Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Review: Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir, by Linda Ronstadt

Linda Ronstadt, a 2014 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, tells the story of her life in music in Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir.  Blessed with a powerful and distinctive singing voice, she was the first woman to have four platinum albums in a row.  I remember as a child sifting through my parents' record collection and one I especially liked was Ronstadt's 1977 album Simple Dreams.

She grew up in the Arizona desert, on a ranch outside Tucson, of mixed Anglo-Mexican heritage.  She was raised alongside three siblings and her father owned a hardware store.   She remembers a home life filled with music.  At age eighteen, she moved to Los Angeles to enter its music scene.

She worked on finding the people and the songs that would propel her forward in accordance with her creative vision.  She got her start with the folk-rock band the Stone Poneys and then began a solo career.  She wanted to be a country-rock artist, and not have to choose between the two genres, despite skepticism from label heads.  Later, she went on to explore the Great American Songbook and traditional Mexican folk songs.  "The Mexican shows were my favorites of my entire career," she says.  "After the surreal experience of being caught in the body-snatching machinery of the American celebrity juggernaut, I felt I was able to reclaim an essential part of who I was:  a girl from the Sonoran Desert" (179).

"People ask me why my career consisted of such rampant eclecticism, and why I didn't simply stick to one type of music," she says.  "The answer is that when I admire something tremendously, it is difficult not to try to emulate it.  Some of the attempts were successful, others not.  The only rule I imposed on myself, consciously or unconsciously, was to not try singing something that I hadn't heard in the family living room before the age of ten.  If I hadn't heard it by then, I couldn't attempt it with even a shred of authenticity" (200).

One of the best things about the book is reading about all of Ronstadt's collaborations, from onetime-backing band the Eagles to Neil Young to Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris to Aaron Neville.  "There is no right way to record. It is a matter of personal style," she says.  "When I recorded on Graceland with Paul Simon in the mid-1980s, he built his records a few tracks at a time, layering sound like the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Vermeer layered paint.  Neil [Young]'s work is more like a pen and ink drawing.  They are both masters" (101).  Of Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, she notes:  "We weren't trying to exploit the fact that we were three established names.  We wanted to do it because at our deepest level of instinct, we suspected musical kinship" (107).  She goes on to say that when she listens to her own recordings she nitpicks "because I will hear something I think I should have done better, but the sound that the three of us made together seemed altogether different from our individual sounds and could be listened to with a rare sense of objectivity" (108).

Despite being immersed in the drug-laden California music scene of the '70s, Ronstadt remained more about the music than many of her peers.  Allergic to alcohol, she did experiment with drugs, but emerged relatively unscathed.  As with the rest of her personal life, this topic is little touched on in the memoir.  She does say, though, "Cocaine sent me straight to the doctor with a bloody nose, which required cauterization.  While I was there, my doctor cheerfully explained to me that cocaine causes the cilia in the ear canal to lie down, and many never get up again.  This can cause permanent hearing loss.  As I recognized that my ears were an important item in my musical toolbox, it was the end of my interest in cocaine" (103).

She never married, and adopted two children who are now in their early 20's.  Ronstadt retired from performing in 2009.  Today, she is unable to sing due to Parkinson's disease.  In an interview with the New York Times, she says, "I have no choice.  If there was something I could work on, I'd work on it till I could get it back.  If there was a drug I could take to get it back, I would take the drug.  I'd take napalm.  But I'm never going to sing again."

Her two children "play instruments, have a lively and active interest in music, and use it to process their feelings in a private setting.  This is the fundamental value of music, and I feel sorry for a culture that depends too much on delegating its musical expression to professionals.  It is fine to have heroes, but we should do our own singing first, even if it is never heard beyond the shower curtain" (199).  In a TV snippet that I saw, she says she is a big proponent of joining a choir.  I love how she expresses the importance of embracing making music oneself and that it may seem like it's on a small scale but that it's really not.

