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February 11, 2009

Book Notes - Jesse Ball ("The Way Through Doors")

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

I am a great admirer of Jesse Ball's poetry and prose. His 2007 novel, Samedi the Deafness was a compelling and intriguing debut that I find myself still recommending to friends.

The Way Through Doors, Ball's second novel, tells its tale through stories within stories, with a precision only a poet could pull off.

Bookslut wrote of the book:

Ball’s poetic background is obvious not only in his linguistic precision but in what is left unwritten or speculative. The Way Through Doors is not genre busting, yet it seems to exist on the borderlands of fiction, poetry and the oral tradition. It is a brilliant work that respects and understands the inherent power of story and Ball masterfully creates a world that is familiar, mysterious and utterly captivating.

In his own words, here is Jesse Ball's Book Notes essay for his novel, The Way Through Doors:

I wrote the novel The Way Through Doors in June and July of 2005, while living in Pau, in the south of France. There was a restaurant that sat on an avenue which was itself perched on the edge of a hill, with a clear view of the Pyrenees in the distance. I went each day to this restaurant, sat in a booth, drank a sort of bitter lemonade that was the custom, and wrote. Instead of naming particular songs that have some correspondence with the book, I think it's better to simply list the albums I was listening to while I sat in that booth.

These were:

Thelonius Monk: Thelonius Himself (Original Jazz Classics)

I first heard this album in 1994, and it's been a constant companion ever since. The spare, refined tonalities of this extraordinary music are ruminant and sit with you after the last note has gone. The atmosphere is that of late afternoon in a lifetime long passed by.

Django Reinhardt: Guitar Genius (Castle)

What is amazing about Reinhardt is that his technique is so advanced and perfect that he doesn't need to do anything to prove it. He can simply venture farther and farther into incandescent realms of delight. This music is cheerful in an unceasing way -- not the cheerfulness of talk, but the cheer of overheard joy.

George Brassens: Les Copains D'Abord (Universal/Polygram)

I suppose there are people who haven't heard of Brassens. They are very lucky, because they have before them their first listening. When I hear Brassens I feel I'm in a tiny watch-fob apartment overlooking a park on a glassy summer day, where the hours come and go like flocks of birds. One believes there is something in common with others, but the idea of what that thing is -- it sets one apart. Does this make sense? I'm afraid my French isn't very good.

John Fahey: The Best of John Fahey (Takoma)

I've always been plagued by complaints for ceaselessly playing Fahey's Christmas Guitar albums when it isn't Christmas. That's where this album comes in handy: no one can bring any rational complaints when you want to listen again and again. His peculiar brand of folk-guitar (American Primitivism?) is like throwing rocks through the windows of a factory, and singing and then running away. He's a figure who tends to be much better than those he influences because what he does is unalterably essential.

John Roberts & Tony Barrand: Dark Ships in the Forest (Folk-Legacy)

An album of English folk ballads, this content is inspiring both thematically and musically. Songs of vengeance and deviltry, sorcery, ghosts and love betrayed. Roberts and Barrand have fine voices, and their acoustic technique is outstanding. There are whole worlds that we have forgotten -- the day to day existences of common people in the past. History tends to be the chronicle either of wars or the wealthy. In these songs you glimpse the sketched edges of common-life and of its hopes and fears.

Jordi Savall: Tous Les Matins Du Monde (Valois)

Possibly, along with Dowland's Lachrimae, the saddest music ever written. The film this music accompanies is powerfully bleak. Much of the sheet music was intended for the viol de gamba, an extraordinary instrument that fell by the wayside for reasons I don't exactly understand. Marin Marais and Saint Colombe les Sieur wrote the music that Savall performs here. You can actually feel yourself moving deeper into the dark undercurrent of human perception as the strains of notes dispute all triviality. You will die after a while. In the meantime, listen.

Monk & Canatella: Care in the Community (Cup of Tea)

I don't know very much about these fellows. Portishead praised them. They had a second album which seemed more guitar-oriented. This first album came right at the moment of trip-hop, and exceeded it, instantly, with a vocal lyricism and melodic brilliance that a category like trip-hop couldn't contain. I don't know where these guys are now, but for my money, "I Can Water My Plants" is one of the best songs written in the last twenty years.

Aphex Twin: I Care Because You Do (Rhino)

Speaking of electronic music, this maestro, who supposedly: was named after a brother (concealed from him, who died before he was born); lives in a bank; lucid dreams for exercise; drives a tiny scout-tank (a real scout tank, not a fake one). Some prefer his Richard D. James album. That's a great album, but my fondness for this one exceeds measure. What I love about the music that I love is this: melodies that stand in an uncategorizable tradition.

Mississippi John Hurt: 1928 Sessions (Yazoo)

So he came out of Avalon in the first place, and that's where they found him later, when public opinion caught up with his tremendous skill. Everyone knows the story of his resurgence, and you can buy, if you want, the albums of that second period. They are indisputably better. But, taking them into account, and knowing them, having listened to them hundreds of times, one then returns to these first 1928 sessions. Then, the brittleness of his early technique is all freshness. One feels extremely acquainted with him, and with what is human about the passing of time and the way it changes what we as artists make. "Nobody's Dirty Business" is also uncontrollably addictive. Be careful where you sing it when you don't realize you're singing it out loud.

Elvis Presley: The Sun Sessions (RCA)

What do you really know about Elvis? The basis for his legend now seems to be solely his legend, and the legions of his impersonators. But the original man was a swell musician, and this album is about as good as any album of the twentieth century. "Tomorrow Night" and "Blue Moon" especially stand out -- but every single track is great.

Glenn Gould: 1955 Goldberg Variations (Sony)

There is, I guess, a difference of opinion about which performance by Gould of Bach's Goldberg Variations is the best. I like the 1955 version. I feel the same way about Whitman's Leaves of Grass where his 1855 version is better, by far, than the later Deathbed edition. In any case, this music defines intricacy, and gives a blueprint for deep-making and variation. It's also good music to put on at 5am, when things of all kinds are very close to being things of another kind.

Elizabeth Cotten: Freight Train and other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes (Smithsonian Folkways)

Her guitar playing may even be better than Mississippi John Hurt's. But, the context is totally different. There's something hard here, something being dealt with that is immovable. This is tremendous blues music that exceeds that genre, and becomes simply human music. I don't know if John Fahey listened to Cotten, but her "Vastopol" certainly seems to have influenced his style.

FINAL NOTE: There is song whose lyrics are actually included in The Way Through Doors. That's Martin Carthy's version of the folk song "Geordie," off his seminal folk album Crown of Horn. His finger picking is so percussive you can feel it in the bones of your hand.

Jesse Ball and The Way Through Doors links:

the author's website
the author's MySpace page
the book's website
GoodReads page for the author
LibraryThing page for the author
GoodReads page for the book

Bookslut review
Publishers Weekly review
The Quarterly Conversation review
Weekly Dig review

Bookslut interview with the author
Publishers Weekly Yarnspinner interview with the author
Time Out Chicago profile of 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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