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March 5, 2008

Book Notes - Elisa Albert ("The Book of Dahlia")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

Never judge a book by its cover. The Book of Dahlia emerged from its packing envelope to brandish its cranberry front sleeve garnished by a die-cut flower. Chick lit? Romance? Thankfully, neither... Filled with genuine sadness, grief, and surprising humor, this story of Dahlia (a 29 year-old woman diagnosed with brain cancer) is an emotional roller coaster as she not only copes with her disease (and mortality), but also her life up to this point.

Of the book, Publishers Weekly wrote:

"Throughout, Albert delivers Dahlia's laissez-faire attitude toward other people (men especially) and lack of ambition with such exactness as to strip them of cliché and make them grimly vivid. Her brilliant style makes the novel's central question—should we mourn a wasted life?—shockingly poignant as Dahlia hurtles toward death."

In her own words, here is Elisa Albert's Book Notes essay for her debut novel, The Book of Dahlia:

When I’m avoiding writing, I make playlists. So I make a lot of playlists, because avoiding writing is, for me, a huge part of writing.

The Book of Dahlia is about a 29-year-old f*ck up who finds out she has a brain tumor, and, like the pot-headed, Sontag-reading, reality-avoiding freakshow she is, spends what’s left of her life revisiting the sundry heartbreaks of her past, determined to somehow prove to herself that she’s thusly doomed because she is a uniquely tormented soul. Which is maybe true and maybe not so true.

Regardless. Some of these are songs to which I listened obsessively while I was working on Dahlia. Some are just songs that embody how I imagine her to have felt. Still others are songs I imagined playing over the narration of her life, what might have been on her iPod at any given time. The lines got a little blurry, as lines often will when you’re trying to inhabit imaginary people. By the time the book was finished, it was all fairly indistinguishable to me. This is, simply, quintessentially “Dahlia Finger” music. By which I mean deeply felt, variously angry, cathartic, sentimental, exuberant, late, late night, stoned, sad, happy, sad, happysad/sadhappy music. All of which defies explanation and too much exegesis, which is why it’s music.

Teardrop -- Massive Attack
This is Dahlia when we meet her, trying to get a foothold, getting ready to really start her life, for reals this time. She wants to think she knows herself, she wants to think she has the balls to be fully herself and be happy. She might just be right. Tomorrow’s a brand new day, and tonight it’s warm and breezy and she’s nicely baked and it smells of night-blooming jasmine outside.

Hang Down Your Head --- Tom Waits
Uh-oh. This story might not have a happy ending. These are the strains of some brave struggles toward self-consolation, methinks.

When You’re Alone -- Springsteen
There’s things that’ll knock you down you don’t even see coming, and send you crawling like a baby back home. You’re gonna find out that day, sugar, when you’re alone you’re alone...

Fake French -- Le Tigre
Okay, enough with the facing of the harsh realities. Time to go back and see what Dahlia’s life’s been about. Imagine her pulling on her shit-kickers and strutting out the door into the vast expanse of the past. Heads turn as she goes.

Night in My Veins -- Pretenders
See above.

Flicks -- Frou Frou
Catharsis, noun. The process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.

Don’t Tell Me -- Madonna
You know what’s dumb? Being told how to feel about things. And P.S., I heart Madonna.

I Am Sound -- Dandy Warhols
One of those smiling-at-strangers, iPod-on-the-subway, maybe-all-people-are-really-good-at-heart kind of things. Dahlia’s always stoned, but here she’s extra-stoned, and New York City is her playground.

Lovedust -- Luna
Partying with Jake and the Wonder Twins. But in truth this is only here because I myself listened to it during the writing of the novel like it was crack and I was Amy Winehouse.

Funeral Song -- Sleater-Kinney
These ladies are so great. “Nothing says ‘forever’ like my very own grave.” Indeed.

I Won’t Be Left -- Tegan and Sara
Love the resistance: “I won’t be left dancing alone to songs from the past.” f*ck no. Speaks directly to Dahlia’s predicament: no one will stay home with her and help her keep her memories warm. And then she dies.

Shaking Paper -- Cat Power
Cat Power and Dahlia Finger go together like liver and onions. (I strongly dislike both liver and onions, but still, I hear they go together quite well.)

Ring Them Bells -- Bob Dylan
When you’re too tired to even feel depressed. Nothing matters and everything matters, and it’s all just awful but it’s also totally fine.

Fruits of My Labor (live) -- Lucinda Williams
That voice. That slow, aching voice. That unspeakable thing you can hear in the wrenching “tryyyyyyy-ing” and “cryyyyyyyy-ing”. So raw.

One by One -- Billy Bragg + Wilco
Where are we in the Stages of Grief, again? Ah, yes: acceptance.

Lowlands -- Gillian Welch
“And I knew right then that my best days were gone; I’d been in the Lowlands too long.” Dahlia at the beginning/end of the book, when it’s maybe possible to get up and do some different stuff and live life on her own terms for once. Or maybe it’s not. “And it’s no one else, no fault but my own...”

Orange Sky -- Alexei Murdoch
This is pretty much it, right here. The soundtrack to one of those strange dreams wherein you’re absolutely sure the other person is having some form of the exact same dream. I have never once listened to this song without choking up. And I’ve listened to this song a number of times.

Elisa Albert and The Book of Dahlia links:

the author's website
the author's MySpace page
the author's page at the publisher
the book's page at the publisher

American Jewish Life profile of the author
Body Putlaws essay by the author
Esquire profile of the author
Jewcy short fiction roundtable moderated by the author
Nexbook interview with the author
Publishers Weekly interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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