The Optimistic Decade

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 15 May 2018

Member Reviews

Thank you NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review. I have always been a fan of summer camp books. So,w hen I read the description I was intrigued by the thought of a Utopian summer camp. The book didn't disappoint. It had good characters. an original plot, and great setting. If you like taking a trip back to the 80s, this is your book.
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Having been a teenager in the 1990s, I found myself alternately smiling, reminiscing, and cringing at how much of myself at the time I saw in the various characters.  Despite the temptation to smack them upside the head periodically, you can't help sympathizing with their idealism and determination to make a difference as well as their disillusionment.
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The “Optimistic Decade” when so many thought they could effectuate change by writing and talking and discussing. This was the time of self-discovery by the young while the adults were busy elsewhere. Behind all this optimism the large corporations fed the marginalized promises of more and better opportunities. For small isolated towns it was a modern-day gold rush, but when the profits did not materialize towns were decimated and inhabitants lost everything.

Constantly jabbing at me was the universal theme of parents who are so self-involved in their causes that they ignore the children who love them unconditionally. Is it possible for an intelligent person to not understand that the strength of their personality, the incapacity to listen, the neglect of affection ultimately deprives their children of the ability to build their own sense of belief and character? Is it any surprise that these young people try to emulate the teeth-gnashing diatribe about the injustices of the sociopolitical system?

David will run away from the mess and search out a more accepting place. He will understand that his parents’ “ideas are all wrong. For them everything is anti, against. And this anger at everything, it means they’re basically paralyzed.” Rebecca, will try to please her father and do as asked because she sees her him as a brilliant, brave, decision maker who is always and ever all about all issues of inequality and injustice as he publishes another manifesto and ultimately is unable to give her more than his confusion. And then there is Caleb, the always happy Leader who arrived at his destiny through little more than right place, right/wrong time and a bit of chicanery. Caleb’s visionary summer camp, LLamalo ,“The-West of-which- I-speak”, Colorado, located on lands formerly known as the Double L Ranch and owned by father and son, Don and Donnie Talc who want their land back.

Can the vision survive “when the world feels malleable and the self strong” or is it only for a decade, gone and never to return?

This book left me with a sense of disbelief. If I am honest it is my failure to realize and acknowledge that things happened exactly as described in this book. Well written but slow moving. 

Thank You NetGalley and Algonquin Books for an ARC
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Thanks Algonquin Books and netgalley for this ARC. 

The 80's, summer camp, overbearing radial parents, and weird take on the world marching orders makes this a comical coming of age nutter.
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So I had the opportunity through Netgalley to read this book before it is released today, May 1.  I promised them a fair review, so here you go.

The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel is a book about an extended family of radical American liberals.  (We assume the May 1 publication date to be a coincidence).  The story centers around Llamalo, a summer camp located in Colorado in a true, honest-to-goodness-tarantula-walking wilderness.   The idea is that the campers undergo a transformation when they live stripped of all the vestments of society and culture, something out of Desert Solitaire or Thoreau, both of which are heavily quoted.

Perhaps this book’s strongest feature is its powerful sense of place.  Most of the book takes place at Llamalo and Abel truly excels at building the story around the camp and its routines.  It reminded me a little bit of what Amor Towles did in A Gentleman in Moscow with the hotel.  You know where people are sleeping (hint: outdoors), how they sleep, how their day goes, what projects they are working on, etc.  You know when they eat, how they know its time to eat, where they have their gatherings etc.

I went to summer camp and this was all very familiar and comforting to me.  Mine was in a much tamer version of wilderness, but the freedom camp gives to young people to spend hours on some project and to go swimming in the river and not have their parents over their shoulder every second–its a twinkle in the eye of life.

The sense of place supports the book throughout, a comfortable and familiar host to what is right and what is wrong with the people who are interacting with it.  And lastly, the wilderness is, in theory, immutable and unspoiled, and yet there’s a metaphor here, because we understand that anything that has been touched by a human has been “spoiled” (or changed or impacted or altered) in some way.

The plot develops very well.  It certainly is not a fast-paced Dan Brown page-turner, which is fine with me.  It is easy to read.  At one point, about halfway through the book, I had no idea how we could only be half-way through, but Abel does a nice job mixing in new elements to keep the story moving along to a satisfying conclusion.

The characters are excellent and come from a diverse set of ages and types, which is reflective of Abel’s storytelling skill.  You have the aging, doubting radical, his unwavering wife, a teenage boy and a teenage girl coming of age, along with the camp director and a semi-literate Native American (the protagonist).  With one exception, I found all these characters to be well-drawn.  In particular, the elegant description of Rebecca’s physical sensations as she discovers her sexuality was very effective, along with David’s struggles to fit into the wider world.

The one place I felt the book could be stronger was the development of Donnie, the protagonist.  His actions, which are extreme and the result of a long-held grudge, just never rang 100% true to me and I feel like some time inside his head during the development of the story might have created a stronger drama.

