This coming weekend, Portland’s convention center once again hosts Wordstock, a weekend (and more!) of readings, signings, discussions and other literary events. All this week on EW! A Blog, we’ll review books by authors appearing at the festival, which is super-affordable, should you happen to be a book-nerd with weekend plans that involve PDX: $7 per day, or $10 for both festival days.
If memory serves — and it doesn’t always — my introduction to Throwing Muses was the video for “Bright Yellow Gun,” from the Boston band’s 1995 album University. In hindsight, the concept of a Throwing Muses video seems faintly absurd, but I’m glad it was out there. University was an eerie blessing of a record, resonant and cryptic in all the right ways, and it led me to singer-songwriter Kristin Hersh’s solo album, even more oblique and beautifully ungainly, and to a summer spent wearing out the Muses’ Red Heaven, which still sounds like the background noise to getting my feet under me as a sort-of adult.
I was 19 then. Hersh was just 18 when she had one hell of a year — a year that’s the subject of her fantastic memoir, Rat Girl (Penguin, $15). In a brief intro that comes across as if she’s a little suspicious of herself, Hersh explains that Rat Girl is based on a diary from that year. “That girl isn’t me anymore,” she writes. “Now it’s just a story.”
It’s a really good story. Hersh weaves together the narrative of her year with snippets of song lyrics and scenes from her childhood with the hippie parents she refers to as Crane and Dude. She’s telling a straightforward story about a young band that finds its first successes, but she’s also telling a complicated, emotional tale about a young woman grappling with mental illness and major change.
Rat Girl is never sentimental; Hersh might not be capable of sentimentality. She’s perpetually wary, certain that while she and her bandmates like her band, there’s no reason for anyone else to feel the same way about them. Ordinary things have unexpected outcomes: An apartment fuels the songs she hears with “an evil energy.” The songs, she explains, started to come after “a witch” hit Hersh with her car. In the hospital with a double concussion, she began to hear noise that later resolved into notes, melodies and words. “It’s not me,” Hersh writes. “I don’t talk that way because I’m not always ‘right now.’ A song lives across time as an overarching impression of sensory input, seeing it all happening at once, racing through stories like a fearless kid on a bicycle, narrating his own skin.”
Hersh’s observations about music scenes, music writers and the recording process are fascinating and specific, and all the more so for Muses fans. Her tone is never gossipy, though, and she leaves out identifying details, opting instead for impressions and entertaining descriptions (one music writer is referred to as the Newspaper).
Right in the middle of the book — which runs 1985-1986, roughly spring to spring — Hersh becomes manic. There's no build-up and no romanticization: "I'm falling into a hole in my head — been tripping over my brain not working, a mess." It's not long after she's diagnosed as manic-depressive (doctors use the term, then explain that it’s not called that anymore; she has bipolar disorder) that Hersh finds herself pregnant. The pages leading up to her hospitalization are frenzied, scary and beautiful, but there’s little context for the pregnancy. “Some boys like little rat girls,” she writes quietly in explanation. “Not many, but a few. I’ve always been grateful for the ones that did. Now I’m not so sure.”
Rat Girl is a book like a Throwing Muses song is a song; it starts in unexpected places, is full of peculiar and unforgettable images and has deceptive staying power once it gets under your skin. You might pick out pieces of the narrative and think it’s about a band, or a musician, or a mental illness, or being a teenage mother with a record deal, but it’s a book about the particular way a talented, sometimes troubled young woman walks through the world — a coming of age story, comforting, disconcerting, intense, unfamiliar and, amid all the vivid descriptions of sound and color and light, relatable. Hersh’s world doesn’t look or feel like everybody else’s — for better and for worse. Rat Girlisn’t tidy and inspirational, but chaotic and true.
Kristin Hersh reads at 3 pm Saturday, Oct. 9, at Wordstock’s Columbia Sportswear Stage.
Also at Wordstock and (semi) recently reviewed in EW: Eugene native Robin Romm reads at 11 am Saturday, Oct. 9, at the Powell’s Stage, and Portland writer Robin Cody reads at 1 pm Sunday, Oct. 10, at the Mountain Writers Series Stage #1.
