The Sunday Magazine: The Sound of Horror

I walked away from the television a few nights ago and on my way back the hair rose on my forearms and neck. What caused this? The end of a commercial for the new version of the horror film “Halloween”. It wasn’t anything but the date of the release on the screen. What caused my response was the simple theme from the original movie playing for the last five or ten seconds. Just hearing the simple piano theme elicited the suspense response. As I sat back down I began to think back and realize there are three other examples where the music does as much of the work as the villain.

Music is the unsung character in a horror movie. When the low sounds of cellos and violins begin to gain some momentum, we lean forward in anticipation. It has become a staple to let the music build the tension as the generally stupid person is about to meet a grisly end. I mention the strings because the first iconic theme has become synonymous with stabbing someone.

If someone starts going, “eee, eee, eee, eee” while stabbing at you with an empty fist they are using a musical shorthand from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 movie “Psycho”. When the killer of the movie stabs Janet Leigh’s character multiple times through a shower curtain the high-pitched strings are timed to each downward stroke. Even 58 years past its release it is part of our culture.

The same is true of the “da dum, da dum, da dum” when people do that it means there is something stalking you. On screen director Steven Spielberg was able to use composer John Williams’ simple two note refrain in the 1975 movie “Jaws” as a stand-in for their malfunctioning robotic shark. The audience knew there was something under the water and Mr. Williams had just the right audio set-up for allowing us to know someone was about to be eaten.

Three years earlier director William Friedkin took an avant-garde musical piece by Mike Oldfield and turned it into the theme of the devil in “The Exorcist”. Mr. Oldfield had made a long-form musical composition called “Tubular Bells”. After notes from the movie studio that they wanted a softer musical score Mr. Friedkin found this haunting simple piano melody that made up the first movement of the longer “Tubular Bells”. It is the simplicity of the piano which sends chills up your spine and makes you turn the lights on.

Which brings me back to where we started. In 1978 when director writer John Carpenter was making “Halloween” he didn’t have enough money or time to use a traditional score. So, he sat down at a piano himself and came up with the simple progression played in a sped-up 5/4 time. In three days, he completely composed all the music. “Halloween” would set the stage for the slasher genre of horror movies to come.

That all four of these movies are considered some of the best horror movies ever might have something to do with the music.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Why I Still Read Books

I was challenged to one of those Facebook things where you post a picture of an album cover, favorite movie scene or book cover. It was the last one which I responded to. As I’ve posted a new cover every day this week I realized reading books is still one of my favorite activities. Which got me thinking a bit more about why that is so.

One thing I’m afraid of is thirty years from now a lot of this generation might not be able to fulfill this challenge. Reading a book has begun to seem equivalent to writing with a pen; rarely done. For all that the information revolution has improved things, book reading might become a long-term casualty. I have asked a few of the people in my life, in their twenties, what the last book was they read. I’ve received mostly looks like I asked for them to remember what they did last summer or the one before that. What makes me look forward to reading?

The one thing I have enjoyed is the transition from printed page to my tablet. The print is always the right size and perfectly lit. I can read anywhere anytime now. The one thing I miss is my regular trips to the bookstore browsing the new release shelves. So many books made it into my hands because of an attractive dust jacket or compelling come on in the interior flap of that dust jacket. I’ve gotten over that the same way I got over album covers informing my music choices by sampling. Almost any book will let you sample a chapter or two online. It is fun to read a sample chapter followed by hitting download and continuing. All of that is just convenience. There is an even larger reason I still read books.

It is because there is no other art form which immerses my imagination more fully. When a historian takes me to a specific era I am there, surrounded in my head by those people. When a science fiction write puts me on a new planet it exists informed by the words on the page. When a detective novel discovers a body I’m on the case, too. When a writer creates an entire fantasy universe it becomes my fantasy universe.

When I sit down to read I am not multitasking. I am solely doing one thing; reading. It is why it is so immersive. Even the best video games can’t provide the same experience. Reading outpaces all of that. I hope that I am not part of the last generation which sees the value in that.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Single Greatest Episode of Television

I had something all ready to go for this column and then I woke up to Facebook this morning and this post: “It was five years ago tonight that the single greatest episode of television aired.” As soon as I read it I knew exactly what he was talking about; although I checked IMDB to be sure.

Five years ago, I was sitting down to the penultimate episode of the final season of Breaking Bad called “Ozymandias”. There is no single episode of the series I remember more clearly. The show would end its run a week later but it is this episode which stands out.

