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July 17, 2017

Book Notes - Rachel Khong "Goodbye, Vitamin"

Goodbye, Vitamin

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.

Rachel Khong's clever debut novel Goodbye, Vitamin is one of the year's most moving (and funny) books.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"In her tender, well-paced debut novel..Khong writes heartbreaking family drama with charm, perfect prose, and deadpan humor."

In her own words, here is Rachel Khong's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Goodbye, Vitamin:

I started writing my novel, Goodbye, Vitamin, in 2010, from a silent study carrel in the library at the University of Florida. When I moved to San Francisco in 2011, I continued writing wherever I could, usually from a rotation of cafés. I wasn't exactly picky about what music the cafés did or didn't play—I couldn't afford to be. I can't pay much attention to music while I'm writing, anyway. It helped that I like the clinks of glasses, I like to eavesdrop, and I have a preternatural ability to tune out coffee grinders.

All of which is simply to say: this playlist is NOT a compilation of what I listened to while writing. Should you desire that, allow me to direct you to, a site I often turn to for rain and/or café sounds (The site claims: "A moderate level of noise enhances creativity compared to both low and high levels of noise. Moderate background noise induces distraction which encourages individuals to think at a higher, abstract level, and consequently exhibit higher creativity"). Instead, here's a soundtrack that might accompany Goodbye, Vitamin—the story of a thirty-year-old woman named Ruth who spends a year at home with her parents in the Southern California suburb where she grew up. Ruth tells her story in brief, dated entries, and the first is December 26—right after Christmas. So that's where we'll begin.

"Christmas Canon" by Tran-Siberian Orchestra

Ruth's just gotten home for the holidays under less than ideal circumstances (her fiancé, Joel, with whom she usually spends Christmas, has broken up with her; she's not exactly feeling her best). On her way to her best friend Bonnie's for New Year's Eve, stuck in traffic, she hears this very odd Christmas song blasting from a guy's car—he's probably got the radio turned to KOST 103.5, the LA radio station all about "soft rock with less talk," and that plays exclusively holiday music during the month of December. (Another song they love to play is "Christmas Shoes," the worst song. Don't @ me!) Bonus fun fact: I interviewed a KOST 103.5 DJ named Mike Sakellarides for my high school newspaper, the Diamond Bar High School Bull's Eye.

"Tracks of my Tears" by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles

Ruth tries her best to have a good time at this new year's party. Smokey sings, People say I'm the life of the party, 'cause I tell a joke or two. Although I might be laughin' loud and hearty, deep inside I'm blue. And it can't be more apt to describe the ever-jokey Ruth, who is actually slightly falling apart. The song's a family favorite—it's good to sing along to. Ruth's dad, Howard, likes to intentionally misquote lyrics. Where Smokey sings, "Though she may be cute, she's just a substitute. You're the permanent one," Howard likes to sing, "Though she might be cute, she's just a prostitute."

"Statuesque" by Sleeper

Bonnie and Ruth grew up together in the nineties, and despite a short hiatus—more Ruth's fault than Bonnie's—they're still best friends. Both are unmarried, currently without professional direction, and they're happy, for the time being, to be in this boat together. They spend the night catching up, and in the early hours of New Year's Day, "Statuesque" is the sort of song these two friends turn up loud and dance drunkenly to. The dancing takes Ruth's mind temporarily off Joel—this is not lost on Bonnie, who knows her friend well. Take all I have, I've no secrets left to steal.

"Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart" by Alicia Keys

Ruth was engaged to Joel, but Joel left her and started dating someone else, a person who seems more perfect for him than Ruth ever was. She hates this. She spent the weeks after the breakup listening and crying along to a lot of break-up music: think Blood on The Tracks, though not straight-up emo, of course—girls handle heartbreak better than boys. Now that some time's passed she's mostly quit that; she can mostly get through her days without listening to sad-sack music. But when she's all alone in her new apartment, sans Joel? Sleeping's kind of tough, as Alicia Keys knows. You try sleeping with a broken heart.

"This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)" by Talking Heads

This is supposed to be a going-home-and-figuring-shit-out year for Ruth. Home is not exactly where Ruth wants to be, but she doesn't have anywhere better to be, exactly. Pick me up and turn me around. I feel numb, born with a weak heart. I guess I must be having fun. At home, she's learning to navigate life with her father and mother after years of being away, and things aren't exactly as she remembered them. For one thing, her father was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's. For another thing, her mom is feeling pretty defeated, about that and other things.

"Between the Bars" by Elliott Smith

One of those other things is that Howard, Ruth's dad, doesn't NOT have a drinking problem. There's no booze in the house anymore, but some of the less-than-upstanding things he did years ago still haunt Ruth's mother, Annie. She hasn't totally forgiven him for those transgressions. And he feels that, too. Drink up, baby, stay up all night with the things you could do, you won't but you might. The potential you'll be that you'll never see, the promises you'll only make.

"Silver Lining" by Rilo Kiley

So family dynamics in the Young household are more or less an abject mess: Howard's mad about losing his job. Annie's mad and sad about Howard. Ruth's brother Linus is pissed off, too. Ruth's baffled by them all, and also dealing with her own personal shit. The silver lining is that Theo, one of Howard's graduate students, has hatched a plan to improve Howard's mood—by holding a fake class for him at the university, so he thinks that he's been given his job back. Theo and Ruth are co-conspirators in this, and that's a nice thing, amid a bunch of less fun things. He's also cute, which helps. I was your silver lining, as the story goes.

"Are You Alright?" by Lucinda Williams

That's what Theo is wondering about Ruth. She seems mostly fine (see also "Tracks of my Tears") but on occasion not. Do you have someone to hang out with? Do you have someone to hug and kiss you? Something else Theo's wondering is whether or not he should make a move. He suspects Ruth might be interested in him too, but doesn't realize the extent to which she's been heartbroken—the extent to which she's unwilling to risk another heartbreak, or waste any more time.

"Brink Of Disaster" by Lesley Gore

Maybe something happens between Ruth and Theo. Maybe Ruth panics. It's not that Ruth's uninterested in Theo. It's just that she's hesitant to start something new, because what's the point? She can very easily picture things ending in disaster, because that's how things usually end. My heart has played the game before, my head says never more. I should know what is right for me. Still, Ruth wonders, maybe that's just what you do—maybe that's what we have to do.

"A Song I Can't Recall" by The Second Band

Nothing very drastic happens during the year that's recorded in Goodbye, Vitamin: nobody dies, nobody's born, nobody gets married. I mean, other people in the world do, but none of that happens to the people in this particular family. By the year's end, Howard's still mostly okay, Ruth hasn't quite Figured Shit Out. But things have changed, because that's what they do. Ruth's father has kept a journal about Ruth since she was little—a bizarre record of things she did as a kid. When summer rolls around, their positions flip, and Howard asks if Ruth could keep track of things for him. Please sing me those songs that I can't recall anymore. So she does.

Rachel Khong and Goodbye, Vitamin links:

the author's website

Financial Times review
Kirkus review
NPR Books review
San Francisco Chronicle review

Booklist interview with the author
Minnesota Public Radio interview with the author
The Riveter interview with the author
Salon interview with the author
Vogue interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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