Since I am pop-culturally-illiterate, it’s a good thing I have something off-topic I want to post about. Then again, music, the 80s, and Showtime are all mentioned, so maybe it does qualify? Anyway….
On May 21 at 6 pm, I’m going to be at Mo Pitkin’s in NYC for a reading and reception with two other Harper debut authors, Amy Bryant and Heather McElhatton (rhymes with tackle-latin, if you were wondering). I’m a little worried that I’m not hip enough for such a swanky venue or such classy company. I take comfort in the fact that our names go together so well – doesn’t “Amy, Heather & Jennifer” sound like a 80s high school clique, passing around the blue mascara in the girls’ room?
I’ve now read both their books (well, I’m working on Heather’s – it’s not really a book you “finish” in the normal sense of the word – read on!), and thought I’d tell you all a bit about them. Bottom line: sorry, folks, two more for your “must read” pile.
Polly is Amy Bryant’s novel about a girl growing up in the 80s. We follow Polly from 7th grade to freshman year of college as she discovers sex, the DC hardcore music scene, and finally, herself. Each chapter is named after a boy, and although Polly’s sexual adventures (more often misadventures) are center stage, her family, friends, and passions are also well explored. Bryant’s prose is sharp, her characters are real, and she gets the details and feel of female teenage angst uncomfortably dead-on. I winced at some of the things Polly suffers through (love those popular girls who leave notes specifying “why they hate you” in your locker!), and cheered whenever she dumped a loser (see ya, Joey!). Here’s a sample passage describing her relationship with boyfriend Mike:
“Mike and I were different from other people. We didn’t fit in at school. We had the same sense of humor. We didn’t like sports or school dances or extracurricular activities. We were loners in black clothes, poets imprisoned in the suburbs. We loved cities and hated nature. We loved vintage cars and hated acid wash jeans. We were fans of punk rock music and John Waters movies… We were lucky to have found each other.”
Remember those “choose your own adventure” books for kids? You know, you read a little piece, and then you have to make a choice. Do you fight the squid? Turn to page 65. Swim away? Turn to page 68. Heather McElhatton, a producer for the PRI show This American Life (now also a Showtime series), has brilliantly borrowed this concept for her “do-over novel” Pretty Little Mistakes. Only this time the “adventure” is your adult life. Accept a date with the sleazy-but-wealthy guy? Or stick with your poor-and-philandering-but-very-hot boyfriend? Turn yourself in for accidentally killing a jerk? Or live with the guilt? Throw caution to the wind and kiss the beautiful woman? Or turn her down flat? Each choice puts you on a path to more choices, all leading eventually to the end – yes, that end – death by allergic reaction, murder, car accident, suicide, cervical cancer, drowning, and hepatitis (please wash your produce, people) are a few of the fates I have met so far (luckily I have also been reincarnated several times and/or found happiness in variously fantastically imagined heavens). But, as in real life, the important bits happen on the way to the end – will you be happy? Find your soul mate? Do good? Or will you be miserable, compromised, bored? Will you live to 108, or not even make it until 20? As clever and original as the structure is, PLM is about a lot more than a gimmick. The writing is vivid and smart, the stories are hilarious, moving and thought-provoking. McElhatton has something to say, a unique vision and voice, and she has found a way to convey it in an utterly addictive format.
So hey, for those of you in the New York area, come on by Mo Pitkin’s next Monday for what’s sure to be an exciting time, and I would love to see you! And those of you who live too far: Please check out the books by these two amazing debut authors… you won’t be disappointed!
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