Sunday, July 06, 2008

I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE by Stephanie Kuehnert

As you know, I rarely do book reviews. I suck at summing up the events and themes (you'd never know I was an English major for a time), and have difficulty articulating what I love about a book, so for me to make the effort, I need to feel strongly about it.

Which I do (do I ever!) about I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone by Stephanie Kuehnert (pronounced Keen-ert, by the way, mentions Jeri Smith-Ready-as-in-ready-to-go-NOT-reedy). Stephanie will be joining us Monday for an interview, and will be giving away a signed copy to one lucky commenter. But first, to whet your appetite:

IWBYJR follows Emily Black from her early teens to early twenties, as she navigates the rough waters of adolescence and young adulthood. She's got a tougher time than most of us: her mother Louisa left her in the care of her father when she was just a few months old. Growing up, Emily painted a glamorized portrait of her mom, telling herself that Louisa left to "follow the music," especially punk rock in its nativity. She followed in what she thought were her mother's footsteps by getting as close as she could to the music itself, first through the boys and men who played it, and then by taking the guitar in her own hands.

We discover, through Louisa's point-of-view, that her life is anything but glamorous, and her reasons for abandoning her family are tragic and complex. Kuehnert shows us the parallel odysseys of mother and daughter as they try to find themselves (and by extension, each other) in music, drugs, and relationships.

I expected to like this book. What I didn't expect was how much it would worm its way inside me and make me think about it when I least expected it. My life was nothing like Emily's, but I think anyone who's ever been a teenager (i.e., all of us, whether we want to remember it or not) could relate to this book. You don't need to be a fan of punk music or even music at all to feel this novel's heart. Its themes--family, friendship, betrayal, and the kind of hope that simultaneously lifts us up and makes us crawl--are universal.

The characters are all well-drawn. In a lot (okay, most) novels about teenagers, the parents are either dead, absent, or have as much depth as indoor/outdoor carpet. That wasn't the case with IWBYJR. Emily's father Michael is appealing, and you can see how much of her strength comes from his unwavering and unconditional love. He's far from perfect--since Louisa's departure, he's placed himself in an emotional purgatory that sometimes prevents him from really living. I wished desperately for him to find happiness. Louisa, who shares the novel's narrative, is a fascinating portrait of an adult runaway. Even Molly, the mother of Emily's best friend Regan, is fully fleshed and sympathetic as both a parent and a person.

Supporting characters, including Emily's bandmates (Regan and her boyfriend Tom), along with her first love Johnny, are also richly nuanced and real. But Emily is the literal star of the show. She makes a lot of bad choices, and she raises self-deception to an art form. But her sense of perspective (to me it seemed as if an older, wiser Emily was telling the story), humor, and raw sincerity made her easy to love.

Now, the music: even though I didn't know most of the songs (seeing as many were fictional), the vivid descriptions put me right there with Emily in the mosh pit or on the stage. I could feel the way that music both enthralled and empowered her. Music was both a means and an end--meaning, it formed a path to what she wanted most, and was also something to be enjoyed for itself.

As I mentioned before, this is definitely a book that would appeal to adults and older teens alike. Some parents might object to the sexual situations and drug use, but they're handled with honesty and frankness--meaning they're neither demonized nor romanticized (believe me, no girl is going to want to run out and get laid after reading about Emily's first encounter). I can't even express how refreshing that is, and it's one of the many reasons I loved this book.

So join me Monday to learn more about Stephanie Kuehnert and I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, and enter to win your very own copy of this phenomenal new book!

Now playing: The Gits - Snivelling Little Rat Faced Git
via FoxyTunes

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Jeri Smith-Ready is a Maryland author of books for teens and adults.

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