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May 27, 2010

Book Notes - Steven Polansky ("The Bradbury Report")

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

I haven't read much speculative fiction this year, but Steven Polansky's novel The Bradbury Report inspires me to read more of the genre. Polansky's tale of a Unites States future where cloning is legal and one man meets his genetic copy is chilling, innovative, and smartly written.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"An inventive, cerebral thriller... Polansky does a fine job of wrestling with the moral dilemmas posited by writers like Philip K. Dick and others, and his characterization of Alan is sublimely witty and soulfully sympathetic."

In his own words, here is Steven Polansky's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, The Bradbury Report:

Three times in my life I’ve lived for an extended period in England and/or Scotland. I became a great fan of BBC radio. One program I listened to – first broadcast in 1942, it is still running – is called “Desert Island Discs." The host asks notable ‘castaways’ to choose eight recordings they’d take with them to a desert island. The guest talks about each recording, then it is played. The task posed here, in Largehearted Boy – maybe because I’m the one doing it – seems more complex and more interesting. Synaesthetic. I fear I am not sufficiently hip for the job.

In a 1965 letter to the poet Stanley Burnshaw, Saul Bellow wrote of his novel, Herzog: “ . . . I found a musical form for it, suggested to me by hours of listening to records every day for three years.” I listen to music all the time. It would not be very far from the truth to say that when I am not sleeping, I am listening to music. I like to think I am a discriminating listener, and, though I listen mostly to classical music, that my tastes are broad. My brother is a celebrated American composer, with an endowed chair at Dartmouth. My older son, an accomplished lutenist, is currently writing a novel about the late Renaissance Italian composer (and psychopath) Gesualdo. When I was five I played the accordion. That is, I am not nearly sophisticated or astute enough to be led, formally anyway, by the music I listen to. But, says the donkey, I know what I like.

“By the Sea”

My narrator, who uses “Ray Bradbury” as his nom de guerre, is born and raised and spends all his adult life in western New Hampshire, as far from the Atlantic littoral as, in that state, it is possible to be. As a boy he spends time in such New Hampshire beach towns as Rye and Hampton Beach, “where,” he says, “even then the water was full of sewage and runoff, industrial and medical waste, all sorts of marine garbage, and a tarry sludge that stuck to the bottom of the feet.” Nonetheless, his dream, which he knows will never be realized, of someday living by the sea subsists. He remembers a song his mother sang to him. The words – the lyrics are crafty -- he remembers are:

By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea.
You and I, you and I, oh how happy we’ll be.
I long to be beside your side, beside the sea,
Beside the seaside, by the beautiful sea.

My father sang this song to me, and I was happy to find a place for it in my book. When I was no longer an infant, I chafed at the grammatical rectitude of “You and I, you and I,” thinking he must have got it wrong, that, for every musical reason, it ought to go: “You and me, you and me, oh how happy we’ll be.” My father was right. The mistake was not his. After his death, in a spurt of piety, I looked it up. The song was written in 1914 by Harold Atteridge (words) and Harry Carroll (music). Reading what I’ve written here, I see I have substituted, as I do always when I think of this song, when I sing these lines to myself, the word “long” in the third sentence for the “love” of the original. I prefer my version.

“Never Never Land” - Mary Martin

Peter Pan, with Mary Martin as Peter, and Cyril Ritchard as Hook, opened on Broadway in 1954. There were, subsequently, three televised performances of the full-length play on NBC, in 1955, 1956, and 1960. The 1960 color telecast reached 65 million viewers, at that time a record number. None of the three television versions were broadcast from a theater with a live audience. All three were performed in the NBC studios.

Like most children, I imagine, of my generation, I was ravished, changed utterly, by the first telecast. I was six years old in 1955. I remember being impatient for the next one to come around, and that the four-year wait for the final performance was excruciating. One of the show’s signature songs is “Never Never Land,” Peter’s paean to a place “where dreams are born, and time is never planned,” an enchanted place in which, “once you have found your way there, you will never, ever grow old.” When I was ten years old, at a summer camp in northwestern Connecticut, I was cast as Peter in an abridged version of the musical, and got to sing the song. This was before my voice had changed. I believe I did a creditable job. I have sung it regularly since, at bedtime, to each one of my three children.

