Tag Archives: Jennifer Egan

Review: 2018 Reading

Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The Geek Feminist Revolution by Karmeron Hurley
The Calculating Stars signature
Binti by Nnedi Okarafor
River Queens by Alexander Watson
How Fiction Works by James Wood
The Queen of Crows by Myke Cole
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

For the first time in so many years, I’m not in utter misery looking into the New Year.  2019 holds great promise and hope for me. As unexpected as that is to say, it comes as a great relief.  Books and lists are the great constant. The great coping mechanism of all time, making lists. It was like the sun shone only on me the day I realized I could combine the two and keep my sanity.

One blissful weekend in August when I was hanging out with other geeks and nerds who loved what I did my vague dissatisfaction was temporarily banished.  I went to panels about writing, met authors (and a real live astronaut), sat in lines with others and talked about writing. Frequently amused that wherever there was a line, we all had some kind of device out in order to read. My device was dead tree style.

Exhaustion was my companion the entire con, but gods I was happy.  Happy? How could that possibly be? When WorldCon 76 San Jose was over, the sticky film of vague unrest returned.  Barf, I thought (or words to that effect, anyway). Inklings filtered through my overtaxed, hyperalert brain.

When great ideas hit it can feel like a jolt of lightning, adrenaline flowing through my spine.  This idea was quieter. An author I met at WorldCon started posting about teaching writing. And so I asked, “do you have something for me?”  His probing questions finally got me to the bottom of my unrest. “I want to learn to read and write about books better.”

And that’s how I found a mentor, and made the last quarter of 2018  happy. Best decision of my life ever. It’s not just the reading and writing which have evolved.  Unexpected personal growth came at me like sunshine filtered through open doors. Even on the hardest of hard days when I think I can’t even get out of bed, and the writing is like carving bricks of granite with my bare hands, I know I’ll be good.  Discovering the weird joys of LitCrit have given me a new dimension of meaning.

It is nearly impossible to pick just a few great books from 2018, but here’s my attempt at defining the seminal books for me.

2018 Books by the Numbers:

  • 68 read
  • 20,382 pages
  • 26 unique publication years
  • 40 unique author names
    • 19 female authors
    • 23 male authors
    • 26 new to me authors
  • 98 books new to the stacks
    • 48 new to the stacks read
    • 7 new to the stacks Pearl Ruled

Favorite Reads

The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood, Margaret
Even more relevant today than when first published, Atwood’s description of a dystopian, Puritanical society with no agency for women chills.  My review will focus on the use of Scripture as justification.
The Armored Saint by Cole, Myke
The Queen of Crows by Cole, Myke
Heloise is the hero we need now.  Tight, intricate, suspenseful story about a young woman leading the uprising against the religious order in charge.  Book 3, The Killing Light, comes out in 2019.
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Egan, Jennifer
Freakin’ brilliant.  We spent a month on it, I read it three times.  Don’t let the non-linear style throw you off. Egan tells a hell of a story.
American Gods by Gaiman, Neil
What happens when Old Gods realize they’re being squeezed out by the New Gods?  Just as fantastic on the second read.
My Journey in Creative Reading by Gallowglas, M. Todd
Don’t know how to review this book since he’s also my mentor.  Every bit is so good and resonated so deeply I knew I had the right guy.
The Geek Feminist Revolution by Hurley, Kameron
My love letter to Kameron who speaks the truth about being a woman so hard.  I continue to learn a lot from her about feminism and writing. GFR has earned a permanent place on my reference shelf.
The Calculating Stars by Kowal, Mary Robinette
The Fated Sky by Kowal, Mary Robinette
Speaking of feminism … Elma’s a wonderful example of all any human could be; blind spots and social anxiety and all.  Mary Robinette Kowal is as kind and generous as I had hoped. An hour with her and real live astronaut, Kjell Lindgren was more than I’d expected.  Excitedly waiting for two more Lady Astronaut books.
Beloved by Morrison, Toni
Because I am stubborn and refuse to read what “everyone” else is reading, it took an essay in The Methods of Breaking Bad, and some serious prodding from a trusted friend to read Toni Morrison’s classic.  Best opening line ever, “124 was spiteful.”
Binti by Okorafor, Nnedi
Binti: Home by Okorafor, Nnedi
Binti:  The Night Masquerade by Okorafor, Nnedi
Nnedi Okorafor’s brilliant story about a young African woman who breaks tribal taboos to go to university on another planet.  My review will focus on the bigotry Binti encounters on her quest.
River Queens by Watson, Alexander
Alexander Watson’s writing is elegant as he tells the tale of refurbishing a wooden boat and sailing her from Texas to Ohio.  His is the most polished debut I’ve read and I’m forever grateful he asked me to review it.
How Fiction Works by Wood, James
Every writer, every critic, every anyone interested in reading and writing needs to read How Fiction Works.  My review focuses on why critical reviewers should know about craft in order to write better themselves.

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.

New to the Stacks: Goons and Projections

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Projections: Science Fiction in Literature & Film – edited by Lou Anders

A Visit From the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan ~ read
Projections: Science Fiction in Literature & Film – edited by Lou Anders ~ read