Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad about a year ago, a collection of loosely tied short stories that won the Pullitzer Prize in 2011. The construction of this book is similar to Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, which I reviewed a few months ago, but this one has even less of a connecting factor between stories (Rachman’s novel was tied together by an English-language newspaper based in Rome). Most of the stories can be read as stand-alone, and each does feature a different character, but the fact that they exist side-by-side in the same collection makes it possible to search for connection and frequently find it.

Many of the stories have been published before in both literary journals and edited collections, and when I read “Selling the General” in this collection I realized that I had read it before, in a collection called This is Not Chick Lit edited by Elizabeth Merrick, when I was working at a secondhand bookstore. After that I read every story with a sort of anticipation, an “is-this-the-second-time-reading-this-or-the-first?”

There is one story in the collection that I knew overwhelmingly that I hadn’t read before, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake.” It’s one of the stories highlighted in every review of A Visit From the Goon Squad that I’ve read, because writing an entire chapter/short story in PowerPoint is pretty noticeable. The slides are printed page to page, with a mixture of Venn diagrams, flow charts, and arrows constructing narratives. There is something about the limited structure, the fitting of story into small boxes and circles that makes this the most affecting chapter of the book. Egan chooses her words carefully, and this lends a lyrical, poetic quality to the story.

All of this is doubled by the subject matter of this story, about a boy trying to communicate with his father through the pauses in rock and roll songs. Alison, the narrator of the story (which she records in her “slide journal”), has a brother named Lincoln, who notes the length of the pauses in songs and then maps them with his comments. Two songs and his comments:

“Foxey Lady,” by Jimi Hendrix
“Another great early pause: 2 seconds long, coming 2:23 seconds into a 3:19-minute-long song. But this one isn’t total silence; we can hear Jimi breathing in the background.”

“Young Americans,” by David Bowie
“This is a lost opportunity. Hell, it would’ve been so easy to draw out the pause after ‘…break down and cry…’ to a full second, or 2, or even 3, but Bowie must’ve chickened out for some reason.”

He loops the pauses sometimes, leaving big spaces of silence in the house. His dad doesn’t understand and gets frustrated with Lincoln’s obsession with pauses, and when he loses his temper with Lincoln, his wife says very carefully, “The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.”

And all of that is floating in bubbles and shapes and arrows against the outline of a PowerPoint slide. It’s all of this emotion pressurized and compacted and made small.

“Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake” is only one of the stories in this collection that has been picked up for adaptation by HBO. It is a collection worth reading, especially for this chapter. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Chasing Redbird by Sharon Creech

I used to read Sharon Creech’s Chasing Redbird EVERY YEAR for a really long time. Every time I picked it up, it seemed like a new story, one that I hadn’t ever read before, even though I knew that just around Spring every year I’d start itching to read it again. And Chasing Redbird is a companion novel to Walk Two Moons, where characters from one book leech into the world of the next.

Chasing Redbird is about Zinny Taylor, one of a “slew of brothers and sisters” living on a farm with her parents in Bybanks, Kentucky. They live next door to their Uncle Nate and Aunt Jessie, “the two houses yoked together like one.” Zinny describes her house as a place that she can get lost in, and forget who she is, and crossing over to the other house takes her to the “Quiet Zone,” where she can rediscover her identity.

When Zinny finds an overgrown trail behind her house, she decides to clear it stone by stone, even after finding out that it is twenty miles long. The path becomes an obsession, and a way to deal with her Aunt Jessie’s sudden death, one that Zinny feels is her fault. Although most of the novel is set during the summer that Zinny tackles the trail, flashbacks explain her relationship with her aunt, and the family mysteries that are still left to be unraveled.  And then there’s Jake Boone, who’s a lot different than Zinny remembers (the last time she saw him, he was “as skinny as six o’clock”).

One thing that I love about this book is how quick Creech sets up Bybanks and the Taylor family and old trail at the back of the house. There is a feeling about the book that is instantly transferred within the first few pages, and it’s immediate and instant. The place where the novel starts is much different from where it goes – from a kitchen to a trail in the middle of the woods – and Creech eases the reader, guiding them along the same path.

Like Zinny says, “These were trivial things my find focused on, and I knew it, but they kept me from thinking about the bigger things that were lurking behind this clutter. I felt that if I didn’t keep busy, a million, million scenes were going to burst out of my head all at once. Part of me was curious to see what was in there, but I wanted to see them slowly, one at a time.” Creech does just that for her reader, keeping those “million, million scenes” just in the background, slowly coming into focus. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Your Voice in My Head by Emma Forrest

Books sometimes come at exactly the right time. I picked and read Emma Forrest’s Your Voice in My Head last night and read it in a couple of hours. But last spring, I picked up the book at a bookstore, sort of mulled over it, and put it back. And I’m so glad I did. Except for the fact that the hardcover cover art is amazing in comparison to the Vintage Canada copy I bought, I’m so glad I waited to pick it up. There are a lot of books that seem like they can almost have a missed potential depending on when you read them, or the circumstances under which you read them, or the circumstance that you could make for yourself to give a book an entryway to be what it could be, instead of the skim-the-plot-and-skip-the-rest. And for some reason, this was the right time to read this book.

At the heart of Forrest’s memoir is her relationship with her psychiatrist, Dr R, a man who impacted her life so deeply. One day when she tries to call his office to make an appointment, she finds out that he has passed away unexpectedly, and it is this event that allows for her retrospection and consideration of the events that brought her to Dr R, her time in his care and conversation, and what follows after his death. She talks frankly about her own destructive behavior, including unhealthy relationships, self-harm and cutting, and bulimia. Her experience is scaffolded by some of the most reflective and beautiful writing I’ve read, and I was already reading and re-reading passages throughout this first read.

