Early Work by Andrew Martin

early workPeter meets the strangely alluring Leslie at a dinner party.  She is what his girlfriend is not – tall, earthy, vaguely exotic, rough around the edges.

Peter is smitten, and apparently enough so to risk his steady live in relationship with Julia, a medical student whose long hours run in contrast to his lackadaisical schedule – he teaches writing composition to women prisoners part-time and whiles away his remaining time in an alcohol and pot infused haze while pondering literature and wondering why he’s not even starting to write the Great American Novel.

The questions are whether Peter is bored enough to mess with his domestic life, unconventional as it is, and if Leslie is the jolt he needs to spark any sense of creativity.

Peter is a semi-likeable schmuck – he breezes through life by sheer luck and druggy charm.  I found it hard to cheer him on as he steps further into his sexual forays, which are mired in drug-fueled experimentation that varies between funny and tedious.

Leslie herself is a piece of work, and several interjected chapters fill in her back story.  In one manner, this disrupts the narrative, and in another, it’s refreshing to get away from Peter’s perspective for a time.

Other characters, although not fleshed out much, are still welcome.  Peter’s buddy Kenny is easily one of the funniest, a backwoods intellect with a heart of gold.  His rundown farm in the middle of nowhere is the scene of many a Bacchanalia and sexual conquest.

There’s also Molly Chang, hyperactive and man-swapping, who pushes our group towards experimental film and music when the collective navel-gazing gets too intense.

At first, Early Work did not impress me.  Its characters are kind of self indulgent, an assortment of post-collegiate intellectual wannabes who all live in a combination of privilege and squalor.  The book has its merits, though – it’s chatty, smart, laden with literary references, and therefore tailor-made to anyone who is young and obsesses over the printed word.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

 

 

 

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Summer Hours at the Robbers Library by Sue Halpern

Riverton is a dying town in New Hampshire.  Like lots of communities that wererobbers library industry-heavy years ago, most of what could be called industry in Riverton has boarded up and moved on.

Amidst the few establishments that manage to hang on in Riverton is the public library, a Carnegie-built model that has its own yearly financial woes. Kit Jarvis, a librarian who wants nothing but solitude and the presence of the printed word, is glad to have a job there.  The routine is steady, nobody questions her previous life, and the regulars accept her.

Thrust into her self-established peace is Sunny, an atypical teenager raised off the grid who earns a summer of community service at the library for stealing a dictionary from the local bookstore.  As Kit’s luck would have it, she gets to mentor Sunny – and her carefully laid out life promises to get stranger.

Added to the mix is Rusty, a former high roller in finance who got the brunt end of the recession – his last claim to affluence is his Mercedes, and a scrap of paper that may spell out an inheritance of sorts, if he can prove that a bank from fifty plus years ago existed in Riverton.

It’s needless to say that Rusty becomes a regular at the library, a steady user of archives and the library’s creaky computers.  And Sunny, starved for a life beyond homeschooling and her counter-culture parents, becomes a hit with patrons and staff alike.

Summer Hours at the Robbers Library could have fallen into the “sweet little book” category, but it doesn’t.  Although the plot at first appears a little pat, the main characters are more complicated, and all three have intense back stories, as do others.  The narrative can be jarring at times as the story switches timelines often – the flow of the books suffers slightly from this.

To be honest, this is a minor quibble.  Kit and company prove to be characters that are care-worthy, and the book is enjoyable, decently written, and a quick read.  You’ll be cheering on Kit as she learns how to be…well…personable, Sunny as she shines doing story time and eats her first onion ring, and Rusty as he accepts hospitality and some humble pie in a rundown mom and pop motel.

To be damaged is to keep on rolling.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Last Stories by William Trevor

William Trevor’s career as a writer was long and prolific.  Although better known as alast stories novelist, Trevor also wrote copiously in the short story format.

In this collection, unwelcome situations are a strong theme.  Whether it is the tolerance of theft, an affair not wanted, or a pushy person who somehow inspires empathy, a sense of intrusion provides the tension here.  Despite this, Trevor’s approach to  storytelling is subtle, and often you have to ponder what has just happened.

In “Making Conversation,” unwanted encounters with an obsessed married man put the main character in strange crosshairs with the man’s estranged wife.  In “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil,” the teacher in question finds that witnessing the brilliant talent of her student comes at a small price with each lesson.  “At the Caffè Daria” brings us a jilted wife as she takes in the news, from his last lover, of her husband’s death,.  And in “Mrs. Crasthorpe,” a widow determined to make the most of her inheritance flirts with a younger widower and struggles with an unhinged son.

There are ten stories in all.  If you are all about high action, these probably aren’t for you.  But, if good writing and subtlety is what you crave, then give Last Stories a look.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

 

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)

 

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)