A Visit From the Goon Squad

A Visit From the Goon Squad Book Cover

Author: Jennifer Egan
Winner: 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award, 2010 LA Times Book Prize for Fiction, 2010 Salon Book Award for Fiction, 2011 Tournament of Books Winner, 2010 NYT Notable Book of the Year, 2011 ALA Notable Book
New York Times Bestseller
Original Publication: 2010
Genre: Fiction
Appears on “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die”, 2012 Edition

In 1979 San Francisco, the punk scene is burgeoning and Bennie, Scotty, Jocelyn, Rhea, and their friends are on the front lines. Bennie and Scotty are the leaders of the Flaming Dildos, a band hopeful of making it big among the likes of their local idols Flipper, The Nuns, and the Dead Kennedys. If the lyrics to the Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper” had a literary equivalent, this novel would be it.

“Marky got with Sharon, Sharon got Charice, she was sharin’ Sharon’s outlook on the topic of disease. Mikey had a facial scar and Bobby was a rapist, they were all in love with dyin’, they were doing it in Texas. Tommy played piano like a kid out in the rain and then he lost his leg in Dallas, he was dancin’ with a train. They were all in love with dyin’, they were drinking from a fountain that was pouring like an avalanche, comin’ down the mountain.” – The Butthole Surfers, “Pepper”

The book begins in present-day with Sasha, Bennie’s sticky-fingered assistant. Bennie now owns his own record label, which is floundering due to his raw sensibilities not aligning with the popular trends. Scotty, once called “the only truly angry one of the bunch”, has disappeared into obscurity. Each chapter is told by a different character, and serves to illustrate the rise and fall of each, against the backdrop of the rise and fall of punk music. Each character is part of Bennie or Sasha’s past, present, or future, and the novel spans about fifty years, well beyond present day.

We follow the characters from San Francisco to New York City, from Italy to Kenya as they age out of their youthful idealism, explore what it means to each to “sell out”, and cross into the bewilderment of the seasoned musician with the present-day music scene – what happened to the idealism? The rebellion? What happened to the creativity and artistry? What have we become? The entire book is heartbreaking in the best way, largely because Egan is such a gifted writer that each character feels a little TOO human, and their thoughts and actions hit frighteningly close to our imperfect natures. As a fellow aging punk musician, I could empathize with the fond remembrances of a life that exists now only in memory.

The last chapter, set in a terrifying dystopian near future, finds that Bennie – now elderly and no longer at the top of his game – has tracked down a decaying Scotty and decided to make him famous. Society lives entirely on their cell phones, communicating solely in text-speak, and the music scene died long ago, only to be resurrected and aimed at children. Bands like Nine Inch Nails have reinvented themselves to appeal to toddlers in a bid to stay relevant. The human race, after decades of war and big-brother surveillance, is lost and brainwashed; despite movements for truth on the internet. Liars and paid bloggers have been shamed and shunned. Bennie knows that there is no way that he can drum up enough publicity for Scotty’s show, so he hires a team of blind parrots – social media experts whom he knows are easily bought – to promote the event. He knows that his reputation will be shot and he will be drummed out of what’s left of his business if he is found out, but the blind parrots do their job and the people of New York City wander to the free show in droves to see Scotty play. Part of what draws them is the promise of a slide guitar – most people have never seen a real musical instrument played live in their lifetimes. Scotty panics and nearly can’t play – especially the new songs he had engineered for the children – but instead plays the subversive, three-chord, angry punk rock songs he has been writing his entire life. The crowd – men, women, and children alike – listen agape as if being given their first sip of water after forty years in the desert. Punk rock, like the Phoenix, rises from the ashes and again becomes the voice of the disenfranchised; of those who would change the status quo.

Fun Fact: “Goon squads” were originally groups of violent thugs who would beat up anyone opposed to certain labor unions and corrupt political machines. Later the term “goon” came to refer more generally to any violent thug, and this is where the book draws its central metaphor. In one story, a character named Bosco declares: “Time’s a goon, right?”, referring to the way that time and fate cruelly rob most of the book’s characters of their youth, innocence and success. As Bosco complains: “How did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about?” Egan said the story was inspired by two sources: Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and HBO’s The Sopranos.

