Saturday, September 10, 2011

Book Review : "A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon SquadA Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

OK. Here is the review. Warning - it's one of those subjective/personal ones.


At 54 years of age, I don’t have a particularly coherent narrative version of my own life. Some of the more obvious events stand out in relief, but there are discontinuities, there are periods where everything seems to flow together, and there are many, many gaps - weird lacunae of years at a time. Did I really do nothing but work my butt off between the ages of 35 and 45? Kind of seems that way now, more’s the pity. Oh wait, didn’t I co-author a book in there somewhere? I’m proud of that book, less so of the friendships I allowed to wither on the vine during the process of writing it.

Any narrative cohesion that does exist in my version of my life story comes, I have no doubt, at the cost of accuracy, because it just represents the fact that I have been able to reshape those parts of the story mentally to fit some kind of narrative arc with which I am satisfied. I think we all tend to do this, which is why all memoirs need to be filed, once and for all, under the rubric of “fiction”, and why maybe, at long last, we need to stop beating up on the unfortunate James Frey. (And why I should probably give my bete noire, Frank McCourt, a pass for one of my least favorite memoirs, “Angela’s Ashes”; though my review of that book continues to annoy certain people so much that I am reluctant to change it at this point).

Proust, and assorted neuroscientists, would have us believe that our sense of smell plays an important role in generating our memories. I can’t really argue the point, but in her latest work, “A Visit from the Goon Squad”, Jennifer Egan taps into something that seems to me to be far more powerful, and far more relevant to most of our experience, when she identifies music as playing a key role in shaping memory and the resulting versions of our lives that we carry with us. Certainly, in my case, this is true. Whatever my memories, real or invented, music has a way of keeping me honest.

Sometimes the associations are of my own making. Thus, for instance, all I have to do is to hear the Al Stewart song “Year of the Cat” to be transported immediately (and viscerally) back to the winter of 1978-1979, where this particular album formed the background to my relentless onslaught on functional analysis and probability theory as I studied for my joint master’s in Math/Statistics at University College back in Cork. Or flash forward a few years to when I was grappling with my doctoral problem in Chapel Hill, both “breakthrough” ideas, those that formed the core of my eventual dissertation, came to me to the soundtrack of Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender”, which blared from the record player in my office in Smith Building at 3 in the morning.

Sometimes the musical associations are laid by others. For instance, it occurs to me that - no, the period between 35 and 45 in my life was not completely given over to work. There was the disastrous 7-month interlude when I dated Marty, one of the most charming, but completely messed-up, drunks inhabiting the Bay Area during the spring and summer of 1998. The guy was mad, bad, and dangerous to know, and he had a complete thing for the music of Celine Dion. So that if I want to be transported back to the particular state of vulnerability and fury that characterized our entire relationship, all I need to do is put “The Power of Love” on the stereo, and it all comes flooding back. By the same token, if I want to remember my first unrequited crush (on that oh-so-cute music teacher in Gaelic camp when I was 15), the slow movement of Beethoven’s 7th (in my defense, I was 15, it all seemed very tragic to me at the time) will take me back there every time.

But it’s the cues we are unaware of that are perhaps the most powerful in keeping our memories honest. How else to explain my recent experience, driving back up 280 to SF a few days before leaving for Paris? With no warning, the radio station began to play the song “Driver’s Seat” by Sniff ‘n the Tears, and the effect on me was so profound I had to pull to the side of the road until the song ended, after which it still took me several minutes to recover. Because I was no longer on 280 or anywhere near it. I was in my room in Craig Dorm in Chapel Hill, in September 1979, newly arrived the previous week from Cork, feeling that mix of trepidation, promise, fear, and possibility that characterized that whole first year in Chapel Hill.

Only these musical cues, lodged in our psyches like so many time bombs, have the visceral power to take us back in quite the same way.

What does any of this have to do with Jennifer Egan’s book? Everything, really. Because she captures that power utterly and completely, with something approaching genius. Which may be why this book left me flummoxed at the outset. But which is also why I can give it no fewer than 5 stars.

Ms Egan, you rock!

View all my reviews

Electromenage !!

It will be spaghetti for lunch here at 16 rue Jacques Louvel-Tessier!

All this for a mere 59.90 Euros.

Yes, I have already moved it out of the bedroom.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

In my dreams

As usual, my dream life continues to outstrip my actual life in terms of excitement and general incongruity. Last night Elvis was alive and well, living in Graceland, which had been magically moved to just outside San Jose. Even more impressively, in this dream, Elvis had been promoted to be my uncle, and my mother was very mad at him because he had promised to take me to the airport and was 45 minutes late. The scene where my mom was yelling at him for making me miss my flight was surreal, to say the least.

I should point out that the only known connection between me and Elvis is that we share the same birthday of January 8th. But then, dreams have their own logic.

There was also a subplot involving Elvis yelling at the people in my gym for not refunding my credit card charges in good time.