One reason it stands out is it ties off several plot strands instead of leaving them to what would have been an overstuffed final episode. From its beginning Breaking Bad was the story of a man doing bad things for a good reason. The entire series is a testament to the old axiom about the path to hell being paved with good intentions. As we near the end Walter White has become a morally bankrupt character. His action, or inaction, has caused the death of many. In “Ozymandias” two of those come home to roost. One was watching a character die while doing nothing. This plot strand was two years in the making to hit this payoff. When Walt reveals his indifference to his longtime partner in crime, Jesse, it is the height of cruelty. The episode opens with a reminder of Walt and Jesse in happier(?) days when they first started cooking meth. By the time it circles around to current events it captures the line from the poem which gives the episode the title, “Look on my Works, ye mighty, and despair!”

Bryan Cranston as Walter White

The final three lines of the poem are “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/ Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/ The lone and level sands stretch far away.” Those describe the final act of the episode as it revolves around a final phone call from Walt back to his wife Skyler. The acting was always of the highest caliber in Breaking Bad, but this single exchange might be its best. Bryan Cranston who plays Walt and Anna Gunn playing Skyler payoff four seasons worth of story in four minutes.

Anna Gunn as Skyler White

Walt calls Skyler knowing the DEA will have tapped his phone. He wants to take this opportunity to exonerate her in the eyes of the authorities. When Skyler begins to talk with him she begs him to turn himself in. Walt cruelly castigates her for her lack of support. It seems like he is compounding the cruelty shown Jesse earlier in the episode. But he isn’t. We know this because Ms. Gunn shows the audience with a narrowing of her eyes what is happening. As Walt continues to spout hateful things we cut to his face as he chokes back sobs. Again, the facial acting of Mr. Cranston is incredible as that is where you see the true emotion; not in the words. Those words though will exonerate Skyler and keep her from being dragged down by Walt’s acts. As the conversation ends with Walt’s words, “I still got things to do.” It is like a gut punch of emotion.

One other piece of this scene is the direction by Rian Johnson. As the phone call takes place he moves the camera from shadow to light and one profile to the other to visually cue the double-sided nature of the conversation. It provides the actors the opportunity to switch masks as the scene progresses. Mr. Johnson would use his work on Breaking Bad to find himself directing a little movie called Star Wars: The Last Jedi a couple years later. If you watch that movie you will notice some of the same kind of camerawork and staging from “Ozymandias” is also found in a galaxy far, far away.

I am far from being alone in my praise of this episode. It was what the series submitted to the Emmy committees the year it aired. Should be no surprise it won multiple awards including acting ones for Mr. Cranston and Ms. Gunn.

If you watched Breaking Bad, it is worth reminding yourself of this episode by watching it again. If you haven’t watched Breaking Bad and someday do just know it isn’t the final hour which will leave you devastated but the one just before it.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Burt Reynolds

One of the reasons my first car was a Chevrolet Camaro was because of Burt Reynolds. I always hoped to have a fast-American car. I wasn’t interested in a Maserati I wanted a V-8 that roared. I also believed in my mind’s eye I would take it on adventures on two-lane blacktops with the speedometer pegged to its limit. That was all Mr. Reynolds’ fault.

Mr. Reynolds was one of the few actors who made movies about running from the authorities in fast cars. The first movie I remember seeing like this was 1973’s “White Lightning” Nearly the entire last act of the movie is an extended car chase. Mr. Reynolds made it look fun. Whenever I would be sitting in the car parked in the driveway I was pretending to be Gator McKlusky on the run from the law.

Because of Mr. Reynolds’s charisma these movies found a wider audience than expected. Throughout the 1970’s he would build a larger-than-life persona as a “mans’ man”. It was not only evident on the movie screen. It showed up in riotous appearances with Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show”. It put on display the mischievous streak which always played throughout his characters during this era. It would reach its height with 1977’s “Smokey and the Bandit”. If the earlier films had a specialized audience, this was the movie that broke through. For the next six years there was a movie, or two, which featured Mr. Reynolds behind the wheel of a car.

Burt Reynolds

By the early 1980’s the fast car movies had run their course. It would open a new phase of his career as he began to take on more dramatic parts. There was a wide belief that he might not be up to the task. It turned out there was something underneath it all. His Oscar nominated role in 1997’s “Boogie Nights” where he portrayed porn impresario Jack Horner is the best example. As I have re-watched the movie over the years I came to realize how important his performance was. It is the hub through which much of the plot travels.

