Monthly Archives: January 2014

This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

book coverThere is a lot of used-to-be in Wiley Cash’s sophomore novel, This Dark Road to Mercy. Wade Chesterfield used to be a baseball player, used to be a husband and used to be a father. But he went oh-for three and now, as a guy who used to hang drywall and is on the run, he is mostly a crook.

Bobby Pruitt had been a ballplayer too, but his damaged youth led him in a dark direction, and now he is an enforcer for a local thug. He would like to apply his professional skills to Wade, not only in service of his current employer, but as personal payback for something Wade had done to him on the ballfield. He presents a clear and present danger not only to Wade but to his family.

book cover

Wiley Cash

Brady Weller used to be a police detective, but after he was involved in an event that left a boy dead, he became an installer of home security systems, working for his brother-in-law. There is more going on with Brady, though. He is also a court-appointed guardian to children in need of such protection in Gastonia, North Carolina. This includes two young girls.

Easter Quillby hasn’t been around long enough yet to have much in her rear-view. But more than most pre-teens. Wade had surrendered custody of her and her little sister, Ruby, a few years back, and mom died recently of a drug overdose. Have a nice childhood. She and Ruby live in a state-run orphanage.

Writing in the voice of a child has its risks and rewards. Children often lack the power of reflection that adults possess, so their narratives can charge forward without the breaks of reflection or evaluation. Adults are more cautious, especially about what they divulge. If a child is an unreliable narrator it’s probably because he or she doesn’t fully understand what he or she is talking about. If an adult is an unreliable narrator then it means that he or she is hiding something. But child narrators also offer a challenge in terms of their emotional make-up. Their reactions to tragedies great and small are often displayed in similar ways. A young child’s reaction to the death of a pet can be similar to the reaction to the death of a family member. With that in mind, you have to be very careful about how you portray a child’s emotional scale. You want the reader to be able to intuit its depth even if the child’s reaction doesn’t reflect it. – Cash ,in an interview with Crime Fiction Lovers

Easter, Brady and Pruitt are the three alternating narrators through whose eyes we see the events in Cash’s tale. We see Wade mostly through Easter’s eyes.

The action of the novel consists of Wade re-entering the girls’ lives after years of absence, snatching his daughters to join him as he flees dark elements in Gastonia, Pruitt pursuing Wade do him harm, and Brady trying to protect the girls. There are white-knuckle moments in this chase.

One of the true strengths of Wiley Cash’s debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, was his portrayal of children. That gift is manifest in full power here. Easter certainly reminds one of Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, and the usual Stephen King pre-ad heroes and heroines. And with a name like Easter you’ve gotta figure she is gonna be reborn someway, somehow. Name a girl Ruby and I expect most of us might think of slippers and “There’s no place like home.” That would make sense here, for a girl who is hoping to have a family again. But it is Easter who will hold your attention and your affection. When there is danger afoot you will really, really want for Easter to be ok. She is not only a tough and decent kid, she is a very well-drawn one, and the best thing about this book

There are several threads (maybe red stitching?) running through The Dark Road…. Baseball figures large. Page 1 introduces Easter on a ballfield. Wade was a professional player, as was Pruitt. And when baseball is in play, one need not look too far to bring in the element of steroids. Wade and Pruitt have a history with them, and one of them still imbibes. And speaking of steroids, the time is 1998, and McGwire and Sosa are engaged in the most famous ‘roid-fueled home run derby of our age. The contest is large in the consciousness of these characters, and a subject of widespread daily conversation in the environments they inhabit. The heavy-hitters’ contest is even used in a very Hitchcockian way to provide a dramatic backdrop for the climax.

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The Race is On

Another seam here is parenting. Wade is not a complete screw-up. He may not have made the best choices, and he may not be, exactly, the best person, but he does love his kids, and wants to be a father to them. But abandoning them for several years and snatching them on his way out of town was probably not what a good parent might do. Pruitt’s upbringing comes in for some inspection as well. And Brady copes with having a surly teenager he only gets to see some of the time. Finally, atonement comes in for a look. Wade may be a criminal, but he does want to make up for having left his children. He really wants to make a better life for them. Brady wants to atone for his part in the fatal accident, and does so by acting to protect vulnerable children. Pruitt is more interested in payback than atonement.

