The main character in the nine heart-stopping stories of Fine Just The Way It Is (Scribner, $25), is Wyoming. No one knows the region better than Annie Proulx, and she infuses her fiction with the geography, geology, flora, and fauna of the American West. Her characters are die-hards and schemers, hard-workers and losers. From early Native Americans living by catching buffalo, 19th-century settlers trying to survive on hope and cowboy songs, Depression-era homesteaders running out of hope, and on to contemporary youth with few options but joining the army and serving in Iraq, the region offers at best a hard and short life. If the harsh economic situation or the brutal weather doesn’t get you, your own poor judgment will. Yet Proulx is always sympathetic to her characters; these stories are rich and compelling, with much to offer in place of the romantic illusions of the unlimited frontier they leave trampled in the dust.
When Anne Enright visited last February, she enchanted the large audience with her sparkling Irish humor, which was in sharp contrast with the sorrowful occasion at the center of The Gathering, winner of the 2007 Booker Prize. If you’re one of the many readers who loved that novel, you’ll also love the 31 stories gathered in Yesterday’s Weather (Grove, $24). In her distinctive economical, yet evocative, prose, Enright offers a sharp account of the shifting ground of a marriage, when a wife, husband, and new baby visit the husband’s family, a visit in which the couple is subject to rapid shifts in love, hate, and desire. Enright’s microscopic eye for detail gives us hard-lined characters, complemented by a slightly blurred, yet ominous, background. Her women are smart but cynical, and no matter how dysfunctional her characters are, Enright treats them with sympathy, presenting them as brave to have so far survived the minefields of daily life.
Roseanne McNulty, neé Clear, is 100 years old and has lived in mental asylums for some 60 years. Yet on the evidence of the memoirs she records in The Secret Scripture (Viking, $24.95), there is nothing wrong with her mind. Rather, due to several misjudgments earlier in her life—errors that, had they not happened in an Ireland rife with sectarian conflict, anger, and long memories, would have been minor—she earned the enmity of the town’s powerful Catholic priest. As Sebastian Barry, the accomplished Irish playwright and novelist, tells her story, it becomes also the story of her doctor, connected to her in ways she can’t begin to guess, and of a once deeply divided Ireland. Barry’s strong plotting and complex characters combine to make for realistic and compelling psychological suspense. Short-listed for the Booker prize.