Early in The Bradbury Report, my narrator says: “I am – I can think nothing else – the only living creature, the only human in the world’s history, to have experienced time travel.” What he means by this, we learn, is that, at sixty-six years old, he has been brought together with a genetically identical version of himself at twenty-one. “Never Never Land” has been, for me, a kind of anthem to immaturity and stasis. It is also, implicitly, a beautiful contra-ode on time travel.

“Loveland” - Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band

I think of my book as, first and foremost, a love story, or, said more precisely, a story of multiple loves, youthful and elderly. I think “Loveland” is one of the best love songs ever written, “a masterpiece,” as one writer has it, “of messed-up LA funk.” Notably, the vocalist is James Gadson, and not Charles Wright. I first heard it in the late 60s on the jukebox in O’Rourke’s Diner in Middletown, Connecticut, at a time when I was relentlessly, and desperately, in and out of love. I listen to it often now, always in a wash of regret. There’s a surfeit of regret in my book. It would be the music I’d choose – it would be suitably perverse – for the diner scene in The Bradbury Report.

Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major (second movement – Adagio)

As an evocation of young love, this piece is, to my mind, unsurpassed. I never tire of listening to it. When my son got engaged to the woman he is now married to, and happily, I sent them this concerto, hoping to add another layer of grace and beauty to their already graceful and beautiful relationship. Ray’s marriage to his young wife, Sara, who dies early in the book, and from whose “senseless and atavistic” death Ray never quite recovers, is not, it has to be said, unalloyedly graceful.

“La Grange” - ZZ Top

A great whorehouse song. More fun, by half, than the lugubrious “House of the Rising Sun.” Would be appropriately guttural for the scene in which Ray and Alan set out on their ill advised, ill-fated, sub-arctic sortie to a brothel in “The Purg,” the red-light district in my speculative Regina.

“Loch Lomond” - Kings Singers

The Trossachs is a gloriously unspoiled region of lochs, Lomond among them, in the Scottish Highlands northwest of Stirling, where Ray and Sara spend their honeymoon, and which remains for Ray a hallowed spot. You will know these words (I give them in modern English), and most of you will hear the melody, which, despite common usage, is decidedly unjaunty:

Oh, you take the high road, and I’ll take the low road,
And I’ll be in Scotland before you.
But me and my true love will never meet again
On the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond.

Apparently, the ballad was conceived as the farewell to his beloved from one of Bonny Prince Charlie’s followers, just before his execution at Carlisle. I cherish this song, and not only because I spent one of the happiest years of my life in Stirling, playing “semi-professional” basketball and trying, vainly, disjunctively, to be an actor. It is one of the great odes on doomed love.

“Spring Will Come Again” - Linda Eder, Michael Shawn-Lewis. Alexander Frey, piano

On the final page of The Bradbury Report Ray remembers his last Christmas with his wife. She is in the late stages of a first pregnancy, with a child she will die giving birth to. The child, a boy, will be stillborn. Ray drives to Hanover on Christmas Eve and buys her, in a fancy shop, a pale green linen sundress. “I liked her in that shade of green,” he says, “and I liked to look at her in sundresses, to see her arms and neck and shoulders and legs exposed. And I wanted to remind her that she would once again be elegant and lissome, to remind her, in the teeth of winter, that spring would come again.”

The lovely and haunting song, “Spring Will Come Again,” which was very much on my mind when I wrote the passage cited above, was written by Leonard Bernstein (music), and Comden and Green (lyrics), for a musical version of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. The musical never appeared. Bernstein later pirated the middle section of the song and used it in a (boy’s) soprano aria in his Chichester Psalms.

"Billy’s Blues" - Laura Nyro

Gorgeously written and sung. I can think of nothing like it. A sad song for a sorrowful book.

Steven Polansky and The Bradbury Report links:

the author's website

BookPage review
Los Angeles Times review
Publishers Weekly review

Appleton Post Crescent profile of 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 the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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