Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Visit From the Good Squad - Jennifer Egan (Audio)


About a month and a half ago, Books Babes and Bordeaux spent an evening talking with Tatjana Soli about her book "The Lotus Eaters". In this discussion, Tatjana mentioned several books that she has enjoyed recently, and this was one of them (she ranked it significantly higher than Freedom!). I'd already heard about the book in various reviews, and it consistently ended up on the "Best of" lists for 2010. I didn't need much arm-twisting, and I was thrilled when I saw that my library had it on audio.

I didn't start it without reservation though. Carrie (from Books and Movies) told me she had a hard time with the audio, I'd heard about its crazy, non-linear plot, and there was something about a PowerPoint presentation? I said to myself "THIS is going to be interesting. An experiment on the limits of my beloved audiobooks."

Synopsis: At the heart of this twisty-turny, meandering exploration of the music business and the six degrees of separation between us all *pause for a breath* lies Sasha, and her boss Bennie. Sasha is a once-runaway, now-kleptomaniac that works for a recording studio as an assistant to Bennie Salazar, who puts gold flakes in his coffee. She is on a date with a guy who she sorta likes, but has never gotten over an old flame. She has issues. She is working on them.

Flash sideways, and we learn about Bennie, recently and bitterly divorced and trying to connect with his son, and eventually does by sharing some of his gold flakes with him. Bennie thinks back to the glory days, when music was music, and when heaven was hanging with his band mates in high school.

Flash back to Bennie's youth, narrated by one of Bennie's band mates Rhea. We learn about the dynamics of the group, and about how another one of the band mates and Rhea's best friend just hooked up with a sleazy record producer three times her age.

Flash back to a safari trip that the sleazy record producer took with all of his kids and current girlfriend to Africa, narrated by the girlfriend. Flash forward to find out where everyone in the party ended up thirty years later.

And so it goes. Egan develops each character so thoroughly, with so much interesting detail (gold flakes? runaway? bitter divorce? rape charges? publicity for a dictator?) that you can't help but ask "I wonder what THAT story is all about?". From your lips to Egan's ears, my curious friends. And the world is such a small place that connections are everywhere. Connections that are too coincidental to be believed sometimes, but they are there, like little invisible threads, connecting us all to Kevin Bacon and each other.

The theme of each tale, in one form or another, is that "time is a goon". Time plays tricks on our memories, changes us physically and mentally, sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad. The key is how we deal with that goon. Will we adapt, or will we get left behind?

My thoughts: OK that synopsis was freaking hard to do. So in a nutshell...music industry, connections, time. Developed characters, tragic characters, characters that mature and ones that do not. Smart dialogue. Music references. Unique approaches to narration. A wackadoo timeline. And people, it was fun in fifty different ways.

I had NO IDEA at first what was going on. We kept skipping from character to character, flashing forward, backwards and sideways. But after a few chapters, I started to get into it. I started to listen to the current story, and had a ball guessing which minor character within it would be the next feature.

Often a book will have a unique hook. The story is told backwards. Or maybe the story is narrated by Death, a dead girl or a dog. This book had so many hooks I can't even count. First, just the non-linear structure was a wild ride. I felt like I was skipping around randomly on God's Great Gant Chart of Life. I had no idea where the story was taking me, and I treated each disc like a big surprise. Forest Gump's box of chocolates even.

Egan also occasionally gives us a fast-forward glimpse into certain character's futures. This boy will grow up unhappy and kill himself before he turns 30. That character will mellow out, marry her college sweetheart and have three kids. I've seen this trick before, but it never ceases to delight me to be at the receiving end of a fortune-teller's knowledge.

A story is told through a report written by a celebrity journalist. A story is written as a "PowerPoint slide diary" by a 12 year-old girl about her slightly confused family and her brother's struggle with autism, and his obsession with pauses within rock and roll songs. (They pulled it off incredibly in the audio. You have to hear it to believe it.)

It is clever. It is masterful. You've never read anything quite like it. It's going on my 2011 favorites list, right at the top.

A word about the audio production: Roxana Ortega is our narrator for this audiobook, someone I could have SWORN I'd heard before. But according to my search she is new to the industry. She does have an impressive resume that includes film, TV and theater, however, and it shows. She rocked this production, and I'd listen to her anytime.

