Books, Thoughts

Off the Shelf: The White Album

The White AlbumThe White Album by Joan Didion

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The White Album: a collection of essays by Joan Didion covering a phase of disillusionment she suffered in her thirties with the upheavals of the American 1960s & the paranoia of the 70s as its narrative backdrop.

This book proves to me that sometimes a book or an author just has to come to you at the right time. I had previously read Blue Nights & found myself underwhelmed with much of it. I picked up Album partially because some of it had shown up in an episode of You Must Remember This & partially because I felt ready to give Didion a second chance. As I read further, I found myself deeply empathetic to Didion’s bewilderment of living in a time where violence & chaos seemed part of everyday life, mistrust underscored every relationship & experience, & with Didion’s own confusion about what her role was supposed to be in her developing family & Californian community. Her words were a odd comfort to me, a conflicted thirty-something trying to figure out how to get through the current troubles racking American society in 2017.

Even the essays which would seem dated today, like the development of the first HOV lane or reflections on the lofty ambitions that created the Hoover Dam or the Governor’s Mansion built by the Reagans before they left for the White House, have fascinating connections to today’s crumbling infrastructure, the rogue Park Service’s struggle to maintain public lands, & the hollow display of wealth in American politics. Reading Didion’s subjects also emerged, to me, as a clearer influence on Claire Vaye Watkins & helped me understand some of Gold Fame Citrus better. (Although, there is some very clear class conflict that Didion recognizes but is unable or uninterested in pursing further.)

Because of these personal associations with reading The White Album, I can’t promise that another reader will have the same epiphanic moments as myself. But I do think that the collection is still powerful & will move readers in unexpected ways.

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Books, Thoughts

Off the Shelf: The Bone People

The Bone PeopleThe Bone People by Keri Hulme

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A deeply impressionistic novel about three outcasts in New Zealand who find each other & slowly grow into a family.

From now on, if anyone asks me for stuff similar to Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, Bone People will be my first recommendation. There are some basic plot similarities, such as the intersections between European & Maori, urban & rural/Aboriginal lifestyles. There is also a child in danger & a community around it that knows about the trouble but has convinced itself to look the other way. But where Lake gestures to the metaphysical, People fully incorporates mystical influence into its story, making the story seem more like another iteration of a folk tale or mythological story. Echoes abound in Bone People, especially around the character Simon, & creates plenty of tension & wariness simply by hinting at or distorting what is or isn’t said. (I spent a good portion of the book suspecting Joseph of even worse actions than what is portrayed.)

To sum up, a language-heavy book that excels more at atmosphere than plot. Kerewin never totally overcomes her perfect persona tendencies & Joseph’s redemption is a little too pat, but the author’s artistry is still compelling.

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Books, Thoughts

Off the Shelf: A Bride’s Story, vol. #1

A Bride's Story, Vol. 1 (A Bride's Story, #1)A Bride’s Story, Vol. 1 by Kaoru Mori

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A historical fiction manga set in 19th century Central Asia near the Caspian Sea. The story follows 20-year-old Amir Halgal who is married into the Eihon family to 12-year-old Karluk. Amir strives to do right by her new family & fulfill her duties as a wife & daughter-in-law. But trouble is on the horizon as Amir’s family contemplates reneging on the bridal agreement & marrying Amir to another clan.

The first volume of A Bride’s Story sets the tone for an atmospheric, leisurely-paced story that lovingly recreates period details such as the craftsmanship of building a house or the importance of a herd of sheep to a nomadic tribe. This measured pace allows curious readers to get comfortable with the unfamiliar setting & characters. With that said, Amir, in this volume, seems a little too perfect. She is respectful to her new in-laws & considerate of others, quick-witted, an excellent hunter, able to flawlessly make fancy clothing & is in no way upset about being married to a pre-teen boy. Then again, this is the same artist that produced Emma: A Victorian Romance which suffered with a similar “perfect” protagonist that everyone loved. It also took this reader some getting used to the idea that this beautiful accomplished woman was often thought of as too old or inferior in regards to her status as a marriageable asset. I’m not saying I misunderstand the context of time & culture–just that the tonal disparity blunted my interest in reading further. Perhaps I will pick up this series again at a later time because I was very curious in the world Mori creates.

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Break That In For Ya?

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Broken Brim Hats

There is one obvious clue that admits daily my redneck background–the curve of the brims on my caps.  A tight arch that narrows one’s vision & draws direct attention to one’s eyes when they’re looking in your direction.  That narrow curve is the only way to wear caps, as far as I’m still concerned, & whenever I see someone wearing it differently, I have to bite my lip to keep from saying, “Hey hon, can I break that in for ya?”