Another item you might keep an eye out for is the notion of what’s in a name.

Mom always said that she’d named us what she’d named us because those were her favorite things: Easter was her favorite holiday and rubies were her favorite jewels. Me and ruby used to ask Mom all the time what her other favorite things were, and we’d pretend those things were our names instead…It seems crazy to say we played make-believe like that now, but we used those names so much they almost became real.

Easter has to contend with a real-world decision concerning her name, and there is at least one adult in the story with a temporary alias, and another who has adopted a new name permanently.

Finally, this is a road trip, (it is even in the title) and that usually means a journey of self-discovery. The girls’ fondness for the computer game Oregon Trail foreshadows their later journey with Wade. What will these characters discover, how will they change, grow or wilt on this trip? A Catcher in the Rye mention does let us know there is some of coming of age going on. The girls are looking for a family. Pruitt is looking for revenge and Brady is looking for redemption. Wade is looking for some sort of gateway to a Promised Land.

”Oklahoma, Texas? California?” His eyes got bigger as he listed the names. “We could keep going clear on to the Pacific Ocean if we wanted to.”
“Then what?” I asked. “We can’t live in this car forever.”
“I don’t know,” Wade said again. “I guess that’s why they call it an adventure.”

This is an engaging and fast-paced story. A pretty fair read. I do have some gripes of course. While the attempt for a North by Northwest moment was ambitious, it was not fully realized. Of course by then you have already enjoyed 95 percent of the book so it is not a huge issue. I still read Stephen King and I usually do not much care for his endings either. I did feel that some decisions made by characters here were stage-managed a bit too much. Why such and like has to take place here and then might fit into the author’s desire for the most dramatic possible setting, but did not make all that much sense to me as something the characters would actually do. There are also some convenient events that are inserted into the story to prepare one for the finale. It seemed to me that these were artificial and a bit jarring. Fine, whatever. It’s still a pretty good read, and those elements might not make your Spidey senses tingle the way they did mine.

This Dark Road to Mercy is indeed dark, but illuminated. There is plenty of road to contrast with a desire for home, and sufficient dollops of mercy to soothe sundry pains. This road is one worth taking.

This review was posted on January 28, 2014 – the day the book was published

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Interview in Crime Fiction Lovers – this is the source of the writer’s comments on writing kids quoted in the review

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Filed under Baseball, Fiction, Reviews

My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel

book cover Scott Stossel has a problem, anxiety. Big-time. Had it all his life. Think decades of therapy of the talk and chemical varieties. But, he has also had a successful career as a journalist, and is currently the editor of the Atlantic magazine.

Anxiety, when it’s not debilitating, can bring with it certain gifts: a heightened awareness of your environment; more sensitive social antennae; a general prudence about risk-taking; a spur toward achievement. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard believed that the greater the anxiety, the greater the opportunity for growth. I think there’s definitely something to that—though when my anxiety is at its worst I’d trade away the opportunity for growth in exchange for the anxiety dissipating. (from the Bookpage Interview)

Just what is anxiety? What causes it? What are its effects on individuals and society? How has it been viewed historically? What might be done about it? Stossel sets out to look at these and other questions. The wrinkle here is that he uses his personal lifelong battle with anxiety as a lens through which to examine the various understandings that have been put forth about this condition and the treatments that have been tried over time. The historical and analytical elements are fascinating reading, but relating the information to his personal struggle makes Stossel’s a very human approach.

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Scott Stossel

If getting definitive answers to questions is important to you, and not getting such answers makes you uncomfortable, anxious even, you probably should pass on reading My Age of Anxiety. If, however, you enjoy the mental stimulation of seeing the history of how medical science and society at large has viewed what we, today, call “anxiety”, then this significant work should offer you the palliation you require.

So, what is anxiety? Stossel’s response reminded me of Tevye’s, in Fiddler on the Roof, to the question of why the Jewish people maintain certain traditions. “I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition.” Stossel does not break out into song, but offers a comparable explanation, at least to begin.

If Freud himself, anxiety’s patron saint, couldn’t define the concept, how am I supposed to?

