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June 2, 2010

Book Notes - Joshua Braff ("Peep Show")

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

While I read Joshua Braff's new novel, Peep Show, I was continually reminded of Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You (in only the best of ways, after all, Tropper's book was one of my favorite novels last year). Both are comic novels that explore the tangled relationships of dysfunctional families.

Peep Show pits a father's seedy 1970's Times Square against a mother's budding Orthodox Judaism in a novel both comic and tragic. Through the eyes of their son, the family struggles are vivid yet realistic in this stellar book.

Booklist wrote of the book:

Although Peep Show could be a heavy-handed family drama, Braff chooses to keep the story light, sketching several funny but poignant scenes, as when David's father liberates Debra and her friend Sarah for a beach weekend in Atlantic City, with David's mother in hot pursuit to prevent the girls’ corruption. The comic thrust, however, never detracts from the novel's intimate peek into a divided family, and the lesson of compromise the family members—especially David and his mother—learn is necessary to keep all ties from dissolving.

In his own words, here is Joshua Braff's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Peep Show:

Why these songs, you ask? The novel, my second, is called Peep Show. It's about a family from the suburbs of northern New Jersey in the 1970's and a place called Times Square that no longer exists the way it once did. A concentrated circus of sin, smut, sex and stench that all heated up in the sweaty-humid New York summers into a cocktail of everything your parents ever warned you about. I lived in Hell's Kitchen for a year, 43rd and 10th Ave, while I attended NYU in 1989. Times Square would soon be Disney-fide but while I was there it was still breathing smut-fire. I brought a lot of my memories of my time there into Peep Show. So, let's go through it.

"The E Street Shuffle" - Bruce Springsteen

How do you start a compilation of songs about a family from New Jersey without Bruce? He's featured three times on this list, partly because he's New Jersey's Allen Ginsburg and partly because of his ability to write short stories in the time it takes to sing a song. The poetry and pathos and grit of a Springsteen song is all you need for a successful tale of love and loss and all that ends up under your fingernails when you're firing up your Chevy and heading out on that lonesome highway, under that Jersey sunrise, thinkin' of a girl, while runnin' from mistakes. Character plus story plus texture plus the ever-present "teenage tramps in skin-tight pants do the E Street dance…" Gotta love the Boss.

"Life on Mars" - David Bowie

My book begins with a splash of Bowie who was also known in the 70's as Ziggy Stardust. There's a poster of him in full Ziggy lipstick above my protag's bed. I have always loved this song and all that Bowie represents in the history of rock. In my mind he flew his freak-flag with amazing dignity and always kept his shoulders back, knowing that everything he was saying was true and right and just – even though he was a walking nightmare for any conservative parent, teacher or lawmaker. I will never tire of that sweeping chorus – "Sail-ors fighting in the dance hall – Oh man! Look at those cavemen go – It's the freakiest show – Take a look at the Lawman, beating up the wrong guy – Oh Man! Wonder if he'll ever know – He's in the best selling show – Is there life on Mars? God bless Bowie.

"Sing A Simple Song" - Sly & the Family Stone

You cannot crank this song on any stereo and not move some section of your body in a repeated, gyrating motion. It's one of those tunes that captures the era and the religion of funk and soul in its first few notes and never, ever lets go. All that with lyrics that encompass the words Talkin' and Walkin' about a hundred and eight times. When you play it, play it loud! And remember, always dance as if no one is watching. Especially to this funky arse tune.

"One Way Or Another" - Blondie

I get the sense that true Blondie fans would disagree that "One Way Or Another" was her best tune. I admit I remember it most from the radio and it was overplayed like all classic hits of their time. I have found that it's one of those songs that's held up beautifully and the guitar riff is just awesome and has traces of raw punk-rock in it. When really sitting down with the lyrics, I see it's about a girl who is oh so disappointed with her man. I think she wants to feed him rat poison and just get him off her mind. She's gonna find ya, win ya, get ya, meet ya, lose ya, and then, "Lead you to the supermarket checkout, some specials and rat food, get lost in the crowd." Yikes. Sexy, pissed-off and super dangerous. My kind of girl.

"Hot Stuff" - Donna Summer

Donna never had any trepidation telling the radio listening world that she was as horny as a jackrabbit in late May. "Gotta have some hot love baby this evenin'." And we knew she meant THIS evening, like time's a wastin', I need some hot (not chilled, not vanilla) but some hot hot hot lovin' this damn evening, like within the half-hour would be ideal. "Hot, hot, hot, hot stuff." In truth, the girl scared and enthralled me. There was a sense that if you were the luckiest pizza delivery boy on this God's earth, you'd end up at Donna Summer's house and she'd be ready. Oh, trust, me she'd be ready. But would you?

"Boogie Shoes" - KC & the Sunshine Band

If you're talking the 70's and music, you have to include KC and his bellbottom-wearin' Sunshine Band. Plus, I mention this song in Peep Show. It's on the radio while my characters are on their way into "the city." In the same way that Martin Scorsese uses great late 70's and early 80's tunes in GoodFellas and other films to evoke the texture of the time, this song is one of those that everyone seems to know and can sing immediately when prodded. While men were getting their hair blown back with hairdryers in an attempt to get their wings just perfect, KC was always pouring from the radio, still years away from getting bloated on fame and trying to outlive the death of disco. I hear he still tours and does so with authority.