Linda Ronstadt's book is refreshing in that it is just as it purports to be:  A Musical Memoir.  Readers who expect any dishing on her love life (such as her relationship with former CA governor Jerry Brown) will be disappointed.  As her upbringing and family informed her musical life, we do get to learn some about those aspects of her life, which helps us get to know her.  We emerge with a clearer sense of who Linda Ronstadt is:  a strong woman who just wanted to make a career out of her great love: singing.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review: Johnathan Rice, Good Graces + Concert at Mercury Lounge + Meeting Conor Oberst

Good Graces is Johnathan Rice's first solo album since 2007's Further North.  In between, he collaborated with longtime girlfriend Jenny Lewis as Jenny and Johnny for the 2010 album I'm Having Fun Now (my quick review of that album is here).  Good Graces is a lot more reminiscent of that album than of Johnathan's other two solo albums:  it has that sun drenched California sound, and Jenny Lewis sings harmony on most of the tracks.  He also employs Z Berg and the Watson Twins; in an interview with Earbuddy, he says, "I'm addicted to singing with beautiful women, and I have no desire to get help."  The album has nine tracks and clocks in at about thirty minutes.  "I love short songs and short records," he notes.

Good Graces is also a departure from Johnathan's previous solo work in that many of the lyrics have to do with being in love.  In fact, the first two songs, "Acapulco Gold" and "My Heart Belongs to You" are love songs.  In an interview with LA Music Blog, Johnathan says, "'My Heart Belongs to You,' for me, is a milestone in my songwriting because of the honesty in it.  There are no barbs in it or trap doors you can fall down into.  It's a very honest love song, which didn't come naturally to me."

The title track brings Jenny to the fore more than elsewhere on the album; that is, it feels more like a duet on the chorus rather than simply backing vocals.  "I'm forgiven! I'm forgiven!  And it feels so good!" they sing on a song about reconciling.  And then he adds:  "I might do wrong just to feel it again."

This is definitely a likeable album.  "Lou Rider," for example, is a catchy song; Johnathan says that it "has that title because the vocal is kinda Lou Reed and the groove is kinda Low Rider."  Still, I have a few issues with the album.  If you prefer your albums on the longer side (like I do) you will find it lacking in that regard.  Secondly, it seems like it's in between a Johnathan Rice album and a Jenny and Johnny album, as Jenny's vocals are nearly always present.  Then there's the fact that it's heavy on the loved-up lyrics--I would have liked a bit more variety.

I had not seen a solo show from Johnathan before.  I had seen him as part of Jenny Lewis's band during her Acid Tongue tour and then again during their tour as Jenny and Johnny (both times in New Haven, CT).  This time I headed to NYC's Mercury Lounge to catch him in concert  (plugged set) this past Monday.  He did a lot of new songs, of course, along with three apiece from I'm Having Fun Now and  Further North.  He didn't do any songs from his debut album Trouble is Real.  He opened the set with "Good Graces."

I figured certain songs would be off limits since they had vocals from Jenny Lewis that would be missed if they weren't included.  However, Johnathan didn't shy away from such songs and Jenny's vocals were often piped in--which underscored how much of a presence she was on the album and made it seem like she ought to be there in the flesh.  The backing track was an appropriate volume, though--not very loud.  Johnathan's vocals and musicianship are just as good live as they are recorded.

And for something cool and unexpected:  I met Conor Oberst!  I knew he and Johnathan Rice and members of his touring band were tight, but Conor happened to be in the crowd for this show.  Mercury Lounge has a capacity of 250 (fewer than that were in attendance), and I recognized him right away.  The small, low-key space made it seem like not a big deal to talk to him briefly.  I mostly just wanted to convey how much I liked his music.  I asked if he was working on a solo album and he said yes and I think he said something about putting it out at the end of the year.

In my short interaction with him, I appreciated how present he seemed.  His striking light-brown eyes had a calm and expressive look and he listened thoughtfully while I spoke.  To close the brief conversation, I said, "Keep doing what you're doing, love the music," and he replied, "Thanks darling."

Good Graces rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Johnathan Rice at Mercury Lounge, NYC, 9-23-13

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Gabrielle Bernstein has a lot of cool things to say

Gabrielle Bernstein is an author, life coach, and motivational speaker.  Perhaps you've heard of her as she's been featured by various media outlets from Oprah to the Wall Street Journal.  Her books are:  Add More ~ing to Your Life, Spirit Junkie, and May Cause Miracles.  She is a proponent and teacher of A Course in Miracles, a self-study metaphysical guide with universal spiritual themes which is published by the Foundation for Inner Peace.

