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The Wide, Wide Wednesday

What I've Finished Reading

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay.

Confronted by such monumental configurations of nature the human eye is woefully inadequate. Who can say how many or how few of its unfolding marvels are actually seen, selected, and recorded by the four pairs of eyes now fixed in staring wonder at the Hanging Rock? Does Marion Quade note the horizontal ledges crisscrossing the verticals of the main pattern whose geological formation must be memorized for next Monday’s essay? Is Edith aware of the hundreds of frail starlike flowers crushed under her tramping boots, while Irma catches the scarlet clash of a parrot’s wing and thinks it a flame amongst the leaves? And Miranda, whose feet appear to be choosing their own way through the ferns as she tilts her head toward the glittering peaks, does she already feel herself more than a spectator agape at a holiday pantomime? So they walk silently towards the lower slopes, in single file, each locked in the private world of her own perceptions, unconscious of the strains and tensions of the molten mass that hold it anchored to the groaning earth: of the creakings and shudderings, the wandering airs and currents known only to the wise little bats, hanging upside down in its clammy caves.

Four girls and their teacher disappear from a school outing a few hours from their school. Two of them come back; neither one remembers what happened. The others are never found. The school falls apart and death and disaster climb over it like vines. Spooky and suspenseful, but also tongue in cheek: we are invited to laugh deprecatingly at the little green gardens and white gloves and the Hanging Rock Picnic Grounds and Appleyard College, perched delicately and self-importantly on the edges of a landscape that can’t help but swallow them up.

What I'm Reading Now

The Clan of the Cave Bear is so incredibly frustrating, I can’t even tell you. So many epithets! So much thesaurus abuse! So much repetition and clumsiness! I can’t believe Auel had her National Geographic narrator sail in to infodump all over the Clan’s first sighting of a mammoth herd, dropping a load of Cool Facts About the Mammoth Body Plan at our feet, literally three pages before the mammoth is butchered – which would have given her an iron-clad excuse to describe the subcutaneous fat, layered fur types, pelvic shape, and skull to her heart’s content. I can’t believe she described one of the mammoths as “the panicked pachyderm.”

For all that, I’m still reading, because I care enough about Ayla and her adopted family to keep reading, and at every turn in the story, however awkwardly written and cluttered with Cool Facts, I’m curious enough to want to know what happens next. Will Ayla find a mate despite her ugliness? Will the Clan accept her as medicine woman? Will we ever meet the Others? Will the one Iago guy who resents Ayla for being better than him at everything ever stop Iagoing around?

The narrator has a theory about why Ayla is such a disruptive wild card for her foster people: the Clan, we’re told, has racial memories – their gestures, social conventions, hunting practices, and medicinal knowledge are all inherited, along with a wealth of stories. Ayla’s people, the Others, have to learn everything from scratch, but make up for it by being better with numbers and abstractions. I don’t think I buy it. I’d be happy to buy it as a story the Clan tell about themselves, but as a declaration of the narrator, no. That goes triple for the narrator’s constant asides about the Clan having reached “an evolutionary dead end.” What? Who thinks that? Who are you and why are you following us around?

One of the biggest missed opportunities in a book full of missed opportunities is Ayla’s ugliness. Ayla looks like a young Daryl Hannah, but to the people of the Clan she’s hideous: none of the normal brow ridges, weird jutting chin, too tall, freaky straight-stick legs, weird skull and nose, weird piss-colored ghost hair, cloudy blue eyes like a blind person. She looks like an evil spirit with a melted face! She looks like someone reached over and rubbed out her features, like a water-blurred painting. So why, when Ayla catches a glimpse of herself in a pool and is dismayed by her own ugliness, does the narrator describe her like this?

The young woman studied her own face. It was somewhat square with a well-defined jaw, modified by cheeks still rounded with youth, high cheekbones and a long, smooth neck. Her chin had the hint of a cleft, her lips were full, and her nose straight and finely chiseled. Clear, blue gray eyes were outlined with heavy lashes a shade or two darker than the golden hair that fell in thick soft waves to well below her shoulders, glimmering with highlights in the sun. Eyebrows, the same shade as her lashes, arched above her eyes on a smooth, straight forehead without the slightest hint of protruding brow ridges. Ayla backed stiffly away from the pool and ran into the cave.

