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May 13, 2010

Book Notes - Wendy Burden ("Dead End Gene Pool")

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

Wendy Burden's memoir Dead End Gene Pool traces both her own personal history as well as the Vanderbilt family's (she is Commodore Vanderbilt's great-great-great granddaughter). Burden manages to be both heartwrenching and darkly funny throughout the book, especially when she recounts her troubled relationship with her mother.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote of the book:

"Clearly this book will remind people of works by Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris, and it is likely to enjoy similar success. Burden has a jaunty writing style that pushes you along even the roughest spots in her life."

In her own words, here is Wendy Burden's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir, Dead End Gene Pool:

Dead End Gene Pool is my story about growing up in a wealthy East Coast family that is slowly unraveling all over the place.

As a memoirist, one uses any triggers one can, and along with photography smells and food, music is highly flammable kindling for recall.

Luckily my family was really into food, and Brownie/Instamatic journaling, because musically they were about as inspired as cardboard. Growing up I don’t recall anyone playing an instrument, let alone the radio, except maybe in the car. The only time my mother put an LP on the portable red and white record player she kept under her bed was when she was getting ready to leave—either on a date, or on a trip, and then the it was invariably of that icky-folksy Peter, Paul and Mary genus.

The music that defined my childhood cultural sphere was TV-generated, themes such as the one from the The Addams Family (not because it was good, but because I longed to be an Addams), or Honey West (whom I also wanted to be, though it would have been far more of a stretch than Wednesday Addams); or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (And no, I did not wish to be Illya Kuryakin, just procreate with him). My family’s relocation to England in 1966 saved me from having an entire childhood defined by moronic music. Not only was there little television worth watching, the influence of British rock bands was huge. From blues to progressive rock to psychedelia, the music I drowned myself in at friends’ houses, or furtively listened to on the radio in bed at night, when broadcast signals from Radio Luxembourg, or pirate stations like Radio Caroline could reach the UK, was a camouflaging virus, one that assuaged the guilt of an American trying to lose her Vietnam war-tainted nationality.

I don’t feel there is a continuous musical narrative one could apply to the book, (although an all-Clapton revue comes close), so I’ve divided my playlist into three parts. The first contains music I correlate to the era; songs or compositions I listened to when I needed to evoke and revive details, sensations, and even dialogue. The second part is comprised of pieces I emotionally associate with the writing of the book, the process of recalling memories sweet and evil, the ardor or the satisfaction of the effort, and the personally tumultuous decade during which I wrote it. Kind of heavy, but can’t be helped.

The third is the white noise stuff, the music I couldn’t have completed this project without, mostly because I wrote at the Lake Oswego public library, which is the number one visited library in all of Oregon—undoubtedly because it seems to have a no-silence policy, as well as the largest DVD lending library in the state.

Part One

a) The theme from Honey West

I may have been plumpish, red-haired, and bent on becoming a mortician, but in 1965 Honey West was my heroine, and not just because she had a “beauty mark” (read: big ‘ol mole) to the right of her mouth just like me, but she was a total Karate-chopping, ocelot-owning, Mensa IQ babe. With it’s era-defining staccato horns, bongo drums and sexy sax overlays, the show’s swingin’ instrumental evokes that whole sixties’ spy craze genre, and could be a stand in theme for any contemporaneous movie, TV series, or schlock novel—or glamorous and elusive mother. (That would be mine.)

b) “Strange Brew” - Cream

Hypnotic Clapton guitar conjuring primordial psychedelic light shows (think eyedroppers of colored water on oily slides under a cheap projector), this for me is a total evocation of the time, the flavor, and the kind of free spirit I wanted to be. Damn straight I could have been a Chelsea girl in patent leather boots and Mary Quant lip gloss. If only I’d been twenty instead of twelve.

c) “Can’t Find My Way Home” - Blind Faith

Sorry, Clapton again, but he was as pervasive as pollen—and for good reason. Post war England was a palette of black and white, and this song is particularly evocative of the working class London suburbs we had moved to. It also makes me think of that period of naïve pubescent freedom I floated mentally through, even if the lyrics are really about drugs.