It would re-energize his career for the final part of his life. It wasn’t a great movie but watching him play Boss Hogg in the 2005 “The Dukes of Hazzard” movie remake seemed like his movie career had come full circle.

I now drive an SUV but occasionally, on a clear day, my mind’s eye transforms things. I am behind the wheel of a muscle car where the sound of the engine rumbling and the tires squealing through the turns is a perfect soundtrack. Hopefully that is what Mr. Reynolds has found in the afterlife.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: HBO’s Sharp Objects

One reason I enjoy the limited series on the premium cable networks is it allows for an actor room to add nuance that can’t often be squeezed into the running time of a movie. An actress who has had my admiration for a long time has been Amy Adams. Her performances are the reason I am drawn to watching things. When she was announced as the star of the HBO limited series “Sharp Objects” I knew I’d be watching.

Going into the series I was in an unfamiliar position as I have usually read the source material if it has existed as a book, previously. I don’t know why I never downloaded it because author Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” was so enjoyable. Having read that though it made me distrust the stories that every character was spinning. That put me on a foundation of sand in trying to figure out who to root for; which turned out to be a lot of fun.

The story is a traditional Southern Gothic set in the town of Wind Gap, Missouri. Ms. Adams plays the central character of Camille Preaker. Camille grew up in Wind Gap leaving to become a reporter in Saint Louis. She is sent back home on assignment to cover the murder of a teenage girl. Camille is fighting the current demon of alcoholism, pouring vodka into empty water bottles. Only to return to a place she escaped to deal with the unresolved demons left behind. Ms. Adams performance clues the viewer in on how difficult this is for her. Over the course of eight episodes she shows a woman barely holding it all together until the final revelations lead her to an act of slow motion suicide.

Amy Adams as Camille Preaker

The best episode comes in the middle named “Closer”. Taking place on Calhoun Day where the town celebrates the rape of a 13-year old girl by Union soldiers. She is lauded for not giving up the location of the Confederate men in town. That they recruit the local high school kids to re-enact this is creepy enough. Within the framework of the murder mystery it carries the subtext of what people will endure in silence. Before attending this though, Camille’s mother Adora wants her daughter to wear a dress. Taking her to the town clothing store she steals Camille’s clothes attempting to force a decision. When Camille walks outside of the dressing room in bra and panties displaying the reason why she won’t be seen in a dress it is Ms. Adams who exudes shame and anger until she gets her clothes back. After she returns to the dressing room she lets out a gut-wrenching scream of frustration.

This is where a story told over eight hours gets to explore everything more thoroughly. It was a slow build to this moment. It becomes a turning point on everything which will be revealed.

“Sharp Objects” in true Southern Gothic style comes to a deeply disturbing ending which can come off as gimmicky to some. I found it true to the form while being completely surprised. The last whispered line made the hair on my neck stand up.

Ms. Adams is the reason to watch “Sharp Objects” but the story is satisfyingly told around her.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Joy of the Unreliable Narrator

As I have been watching the HBO series “Sharp Objects” I have come to realize how much I enjoy the practice of using an unreliable narrator to tell a story. For most stories which are told they come from the recollection of a character who acts as the eyes of the reader/viewer. They take us along with them into whatever plot is unspooling. We trust them to tell us what they are seeing and feeling accurately. When a writer employs an unreliable narrator there is something that is being hidden in what they share with us. Author Gillian Flynn used the technique in her 2012 novel “Gone Girl”. It was so successful there that when it was shown to me it was one of those moments where I put my finger in the book and said “Wow!” out loud. “Sharp Objects” is based on a subsequent novel, by Ms. Flynn, and with one episode to go I think I’m dealing with multiple unreliable narrators. I had forgotten how much fun it is to try and piece together reality from the fiction we are being fed by the characters. I can’t wait to see what plays out in the finale.

I usually like to keep spoilers out of what I write but this time I fear the rest of this column is one king-sized spoiler.

My first encounter with an unreliable narrator came in one of Agatha Christie’s novels featuring her detective Hercule Poirot. At the beginning of the book I thought it was such a clever device to have the narrator be someone who had hired M. Poirot. By the end of the book it turns out the narrator was the killer. Coming in the 1920’s it was influential on the mystery writing genre. The book, “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” was voted the best crime novel ever in 2013 by the British Crime Writers’ Association.

