I am in the process of moving again. I think I’m going to revamp Bookslide afterward. A lot of the archives will be gone, and some posts will be rewritten. It will be fun. :)
[So old, my last name started with an S! And finding things online was tough!]
AS: Tell me a little bit about your new album, “On Your Shore.” What does it tell us about Charlotte Martin? What important stories are being told?
CM: There are many many stories in each song. I wish my songs were more focused. I attempted to sum up my take on about a billion experiences, emotions, heart aches, disappointments…I think what’s most important is what stories the songs are telling to the listener.
I’m just the channel. They come through me and are filtered through me but their real meaning takes form when someone else listens. I don’t believe it’s my job to decipher the meanings of my material. I just have a responsibility to compose it the way it comes through me.
AS: Your lyrics are intense and personal, but has there ever been a time where you’ve said “This experience/feeling cannot be translated to music”?
CM: I think everything I have gone through in my life time has peeked through a composition. Sometimes the most traumatic things that have happened to me just come out in certain chord, or in a note uncomfortably hanging over what should have been a very structured easy to pick a part chord structure. the emotion will make its presence known in a moving bass line.
The answer is, feelings always come out in the music, just not always lyrically for you.
AS: What happened to “One Girl Army,” your first album? Are the songs completely unavailable now? I’d pay to hear a song called “I’m Normal, Please Date Me.” :)
CM: One Girl Army was on a independent label called BongLoad records. The label went under, my record got shelved.
I released an EP version of it on my own several years ago. Some of my fans have a few of those original One Girl Army songs. I sincerely doubt the album will ever see the light of day. But save your money for I’m Normal Please Date Me.
That one will come around maybe??
AS: I remember when I first heard about you, there were many comparisons made to Tori Amos. How do you feel about being compared to another artist? Do you think it helps or hinders you and your career?
CM: I think comparisons are inevitable. If critics aren’t comparing you to someone else they are comparing you to your younger self many records ago. Either way you can’t run away from it. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but not everyone has the ear to hear differences in music. It’s much easier to shove music in a small box and say ‘this is this’ or ‘this is that’ and then no one has to really listen. but there are many wonderful and talented listeners out there. A skillful listener has a rare talent. they are able to enjoy music on many levels maybe someone else can’t. But understand I’m not saying that makes someone better or worse. There is music to just graze the surface of, and then there is music where you have to decode the layers and try to understand what they mean. I’m speaking harmonically, lyrically, emotionally, structurally…
AS: You’ve opened for Howie Day and Damien, and played with The Cardigans, Katy Rose, and Liz Phair on the the Maybelline “Chicks with Attitude” tour. Do you think there is any difference between playing with female artists and playing with male ones? Did you pick up anything from Phair or the Cardigans, who’ve been part of the music scene for over a decade?
CM: Yes I think there is a difference. Women have periods.
Liz taught me the powerful tool of eating from Whole Foods Market
while on tour.
But I still love Chik-Fil-A when I’m down South.
AS: You have a journal on your website, and on your bulletin board, there’s a section just for fan questions that you answer. How do you think this affects your relationship with your fans? What advantages do you think the Internet gives a musical artist? What disadvantages, if any?
CM: I think my fans are intelligent and talented artists in their own rights…which is one of the reasons I like to have an open communication with them via the internet. I learn as much about them as they learn about me through the ‘question and answer’ thing. I am
also fascinated with knowing what songs they connect with and why.
There are no disadvantages I have experienced.
AS: I have an old MP3 (from the times before the Flash website) of you covering the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” Where can fans find that?
CM: I’m not sure that was ever released anywhere. The studio version might come out on a compilation or a selection of b sides. But fans better know other fans to get a copy of that at the moment! :)
[Spotlights contain spoilers.]
Even after rereading all the books before it, Bet Me is still my favorite. And this means a lot, coming from someone who has no interest in shoes.
Bet Me is the last book of what I think of as Jennifer Crusie’s “middle” period, a solo book published by St. Martin’s Press. After that comes her collaborations, and then one solo book*. Just one, in ten years. I’m hoping this “late” period of solo books is something that will continue, but from everything I’ve read on her blog, I think it may not. Writing has become more and more frustrating for her over the past few years, and it’s been tough to read about because I’ve long felt the same way. So let’s not dwell.
Instead, let’s discuss Bet Me, my favorite romance novel of all time. It is a romance novel and not chick lit because it is the story of a relationship. It originally contained some supernatural elements, but Crusie eventually decided against them, which I think was the right call. Although there’s a strong element of Fate in the book, it never goes over the top to paranormal romance.
Chronologically, the draft of this book was written long before it was published, and that seems very strange to me in some ways and unsurprising in others. It has the light heart of a serial romance novel, and yet the books with the darker elements were published at the beginning of the middle phase. I’d really like to see the original draft of the book, the one that was turned down.
Maybe the publishing companies didn’t like the bleeding walls she eventually cut.
