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January 22, 2009

Book Notes - Diana Spechler ("Who By Fire")

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

Who By Fire is Diana Spechler's engaging and emotionally haunting debut novel. Written from three different perspectives (a mother and her two children), Who By Fire shares a story of loss and redemption through their masterfully intertwined perspectives.

The Boston Globe wrote of the book:

"Despite some disturbing plot elements, this is not a depressing novel, but a hopeful one. Spechler is a talented writer who transcends melodrama and cliche with striking sensitivity and a delicate touch."

In her own words, here is Diana Spechler's Book Notes essay for her debut novel, Who By Fire:

Who By Fire is the story of the Kellerman family, whose youngest child, Alena, was kidnapped thirteen years ago from the driveway of their New Jersey home. In the wake of that tragedy, Ben Kellerman, Alena's father, left his family and started a whole new life in Colorado. Presently, in 2002, Alena's kidnapping is still unresolved. Her mother, Ellie, continues to live alone in the same house. Her twenty-three-year-old daughter, Bits, is a wild child, who keeps secrets, finds her solace in the arms of men, and lives in Boston, teaching first grade. Her twenty-year-old son, Ash, is an Orthodox Jew living in Israel. He has recently cut off contact with his mother and sister, who decide, early in the novel, that they need to "save" Ash from his "cult," and get him out of Israel. Who By Fire is the story of what happens when we try to rescue the people we love.

My Classic Rock Playlist for Who By Fire

"Who By Fire" - Leonard Cohen

Everyone keeps asking me, "Is your book about Leonard Cohen?" I wish I was cool enough to write a book about Leonard Cohen. He is one of my favorite lyricists ever. In fact, Leonard Cohen and I had the same inspiration: a Jewish prayer about the litany of ways one might die. "Who shall live, and who shall die; who in his time, and who before his time. Who by water, and who by fire; who by sword, and who by beast…". Recently, I found a Canadian address on the internet for Leonard Cohen and sent him a copy of my book with a letter that said, "I've been talking about you a lot over the last few months." I realized after I sent it that my letter sounded sort of creepy.

"Brokedown Palace" - Grateful Dead

There's a band in Who By Fire called Arbahim, which means "Forty" in Hebrew. Here are Ash's thoughts about their style: "Musically, Arbahim sounds sort of like a Hebrew-speaking version of the Grateful Dead, but lyrically, I guess they're more like Whitney Houston." If that's the case, then I would love to hear Arbahim sing my favorite Dead tune, "Brokedown Palace." "Fare ye well, fare ye well, I love you more than words can tell…"

"A Hard Rain" - Bob Dylan

At one point in the novel, Ash has a flashback to his childhood, when his father was teaching him lyrics from "A Hard Rain." He remembers the line, "I met a young girl; she gave me a rainbow." I've always loved that line. I've always thought I should make a quilt, embroider the image of a young girl and a rainbow on it, and then embroider the lyric, and give the quilt to my first-born daughter. What put this idea in my head? I can't imagine. I would never have the patience to make a quilt. But I've always liked thinking of myself in a wooden chair, embroidering, maybe humming to myself. And then I got to put the line in my very own book. It kind of scratched the itch. I think I can ditch the quilt idea now.

"Me and Bobby McGee" - Janis Joplin

In the same scene, Ash is remembering a line from the Janis Joplin version of "Me and Bobby McGee": "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." It's fitting because he's at a point in his life where he feels like he's lost everything. Sadly, the comprehensive loss gives him no sense of freedom.

"Some Day Never Comes" - Credence Clearwater Revival

I think this is a beautiful, sad song about the tendency to cling too hard to hope. In Who By Fire, Ellie is particularly guilty of that tendency. Of all the characters, she would be most likely to "put a candle in the window." She's always waiting, illogically, for life to revert to the way it was before Alena disappeared.

"Two of Us" - The Beatles

I've always thought of "Two of Us" as the quintessential "early stages of love" song. I love the descriptions of the "two of us" doing frivolous things like, "burning matches," "wearing raincoats" in the sun, "chasing paper," and "writing letters on my wall." In Who By Fire, Ellie falls carelessly in love, and I can just hear this song sound-tracking her new relationship.

"Angie" - Rolling Stones

In Who By Fire, the characters often lie to themselves. There's a lot of rationalizing, a lot of desperate attempts by the remaining members of the Kellerman family to alleviate personal guilt about the family's dissolution. There's a line in "Angie" that, in my mind, really encapsulates that tendency: "…you can't say we never tried." The line is heart-breaking because it sounds so dishonest; it sounds like something you have to tell yourself to justify your failure.

"Oh Sister" - Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris

Is it tacky to include two Bob Dylan songs in my playlist? But how could I not? He's my favorite. Plus, I wrote a book about sibling relationships, and this is the ultimate sibling song, rife with the complexity that is the brother-sister bond, encapsulated by the threat in the last line: "You may not see me tomorrow."

Diana Spechler and Who By Fire links:

the author's website
the author's book tour events
the author's Facebook page
the book's page at the publisher
excerpts from the book
the book's GoodReads page

The Book Lady's Blog review
The Boston Bibliophile review
Boston Globe review
Ephemera review
Everyday I Write the Book Blog review
Fresh Ink Books review
Five Second Dance Party review
Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin'? review
The Jewish Eye review
The Jewish News Weekly review
Musings of a Bookish Kitty review
Palm Beach Daily News review
Publishers Weekly review
Sarah Weinman review
Seventeen review

At Home with Books interview with the author
Bleeding Espresso guest post by the author
Book Club Girl interview with the author
The Book Stacks guest post by the author
Booking Mama guest post by the author
Cappuccino Chit-Chat interview with the author
Creative Journey Cafe interview with the author
Ghost Word guest post by the author
The Harper Perennial Podcast interview with the author
January Magazine interview with the author profile of the author
Joey Pinkney interview with the author
Melody's Reading Corner interview with the author
My Bella Vita interview with the author
New Jersey Jewish News profile of the author
Peek-a-Boo(k) interview with the author
The Page 99 Test for the book
Writing on the Wall interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists
Largehearted Boy Favorite Novels of 2008
Largehearted Boy Favorite Graphic Novels of 2008
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
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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