The Interestings: Good, but not Great

Meg Wolitzer
Riverhead Books, 480 pages, 978-159488399
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Entertainment Weekly Magazine proclaimed The Interestings one of the best novels of 2013. That's quite an exaggeration in a year in which its list did not include The Goldfinch, which just happened to win the Pulitzer Prize! But one can certainly understand why the editors of a pop culture magazine would like it. The novel's major characters were born in 1960, which technically makes them Baby Boomers, but these are kids for whom the mythical 60s were passé before they got out of grade school. They talk about the 60s, but as parrots mouthing lines from their parents and TV. In actuality, their blossoming values owe more to the Stoicism-meets-pragmatism-and-materialism of the emerging generation. In fact, you might want to think of the last half of The Interestings as Doug Coupland's Generation X grown up–a bit like some of those on recent EW boards.

The Interestings opens in 1974, when Jules Jacobson finds herself at the Spirit of the Woods summer camp. She's a gawky, frizzy-haired, Jewish middle-class kid amidst the spawn of the rich and would be the proverbial fish out of water if she had the faintest clue of who she was in the first place. Her forays among the rich and beautiful convince her that she wants to escape the bourgeois 'burbs but as projectiles go, she's more sponge than skyrocket. At the camp, she hangs out with five others above her socially: Jonah Bay, the son of a famous folksinger; Ash and Goodwin Wolf, well-heeled New Yorkers; Cathy Kiplinger, who yearns to be a dancer; and Ethan Figman, an imaginative but dorky-looking guy who lives in a dream world of his own invention and illustration. Jules gets by with snark and obeisance, the six dub themselves The Interestings, and they revel in pretensions of their own superiority whilst sipping vodka and Tang cocktails. Amidst the solipsism, Jules and Ash become best friends.

The book follows the six across the decades and against a (stereotypical) backdrop of the cultural markers: cults, women's liberation, Nixon's resignation, New York City's descent into near-bankruptcy, the Yuppie greed of the Reagan years, MTV, AIDS, TED-like conferences…. Personal journeys evoke the age-old question of whether it is better to flameout in youth, or to suffer the disappointments of adult life. Jules dreamed of becoming a comic actress, but instead became a psychologist married to the steady but average Dennis and wonders if she ever had any aptitude for much of anything. Cathy never became a dancer, the gifted Jonah gave up music, and the hunky Goodman's only talent was for being a jerk. There's also the frustrating question of proven soulmates who know they cannot be together, as in the case of Jules and Ethan. Ethan has become fabulously successful and rich–his boyhood fantasies converted into Matt Groening-like cartoon, TV, and film franchises. He and Ash are married and she is a successful feminist playwright. They are also best friends with Jules and Dennis, but there is an enormous wealth gap between them, which leads Jules to realize that it has always been such. An attempt of Jules and Dennis to turn back the clock is particularly poignant because we know what they do not–you can never go home again.

This is a book that probes whether or not the identities we show others are reinvention, subterfuge, or charlatanism. It is also about dreams and frustrations, social class and assumed privileges. Many reviewers, like those of Entertainment Weekly, have given it more gravitas than it deserves. Wolitzer's characters are well developed and their back stories keep our interest, but there simply aren't many layers to either. Similarly, Wolitzer's peeks into American society feel more like contrivance than relevance. The book is also relentlessly New York in its outlook–a bit like a Woody Allen script with more believable dialogue. Like an Allen movie, The Interestings is filled with delicious moments and vignettes, but its characters are hard to admire or love. They are the sorts with which we sometimes identify, but just as often want to smack with a plank. I suppose this gives the book an air of verisimilitude, so I give this book a qualified recommendation. It is a diverting read that has occasional insight, but don't buy into the hype. –Rob Weir


Ginger Baker: Jazz in Semi-Retirement

Why? A Sampler

Show of hands—who remembers Cream? If you do, you'll probably also recall that Ginger Baker was the drummer backing Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce. Baker was so identified with Cream and Blind Faith that few know that his first love was American jazz, not rock and roll. Baker is now 75 and lives in South Africa, but he's still playing music. He even hits the road occasionally, though it's almost always with the quartet Jazz Confusion. If the three-song sampler I recently received is any indication, there's plenty of verve and energy left in Baker's sticks.

The other members of Jazz Confusion are Pee Wee Ellis on saxophone, Alec Dankworth on bass, and Abass Dodo on African hand percussion. I am simply not qualified to judge the merits of Jazz Confusion or Baker's role in it. I have never played or listened to much jazz and, aside from a brief fascination with Buddy Rich, know next to nothing about jazz drummers. I can tell you that there's a lot of percussion on the sampler, including several Baker solos. The three tunes I sampled are in the bebop tradition. The tunes are thus conversations between the musicians with improv breakouts that Baker anchors with steady beats. Ellis–who has backed both James Brown and Van Morrison–is a marvel who draws so much inspiration from John Coltrane that you can be a jazz ignoramus and know that much. But make no mistake, this is exploratory jazz, even when the quartet interprets material such as "AikoBiaye," a Nigerian folk song.

Jazz fans should check out what Baker is up to these days. Those of you looking for "Sunshine of Your Love" should steer clear. "Why?" is the closest thing to rock on the sampler–it has gritty bass lines and pop hooks–but even it veers into the stratosphere. If you don't like this sort of music, Baker couldn't care less. On the other hand, I'd like to hear from those of you who like and understand jazz. This isn't my cup of tea, but I could be convinced to sip some more.  Rob Weir


There's Always Room for Erin and Her Cello

Petits Bisous
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Attitude can be a curse or a blessing, but in the hands and voice of New York City-based Erin Hall it's a very good thing indeed. Like early Christine Lavin, Ms. Hall offers a collection of urbane, quirky, and insouciant observations of life, the city, and the crazy patchwork quilt called popular culture. But whereas Lavin was/is a folkie, Hall draws water from other wells: early 60s girl groups, vintage French pop songs, jazz, calypso, blues, and rock and roll. You never quite know what is coming next. Erin and Her Cello is the name of Hall's band and she does indeed play a bit of cello, but you'll also hear everything from boogie-woogie piano to glockenspiel.  

"2 Good 2 B True" has a Twittery name, but its musical core is that of girl groups, complete with oooh-aaahh backup singers. Hall wields her saucy little-girl vocal tones like a club she's been hiding behind her back. The clever and wry "The Doctor" also has a girl group feel, but the instrumentation is 50s style rockabilly, complete with a wailing sax. That's one of several songs that drapes satire with charm; another "Break Dancin' Man," has the tongue-in-cheek sardonic approach of trend send-ups such as Rick Dees' "Disco Duck." And we know that Hall isn't afraid to wield a lampoon harpoon; check her "Google Stock."

The above songs only scratch the surface (of vinyl, if you prefer) of this album's offbeat nature. Hall's musical inspirations include Peggy Lee, Cole Porter, and Serge Gainsborough and each gets an airing. Want some smoky, soulful, cool jazz? Try "Chaz." Prefer it with some black-note keys, a whiff of danger, and some tongue-twisting vocals? Check out "Damn." If that doesn't float you boat, how some Gainsborough-like French pop–in French no less ("Bonbons Chocolat" and the call-and-whistle title track)? How about some bouncy pop? Inappropriate attraction has never been so giddy as "Rebound Magnet." Too sweet for your taste? Try the rock shit-kicker "Walk of Fame." 

It's been a while since I reviewed a new release that's this much fun. Nor has dusting off the past sparkled with so much wit. Score one for attitude.—Rob Weir

PS: The YouTube videos aren't the best quality, but I think they show you what I mean.