The plot device is a fairly common one: The Bet. But Crusie has never met an element of women’s fiction she can’t turn on its ear, and in this book, there really isn’t a bet after all. Everyone just thinks there is, except for the male lead, who refused it. Cal’s a betting man by nature, although he likes his bets to be ones he can win. He refuses a bet by an obnoxious client of his named David: to pick up a specific woman in the bar and sleep with her within a month. This woman is David’s ex, dumped earlier that night, and David never got anywhere with her, so he expects to win.
Min is David’s ex, annoyed with him that he didn’t stick it out until her sister’s wedding, as her mother already thinks her pathetic for being overweight. But she knew he wasn’t for her, so when she sees super sexy Cal across the room, she goes to make a move at the urging of her best friends and despite her better judgment. Unfortunately, she gets close enough to overhear the tail end of the bet, and Cal’s friend saying “Piece of cake.” Having not yet met Cal, she assumes he’s the one who said it, and her anger at David doubles and then some.
There is a secondary, lesser bet made when Cal doesn’t agree to the original one, though: that Cal can’t get Min to leave with him. He does, because she’s annoyed enough to want to get a free meal out of the deal, but she calls him on his lines and his fake charm, and thinks he’s smarmy, whereas he thinks she’s crabby. They’re both right. At the end of the night, they say “Have a nice life” and move on.
Except that Min’s friend Bonnie and Cal’s friend Roger meet that night too, and Roger falls instantly in love, and Bonnie quickly realizes he’s “The One.”
At first, Min and Cal are brought together by their desire to protect their friends, and then Min meets Cal’s nephew and the kid becomes smitten with her and invites her everywhere, and then the restaurant where Cal took her becomes her favorite and she keeps ordering when he’s there, and the owner, Cal’s old college roommate, keeps sending him over with her food, and then when they try to avoid the places they think they’ll run into each other, they run into each other at whole new places…all the while slowly getting to know each other, and dealing with some insane physical attraction.
All the while, Min thinks the bet is still on, and is reluctant to be with him. She keeps giving him chances to come clean, but it’s not happening.
Cal’s friends are Tony the Bullethead Playa and Roger the Romantic. Min’s friends are Lisa the Wanderer and Bonnie the Romantic. As they all fall in together, they create a community, and Cal and Min help each other through some serious family damage as well. So Crusie’s theme of community is huge in this one. As everything builds, it’s not just building to the couple’s happily ever after (HEA). It’s building to the rest of their lives, too.
So where’s the antagonist in all this? (Crusie is big on antagonists; the bet/no bet conflict is not enough for her.) David and Cal’s most recent ex, Cynthie, have teamed up to try to get their respective significant others back. Cynthie is a psychologist who thinks of love as happening in four stages. If she and David can interrupt the new couple before the later stages, everything will be okay. Cynthie’s an amazing character–she has elements of Clea in her thin sexiness and manipulation, but she’s also very much her own person and she’s a great foil for Bonnie’s beliefs about fairy tale romances. As the book progresses, Cynthie is sensible and knows when to quit. That leaves us with David, who escalates not out of love for Min–because he doesn’t have any, although he’s fooled himself into thinking he has–but because he’s desperately competitive, especially when it comes to Cal, because Cal is someone worth competing against. Except Cal doesn’t want to compete. In David’s defense, he really does think there’s a bet, but that’s all the defense he gets.
Min is fantastic. I like everything about her. I don’t even care that she loves shoes. Jennifer Crusie not only made me care about someone who loves shoes, but also had me looking forward to finding out what shoes Min is wearing in any given scene. As a self-proclaimed anti-shopper, this is a near-Herculean task. (The only other time someone has almost pulled it off was in Julie Kenner’s The Manolo Matrix, and even when I never did finish the series.) Min is brash but often scared of things that are important, has great friends, and is a little nerdy and a lot insecure. She is not thin because she is not meant to be thin, but her mother bullies her not to eat carbs or sugar and makes her miserable, more so since her sister’s wedding is coming up. Her mother buys her clothes in sizes she can’t get down to even though she walks up and down a freakton of steps every day just to get to her apartment, and she mostly skips on the bread and never seems to overeat. I imagine that Min, like me, like my daughter, would look skeletal at 130 pounds.
So not only do I have someone I relate to leading this book, but she is also someone I would be attracted to in real life. Someone who looks the way I think beautiful women look. That was always such a relief to me. And the other characters are attracted to her too. Cal’s next door neighbor, Shanna, is hot for Min as soon as she meets her. Tony goes from thinking her chest is the only part of her that remotely interests him to being incredibly attracted to her by the end of the book. Part of Tony’s change is Min’s self-esteem change, but part of it is because he’s visual and Min starts to dress to suit her body, not hide it. This is a good example of how Crusie writes guys who act like guys, and also two good lessons on how self-perception can feed and destroy shame. Crusie never suggests that Min is attractive because she is wearing clothes that suit her figure. She suggests instead that visual people prefer more blatant visuals–duh–and that how we see ourselves informs what we wear, and what we wear informs how we see ourselves; it’s a cycle.
