Tuesday, October 21, 2008

When I Grow Up review

The last two weeks have been easy reading time. I’ve been a bit lazy, reading a pair of very different new releases and a graphic novel. One of the books, The Gargoyle, and the graphic novel, Alison Bechdel’s excellent Fun Home, offered the kind of challenges so necessary in a reader’s diet. The other book, Juliana Hatfield’s memoir, When I Grow Up, wasn’t what I would classify a challenging read. At points, it wasn’t even that enjoyable, as Hatfield is novice memoirist and resorts to cliché and redundancy on more than a few occasions. The trio, however, formed a near-perfect unit of reading, and, I admit, I’m a bit desirous to repeat the formula. It breaks up as this:

1 lightweight non-fiction + 1 heavy work of contemporary fiction + 1 heavier work of contemporary graphic fiction = satisfied literary appetite.

Perhaps it doesn’t breaks down quite so easily. But I had hit a bit of a slump following the hilarious and weirdly inspiring Stiff (Mary Roach), and following Roach’s own glowing review of Traffic, I gave it a try. And while the book is written with extreme intelligence and style, I put it down about halfway through. Maybe because I don’t drive, the detailed implications of the hows and whys of traffic conditions didn’t hold my interest. If I ever do manage to get my driving license, I’ll probably pick up Traffic again. It’s one of those books that is good, and good for you, and unfortunately, I’m almost never in the mood to really get the most out of a book like that.

I was still struggling through Traffic when I received a copy of When I Grow Up, and in the interest of timeliness and courtesy to Stephanie Corby from Wiley Publishing (thanks!), I took up the memoir immediately, and upon following, I needed something that would be its opposite, and in the middle of The Gargoyle, my copy of Fun Home arrived at the store, so I read bits and pieces of it during register shifts. So now, at the end of my three- book streak, I’m on the hunt for the next trio. My reading habits seem to come in three-book bursts, with about a week- long period where I can’t seem to find anything that grabs me.

But I think the new streak has begun, because I picked up How to Be Idle just yesterday, so I think I’ve found the one lightweight non-fiction book in the formula. Maybe I really should try the equation again, see if I can perfect it.

When I Grow Up – Juliana Hatfield (September 2008 -Wiley Publishing)

I have a tendency to fetishize 90s alternative rock. I was just old enough to see women like Lisa Loeb, Jill Sobule, Liz Phair, Juliana Hatfield, etc., as older sister archetypes, women who I didn’t exactly want to be (okay, I did want to be Lisa Loeb), but I wanted to be just old enough to really relate with at the moment. Really, at heart, all I really want to be is Wynona Ryder in Reality Bites, with an adorable short hair cut and adorable clothes listening to mid-90s alternative rock, “Spin the Bottle” spinning in rotation with The Lemonheads, Pixies, Pavement, as well as all kinds of terrible mid-nineties radio jams that I absolutely loved. (I also have to point out that both Lisa Loeb and Juliana Hatfield are on the Reality Bites soundtrack. Also, if I were Wynona Ryder in Reality Bites, I would have picked Ben Stiller over Ethan Hawke. I have complex reasoning as to why, so I’ll explain at a later point.)

Anyway, so I have an enduring fondness for Juliana Hatfield, despite that I find her later music to be irritatingly self-possessed. Actually, her music is almost always a little gratingly self-possessed, and it’s an early strength and belated weakness. Still, she’s a woman who has been on the scene since the late 1980s, starting with her band The Blake Babies, through her moderate alternative-rock success as a solo artist and subsequent breakdown, semi-come back, semi-retirement, semi-come back. The chapters are written in back and forth view points, half tour diary, half recollection. Both halves suffer from redundant storytelling. Hatfield either doesn’t trust her readers to recall simple information, or her copy editors weren’t nice enough to do the job for her and cut out the repeated information.

The tour diary is the stronger of the halves overall. It feels more immediate, fresher, more vividly recalled. It dates back to the first Some Girls tour, Hatfield’s latter day trio with fellow former Blake Babies’ drummer, Freda Love. Surprisingly, it doesn’t matter if you’ve heard a Some Girls album, Hatfield provides enough details on the people in and working for the band, the places they visit, and the music they play to give the reader a full picture of the tour experience. In fact, the tour chapters read as a kind of generic diary of an artist dealing with playing a scene that she has less and less in common with, and a dwindling fan base of devotees that she is simultaneously grateful for and exhausted by. And for as much apologetic self-explanation that Hatfield resorts to, she exhibits a brave willingness to expose all of her bad behavior, unappealing bitchiness, neurosis, and insensitivities all. Like when a quiet fan in Columbus approaches her after a show, asking her to sign a giant, career-spanning pile of Juliana Hatfield merchandise. Hatfield balks:

“He didn’t even say hello to me – and not a word about the show- and now he wants fifteen or twenty autographs? But why? So he can sell them on eBay? Why can’t he just be happy to see me, like all those smiling people over there talking to Heidi and Freda? He’d probably be just as disappointed with me if I chopped off one of my fingers right now and gave it to him. It wouldn’t be enough. He’d want the whole hand.”

Melodramatic, yes, but then again, whose diary isn’t? Hatfield could have edited a lot of the conflict, nail-biting, self doubt, and bad mood stuff out, but she would have lost the cranky heart of the book (as well as more that half of the chapters). Her overwhelming point is that she’s not exactly cut out to be a public figure, and the stories she tells back that up to a strong degree. Still, even devoted fan reading this might feel like Hatfield is overreaching a bit when she talks about the oppressiveness of being in the spotlight (especially when she’s talking about the spotlight as it exists upon her now).
The other half of the memoir, the real memoir-ish half, remains compelling when Hatfield discusses her childhood, her painful early time at Berklee College of Music, the nitty gritty of her Blake Babies/solo success in the early 90s, and her emotional/physical breakdown in the midst of her career decline. Especially of interest is the later chapter regarding God’s Foot, the lost Juliana Hatfield album that, lacking a single, Atlantic pulled from release and shelved. Candid writing about that level of artistic castration is rare, and the subsequent bravado/vulnerability that Hatfield details of her post-label career is heartbreaking.

Hatfield is a gifted enough writer that she knows how to carefully construct a scene, and the environments and players she depicts are genuine. Hatfield, herself, plays up the “remarkably unremarkable” image, and she’s not above a little cloying self-deprecation, “I’m so horribly ordinary, how could anyone care about me, care about my music, love me and appreciate me and think I’m pretty,” etc, etc. It’s almost a neat literary trick when, in the later chapters, as Hatfield discusses her emotional growth and subsequent return to making music, the writing gets stronger and stronger. For all the emotional outreach that she attempts to depict with her interactions with fans, friends, fellow artists, she finally nails it on the last page. With a single paragraph, Hatfield finds grounding, and When I Grow finds its true heart.

- Em