Archive for the ‘Decatur Book Festival’ Category

The RisenRon Rash opens his haunting new novel with a near-mythic resurrection. She is waiting, a voice tells us, she is patient. Set free by decades of rain that wear away her grave on the banks of a creek in Sylva, North Carolina, bits of bone gather in an eddy, form a brief necklace, and what remains of a long-dead girl, wrapped in a tarp for 46 years, spills into the stream and is free.

Her name is Ligeia Mosely, a Florida runaway sent to live with her uncle and aunt to protect her from “bad influences.” Seventeen years old with red hair, aqua eyes and a perfect complexion, she appears one day in 1969, a vision in a green bikini, at the favorite fishing spot of teenage brothers Eugene and Bill Matney.

The three share an idyllic summer of free love, beer, and Boone’s Farm (and Quaaludes and Valiums for the winsome Ligeia), until the end of September, when Bill puts her on a bus to Asheville. Or so he tells Eugene. Ligeia is never seen again—until the day her 17-year-old face graces the front page of their local newspaper, her body identified from dental records in the original missing persons report.

Rash, known for his fine-tuned, lapidary short stories (Burning Bright, Nothing Gold Can Stay) and lyrical novels (Serena, The Cove, Under the Waterfall), has reined in his usual style for The Risen, a spare and sinuous murder mystery unveiled through a disquietingly elusive narrative and a fast-moving plot.

The setting is a sleepy hamlet outside of Asheville where Eugene and Bill, now in their 60s, have remained though their lives have wildly diverged. In chapters that alternate between the present investigation and vivid flashbacks, Eugene recalls early life with their widowed mother and grandfather, a tyrannical World War I veteran and country MD who runs their lives with an iron hand.

Light years away from the hippie movement and its music and drug culture, Sylva’s inhabitants glimpse the Vietnam War and civil rights protests from a distance, remembers Eugene, “as if we peered into a telescope at some alien world.” Bill, “the golden boy,” is groomed to be a surgeon, while Eugene, lacking his brother’s hand-eye coordination and his grandfather’s favor, tilts toward literature, where his true talent lies.

As Eugene reviews his memories of that long-ago summer, truth and fiction overlap from the start, when “Ligeia’s ability to appear or disappear seemed magical.” Bill disputes Eugene’s initial sighting of the skinny-dipping siren at the pond, joking that maybe Eugene as been “getting into Grandfather’s closet,” where the prescription drugs are stored, a cool foreshadowing of events to come.

Piecing together the often spooky elements of his grandfather’s powerful reign, Eugene reveals the old man’s menacing legacy in the smoke and mirrors surrounding Ligeia’s disappearance. From battlefield stories to deathbed confessions, a tangled family history of lies, secrets, and blackmail attests to the cruelty he and his brother met at their grandfather’s hands, as well as what was meted out to others.

But the story emerges from unreliable sources. Eugene, once a promising writer and teacher, is now the town drunk, a man chiefly remembered for having caused the near fatal car crash that left his young daughter scarred and walking with a limp for the rest of her life. The alcohol that once enabled him to feel “braver, stronger,” Eugene recalls, brought forth a darker side: “The suffusing glow freed something in me … though perhaps summoned is a more honest word.”

Bill, who at 18 had no qualms about lying, cheating on his girlfriend, and slut-shaming Ligeia, is now a successful surgeon with a spotless reputation, “a good man, compassionate, generous,” beloved by all, including Eugene’s wife and daughter, whom he rescued from Eugene’s destructive cycle.

“Always the better brother and ever to be,” Eugene calls Bill, despite the fact that each time new evidence arises—courtesy of the sheriff who questions Eugene about his involvement in the murder—his brother offers a different version of Ligeia’s last day alive. Nor has Eugene ever told the truth about what happened one afternoon with Ligeia when Bill was nowhere around.

Not surprisingly, in this story studded with false memories, unreliable testimony, and moral ambiguity, there are no innocent victims. As conniving as she is seductive, Ligeia plays Eugene like the Bugtussle hick he is, extracting drugs and favors while flattering him and schooling him on sex and the ’60s underground music he craves.

