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March 20, 2009

Book Notes - Suzanne Guillette ("Much to Your Chagrin")

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

Sometimes the best suggestions for this series come from authors. Felicia Sullivan mentioned Suzanne Guillette's new memoir, Much to Your Chagrin on her blog, and immediately my interest was piqued.

Much to Your Chagrin (subtitled "A Memoir of Embarrassment") collects embarrassing moments from Guillette's life, and is a funny, heartfelt memoir that everyone can relate to.

In her own words, here is Suzanne Guillette's Book Notes essay for her memoir, Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment :

In my recently published memoir, I write about the year that I spent collecting embarrassing stories on the streets of New York City and how during this process my own life, ever so slowly, became rife with embarrassment, until I finally realized, just after my thirtieth birthday, that the person I should have, ahem, really been asking was myself.

Music played a large role for me during the writing of my book, especially during the revision process, when I would listen to certain tracks to help me recreate or capture a particular mood. Apropos to my subject matter, a good deal of my musical inspiration would be considered—by some of my hipper musician-friends, not mentioning any names, i.e. the person who described my musical taste as "very New Jersey"—not the most sophisticated. But after spending a couple years in bed with embarrassment, thinking all about self-consciousness, it gives me supreme pleasure to share unabashedly with you some of the fabulous music that helped me write my manifesto on embarrassment and all the secrets we don't really need to be keeping anyway.

"Young Turks" by Rod Stewart

In an early chapter of the book, this song plays on a soft rock station, as I'm driving down the West Side Highway, en route to a blind date. Rod sings, "Young hearts be free tonight/time is on your side," the perfect anthem to youthful optimism and the overwhelming sense of possibility particular to adolescence. (And yes, that means that at twenty-nine, when the book opens, I very much consider myself then/the narrator to be in the throes of a delayed adolescence.) The song is also bittersweet, since there seems to be an awareness of the ephemeral nature of youth. Rod says it best with, "Because life is so brief, and time is a thief, when you're undecided."

"I'm a Lady" by Santigold

Many of the songs in Santigold's amazing self-titled 2008 album could work on this playlist, since one of the main themes she writes/sings about is finding her own way in the world. I'm a Lady is particularly relevant, since the narrator of my memoir is conflicted between her authentic, sometimes socially-unacceptable desires as a woman and acting like the person she thinks others expect her to be. When Santigold sings, "got my mind made up/got my mind made up," I think of a person who is at least sure of her own instincts, even if she doesn't know exactly where they'll lead her.

"I Confess" by the English Beat

I asked hundreds of people, many of them complete strangers, to tell me about the things they most wanted to hide. As part of the embarrassing stories project, I heard confessions of all kinds—sad, funny, disturbing, and oddly touching. Like many stories I heard, this song isn't about a happy time; it's about a breakup where "no one wins." But musically, it's an upbeat tune, which speaks nicely to this idea of life continuing on, even in the face of disappointment, regret, and yes, embarrassment.

"Fade Into You" by Migala

Although I love the version by Mazzy Star, the Migala version, with its masculine vocals, is less dreamy, more desperate and therefore reminiscent of the narrator's romantic relationship with Jack, her literary agent. The lyrics "Some kind of light into your darkness/Colors your eyes with what's not there" are especially appropriate, since the love relationship comes along at a time of transition and uncertainty; as a result, the narrator places all of her hopes for her future on this one budding relationship, which is exciting, but also, uh, a little tenuous.

"Paint It Black" by the Rolling Stones

Ah, I'm not sure if there's a better song about mourning. Although what I'm actually mourning throughout the book is largely concealed, this song captures the frustration of feeling stuck with a particularly amorphous grief, which only became more pronounced as my hunt for other people's embarrassing stories marched on.

"All My Friends" by LCD Soundsystem

To me, this song is all about nostalgia and remembering, with fondness, times of complete debauchery. There's a period in the book where I feel especially lonely as I looks around at my fellow city-dwellers and feel left out of the fun that everyone else seems to be having. Wistful for more carefree days, I definitely would have identified with these lines: "I wouldn't trade one stupid decision/For another five years of lies." And yes, there were lots of stupid decisions.