Even contemporary investigations with the highest of tech have not been able to pin it down definitively. There are even different schools of thought over where the primary cause of anxiety lies. Is it in the electromagnetic functioning of the brain, or in the swath of chemicals that also make up our biology. Charmingly, these two camps are referred to as “Sparks” and “Soups.”

Is anxiety genetically determined? There really is a thing that researchers call the Woody Allen gene.

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From Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex

Anxiety has offered fodder for cinematic investigation, both serious and satirical, an area that did not receive much attention here. But one could be forgiven for believing that Hollywood product seems to exist, in large measure, in order to instill fear in the population. book cover “Be afraid. Be very afraid.“ The release of Jaws certainly gave many an unwarranted fear of being slurped down by a mega-fishy. There is both the Hitchcockian treatment of acrophobia and Mel Brooks’ somewhat lighter take, depending on whether you prefer your anxiety high or low. And of course newspapers do all they can to flog fear as a means of pushing product. book coverThere are enough cop, medical, serial killer and zombie programs on the tube to provide plenty of fodder for nurturing our nervousness. Maybe it is the minority of us who are immune to this constant barrage of market-driven promotion of paranoia. Is it any wonder people are so afraid of so many things?

Do drugs and the ad campaigns of big pharma create more anxiety? Stossel looks into this possibility. Despite the real benefits of some of the products made by large pharmaceutical companies, maybe big pharma is something we should be frightened of.

Lest one think Stossel has written a completely dry, scientific, or at least reportorial investigation, you should know that in talking about one of his primary personal miseries, emetophobia, or fear of vomiting, he does seem to take on a bit of a Mary Roach persona while describing some very painful and embarrassing personal experiences. My scatologically-inclined inner twelve-year-old was giddy at times.

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An out of body experience

When Stossel writes of shyness and stage fright, I was whisked back to my early youth, kindergarten or first grade. A school performance. I stood at center stage and recited, “Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater…” I got through the words, but by the time I walked off stage, my trousers had acquired considerable extra moisture. It got better. I had battles with anxiety over the years as an adult as well. Not nearly to the degree that Stossel did. There was a time when I was so burdened with anxiety that my armpits would become viciously inflamed. Not exactly something that might land one in a hospital, for sure. But pain-enforced arms akimbo is not a normal way to present oneself to the world this side of a workout vid. It jars when one is in a suit and tie. It does not matter what caused this somatization. No one turned me into a newt. It did get better. This pales before the travails endured by the author, nearly bolting from his own wedding out of terror that he would boot his lunch, throwing sports matches just to get off the court and stop worrying that he might toss his cookies in public. His anxieties did not make for a happy adolescence in the already terrifying world of dating. (There is plenty more. Read the book to find out just how fortunate you really are.) But I do understand at least a bit, on a very personal level, how anxiety can be physically debilitating. So the book held definite appeal. I imagine that many of us have suffered from anxiety of one sort or another, in varying intensities. It can’t hurt to learn a bit more about where this particular form (or more properly, range of forms) of misery originates.

One of the treatments Stossel looks at (and experienced himself) is a thing called exposure therapy. Basically one must confront the thing one fears most over and over until one internalizes the fact that the thing one fears will not do the damage one imagines. It is Mary Roach territory again when he writes of his own exposure therapy treatment, and its effect on those treating him. I can imagine, however that this might not be a particularly helpful approach were one’s fear something like, say, emasculation, or being hit by a car.

He writes of the fascinating connection between the brain and the stomach. Those who suffer from anxiety also have issued with control-freakishness. It was news to learn that there is even a standardized scale for measuring this. That it is called Rotter’s Locus of Control Scale does not give one great confidence in the intent of its designer.

There is a wonderful section on blushing. Those of us who are always on the lookout for Darwinian understandings of human behavior will definitely perk up at this. And speaking of Darwin, his is one of many household names Stossel cites as prolonged and acute anxiety sufferers. There is also an enlightening passage on how we get the word panic from the Greek god Pan. You will learn a bunch of nifty new words, well, probably new to you. I know a lot were new to me.

