The Girls by Emma Cline

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“I looked up because of the laughter, and kept looking because of the girls.”

I had quite a struggle within myself when deciding whether I wanted to read The Girls or not. On the one hand I love reading about the sixties, the Manson murders are such a defining moment of that era and I always like to read hot debuts, especially by female authors. On the other hand, I heard a really negative opinion of the novel from a colleague, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a book inspired by such a dark event and I was afraid the hype would let me down. In the end, I gambled on reading the novel – and won.

The Girls takes place over several months during the summer of 1969 when Evie Boyd, a fourteen year old, gets involved with a Charles Manson-like family in Northern California. Evie’s parents are divorced and neglect her quite a bit, her best friend has dropped her and she is bored, lonely and vulnerable. Then she sees a group of ragtag, dirty, unkempt girls picking through dumpsters behind a restaurant and is fascinated. Especially with the girl who seems to be their leader. When this girl, Suzanne, eventually invites her out to The Ranch Evie becomes embroiled in their drug fueled, seedy, criminal lifestyle which is all overseen by Russell, a manipulative sociopath. Then her mother finally catches on and sends her to live with her father. Running away she spends one last night with Suzanne before the girls carry out an act of revenge for Russell that seals their fate forever.

Cline’s writing is mesmerizing and her ability to create atmosphere is impressive. Her short, strong yet hazy sentences and carefully chosen historical details really evoke the whole California in the sixties vibe. Most impressive, though, is the way she inhabits the head of a teen girl, a girl who is intelligent and observant but still prone to being influenced by those whom she admires and finds attractive – which is why she cares more about what Suzanne thinks of her than of what Russell does. I liked that the focus of the novel is not on Russell but on the young women who choose to follow him.

My only whine about this novel is that it is unrelentingly dark. It takes you on a very grim trip that was hard to stomach at times. I’m not afraid of dark novels so I carried on – and there really isn’t anything else this book can be. I just had to take a breather from time to time.

I found The Girls pretty much as great as all the hype has cracked it up to be – and I think Emma Cline is a fabulous writer.  She’ll be on my list of “writers whose books I will always read – or at least try” from now on.

Have you read or plan on reading The Girls?

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Book Club: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

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My book club has been meeting for almost 3 full years now and for much of that time I’ve lobbied to get Gilead on our schedule with no success – until last month! Since this year we took turns choosing the books I knew this would finally be the year we read it (since I’d pick it for my month) and I’m very glad we did. What a marvelous book!

Gilead is written in the form of one long letter from Reverend John Ames to his six-year-old son. Reverend Ames is dying of a heart condition and wants to set down his family history and his thoughts on religion and life in general for his son to read in the future since he won’t be able to tell him these things himself. In a rather rambling style he moves from the past to the present – much like our thoughts work, but all in a really beautiful, lyrical style that is a joy to read.

The first bit of the novel is Ames’s musings and explorations of his heritage and childhood and then the letter switches to a present day description of his struggle to communicate with or trust his best friend’s son, Jack Boughton. Jack is a bad egg, so to speak, and Ames doesn’t like how he hangs around Ames’s son and wife and his cynical, unbelieving attitude. One of the book club members said she thought this part of the novel was unnecessary – she loved just reading about Ames’s memories and philosophical meditations. I thought the conflict (even if just internally) with Jack was fascinating and revealed many more depths of Ames’s character that will someday benefit his son.

Since my book club met during Thanksgiving week we didn’t get a very good turnout, but those of us who attended had a very passionate discussion. This is one of those books that is not only a pleasurable and rewarding read, but also makes for an incredibly stimulating discussion title. I think this is one of the best books that my book club read this year.

Have you read Gilead?

Someone by Alice McDermott

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At my book club’s April meeting I presented three books for the group to choose from and the overwhelming vote was for Someone by Alice McDermott – because it is quite short! However, I was pleased with the choice as this is a novel I’ve contemplated reading for quite a while now and Sunday over at Ciao Domenica had nothing but praise for it which piqued my interest even more.

