Book Review: Winter’s Bone by Darrell Woodrell–can you find a better heroine in all of literature?

I have a tendency to exaggerate, to think that whatever I have read, heard or seen lately and liked  is the BEST!  I am much more nuanced about things I dislike and usually soften the blows rather than exaggerate them.

But with Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone, I feel confident in stating what a truly fine book it is.

In fact, since I have read it, I have tried to think of a heroine in an American novel who matches Ree Dolly for grit, perseverance, wisdom and sheer moxie. These are the suggestions I have gotten so far:

1. Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (too spoiled, mercurial and self-centered)
2. Scout Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (not really her story but her father’s–who, by the way, may be the best father in literature.)
3. Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter (interesting suggestion, but her props come from accepting her punishment and not revealing who the father of her child was, while letting the simpy Rev. Dimmesdale preach his sermons and fill himself with self-loathing. I don’t see her as a particularly active heroine.)
4. Katniss in Susan Collins The Hunger Games (must say, I don’t know enough about her, except that Jennifer Lawrence played both Katnis in the Hunger Games AND Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone.)
5. Mattie Ross in Charles Portis’ True Grit (Mattie is a good second to Ree Dolly. Her challenges just don’t seem as daunting as Ree’s.)

Please feel free to add your own selections.

But my point is, I can’t remember any heroine–or any protagonist for that matter–who is so admirable in her refusal to not back down, in her persistence in doing what she must, and in her bravery in standing up to the very nasty forces that surround her.

In case you don’t know, Winter’s Bone is the story of Ree Dolly, a seventeen-year old girl who is raising her two younger siblings and caring for her catatonic, demented mother. Her meth-cooking father has just skipped bail and he had put up their hovel of a home as bond.  If he doesn’t show up for court, Ree and her family are out on the streets–or more realistically out in the fields of this very hardscrabble Missouri Ozarks setting.

Suffice it to say that her father is dead. And people aren’t real happy about Ree poking into their business. This is a community whose main economy and main diversion is crystal meth-amphetamine, and there are a whole lot of very, very nasty people.  No one talks. Talking creates witnesses.

In the course of her journey, Ree gets a truly horrible beating, she allies herself with her rough Uncle Teardrop (named such because of the three tears self-tattooed on his face), and finally proves her father’s death by sawing off his two hands (with a chain-saw from where he is sunken in a murky lake) and bringing the “identification” back to the authorities.

If it sounds gruesome. It is. But it is also one of those books that hooks you immediately and which you wish would go on forever. And it is all because of the character of Ree.  It is Ree that rises above all the violence, the poverty, the bleakness. But while Ree completes her quest at the end, while a few things begin to go right for her and her family, one is left feeling that in another five or ten years Ree will have turned into one of the many harridans that populate this mountain.  I hope not.

♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦

I read the novel for a film class I am teaching.  And so, I also had to show the film. As in all translations, there are various changes–her two brothers for some reason become a brother and a sister–and particular scenes are deleted.  Yet the film very much captures the spirit and the landscape of the novel.

Jennifer Lawrence is, at times, magnificent. There are moments when the camera captures the soft plumpness of her face adding even a greater vulnerability to this girl/woman who has to face such ordeals.  At other times, that softness works against her, straining our credibility that she is who she is supposed to be.

Not so with John Hawkes.  Hawkes, who was the soft-spoken hardware salesman in Deadwood–a similar world of extreme dirtiness and corruption, plays Teardrop perfectly. Hard as Ozark flint, creased and shaky, Hawkes captures the violence, the drug addled paranoia and stupor, and the family loyalty of these inbred mountain folk with studied truthfulness and credibility.  While Winter’s Bone is Lawrence’s movie, you don’t forget Hawkes for too long.

Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone.

John Hawkes as Teardrop in Winter’s Bone

printed books, personal libraries, cleaning out and French bookstores

by roboartemis. Found on deviontart.com

It seems I have always loved books, and in my lifetime have amassed quite a library. I find some sort of comfort in being surrounded by books, books on shelves, in piles on tables and floors.

