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February 12, 2008

Book Notes - Janice Erlbaum ("Have You Found Her")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

Two years ago Janice Erlbaum published Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir, and though the book was highly recommended by several friends I never found the time to read it. When Have You Found Her showed up on my doorstep recently, and I immediately started the book, not taking a break until I finished it several hours later.

When Have You Found Her unfolds like a well-written novel. The characters are striking, believable and often haunting, and Erlbaum's memoir shares the same traits.

Newsday wrote of the book:

"'Have You Found Her' reminds us why we as a culture are drawn to memoir - these beautiful, imperfect characters will remain a fixture in your head. The story continues to live beyond its pages, because the reader is left with the sensation that these very real women still are walking around, thinking about each other, and will for the rest of their lives."

Janice Erlbaum reads from the book on February 27th at the Brooklyn Book Court with Jami Attenberg, who calls the author "one of the shiniest stars in the universe."

In her own words, here is Janice Erlbaum's Book Notes essay for her memoir, Have You Found Her:

In my second memoir, Have You Found Her, I describe what happened when I returned to the homeless shelter for teens where I’d spent some time in my youth – this time, as a thirty-four-year-old volunteer. There I forged a relationship with a young, brilliant, damaged junkie named Sam, following her over the course of a year from the shelter, to a detox, to a psych ward, to a rehab, to a halfway house, and finally to a hospital, where she lay near death, suffering from the effects of her former lifestyle. Then, just when it looked like things couldn’t get any worse, I discovered that the girl I’d been poised to adopt was sicker than anybody knew, in ways nobody could have imagined.

Here’s a soundtrack for the book, in some sort of chronological order. Call it, “Songs to Lose Your Almost-Adopted Daughter, While Finding Out Painful but Imperative Things About Your Own Psychological Issues, To.”

“Wild World,” by Cat Stevens

The epigraph for the book is taken from this song, one of my favorites. I used to like this song because it reminded me of myself as a lost, f*cked up teenager. Now I have a whole new lost, f*cked up teenager with whom to associate it.

“She’s Out of My Life,” Michael Jackson

Before I met Sam, I had other favorite girls at the shelter – my first was an eighteen-year-old girl named Precious who worked at McDonald’s and wanted to become the next Oprah. She expressed her dismay at the ongoing Michael Jackson child abuse trial, claiming that she knew he was innocent, as she’d been listening to Michael “since [she] was a young girl.” I made her a mixed CD of MJ songs, and brought it to my next shift, completely flouting the shelter rules forbidding volunteers from giving presents to the girls, but Precious was gone – she’d moved on to a new agency. She was, as Michael sang, out of my life.

“Minnesota Strip,” Venustra K. Robinson, Runaways soundtrack

This song comes from a little-known Broadway show from the 1970s called Runaways, written in part by actual street kids, and featuring a young Diane Lane as a kid prostitute. It’s a reminder of what Times Square was like when I was passing through as a runaway teenager; a reminder that there are still way too many adolescent girls and boys lured into the sex trade as a result of desperation, addiction, and abuse.

“Conceited,” Remy Ma

One of the many songs I listened to through multiple replays, hanging out with the girls in the lounge at the shelter (see also, “My Goodies,” by Ciara, “Laffy Taffy,” by D4L, anything by Usher). Fun fact: Remy Ma was indicted in 2007 for attempted murder, which is what the kids call “keepin’ it real.”

“Daddy Never Understood,” Deluxx Folk Implosion, Kids soundtrack

Sam was somewhat of an anomaly at the shelter – a white girl from the Midwest, more into punk and screamo and death metal than, say, reggaeton. Our first conversation was about the cast on her hand, which she’d acquired after punching a concrete wall; her own dad, she said, used to punch out the windows of whatever squat in whatever meth ghetto they were currently passing through.

“Fur Elise,” Beethoven

While visiting Sam at the psych ward to which she’d been temporarily remanded, I learned that she had taught herself to play the piano. She whipped out a flawless version of “Fur Elise” on the piano in the nuthouse rec room for me, and I realized for the first time that she was a complete f*cking savant.

“Burning Down the House,” Talking Heads

Ah, the exuberance of doing something just a little bit too much! I was getting in way over my head with my relationship with my Sam, spending all my time and energy on her, and it felt amazing.

“Let the Bodies Hit the Floor,” Drowning Pool; “Wait and Bleed,” Slipknot

My beloved domestic partner, Bill, made some mixed CDs for Sam while she was at her halfway house in Brooklyn. These are two of the selections he made, both of which were boffo hits with her.

“Ring the Alarm,” Buju Banton and Tenor Saw

And then she went into the hospital with meningitis. Ring the damn alarm.

“Crazy in Love,” Beyonce

And then she recovered, and got out of the hospital, and Bill and I took her to Coney Island for the day, where the DJ on the Polar Express ride blasted this song at peak volume, exhorting us all the while to “say hooooooo! (Hoooooo!) Say ho ho ho! (Ho ho ho!) Now screaaaaaaam!”

“Down With the Sickness,” Richard Cheese

And then she went back into the hospital, for what looked like the last time.

“Time in a Bottle,” Jim Croce

During all this, Bill and I were making plans for our commitment ceremony, where we would make our domestic partnership official. This is the song that convinced me that we should be committed (“I’ve looked around enough to know, you’re the one I want to go through time with”), and it was this ungodly cheesy song to which we danced our first wedded dance.

“Ne Me Quitte Pas,” Nina Simone

And then she went ahead and quitted me. But not in the way I thought she would. A loss greater than death; a grief like only Nina could sing.

“So Damn Beautiful,” Poloroid

Then came the haunting. The mourning, the recriminations, the revelation of the mysteries. The tragedy of Sam is encompassed in this song.

“Part of Your World,” Little Mermaid Soundtrack

Bill and I were supposed to bring Sam to Disney World as a reward for her getting clean and staying sober for a year, but in the end, we had to go without her. We were in the Magic Kingdom watching a 3-D movie called “Mickey’s Philhar-magic,” which featured this song, and I started crying – for Sam, for myself, for the girl I’d once overheard at the shelter singing it, in her pure, clear, child’s voice: “I want to be where the people are…” That’s all any of the girls at the shelter ever wanted – to be part of the world.

“Since U Been Gone,” Kelly Clarkson

I used this song title as the title of the last chapter of the book. If you know the lyrics, you’ll have some idea how the book ends. Basically, I can breathe for the first time. Also, I’m so movin’ on. Yeah, yeah!

Janice Erlbaum and Have You Found Her links:

the author's website
the book's page at the publisher
an excerpt from the book

caribousmom review
Living Read Girl review
meeyauw review
Newsday review

Gothamist interview with the author
Time Out New York profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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