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September 26, 2016

Book Notes - Christine Sneed "The Virginity of Famous Men"

The Virginity of Famous Men

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

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Christine Sneed's short fiction collection The Virginity of Famous Men shows impressive range, these stories are precisely written and emotionally charged.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"These marvelously precise and lucid stories, so rich in psychological insights, so propulsive, switch from funny to wrenching in a heartbeat. Like Ann Beattie, Amy Hempel, and Edith Pearlman, Sneed, as attuned to our buzzing-hive world as she is, writes timeless stories richly human in their empathy and wit, grace, and toughness."

In her own words, here is Christine Sneed's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection The Virginity of Famous Men:

The Virginity of Famous Men is a collection of thirteen short stories, written over a period of nine or ten years. In these stories, I was attempting to figure out some of my thoughts about parenthood, adolescence, affluence, monogamy, and the way women are often portrayed by the media (as, in some cases, hysterical, witless objects of desire or scorn, or both).

A friend observed a number of months ago that one topic I frequently write about is what happens when people get the things they most desire. I realized she was right, and some of these stories do focus on the perils of getting what you most long for.

Lastly, although the title story is a self-contained work of fiction, it revisits some of the main characters in my second book, Little Known Facts, and picks up a year and a half after where that novel ends.

1. "Beach Vacation"

"Why Don't You See Me," Concrete Blonde

The main character in this story, Jan, is the mother of a seventeen-year-old boy, Tristan, who she realizes has become someone she finds to be all but unbearable—entitled, selfish, rude. On a trip to Captiva Island, Florida, a vacation she and her husband Steven planned to take together with Tristan, but work intervenes and Steven ultimately can't go, Jan is forced to confront her growing feelings of animosity toward their son.

This great Concrete Blonde song from 1992 sums up some of Jan's strongest feelings about her and her son's relationship.

2. "The First Wife"

"Woman to Woman," Concrete Blonde

The title character of this story is also the first-person POV character, a screenwriter who was married for several years to a globally famous film star who eventually left her for another woman. The story is told in thirteen sections and begins, more or less, with the ending.

Another memorable song by Concrete Blonde from 1992—the album is Walking in London—this one about being the other woman.

3. "The Prettiest Girls"

"The Bad in Each Other," Feist

This story also focuses on the perils of fame and fortune, the male narrator a fifty-something, twice-divorced location manager for various big Hollywood productions. He meets and falls in love with a young Mexican woman, brings her back to Pasadena and hopes, foolishly, for the best.

After a little while, Jim has to face the evidence that his attachment to Elsa brings out the worst in himself (and in her), as Feist sings in this song from Metals, her most recent album.

4. "The Functionary"

"In the Air Tonight," Phil Collins

I wrote this story several years ago, after reading about the murdered women whose bodies were turning up in Mexico, their killers never apprehended—casualties of the drug wars that continue to rage, possibly—this was the most common answer to these still-unsolved murders.

This Collins's song's moodiness fits what I think of as the male point-of-view character's foreboding feelings that's he's hurtling toward personal disaster, due to his empathy for the unidentified, murdered women and his outrage over his employer's (the federal government) lack of interest in their fates.

5. "Words That Once Shocked Us"

"O.P.P.," Naughty by Nature

Adultery! Marcie, the lonely, divorced main character in this story is trying to keep her friend and coworker Rachel from committing it. Marcie's husband left her for someone else and she thinks Rachel is a fool for looking outside of her marriage to the adorable, sweet Ben for a dalliance with an older man she met through the call center for a soap and shampoo company where she and Marcie work.

This song brings me back to late high school/early college years when my friends and I still went to dance clubs, convinced we could have a good time despite being elbowed and stomped on repeatedly by a lot of sweaty, drunk people on the make!

6. "Five Rooms

"Wild Horses," The Rolling Stones

Josephine, the sixteen-year-old girl who narrates this story, which includes a road trip with a blind man she helps out in his home several hours each week, has changed a little by the end of the story, having been forced to witness adult sorrow and disappointed romantic love in a way she previously had either ignored or made fun of—her pretty, divorced mother's own disappointments too close for comfort for Josephine to look upon with sympathy.

