Non-Fiction, Reviews

Vintage Didion, by Joan Didion (2004)

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(image: goodreads.com)

This little book is one of the Vintage Readers that were released in the early 2000s. As pointed out on the back cover, this is a small collection of Joan Didion’s essays that are a good introduction to her work. The essays cover politics, crime, the war in El Salvador, crime and corruption in Miami, the culture of New York (including a fascinating essay on the Central Park Jogger case and its impact), and, at the end, an essay from 2002 on the after effects of 9/11 and the subsequent ‘war on terror’. It’s a wide range of subjects, but they work well together, given that in each essay Didion explores or analyses something ‘bad’, something that made a real cultural and social impact in some way. I particularly enjoyed the essays on New York, and ‘Clinton Agonistes’, from the book Political Fictions (2002), which covers the Monica Lewinsky scandal, its media coverage, the impeachment of Bill Clinton, and the cultural impact of the whole situation. In this essay Didion reminds us of the absurdity of most news coverage, particularly when it comes to politics and sex (together and separately), and how the reactions of those in the public eye, both in and outside of politics, has such an influence on the general population. Reading this essay in 2017, you can really see the lasting impact of the scandal, and its influence on how America deals with the personal lives of those in power to this day.

Previously it hasn’t mattered to me if I have read Didion’s articles that were written years before I was born, about things I’ve never experienced – I’ve still enjoyed them and found them interesting. This time, however, I felt more disconnected from the subject matter, and felt that I would have benefitted from some background knowledge, especially about El Salvador and Miami, two places I know nothing about. I engaged more with the New York essays, as well as the one about Clinton, as I had more of a frame of reference for those, and had heard of the Central Park Jogger case. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed Didion’s writing, her long and complicated sentences, as well as her acerbic charm and scathing criticisms. Every time I read her work I feel like I learn something and expand my horizons a little.

The Vintage Readers are intended to serve as introductions or overviews of writers, and I think this works well for Didion. I think it would have made sense to include some more of her writing on California, however, as this is where she really excels. Perhaps something from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, like her writing about Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco in the 1960s. But, having said that, if you’re more interested in politics and the later 20th century, this book would certainly be a good introduction to Joan Didion.

I’m glad I picked up Vintage Didion at Skoob back in 2015, and I’m glad I read it. It has inspired me to read more of Didion’s books, and I have in fact just bought a copy of her most recent book, South and West: From a Notebook. What are your favourite Didion essays and books?

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Published by Vintage in 2004.

Purchase from Blackwell’s. Not available from Wordery or Foyles, but they have all her other books here and here.

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Fiction, Reviews

Hideous Creatures by S. E. Lister

Well this was an odd one. Purchased on a whim (something I do quite rarely these days) and never before heard about, I decided to take a chance with Hideous Creatures. And boy was it taking a chance. The premise is relatively simple: ‘youngest son of an illustrious line’ Arthur Hallingham flees from scandal in England and makes his way to the New World on a slave ship from Africa. Once there, he sets out to discover a new life and forget his old one… all very intriguing and interesting so far.

2015 paperback edition

2015 paperback edition

The section on the slave ship is particularly grim and fascinating at the same time, and the engaging nature of Lister’s writing really comes through – there is plenty of mystery about Arthur and his past, and the reader ploughs on, eager to discover more. In regard to Arthur’s secrets, this style continues throughout the book. Right until the dramatic reveal you are trying to guess what he is running from and what makes him so ashamed of himself, and I both enjoyed and admired the suspense and intrigue. Once Arthur reaches the New World, he soon teams up with an even more mysterious man, Shelo, who is covered in spiralling tattoos and may or may not be a witchdoctor, a magical being, a native, or something else entirely. He is consistently described like some kind of wild beast, huge and imposing, with eyes that seem to make everyone scared and nervous. He tells Arthur he ‘called’ him from across the sea and needs him to accompany him on his strange journey to fulfil a strange purpose… and Arthur goes along with it. He has literally nothing to lose.

And so there is lots of travelling, random and unnecessary interactions with outlaws that go on too long, and the mysterious horror of what Shelo does in the back of the wagon with the desperate people who come to him for help. Arthur hears them screaming, and sees them leave with wide, blank eyes. They wander off into the night like zombies.

This is where it starts to get a bit odd. Arthur’s personal story is actually rather good and very interesting, and the secrets of his life are eked out in flashbacks and memories in a very satisfying way. It’s just the magical-realism hoohah with Shelo that I’m still not sure of. More information about him comes out over time, but even then it doesn’t all gel together. It sort of makes sense, but it gets a bit overblown and makes you take a step back and realise that it doesn’t quite sit well alongside Arthur’s story of aristocratic scandal and personal demons.

However I did love the descriptions and the vivid images of the landscape, the weather, the atmosphere, and the mood of these outcasts travelling around the New World without a home. Arthur and Shelo are eventually joined by Flora, the daughter of a famous outlaw, and she serves as a reality check for them both and stops the whole things from sinking into overblown melodrama. I didn’t think she had enough to do, but I liked her earthiness contrasted with Shelo’s mysteriousness and Arthur’s despair.