"Tiny Dancer" - Elton John

Oh my God I love this song. Who doesn't love this song? Somehow tragic, somehow life affirming. "Blue jean baby, L.A. lady, seamstress for the band. Pretty eyes, pirate smile, you'll marry a music man." This girl he builds in this epic song is a person I've written about often in my career. She is sometimes a girl, sometimes a teenager and she's always got way more going on for herself than anyone gives her credit for. But it's also important to note that she is also a classic example of the unreliable narrator which means she's capable of bullshitting even you, the reader. I grew up with lots of "tiny dancers" it seems, and as a young teenager some of them flashed their pirate smiles at me, even with their boyfriend's right around the corner. I attribute a great deal of my "oat sewing" to this wonderful breed of Jersey girl. The girl named "Beth" in my first novel, The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green, is my quintessential "seamstress for the band."

"Walk On The Wild Side" - Lou Reed

There was a time during writing Peep Show that I had the opportunity to talk to Lou Reed about his life in Times Square during the 70's. It never happened, I can't remember why but he is the ultimate person to discuss such matters with and all that he writes about in this song is exactly drawn from the textures I was attempting. His character's names are, Holly, Candy, Little Joe, Jackie and the Sugar Plum Fairy. They give head, take Valium, hustle, hitch-hike and pluck their eyebrows, all while "taking a walk on the wild side." What else is there to say. Lou Reed really got it. And still gets it. Did you see him rocking out with Metallica on that Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame show? He's a great icon.

"Candy's Room" - Bruce Springsteen

"There's a sadness hidden in that pretty face, a sadness all her own from which no man can keep Candy safe." Yeah, that's all I've ever tried to evoke in fiction. An established character's hidden emotions, the things she cannot and will not let herself or anyone else see, touch, kiss, assuage. Springsteen's gift lies in the intricacies of the human condition. Capturing it and then fitting it into a four minute song is a whole other animal. He's special and the world never has to stop hearing his work, his voice.

"I Want To Be Sedated" The Ramones

On the topic of more diluted pathos, we have the Ramones who true-blue punk and rock lovers swear by and will tell you so with their fist in your face. Yes, it's very true in rock that derives from punk - less is often so much more. I wholeheartedly agree that bare bones simple riffs and steady-eddie drumbeats can make for some very important music. The Ramones are New York. The Ramones are punk rock. The Ramones are important and should not be forgotten when discussing the growth of the tree that is rock n' roll. "Ba-ba-baba, baba-ba-baba, I wanna be sedated." God do I know how that feels. I wish I was sedated this second. Back to work.

"Tangled Up In Blue" - Bob Dylan

Wow. These lyrics could melt steel. Dylan. The story is so rich, the music somehow as tender and familiar as a prayer you've been singing since birth. Again, a girl who once wore her hair this way and then time passes with high, tumultuous winds so she ends up in that place, you know, that place that you ended up too, and then. "She was standing there in back of my chair, said to me, ‘don't I know your name?" She studied the lines on my face. I must admit I felt a little uneasy, when she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe. Tangled up in Blue." A side note, the working title of my first novel, The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green, was Tangled Up In Jew. It was meant to remind to keep the book light, funny, to be careful of the murky murk.

"Mother's Little Helper" - The Rolling Stones

I have a music-freak-friend who swears that all things rock n' roll start with The Rolling Stones. There are so many good songs, so many epic riffs and in every tune a blatant understanding of what rock is and was and should be. They are so true to their amazing work. Peep Show, to some extent, is about figuring out how you're going to live your life and how those that raised you will assist you in this effort. This song is about a little pill that makes things easier for a time. And we all use this pill, in its many varied forms. And then…"Doctor please, some more of these, outside the door, she took four more. What a drag it is getting old."

"The Sounds of Silence" - Simon and Garfunkel

Can't leave these boys out, no way, not in a novel about New York. They are so important in the scheme of things. Important for song writers, poets, those that construct music, and story tellers. Lonely, lonely New York City, so huge and crowded and still my thoughts and fears are unheard. I see I've written the word "important" twice already and writers are supposed to avoid repeating words. But Simon and Garfunkel have always, I mean from very early on, been important to me. Just having their albums in vinyl in my house makes me feel…right. No story writer should go without. "And in the naked light I saw, ten thousand people, maybe more. People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening, People writing songs that voices never share, and no one dare, disturb the sound of silence."

New York City Serenade: Bruce Springsteen

Some randomly plucked words from the lyrics:

"Railroad tracks, Cadillac, boogaloo, Broadway, Manhattan, midnight, promenade, cornerboys, money, mama, baby, vibes man, jazz man, junk man, trash can, serenade, deeper blue, in your grave, save your notes, hook it up, Singin', singin, singin', singin'." Nuff said.

Joshua Braff and Peep Show links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
audio excerpt from the book (Zach Braff reading the first chapter)

Austin American-Statesman review
Book Group Buzz review
BookPage review
Miami Herald review
People review
Publishers Weekly review

JewishShmoozNetwork interview with 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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