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>January, 2011: Reading & Reviewing, Part 2

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Winter’s Bone – Daniel Woodrell. I’ve found a new author to love and admire. He was right there all along under my nose in my own home state! Winter’s Bone is as bleak and spare as its title. In spirit, this novel is very close to True Grit. In a part of the Missouri Ozarks that most definitely would not remind readers of Branson, 16-year-old Ree Dolly’s father has gone missing. He used the family’s dilapidated old house as collateral for part of his bond, and if he doesn’t turn up for his court date, Ree, her mentally fragile mother and two little brothers will lose their home. Ree sets out to find her father and meets with incredible opposition, even from her closest kin. The movie version of Winter’s Bone is brilliant as well. Daniel Woodrell’s style has been christened “country noir”. It certainly fits. I’m looking forward to reading and enjoying more of his work, particularly Tomato Red and Woe To Live On.

A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain – Robert Olen Butler. In this 1993 Pulitzer fiction winner, Vietnamese immigrants to Louisiana speak about their experiences in the old world and the new. It seems very daring that Butler decided to tell these fifteen stories from the Vietnamese viewpoint, but he’s delicate, sensitive and very knowledgeable about that culture, so it works beautifully.

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins. Finally, a young adult series that I can truly love. The Hunger Games are a yearly occurence in a future dystopian North America, now called Panem and divided into twelve districts, ruled by a wealthy and corrupt Capitol. Two young adults, aged 12-18 are selected from each district as a “tribute” to fight to the death the young people selected from the other eleven districts. The last person left alive receives fame and riches. The whole bloody spectacle is broadcast as a reality show. As the novel begins, 12-year-old Primrose Everdeen has been selected as a tribute from District 12, one of the poorer regions of Panem. Her older sister, Katniss, a seasoned hunter and poacher, volunteers to take her place. Collins’ pacing is excellent and she doesn’t flinch from presenting the violent aspects. Although it is by no means a funny book, I couldn’t repress a sickly smile at how her take on this most gruesome of reality shows is pitch-perfect and so similar to what we see on television all the time now. Now that I’m invested in Katniss as a character, I’d like to finish the trilogy (Catching Fire and Mockingjay), but I don’t see how they can pack as much of a wallop as The Hunger Games.

White Noise – Don DeLillo. Douglas Coupland fans, come and see how your author was influenced by this 1985 novel. The writing is hilarious, but the story as a whole never worked for me. The characters are cartoonish, two-dimensional and it feels so unsatisfying. I’m almost sure that this was DeLillo’s point, but it was hard going. I would enjoy this story so much more in another form — a graphic novel or a movie, for example.

Veronica – Mary Gaitskill. I didn’t feel engaged by the main character, Alison, a former model down on her luck and less so by her friend, Veronica, who died of AIDS. (Their story is told by the technique of continuous cross-cutting from the past to the present, so that wasn’t a spoiler.) I’ve been an admirer of Gaitskill’s writing since her first collection of short stories, Bad Behavior came out back in 1988. I was so caught up in her edginess that I didn’t notice until this novel what a gift Gaitskill has for imagery. Parts of Veronica verge on poetry. Mary Gaitskill reminds me of Lorrie Moore, except imagine Lorrie on recreational drugs in a fuck-you-the-world-is-shit kind of mood.

Parched – Heather King. At the age of thirteen, Heather King drank her first beer and took a headlong dive into the bottle that lasted twenty years. She reviews her entire life and her early years seem unremarkable. Quotations from Psalms and the Gospel begin each chapter, so one can be sure that spirituality played an important part in her recovery. There are also shadowy references to Catholic writers and practices studded throughout the book, so I wasn’t surprised to read in the biographical note that she attends a Catholic church in Los Angeles. King’s writing is at its best when she’s describing her horrific and often pathetic drunken behavior, and I was agog at her description of how she managed to successfully complete law school during her sharp downward spiral. Clearly, she’s brilliant. There’s a sequel to this book that I’m hoping to find. Parched reminded me of another very good alcoholic memoir by Caroline Knapp called Drinking: A Love Story.

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