In the past few years, though, I have had to thoroughly cull my shelves, for a variety of reasons.

Last year, I inherited about a thousand books from an uncle–he had promised me them ever since I was about nine years old–but after he died I simply couldn’t house them. I  already owned more than that myself and his simply were not going to fit. The two of us had had similar tastes and many of the same titles, so the duplicates  were easy to get rid of.  Others I gave to friends, even to non-readers. And the majority I gave to two used book sellers.

In 2004 I had ghostwritten a history of Ireland and part of my contract was that the publisher paid for any books I purchased while doing my research–I bought a lot. So I was able to make more room by donating about seventy-five of these titles to the Irish Center in Philadelphia.  They were hard to part with but I consoled myself in thinking that they are being read rather than simply sitting on my shelf. (I had ghostwritten a biography of Darwin as well but for some reason the publishers didn’t offer to pay for that research. I had far less books on Darwin than on Ireland.)

Now for any new reading, I turn more and more often to the public library, and I have begun buying some e-books, though only a handful.  I make an exception and still buy poetry regularly (kidding myself by rationalizing that these usually take up less space), and I have bought some non-fiction titles that I knew that I wanted to own, and would go back to time and time again. But novels generally come from the library now.  And that’s just as well.

We have all read the dire warnings about the demise of printed books. Such articles crop up almost weekly: The death of bookstores, the death of the author, the death of the novel (granted that one has been going around since long before the internet), etc. A friend of mine in Brooklyn passed along this article to me about how in France book sales are actually rising rather than being smother by digital devices. It makes for some interesting reading. Click on the picture below to read the piece:

Shoppers in La Hune, in Paris, which receives government help.Alice Dison for The New York Times 

So by the end, I went through an enormous amount of books and gave many, many away. (For 6 months I had to rent a storage shed to house my “inheritance” while I figured out what was going and what was not.) I didn’t like doing it, but I knew I had to.

And of course, that book that I hadn’t looked at in fifteen years, that had sat dusty on my shelves for so long.  As soon as I gave it away, I needed it for something or other!  Isn’t that how it always goes?

Sunday Book Review: Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

For ninety-percent of the novel Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd, I was enthralled.

Vienna before the first World War, London on the eve of war, the no-man’s land between the trenches, neutral Geneva at the height of hostilities, London during zeppelin bombing raids. The settings are dramatic and richly drawn.

As was the plot: A young actor, following his famous father’s footsteps (if that’s not Oedipal enough for him, his mother catches him at his first experience at masturbation to boot), goes to Vienna to find a cure for a sexual condition–to Vienna, the center of the burgeoning new concept of psychoanalysis. Although he meets Freud himself, it is Freud’s English speaking neighbor who takes Lysander Rief on–and who successfully cures him.  And we know he is cured because his four month affair with the English bohemian Hettie Bull ends in a pregnancy and his arrest for rape by the Viennese authorities.

When two British diplomats arrange for Rief’s escape, they also arrange for his indenture to British intelligence.

Soon after Rief returns to London, his rescuers called in his debt and he is asked to enter Geneva via  the front lines. He is successful at his mission, survives seven bullet wounds, and completes the assignment that he had been ordered to finish.  And then he is given a second mission.

The action–of both the military and intelligence escapades and Rief’s romantic life–is riveting, fast paced and cleverly intertwined. Each character seems to be connected to another and no one is entirely innocent. And Rief’s inner-life is subtly and intelligently revealed. One learns much about military ordinance, psychoanalytic practices, the British class system and the early 20th-century British world of theater. And the information is never pedantic or overwhelming but richly woven into the plot.

Yet the solution of Rief’s intelligence mission and the resolution of his own personal quests seems to be lacking.  As the Novel wraps up and the various strands are pulled together, the story begins to limp rather than gain strength.  By the end, I felt I was reading a Hardy Boys’ Adventure. The solution was pat and somewhat anti-climactic.