At no point in these dreams did Elvis actually speak French. Though he and I had some interesting conversations about who needed to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of fame. I'm sure Justin Timberlake would be pleased to know he gets the King's seal of approval. Mine too, though that would be based largely on the cuteness factor, as well on Justin's evident willingness not to take himself too seriously.

What's that you say? You were expecting some morsel of French culture? Tune back next week. For now, this blog is all over the map, apparently. We were exposed to Quebecois for the entire class this morning, so lord only knows what kind of dreams that might spawn.....

Tomorrow I think I am going to buy a microwave. Because it's the year 2011 and, seriously, who rents an apartment without a microwave oven. Even I, a confirmed Luddite, find this objectionable. Fortunately, there is a cheap electromenage store just around the corner. And no, "electromenage" is nowhere near as kinky as it sounds.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Good angel, bad angel.

Every night since I got here I have been awake at 4am, unable to get back to sleep. So please indulge my pathetic efforts to tire myself out by staying up late making foolish blog posts that I will undoubtedly regret (but not erase) in the cold light of day.

When I arrived here on Friday, one of the 'amenities' the landlady took pains to point out were the following (left here apparently by her nephew):

Whee! Weights! Fitness! Good intentions!

Naturally, I forwarded this picture to Maggie, my fitness trainer back in SF.

But then, I felt obliged to send the following picture as well, because life is never simple, and the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Michel and Augustin! How did they get into the apartment? Peddling their seditious teensy-weensy morsels of deliciousness! DAMN! Why is OPERATION HEALTHY FOOD CHOICES never a simple matter?

OK. I warned you this post was going to be trivial. Unabashedly so.

Getting Back in the Swim

When I arrived back at school yesterday morning (French Labor Day is May 1st), it was a relief to skip the usual level placement test and join the C1 class on a sortie pedagogique. We made our way to the base of the Tour Eiffel and got on line for the most touristy of Paris tourist activities - a cruise along the river on one of the city's famous "bateaux mouches". Despite, or perhaps because of, the essentially cliched nature of the expedition, it was terrific! It brought back fond memories of similar trips around Manhattan when I first moved to Edison, NJ, and all the friends and relatives I hadn't seen in years decided to come visit with me, within the same 6-month period. The Paris version is shorter, though - only one hour from start to finish. The boats are named after French stars - ours was called the "Brigitte Bardot"; the next one after ours was the "Catherine Deneuve", and we also spotted "Maurice Chevalier" out and about. Insert silly joke about "Gerard Depardieu" wandering drunkenly in circles and taking on/leaking water, and cackle a la Anderson Cooper here, if you so desire.

One of my favorite features here in Paris is the ubiquity of working carousels.

The river cruise was a great way to ease myself back into school activities. Later yesterday evening I decided to attend a play, called "Embarquement Immediat" ("Ready for Boarding"), which was playing at the YMCA theatre around the corner from school. I held out for the 50% student discount, which was good, because I understood only about 50% of the play. So there is work to be done on my oral comprehension, to say the least.

I might have done better to join the mobs of frenzied teens at the nearby REX cinema, where Justin Timberlake was scheduled to make an appearance to promote his latest picture. Mila Kunis appears not to have been able to make it, or was not under the same kind of contractual obligation as Justin. But I never really liked her on "That 70's Show" anyway.

While the theatre was soporific at the time, I still woke up at 4 am, unable to get back to sleep. I blame it on the weather, which has been odd and thundery ever since I got here. But no tropical storms at least!

Here is a dairymaid from the vegetarian restaurant around the corner from school:

Monday, September 5, 2011

United Airlines : I love thee not

Each time I fly with United, they manage to come up with some fresh annoyance. As I went through the laborious on-line attempt to print my boarding pass for the Dulles to Paris flight (quick tip: don't bother - it takes about 25 minutes, and it's hard to imagine this saves any time), there were two steps that elicited howls of outrage and disbelief. The first was when I was charged $70 for my second checked bag. Really, United? Have things become that desperate that this kind of gouging is considered in order? I have never abused the whole online carry-on allowance, and have tended to despise people who do, but to charge me $70 for my remarkably small second piece of checked baggage smacks of corporate arrogance and/or desperation.

Then there is the invitation to pay $39 to "fly through the airport", that is to skip to the head of the line for security checkin. I am sure that United is not the only airline to offer this convenience to the wealthy, but I disapprove on basic principle, and believe it should be outlawed, on the grounds that it is fundamentally un-American. Or for those of a more cynical bent, perhaps it is all too American. At any rate, it's despicable.

My flight from Dulles to Paris was, thankfully, DSK free. So the United stewardesses were able to dispense with the extra security precautions in first class. Apparently DSK arrived here yesterday, on a flight from JFK. Almost as if his initial fateful flight back in May had never been interrupted. Something that, incredibly, millions of French voters still wish were the case.

French politics continues to offer a kind of bleak amusement. Should one be amused or saddened by the news that former president Chirac's fragile health prevents him from testifying in the case involving 21 fictitious employees during his tenure as Mayor of Paris, from 1977 to 1995. Plus ca change, and all that ...