Reading Outside the Lines: Ballads of Suburbia

Deciding to read Ballads of Suburbia was one of the easiest decisions I’ve made in a while. I’ve read I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone by Stephanie Kuehnert and absolutely adored it. So when I saw that Ballads… was out, I got it and proceeded to devour it.

Overall, Ballads of Suburbia was a fine follow-up by Kuehnert. It was edgy, full of colorful characters, and had the story missing from my own high school experience. It was almost like I was a voyeur, seeing into a world so far from my own yet central to the experiences of others. Stephanie Kuehnert is absolutely one of my favorite new authors, as she brings so much to the table. In addition to bringing her own experience and excellent storytelling, she brings the passion of music, especially the vibrancy of punk rock. Her themes are the literary equivalent to the teen punk bands starting in a garage near you (only better, as her craft is much more developed.) Learn more about her writing process, how she uses music to write and the inside scoop to the music that inspired Ballads of Suburbia here.

Many reviews you’ll see will have comments questioning the book’s validity as a YA novel. Those reviews will say something along the lines of there being too much drug use, pre-marital sex, and self-injury. These elements, those reviewers will claim, should not be introduced to younger minds, as they may end up following the example in the book.

Anyone who’s actually read the book knows that all of these are deftly handled in Kuehnert’s hands. As a writer, Kuehnert has a wonderful ability to really slip into the voice of her main character, Kara, and make her come alive. The book follows Kara’s high school years while living in the suburbs of Chicago. Instead of living in a suburbia filled with high school sports and homework and college ambition, Kara goes from being a loner to being part of the crowd of Oak Park’s misfit collective. Weekends are spent drinking and getting high.

While drugs are central to the narrative, it is the relationships that keep the book afloat. While Kara’s actual family is falling apart, she finds her family in her friends that frequent Scoville Park. And like they do in real life, the relationships continue to be dynamic, not static.

The book itself is not a straight chronological narrative. While it is mostly from Kara’s perspective, it is broken up by the “ballads” of her friends, each written in first person from the respective character’s point of view. While these sections add some backstory to the supporting cast of characters, the first person narrative feels a little too much like the author telling us their story. The narrative in these ballads isn’t nearly as well developed, which is understandable, as these characters aren’t the Main Character. This is the only real issue I have with the book.

To me the relationships felt real, the characters were authentic and multi-faceted. The drug users weren’t just druggies, they were people, they were troubled, they had problems and stories and you felt their pain and as a reader want nothing more than to see them work it out. The main (human) antagonist of the book, Christian, is a stronger antagonist because of the realness of the characters. When you meet Christian he’s sweet, a good guy, an ideal boyfriend. But the dark side comes out and makes him that much more terrifying (and thank goodness, that dark side doesn’t include fangs or fur).

The book was poignant and acts as a great reminder of what family (both the related kind and the chosen kind) means. This book isn’t an easy read, by any means, but it’s worth it.

To parents afraid their children will read this book: get over it. Drug use is not glorified. The cutting is not glorified. And telling a high school kid that he/she can’t read it is not only ridiculous, it’s dangerous. If your high school student gets straight A’s and has a lot of after-school activities such as sports, social clubs, honor societies, reading this book won’t do a hint of damage. If I were to read this book as a teenager, the reaction I would have would be this: Drugs are bad. They mess things up. People lose sight of themselves and the world around them. And that is absolutely not cool. Not something a teenage me would find appealing at all. I’ve got a sister in high school, and if Ballads of Suburbia were mine (instead of a library book), I would absolutely pass it on to her. She’s a smart kid. And I would never insult her intelligence by holding a book like this from her with the excuse that she’s not old enough and I need to protect her. By “protecting” children from themes like this, all we are doing is hiding the reality and making them less able to respond in smart ways. Drugs are the forbidden fruit, but knowledge is power, and with knowledge, kids will learn quickly to say “no”.

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Behind the IHOP Papers

Remember that post about the IHOP Papers I published so long ago? Well, here’s a surprise for you–an interview with the author herself, Ali Liebegott.
A few words about Ali: Her book length poem The Beautifully Worthless was published in 2005 with critical acclaim. As Curve mentions, the book is part epic poem, part love letter, part to-do list and part road trip opus. In her 2007 book, the IHOP Papers, Liebegott continues to prove that she is a major contender in the literary world. Her prose is reminiscent of authors like Kerouac, but she shines in her own light.
In addition to writing, Liebegott has contributed and performed her work with Sister Spit.
So with no further ado–the interview with Ali Liebegott:

1. How long have you been writing? When did you know that you wanted writing as a career?

I’ve been writing since I was young. By the time I was in high school it felt like a serious ambition. I was going to readings and participating in poetry groups, etc. I think it’s hard in the US for writing to be someone’s career. My other career, (how I pay the bills is by teaching), but I long for the day where I can just focus on writing.

