Black Dahlia & White Rose: Stories

By Joyce Carol Oates

(Ecco, $24.99, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Book reviewers often joke about Joyce Carol Oates’ phenomenal productivity. Perhaps she has writers locked in her basement churning out page after page after page under her byline? No, of course not…at least, as far as we know. But Oates is nothing if not prolific: short stories, more than 50 novels (some with the bylines Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly), plays, essays, memoir, children’s books, poetry, criticism – you name the genre, she has probably been there – and still finds time to teach at Princeton University. Just contemplating her output – and amazing skill – is overwhelming. Her talent is undeniable: she has won such major literary prizes as the National Book Award, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and the National Humanities Medal, which is America’s highest civilian honor for the arts, the Chicago Tribune Lifetime Achievement Award and the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, to name but a few.

What is this book about?

“Black Dahlia & White Rose” comprises 11 previously uncollected stories, all of which demonstrate Oates’ facility for creating disturbing situations, unreliable narrators who may be hiding crimes from others and from themselves, doomed victims and the dread that lurks in domesticity. The title story is based on fact: there was a murder victim in Hollywood in the 1940s named Elizabeth Short whom the feverish press coverage dubbed “the Black Dahlia,” and her roommate was none other than Norma Jean Baker, soon to be known worldwide as Marilyn Monroe. Other tales are set in the frightening world of a maximum security prison. Still others involve an adulterous wife with a strange, part-hyena lover; a mother reporting abuse who may be the abuser herself, a father who is starting a new life but may be trapped by deeds from his past, and other sketchy situations.

Why you’ll like it:

Oates has an almost mysterious way of presenting ugly situations in beautiful prose. While her subject matter may make some readers uneasy, Oates’s superb writing makes them worth reading. She has the ability to understand and explain, without excusing them, the things people do to get by or get past their worst behavior and its consequences. This collection is not one of supernatural stories, but their effect can be spooky and horrifying nonetheless. You could certainly consider this book a Halloween bagful of literary tricks and treats. 

What others are saying:

“The new short story collection from the prolific Oates …contains sinister and charged moments tempered by humor and masterful storytelling. In “Deceit,” a woman must face school authorities to explain the fresh bruises on her daughter’s body, and in “Run Kiss Daddy,” a man is given a second chance at life with a “beautiful new family small and vulnerable as a mouse cupped trembling in the hand,” but is confronted by old ghosts when he takes them to a favorite vacation spot and unearths something morbid. Unsettling, potent, and suspenseful, these well-crafted and haunting stories attest to Oates’ superior imagination and mastery of the craft, and provide a welcome addition to her oeuvre,” says Publishers Weekly.

Says Booklist: “[A] masterfully honed collection of dark tales… With precision and force, the ever-mesmerizing Oates rips open the scrim of ordinariness to expose the chaos that undermines every human notion of control, reason, and sanctuary.”

“Another gallery of grotesquerie from the staggeringly prolific Oates. This latest collection of Oates’ previously published short stories (the sheer range of venues, from Playboy to Ellery Queen, The New Yorker to video game-inspired e-fiction is an indication of her vast reach) showcases her talent for imbuing mundane events with menace and the kind of irony that springs from narrow brushes with disaster… Protagonists are drawn, with equal authority, from the underclass and the self-satisfied professional class ….Narrators can be so subtly unreliable as to force readers to question their own perceptions. …Although her material can be macabre, mawkish and deeply unsettling, Oates’ hypnotic prose ensures that readers will be unable to look away,” says Kirkus Reviews.

When is it available?

You can borrow this book now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Blue Hills or Mark Twain branches.

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