Book Review: American Girls, Alison Umminger (2016)

Wednesday, June 29th, 2016

Explores some interesting ideas, but the story never really clicked for me.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for allusions to rape.)

Backstage, Olivia Taylor had removed her moon boots and was curled cat-like against Karl Marx. He rubbed his hand up her leg, almost into her crotch, and she opened a mirror and lined her lips silver-blue while he talked.

“It’s all waste,” he said, his accent as perfectly beautiful as it sounded in the interviews I’d watched. “Waste and filth. Even these women, these perfect creatures.”

These children that come at you with knives, they are your children. —Charles Manson

As a teenager, I devoured true crime books. They were a guilty pleasure, if only because some of the adults around me made me feel like a borderline psychopath for my choice of reading materials. (JEEZ UNCLE GARY, MAYBE I WANT TO BE A FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGIST WHEN I GROW UP! DID YOU EVER THINK OF THAT?) My favorite sub-genre was cults, hands down; there was something about the mix of sociopathy and religion that I found especially compelling. In college, I was lucky enough to talk my way into a sociology project on Jonestown (though I struck out when trying to do something similar for an honors course called “The Psychology of Health & Wellness.” You can’t have wellness without sickness, I argued. Two sides of the same coin! Eventually the prof was forced to pick my topic for me: hardiness. Ugh. I still nailed it.)

So it’s an understatement to say that I was looking forward to Alison Umminger’s American Girls – one of two Manson-inspired books coming out in June. (The other? The Girls by Emma Cline, which I cannot recommend highly enough.) I’ve been humming the Tom Petty tune for going on a month now.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Girls, Emma Cline (2016)

Monday, June 13th, 2016

A book so shrewd and insightful, it’s sometimes painful to read.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape.)

When I’d first tried to tell Dan, on the night of a brownout in Venice that summoned a candlelit, apocalyptic intimacy, he had burst out laughing. Mistaking the hush in my voice for the drop of hilarity. Even after I convinced Dan I was telling the truth, he talked about the ranch with that same parodic goof. Like a horror movie with bad special effects, the boom microphone dipping into the frame and tinting the butchery into comedy. And it was a relief to exaggerate my distance, neatening my involvement into the orderly package of anecdote.

It helped that I wasn’t mentioned in most of the books. Not the paperbacks with the title bloody and oozing, the glossed pages of crime scene photographs. Not the less popular but more accurate tome written by the lead prosecutor, gross with specifics, down to the undigested spaghetti they found in the little boy’s stomach. The couple of lines that did mention me were buried in an out-of-print book by a former poet, and he’d gotten my name wrong and hadn’t made any connection to my grandmother. The same poet also claimed that the CIA was producing porn films starring a drugged Marilyn Monroe, films sold to politicians and foreign heads of state.

In my teens and early twenties, I was what you’d call a true crime buff. I downed scintillating mass market paperbacks by the dozen: Deep Cover, Serpico, Wiseguy, The Stranger Beside Me, Chasing the Devil, The Devil in the White City, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Under the Banner of Heaven – you name it. For a time I fantasized about studying forensic psychology. My favorite stories were those that centered on cults: the indoctrination into bizarre religious beliefs, the charismatic (yet obviously slimy and possibly sociopathic) leader, the epically tragic ending. Naturally, my copy of Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter was well-loved; and, in college, I was lucky enough to write a paper on Jonestown for a sociology course.

My point being: Emma Cline’s The Girls was an instant must-read for me. A novel based on the Manson Family? Give it to me now!

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