Years ago, I enjoyed reading Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. It was funny and quirky and self-revealing, with some darn good writing suggestions along the way.  Her new novel, Imperfect Birds, is a work of fiction, and thankfully so, as it’s characters ring painfully true.

As the story opens, seventeen year-old Rosie Ferguson is ready to enjoy the summer before her senior year of high school.  She’s smart –a straight-A student; she’s athletic – a former state-ranked doubles tennis champion;  she’s great with the kids at her volunteer job,  and she’s beautiful to boot!.   But Rosie also has a knack for driving her mother, Elizabeth, crazy.  She’s also quite adept at manipulating the truth and Mom seems more than willing to believe her lies. By the time school starts again in the fall, there are disturbing signs that is Rosie is not only abusing drugs, but that she is also making very dangerous choices, forcing her parents to finally confront the obvious.

As a parent myself (though thankfully no longer of teenagers) there were times when reading this  made me vaguely uncomfortable.  Had I, like Elizabeth, been too trusting when my son called to ask if he could spend the night at a friend’s?  Hmmmm.  Still, there’s a message here for both teens and adults, and the novel does end on a very hopeful note.  Readers will also note the familiarity of characters and themes from the author’s previous works, such as Rosie and A Crooked Little Heart.

indexCA3TZVXSIowa.  Midwestern values.  Bridges of Madison County, Postville, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.

Salt of the earth people in an idyllic pastoral setting.

Juxtapose this with the harrowing, gory details of the crystal meth epidemic and you have Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town.

It’s a problem we somewhat comprehend due to the occasional headline-evoking mental images of skinny wound-up kids.  Enter Oelwein, IA near Waterloo.  Although, with the population of roughly 6000, and a tiny barbershop/greasy spoon Main Street, on the surface it could just as easily be called Eldridge, LeClaire, Wilton, or Maquoketa.  For a time, Iowa was a national power in this citizen stopgap solution to high unemployment and corporate agribusiness.

Methland functions as a primer featuring real people of this cottage industry that operates out of backwoods trailers and gravel-road labs, letting the reader become intimately acquainted with the toothless, burned-up shells of former townspeople and the futile management efforts of local powers.

If you’d like a local nonfiction version of your favorite gruesome primetime CSI fare, here it is.

miles-from-nowhereUnlike James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, the author clearly marks this as a work of fiction.  Still, I found myself studying her photograph, wondering just how much of the story she might have actually experienced herself.  That’s how real it felt.

In this gritty and sometimes sordid tale about the homeless and the addicted, we follow Joon-Mee through her teen years during the 1980’s in New York City in Miles from Nowhere.  Joon, an immigrant from Korea, leaves her troubled home and ends up on the street, falling into prostitution and heroin abuse.  All is not dreary, though, as the book has a hopeful ending.  In the words of  Peter Ho Davies, author of The Welsh Girl, this is a “starkly beautiful book, shot through with grace and lit by an offhand street poetry.  Nami Mun takes a cast of junkies and runaways and brings them fiercely and frankly to life.  It’s a measure of the artistry of the work that even in their grimmest, darkest moments, rather than being repelled by these characters, we want to stay beside them, as if to care for them, or at least bear witness to their lives. “