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May 27, 2009

Book Notes - Norah Labiner ("German for Travelers")

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

Norah Labiner's German for Travelers is a charmingly unique puzzle of a novel that both challenges and rewards the reader.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune wrote of the book:

"Norah Labiner's "German for Travelers: A Novel in 95 Lessons" takes her self-described "favorite things" -- fine literature, family drama and big old houses -- and runs them through some painful sessions on Sigmund Freud's couch. For those who like a novel that picks apart their intellect, this one delivers. It's a mysterious mix of travelogue, ghostly dreams, family secrets, psychoanalysis, feminist manifesto and -- of course! -- jokes (of the vaudevillian, Catskill variety). That's enough to keep Labiner, who lives in Minneapolis, tagged as "experimental," but it shouldn't scare off anyone who likes their fiction literary."

In her own words, here is Norah Labiner's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, German for Travelers: A Novel in 95 Lessons:

I wrote German for Travelers: A Novel in 95 Lessons on a typewriter in a blue room on the second floor of a three-story 1903 Victorian house in South Minneapolis. The room was hot in the summer. And cold in the winter. When it was cold I wore a hat and scarf. The book took seven or eight years to complete. I wrote at night. I was obligated to stop for an hour at midnight to watch La Otra, a telenovela featuring the exquisite Yadhira Carillo in the dual roles of metaphorical good and bad twins, Carlota and Cordelia. I would tell you how the story ends, but I don't want to ruin it for you.

German for Travelers is a book composed of stories, jokes, questions and commands, stolen lines, and naked actresses. It is a hopeful look at the horrors of history. There are stopped clocks; sleeping dogs; doctors and patients; soap and lampshades; alpine postcards, potatoes and jigsaw puzzles. There is a place called Germany. And it was built word by word, bricked up like a wall in words on paper. It is literally a lesson book about the figurative.

Sometimes the lesson is a joke, and sometimes the joke is a lesson.

My house is tall and rickety. The roof leaks and the chimney is caving in. The pictures refuse to hang straight on the walls. The doors neither open nor close with authority. The house is home to Boo the cat, a dog named Roy Jr., and recording studio called Albatross.

"Blocked by Satellites" - Vaz
"The Beggars and the Christians" - The King of France
"The Run Out" - Maps of Norway
"Track Star" - Seymore Saves the World
"I'm on to You" - Mike Nicolai
"Tanz" - Malachi Constant
"The Four Seasons"- Faux Jean
"National American University Theme Song" - Lemon Peppered Chicken
"Vampire March"- Rank Strangers
"Trainwreck" - TVBC
"Chinese Lanterns" - Lucy Michelle
"California Zephyr" - Grant Hart

I am a literalist. There is no way around this. It's a fault. It's a flaw. It is occasionally a strength. It is usually a weakness. The soundtrack of my novel is composed of songs that I heard being played and recorded in my house while I was writing.

Play the songs as a meta-soundtrack to the act of the writer putting the words on the page.

I won't go on and on about the songs themselves. I wish that I could, but that sort of writing is beyond me. It would be best if you heard the songs. Then maybe you could tell me why I chose them. You could write your reasons down on a postcard and put it in the mail.

There is nothing more literal than a lilac bush bursting into bloom or a plate smashing against a wall. Why people write books or sing songs or confess truths or tell lies will remain a great mystery. Did the songs that I heard as I wrote effect the book? Does the light bulb really want to be changed? Is hope the thing with feathers? Are the sands through the hourglass so like the days of our lives?

This book was written while I looked out the window.

I have never been to Germany.

I have, however, heard a high school girl band called Lemon Peppered Chicken turn a television jingle into a punk rock anthem. And so really: who needs Germany? I have my own walls.

Norah Labiner and German for Travelers: A Novel in 95 Lessons links:

Bookmarks Magazine review
Minneapolis Star-Tribune review
Publishers Weekly review
Twin Cities Daily Planet review

Decider Twin Cities interview with the author
Minnesota Reads interview with the author
St. Paul Pioneer Press profile of 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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