Bother If: I thought this was an amazingly well-written story, and I don’t think my punk rock background and nostalgia for the old school, so to speak, has colored my glasses in that regard. Certainly people with some familiarity with popular music over the past fifty years will get more out of the story. Despite having “given away the ending” above, it’s not the ending that makes the story worth reading. The book isn’t about the resurgence of punk rock in a dystopian future, although I found that part to be delicious. The story is about people, finding their way through the world and wondering where time went, or finding their way into the world via music. Each character is us, in their way. They’re each so intricately written that you genuinely care about them, and you recognize in yourself the ways that each compromises along the way. Bennie and Scotty are merely part of the larger story – I haven’t touched on how wonderful each character is, and how uniquely voiced. The story is also a solid metaphor for the current state of the music industry. Music is increasingly written by social engineers and aimed at the tween crowd. Live instruments are becoming more rare, and the artists elevated for their star quality and marketability rather than talent, innovation, and creativity. Goon Squad carries this practice to its logical (but hopefully not foregone) conclusion, where all music is marketed toward the youngest demographic / lowest common denominator, and all originality is gone.

Don’t Bother If: The novel is told by a different character in each chapter (although they are all interrelated). Some people dislike that style of writing or find it jarring or confusing. The book also does not make it clear who is speaking by the chapter names – you find out a page or two in, by the context. The novel also jumps between time periods, which one also must figure out by the context. There are also depictions of sex, drug use, adultery, prostitution, etc, although all are very much part of the experience of the story and not graphically told. Needless to say, don’t bother if the subject matter doesn’t interest you; but if you’re ambivalent about it, object to nothing above, and enjoy a great story, this one is worth a read.

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The Rent Collector

The Rent Collector Book Cover

Author: Camron Wright
Winner: 2012 Book of the Year Gold Winner (Foreword Magazine), 2012 Best Novel of the Year (Whitney Awards), Honorable Mention (Great Southwest Book Festival), 2013 One Read Selection (California Chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma Society of Outstanding Women Educators)
Original Publication: 2012
Genre: Fiction

The Rent Collector takes place in Cambodia in the aftermath of the Pol Pot / Khmer Rouge Communist regime. Sang Ly and her husband, Ki Lim, are “pickers”; that is, they live in a shantytown in Stung Meanchey, the garbage dump outside Phnom Penh, and make their living picking through the trash for recyclables. Owing to their poor living conditions, their infant son, Nisay, is chronically ill. Their existence is punctuated once per month by the appearance of the rent collector, Sopeap Sin. Sopeap Sin is an elderly, unpleasant and often drunk woman who squeezes every last dime from the residents of Stung Meanchey. Like all tenants, they pay in order to avoid being thrown into the street, which actually seems marginally better to me than living in a tarpaper shack atop a burning pile of garbage.

One day, Ki Lim is robbed by a roving gang and when Sopeap Sin arrives to collect the rent, Sang Ly is unable to pay. Ki Lim did manage to bring home a book, thinking that the illustrations would at least amuse Nisay. The Khmer Rouge executed much of the educated populace in favor of easily controlled poor, so nobody they know is able to read. Sopeap Sin threatens the family, but when she glimpses Nisay’s book, she falls to her knees, greedily thumbing through it, and Sang Ly begins to suspect that Sopeap Sin can secretly read. The two strike up a bargain, and Sopeap Sin agrees to teach Sang Ly. Sang Ly quickly discovers that Sopeap Sin not only can read, but is highly educated and knows all about literature. They begin reading and discussing stories.

Meanwhile, Sang Ly has dreamed that the Healer in her home province holds the key to Nisay’s health, and the family begins to make plans to travel there. When they return, Sopeap Sin has disappeared and they discover that she is gravely ill. Sang Ly and her family immediately set about finding her and solving the mystery of who she really is before her time runs out.

Fun Fact: The story is fiction, but Stung Meanchey, Sang Ly and her family, and many of the other characters in the story are real. The Rent Collector was based on a documentary called River of Victory. The author wove a fictional story about the actual people, imagining what might happen if a family under those circumstances were given the gift of literacy. Stung Meanchey closed in 2009 and an alternate dump was opened, upon which no homes are allowed. Most of the pickers who lived there are now on the streets of Phnom Penh.