I had seen reference to her book Spirit Junkie on a website I like, Tiny Buddha, and also came across it at work at the library when I pulled it for an interlibrary loan request.  So later on, I decided to check it out myself.  I loved it; it contains so many insights.  I think it is the best of her books.  A large part of what makes the book ring true is what Bernstein shares about her own struggle and growth:  she's lived it.

When she speaks of ~ing, she means an inner guide.  "Each of us has disconnected in some way from our relationship to love within," she says.  "And each of us has the power to reignite that connection"  (May Cause Miracles).  A big proponent of prayer and meditation, she includes specific meditations in her books.

The following two points particularly resonated with me.  "My first correspondence with my ~ing unconsciously came through in my journal . . . Feel free to ask your ~ing for help through your writing.  Trust me, you're being heard." (Spirit Junkie).  And from May Cause Miracles:  "Welcome all subtle shifts."

"The Course positions relationships as one of the most significant opportunities for us to learn and grow.  Through another person we can come to know ourselves," she says in Spirit Junkie.  Yet she cautions, "When we perceive that someone is more special than others, we're thinking with separation.  We've forgotten that we are all one, and we've hooked back into the ego's thought system of better-than and worse-than."

In Add More ~ing to Your Life, she talks about manifesting and says,  "When your desires are backed with loving intentions of the greater good, you will feel the presence of an inner knowledge that you're on the right track and everything is lined up."

I recommend Gabrielle Bernstein's books to those who are interested in spirituality or who are looking for their purpose, improvement, or fulfillment.  I look forward to more books from her in the future.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Review: Sara Bareilles, The Blessed Unrest

Sara Bareilles' new album, The Blessed Unrest, is influenced by her move from Los Angeles to New York.  She says that New York had always felt too overwhelming to her but that it now seems like an environment that she needed after all.  The idea of challenging oneself is probably the most important theme of the album.

The first track and single "Brave" is very poppy.  I wish Sara would do fewer poppy songs because she's a talented songwriter with great vocal facility and where she really shines has been with her ballads.  I am not suggesting that she should only do ballads, but for her more upbeat songs I wish she would get away from that kind of predictable, poppy sound.

"Hercules" is one of the best tracks--if not the best, and has piano chords reminiscent of those in Tori Amos' "Take to the Sky."  The theme of the song is about summoning extra strength.  Sara sings, "I'm on the hunt for who I've not yet become/But I'd settle for a little equilibrium."  I totally know what she means in terms of  earnestly pursuing your more evolved self but that in the meantime, why do you feel unsure and off balance?  She sings, "I have sent for a warrior/From on my knees, make me a Hercules/I was meant to be a warrior please/Make me a Hercules."  The theme of this song ties in nicely with that of "Brave."  "Hercules" hits the mark both sonically and lyrically.

"Manhattan" is a quiet ballad, piano and some horns.  Sara sings, "You can have Manhattan" and "Hang on to the reverie/Could you do that for me?/'Cause I'm just too sad to."  She realizes the good times spent there as a couple but can't quite bear to own them herself.  "1000 Times" is like "Hold My Heart" Part Two, a ballad with a plodding drumbeat and other instrumentation in addition to the piano:  since that was my favorite song off Sara's 2010 LP Kaleidoscope Heart, I promptly sent "1000 Times" into heavy replay.  "Satellite Call" bears some similarity to those songs but has more interesting things going on, particularly with her vocals.  The experimentation of this song is more what I think she should do than with "Eden" or "Cassiopeia," which I don't dislike but which both miss the mark a little bit.

Theme-wise, in addition to that of making courageous strides in life, there is one straight up love song, "I Choose You," and a few of the songs are about breakups or problems in romantic relationships (as were multiple songs on Kaleidoscope Heart).  Sara mostly plays to her strengths and this is a satisfying album.

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, August 1, 2013


I've been a Beck fan for many years, and was excited to find out he was planning some tour dates this summer.  In fact, he just performed in Wantagh, NY in a one-off Americanarama appearance.  He even performed his '93 hit single "Loser" with Wilco!  I thought he refused to play that live.