Fox News troll John Stossel is Scott’s uncle, so it is clear that there is definitely something sinister swimming about in the family gene pool. At least that particular strain does not seem to have afflicted Scott. His younger sister, Sage, an artist, not only suffers considerably from anxiety, she also just published in December a book that deals with it, Starling. Thanksgiving must be interesting at Stossel family gatherings.

I have one particular gripe about the book and it has to do with physical format. The volume I read was an ARE, so formatting may be different in the final, hard cover edition. But in the volume I read, the page count comes in at 337. No big whoop, even if it is a dense read, and it can be. But the sheer volume of footnotes at the bottom of pages is such that it felt much, much longer. (Maybe call them feetnotes?) There are pages that consist of three lines of actual primary text and what seemed vast, unending streams of subsidiary material in print that seemed to call for an electron microscope. I became almost phobic about turning the page. God knows how much more footnote was lurking there, determined to triple the time it would normally take me to completely read a page. And it should be pretty clear that one of my personal tics is a need to read all the footnotes. And they are definitely worth reading. What I wish though, is that the author had found a way to incorporate that very interesting material into the text of the book itself, at a human-friendly font-size, and let us know up front how long the book really is. It felt like a bit of a cheat to me, stuffing so much material in through that particular back door. If it is really a five or six hundred page book, fine, I’m a big boy. I can handle it. But don’t tell me it’s 337, then cram in another 200 pps of material. Grrrrr. That said, if you do not share my footnote-reading compulsion, it will be a much quicker read for you, but you will miss out on a lot of fascinating stuff. So maybe the solution here is to just tell yourself that the book is maybe 50% longer than the page number indicates and adjust your expectations accordingly.

It took a lot of work and a lot of guts for Stossel to expose his personal struggles to public view. Reading My Age of Anxiety may not do anything to remove your particular fears, phobias, neuroses or anxieties, but it may at least offer some comfort from the knowledge that one’s difficulty is unlikely to be unique, that anxiety, like death, taxes, corruption and bloody-minded stupidity has ever been with us, that one suffers in the company of some of the greatest minds humanity has ever produced, that there is likely some relief to be had chemically, and that there can be real personal and social benefit from having at least some anxiety. Unless your fears have to do with reading very informative looks at widespread human problems, works in which the reportage incorporates the personal to illuminate the universal, you might want to risk taking a peek at My Age of Anxiety. There is nothing to be afraid of.

==================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

NY Times article about Scott and sister Sage publishing books at the same time, about the same subject, although very differently

Bookpage interview

This was named one of Oprah’s 17 books to pick up in January

Stossel on Colbert, a fun interview.

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January 20, 2014 · 10:37 am

3500 by Ron Mills

book coverBenjamin Mills was born in December 1993. His body seemed to be developing normally over the next year, but all was not right. Soon after his first birthday, he was diagnosed with autism. Ron Mills and his wife, Sara, had been handed a parenting burden far in excess of that which most of us must contend with, and far greater than most could handle. Their marriage, strained further by Ron’s depression at the death of his father, and no doubt by chronic sleep deprivation and financial woes, failed. But one thing that did not fail was the love Ron and Sara had for their son, and their dedication to do whatever they could to help him.

When Ben was five, he developed a particular affection for a Sorcerer Mickey Mouse doll and a corresponding fondness for Disney films, well, parts of them anyway. It was the beginning of what would become a lifelong relationship for Ben. He even managed to learn how to use the VCR in order to play his favorite parts, over and over and over and over. His first sort-of words were neither “Mama”, “Dada”, “More”, or even “No”. They were fill-ins to omitted words in the song The Bare Necessities that Ron would sing to him. Later, Ben listened to Disney music through his headphones as a way to drown out the overwhelmingness of his surroundings. Given his love for things Disney, Ron and Sara wondered how he might fare with a trip to Disneyworld. It turned out to be, for Ben, the happiest place on earth. Not all black and white. There were a few bumps. But, Ben came alive there as he had nowhere else.

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Ron Mills – from his website

Months later, after enduring all sorts of disruption from Ben:
I would think about his maddening behaviors, and then think about the Ben that I had seen skipping his way through the Magic Kingdom, and I began to wonder if he actually belonged there.

Ron and Sara considered a drastic measure.

