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With The Last Days of California, Mary Miller bursts into the literary world, taking up the mantle of Southern fiction and rendering it her own with wry vulnerability and contemporary urgency. Miller’s revelatory protagonist, Jess, is fourteen years old and waiting for the world to end. Her evangelical father has packed up the family and left their Montgomery home to drive west to California, hoping to save as many souls as possible before the Second Coming.
With her long-suffering mother and rebellious (and secretly pregnant) sister, Jess hands out tracts to nonbelievers at every rest stop, waffle house, and gas station along the way. As Jess’ belief frays, her teenage myopia evolves into awareness about her fracturing family. Using deadpan humor and savage charm belying deep empathy for her characters, Miller’s debut captures the angst, sexual rivalry, and escalating self-doubt of teenage life in America while announcing Miller as a fierce new voice.
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By Mel on 03-08-14
Fire & Brimstone, Krispy Kremes & Whoppers
In sixth grade, my son had a motion-sensor big black raven, dubbed Edgar of course, that would screech, "The end is near! The end is near! Beware. Beware." It was supposed to be a Halloween decoration, but being too large for any container, the feathery fiend perched in his closet making regular appearances for general antagonizing, and every time there was coverage of another *rapture fail* (common occurrence in the 90's, Heaven's Gate, etc.). The harbinger of doom had its heyday on the eve of Y2K, then *mysteriously* disappeared January 1st. We thought about Edgar in 2011, when evangelist Harold Camping took to the Christian Radio airways and announced, "The end is near! The end is near! Prepare. Prepare." proclaiming May 21 the End of Times. As the days ticked by to the rapture, millions of donated dollars flowed into Camping. It goes without saying, Camping corrected the date on May 22, forecasting Oct. 21, 2011 as the correct End of Times, and so on.
The Last Days of California is a quirky and bittersweet story about a God-fearing family that packs their van and heads from Alabama to California to witness the rapture. I'm guessing it is during the time of Edgar and Camping's reign, before the turn to the new century (there are references where the 80's are fondly looked back upon). The story is told from the perspective of 15 yr. old Jess who gives a meaningful and authentic voice to the coming of age journey. The true meat of the story needs to be deciphered by the wisdom of those who have lived the different periods of life; it is an adult story (very adult) told in the language of youth and naiveté, at times both troubling and sweet.
The story didn't immediately appeal to me and I set it aside, thinking I had mistakenly downloaded a YA novel. Looking through some reviews for encouragement to continue, I saw a comparison to Flannery O'Connor [Boston Globe, E. Williamson]. I started again and was surprised by the depth of the story and the humanity of these people. It's no O'Connor, but it is a fantastic debut novel that works its way into your heart. *Not for everyone, it is a little blunt and not exactly cheery. As another reviewer pointed out, it might be difficult if you have young girls.
18 of 25 people found this review helpful
By W Perry Hall on 01-23-14
Sealed Jar of Southern Jelly with Big Shiny Spoon
How to describe, "The Last Days of California," by reference to others (authors and/or books)? I'll use authors, generally: Flannery O'Connor for hitting the South and all its contradictions and symbolism and religion; John Green for expressing teen angst in teen terms and in teen times.
I have too many thoughts to include them all. I know the South, Southerners and evangelicals, having lived the first half my life in MS and the last half in AL. Ms. Miller nails the manners, customs, thought patterns and sayings, but she does not do so in a demeaning manner, at least not in my opinion. As Flannery O'Connor was misunderstood though, likely so will Ms. Miller because she's hit so close to home for her fellow Southerners (according to her GR profile, she's from Jackson, MS-- a true "Southerner by the grace of God."
Her protagonist, Jess (quite a telling name), is from Montgomery, Alabama. As a southerner, I couldn't miss the placement of "Family Tradition," [by Junior (Hank Williams, Jr., that is)].
Having 2 daughters about to turn 15, "Last Days" hit a little too close to home for me too. I won't explain by giving anything away, other than to say that the symbolism throughout is almost too much. I said "almost." I'd say this is a touching novel about the journey of a young (Southern) woman coming of age on a journey to the Rapture with her evangelical father, her secretly-pregnant and bitter sister and her suffering mother (whose husband just lost his job, while she maintains her false pride, "we have our reputation to think about" in reference to her sister's waywardness back home). Along the way, she runs across an angel ("Gabe") and a devil (or maybe "the").
The narrator is perfect. She sounded young, Southern and carried just the right inflections.
I recommend this audiobook as a sealed-up jar of new Southern jelly with a big ol' shiny spoon.
6 of 8 people found this review helpful