I had been look forward to Waiting for Sunrise for several months and to be quite honest I enjoyed reading it very, very much. Until the end that is.  I was disappointed. It seemed that Boyd had simply decided to quit.

William Boyd

I like William Boyd very much. I feel he is greatly underrated among his contemporaries and is a wonderful stylist with a perfect ear for the nuances of an age.

I had previously read several Boyd novels and do not remember this falling off, this disappointment before. The novels all successfully re-create historic eras, describing its people, its culture, its ethos, its fears, all braced by an intelligent understanding and description of the scientific theories and advancements that are at that moment being born. For instance, Brazzaville Beach deals with mathematical chaos theory and the sociology of chimpanzees.  The New Confessions (modeled on Rousseau’s Confessions) also deals with World War I–as with Waiting for Sunrise–moves through Hollywood and Berlin, treats the horrors of World War II and then ends with the Hollywood Communist  trials, the whole while treating  us to the internal workings of the Hollywood film industry.  The Blue Afternoon (my personal favorite) is centered on the United States invasion of Manilla and its ultimate acquisition of the Philippines through the Treaty of Versaille and travels from Lisbon, Manilla and Los Angeles, from 1902 through the 1930s, while leading the reader through advancements in surgery and trends in architecture.

All of Boyd’s novels are rich with fascinating information, realistic period details, and memorable human stories. And all are vastly enjoyable and worthwhile.  Waiting for Sunrise, however, for me, ends a little too quickly and a little too weakly.

Tuesday Book Review: Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

I read Wonder Boys last week.  I had read it previously, at least twenty years ago, and, boy, had I misremembered it.  As a younger man, I found inspiration in the “wunderkind” writing student and was fascinated by the famous writing teacher who is famously blocked with his novel (also called Wonderboys) that is going on past 2600 pages long.  This time around I did not have the same reactions.

Part of the problem is also that I could not get the film adaptation out of my head– a film I had seen in the long interim between readings.  In the film, the famous writing teacher is played by Michael Douglas, his cynical, jaded literary agent by Robert Downey, Jr., and the fabulous writing student by Tobey Maguire.  And while I remember enjoying the movie greatly–and understand why marquee actors are used–I think  it was terribly miscast.

Grady Tripp is the dissolute writing teacher.  He smokes way too much dope, he is cavalier in his relationships, and he is always looking out to score. In the novel, he is over-large, a big hulking bear of a man.  In one scene, when he is spiraling into what might be a catastrophic relationship with a young student who rents a room in his basement, he notices his reflection in the mirror. He sees a middle-aged, bearish man slumped down over this young college girl as they slow dance together. It is a moment of self-awareness–aided by a large quantity of pills, dope, and alcohol enhanced by pounding adrenelain after a slapstick night of antics. The man he sees in the mirror no way is the stylish professor played by Michael Douglas.

The young writing student is a-social and painfully awkward which Tobey Maguire captures but he is not nearly dark enough. In the novel, James Leer is very dark, in a long overcoat of indeterminate material and age.  And Robert Downey Jr. did not match my vision either. I know that most people quibble with the casting of books they’ve read when they are made into movies.  And this is my quibble: the cast is too handsome.

But enough about the movie…

The novel starts out on a rollicking tear. On the night that the novel begins Grady Tripp finds a note from his wife saying she has left him, he picks up his agent and the transvestite he met on the plane, his mistress–Chancellor of the school and wife of his Department Chairman–tells him she is pregnant, he gets bit in the leg by a dog, and he is traveling around with a tuba, a dead dog, the coat Marilyn Monroe wore at her wedding to Joe DiMaggio and a student who may or may not be suicidal…or truthful.  It reminded me of John Irving at his best.

