Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta ✎ ✎ ✎ ✎


The late 60s and early 70s are hot in literary circles. I’ve read at least four novels this year that examine the events of the Age of Aquarius from the perspective of today and each of the following are reviewed on Manson (The Girls), Gen-X kids (The Nest), would’ve been rock stars who aged into generic suburbanites (Modern Lovers). In Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document the focus is on war protestors: revolutionaries whose violent activities forced them off the grid, underground, and into new identities.

The first thing about the novel that puzzled me was the title: Eat the Document, comes from a documentary of Bob Dylan’s 1966 tour of the United Kingdom with the Hawks during which he transitions from folk singer to rock star. (The entire film is actually available to watch on youtube: So, there’s a documentary maker in Eat the Document (the novel) but he’s making anti-war films. And yes, Bob Dylan was anti-war, I just think the connection is tenuous. And I for one had never heard of the Bob Dylan Eat the Document documentary. I haven’t watched the documentary so I don’t know if there’s any explanation therein for the title.

spiottadana-by_-jessicamarx-900There are other questions I have. Luckily, Dana Spiotta is coming to my hometown this weekend (September 16-18, 2016) to speak and teach at the Kentucky Women Writer’s Conference. So I’m hoping to be able to bend her ear about a few of those.

Ms. Spiotta: I want to know what about this unique time period in American history grabbed you. Why did you choose to write about war protestors who go on the run. Are you as big of a fan of the Beach Boys as her character Jason. Did ______ and ______ meet at the _______ on ________. Do you most identify with Henry, as I suspect, or another character and why.

To begin, Mary and Bobby have done something. They must go on the run and create new identities for themselves, somewhat easier to do in the earliest 70s. The reader travels with Mary as she assumes new names, appearances and personalities. But Bobby disappears while Spiotta introduces us to Seattle in the late 1990s and a radical-ish bookstore run by a low-key guy named Nash. Mary — now known as Louise — and her teenage son Jason wind up in the Seattle suburbs as well. Jason is fifteen and has many obsessions: music, finding his mother’s secrets, competing with his next door neighbor. But none are larger than his self-obsession.

I am the center of the culture. I am genesis, herald, harbinger. The absolute germinal zero point–that’s me. I am the sun around which all the American else orbits. In fact, I am America, I exist more than other Americans. America is the center of the world, and I am the center of America. I am fifteen, while, middle class and male. Middle-aged men and women scurry for my attention. What Internet sites I visit. What I buy. What my desires are. What movies I watch. What and who I want; when and how I want it. People get paid a lot of money to think of how to get to me and mine.

Reviewing for the New York Times in 2006, the year Eat the Document was released, Michiko Kakutani said: “By cutting back and forth between Mary’s story and the stories of her son, Jason; her former lover and fellow fugitive, Bobby; and Bobby’s best friend, Henry, Ms. Spiotta has constructed a glittering collage of a book — a book that possesses the staccato ferocity of a Joan Didion essay and the historical resonance and razzle-dazzle language of a Don DeLillo novel.”

I listened to Eat the Document on audio driving back and forth to court in another city, but eat-the-document-9780743273008_lgI actually pulled over and stopped the car to write down my favorite line from the book.

“We identify ourselves by what moves us.”

That seems not only true, but aspirational.

Would your book club enjoy Eat the Document? It was a National Book Award finalist and certainly worthy of that honor. It is meaty, slightly twisty, intriguing. An insightful look at the 70s and how the events of that decade linger on through our present. Publisher Simon and Schuster provides a reading group guide on its website if you want more information.


As easy as the music selections were to list for Eat the Document, the menu is tougher and I find this always to be more true when listening to a book on audio versus holding a tangible object and marking it as I read. I think I remember a reference to lasagna, there’s definitely a breakfast with pancakes and bacon.

Mary/Louise is actually a cook and works at several diners and so I’m sure I have missed lots of the food references. Nevertheless, at times like these, I go for the pun. So my menu will include:

Roasted root vegetables — “underground” food

As a main course, I might actually serve the pancakes and bacon. There’s nothing as good as breakfast for dinner. Or make a lasagna.

Ice Cream Bombe for dessert. This is an incredibly fabulous looking dessert but relies on store-bought ice cream and pound cake. Using coffee ice cream would give a nod to the Seattle locale of Eat the Document. Here’s a recipe:



Eat the Document’s musical references are multiple and varied:

Roxy Music

Little Feat

Allman Brothers

Whiter Shade of Pale, by Procol Harum (Incidentally the best name for a rock group ever)

Roberta Flack

You could also feature Bob Dylan songs from the documentary Eat the Document, including:

Tell Me, Momma

I Don’t Believe You

Ballad of a Thin Man

One Too Many Mornings

But Jason’s truest love is bootlegged versions of The Beach Boys’ albums with particular focus on Pet Sounds and Smile.