Jean M. Auel: the M stands for missed opportunities. But I’m still reading because there are still things I like; if there weren’t, I wouldn’t be so mad.

What I Plan to Read Next

Picnic at Hanging Rock is Australia Book Number One; should I be lazy and count The Ladies of Missalonghi as number 2? The main virtue of the Ladies is that it kills two birds with one stone, since it also counts as a Mount TBR book (current count: 36 of 60).

On Sunday I dropped off some books at a free book exchange and found The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, the darling of my friends list a few years ago. It doesn't look tremendously appealing, but I'm just curious enough to read a free book if it's directly in front of me.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 24th, 2017 03:56 pm (UTC)
You've sold me on 'Picnic on Hanging Rock', I like the quote:)

“the panicked pachyderm.” Lol. Wish I could remember more of 'Clan of the Cave Bear'. I hope you know someone who can remember it more clearly. I know I read it all and er...
May. 24th, 2017 04:55 pm (UTC)
Definitely recommend! It's a quick read, too, partly because it drags you in and partly because it's short.

Clan of the Cave Bear is such an ambitious idea for a book, and whenever it's actually moving forward as a story, it's fine, but it reads like the discovery draft of a good novella. I'll probably be remembering it fondly in about five years.

The specifics of the plot are not very memorable, I think? Ayla is Different but eventually comes to be Accepted, just like Anne of Green Gables - and like AoGG, it's highly episodic. There are some impressive episodes, but nothing really to rival The Raspberry Cordial Incident or The Time There Was a Mouse in the Sauce. But that's an unfair standard for any writer.
May. 25th, 2017 03:15 pm (UTC)
Aah, short! Music to my ears.

I think I found the characters and situations predictable and hackneyed: I need a hypnotist;p Not the usual request, but a change from past live regression I'm sure.
May. 25th, 2017 04:57 am (UTC)
I thought Clan of the Cave Bear was hilarious; Ayla was so wonderfully inventive. By the end I was waiting for her to invent boxed matches.
May. 25th, 2017 06:52 am (UTC)
She can't help inventing things! She doesn't have any inherited memories, so every moment is an invention!

Right now she's puzzling out the mystery of How Babies Get Made. The Clan have their own myth of reproduction, but Ayla isn't quite convinced.
May. 25th, 2017 06:02 am (UTC)
I don't know if your version of Picnic includes the "missing' final chapter, which Joan Lindsay's publisher persuaded her not to include in the book and was instead published posthumously? I would be happy to tell you what happened to the missing girls. (Her publisher was right, by the way.)

It is surprising how many people here think it is a true story. Hanging Rock itself has been included in a campaign this year to get people to move past the white myth of the books and instead learn about the Aboriginal history of the rock.
May. 25th, 2017 07:24 am (UTC)
It is surprising how many people here think it is a true story

I would not have expected that at all! But if there's a tourism industry around it (and a movie!), I can see how things could easily get confused. Good luck to the campaigners; real history can be a hard sell.

I absolutely do not want to know Joan Lindsay's solution to the mystery. Much better to leave it unsolved! If I want to read a mystery with a clear resolution at the end, I've got dozens.
May. 25th, 2017 08:48 am (UTC)
The 1975 movie is terrific, if you ever stumble across it. The most evocative use of panpipes in cinema, as demonstrated in the trailer. :-)
May. 29th, 2017 12:39 am (UTC)
LOL. the part about the ugliness reminds me of sf/f that tries to describe alien features but instead kind of defaults to a human + 1 strange thing (and romance novels, trying to have their cake and eat it too, describing characters as ugly for their time but very hot for ours).
May. 29th, 2017 04:33 pm (UTC)
I respect the difficulty of imagining alien life, so I'm mostly cool with Lazy Forehead Aliens and just get extra happy whenever anyone manages something really weird. But the romance thing makes me sad. If I can't have out-and-out plain or weird-looking characters, I'd much rather read about people who are hot for their own time, but ugly for ours, and to have all their outmoded charms described with gluttonous enthusiasm.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )


blase ev

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