Kinda tough to give your kid the Disney experience if you are living in Seattle and the park is located diagonally across the continent. It may be a small world, but it’s not that small. Despite being divorced, despite the strains of having to find two new places to live, and two new jobs, and despite there being no guarantee that the magic of his Disney experience would not vanish in a puff of theatrical smoke, Ron and Sara decided to take one more trip, just to make certain, and after that worked out, they moved to Orlando.

I have my issues with the Disney corporation. All is not magical in the Magic Kingdom. But there is a place and a time, and this will not be the place or time where I discuss some of the more maleficent leanings of the Monstro-size Disney corporation. For today, and for the gaze we cast on 3500 we will put that aside and go all hakuna matata. Don’t worry. I haven’t gone entirely soft. But for now we will accentuate the positive.

Ben became a regular at Walt Disney World, with a particular attachment to Snow White’s Scary Adventure ride. Not an attachment like you or I might indulge in, but a serious, and repetitive attachment. He rode the ride several times every time he went to the park, and his parents took him there very often.

Bring Ben to WDW was a form of immersive therapy for Ben, and his behavior took a definite turn for the better. The WDW staff came to recognize him and supported him in diverse ways. There are some particularly moving episodes Mills relates in which the “cast member” employees and management go out of their way to make Ben’s experience a magical one. Snow White held a special place in his heart and when the “cast member” in the role engaged him in person, he was agog.

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Ben as a teen, with Snow – from the author’s site

Ron Mills’ story is a straight ahead narrative, this, then that, and then the other. He has a fluid style and is very easy to read. You will zip-a-dee-doo-dah through 3500 quickly. Telling the story was the goal here, and it has been accomplished. I enjoyed the book. It is a moving chronicle. If I have a gripe about 3500 (you knew there had to be at least one, right?) it is that the volume of information offered on autism, per se, and not just Ben’s experience, is about as thin as Cruella Deville. I do understand that Mills is writing as a caring parent and not as a scientist, but one would think that Ben’s story would have offered an excellent opportunity to teach the rest of us something more about this challenging condition. I wondered, for example, about what the latest theories might be as to causation, what treatment modalities were considered. Are there any research projects afoot that might hold a key to understanding cases and treatment?

While Walt Disney World, the Disney corporation and many of the exceptionally kind and caring people who work in the Disney organization went out of their way to help Benjamin Mills, it shines through that the real Magic Kingdom here was the one constructed by Ben’s parents and caregivers. Really, would you move across the country, alongside your ex, on such an enterprise? Love continues long after the theme park rides end, and the gates close. Love and patience, in Jumbo-sized quantities, are what it takes to help an autistic child cope in a world that is not nearly understanding enough. Have some tissues at the ready, particularly when Ben is the last rider on Snow White’s Scary Adventure, before the ride is closed forever. You will most definitely be moved by this magical tale.

I received this book via GR’s First Reads program

Review posted on GR – January 7, 2014

===============================EXTRA STUFF
You can find more information on Ron’s experience with Ben on the web site that he and his wife run, the unfortunately named Shmoolok.com Definitely check out the Good Day Sacramento video interview on the media page there.

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, Non-fiction, Reviews

A Permanent Member of the Family – Russell Banks

book coverGiven the unsettled nature of the families in Russell Banks’ dozen stories, the title of his sixth short story collection, A Permanent Member of the Family, might have a bit of an ironic aroma to it. Marriage is, if anything, impermanent here. The title character in Former Marine had to raise his boys alone after their mother took off. Philandering, while not depicted, is noted as causative in the demise of several other relationships in the collection. And even when a marriage has not dissolved, it is often shown to be or to have been threadbare. There are a few stories where things marital are not seen, Blue, The Invisible Parrot, but the tendency is to the sorry state of home and hearth. It is not surprising that marriage has such a central place in the author’s work. His current marriage is his fourth.

all of us were fissioned atoms spun off nuclear families, seeking new, recombinant nuclei

Lines are drawn, and crossed. They separate before from after, denial from acceptance, uncertainty from realization. In Christmas Party, for example, a man is invited to the home of his ex and her husband for a party, and his underlying humiliation and rage must find an outlet before he can cross over from before to after. A singular event in the title story defines the place where the stretching of connections snaps.

