A finely crafted, often haunting portrait of a steel town and its men.

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HOLDING ON

A collection of short stories documents the beginning of the end of a western Pennsylvania steel town.

Furnass, Pennsylvania, runs on steel mills: “The mills were a fact of life in Furnass, any part of Furnass, the same as the hills and the river and the trees; there was always the rust-covered smoke drifting over the valley, the steam from the coke ovens billowing up like huge genies to dull the sun.” In these 13 stories, set from the early 1950s to the early ’80s, the town’s citizens live and learn in the relative comfort of the steel economy—despite persistent rumors that it might all be going away. A 12-year-old boy buys a set of toy soldiers from a military antiques shop, intrigued by the rumors that surround the store’s handsy owner. Afterward, he encounters a different sexual ritual playing out in the woods near his home: one that ends, inevitably, with territorial violence between the town’s teenage gangs. Three former high school football players—now steelworkers—reminisce about a teammate who made it out of town with a mix of admiration and resentment. A Furnass mechanic is called to work on a Porsche that has broken down on the outskirts of town, which leads to a bit of class tension with the foreign car’s owner. Snodgrass (Across the River, 2018, etc.) shows how the fault lines that exist in any society—between men and women, friends and strangers—are only exacerbated once economic anxieties begin to rear their head. In the final tale, the eponymous “Hold On,” mill closures and layoffs haunt a social occasion involving three co-workers. A restored motorcycle appears to provide a welcome distraction from the uncertainty, but it proves to be a painful metaphor for the whole thing. The author’s measured, plainspoken prose appropriately calls to mind the dirty realism of the ’80s. “I finally give up and go home,” narrates one damaged protagonist, a burglar and drug addict. “It’s been a while since I broke in there, and when I’m hanging out at Mikey’s All-Niter and the old dolly comes in, I’m careful to stay out of sight. Somebody put another sheet of plywood over that transom, so it’s better to lay low for a while and let things cool down.” Between the stories, Snodgrass includes a series of Hemingway-esque interludes, which follow two Scottish soldiers back in 1764 as they hack their way through the forest that will one day be Furnass: a de facto foundational myth that foreshadows the struggles of the region’s subsequent inhabitants. The result is a convincing meditation on the nature of work and manhood in industrial America (for these are tales about men and their particularly male insecurities; a weakness of the book is that women generally appear only as wives, mothers, or objects of sexual desire). The author makes great use of a linked short story collection’s ability to capture a time and place, with each piece shining brighter when reflected off the others.

A finely crafted, often haunting portrait of a steel town and its men.

Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: 978-0-9997699-4-2

Page Count: 211

Publisher: Calling Crow Press

Review Posted Online: Oct. 17, 2019

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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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