He clearly has widely varying musical influences, which is part of what makes his music so interesting.  He's also responsible for such unique lyrics as, "Egos drone/and pose alone" (from "Bottle of Blues"); "These withered hands/Have dug for a dream/Sifted through sand and leftover nightmares" (from "We Live Again"); and "I've been drifting on this wave so long/I don't know if it's already crashed on the shore" (from "Volcano").

Beck has not one but two brand new albums in store soon, the first one acoustic and the other described as the proper follow-up to his last studio album, 2008's Modern Guilt.  He will release these albums independently, and this summer he put out two standalone singles, "Defriended" and "I Won't Be Long."  His previous project, Beck Hansen's Song Reader, was entirely sheet music-based--innovative, but I didn't learn the songs myself!  He performed the songs from it in a London concert on July 4th with various guests such as Franz Ferdinand and Beth Orton.

Tomorrow, Beck plays at the Bank of America Pavilion in Boston--a venue I've frequented for quite a few summers now, an open-air, large-but-not-too-large-seeming place near the water.  I was curious what to expect so I looked online and found that while Beck's shows so far this summer have been acoustic, we should expect an electric, full-band show in Boston (as well as in Brooklyn two days later).

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Spiritual growth

The past year has been the most spiritual time in my life so far.  (For the record, I don't currently subscribe to any religion.)  I feel as though I've learned a lot.  For one thing, if you're in a state of concentration and talk to God, he may make his presence known.

I'd never had that before, but at an especially rocky time, I decided to address letters to God in my journal.  All I can say is that I got a particular sense of calm in the succeeding days that I had not experienced before.  It was a sense of calm that I perceived to be generated from outside myself.  I've always cherished time spent journaling and this is certainly another dimension for which to be grateful.

I've also always wanted to simplify--really for peace of mind.  I still have a ways to go on that, but I've gotten rid of a ton of books and plan to keep it up.  The less clutter around, the better I feel.  This is particularly apparent if you've moved as often as I have (whoa, I have this much stuff?).  I don't want to have a lot of things.  In fact, I want to have very few material possessions, which would help me on my spiritual journey.

I feel some sense of urgency to fulfill my purpose.  I don't know what that is but I am interested to find out.  I am confident about being in the right profession but what else should I do?  That is the mystery. Maybe it has to do with relationships with people I encounter?

My reading choices have reflected my deeper interest in spirituality.  I've read a ton of near-death experience accounts as well as books by Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra.

Importance of concerts

My favorite thing to do is go to concerts and summer is the best time for them.  There's something special about live music that you don't get from listening to a recording. It's an in-the-moment experience and it's exciting.  And the crowd is a big part of that.  Some of the best crowd experiences I've had have been at Wilco shows (my favorite currently active band).

There are the people you meet in lines or standing next to waiting for the show to start.  I've enjoyed meeting all of them.  There are a handful of people I've greeted at multiple shows, having recognized them from a prior show.  Then there is the crowd response to the performance of the songs.  There is an unspoken bond you have with the entire crowd and with the people standing around you and a unity that can be a really cool thing. There is nothing else like it.  Incidentally, I like that the definition of acting "in concert" is to act together and with a common plan.

My summer concerts this year:

Dave Matthews Band, Comcast Theatre, Hartford, CT, 6-8
Wilco's Solid Sound Festival, Mass MoCA, North Adams, MA, 6-21 - 6-22
Cory Chisel, Cafe Nine, New Haven, CT, 6-30
Americanarama Festival with My Morning Jacket, Wilco, and Bob Dylan, Webster Bank Arena, Bridgeport, CT, 7-19
Beck, Bank of America Pavilion, Boston, MA, 8-2

A crowd photo I'm in from Wilco's first Solid Sound Festival, 2010

Friday, May 3, 2013

Andre Dubus III on Writing As An Act of Discovery

I attended the Connecticut Library Association annual conference for its second day on Tuesday, April 30th, at the Crowne Plaza in Cromwell.  Andre Dubus III spoke for one of the sessions.  I confess that I have not yet read his books.  I've had a copy of National Book Award Finalist House and Sand and Fog on my bookshelf since I saw the movie, which I liked.  I've also been interested in reading his memoir, Townie.

This was one of those author talks that made me wish I went to a lot more of them.  I have to hand it to CLA, as author Geraldine Brooks spoke at last year's conference and was also an interesting speaker.

