The Risen by Ron Rash

Years after a free-spirited young lady disappears from a small mountain town, an The Risenalcoholic writer remembers the summer he knew her, as he ponders the discovery of a set of human remains that may prove damning to him and his brother.

Sixteen year old Eugene Matney and and his older brother Bill are five years apart, but share a close camradary developed in the shadow of their grandfather’s strictness.  The two and their mother have lived with their grandfather, the town doctor of sterling reputation, since his son, their father, died fairly young.  Their grandfather does not suffer fools at all, and from a young age, much is expected from the brothers, including an unwavering obedience.

The year 1969 brings with it an undertow of rebellion, in the form of a beguiling girl named Ligeia, who is staying with nearby relatives over the summer.  She begins to frequent their favorite swimming and fishing spot, and Eugene is easily smitten by her worldliness and knowledge of the popular music then exploding at that time.

Sunday afternoons with Ligeia are fueled by alcohol and sex and drug samples filched (unwisely) from Eugene’s grandfather’s supplies.  Bill at first encourages his little brother along his summer of love, but when Ligeia starts wanting more from their forbidden supply of pharmaceuticals, Bill distances himself from her and urges Eugene to do the same.

Ligeia leaves town abruptly, and Eugene knows nothing about her fate in the intervening years.  Their grandfather dies a few years later, thankfully, and their mother is finally able to have a life.  Bill graduates from medical school and becomes a top-notch surgeon in Asheville.  Eugene…fell off the wagon as a teenager and never got back on.  After having a failed marriage and a grown up daughter that won’t speak to him, Eugene’s main interest is liquor and the half life of failure, until new evidence may implicate his gifted brother.

The Risen is a study of brotherly love and rivalry, and a taut story of tried loyalties and family secrets.  Clocking in at 252 pages, the book is a tight and quick read, conversational in tone.  Even with the time shifts in the narrative, the book clicks along.  Ron Rash has built a strong reputation as an exceptional fiction writer, and The Risen didn’t disappoint this reader.

The Risen reminded me of another book that came out the same year (2016) – Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Ed Tarkington.  It’s another tale of two brothers and small town intrigue set against a backdrop of popular music from a bygone era.  I’d also recommend it.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

The Innocents by Michael Crummey

InnocentsEvered and Ada Best live a primitive life on a spit of land on the northern Newfoundland coast, and are barely in touch with the outside world.

Their parents and infant sister died of a sickness within days of each other.  The parents’ bodies were claimed by the ever-changing North Atlantic; they buried their baby sister up the hill next to their garden plot.

Evered and Ada’s only options are making a scant living from fishing and farming their meager land holdings, using a few remembered skills passed down from their parents.  Their only other lifeline is the twice a year visitation of The Hope, a sailing ship where they barter their stores of salted cod for other household necessities.  Most years, they’re in debt to the ship master, a stern yet empathetic sort who is quizzical as to how the two survive on a yearly basis.

The rages of weather and sickness inflict them in nearly every season.  Their livelihood is dependent on fishing, but the ocean seems bound to take them at any time.  There is always a fear of injury or fever, of one or both of them laid up.

Ada and Evered are tough sorts, but as the title of the book suggests, innocent of the ways of the world beyond their windswept cove.  As they get older and gradually see more visitors, both of them exhibit a natural curiosity about the world beyond the cove, and discover themselves as changing individuals as they channel through young adulthood.  These things complicate their simple life and challenge their close relationship.

The Innocents is a beautifully written but dogged account of the roughness of life in an isolated region where coldness and death are constant companions.  The author also does not flinch from approaching touchy subjects such as childbirth and sexuality.

The dialect used between the two siblings is sometimes hard to understand, but I found this to be less of a quibble once the book got going.  I think that if you lived in relative isolation with another person for long stretches of time, you’d probably start developing your own modes of communication.

Even though it is not really stated in the book, I have to assume that the time period is the early 1800s, due to the heavy emphasis on sailing ships, and the weaponry mentioned in the book.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

 

 

Soon by Lois Murphy

The town of Nebulah in western Australia is largely forgotten, a prosperous place in theSoon past that has been in decline for years.  It’s a wonder that any people have remained, but some of them, such as ex-cop Pete McIntosh, have established an exile of sorts in the town.