UPDATED: has solicited a playlist from Dana Spiotta — — and in her own words, here’s her playlist:

Eat the Document has many music references. Much of the book takes place in the 70s, so much of the music is from that era. The contemporary part of the novel largely concerns a music-obsessed 15 year-old who is under the sway of PET SOUNDS and SMILE. The book is also about people living underground, about secret identities and so on, and the title comes from the unreleased documentary by and about Bob Dylan. Much is made in the book of “lost” albums and unpopular albums made by popular musicians.
I don’t listen to music when I write, but I listen to music when I am not writing. When I am walking, driving my car, doing housework, staring into space, and generally thinking about the book. The tracks I picked are either cited in the book specifically, or they give a feel for things in the book.

1) “Our Prayer”
The Beach Boys, SMILE

When I started writing the novel, the Beach Boys’ SMILE was still unreleased. Then Brian Wilson decided to put out a version. Although they are very close, I prefer the version of “Our Prayer” from my bootleg: short, heavenly, wordless. But I admit I am biased in favor of the more obscure thing.
2)“Little Hands”
“Weighted Down”

Alexander Spence, from OAR

OAR is one of my favorite albums. Skip Spence was first in the Jefferson Airplane and then in Moby Grape. OAR is his only solo album—it was made between hospital visits. One of the characters in Eat the Document discusses OAR as an example of an essential “lost” album. It is a very sad record, but quite beautiful and naked sounding. “Diana” has so much longing in the singing and the slightly dissonant guitar. “Weighted Down” is about feeling the burden of your past—a theme that resonates in my novel. If you dig that slightly off feeling, if you like Nick Drake, well, this sounds to me like Pink Moon Nick Drake combined with the Velvet Underground.
3)“Maggot Brain”

Funkadelic, from Maggot Brain
This song keeps coming up in the novel. I really tried my best to describe what listening to this song feels like. It connects the mother to the son in this odd way. The mother hears it on a commune from a white woman who apparently thinks she is black and only listens to heavy funk and black music. It unnerves the mother. There is a spookiness to it that is beyond mere sadness. I also think listening to guitar-heavy music in the middle of the woods can freak you out a little. I wrote this novel in an old farm house in central New York. Some of the music I am listing sounds downright ghostly, particularly “Maggot Brain.” It also features a famous long and gorgeous guitar solo by Eddie Hazel. The story is that George Clinton told Hazel to play as though his mother just died. And so he did.

4) “The Castle”
Love, from 
Da Capo

“Alone Again Or”
Love, from Forever Changes

The band Love figures prominently in the novel. In fact, Arthur Lee and Bryan MacLean actually appear in a crucial “lost” film a couple of times. Anyway, this is an actual hit song, a classic, but it is obscure none the less. Arthur Lee is the proto 60s black rock-n-roller, and he doesn’t seem to get his do. In any case, “Alone Again Or” was written by Bryan MacLean. It has these grand horns and kind of gentle acoustic guitar. It creates something specific in you as you listen. And if you get your hands on the first album (or DaCapo) on vinyl, you should hold it in your hands and stare at it while you listen. They had a singular style and presence.
5)“River Song”
“Hello, My Friend”

Dennis Wilson, from Pacific Ocean Blue

Dennis Wilson, from Bamboo (Or as a Beach Boys B-side, on the Sounds of Free single)

Here are three songs by Dennis Wilson. I also took the liberty of having Dennis Wilson make a cameo appearance in my book. His two solo albums are hard to find. They are the very essence of the California come-down of the mid seventies. Dennis Wilson was one of the saddest guys around, and he had a lot of drama and irony built into his short life. It is hard to resist. In my novel he puts Procol Harum on the jukebox and dances barefoot with a girl who is willing to buy him a drink. “Hello, My Friend” is about taking the long, slow, low road.
6) “If You See Her, Say Hello”
Bob Dylan, from Blood on the Tracks

“If You See Her, Say Hello” is here because he wrote a lot of songs about leaving your love (and the things you love) behind, and I may as well pick this one for the sorry days of 1975.
7) “Cabin Essence”
The Beach Boys, from SMiLE

Another one from the SMiLE bootleg—it is has that child-like Wilson radiance.
8) “Hot as Sun/Glasses/ Junk”
Paul McCartney, from McCartney

