Friday, September 23, 2016

THE GIRLS





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The Girls, Emma Cline, Random House, 2016, 355 pp


Summary from Goodreads: Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence, and to that moment in a girl’s life when everything can go horribly wrong. 


My Review:
I was on the fence about reading this one. Would it live up to the hype? But I like to read novels set in the 1960s, (as well as ones written then), even if the author was not born yet when the story took place. So I broke down.

In the summer of 1969, my new husband and I turned our honeymoon into a cross-country road trip, camping our way from Ann Arbor, MI, to the West Coast. It was part homage to Jack Kerouac, part cliche (many midwestern kids our age made the trek west in those years), and part career choice.

Our goal was San Francisco where we intended to join a group of hippies who were starting a Free School in the Mission District. We arrived in the city just after the Manson murders had occurred and found that several of the parents involved in the Free School were junkies! In response to both I freaked out and demanded that we return to Ann Arbor. To this day, I have been afraid to read Helter Skelter. 

Emma Cline has done her research and she can write, though I found her style a little bit pretentious. I felt she tried to be literary and hip at the same time which did not always work for me.

What did work was her main character, Evie. Just out of ninth grade, on the cusp of turning 15, from a broken home, Evie is equal parts bored and horny. I remember that state well. When she meets Suzanne in a park that summer, she is immediately infatuated as only a young teen can be when meeting a slightly older, worldly, and mysterious girl. Eventually she is invited to the fictional hippy cult residence, created by Cline as a stand-in for the infamous Manson conclave.

They called it The Ranch and that whole scene worked for me too because I spent years hanging out with such people. I wasn't quite as wild as Evie but I was just as innocent.

Though Evie was not present when the murders were committed, her life is irrevocably changed. The author does an excellent job contrasting Evie's later adult life with that summer. Many of us were involved with happenings in the late 1960s that virtually poisoned the rest of our lives even while the goals and hopes of the times also blessed us with a unique view of life.

My favorite novel about this period is Dana Spiotta's Eat the Document. I don't think The Girls lives up to the greatness Spiotta created in her novel, but it is a worthy addition to the literature. As David Crosby said somewhere, "We were right about the peace and love, but we were wrong about the drugs."

I think I can read Helter Skelter now.


(The Girls is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

LETTING GO





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Letting Go, Philip Roth, Random House, 1962, 630 pp


Summary from Goodreads: Newly discharged from the Korean War army, reeling from his mother's recent death, freed from old attachments and hungrily seeking others, Gabe Wallach is drawn to Paul Herz, a fellow graduate student in literature, and to Libby, Paul's moody, intense wife. Gabe's desire to be connected to the ordered "world of feeling" that he finds in books is first tested vicariously by the anarchy of the Herzes' struggles with responsible adulthood and then by his own eager love affairs. Driven by the desire to live seriously and act generously, Gabe meets an impassable test in the person of Martha Reganhart, a spirited, outspoken, divorced mother of two, a formidable woman who, according to critic James Atlas, is masterfully portrayed with "depth and resonance." 


My Review:
This was the fifth of books published in 1962 I read in August. I had set out to read 10 but a couple were as long as two or three books put together including this one. I enjoyed every page and found it easy to read. Letting Go was Roth's first novel, preceded by Goodbye Columbus (a novella and story collection.)

I know there is a contingent of readers who balk at reading novels by "old white men" and I sort of get it. But the fact is these old white men are still read because they could write well.

In Letting Go we again get a picture of life in 1950s America. This novel is from the perspective of two non-practicing Jewish men in their 20s and 30s who are carrying the weight of their upbringings including the expectations of their parents, and are perhaps the first generation from Jewish immigrant families to be moving into social assimilation in what was a deeply antisemitic society.

Gabe Wallach is a comfortably well off young man, teaching English on the faculty of the University of Chicago, though he has enough money left to him by his mother that he would not really need to work. He feels guilty about his relative good fortune, guilty about not wanting to spend much time with his aging father back in New York City, guilty about being attracted to the wife of his colleague Paul Herz; guilt is his driving force. Because of that, he keeps getting himself into ill-advised situations.

Paul Herz, another tormented character, is a Jew who married a Christian woman, though neither of them are religious in the least. Both sets of their parents cut off all support and connection due to the interfaith marriage. The couple is struggling financially and emotionally so Gabe tries to help them with devastating results.

I was reminded of Stoner by John Williams, especially by Paul's wife Libby, who in her own way is as neurotic as Stoner's wife was. Letting Go however has quite a bit more humor in between the pathos.

