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July 15, 2009

Book Notes - Joan Silber ("The Size of the World")

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

Joan Silber's The Size of the World has been in the middle of my "to read" pile for over a year. Glowing reviews from the New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and others piqued my curiosity, but the book was buried by Book Notes contributions and 52 Books, 52 Weeks titles.

A collection of interconnected short fiction, The Size of the World showcases Silber's estimable talent as a storyteller and writer. Silber's stories are filled with unpretentious prose that effortlessly builds momentum, capturing the world of these unforgettable characters' lives in every vignette.

The Washington Post wrote of the book:

"Quietly suspenseful, each story, a first-person narration, constructs its own mood, joys and disappointments. And each story contains the narrative arc and prodigious amount of incident of, say, a Chekhov novella. We are always in the moment, yet a great deal of time is passing. No matter if, metaphorically, Silber reduces the world to the size of a marriage bed or of a letter announcing a death, her measured tone allows readers to see life as intimately knowable yet essentially mysterious. Though her portrayals of specific children are on occasion less affecting than her assessment of childhood itself, without fail her adult characters are indelibly drawn and quite unforgettable. I was deeply moved by each of their lives."

In her own words, here is Joan Silber's Book Notes music playlist for her book, The Size of the World:

1. Jimmy Cliff, "Vietnam"

The first section of The Size of the World is set in Vietnam during the war. I was thinking of my older brother, who was an engineer sent by his aircraft company to trouble-shoot problems with planes in Saigon and Danang—I have a character based on him in the book. The song that kept going through my head while I wrote had a chorus that repeats, "VIETnam, VIETnam." I just found out now, by searching online (a great thing, that internet), that the song is by Jimmy Cliff, the reggae singer I loved in the movie The Harder They Fall. I remembered the song as thudding and dumb, which it isn't. It's tuneful and it's a protest song. No one can remember that era exactly right, so it's probably emblematic that I had it a little wrong. In my head, Jimmy Cliff's great voice was deeper and gruffer and crappier than it really is.

2. Rolling Stones, "Under My Thumb”

In the book's first section, the two young American engineers in Saigon—guys in seersucker suits—are decidedly unwelcome when they walk into a purple-lit bar full of American soldiers. This is the song playing in the background. It's Mick Jagger crowing over an old girlfriend who's returned, the world's most spiteful use of a driving beat—a mean, dark, catchy song.

I recently realized I was definitely the only person in my gym wearing a T-shirt from the Rolling Stones' 1989 tour. And we thought he was old then.

3. Ella Fitzgerald, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket”

In Vietnam, Ernst, the engineer, buys a cassette recorder (a new technology) and a tape of Ella Fitzgerald. The sound is "thin and hoarse and miraculous.”

I chose Ella for Ernst because I knew he'd like her sprightly strength, her crisp musicality, and the unsentimental big-band sound. I myself lean toward funkier, more soulful singers, but after I gave Ella to Ernst I got won over to her.

4. Hug Bar and The Rough Guide to the Music of Thailand

You won't find the Hug Bar CD in any store, virtual or otherwise; it's strictly a homemade product, with a crayoned cover. A big part of the novel takes place in Thailand, and I would sometimes put this on to get me in the mood. In 2003 I was walking around Chiang Mai when I fell into the Hug restaurant for lunch, and the owner, a young guy watching over his toddler, chatted me up. The lunch was great (he was into pro-environment protests), and, sure, I would buy a CD, why not. The guy—his name is Aey--has a mellow voice and mostly accompanies himself on guitar. The Rough Guide to the Music of Thailand is livelier and has bands that fuse rock and traditional folk forms. The first tune is rousing and starts with Man Motorgai imitating dogs barking and all of my dogs have been very interested.

5. Howlin' Wolf, "Wang Dang Doodle”

The Size of the World is a novel formed of stories, and in the fourth story, "Allegiance," Mike--after a bad divorce--has married his high school sweetheart, Viana. Viana forever mourns her adored Thai husband, who was killed in a car crash, and Mike can't help knowing this. He is always hoping she is happy, and there is a moment, while he's at his desk, when he hears her in the next room, listening to the Pretenders (who would've been big when they were in high school) and to Howlin' Wolf, who is vowing to pitch a wang dang doodle all night long. It's a happy moment for Mike. I picked this song because it's so resolutely celebratory and joyously silly in a sexy way. Koko Taylor has a great version too, which is probably the original.

6. Hank Williams, "So Lonesome I Could Die”

Patsy Cline, "I Go Out Walking”

In the last story, Owen (who once lived in southern Thailand) moves to San Francisco and falls in love with Pearl, a Chinese-American hooker who has a small son. Owen's arrangement with Pearl lasts for years, and when Pearl's son is ten he develops an eccentric fondness for country music. I pictured the boy listening to the frank and wailing melancholy in tunes like these, his underground twangy life in a no-nonsense house.

7. The Best of The Mighty Clouds of Joy

Gospel is what I listen to when things are going badly, in my writing or anywhere. The Mighty Clouds of Joy were known for taking gospel toward R&B and I've played them a lot. On bad writing days, I also go to the Caravans and, of course, Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers. I have the Five Blind Boys of Alabama on my iPod, and they have reminded me of higher things in many a doctor's or dentist's office.

Joan Silber and The Size of the World links:

the author's Wikipedia entry

Boston Globe review
Chicago Tribune review
Entertainment Weekly review
Hot Metal Bridge review
Los Angeles Times review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
The Story Prize review
Washington Post review
The Written Nerd review

BookLife interview with the author
The Millions "A Year in Reading" contribution by the author
NCPR interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other 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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