2. If you weren’t a writer, you would be…

something with animals… a petting zoo manager…a goat hugger… a geese anger management counselor…

3. Of all the characters you’ve created, have you found yourself identifying completely with one of them? if so, which character/why?

I think that in a way all my characters have pieces of me in it. I’m definitely one of those writers who expands on real life experiences.

4. Where is your favorite place to write? Do you listen to music while writing? (If so, what kind/songs?)

I need to be at home to really write. I really need to be alone. A shut door. Psychic space. For two years I rented a studio space for 180 dollars a month that was all mine and it was amazing. I wrote there. I’ve also written while at other people’s homes. But they can’t be there. Or at least I need another room alone to write in. I’m all about a door that shuts. I can’t listen to music with lyrics. For my first two books I obsessively listened to Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3. It’s so sad and amazing and great to write to.

5. Would you rather have the monetary and extremely mainstream success of JK Rowling or the notoriety of Poe?

I’d take either one of their situations!! Without being too earnest, I’ll just take inspiration, my health and time to work on my stuff.

6. Where do your ideas come from? How much of your fiction is inspired by actual events in your life/the lives of people you know?

Most of my work starts from autobiography.

7. What’s the worst job you’ve ever had (all in the name of supporting the lifestyle of the starving artist career…)?

Wow. There are so many to choose from. I’ve had many bad waitressing jobs.

a. Manhattan Chili Company (NY, NY)–turquoise polo shirt and black pants coupled with homophobia and ten different chilis that were supposed to be differentiated by eye.
b. Fire and Ice (Providence, RI) basically waitressing at a shopping mall buffet with sorority girls and trying to convince customers they should tip you at a buffet.
c. The Crest Cafe (San Diego, CA)I worked for the most miserable person ever to walk the face of the earth– she used to take money out of people’s checks if they forgot to charge a customer for cheese on a hamburger, etc. One older man I worked with would have to pay 15 dollars almost every day for forgetting things! I only lasted about six weeks there! I just realized that this bad job list is a kind of Pandora’s Box and I could go on and on forever!!

8. Do you consider yourself a feminist/riot grrrl?

No. I’m not a giant label person. But I of course support rioting and feminism!

9. What is your favorite pop culture obsession?

I’m not sure if this counts but I’m a total sucker for COURT TV. Especially Forensic Files. I could watch it for 14 hours straight. Even though I believe it’s really promoting terrible things, violence toward women, etc. I love those bullshitty 48 hours shows. Thank God I don’t have cable TV! I’m also a huge baseball fan. Mostly, The NY Mets. But I live for April -September. I like to draw ducks and listen to the baseball game on the radio.

10. In The IHOP Papers, Francie discovers that she can save money by putting it literally into the walls…was that a creative ploy or have you ever had success saving money by that method?

I actually worked with someone who used to keep their money and jewelry in the wall.

11. Images of bisexual women and lesbians are much more prevalent than they used to be, which is, in several ways, a double edged sword. Some of the images are harmful and exploitive (just look at the treatment L Word co-stars Jennifer Beals & Cybill Shepard’s were given by the View hosts Sherri Shepherd and Elisabeth Hasselbeck) and there are a lot of positive images (such as the L Word & South of Nowhere–though none of these shows are perfect!)….where do you think our culture is in regards to realizing the GLBTIQ movement is a reality for many people within our society–how long ’till mainstream society embraces it and stops calling the “other”?
What do you think are some of the most harmful stereotypes and how can we, as writers, musicians, activists, students, etc, combat these stereotypes?

Wow. I just saw The View with Jennifer Beals & Cybill Shepard!! I have to say it’s amazing publicity for UPS. For years UPS has benefited from bull dagger slurs!!

I remember when there weren’t even lesbians on TV so as far as culturally– I do think we’re moving in the right direction. I feel much happier for queer youth today that they can see images of gays and lesbians on TV and in books, etc. There are gay groups on high school campuses, too. People are trying to get gay marriage passed. It wasn’t that long ago that homosexuality was actually categorized as a kind of mental illness, so… I know it’s hard sometimes when people have their heads up their asses, but I do think some things have become better. I could never choose the “most harmful stereotype”. I just think as artists and writers we need to keep including lesbians in our work when it’s natural to do so, not compromise on content for the sake of capitalism. Critique each other when representations seem problematic. Be willing to look and work on ourselves constantly as human beings on the earth.

12. Any words of wisdom to inspire people everywhere?

Don’t kill yourself! Stay alive! Remember life is to be enjoyed not endured. And lastly, never feed ducks bread! Give them cracked corn instead or popcorn with no salt!

Bookshelf Discoveries!

