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)

 

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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)

Hippie Food : How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat by Jonathan Kauffman

In the 1980s, I started going to Deep Roots, a food co-op that thankfully still exists in Greensborohippie food.  There, in their narrow store on Spring Garden Street, you could buy grains and spices in bulk, peruse organic food items of all kinds, and inhale odors not typical of any “regular” grocery store.  The store had a unique vibe, as did the Sunset Cafe, a restaurant down the street that largely served vegetarian dishes, and was usually packed, with a line out the door, on an average night (OK – they did only have about six tables and a counter, but still…).

It was kind of neat, years later, to read a background of the foods that one saw in these places.  Hippie Food provides this amply – it’s a far-ranging historical survey of the natural and organic foods movement that details how different trends, many predating the 60s and 70s, introduced the general public to eating habits that were bizarre for the mainstream consumer of yesteryear, but are fairly commonplace today.

According to Hippie Food, the eating habits of the Vietnam era counterculture were a synthesis of health and vitamin trends that caught on much earlier – let’s say the early Hollywood era, where people became obsessed with youth and vitality – with ingredients from different cultures (tofu, yogurt, brown rice, etc.).  Their eating habits went hand in hand with the revolutionary spirit of the times, and were at odds with the prepackaged and processed norm that the American public ate.

As alternatives to a capitalistic profit-driven food economy, like-minded people started farm communes and food co-ops all over the country.  With a lack of proper business models, though, lots of these institutions faded as the movement changed and as people aged out of their hippie ideals.  Some managed to fit their alternative versions of food economics into the mainstream mindset.

Eventually, what was considered weird and radical became accepted.  As you step through your average grocery store of today, you’ll see foodstuffs that wouldn’t be there fifty years ago.  Eating locally remains a rallying cry, farmers markets are popular, and there’s still a decided determination to develop an economy beyond the big corporation – something more people-oriented.

From my reading of Hippie Food, I think that the outward thinkers of 40-50 years ago were more idealistic, but way more green behind the ears than today’s organic farmers.  I think they were more resourceful – they had to be, considering the absence of quick social media that we rely on in the present time.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

There Is No God and He Is Always with You by Brad Warner

there is no GodIn recent years, there’s been a fair amount of debate on the existence of God.  Depending on which side (atheist or believer) there is rarely any common ground, and we rarely hear another take on the subject.

In this book, the author, a Zen Buddhist monk and occasional punk rock musician, re-approaches the concept of a deity in a series of conversational chapters.  The hard questions of the universe, death, meditation, and even suicide are fair game.  Warner doesn’t purport to have the answers, and part of the frustration, and perhaps whimsy of his book is that he often raises more questions.

The appeal of this book is his style.  Warner doesn’t talk down to his reader.  Throughout, he remains personable and humorous, and even if you walk away quizzically from reading his book, it’ll get you thinking about how you approach the idea of God, whether you believe in one or not.

 

The book is not a dry tome.  There’s discussion of spirituality for sure, but you also get lots of Warner’s back history, and apparently he has had an interesting life as a musician, filmmaker, and Buddhist monk.  He has traveled a fair bit; locales in Japan, the Zen retreat of Tassajara in California, and even Northern Ireland all play into the picture.

Other books by Brad Warner include Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate, Sit Down and Shut Up, Sex, Sin, and Zen, and Don’t Be a Jerk and Other Practical Advice from Dgen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master.

(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)