All listed Wordstock events take place at the Oregon Convention Center, Portland.
This review will appear in the 12/17 Eugene Weekly print issue and on our regular website.
Arcs of Evil and Justice
Segregation, shoplifting and the university of evil in young adult books
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, nonfiction by Phillip Hoose. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009. $19.95.
The Blonde of the Joke, fiction by Bennett Madison. HarperTeen, 2009. $16.99.
Evil Genius, Harcourt, 2005, $7.95; and Genius Squad, Harcourt, 2008, $17, fiction by Catherine Jinks.
The week after we finish Winter Reading means a rebound in reading joy â€” thereâ€™s no pressure, nothing we have to finish, plus we find the books hidden at the backs of bookshelves and address our stacks of library books with glee â€¦ and, in this case, tears.
Read more after the jump!
That's a Powell's link, but the UO Bookstore also has the book.
Hart's book launch party is at the UO Bookstore starting with a reception at 5 pm and a reading at 6 pm Thursday, Oct. 15. Hart is also reading at Powell's on Hawthorne a week later (it's on Hawthorne because ... part of the book is about lesbians!, or that's my interpretation of the Powell's decision), at 7:30 pm, Thursday, Oct. 22.
The book trailer:
Hey y'all! It's that time, from 9 am to 1 pm today â€” the National Arts Journalism Summit! They say we can use our websites to stream (without taking up bandwidth ... hm, we'll see about that!). So here 'tis! You can also use Twitter to sign in or to follow the discussion, with the hashtag #artsj09. I'll be in and out, what with meetings and such, but I hope to take part in at least some of it! After the event ends, I believe you can watch rebroadcasts of it here as well. Enjoy, arts people!
When do we get those high-speed trains? 'Cause I need a faster, easier way to get back and forth from PDX these days. Today, I'm missing a press screening of
Harry Potter Laughs All the Way to the Bank Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (thanks, Shawn Levy, for inspiring that strikethrough). I'll go see it Wednesday and review it on this here blog the same day. I PROMISE. My fingers aren't even crossed or anything. EDIT: I take it back. I'm going to go at midnight Tuesday and write like a ... fast writer thing so there will be a review in this week's paper. Because big Wednesday movie openings mean I can do absurd things like that.
Next Monday, I'm missing a screening of Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, which shows as a benefit for the Portland Women's Film Festival. Bigelow's new film is supposed to be a good'un. Here's hoping it gets here eventually.
And tonight, do-it-all-and-do-it-yourself woman of awesomeness Jessica Hopper reads at Powell's on Hawthorne. On the Portland Mercury's blog, "everyone's best pal*" Joan Hiller-Depper interviews Hopper about her new book, The Girls' Guide to Rocking.
I actually went to Portland on a whim on Thursday, but that's a story for its very own blog post.
* This may sound like a snarky way to refer to someone, but I think Ezra Caraeff is being totally sincere: Joan is possibly the friendliest person I have ever met. No joke. Most of us could take lessons in niceness from Joan and lessons in doing stuff from Jessica. Which is just one more reason it'd be nifty to be in Portland tonight.
â€¢ The Village Voice's Rob Harvilla, like myself, is obsessed with Janelle Monae. Unlike me, he's gotten to see her perform live multiple times. I've had to make do with YouTube, which is a poor stand-in. Monae is appearing at this year's Bumbershoot, which is pretty much enough to make me want to spend Labor Day weekend in Seattle.
â€¢ Sports: still having issues with sexism.
â€¢ Cory Doctorow: Still all over the internets. Naturally. Doctorow's next novel will be serialized on Tor.com; a new piece of the 81-part whole goes up each Monday, Wednesday and Friday until the physical book's release in November.
â€¢ The unmatchable Warren Ellis greets his
minions obsessed followers readers with some unforgettable shadow art.