Dubus stressed curiosity above all as the necessary characteristic of a successful writer.  Talent is nothing without curiosity, he emphasized.  An author needs to know the what to start a book.  But what really is going on is the question that needs to be explored.

He talked about receptivity.  He used the example of wanting to write a story about a psychopathic male, but instead being derailed to tell the story about a woman who was only supposed to be a peripheral character.  Instead, her story seemed to be more real than the "sexy psychopath" he had really wanted to write about.  So he followed her story instead.  A member of the audience asked him what makes him go with one story over another and he responded, "intuition."  And went on to explain that he believes that intuition has to do with guarding truth.

As for his writing habits, he has an office he goes to in the morning, three sessions a week.  He says he gets himself into writing mode by reading poetry.


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Yes, please!

And now for a brief concert-freakout post.  The Americanarama Festival of Music tour was just announced.  Presale tickets are set to go on sale April 24th, but dates and venues have not been announced yet.

Bob Dylan, Wilco, and My Morning Jacket all on one bill?  I want a ticket to this, like, yesterday!

Fun fact:  My Morning Jacket has opened for Wilco in the past.  I wish I caught that, but at least I saw Wilco with Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band opening!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Running a book group

I love discussing a book with others who've read it (and sometimes even if they haven't), and so do many people, as evidenced by the popularity of book groups.  A book group without a specific focus in terms of a theme or genre works perfectly well, but there are endless ways to narrow the focus a bit:  mystery, classics, science fiction, book to film, nonfiction, history, cooking, etc.  I've run nonfiction book groups at two libraries.  Doing so has been one of my favorite experiences as a librarian.  I've also always found it challenging--from choosing which books to discuss to formulating discussion questions to keeping a discussion going and interesting and both reining in tangent conversations and drawing out more reserved participants.

There are quite a few things to consider when choosing a book.  Many highly regarded nonfiction books exceed 500 or 600 pages, but I don't choose ones longer than that so that people won't feel overwhelmed in terms of finishing the book within a month.  So I set aside otherwise good ideas such as Far from the Tree:  Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, by Andrew Solomon or Catherine the Great:  Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie because they're simply too long to expect people to finish in a couple of weeks to a month's time with everything else (including other books!) they have going on in their lives.  I encourage people to come to the meeting even if they haven't finished a book (which is not as important for a nonfiction book discussion as it is for fiction) but obviously people would prefer to finish it before the discussion. It was recently suggested to me that longer books might be split into two monthly meetings, but I can't attest to how well that would work because I haven't (yet) tried it.

I look at a lot of best-of-the-year booklists for both the most acclaimed and the books that are most present in people's consciousness.  Books I choose have good critical and reader reviews and ideally some buzz around them as well.  That is more something to keep in mind when you're trying to build a group--which titles would most grab people's attention?  Once you've got a core group, perhaps you can relax a bit and include slightly more esoteric titles.  I also keep my eye on award winners (such as the Pulitzer and National Book Award).  A book winning an award piques my interest in that I want to judge for myself whether it deserves the distinction--and hear whether the other book group members think so.

Another consideration in choosing books for discussion is diversity.  With nonfiction groups, I have a little bit of bias in terms of what I'm interested in reading about, but it's important to choose books that stretch across a wide swath of what nonfiction books have to offer.  I've never been big on science, so I shy away from books that get too technical into that, but otherwise I choose a good variety.  I always look to what type of book I haven't chosen before, and being a library-sponsored group, what books might bring in curious new members as well.

It is important to come prepared with discussion questions, but I usually will not rely too much on them except if need be when there is a lull in the conversation.  I prefer to stay attuned to the direction in which the conversation naturally goes (unless it veers too far off topic).  I see discussion questions more as insurance to keep a conversation going than a structure that needs to be adhered to.  I like to start the discussion by asking whether people like the book and what their general impressions are.  The downside to this is that it puts people on the spot.  But I just throw the question out there and people can respond however they want--and it's not as though we have to formally go around the table.

Often the publisher will supply discussion questions that one can find online.  If those aren't available, other discussion groups or libraries may have questions posted online.  If there are no discussion questions to be found for a particular book, I use a combination of generic questions (for nonfiction, in the case of my group) and original questions.  Even if publisher questions are available, I come up with a few questions myself based on my reactions.  That way, I can talk with more enthusiasm and conviction.

