Thursday 8 April 2010

Review - Ballads of Suburbia / Stephanie Kuehnert

Ballads are the kind of songs that Kara McNaughton likes best. Not the cliched ones where a diva hits her highest note or a rock band tones it down a couple of notches for the ladies, but the true ballads: the punk rocker or the country crooner telling the story of their life in three minutes, the chorus reminding their listeners of the numerous ways to screw things up. In high school, Kara helped maintain the "Stories of Suburbia" notebook, which contained newspaper articles about bizarre and often tragic events from suburbs all over and personal vignettes that Kara dubbed "ballads" written by her friends in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago. Those "ballads" were heartbreakingly honest tales of the moments when life changes and a kid is forced to grow up too soon. But Kara never wrote her own ballad. Before she could figure out what her song was about, she was leaving town after a series of disastrous events at the end of her junior year. Four years later, Kara returns to face the music, and tells the tale of her first three years of high school with her friends' "ballads" interspersed throughout.

Review - Reading a Stephanie Kuehnert novel is like seeing the world through a fog of cigarette smoke - it smells a little funky, grit is accumulated on every surface but you are truly inhabiting the experience. Kuehnert's books also have a lot in common with nicotine addiction - you'll get choked up a lot and they are hard to quit. I could also make some snarky allusion to the high death toll but in the author's case it is solely her characters (unless she is a serial killer on the side.)

I grew up in the era depicted in this story. Nirvana were huge, guys had badly dyed, shaggy hair and ambivalence was wide spread. There were characters in Ballads that are almost exact replicas of kids that I grew up with which made it difficult to read in some ways. Issues of disillusionment, cutting, the fragments of family, sibling dysfunction, death, suicide, drug use and addiction are all interwoven in an effortless manner that allow the reader to focus on Kara's journey (rather than the evolution of the "issues"). Journal entries of a personal nature by many of the supporting character help flesh out the story and add a distanced perspective of our protagonist. The writing is unique with sharpened prose - it cuts, making you suffer along with Kara until you are as raw as she is. It's not a book that will thwack you over the head but instead, one that slowly envelops you unsuspectingly.

Ballads comes across much more personal to the author that her debut effort, the fantastic I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone. Perhaps this was due to my awareness of her own teen struggles that undoubtedly influences the novel but I think not. The exploration of cutting and controlling relationships were vividly (if not disturbingly) portrayed. The sibling relationship is one that worked exceedingly well - Kara and Liam transition from distant, sober individuals to close but inordinately messed up junkies is frightening but understandable.

An original voice and a gritty, soul crushing story worth reading.

Published: July 2009
Format: Paperback, pages
Publisher: MTV Books
Source: purchased
Origin: USA


Carla said...

I've had this book for a while now and it just never seems to stand out for me, calling me to read it. I think because it deals with a lot of struggles that i'd maybe in some way relate to, or the fact that from the reviews i've read it seems like it's deal with in a gritty way.

Either way, you make this book sound like something that might be hard to swallow, but worth it anyway. I think i'm gonna read this soon now, thanks for the thoughtful review as always!

Robby said...

I have Stephanie's first book in my ToRead pile and I've been so eager to buy this book. I really need to.

Audrey (holes In My brain) said...

I thought Ballads was pretty amazing. So raw, and so honest but heartbreaking. Awesome review, it really does the book justice.

Anonymous said...

You've inspired me to add it to my wishlist :)

valerie said...

I love anything about music and this one sounds like it's great. Very good review, thanks.

Daniela said...

i've just read and loved "i wanna be your joey ramone" and this second novel has even better ratings. seems like i'll really love it