Tag Archives: Anchor Books

Review: A Visit From the Goon Squad

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

TitleA Visit From the Goon Squad
Author Jennifer Egan
Twitter:  @Egangoonsquad
Published: 2011
ISBN 139780307477477
PublisherAnchor
Publisher’s BlurbBennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad is like no other book I’ve ever read.  A work of sheer brilliance, difficult to describe.  Thirteen stories loosely bound together by a group of characters with a connection to record producer Bennie Salazar.  Told from different perspectives, different times, and non-linearly. If someone had tried to explain it to me, I probably would have said, “sounds interesting but I have other things to read.”  But when mentor M. Todd Gallowglas said it was his favorite book, and we were going to spend November working with it, I dug right in. Although I was skeptical about the all month part.

The first time through, I was so enthralled I read it all in one sitting.  The second time took almost two weeks and required a spreadsheet and a text document for over 30 pages of notes.  Before the end of November, there may be a third reading because I still have a list of topics I want to explore.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is multi-layered and rich.  No real true main character, no real true plot, each story stands alone.  Goon Squad is the literal meaning of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

The big theme is Time.  It’s really a character in itself and overshadows every part of this book.  “Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?” (p. 332) Bennie says this to an old punk rocker as he’s being cajoled to go on stage.  Time’s a goon, it beats up on all of us. No matter how hard we try to push back, time always wins. The stories in A Visit from the Goon Squad take us through the journey of how time has beaten up on all the characters, none of them come out of the fight well.  It’s a reminder that none of us ever will.

Telling the stories out of chronological order makes for a much richer experience.  There are little moments of “aha!” as the pieces drop into place. Clues in one story relate directly to another providing a deeper insight to a character or an incident.  I agree with Egan’s assessment that ordering the stories in chronological order would have fallen flat and not had the emotional punch the non-chronological order does.

Music, and the music business is another major theme.  Bennie’s life revolves around punk music, so too the other characters in A Visit From the Goon Squad, in some way. We meet Sasha, Bennie’s assistant for twelve years, in the first story “Found Objects,” while on a date with Alex, who figures prominently in the last story, “Pure Language.”

Scotty Haussmann was a high school mate of Bennie’s in a punk band named the Flaming Dildos.  A name so naturally perfect for punk bands in the late 70s, and still deliciously subversive now.  A warning, don’t look it up on the internet, it will render scars.

Scotty appears in a total of three stories, and so it goes.  Each character teasingly drawn out across time and geography, their back stories filled in as we are shuttled through the drama.  But not all details are revealed, just enough to help us fill in the gaps and make us wonder.

The PowerPoint presentation called “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” written by Sasha’s twelve-year-old daughter, Alison, gives insight to Sasha and her life in the desert with her husband, and her family, years after Bennie and New York City

Each character is problematic, and broken in search of redemption with a nostalgic look back to the “better” days.  Hardest for me were Lou Kline, Bennie’s mentor in the record business, and Bennie’s brother-in-law, Jules Jones.

Stereotypically, Lou’s position in the music business places him in the realm of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  He preys on younger women. High school aged Jocelyn’s story is told through Rhea’s voice, both friends of Bennie.  In “As if I Care,” Rhea relates details which take the story from stereotype to a more full understanding of society’s (with Lou as proxy) view of young women.  These details lead to Jocelyn’s destruction and attempt to push back at the goon. Her story is important and deserves the recognition that while Jocelyn’s story is not unusual, there’s nothing normal about it.  Nor should it ever be thought normal.

Jules Jones’ story is told in “40-Minute Lunch.”  His desire to be young again, to have what starlet Kitty Jackson has at age nineteen leads to sexual assault.  Which sends Kitty on her own destructive route and her chance at redemption in “Selling the General.” After a few years in prison, Jules finds his own redemption in “A to B.”

The connective tissue of character and story are what makes A Visit From the Goon Squad so fascinating.  Egan is one of the most talented writers I’ve read, and has said in interviews that she likes to try something different with each new work.  (See her story in the New Yorker titled “Black Box,” as an example.)

Goon Squad taught me a new way of reading and critical writing, making it a pivotal book in my own work.  Reading it is more than a worthwhile adventure, it’s a shining example of what good storytelling can be.

Book List: Black in America

This is an incomplete list of books I’ve read which have helped me understand what it means to be “other,” based on skin color. They make my heart ache, and think more deeply about my own privilege of being white.

Between the World and MeTa-Nehisi Coates
The Beautiful StruggleTa-Nehisi Coates
We Should All Be Feminists NowChimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Not a Genuine Black ManBrian Copeland
By Any Means NecessaryMalcolm X
BelovedToni Morrison

Review: The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
The Blind Assassin
by Mararet Atwood

Title: The Blind Assassin
Author: Margaret Atwood
Published: 2000
ISBN-13: 9780385720847
Publisher: Anchor Books

[My bones] ache like history:  things long done with.

An elderly lady writes her memoirs, revealing dark family secrets.  Within those secrets is the book The Blind Assassin, a science fiction novel.  Surrounding this novel within a novel is that tale of two lovers who meet surreptitiously and spin yarns.

Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors.  I often feel like there’s something just skimming below the surface in her stories, but if I look too hard it will skitter away.  And the sheer perversity of this outlandish science fiction tale in the middle of a story of two mystery lovers wrapped in the memoirs of an elderly lady looking back can be fascinating at times.

This was my second read, and found it didn’t hold as well as the first.

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Review: We Should All Be Feminists

We Should All Be Feminists
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Title: We Should All Be Feminists
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published: 2012
ISBN-13: 978-1-101-91176-1
Publisher: Anchor Books

Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problems of gender. … It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women.  (p. 41)

This is a little book I want to send everyone I know.  But especially the young women.    It’s also hard to choose just one quote to use in a review.  I found myself wanting to quote the entire essay.

Based on her TedTalk, Adichie’s essay is rich and powerful.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s perspective is that of black woman who has experienced sexism in both her home country of Nigeria, and in America.  She addresses herself to the men she encounters and explains what it feels like to be looked upon as an object, especially by those who have experienced other forms of oppression – like racism.

I identify as a white woman born to a certain amount of privilege because of my whiteness.  There was much to learn from Adichie about being a black woman.  And many things she says about sexism and the need for feminism resonate deeply.

This essay touches on the many ways sexism is normalized in all parts of society; from schools appointing only boy class monitors to corporations with mostly men on their boards and how marriages can be affected by this normalization.

This little book is something I’ll be reading again, and again.  Adichie’s eloquence is something to savored, and thought over as we continue to confront the issues of gender equality around the world.

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