There is also a lot going on, as I said previously, about the nature of the fairy tale hero and how we translate this into real life. Bonnie says that Cal is Min’s hero, and he will go on metaphorical quests for her. This results in him leading her to a stray cat, and finding something she’d lost long ago. These are not things he does on purpose, which make them even more interesting and add to the underlying work of Fate. But it also nudges our subconscious into recognizing that we look for such symbols all the time. Some women want men to bring flowers. This isn’t about proving you have money to burn, it’s about filling other needs. Some women might equate the beauty of the flowers of the potential of the beauty he may see in her, or the time taken to get them something special, given the busy nature of our modern lives. I see something about to die and a giant waste of money, but when my now-uncle was courting my aunt back when I was in middle school, I was always impressed with the flower arrangements he sent her. Not because they were big, although they were (he’s Texan), but because they had flowers I’d never seen before. They were unusual, unique. So’s she. He picked that up right away, and that’s why he stuck. They are still, to this day, madly in love, not because they followed a formula, but because they saw each other, really saw each other.
This is also another book where music and food feature heavily. Min loves Elvis Presley, Cal loves Elvis Costello, and can’t bond over their Elvii because that is a big musical gap to get over there. Everyone loves Krispy Kreme donuts, thus prompting me to try one once I found myself in a state where they were available, and chicken marsala, which I don’t think I ever had as a meat-eater, but a vegan version gets made in this house pretty much monthly. You can gain weight just reading this book, but then you don’t really care afterward.
I truly believe this is the ur-Crusie. It has everything: community, music, food, sex, banter, likable characters, genre-bending, and empowerment for both the characters and the readers.
On to the covers:
The reissue: Pretty, and dice do say “betting” and I appreciate the hearts as pips. It’s one of the better reissue covers, although I don’t love it.
My copy, if the paperback version:
So pretty. The cherries are also a shout-out to the fans, who are called Cherries. (When Bob Mayer joins Crusie to write three books, the fans are called Cherry Bombs. Ha.) I wonder how I’d feel if the dice were there instead of the cherries, though.
The British cover:
Sigh. The whole point is that Min’s shoes are supposed to be fabulous, her little subversive way of wearing things that reflect her. They barely even tried with all of these covers.
Next up: the collaborations. I’m almost done rereading all of them.
*And a short story/novella called “Hot Toy.” And also the Crazy for You stories that she did for her MFA, but those all pre-date CFY, I believe.
Tegan Quin is downstairs, getting things in order for the upcoming show at the North Star Bar in Philadelphia. Sara Quin is upstairs with me, answering both silly and serious fan questions.
I came to the band completely clueless. I’d heard the name somewhere and took a chance emailing for a press kit based on the fact that they would be playing at the North Star in the near future. The CD, So Jealous, blew me away. It was catchy pop, in the best way possible. Not a hint of bubblegum. No pretensions. Just the sort of songs that you could listen to all day.
After quickly becoming addicted to the CD, I wanted this interview. It would be my first. I didn’t feel like I knew enough. I was terrified. The silly fan questions I’d brought that had made me giggle when I copied them down seemed terribly unprofessional. Reading through the press kit, I felt there wasn’t a question to ask that had already been asked. That’s why I’d turned to the fans in the first place. “Don’t ask them about being lesbians,” someone advised. “Do they drink milk straight from the carton?” another wondered.
Oh, yeah, I wasn’t ready.
But something about sitting on the upstairs couch in the empty North Star Bar—which looks less like a music venue and more like a rundown bar by daylight—calmed me down. Or maybe it was Sara herself, so focused, serious about serious questions, and half-serious about the silly ones. When she introduced herself to me, she said that the phone interview she’d just finished had been awful. Nowhere to go but up, right?
I found out a lot of things in a short period of time. The North Star show would be their first headlining show for the new album. They’d just been to Philadelphia with Melissa Ferrick and enjoyed it a lot. And yes, Sara told me, holding a straight face, they really were sisters.
Although Sara had moved across Canada without the rest of the band, she felt that the process of making So Jealous wasn’t much different from their previous CDs. They wrote their songs separately, and then brought it all together. Despite this, the album flows naturally. “We definitely wanted it to be cohesive…When you have the same people playing on your record, you have the same producers, and you’re using the same instruments and you’re recording and rehearsing and hanging out, it’s easy to create a cohesive vibe.”
A fan question that came up early in the conversation was about the video for “Walking with a Ghost.” “I came up with [the treatment],” she tells me. “It was kinda just supposed to be a kind of metaphorical relationship-type thing, ya know? We also knew at the time that our record was going to have felt hearts on it, so we wanted to somehow to incorporate felt hearts into the video. So it sort of came off from there.”
