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October 15, 2008

Booksmart - Reviews

A Better Angel

(By Chris Adrian. Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 230 pgs., $23.)

Adrian is clearly no MFA mill product. He’s a pediatrician and a divinity student, and he throws these two fields of human endeavor at the walls with a good bit of fearlessness. Not like the “fearlessness” that’s become its own prose genre, wherein egoist writers pander to a satellite version of mainstream literary trends. No, Adrian dares to use (and re-use) heavily symbolic incidents and character facets, tell the tales in a modest voice, and then challenge himself to make the right combinations of twists in plot and story structure. 

For instance, when he follows the threads of a roundelay of under-requited loves among third-shift hospital lab techs, all observed by a suicidal wannabe-ghost, he invites readers to chortle at the broad happenstance — but the ending practically rings.   

Again and again, a perhaps-rickety, perhaps-gimmicky buildup is eventually justified by the memorable jagged edges. In these nine stories (collected after Adrian produced two successful novels), the characters do not find a grace that was always in front of them — in fact, the title story, “High Speeds,” stands in stubborn opposition to that notion. 

The risk of producing a short-story collection like this is that the reader may be ready to put the book down more than once. Adrian plays the 9/11 card multiple times, until it seems a too-ready shorthand for doubt and suffering. Other recurring motifs include afflicted boys getting early previews of intimacy, several unusual forms of communication across generations and maybe a few too many sibling tragedies. But once you’ve gotten past the updated Salinger of the opener story, there’s a high percentage of powerful (and often harrowing) stories here. —T.E. Lyons

The Kentucky Book of the Dead

(By Keven McQueen, illustrations by Kyle McQueen. The History Press; 144 pgs., $14.99.)

Need a Halloween gift book? New to bookshelves are good horror stories (zombie anthology “The Living Dead”) and thriller novels (Mo Hayder’s “Ritual”). But plenty of readers prefer nonfiction, and many like it delivered in bite-size bits. Well, after reading about 19th-century embalming in the bluegrass, you’ll shirk from thinking about anything in terms of “bites.” 

Author McQueen, an instructor at EKU, is well-practiced at offering light history spiced with peculiarities. This is the latest of several forays he’s made into Kentucky history, and, despite the title, this one’s only slightly more gruesome than some of its predecessors. 

In subchapters ranging from a short paragraph to a handful of pages, McQueen reproduces newspaper excerpts and describes local lore in which death arrives with irony or poignancy, corpses receive treatment that borders on the slapstick, and strange sights and sounds test unnerved witnesses. 

There isn’t much of a logical arc from beginning to end — other than the heavily detailed first scenario (offering up the author’s scrupulous even-handedness, as he includes information that both aids and detracts from belief in supernatural goings-on) and the somewhat-happy ending in a chapter where a family seems to make both peace and progress with a spirit. 

The write-ups of individual anecdotes are far from tone-deaf in presentation and are well-documented in a thorough bibliography. Yet the sequencing seems a bit haphazard, and a few of the pieces are developed at a dry length without much of a juicy payoff. The book succeeds as a historical miscellany that has not been over-dramatized. So pick one up and see which noted ghosts might be waiting just around the corner. —T.E. Lyons