March 12, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Dara Horn's latest novel All Other Nights is a gripping work of historical fiction set in the Civil War. Horn's well-drawn characters bring to light Jewish life of the times, as well as the moral dilemmas faced during the war in this thought-provoking and fascinating book.
The Washington Post wrote of the book:
"In the slam-bang opening pages of her superb third novel, Dara Horn masterfully establishes both a gripping plot premise and a fascinatingly conflicted protagonist. She sends Jacob roaming across a war-torn landscape to encounter a marvelous variety of characters, each imagined with empathy and depth. .... Horn is too gifted and ambitious an artist to settle for easy reassurances or a facile happy ending; she instead offers her readers the deeper satisfactions of complexity and generosity as she limns a world of agonizing, implacable moral ambiguities and guides her imperfect yet lovable protagonist toward a tentative redemption."
This playlist represents a kind of fantasy album that could run only in my brain, since the artists not only would never have heard each other's music, but lived on different continents in different centuries, spoke different languages, and used music for entirely different purposes. But when you write a novel about Jewish spies in the Civil War, the album that plays in your brain is bound to be eclectic. I submit the following four samples:
Like most people who didn't grow up in Appalachia, I first heard this song in the movie Deliverance, which retells the story of Conrad's Heart of Darkness in the American South. The film turns a equally-matched back-and-forth between two banjos—one of which announces its Northernness with a few bars of "Yankee Doodle"—into a much more dangerous competition between a suburban sophisticate playing a guitar and a hillbilly child playing a banjo. The movie's absurd caricature of the rural South made the brilliance of the music all the more striking.
I listened to this version of the song throughout the time I was writing All Other Nights. The novel begins in 1862 with Jacob Rappaport, a Jewish Union soldier from a wealthy New York family, being assigned by his commanders to go to New Orleans to assassinate his own uncle, who is involved in a plot to kill Lincoln. The competition between two sets of American values—Yankee and "modern" versus Rebel and "traditional"—drives the action in the book, and this divide still haunts nearly every American political conversation today. The grandeur of "Dueling Banjos," which I could only attempt to replicate in the novel, is in the way it honors both sides, bringing them into a harmony that remains impossible outside of music.
The melody for this prayer dates to at least the eleventh century—and it still has the power to bring the most skeptical sophisticates to tears, which it does on an annual basis around the world. The "lyrics" in Aramaic, an ancient Jewish language related to Hebrew, are several centuries older, and are a legal formula allowing for the annulment of future private vows between God and man. It is sung in synagogues worldwide on the annual Day of Atonement, and its haunting music, which slowly builds over three repetitions, rarely fails to leave roomfuls of rational adults shaken.
"Kol Nidre" appears halfway through All Other Nights, when Jacob Rappaport finds himself in synagogue on the Day of Atonement, 1863, and realizes, in the midst of the wrenching music, that he can never forgive himself for the lives he has destroyed. But there is another specifically American resonance to this song that made it linger in my mind while writing this book. "Kol Nidre" was featured in The Jazz Singer, the first non-silent movie ever made, with the megastar Al Jolson performing it in Aramaic—minutes before the actor switches to blackface to sing in a minstrel show. The slippery nature of race, class, fame and power in America, in Jolson's performance, are blended with an ancient acknowledgment of mortal failure and a plea to rebuild a damaged trust.
"The Vacant Chair" by George Root
This song about a fallen soldier, written in 1863, was tremendously popular in both the North and the South during the Civil War, and all the characters in All Other Nights would have heard it many times. Its enchantment today comes from its odd candor, the openness of emotions that most of us—and especially soldiers—have been carefully trained never to share with anyone without a protective shield of irony, much less in the public spectacle of a popular song. And even more astonishing is its honesty about the reality of loss and the falseness of glory while providing an alternative dignity for the dead:
True, they tell us wreaths of glory
Evermore will deck his brow,
But this soothes the anguish only
Sweeping o'er our heartstrings now.
Sleep today, o early fallen,
In thy green and narrow bed.
Dirges from the pine and cypress
Mingle with the tears we shed.
If only we were still allowed to be this unironic.
"Bo'i" by Idan Raichel (The Idan Raichel Project)
Most pop songs about love are of two varieties: "I love you, it's great," or "You dumped me, it sucks." This addictive and beautiful song by the Israeli artist Idan Raichel, written in Hebrew with some Amharic (Ethiopian) lyrics, offers something quite different. Tremendously popular in Israel since its 2003 release, "Bo'i" first sounds like a cliched love song, but pivots on a line that changes everything (my translation):
Give me your hand and we'll go
Don't ask me where
Don't ask me about happiness
Perhaps it too will come
And when it comes,
It will fall on us like rain.
With that simple and startling phrase "Don't ask me about happiness," the song changes the purpose of love from fulfillment to commitment. In All Other Nights, Jacob Rappaport's second mission doesn't involve murdering a spy, but marrying one—and when he falls for his target, the complications that ensue are not at all what either he or the reader might expect. The American belief that happiness should be the goal of life is challenged both in the song and in the novel, which both suggest that happiness matters less than trust and commitment—and that trust and commitment are also happiness's only source.
Dara Horn and All Other Nights links:
Baltimore Sun review
Boston Bibliophile review
Boston Globe review
Civil War Novels review
Financial Times review
The Forward review
Library Journal review
Los Angeles Times review
Mixed Multitudes review
National Post review
New York Post review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
Reading the Past review
Wall Street Journal review
Washington Post review
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists