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Book Nook - 09-10-2017

Monday, October 09, 2017

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to adc.booknook@gmail.com

Girl Interrupted
Emily Fridlund’s debut novel, History Of Wolves, has made it to the Man Booker Awards shortlist; to be listed alongside some of the finest novelists is quite an achievement for a young writer.

It is a moving coming of age story about 14-year-old Melinda (shortened to Linda), whose life changes over one bitter-sweet summer. She is a lonely kid, called “commie” and “freak” by her schoolmates, because her parents used to be a part of a commune. The others drifted away, but they remained behind in the shabby lake-side shack in the middle of nowhere.  Linda, who narrates the story when she is 37, says of herself, “I was flat-chested, plain as a bannister. I made people feel judged.”

A new history teacher, Mr. Grierson gives her an opportunity to represent the school and make a presentation, that wins her a prize. It is about wolves, that gives the book it title. Linda gets fixated on Mr. Grierson, even when he is fired on charges of pedophilia, on the complaint of a dyslexic student, Lily.
What also causes an upheaval in Linda’s life is the family that comes to spend a summer across the lake. A young woman, Patra, is left alone with her four-year-old son, Paul, while her husband Leo does some important-sounding work in Hawaai. Patra hires Linda to babysit Paul, but it’s more because she needs someone to talk to, stuck as she is in the wilderness.

Paul is a sweet kid and comes to love Linda, but things unravel when Leo arrives. He is a Christian Scientist who has a strange power over his wife and child.  When it becomes clear that Paul is seriously ill, Leo lets him die (it’s no spoiler, the death is mentioned right at the start), because his faith does not allow medical intervention.  Later, there is a trial and Linda is summoned to testify.

The aftermath of both incidents is hazy,  what remains firmly in focus is Melinda’s state of mind. Due to her  circumstances, she is not a normal teenager, and her responses to events around her could be seen as off kilter. The novel does not follow the usual trajectory of a novel about a young girl—there is no romance, no sexual awakening, no major life-changing experience, still Linda’s future is oddly tainted by incidents in which she was just a bit player.

Maybe the book could be faulted for underplaying the drama, but she keeps up the chilly mood she sets describing the Minnesota landscape; except for a small beam when Patra befriends Linda, sunshine rarely shines on this set of damaged, wounded people. Still the book makes one care for Linda and what happens to her, and the prose is remarkably precise.

History Of Wolves
By Emily Fridlund
Publisher: Grove Atlantic
Pages: 304

Excerpt of History of Wolves
The day the Whitewood paramedics took Mr. Adler away they tooted the ambulance horn as they left the school parking lot. We all stood at the windows and watched, even the hockey players in their yellowed caps, even the cheerleaders with their static-charged bangs. Snow was coming down by then, hard. As the ambulance slid around the corner, its headlights raked crazily through the flurries gusting across the road. "Shouldn't there be sirens?" someone asked, and I thought—measuring the last swallow of Gatorade in my little waxed cup—how stupid can people be?Mr. Adler's replacement was Mr. Grierson, and he arrived a month before Christmas with a deep, otherworldly tan. He wore one gold hoop earring and a brilliant white shirt with pearly buttons. We learned later that he'd come from California, from a private girls' school on the sea. No one knew what brought him all the way to northern Minnesota, midwinter, but after the first week of class, he took down Mr. Adler's maps of the Russian Empire and replaced them with enlarged copies of the US Constitution. He announced he'd double majored in theater in college, which explained why he stood in front of the class one day with his arms outstretched reciting the whole Declaration of Independence by heart. Not just the soaring parts about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but the needling, wretched list of tyrannies against the colonies. I could see how badly he wanted to be liked. "What does it mean?" Mr. Grierson asked when he got to the part about mutually pledging our sacred honor.

The hockey players slept innocently on folded hands. Even the gifted and talented kids were unmoved, clicking their mechanical pencils until the lead protruded obscenely, like hospital needles. They jousted each other across the aisles. "En garde!" they hissed, contemptuously.

Mr. Grierson sat down on Mr. Adler's desk. He was breathless from his recitation, and I realized—in an odd flash, like a too-bright light passing over him—he was middle-aged. I could see sweat on his face, his pulse pounding under gray neck stubble. "People. Guys. What does it mean that the rights of man are self-evident? Come on. You know this."

I saw his eyes rest on Lily Holburn, who had sleek black hair and was wearing, despite the cold, a sheer crimson sweater. He seemed to think her beauty could rescue him, that she would be, because she was prettier than the rest of us, kind. Lily had big brown eyes, dyslexia, no pencil, a boyfriend. Her face slowly reddened under Mr. Grierson's gaze.

She blinked. He nodded at her, promising implicitly that, whatever she said, he'd agree. She gave a deer-like lick of her lips.

