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Tuesday, 03 April 2012 10:07

Book review: Alina Simone discovers that 'You Must Go and Win'

Book review: Alina Simone discovers that 'You Must Go and Win'
Written by Erin Frank
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Alina Simone
"You Must Go and Win"
Faber & Faber

By her own admission in the essay collection "You Must Go and Win," Alina Simone has a very small fan base, and that fan base is comprised mostly of depressed Jews. Not a terrible fan base to have in my opinion, as it could potentially include Larry David, Woody Allen or pre-dental veneers Ben Stiller.

It's true that she has mostly toiled in obscurity, conceding to losing more money on touring than she's made, being verbally dressed down by music publicists and basking greedily in her sole success, "Everyone Is Crying Out to Me, Beware," a collection of covers originally recorded by Siberian punk singer Yanka Dyagileva and released 17 years after Yanka's death by suicide. The album is in Russian, which may be too much for a casual listener but makes sense for Simone, whose family fled Ukraine when she was a child after her parents were blacklisted by the KGB.

While life has not been exactly sunny for Simone, she does write about it with a plucky, "well, what can you do" sort of attitude that has carried her from her birthplace of Kharkov, Ukraine to the Boston suburbs to -- in an order that is not entirely clear -- Austin, North Carolina and Brooklyn.

This attitude and Simone's dark sense of humor were inherited from her parents. Her father is the thoughtful, quietly funny physicist Alexander Vilenkin. Her mother, on the other hand, is hilariously abrasive and dismisses any idea that Ukraine is a sentimental motherland by saying, "Now maybe you will know what a godforsaken hole we rescued you from" when Simone tells her that she plans on traveling to Kharkov. Like many Russian immigrants of their day, Simone's parents are ruthlessly hard workers, intellectual over achievers, and kind of befuddled over their daughter's insistence on being a musician.

Simone shares this befuddlement sometimes, such as when she finds herself subletting a flea-infested futon in a bizarrely-sectioned loft apartment, having a humiliating meeting with a producer she found on Craigslist, and road tripping with her childhood friend Amanda Palmer, who Simone recognizes has the sort of ambition, guile, and talent to be exactly as famous as she wants to be.

In some ways, Simone's essays are a litany of what every struggling musician does on a day-to-day basis, from schlepping a guitar to empty bar after empty bar, receiving heartbreaking news from record labels who went bust just before releasing her album, and wondering when she's supposed to just give up, already. In other ways, they're about Simone imagining the taste of fame in her mouth and believing that it's just around the corner, because what else is getting famous but waiting to get famous, and this is what Simone has been doing the whole time.

Simone wobbles along the line of acknowledging that her lowest points are not as low as being blacklisted by a Communist regime while also indulging in whiny bouts of self-pity, which are mostly funny but sometimes pathetic. I'm not sure if she's aware of the disingenuousness of wanting to join the Russian Orthodox Church just for the acoustics of the baptismal immersion technique, or if she realizes that while this is a major life event for many, she has treated it as the pursuit of a passing fancy. Later, she describes a hate-of-turned-into-obsession-with Britney Spears and might take this more seriously than her religious conversion.

Eventually, Simone gets it through her head that not everyone who wants to be famous makes it there. Some of us remain unknown. Some of us travel to Siberia to pay tribute to forgotten punk rockers. Some of us get lucky when a publisher happens to hear one of our songs on Pandora and contacts us about a book deal. We can't all be Amanda Palmers or Britney Spearses, but regardless of our fates, there is some honor in trying, as Simone's friend Roman pointed out when he endured a petulant rant of Simone's to say, "Alina. This is a wrong attitude. You must go. And win."

"You Must Go and Win" was published by Faber & Faber in June 2011. Alina Simone's most recent album is "Make Your Own Danger" and was released in May 2011 by Pentar Records.

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