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Wild Nights! ()

Three Famed Novelists Weave Exhilarating Tales

May 5, 2008 (All Things Considered)

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Three renowned women writers have books of fiction out this spring and each one asks the reader to take a leap of imagination.

Joyce Carol Oates reimagines the last days of five authors; Jeanette Winterson takes a journey through outer space; and Ursula K. Le Guin explores the pre-history of Rome from the point of view of an Italian princess. The resulting books are a thrill and a privilege to read.

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Wild Nights!

Oates' new collection of stories, Wild Nights!, lives up to its title, which she borrows from Emily Dickinson. Her fiction focuses on the last days — and, in one case, a crazy sort of rebirth — of five writers: Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway.

These new, final chapters in their lives grow out of Oates' own reading of personal papers and biographies, and each of the stories becomes distinctive and gripping.

Take Poe's hallucination about a lighthouse in Patagonia: Oates conjures up horrors as fine and frightening as anything in his actual work, suggesting that her imagination is certainly Poe's equal.

The author winds up dying madly — and just as pathetically — as the other men on Oates' roster: Twain has a haunting rendezvous with adolescent girls in New York's Central Park; James falls in love while caring for veterans suffering in a London hospital; Hemingway meets his end in a string of paranoid fantasies.

The triumphant paradox here is that in their dying Oates brings these writers ferociously back to life, even if she goes a bit far with a poem-spouting robot programmed to keep the personality and poetry of Emily Dickinson alive and running.

The Stone Gods

Winterson's new novel, The Stone Gods, features another female robot, named Spike, who longs for 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 just might get a second chance. But then the new world explodes and sends Billie back to Easter Island in the 18th century, the site of the Stone Gods of the title.

Because of plot turns like this, first-time readers of Winterson may find themselves a little baffled. But as Winterson moves back and forth in time, she explores important questions such as what makes us human and what is love — overturning a lot of stone idols with her answers.


Le Guin's delightful new novel, Lavinia, goes back more than 2,000 years, borrowing from Virgil's Latin epic, The Aeneid.

As he lies dying aboard ship off the coast of Italy, Virgil appears to a young Italian princess named Lavinia, a character whom he himself creates at the outset of his poem. He proceeds to tell Lavinia (and the reader) the CliffsNotes version of The Aeneid:

Basically, says Virgil, her distant relative Turnus, the king of 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. Since escaping Troy, Aeneas has put behind him the love of Queen Dido of Carthage. He's got bigger things to worry about, such as making landfall in a country where 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. As Lavinia says in contemplating the telling of their story:

I remember Aeneas' words as I remember the poet's words. I remember every word because they are the fabric of my life, the warp I am woven on. All my life ... might seem a weaving torn out of the loom unfinished, a shapeless tangle of threads making nothing, but it is not so; for my mind returns as the shuttle returns always to the starting place, finding the pattern, going on with it. I was a spinner, not a weaver, but I have learned to weave.

Le Guin has certainly learned to weave a tale — as has each of these extraordinarily gifted writers.

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