Flashback to high school biology class, where boys seemed to outnumber the girls.  I sat in the very back with other slacker kids who didn’t want to be there.  (I was a fake, a girl who typically got good grades slumming with “the bad kids”.)  One knot of five guys near the front were all rednecks who were polite to the teacher but occasionally did chew in class & never ever took off their hats.  Big guys that sometimes were on sports teams but more often than not went off to the vocational wing after lunch & who did not seem to give a shit about a single thing–grades, their life past school, underage drinking, bringing a knife to school.

If I had been born a boy, I probably would have actually tried to fit in with these guys, my dreams of genderbending artistic androgyny aside.  (But then again, Perry Farrell once said that that part of what he was doing was trying to get guys like rednecks interested in looking past gender norms so maybe this is an easy internal conflict to understand?  It’s easy to say what could have been when you look back at an imagined life.)

But there was one guy in my class who was kind of in-between cliques just like me, except he sat a little higher on the popularity scale because he was actually good-looking.  He knew the redneck guys by name, somehow wore black cowboy boots in my woodsy Virginia town without looking tacky, &, later admitted, watched the same sci-fi/fantasy TV shows as me.  How did he do this?  I did not know but I became obsessed with the curve of his hat.  Because he could essentially put on a camouflaged cap with the mandatory fish hook tietack slid on the right side of the brim & just be that guy, the guy with the loud drawl & the cigarettes in his shirt pocket who was gonna be rowdy & say what he wanted & did not care–unless someone in charge was around.

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Caps (B&W)

And so, one day before class began, after a few weeks of preparatory small talk & flirting, I asked him the secret–how to get the perfect bend to a capbill.  I had tried unsuccessfully on hats of my own & they often just looked beat up or crooked.  “Are you serious?” he asked, “You’re really curious about my hat?”  I don’t even know what lame answer I came up with but, yes, yes, I admitted, tell me about your hat.

What followed was like some secret male recipe of cool: fold the bill up & down in half  symmetrically until it breaks, shove the folded bill into the band in the back as far as it will go, then stick it in the freezer for a day or two.  After you take it out & thaw it, you can either wear as is or sleep with it under your mattress until you’re satisfied with the curve.

I felt like I had gotten some glimpse into a world that I would never really traverse & perhaps this is why I still wear my hats this way.  The sensation is a familiar one, something I think I’ve written about often–a girl on the outside looking into the boys’ world & trying to decode its’ symbols.  I come across one & uncover some small meaning & take it away to wear as an accessory of triumph.  No wonder the trappings of femininity are still alien to me–I’ve rarely applied the same interest to other girls.

Inspired by The Daily Post topic “Curve”

Books, Thoughts

Off the Shelf: Black Hole

Black HoleBlack Hole by Charles Burns

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s the 1970s in the Pacific Northwest & all the typical teenager angst applies: popularity, figuring out what you want, & wondering if the people you call your friends are decent people. But there’s a weird STD going around, one that causes the kids who are infected to physically change in various ways–some noticeable, some not. The story mainly follows Keith & Chris, two kids who go to the same high school, as they try to figure out how to grow up in a dead-end suburb with ostracism & frustrated hopes at every turn.

I’ve had this on my reading list ever since I came across the Washington Post book review that described the book’s atmosphere as on par with Twin Peaks or the songs of Elliot Smith. And while the story certainly had enough existential gloom to satisfy me, I didn’t totally fall in love with it. Burns’s art is certainly beautiful & has plenty of visual symmetry & there are some interesting parallels that “the bug” can stand in for, like being gay, or poor, or addicted to some destructive behavior. The story itself was plenty of weird authentic moments strung together with a lot of intense what-ifs that didn’t have the same desperation or emotional resonance. (In fact, I wonder if I had read this first before something like Sacred Heart if I would be more satisfied.)

I did really enjoy following Keith’s & Chris’s journeys, although I did tend to lean more towards favoring Chris. She starts out as the pretty girl next door but her frustration with everyone wanting something from her & how that eventually pushes her into loneliness & fierce determination to live on her own terms was very poignant. Or maybe I’m just happy that both of these protagonists were equally well-developed & I could relate well to the female protagonist. (My husband also read this at the same time & he admitted that he really got Keith’s perspective, even though he liked both characters.)

The murders in the woods–kind of a meh plot. It feels like sort of a given that if you leave a group of humans unsupervised & outside of society for awhile, we’re going to start doing terrible things to each other. But, because of my recollection of the original WaPo review influencing my expectations, I did end up sort of seeing the reluctant henchman Dave as a weird double for Elliot Smith. (His mouth deformities; Elliot’s facial scars–memory is a highly associative thing.) Overall, an interesting beautiful read but ultimately diluted by my long wait to get around to it. Another warning for me that if I see something, I should probably read it sooner rather than later.

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