An academic farce, there are set scenes of college gatherings and festival lectures. There are Tripp’s musings on the requirements of good writing, his praise for James Leer’s young but promising work, and insights into a truly blocked artist–one who comes to no longer believe in the work he is doing.

The female characters, his wife, his mistress, the student living in his house, however, are very shallow–cardboard figures created for Tripp to act or react against.

Michael Chabon

That the novel famously echoes Chabon’s early writing life makes reading it this much later in his career offer its own rewards.  Like James Lear, the young student, Chabon received a book contract for The Mysteries of Pittsburgh when his writing professor–unknown to Chabon–passed the manuscript on to his own literary agent.  And like Grady Tripp, Chabon worked years on a follow-up novel–a novel that grew enormously large before he himself destroyed it.

Since The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonderboys, Chabon has continued to win great praise and loyal readership.  His novel, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitizer Prize for fiction in 2000 and his 2007 novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union won the Hugo, Nebula, Sidewise and Ignotus awards. (An aside–I was in Quebec city one week and needed something to read. There was primarily only French book stores. In one that I stepped into there was a small rack with about a dozen books written in English. It was there that I bought the Yiddish Policemen’s Union.)

And while his first novel–The Mysteries of Pittsburgh–and the novels following Wonderboys deal directly with Jewishness and Judaism, it is a very minor theme in Wonderboys.  There are touches of it when Tripp and James go visit his Korean ex-wife for Passover Seder and bumps against it when James’ own history is revealed, but it is not forefront in the novel.

Instead this is very much a novel about writing–or not writing as is Tripp’s case.  It is academic because it takes place on a university campus and deals with chancellors and professors and students and chairmen, but there is no scenes within a classroom. It tries to be a novel about love and contentment–but Tripp’s long road there, it is his third wife that leaves him and his tentative gestures towards his pregnant mistress are filled with doubt and fear.

All in all, though, Wonderboys is a wonderful read.  The beginning is peerless–quick moving, deft character sketches, and hilarious plotting. If the second-half seems to suffer from a bit of a hangover, it is because nothing could keep up with the original momentum. The novel must switch rhythms to mirror Grady Tripp’s more thoughtful musings, fears, and discoveries.

Do read Wonderboys or, if you want, rent the film.  Both are very enjoyable.  Just don’t do both too close together. And when you finish with those give Chabon’s other titles a try. Any of them are well worth the time spent.

Summer Reading

Image

It is traditional in the U.S. for schools to give students a list of books to read during the summer.  The concept is twofold: one, keeping a student’s mind engaged while absent from most intellectual interaction; and two, trying to excite a student to the pleasure of reading.  So the trick is to find titles that are both stimulating and enjoyable and thoughtful.

So in the school I work at, the “Summer Reading List” has just been published. Here are the titles:

For 9th Graders:

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Enders’ Game by Orson Scott Card
Ishmael: An Adventure of Mind and Spirit by Daniel Quinn

For 10th Graders:

Four mandatory short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne and four other Hawthorne stories of the student’s choosing.
Four mandatory short stories by Edgar Allan Poe and four other Poe stories of the student’s choosing.

For 11th Graders:  There are two levels of books. The first level has a wide choice. They MUST read the first two and then choose ONE of the remaining six:

Don’t Look Now: Selected Stories of Daphne Du Maurier   by Daphne DuMaurier and Patrick McGrath
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carre

Here’s Looking at Euclid by Alex Bellos  (HOW GREAT A TITLE IS THIS!!!!!)
The Devil in the White City  by Erik Larson
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body by Armand Marie Leroi
The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester
The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

The other group of 11th graders read these:

Watership Down by Richard Adams
HIGH FIDELITY by Nick Hornby
Freakonomics by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levit

Those in 12th Grade read:

Zeitoun by David Eggers
Like You’d Understand Anyway by James Shepherd

Those in Advanced Placement 12th Grade have a large list to choose from. Some are mandatory and some are choice, but they end up reading 5 titles in all (and for one, reading the book AND watching the film.) They are:

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
The Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
1984 by George Orwell
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick
On the Beach by Nevil Shute
A Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut
The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat
Demian by Hermann Hesse
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Obasan by Joy Kogawa

King Lear by William Shakespeare and the 1985 Akira Kurosawa film Ran
Educating Rita by Willy Russell and the1983 film by the same name
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende and the 1994 film by the same name
The Commitments by Roddy Doyle and the 1991 film by the same name
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby and the 2000 film by the same name
Equus by Peter Shaffer and the 1977 film by the same name
The Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West and the 1975 film by the same name
The Color Purple by Alice Walker and the 1985 film by the same name
Beloved by Toni Morrison and the 1998 film by the same name
The Good Earth by Pearl Buck and the 1937 movie by the same name
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink and the 2010 movie by the same name

I must admit, I haven’t read (or watched) all of these titles, but I have read most. It’s a pretty eclectic list…and certainly stimulating. I have my own favorites–Zeitoun for anger, The Commitments for fun, The Hours for tears, The Color Purple for the extraordinary… I could go on, but won’t.  Have fun. Choose something for yourself, if you have the time.

So whether it’s been one year since you’ve been out of high-school or fifty-one years, give the list a look over and maybe you’ll find something to get you through the hot summer days that are already well on their way.

Poetry on TV: The Song of Lunch by Christopher Reid

Farewell to long lunches
and other boozy pursuits!
Hail to the new age
of the desk potato, …

Sometimes, though, a man needs
to go out on the rampage,
throw conscientious time-keeping
to the winds,
kill a few bottles
and bugger the consequences.

Ah, I too miss those boozy lunches. I worked for more than a decade in an in-house advertising agency, and some of our Friday lunches were both epic and legendary.  But I ultimately left advertising for the more sedate, sober world of academia–or at least the more sedate, sober lunches of academia.

The man who is lamenting the lost tradition of long lunches above is the rather bitter and sarcastic subject of Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch. Yet on this particular day he sticks a note on his computer screen saying that he is headed out to lunch and that indeed it is going to be a long one.

Probably, unwisely, he has arranged to meet an ex-lover for lunch at one of their old haunts. He, a copy-editor at a famous publishing house; she, the wife of an extremely successful novelist, living in Paris. The novelist is also the man she left the narrator for.

He isn’t sure what he expects from this rendezvous but little of it goes the way he hopes.

Lunch has never been more poetic, or sexier, or frustrating.  The dance of tension and attraction between the two begins immediately.

There! she says, and smiles
Lips, eyes, eyebrows
and the new lines in her forehead
fill out the harmony.

Here! he replies.

She has just entered with “There” and he counters with “Here.”

He bemoans the fact that “their” restaurant has changed so much in the fifteen year interim: the menu features:

pizzas by the yard.
More pizzas than there should be.
And too much designer pizazz.

He turns it over:
choose the right wine
and have it ready breathing
for when she arrives.

There’s a mid-price Chianti,
which won’t come plump
in tight straw swaddling,

byt will do for auld lang syne.

In fact, it is for the “auld lang syne” that he is here, crumpled by the present, dashed in his literary hopes, and obsessed with a long-gone love.  This lunch is very much not the best idea of his.

But she on the other hand is charming.  Personable, open, interested, determined to enjoy the day.  But he cannot. When she asks about his life he goes on a rant about modern publishing:

Confessions of  Copy Editor ,
chapter 93.
It;s an ordinary day
in a publishing house
of ill repute.

Another moronic manuscript
comes crashing down the chute
to be turned into art.
This morning it was Wayne Wanker’s
latest dog’s dinner
of sex, teenage philosophy,
and writing-course prose.

In contrast, she is accepting and pleased with her life as:

Me? Oh, the good wife,
and loving mother.
That keeps me occupied.
I’ve no complaints.
And Paris is a fabulous city.
You really should visit.