And now the citizens there are disappearing, due to a mysterious mist that has begun occurring every night for nearly a year.  The mist takes on the shapes and sounds of the deceased, and consumes those reckless enough not to be indoors with doors locked and windows sealed.  The mist also beguiles the living into staying outside that wrong minute or leaving a window cracked.

Night and day are two different existences.  Days are strangely tranquil, except for the lack of bird song or other wild animals.  Night times are nocturnal refuges indoors, the times spent with booze and televisions cranked up loud to drown out the deadly cacophony of the mist.  Its mad song is ever ready to catch an unwary soul, which happens until there are just six people left.

The aforementioned ex-cop Pete, burned out and retired, finds his role of protector a natural one.  He and his friends Milly and Li all become acutely adept at keeping tabs with each other, whether it’s running for supplies or coaxing last gasps out of dying vehicles.

The mist and bad luck have ways of messing with their carefully contrived lifestyle; it doesn’t help that certain outside parties ignorant of the dangers of Nebulah want to visit the town – and Pete scrambles to keep folks out of harm’s way, preferably before sundown.

I read horror fiction from time to time, but don’t indulge unless I really want the scare factor.  Soon is the first horror novel I have read in ages.  The book gripped me from page one, and messed with my head righteously.  The author doesn’t explain everything in the book, but to me, that’s part of good psychological horror.  You’re never completely sure of everything.

As with most horror, there’s some gory scenes, but the author downplays this largely.  Soon is what I would call a literary horror novel – well-written and with enough jolts in the plot to keep one guessing.  There is also a fair amount of Australian lingo here to parse through, and also getting used to them having the winter solstice in June, but I didn’t consider these problems.

I almost messed up my experience by glancing early at the last page and thought, “Ruined it!  Dang!”

NOT.  There was something else close to the end that I didn’t expect.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

convenience store womanKeiko Furukura is an odd one beginning with childhood, exhibiting peculiar behaviors and making few friends.  Her family understands that Keiko is different and supports her despite her oddities.

Even though Keiko doesn’t really play well with others, she finds her niche as a part-time convenience store worker when she is eighteen.  She sticks to this manner of living until she is thirty-six, when societal norms begin to press in on her well-ordered life.

Her life is the convenience store.  Keiko finds meaning in the daily routines, the endless round of rotating specials, the flow of foot traffic.  She is but one cog in the store machine, but she is thankful to be a cog at all.  And her needs are modest.  She lives in a small apartment and nearly everything she eats is from the convenience store.

As someone working a steady service job, Keiko is surprisingly solitary and prefers things that way, whereas her friends and acquaintances are all doing what they consider to be the proper things – marriage and babies – and none of them can accept Keiko’s quiet but antisocial lifestyle.

It is after a series of encounters with friends and her sister that Keiko reconsiders her existence, and forms a farcical relationship with a former coworker, a slacker whom the store manager gladly fired.

The farce works for a time.  Her peers are placated by the fact that Keiko is in a “real” relationship; her sister is satisfied to a point.  However, Shiraha, her boyfriend of sorts, moves in with Keiko and sponges off of her relentlessly.  His past is all too quick to catch up to him, though – and Keiko’s carefully-regimented world is quick to crumble.  It is in the last few pages that she may have one last grasp at sanity.

After reading Convenience Store Woman, I had to assume that Keiko is somewhere on the autistic spectrum.  She finds meaning in her daily structure and is lost without it.  The society she inhabits (modern day Tokyo) obviously expects something else from her besides a fanatical devotion to her job.

The twisted aspect of the book is that others will happily accept her as normal if she’s in a relationship, even if Shiraha is a shiftless misanthrope who would rather not deal with anyone.

Convenience Store Woman is a brisk read, a funny and disturbing commentary on contemporary Japanese culture, and a wry study on conformity, whether it be in the community or on the job.

This article from the BBC online mentions the book and also explains the significance of convenience stores in Japan – they’re strikingly different from their American counterparts.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

The Point of Vanishing : A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude by Howard Axelrod

A few years after a freak accident that rendered him blind in one eye, Axelrod left thepoint of vanishing urban landscape of Boston for the wooded wilds of northern Vermont.  Being able to occupy a dilapidated house for the better part of two years gave him a chance to distance himself from a frantic world that no longer provided any bearing to him.