This Stones' song from their 1971 album Sticky Fingers is, I think, a fitting melancholy anthem for Mr. Rasmussen, the lovelorn blind man in this story.

7. "Roger Weber Would Like to Stay"

"Ghost of a Texas Ladies' Man," Concrete Blonde

This is my attempt at both a ghost story and a satire about modern romance; the main character, Melinda, is being haunted by the charismatic title character who is jealous of Brian, her living boyfriend.

More Concrete Blonde—hard to resist. The title of this song probably speaks for itself, though whether Roger was a Texan, when he was still alive, I'm not sure. He might very well have been.

8. "Whatshisname"

"Kiss That Frog," Peter Gabriel

I can't predict how readers will respond to this book, but I'm guessing this will be the story they either like the most or else scratch their heads over. Of the thirteen stories collected here, "Whatshisname" was the one I had the most fun writing. In it, the narrator, Kim, is trying hard to admire and understand her (slightly) brain-damaged boyfriend's largesse: after he wins the Little Lotto, he wants to start an orphanage, but in view of the complexity of such an undertaking, Kim convinces him to donate money to a Catholic charity run by nuns on the north side of Chicago instead.

This upbeat song from Us, Gabriel's solid follow-up to So, strikes the tone I was striving for in this story, much of the time.

9. "The Couplehood Jubilee"

"Money," Pink Floyd

Karen, the main character in this story, figures out one day during a long work meeting that she has spent nearly $25,000 on friends' and family members' weddings over the last several years but she herself hasn't ever gotten married and cashed in. The day has arrived, she tells her longtime boyfriend Glen, for a little payback, and she immediately begins planning their non-marriage ceremony, the jubilee of the title.

This is probably my favorite Pink Floyd song. Karen's attitudes toward money and her married (or divorced) friends have changed somewhat by the end of the story.

10. "Older Sister"

"Sour Times," Portishead

The confusion and shame that victims frequently feel in the aftermath of acquaintance rape, along with college binge-drinking, are the two topics I was most interested in as I wrote this story.

A haunting and beautiful song by a band that we all should send letters to, pleading with them to give us another album, and soon, please.

11. "Clear Conscience"

"Temptation," New Order

Temptation is the prevailing force in this story, along with a little anger and fraternal jealousy. Michael's older brother Jim is married to professionally accomplished and conjugally embittered Sasha, who has lately been flirting with Michael, coaxing him to walk along the edge of the chasm that separates him from moral respectability and his most objectionable desire, i.e. the wish to have a dangerous liaison with his sister-in-law.

This excellent, lesser-known New Order song seems a natural match for this story.

12. "The New, All True CV"

"Bang the Drum All Day," Todd Rundgren

This story is written in the form of a CV and cover letter, with the CV including annotations for each line item and section. I think it becomes clear within the first page or so that, Camille, the job applicant, is not operating with all screws tightly in place.

She does want to work, unlike Todd Rundgren, as he declares in this popular song from 1982 (the chorus: I don't want to work! I want to bang on the drum all day), but Rundgren's joyful nose-thumbing at the workaday grind is similar to Camille's touting of all the rules that govern how to apply for a job.

13. "The Virginity of Famous Men"

"Brothers in Arms," Dire Straits

It's the reflective, melancholy tone of this haunting Dire Straits song that inspired me to choose it as the companion to the final song in my collection, which revisits the father and son, Renn and Will Ivins, who are two of the primary characters in my second book, the novel, Little Known Facts.

Renn and Will Ivins are a little older and wiser now, I think, but still prone to some of the same conflicts.

Christine Sneed and The Virginity of Famous Men links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Chicago Tribune review
Kirkus review
Los Angeles Review of Books review
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review

Chicago Magazine interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for Little Known Facts
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for Paris, She Said
Midwestern Gothic interview with the author
The National Book Review interview with the author
The Rumpus interview with the author
WGN Radio interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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