The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

Sparsholt AffairThe Sparsholt Affair chronicles a clutch of friends and their associations with a father, and more specifically his son, through 1940 college camaraderie, future scandal, the free-wheeling 1970s, and recent times.

David Sparsholt is the namesake of the title, a gorgeous young man whose brief presence at Oxford University sparks the interests of two other students – Peter Coyle, an artist who wants to sketch David, and Evert Dax, the son of a then-renowned writer. Coyle is less inhibited and more flippant in his desire for David;  Evert is clearly infatuated with him.  It’s Freddie Green, the clear-eyed older friend of them all, who takes in their transgressions.

Flash forward to the mid-1960s, when David and his family are vacationing in Cornwall.  His teenage son Johnny is the main character in this section – he struggles with adolescent angst,  his own sexuality, and a painful crush on a French exchange student who doesn’t reciprocate.

Johnny is next in his early twenties and slowly understanding his own desirability.  As an apprentice art restorer, he meets with and befriends some of his father’s old college cohorts, including Evert and  Freddie.  It’s with a much younger lover of Evert’s that he learns the hard lessons of lust and disinterest.

Age and time catch up with them all.  There are quiet moments where Johnny and his father connect as best as they can.  David is a product of his generation – a war hero and successful businessman who doesn’t quite understand his son and how he is.  But, considering the subject of the scandal that underpins the novel, it’s possible that David understands all too well.

Although most of its characters are gay, The Sparsholt Affair is a long study of momentary emotions that could easily apply to anyone who has felt uncertainty, rejection, or the pall of the past.  I wouldn’t call the book plot-driven, although things do unravel on their own time.  Reading the book is an endeavor that requires quiet.

With that as a disclaimer, Hollinghurst writes beautifully and with occasional biting bit.  The book is very British in tone, and it helps to know the social changes that happened there during the timeline of the book.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

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Meet the Frugalwoods by Elizabeth Willard Thames

In Meet The Frugalwoods, the author writes in memoir form about how she and herMeet The Frugalwoods husband followed the path to their dreams by extreme frugality.

As she’ll emphasize in the book, the monetary method that the couple followed was a personal choice, rather than a necessity.  The Thameses both had successful careers and were living the alleged dream in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  After years of living in basement apartments and squeezing pennies, they bought a house in one of the priciest markets in the country.  They had “everything,” but did much thought and research into finding what they really wanted – in this case, a 66 acre stretch of rolling hills and woods in Vermont.

Getting there required drastic measures.  They learned to pare away unnecessities, discovered the value of giveaways and discarded furniture, and put in warp drive a savings plan.  A few years later, with an infant daughter in tow, they were the proud owners of their Vermont homestead.

Are their goals attainable by anyone?  Probably not, and suffice it to say that Meet The Frugalwoods is not exactly a How-To-Get-Rich type of book.  The Thameses strike me as being way more driven than your average Joe.  Also, the author is quick to emphasize that she and her husband have had far more advantages to begin with than most people, and still do.  But, I won’t say that the two don’t have a work ethic – far from it.

With that disclaimer, Meet The Frugalwoods is still highly readable, and there are lots of ideas here to spur the reader onto focusing long-term preparation into future dreams.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

 

Nope, Nothing Wrong Here : The Making of Cujo written & edited by Lee Gambin

NopeThe past few years have proven an embarrassment of riches for horror film fans in terms of scholarly and popular investigations into the genre.  Both the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises have been the subjects of exhaustive documentaries, while mini-books in the Devil’s Advocate and Cultographies series boast in-depth meditations on classics like The Evil Dead, Halloween, Suspiria, The Thing, Deep Red, and many others.  Whether your particular fandom embraces Canadian horror films (They Came From Within), Full Moon Video and its various incarnations (It Came From the Video Aisle!), obscure horror paperbacks from the 60s, 70s and 80s (Paperbacks From Hell), or meticulously researched examinations of the Slasher film boom (Blood Money), chances are there’s a book out there for you.