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Russell Banks – from Wikimedia

The characters here often face moral choices, a favorite concern of Banks. Faced with financial stress in his old age, a Former Marine must make difficult decisions in order to be able to continue providing for his children, and later, in order to protect them. In Lost and Found, a businessman at a convention is confronted with the time when he brought a woman who was not his wife to his hotel room, and the decision he faced then. In Searching for Veronica, a woman confronts the guilt she felt for turning out of her home someone who was at great risk in the larger world. The choices are never black and white.

Banks sets his stories largely in the upstate New York town of Keene, his current residence, near Lake Placid, and Florida, his other current residence, so his descriptions of place ring with authenticity. He has a background as a politically concerned sort (he tried joining Castro’s revolution, despite not knowing how to speak Spanish, but got no farther than Florida) and his appreciation for the struggles faced by working people is never far. He had a working class upbringing himself.

I think I inevitably end up feeling a special kind of sympathy for people whose lives are shaped and controlled and manipulated by people with more power than them. – from Harpers article

It is also pretty clear that he holds a less than fond opinion of the media, whether the whores are the media professionals or those who would use them to personal ends, as shown in Blue.

Banks has achieved a status as one of the top writers of his generation, with a dozen novels to his credit, including Continental Drift, Affliction, The Sweet Hereafter and Lost Memory of Skin. A Permanent Member of the Family is his sixth collection of short stories. I found these tales to be extremely well told. There are ironic twists, as every writer of short stories must have at least a bit of O Henry DNA floating about. Banks won an O Henry award for his short story collection Searching for Survivors. A few did not grab me, seeming somewhat obscure commentary on writing per se, but most presented relatable characters confronting real-world choices, or repercussions. Banks has a gift for detail, without cluttering the place up with too much. His style is straight ahead story-telling with less of the lyrical description some other writers employ.

The work of a seasoned pro, A Permanent Member of the Family merits at least a temporary place with yours.

===============================THE STORIES
Former Marine
Faced with the loss of his business and a need to support himself and help out his three sons, who far too conveniently are all in police work, a man takes to a life of crime.

A Permanent Member of the Family
A family pet does not go along with a splitting couple’s custody arrangements. An event regarding the pet defines where one family situation ends and another begins

Christmas Party
A man is invited to the Christmas party thrown by his ex and her husband, who are living the life he had hoped for. What to do with the rage? How to move on?

Transplant
A recent heart transplant recipient is approached by the widow of the man whose heart he received, wanting to hear it beat one last time. The heart may replace the one that stopped working, but cannot truly replace the one that was broken.

Snowbirds
While snowbirding in Florida, a woman’s husband dies. Instead of grief, she appears to feel liberated. And when a friend offers to come help her with arrangements she finds something more.

Big Dog
Seems like it would be a cause for celebration when a sculptor is awarded a Macarthur Fellowship, but his wife and friends seem more resentful than anything else.

Blue
After saving for years to be able to by a car of her own, a black woman in Florida finds herself accidentally trapped in a used car lot after hours, beset by a watchful pit bull.

The Invisible Parrot
A young man in a local store tries to imagine the experience of others there, but imagination is not quite enough. Is this the writer wondering about the ability of writers to imagine the experience of others?

The Outer Banks
A retired couple’s dog has passed away while they are RV’ing about the country. They stop at a beach in North Carolina to bury it.

Lost and Found
A man meets a woman he had almost slept with at a conference years before. He looks back on that decision.

Searching for Veronica
A woman is fearful that a person she tossed out of her house some years back has come to a bad end.

The Green Door
A questionable character in a bar is looking for a place where he can get unusual entertainment. The bar tender directs him, but faces another decision about helping or not helping the man later.

Review posted on GR – 12/29/13

==============================EXTRA STUFF

From December 12, 2012 Harpers – A Conversation with Russell Banks – by Jesse Barron

A wide-ranging interview in the Paris Review

A critical review of his work up to 2001

Banks reads his story “The Moor” on This American Life in 2000 – 19 minutes long, from the 40 minute mark in the program

A New York Times interview with Banks – 1/2/04 – Russell Banks – By the Book

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews, Short Stories