"Survivor" by Destiny's Child

This song could be construed as the ultimate kiss-off song to ex-boyfriends. In the book, I certainly have no shortage of those. (I reference seven exes in the course of the story, but who's counting?) The real power in this song, though, is its vivid depiction of the determination to move on from heartbreak. I'm not sure I fully believe Beyonce and the girls when they sing about forgiveness, but who cares? This song is all about intention: they, like the narrator in my memoir, aspire to taking the higher ground, even if it's not completely within reach yet. "I'm gonna work harder!" says it all. Oh, and speaking of aspirations, I still wish I'd been cast as a back-up dancer in this video. I could have totally rocked the camouflage.

"The Broken Harp" by PJ Harvey

The following line from Polly Jean's stripped-down song pretty much sums up what went wrong (or right, depending on your point of view) that year: "I tried to learn your language/but fell asleep half undressed/unrecognizable to myself."

"Anytime You Need a Friend" by Mariah Carey

True confession: I love Mariah of all ages, but I'm especially partial to her 90's power ballads. Although her cover of Journey's "Open Arms" is one of my all-time favorites, I chose "Anytime You Need a Friend" for this playlist because of its message of friendship through rough times, not to mention the killer background vocals, which remind me that no one is ever really alone. This one goes out, Delilah-style, to Dan and Lynn, two friends who were especially awesome during the year depicted in my book and to whom I hereby owe a very sloppy karaoke version of this song.

"Beloved" by Minnie Driver

Though most of the songs on Seascapes seem to be about growing from heartbreak, I chose "Beloved" for Minnie's vocals, which are purely emotional. The denial of feelings is a huge theme in the book, and this bittersweet mid-tempo track mirrors the relief the narrator experiences when she lets herself feel disappointed, which eventually makes room for her to love again.

"Going On" by Gnarls Barkley

My only complaint about "Going On"—a soulful song about the sudden arrival at a breakthrough—is that it clocks in just under three minutes. Near the end of the book, the narrator, whose outlook has undergone a major transformation, could attempt to sing the following lines (if this were a musical): "Anyone who needs what they want/and doesn't want what they need/I want nothing to do with"—which are self-preserving lines if I've ever heard any.

"All Fired Up" by Pat Benatar

At one point before sending the Chagrin manuscript out to publishers, my current agent and I contemplated interspersing random, embarrassing T.M.I. moments—a la Post Secret—between chapters. One of these "confessions" was that I thought it would be really cool if, in real life, someone could arrange for me to sing onstage with Pat Benatar, who is one of my childhood idols. (My birthday is in February, so we have nearly a year to make the best gift ever happen.) A couple months before I began writing this book, a friend sent me Pat's Greatest Hits CD. At that time, "All Fired Up" really spoke to me, especially the lines: "We live and learn from our mistakes/the deepest cuts are healed by faith." On this track, I love the fact that she's unapologetic about revealing both her vulnerability and her fierceness.

"Livin' Thing" by Electric Light Orchestra

Although this track was named the "#1 Guilty Pleasure Single of All Time," according to Q Magazine, I have no shame in listing it as the final track on the Chagrin playlist. Any song that makes me want to dance rocks. Also, when I was doing my final revision of the book, I downloaded this song. I accidentally hit "Repeat" and got lost in the edits. Before I knew it, three hours had passed, and I had listened to this tune more than fifty times. Alas, I still don't know what the lyrics mean, and I like it that way. Like I said, a song that makes me want to shake it is a song that makes me happy to be alive. And that's pretty much all there is to it.

Suzanne Guillette and Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment links:

the author's website
publisher's page for the book
excerpt from the book (the first chapter)
the book's video trailer

Huffington Post interview with the author
LukeFord.net interview with the author
Simon & Schuster interview with the author
Time Out New York essay by 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 (2009 Edition)
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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