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March 3, 2010

Book Notes - Peter Birkenhead ("Gonville")

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

Peter Birkenhead's memoir Gonville tells the tale of his youth and relationship with his violent, unpredictable father. The tragic coming of age story is intensely told, suffused with humor, and gripping from the first page to the last.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Birkenhead's navigation of his budding masculinity–even through ominous stretches where he adopts his father's mood swings—is poignant and often tears-in-the-eyes hilarious."

In his own words, here is Peter Birkenhead's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir, Gonville:

I'm sure John Darnielle wasn't writing about writing a memoir when he wrote "The House That Dripped Blood," but the next time somebody asks me what it was like to write my book, Gonville, I might just play them this beautiful, haunting Mountain Goats song. It's ostensibly about renovating a house, a house that's seen its share of trauma, but as I was writing Gonville, a memoir of family trauma and eventual renovation, I listened to this track over and over, and for me it became a song about the get-your-hands-dirty, open-your-eyes process of searching out and examining painful memory. It starts with a kind of mission-statement, an admonishment for the person about to do the renovating:

Look beyond the broken bottles;

Past the rotting wooden stairs;

Root out the wine-dark honeyed center;
Not everyone can live like millionaires.

For me this was a kind of reminder that, if I want something of value, real value, I'm going to have to dig for it my self. We all have to probe and scrape, and peel back musty old wallpaper, "Dig up the laughing photographs," as the song says later. And there's a warning in the song:

Still waters go stagnant;
Bodies bloat;
The cellar door is an open throat.

I wrote Gonville because we never talked about anything in our house when I was growing up, least of all the trauma we were experiencing at the hands of my father, and I felt like I couldn't let those old, still waters go stagnant. The last and most terrible event in my parents' marriage happened in our cellar, and I didn't want the memory of it to remain an open wound. I wanted to get down in the basement, turn the lights on, look around, and see whatever there was to see there, as clearly as I could.

One of the things I really wanted to do in writing the book was to somehow evoke the sense of wonder I remembered feeling during childhood--the vivid, disruptive sense of an import that seemed to infuse everything. My Morning Jacket's "I'm Amazed" conjures that feeling for me, along with the kind of head-slapping, adult incredulity it's also about. It's a perfect meeting of music and lyric, with huge, driving, chant-like vocals, and a searing guitar part by Jim James.

When I was a kid I craved normalcy. I yearned for peace and quiet the way other kids pined for noise and healthy chaos. Randy Newman's album Sail Away is a dark masterpiece, full of songs about spiteful Gods, slave traders and even a great song about an alienated, dying father being visited by his son, ("Old Man") which I almost included here, but didn't. Because in the midst of all that darkness on the record is "Dayton, Ohio 1903," a paean to the kind of idealized, summer porch-and-lemonade happiness that I would have given anything for when I was a kid. I listened to the song a lot while writing Gonville. "Sing a song of long ago; When things were green and movin' slow; And people'd stop to say hello; Or they'd say ‘hi' to you; ‘Would you like to come over for tea; With the missus and me?'; It's a real nice way; To spend the day; In Dayton, Ohio; On a lazy Sunday afternoon in 1903."

I've learned as much about writing from my mother and brother as anyone else. Mom became a lyricist late in life, and her success gave her the emotional means to leave my father. Soon after she did she wrote a song, with the great Broadway composer Jule Styne, for Frank Sinatra called "Hey Look, No Crying" that's a heartbreaking gem. It's sung by an unreliable narrator of sorts, a guy who's trying to get past a break up without feeling the pain of it, trying to put a resilient, happy face on loss. The best moment in the song is at the very end, when, on top of a deep, sad, minor-chord melodic dip, my mother wrote the line "I'm letting go," creating this perfect, contrapuntal tension between the singer's self-deluded fantasy and his painful reality. Because my mother wrote the song, listening to it for me is not only a lesson in economic storytelling, but in reclaiming a life through art.

And my brother Richard is a brilliant songwriter who's been in several bands, including one called Into Another. Back in the 90's he wrote a haunting song called "William" that could have been written by anyone in our family, if we'd had his talent. I think it's a perfect description of what it's like to come into contact with recognizable stories as a young person, when you're starving for them; stories that help you feel less stranded. The line about "an island in the weed" always makes me think about that opening scene in Great Expectations, where the orphaned Pip meets Magwitch in the marshes:

From "William":

And I Say 
I Understand
Truth Lives In A House On The Borderland
Love Rules The Nightland
And Ghost Pirates Wait At Sea For Me
I Understand
I Understand

William, Your Tortured Mind Is As Mine
Your Stories Feel Like Home
I Am Not Alone
Trapped On An Island In The Weed
I Was In Need Of A Friend
You're A Friend

Finding those "friends," those stories and songs that help us eventually tell our own comprehensible stories to ourselves, is a lifesaving event for a lot of us; definitely for me. They make the trip to where "truth lives in a house on the borderland" less frightening, and me sense of what is true more trustworthy. That is especially so when the people taking you there are family.

Peter Birkenhead and Gonville links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

BookSpin review
Library Journal review
Publishers Weekly review
Tablet review

Huffington Post essays by the author

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 (highlights of the week's comics & graphic novel releases)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (highlights of the week's book releases)
musician/author interviews
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

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