This is from Paul’s home-recorded low-fi album. It creates a real after-the-fall ambiance, but it isn’t about devastation like SHOOT OUT THE LIGHTS. It’s more about the melancholy of dislocation. I listened to this record all the time when I was working on EAT THE DCOUMENT. It is really low-key and very anti-pop. McCartney is a bit like Brian Wilson—people are familiar with their perfect pop songs and melodies, and they don’t get credit for some of the formal experiments that made them rebellious in their way. The segues and juxtapositions on this album are as interesting as the songs.
9) “The Bridge”
Neil Young, from Time Fades Away

Neil Young sort of belongs in my novel even though he isn’t there. I could pick any of a dozen Neil Young songs, but I thought I should pick an “unreleased” song. A ballad, because I’m not a rock anthem fan. I do love Young’s songs about lonely love—or being lonely inside your life—much more than the ones about the culture at large.
10) “I Shall Be Released”
Gram Parsons/ Flying Burrito Brothers, from Farther Along

Okay, we end with a snippet of a version of Dylan’s classic song sung by the wistful-voiced Gram when he was in the Flying Burrito Brothers. I picked this, although it isn’t in my book, because it is beautiful and incomplete (it breaks off half-way through), because we all can imagine what might have been—and we should try—and because we all shall be released, which is a consolation of a kind.


Mary/Louise: Mary describes herself as wispy, forgettable. It would be a trick to play someone 20 and the same actor play her as a 45 year old mom. Anne Hathaway did a pretty good job of it in Brokeback Mountain. I’m thinking Kiernan Shipka has the right vibe for a young Mary, but not sure about the older one.

Bobby:  Lenny Kravitz.

Jason:  Jack Kilmer maybe? Struggling with this one.

Henry:  Steve Buscemi

Happy Reading!




Guest Blog: The Global War on Morris

global war

I’m on vacation so many thanks to Robert Parks Johnson, fellow book-a-vore, thespian and all-around-good-guy. bob photo

He blogs regularly at Check him out!

Here’s Bob’s review of The Global War on Morris by Steve Israel:

Morris Feldstein is a schlub. He is the kind of person who doesn’t really live life, he just sort of lets it happen around him. Morris’ motto is “Don’t make waves.” And he doesn’t. His days are spent driving from one Long Island medical office to the next, writing orders, and leaving samples for his employer, Celfex Pharmaceutical Laboratories. His evenings are spent eating take-out in silence with his wife, Rona. He drifts to sleep in the loving arms of his RoyalLounger 8000, writhing fitfully as his Mets find yet another way to lose.

Morris? He’s a nothing. No runs, no hits, no errors. An anonymous, suburban every-mensch. And according to twenty-seven separate law-enforcement agencies, the world’s largest surveillance database, and the Vice-President of the United States, Morris is also a native enemy noncombatant in the War on Terror.

Steve Israel, (who, when he is not writing political satire, serves as the Congressman from New York’s Third Congressional District,) uses short, fast moving chapters to introduce characters and threads of plot that twist together to form the rope that ultimately snares an innocent man in a nightmare worthy of Kafka. Along with Rona, Morris’ politically conscious wife, we meet their daughter Caryn, an aspiring documentary film-maker. There is Hassan, towel boy at the Paradise Hotel and Residences at Boca. Victoria, the pretty blonde receptionist, whose friendly smile and recent divorce make her too tempting for the weary salesman to resist. Too-Good-To-Be-True Ricardo whose suave manner and cold-blooded crimes make him the villainous instigator of Morris’ downfall. And then there are the agents: men with encyclopedic titles working in the nooks and crannies of a security-mad, post 9/11 bureaucracy that is such a labyrinth of overlapping functions that no one seems able to keep all the acronyms straight.

bush cheney roveAlong the way, we also meet the major players of the period, true believers, all. Dick Chaney sneers in his dark, West Wing office. Karl Rove plots and calculates. The President carefully repeats and rehearses catch phrases and talking points taught to him by his coaches and handlers. Israel’s portrait of the masterminds of the War on Terror is hardly a sympathetic one, but he acknowledges that a deep sense of patriotism lies at the heart of even their most cynical political machinations. They are consumed with fear and wounded pride, and a ravenous desire to catch anything that even looks like a terrorist.

And then there is NICK: the Network Centric Total Information Collection, Integration, Synthesis, Assessment, Dissemination, and Deployment System. NICK is Big Brother, the All-Hearing-Ear where every phone call, email, Google search, and credit card swipe is collected, observed, analyzed, and assigned a threat level. NICK’s job is make connections. He is designed to find danger. He doesn’t believe in coincidence. Late in the summer of 2004, just as the presidential election campaign is kicking into high gear, NICK smells something fishy about a credit card charge in a restaurant in Great Neck, Long Island. From that moment on, Morris’ goose begins to slowly cook.

On its surface, The Global War on Morris is a satirical comedy of errors, but Israel’s comedy has teeth. I laughed out loud more than once as I read, but there were also moments of horror that caught me up short with the thought: “My god, this could actually happen.”


Morris and Rona live on take-out: Kung Pao chicken, a nice pastrami platter, chicken parmesan. The host who prefers not to load up the table with white cardboard containers and Styrofoam clamshells might want to go with something a little less eclectic. I suggest a buffet featuring potato knish, some nice lean brisket, and falafel. To drink, just a little glass of wine for the imbibers and some seltzer with a wedge of lime for the teetotalers. For desert? What else? A sliver (or a hunk) of New York Cheesecake from Juniors.


Rona is an old hippie and her daughter seems destined to become a new one. The music of the ‘Sixties could set the mood perfectly. You might just put your old vinyl soundtrack from Woodstock on the turntable and let it spin, but I’d throw Dylan’s Highway 61 and Bringin’ it All Back Home on the stack as well.

UPDATE FROM daeandwrite: The Global War on Morris is being developed as a cable series by none other than Rob Reiner.


American as Apples: The Orchardist


William Talmadge, the orchardist, tends to his apples as if the trees were his children.  It is the turn of the century in the Great Northwest and Talmadge is a gentle soul alone with his trees and his one in-town friend, Caroline Middey, for occasional company.  Talmadge has lived this lonely life since the disappearance of his sister, Elsbeth.  First-time novelist Amanda Coplin opens her book with a physical description of her protagonist:

“His face was as pitted as the moon. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and thick without being stocky, though one could see how he could pass into stockiness; he had already taken on the barrel-chested sturdiness of an old man. His ears were elephantine, a feature most commented on when he was younger, when the ears stuck out from his head; but now they had darkened like the rest of his sun-exposed flesh and lay against his skull more than at any other time in his life, and were tough, the flesh granular like the rind of some fruit. He was clean-shaven, large-pored; his skin was oily. In some lights his flesh was gray; others, tallow; others, red.”

It’s an unusual strategy but Coplin says, in an interview with The Oregonian, there was a reason for it.  “The book opens with a physical description of Talmadge that’s a direct physical description of my grandfather,” she says. “That’s something that I selfishly did to celebrate him, I guess, and my family too.”  Not surprisingly, Coplin grew up in Washington State’s Wenatchee Valley, among her grandfather’s apple orchards.  She writes poetically of the relationship between the man Talmadge and the trees he nurtures:  apples, plums, apricots.  Talmadge seems content with his Edenic life until one day, during his weekly trip to the market with a cart full of fruit, some of his merchandise is stolen by two teenage girls.  Rather than chase them or scold them, ImageTalmadge watches the girls, luring them closer with gifts of food, until they are willing to approach.  The girls are run-aways from a man and a life of horror. On some level in The Orchardist, Talmadge seems to see the young girls as some replacement for his mother and sister and taken them in to raise, teach and care for.  But women and apples.  Soon, the life Della and Jane sought to escape has returned for them.

The Orchardist is dense and chewy, I’ve seen reviews that likened it to the orchards themselves.  Sweet and dark.  Ultimately, because Ms. Coplin received an MFA and MFA recipients seem unable to write anything likely to be called a happy ending, as do all Edens, Talmadge’s comes to an end.  It’s a hard life, the earth is hard, and the world is changing, but to Talmadge the joys of living his days among God’s creations seem worth the sacrifices.



Green Salad:  tear arugula and baby spinach into bite size pieces.  Cut up a very ripe plum into long, thin slices.  Sprinkle with sunflower seeds and drizzle olive oil and lemon juice.  Season with salt and pepper.

Corncakes:  see for recipe

Fried Trout — this is one of the dishes Talmadge uses to tempt Jane and Della.  I wouldn’t make this, I would buy it.

Award-Winning Apple Pie

Land-O-Lakes Recipe for the Award-Winning Apple Pie:


Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree, Andrews Sisters

The Gates of Eden, Bob Dylan

The Hazards of Love, entire album, The Decemberists

And finally, a special poem by my favorite poet

 After Apple-Picking Time by Robert Frost

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.