Turn up the volume
Put your summer reading on shuffle with our playlist of instrumental reads
Published: June 30, 2011
Ten Thousand Saints
by Eleanor Henderson n 385 pages n Ecco Books
The power of Ten Thousand Saints may not be in its plot but in its cultural locus: The story of a lost and unloved teenager is a million times told (though Eleanor Henderson's telling is not stale), but the setting, New York's East Village in the late '80s, is sacred ground. The beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the rise of straight-edge hardcore, the struggle of disenfranchised citizens to find a place in an ever-more-expensive city: in other words, battles on the verge of being spectacularly lost. Hence Henderson's valedictory tone as she limns the coming of age of four unparented children and their feckless begetters, the hippie generation unraveling into middle age while Gen-X wound itself tight.
Blurbed by Ann Patchett (Bel Canto) and Dean Wareham (Luna, Galaxie 500), Ten Thousand Saints arrives with the most rarefied of bona fides – anointed by both fiction and music royalty. Yet for all its satisfying heft, its deft characterizations, there's a whiff of the book club about it. A grab bag of capital-I Issues is shoehorned in, as though Henderson had researched rather than experienced, say, tattoos or squats or bong-packing. That faint whiff of inauthenticity is more than offset, though, by piercing sensory descriptions of the experiences we all have: cold weather, adolescent makeout sessions, walking through a new neighborhood, betrayal by (or of) someone you love. The book's brief coda, set almost 20 years later, sets the faded seal of mere nostalgia on what was world-shaking at the time. – Jessica Bryce Young
You Must Go and Win
by Alina Simone n 256 pages n Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
Black Soviet humor pervades this collection of essays by struggling musician Alina Simone. Born in Ukraine and raised in suburban Massachusetts, Simone realized early on that she and her parents, political refugees, didn't see things the same way. Difficulty in gym class, her tragic lack of a pony … to her father, a university professor sentenced to perform hard labor, or her grandmother, who survived the siege of Leningrad, it was as if she were "pointing out mushrooms from an airplane." But their loving support seems only to make Simone feel worse, instilling an inferiority complex bigger than Siberia that dogs her throughout the book.
Wry observations on Brooklyn sublets, the KGB and Britney Spears ramble past in a David Sedaris-meets-Gary Shteyngart morass of wise-ass, looping back and forth in time in a manner that recalls Simone's geographical traverses throughout years of touring in support of her micro-indie releases. The essays are short on establishing detail (for instance, her husband pops up only in rare and brief appearances) – this is decidedly not a memoir. In a chapter about her childhood friend Amanda Palmer (Dresden Dolls), Simone seems to come face-to-face with the fact that she might not want to be a musician enough to succeed, while in "The Benefits of Self-Castration," she confronts total commitment. Each story is as quirky and personal as her songs, but like them, a bit samey. It's in the interactions with her parents that her writing gains traction; committing to an actual memoir might be less amusing but more honest. – JBY