Book Review – The Summer That Melted Everything, By Tiffany McDaniel
First of all, my heart, this book broke my heart. It is rare that anything in fiction has touched me quite like this book. I have tried to produce a balanced review, with some negative criticism, but I couldn’t find anything to criticise, as I simply loved it!
Mc Daniel, has created at first what seemed to be a molasses infused, Southern Gothic, family tragedy, one which seemed to have many obvious tropes, such as “a stranger comes to town”, or a coming of age saga, however, it soon becomes apparent that this is not quite the case, and you start falling in love with the idyllically named Bliss family, their many idiosyncrasies’ making you laugh. Their mother, has agoraphobia, but redecorates her home to resemble what she imagines many world capitals look like, the father, the strangely named Autopsy, worrying over whether his prosecutions of criminals were right or wrong, and the two Bliss siblings Grand and Fielding with their brotherly rivalry.
Into this picture, comes the stranger, the ostensibly named Devil, who may or may not be a thirteen year old black boy, named Sal. The questions that come with him are never fully answered, is he a runaway from an abusive father, or has he escaped, albeit with amnesia from the dwarf serial killer, and Manson type figure McDaniel has created in the figure of Elohim?
McDaniel’s prose, is also quite something else, it beautifully envelopes the narrative, with such unforgettable lines such as “I am the unanswered man, I am the inside of silence”, on page 28 of my Scribe Hard book. This line is uttered by the seventy odd year old Fielding, in his recollections of the summer in 1984, that broke apart his family, shattering them forever.
The entry of Sal into the close knit Bliss clan is heart warming, and we almost forget that this thirteen year old has pronounced himself the Prince of Darkness, until the coincidental tragedies start piling up in the story arc, first the dog Granny, dying from the poison that Elohim puts down to kill vermin. This event saw me reach for the first of many tissues, (I do not cry readily dear Reader, but as I said this book really affected me). Next we have, Dovey losing her baby, and the events keep coming.
With the formation of a murderous cult led by Elohim, and the deaths of Dresden, Sal’s Amorata, and the eldest Bliss sibling Grand, Mc Daniel takes away your heart bit by bit, until the denouement, where we learn the gruesome truth about Elohim and mourn Sal.
I would wholeheartedly recommend this book, it takes away a piece of your soul, almost as if Sal is who he says he is, but it’s a price worth paying.
For The Love of A Library
When I was growing up in a small mining village in north east Wales, books were very expensive but coveted items. There were no Amazons then, just expensive book shops, my local town only had W H Smith’s the stationers, and that had a very small provision of books on sale, mostly Jackie Collins and other pulpy type books that my parents certainly did not want their young daughter to read.
So reading books meant one thing, the local library. We were really fortunate, in that we had a very well stocked, welcoming library in the next village. The librarians were friendly and well informed bibliophiles, their love of books was very evident in their recommendations and the way they put up with young bibliophiles like me, who viewed time spent in their workplace as akin to a heavenly audience.
The library had a cool interior with one or two glass cases of exhibits, mostly of local mining sites or historical records of bibles and choirs. The seating was very modern for the 1970’s and the smell was redolent of polished wood, and that book smell that accompanies large scale shelves of books, and I loved it.
My mother with me and my sister in tow would make a weekly pilgrimage to enter this hallowed space, my mum read prodigiously and encouraged me to do the same, however at the age of eight I had unfortunately exhausted the children’s section and in all probability the librarians had noticed my change of demeanour, or how bored I had suddenly become in their quiet space, attracting their notice by the large sighs that emanated from the adult section where I would look over plaintively, holding a longed for book in my hand.
To counter this noisy intrusion into the cathedral like quiet, they offered my mother a rare but eagerly anticipated bend of the rules, an adult’s library card for me, as long as she supervised my reading. Suddenly my life blossomed, I was allowed at last access to the world of the classic and not so classic selection of books that I had only up to then dreamed of reading, my pile of books could now be up to eight at any one time.
I took complete advantage and my life was transformed by reading The Bronte’s, Jane Austen, Daphne Du Maurier, Philip K Dick, even to my English teachers’ amazement Melville’s Moby Dick and the complete oeuvre of J Fennimore Cooper, amongst many others. I also gave my parents nightmares by “screaming down the house” one dark and stormy night, after reading Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories, (my mum kept a very close eye on my reading matter after that incident).
I was that kid in school, the weedy one who preferred staying in and reading to playing out with friends or anything to do with sports (quelle horreur). The one time that my mother insisted that I go out to play in the summer holidays, I sat down whilst my few friends got on with their games and read my book, everywhere I went I had a book with me, things really haven’t changed much now. If I go out anywhere I have a book in my bag, as you never know when you will get a chance to read.
