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October 30, 2009

Book Notes - Amy Stewart ("Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities")

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

Amy Stewart's Wicked Plants is the rare book I find myself recommending to friends, family, and blog readers of all types. Aesthetically it is a thing of beauty, from its luscious cover illustration to the intricate black and white etchings inside. Stewart lists and examines poisonous plant life with a rare flair for combining anecdotal history and scientific background. Charming, funny, and smartly written, I will be giving more copies of this book as Christmas presents this year than any other.

In her own words, here is Amy Stewart's Book Notes music playlist for her book, Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities:

Music and writing. Writing and music. It's a loaded issue for me. I was born with a weird talent for memorizing song lyrics. If I hear a song two or three times, I've got enough of the lyrics to fake my way through it. If I hear it a few more times the entire song is mine forever—whether I want it or not.

I know all the lyrics to the WKRP in Cincinnati theme song. Not just the verses you heard on the show, but the obscure third and fourth verses that I heard once—only once—on a country station almost twenty years ago. I know an extraordinary number of soft rock favorites from the seventies and the eighties. A gang of Texas musicians made their deposits into my memory bank in the nineties—Nancy Griffith, Robert Earl Keen, Toni Price, Lucinda Williams. And over the last decade, the tricky and delightful lyrics of Cole Porter and Comden and Green have edged into this room inside my brain where all song lyrics reside. It's crowded and chaotic in there. Frankly, I wish they would all shut up and let me get some work done. But they almost never do.

Occasionally I find myself on a long, solo car trip with nothing to listen to. At those times, it's helpful to be able to sing every song on The Modern Sounds of the Knitters straight through, in order, never missing a chorus or getting a verse out of order. Carmen McRae Sings Monk is another entertaining one, with all those wonderfully clever lyrics by Jon Hendricks or Abbey Lincoln. Dizzy, he was screaming, next to O.P. who was beaming, Monk was thumping, suddenly in walked Bud, and then they got into something. That'll give me something to think about while I stare at the freeway.

But the rest of the time? When I'm in front of the computer, trying to write? Like now? It's not so great to have someone else's words rattling around in there.

Here are some of the songs that I couldn't get out of my head while I was writing Wicked Plants. It's kind of a weird list, but trust me: I didn't choose these songs. They choose me.

"Let's Go Eat Worms in the Garden," from the Fine and Dandy musical soundtrack. A lively little tune about what happens when life doesn't quite go the way you expect it to. In terms of subject matter, more closely tied to The Earth Moved, a book I wrote about earthworms, but it sticks around anyway, the way backlist titles do.

"Give Me Flowers While I'm Living" The Knitters! And—okay. Also more of a backlist song, what with the Flower Confidential connection. But also a zippy, upbeat tune about death, dying, and funeral flowers. I love that.

"Living With Reptiles" from Glass Eye's 1988 album Bent by Nature. This is one of the most beautifully frightening songs I know, and it was in my head constantly when I wrote Wicked Plants. It's about reptiles, not plants, but it's just creepy and ominous. I don't have the record anymore, but as best I can remember it goes something like this: Stella tells me about taking a shower/When one of them pops out of the drain with its big black eyes/Now three years later she's moved back to the same place/She suddenly remembers when one of them runs by.

Oh, I can't stop there. It continues along these lines: There are still salamanders living here/And Stella has nightmares where they leap six feet into the air…

All right, I'll stop.

"Teach Me Tonight," with lyrics by Sammy Cahn. I like the Dinah Washington version, which you can find on the wonderful Kissing Jessica Stein soundtrack. The research for Wicked Plants drove me crazy. Sorting myth from fact, tracing down primary sources, sifting through 150 year-old obituaries and 50 year-old medical journals. Really, it left me exhausted and bewildered but also full of wonder. I'd walk across the library parking lot singing, Did you think I've got a lot to learn? Well, don't think I'm trying not to learn…

"Am I Too Blue For You?" Lucinda Williams, baby. This should be the national anthem of writers. My husband comes home from a long day at the bookstore we own, and if I have been writing all day, I am almost certainly bedraggled, depressed, unhygienic, and unpresentable. He walks through the door with that upbeat aura that clings to people who have been out in the world among others all day, and that's the first thing I think when I see him. Am I too blue for you? Am I too blue?

But then. On a good day I can drop this song into the playlist: "Proud of the Blues," by Texas guitarist John Sprott, who is, by the way, my cousin. He told me one time that he didn't know where he'd be without the blues. The blues gave him his music, his life. Wicked Plants really brought out my dark streak, once and for all, but it also made me realize that I need the blues, too.

Amy Stewart and Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities links:

the author's website
the author's blog
excerpt from the book
video trailer for the book

At Home with Books review
Bookslut review
Boston Globe review
Brittanyflowers Weblog review
Buffalo Spree review
The Garden of Words review
Go Organic review
New York Times review
The Omaha World-Herald review
PopMatters review
Richmond Times-Dispatch review
SEED review
St. Petersburg Times review
Stacked review
Surprising Science review

AbeBooks interview with the author
Austin American-Statesman profile
Breakfast with Spanky interview with the author
CBS Sunday Morning profile of the author
Ecstatic Days interview with the author
Los Angeles Times interview with the author
New York Times profile of the author
NPR Morning Edition profile of the author
Omnivoracious interview with the author
WICN 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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