My ‘verdict’ for Hideous Creatures would be that it is basically a good book, but that it needed to be reined in and sculpted a lot more by both the author and the editor. It runs a bit too wild and gets caught up in its own fantasy, and the sharpness is lost. It was still enjoyable, and I read it quickly, but there was a bit too much faffing and wriggling. I will however keep an eye out for what S. E. Lister does next – I reckon it will be intriguing if nothing else.

*

Published by Old St Publishing in 2014.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Blue Tattoo by Margot Mifflin (2009)

I came across The Blue Tattoo by chance, when author Peggy Riley tweeted about it (so long ago that I’m afraid I can’t find the original tweet). As soon as I heard about it I knew I wanted to read it.

Uni. of Nebraska Press/Bison Books edition, 2011. (image: goodreads.com)

(image: goodreads.com)

It was unlike anything I had ever read before, but it instantly appealed to me. My only real ‘knowledge’, if it can be called that, of Native American and Pioneer interactions came from hammy Westerns, The Simpsons, and the terrifying murals in Parks and Recreation. I also knew little about America in general during the 19th century apart from basic facts about western migration and the Civil War – the former being a key factor in The Blue Tattoo.

It is the story of Olive Oatman, someone I will never be able to forget. In 1851 Olive was fourteen years old and on the road to a Mormon utopia in the west. Isolated from the rest of their caravan, her family were attacked by a native tribe. Her brother Lorenzo survived the attack by being so wounded that the tribe thought he was dead; they spared Olive, and her young sister Mary Ann, and took them captive.

The attacking tribe were the Yavapais. They soon traded Olive and Mary Ann to the Mohaves, who were kind and treated them well. The girls stayed with the Mohaves for the best part of five years, though little Mary Ann succumbed to malnutrition during a poor harvest which Olive only just survived. Olive was eventually traded back to ‘her people’ when Lorenzo finally tracked her down.

Olive became a sensation, going on lecture tours and having her story published in a ‘memoir’ heavily ghost-written by a pastor, Royal Stratton, who she and Lorenzo met soon after their reunion. The sections that Mifflin quotes, though written in the first person, are clearly not Olive’s own words – she refers to the Mohaves as savages and low people, despite the fact that she effectively became one of their tribe whilst living with them. The tattoo on her chin, and many other small details in her story, strongly suggest that she was just as much a Mohave as one who been born among them. They did not tattoo slaves or captives – only their own people. It was a hugely meaningful symbol of belonging, that Olive would have submitted to willingly, knowing it was permanent.

Olive shortly after her 'return' in 1856 (image: twitter.com)

Olive shortly after her ‘return’ in 1856 (image: twitter.com)

Friends and relatives reported that for years, decades, after leaving the Mohaves, Olive spoke of them fondly but seemed troubled by her memories. She paced the floor, was lost in her thoughts, and seemed to keep the truth of her story to herself. Though she spoke publicly about her experiences for years afterwards, we can of course never really know about her experience, her life, with the Mohaves.

Thinking her whole family was dead, it is understandable that she may have wanted to stay with the people who became surrogate parents and relatives for her – she was adopted by the chief and his wife, who seems to have played a significant role as a mother figure. Throughout the book there are countless small details that made me think, quite certainly, that Olive was more or less happy with the Mohaves, and it was not her first choice to leave them. Her life back with white society was at first filled with publicity (from which we have some of the best photographs of her) and public appearances, as well as various rumours, theories, and elaborations that embellished her story and speculated, sometimes damagingly, about her time with the Mohaves.

She often had to state that she had not been ‘violated’ or made ‘unclean’ by the Native Americans, and that she had retained her virtue as a good Christian girl – but Mifflin states it is entirely possible she may have been ‘sexually initiated’ within the tribe. She was a teenager after all, and the Mohaves did not shy away from sex like 19th century American Christians. Whether or not this is true, it is fascinating to consider and demonstrates the depth of mystery within Olive Oatman, and the unknowable nature of other people’s experiences. It is one of many, many things that we can only wonder about Olive.

Aside from Olive’s own story, Mifflin brilliantly pulls together stories similar to Olive’s (such as those of Cynthia Ann Parker and Mary Jemison), and the complicated ways in which she and people like her, different in whatever way, were perceived by society. The book is also an examination of America as a developing nation, with states still forming and national identity still being forged. It is utterly fascinating, almost as much as Olive’s story. There is more than I can really, fairly, convey here.

Olive’s story is unique, but not isolated. Other people were kidnapped by Native Americans, for centuries before her, and during her own time. She however, has stuck in our collective mind, and her inclusion in books, film, TV shows, short stories and more since her time with the Mohaves has meant that she has stayed on the cultural radar in some small way ever since she first became famous in the 1860s. I cannot explain any of this as well as Margot Mifflin, so it is better, of course, to read The Blue Tattoo and delve into this incredible story yourself. I could analyse this book for hours, and it is without a doubt one of the most fascinating books I have ever read.

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Published by the University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books in 2009, and reprinted in 2011.

 

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