His time in the woods forced the author to not only experience true human solitude, but to confront personal demons, namely unresolved feelings about his accident and a brief but intense relationship in Italy that ended abruptly.

The country changes Axelrod – he is able to except his aloneness, but on a Thanksgiving trip back to visit extended family, his interactions with people are compromised, even scary.  He can handle his near-hermithood, but is out of his element even when taking an early morning stroll in the suburbs.

The end of the book leaves the author ready to leave his solitary existence but unsure of how he will re-enter society.

A first-time look at this book might have the reader drawing parallels with Into The Wildanother more well-known book about a young man feeling the necessity of withdrawing from the known to the rural and distant.  That book is even mentioned in The Point of Vanishingas Axelrod’s best friend refers to it during a concerned phone call to him.

As I’ve now read both books, I can tell you that they are vastly different – similar situations, but in this one, the author is telling his own story, and he’s not quite the desperate soul that Chris McCandless was.  Axelrod is less the romanticized doomed hero and more of an individual coming to terms with his social and visual perceptions.

The Point of Vanishing can be a little bit navel gazing in its approach, but I suppose that two years with little or no human contact will probably bring that out in a person.  At its best, the descriptions of rural Vermont are vivid, and Axelrod’s writing is worth savoring.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

LessArthur Less is a modest writer who has had success with one book and steadily gone downhill since.  Apparently, somebody reads his work – he’s gotten a whole stack of invitations to literary events and seminars from various points around the globe.  Less would normally not attend any of these, but the timing of them coincides enough that by stringing them together, he’ll have a whirlwind world tour to take his mind off turning fifty, and allow him to avoid attending the wedding of a recent ex-boyfriend.

So our hero embarks on his odyssey, which begins with mishaps and doesn’t let up.  Less is surprisingly clueless as to the customs of each place he visits.  The only other language besides English that he is semi-fluent in is German; while he is okay with teaching a five week seminar in Berlin (his students do mention that he talks like a child), he muddles his way through other locations through sheer luck.

Less experiences new love in both Berlin and Paris, weathers a sand storm in Morocco, and does bodily harm to himself during a blackout at a “writer’s retreat” in India.  Throughout his journeys, he muses over past lovers and ponders the wedding he missed.

Less is a comedy of errors of a gay man coming to terms with the aging process, even as he retains the naiveté of youth.  Arthur Less is a man-child convinced that he has led a wasted life.  Encounters with others teach him otherwise, as some burst his bubbles of literary merit and others express envy at his luck-filled but rich time on earth.

The writing is great – a little confusing in places, as narrative times change abruptly, from present day Less to younger self.  Get through these passages – the humor along the way is worth every page.  Less, in his own bumbling way, remains a long, lean figure of boyish demeanor who charms more than he thinks.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman

A notorious father casts a shadow that is hard to escape, even if his physical proximity isItalian teacher rare.

Bear Bavinsky is bigger than life, an artist of great renown and rare output, as he is quick to destroy much of his own work.  He simultaneously charms and disarms his followers by his refusal to play by anyone’s rules or mores, and that includes marital fidelity.

The book begins in 1955, where Bear shares his studio in Rome with his much younger wife Natalie and their young son Charles, nicknamed Pinch, who grows up admiring and fearing his father.  Bear’s attention is sporadic, but intensely felt when given.

An existence that is at times erratic or idyllic ends when Bear leaves his family abruptly to return to New York City.  Pinch, at odds with the lack of a father figure and his mother’s mood swings, takes up painting with a furor, hoping to produce something worthy of Bear’s approval.

As Pinch matures into a rather plain individual, he is easily overshadowed by the flamboyance and brilliance he encounters in others.  He makes friends and even has a romantic interest, but his inordinate devotion to his father’s reputation taints his relationships with others.

Is it his fate to be subordinate to his dad’s legacy, or does Pinch ever make his own name?  Well, in his own way, he does, although it requires going against Bear’s wishes for the handling of his existing paintings, and some clandestine maneuvering on Pinch’s part.

I’ve already read two of Tom Rachman’s books (The Imperfectionists, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers) and enjoyed them both.  His characters tend to drift through off-kilter lives, and have unconventional individuals wield powerful influences on them.  Rachman is also very good at throwing unexpected curves plot-wise.

The Italian Teacher is a fine literary jaunt, full of references to languages and art, and just fun to read.

(William Hicks, Information Services)