d) “Bell Bottom Blues” - Derek and the Dominoes

See? More Clapton. A boy I had a massive crush on, he of the long flowing sideburns and blue-tinted granny glasses, asked me to look after his Derek and the Dominoes LP while he was in Israel working on a kibbutz—something all the Church of England lads I knew seemed to view as a right of passage. It was as if someone had asked me to keep an eye on the Hope diamond for three months.

e) “Jerusalem” - William Blake

At the dismally Edwardian school I attended in the late sixties we studied classical compositions and sang nationalistic pastorals that coincided appropriately with our daily chapel offering of “God Save the Queen.”

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark satanic mills?

f) “Roundabout” - Yes

Love that minimoog synthesizer. It’s scary how Pavlovian one’s adolescent musical recall can be. A couple of stanzas of Yes anything and I am fifteen and writhing with the nameless longing of the hormonally-charged. Not that that their lyrics have anything to do with puberty, but I once perched on the back of a demi-god’s red convertible as it cruised the dappled roads of uber-WASP Jupiter Island, “Roundabout” pouring from the 8-track, and for a brief moment this chronic outsider felt tight with the chosen cool.

Part Two: Emo

a) “How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls” - George Strait

Most of Dead End Gene Pool was written in Portland, Ore. I moved there in 1995, and hard-core New Yorker that I was, I was initially horrified by the yee haw-ness of the place. But then I discovered team penning, which is this western equestrian sport where you and two other idiots on horseback have 90 seconds to sort three specific cows from a herd of yearlings and get them into a pen the size of motel soap. Yeah I was a cowgirl—every Wednesday evening at the Clark County fairgrounds.

b) “Winter Song” - Crash Test Dummies

This is the most nostalgic, charming and melodic song I can think of. Every time I listen to it I brim with stupid hope. It speaks to me of family, and a longing for home, and I picture all the different versions of countryside I’ve experienced, and those I still wish to know. It was a constant choice during the decade I wrote the book because….

c) …my husband died suddenly in 1999; reason: unimportant here, situation: beyond tragic, but while driving in a friend’s car one day, he’d listened to the exquisitely beautiful “Requiem” by Fauré,—and had jokingly requested it be played at his funeral. After he died, I played it relentlessly. By the time I finished the manuscript for my book I’d gone through three CDs of it. Ten years later, when I’m feeling self-indulgent only, because Agnus Dei never fails to jerk out the tears, I play it alone in my car, and wallow.

d) “Across the Universe” - Rufus Wainwright

This is a brilliant cover of the Beatles song. It’s plaintive, it’s sad; it’s speaks of faith in the face of death and a transitory world. it’s a mystical swelling and soaring, modern and old fashioned, timeless entreaty: nothing’s gonna change my world….nothing’s gonna change my world.

e) “Bohemian Like You” - The Dandy Warhols

This is my favorite empowering, non-denominational, mojo song, by the beloved Portland band. It get’s routinely blasted on the drive home after a good, or a bad day’s writing at the LO library.

Part Three: White Noise

a) Mass in B Minor - Bach

b) Any and all chamber music by Mozart

c) “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” - Ralph Vaughn Williams

This percussion-less composition is perhaps my favorite piece of music. Schmaltzy, I know, but I never tire of it. In fact, I’m listening to it right now.

Wendy Burden and Dead End Gene Pool links:

the author's website

Book, Line, and Sinker review
Book Journey review
BookPage review
A Bookshelf Monstrosity review
Bookslut review
Boston Globe review
Chaotic Compendiums review
Flavorwire review
The Girl from the Ghetto review
Head Butler review
In Laurie's Mind review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New York Post review
New York Social Diary review
Reading Local: Portland review
Rundpinne review
The Serpentine Library review

Marie Claire interview with the author
Huffington Post articles by the author
New York Times 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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