5 out of 5 stars



23 comments:

farmlanebooks said...

I love the sound of this one! It isn't released here in the UK until later this week, but I will be ensuring I read a copy as soon as possible. You are making me think about getting the audio version though.... I am worried about the complexity on audio, but if you say it works then I think I may well have to give it a try. I can't ignore your book of the year :-)

Cozy in Texas said...

Five stars is high praise. Thanks for the review.
Ann

Julie P. said...

Woo Hoo! Just picked this one up in audio from the library on Saturday! YAY!

JoAnn said...

Wow Sandy, what a review!! This sounds like it would be an especially wild ride on audio. I'd probably be flipping back and forth if I had the book in front of me...

Jenners said...

I have the paperback on preorder and I am going to drop everything as soon as it arrives because you got me so excited!!!!!!! I know I am not ready for this on audio...I am not that skilled a listener yet! Great review!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I'm on the library waiting list for this too, although your review scares me a bit! I hope I can follow it!

Zibilee said...

Ok, I have been holding off on buying this one because I wasn't sure about it, but now I am totally convinced that I need to read this book! I love it when non-linear is done well and I love goofy randomness as well. Your reaction to this book has me so excited! Great review on this one. I will have to let you know what I think!

Kathleen said...

Sounds like a wild ride but one that is worth it.

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

5 stars and a best of 2011 rating from you, Sandy, puts this one right on top of the ole wishlist ;) sounds interesting, thought provoking and different!

Nymeth said...

Funnily enough I was looking this one up on Amazon just yesterday because of something someone said on Twitter (I can't remember who). It sounded like my kind of book, and you've just confirmed that. Excellent review, Sandy!

bermudaonion said...

This sounds fantastic, but I have a feeling I'd do better with the print version.

Jen - devourer of books said...

Every single person who heard that I listened to this on audio asked how on earth they did the PowerPoint. I kept trying to tell them that it just worked, but I don't think they believed me. Now I can point them to your review and say, "see?"

Darlene said...

Nice review Sandy. It sounds good but I'm just not sure it's for me. I'd probably be lost with the audio for sure. lol.

Wallace said...

I borrowed this from the library once, didn't get to read it -- returned it and didn't think about it again. Now I'm thinking about it again. You definitely have intrigued me with this review.

heidenkind said...

Sounds a little too kooky for me, especially for audio; I'd never figure out what was going on.

Ti said...

This one must have been a doozy to write...both the book and the review! I don't think I have ever seen a book be compared to a box of Gump's chocolate. God, I love that reference and I don't even like chocolate!

Jenny said...

Ooh great review!! I just started reading this (only 2 chapters in) but really enjoying it. I'm really curious how they did that power point chapter in audio!!

Carrie K. said...

I think I may have to try this one in print - it sounds like a book I would love, but the audio was just way too confusing! LOL

The Bumbles said...

OK - first of all, how can Ti not like chocolate?!

Second - neat review. I felt like you were leading me through the halls of the story.

Third - is this a short story collection masquerading as a novel with its common thread? Sounds like it would be a cool visual series to follow.

Iliana said...

Wow, at the top of the list huh? I wasn't too attracted to this book at first but your review and the fact that it's also on the Orange long list have put this one back on my radar :)

mattviews said...

Named one of the best books last year, I flipped through it at the bookstore but had no clue what was going on. I did buy it but it's been sitting on the shelf. This very much sounds like Learning to Lose by David Trueba, which I enjoyed tremendously.

Swapna said...

Great review! I am a little worried about whether I would enjoy the non-linear plot and having no idea where the book was going, as I don't love that in books. But I still want to read it, and your enthusiasm definitely shines through!

Jenners said...

OK ... I just finished this book and wrote my review and had to go back and reread yours to see how you pulled it off again. Now that I've read the book, I realize just how good your review was! This was gosh darn hard to get a grip on! I think it probably was a 5 star book but I had to give it 3.5 stars for my first read because I felt so damn disoriented all the time. I think this definitely requires another read (perhaps a listen now? I can't imagine how this would work on audio!!!) to fully appreciate. In fact, I'm thinking this may be the first time I reread a book in the same year and write two reviews for it.

You ROCKED this review Sandy! I'm totally impressed. I don't think people realize just how you nailed it until they read the book. What a trip it was!