“But what about Cujo?! “someone cries out.  Friend, Lee Gambin has heard you and answered with this 487 page love-letter to the 1983 film adaptation of the Stephen King novel.  For his book, Gambin has collected interviews with just about every key player from in front of and behind Cujo’s cameras: director Lewis Teague, composer Charles Bernstein, makeup artists, and camera assistants.  There are also extensive interviews with the cast including Dee Wallace, Danny Pintauro, and Daniel Hugh Kelly.  Gambin takes us through the film scene by scene, examining the action and the wider cultural references in each sequence, and ends every chapter with a selection of relevant quotes.  The comprehensive nature of the book covers the soundtrack, the cinematography, and tons more.  Even if you’ve seen the three-part documentary included on recent DVD and Blu-ray editions of Cujo, there is still much to learn about the film.

It’s fascinating to wonder, for example, what kind of movie Cujo would have been had original director Peter Medak not been fired just a few days into shooting.  Medak, who was just coming off work on the haunted house classic The Changeling, wanted to push the film in a more supernatural direction, and undoubtedly would have brought a more poetic, cerebral style to Cujo.  The descriptions of the epic crane shot Medak wanted to open his film with are described in enough detail that the reader can practically visualize the sequence and long to see these lost dailies.

Gambin’s book includes hundreds of photos as well:  pages from Stephen King’s original screenplay draft, deleted scene stills, lobby cards, sheet music, and lots of behind the scene photographs.  Unfortunately, many of these images have a photocopy-like quality that makes it difficult to discern just what the photo is.

Another issue with the book is Gambin’s reliance on interviews to cover the making of the film.  Because he did no research outside of soliciting interviews with as many participants as possible, the reader is often treated to conflicting stories about key aspects of the film which, arguably, a full-length examination should resolve.  A perfect example of this is the firing of the original director.  You’re given at least two widely different stories about why Medak and Tony Richmond, his Director of Photography, were let go by producer Don Blatt, and Gambin simply leaves these statements as is, without any attempt to get to the truth of a major aspect of the film.

These criticisms aside, Nope, Nothing Wrong Here is an extremely entertaining look into the world of horror filmmaking.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger

J. D. Salinger published a relatively small body of written work; Catcher in the Rye isNineStories easily the best known of his writings.

Salinger developed his writing chops with the short story format, and this collection showcases some of his best.

In these stories, his characters range from chatty to self-absorbed to war-damaged.  Nine Stories was published in 1953, and there’s a definite post-war feel to most of these, although in For Esmé – With Love and Squalor, World War II is front and center, in its telling of a damaged soldier and his chance encounter with a teenage girl in England right before he is sent off to fight.

Other characters are moneyed socialites, enlightened ten-year olds, and delusional would-be artists.  To be honest, very few of them are sympathetic people.  Some of them are downright contentious, but come to think about it, was Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye likeable?  Not really, but the book is still worth reading, as are these.

My favorites – For Esmé – With Love and Squalor and The Laughing Man, with its story-within-a-story setup and whimsical rendering of a tale-telling troop leader.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

heart'sThe Heart’s Invisible Furies is a ferocious comedy of errors that documents the life and times of a gay man in Ireland from the 1940s to the near present.

In a rural community in County Cork, the local priest shames teenage Catherine Goggin before the whole church when she admits her pregnancy.  Practically penniless and headed to Dublin for her future, Catherine meets an unlikely pair of friends, endures great tragedy, and gives her baby up for adoption.  So begins the life of Cyril Avery in 1945.

Cyril’s adoptive parents provide for him well, but are blasé on the finer points of parenthood and affection.  His dad is a philandering banker, his mother a chain-smoking novelist hostile to fame of any kind, and both of them are quick to remind Cyril that he is not their real child.

It’s with a chance encounter with the son of his father’s lawyer that Cyril begins a long friendship and obsession.  Julian Woodbead is everything Cyril is not – confident, cocky, and early on a hit with the opposite sex.  Cyril, who is aware of his sexuality early on, is reluctant to reveal his feelings for Julian or anyone else, and his early adult life is a litany of furtive one nighters.

