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May 14, 2009

Book Notes - Mark Sarvas ("Harry, Revised")

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

One of my favorite novels of 2008, Harry, Revised has just been released in paperback. Mark Sarvas has always impressed me with the writing on his litblog, The Elegant Variation, and his debut novel is a literary comic gem that chronicles the midlife crisis of the hapless Harry Rent.

The Chicago Tribune wrote of the novel:

"Were it not for the fact that Mark Sarvas' "Harry, Revised" is being promoted as a debut novel by the author of a highly regarded literary blog (The Elegant Variation), the uninformed reader of this work might be forgiven for assuming he had stumbled upon some minor classic of the 1970s, whose author had won comparisons to John Updike and Philip Roth."

In his own words, here is Mark Sarvas's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Harry, Revised:

Harry Rent’s iPod

The protagonists of first novels are commonly assumed to be stand-ins for their authors. And for good reason – they commonly are. However, in the case of my character, Harry Rent, this is most emphatically not the case. His unhappy marriage ends in the death of his wife. My marriage is happy, my wife thankfully breathing as I type this. Harry is digressive and indecisive. I’m, well, not. But, to be fair, we do share a few things – we’ve both trained with a spin instructor with a mystical presence and skin-tight shorts, though I did not fall off my bike in my first class. Although I am not one of those writers who must create a character’s entire biography before writing about him or her, another thing I suspect we share – had I thought to sit down and sketch out the contents of Harry’s iPod – is the wish that our musical taste was cooler than it is. Harry is riddled with anxiety about status, and although we’re both too old now to care whether we’re one of the cool kids, we haven’t yet fully made our peace with the fact of our occasionally pedestrian musical tastes. So with that tremendous caveat aside, here’s what my imaginary notes might have said about Harry’s imaginary iPod ... which would probably share a good deal with my own. Alphabetically:

Bohuslav Martinu’s Piano Quartet No. 1, Daniel Adni, Isabelle Van Keulen, Rainer Moog & Young-Chang Cho

So after all the cavils about banal musical taste, the first choice seems – on the face of it – suitably esoteric and highbrow ... except that L.A. radio listeners will recognize it as the lead-in music for a popular classical music program hosted by Jim Sveda on KUSC-FM. It’s a show Harry would certainly know, and though he would likely love the gentle piano opening, he might not enjoy the dissonant strings that follow as much as I do.

Don’t Wait Too Long, Madeleine Peyroux

Harry is a sucker for female vocalists, and he’d love the reassuringly old-fashioned groove and Peyroux’s remarkable Holiday-smoked voice.

Fanfare for the Common Man, Aaron Copland

C’mon. Can you blame him? In his moments of fevered fantasy, surely he imagines this is his theme song.

Faust Arp, Radiohead

Harry downloads songs like this purely so that Echo Park-dwelling Molly, the much younger object of his affection, might think he’s cool.

Her Morning Elegance, Oren Lavie

Harry is also a sucker for a well-crafted bit of pop uplift – there are a few more in that vein to follow – and there’s something unbearably romantic about this lovely, ethereal ditty. It doesn’t hurt that the subject is an elusive, idealized woman, struggling through the vagaries of the day - Harry is big on protecting and saving.

I Loves You, Porgy, Keith Jarrett

Solo piano by one of the great geniuses. The opening bars always make Harry want to cry. Always. Trust me.

Letter Perfect, Al Jarreau

There was a time, hard to remember now, when Al Jarreau’s name carried some serious cred in jazz circles. Tracks like this remind you why, a live 1977 performance that showcases Jarreau’s remarkable range and melodic sensibility. Harry likes it because the words are hard to make out, so he can make up his own and sing along.

Little by Little, Groove Armada

The kind of thing that Harry probably imagines is a bit cooler than it really is – he equates a certain electronic vibe with cool – but it’s the lyrics of this song that speak to Harry, that egg him on toward the better self he desperately longs for. Plus, it’s the kind of song Robby Geerchyk, his spin instructor would play.

Losing You, Randy Newman

Years ago, I saw Randy Newman in solo concert at the Wadsworth Theatre, which is a small venue on the grounds of Westwood’s VA hospital. At the time, Newman waxed philosophically (as he is wont to) about the difference in fame between his pal Bruce Springsteen and himself, lamenting that, unlike the former’s stadium tours, “I get to play a place no one’s heard of that’s near my house.” But I like to think Harry would have heard of the place, and would definitely have come to check out Newman, who just released Harps and Angels, a new album that not nearly enough people have noticed. The standout track is Losing You, vintage Newman, really, but no one – and I mean no one – does heartbreak like he does. And Harry and I oughtta know.

Mexican Wine, Fountains of Wayne

Remember what I said about Harry and well-crafted pop? Well, if anyone crafts it better than FOW, please let us both know.

Misadventure, Squeeze

Of course, it’s possible to draw a straight line connecting FOW with Squeeze, and although it’s Tempted or Black Coffee in Bed that everyone first thinks of, one can randomly select any track off their 1980 album Argybargy – and Harry and I have – to experience the ne plus ultra of well-crafted pop.

My One and Only Love, Sting

Very much the kind of song Harry plays sitting alone in his Bel Air home, excellent for drinking bourbon, masturbating (you’ll have to read the book to understand) and generally torturing yourself and wondering where you went wrong.

Please Call Me Baby, Tom Waits

This is the kind of song a lovelorn fool plays wandering alone in his car through the hills of Bel Air or Echo Park, the kind of song that can almost make your sorrow beautiful, the kind of song that makes you never want to go home.

Say Yes, Elliott Smith

After trying to impress her with Radiohead, this is the kind of song Molly would download for Harry to help him get her a little better. That there’s a promise implied in the song, a message he’s meant to pick up on, would likely go straight over Harry’s head.

Stardust, Louis Armstrong

In which Harry makes a certain peace with his essential old-fogeyness. It’s not that he’s in his dotage yet – he’s still a vital forty-something – but there’s something about Satchmo’s voice and glorious horn playing that assures him, every time he hears it, that all is right with the world. Or at least, it will be one day soon.

Mark Sarvas and Harry, Revised links:

the author's website
the author's blog
the author's Wikipedia entry

Chicago Tribune review
Collected Miscellany review
Guardian review
Literary Kicks review
Los Angeles Times review
New York Magazine review

The Bat Segundo Show interview with the author
The Bookgeeks interview with the author
LA Weekly interview with the author
Seattle Times interview with the author
Three Guys One Book 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
52 Books, 52 Weeks

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