Bridget Hoida On: So L.A. Soundtrack

I must admit, when the brilliant Meg over at  A Bookish Affair asked for a So L.A. playlist, I was tempted to reach into the tight back pocket of my L.A. iconography jeans and grab some Southland song classics like: “Hotel California” by The Eagles; “California Girls” both—the David Lee Roth & The Beach Boys versions; Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.”; or even the fabulous—and fabulously appropriate— “L.A. Woman” by The Doors…

But I didn’t.

Even though these songs make me smile, and I’ll openly admit to singing them loudly while driving the 405, or cheering at a Laker’s game, they weren’t “So L.A.”, at least not in the bookish sense.

Although some have mistakenly taken So L.A. for “chick lit” or a “light summer read,” (maybe it’s the cover? maybe it’s the title? maybe it’s because I’m a blonde woman writing about a blonde woman who lives in L.A.?) it’s actually a much darker satire about love and beauty myths and the necessary emotions everyone feels in the face of intense personal loss.

Yes, it has rhinestones, movie stars, fancy cars and a whole lot of Hollywood sass, but So L.A. is more than just tinsel. It’s a woman from a small town who is struggling to reinvent herself, after the loss of her brother and the process, although eventually redeeming, is oftentimes very messy.

Below you will find the extended liner notes for my So L.A. Soundtrack so turn the radio up, spread your towel on my deck chair, lay back, and let’s  listen to a lesser heard So L.A.

1. Red Dirt Girl by Emmylou Harris

Magdalena, the protagonist of So L.A. was born and raised in the agrarian San Joaquin Valley, in the small grape town of Lodi, California. This song, about two best friends who grew up in the dusty farmlands of another small American farm town, really speaks to much of the ranching backstory of So L.A.  In “Red Dirt Girl,” which Emmylou Harris admits is more of a story set to music, one of the friends loses her brother and after his death she, like Magdalena, is forever changed. In So L.A. I named Magdalena’s childhood dog Gideon, in homage to this song.

 2. “I’m New Here” by Gil Scott-Heron

I originally heard this song as performed by songwriter Bill Callahan of Smog. It was good. But OMG! When I heard Gil Scott-Heron’s recording I melted. No really, I lost my legs and fell into a heap of sunglasses and a-lined skirts on my kitchen floor. It. Was. Just. That. Stunning. And what the song speaks to is perhaps Magdalena’s biggest struggle: how to turn herself and her life around. The song opens with Gil’s aged yet melodic voice straining to sing: “I did not become someone different / That I did not want to be” and I want to stress the intentionality of this sentiment and how it directly applies to Magdalena (and many other women in L.A.) So often in life (and L.A.) people, especially women, are perceived to be “victims” of their “circumstances.” They are forced into cosmetic surgery or other such drastic measures by “the pressure of the male gaze” or “our phallocentric world view” but as Magdalena (and many real women) will tell you, she wanted desperately to reinvent herself. In fact, one of the most touching moments in the novel is when her husband Ricky quietly asks her to stop. When he tells her he liked her (and her boobs) better before she went under the knife.  But when you’re “new here” or want to be “new,” Heron’s advice can be hard to remember and even harder to follow as he sings (and I grow faint from the sound of his voice): “No matter how far wrong you’ve gone/ You can always turn around.”

3. Look At Me by John Lennon

This song is sung so softly, and with such endearingly sweet emotion, it’s hard not to be swept away by the pretty picks of the guitar chords. However, underneath this Lennon lullaby are questions that speak directly to Magdalena and her process of physical and emotional transformation. The song begins with the line “Look at me.”  After Junah’s death Magdalena can no longer bear to look herself in the mirror, as her resemblance to her dead brother is just too painful, so she moves to L.A. where she begins the (damaging and damning) process of cosmetic surgery. But she soon learns (though refuses to admit) even after she’s “augmented everything” her pain is still present. The lyrics of this song: “Who am I supposed to be? What am I supposed to do?” continue to speak to Mags throughout most of the novel.

4.  “Blonde on Blonde” by Nada Surf

If So L.A. were a movie, and not uncoincidentally, I’ve written it as such, this would have to be the track playing at Linda Carter’s Malibu party. Not only does the song mention “Wonder Woman” but it also takes the California “blonde” and makes her even blonder. How, might you ask, is that even possible? Let me give you the number for Magdalena’s stylist, Jersi. If he can’t bleach you blonder, Sugar, nobody can.

 5. “L.A. River” by Honey Honey

Los Angeles, as Magdalena learns, is so much more than the stars on Hollywood Blvd. or the shops on Rodeo Drive. Beyond Beverly Hills and the beaches of Malibu and Santa Monica there is another, less iconic L.A. And as this song reminds everyone, it is equally beautiful, if not more so.

