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September 10, 2009

Book Notes - Michelle Huneven ("Blame")

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

Michelle Huneven's latest novel Blame is about the worlds of addiction and sobriety, and the perils attached to both states. Huneven's prose is subtle and keen in this well-written and often surprising book.

The Los Angeles Times wrote of the book:

"The satisfactions "Blame" offers readers are elegant prose and, deeper than that aesthetic pleasure, the intelligence and compassion Huneven brings to her characters. She holds them all with the utmost tenderness."

In her own words, here is Michelle Huneven's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Blame:

1. Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 - Ludwig van Beethoven, Gidon Kremer / Chamber Orchestra of Europe

My first two novels, Round Rock and Jamesland, were ensemble pieces, chamber works, told through multiple characters. In Blame, after a short introductory chapter, one character, Patsy MacLemoore, takes the lead for the rest of the book. As I wrote, I found myself listening to this violin concerto, long a favorite, with new attention: How does a single voice sustain interest, gain depth, carry and reveal all it must? How does it interact with the orchestra, come in and out, listen and reply, then take over, one voice above the many? I don't remember how Kremer's recording came to me—perhaps through my sister who is a professional violinist—and I've since learned that he's considered iconoclastic. But his recording is the standard bearer for me, because I know it so intimately, and his playing so sweet and tough, precise and exuberant.

2. Cantates pour alto - Johann Sebastian Bach, Alto Andre Scholl, Collegium Vocale

As I was thinking about the solo voice, a poet friend gave me this recording as a gift. Having never heard anything quite so haunting and pure, I listened to it fanatically throughout the years I wrote Blame. According to the liner notes, nobody knows whom Bach intended to sing these 3 technically complex cantatas—falsetto or boy genius. Contra-tenor Andre Scholl is neither but he convinces me that the German theologians were right in suggesting that the Holy Ghost is expressed through the alto voice.

3. Goldberg Variations - Johann Sebastian Bach, Glenn Gould, 1981 recording

Another solo performance, this one is unaccompanied except by Gould's atonal humming along. (Nothing in life is perfect, although this recording may come closest.) I love how he takes his time in some places, plays with such joy and urgency in others, and maintains utter clarity throughout. Each plonk of the keys carries meaning and beauty. I feel as if listening to these variations disassemble my mind and put it back together again in a clearer, less cluttered alignment.

4. "Blue Moon of Kentucky" - Bill Monroe
"Green Green Grass of Home" - Johnny Cash

When Patsy MacLemoore, the heroine of Blame, gets out of prison in late spring, her brother Burt, a bluegrass banjo player, comes to get her. He's wearing his Blue Blue Grass of Home t-shirt. I suppose I meant it as a pun, a bluegrass banjo player's hybridization of two familiar songs—Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and Johnny Cash's "Green Green Grass of Home." When I put that t-shirt on Burt, I completely forgot that the Cash song is about a prisoner, and only months later, when I heard the song again, did the aptness of the allusion hit. The aptness and the gaucheness, that is: In the Cash song, the prisoner dreams of going home—and does, to the green green grass of the grave, post execution. Perhaps it was poor taste on Burt's part to wear that t-shirt to get his sister out of prison. But she had a good sense of humor. Maybe it made her laugh.

5. "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria" from The Sound of Music, Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein

In Part One of Blame, twelve-year-old Joey Hawthorne is being looked after by her handsome, wild Uncle Brice. He takes her to a revival house playing The Sound of Music—which, believe it or not, I had never actually seen. To figure out Joey's reaction, I rented the movie and watched the whole three hours in a kind of embarrassed, rapt fascination as nuns and children and Julie Andrews burst into song and gamboled on weirdly minimal sets. I shrieked with outrage when "How do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" was reprised at Maria's wedding. The solution, clearly, was to marry her off to a much older, wealthy man who came with a whole bunch of stepchildren. At the time I sent Joey and Uncle Brice to The Sound of Music, it hadn't occurred to me that my protagonist Patsy would solve her post-prison difficulties by marrying a much older, wealthy man with a passel of stepchildren.

The patterning of the subconscious never ceases to surprise me.

6. "It's a Small World" - Disney

I learned this song from the ride in Disneyland—a boat ride through various tableaux of dolls in ethnic dress, thousands of them, all singing just this one song. You can also find it on the Lion King album. In Blame this song is sung for hours on end by a short fat woman named Doris who is in prison with Patsy. To my mind, it's about the meanest song anybody can sing—and I apologize for even mentioning it here—because it can take days to get out of your head.

7. "Hello Stranger" - Emmylou Harris

I love this plaintive yet energetic old Carter family tune from back in the days when I played fiddle. The lyrics are mysterious the way an intense, intimate conversation overheard in another room is mysterious; one can piece together a meaning at each hearing, but it's never quite the same meaning twice. I had wanted to call my first novel Hello Stranger, but agent and editor [no doubt] wisely advised against it. In Blame, Hello Stranger is the title of a character's book. Somebody had to use it.

Michelle Huneven and Blame links:

the author's website
the book's website
excerpt from the book

Associated Press review
Bookmarks review
Boswell and Books review
Chicago Tribune review
Entertainment Weekly review
Howard County Times review
Kansas City Star review
Los Angeles magazine review
Los Angeles Times review
MORE review
Publishers Weekly review
She Is Too Fond of Books... review

Hometown Pasadena interview with the author
Publishers Weekly 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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