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November 23, 2010

Book Notes - Janice Shapiro ("Bummer")

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

Janice Shapiro's debut short fiction collection Bummer brims with its lively depictions of smart, brave women. Shapiro's screenwriting background is not only evident in her gift for dialogue, but also as she fleshes out lively panoramic views of women on the edge.

HTMLGIANT wrote of the book:

"These stories have a narrative fluency I admire (reflecting, I’d wager, Shapiro’s screenwriting background). Overall, they’re sure-footed in both their pacing and their prose, and the book itself, as a collection, feels thematically and tonally right–a true collection, and not just an assemblage of work. Shapiro’s women, as subjects and objects, are likable and funny, and she handles their neuroses, compulsions, and heartaches with a deft hand. What I have appreciated most about Bummer this week is how it has entertained me, offered levity and tenderness without demanding anything more than that I grin and feel. This book shows up without showing off."

In her own words, here is Janice Shapiro's Book Notes music playlist for her short fiction collection, Bummer:

Like five-year-old Jenny in The Velvet Underground's "Rock and Roll," my life was saved by rock and roll. At least, that is what I thought for a long time. Now, I'm not so sure, but that's a whole other story. The point is from the moment I turned on the transistor radio and brought KHJ and KRLA into my life, rock and roll has been a part of me. I can't even define which part. I feel it in my head. I feel it in my heart. I feel it in my whole body. I feel it in my soul. Sadly, I am extremely unmusical. My role in the world of rock and roll is that of a fan and for many years I was an excellent fan. I loyally supported the bands I loved, buying all their records, going to their shows, spreading the word of their greatness near and far. To be a good fan, you have to care. You have to care deeply. And I did. I cared so much that, for better or worse, the music I love informs every word I write. I can probably site about twenty different songs as inspiration for each story in Bummer but I won't. I'll just name a single song, the most important one. I'm also going to focus on only four stories because, well, if you are like me and raised on rock and roll, your attention span isn't too great and I don't want to bore you.

"Bummer" -- "Killing Floor" – Howlin' Wolf

This may seem like an odd choice because the story, "Bummer," is about a punk girl's misadventures in Las Vegas in 1978 and there is so much really great punk music from that year. But when I was writing this story I listened to that Howlin' Wolf record over and over and the rhythm of the song, the beat, really drove the narrative forward. A lot happens to our protagonist, Alison, during a relatively short time span and I credit the then-this-can-happen-and-then-this-can-happen-and-then-this-can-happen to "Killing Floor." I highly recommend listening to this record if your characters are stuck and you want to get them moving again. I bet it'll work!

"1966" -- "Satisfaction (I Can't Get No)" – Rolling Stones

Although the song was released in 1965 and the story is 1966, I still think this is the story's perfect song. "Satisfaction" was a huge hit and for many years you had a pretty good chance of hearing "Satisfaction" every time you turned on your transistor radio. Indisputably a great song, it works well with this story because it is catchy, poppy and very dark. I mean, let's face it, Keith's opening guitar riff is menacing – almost like a siren – an alert that there are bad things out there. And I mean, really bad things. And although the narrator of 1966 is only nine years old, bad things (namely the fear of being murdered) are first and foremost on her mind. Then there're Mick's vocals that are eerily mellow, kind of like a parent issuing vague and completely dishonest promises for things that will never come to pass (another leit motif in the story). And of course, the chorus: "I can't get no… satisfaction" which pretty much sums up the mindset of the story's "safe" little suburban setting.

"Ennui" -- "The Creature From The Black Leather Lagoon" – The Cramps

This is just a suggestion of a song. You could listen to anything by The Cramps and it would work with "Ennui." The Cramps are an obvious choice because Shannon spends a good part of the story standing outside a club hoping to get into a sold-out Cramps show. Also, no one would ever call The Cramps music sincere and what Shannon is striving for is a safe detachment from real emotion, hence the title, "Ennui." This story takes place in 1978 and Shannon is a college student studying Film Theory and Criticism and The Cramps' whole oeuvre could be seen as a dissertation on American B Movies. Just the names of a lot of their songs ("Bikini Girls With Machine Guns" and "The Human Fly" to name two) sound like films out of American International Pictures. And Lux and Ivy lived in the same neighborhood as we did in L.A. and it was always a thrill to see them at Trader Joe's or Sav-On. I know that last point has nothing to do with why their music works with the story, "Ennui," but I just wanted to share it, anyways.

"The Old Bean" -- "Los Angeles" – X

"She had to leave – Los Angeles!" begins the song and that's pretty much what is going on with Penny in "The Old Bean." Penny is a middle aged woman whose husband has been transferred overseas and she is struggling to decide if she should join him. The reasons that are holding Penny back are not rooted in her relationship with her husband, but a nagging desire to clear up mistakes she made in the past. Of all the bands that defined my young adulthood, X would have to be the premiere one. For a time, they were the house band of L.A. They played often and that's what we wanted. We wanted to see X as often as we could. John and Exene's lyrics are truly poetic, their harmonies improbable and magical, Billy Zoom's rockabilly guitar riffs, out of place and perfect. There was no one like them then and there is no one like them now. As a band, as artists, X charted their own course. We, their fans, were also out there trying to chart our own courses, and maybe we made a few wrong decisions along the way, zigged when we should have zagged, but that is all in the past now. There is nothing much we can do about it. Can't change what's done. And that's what Penny learns in "The Old Bean": when it is time to leave Los Angeles – leave!

Janice Shapiro and Bummer links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book ("1966" at 52 Stories)

Baltimore City Paper review
Big Other review
The Rumpus review

L Magazine interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

Online "Best Books of 2010" lists

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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