Pinging around the universe, hoping for a host

The Girls
by Emma Cline

I had heard mixed reviews of this huge bestseller, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. However, from page one it was clear that this was an impressive book by an author with a masterful grasp of language.

The story is narrated by Evie, a middle-aged woman who is reminded by the intrusion of a teenage couple into her life of the summer of 1969, when she was 14. She was a typically insecure girl, lusting after her best friend Connie’s brother, feeling generally invisible. Then she saw the girls, or more specifically, she saw Suzanne. Suzanne is unwashed, wearing ill-fitting ragged clothes, but she exudes confidence and young Evie is transfixed.

Evie follows her new obsession to a remote ranch where she finds a cult led by a man called Russell. Over her summer holiday she spends more and more time at the ranch, exposed to drugs, sex and other behaviours Russell’s followers think of as adult. Evie clocks right away that Russell has magnetic appeal and that all the girls are sleeping with him, but for her the attraction is still Suzanne.

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Autumn reads in brief

These are some very brief reviews indeed because I have had so much else on this month, I’m frankly amazed I’ve found time to read at all. Before I zone out in front of another half-dozen episodes of The Big Bang Theory, here is what I’ve been reading.

 

pride of baghdad

Pride of Baghdad
by Brian K Vaughan (writer) and Niko Henrichon (artist)

This is a beautiful, moving and unusual perspective on war. It takes as inspiration the 2003 news story that four lions escaped Baghdad Zoo during a bombing raid in the Iraq War. Vaughan and Henrichon give the lions names and personalities, and this does result in some anthropomorphising, but that can be forgiven because the result is so good.

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Her jittering soul paced on a stone slab in a grey room

Winter's Bone

Winter’s Bone
by Daniel Woodrell

When this book was suggested for book club I had never heard of it or its author, but in the months since then both have cropped up repeatedly in book blogs and podcasts, always being showered with praise. Thankfully this didn’t happen so much that I had crazy high expectations, but maybe that wouldn’t have mattered because I completely loved it.

Someone (I think on the Slate Culture Gabfest) described Woodrell’s books as the new westerns, and while the storyline may seem a long way from cowboys and indians I can kind of see what he meant. It’s certainly a remote, lawless setting, or not lawless but with a different attitude to crime.

The book follows Ree, a teenage girl living in mountainous Missouri in a very poor, very small community. Her mother is mentally ill in some way – switched off and unresponsive – so Ree has left school to care for her mother and her two young brothers. Her father is absent, and his absence, and the need to find him, is the catalyst for the story.

“She smelled the frosty wet in the looming clouds, thought of her shadowed kitchen and lean cupboard, looked to the scant woodpile, shuddered…there was no gas for the chain saw so she’d be swinging the ax out back while winter blew into the valley and fell around her.”

Woodrell doesn’t shy away from the harsh, even brutal, reality of poverty, but somehow it is made bearable by the beauty of his language. The facts can take a while to become clear. In fact for the first few chapters I wasn’t sure when or where or what this story was. But that’s part of the point in a way. You can easily imagine that this small society in this area hasn’t changed much in 100 years. Everyone knows everyone else, and there is no privacy, but secrets can be kept if they are for the good of the community. And they might all survive because the men are cooking meth but there’s still a strong sense of honour, albeit an old-fashioned one.

“Ree’s grand hope was that these boys would not be dead to wonder by age twelve, dulled to life, empty of kindness, boiling with mean. So many Dolly kids were that way, ruined before they had chin hair, groomed to live outside square law and abide by the remorseless blood-soaked commandments that governed lives led outside square law…Sometimes when Ree fed Sonny and Harold oatmeal suppers they would cry, sit there spooning down oatmeal but crying for meat, eating all there was while crying for all there could be, become wailing little cyclones of want and need, and she would fear for them.”

Ree is a wonderful character. She’s so strong and driven by her responsibilities to her family, trying to be both father and mother while only on the brink of adulthood herself. When pain and possible death face her, she doesn’t flinch, but it’s not bravado, it’s just what she has to do, as if there is no option. Except the obvious option is staring her in the face – she’s offered hard drugs countless times and clearly wouldn’t be the first in this community to check out from reality that way. What she seems to choose instead is to try to distance herself from it all mentally.

“[Ree] pulled headphones from a pocket and clamped them over her ears, then turned on The Sounds of Tranquil Shores. While frosty bits gathered in her hair and on her shoulders she raised the volume of those ocean sounds. Ree often needed to inject herself with pleasant sounds, stab those sounds past the constant screeching, squalling hubbub regular life raised in her spirit, poke the soothing sounds past that racket and deep down where her jittering soul paced on a stone slab in a grey room.”

Someone at book club mentioned that the dialogue is slightly wrong for the modern era – people don’t talk like that. But I think I like that it’s slightly stylised. It adds to the timeless feeling of the story. Replace cooking meth with making moonshine and the rest still fits perfectly.

Woodrell uses the rural setting to great advantage, describing the woods and the winter in a way that reminded me of Frankenstein, with that idea of the sublime – the picturesque snow is juxtaposed with murderous cold and ice. But the descriptions are never overdone. In fact it’s a very slight book in which quite a lot happens.

“Keening blue wind was bringing weather back into the sky, dark clouds gathering at the edge of sight, carrying frosty wet for later.”

It should be a completely depressing story – indeed, some people at book club found it to be just that – and the facts of the story are indeed depressing, but the writing about these ugly lives is so gorgeous, almost magical, that I was left wanting more. Woodrell is very subtle and often only hints are given to what might be considered the key facts of the book, the possibility left dangling. But it’s not frustrating the way that could be with a less skilful writer.

Published 2006 by Hodder & Stoughton.

Source: Bought from Amazon.

The trouble with eternal life

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969
by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill

The first two volumes in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series were fantastic, a book lover’s dream, so I have continued buying all of the series even as they have gone (in my opinion) seriously downhill.

If you haven’t read any of this series, I recommend you check out the first two books and don’t read this review, because part of the pleasure of the first book is figuring out who the characters are. The first set were all taken from Victorian fiction, and some of those characters became the League, but the hints were dropped slowly as to who was who (in most cases, some were clear from the start).

Since those brilliantly clever beginnings, the plot has jumped forward in time to 1958 (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier), back to 1910 (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1910) and now 1969. A final book set in 2009 is in the works.

In this volume, Mina and Allen are growing weary of eternal life (already!) and Orlando is, as ever, mid-change, so there’s a lot of tension in their little group. They have been called upon to investigate the murder of a pop star, which turns out to be related to a circle of black magicians and an attempt to create an antichrist (spot the Harry Potter references…).

As ever, every character and most (if not all) of the background detail is a reference to books, TV or films set in or around 1969. Possibly I’m not as familiar with that time, or possibly the references are getting more obscure (this has been mooted by a few critics) but I didn’t get that pleasure I got from the first few volumes at recognising the fictional references and how they all fitted together. And the 1960s setting appears to have given Moore licence to go all out on the sex front, with far too much of it for my liking (I’m no prude, but I prefer to read about it rather than see it). Add in drugs and psychedelia and it was pretty hard to follow what was actually a simple plot.

No doubt I will still buy the last book in the series, and I am interested to see what 2009 references it will incorporate, but I don’t hold high hopes for it being as good as the first volume.

Published 2011 by Knockabout Comics.