Bother if: I read this novel in a sitting, and may have teared up a few times. It’s a truly wonderful story; some say about the triumph and perseverance of the human spirit. It is, but I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as an homage to the written word, and the story of a woman who begins to realize that stories – her stories, her neighbor’s stories, all written stories – are the key to her freedom at least spiritually, if not physically. It is her literacy which makes every opportunity possible. It is her literacy which opens up her entire worldview. I particularly enjoyed a section where Sang Ly laments that either she doesn’t understand Moby Dick, or Herman Melville was a terrible writer, because ‘good’ and ‘evil’ to her are fairly concrete concepts. After an incident which is anything but black and white, Sang Ly reflects on Moby Dick, realizing that Herman Melville understood the human experience perfectly after all – no hero is all good, and no villain is all evil.

Don’t bother if: There isn’t anything inordinately offensive about this book. I thought it was a very engaging story, but the subject matter is necessarily grim. I’m not sure I’ve read a story about a more destitute group of people. Destitute, however, does not equal hopeless. That said, “feel good” stories aren’t everybody’s cup of tea, either. As for me, I didn’t think I’d be at all interested in the depressing subject matter, and would not have ever chosen to read this without the catalyst of a book club meeting to spur me on, but I am pleased to have read it. I am, however, a sucker for homages to literature.

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Lullaby Book Cover

Author: Chuck Palahniuk
Winner: Pacific Northwest Bookseller’s Association Award, 2003; Bram Stoker Award, Best Novel, 2002 (nominee)
Original Publication: 2002
Genre: Fiction, Satire, Horror

Reporter Carl Streator has lost his wife and infant daughter under mysterious circumstances. His daughter’s death, having been ruled SIDS, results in Carl being assigned to investigate local reports of crib death. As he visits nursery after nursery, he discovers that what all of these deaths have in common is a single book present: Poems and Rhymes from Around the World. Each copy is open to the same page. To Carl’s horror, he realizes that he, too, read from this book on the night his wife and daughter died.

Carl’s research reveals that the poem in question is actually a “culling song”, which has the magical power to kill anyone it is spoken aloud to. Mad with grief over recognizing that he killed his family, Carl accidentally memorizes the culling song and becomes an unintentional serial killer. Horrified with himself, Carl teams up with Helen Hoover Boyle, a witch-slash-realtor who sells the same haunted houses over and over for a living. While Helen can’t stop Carl from using the song, she agrees with him that they need to track down every existing copy of the book and destroy the page which contains the killer poem. Meanwhile, Carl’s stress has increased to the point that he no longer needs to speak the song aloud in order to kill – it has grown so powerful in his mind that he need only think the words to someone, and they drop dead.

Carl and Helen set off on their road trip, accompanied by Helen’s assistant Mona and her sociopathic environmental terrorist boyfriend, Oyster. When they find that the source of the culling song is an ancient spellbook (or grimoire), they vow to locate and destroy it as well. Their mission is further complicated by the fact that Oyster wants the grimoire for nefarious purposes, and they must keep it out of his hands. As they travel, Carl becomes increasingly disconnected from reality.

Fun Fact: The author began work on Lullaby on the heels of his father’s murder. Fred Palahniuk was dating a woman whose ex-husband, Dale Shackleford, was in prison for sexual abuse. Upon his release, Shackleford followed his former wife and Palahniuk home after a date and murdered them. Chuck Palahniuk, who had long struggled with his opinion of capital punishment, was asked to be part of the decision whether his father’s murderer should receive the death penalty.

Bother if: This was by far my favorite novel I’ve read by Chuck Palahniuk. It was funny, horrific, dark, and fascinating, and I have given away very few of the details which made it such an entertaining read. It’s also quite a bit less graphic than much of the author’s more recent work, while still retaining the imaginative qualities that make his stories so engaging. The end of the story had me on the edge of my seat, unable to stop reading. Carl Streator is an endearingly cynical character, and the reader is treated to his hilariously disjointed thoughts throughout the story.