But it was the song “So Jealous” that had its name next to the felt hearts on the CD cover. “We’d never done it before and, like I said, we were kind of kicking around the idea–we were kicking around artistic ideas, visual artistic ideas, and ‘So Jealous’–the record is a love record, you know?–and so we kind of wanted something that would speak about that, so we thought the hearts were good, and we also thought that ‘So Jealous’ was kind of like the emotional climax of the record–or maybe it was for us. When we were doing the record, we were constantly talking about other bands or talking about other situations, like, you know, being like ‘Oh, God, that man is so right..we’re SO jealous’ of what they’re doing or whatever and so that was kind of how it came about.”
Another fan question was whether the band enjoyed touring. “I mean, if we didn’t enjoy it, we wouldn’t do it–I know lots of people who DO NOT tour because they just hate it, you know? And some really great people too–like, I hardly ever see Cat Power touring. Yeah, it’s crazy. I’m not speaking for her–I don’t know whether she hates touring–but there are people who just seem clearly really not to enjoy it. We tour constantly, so I think if anything we just enjoy our time off just like anybody else. I mean, you can love your job but still be excited for the vacation part of it. And also, too, this is only half of what I do for a living. The other half is being home and writing and recording and so, after being on the road–we’ve basically been out for three months straight doing press and doing promos, and then doing tours and then doing MORE promo, and then doing tours. It’s been like three months straight and I’m thrilled to just home and have a normal routine and record.”
Somehow, this led into a conversation about the differences between Canada and America—specifically, Thanksgiving, the holiday that had just passed. “Certainly, American Thanksgiving is, like, what?–the second biggest holiday in the United States or something like that? And there’s a lot more hoopla around it. Thanksgiving was never a really big one for us–just for my family particularly and when I got older, I kind of, for political reasons, tried to educate myself about what Thanksgiving really meant. I try not to sort of not play into the whole idea of what Thanksgiving is to the masses. Just like with Christmas, I’m not really religious, and so I just try to take what I’ve always had around those holidays–which is like, great family dinners. We’ve never been like a really big Christmas-giving-presents-craziness kind of family. Everyone hangs at my grandparents’ house and we have a giant family and we eat dinners and make desserts and play games and whatever, and so Christmas and Thanksgiving and all those holidays are really just an excuse to get together with people. I try to focus on that because some of the political ideologies behind these holidays are just not ones that I see myself buying into.” From there we debate the merits of board games. At this point I’m wondering, Will all my interviews be this fun? Sara’s family is “a card-playing family,” but also a board game and “a make-up game kind of family. There are six of us cousins who are really close, and they used to come up to Canada for Christmas all the time, and on summer breaks, and we used to play Hotel. Somebody would be the hotel receptionist and we would rent out my grandparents’ room to each other, and then that game kind of evolved into the mysterious stranger who kidnaps other hotel guests, so then the game just became about kidnapping.”
I’m not going to tell you the other made-up game she explained to me, because seriously, there’s some marketing potential in that.
It’s around this time that sound check starts to drown out her words, so we quickly get back to the topic of music. She tells me about The Arcade Fire, The Gossip, Feist, The Organ, and the French Kicks, and how she’s been listening to a lot of Talking Heads lately. She says that she and Tegan never toured in Asia but would like to some day. I finally remember to ask my favorite fan question, which is whether she and Tegan have roles in the band, as sisters or musicians…well, I’m pretty sure I mangled the question, but she understood what I was asking. “That’s probably the biggest downfall from being in a band with somebody, or being professional with anyone, is that you have to construct these very intense boundaries between business and pleasure, and so, no matter who you work with–if they’re your friend, or if they’re your partner, or if they’re your sister or whatever–you have to be careful to make sure you know how to be one way with them and another way with them, while still having the same kind of respect for them that you would on a professional level than on a personal level. I think Tegan and I try hard to respect each other professionally and not have the sister boundaries with each other when we’re working professionally. We try hard to do that. We definitely have different roles.”
As the tuning of guitars grows louder (and Sara gets up to tell them to hold off while we finish talking), I ask her about “This Business of Art”—not the CD, but the actually business aspect of being a musician. What would aspiring musicians not take into account while playing guitar in their bedrooms? “I guess that’s the whole thing–that when you’re playing music, no matter how artistic you want to keep it, or how true to yourself you want it to be a lot of the times, there really is a business side to it, whether you like it or not. You need to have a balance, especially when you’re out on the road.” I bring up a conversation that the band and crew had been having downstairs while setting up the merchandise table, about changing T-shirt companies. “That’s the thing is, it’s a whole operation. It takes a whole lot of money and a lot of time and a lot of effort to have a touring operation and you can’t just throw money around. It costs money to make T-shirts and you have to be sure…We think of it as more like being a mom-and-pop type company, but you have to know that when you’re getting into the business that there are going to be things that are going to come up that have nothing to do with sitting around and jamming. And they’re not necessarily bad things–I mean, they keep your brain alive. I thrive to problem-solve, and I like trying to figure new ways to get people into our shows, get better quality T-shirts, to get better equipment for cheaper–we like to problem solve, we enjoy that part of it. So that was the stuff that I didn’t know when I was sixteen and seventeen and wanted to play live.” The guys are being loud again, so while she is kind enough to suggest that she tell them to quiet down again, instead I insist that I’ll just rattle off the last of the fan questions so she can get to work.
