Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Review & Giveaway: Giving Up The Ghost by Eric Nuzum

Giving Up the Ghost: A Story About Friendship, 80s Rock, a Lost Scrap of Paper, and What It Means to Be Haunted
Eric Nuzum
320 pages
Dial Press
Published August 7th 2012

I feel like some things need to be said before we start talking about Giving Up The Ghost.  I don't believe in ghosts.  Period.  End of story.  I'm generally a live-and-let-live kind of guy, but not when it comes to ghosts.  Family members will attest to the fact that I'm kind of a jerk about it.  I hate ghost hunting shows and I find people's stories about how their cousin's best friend's uncle saw a ghost fer reals tedious at best.  I want to hear your ghost story even less than I want to hear about what you dreamed about last night.  Now that I've established my anti-ghost story credentials, let me tell you how much I enjoyed Giving Up The Ghost.

I don't normally use the publisher's plot summary, but this one is kind of perfect:

Eric Nuzum is afraid of the supernatural, and for good reason: As a high school oddball in Canton, Ohio, during the early 1980s, he became convinced that he was being haunted by the ghost of a little girl in a blue dress who lived in his parents’ attic. It began as a weird premonition during his dreams, something that his quickly diminishing circle of friends chalked up as a way to get attention. It ended with Eric in a mental ward, having apparently destroyed his life before it truly began. The only thing that kept him from the brink: his friendship with a girl named Laura, a classmate who was equal parts devoted friend and enigmatic crush. With the kind of strange connection you can only forge when you’re young, Laura walked Eric back to “normal”—only to become a ghost herself in a tragic twist of fate.

Years later, a fully functioning member of society with a great job and family, Eric still can’t stand to have any shut doors in his house for fear of what’s on the other side. In order to finally confront his phobia, he enlists some friends on a journey to America’s most haunted places. But deep down he knows it’s only when he digs up the ghosts of his past, especially Laura, that he’ll find the peace he’s looking for.
The book alternates between present-day Eric and early-20's Eric.  In the present, Eric is trying to understand a reoccurring dream in which a Little Girl in a Blue Dress with wide and dark eyes yells at him in gibberish.  When he was younger, the dream coincided with a feeling of terror that the Little Girl was behind him or across the hall or up in the attic.  He never sees Her when he's awake, but he feels Her presence.  And so present-day Eric goes to a few hotbeds of paranormal activity and to a community of Spiritualists to try to understand what was going on with the Little Girl.  I won't ruin the outcomes of these trips, but they give Eric the opportunity to work through his fear while also exploring the paranormal.

Like many young people, young Eric finds much of his identity through his music.  There are lots of really great 80's indie rock references that had me firing up Spotify so I could listen to bands like Killing Joke, Flipper, and Suicidal Tendencies.  I love music, so listening to the albums and songs that were mentioned added a new depth to the story.  But the musical reference that had the biggest impact of me was Brian Eno's Ambient 1: Music for Airports.

Give it a listen

It's the perfect soundtrack for this book.  Melancholy, peaceful, mysterious, beautiful.  It's become my go-to headphones music for when I'm reading anything at all.  I just put the first track, "1/1", on repeat and go.  It's prefect.  I love it so much.  Thank you, Eric Nuzum, for turning me on to this.

There's an incident in which Eric is DJing at his college's "radio station" (it's more of a glorified campus PA system) and a woman complains that she doesn't like the music and that it's too loud.  Eric totally loses his cool, running out of the DJ booth and doing a rage-fueled, table-top sing-along to David Bowie's "DJ". When he returns to the booth, he puts on Music for Airports.  "I played the tape because I wanted the situation to melt away. Music for Airports always made me feel calm. It reminded me of feeling peaceful. I wanted to let Music for Airports pour over everyone there and have the same effect on them. Just let this situation I created wash away."  Unfortunately, music can't undo bad behavior.

And the bad behavior continues.  Abusing drugs and alcohol, Eric slowly starts to lose grip with reality.  His paralyzing fear of the Little Girl is behind much of it.  He just wants to get away from it.  He really only has one friend, a mysterious girl named Laura.  Eric and Laura go out a few times a week and just hang out.  They trade music, have silly arguments and talk about Eric's problems.  As much as he tries, Laura never really gives up any personal information about herself.  It's an almost-romantic relationship.  Sometimes they kiss, often they don't.  When Eric ends up in the psych ward, it's Laura that visits him and, in a way, inspires him to stop being such an ass and try to get better.

Laura dies and Eric becomes haunted by her memory and an inscrutable poem that she gave him.  It's never really mentioned in the book, but I also felt like Eric was haunted by himself.  The process of writing this book was a way to deal with who he was and who he has become.  Sometimes looking at our past self and the gauzy good-time memories can be painful and embarrassing, but also illuminating.  Sometimes who were were casts a shadow on who we are, even if the two are very different.

Giving Up The Ghost is a well-written memoir with a unique twist.  Eric Nuzum makes a serious effort to unpack himself and investigate his ghost and comes up with just a small nugget of truth.  I won't spoil that for you, but it's a nice ending to a book that has a lot of questions and not a lot of answers.  That might sound unsatisfying, but I think that sometimes there's more value in asking the questions than getting absolute answers.

Thank you to TLC Book Tours and Dial Press/Random House for providing a copy of Giving Up The Ghost for review.  You can read reviews from other bloggers on the tour here!  You can also follow Eric Nuzum on Twitter and go to his website where you can find unpublished excerpts from the book and other good stuff.

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