Archive for March, 2018

The Girls / Emma Cline

Emma Cline sets her first novel in southern California following the Summer of Love in 1967. In the late 1960s, the hippie ethos of peace, music, drugs, and free love was spreading like a wildfire across America. But there was also a dark side to this culture, the prime example being Charles Manson and his followers who descended into a drug fueled spiral of madness that culminated with the Tate-LaBianca murders in 1969. The author chooses to fictionally recreate the Manson Family as seen through the eyes of a 14 year old girl who gets involved in a cult led by a charismatic leader. The girl is also the story’s narrator, looking back from her present middle-aged life.

Evie Boyd, the teen, is a ripe recruit for such a cult. She comes from a broken home, has inattentive parents, few friends, and is looking to escape the perceived drudgery of upper-class conformity. When she encounters a group of free-spirited, rebellious young women in a park, she is soon drawn into their circle. The women are living together on a sprawling ranch, under the sway of Russell Hadrick, an older aspiring singer/songwriter who believes in his own hype. While Evie is impressed with Russell, the person she is most drawn to is one of the young women in the group. Suzanne, at nineteen years old, represents all that Evie wishes for in her own life, though it is clear that Suzanne is another lost soul.

The 1960s and its lingering haze was long gone by the time Emma Cline was born in 1989. Nevertheless, she vividly captures its vibe of youthful rebellion, contrasted with the conservative mores of society as a whole. She also shows that what appears glamorous and caring to a young girl’s drug befuddled eyes is in actuality quite shabby and mean-spirited. This point is brought home when Evie brings a young man to the ranch and suddenly sees through his reaction how sordid the community has become. Through him she finally begins to recognize the evil overtones that have begun to infect the Family.

Without a doubt, The Girls is a page turner. That does not mean it is not without its fair share of flaws. A number of plot lines scattered throughout are left dangling. The major one for me is the portion of the story that focuses on Evie during the present day. It is a thread that adds nothing to the plot and could easily be cut. Despite this, it is a novel that should please most readers. For me, it resurrected memories of my youth, highlighting both the positive aspects as well as the numerous flaws of the Sixties. But while that time period plays a major role in the story, Evie Boyd represents an impressionable teen who will seem familiar to all generations. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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We Have Always Lived In The Castle / Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson’s stories are usually dark and strange. However, in We Have Always Lived In The Castle, her final published work, she initially describes a slice of paradise. It features two sisters and an invalid uncle living on a family estate in Vermont. The house is large and located on extensive grounds, with a garden that produces a rich variety of flowers and vegetables. Located near a run-down town, the three members of the Blackwood family seem to be living harmonious lives.

The snake in their Eden is a tragedy that occurred before the opening events in the book. As the story unfolds, readers learn that the rest of the Blackwood family members were murdered, poisoned by arsenic. The narrator is Mary Katherine, called Merricat by her sister, who was twelve when her parents, aunt, and younger brother died by the poisoning.  Constance, the older sister, now twenty-eight, was the suspect arrested for the murders, although she was later acquitted of the crimes. Since that time, she has not gone outside of the house other than to tend to the garden. Their uncle, Justin, survived the poisoning but has been confined to a wheelchair ever since, spending his time obsessively writing about the day of the murder. It is an Eden after its fall from grace.

Things turn dark when Charles Blackwood, a cousin, arrives for a visit. Constance welcomes him, but Merricat immediately takes a dislike to him and begins to try to drive him away. This leads to a night when another tragedy strikes, resulting in a fire and the storming of their castle by angry neighbors who have long resented the rich Blackwood family and who believe that Constance has gotten away with her family’s murder.

Agoraphobia is clearly one of the book’s themes. But in its final section, I realized that this mystery story is actually a fairytale, one presented from the perspective of those living inside a house considered haunted. With the book’s conclusion, the sisters’ paradise persists in even more constrained circumstances. The two continue to live in harmony, despite the fact that a already know secret has been acknowledged by one of them. Even more surprising, they are supported by the surrounding community who feel guilty for having invaded their castle. It becomes a home the neighborhood children begin to feel is haunted, despite the fact that its inhabitants remain alive.

(Dis)Connected

Before bedtime,
parked before my computer screen,
visiting Favorites,
can I be blamed if I remain blind?
That my “likes”
only present me with my own beliefs?
Surely I cannot be
held responsible for algorithms that
steer me clear
of the day’s uncomfortable events.
After all, what
does my personal data have to do
with another’s misery?
Secure in the circling embrace of
family and friends,
I respond favorably to every post.
My only crime ––
clicking on the links presented me.
Is it my obligation
to vet every headline’s veracity?
Far removed from
a bomb’s blast and destruction,
am I responsible for
choosing entertainment instead?
In a blue-green hue,
remotely connected, incognizant,
I remain blameless.

The Tuba In The Orchestra

My three semesters of
German earned me an undeserved B
only because the TA and I
would talk (in English, naturally)
about New Wave bands or
nihilism over beers after class.
What drew me to German
were all those words a mile long.
Unfortunately, my tongue
usually got lost before I finished
the trek to pronunciation.
Decades on, only a few phrases
can still be summoned
from memory’s foggy morass.
Which is a shame in
such contentious times, since,
harshly penetrating,
it is a splendid language for
heated discourse.
If only I would have mastered
its lengthy vocabulary.
The tuba in the orchestra of
western vernacular, I’d
march at the back of the parade,
commanding every ear.

Conducting The Garden

A conductor in the spotlight
here at day’s demise,
my shadow, sun stretched,
thin and tensile,
wields a hose’s magic wand.
A gargantuan arm
orchestrates lethargic plants
to spring to attention
with the rhythmic sweep of
its commanding reach.
Tomatoes blush in response.
Cued by the splash,
bees rise from the squash,
as do mosquitoes,
amazed to find their stings
cannot penetrate
this black specter’s intrusion.
Long enough to
tap the aquifer’s depths,
its spigot dampens
without a cloud in the sky.
A shadow’s maestro,
I conduct hardened ground
into melody again
despite July’s blaring heat.

Witness

First redwing blackbird heard
since last October.
Infused by an afternoon sun,
a miraculous resurrection
of that fly thought to be dead.
Two coatless teens who
blush cardinal red after they
stop for a clumsy kiss.
The glitter of silver dust motes
sent airborne while
prepping the summer bedroom.
Though surrounded by
snowy patches, fresh weeds
already tenaciously
abloom in the compost pile.
Despite double panes,
penetrating winter’s cocoon
like a southern breeze,
the sound of children at play.
When asked Monday
about my weekend, I’ll take
the stand as a witness
to winter’s welcome demise.

I Want To Show You More / Jamie Quatro

This collection of fifteen stories was Jamie Quatro’s 2013 publishing debut. Her first novel is scheduled to be released this coming year. These short stories are set in and around Lookout Mountain, a community on the border of Georgia and Tennessee. She infuses them with a strong Southern ethos. Fearlessly addressed, her flawed protagonists deal with the entwined themes of religion, death, infidelity and God’s mercy.

Quatro’s stories are discomfortingly familiar as raw emotions are laid bare on the page. What keeps the book from seeming like “heavy” reading is the author’s comic and compassionate portrayals. Life’s complex and conflicted passions are the threads that join this collection together.

Jamie Quatro is a talent worth investigating. Be warned, however; beneath the placid, humorous surface of these stories, the cauldron of the human heart boils.