"New Stories From the South: 2007 -- The Year's Best"
Edited by Edward P. Jones (Algonquin Books, $14.95)
When Edward P. Jones burst onto the national literary scene in 2003 with "The Known World," for which he won a 2004 Pulitzer, few remembered his debut as a short-story writer a decade earlier. In his introduction to "New Stories From the South," though, he recalls that only this anthology included one of his early stories. As editor of the 2007 volume, he honors writers who are not yet celebrated but one day could be.
Joshua Ferris' "Ghost Town Choir" is a hilarious exploration of a teenager's attempts to understand and repair his mother's breakup with a hapless boyfriend, though his mother observes, "There's three things that man's done in his life approximating success. He kicked dope, one. He won a paternity suit. And he switched to low-tar."
Holly Goddard Jones' "Life Expectancy" examines the self-delusion of a high-school coach's affair with a student. Native Virginian Cary Holladay's gorgeous "Hollyhocks," about a dysfunctional family's Christmas, glides forward and back in time, recalling Edward P. Jones' own style.
More familiar writers appear, too: Rick Bass' "Goats," about growing up in the wasteland of 1970s Houston, and Allen Gurganus' wry description of neighborhoods and memories sinking under a flood in "Fourteen Feet of Water in My House" are small masterpieces of quirky Southern storytelling.
Jones urges that we pay attention to the way "the world, for even one character, has shifted" in these stories. It's his love of those transformations that make Jones so fine an editor and guide, and "New Stories" such a joy to read. Laura Anderson
"Jesus Out to Sea"
by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster, $14)
The humanity glimmering through the holes in hate and destruction this is what Burke magnifies in his latest offering. This vivid collection of short stories at once covers innocence and violence, disaster and recovery, all woven together effortlessly by Burke's lyrical pen.
Based around the Gulf Coast region, this collection spans catastrophic events from World War II to Hurricane Katrina and shows how these events infiltrate unsuspecting lives and shape the surrounding society. Burke brings us this society through steamy summer days in Louisiana and the Bitterroot Mountains in the heart of winter, inhabiting various viewpoints from a teen in suburbia giving his flag a proper burial the summer before Pearl Harbor was bombed to a present-day Katrina survivor struggling to regain control of her life from pimps and substance abuse.
Culminating with the title story "Jesus Out to Sea," Burke gives a bird's-eye view of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Roof-bound, the narrator's mind leisurely navigates the ups and downs of his past before being jolted back to reality as his home, entirely submerged, sinks and cracks underneath. It is impossible to read this story and not come away feeling as if you were wading through the waste-infested waters, witnessing death at its most incomprehensible. Maree Morris
"Deep Inside: Extreme Erotic Fantasies"
Polly Frost (Tor Books, $12.95)
The tension within the stories of "Deep Inside" arises from this internal conflict: Should the reader masturbate or throw up? At times the stories are so disgusting they're funny, so preposterous they succeed at campy/vampy/smutty fun. At other times, the reader is not sure if this book was meant as a horror-erotic turn-on or was simply a terrible joke that somehow involved a press release and a publisher.
In "Pleasure Invaders," get ready for "evil sex beasts from the next galaxy," graphic intercourse with numerous slimy alien tentacles and sexual Armageddon! Should you laugh, cry or yawn at Katie's most recent revelation in "The Dominatrix Has a Career Crisis": "I thought being a dominatrix would be so rad. ... I always loved the fashions. But it turns out that sadism is more than cool style. It's really hard work!"
Ever wonder what happened to all those children born of Viagra-addicted freebasers? Well, they were born sex-addicted with supercharged genitals and are the victims of rampant vampirism, of course. Read about Granger and Naomi's sad plight in "Viagra Babies," or get sacrilegious with Maureen and Tom as they delight in piercings, tattoos and alien stigmata in "The Orifice."
Whether you are drawn to "Deep Inside" for the erotica or the supernatural, it's likely you'll stay, giggling and gagging at the crossover of the two. Valley Haggard
"I'll Fly Away: Further Testimonies From the Women of York Prison"
Edited by Wally Lamb (HarperCollins $25.95)
The testimonies in "I'll Fly Away" the second collection from "She's Come Undone" author Wally Lamb's creative writing class at York Prison in Niantic, Conn. serve to illuminate the first collection in 2004, "Couldn't Keep It to Myself," because some of the same authors elaborate on their stories.
What emerges from these essays is that the authors were victims first, and their crimes were their response to sexual abuse and other atrocious acts of violence. For most of them, Lamb's creative writing program has been their only salvation. One inmate explains: "I write to ease stress and to purge myself of dreadful memories of the physical violence I've endured. I write what, for many years, I could not even verbalize, and this helps me to heal and move on." Another writes, "Through my writing, I have come to a much better understanding of who I used to be, who I am and who I want to be."
Most of these women were housewives and mothers, enduring abuses throughout their lives. Their crimes seem the logical outcome of their experience. The prison system as described perpetuates abuse and demoralization, so that Lamb's class becomes an oasis of humanity in an institutional desert. Jennifer Yane