Ron Rash (photo: Ulf Andersen)

Ron Rash (photo: Ulf Andersen)

The era is lavishly cataloged, from Ligeia’s love beads to her Jefferson Airplane t-shirt (“That’s a music group?” Eugene asks her), from head shops to commune life, from Strawberry Hill wine to shotgunning a joint. As always, Rash has aced his period homework: Ligeia throws around more authentic drug and hippie slang than I’ve heard since my junior year in high school.

Some of the author’s most enduring themes are at play here, particularly the classism that divides his mountain communities, seen in the old doctor’s refusal to treat the local welfare recipients, and in his Mephistophelian control over the less fortunate: his daughter-in-law, grandsons, secretary, handyman and anyone else who comes within striking distance of this Appalachian Mr. Potter.

The prospect of murder haunts the book in many forms, both real and metaphorical: a willful drowning in the bottle, the aborting of potential, the denial of love and erasing of second chances. “The Risen” asks thorny questions about family and freedom of choice and whether some lives are worth more than others — and if so, and if so, does the end ever justify the means?

In one of Rash’s strongest, most evocative novels to date, life offers messy, complicated truths. They appear and disappear, forcing us to look more deeply beneath the surface, to places where “the hard rains come and the creek rises and quickens, and more of the bank peels off … bringing to light another layer of dark earth.”


Ron Rash appears Saturday Sept. 3 at 11:15 at the First Baptist Decatur Sanctuary, 308 Clairmont Ave., where he’ll be joined by Teresa Weaver to talk about The Risen.

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Barefoot to AvalonIn the beginning, when novelist David Payne heard the voice in his head urging him to write about his younger brother who had died six years earlier, his “first thought was that it might be something wistful, elegiac, something like A River Runs Through It.”

His mother, who knew better, begged him not to.

But Payne was drowning. “My single-jigger vodka had become a double and I was often having double doubles and, on bad days, triple doubles…” His marriage was on the rocks, and worst of all, he had become his father: a manipulative, angry husband who drank.

“Everything I vowed not to repeat I have repeated,” he realized, and the life he had built in Vermont to escape his past had begun to look a lot like what he was running from. So he set to work on the story that began long before his brother, George A., volunteered to help Payne move back to North Carolina in 2000.

Their relationship was fraught with jealousy, rivalry and David’s long-standing resentment of George A.’s dependency on their mother as a result of a bipolar disorder that left him unable to work. But they had bonded again during the week of packing up David’s belongings.

“We picked it up where we’d dropped it somewhere long before, as if no time had passed at all. In the middle of a bad thing, I got my brother back.” And then, on the second day of their drive, David watched helplessly in his rear view mirror as his brother’s car and trailer jack-knifed across the interstate, and George A. was killed.

Out of that day, and the grief, guilt and desperation that followed, comes Barefoot to Avalon (Atlantic Monthly Press, $27, 304 pages) a memoir as raw, intimate and courageous as a series of midnight confessions fueled by a bottle of vodka. The story is loosely chronological, though Payne lays out much of what’s to come in the opening chapters, then goes back, relentlessly and often, to gather evidence in an attempt to understand George A.’s illness and “who my brother was and who we were together.”

Between Payne’s revisiting of the wreck, which bookends the memoir, he opens the vein of his family relationships with unswerving, bitter intensity. He examines his childhood and his parents’ marriage — a grim and violent affair marked by his father’s drinking, threats and broken promises — for clues to his brother’s madness and his own demons.


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Florida native Susanna Daniel (Stiltsville) returns to the watery world of her first book with the story of a young mother navigating the responsibilities and risks of parenthood.

In the summer of 1992, Georgia Quillian, her husband Graham, and three-year-old Frankie moved from Illinois to make a fresh start in her hometown of Coral Gables, Fla. Eight years later, Georgia relives that summer, and in the course of Sea Creatures (Harper, $25.99), the events that led up to it.

Graham suffers from a rare sleep disorder that leads to wandering at night, and Frankie has inexplicably stopped speaking. So when they move into a houseboat, even Georgia admits that it’s “a peculiar choice for any family, but especially for us.”