The IHOP Papers--by Ali Liebegott

(disclaimer–neither the book nor this blog entry are endorsed by IHOP, and it is doubtful that IHOP would endorse either due to the content inherent in both this blog and the book)

It’s been a while since I’ve had a real page turner. I have read a few books recently that have been good, sure, but nothing great and exciting and fresh…

Then I met Francesca (otherwise known as Francie). Though surely she didn’t mean to (she already has enough women in her life: Hope from Days of Our Lives, Irene-her philosophy instructor and Maria-her AA Sponsor), Francie swept me off of my feet.IHOP Papers

Liebegott truly is a talented writer. Not only did she create an amazing/complex character out of Francesca, but she made it feel as if Francesca was truly alive-and it wouldn’t be a surprise to find her in the next room, chain smoking and typing on her typewriter.

The book is written in what could easily be called stream of consciousness, letting us, the readers, into the innermost thoughts of Francie. We can do nothing but watch and see how Francie handles the muddy waters of her life: we are with her when she goes to IHOP after a day of getting nowhere on her job search (and having just moved to San Francisco in hopes of seducing her philosophy teacher Irene); we’re with her when she’s on the bus in her uniform and someone asks if she’s German and she wonders how does he know? (it’s the IHOP uniform, which makes her look like Heidi of the Alps); we’re with her when she sits in Tumbleweed Cafe with Jenny-someone she never intended to seduce but finds an unexpected relationship with; and we’re with her when she sneaks food from IHOP, converses with her coworkers, and deals with dirty laundry.

Long story short–the reader will be with Francie every step of the way, rooting for this amazing grrrl while all the while wishing to be more like her (or at least know someone like her 😉 )

If you’re looking for a good book, the IHOP Papers may be the book for you! A journey of self-discovery and a fictional memoir of a very troubled but strong grrrl–it’s an amazing book.

So check it out, buy it on amazon, do whatever you need to do to get your hands on it. chances are you won’t be disappointed…

An Excerpt from The IHOP Papers (2007) published by Carroll & Graf

Lots of people hate gay people.
You can tell who they are because they start sentences with, “It’s not like I hate gay people.”
When I took a speech class at a community college, I did my persuasive speech on gay rights. I took the side that it’s wrong to murder gay people. When I went to the library to do research, I was petrified someone would think I was gay, so I tried to seem nonchalant when I asked the librarian where the gay books were.
“Excuse me!” I shouted. “I’m doing a report on gay rights, do you have any books?” It was a reverse psychology of sorts. If I seemed confident about my book request, she wouldn’t suspect I was gay. The blood vessels in my cheeks and earlobes throbbed as I waited desperately for her reply.
She pointed me toward the gay books, probably thinking, “Another little dyke hiding behind a class report.” I grabbed the first one I saw off the shelf and ran to the checkout desk.
My speech ended up sucking, because I had unknowingly grabbed a gossip almanac of gay people through history.
“You should be careful who you make fun of because lots of people are gay, especially famous people like Michael Jackson, Anne Frank, Martina Naratilova, and Janis Joplin.”
Everyone clapped. My speech had a dynamic conclusion like the teacher had suggested on day one.
“Leave them with something to think about,” Ms. Brink had said. I was walking back to my seat surrounded by applause when Ms. Brink pulled on my arm and said, “Can you stay after class for a minute?”
“Sure,” I said, glowing with pride. She’s probably going to ask me to join the debate team.
After the last student gave a speech on the importance of fiber optics in today’s society, everyone filtered out of the room.
“Francesca,” Ms. Brink began, as she walked toward me in her abusively floral pantsuit, “what sources did you use for your speech?”
“The library only had one good book, called Top Secret Gay Stars,” I said.
Ms. Brink then proceeded to lecture me on the difference between reliable and unreliable resources. She said I didn’t know for sure if these famous people in history were gay, especially Anne Frank.
“I’m going to give you a C, since part of the assignment is to do responsible research,” she said.
“Okay,” I said, feeling less disappointed by the C than by the prospect of Janis Joplin might not be gay.

’tis the beginning of the end…

And good riddance. 2007 was a good year as far as years go, but I’m looking forward to a new year with JD GLASS ROXXnew opportunities. and here are a few of the reasons:

AMERICAN GOTH by JD GLASS will finally be released. I loved Punk Like Me and I have a feeling American Goth will rule just as much.

MY RUIN is coming out with a new album which promises to be good. Really good.

The Breeders are back! You might know them from their single Cannon Ball. Their newest album: Mountain Battles
Welcome back Kim Deal. we ❤ you.

The Women, Action, & the Media conference is coming up late March. I wanna go. *sticks money in pocket to save money*

SPIDERWICK will be the bestselling movie in February. Ok, I exaggerate. maybe a lot. but I for one cannot wait to see the Spiderwick Chronicles in movie form. This has extreme potential since movie graphics have come so far. the faeries will look way awesome and btw, have I mentioned I can’t wait to see it?

I <3 faeries

Well for the moment…that’s all I got. Any new releases you know about? share ’em with me. I wanna know what you know. 2008…will be a good year. *crosses fingers*