The Last Days of California and Cougnou

“It seemed silly that we were all moving around the world for no other reason than we could – cars and planes and boats taking people from one location to another as if we weren’t all going to die.” – The Last Days of California

Mary Miller’s The Last Days of California is a book that is difficult to put down. I received it as a Christmas present and turned the final page three days later. As well as providing the reader with a dystopian modern-day take on the American road trip, it is also a commentary on religious belief and its role in western culture.

The Last Days of California is set over a period of five days and follows the lives of the Metcalf family as they make their way from Alabama to California in order to witness the end of the world and the Second Coming. They go from Taco Bell to Burger King to Waffle House in the sweltering heat, the father of the family using the trip as a means of escaping the fact that he has lost yet another job, is dangerously overweight and an incorrigible gambler.

The two daughters, fifteen-year old Jess who is the first person narrator, and her beautiful and rebellious older sister, Elise, have differing attitudes to the supposed approach of death and salvation. The Last Days of California offers a poignant commentary on modern society, its materialism and fear of straying from the beaten track, and the need people still have to believe in something. Despite the girls not meeting the plethora of artists and drug addicts that Sal Paradise came across in his travels in On The Road, the quintessential American road novel, they interact with characters who are more real and believable to a contemporary audience: a prostitute, drunken teenagers, an unhappy woman who paints faces in a flea market.

While ruminating over The Last Days of California, I came across Cougnou, also known as Bread of Jesus, a type of sweet brioche that is eaten over the Christmas period in Belgium. It is flavoured in different ways, but my favourite version is with chocolate chips. Toasted so the chocolate melts, and with a cup of tea, it makes the perfect breakfast on the bleak snowy days that separate Christmas and the New Year.

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