So in case you were dying to know, she doesn’t drink from the carton, as she’s lactose-intolerant. Her desired superpower is based off her own physical weakness, because she has asthma. “I would be strong. I would be like Mighty Sara.” And she doesn’t think that video killed the radio star. “It just actually encouraged it.”
Sara, being Sara:
[Spotlight posts contain spoilers.]
Faking It is another one of those books that I didn’t take to right away, which is ridiculous because I know now that it’s rock-solid. It was Gwen’s fault, really. Well, mine, because I couldn’t take Gwen for what she was off the bat; I kept putting my expectations on her. And so nothing she did made sense to me, which shouldn’t matter, as she is not the lead, but for some reason it did. It tripped me up. It took me two reads to sort of get it, and three to really get it.
Crusie refers to the book as a spin-off of Welcome to Temptation, but I see it as more of a companion book. She purposely cut any real information about what’s going on in Sophie’s town and Sophie’s life, because this is not Sophie’s book. (The original, full-length phone conversation is here. It’s good that she cut it. Not because it’s bad writing, but because it’s unnecessary writing, and it’s something other authors do all the time, and it makes books feel more series and less readable on their own.) It “stars” Davy Dempsey, Sophie’s brother, but like many Crusie books in this middle period, he doesn’t feel like a lead. This book has such a huge cast that although Tilda’s romance is a big part of it, Davy himself is often off-page. This is not a romance novel. It’s chick lit with some mystery.
The money Davy stole from Clea has been stolen from him, by Clea’s newest dupe, a financial whiz nicknamed Rabbit. So he’s trying to get it back by breaking into her place and trying to get into her bank accounts through her laptop. Meanwhile, Tilda Goodnight, a mural painter with issues, is trying to steal an old painting of hers from Clea. The two meet in the closet, and there are sparks.
We get a lot of Clea’s perspective in the book, which is great, because Clea becomes a lot more sympathetic than she was in Welcome to Temptation. But this isn’t about her either.
It’s really about Tilda and the Goodnight family, specifically her sister Eve, who lives part of her life as someone else to compartmentalize being a single parent and being a sexual woman; their mother, Gwen, who’s been through years of lies and stress and just enough misery to keep her boiling under the surface; and Nadine, Eve’s teenage daughter who’s the best of both her mother’s personalities but still trying to find her way in the world. Around them are several men: from Eve’s gay babydaddy, who gets to live a happy life with his partner while Eve is still punishing herself; to Mason, a rich man who wants to relieve someone else’s glory days, which for him includes having Gwen at his side; to Nadine’s succession of really annoying teenage boys and one amazing best friend who’s obviously in love with her.
Oh yeah, and there’s also the weird painter whose work keeps the family gallery open, and a really big secret behind locked doors in the basement.
There’s a LOT going on here.
The Goodnight women have spent most of their lives repressed, in part because of the men in their lives but currently by their own choices–barring Nadine, of course. When Tilda gets caught hiding in a closet by Davy Dempsey, she meets a kindred spirit: someone who cons and seems okay with that. While she doesn’t really approve, a life out of the metaphorical and literal closet is way better than the one in, and they end up with goals that sort of mesh. Or at least Davy is willing to help her with her problem if he can find a way it works for him.
There are things about the Davy/Tilda relationship that I’m not super crazy about, mostly that it’s DAVY and he’s kind of a douche, who falls way too easily into the idea that he’s going to settle down with her, but these are after-thoughts that I’m having days after I read the book. Weeks? Something like that. More difficult to pin down. I’ve really gotta write these things right away. But everything else gels, and the book is funny and seeing Davy and Tilda work as partners is actually very cool. Seeing Tilda become who she should’ve always been is better.
The usual: “bent”–is this a con or detective term? It comes up a lot in Crusie.
Sex with discovery? Yup, I think so. However, there’s also really bad sex between Tilda and Davy to start out with, which I appreciate. It is not a “sexy book.”
Interesting bff? Tilda’s circle is basically her family, and Eve is only sort of interesting, which I suppose is why Crusie changed her lead from Eve to Tilda during the writing. Eve is interesting in that she’s also Louise, but that mostly leaves Eve herself out in the cold, book-wise, because there’s not much call for an Eve. There’s more Eve toward the end, which is where it’s best to get a grip on who she is. Maybe because that’s her becoming who she is, too.
