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April 20, 2010

Book Notes - Katherine Shonk ("Happy Now?")

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

Katherine Shonk's debut novel Happy Now? is a deeply emotional and surprisingly comic told story of love and grief. The book showcases the estimable storytelling skills Shonk first exhibited in her short story collection The Red Passport, and her prose mesmerizes in the longer form.

The Chicago Sun-Times wrote of the book:

"On the surface, such a story might seem like fodder for a Lifetime television network drama or a women’s magazine story. But Shonk (the sort of writer Saul Bellow might have dubbed "a first-class noticer") makes gold of it — invariably stripping away sentimentality and replacing it with the mix of caustic intelligence and biting wit of someone who feels things deeply but never loses the ability to step back a bit and see the dysfunctional theater of it all."

In her own words, here is Katherine Shonk's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, Happy Now?:

Claire, the main character of my novel, met her husband, Jay, when he was looking for a record store that, by chance, she used to frequent as a kid. Jay was a music guy, known for making mix tapes and tracking down obscure records. Less than two years into their marriage, he kills himself—on Valentine's Day, no less, shocking Claire and everyone around her. The novel follows Claire as she attempts to make sense of her husband's death and her new, unwanted life as a widow.

I don't say much in the novel about Claire's own history with music. She is an artist, and I imagine that she prefers to work in silence, just as I usually do when I write, to aid concentration. But I think that, as is the case for me, a rare song sometimes leads Claire deep into the piece she's working on. And, also like me (it's uncanny how much we have in common!), I imagine she favors catchy, poppy songs with deep, dark lyrics.

"Are You Happy Now?" by Richard Shindell

This is a hilarious, bitter song by a great singer-songwriter about a guy whose girlfriend moves out on Halloween. ("Though I know it's hard to tell / I hope that what's-his-name treats you well / I still maintain that he's a bum / But it's your money, have some fun.") I ended up cribbing a shorter version of the title for my novel. On some subconscious level, I may have borrowed the holiday-gone-terribly-awry theme as well.

"You Give a Little Love" from the Bugsy Malone soundtrack

When Claire and Jay first meet by chance at a cafe, she tells him about the defunct record store he's looking for and mentions that she bought her first record there, the Bugsy Malone soundtrack. It just so happens that's the first record I ever bought with my own money as well, back in the mid-70s. It cost $5.

In case you missed it, Bugsy Malone was a very odd musical starring Jodie Foster, Scott Baio, and other tweens of the day as 1920s gangsters. I loved it, though in retrospect, my favorite song on the album was a little monotonous. ("You give a little love and it all comes back to you . . . na na na na na na na . . . .you know you're gonna be remembered for the things that you say and do . . . na na na na na na na . . . ")

"A Fond Farewell," by Elliott Smith

In an earlier draft of the novel, Jay was an Elliott Smith fan, but that seemed a little too obvious. Still, I imagine he listened to Smith often. This song would resonate for Claire as well, stranded in circumstances that bewilder and embarrass her: "This is not my life / It's just a fond farewell to a friend / It's not what I'm like / It's just a fond farewell to a friend."

"Won't You Do" by Loney, Dear

I had a ritual during the final months of writing Happy Now? Every night, I'd set up my computer at the kitchen counter, put this song on repeat play at low volume, and let its hushed, despairing tones wash over me. It was a mysterious, unidentified song on a mix CD from a friend, and I must have listened to it a thousand times. On the Very Best Writing Night Ever, my husband came home from work around midnight to find me crying as I typed, and laughing at myself through my tears, the song still playing softly.

When Claire visits the place where Jay wrote his suicide note, she finds the last mix tape he created. Trying to understand what he was feeling at the very end, she presses "play" and hears this same Loney, Dear song for the first time: "Someone picked out notes in a minor key on an acoustic guitar, and then a man began singing gently in a high voice, his words hard to make out. Sad, she thought: perfect."

I only learned the name of the song and the artist a week ago, when I finally asked my friend about it.

"That's Just What You Are," by Aimee Mann

As she tries to understand what drove Jay to kill himself, Claire mulls over his complaints about her and their marriage. And, of course, her memories of him are newly tinged with anger and regret.

We all know we're not supposed to try to change our partners, that we should accept each other just as we are. But this Aimee Mann song, as biting as they come, serves as a reminder that refusing to change can be an excuse for bad behavior—and a reason to steer clear of someone: "What's the matter with the truth / Did I offend your ears / By suggesting that a change might be a thing to try / It would kill you just to try and be a nicer guy."

"I Can't Find My Best Friend," by Jonathan Richman

A mix tape from me is never complete without a Jonathan Richman song, and I made Jay a Jonathan fan as well. But this bittersweet melody is for Claire: "I suppose I'll find my way / but I can't find my best friend / I suppose I'll find my way / but I can't find my best friend."

"Here Comes the Sun," by the Beatles

Happy Now? is set in the wintertime in Chicago, when the days are short and the sun has abandoned us. But I like to think that one day not long after the novel ends, the first spring day will burst through. Everyone will run out to the lakefront, the seagulls will shriek and wheel over the beaches, a crocus will appear in her sister's garden, and Claire will hear this song on her car radio and start singing along and crying with relief.

Katherine Shonk and Happy Now? links:

the author's website

Chicago Sun-Times review
Elle review
Library Journal review
Publishers Weekly review
Time Out New York review

She Writes page for 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 (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
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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