Friday, 18 January 2013

In the company of cheerleaders (a tale of two novels, although one really isn't a novel)

One of my Facebook pals is a school librarian, so her postings are pithier than some I could mention, that is, she doesn't share glorified chain letters, urban legends masquerading as real events, nor quotes attributed to the wrong people. A couple of months ago, she posted a link to a Publishers' Weekly item entitled "The Top 10 Essays Since 1950".

I had a look and the one that really got under my skin was by Jo Ann Beard, a description of a day no one should have involving a dying pet, a dead relationship, and an incident that resulted in the deaths of half a dozen of her co-workers. It originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1996 and it's called "The Fourth State of Matter". I really recommend that you follow the link and read it; it's clear, engrossing, heart-breaking.

I recognized a voice I wanted to hear again, so I immediately checked the catalogue of my local public library and put a hold on In Zanesville, a novel Beard published in 2011, about that terrifying time when a girl feels her way over the chasm between childhood and adolescence.

There are three Zanesvilles in the United States; this one appears to be a tiny community south of Springfield, Illinois. (The towns of Heyworth and Waynesville are mentioned.) The time covers the months between the summer of 1972 and the following winter. ("Ooh Child" is called an "old" song and "Ben" [released the summer of 1972] is quoted.) Our heroine, whose name may be "Jan", is definitely not "Joan", and is in all likelihood Jo Ann, is fourteen, gifted, and a late-bloomer. In 1972's small-town America, this means she is still a little girl emotionally when the book opens. We follow her through a series of seemingly unimportant adolescent incidents which are, of course, life-changing to her, and by the end, we are hearing the thoughts and ideas of a teenager.

This is not a Young Adult novel. This is closer to being a memoir from someone who remembers exactly what it was like to be no longer pre-adolescent, but only barely -- and to have no idea what to do about it. Beard writes skillfully and truthfully. It may be lacking in sex and violence, but it is, nevertheless, a book for grown-ups.

The audio-book is inventively read by Jo Anna Perrin.

One of the turning points for the narrator of In Zanesville is her unexpected inclusion in a slumber party for cheerleaders. It just so happened that before I got out this audio-book, I was listening to the audio-book version of Girls in White Dresses
I felt compelled to get this book out because Marie Phillips has been rhapsodizing about it for months. Marie is a gifted writer herself, the author of Gods Behaving Badly (now a forthcoming film) and co-author of the BBC radio comedy Warhorses of Letters and the spoof Fifty Shelves of Grey, so when she recommends something, I pay attention. I don't always agree. Marie may be a fellow Taurus, but she isn't the boss of me.

Girls in White Dresses
by Jennifer Close claims to be a novel, but it's really a series of short stories, all concerning a clique of girls from Philadelphia who get jobs (mostly) in New York. They may not be cheerleaders exactly, but they seem to share a similar sort of mentality, being privileged, well-educated, pretty girls who get jobs in areas like publishing, and when they don't, sourly contemplate how these are "not the kind of people (they are) supposed to be around". The men they date are two-dimensional and described in terms of their physical attractiveness or lack thereof (making this rather like a lot of novels by male authors, I suppose). One of the least pleasant chapters concerns a member of their set who will only go out with ugly men. Another woman wails when she is set up with an overweight date: "What about me says, Set me up with an obese person?"

Two or three of the short stories have genuine humour and show our protagonists in a more sympathetic light. One, entitled "Showers", is a neat illustration of the giddy excess and embarrassing silliness of pre-wedding rituals. Another, "Button", follows a young woman's underground power struggle with her mother-in-law. Close does best when she writes about the girls as children, or when they interact with children. This is when they come across as real human beings, perhaps because these women are nowhere near growing up. By the end of the book, there is no sense that they have developed any further than the people they were at the beginning.

Oh, I might be missing the point. Perhaps I'm failing to notice devilishly clever social satire, but the fact is, none of these women are appealing, hold my interest, nor resemble anyone I would care to meet in real life, while the heroine of In Zanesville is all three.

I think Jennifer Close is a very young writer with room to improve, while Jo Ann Beard is an accomplished writer whose further works I will seek out.

(Sorry, Marie.)

For your amusement, I leave you with two musical moments featured in In Zanesville: the - uh - remarkable Seventies soul stylings of The Five Stairsteps

...and Michael Jackson at fourteen years of age, when his face was unmarred and he was still "one fifth of the Jackson Five" That's Charlton Heston before he became the face for the NRA and yes, Michael is singing a song about a man-eating rat. Gosh, the Seventies were twisted...

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