Witty dialogue, good mystery, blah blah blah. Honestly, this is such a solid book that I don’t have much to say. I don’t have the heaps of praise I do for the upcoming last “middle” book, Bet Me, nor the criticisms of her early work, or even the analysis that Crazy for You inspires.
It’s just a good book, okay?
Covers. The reissue is, of course, awful.
There are some good things about this. That’s obviously Tilda, for example. It’s got the old-fashioned-but-retro-cool scarf and hair thing going, which mirrors the retro-cool feel of the characters, who listen to girl groups and commit heists and cons and whatnot. But there’s nothing else there, no depth. If you’d ask someone what they expect from a book cover like this…hm. A test run with my (male) bff says, “Relationships?”
It’s too general.
The British cover is, of course, even blander:
There’s the usual Crusie food, music, and movies going on, including a discussion on muffins versus donuts, where muffins are the good guys, and donuts are the bad boys. This looks like a FUCKING CUPCAKE. That will taste like a muffin because it’s British.
Here’s the Indonesian cover, which I love the most:
It may have stick figure people, but when I showed it to my bff, you know what he said? “False identity.” No question mark.
Finally, another overseas version that’s got a lot going for it, but it’s too pastel-y:
The title translates to “Loving Imposters,” if Google Translate is to be believed. I like it. I like that “Loving” could be either an adjective or a verb.
Next up: the last “middle era” book, and my all-time favorite romance of ever.
Still trying to decide if I’m going to take the collaborative books as a whole or one by one. Either way, I’m reading them. Maybe I’ll do the Bob books together and the Stuart books together…
“Throwing Muses is my old band,” Kristin Hersh tells me in the middle of our conversation, and I have to stifle a laugh. This is the college rock equivalent of Tom Cruise saying, “I’ve done a few movies,” and yet Hersh pulls it off because she’s completely sincere. You couldn’t convince her that she’s a rock star. To Hersh, she just does what she does.
What she does is make incredible music. Her “old band” Throwing Muses, second only to the Pixies as the darlings of ‘90s college radio, focused on Hersh’s raw voice and complicated lyrics, leaving little room for Hersh’s step-sister Tanya Donelly, who left the band in 1992 to her own successes. When the band dissolved in 1997, Hersh had already recorded a haunting solo album, Hips & Makers, and spent the new few years releasing solo albums even more quickly than she had with Throwing Muses. 2003 saw the release of a new Muses recording and solo album on the same day, but then Hersh turned her attention to a new band, 50 Foot Wave.
“Bernard [Georges, Muses bassist] was living in Boston and I was living in Providence. We saw each other only at parties and shows but missed playing together, so we originally hooked up with a drummer in NYC, hoping to form the band on the east coast. Then The Amazing Rob [Ahlers] happened, through a mutual friend and after much discussion with our Throwing Muses managers, publicists and agents, we decided we needed to make the career investment of a move to LA.”
50 Foot Wave is a conscious decision on Hersh’s part to be more involved with music and less involved with its business. “I am part of a band where the whole point of the band is to play live. We’re doing about a hundred dates a year so that we don’t have to play the game where you have to talk someone into buying you radio time and you have a stylist and you sell yourself and you let people boss you around. The only way to decide not to do that is to tell yourself you don’t have to sell CDs,” she told me. Unfortunately, there still had to be a give and take.
“We had planned on releasing an EP every nine months, and when we met with our licensees on our European tour, they kind of flipped out, for lack of a better term. ‘You won’t get radio, you won’t get tours, unless you have a full-length record.’ Actually, we did all of those things without having a full-length, but we didn’t want to hurt our foreign friends, so we decided it’s okay to take the next EP and make it a full-length.” The result was Golden Ocean. “There are three songs from the first one with new vocals and guitar, remixed to match the rest…it’s kind of a gyp, but we did the best we could.”
The record that she refers to as “kind of a gyp” may be even harder rock than anything she did with Muses. “The songs I were writing were loud and fast and would have sounded stupid played solo acoustic,” she explains about her switch back to being in a band. It’s a natural progression to her.
“Some people have told me you’re supposed to…settle down?” She sounds puzzled as, for Hersh, life grows more ever more interesting and chaotic. She’s mother to four sons, for which she is grateful. “I don’t know how I would have a girl. Girls are so confusing to me… I don’t do girl stuff, probably. My kids make fun of me cuz they say I’m more of a boy than they are. They do an impression of me watching TV: ‘Is this a chick flick? It’s gross!’” Hersh speaks of parenting the same way she speaks of the music business—something she’s involved herself in, but not something she needs to have complete control over. She refers to her sons as “fairly sensible roommates” in the most loving way possible, saying that they are “just very congruent. They’re not He-Man boys, you know? They’re just people. They’re very gentle and kind. I imagine that if we had girls, that they would be the same way. Well-balanced people. But I wouldn’t know. [laughs] They grew themselves up while we watched and kept them warm and fed. They grew themselves up right.”
