D. Albin’s debut story collection Hard Toward Home is published by Press 53 (2016). His stories and poems have appeared in a number of journals, including Arkansas Review, Big Muddy, Cape Rock, Cave Region Review, Natural Bridge, Red Rock Review, and Roanoke Review. He teaches at Missouri State University – West Plains, where he edits Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozarks Studies.
I pile books on flat surfaces, chiefly the desk in my study but also the small table I keep by my reading chair. If the books are collections of poetry or short fiction, I dip into them according to mood, but when a writer really catches my attention I turn the pages until the end. Here are books that have caught my attention in that way or that show the likely signs:
Ron Rash, Nothing Gold Can Stay (Ecco). Rash is a master of short fiction and I’ve read several of these stories multiple times. His prose is spare but flecked with poetry, a style well-matched to the stark lives of his Appalachian characters. His people endure recognizable heartache and struggle, but generally move through life with a dignity durable enough to make them admirable, especially when they carry their own weight of trouble yet show themselves capable—at least fleetingly—of recognizing someone else’s burden. I’m thinking of the unnamed narrator of “Twenty-Six Days,” a college maintenance man whose daughter Kerry has twenty-six days left on her tour of Afghanistan. The narrator’s nerve-endings are never really free of the fear that she’ll be blown up by an IED, but at story’s end he can still notice lights on late at the student center and be glad someone will work the suicide hotline over the holidays, providing balm for the lonely students who won’t be going home during the break.
Jeffrey Condran, Prague Summer (Counterpoint). This is a fine first novel about a youngish American rare book dealer who has set up shop in Prague, a city he loves, and where he loves living with his wife. Choices matter though, and impulsive choices can sometimes put at risk those things we value the most. Condran is a gifted writer who tells taut, psychologically weighted tales, and I nearly read this one in a single sitting.
Jane Hoogestraat, Border States (Bk Mk Press). This poetry collection won the John Ciardi Prize shortly before Hoogestraat’s death in 2015. I’m dipping into the poems two or three at a time, savoring the work of a fine poet and good woman gone too soon. Here is the final stanza of “Gifts that Strangers Bring”: “The black candlesticks she handed me that revealed / red translucent and blue shadows in the room / when I lit the first white candle of the season. / Every face and name that light recalled.”
Steve Yates, Sandy and Wayne (Dock Street Press). I like reading literary fiction set in my native region, the Ozarks, and in this novella set in northwest Arkansas, Yates tells a rough-edged love story for readers who appreciate a romance between two people with sturdy yet wounded hearts. The main characters are building a road through an Ozark mountain, and I think of their efforts as a metaphor suggesting how difficult it can sometimes be to blast through emotional barriers.
Wesley McNair, The Lost Child: Ozark Poems (David R. Godine). These linked poems seem to be the tale of people more than place, and this is appropriate since McNair’s feel for the Ozarks comes to him generationally, through his mother who was born in the region. So far I’ve dipped into the book randomly, but can’t help sharing lines from the memorable “Dancing in Tennessee”: “. . . she was a creature / whose body had failed, and he had no way / to reach except through her favorite song / he sang as a boy to lift the grief from her face, / and began to sing now, ‘The Tennessee Waltz’ / understanding at last that its tale of love stolen / and denied was the pure inescapable / story of her life . . .”.