My favorite character is Martha Reganhart, the woman Gabe considers as a prospective wife. She is by far the strongest person in the story. While Roth is often charged with misogyny, I would say that he presents believable female characters from the viewpoint of a man who is clearly trying to figure them out.

All in all, one of the best novels I have read from 1962. 


(Letting Go is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, September 19, 2016

IN EVIL HOUR





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In Evil Hour, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Harper & Row, originally published in Spain by Premio Literario Esso in 1962, (translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa), 183 pp


Summary from Goodreads: Written just before One Hundred Years of Solitude, this fascinating novel of a Colombian river town possessed by evil points to the author's later flowering and greatness. 


My Review:
Book # 4 of those read from my 1962 list in August. Most of the time I read for pleasure and most of the books I read do give me pleasure. Sometimes I read because of learning goals I have set for myself. That second reason is why I read this one.

The great and wonderful Gabriel Garcia Marquez's first novel was not great or wonderful to me. If I hadn't already read and loved One Hundred Years of Solitude as well as Love in the Time of Cholera, this short one might have put me off the author for good. But in the interest of watching a great author develop it was a worthwhile read.

Originally published in Spain in 1962 while the writer was living in Paris, there is some lore associated with it. His first title was Este Pueblo de Mierda (This Town of Shit). He disowned the first version, rewrote it, and garnered a literary prize for La Mala Hora in his native Colombia.

In any case, I had a hard time with it. I could tell it was political in nature, a send-up of various troubles with the government of Colombia and its repressive policies in the 1950s. (In his memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, I learned that as a student Garcia Marquez was involved with radical politics.)

I found the story hard to follow even though I have read early novels by Jorge Amado that deal with similar periods in Brazil. Perhaps the difference is that Amado wrote "social realism" while Garcia Marquez preferred "magical realism." After I wrote that last sentence, I thought that possibly in this first novel, Garcia Marquez was trying to do social realism.

He does create some characters that show promise of better things to come, including a number of corrupt individuals. The plot involves attempts by the town mayor to put a stop to those who are posting broadsheets around town revealing the secrets of it inhabitants. There are both humor and intrigue.

Still, I didn't figure out the point of the story until the last few pages. It was a slog despite its short length. One Hundred Years of Solitude came just five years later and I look forward to rereading as it has been 17 years since I first encountered and loved it.


(In Evil Hour is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, September 16, 2016

THE CRADLE





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The Cradle, Patrick Somerville, Little Brown and Company, 2009, 200 pp


Summary from Goodreads: Marissa is expecting her first child and fixated on securing the same cradle she was once rocked in for her own baby. But her mother, Caroline, disappeared when Marissa was a teenager, and the treasured cradle mysteriously vanished shortly thereafter. Marissa's husband, Matthew, kindly agrees to try to track down the cradle, which naturally means finding Caroline as well.

In another family, Adam has just joined the Marines and is off to Iraq. His mother, Renee, is terrified of losing him, and furious at both Adam for enlisting and her husband for being so mild-mannered about it all. To further complicate matters, Renee is troubled by the resurfacing of secrets she buried long ago: the memory of her first love, killed in Vietnam, and the son she gave up at birth.

Matt's search for the cradle takes him through the Midwest, and provides an introduction to a host of oddball characters who've been part of Caroline's life in the intervening years. When he finds the cradle, he also finds an unloved little boy, who will one day reunite a family adrift. A lovely debut novel, The Cradle is an astonishingly spare tale of feeling lost in the world, and the simple, momentous acts of love that bring people home.
  


My Review:
I loved this short and bittersweet novel. A young man, Matthew, and his wife, Marissa, are expecting their first child. I knew I was going to like Matthew when he thinks that he knows his wife is a little bit crazy but he loves her anyway.

Marissa is the daughter of a mother who took off. Matt is virtually an orphan because his mother gave him up at birth. Something about all this makes it understandable that Marissa asks him to find the cradle in which she slept as a baby and that Matt agrees to try.

Off he goes on a quest for said cradle with only an address for the aunt Marissa doesn't know she has. Her dad, Glen, a guy who hangs out with them and is prone to tearing up, gave that address to Matt. 

The Cradle is a first novel filled with that wonderful innocence a first novel sometimes has. Patrick Somerville shows himself already a master of character and of the odd detail that places the reader right in the location and action of the story.

Most of the characters are quirky, some in humorous ways and some who are clearly insane. Then there is the female children's author who writes poetry on the side and has a near breakdown when her son enlists to go fight in Iraq. She turns out to be Matt's birth mother.