The book’s title refers to the idea that everyone in their life has a decade when everything is going great.  When they think can change the world.  When there are Newtonian physics in play, when you take an action and you get a reaction.

Of course, if there’s a decade where you have this feeling, the darker implication is that it is not something that can last forever.  There are seasons to our lives, and not all of them are summer.  Human fallibility is our gravity.  It can be defied but it cannot be defeated.

Rather than live in dirty, flawed world, the characters–like Abbey and Thoreau–have attempted to reset the board by going to a virgin wilderness, a blank slate free from the surly bonds of human life.  But even there, you have an optimistic decade and then you have the other ones.  Even mountains have seasons to their lives.

If this makes the book sound hopeless and bleak, that’s a mistake.  In the end, we see the characters understanding that living in a flawed world and in our un-optimistic decades is the business of our lives.  It’s a paradox.  The idea that there are seasons to life is itself timeless.
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This novel is certainly dripping with idealism. In all of its twists and turns, that theme remains a constant. I wouldn't call it an "energetic" read, and actually think it's something more akin to a lazy, summer at a meandering summer camp like Llamalo. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it; it was certainly entertaining. The writing was insightful, particularly poignant for members of today's idealistic-minded society. I can see it making a great book club discussion, as there is definitely a lot to cover.
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Very good book about choices, what we say and not say and our interactions. Good book for this climate. I enjoyed it very much
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A coming of age story built around a group of high school and college age kids and a summer camp unlike any other. While the kids work towards a sort of Utopia, the outside world of oil and mines, war in the middle east and general apathy is closing in. A strong first novel.
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“Politics was aesthetics, and everything was aesthetics, really, if you thought about it. A man in a turban and white tunic glided by on roller skates. A woman in a wheelchair held the leashes of two dogs that pulled her along the path, American flags waving from the back of her chair. There were bikinied women swaying back and forth on Rollerblades. Teenagers on lowriders eating cones of soft-serve while biking. Men biking while holding boom boxes. A girl like a statue on a skateboard, carrying a Coke can which held a single bird-of-paradise stalk . Rebecca explained at length why the supposed literary canon wasn’t actually canonical. The world might end if she stopped talking, she would talk on and on for the preservation of the world, as all the world’s peoples rolled by, oblivious to their salvation, just hours before the war started.“

Political activism and protest is near to my heart; I consider myself a Revolutionist. That’s what this debut novel is: revolutionary in the political sense, an examination of youthful idealism versus the cold hard reality that things don’t change for the good so easily. 

On a word-by-word, line-by-line basis, this is one of the most exquisite novels I’ve read thus far this year. The English language is clay in this author’s hands (see the quoted passage above). She successful conveys simple and complex emotions and ideas, never phoning it in or caving under the pressures of writing a freshman effort. This long and winding tale of a summer camp in the Colorado mountains has the gravitas and staying power of a literary veteran’s work.

And though this novel is very setting-specific — it takes place in summer 1990, just before the Gulf War — it is incredibly universal, and it is in that lies this author’s greatest strength: her tale of young adults wanting to hold onto various meccas — both physical and metaphorical — is a mirror. In it I saw myself, and I’m sure other readers will, too.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the ARC. This book releases on May 1, 2018.
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I really enjoyed this-the characters were engaging and full of personality. At times I hated them all and at others I loved them. A unique plot which was carried out in a fascinating way.
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I had a hard time connecting with this book.  It just wasn’t for me.
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Good novel about idealism, protests,  and the success or futility of it all depending upon the person and his/her ability to weather disappointment in others and society in general.
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A young man grieving the loss of his father searches for direction in his life.  Caleb happens upon a bit of land where he feels a deep peace, and he wants to share it.  He opens a summer camp for youth, where he teaches about the land and shares his philosophy.  He changes lives, and he believes himself.  Complex and compelling.
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Set  in 1990, with a backstory in the 1980's, this is a novel of miscommunication of all sorts: things unsaid, things said but not meant, mis-statements, and things misunderstood.    Llamalo is a camp created by Caleb and designed to be a kind of wilderness utopia.  In 1990 Rachel, a Berkeley student, ends up there for the summer at the behest of her father, who doesn't want her to know that he is terminating his left-wing newspaper.  Her childhood friend David has been attending this camp for years and is obsessed with its philosophy and the charismatic Caleb.  As the story unfolds, though, we learn that all is not as it seems.  The narrative intersperses explanations from the past that somewhat explain the unraveling of the present.  At times the motivations of the characters are not fully developed, and the conversations seem disjointed.  Perhaps that's intentional, because readers will realize that the characters' actions and words lead to unintended results.
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I didn't realize I was getting into such a deep book. I was looking for a simple read to entertain me. I really like the questions that arise from this novel and that it brings to light things that are sometimes on the backburners of our minds. You can connect easily with the characters and it is easy to fall into the story. I think it was a great novel and well written.
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