Sunday, December 18, 2016

Cluster Critiques

The Girls: A Novel by Emma Cline

The Girls is not so loosely tied to one of the most shocking crimes of the century, the Manson Family killings, delving in an especially mysterious aspect of the murders – the "family" of girls who acted as though hypnotized by their crazy, charismatic leader, Charles Manson. This book is written quite well in total, and exquisitely in sections, and you enter the story knowing people are going to die, and dying to know why.   

Evie Boyd is 14 in 1967, stuck in the tar pit of pubescence, and desperate for something to take her away from her mother who is untethered by divorce. And then she chances upon a group of young girls flush with careless allure – the fictionalized “Manson girls”. Evie senses the ambiance of tragedy at the hippy ranch where the girls and their charlatan of trust Russell live, but the gravity of idealism won’t let her leave. We’ve all been there haven’t we? Somewhere doing something we know we shouldn’t be doing, and then stayed a little past ugly because we wanted so much to believe it was okay?  

What happens to Evie Boyd? Did she make it out like we? Read The Girls.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett’s newest book Commonwealth feels like the domestic, protracted version of two of her other best sellers, Bel Canto and State of Wonder, both of which take place in South America and span short periods of time. It is full of intrigue, great characters, identifiable relationships, and is gorgeously written. But unlike those two quartos, Commonwealth is set in Virginia and stretches out over 50 years.

A couple of couple friends become family, but not in a good way when they cross the line to cheat with each other. Then everything going forward hinges on that one heat of passion decision, and upon another heart wrenching event Patchett cleverly throws into the mix.  Commonwealth is about what happens when families bend but don't’ break – desperately trying to maintain relationships within the context of deceit, resentment, conflicting values and desperation - and therein lies the universal appeal. And although it sometimes feels painfully familiar, we read on because we want to see the characters triumph over the seemingly unstoppable trajectory of their lives.  There are wins and there are losses, and they learn, and they do not learn, and we are satisfied because that is our reality as well. 

I feel for Ms. Patchett, having everything you write compared to the ostensibly unsurpassable Bel Canto. So I won’t even say it.

This Is Your Brain on Parasites by Kathleen McAuliffe

What if I told you that your personality, decisions and emotions may be controlled by the parasites in your body? This Is Your Brain on Parasites, which is about the history and study of parasites, is going to be one of my favorites of 2016 - which probably speaks more to my fascination with medical science than the universal value of this book. 

McAuliffe, a science and health journalist for Atlantic, New York Times, Discover, and Smithsonian, makes it clear in the preface of her book that parasitology is a comparatively young science. But she and recent studies also demonstrate they are in fact much more powerful than we imagine. When you consider malaria alone has killed half the people who ever walked the earth, parasites are a pretty big deal.

McAuliffe goes way out on the scientific limb to entertain us, but then society historically poo-poos new discoveries – and the new science McAuliffe talks primarily about in this book is that which suggest parasites, through the same evolution that taught us to walk upright, has put parasites into the drivers seat of practically everything, including us – basically by sheer numbers but also through some sci-fi-sounding evolution. For example parasites that embed in mice brains to cause them to run in front of cats (and thus get eaten) because the parasites can only procreate in cat's guts. And then there’s the parasite that causes crickets to commit suicide by jumping into water because that parasite must procreate in water. McAuliffe and some highly respected scientist have even made the leap to suggest that parasites may be the cause of some mental illnesses, like autism and schizophrenia.

The next time you’re in a bookstore, just read the book preface. I dare you.

Loner by Teddy Wayne

Teddy Wayne’s vocabulary left me breathless and feeling a little stupid but pleasantly challenged. The dude can spin a phrase and is a pretty good storyteller too, deliciously and effectively making us think we know what is going on when we really don’t.

David Federman is brilliant, but socially uncomfortable - VERY socially uncomfortable, yet desperate to fit in his first year at Harvard. He’s the guy that tries too hard – not quite weird enough to totally write off, but sort of the pitiful, adopted member of his dorm pack, headed by the focus of his interest, beautiful Veronica. Nobody cares what David says or does because he has no status. And although he is willing to suck up and even fake a love relationship in a desperate attempt to fit in and to be closer to Veronica, David’s resentment at being undervalued by what he sees as a culture of spoiled WASP kids is bubbling up to a dangerous level. And then we realize David isn’t the only slightly psychopathic member of the group.

You’ll enjoy this tableau of asininity, just plan on looking up lots of words as Wayne dazzles us with his protracted palaver.

The Risen: A Novel by Ron Rash

This is a really short book about two brothers reflecting on their teenage relationship with and the mysterious disappearance of a girlfriend during the 1969 “summer of free love”.  One brother is driven and ambitious, the other impulsive and gullible – both are dominated by their harsh and dictatorial physician grandfather. One becomes a doctor, one becomes a drunk.  And then 30 years later the girl, Ligeia, comes back – liberated from a hidden grave by a flood, her body washes up on the banks of the river where she and the two brothers once drank, had sex, did drugs and pondered life.   

Author Ron Rash does a good job telling a suspenseful story through the characters, leading us slowly to believe one brother or the other committed the murder, and eventually revealing a surprise ending– all the while showing how one teen summer can shape lives forever. 

The Risen is a worthy read.

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