As Matthew continues his search he meets all of Marissa's missing relatives including a half brother she also never knew of. Not one of these people is even remotely normal. Every time he decides he is done and can go home again, he finds another loose end he feels he must tie up. I truly began to worry something awful was going to prevent him from ever making it back to Marissa.

There is however a happy ending, though not without its own sorrows. That is why I call the novel bittersweet.

In my Bookie Babes reading group, we take turns compiling a list of books to be voted on for our next read. On my last turn, I decided to make a list composed of novels set in the hometowns of each member. One of those towns was Milwaukee where The Cradle is set. I discovered it while searching for novels set in Milwaukee, learning that not many are. Otherwise we may have never heard of this gem. Patrick Somerville has three other novels. I will be reading them.


(The Cradle is available in hardcover or paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

GIDEON'S FIRE





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Gideon's Fire, J J Marric (pen name of John Creasy), Harper, 1960, 208 pp


Another of the five books read from my 1962 list in August was this Scotland Yard mystery, winner of the 1962 Edgar Award. J J Marric was a pen name used by John Creasy, who was so prolific that he wrote under 18 different pseudonyms and published over 600 mysteries! Gideon's Fire is the eighth of 22 books in his Gideon Series.

George Gideon is the Commander of the Criminal Investigation Department at Scotland Yard. He has a wife and four children, all of whom he loves dearly and who also feature in the book, but it is his job that he devotes himself to and that defines him. Conscientious, honest, a good leader, but perhaps a bit overly hands-on with the cases.

He arrives at work an unusual 30 minutes late to learn that a terrible fire the previous night had killed an entire family, leaving many other tenants burned and in shock after their whole tenement building was consumed. Adding in the rape/murder of a 14-year-old girl and two other time sensitive investigations, the man has his hands full.

As the story progresses, the fire turns out to be one of many, probably set by a psychotic arsonist. One of the murder cases begins to look like the work of a serial killer. In fact, the plot blows up like a raging fire. By the third chapter the reader is living all the stress right along with Gideon.

Though it is a rather standard police procedural, Gideon's Fire has a couple unusual features. The criminals in each case are included as characters with their own actions and thoughts covered by the same third person narrator. Thus the reader gets the story from both sides, adding even more tension.

In the end the Yard's Criminal Investigation Department prevails but there are deaths and disasters along the way. Gideon feels bad about those, as any good law enforcement professional would. In fact, the author makes you feel bad too as he takes you into Gideon's mind.

Another different feature though is that this man is not cynical, he is not being beaten down by his job or any of his superiors or even by the prevalence of crime in the vast city of London. He knows what the odds are, he knows he is competent, and he stays on top of the game. Refreshing I thought.


(Gideon's Fire is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, September 10, 2016

ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS





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All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, Bryn Greenwood, Thomas Dunne Books, 2016, 352 pp


Summary from Goodreads: As the daughter of a meth dealer, Wavy knows not to trust people, not even her own parents. Struggling to raise her little brother, eight-year-old Wavy is the only responsible "adult" around. She finds peace in the starry Midwestern night sky above the fields behind her house. One night everything changes when she witnesses one of her father's thugs, Kellen, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold, wreck his motorcycle. What follows is a powerful and shocking love story between two unlikely people that asks tough questions, reminding us of all the ugly and wonderful things that life has to offer. 


My Review: (Originally published at Litbreak.)
 
Wavonna Quinn, known as Wavy, born in the backseat of a car to drug addicted and drug dealing parents, is the heroine of Bryn Greenwood’s third novel. That she fell in love at the age of eight with a man who was twenty and pursued him through years of trial and trouble is the (some would say) inappropriate subject of a novel so full of ugly and wonderful things. The truth is the inappropriate people in Wavy’s life were her parents and while doing the best she could, she found the perfect person for herself.

Besides being a druggy, her mother also suffered from a form of OCD that included a horror of germs. Wavy did not eat, except in solitude where no one could watch her, she could keep a place clean, and due to other traumatic times with mom, she did not talk. The celestial bodies were her company and she knew all the constellations by heart from a young age. Whenever her parents got violent with each other, which happened regularly, she mostly kept her little brother from harm.

The love of her life, Joe Kellen, is no prince charming. He’s been in prison, he is an enforcer for Wavy’s father, meaning he has to do what he has to do when a deal goes off the rails, he is part Native American with no living parents, and he comes riding into Wavy’s life crashing his motorcycle.