The unreliable narrator is especially compelling when you’re still not sure if what you’ve read is at all real. “Fight Club” by Chuck Palahniuk and “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis take us on an internal monologue narrated by two sociopaths; or do they? Have our narrators literally taken us for fools? We have been shown it is in their nature.

One which is heartbreaking in its revelation comes in the last act of “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel. The narrator tells a fantastical story of surviving a shipwreck in a lifeboat with a full-grown tiger. This takes up the middle section of the book. When the narrator has been rescued he is presented with evidence, by those interviewing him, of an alternate version of events. The narrator asks the interviewers if they prefer the fantasy over the reality. By this point the reader knows the answer.

I don’t want a consistent diet of these kind of stories, but the infrequent use always allows for the final pages to contain those precious “Wow!” moments. I have a feeling the finale of “Sharp Objects” has one in store for me.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Very, Very, Late Summer of 2018 Playlist

Ever since I started writing The Sunday Magazine I wanted to keep a reminder of my favorite songs of the summer as it was happening. What that has meant is usually early in June I share my current playlist that is on repeat rotation. I’m not sure what happened this year, but it only occurred to me recently I hadn’t done the 2018 version. My problem is at this stage of the summer I’m down to two or three songs as I start dropping songs until I have only the prime earworms cued up. With all of that intro this is going to be a very short playlist, but it is the three songs by which I will indelibly remember the summer of 2018.

If there is one theme to the three songs it was that I had heard them well before the start of the summer.

It was in a Target commercial during the Super Bowl that the collaboration between country singer Maren Morris with Electronic Dance Music (EDM) duo Grey and producer Zedd which produced the song “The Middle”. In a 90-second commercial the song was an earworm which hibernated until the weather warmed up. It doesn’t matter what I seem to be doing this summer but whatever it is I’m meeting it in the middle.

The second song which has lasted all the way through the summer came from watching “American Idol”. Singer Bebe Rexha sang a duet early in the competition and then on finale night joined the three finalists in a rendition of the song “Meant to Be”. The recorded version replaces the amateurs with country pair Florida-Georgia Line. That version has more of a country twang to it, which I usually dislike. For this summer it is the lyrics “if it’s meant to be it’ll be” which have become the warm weather mantra I needed.

When I didn’t know the title or who did the song I kept asking for the John Wayne song. The fact that every DJ I asked knew what I was talking about shows why High Horse by Kacey Musgraves is my third song. The sad thing is I would have known who did the song if I had paid attention a few weeks earlier when Ms. Musgraves performed it on Saturday Night Live. But she was a country singer and I walked out of the room. One of the DJ’s even told me it was Kacey Musgraves and I thought I hadn’t heard him correctly. This is not country music it is almost a 70’s throwback which could’ve packed the dance floor then like it does today. High Horse is all beat suffused with lyrical attitude; that’s good enough to make a summer staple for me.

Those who know me, and my musical taste will have to smile that my three songs feature country music artists in all of them. Not sure what to make of it except my damn playlist keeps recommending the kind of country music I don’t want to hear because of it. That these songs are worth suffering through that is why they make up my very, very late summer of 2018 playlist.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Robert Christgau

When it comes to a critic of any artistic endeavor you must agree on a frame of reference. This comes about by reading the critic’s words and comparing them to your experience. The ones which last are the ones which provide insight beyond what you’ve found on your own. With the publication of the recent “Perfumes: The Guide” by Tania Sanchez and Luca Turin there is an interesting perspective provided by short piercing reviews which add up to a greater overall commentary on perfume as art or commerce. This kind of critic has become a bit of an anachronism. When it comes to music there is only one left; Robert Christgau.

