I Just Read: Fourth of July Creek

Fourth_of_July_CreekThe word ‘forewarned’—does it need to exist? Or is it an example of slapping an unnecessary prefix on a verb that was already functioning quite well on its own? In my opinion, the most annoying example of this is ‘preheat.’ I want to write a letter to Marie Calendar and ask her what’s the difference between preheating an oven and just heating it. Then I’ll end the letter with my patented catchphrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t prefix it!”

Anyhoo… Be (fore)warned, if you actively avoid stories about abused or neglected children, then you’ll probably want to steer clear of Fourth of July Creek. In my case, I was intrigued by a review of this book in Entertainment Weekly, and decided to check it out despite the depressing premise. The $1.99 price tag was also a big selling point.

The novel tells the story of a social worker, Pete Snow, who gets wrapped up in seditious happenings in the outskirts of Montana in the early 1980s. The book read like a modern Western to me, which was what I was hoping for. The beautiful descriptions of the Montana landscape, and the cast of brink-of-the-law characters helped to contribute to that feel. And the author, Smith Henderson, occasionally sidles in a stream-consciousness-through-choppy-waters style that made me think of a more narrative version of Cormac McCarthy.

Henderson also employs an interesting style while the narrative follows Pete’s daughter, Rachel. Her story unfolds in as a sort of Q&A that she’s having with herself.

“And does (her mother) keep Rachel home now, say for her to cut class and stay home?
Yes.
And do they watch TV all day and go for long drives and was it like they were always just waiting for Rachel to get old enough so they could be friends and tell each other everything?
That’s what her mother says.
And what is the everything Rachel tells, on the porch in the cooling of the evening?
Nothing. Her mother does all the telling.”

Appropriately unsettling, and there’s something about it that gives off a sort of rebellious teenage rhetorical style (navel-gazing, back-talking). Or is this a rendering of an interview that Rachel’s giving to another social worker, explaining how crappy her parents are?

The main character, Pete, is definitely a crappy parent—and a hard protagonist to root for in the traditional sense. He reminded me of George Clooney’s character in The Descendants. I’ve never read that novel, but during the movie adaptation I kept wanting to yell at his character, “Stop galavanting around Hawaii and help your daughters deal with the fact that their mother is brain-dead!” At least Pete’s flaws are obviously and unsympathetically presented, and Pete suffers and learns from his mistakes.

Overall, Fourth of July Creek is a bleak book, but I’m glad I read it. I think it will probably make my Top 5 reads of the year.

I Just Read: Station Eleven

station-elevenI’ve read a few looong books lately, books that are parts of even looooonger trilogies. So it’s nice to get to the end of a book and actually be sorry it’s over. Ahh, the sprightliness of upmarket speculative fiction. Not only is it worded so prettily, but it’s plotted and edited for brevity.

Station Eleven is an upmarket post-apocalyptic novel written by Emily St. John Mandel. In this book, the end of the world is brought on by an extremely deadly flu, and the story flits back and forth in time—before, during, and after the outbreak. The narration follows five main characters, and a series of coincidences links these characters’ lives, both pre and post pandemic, and before and after death. The co-inky-dinks only become more prevalent as the character’s figurative ‘small world’ becomes a literally decimated small world. I don’t think the author was trying to create a sort of apocalyptic, mystical force of ‘Fate’ (although a lot of post-apocalyptic books tend to go that way: The Stand, The Passage, Swan’s Song). Instead, Mandel’s serendipity is an echo of art, of stories that outlive their authors, of actors whose fame outstrips their personal lives. In this post-apocalypse, ideas from Shakespeare, Star Trek, and the glossy photos of tabloid magazines keep the survivors inspired and illuminated, long after the loss of electricity and air-travel.

Most of the unlikely connections in Station Eleven stem from a comic book that was published at a vanity press (only ten copies were ever made) by an unknown author who may or may not have died twenty years ago. If, like myself, you’re aspiring to be an independently published author, this idea will probably strike you as particularly sad. And the book does often strike a melancholy mood. Even before the plague: these characters are haunted by divorce, dysfunctional families, and dissociation from their own lives. And Station Eleven doesn’t offer much in the way of easy answers, or chances at redemption. But it is sparkling with hope.