BOOK REVIEW: From Sea to Stormy Sea

From Sea to Stormy Sea edited by Lawrence Block (Short Story Anthology, 2019).

Lawrence Block, the best-selling and much-honored author of numerous crime novels and stories, turned anthologist a couple years back. The above title is the 3rd in a series of anthologies he’s edited. In each case, he’s used paintings by famous artists as the triggers for original stories by select writers. This time out, 17 pieces of visual art by prominent American painters have inspired new works from the same number of authors.

The result is a splendid book, indeed. Reproductions of each painting precedes each story.

Anthologies are often uneven in content, but while any reader will have tales that strike a more responsive chord than others, not one of the works here are anything but quite good. Given Block’s own tastes, as well as the writers he has invited to participate, it’s no shock that most of the work here falls into the literary crime genre–but the variety of tales told are never repetitive.

Rather than detail every story, I’ll just point out my personal favorites–again with the proviso that there’s not an overall failure to be found here (or even one that could be described as a near-clunker).

I was particularly moved by Charles Ardai’s “Mother of Pearl,” inspired by a colorfully bold abstract by Piet Mondrian. The criminal activity here is more in the nature of background details concerning how the poorest of the poor eek out a marginal living. But the true focus is on the lengths a mother will go to in seeing her child has a better life than either of her parents could provide. A touching and subtle work, like so many of the stories here (and the artwork that inspired them), this is set in the middle decades of the 20th century.

Micah Nathan spins a neat and twisty revenge/paid killer story off Daniel Morper’s image of a lonely railroad crossing somewhere at the edge of a bleak, isolated and subtly threatening town somewhere in the Midwest.

Working off a mid-century John Steuart Curry painting of the same title as her story, mystery superstar Sara Paretsky’s “Baptism in Kansas” proves an intensely sad character study of family disfunction and social repression.

John Sandford’s “The Girl with an Ax” is NOT (as I briefly feared) a crazed killer epic. The ‘Girl’ in question is a struggling studio musician and her ‘Ax’ is her guitar. Using Thomas Hart Benton’s “Hollywood” as a starting point, Sandford gives us a playful yet serious and heartfelt tale of friendship across generations, old motion picture lore, the money-grubbing heirs to a sweet old lady and a bit of profoundly satisfying fraud at the aforementioned heirs’ expense.

Jerome Charyn’s “The Man from Hard Rock Mountain” is a post-apocalypse story of isolation, desperate need and, in a profoundly twisted way, love among the ruins. Oh, and cannibalism, too. It takes its cues from “Twilight of Man,” a stark black-and-white image by Rockwell Kent.

Christa Faust’s “Garnets” sweeps us along through the back-roads of upstate New York in cheerfully funky and murderous fashion. It’s mutual understanding and, if not quite love, then full acceptance at close-to-first-sight for two women with deadly secrets. This one got its genesis courtesy Helen Frankenthaler’s unapologetic and brooding painting “Adirondacks.”

Overall, this book is a quite wondrous blending of visual and literary art. I recommend it, strongly and without qualification.

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