Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Wonder Garden and Fortune Smiles

Hey! Remember me? I used to intermittently blog about books. Then, in early May, I got a new job and have been hunkered down, desperately trying to master my new duties. It hasn't allowed for much in the way of writing so if you're still with me, I appreciate your patience. As you might imagine, I have some catching up to do.  

There is a sizable stack of books which I call the "guilt pile" to remind me that these are the books I need to tell you about. It's unlikely I'll get to them all but I thought I'd begin with two short story collections. 

The first is The Wonder Garden by Laura Acampora. In a set of linked stories that take place in the small town of Old Cranbury, Connecticut, the author introduces us to a dark group of denizens. The concept of house and home as far more than where people simply live crops up in almost every story. In fact, many of the stories are disturbing, such as Afterglow, in which a husband works out a deal to watch his wife's brain surgery up close or the creepy absurdity of the story, The Virginals

What struck me most about the collection was how unlikable most of the characters are. They are weirdos and oddballs but they aren't charming weirdos and oddballs in the vein of a Lewis Nordan nor are these traits played for laughs as is often the case in fiction. I never came away liking them or feeling as though they had grown in a positive way. While the stories are very compelling and the author is very gifted--Acampora has a way with words that I found very satisfying and re-readable--I think I was just happy to get away from them. Still, I recommend this collection.

Like The Wonder Garden, Adam Johnson's forthcoming collection, Fortune Smiles, is also peopled with unlikable characters. There is an overwhelming sense of isolation in them and a lack of honesty with themselves. This is perhaps most prominent in "George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine", which tells the story of a former Stasi prison warden who simply will not allow, despite the wealth of the evidence of history, that he did anything wrong. These themes also play out to great effect in the title story. Unlike The Wonder Garden, Johnson's characters are not irredeemable. At best, they are adrift. At worst, they are lost. 

Having never read The Orphan Master's Son, which won the Pulitzer two years ago, I thought his sense of voice was astoundingly good and his characters were rich. Nonc, a character in Hurricanes Anonymous and DJ in the title story were especially memorable. 

Fortune Smiles hits bookstores August 18 and should be added to your list.