Robert Christgau

When I moved to the New York City-area in 1984 one of my favorite reads were the music reviews of Mr. Christgau. He was the lead music critic for The Village Voice weekly newspaper. I was on the train from Brewster to Grand Central Station, in September of that year, and I began to read my first “Consumer Guide” where he reviewed a dozen newly released albums. As I looked at the list I agreed with his assessment of the new tunes from Husker Du, Hoodoo Gurus, The Cars, and Miles Davis. Like all good critics it is when they savage what you like, you feel a little twinge. Which is how I felt when next to the label “Must to Avoid” was one of the albums on heavy rotation in my car. Here is his review of it:

SCANDAL FEATURING PATTY SMYTH: Warrior (Columbia) The ryffs keep the treadmyll moving with nary a twytch, not once does a lyric offer a detail of behavior or decor, or even a real metaphor–the sexist twaddle of Nyck Gylder's "stereo jungle child" in the title chartbuster, now transmogrified into lyberated twaddle because a woman is singing, is as hot as it gets. C

Despite that it was always his opposite side of that coin which has provided me with so much music he pointed out to me. From that same column here is his “Pick Hit”:

KING SUNNY ADE AND HIS AFRICAN BEATS: Aura (Island) Three albums into this world-class popmeister's American career, his U.S. debut begins to seem like the compromise purists claimed it was–not because it's too American, but because it's not American enough. Now when I want something subtly polypercussive I'll choose one of his Nigerian LPs rather than Juju Music. And when I want a heavier, hookier groove I'll pull out Synchro System–or more likely, this one. With Martin Meissonnier back behind the glass and Stevie Wonder's earthbound harmonica on native ground, it's every bit as consistent as The Message and–by (Afro-) American standards–considerably more propulsive. At times it's even obvious, regular. Next time I assume they'll go all out for a dance-chart hit. And I can't wait to hear it. A

Within my first year of being a young man in NYC I would be at a show featuring King Sunny Ade and His African Beats.

I look at my giant collection of digital music and realize there are artists I never would have given a try without reading about them first in a “Consumer Guide”.

As the publishing world has changed Mr. Christgau has continued to publish reviews in the same compact style. His current gig is at the music blog Noisey. Just so you know it wasn’t a phenomenal personal memory; just a well-archived website which allowed my trip back to the first column I read.  More importantly at robertchristgau.com all his reviews and other writings are gathered in one place. It is the history of rock music one album at a time.

There is such a consistency to his perspective after nearly fifty years of doing this it is unfathomable to me. Even for me almost thirty-four years since that first column I read he has given me a new artist I’ve listened to over and over; “Oil of Every Person’s Un-Insides” by Sophie.

It is the epitome of what artistic criticism is meant to do. Mr. Christgau has been my guide through rock music and all its iterations.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Movie Star v. Celebrity

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I woke up Wednesday morning and over breakfast started scanning Facebook. I came upon a post by the talented Karen Dubin in which she wrote an open letter to Hollywood asking where the Movie Stars have gone. I responded that there are plenty of movie stars who are not fake creations as those original Movie Stars are. If you want to see all the discussion here is the link to the Facebook thread. I think it was a great conversation covering many topics and one responder David Garten made an interesting comment that has been percolating the rest of the week. His response was we have celebrities instead of Movie Stars. I think that is correct and I thought I’d expand on that a bit for this week’s The Sunday Magazine.

I’ve spent too much time reading about those Movie Stars and what they were forced to go through to want a return to that. Almost every great actor or actress you would call a Movie Star was shaped by unhealthy influences led by the studio hierarchy. They understood their overall success was in also creating a tier of human beings who were looked upon as near-perfect. It is one of the fascinations when it comes to Marilyn Monroe because she couldn’t live the artificial goddess script in her day-to-day life. It probably killed her. It was also the first unraveling of this unhealthy system as it became obvious these Stars were just stars.

Much of the reason for that was also the spread of television. They began to show up on talk shows and other unscripted forms of video and the façade would crack in those situations. That effect of video has only intensified over the fifty years since it began. It is the insatiable need for video content that I believe has created the celebrity.

The biggest problem with celebrity is it doesn’t require talent. Whatever I think of the system that created Movie Stars they were talented. Celebrity requires a camera paired with the willingness to do anything to bring eyes to it. The plethora of reality shows following a family, newlyweds, little people, fat people, a rainbow of different sexual people prove that. These celebrities are out and about, and they get the same treatment as any actor or actress receives. They end up on red carpets and on commercials same as those who act for a living. It has diminished movie stars to lower caps status because they are lumped in with the celebrities.

Jennifer Lawrence

There are many who I believe are healthier versions of movie stars who can maybe find a 21st century way of capitalizing the name again. The two which sprung to mind when reading Ms. Dubin’s post were George Clooney and Jennifer Lawrence. I believe they are two of the most talented movie stars we have; among many others. I also believe they have found different ways to leverage the celebrity part.

