June 20, 2007
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.
Min Jin Lee's debut novel, Free Food for Millionaires, is the story of race and class told through the life of Casey Han, a 22 year-old Princeton graduate. Lee's attention to detail, even in minor characters, helps create a breathtaking debut novel.
USA Today says of the book:
"Not since Jhumpa Lahiri’s THE NAMESAKE has an author so exquisitely evoked what it’s like to be an immigrant...As much as this is an immigrant story, it’s also an American story full of class struggle, rugged individualism, social status and above all, the money haves and have-nots. Most of all it’s an epic mediation on love, both familial and romantic. Lee offers us love in all its tenacious and painful glory.”
When I was growing up in Korea, my dad was a marketing executive—whatever that means. The story went that he used to up and quit his jobs because of his temper. My mother was the local piano teacher, and she brought in the steady pay. She had a number of students. The piano lesson tuition was paid in cash, won notes tucked into small white envelopes. Every Christmas, my little sister Sang and I had to go to our uncle’s house and keep out of the way while our mother hosted the year-end party for her students. My older sister Myung got to go to the party with cake, ice cream and presents because well, she was older, and she was also a student. No, I’m not bitter. My family immigrated to Queens, New York in 1976 when I was almost eight. When I think back to our small house in Seoul, I recall that piano room with its thin door closed, a neighborhood kid plunking away at the keys and my mother’s gentle instructions. Even when there were no students to teach, there was always music playing in the house—Hayden, Chopin and Beethoven. I like all sorts of tunes, but the stuff that makes me well up are the sonatas.
This is the Free Food for Millionaires playlist. The names I mention are the characters in the book. If I may, I’d like to acknowledge my music brain trust: Dionne Bennett, Lauren Cerand, Jay Cosgrove, Andrew Getman and Tony Ritchie—you rock.
1. I Surrender All, Mahalia Jackson. A raw and painful hymn—it’s the best interpretation I’ve heard. Naturally, it’s Leah’s song.
2. Coming Around Again, Carly Simon. This song is mentioned by name toward the end of the book. Unu Shim gives Casey Han a Carly Simon anthology as a gift. The lines “So don’t mind if I fall apart/There’s more room in a broken heart” pretty much explains everything I believe in about how it’s okay to make a wreck of things.
3. Take My Breath Away, Berlin. I’m losing a lot of credibility here with this one, but my boy Ted Kim is without question a fan of Tom Cruise. ‘Nuff said.
4. Lawyers, Guns and Money, Warren Zevon. This is the bad boy song for Unu Shim, my gambler. I read somewhere that the line, “Now I’m hiding in Honduras” was inspired by the short story writer O’Henry (Will Porter) who stole five grand then was hiding out in Honduras. Guess short stories didn’t pay back then either.
5. Good Riddance (Time of Your Life), Green Day. Like life, there are a number of breakups in this book. And this is the breakup song.
6. Close to Me, Cure. This song is so upsetting but so danceable. This is my crazy love song for the poet/development officer David Greene and the reluctant divorcee/development officer Ella Shim.
7. Got to Give It Up, Marvin Gaye. Speaking of dancing—this is the song that Casey would wish for her straitlaced younger sister Tina. See chapter 2.
8. Crash and Burn, ‘Til Tuesday. Aimee Mann is a goddess of ambivalence. She is also a damn good writer. Of course, this is a Casey song—the smart girl who loves dumb. The line “You keep saying that you’re only human/What you mean is that you think you’re the only human here” captures the inherent frustration in any situation where there is a f*cker and a f*ckee.
9. Brown Eyed Girl, Van Morrison. I don’t know a brunette who doesn’t LOVE this song. This one is for all the Korean girls out there who deserve a song of their own. The brunettes in my book get on the floor for this hit.
10. Banditos, Refreshments. Another excellent bad boy song, but this one is for Ted who believes that “...the world is full of stupid people.”‘Cept him, of course.
11. Les Artistes, Santogold. This is unquestionably Casey’s theme song: Rough edges, fear, and oh, so much desire.
12. And So It Goes, Billy Joel. This one goes to Unu Shim who has shuttered up his heart. Poor baby.
13. Groove Is In The Heart, Deee-Lite: Any song that has the line “My supper dish, my succotash wish” deserves a place in the canon. Having said that, FFFM is about love and keeping your groove, which is—as Deee-Lite reminds us—in the heart.
14. Wow and Flutter, April Smith and the Great Picture Show. I guess Smith’s fair comparison would be as a younger, brown-haired Aimee Mann, but that doesn’t seem enough. Her sound is supreme, and another very good writer. Her words are slangy and tangy. “I could take a great, big bite out of you...” That sounds like Delia.
15. Bizarre Love Triangle, New Order. I don’t know if anyone has told New Order this, but they are a Korean band. There would hardly be any novels without bizarre love triangles. The lines, “Every time I see you falling/I get down on my knees and pray/I’m waiting for that final moment/You’ll say the words that I can’t say” get me still and I’m close to forty. Sad, I know, but as I said, these are my people.
16. Chi Il Bel Sogno Di Doretta from the not very popular Puccini opera La Rondine, Kiri Te Kanawa. Any song about a powerful kiss sung in Italian needs to be on a playlist. Te Kanawa is formidable. Please give this one a go. This would be a David and Ella song.
17. Meeting In The Ladies Room, Klymaxx. This is for Delia and Casey. All the noteworthy conferences in the world actually take place in the john.
18. Modern Love, David Bowie. Another great song about ambivalence. For Casey and Ted who have more in common than they’d like to admit.
19. And She Was, Talking Heads. This is, for me, a song about narration—”And she was looking at herself/And things were looking like a movie/She had a pleasant elevation/She’s moving out in all directions.”
20. Adagio Cantabile, Richard Goode, The Complete Beethoven Sonatas. This one is for Charles Hong, my failed artist, my failed choir director. And of course, it always make me cry.
Min Jin Lee and Free Food for Millionaires links:
an excerpt from the novel
"Free Food for Millionaires: A Story"
Asian American Writers' Workshop interview with the author
Living Read Girl interview with the author
Urban Muse interview with the author
USA Today profile of the author
reviews of Free Food for Millionaires:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
guest book reviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)