Book Reviews


This spring, three renowned women writers are asking readers to take a leap of imagination. Joyce Carol Oates has a new collection of stories in which she envisions the last days of famous authors. Jeanette Winterson's novel takes a journey through outer space, and Ursula Le Guin reawakens a poet long dead.

Our reviewer Alan Cheuse has read all three.

ALAN CHEUSE: Reading through new work by these wildly imaginative women was a thrill, an adventure, a privilege. Joyce Carol Oates' collection is called "Wild Nights!" And it lives up to the title, which she borrows from Emily Dickinson. Her fiction focuses on the last days of five writers we admire, Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway.

Each of the stories becomes distinctive and gripping. Take Poe's hallucination about a lighthouse in Patagonia. Oates conjures it up with horrors as fine and frightening as anything in the author's actual works. And Poe winds up dying as pathetically as the other men on Oates's roster. Toward the end of his life, Twain has a haunting rendezvous with adolescent girls in New York's Central Park. Henry James falls in love while caring for veterans suffering in a London hospital. Hemingway meets his end in a string of paranoid fantasies.

The paradox here: in their last days, Oates brings these writers ferociously back to life, even if she goes a bit far with a poem-spouting robot who keep the personality of Emily Dickinson alive and running.

There's another female robot named Spike in Jeanette Winterson new novel "The Stone Gods." She's longing after Billie Crusoe, the main character in this story of worlds dying and being reborn.

Billie and Spike board a spaceship bound for a new planet, where Earth's culture might just get a second chance. But then, boom, the new world explodes and sends Billie back to Easter Island in the 18th century, site of those Stone Gods of the title.

Because of plot turns like this, first-time readers of Winterson may find themselves a little baffled. We make plans, says Billie; we try to control but the whole thing is random. Like all robot sidekicks, Spike doesn't quite agree. This is a quantum universe, she replies, all you can do is intervene. That's what Winterson herself seems to do. She intervenes in conventional form of the novel.

So does Ursula Le Guin, in her delightful new book "Lavinia." She borrows figures straight out of Virgil's great Latin epic "The Aeneid." The story goes back more than 2,000 years, and don't worry, it stay there. As he lies dying aboard ship off the coast of Italy, Virgil appears to a young Italian princess named Lavinia. He proceeds to tell her the Cliff Notes version of "The Aeneid" and bring readers up to date in case they've set this epic aside.

Basically, says Virgil, King Turnus from a nearby territory desires to marry her. But instead, Lavinia will wed a stranger arriving with a fleet of ships on a nearby coast. That stranger is, of course, the defeated Trojan warrior Aeneas. He'll soon make landfall in this country, where his gods have told him to found a new city. The magic here is that we get to watch Aeneas's story unfold from Lavinia's point of view. All my life might seem a weaving, torn out of the loom unfinished, Lavinia tells us. I was a spinner, not a weaver, but I have learned to weave. So has Ursula Le Guin, so have each of these extraordinary gifted writers.

NORRIS: The books are "Lavinia" by Ursula Le Guin, "The Stone Gods" by Jeanette Winterson, and "Wild Nights!" by Joyce Carol Oates. Our reviewer Allan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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