This is one of those books that is more of a character study than anything – there really isn’t a traditional plot arc that holds it all together. In fact, the narrative moves in out and between the present and the past with no discernible transitions so it takes about 20 pages to realize what McDermott is doing and to become comfortable with the structure. Once you do, though, it’s quite easy to ride the wave of the main character’s memories.

The novel is told in the first person by Marie Commeford, an elderly woman who grew up in Brooklyn during the thirties and forties. Most of her memories center on the years of her childhood and young adulthood. Her family is Irish Catholic and live in a predominately Irish Catholic neighborhood and she is close to her beloved father and older brother who’s already been chosen to attend seminary at a young age. Most of her memories have that tender, almost yearning quality that we have as adults looking back on our childhoods. There is a lot of death and a lot of disappointment in her life, but she tells her story very straightforwardly with little regret. As I’ve mentioned, there isn’t a lot that happens in the novel yet Marie’s unexceptional story is riveting, more riveting to me than that of a spy story or an adventure story. Reading about ordinary people is always fascinating because most of us are ordinary – yet when you read something like this you realize that everyone has an interesting life and that, truly, everyone is ‘someone’.

How did my book club like it? Well, I think the majority of us appreciated it, but there were two members who didn’t – they didn’t see the point of the meandering style and just didn’t enjoy reading about Marie’s life. Despite that we all managed to have a pretty lively discussion about the book and I think it really set off a lot of related examination of our own memories and life stories. All in all, I’d recommend this for book clubs as it is a) short and b) brings up a lot of issues that will lead to a thoughtful discussion.

Have you read Alice McDermott?

Willa Cather Reading Week: A Lost Lady

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I was so happy to read Willa Cather this week – to be back in the West, in the beautiful landscape of Nebraska, in the small railroad towns and among the pioneers who are rough yet cultured in their own way. I always feel that reading Cather is the closest I get to reading about my own heritage in a novel (other than reading Westerns, I suppose) as my mom’s family were all pioneers, settling in Utah, Nevada, New Mexico and, eventually, Arizona. Cather’s settings and characters are so familiar to me.

A Lost Lady is set in Sweet Water, a small town in Nebraska that is on the rail line between Omaha and Denver. Mrs. Forrester is a beautiful, mysterious, refined woman who lives with her wealthy husband in a big, lovely house on the outskirts of town. She’s vibrant and flirtatious – what is often called a man’s woman. Young Niel Herbert falls under her spell rather early in his life and as he grows up we see Mrs. Forrester from his perspective – from near perfection to the clear-eyed disappointment we sometimes develop in the cherished adults of our youth. But always he protects her, helps her, forgives her, until she finally puts her faith in the wrong person and his respect for her cracks.

This is a fascinating portrait of a woman who, like the West, is in transition. Though Niel longs for her to remain steady in her charms and perfection, Mrs. Forrester needs to change as the world changes. It is upsetting to all of the men around her and ultimately leads her to break with the people who want to maintain tradition and stability. It is a convincing character study and a classic portrait of frontier life on the verge of vanishing.

A short novel at just 150 pages, but a powerful one. Willa Cather’s writing is sensational, especially as it is not showy, but subtle and quiet.

Thank you to Ali for hosting this week. I’m now motivated to read the rest of Cather’s novels.

Currently

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I haven’t had much time to blog lately, in fact I think this is the first time I’ve turned on my computer in almost a week. There hasn’t been anything major occupying my time, just the little tasks, chores and time-wasters of life that have eaten up my hours. And I’ve been reading a lot. I’ve entered an obsessive phase and can’t stop reading and reading about American women writers from the 30’s-60’s. Carson McCullers, Jean Stafford, Katherine Anne Porter, Shirley Jackson, Mary McCarthy, Sylvia Plath, etc. I’m reading their works and have printed out lots of academic articles from the databases at the library about their art and their lives. You’ll probably see more about them here in the future.

