Girl Trouble by Holly Goddard Jones

If this came with a CD, I know what would be on it – Neko Case, The Drive-By Truckers, Gillian Welch, Kings of Leon, The Band and Mason Jennings. Like these artists, Jones makes America come alive.

Girl Trouble

Publisher: Harper Perennial
Length: 368 pages
Author: Holly Goddard Jones
Price: $14.99
Format: Paperback
Publishing Date: 2009-09
“Oh take your turn

Don’t live too fast

Troubles will come

And they will pass

Go find a woman

And you’ll find love

And don’t forget son

There is someone up above” – Lynyrd Skynyrd

Kentucky is a strange state. Though geographically situated in the Midwest, it shares most of its culture with the South. It is a state known for legendary basketball coaches, bourbon, horse racing and its state colleges, which are revered like citadels. It is a place of paradox, of displacement, of a people with an identity uniquely their own. As writer Megan Daum has said, “It’s as if the wind, which barrels through here like a wild animal, knocks the irony out of everything.”

I know Kentucky pretty well after making dozens of trips from Atlanta to Chicago, shuttling through Chattanooga, Nashville, Elizabethtown, Bowling Green, Louisville and Indianapolis. I’ve passed way too many Cracker Barrels, BBQ spots (most of them advertised with depictions of cartoon pigs) and discount firework stores. I know the nondescript highway exits for tourist traps like Kennesaw Mountain, Cave City and Opryland well.

I say all this because reading Holly Goddard Jones’ debut collection of short stories, Girl Trouble, was like a homecoming for me. What makes Jones’ writing so good is that her stories aren’t forced and the plotlines are imaginable. Her writing is uniquely American and that can only be said with the highest praise, for she follows a trajectory of great writing in realism and regionalism, where the physical setting of fiction is as important as the actual characters.

If Girl Troublehad come with a CD, I know what would be on it – Neko Case, The Drive-By Truckers, Gillian Welch, Kings of Leon, The Band and Mason Jennings. Like these artists, Jones makes America come alive.

The title of the book comes from the story “Allegory of the Cave”. In it, a young boy, nearly blind with childhood cataracts, is trapped between the life he wants to live and the life he has been given, between his mother’s and father’s love. Ultimately, he is given a choice, one whose consequences will define him for the rest of his life.

From that perspective, all of Jones’ stores are about choices and all of them involve “girls”; but most of the time, the “trouble” is not cause by the girls in question as much as they are blamed for doing something that befalls the men in their lives. When a housewife is raped by a teenage boy, it is her fault for letting him in. When a barely pubescent girl, tipsy from her first wine cooler, tries to console an older man (who was trying to get her drunk) and touches his arm, she is chastised for coming on to him.

After a small town police chief makes a rape case “go away,” he rationalizes it this way: “These girls. I don’t know. They’re different nowadays. Time was, a girl knew what she should and shouldn’t do … A good girl just don’t do that. Good girls know better. Maybe it was mutual and maybe it wasn’t.”

Reading Girl Troublewas a bit like watching Precious (2009): much of the text/dialogue involved what was not said, but implied. Jones’ gift is dropping little teasers, which barely cause a ripple on the surface, but tug at a portion of your heart that something is amiss. In that vein, the author casually inserts references throughout the volume for domestic violence, miscarriages and premonitions about death and divorce that irritate the reader, but really sting when they unfold themselves.

It's no surprise that the best stories in this collection are the ones narrated by women, who have been broken by the men in their lives, and are saddled with the responsibility of putting it all back together. In “Parts”, Dana watches her daughter Felicia die as the result of a horrifying crime, but then is truly left alone when one of Felicia’s killers gets no jail time and then Dana’s husband divorces her, remarries and has another child. For her, recovery is neither simple nor painless, and she is haunted by memories of her daughter and the family she once had. In many ways, Dana reminded me a lot of Rosa in Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl as the latter struggled for years to deal with the death of her baby Magda while mother and daughter were in a concentration camp.

Jones brings forth another tale of divorced woman struggles in “Retrospective”. Here too a mother is left alone after her children have moved on with their lives and her ex-husband has seemingly found happiness again with another woman. While Libby sorts through old photos, she thinks after seeing her wedding picture that it was “the last perfect day of her life” in a self-deprecating, demoralizing way reminiscent of Allison Janney’s turn as a military wife in Sam Mendes’s American Beauty (1999). Libby describes her dizzying descent into solitude as “The Big Lonely”:

Hours of television and sudden daydreams about men, strangers, whom she saw on the street… eating microwave dinners or takeout from China Chef even though she loved to cook… getting sympathetic looks at the gynecologist’s office where she worked as a receptionist… looking in the mirror and not even registering what was there because she’d spent twenty years of her life depending on Stephen’s judgment.

The only disappointing thing about Girl Troubleis that the quality of individual stories is inconsistent. Of the eight stories, three are exceptional (“Parts”, “Good Girl” and “Retrospective”); three are good (“Allegory of a Cave”, “An Upright Man” and “Proof of God”); one is okay (“Life Expectancy”); and one downright puzzling (“Theory of Realty”).

Time and time again, I found myself reading Jones’ stories and thinking about the cast of characters in my own life. A gentle giant who became a maelstrom of rage when drunk, a father covering for his son’s inadequacies, a star athlete having sex with her high school coach – these are all characters in Girl Trouble, but they are all people I have known. Though Girl Troublewill really be appreciated by people in the Midwest, its appeal – and Jones’ gift – is making the microcosm of Kentucky the stage for universal ideals and obstacles that will resonate for all.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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