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August 16, 2017

Book Notes - Fiona Helmsley "Girls Gone Old"

Girls Gone Old

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.

Fiona Helmsley's impressive collection Girls Gone Old is a timely reminder of the power of the personal essay.

Bust wrote of the book:

"At its finest, Girls Gone Old blends the DIY aesthetic of '90s grrrl zines with an astute eye for injustice, hypocrisy, and 'the vagaries of geography.' Helmsley uses the personal essay form like a weapon, aiming at herself and at American culture at large.


In her own words, here is Fiona Helmsley's Book Notes music playlist for her essay collection Girls Gone Old:



I can’t write and listen to music. It’s impossible for me— I get too distracted, but in the space between writing, both of my books came together to music. The soundtrack to my first book My Body Would Be the Kindest of Strangers was provided almost entirely by Marc Bolan, and the soundtrack to my new book Girls Gone Old was provided almost entirely by Lou Reed, specifically two of his albums for the 1970s: Coney Island Baby and Street Hassle. There is a stanza from the song "Coney Island Baby":

Ah, but remember that the city is a funny place
Something like a circus or a sewer

And just remember different people have peculiar tastes

Girls Gone Old is made up of thirteen essays and stories covering such peculiar tastes diverse subject matter as ‘80s television and sexual fantasy; drug addiction and past- epoch romanticization; school shootings and serial killers; the internet; the rich and the cruel; aging and exhibitionism; and the bonds that form between women. The songs I chose for the book’s playlist are either mentioned directly in the text, or are else in some way thematically relevant.

Hole—"She Walks On Me"

Women are only given so much room to exist as singular identities— we often end up pitted against each other, or start to get territorial, when we work with the same themes. Kat Bjelland and Courtney Love had been friends for years, but once their bands began to get attention, they started feuding over petty things, like who wore a babydoll dress first. My short story "My Icon Hates Me" is an exaggerated account of my interactions with a woman who probably inspired me more than anyone.

Wayne County and the Electric Chairs—"Fuck Off"

In "Girls Gone Old," the book’s title essay, I go high (to quote Michelle Obama) is my analysis of what it feels like to age in a society that put so much value on youth and desirability. With this great Wayne (now Jayne) County song, I go joyously low.

Bush Tetras—"Too Many Creeps"

I just don't wanna go
Out in the street no more

On the internet no more
Because these people they give me
They give me the creeps

I’ve long had a conflicted relationship with the internet. I always feel best when I take long sabbaticals from social networking. My essay "2002: An Internet Odyssey" is about my early experiences online: I was in my twenties then. I can’t imagine how badly I would have embarrassed myself had I been any younger.

The Lovin’ Spoonful—"Do You Believe in Magic?"

Charles Baudelaire said, “Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recaptured at will,” which makes this song genius, or a conduit to genius. (Sonic youth serum? Auditory Botox?) When I listen to it, it’s like I’m eleven again, wearing my purple bathing suit with the grey tiger on the front, swimming in my first boyfriend’s pool, a memory that I recount in "12 Flash Non-Fictions."

The Mamas and The Papas—"California Dreamin'"

My short story "California Dreaming" is about a mentally-ill woman who never gave up on her dreams in spite of her circumstances. Most people would have described her as “delusional,” but in her apocryphal story about a 1960s folk singer, I saw a striving.

Sonic Youth (featuring Lydia Lunch)—"Death Valley ’69"

I was a small town teen, and Charles Manson was my cultural pariah of choice. My interest had nothing to do with murder, and everything to do with The Family. As I recount in my essay "Ghoul Girl Grows Up" I yearned to find a group of people to accept me, and move to the desert with. The essay is also about the epiphany I finally had when a notorious killer (not Manson) wrote to me.

Prince—"Raspberry Beret"

My essay "My Inner Debbie Gibson" is about a friend’s illness and her process coming to terms with how it changed her life. It’s also about my process coming to terms with what her illness revealed to me: specifically, what I was willing, and not willing to write about.

The Monkees—"She"

As I write in Girls Gone Old, Micky Dolenz of the Monkees was my first love, and the foil of my first sexual fantasies. As the book was about to be printed, I actually met him. Earlier in the night, he performed this song and I joined in as a theatre of multi-generation Monkees fans did the “Hey!” part. "She" is an angry, borderline scary break-up song (But I love her! I need her! I want her! Yea! Yea! Yea! Yea! Yea! She!) about a girl who “devours all” a boy’s “sweet love,” then “takes all” he has, and “feeds him dirt.” My essay "Killing Me Softly" is about the over-the-top sense of entitlement some men have, and the potential consequences women face when we reject them.

Guns N’ Roses—"It’s So Easy"

Is this a family website? A stanza from this song plays an important role in an essay from Girls Gone Old. I feel a bit uncomfortable elaborating without the entire context. Andy Warhol, Pa Ingalls, and Mork and Mindy all make appearances.

Bikini Kill—"Reject All American"

An inspirational palette cleanser after the anachronistic misogyny of GN’R, sort of like when Nirvana came along in the '90s, and cleansed the cultural palate of the scourge of hair metal.

3 Teens Kill 4—"Tell Me Something Good"

I wrote my essay "Playing the Donald Trump Game" after Trump won the election, but before the inauguration. I believed intervention was imminent— be it in the form of “faithless” electors, the passing of the NPVIC, or James Comey, on horseback, with handcuffs. Eight months later: Comey’s on unemployment, 24 million people stand to lose their healthcare (I am one of them), the country has a travel ban, international diplomacy’s been undermined, and the White House wants access to the voter rolls. "Tell Me Something Good."

Lou Reed—"Gimme Some Good Times"

“It just seems strange. Lou Reed dies, but I live. It doesn’t seem right,” I say to my doctor, in my essay "Vagaries of the Demimonde." Because of my drug use, I contracted the same disease that felled The Rock ‘N’ Roll Animal. The difference was I was being treated for it in the 21rst century: an exorbitantly expensive cure was available. The essay reflects on the influence of artists like Lou Reed, and the romance I once saw in their lifestyles. It’s also a rumination on the United States healthcare system, where access to life-saving treatment is determined by the depth of your pockets, the whimsy of politicians and greedy corporations, and geographic boundaries.

Lou Reed—"Crazy Feeling"

Coney Island Baby and Street Hassle (the two albums I listened to the most while assembling the book) were inspired by the beginning, and the end, of Lou Reed’s relationship with a transgender woman known as Rachel. Because of my love for the albums, I wanted to write about Rachel, and what became of her after their relationship ended. As I mention briefly in Vagaries of the Demimonde, because of the internet, nobody seems to disappear anymore, not even in death, not for good, but the people I contacted while searching for Rachel all said the same things: they thought she’d died in the 1980s. Nothing more concrete, or substantial than that. They thought. The person who inspired all those beautiful songs simply vanished. Maybe she wanted it that way, but I couldn’t stop thinking about her. A line from the song "Coney Island Baby" is Girls Gone Old’s dedication: For Lou and Rachel and the kids at PS 192.


Fiona Helmsley and Girls Gone Old links:

the author's website

Bust review

Give & Take interview with the author
OTHERPPL interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Support the Largehearted Boy website

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

Largehearted Boy's 2017 Summer Reading Suggestions

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
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