(He has by the way, visited. Stalked her a while back but lost the nerve to ring the bell when he was at her door.)

Throughout the lunch, he observes her every move. He watches her daub her mouth with a napkin,  slice into her ravioli, ask the waiter for advice. And all of these observations are described in a rich language filled with a keen ache, for he remembers every whorl of her knuckles, every dilation of her pupil, every crinkle of her lips.

To deal with his ache, his confusion, his lust, he drinks.  Far too much.  Much more than she.

She had arrived at the lunch full of good will and charm, but his sarcastic, bitter demeanor pushes her away.

But, it is a narrative poem–it tells a story–so I won’t spoil the ending.

Now, in 2010, the BBC did something extraordinary.  Rather than digging in the vaults of the classics (there is an endless list of Dickens and Austen productions) or dramatizing the latest Scandinavian thriller or Scottish mystery, they decided to do something quite different.  They decided to dramatize a contemporary work of poetry.  And they did it well.

The BBC2’s production of The Song of Lunch–made to celebrate National Poetry Day in Britain– was genius simply in the choice of the actors.  Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson.  For who can better play a put-upon man, dour and drunken, and rising with lust and regrets better.  I cannot think of anyone else.  And Emma Thompson, literally shines in the role–literally that is. In one scene where Rickman is looking at her through his half empty wine glass she is glimmering.  There is a fresh aura of rightness about her that works in perfect contrast to the curmudgeonly Rickman.

The Song of Lunch is a strange one for me, for I saw the film production before I read the book.  In fact, it was BECAUSE of the dramatization that I got the book. “Making words come alive” is such a cliche, yet in this case it is very much true.  The tiny narrative of Reid’s is served quite well when animated by Rickman and Thompson.

I’ve read the poem several times now, finding something new to enjoy each time.  I You-tubed the BBC production and watched a few scenes, but the BBC came in and took certain “chapters” off, so one loses the continuum.

I do remember those long boozy lunches.  Though I wish at the time I was as observant as Christopher Reid.  His The Song of Lunch is as rich as the carpaccio and pumpkin ravioli that were ordered for appetizers and as heady as the grappa that finished the meal.

Clockwork Orange and City of Bohane

The Guardian had an article today noting the 50th Anniversary of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Mind you, it is the anniversary of the book not Stanley Kubrick’s iconic movie, which has taken on a life of its own.

I first read the novel when I was seventeen. I read it a month later when I learned there was an edition with a glossary in the back. The glossary didn’t enhance the read that much; everything could be inferred from context  without too much trouble. (I had heard the glossary was only in the American edition, but I am not positive of that.) Anyway, what I remember most was the language: it was playful, edgy, smart, and alive. It was a mixture of joycean word play, street jive, cockney, rhyming, Slavic slang. And it was what set me off reading a lot of Burgess, from the Enderby novels to the majestic Napoleon’s Symphony to the various autobiographies.

The movie was another thing.  I was hitch-hiking across Canada from Vancouver to Toronto and winter was coming on a lot earlier than it came where I was from. It was only the last week of August, but we woke up under a thin sheet of snow in Regina.  Earlier, to stay out of the cold, and since nothing seemed to be coming along Canada’s Highway 1, we went into the town of Regina and bought tickets to see Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. It was very stylish and engrossing, with a narrative that I already knew.  I don’t remember now being struck by the ultra-violence. I do remember the music and the Skinner-like experiments and the tragic ending.  

But anyway, today, in their piece on the 50th anniversary of the book, the Guardian said this:

Fifty years ago today, Anthony Burgess published his ninth novel, A Clockwork Orange. Reviewing it in the Observer, Kingsley Amis called the book “the curiosity of the day.” Five decades later there is still nothing like it.

I beg to differ.

Kevin Barry’s first novel, The City of Bohane is channeling Burgess big time.  Set in a dystopian future, in what could be an unrecognizable Dublin of 2053, it is full of violence, sex, drugs, and turf wars. And again, the language  is at the forefront. Here is Barry describing DeValera Street:
[DeValera Street] leases are kept cheap and easy– bucksee enterprises appear overnight and fold as quick. There are soothsayers,. There are purveyors of goat’s blood cures for marital difficulties. There are dark caverns of record stores specialising in ancient  calypso 78s –oh we have an old wiggle to the hip in Bohane, if you get us going at all. There are palmists. There are knackers selling combination socket wrench sets. Discount threads are flogged from suitcases mounted on bakers’ pallets, there are cages of live poultry, and trinket stores devoted gaudily to the worship of the Sweet Baba Jay. There are herbalists, and veg stalls, and poolhalls. Such is the life of DeValera Street… .

Here again is Barry introducing Girly Hartnett, the 90-year old matriarch of the major family:

Here was Girly, after the picture show, drugged on schmaltz, in equatorial heat beneath the piled eiderdowns, a little whiskey-glazed and pill-zapped, in her ninetieth–Sweet Baba help us–Bohane winter, and she found herself with the oddest inclination.

I always found the world of A Clockwork Orange to be too sterile, too sharp-edged, even the thugs were dressed in sparkling white.  Bohane City is many things, but sterile it is not.  There is a richness of detail, texture, smell. Even in memory, Alex and his droogies seem too slick compared to the denizens of Bohane. For in this dystopic future, the world has not been re-shaped by technology–in fact, technology is surprisingly absent.  There is an elevated train, but no cars. Communication is done face-to-face…and at times angry-face-to-angry-face. Newspaper writers get their stories in pubs or brothels; the hunchback photographer pegs his developing photos in a morbid array across a room.  Although this is the future, it is not one overrun with gadgets!

The violence is real–but somehow not graphic. The economy runs on sex, alcohol, and drugs. There is an outer world, beyond the pale, but it doesn’t intervene, seemingly content to let Bohane run its own violent course.

And it is so, so visual.

Here’s a description of the major characters as they prepare for the momentous battle at the center of the novel:

“Logan Hartnett [the albino leader of the Bohane Trace] suavely walked the ranks and he offered his smiles and his whispers of encouragement. There was confidence to be read in the sly pursing of his lips, and atop a most elegant cut of an Eyetie suit he wore, ceremonially, an oyster-grey top hat.”

“Fucker Burke was bare-armed beneath a denim waistcoat and wore his finest brass-toed bovvers.”

“Jenni Ching carried a spiked ball on a chain and swung it over her head. She wore an all-in-one black nylon jumpsuit, so tightly fitted it might have been applied with a spray-can, and she smoked a black cheroot to match it, and her mouth was a hard slash of crimson lippy.”

“Wolfie Stanners, however, was widely acknowledged to have taken the prize. Wolfie was dressed to kill in an electric-blue ska suit and white vinyl brothel-creepers with steel toecaps inlaid. Four shkelps were readied on a custom-made cross-belt.”

[Macu–Logan’s wife–wore] “a pair of suede capri pants dyed to a shade approaching the dull radiance of turmeric, a ribbed black top of sheer silk that hugged her lithe frame, a wrap of golden fur cut from an Iberian lynx…and…an expression unreadable.”

My god, look at the attention to clothing–not futuristic, Buck Rogers’ one-pieces, but clothing that has been taken from a vibrant past.  It is as if the costume designers from Game of Thrones, Gangs of New York, and My Fair Lady got together to outfit the cast for this rumble.

And what City of Bohane also has that A Clockwork Orange doesn’t  is a love story.  Granted it is a story of disappointed love and jealous love and abandoned love, but the emotions of these characters are real and painful and poignant. For  while Logan Hartnett and his antagonist, the Broderick Gant, may have run the machinery of their town with brutality and violence, they are both bowed when set against the forces of love.

Now there’s something to pass on to Alex and his droogies!