REVIEW: PLAY IT AS IT LAYS, BY JOAN DIDION

Spare, elegant, and terrifying, Play It as It Lays is the unforgettable story of a woman and a society come undone.

Raised in the ghost town of Silver Wells, Nevada, Maria Wyeth is an ex-model and the star of two films directed by her estranged husband, Carter Lang. But in the spiritual desert of 1960s Los Angeles, Maria has lost the plot of her own life. Her daughter, Kate, was born with an “aberrant chemical in her brain.” Her long-troubled marriage has slipped beyond repair, and her disastrous love affairs and strained friendships provide little comfort. Her only escape is to get in her car and drive the freeway—in the fast lane with the radio turned up high—until it runs out “somewhere no place at all where the flawless burning concrete just stopped.” But every ride to nowhere, every sleepless night numbed by pills and booze and sex, makes it harder for Maria to find the meaning in another day.

My Thoughts: Joining the journey of Maria Wyeth in Play It as It Lays felt like a descent. A slow unraveling of a woman who has found no meaning in her life, and who will end up with nothing left.

Mariah has finally come full circle and is under the care of psychiatrists, in a place where she can turn her life over to others.

In a non-linear narrative, we watch Mariah’s life in flashbacks. Anything she sees in the world around her can send her back to moments in another time or place. Some happy moments, and as she grasps for feelings of connection, she can hang on a little longer. Images of her daughter Kate feel the most poignant, and sometimes she seems to be grasping for time with her again, but she also realizes that these hopes are impossible.

Watching a young woman destroy herself slowly, and seeing those around her enable her, felt like an insidious train wreck. Self-destruction takes time, but when it finally happens, you almost feel relieved. A beautifully written story that literally depressed me. 4.5 stars.***

REVIEW: CLEVER GIRL, BY TESSA HADLEY

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Central to Clever Girl: A Novel, the story crafted by Tessa Hadley, is the character of Stella, the daughter of a single mother who has chosen to keep her daughter in the dark about her father.

We first meet these characters when they live in England in what is commonly known as a “bed sit.” It is the late 1950s when the story begins, but almost immediately, we are thrust into the 1960s, when Stella is ten years old. Something happens then that changes her ideas about her mother, and for years afterwards, the two of them are on a collision course.

What changes Stella’s mind about her mother? About herself? And how do her altered perceptions somehow dictate the course of her life from then on? How will she discover her “cleverness,” and why does she submerge it for a time in her life?

Like many coming-of-age tales, we see how Stella takes on the issues of the times and makes choices because of what is happening around her. The story is narrated in Stella’s first person voice, so her perceptions do color what is happening. Sometimes the story seems to be told from a distance, many years hence, and we discover that she is retelling events from that perspective: the perspective of a much older woman who is looking back at her life.

Thus we tend to question the accuracy of what has happened. Time and distance often alter events, and I suspect that this has happened in Stella’s case. The effect of this “looking back” seems to place a scrim between the narrator and the reader, leading to difficulty in following the story at times. She seemed to move back and forth between the moments of her life, and then, as if struck by an anecdote or event, she shares her perspective.

After years of barely scrounging along, she suddenly rediscovers her “cleverness,” attends university, and finally takes on a professional life and a marriage. At this point, Stella’s narrative shifts into a more insightful form. I enjoyed these latter pages more, and felt a connection to her life and her story. 4.0 stars.

REVIEW: VIRGIN SOUL, BY JUDY JUANITA

16158570Geneice Hightower, a young black woman who grew up in Oakland, CA, learned one very important thing from her family: get an education.

Determined to do just that, she begins by attending community college in Oakland, works part-time for the Welfare Department, and commences to learn some new ideas from her boyfriend and a group of friends surrounding him.

It is the 1960s, and things are heating up all over the US, even in the world around Geneice. By the time she transfers to San Francisco State in the mid-sixties, her ideas have become radical, and she finds herself immersed in the Black Panther party and all that comes with that membership. Guns, shoplifting, and more…all unimaginable to the girl she once was, but life has changed for her.

How does a spirited young woman with goals become such a different person? Is it simply peer pressure, or is there more involved? How does she change so radically? Could it be the glow of power she feels when she meets people like Stokely Carmichael, Huey P. Newton, and Bobby Seale? Or is it her need to take back some personal power that has been squashed out of her by the culture? Maybe it was about social change for her, but she got in over her head. And how does she find out who she is, without the movement, after following the revolution to the last rung of the ladder?

Having grown up in those times, even living in the Bay Area during the sixties, I can understand it completely, even though my perspective was more of the white anti-war protestor. College experiences, the times in which we lived, and the ability to open one’s mind to new things can have a big impact on a young person. Geneice’s story is emotional, charged with adventure, energy, fear and loss, and as the consequences unfold, we will completely understand another meaning of the title Virgin Soul: A Novel.

A mind that is pure and open and accessible to new experiences.

I felt as though I had been transported back to those times. A book I recommend for those who lived those times and want a nostalgic trip back…and for those who did not, but want to understand, from the point of view of a character living it. 4.5 stars.

A JOURNEY INTO THE HEART OF A VILLAGE — A REVIEW

 

 

Set in an Irish village in the 1960s, Firefly Summer is a story about people, especially those connected to one another by traditions, love of family, and their hopes and dreams.

So when a very wealthy American comes to town, determined to build a hotel in the place where beautiful ruins now stand, the reactions of the townsfolk are mixed. Some see his plans as a way to bring new life into the village, while others focus on what they might lose. How the character of the village will change, and therefore, so will their lives.

At the heart of the village is Ryan’s Pub, a comfortable and homey place where people come together to celebrate and connect to one another. John and Kate Ryan are good people, and they have four children: the twins, Michael and Dara, who are twelve when the story begins; and Eddie and Declan. Eddie is a troublemaker, and trying to keep him on the right path is a challenge.

Patrick O’Neill, the rich American, seems charming enough. His two children, Kerry and Grace, are gorgeous young people. But something dark lurks behind son Kerry’s handsome face.

What events will markedly change all of their lives in the years ahead? How will tragedy and horrific betrayals affect what each of them has hoped will happen in their lives? How will the people in the village cope with the changes and not be altered drastically?

As with most of Maeve Binchy’s novels, the characters are like real people, with flaws, as well as the good human decency one might expect in small town life. In some ways, there were almost too many characters and for the first part of the book, I felt bogged down trying to keep them all straight. In fact, the pace did not quicken or really capture my attention until more than halfway through. Then with an intensity that can come when events begin to spiral out of control, the ending was like a flash forward into unexpected places, almost like a blanket of fireflies marking the time and place. Four stars.