Recommended web resources:
Book Group Buzz
Lit Lovers
Reading Group Guides

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Books of 2012

Flavorwire posted  "The Books That Made the Most 'Best of 2012' Book Lists" (the lists consulted are linked at the end of the article).  Here are my favorite books published in 2012 that I've read so far.  Feel free to comment with yours.

The Middlesteins, by Jami Attenberg

Multiple generations of the Middlestein family populate Attenberg's novel. Matriarch Edie's overeating threatens her life and creates a rift between her and the rest of the family--particularly her husband of thirty years, Richard, who has given up on her and moved out. Their daughter Robin grapples with her feelings of resentment for her father and how to help save her mother from eating herself to death. Robin's laid-back brother Benny is married to high-strung, health-conscious Rachelle, who is planning their twin children's extravagant b'nai mitzvah party while also worrying about Edie.

This is a realistic portrait of a family with all its complex personalities and problems. The author saves the book from being a downer with her compassionate handling of the characters and her infusions of humor.

The Elementals, by Francesca Lia Block

This is a new adult fiction book from a favorite author of mine who writes primarily young adult novels (I discovered her when I was a teenager).  Most of her writing can be considered magical realism.  She deftly incorporates mythological and mysterious elements into her stories.  She also excels at sensory description.

Ariel Silverman heads off to college amidst two tumultuous events:  her mother's diagnosis of breast cancer and the disappearance of her best friend, Jeni, who vanished on a school trip to Berkeley.  Ariel wants to get to the bottom of Jeni's disappearance.  In an old house in the Berkeley hills Ariel meets three mysterious and seductive strangers who envelop her in their world.  But there is a lot that she doesn't know about them.

Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain

I've read several books on introversion, and this is the best yet, fascinating and useful.  In a society that idealizes and pushes extroversion ("the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight"), at least a third of the population are introverts.  Cain lauds their hidden strengths.  "Our reverence for alpha status blinds us to things that are good and smart and wise," she says.

Cain recounts the rise of the cultural ideal of extroversion and the emphasis of groupthink in the workplace.  She explains how "collaboration kills creativity" for introverts, who are more productive at brainstorming alone.  The leadership potential of introverts is often overlooked yet they can make effective leaders.  Cain sheds light on how introverts can understand their own contradictions, like the ability to act like extroverts in certain situations.  She also looks at how introverts and extroverts can best negotiate relationships together.  Cain includes plenty of examples from research as well as real-life stories of individuals.

Marbles:  Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me:  A Graphic Memoir, by Ellen Forney

Ellen Forney is a talented graphic memoirist (graphic memoirs being an intriguing genre that I dip into occasionally).  This book is about Forney's experience with bipolar disorder.  She chronicles what it is like for her to be manic and to be depressed, her diagnosis shortly before she turned thirty, the setbacks she faces, and tinkering with different medications.

At the crux of the book is her eagerness to determine the relationship between mental illness and creativity and whether medications inhibit creativity.  "Sometimes it seems like 'pain' is too obvious a place to turn for inspiration," she muses.  "Pain isn't always deep, anyway.  Sometimes it's awful and that's it.  Or boring."  The book reads as an honest, courageous, often humorous account with bold artwork to match.

Flatscreen, by Adam Wilson

In this darkly comic debut novel that I read with the howling wind of Hurricane Sandy outside my window, Eli Schwartz is basically a deadbeat, a couple of years removed from high school, jobless, pudgy, often stoned and clad in a bathrobe.  "People told me I was funny in high school," he says.  "It was good for awhile, the attention, until I understood what it meant.  It meant I wasn't other things:  sexy, interesting, smart, ambitious.  It meant I was going to have trouble getting laid.  It might have even meant I was fat." 

He takes on a rocky friendship with a troubled, larger-than-life, wheelchair-bound former actor.  Eli also heads in the direction of having a functional romantic relationship with an odd woman who also hasn't left town after high school.  "The most unlikely soul could find a counterpart.  Who was mine?" he wonders, and says, "everyone just needs someone to make them feel like death isn't a better option."  Despite his puttering existence, Eli searches for meaning.  This novel isn't for everyone--there are drugs, sex, snark, sentence fragments, and alternative endings--but besides the fact that it's funny, it has heart.