It is strange how the situation has reversed in this era, libraries are being shut all over the United Kingdom as the policy of “cuts” has been followed, and books are cheaply bought off sites such as Amazon. I have binged on buying books and now have nine bookcases (and counting) full of book shelves double stacked with books that I have read and reread. My love affair with reading has been a long one, and parental encouragement meant that habit started early. I however, am saddened by the massive wholesale shutting of small libraries like my childhood love. How many parents now will struggle to continue the habit my mother adopted of taking her two small girls to a library and encouraging in them a love of reading? It certainly will become harder for this habit to be passed on, in a place where your love of reading is more important than your ability to pay for an expensive caffeinated beverage and where you have to effectively rent your armchair to read in. The space of free reading has been sacrificed to the temple of consumer led values, it’s time this changed.
D H Lawrence – Short Stories
In this new part of my blog, I’ve decided to start a personal account of reflections on books I’ve read, what they have meant to me at the time I read them, and reflections on life or my thoughts at that time.
To me each book or story/poem is like a little time capsule, in that they all bring to my mind a Proustian experience, as the unmade narrator in “Search of Lost Time” volume 1, “Swanns Way” or to give the book series it’s proper French title, “ A recherché de temps Perdue”, is reminded of a very particular set of memories when he eats a Madeline or small cake that his aunt had given him, it brought back to him the memory of eating that cake in his Aunt Leonie’s room, with a cup of lime tisane or tea that she liked to drink in the afternoons. The evocation of the time and even the smell of the Madeline and tea are brought back to him, and give a sharp relief to his memories.
Similarly when I think of books, stories or poems, I am immediately brought back to when I first read them, the time in my life when I first read them, and all of the memories and impressions from that time. This blog is not about particular criticism of the highs and lows of reading a particular author, the internet can give that to anyone who cares to spend a quick ten minutes browse. Rather it is about the time capsule of my thoughts on each book.
Some of these memories can be funny or sad; they are personal and reflect a person that perhaps is not even me anymore! But if anyone wants to read about my impressions then so be it, if not they can always leave my site.
The first author I am going to comment on is strangely D H Lawrence, I say strangely as he is not according to some reports in the media and on Twitter not widely read anymore, but the other day some memory, which came from the aether assaulted my thoughts, as I was brought back to my English literature class, in my fifth year in my hated secondary school.
It was the only class that I enjoyed; my teacher was brilliant and made each book come alive, even Shakespeare which I had up until that time been dreading, but that will be for another blog. That afternoon I was sat next to a boy that I had rather a large crush on, and we were part of a mining community which was being assaulted by the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s policies of closing pits en masse with no regard to the damage that would do to these communities in the long run.
Our teacher charismatically took the front row of the room, and asked us to open our books of short stories by Lawrence; I looked down at the book, enjoying its orange and white cover, and the almost erotic smell of New Book, which even now is a thrill to be savoured to this day. I looked at the window, which showed a warm afternoon, and inhaled the smell of motor cycle leather and patchouli which my companion next to me oozed. I thought to myself, that I would always savour this memory, keep it close to me for reference in future years.
My parents would have hung me out to dry if I had even told them that I sat next to this young man, as he was known in the village as a bit of a heart throb, and to tell the truth I was rather scared and pleased that he decided to sit next to me for my favourite class. Our teacher asked that we look at one particular story, “The Odour of Chrysanthemums” and as he explained about Lawrence and the structure of the story, I had an idea of how I would have felt as the female protagonist, which really reflected my maternal grandmother’s life, as a sometime wife of a miner. My grandfather had just narrowly escaped such a fate in the Gresford pit disaster of 1934, so Lawrence’s story being read by my class of 1985, had a resonance for a lot of the occupants of that classroom. I stole a glance at my companion and imagined us as a couple, and how I would have felt to have his body brought home to me, to have to wash the black pit dust off his cold body, and honour the man before the burial of his corpse in a small village cemetery. I felt tears spring to my unwitting eyes, and suddenly remembered where I was, as a teenage girl, that experience was mortifying as my judgemental peers mocked my appearance, but also revelatory, as I realised how books can have the power to unlock such powerful feelings and therefore what books would come to mean to me in later years.
I didn’t read Lawrence during my undergraduate degree, but encountered him again in my Masters class, in the books “Sons and Lover’s”, “The Rainbow” and “Women in Love”, but this time he felt more like an embarrassing relative at a family party that I wanted to avoid, and I avoided the classes where we would be discussing him. However strangely, after reading “The Diaries of Anais Nin”, her assessment of Lawrence, together with her book of criticism on him, led to me also reappraising my thoughts, and I duly went out and spent a few pounds in the next city, in the Oxfam book shop and managed to get virtually all of his novels, stories and poems, now he sits proudly alongside other worthies in my expanding collection of bookshelves, not just books.
To a bibliophile like me, each book is a small time capsule of emotions, revelations, and time encapsulated, it can transport me to the past like D H Lawrence, or forward into the books I am reading now, and will read in the future. Nothing not even movies or real life can quite have that effect for me, such a lot of existential experience in a small object of paper and binding.