“Evolution is a ladder, and our aim is to climb it as quickly as possible,” says Henry Forge, one of the three principal characters of C.E. Morgan’s second novel, The Sport of Kings. Whether or not evolution is indeed “a ladder,” his selective views on the subject of natural selection form the crux of Morgan’s ambitious new book, a dynastic saga on horse-breeding and the conservative beliefs it can breed. It depicts father-daughter team Henry and Henrietta Forge as they strive to raise the perfect racehorse, employing the recently paroled Allmon Shaughnessy as a groom on their Kentucky farm. The trio’s travails are a microcosm of a changing America, of an America that’s becoming increasingly intermixed but is still suffering the ugly fallout from decades of prejudice and subjugation. Below the surface, it’s also an allegory for two competing visions of evolution itself, and of how society should develop into the future.
Blindness is at the heart of Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others, a multi-voiced novel that deals with film, truth, and acceptance. The novel’s prose is compelling—Spiotta captures the laconic atmosphere and intense earnestness of her characters and the California they inhabit. Using film as both a framing device for the interior lives of characters and as a shorthand for the passage of time, Innocents and Others considers female friendship and artistic obsession from a distance.
The work follows the ups and downs of film directors Carrie Wexler and Meadow Mori, whose friendship serves as a bedrock during turbulent times in their personal lives and budding film careers. Beginning with a fantasy scenario involving Meadow leaving her happy, unassuming upper-class family to live out her teenage years with an aging Orson Welles, Spiotta draws strong distinctions between Meadow and Carrie’s artistic conceits. Meadow exudes a strong flair for showmanship, taking to documentary filmmaking and performance art while suffering through her high school experience. Everything about Meadow, from her pseudo-pretentious film interests to her penchant for androgyny, seems to belie her ambitions to make capital-A art. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Carrie, with her populist sensibilities and interest in goofy comedies. While Spiotta doesn’t spend as much time developing or probing the obsessions that underpin Carrie’s approach to her craft, she filters Meadow’s rise and fall through Carrie’s lens. It’s a lens that overflows with humanity and a desire to understand, even when the threads of friendship fray.
No, the girl says, she will not wear the fetal monitoring belt. Her birth plan says no to fetal monitoring.
These girls with their birth plans, thinks Franckline, as if much of anything about a birth can be planned….
And so begins Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens. Lore is a single thirtysomething who shows up at the hospital alone to give birth. She is assigned a nurse, Franckline, who has just entered her second trimester, but is not showing—and hasn’t told her husband yet. Eleven Hours is the story of Lore’s labor and delivery, but her story is also Franckline’s. The two women seem very different, but they have more in common than they will ever (or could ever) know.
“You could say they invented me.”
What is refreshing about literary memoirs like Peter Selgin’s is how they transform the reader through writing and self-invention. In The Inventors, Selgin charts his path from age thirteen to fifty-seven, focusing on the influence of two significant role models: his father and an unnamed teacher. These men are complex, rich, mysterious, and flawed. Selgin’s stories are personal and gut-wrenchingly honest, foregrounding memory, language, and creativity. “Can words ever do the past justice? But words are about all I have, words and this odd device known as memory, that thinks it remembers the past, when really it’s inventing it.”
The courtroom is a place where events recur. In the court, we are presented with recollections, archives, and evidence. In 1995, Americans watched the O.J. Simpson trial; ten years later the miniseries American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson appears in our living rooms. Crimes that were witnessed by many people are particularly suited to this type of recurrence. And the logic of the courtroom privileges the general over the specific, making “points” and “examples” that are cobbled together from crumbs.
A good short story collection maintains a common thread, compiling stories as one would compile an album, so that reading it from beginning to end offers a sustained exercise in meaning. It’s satisfying to turn the last page and feel it intertwine with all those that came before it. Sean Beaudoin’s Welcome Thieves is one of the best examples I’ve come across. While the stories range in focus from small town athletes to struggling musicians, from youthful hedonists to back-alley boxers, each one is ready to jump ship.
An album is a good comparison for Welcome Thieves because Beaudoin knows music—he knows what it’s like to want to become (and fail at becoming) a rock visionary. The opening story, “Nick in Nine (9) Movements,” is a hilariously tragic play-by-play of a foolishly spent youth. From the onset, Beaudoin’s prose moves with sharp purpose, refusing to get lost in sentimentality. Beaudoin is a master of emotional economy. Continue reading