6. “Little Miss Queen of Darkness” by The Kinks

After living in Southern California for well over a decade I’m convinced that even though the movies, pictures and “reality” television shows will tell you otherwise, nothing is as it seems. But more to the point: Californians try really really hard to keep things that way. The hair, the cars, the boobs, the exceptionally high heels… they are all a part of a huge yet-to-be-produced-film called: Hide Everything.  And to be “So L.A.” is to belong to this material culture. When considering Magdalena and her obsession with materialism I first went to Madonna’s “Material Girl,” but I think The Kinks explore the emotional damage of this showy lifestyle better when they sing: “Although she looked so happy,/ There was sadness in her eyes. / And her curly false eyelashes / Weren’t much of a disguise. / And her bright and golden hair, / Was not all that it might seem. / Little miss queen of darkness / Dances sadly on.”

 7. “Pale Blue Eyes” by The Velvet Underground

This song is a love note from Magdalena to all the men in the book. To Ricky it is an explanation: “Sometimes I feel so happy,/ Sometimes I feel so sad. / Sometimes I feel so happy,/But mostly you just make me mad.” To Puck, it is her apology and her pleading, “If I could make the world as pure and strange as what I see,/I’d put you in the mirror,/ I put in front of me.” To Quentin, it is an invitation: “It was good what we did yesterday./ And I’d do it once again./ The fact that you are married,/ Only proves, you’re my best friend./ But it’s truly, truly a sin.” To Junah it is a swan song. A goodbye in the way only music can speak: “Thought of you as my mountain top,/ Thought of you as my peak./ Thought of you as everything,/ I’ve had but couldn’t keep./ Linger on, your pale blue eyes.” I’ve loved this song for more years than I care to admit and yet it never tires. Every time I hear Lou Reed’s musical whisper across my speakers I yearn for the run-down Berkeley loft of my early-twenties. I blame the tambourine.

The Riq, is widely Used in the Arabic Music

8.  “Blues Run The Game” by Laura Marling

As every woman eventually learns, you can only run so far before the cities run out and start to become one in the same. Magdalena runs from Lodi to Berkeley to Los Angeles to the Beverly Hills Hotel to escape who she was and the memory of Junah. However, there’s only so much room service a girl can take before the lonely sets in. Even with Quentin’s occasional company, life at the Beverly Hills Hotel begins to break Magdalena’s “Hollywood gloss” as she realizes that no amount of whisky, gin or room service, will save her, nor will it bring her beloved Junah back. “When I’m not drinking, baby,/ You are on my mind,/ When I’m not sleeping, honey,/ Well you know you’ll find me crying.”

9. “Stuck In Lodi” by Creedence Clearwater Revival

So I know I promised a few days ago, when I began this project, that I was going to avoid the “cliché” but when you’re writing a book about a town as small as Lodi and it just so happens that there is also a fairly well known song about that same said town, well, you kind of have to include it. Especially when, near the end of the book Magdalena really does find herself “stuck in Lodi. Again.”

 10.  “Everybody’s Gotta Live” by Arthur Lee

Hearing this song was a turning point for me. And equally important, it was a turning point for the book. I was deep into writing the pages of Magdalena’s depression, writing the worst and most despicable parts about her. When you’re doing dark writing like this it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the anger and the despair. I was struggling to write the scene where Mags comes to a resolution and forgives herself for Junah’s death, but I just couldn’t get the words out. A friend sent me this song and like Arthur Lee says, “Everybody’s gotta live and everybody’s gotta die.” Accepting Junah’s death allows Magdalena to live. She just has to “know the reason why.”

11. “Our Lips Are Sealed” by The Go-Go’s

Return to the Valley of The Go-Go'sThis song is spiritual for me. Especially when paired with the video. There’s something that’s just, well, so L.A. about it. Convertibles with their tops down, girls who are insanely beautiful, but not in a manufactured way (e.g. L.A. in the early 80’s and not 2012) and dancing, fully clothed, in a public fountain in Beverly Hills. For me, this is Magdalena before Junah died: self-confident and joyful, and it is Magdalena in Take Six, which is not in the printed version of the book.  Splashing in a public fountain while singing with a “hell-if-I-care-who-sees-me” attitude is where I hope Magdalena’s headed, off the page, after the book ends.

Bridget Hoida on: Book Club Reading Guide

Lettered Press Reading Group Guide for So L.A.

 

Introduction to the Author

Bridget Hoida grew up in the San Joaquin Valley on an eight-mile road flanked by grapevines and asparagus.  She remembers “ducks, guinea pigs, goats, all kinds of bunnies”; kids frolicking on levees and splashing in the cooling water; and machines rumbling across fields at night to avoid 109-degree heat.

Reading, Hoida told the The Stockton Record, was her thing: “My parents would take us to an A’s game and I’d sit there eating popcorn and reading a book.”  Obsessed with words, she assembled them effectively for school publications when, as a sophomore, she became part of the first two classes to attend Bear Creek High School in 1992. As a senior, she wrote a column (“Bridget’s World” in the era of “Wayne’s World”) for the Bruin Voice and was the paper’s editor. “We created the newspaper from scratch,” explained Hoida, “We Xerox-ed it and stapled it together.”

Always an avid reader, writing was a natural progression.  At UC Berkeley, she studied English and fiction writing where she was tutored by Stockton-born author Maxine Hong Kingston.  From Kingston, who had “a sheer love of the Valley,” Hoida learned to embrace her roots.  After Berkeley it was on to San Francisco State University where Hoida earned a masters degree in fiction.

