July 16, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Carey Wallace's debut novel The Blind Contessa's New Machine impresses with its evocative descriptions of unrequited love and early 19th century Italy. Wallace's vivid lyrical imagery brings this historical novel to life, and her characters are unforgettable.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Despite its relative brevity, this is a work of surprising insight, humor, and heart."
Making a playlist to go with The Blind Contessa's New Machine seems especially apt, since as an obsessive lifelong music fan I've taken as many cues about writing from songwriters as I have from fiction writers. I've always said I learned as much about storytelling from Dylan and Eminem as I did from Tolstoy and Hemingway, and I'm happy to name some of my musical debts with this list.
The Blind Contessa's New Machine tells the story of the invention of the first typewriter, which was created by Turri, an Italian inventor, in 1808. He created the machine to allow Carolina, a blind neighbor, to write him letters. At the time, both of them were married to other people. On the surface, the book tells their love story, but at its heart it's about invention of every kind: dreams, lies, technology, the triumph of imagination, and the ways that it fails us.
"Ahead By A Century – Tragically Hip
Turri's invention of the typewriter really was ahead by about a century. When he created his machine in 1808, nobody knew it was the first typewriter: it was just a curiosity an eccentric inventor had created for a local girl. It wasn't commercialized until years later, and Turri's original machine didn't survive – only the letters in Italian that prove it was the first genuine typewriter. This song is also about dreams and disappointment, larger themes in Carolina and Turri's story.
"I Will Dare" – The Replacements
A giddy, anxious track with all the hope and fire of secret meetings like Carolina and Turri's.
"Beginning To See The Light" – The Velvet Underground
As Carolina loses her sight, in many ways she begins to see for the first time. Includes the classic outro that could be easily sum up the whole book, and perhaps all pop music: how does it feel to be loved?
"Spirit On The Water" – Bob Dylan
One of the great come-ons of all time, with references to dark water like the lake where Carolina and Turri meet. When I listened to this recently, I wondered if some of Turri's dialogue about ghosts wasn't prompted or at least inflected by the later verses.
"Country Darkness" – Elvis Costello
An aching ode to country nights whose chorus encapsulates Carolina's achievement in the story: finding a way out of prison through her dreams.
"Blind Love" – Tom Waits
One of about a thousand Tom Waits tracks that sound like he couldn't possibly have written it: it's always existed. A deceptively simple lyric, with a verse that mirrors Carolina's escape through her imagination: the only way to find you is if I close my eyes.
"Please Read The Letter" – Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
From the unlikely but incandescent pairing of Plant and Krauss, in praise of love letters like the ones that drive The Blind Contessa, and with much of the baroque flavor of Carolina's dreams.
"Amazing Grace" – The Blind Boys of Alabama
An irresistible inclusion for a book about a woman who conquers blindness through imagination, by men who know what they're singing about.
"I Can See Clearly Now" – Johnny Nash
Perhaps a strange track to include for a book about blindness, but this inversion is at the heart of the book, and the pure joy of the track reflects the freedom Carolina finds in her own mind as the darkness of blindness allows her to leave the constrictions of the real world behind.
"Living In A World I Created For Myself" – Jimmy Ruffin
As a Michigan native with Detroit roots, I couldn't make a playlist without some Motown, and Jimmy Ruffin's track perfectly captures the ambivalence at the end of The Blind Contessa. The singer claims to be perfectly happy to be living in a world of his own, but despite the upbeat changes, the listener is left with a slight sense of dread: is leaving the real world behind really a victory, or not? Jimmy's better known as the vocalist on “What Becomes Of The Broken-Hearted?” His brother, David, sang lead on all the best Temptations tracks and is my favorite singer.
"I Dream A Highway" – Gillian Welch
Gillian Welch's track hypnotizes despite, or perhaps because of the fact that it layers changing lyrics over a single verse for fourteen minutes, without benefit of chorus or bridge. The song's endless quality mirrors what I hope readers will leave The Blind Contessa with: the sense that Carolina has found her way out into a continual dream.
Carey Wallace and The Blind Contessa's New Machine links:
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 comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
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