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A trinity of tales with a twist

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Corpus Christi: Stories By Bret Anthony Johnston, Random House, hard cover, $23.95. Though loss, illness, aging, and death are facts of life, they are also the currency of fiction, especially literary fiction. While that sounds like a downer, in the hands of our most skilled practitioners of the form, any one of these topics can leap over the dreary definition of a word and become a kind of symphony to the way every joy in human life is inevitably tempered with sorrow, and — thankfully — vice versa. That rare quality is in full effect in the debut collection of short stories by writer Bret Anthony Johnston: “Corpus Christi.” Set in Johnston’s native city on the Texas coast, this gathering of 10 interconnected stories reads like a roadmap for those seeking enlightenment in the face of life’s travails (Johnston, by the way, is one of the writers scheduled to be in Little Rock this April for the second annual Arkansas Literary Festival). As a book, “Corpus Christi” is framed around a trinity of tales that are really three parts of the same story: “I See Something You Don’t See,” “The Widow,” and “Buy for Me the Rain.” In “Something You Don’t See,” an only son, Lee, returns to Corpus Christi to take care of his mother, Minnie, who is dying of lung cancer. In “The Widow,” Lee and Minnie prepare for her death by visiting a funeral home to make arrangements, with Minnie insisting on keeping everything as frugal as possible. In the meantime, she remembers her husband, Richard, who died years before. In “Buy for Me the Rain,” in the wake of Minnie’s death, Lee takes up with an old girlfriend, Moira. In the midst of having sex, Lee begins flashing back to his mother dying in his arms. I’m giving you the freeze-dried version of these, of course, but that’s because I don’t want to give away any of the marvelous twists Johnston weaves in and out of his stories like colored laces, drawing these pieces tighter and tighter until they sing from within. While the other stories in the collection were just as good, of the lot, I liked “In the Tall Grass” the best. A little gem of guilt and forgiveness, it’s the recollection of a man named Benny, who as a boy saw his normally gentle father nearly kick to death a stable owner who dunned him for an unpaid bill. Slow building and with a mysterious ending, “Tall Grass” is a stunner among stunners, a great turn on the rather tired “fathers and sons” groove that male fiction writers often find themselves running in. A beautiful and auspicious debut, “Corpus Christi” points to a bright future for both the short story genre and for Johnston as a writer. If “Corpus Christi” is any indication, we can expect great things from both in years to come. -- By David Koon Cage’s Bend By Carter Coleman, Warner Books, New York, hard cover, $24.95. The author, a Vanderbilt University graduate with other book titles to his name, brought a few books with him to a signing at Wordsworth last Saturday (call the store for availability of signed copies). Coleman has crafted a tale of a 1960s-70s Southern family falling apart, but in a style that, while deeply examining troubled lives in the traditional Southern method, is unlike the typical “Southern” novel. The book has garnered praise from a variety of critics and focuses on three sons –-- golden boy Cage, quiet middle son Nick, and Harper, the youngest — of what on the surface appears to be a regular American family. The patriarch an Episcopal priest who acknowledges that he owes his strength to his wife. Nick’s tragic death triggers the breakdown of the family, with bipolar Cage fighting guilt-induced depression for years, while Harper, who grows into a successful but morally corrupt Wall Street day trader, tries to balance his own desire to escape the past with a need to help his struggling brother. -- By Jim Harris Horses Photography by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, text by Jean-Louis Gourand, Artisan, New York, hard cover, $60. We’re picky about our coffee table books; we’re sure you are too. You have your large dog books, your massive cat books, those eyes staring back at your guests in your living room. In our den, we probably capture only the slightest interest with “The Top 500 Golf Holes in the World” and “The Greatest of Them All: The Legend of Bobby Jones” by Martin Davis, next to “Wings on the Prairie,” the most colorful study of duck flight imaginable. At times, we think Kramer had it right when he proposed a coffee table book about coffee tables. Perhaps, though, the reader and this reviewer can find some middle ground on “Horses,” a 15-year project by a world-traveling photographer and hot-air balloonist who last graced us with “Earth From Above,” with text from equine expert Jean-Louis Gourand. It wasn’t produced by Southerners, and the only way we can stretch it to say it would touch the South is with its subject. And while we’re on that subject, what is it about this majestic beast that does captivate us all? We thrill at a race of such animals, and not just because we have a $2 ticket on the gray coming out of the sixth stall. We revel in such heroes as Seabiscuit and Smarty Jones (how many bought a $2 simulcast ticket at Oaklawn before the Belmont, not to win $2.20 but to memorialize the moment that, alas, never came last June). Whether it’s racing, riding or in parade, the horse (and its cousins) is magnificently and colorfully presented in these 200-plus pages. Some Arkansans might come to see the horse as more than just a vehicle to a quick buck. -- By Jim Harris


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