Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Pulp fiction


I used to have this daily fight with my mother, who strongly believed in the value of a good breakfast.  I absolutely hated the pulp that accumulated on the top of the glass of orange juice, to the point of gagging as I tried to drink it down.  She wouldn’t remove it, saying it was good for me.  (I was convinced, of course, that all my friends were drinking Tang.)  I’ve had a love/hate relationship with oranges ever since:  Love the sweetness, hate the pulp (which includes the gucky stuff from the peel that stays on the orange and those “wrappers” that enclose each segment).  Joanne Rocklin’s odd little novel, One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street, took me back to those mornings. 

There is an empty lot on Orange Street, a short block in a neighborhood somewhere in Southern California.  The only orange tree left from a family-owned orchard thrives in that lot and draws the half-dozen families living on the block to hang out, play, dream, climb, birdwatch, bury treasures or dig them up.  One morning, when a neon-orange traffic cone appears on the street in front of the tree’s lot, the neighbors are a little curious, a little worried, a little disturbed.  The block’s kids – Ali, Leandra, Bunny (the three members of the Girls with Long Hair Club), along with Robert, and Ali’s little brother Edgar – as well as the crazy old lady, Mrs. Snoops (not her real name) spend the titular day hanging out in the neighborhood, and thinking about their own young concerns:  Ali’s laughing, happy brother has been silent since surgery for a brain tumor, Bunny is afraid her mother won’t return from her many business trips, Leandra is angry that her parents are expecting another baby, and Robert – who wants to be a magician – is having trouble connecting with his newly divorced father.  Mrs. Snoops has a tendency to call 9-1-1 to report the “murder of plants,” and spends a lot of time remembering the past, when the orange grove and her best friend were on Orange Street; sometimes she can’t tell the difference between then and now.  But when a “mysterious man” appears on Orange Street, the neighbors understand the meaning of the orange cone and it’s not good.

The novel is very short (just over four hours) and episodic in nature.  Even though it takes place over a 36-hour period, it goes way back in time with Mrs. Snoops and even before to the origins of the orange grove itself.  Rocklin can create characters with just a few paragraphs, and the stories flow effortlessly from one to another.  On the other hand, there’s so much packed into the slender novel that it feels very scattered.  As a listener, I initially felt quite muddled as the novel jumped from character to character to inanimate object (the tree itself), but it didn’t take very long for me to figure out how things were working out.  It was only after I finished that I realized that the book includes a map of Orange Street (which you can find when you “look inside” at Amazon).  It’s an extremely quiet novel – which means those who crave action and lots of plot are likely not to enjoy it.  I enjoyed it, and it’s probably a really good book for discussion.

The jazz vocalist Lisa Baney narrates the book.  She’s got a smoky voice that works well for the novel’s omniscient narrator who peeks into each house on Orange Street and takes us back and forth over time.  It would be difficult to create separate voices for each of the novel’s many characters and she doesn’t attempt it, instead opting for vocal changes to indicate young or old, male or female that are all pretty standard.  She does toss on an “old-lady” quaver for Mrs. Snoops which I didn’t particularly care for, but overall, it’s a good listen. 

It’s been a couple of weeks since I finished this, but I’m remembering a moment where I’d wish Baney had chosen to sing (may have been a copyright issue).  Elsewhere in the book, she is given the opportunity to rap – courtesy of Manny, little Edgar’s nanny, who makes up verse in response to a question from Robert – and she gives relaxed, jazzy performance.  There are a lot of narrators who sound uncomfortable when asked to read music lyrics or poetry; Baney is not among them.  I’d listen to her read again.

Amongst everything else that goes on during our day on Orange Street, Rocklin offers a brief history of the Valencia orange.   I bought a couple a few days later, and although I had to fight my ocd fastidiousness, I did indeed find them citrus-y and very, very sweet.

[The traffic cone image was created by paperdog2005 and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street by Joanne Rocklin
Narrated by Lisa Baney
Listening Library, 2011. 4:10

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