But along with Dr R is her highly publicized relationship with her “Gypsy Husband,” and although she never refers to him by any other name, this man seems to be actor Colin Farrell, who she was with a few years ago. Susan Sarandon, Heath Ledger, and Robert Downey Junior also make appearances in the novel (Forrest sends Downy Junior mix tapes when he is in jail). The careful way that Forrest constructs this memoir is what makes it so affecting, a movement between far past and near past that shapes her recovery and daily living with manic depression.

Forrest’s writing style wraps up these new ways of saying familiar things in whimsical, almost bewitching language. Any passage from the book could be highlighted below, but these were some of my favorites:

1. “It’s almost always pills with women. It’s a gentle seeping out women seek, like on a classic soul record, when the volume on Otis Redding just slowly gets turned down until he’s gone. What happens after the fade-out? What are the musicians doing now in that room? Take me there. Take me there.”

2. “On my third or fourth day there, they bring in a homeless boy who has, like many patients, been picked up from the streets. He has a swastika carved into his forehead because voices told him to do it. I am extremely scared of him, do I force myself to make conversation. He asks what I’m listening to on my Walkman and, ashamed, I say ‘George Michael.’ ‘I like George Michael,’ he says, furious at me for making it seem shameful. Never use pop culture as delineator with someone who hears voices. You don’t know what they hear between the melodies. On my last day, I leave him my Walkman and all my music. I wonder if it’s easier to navigate a stay in a psychiatric hospital now iPods exist, or if it impedes progress.”

3. “At our hotel, a red-faced yelling man wakes us at 6 a.m. with his red face and yelling. The tray of breakfast we’d ordered is not nearly as sodden as his demands that GH cast his kids in the movie. I link any problem I have had since then directly to the foul yelling man, as if he were the sorceress entering the ball on my wedding night.”

I absolutely loved this book for its honesty, poignancy, and frankness, and I know I'll be picking up her other novels soon. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison

Louise Rennison’s (1999-2009) ten-book series about fourteen-year-old Georgia Nicolson, a British teen who writes elaborate journal entries, began with Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging. Louise Rennison, a British comedian, is amazing, and the interviews she gives about the Georgia Nicolson series on her website are hilarious. I sort of remember her saying in one of them that she forgot to change the names of the characters before sending the book to her editor, so that characters like Robbie and Wet Lindsey in the book actually parallel a real Robbie and a real Wet Lindsey. It has since been adapted into a movie that mostly follows with the plot of the book, if not completely, at least in keeping with the way that Georgia introduces herself to her audience, through a short list entitled “There are six things very wrong with my life”:

1. I have one of those under-the-skin spots that will never come to a head but lurk in a red way for the next two years.

2. It is on my nose.

3. I have a three-year-old sister who may have peed somewhere in my room.

4. In fourteen days the summer hols will be over and then it will be back to Stalag 14 and Oberfuhrer Frau Simpson and her bunch of sadistic “teachers.”

5. I am very ugly and need to go into an ugly home.

6. I went to a party dressed as a stuffed olive.

Georgia is by far one of my favorite characters in young adult literature. Sometimes her voice and vocab just get things so right, and every time a new book in this series came out, I would seriously rush to the bookstore and finish it in the same day.

This first book introduces readers to Georgia and her Ace Gang: Jas, Rosie, Julia, and Ellen. It mostly follows Georgia’s romantic attempts with Robbie the Sex God, the guitarist of the band The Stiff Dylans and her best friend Jas’s involvement with Robbie’s brother Tom. And in between that is school, concerts, family, and hanging out with friends, and Georgia’s cutting observation of it all. Georgia’s school classes are a particular highlight of the books, and, in Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging, Georgia explains:

Home, exhausted from laughing. My ribs hurt. Slim had made me be on cloakroom duty for the next term but I don’t care – it was worth it.

Well…here is what happened. It was during double physics and it was just one of those afternoons when you can’t stop laughing and you feel a bit hysterical. For most of the lesson I had been yelling, “Jawohl, Herr Kommandant!” and clicking my heels together every time Herr Hamyer asked if we understood what he had been explaining. We were doing the molecular structure of atoms and how they vibrate.

Herr Kamyer was illustrating his point with the aid of some billiard balls on a tea towel on his desk. It was giving me the giggles anyway, and then I put my hand up because I had thought of a good joke. I put my hand up with the finger pointing forward, like in “Who ate all the pies?” and when Herr Kamyer said, “Yes?” I said, “Herr Kamyer, what part does the tea towel play in the molecular structure?”

That is when Herr Kamyer made his fateful mistake – he said, “Ach, no, I merely use the tea towel to keep my balls still.” It was pandemonium.

Some of my favorite books in the series include the staging of Macbeth (or, as Georgia calls it, MacUseless), Peter Pan, and Romeo and Juliet (again, to Georgia this is Rom and Juls and during the set building Georgia points out, “if Dave the Laugh and his mates have anything to do with building the scenery, the balcony scene is bound to quite literally bring the house down”). The jokes and context and relationships get so complicated and layered, that a few books in I’ll want to read a part out loud and think I’m reading the most hilarious thing, but some of it will be tied up with what happened before. I think that’s great – the books might not be standalone, but the entire series is so worth reading.