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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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)

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

A father loses his wife and infant child and goes to near-mythological lengths to findchangeling them.

Apollo Nagwa is the son of a Ugandan woman and an American father.  His dad left them when Apollo was quite young; memories of his father reverberate in repeated nightmares throughout Apollo’s childhood.  His only connection with his dad are his nightmares and a nondescript box with mementos and a favorite Maurice Sendak book.

Being of a bookish sort, Apollo parlays his knowledge into a used and rare book business.  Most of his stock he buys from estate sales and such, and the occasional rare book is just that – a rare tidbit that keeps his business barely running.

It’s during his browsing of a book sale at a library branch that he meets the love of his life.  Emma is a small woman of determination, a librarian who steals Apollo’s heart.  They marry, she gets pregnant, and they have a most unnatural natural birthing on a broken down subway car.  Brian, named for Apollo’s long-gone father, is their new addition.

Sounds like the beginnings of young family bliss?  Think again – things quickly become crazy.

Emma has a period of postpartum depression.  She then loses interest in the baby almost entirely.  By contrast, Apollo is the doting daddy – he takes their child everywhere, and posts an insane amount of baby pictures to Facebook.

In an unspeakable act of violence, Emma tears apart what’s left of their idyllic existence, and she and the baby are gone.  After hospitalization and imprisonment, Apollo goes on his own hero’s journey through the five boroughs to find his wife and child, helped by his friend Patrice, a war veteran turned computer geek, and egged on by a nerdy stranger interested in a crazy-good book find of Apollo’s.

The Changeling uses themes from myths and fairy tales, along with modern takes on technology and race, to spin its intriguing yarn of betrayal, love, and hard knocks.  The book is a rambling read, well-written and with plenty of unnerving jolts – it kept my interest up, even when reading it on an iPhone.

There be witches and monsters in the Big Apple.

The library has The Changeling in book form and eBook.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Deep Winter by Samuel W. Gailey

deep winterIt begins with an innocent visit to a friend’s home.

Danny Bedford is a gentle giant of a man.  Years after suffering brain damage as a child during an accident that took the lives of his parents, Danny manages to make his way to midlife.  He lives in a small room above a laundromat that he cleans for rent and a stipend.

Most people in his small Pennsylvania town avoid and make fun of Danny.  Only Mindy Knolls, a waitress in the local diner and Danny’s friend since childhood, has anything worthwhile to say to him.

When Danny stops by Mindy’s trailer with a present and well wishes for her birthday, he finds her dead, with the perpetrators red-handed.  One of them, the town drunk turned deputy, is quick and mean enough to pin the blame on Danny.  When the sheriff comes calling, the deputy is able to convince him of Danny’s guilt, and Danny, befuddled and injured, is in custody at the doctor’s office.

What appears to be a quick deception changes to a manhunt of epic proportions, when Danny gets away.  A state policeman becomes involved, and Mindy’s twin brothers also join the hunt in their own fashion, with revenge on their mind.

The town of Wyalusing will lose some population before the next blizzard.

Deep Winter is a tense, gritty story of sad souls locked into a small town grind where low wages are a living and booze the main outlet.  The book is also an extended study of bullying, its repercussions into adulthood, and how individuals and a community reject a person for being different.

The weather, which gives the book its name, is a relentless adversary.  The descriptions of the snow, the menace of the woods, and the treacherous conditions of driving all drive up the scariness of the story.  Also, the novel takes place in the early 1980s, so easy access to a cell phone is not the case.

There are several points of view in the novel, and you have to get used to some time shifts and past memories that throw the narrative occasionally, but on the whole, Deep Winter is an engaging rural noir thriller.  I was at turns horrified by the violence and callousness of some characters, and gladdened by the humanity of others.

(William Hicks, Information Services)