“Centuries ago, sailors on long voyages used to leave a pair of pigs on every deserted island. Or they’d leave a pair of goats. Either way, on any future visit, the island would be a source of meat. These islands, they were pristine. These were home to breeds of birds with no natural predators. Breeds of birds that lived nowhere else on earth. The plants there, without enemies they evolved without thorns or poisons. Without predators and enemies, these islands, they were paradise. The sailors, the next time they visited these islands, the only things still there would be herds of goats or pigs… Does this remind you of anything? Maybe the ol’ Adam and Eve story? …You ever wonder when God’s coming back with a lot of barbecue sauce?”

Don’t Bother if: If you’re already a fan of the author’s work, you will enjoy this story. If you’re curious about the author and looking to put your toe in, Lullaby is an excellent place to start. Like many of Palahniuk’s stories, however, this is no exception in that it contains disturbing sexual interludes, violence, murder, and the unsettling habits of the mentally unbalanced.

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Memories of My Melancholy Whores (Memoria de Mis Putas Tristes)

Memories of My Melancholy Whores Book Cover

Original Title: Memoria de Mis Putas Tristes
Winner: Nobel Prize for Literature (awarded to author, not this particular novel), 1982
Original Language: Spanish
Translation: Edith Grossman, 2005
Author: Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Original Publication: 2004
Genre: Fiction, Romance, Novella

“The year I turned 90, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.”

So begins the tale of our nameless small-town newspaper columnist and the 14-year old prostitute he dubs “Delgadina.” Lest one think that the ‘ick’ factor is too high before we even begin, I will assure you that it isn’t. This isn’t Lolita. Gabriel Garcia Marquez deals in unlikely romance, and this novella is no exception. Our hero calls local madam and old friend Rosa Cabarcas, who tells him in no uncertain terms that he is out of his mind. “…it can’t be done, she said without the slightest doubt, but it doesn’t matter, it’s more exciting this way, what the hell, I’ll call you in an hour.”

Time and time again when he slips into bed with the sleeping girl, he can’t bring himself to wake her. They are ships passing in the night. Nonetheless, he finds himself falling in love with Delgadina at age 90; an adolescent romance come full circle at the end of his life. He reflects upon his past conquests – hundreds of them – and muses that he has never made love to a woman whom he has not paid. He paints a picture of one too terrified to love for the entirety of his life; even leaving his fiancee at the altar as a young man. It is a comical turn for a man of his age: all his life, he has been offered love which he did not return. How torturous to finally experience love unrequited!

He reflects upon his past romances, turning his newspaper column into a series of “love letters for everyone.” This results in a resurgence of his popularity as finally he isn’t simply a doddering and cranky old man, he is someone everyone can see a bit of themselves in. Without giving anything away, I was particularly fond of the passages where he describes his housekeeper, who pined over him for 22 years, and of the passages describing running into the woman he left at the altar and her revenge. It’s a fun juxtaposition to listen to him recollect them with such fondness; yet these are women whom you know he did not love. One comes to understand that he has never traded love for any of the things he could have had for it – a wife, children, family, companionship, partnership. He has been offered everything, yet has never accepted if there was not love. Despite all of his faults and ridiculous shortcomings, he has a queer sort of integrity.

Fun Fact: A Persian edition of Memories of My Melancholy Whores was published in Iran in October 2007, under the title “Memories of My Melancholy Sweethearts.” The first edition of 5K sold out within three weeks of publication, after which it was banned after the Ministry of Culture received complaints from conservatives who believed the novel was promoting prostitution. The novella can be read online for free in its entirety here.

Bother if: It’s a novella by a man who, up until his death in April 2014, was arguably the world’s greatest living author. It is also short enough to be read in a sitting. What more excuse do you need? I thought that the story was delightfully told, and Edith Grossman’s translation is very accessible. Having read an English translation of Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera which was quite difficult, this was refreshing and made me fall in love with his writing all over again. Part of what makes the story such fun is that one rarely has an opportunity to see the world from the point of view of a man his age. Yes, he’s cantankerous and set in his ways, but he’s also a romantic, a poet, a man with a sense of humor, a man with regrets, a sexual being. By the end, I was utterly charmed.

