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The New, the Old and the Obscure

Capsule reviews of books by Jen Fawkes, Eudora Welty and Rick Bass.

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The New

“Mannequin and Wife” (2020) by Jen Fawkes

Southern writer Jen Fawkes takes us into brutal realities both real and absurd. When reading Fawkes, writers like Amy Hempel and Kelly Link come to mind, yet her style is completely her own. Haunted by war, memory and lost love, the ghosts of past lives figure heavily in Fawkes’s stories. Each one is touched with originality, leading us through door after door, where what we think to be true is no longer, and our sense of place becomes distorted.

In one story, a man creates a kind of monster out of body parts stolen from cemeteries and morgues, only to see it run off. In another, a criminal protégé works to destroy Mount Rushmore. While the longer stories in this collection work in a heightened reality, each is buttressed by beautiful, short vignettes that act like spears to the heart.

In the short piece, “Hobbled,” Fawkes describes an encounter with a family of baby blue jays: “You locate the nest, study the baby jays – five yellow beaks yawning like forsythia in bloom; membranous lids taut over bulgy eyes; flesh-toned, vein-mapped things awash in damp fuzz and blue-specked shell fragments.”

It is these descriptions and depth of insight that give “Mannequin and Wife” such power, and might just offer us a glimpse into the aftermath of what our world will look like in the near future.

The Old

“Welty: Stories, Essays, & Memoir” (1998) by Eudora Welty

This edition from the Library of America is an education in storytelling while also revealing sublime insights about the world. All four of Welty’s story collections, published between 1936 and 1949, appear here along with a selection of essays and Welty’s most revealing work, “One Writer’s Beginnings,” a memoir about, among many things, a girl from the South dreaming of a greater existence than that of a handmaiden or housewife.

Welty’s style is to put you right in motion with the characters and the scenes they embody. You feel as though you’re dining with some, driving with others, listening in on conversations while being pushed toward an ending that feels like we’ve arrived back where we started, only wiser, sharper, yet warier. We’ve been out in the world and it can be both friendly and frightful all at once.

Her most powerful piece in this collection is an essay on place in fiction, where she argues that the setting of our stories is just as meaningful, if not more, than the characters and plot of that story. Welty writes: “Indeed, as soon as the least of us stands still, that is the moment something extraordinary is seen to be going on in the world.”

The Obscure

“Why I Came West” (2008) by Rick Bass

Speaking of place, Rick Bass’s 2008 memoir focuses primarily on his life and career as a writer in the wild Yaak county of Montana. Early on, Bass writes of how “this landscape, this blue valley, continues to carve at me.” The Yaak is as dear to Bass as his art and he details the natural beauty as well as the risks to its survival with grace, passion and a warning – if we don’t work to protect the wild, then we become responsible for its decay.

Though best known for his short stories, including the masterful collection, “The Watch,” Bass has also written a number of novels, memoirs and essay collections that focus on the Montana landscape and the animals, both human and otherwise, that inhabit that rough terrain. In “Why I Came West,” Bass challenges himself and his audience to accept a life somewhat off the grid, living as an active observer, defined as much by the land he inhabits as the bloodline he was born into.

In one of the most gripping sections, Bass extends beyond both land and form in an attempt to conjure what connects the two, writing, “I’m convinced there is a third spirit. The spirit within us, and the spirit of a place, and then that third thing, that story-like thing – the ignition, or spark, that occurs between us and it.”