Mr. Clooney has turned his career into a multi-faceted movie operation. He is a fascinating actor on screen. He has used the clout of being a leading man to get small movies into production. The 2012 Best Picture winner “Argo” was made because he was a producer. He is the only person nominated for Academy Awards in six different categories. That is one of my favorite trivia questions by the way. Only a few have ever gotten it right. Beyond that resume he was also the “Most Eligible Bachelor in Hollywood” until he married his wife Amal Alamuddin four years ago. He has used his celebrity to bring visibility to causes he believes in. it started with his illumination of the Darfur conflict. His celebrity elevated it from the small print to the larger print nearer the front of the newspaper. This is the good side of celebrity. Mr. Clooney and Ms. Alamuddin have continued that use of their celebrity.

George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin (l.)

Jennifer Lawrence is a marvel. Ever since I saw her performance in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone” I realized this was a movie star. When I think of the Movie Stars they had an ability to convey dark emotions with a charismatic style. You are drawn to the flame because their quality draws you into it. Ms. Lawrence has that more than any actress I can think of today. She has gone on to win many Oscar nominations while also being part of a large action franchise, The Hunger Games and X-Men. she has shown a versatility on screen and is just beginning to flex her clout behind the scenes. She is writing scripts, with Amy Schumer, and producing movies she wants to see made; “Burial Rites” about the last woman executed for murder in Iceland. When it comes to her celebrity she is seen living life with a kind of silly charm. She is up for almost anything a late-night talk show host asks of her. I watch her and wonder if Marilyn Monroe had been born today if she would have also been allowed to indulge her silly side. It might have saved Ms. Monroe’s life. For Ms. Lawrence she has achieved all of this before she is 30; quite amazing. She has so far found celebrity to be fun while presenting herself on screen as one of our best actresses.

I’m not sure if we will ever have Movie Stars again. I’m not sure if I want that. I am sure that there are enough like Mr. Clooney or Ms. Lawrence who have found the balance between movie star and celebrity there will be others. What will be nice is they won’t be god-like Movie Stars they will be Movie Stars who seem like us.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Florida by Lauren Groff

I write about perfume because it fascinates me and writing about it allows me to gather my thoughts about it. Writing this weekly The Sunday Magazine has allowed me to do that for other passions of mine. One of the joys of writing this blog has been the ability to share a bit of myself through what I write here. That others not only read but keep it in mind makes every minute I spend on it worth it. One of those readers has figured out my affection for my birthplace of S. Florida. She also read a recent The Sunday Magazine column on a collection of short stories, Back Talk by Danielle Lazarin, where I wondered if the form was becoming obsolete. A few weeks ago, she sent me an e-mail with a recommendation; Florida by author Lauren Groff. I downloaded it and devoured it during a recent road trip.

Lauren Groff has been one of the most successful authors of the last few years. There have been many times I’ve almost downloaded one of her three previous novels: The Monsters of Templeton, Arcadia, or Fates and Furies. Fates and Furies was a highly acclaimed novel in which the story of a marriage was told from the perspective of the husband then the wife. These three books have resulted in her being named a Guggenheim Fellow earlier this year.

Lauren Groff

For Florida, Ms. Groff who lives in Gainesville, Florida; tells stories which seemingly could only take place there.  Almost all of the eleven entries take place there. There are a few that don’t take place in Florida but reference it. None so savagely as when one narrator realizes it is where she feels most at home.

All of the stories are told from a woman’s narration. Ms. Groff enjoys playing with the gauzy veil between reality and fantasy. There are unreal elements that I am left questioning if they are hallucination or actuality. The writing crosses back and forth seamlessly.

The beauty of a short story is it allows an author a freedom to plumb that delicate line in a kind of overheated style. Two hundred pages of it would be too much. Fifteen pages is just right. When a character refers to looking into people’s windows at night as she walks through the neighborhood as “domestic aquariums” it rings with truth and archness.

Many of the stories carry a particular undercurrent of fear as hurricanes, concussions, snakes, and alligators all lurk on the periphery. Each story carries its own collection of them.

When I finished the book, I realized that many of the stories were told by a mother of two boys. No names are used, and I wonder if those stories are meant to be connected.

Ms. Groff captures the Florida psyche well because she lives there. I think it takes someone who experiences day in and day out to understand the precipice the state is perched upon. Without saying it as plain as I just did Ms. Groff uses the eleven stories in Florida to say the same thing.

Mark Behnke