The move south came when she joined the first of University of Southern California’s Literature and Creative Writing Ph.D. program.  There, she lived cheaply on Sunset Boulevard while absorbing Hollywood culture and earning a doctorate in California literature.  Hoida’s research into the mythos of California twinned with her cultural navigation led to the development of So L.A.: a satirical and critical look at the city through a revision of the “ranch-novel” genre.  She spent the next ten years working on what started as a blonde joke.

Hoida has taught at USC, UC Irvine and Saddleback College in Orange County, where she and her husband Jesse are raising two young children.  Currently, she is busy at work adapting the novel as a screenplay and editing a collection of writings about motherhood.

-Courtesy of The Record reporter Tony Saro & Lettered Press editor C.L. Cardinale

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Description

Magdalena de la Cruz, born Magdalena Bamberger—awkward, gangly San Joaquin valley girl—trades her agrarian central California upbringing for the glamour and glare of Los Angeles.  She heads south to escape reminders of the traumatic and sudden death of her twin brother Junah who falls to his death in a Yosemite National Park rock-climbing accident. Haunted by guilt and obsessed by her dead brother’s presence, Magdalena uses her body as a canvas of reinvention. “When Junah died I stopped wanting to be me,” Magdalena explains, literally cutting any resemblance between herself and her brother “out with sleek scalpels.” She is reborn as an L.A. bombshell in a body “temporarily scarred with puffy red staples” in order “to erase the light brown spots of San Joaquin sun.” As Magdalena takes refuge in boutiques and Botox—seeking desperately for something to fill the void her brother has left—her marriage to Ricky, a socially conscious first-generation Mexican-American, is in jeopardy; her few friendships begin to unravel; and Diamond Myst, her booming designer water business, is drying up.

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Discussion Questions

1. How is the reader introduced to the narrator and protagonist, Magdalena de la Cruz, in the first chapter? What is she inviting the reader “to believe,” and what kind of narrator does she promise to be?

2. Rather than quotation marks or numerical chapters, the book offers five takes and chapter headers with titles like “The Problem of Surprise” or “Characters Are Not People.”  How does the structure of this, inspired by STORY! a primer for how to write a winning screenplay by Robert McKee, tell us how to read the novel?

3.  In American literature there is a rich tradition of rural and urban opposition. With this in mind, what are the ways the agrarian San Joaquin Valley is constructed as the opposite of the city of Los Angeles?

4. How does Magdalena’s body, covered in a “Los Angeles vixen varnish” (327), work both as a metaphor and a critique of the city? How does the city work, like Magdalena, to “hide its roots”?

5. What does Ricky’s story—from the A&E Biography version to the Moses in the basket version (114-119)—suggest about the American immigrant (or California migrant) mythos?

6.  One reviewer has described the story of Junah as a kind of mystery: “At the heart of Magdalena’s story is her attempt to cope with the death of her brother [ . . .]. We read to find out what really happened to Junah, her brother, and what Magdalena’s part in his death truly is, for she clearly carries much guilt for his too-soon death.”  What really happens to Junah and does knowing the “truth” change our perception of Magdalena?

7. Magdalena is, to borrow from the epigraph by Michael Ventura, “a hard beauty to love.” What moments do you sympathize with, and perhaps even despise Magdalena?  What are her forgivable and unforgivable sins? Where are your loyalties in the end?

8. Alone, in the Beverly Hills Hotel Magdalena asks: “Who am I to Quentin?”.  Discuss the necessity of Quentin in Magdalena’s emotional journey. He functions as a reckless undoing of her marriage to Ricky, and yet he is also the redemptive force that allows Magdalena to come to terms with Junah’s death. Who is Quentin to Magdalena and how does he function within the novel?

9. Magdalena’s success as a Los Angeles diva is made possible by the selling of bottled water where “underneath all the rhinestones and the pixie dust [. . .] water is scarce and we’re all thirsty” (374). The story of California, both the San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles, is really the story of water.  How does Magdalena’s story of water mirror the very nature of the narrative of California?

10.  What do you make of the “Director’s Cut”?  What does the addition of another “version” suggest about the narrative itself? How does it both unravel the narrative, beginning with the “story problem” in the first chapter, and suggest other possibilities for ending? What is the “truth,” and does it matter?

After Reading the Novel

In many ways this novel is a narrative of California, contributing to a rich history of dystopian literature.  In So L.A, California may not be a literal paradise lost, but the protagonist certainly is. Magdalena favors feeling over historical accuracy, or what most people call “the truth.” She’s an incurable nostalgic in that she wishes for a past that is so idealized that it probably never occurred. You may want to consider Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49, Joan Didion’sPlay It As It Lays or John Fante’sAsk The Dust as interesting companion novels.  So L.A. also begs to be read alongside filmic filmic adaptations of Los Angeles, from Roman Polanski’s Chinatown to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye.  And of course, Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills paints a similar, albeit celluloid, portrait.

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