Don’t Bother if: There is sex, although nothing graphically depicted. No character is sexualized to any sort of distasteful degree, but some of the subject matter is a bit questionable. After all, it is the story of a man who has gleefully patronized prostitutes for his entire life, and wishes for his final ‘hurrah’, so to speak, to be a virgin first-time prostitute 76 years his junior. It’s also a romance, if an atypical one, and highly poetic. Lovers of Marquez’ other novels will enjoy it. Those who find his writing style too flowery or the premise offensive should skip this one.

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Sexing the Cherry

Sexing the Cherry Book Cover

Author: Jeanette Winterson
Original Publication: 1989
Genre: Fiction, Magical Realism
#187 on “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die”

On the surface, Sexing the Cherry is the story of an abandoned baby boy, and the grotesque giantess who finds him on the grimy banks of the Thames. Beneath the surface, the novel is part history, part reality, part past, present, and future, and a lot of magic and fairy tale. Set in 17th century England during Oliver Cromwell and Charles I’s time, we are plunged into the world of Jordan and the murderous Dog-Woman; who is, in the author’s words, “perhaps the only woman in English fiction confident enough to use filth as a fashion accessory.”

Jordan, infected from a young age with wanderlust, befriends John Tradescant, explorer and gardener to the King. The Dog-Woman has always known he will leave her. She recalls bringing Jordan to court at age three to see a curiosity – a banana, and the first ever to arrive in England. The townspeople gathered around, clucking and making remarks, and a fortune-teller tells the Dog-Woman that while many will love Jordan, he will only love once, and his beloved will destroy him.

“…I noticed a woman whose face was a sea voyage I had not the courage to attempt.”

Jordan sets sail with Tradescant, all the while chasing a dancer he once met, who may or may not be the twelfth dancing princess from the famous fairy tale. The Dog-Woman passes her time attempting to make sense of what God wants for her, and from her. She exacts eye-for-an-eye revenge on a hypocritical neighbor, and takes the preached metaphor so literally that she ends up lining her watercress beds with human teeth to aid the drainage. The juxtaposition of the intellectual simplicity of the Dog-Woman and her keen insight into humanity is extremely well done. I recall chuckling at a passage where she bites off a man’s penis (in her ignorance of how fellatio should be performed), because she thinks that they grow back like lizard’s tails. After spending time in a whorehouse, she realizes that penises do not regenerate. Rather than be horrified at disfiguring the previous man, she is amused and thinks to herself that it is indeed unfortunate for men that penises DON’T grow back, seeing as how according to everything she knows, men don’t seem to be very mindful of where they put them.

Fun Fact: Obviously, Jordan and the Dog-Woman are fictional characters, but the backdrop of 17th-century London contains real historical figures. Most notably, I learned that John Tradescant was a real person – botanist, explorer, and royal gardener who brought the first pineapple to England. Historical fiction novelist Philippa Gregory’s “Earthly Joys” is about John Tradescant.

Bother if: This book was very different than most I have read, and was a short, enjoyable read. The story bounces around periods, indicating that time is not a linear construct and that the past, present, and future do not exist. There are houses which are all ceilings and no floors, a floating city in the clouds, and, of course, twelve dancing princesses. There is a little girl whose body grows large enough to encompass her personality, and a little boy who still believes in the magic of the moon. “People say the magic has gone out of the moon now that someone’s stood on it. I don’t think so. It would take more than a man’s foot to steal the moon.” I particularly enjoyed the poetic language and the metaphysical aspects of the story.

Don’t Bother if: To say that the Dog-Woman is rough around the edges is to put it far too mildly. She is repulsive in every facet except her heart. There are also depictions of murder, revenge, rape, torture, dismemberment, and sex including prostitution, group sex, homosexuality, necrophilia, and more. None are graphically told (the mental pictures you supply yourself are more than sufficient), but this is not a novel for everyone, and particularly not younger than mid-teens, depending on the level of maturity. There are also depictions of public executions characteristic of the time period, which were commonplace then and seem particularly brutal today. I thought that it was a wonderfully unique and entertaining story and would recommend it, but I was taken aback by some things. That said, the violence in the story did serve to paint a full picture, rather than simply being there for its own sake or for shock value. The narrative also shifts between characters and time periods. While I did not find it confusing in this instance, some dislike that style of storytelling.

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