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May 17, 2016

Book Notes - Robin Wasserman "Girls on Fire"

Girls on Fire

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Robin Wasserman's novel Girls on Fire is a captivating and haunting tale of female friendship.

Kelly Link wrote of the book:

"A book so wonderful, so terrible, so nightmarishly compelling that I hardly knew what to say when I finished reading it. Has a title ever been truer? The reader comes away singed."

In her own words, here is Robin Wasserman's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Girls on Fire:

I write almost exclusively in coffee shops—generally coffee shops with aggressively irritating taste in music—so if the Girls on Fire playlist were strictly defined as "music I tried to tune out while writing," it would span from Vampire Weekend to Elton John to video game soundtrack techno to, thanks to one very memorable Thursday, every Italian (and "Italian") song you've ever heard in the background of a pasta sauce commercial.

Alternately, because this book was bracketed by breakups—both the first chapters and final revisions an unexpected triumph of productivity over tearstained how-about-I-just-stay-in-bed-forever torpor—I'm tempted to offer my post-breakup empowerment playlist. But since lately that runs the gamut from Taylor Swift to Taylor Swift, maybe I better spare us all.

Instead, here are the songs I would have listened to while writing, if I weren't the kind of writer who gets totally distracted by music I like and starts singing/chair-dancing along. (Yes, even in coffee shops.) Girls on Fire is set in 1991-1992, and I'm guessing never again will "work" be so much fun: I marathoned early Real World. I did a deep dive on back issues of Sassy. And I mainlined the music I grew up with, a visceral reminder of how it felt to be a teenage girl hurtling toward the millennium.

"I Wanna Be Sedated" – The Ramones
In the summer of 1992, I was a deeply nerdy, frizzy-haired 14-year-old who listened exclusively to Billy Joel and Broadway musicals (an improvement on my sixth grade flirtation with New Kids on the Block). Then I spent three weeks sharing a dormroom with a girl who wore Doc Martens and had just visited some magical land she called Lollapalooza. By day one, she'd ascertained that, among other things, I'd never heard The Ramones. (Immediately remedied.) By the end of those three weeks, I wasn't quite transformed—or not transformed enough to throw out my copy of Storm Front—but I'd learned what headbanging was and how to do it. I'd discovered the world that existed beyond Benetton sweatshirts and Color Me Badd harmonies, and when I came home to a life that suddenly seemed too small, this was the song that most reminded me I could/should/would fight my way into a new one.

"Lithium" – Nirvana
Girls on Fire is basically my personal liner notes to Nevermind, which makes it all the more embarrassing that, originally, I wasn't so into Nirvana. (I was, to be clear, the kind of teenager who rooted for Ben Stiller's character in Reality Bites.) Nirvana sounded how I felt—but more than anything I didn't want to feel it. "Lithium," especially, all that rage simmering beneath the surface of what may be the most menacing declaration of happiness in history. If I could go back in time, this is the song I'd play for my teen self, over and over, Clockwork Orange style, until she finally boiled over.

Automatic for the People – R.E.M.
The heart of Girls on Fire is the friendship between Lacey and Dex, a Nirvana-worshipping wild child and her secretly-R.E.M.-preferring sidekick. Suffice to say my autobiographical sympathies are with the latter, and this album sums up everything you need to know about both of us. When people complain about R.E.M. losing its indie edge, I was the nightmare fan they had in mind, bopping along to "Man on the Moon" with my Hebrew school carpool. But this was the first album I ever fell in love with—the first that seemed to describe the world as I wanted it to be. Okay, so "Nightswimming" sounds slightly treacly to my cynical, aged ears, but those opening violins still rocket me back to the girl who mourned the loss of perfect moments and who dreamed of "the fear of getting caught / of recklessness and water."

"Stardog Champion" – Mother Love Bone
My grunge bible is Mark Yarm's Everybody Loves Our Town, an enormous oral history that covers the insane musical decade BC (Before Cobain), high points including the hemophiliac Blunt Object drummer speckling his kit with blood and needing a transfusion after every rehearsal; the Refuzors capping off their performance of "Splat Goes the Cat" by tossing a dead cat into the audience; and Tad Doyle's pursuit of the legendary "brown note," a frequency said to make an audience "spontaneously shit their pants." Thanks to Yarm, I got slightly obsessed with Mother Love Bone, whose lead singer OD'd just as they got their big break, and whose lead guitarist and bassist went on to found Pearl Jam. "San Francisco, where the flowers bloom in spring / I said, fade to winter and see what disease brings": Imagine the alternate universe where Andy Wood became the face of grunge.

"Feels Blind" – Bikini Kill
I love a manifesto. Especially a fierce, unapologetically earnest girlpower manifesto with lines like, "Because we must take over the means of production to create our own moanings" and "because we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak." Girls on Fire ends in fall of 1992, slightly too soon for the Riot Grrrl wave to crest, but Dex and Lacey are Riot Grrrls at heart. "We eat your hate like love": Yes, they do.

"Cannonball" – The Breeders
Speaking of nuclear girl-power, if Dex and Lacey started a band, it would be The Breeders, and they would sing to each other: "I know you, little libertine / I know you're a cannonball / I'll be your whatever you want."

"Runaway" – Bon Jovi
I had a tough time pinning down the parents in this book, until it occurred to me music was key for them, too, emblem of connection with and distance from their daughters. Starting with Lacey's mother: You can take the girl out of Jersey but you can't take the Bon Jovi groupie out of the girl. "Runaway" is her rallying cry.

"Carey" – Joni Mitchell
I used to think of Joni as mom music, probably because my own mother claimed her as evidence of youthful cool—but then, whose didn't? (I think this was after I brought home a Dar Williams mix one day and tried to teensplain the concept of "folk singers.") As I have repeatedly assured my mother, Dex's mother is not based on her, but the character's unexpectedly good taste—and her daughter's determination not to believe in it—isn't too far off the mark.

"Janie Jones" – The Clash
Dex's dad, an aging manchild still clinging to his garage-band youth, fancies himself more of a Bowie, soul deep and enigmatic, but he's too absurdly easy to parse: "He's in love with rock ‘n' roll, woah / He's in love with getting' stoned, woah / He's in love with Janie Jones, woah / He don't like his boring job, no."

"No One's Little Girl" – The Raincoats
Lacey's looking for a father figure, and so, ill-advisedly, decides to borrow Dex's. They find common ground in music, like this '80s punk band endorsed by Cobain himself. From his liner notes to the album re-release: "When I listen to The Raincoats, I feel as if I'm a stowaway in an attic, violating and in the dark."

"Where Did You Sleep Last Night" – Nirvana
The MTV Unplugged album came out after Cobain died, and watching the concert now can feel a little like watching someone attend—and play the hell out of—his own funeral. Here's what I didn't catch until The Atlantic pointed it out. Listen through to the last lines of the last song, a heart-stopping Lead Belly cover: "For the final line, 'I would shiver the whole night through,' Cobain jumps up an octave, forcing him to strain so far he screams and cracks. He hits the word 'shiver' so hard that the band stops….Next he howls the word 'whole' and then does something very strange in the brief silence that follows, something that's hard to describe: He opens his piercingly blue eyes so suddenly it feels like someone or something else is looking out under the bleached lank fringe, with a strange clarity. Then he finishes the song." It feels almost indecent that something could hurt so much and still be so beautiful.

Robin Wasserman and Girls on Fire links:

the author's website
audiobook excerpt
excerpt from the book

Readings review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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