As the years go by (in increments of seven years) our hapless hero struggles with the mores of his native country.  As Cyril grows up and matures (and sometimes that takes awhile) he finds that an exile of his own from Ireland is necessary to get a sort of inner grounding, and discovers eventual love amidst some horrific episodes.    Ultimately, he returns home, the changes in Irish society set him up for a latter-life happiness, and he learns the meaning of family.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a sprawling chatty read that had me laughing out loud in places and close to crying in others.  When they come, the sad spots hit hard.  The chapter covering the AIDS crisis in the 1980s is particularly moving.  The author also doesn’t flinch from addressing the difficulties of growing up gay in post-war Ireland, when being such wasn’t decriminalized until 1993.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

 

Gods of Howl Mountain by Taylor Brown

Rory Docherty has returned home from the Korean War, missing the bottom half of his Gods of Howl Mountainleft leg and reeling from remembered horrors.  Being a maimed man, he doesn’t see himself fit for mill work in the closest town.  Instead, he runs moonshine for Eustace Uptree, the biggest operator of illicit stills in the county.

Home to Rory is the fastness of  Howl Mountain, where he lives with his grandmother Grannie May, a hard-talking herbalist whose name is well-known to the folks who visit her for her tinctures and potions.  Rory’s mother, Grannie May’s daughter, has long been out of the picture, years after an incident that left a man dead, another lacking an eye, and her mute ever since.

For Rory, running ‘shine has its own sets of problems.  There’s the Muldoons, a rival faction of bootleggers known for rotgut liquor and bad news wherever you meet them.  The county sheriff proves as dirty as any, and makes his own rules for the whiskey trade.  There’s also a federal agent creating havoc with the local bootlegging game who proves to be a scary foe to Rory.

With all this potential mayhem, let’s throw in the complications of love and lust.  Rory finds his heart taken at, of all places, a snake handling church, and then realizes that his love interest has connections with all the wrong people, including the sheriff.

Gods of Howl Mountain is a rollicking tale of souped-up cars, mountain lore, revenge, and sorrow.  The book draws some parallels to the film Thunder Road and the book The Wettest County in the World.  In the hands of this author, though, what could be a familiar rural noir trope becomes a well-written yarn that evokes the Blue Ridge Mountain setting nicely.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Overstory by Richard Powers

The OverstoryThe author Richard Powers came to my attention very recently, even though he has been writing for years.  The subject matter behind this, his most recent book, is extremely timely, considering the continuing decimation of old growth forests.

The Overstory begins with a series of disconnected chapters, each almost a short story in itself.  All concern an individual or couple who develops a kinship with trees.  Just what these folks have in common with each other is not always tangible, although some of them do connect, and there is a book written by one of them that manages to influence all or most involved.

Our unlikely heroes are a Midwestern artist pressed to continue a photography ritual of a lone chestnut tree on his family’s farm, a Chinese-American engineer spurred on by her father’s memories and a set of antiquities, a hearing impaired scientist whose ground-breaking work with trees invites scorn and then acclaim, a paraplegic computer game mogul whose online games evolve life forms quicker than his own body deteriorates, a Vietnam vet whose life is saved by a banyan tree, an unlikely union of a lawyer and a free spirit who discover the joy of unbridled natural disorder after a long-suffered tragedy, a quiet youngest child of peculiar abilities grows up to pen his dissertation on tree huggers, and a hard-partying college student who finds a second life, and voices in her head directing her to her destiny, following a near death from electrocution.

The Overstory ranges over several places in the United States, with the Pacific Northwest, home of immense redwoods and logging companies trigger-happy to harvest public lands, a main focus.  There’s great heartache here as a dedicated group of outlaws fight against the law and the grind of big business to save thousand-year old giants and their ecosystems.  Certain passages contain horrific violence, and there’s a strong sadness that runs through the book.

I found The Overstory to be a sprawling, well-written eye-opening paean to the preservation of old growth forests, and a strong reminder to humans that we are not the center of life on earth.  Worth reading?  Definitely, but expect to immerse yourself in the book.

You’ll never look at a tree the same way again.

(William Hicks, Information Services)