On the other hand, she says that family life isn’t always warm and fuzzy. “I find marriage to be wild! It’s not comfortable. I mean, maybe we’re at peace, we’ve got inner peace going on, but you’ve got somebody with your heart in their hands—any minute, they could just mess up your whole life. The terror that goes along with love is crazy. Plus, you’ve got four kids. There’s a lot of terror and love going on there, too.” She goes on to say, “I don’t consider that to be comfortable or settled. The music does reflect my life.”
Recently, 50 Foot Wave released an EP called Free Music to their internet fans. As the title promises, the songs are in mp3 format for all to download. Hersh loves mp3s. “I just think the perfect job for me would be to mail songs out. If there were such a job as being a songwriter and you could just send songs into the ether, and have them heard, and still pay your rent—that would be great. Mp3s are the closest I’ve ever gotten. But you can’t divorce yourself from your product anymore. Even though as a musician, your work is basically sound, you still have to be behind it and walk it around the world. That’s okay; I wanted to deal with that, but my orientation is that mp3s are as close as I’ve ever come to my dream job.” She refers to the band as “pro-music sharing,” and states that “Any musician worth their salt should be able to work at Starbuck’s to support their habit.”
“It’s not my job to care [about fame and fortune], really. I play what I want to hear and if it’s good to my ears, I’m passionate about my work. Period. If somebody wants to take that out of my garage and sell it to listeners, well, then…it’s effective in the world, but I’m not attached to being heard.”
However, if you want to hear Hersh, you can find her touring. Before the 50 Foot Wave tour is a solo tour. “This is my day job. Playing solo is where my bread and butter’s at, and I’m getting ready to record another solo record, so I want to get my solo acoustic chops back before I go to the studio.” After that, even more touring, where Hersh will be doing a double-shift, with 50 Foot Wave opening for…Throwing Muses. Talk about a hard worker.
“I’m just on all the time,” Hersh tells me. I can believe it. “It’s my experience that if you’re really paying attention, then [life]’s not boring, that’s for sure…Everything matters to me. I’m not wasting any time.”
50 Foot Wave’s Free Music can be found at http://www.throwingmusic.com
[Spotlights contain spoilers. There are also Buffy spoilers in here for some reason.]
I blew through Orange is the New Black–the TV series, not the book–in a few days in the midst of a stress-related freak-out/shut-down. It was recommended to me by the same friend who asked me to keep going with Once Upon a Time even though I’d stalled out in the middle of the first season and, while she’s not one of my go-to people whose recommendations automatically mean I reach for my remote, we have enough in common that I tend toward watching what she asks, especially because OUAT really did pick up like she said it would. She’s my alternative-viewing friend; we bring chat up on Facebook and watch OUAT and Downton Abbey together. She’s probably never going to watch Arrow with me, which is my new love (Jennifer Crusie’s fault, but I’ll get to that in another post), but when there’s Something Else to be watched, there we are.
She said, “You should watch it,” so I watched the first episode, and then the second…and two days after that I was finishing the last episode and bringing up Wikipedia and IMDB and hitting Google for the date of the season premier. As you do. But despite all my enjoyment, there was one thing that really bothered me: the characterization of Piper Chapman.
It’s so inconsistent. We’re told over and over again who Piper is, but nothing we see on the screen matches to those descriptions. Piper is supposed to be a repressed Connecticutian (of course) who goes from possibly acting out by getting involved with a female drug dealer (although a classy one!) to becoming a quinoa- and kale-obsessed yuppie as her blonde CT destiny has always assumed. Now she’s in jail for eighteen months because of her involvement with the drug dealer, and if we’re supposed to see her become that person again, or become someone new, I just can’t tell you because from one episode to the next, Piper defies expectations in the most confusing way possible.
We see Piper as repressed, we see her as entitled, but we also see her instigating and broken down and manipulative and selfish and kind and caring and these are usually put to us in one scene after the next after the next. If I had any sense that Piper was supposed to be this incredibly layered character, I’d love her, but I don’t. Instead, she just contradicts herself in episode after episode. She doesn’t seem to gel as a character until about three episodes from the end of the season. That is a LOT of time to invest in an inconsistent lead. Fortunately, there are scores of other characters to enjoy, characters who are completely consistent (except maybe the one who steps in for Taystee after she leaves and then Taystees it up for a while; I don’t think they knew what to do with her, either).
So why does Piper’s characterization suck? I’ve come up with a few theories.
1) Piper is based on a real person, and trying to find the balance between writing a real person and creating a fictionalized version of them can be difficult. I have no idea how accurate this is. It’s just a theory. (You know, the not-scientific kind.) The real Piper is an executive producer on the show; maybe the writers know her and shy away from her character in writing because of it.