If you haven’t heard of the novel yet (that in itself would hardly be believable because it is a hot summer release), I think you are getting the picture. Except you won’t have the essence of it until you read it. Yes, Wavy’s life was trash, yes it is a lot to swallow, but it is in the telling that you see how such a thing could happen and not be ugly but wonderful.

Bryn Greenwood was born and raised in Kansas. There was drug addiction in her family. She is living proof that such a beginning does not rule out making a good life. Her first two novels, published by an indie press, were notice to me that here was a unique kind of novelist. She does not sugar coat anything but moves through her plots and creates her characters with huge amounts of humanity because she looks beneath the surface. Though she has said in interviews that Wavy’s story is not autobiographical, she’s got the credibility and she also can write books that you want to read in one sitting.

Having worked as a bookseller, being a member of several reading groups, and having read thousands of book reviews, I know that people read novels for all different kinds of reasons. Some readers just don’t like anything that would upset them or offend what they think is right or moral. Such a reader would not like this one. But I have one question and would be happy to get feedback on it.

In light of what seems to be a never-ending Presidential election year, with all its vitriol, hatred, conflict, and sensationalism, I have come to realize that the country I thought I was living in is not the country I am living in. I know that democracy is hard to practice but it seems to me that possibly we Americans have been just a tad delusional about our country. If we really are one nation (under God or not), indivisible, with liberty and justice for all, wouldn’t it be a good idea to know at least a little about all our citizens? How they live, what they deal with day by day, and who these many varied people are.

For sure drug dealers, child abusers, murderers, and thieves are not admirable citizens. Wavy’s mother and her sister, Wavy’s aunt, came from the same family and circumstances but grew up to live lives that were polar opposites. We don’t actually know how that happens but it does, all the time. Wavy’s intelligence and courage bring her through every terrible thing as also happens perhaps more times than we realize. When Kellen finds Wavy to be a person he can truly protect and love, he still has to go through unthinkable anguish to reconcile what his self worth requires. Even if I hadn’t loved the novel, which I did in a huge way, I think I could have learned some new ways of looking at the problems confronting Americans every day.

Of course, I would never dream of forcing someone to read something they did not want to read. I just wish everyone would read All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.


Bryn Greenwood's earlier novels:


(All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is available by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, September 08, 2016

A SHADE OF DIFFERENCE





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A Shade of Difference, Allen Drury, Doubleday, 1962, 773 pp


Summary from Goodreads: The sequel to the Pulitzer Prize winning bestseller Advise and Consent. From Allen Drury, the 20th Century grand master of political fiction, a novel of the United Nations and the racial friction that could spark a worldwide powderkeg. International tensions rise as ambassadors and politicians scheme, using the independence of a small African nation as the focal point for hidden agendas. A cascade of events begun in the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations could lead to the weakening of the United States, the loss of the Panama Canal, and a possible civil war. 


My Review:
This endless tome was the #3 bestseller in 1962. This review is the second installment of the 1962 reading challenge I set for myself in August. (For background on why 1962, see My Big Fat Reading Project.) Finishing the novel also marked the completion of my list of Top Ten Bestsellers for that year. 

I read Drury's first novel, Advise and Consent, a couple years ago. That one was the #1 bestseller of 1960 and also won the Pulitzer Prize. In any case, I knew what I was getting into this time.

Drury practically invented the Washington, DC, political novel genre, though thankfully his successors have not written in such wordy and dense prose. A Shade of Difference adds the United Nations to the mix and, as foreshadowed by the title, has racism as the underlying theme, making it a timely read. It is set during a year when Civil Rights was a contentious issue in America and when many African nations were seeking independence from colonial masters. 

Since you might decide to read the book, I don't want to waste your time with a wordy and dense review. Believe me, you will need that time.

Of note to me was the tension Drury built between individuals who believed that change takes time and is best done within the systems of government as opposed to those who advocated force and violence to either achieve change or prevent it. One of the moderate characters is a Black member of the House of Representatives.

I was also interested in the author's portrayal of the United Nations. That made me want to learn more about both its history and current state. Any suggestions for good books, non-fiction or novels, about the UN would be welcome.

One other thing: both of Drury's novels were written a few years before their timescapes, so all the characters are fictional, including the POTUS. I find that somewhat disorienting and have to make myself stop trying to relate the novels to actual historical events. It is eerie though how prescient he was.

In 1962 I was beginning my sophomore year in high school. Though I was mostly interested in boys, it was a time when I began to be aware of political issues, especially Civil Rights. Reading books from the 1960s that deal with what was going on, particularly behind the scenes in government, is compelling and is also filling in gaps for me, showing me the issues that have loomed so large in my adult life.