad behavior, mostly about drugs. That moniker for his school conveys the outrageous, over the top tone of the book, full of expletives and wild action. The plot: revenge on a high-ranking policeman who killed a fellow artist, Amuse. We go into mysterious tunnels under the city, up an elevator with a time-travel dimension, into the jungle where Billy studied with shamans. I didn’t even try to keep my equilibrium, just spun around with all chaotic hi-jinks and into the very satisfying Technicolor conclusion. Especially enjoyed the description of elegant Zen of tagging—who knew?
Back next Monday.