I don't know why I raised my hand. It wasn't that I felt sorry for her exactly. Or him. It was just that the tension became unbearable for a moment, out of all proportion to the occasion. "It means some things don't have to be proven," I offered. "Some things are simply true. There's no changing them."

"That's right!" he said, grateful—I knew—not to me in particular, but to some hoop of luck he felt he'd stumbled into. I could do that. Give people what they wanted without them knowing it came from me. Without saying a word, Lily could make people feel encouraged, blessed. She had dimples on her cheeks, nipples that flashed like signs from God through her sweater. I was flat chested, plain as a banister. I made people feel judged.

Dangerous Love
Gabriel Tallent’s first novel, My Absolute Darling is a bleak disturbing yet always gripping story of 14-year-old Julia ‘Turtle’ Alveston, who lives with her father Martin in a distant shack. Her grandfather, Daniel, lives in a trailer nearby and disapproves of the way the kid is being raised by her father.

On the one hand he teaches her to handle guns be tough and on the other mentally and physically abuses her so badly, that the girl loathes herself and is confused about her feelings for him. Because Martin discourages interactions with anyone outside, Turtle has no friends at school, and is not even allowed counselling when a sympathetic teacher, Anna, want to help her.

Martin is a despicable monster, who idea of expressing love is violence. But, like victims of Stockholm Syndrome, who get attached to their abductors, Turtle is tied to her father, because, as he keeps emphasising, “You are mine.”

In Turtle’s decrepit home, she eats raw eggs, the dishes are left outside for the raccoons to lick clean, and she runs about the forest barefoot, with her gun for company.

The fierce-yet-vulnerable Turtle realizes that other people do not live like her when she encounter two boys lost in the woods, Jacob and Brett, who treat her as a buddy and invite her into their clean, warm, loving world.  They jokingly call her “the chain-saw-wielding, shotgun-toting, Zen Buddhist, once-and-future queen of postapocalyptic America,” as fascinated by her toughness as she is with their wit.

When Jacob and she fall in love—though she has trouble understanding or articulating the emotion—her father goes wild.  And when he turns up after a long absence with another little girl, Cayenne, Turtle knows it is time to escape.

If description of the lush landscape are poetic, the violence is brutal, and the story moves towards a predictable tragedy, still, the reader avidly waits for the explosion.  This is not an easy book to read, but heralds a brave new voice in literary fiction.

My Absolute Darling
By Gabriel Tallent
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages:  417

Excerpt of My Absolute Darling
Turtle climbs out of slaughterhouse gulch and comes into a forest of bishop pine and huckleberries, deciphering them in the darkness by the wax of the leaves and the brittle mess of their sprawl, the dawn still hours away. At times she breaks from the woods into moonlit open places filled with rhododendron, their flowers pink and ghostly in the dark, their leaves leathery and prehistoric. There is a part of Turtle that she keeps shut up and private, that she attends to with only a diffuse and uncritical attention, and when Martin advances on this part of herself, she plays him a game of tit for tat, retreating wordlessly and almost without regard to consequences; her mind cannot be taken by force, she is a person like him, but she is not him, nor is she just a part of him — and there are silent, lonely moments when this part of her seems to open like some night-blooming flower, drinking in the cold of the air, and she loves this moment, and loving it, she is ashamed, because she loves him, too, and she should not thrill this way, should not thrill to his absence, should not need to be alone, but she takes this time by herself anyway, hating herself and needing it, and it feels so good to follow these trackless ways through the huckleberries and the rhododendrons.

She walks for miles, barefoot, eating watercress from ditches. Bishop pine and Douglas fir give way to stunted cypresses, to sedges, pygmy manzanita, to Bolander’s pines stooped and ancient, hundreds of years old and only shoulder height on her. The ground is hard-packed and ash-colored, puzzled over with tufted, gray-green lichens, the land studded with barren clay ponds.

In the dawn, the sun still banked among the hills, she climbs a fence and walks across the tarmac of a small airport, all shut up and quiet, the runway all her own. She’s been walking for just over three hours, groveling through the underbrush. She should’ve taken shoes, but it doesn’t much matter. She is so far accustomed to going barefoot that she could strop a razor on the soles of her feet. She climbs over the fence on the other side and walks out onto some other, larger road. She stands in the middle of it, on the double yellow line. A rabbit breaks from the underbrush, dim gray movement against the black. Turtle draws the pistol, racks it in one smooth movement, and fires. The rabbit pitches over in the salal. She crosses the road, stands with the kicking, delicate creature at her feet, and it is smaller than she thought. She picks it up by the back legs, a bare skim of soft fur over the coupled bones, articulated and sinewy, sawing back and forth in her hand.

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