2) The episodes are written by different people who have different ideas of who Piper is. This happens. Anya was always more girly when Rebecca Rand Kishner wrote her in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There are nine different writers for those thirteen episodes of Orange is the New Black. Perhaps because the show often moves Piper to what feels like a B storyline while highlighting a different character with each A (you could argue it either way, who’s the lead for which episode), writers were less interested in Piper and more interested in Sophia, Alex, Miss Claudette…
3) Taylor Schilling acts all of her scenes as if they exist in isolation to one another. When I first saw her, I thought, “She looks familiar” and then I looked her up on IMDB and yelled, “Ohmigod, it’s the dead-eyed chick from Atlas Shrugged!” I wanted to like that movie because I feel like there are books that have good stories but not-so-good writers and therefore the movies should tear away the crap and reveal the story for what it is. It didn’t happen with Twilight, sadly, and it didn’t happen with Atlas Shrugged Part 1, either, in part thanks to Taylor Schilling’s dead eyes, through which she sadly tried to emote and could not. Schilling acts each scene in Orange well, but her performance never came together as a whole for me until the end of the season, when her character stopped doing contradictory things, but there was one episode specifically where I was willing to point the finger at Schilling: when she kisses Alex after coming out of the SHU. After she’d JUST SAID she wasn’t going to do that, that she would be a model prisoner. This should be a giant turning point, but also a BIG DECISION, even if it’s one she makes quickly, and we should’ve seen it on her face. But we don’t. She just contradicts herself, AGAIN. Another actress could’ve pulled it off. Schilling didn’t. In the next episode, Piper explains to the Scared Straight kids how lonely everything is, and it feels like we’re being given the reason afterward. THAT SHOULD NEVER HAPPEN. With your lead, you should know why they made the decision they did, why they contradict themselves. If the writer uses the character to explain it to you after the fact, that writer (or team of writers) has failed. It’s okay for a character to contradict him- or herself. People do that in real life. But we need to know why. Using Buffy as an example again, Buffy hates that Spike has a crush on her. But when she’s looking for someone who’s been through what she has, and when she’s looking for physical comfort, we understand why she chose him, and why she continues to choose him, even when she’s disgusted with herself and swearing she won’t do it again. This is not given to us at the moment of her decision, but is a line of choices that we watch her make. Yes, we saw Alex and Piper get closer beforehand, but then we’re given her time in SHU and her promise, which she immediately breaks. As the season closes, Piper becomes less sympathetic but more consistent, and we can look back and see that she’s always been selfish, but at that point we starting to retcon for our own sanity.
4) The writers are great with back story but bad on character development. Orange spends a lot of its time showing you the back stories of their characters, and they can, in one short scene, make you sympathize over actions that in other circumstances you would find repulsive. When we first meet Marcus, he is stealing credit card information from a family whose home has been destroyed in a fire. How disgusting is that? How many times can a good family be hurt? But then when we find out why Marcus is doing it, when we discover Sophia, our judgment has changed. I’d like to see that trial. In the present day, not much is actually happening to anyone but Piper and Larry in appreciable ways. If this is the issue, we’ll see more of it in the second season, I suppose, now that we’ve been introduced to people. We’ll find that the reveal of the characters is handled much better than the progression of the characters.
5) It’s a purposeful decision on the part of the show runner and writers to make the white lead the least relatable character on the show. I have no issue with this, and I don’t say this as some sort of white defender. If this is true, it’s probably one of the most clever things I’ve ever seen a show do. Orange is subversive; you think you’re about to watch a show about a privileged white woman who goes to prison for the crime of picking up a bag for her girlfriend years before; you think you’re about to watch her navigate prison life. Instead, you primarily get a lot of back story on the other characters, most of them POC, a whole lot of screen time on them, until Piper becomes the least interesting part of every episode, although perhaps not of every scene she’s in. I read this article last week about the show and the author was worried about the hypersexualization of the POC characters. I have to disagree. If anything, the show presents the “tribes” of black and Latina women, as well as the “alternative” characters (lesbians, Piper’s drop-out, class-reject brother), as normally sexualized, whereas upper middle class “white” sex is often portrayed as incredibly repressed and made the butt of jokes. Um, no pun intended, although one of my examples is the line from Piper’s best friend on her wedding day about how her husband-to-be never asked her for anal sex. The responses to Larry’s “edging” article is another example of that. Since the show often goes for the jab at the upper middle class, it’s possible that screwing up Piper’s character would lead white viewers to become more emotionally invested in POC characters. One of the things I love about Orange is that I feel like I’m watching POC having the kinds of interactions they don’t usually have in mainstream television, which is primarily white. I’m trying to think of the last time I felt that way, and it was Dexter, but to a much lesser extent.
So is Piper purposely written poorly? Is her character assassinated, jerked around by what the plot needs, to fit the agenda of the creator? It’s possible. How amazing would that be?
Meanwhile, I sit here waiting for Season Two, in which I am hoping to see more Suzanne, the back stories of pretty much everyone, the writers ceasing to shy away from the word “bisexual,” and Sophia doing something with Nicky’s hair. Because, Jesus, girl, no one has to live like that.