â€¢ And speaking of art, Alex Eben Meyer (whose style particularly observant readers may remember from such covers as Winter Reading 2006 and Swizzle 2007) has a novel idea for how to get back at those nasty drivers who cut you off without signaling. Pigeons, however, aren't quite so plentiful here as they are in Brooklyn. Perhaps the (annoying, aggravating, start-squawking-at-five-in-the-morning-damn-their-little-bird-eyes) starlings would volunteer?
And with that, I'm off to see Moon and be disturbed by Kevin Spacey as a rather referential space computer.
May 1, I hear, is Buy Indie Day. The idea, as described at Indiebound, is simple: "Buy one book â€” paperback, hardcover, audiobook, whatever you want! â€” at an independent bookstore near you." (Those of you on Facebook can check out the movement's Facebook page, too.)
If you're still reading this, you doubtless are familiar with Eugene's fine independent booksellers: Tsunami Books, Black Sun Books, Smith Family Books, the UO Bookstore (still not calling it the Duck Store), Windows Booksellers (which I've actually never been in) and J. Michaels. You can also get books at The Kiva, of course, or order online from an online shop (there's this one in Portland you may have heard of?).
Conveniently, tomorrow is also the first day of J. Michaels' 34th anniversary sale, which a colorful little postcard emphasizes is their ONLY sale of the year. The sale runs through Saturday, May 9, but if you swing by on Friday evening, you can add snacks and wine to your indie shopping experience.
Whichever store is your favorite, there's a lot to be said for something like Buy Indie Day â€” not least of which is that you'll come out of it with something new to read. Should you be unsure what to buy, let me recommend a few recent favorites, all (this time) in a fantasy-fiction sort of vein. Sort of:
â€¢ The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. A timeless story about a boy raised by ghosts, told in Gaiman's personable, charming prose, sly and impossibly precise, like the story always existed this way and Gaiman just happened to snare it, to gently press it into his lovely book. I'm not ashamed to say I teared up at the end of Bod's story, and I do hope it continues.
â€¢ Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson. A sci-fi novel, but only at the outset; Midnight Robber moves quickly from the Caribbean-colonized planet of Toussaint to its parallel world, New Half-Way Tree, where criminals are sent into exile, forced to make their way without technology. Tan-Tan winds up on New Half-Way Tree with her father, whose sour, drunken assaults on Tan-Tan eventually send her into the bush, where she lives with the planet's native population. Since reading this, I've been nabbing Hopkinson's other books from the library just as fast as I can; I can't get enough of her engrossing, vivid writing and her beautiful, dangerous worlds. (I've only finished one other so far, but I can also heartily recommend Brown Girl in the Ring, in which the dangerous world is our own.)
â€¢ Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente. The title of Valente's new book refers to a city you can only reach by sleeping with someone who's been there. It's fantastical and yet entirely physical; you can only visit the part of the city that appears like a tattoo on your lover's body; you will only find yourself there at night, like a dream. But it's not a dream. Four characters swirl around each other in this story, each shaped and marked by loss, each finding something they may or may not have known they were missing in this strange city, where a river flows with coats and a house grows for the woman who will inherit it. I recommend reading this one on a train, not just in solidarity with the train-loving character Amaya Sei, but because it might make you feel appropriately exposed when the stranger in the seat next to you peers over your shoulder as you read yet another sex scene â€”Â but it's not just about sex! It's about travel, exploration, a different kind of anticipation â€” and you find yourself wondering what exactly they're thinking about this small, seemingly innocuous book you're reading so intently.
Congratulations to Eugene's Nina Kiriki Hoffman for winning a Nebula Award â€” the awards given by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America â€” for her short story "Trophy Wives."
Another Eugenean, Kate Wilhelm, was one of three winners of the Solstice Award, which was created last year and is given to a writer "who has had a significant impact on the science fiction or fantasy landscape, and is particularly intended for those who have consistently made a major, positive difference within the speculative fiction field."
The rest of the winners are listed here at Locus. Oregon did pretty darn well, what with Ursula K. Le Guin also winning for her young adult novel Powers. I don't think I missed any other Oregonians, but please correct me if I did!