I also finished this month’s book group book, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, have almost finished My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff and am deliberating possibilities for Paris in July.

What are you obsessing over/reading this week?

Pulitzer Project: The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson

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In looking for a place to start with American women writers I decided the best place to begin would be to read the books from my own shelves (which I will do), however I also thought it would be interesting to read all of the Pulitzer Prize winning novels or short story collections written by women. There have been thirty women who have won the prize since 1918, from Edith Wharton in 1921 to this year’s winner, Donna Tartt. I have read several of the novels including The Goldfinch and most of the recent female winners, but there are more that I haven’t read and some that I haven’t even heard of. The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson is one of the novels that was previously unknown to me.

It won the prize in 1924 and is set just after the Civil War in Iowa. The McLaughlin family are Scottish immigrants who left Glasgow to escape their cramped home (they have 11 children), to own land and to make a better living than they have in Scotland. They live in a farming community of other Scottish families who all support and encourage each other. When the novel opens the McLaughlin’s oldest son Wully has just returned from the war and plans to marry a neighbor girl, Chirstie McNair. Despite a previous understanding, she won’t have anything to do with him when he rides over to see her. Of course, he’s hurt but he’s mostly perplexed and persists until he finds out the reason she’s rejected him and the terrible secret she’s been keeping. The rest of the novel tells of the repercussions the secret has not only on Wully and Chirstie, but on the entire community.

The Able McLaughlins is not a sophisticated novel, but it’s a definite page turner. I found myself racing through it, wanting to know how Wully and Chirstie would come out and if the secret would be revealed. Compared to The Age of Innocence, which won the prize just a couple of years before, it seems terribly melodramatic and doesn’t have the nuanced characterizations that Wharton writes so beautifully. It has lots of panache and vigor and the descriptions of the pioneer life are riveting, but I’m not really surprised this novel has fallen off our reading radar – it’s in no way a classic and has a troubling theme and a bleak view of women. In 1936 Wilson published a sequel to the novel, The Law and the McLaughlins, and I’ve thought about requesting it through ILL, but I’m not sure it would be worth the $6.

I’d like to read at least one female Pulitzer Prize winner this summer – it will probably be Willa Cather or Edna Ferber. I haven’t decided if I’ll re-read the works I’ve already read like Gone With the Wind (probably not) and To Kill a Mockingbird so for now I’ll stick to reading the ones that are new to me.

Have you read any of the Pulitzers won by women? You can see a list of all the winners (male and female) here.

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

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The very first paper I wrote in college was on the story ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I do remember that I attributed the story to Eudora Welty throughout the paper, earning the wrath of my professor! Thankfully, I was able to laugh it off and he forgave me.

This time around, I know that the title story of this collection is most definitely Flannery O’Connor. There is no one who writes quite like her. The combination of her wry, matter-of-fact humor, extremely flawed and mostly unlikeable characters, and Southern darkness make her work uniquely identifiable. Most of what I’ve read about O’Connor says that these stories are about redemption and grace. I don’t know much about  these topics, I guess, because to me everyone gets a strange comeuppance that seems, for the most part, cruel.

There are ten stories here which are all enjoyable (this seems the wrong word to use) but my favorites are ‘A Temple of the Holy Ghost’, ‘Good Country People’, ‘A Stroke of Good Fortune’ and ‘A Circle in the Fire’. Each of these stories features narrow minded, prejudiced, scared people who are humbled by the end of the story with great characterization, fantastic dialogue and unexpected plot turns.

My first effort to read more American women authors has been successful. I have plans to read the rest of Flannery O’ Connor’s stories this summer and am also reading her collected letters. She was a very funny, intelligent and talented woman who, unfortunately, died so young.

Have you read Flannery O’Connor?

I hope you all have a lovely weekend!