Promising that life on the water will be “an adventure,” Graham brushes aside her fears, and they settle in, he at a nearby oceanography institute, and Georgia as a part-time gofer and curator for a reclusive local artist, Charlie Hicks.

With Frankie in tow, Georgia learns to drive a borrowed two-seater boat across the bay to Charlie’s house in Stiltsville, a collection of wooden houses raised on pilings off the shores of Key Biscayne. From their very first visit, Georgia sees how “Frankie might … tumble down the stairs or off the dock.” When he disappears at one point, she signs to him, “I have to be able to see you all the time.”

In a story overflowing with the ways life tests us, regardless of how vigilantly we scour the horizon for danger, Georgia finds that “to be a parent is terrifying… But it seems to me that what worries us most — pedophiles, kidnappers, dog attacks — is least likely to happen, while what is most likely is some unimagined event. And how do we prepare for that?” (more…)

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Narrative Urge. That’s right, I’m talking to you.

Just wanted to say thanks.

In case you’re unfamiliar with him/her/them?, Narrative Urge is the anonymous presence behind Atlanta’s $10 Art Mystery letter, the first of which was originally sent to news weekly Creative Loafing’s Arts & Entertainment editor, Debbie Michaud.

Each letter contained a ten-dollar bill, a note urging the recipient to “find me,” and a strip of paper with a sentence or two typed on it.

When the sentences were published, Atlanta writers recognized them as excerpts from longer stories and essays they’d written.

There were other clues: a drawing of a UFO, references to French stuntman Henri Rechatin, and to the Biltmore Estate, and to Horace Burgess, who built a 10-story treehouse inspired by a divine vision.

In June, Michaud and CL Events editor Wyatt Williams went in search of answers.

They didn’t solve the mystery, but they did smoke out an entity called Narrative Urge, who thanked them—and everyone—for taking part so far. At about the same time, an interested puzzle solver cracked the “code,” leading to a web page that, in turn, launched two Facebook pages: Narrative Urge and 10 Stories High. In all the excitement, the letters made the news and now the project has its own Wiki page.

Atlanta mobile deal company Scoutmob even interviewed Narrative Urge, who agreeably revealed some of the details behind the project:

The story fragments must be from Atlanta writers, except for the Leonard Cohen lines (envelope #10), which I used because they fit the other criterion: they go well with story I’m shaping around the fragments. There are a few lines (envelope #35, mailed to John Lemley at WABE) from Gone with the Wind, a story that some people believed significant to the project; otherwise, all writers are local. Obviously the “drops,” as I call them, can be found by anyone. Drop locations … are chosen somewhat randomly: inside restaurant menus (the Graveyard, the Majestic, Manuel’s Tavern); Midway Restaurant (under an eraser near the dartboard); Videodrome (near the Frida Kahlo movie starring Salma Hayek); Junkman’s Daughter (inside Tara McPherson’s book, Lost Constellations); in the information box outside that yoga studio on Estoria in Cabbagetown.

Notes on Narrative Urge’s Facebook page added some memorable personal facts I’ve squirreled away for after-midnight wild goose chases on Google.

At first local, the project has now spread to Minneapolis and Chicago. Fierce debate has ensued about who this secret sender could be, with several local literary lights denying it just as fiercely. Maybe a little too fiercely.

And then, days ago, another letter wended its way to Kate Sweeney, writer, radio producer/host (listen to her on John Lemley’s “City Café”) and co-founder of the Atlanta’s bimonthly (and my favorite) non-fiction reading series “True Story.”

Inside was an excerpt from a post at 8 Hamilton Ave.

I’m thrilled. I have always wanted to be part of a puzzle, and I don’t mean the kind I can’t figure out, like, well, areas of my personal life or why I can’t remember whole chunks of my high school years.

I’ve been toying with the 10 Stories High clues for months now. Picking up more here and there. I’m certain there’s something in the names Biltmore House and Horace Burgess—as in take away the shared letters and unscramble what’s left. But I’m terrible with anagrams. I wonder if we’re supposed to add the stories of the structures (the Biltmore, the treehouse, etc.), or if the excerpts—if they all turned up—would make another story when pieced together.

One big story from all of us. (more…)

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